Thomas Turner

Thomas Turner is a Program Manager at International Justice Mission and blogs at He is happy to be living back below the Mason-Dixon line after a lengthy sojourn in the NYC metro area.

Poetry as Therapy

It was about six months before I realized I had stopped writing poetry. I was digging through my desk looking for a new journal and found a just-started journal, the one I needed. As I grabbed it and headed off for my little writing spot, it dawned on me that this was no longer normal. There was no sense of commonplace, no déjà vu, no rhythm to this action.

I had not written a single poem in six months.  Maybe I didn’t need a creative outlet anymore?

Before the six-month gap, I had written often—pushed by my need for release from tedium or boredom. Poetry became a habit, a response to an innate need to do something remotely purposeful. Poetry was a grasping response to the drudgery of my desk job. Just finished a mind-numbing task with no redeeming value? Redeem the day with a poem.

There was also a drive to succeed, to do something more: to get published, to get noticed, to move beyond the confines of a desk. The diligence of writing had as much to do with redeeming time I had wasted producing nothing of much value in order to get paid as it did with trying to create a new means of living. My spreadsheet and analysis work was a job, producing money. Poetry was work as vocation, producing no money, but delight, joy, craftsmanship and value instead.

What had happened in those six months is that I had taken a leap into a new position at a new organization in a new place in the country, and my work switched from job to vocation. Just like the flick of a light switch, my work was suddenly being driven from a foundation of delight, joy, and value. And without noticing, poetry just disappeared.

I should have noticed when three months in to the poetry drought I was asked to review a book of poetry for a publication and as I read it there was no desire. I yawned at it. There was no connection. After missing the deadline by a few weeks, I wrote to the editor that I was just not relating to the work. I did not think I could review it. The book sits on a shelf now, three quarters read and never reviewed.

So too sat my poetry journal, until the day I found it. One quarter filled, three quarters blank, not picked up for six months. Out of necessity? Forgetfulness? Was I too busy? Or did I just no longer need poetry in my life.

Staring at the pages, I sensed a need for deep reflection. What was the telos of my drive to write poetry? There were a host of possible answers that would be wrong if I blurted them out to my inner interlocutor: fame, approval, recognition. There were the good answers in there too, ruminating: beauty, truth, meaning, delight, hope, love. Then there was the answer I stumbled onto: therapy.

I had been writing poetry for therapy. It got me through boredom and tedium, lack of value and fleeting purpose, and now that my work satisfied those needs poetry disappeared, riding off alone into the sunset: the town saved, the lawless criminals dead, all in its proper place again.

When it comes to work and poetry I thought of myself as aligned with the likes of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. I know, that’s tall company to put yourself in, but I gravitated toward them because they were working poets like me: Eliot was the bad luck Ph.D. candidate that did a long stint at Lloyds Bank of London and spent his career at Faber and Faber while Stevens was an insurance executive at Hartford Accident and Indemnity (the company with the rugged deer commercials). I have never been a fan of Stevens’ poetry (sorry for any offense), but I was deeply inspired by his biography. Here was a man who could conquer his desk job with poetry, who had an outlet and seized it, and rose above crunching numbers and pushing papers to produce something meaningful for the world. I treated Eliot and Stevens’ biographies like hagiographies.

So I looked back onto my own poetry and wondered where it had gone. Therapy seemed like the only answer. Put nicely, poetry had been my outlet to reflect on my work and try to redeem it. More bluntly, and perhaps more honestly, poetry had been a crutch, a kick-stand, a means to cope with something I did not want to deal with directly.

In the clinical terms of an article in the Journal of Poetry Therapy, poetry, and writing in general, “makes events and emotions more manageable when put into words; it provides an element of control to the writer….Writing can lead to greater self-understanding, clarification, resolution and closure.”

With the events of my life—tedium, boredom, dissatisfaction, lack of vocation—suddenly rectified, the need to make events more manageable disappeared. I know longer needed to feel like I was in control of something, so the need to control through writing disappeared. For me, writing was not the path to resolution and closure, it was a symptom of resolution and closure: when I had closed the book on a restless chapter of my life, the writing closed up too.

There had been times when poetry had slowed to a drip, like the remnant drops from a spigot descending rhythmically to the earth. In those times I waited, knowing it would return. I even wrote a poem about the situation, entitled “Poetry comes in fits.” There was a trust that words would come, that a block would not last long—the need for control was ever present.

I no longer control the poetry. I write every once in a while, but the desire to prove, to master, to bend words to my every whim is no longer there. Poetry is more like a game now, a form of recreation, a delight. It will always be there, waiting, yet I no longer need it to fill a void. A proper sense of vocation, a self-knowledge that I now enjoy the daily work of my hands, is enough for me now. Eliot probably said it best:

We will build with new speech
There is work together

And a job for each
Every man to his work.

The Art of War

Standing outside the Manassas Battlefield visitor’s center I began to photograph the open and lush countryside surrounding the battlefield monuments and the roads used for auto tours. It’s a new camera—a Canon SX40 HS—and I have fallen in love with it. It allows me to capture what I am truly seeing. The art seems to flow through it. As I was clicking shots of an old, weathered tree, cannons and a far-off barn, I could feel the wonder and awe of the place. It was gorgeous. I hadn’t taken such good pictures since my trip to Yellowstone a few years back.

When I got home and reviewed the pictures I felt accomplished. I am an amateur photographer, and I don’t want to overstate my expertise. But I am pleased with how things turn out every once in a while, like an amateur carpenter who happens to have built a quality piece of furniture. It may never end up in a museum, but the beauty is still there, intrinsic in the work.

As I reviewed the pictures I reflected on the day. It had been lovely, spent with family on an atypically humidity-free Virginia afternoon. The scenery had been quaint and expansive, possessing that Americana-like quality of rolling hills or heirloom quilts—simple and unending at the same time.

Then I second-guessed the pictures of the cannons I had taken. These were merely replicas of real cannons that had rolled on those grounds 150 years ago (2012 is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and Manassas was the first battle). This place of beauty, which I had so proudly captured in my photographs, was beautiful precisely because over 5,000 people had died in it. The soil must have been soaked with blood. There must have been hats and belts and limbs strewn in places. It must have been repulsive, black and ungodly. And because of that, the land had lain fallow and become a park, a place of beauty and easygoing Sunday afternoons.

Art and war are more intertwined than we often realize. War is the subject of so many tapestries that hang from castle walls. It fills the artwork of every major period in Western history, from the early Renaissance to Picasso’s “Guernica” to the art being produced in response to our current wars. War is the unifying theme in The Iliad and The Odyssey, foundations of Western literature. War permeates the Old Testament, and its violence continues into the New Testament in the form of crucifixion. War is the context of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and the horror Wilfred Owen sings about in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” War and fighting drove the songs of the protest movements of the 60s and 70s, and in some respects have been an undercurrent in independent and alternative music being produced today.

What then to make of photos that mix today’s beauty with history’s blood? What should we make of art that is birthed out of the loss of life, limb, brother, son? The nobility of war is superficial, and it quickly melts away into the constant of death.

Death is constant. In war the reality of death is intensified. Art, then, I would argue, is humanity’s response to sadness with joy, to darkness with light, to death with immortality, to borrow from The Glenstal Book of Prayer. Art reflects humanity’s desire for birth and resurrection. Art gives a moment, a glimpse, a passage, a poet’s line that for an instant can numb the pain and horror of war and death. Art is not mere entertainment—it does not seek to remove our gaze or make us forget. Art pushes us beyond the event into present reality and an unknown future. It is not a painkiller or salve—what art does is remember and reflect so that we may see beauty arise again out of the blood and cinders of war.



Teaching New Texts

It’s that time in the semester again when I do a little segment for my College Writing I students on poetry. We read poetry and write a little about it. Much groaning and head banging ensues.

Students have been brainwashed into thinking they cannot understand poetry. Part of this is the falling away of the arts in general from the definition of education. Poetry is not an integral part of teaching to the test. The other part, I believe, is that the poetry that is still taught in schools is not relatable enough. It’s the perennial problem of being three weeks behind in all your high school classes so that you never make it past the 1950s in History or English (those chapters on the Gulf War or Annie Dillard always sat neglected at the back of my textbooks). So, in any event, students never come to equate poetry, literature or other arts with newness. It all appears like it should be part of a museum, not actually a continuously practiced art.

I am going to change that tonight. I have taught Wendell Berry poems in the past, but even those are a few decades old. I am going to teach Christopher Yokel’s “Standing Stones” tonight. I am going to simply ask the students what they hear in the poem. What sounds does it make? What tone or emotion does it have? How do you think the poet is conveying the tone through his word choice? And finally, what do you think it means? Nothing fancy, just a discussion. But this time, it will be about a poem that is four days old.

I hope it won’t appear dank and dusty, like something I pulled out of a vault. Instead, in teaching a new text I hope the class will find it more relatable, fresh and exciting. A professor can hope.

Exit Through the Local Gift Shop

I’ve written about conspiracy theories and art here before. The notion that Sorina Higgins has about frauds in her recent piece “On the Validity of the Vogel Collection” is a valid one. Our culture teaches us to hold the truth and  conspiracy hand in hand, like imagining that a document that makes its whole case on “self-evident” truth is actually a secret treasure map that leads to a trove of ancient treasures horded by cunning Freemasons. It is why every year, like clockwork, someone will release a startling archaeological discovery about the historical Jesus right around Palm Sunday. It is why the Da Vinci Code could create an overnight cottage industry of books advocating for the conspiracies of the Catholic church and the truth of orthodox Christianity. We live in a culture that secretly believes that everything could be an Indiana Jones story.

A new twist on the truth and conspiracy genre arrived with the critically acclaimed documentary/mock-umentary/possible prank with Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop. I don’t know if it is a brilliant documentary, a movie made to mock a hack artist, an elaborate prank a mixture of all three or something else all together. After watching the movie I do not quite know who even filmed it or edited it. The point, if there even is one, is to have all these questions arise and for discussion and yelling and conspiracy to ensue.

The same can go for Higgins misgivings about the Vogel Collection: “Whatever else it may be, must be, or is, art requires talent, training, and technique. These pieces evidence none of those.” I have my own misgivings about art on display. I walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week with my daughter and a tinge of conspiracy resolved in the back of my mind—I envisioned what would happen if my daughter ran and knocked over one of those large Grecian urns and it broke, what would happen? Do the curators think about all those thousands of children ever year who would be so brazen as to touch the art, even break it? What if they had thought about it? What if they had done something about it? What if that urn was a fake and the real one was in some holding unit, down in the basement, safe and protected from the hands of toddlers and schoolchildren?

Was the whole museum an elaborate fake? A simulacrum on a massive scale? As Higgins asks in her piece:

Who got duped? The Vogels? The curatorial staff of NOMA (and 49 other museums)? Critics? Reviewers? Me?

And who was the con? The “artists”? The Vogels? NOMA?

There is more than just movies to back this line of thinking up. A few years ago the Brooklyn Museum bit the bullet and actually curated an exhibit of a large number of fake pieces in its Coptic gallery (“Brooklyn to Exhibit Fake Art“). Such a brazen move is to be applauded. The more disturbing question becomes “Is a forgery art?”

I think it can be. Art can transcend itself. Art is never displayed in a vaccuum. It is never isolated. Art is always shown as connected to other art around it. Art excites and pleases. Art produces more art.

The conspiracies will always linger in the back of our minds. We even know some of them to be closer to truth than we ever want to readily admit. Fortunately, the conspiracy loving side of our culture is balanced out by the truth side. The side that sees beauty in art. The side that is ever hopeful that galleries will connect the artist and the viewer to something transcendent. That is the side that will keep us going back to your local museums and searching for what “might make you angry, and amaze you, and teach you.”

Not Your Father’s Shoplifting

I remember well my family’s second desktop computer. It was bigger and faster than the clunky Packard Bell that was our entry into the digital age. This new computer, a Compaq, was more than just a glorified typewriter. This computer could not only access the Internet―it was fast enough to download things.

So download we did. First we downloaded games or software, but that was still too large for the modem on our rural DSL.

Then one day my dad came home and said there was this program you could download that would let you access music from other people if you also shared it with them. It was called file sharing. We jumped right in.

I downloaded country albums and my dad downloaded tons of classic rock. We never had to pay for any music again. What an amazing concept. The Internet was just raining down gifts to us, and all we had to do was let someone download our music and then we could download theirs. It was a brilliant concept.

Brilliant and illegal.

My dad eventually put a stop to our downloading when we found out it was illegal. I agreed, but for the next few years I operated in a big gray area in terms of what was illegal piracy and what was just normal usage of media. In high school, as I and most of my friends found out that piracy was illegal, we just reverted back to making copies of albums for each other on CDs. In college, with a whole network at our disposal and some tech-savvy dorm-mates, there was quickly a shared folder in which all the guys’ dorms were dumping movies, music and game. We never considered this illegal; we were just sharing what we had always shared with each other, except now the annoying things like people scratching DVDs or loosing albums in their cars could be avoided. The illicitness was not the enticing factor―sharing with each other was just plain easier. We had no idea that according to record companies and film studios what we were doing was illegal.

In a world of  legal doctrines built on physical property, the public and record companies were woefully unprepared for the onslaught of digital piracy. For one thing, the public was not aware of the potential criminality of such actions, and the attempts by record companies to put a stop to it―sending cease and desist letters to people―was a public relations nightmare. One of my friends who was a huge user of file sharing sites was shocked to receive a letter from a record company basically telling him to stop using file sharing sites, otherwise he would be subject to  jail time and fines that were going to make college loans look cheap. He stopped, as any reasonable person would, but it never seemed right for him to be treated like that. We had not been taught that our actions were illegal. The whole thing had the feeling of a police officer writing a bogus traffic ticket. It just didn’t feel wrong, yet it was.

Artists and fans have moved far beyond the confines of the law. The whole artist and fan relationship is moving forward in terms of interaction, accessibility and the use of content while the record companies and movie studios are stuck in the dark ages of physical media. Sites like Bandcamp, NoiseTrade, Vimeo and Youtube are pushing the envelope of artist/fan interaction and giving fans what they want: access to media without the hassle of annoying record companies. The sheer brilliance of NoiseTrade and Bandcamp is that it gives consumers of music what they want: music at a reasonable price.

Yet is what consumers want actually right or fair? The common belief amongst large corporations is that young people are spoiled brats who want everything for free. I beg to differ. Generation Y is not a generation of media anarchists who cast a blind eye to rules and regulation in an endless desire to consume everything that is hip and coo. According to a 2010 survey in Australia, “GEN Y is prepared to pay more for legal downloads of TV shows and movies than any other age group, while people between 31 and 50 are more likely to pay top dollar for music.”[1] What is really happening in the world today is that young people are unsatisfied with the lack of imagination and investment by entertainment companies in providing the actual services that people want and the Internet is capable of producing. Artists recognize this, and so do companies like Apple, Netflix, Pandora or Spotify. In a recent interview, Neil Young expressed what most young people are already thinking about piracy and the motivation behind it, easy access:

It doesn’t affect me because I look at the Internet as the new radio. I look at the radio as gone….Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around….That’s the radio. If you really want to hear it, let’s make it available, let them hear it, let them hear the 95 percent of it.[2]

It’s interesting to note that Neil Young is more concerned about the loss of fidelity of music in mp3 files than he is about piracy. Young is not joining in some kind of youth revolt. He is a realist.

In reality, Internet piracy continues today because accessibility is still a problem, but that does not make it right.  Just because something is not readily available does not mean any person can appoint themselves Robin Hood. It would be naive to call people who are participating in piracy “thieves.”  The deeper reality is that, just like shoplifting, piracy is a problem of desire and consumption masquerading as thievery.

The problem with piracy is not consumer frustration with the current distribution system of media. Time and money will fix that problem. People are voting with their wallets. The problem with piracy is the unrelenting desire for things that is part of our culture. The value of media is swallowed by the ubiquity of digital downloading and storage. Ten years ago, the amount of media you owned was constricted by the confines of your home and how many CDs, books and DVDs you could stuff onto your shelves. There was a limit. Now with hard drives and the cloud, the the finite nature of storing media has been erased. Media used to be something that was collectible, treasured and used. Now it is something that can be consumed and tossed into the recycling bin on our computer desktops. There is no limit to the amount of media that can fill our digital landfills. Piracy is ultimately a symptom of our insatiable desire to consume instead of participate.






photo by: bixentro

Help Us Curate: Good Country Music

After writing my eloquent and diplomatic piece rant about contemporary country music today (it’s just as bad as that other CCM!), I wondered how we could crowd source all the good country music into one spot. Since this webzine is The Curator, I thought to myself the most productive thing to do at this point is to curate a list of good country music artists. These country music acts should be contemporary, so naming the greats (Cash, Lynn, Jones, Williams, Twitty, Cline, etc.) is not necessary. We want to know who is making good country music right this very moment.

Here’s all you have to do:

  • think of up to three great country artists
  • list them in a comment

After two weeks we’ll cull the list down and then have a debate. Hopefully we can get to a Top 20 list of Curator fan’s top country acts.

To help you get started, here is my suggestion for the list: Dierks Bentley.

Happy listing!

A Lament for Country Music

I miss country music.

I really do.

I used to love it.

After moving to the New York City metro area almost seven years ago I went through withdrawal. There was no country music station. Top 40 was everywhere.

It was awful.

But then something started happening in country music shortly after I moved up here. The neo-traditional wave started by artists like Alan Jackson began to putter out and was replaced by progressively, poppy country music that has culminated in the Taylor Swift-ification of country music.

Country music has been hijacked. It has Stockholm syndrome.

Left bereft of any good music, and the death of radio in general, I ascended the hipster-adorned ladder into the cloud of unknowing that is indie rock.

What I was missing was good music and powerful, gothic lyrics. The ones that were the bedrock of country. What Rebecca Parker calls “sadness, coated with betrayal, layered with loss” in her essay “The Lost Art of the South.”

I began to find this in indie rock. Sufjan Stevens singing about serial killers and hard times. Folk rock acts that actually sang about gritty, dust covered life. Country music was founded on lyrical proximity to the grit of the earth. Now it is just dressed up in poser cowboy boots and abhorently bad musical renditions of arrested development, binge drinking, adolescent love, pseudo-Christian ideals and bad Shakespearean puns (Swift!!!). Country music has even entered into a weird stage of singing about how country music used to be good.  I have a message for you Jason Aldean: stop dressing up your bourgeois problems and Hangover-tinged penchant for Las Vegas as some working class revolution song by name-dropping Johnny Cash (the aptly named song “Johnny Cash”) or George Jones (the very creatively named song “Dirt Road Anthem”). How about you actually write songs like Johnny Cash? He didn’t sing about running from problems. He didn’t write an anthem to dirt roads and name drop George Jones to add some credibility to a trite pop-country diddy. Cash actually sang about people dying on the road by railroad tracks (Give My Love to Rose). He didn’t sing about getting married by an Elvis preacher. Cash lamented about sinfulness and approached the darkness in all of our souls (pretty much every Cash song, but the most macabre are Folsom Prison Blues, Cocaine Blues and Deliah’s Gone).

Country music has lost its soul. Thankfully, as she closes her essay, Rebecca provides a call to artists that echoes the beauty and pathos that has been erased from so much Southern and Country art today:

Johnny Cash sang that he wore black for the sick and lonely, for the reckless, and the mournin’, for the poor and beatin’, and the prisoner and the victim. And as artists create today, perhaps it is our duty to take on the strands and fringes of black both to honor and connect us to the spirit, land and people of our place. So we take from the fragmented pieces of our community’s collective conscience, take the black, and take the blood, and in doing so, create an enduring piece of work, reminiscent of this old melancholy.

Here’s hoping that country can find its way back to the scratchy, guttural melancholy of its past.

photo by:

Taking A Break

I had eleven days off for Christmas and New Years. No work to do. Just spending time with family, reading and writing. I also decided to take a stab at brewing my own beer. It was all and all relaxing time.

What was different about this time, other than the hours I suddenly had to spend, was that I started writing again. There was a three week spell before this break when I didn’t write a poem, blogging was a chore and I didn’t have many ideas churning around my head. I had taken a break, stepped back from life for a bit, and the writing finally started to come again.

This experience was similar to what Kendall Ruth explored in his essay “Listening Past a Writer’s Block.” Where many people try to beat Writer’s Block into submission, Kendall began to see the positive effects of listening, and how there is a rhythm in taking a step back from your art. Only then can we begin to create again:

There are plenty of inspirational books and essays out there about the creative process– the kind that make you think you could be the next Wordsworth or Rembrandt. There are even books on the neurological mechanisms of Writer’s Block. There are few that say, “Don’t beat yourself up. Just put the brush, the pen, the camera down…. and listen.” This listening is an art form in itself. How else will the good stories, the kind that speak to the True, ever be heard and, thus, written?

What is your favorite way to take a break from your creative work?

How long of break do you take?

How is your creativity affected when you come back from a break? When you don’t take a break?

photo by:

Whole Foods is Cheaper than Fast Food?

It started innocently enough. As my class sat thinking of topics to practice pre-writing on, someone suggested “fast food.” I wrote FAST FOOD on the board and the class began to suggest topics and sub-topics that describe fast food–the health issues, the obesity epidemic, the incessant advertising, the cheapness–the class did quite well, actually. After about ten minutes we had a white board size word web of the concept “fast food.”

At this point one of my students lamented, “This looks bad. It’s unhealthy. I just wish I could afford to eat healthier but I need to buy fast food to stay in my budget.”

Then I said it, “I bet I can come up with a menu for shopping at Whole Foods that comes out cheaper than eating fast food.”

Crickets. The facial expressions coming my way were more skeptical than ones I’ve seen when I say I love poetry.

Now, one could fault me for getting a bit off topic in a college writing class. This is health policy and economics territory. But it would be a good example for the class of research based writing. And more importantly, I had said, “I bet….” I needed to prove my mettle. Or I would die on my allegiance to healthy, sustainable, ethical food right in front of my class.

So, as Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace says, “Let’s do the numbers…”

For the sake of fairness, we’re going to eat at five different fast food places during our test week, so the numbers are more representative of fast food as a whole (if you want a McDonald’s only diet, watch Super Size Me): McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s and Subway.


Breakfast                                   ($2.78) [Breakfast Sausage Burrito + Orange Juice]

Lunch                                         ($4.38) [Big Mac, Small Fries, Small Drink]

Dinner                                        ($5.38) [Caesar Salad, Small Drink]

Total: $12.54


Burger King

Breakfast                                    ($2.38) [Breakfast Biscuit Sandwich + Orange Juice]

Lunch                                          ($4.27) [Whopper Jr., Small Fries, Small Drink]

Dinner                                         ($5.78) [Garden Salad with Fire-Grilled Shrimp, Small Iced Tea]

Total: $12.43



Breakfast                                    ($3.18) [Fresh Baked Biscuit Sandwich + Coffee]

Lunch                                          ($4.97) [Chicken Go Wrap, Small Fries, Small Drink]

Dinner                                         ($4.27) [Double Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, Baked Potato, Small Iced Tea]

Total: $12.42



Breakfast                                    ($3.19) [Breakfast Biscuit + Coffee]

Lunch                                          ($7.29) [Medium Roast Beef, Small Fries, Small Drink]

Dinner                                         ($6.64) [Farmhouse Salad, Small Drink]

Total: $17.12



Breakfast                                    ($2.50) [English Muffin Sandwich + Coffee]

Lunch                                          ($4.88) [Seafood & Crab Salad, Water]

Dinner                                          ($6.49) [Footlong Sub, Small Drink]

Total: $13.87


Grand Total: *($68.38)

*All lunch and dinner prices by except some breakfast prices, which were from online price ranges.

Sure, you could eat cheaper at all of these places. But fast food can be more expensive as well. Chipotle and Pret A Manger would qualify as fast food, and they would definitely bring the average price up (a burrito at Chipotle in NYC is $9, and in my opinion absolutely worth it). So the grand total is a pretty average price if you want to eat somewhere between dollar menu and fast food gourmet.

Now for the Whole Foods diet. Here is a five day menu I made up. It’s similar to one my family eats during a typical week. The prices, as above, are per person.


Breakfast                  ($0.76) [Organic Oatmeal (1.29/ bulk aisle) with organic Mixed Berry Conserve ($4.79/jar)]

Lunch                        ($3.40) [Salami Sandwich (salami $10/lb. + bread ($4/loaf) with organic apple ($1.79/lb.)]

Dinner                        ($3.50) [Organic Pasta ($1.99/lb.) with Marinara Sauce ($4/jar), Bread on the side (from loaf above)]

Total: $7.66



Breakfast                  ($0.76) [Organic Oatmeal (1.29/ bulk aisle) with organic Mixed Berry Conserve ($4.79/jar)]

Lunch                        ($3.40) [Pastrami Sandwich (pastrami $10/lb. + bread (from loaf above) with organic apple ($1.79/lb.)]

Dinner                       ($4.49) [Pork Chop ($6.99/lb.) with sauteed carrots ($2.00/lb.)]

Total: $8.65



Breakfast                  ($0.76) [Organic Oatmeal (1.29/ bulk aisle) with organic Mixed Berry Conserve ($4.79/jar)]

Lunch                        ($3.50) [Egg Salad Sandwich (CH Eggs $4.00/dz) + Mayo ($6/jar) + bread (from loaf above) with organic pear ($1.99/lb.)]

Dinner                       ($7.00) [Mixed Salad (mustard greens with carrots, chickpeas, radishes and croutons)]

Total: $11.26



Breakfast                  ($0.76) [Organic Oatmeal (1.29/ bulk aisle) with organic Mixed Berry Conserve ($4.79/jar)]

Lunch                        ($5.40) [Tuna Salad Sandwich (tuna $3.00/can) + Mayo + bread ($4/loaf) with organic pear]

Dinner                       ($3.30) [Beans and Rice (black beans $1.99/lb.) with white rice ($1.49/lb.) and chicken stock ($3.99/container)]

Total: $9.46



Breakfast                  ($0.76) [Organic Oatmeal (1.29/ bulk aisle) with organic Mixed Berry Conserve ($4.79/jar)]

Lunch                        ($3.50) [Egg Salad Sandwich (CH Eggs $4.00/dz) + Mayo ($6/jar) + bread (from loaf above) with organic pear ($1.99/lb.)]

Dinner                       ($8.00) [Chicken Tacos ($1.99/lb. whole chicken; black beans + rice + stock), tortillas (2.99$/pack) plus onions, jalapenos, etc.]

Total: $12.26


Grand Total: $49.29

The end game comes out to $19 per person, per week. That can add up. If you ate fast food constantly for one year you would end up being an extra thousand dollars a year, versus prepare food yourself.

And I expect that’s the catch for most people: preparing the food yourself. It’s why people think Whole Food is so expensive, because often when they go there it’s not to buy food they’ll prepare for themselves as much as it is to buy food that is already prepared. And prepared food is de facto fast food.

So I think in the end, while I may be able to prove to my class that Whole Foods is cheaper than fast food, the value placed on instant gratification, ready-made food and the on-the-go lifestyle is what keeps more people from visiting farmers markets or buying healthy, sustainable food. Eating is often divorced from cooking, or worse, cooking is considered a privilege that not everyone can afford. So the cooking, for better or worse, gets outsourced. In 2001, the Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI) “Trends in the United States: Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket, 2001” survey said that nearly three-fourths of Americans serve home-cooked meals three or more times a week, but less than half prepare these meals primarily from scratch. Thankfully, in the past ten years there has been some change in perspective. In 2011, an overwhelming 90 percent of Americans believe home-cooked meals are healthier and more affordable than eating out and, more importantly, Americans are showing strong support for locally grown products, with eight in ten saying they purchase these products occasionally (FMI Grocery Shopper Trends 2011). Local food means, unprocessed, unprepared food. In other words, food that is better for the environment and better for you. And in the end, if you take the time to prepare it, it’s cheaper than fast food.

Conspiracy Theories, Elitism and Eliot

In “The Bard of Our Time,” her compelling analysis of the new movie Anonymous, Sørina Higgins struggles to connect the message of the movie—elites are the holders of power and the creators of culture—with the today’s zietgeist—the 99% should take power away from the 1%. She opines:

The message of Anonymous is essentially that a normal guy, an average middle-class fellow, could not achieve greatness. Why this message, now, when the “little guy” (or girl) is occupying the public square, storming the financial district, toppling dictators, and instituting democracy? If the little fellow, or the young person with an ordinary education, can overthrow a government, why can’t he write a few dozen popular plays?

This opinion connects with David Thomas’s commentary “Lost in the Four Quartets,” on Eliot’s four conceptual chapbooks of poetry. As I read the two essays in unison, it made me wonder how, like in the Four Quartets, time can affect the meaning; or, in this case, time can affect the authorship.

Who knows how the authorship of Eliot, who died less than fifty years ago, will be challenged in future generations by scholars with too much time and grant money on their hands (which is my opinion of the scholars who challenge Shakespeare’s authorship). Eliot is a person who, while certainly having more formal schooling than Shakespeare, did not exactly come from the elite. His dad was the treasurer of a brick business. He did attend Harvard and Oxford, but he never finished his PhD. Instead of focusing on literature and scholarship full time, he had the extremely un-literary position of a foreign accounts banker at Lloyds Bank of London for eight years. He then finished out his career at a publishing firm, which, while more literary, could also be an extremely advantageous position for someone to publish work that was not his own. I can only imagine, in a couple hundred years, how the conspiracy theories will flow:

Eliot used his own name as a pseudonym for a poet  or poets who wanted to remain anonymous. How could a schoolteacher, publisher and banker write such intellectually dense poetry?

Eliot met James Joyce on a cruise ship. Surely they made a pact to publish Joyce’s poetry under Eliot’s name…

Eliot found amazing poetry in a safety deposit box at Lloyd’s and published it under his own name…

Eliot was an editor whose focus for a number of years was soliciting poetry. He must have coyly stolen it all. Eliot is nothing more than a plagiarizer.

I could go on. I thoroughly despise this sort of conspiracy theory game, but as a game, it is a bit of fun.Want to join in?

I’ve written four different conspiracy theories for Eliot, but can you think of more?

What other author do you think some good conspiracy theories could be written about?


Internet as a Form of Contemplation

Often, the general understanding of the Internet is that it is a collection of information that is so vast it leads to fragmentation. That is certainly what the Internet was making Laura Tokie feel like. But, in her essay “For Victoria Crawford,” after “trolling the internet at all hours of the night, grasping facts and calling them truth” there is a sudden turn toward the contemplative: “You are named, and yet unknown, and today (who knows how?), that is good enough for me.”

I don’t think I often experience those kind of transcendent, contemplative moments while idly scouring the Internet. I think I need to pay more attention to what is happening with and around information—nothing happens in a vaccuum.

Have you had a contemplative moment on the Internet? Do you see the Internet as a contemplative place?


photo by:

What is a Year Good For? Hobbies!

In her latest essay “Give It a Year,” L.L. Barkat talks about what a difference a year can make when it’s focused on one thing in particular. Having experienced a year fixed in one place, she looks forward to how she can do “more time”:

One year for a visual art pilgrimage. A year exploring dance. Twelve months for tea and now twelve for music and bread. It doesn’t matter anymore what the reviewers say. Give it a year? I’m in.

A year has always been my personal focus on a hobby. Or to put it another way: I like to collect hobbies, so my wife implores me to focus on one per year. It works well.

A year for gourmet cooking. A year for baking.  A year for simple canning. A year to get more complicated with canning. And now a year for brewing. Next year is starting to make charcuterie.

What kind of hobbies would you want to focus a whole year on?

How Attached Are We To Our Belongings?

Rebecca Tirrell Talbot raises this question in her essay “A Trail of Belongings.” One of the great ironies of our culture is that we are both a highly mobile culture and a highly consumeristic culture, which often means we need to move a lot of stuff and move it quickly (hence PODS).

Rebecca writes:

Downsizing, and then downsizing again. It’s like the process my maternal grandparents followed as they aged. Between my grandfather’s New England practicality and my grandmother’s compulsive generosity, they never collected much. If you opened a closet door, you could actually see everything the closet contained. But they still had to downsize when they sold their house and moved into a retirement home, and several years later my widowed grandmother had to store, sell, or give away almost everything else when she moved into a hospital-room-sized assisted living apartment.

Maybe it’s good to act out that process early in life.

Is there a correlation between growing old and losing ones possessions? Is it a sign of wisdom? Rebecca’s writing reminded me of a passage from one of Wendell Berry’s new short stories, “Sold“:

Mr. Gotrocks hadn’t any sooner paid his investment into it than he hired a man with a bulldozer to smash the house and other buildings all to flinders, and push them into a pile, and set them afire. He pushed out every fence, every landmark that stood above the ground, every tree. A place where generations of people had lived their lives. If they came back now, looking for it, they wouldn’t know where they were.

And so it’s all gone. A new time has come….

I lie awake in the night, and I can see it all in my mind, the old place, the house, all the things I took care of so long. I thought I might miss it, but I don’t. The time has gone when I could do more than worry about it, and I declare it’s a load off my mind. But the thoughts, still, are a kind of company.

If you could take a cold, hard look at your stuff, how tied are you to your belongings?


Chopping Lives Up into Bits

Sørina Higgins writes an outstanding synthesis of three pieces of art in her recent piece “Three Sorrows.” Her discussion of Of Gods & Men, the award winning French film, is particularly astute:

Of Gods and Men is such an amazing film that it does even more than bridge the gap between the arts and faith. In the world of this film, that gap never existed. It is a piece straight out of the High Middle Ages, that glorious period of holism when human beings did not have to chop their lives up into bits and toss the pieces into various boxes labeled “religion,” “work,” “politics,” “science.” The heavens whirled in concentric perfection, singing the praises of their creator in an orderly harmony studied by astronomer, musician, and theologian alike. The monks in Of Gods and Men are like that; but they live in the postmodern/posthuman era, and their peaceful coherence is torn apart by the divisions of our brutal, uncivilized time.

A few questions come up in my reading of this that I have been chewing on the past few days:

Is the multi-connectivity, multi-tasking and specialist training of the Internet age a logical extension of the Renaissance?

Are people more whole or less whole in a postmodern world?

How can we recover a sense of artistic direction and vocation from earlier periods of art?

We would love for you to share your responses in the comments below.

Is Your Reading Seasonal?

In “Weathering the Books,” her survey of personal reading history, Rebecca Martin surmises that for her “reading is seasonal…intensely seasonal.”

She goes on:

Don’t you know December is for dark fantasy and Victorian novels? The likes of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Jane Eyre, Bleak House. Fall is for The Fellowship of the Ring — at least the pre-Bree bit, every year. Spring is for landscape prose: Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry. Mostly stuff about Appalachia, farming, and the local hills, including that long, straight laundry-line that is Dillard’s Tinker Mountain thirty minutes up the road. Late winter and mid-summer and all the gaps between are for Young Adult fiction . . . so really, there may never be a time for Catcher. I am selective. Selective and seasonal.

Stealing a bit of my discussion question thunder, she asks: “Does anyone else read this way, too? And why?”

I’ll start: I tend to read fiction during the summer and any new book I’ve really wanted to read. During the winter the stuck-in-a-cabin feeling pushes me toward deeply spiritual books, theology and old books. The spring and fall are a mix of both, depending on how cold it is. There is something immensely satisfying about reading a novel on the beach or at a mountain house during the summer. And during the winter, there is no better contentment for me than to spend long hours drinking tea and pouring myself into thought once the sun sets at five o’clock.

So how about you? How do you read seasonally and why?

The Power of Handwriting

Once, when I had filled every page of a journal I wrote in, I decided to make the leap into keeping a journal on my computer. I thought that it would be equal to the paper journal, and I wouldn’t have to worry about losing it if the new electronic journal stayed tucked away safely in the cloud.

I think I made three entries before I switched back to paper.

In Josh Cacopado’s recent essay “Pen on Paper: Defense of Writing” he argues: “Just like the uniqueness of our bodies and minds, no two people have the same handwriting. Eliminating script would be as detrimental to life as eliminating faces, robbing us of the fullness of our own unique arsenal of self-expression.”

I find Mr. Cacopado’s argument convincing, yet it raises further questions:

In what ways will electronic writing overtake handwriting?

Do you agree that handwriting is embodied?

Is there a way that electronic writing could ever be embodied? What about digital pens that save your handwriting electronically?

Is an electronic and manual writing convergence necessary, or will our culture loose the art of handwriting?

Juxtaposition: Blank Slate and William Gay

The first stanza of W.M. Rivera’s “Blank Slate” is:

I hate to see that evening Sun bite down
one ruler for another, one America
for the next, the race starts over, fresh
forgetfulness.   Blank slate.

The first line immediately reminded me of William Gay’s short story collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, of which the title story has been made into the movie That Evening Sun. Take a moment to read Rivera’s poem and see how it intersects with the following lines from Gay’s short story and the trailer for the film.

Ain’t you Mr. Meecham?
I certainly am, the old man said. He leaned on his walking stick. The stick was made to represent a snake and the curve he clasped was an asp’s head. I don’t believe I’ve made your acquaintance.
I’m Mrs. Choat, she said. Ludie Choat, Lonzo’s wife. You remember Lonzo Choat.
Lord God, the old man said.
We rented this place from your boy.
The hell you say.
Why yes. We got a paper and everything. We thought you was in the old folk’s home in Perry County.
I was. I ain’t no more. I need to use the telephone.
We ain’t got no telephone.
Of course there’s a telephone. We always had a telephone….

That Evening Sun – Trailer

Tricks of Travel

Megan DeVere shrewdly comments on the drudgery of modern air travel in her piece “Enjoy Your Flight.” Almost all of us have experienced passengers who pack their “suitcase to roughly 15% beyond capacity,” “wear lace-up shoes that are difficult to remove, “keep “small metal objects in pockets” and “bring several large, hard-back books in order to stimulate cerebral development.”  You may even be that type of traveler! (For the record: I am a light packer and always wear Toms for easy travel; however, I once left a pack of titanium drill bits in my carry-on luggage and pack far too many books).

What types of tricks do you use for travel?

I’ll go first: wear Toms!

Is Irony A Crutch?

Rob Hays makes a case for sincerity and emotion in art in his article “With Feeling.” He writes:

Yet we are often loath to approach the heights of real emotion in art, so we put on a protective cloak of irony, a distancing that allows us to laugh off any real sincerity….

Irony allows us an out in our personal lives.  It also provides an armor when we explore unfamiliar or dangerous territory.  Most of all, it maintains our cool.  Hidden behind sunglasses, covered with a smirk, and swaddled in a snarky t-shirt, we cruise by unaffected and uninfected.

Do you think irony is a proper mode of art, or is irony a crutch artists lean on when they are to afraid to be sincere?

The comments are open, so tell us what you think!

The Power of Singer-Songwriters

Meaghan Ritchey discusses the power of singer/songwriters in her article “The Power Lies in the Performance“:

In a very sincere way, they’ve figured out how to make their work habit forming.  Every performance and song is imbued with personality.

This labor of love, habit forming “personality” is something Matthew Miller explores in his piece “A Passion for the Possible” on the intersection Jakob Dylan’s latest album Women + Country and Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. The lyrics are explored in detail:

The larger cast of characters in Dylan’s album allows Women + Country to present a more transcendent, mystical sign of hope. God is often only a distant presence, as when the farm laborers of “Everybody’s Hurting” ask “My eyes are open Lord / Where did you go, have we just left you bored?” Nonetheless, on the centerpiece of the album, “Holy Rollers for Love,” Dylan presents a vision of hope-beyond-hope, a wild and even irrational spirit discovered in a world “Filled with canteens and tear gas / From this last voyage of us.” The song’s verses are grim: “Hereafter’s bringing more funerals than fairs / And it’s a book of blank maps / That we’re using to get us there.” Directionless, humanity has brought itself to the verge of destruction, and there seems to be little hope until Dylan’s voice lifts in the gospel-tinged bridge and final chorus:

With battle songs filling their lungs
Move them out down under the sun
Give them tears for cherry red blood
Stack them old, we cradle them young
World is crazy or maybe just holy rollers for love
World is crazy or maybe she’s holy rollers for love
World is crazy and making us holy rollers for love

Do you think singer-songwriters imbue a part of their personality in their craft, like Meaghan and Matthew do?

Is there a special singer-songwriter album or performance that you would like to share?

The comments are open.

Should Churches Use Public Schools?

Josh Cacopardo brings up the recent US Court of Appeals case Bronx Household of Faith, Robert Hall and Jack Roberts v. Board of Eduction of the City of New York and Community School District No. 10 as a potentially landmark case that changes the way faith groups can use public facilities in his article “Taking Liberties.” In the case, the court determined that it was within the constitutional rights of New York City’s Board of Ed. to prohibit the use of public schools by houses of worship.

Josh makes the following point:

If it has been deemed permitted and protected by the U.S. Constitution for individuals or groups who are lawfully occupying government premises to express religious views on those premises, including the singing of hymns, the reading of and instruction in Scripture, acts of prayer, and other individual components of worship, then it is contradictory and even hypocritical to prohibit the actual worship service itself since it consists of no more than the individual components for which the government makes allowance.

Do you agree? Should churches be able to use public facilities such as schools?

Taking in Beauty

“One of the great tools of art is that it helps us slow down and reflect. It’s a rarity in our culture to be able to stand, mouth agape, and take in beauty for long periods of time.” -Brian Watkins, “The Quiet Film

When is the last time you stood agape and took in beauty for long periods of time? What kind of art was it?

Art as a Magnet

“I am a magnet to the strong, powerful poses because I wish to be a magnet to a strong, powerful life.” -Kira Marshall-Mckelvey, “A Yogic Journey

Using Kira’s wonderful description of yoga as a metaphor for art, let’s ask the question:

Is your art a projection of who you want to be?

Or, should your art be a projection of who you want to be?

Take a Hike

You said take a hike so I took one,
Fording the rushing springtime rivers
Out into the Appalachians.

I crossed the Chesapeake water basin
And camped down in ghostly
Winter brown battle fields.

I went on pilgrimage with ethereal
Leaves and waylaid with gravel stones.
I bit left over bullets from

Brother against brother struggles.
Did such a fight boil over as a
Husband and wife tiff?

When I reached the mountain top
Down by Harpers Ferry, I watched
Waters distill themselves

And run into the Potomac. I gazed as
The clouds rolled off into the Atlantic.
I surveyed the diving killdeer

And the haphazards of the chipmunk.
The world is a constancy that moves
Like hydrogen atoms in the sun,

That sun sets on my backpacker’s eyes
And I find forgiveness below the
forgotten stars of forested lands.

photo by:

The Writer’s Life

Many of us have a disease. It might be more accurately termed a parasite. It buries itself inside of us and refuses to let go. Sometimes it influences our thoughts. Other times it dictates them. It can overwhelm us, block us, plunge us into despair and control us and yet, it will make us feel delighted every now and again, and that’s enough to sustain the infection in its host.

I first became infected when I read Emerson and Thoreau in high school. There’s a cruel way English is taught in school, from Shakespeare onward (you only get Beowulf or Chaucer if you’re lucky). We read all these authors and are led to suppose they all lived these idyllic existences, doing whatever they wanted and writing as they pleased. The Byrons and Shelleys, the Emersons and Thoreaus, they lead us willingly into a grand mirage of the writer’s life.

I had been to a Borders for the first time in high school, surveyed all the books, and pondered the obviousness of the situation: if there were so many books of poor quality, of dubious claims, of frivolous titles and rows of books I found no interest in, it would not be that hard at all to get a book of my own up onto the shelves. Surely there was a place for my own creation, and it wouldn’t even be that hard.

No English teacher had told me how hard it was to write. Writing essays came naturally to me (I would consistenttly write well over the page limit), and with the lifestyles of Hemingway and Steinbeck the gig didn’t seem half bad either. I could go shoot big game in Africa or bunk down in the Keys. I could go on road trips with my dog. I could even live, if I chose that universal writer’s dream given to us by Thoreau, to go write in the woods and do as I pleased.

The writer’s life is ever hidden from naive school age children. When we are that age, we are never told that writers can have hard lives, that for centuries they have had second jobs just to sustain their habit, or that many of them have become depressed and killed themselves (even with all that house in the Keys and all that hunting). When children are taught novels or poems the teacher never really explains that it might have taken months, years, or decades to write a draft, painstakingly edit it, rewrite, edit some more, and then finally publish a work.  After all my years of schooling I was operating under the assumption that writers would open up their laptop or take out their pen and a work would be created ex nihilo and just fill up the pages.

I would often picture my writer self. I was sitting in a cabin. I would write carelessly but never recklessly. I had no cares in the world because writers seemed to always have enormous amounts of free time and could just go traveling or on vacation or teach if they really wanted to. I had friends who would come and gallivant with me, who would want to talk about politics and philosophy and sit around enjoying the niceties of life. It seemed grand. It matched perfectly all of the black and white illustrations that adorned the biographies in the literature anthologies of middle school and high school.

It took the job realities of the post-college life for me to realize that bags of money did not get mailed to writers after they had sent an essay to the New Yorker or that publishers didn’t just come knock on your door and tell you they wanted to publish your work. There was so much to the real writer’s world that seemed difficult to comprehend and impossible to decipher. The submission process, the waiting, the rejection letters!―it had not seemed possible that a piece that was of value would ever be rejected. I had assumed that there was a sort of infinite space for publication, and good material always rose to the top like cream.

The harsh realities of the writer’s life began to sink in as well. I had thought, wrongly, that most writers were sons and daughters of the Renaissance. I thought they did certain things or held down certain jobs because they were good at more than one thing, that Chaucer was an ambassador because he had free time, Hawthorne worked in import-export because he was in the mood or that Tolkien taught at Oxford because he wanted to give back to society. I slowly began to realize that these weren’t just “fun facts” in an author’s biography; they were testimonies to the economic realities of the writer’s life: that the economics were stacked squarely against you.

The myth of editing was a harder habit to break as well. I was (and hope I still am) a natural writer, and I never had to listen to what my high school English teachers said about brainstorming, outlining, or editing for meaning. Words just flowed. Everything made sense. I could just hit F7 for spell check and be done with it. But when I entered graduate school I had a real job. I was married. I needed to budget time. I needed papers to be good, really good. It had gotten to the point where I could no longer just wing it. So, I naturally pulled out all the lesson plans and textbooks I had from student teaching and began to practice what I preached to students: to do all those important pre-writing and writing activities. I was now a far cry from my writing self, that person I imagined in the cabin who just wrote down words as if it was a part of involuntary breathing. Writing had become work.

It’s sweet justice that now, as I teach writing to college students, that they look at me with shock, disbelief, or disgust when I mention pre-writing activities. Only a few days ago, I told my new class that they would have to show evidence of brainstorming and attach an outline to every paper in the class, so that there would be evidence that real work had gone into this paper, and murmuring ensued.  One girl pleasantly harrumphed and rolled her eyes at me.

In my class last semester, a student mentioned that he had found my personal website (oh no…) and read part of one of my papers (commence awkward gazing at the floor…) and thought it was really good (thanks!). He wondered out loud how easy it must have been to write it. I told them I used to think it was easy to write, but that it’s actually hard. I shared with them that I don’t have any special gifts or talents, I practice the art of writing in the same way I had been telling them all semester: organization, editing, proofreading, good sentence structure and so on. Writing was not glamorous. It was work. There was no way around it.

Writing, even when it’s a way to reflect or pass the time, is still work. It’s always fun, but not in the way I had imagined fun. It just doesn’t happen. When you rub your pencil against paper it doesn’t bring forth art, just like banging two logs together doesn’t produce a flame. My writer’s life is not anything special anymore. My writer’s life and my “normal” life are one.

I am writing this as I gaze out a window, but it’s not out into the woods from an antique desk in a beautiful cabin. I’m looking at a Jeep Liberty still covered in snow. I am swaying gently side to side trying to keep the three month old who was just pinching my bicep asleep. It’s not glamorous at all. It’s not the writer’s life I had imagined. These words did not come easy. I hit delete many times. There are red lines under some words, blue lines under others. I’m just about done. Now. Good, now I need to go back and edit.

photo by: meadowsa

The Monastic Cubicle

I placed his desk close up to a small side window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light… Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined. – Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener

Critics plumb the depths of Melville’s Bartleby the Scriver looking for the cause of Bartleby’s psychosis. Was Bartleby protesting capitalism, vowing to shrivel and die rather than participate in the market economy? Does he represent the working class? Is he setting up a new social order not to be corrupted? Is he a quitter? Is he crazy? Is he just a literary invention with no reason other than to spurn critics in a guessing game of interpretation that has Melville laughing in his grave? I’ll let the interpretation fall to more rigorous scholars for now. What has haunted me, since I read this for a second time, after graduating and getting a “real job,” is the physical nature of Bartleby’s surroundings. What has haunted me, and what I want to explore, is what Melville seems to instinctively know and plant with malicious intent, yet has no name for yet: the cubicle.

Two years into an office job, sitting in a circle and talking with other graduate students about Bartleby, it hit me that Bartleby’s surroundings were a proto-cubicle. The narrator placed him in this clever contraption that permitted both “privacy and society,” in other words, observation. Bartleby felt both secluded and exposed. He was naked before everyone, yet no one could see him. My mind immediately flashed to the panopticon, that dreary prison concept that sets up a prison in a cylinder with one guard in the middle who can survey all. My mind then flashed to me.

For two years I had been a cubicle dweller. It was a love-hate relationship. Sometimes I could relax, listen to music, and hum away on my computer, working diligently. But however long that lasted, interruption commenced, and suddenly people peered over the walls, walked right into the cubicle, looked over my shoulder. With walls but no doors, the cubicle isolates from sight but not from voice and not from quick observation or interruption. Its qualities of privacy are a facade.

So too are its qualities of society. When I sit down inside those five and-a-half foot walls, the whole world disappears. Community becomes something that needs to be committed to, both with coworkers and the world outside. There will be times when I get up to get coffee, and I realize that it’s been snowing or raining for three hours. Sometimes you don’t talk to anyone meaningfully all day, just sitting in the cube working away. Sometimes you talk to people through the cubicle walls, like Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen in Papillon. It’s actual work to have conversations with people, to participate in face to face society in such a physically open, yet restrictive place. I know people who will call or email from two cubes down, not wanting to make the effort to get up and venture out of their cubicle.

When you grow up you’ll be put in a container called a cubicle. The bleak oppressiveness will warp your spine and destroy your capacity to feel joy. -From Dilbert, March 24, 2004

The cubicle is both cell and kingdom– a place of entrapment and a place to claim as yours alone. Bartleby fits this perfectly, if you’ll allow one bit of interpretation from me: he is trapped in his cube, and refuses to work in reaction to his entrapment, but his stubborn, unyielding mantra “I prefer not to” is a declaration of control from a person who lives in a kingdom of one. Both of these responses, to give up or become a dictator on your six by six plot of dim lit industrial carpet, are not healthy or adequate responses.

We are pushed into thinking of the cubicle as a prison, a place of middle class oppression that slowly destroys our souls. This line of thinking, while it seems correct, is symptomatic of a modern view of work as drudgery or slavery. In essence, it is a poor view of vocation.

Vocation is the establishment of the work of our hands. It is very serious business, and a very serious way of looking at the work we do, whether we paint portraits, take pictures of ninth graders for yearbooks, fill garbage trucks, teach dance, drive a truck or sit in a cubicle. If we feel oppressed, it is often not because of our work but because of how we interpret our work as being inadequate or useless. Martin Luther expressed the doctrine of vocation as our work being “masks of God.” That is very serious business indeed! Work is not trivial when it has a higher calling, to not be drudgery but to be a way of passing love and compassion to others. Our work, probably more than anything else in the day, is our greatest and most powerful way to be neighborly. And who wants to love their neighbor like Bartleby did? Instead, if we choose to put on the doctrine of vocation and push back our dark thoughts concerning our work, we will find a purposefulness, hopefulness and desire to use our work as a way of blessing people and loving them as we love ourselves.

But what about that cubicle? How do we handle it? I don’t know when it hit me, but as I was dwelling one day on the thought that my cubicle might very well be a prison, the thought came to me: why do monks call their rooms cells? Are they in prison as well?

In Cloister Talks, John Sweeney writes:

One of John Cassian’s great affections was for his cella or cell―his little room in the community. As an abbot, he taught his monks to love this tiny enclosed space, like a bird loves its nest or a worm its hole. He learned from his time in the Egyptian desert the saying, “The cell will teach you all you need to know.”

I think the key to unlocking the potential of the cubicle, the non-monastic cell, if you will, is the word community. How often at work do we forget we are in community? Even when we are slammed against the wall of a deadline, deep in thought on a matter of policy or lost in a swarm of emails, we must remember that over that wall is a neighbor, our neighbor.  Being neighborly can be tough, as Frost alludes to in the line “good fences make good neighbors.” But part of being a good neighbor, as the monastics teach us, is going on the other side of the fence and sharing in community, loving them as you love yourself. Monks had to deal with this as well, as Sweeney recounts that living in a cloister “there is no escaping the bad qualities of the brother whose cell is next to yours.” The monks may have gripes, but they call each other brother for a reason. Their connection is deep, they are masks of God to one another and treat each other as family. The resolution to the problem of Bartleby then just may well be looking at our work as a vocation much like the monastics do– that in the toil of a studio, office or cubicle is an opportunity to cultivate meaningful community through an understanding of our work as vocation and our presence as a mask of God.

Suburbs and Sprawl and Sidewalks! Oh My!

After teaching one Friday night, I made the mistake of putting in my ear buds and listening to The Suburbs, the latest album from Arcade Fire. As a bus led me away from Port Authority, the bright lights, and the skyscrapers reaching for the sky like villains in old westerns, I closed my eyes and listened.

Blistering critique clogged the noise of the bus’s engine as we exited the Lincoln Tunnel. I opened my eyes and looked out across the waters to the city lit up in glory, the moonlight and cloud reflections adding a touch of subtle brilliance to the halo effect. It sat there, beckoning, a city on an island. I glanced across the highway and saw the billboards cropping up and the never-ending expanse of streetlights that reach from Hoboken to Philadelphia. And I sighed.

The music was not helping. It was engrossing. It was true. It confirmed all the worries I had when I moved to New Jersey in the first place.

I moved for noble reasons. I got married. She was from New Jersey. I was from Maryland, but my parents moved away while I was in college. The roots had been pulled up, so off I went to New Jersey.

I’ve never been one for claustrophobia. I’m okay in elevators or subway cars packed like sardines. But when I first moved to New Jersey, I felt like the walls were closing in, I felt like I couldn’t breathe–like the world was always on top of my chest pressing down with loud music, high cost of living, and a lack of vegetation.

I yearned for green like a shipwrecked castaway yearns for fresh water. Day after day, I drove my car over concrete. The buildings were dull and full of concrete slabs and asphalt. Even the sky at night was an ethereal, bleached gray from the powerful lights of New York. I would drive twenty minutes to see trees or an uninterrupted patch of grass.

I couldn’t stand the people everywhere rushing, rushing, rushing, honking their horns at me, giving me the middle finger, yelling at me for being cordial on the roadway. The malls were a conflagration of people carrying out the pastime of the ‘burbs’: shopping in their sweatpants with [insert high school or college name] written on the butt.

It was so utterly different, moving to the hustle and bustle of the suburbs and actually trying to live there. The sheer lack of architectural diversity and amount of parking lots contributed to my feeling that suburban New Jersey is both omnipresent and a vacuum of nothingness, sprawled out onto the map in an endless maze of strip malls and pavement that signify nothing but empty progress.

The protagonist in Danielle Dutton’s novel S P R A W L says that the suburbs are a place of “apocalyptic foreboding.” We have seen the end of the world, and the end of the world is when all the earth has become suburbia.

There is hope, I think, in the realm of McMansions and manicured turf, the place where house cats are the leading predator. The place where sidewalks just decide to stop, as if to say why are you walking? These are the suburbs. Get in your car. It’s that the world was not always like this, and the suburbs don’t need to be like this either. Dutton’s protagonist also commented that the suburbs are “based on the idea that the past never existed,” but if we dig hard enough or talk to enough older folks, we can find that the way out of this mess is the past itself.

My mother-in-law grew up three blocks from our house, before the sprawl overwhelmed the region and turned it into a deforested area filled with giant houses on tiny lots. Much of the area was a farm. There were cows here once. It was a place where people knew each other. It was a neighborhood, in the sense that people were neighborly to each other, not just crowded around one another. It wasn’t the perfect place to live, by any means, but it was green, less busy, and nicer on the eye.

Towns are beginning to pull themselves away from the apocalyptic brink. They are unwinding the web of sprawl. Connecting the sidewalks, so to speak. It may be people are regaining common sense after our suburb-induced amnesia, and we’re beginning to remember our collective past, before cars allowed people to run away from the city or move away from the country. Or, what I think is more likely, the recession has made us question the crown jewel of the American economy: the suburb.

Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Indeed, there is hope. There are people taking back the suburbs from the infestation of Hummers and fast food joints. There is community-supported agriculture on small lots. People are hiding chickens in their backyards. The number of people I see riding bicycles has tripled in the past year. Local businesses are popping up in strip malls that were once the bastion of franchises. Even whole towns are getting in on the action. Tysons Corner, Virginia has formalized a plan to actually desprawl their town and make it denser. With density, the town can walk and bike to local businesses instead of driving and parking at big box stores. They no longer want to be a town that is 1,700 acres in size with 900 acres of parking lots. They want to be different.

The suburbs look bleak. A nihilistic attitude is hard to ignore. Arcade Fire’s Suburbs tells us that “when all of the walls that they built in the 70’s finally fall, and all of the houses they built in the 70’s finally fall . . . it meant nothing.” Fortunately, there is a way for the suburbs to mean something, and that’s through the stories of the past and anticipating a future that deconstructs the suburbs into something more real, more alive, and more green. A place that’s a neighborhood. A place that’s a home.

Is Laughter the Best Medicine?

It dawned on me the other day that I don’t really listen to the news, I laugh at it. I go out of my way to relish in the absurdity of the 24-hour news cycle and the stupidity of celebrities and politicians whom I wouldn’t give two cents about except for the fact that I can laugh at them. Other than listening to NPR in the mornings, the four main sources of news in my life are The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, and the Relevant Magazine podcast. All of those shows make really good efforts to make fun of the news and point out the absurdity and irony of our media-driven culture.

Laughing at reality is a big business. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are cultural icons in their own right, and the radio program Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me attracts nearly three million listeners a week. It’s such a big business that Fox News even made an ill-fated attempt at a news satire show a la The Daily Show with a conservative slant called The Half-Hour News Hour (it aired seventeen episodes before getting axed).

The old adage is that laughter is the best medicine, and some kind of medicine is needed in a world where one of the biggest TV shows in the country follows the misadventures of a bunch of beach-loving, hard-partying Italian-Americans stuck in arrested development. Laughter seems to take the edge off the world for those who want to cut through the mass-marketing of plastic trinkets and overwhelming cultural garbage of reality shows and politicians scheming about spending billions (or trillions). Laughing at the news every few days is an act of cultural catharsis, removing the stench of our world’s stupidity by laughing it away. But is a medicine that causes you to purge and forget, to just laugh the world’s wrongs away like you laugh it off after you fall out of a chair, really the best medicine?

Cleansing oneself when dirty or sick is often necessary, but to do it too much, to turn a medicine into an addiction, is to begin to treat laughter as a coping mechanism — it gets you by until you need your next hit of laughter. There is a lot of valid talk about the vitriol in the political conversation in our country lately. People are using anger to cope, and the anger of Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann feeds people like a drug. It makes people want to change the world by raging against the machine, breaking stuff, or forming militias. Laughter seems like the better option when compared to anger, but I’ve begun to find all the laughter is making me apathetic. Instead of being mad at the world, I’m being conditioned to think the world is all one big Camus novel and there’s really no point to the madness, so just laugh.

There is a way out of the mire, though, and it’s by taking a long view of culture.  Our fascination with the present compounds our tendency to react with anger or laughter. We crave real-time information from Twitter, 24-hour cable news, and our smartphones. When inundated with information, we focus on the present so much that we forget the harsh fact that what we’re arguing about is probably not even going to be significant in a year or two. The world only appears to be a big Camus novel if we never look to the future with any sense of calm or hope. If we take a breath and think about the long-term impact of what’s going on in the world, what really matters in life will rise to the top, and that certainly won’t be contemporary political drama or the latest celebrity gossip. Our human nature drives us to instantly react, but deciding to take a more rational approach, to not become angry or apathetic, but to live a quiet and peaceable life, gives us a more grounded outlook on the world.

Laughter has its place, and I’m not going to stop watching Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, but what’s more important is to begin to cultivate a view of the world that is not stuck in the ever-changing present. It’s just too much to keep up with, and the disequilibrium caused by all that information is what provokes anger and apathy in the first place. The corruption, evil, suffering, and stupidity of this world are enough to make us grow mad at the world or shut down rather quickly.  Instead, when anger begins to simmer or apathy begins to choke our desire for a new and better world, we should remind ourselves that there is truly nothing new under the sun. The world will always have problems. We can choose to get angry about it. We can choose to laugh at it. But the world would be a far better place if every once in a while we got up off the sofa or put down the picket sign and did something about it in a selfless and radical way.

WebMD for the Soul

Once, after feeling awful for a few days but not thinking it was the flu, I sat up in bed, my stomach churning, my whole torso in pain, and asked my wife to look up the symptoms of appendicitis because I believed I had it. My wife went to WebMD, typed in appendicitis, and rattled off my symptoms one by one. I got dressed and we headed off to the hospital.

I had a similar experience when I read Kathleen Norris’s excellent memoir, Acedia & Me, about six months ago. As she wrote candidly about early Christian thought on acedia and how it applied to her life, it read like a list of symptoms that one by one, diagnosed my soul. It was WebMD for my soul. I quickly realized I had acedia, which is defined by the Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church as “a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray.”

Not to be a spiritual hypochondriac, running from diagnosis to diagnosis of my spiritual inadequacies, I began to contemplate how the sin of acedia, experienced by monks in the desert seventeen hundred years ago, in a place and time so different than ours, affected me so acutely. I began to find that the common denominator of acedia throughout the ages was how it affected a person’s vocation. I was struck by the words of John Cassian in The Institutions: “Once [acedia] has seized possession of a wretched mind it makes a person horrified at where he is, disgusted with his cell, and also disdainful and contemptuous of the brothers who live with him or at a slight distance, as being careless and unspiritual.” This diagnosis of acedia began to make sense to me when I realized that the monk’s vocation was to worship and contemplate in his cell. His work was accomplished there, in his intimate space, surrounded by the spaces of other individuals. Cassian’s description of acedia relates to the modern working world when we substitute cubicle or office for “cell.” Upon this substitution, we are confronted with the reality that the place we inhabit to do our work is a place that intimately affects our spirituality.

The cubicle confronts us with the reality that we can be separated from our coworkers in some way, as the monk with acedia separated himself from his fellow monks by disdaining them and puffing himself up, while at the same time looking down upon his own vocation within his cell.

In my own work life, I find that it’s easy to look down upon my vocation. I work in a cubicle. That means my role model is Dilbert, the affable yet pathetic cubicle dweller who suffers mediocrity in work and leisure. His anemic work life transfers to a hollow, unfulfilled social life. I have, so often, noticed how the unpleasurable aspects of working in a cubicle have led to acedia in my broader vocations: to write poetry, to read, to pray, to blog, to fish, to play tennis, and to garden. My restlessness with my day job seeped into the rest of my life.

The signs of acedia in my life were excuses and procrastination. I would have a scribble of poetry, just a line or two, that I had written down sometime during the day and would feel the urge to craft it into a poem. The urge to participate in my artistic vocation would become overwhelmed by the restlessness I felt about work in the cube, and something would come up: I’d read an article, go get a drink of water, or check my e-mail. I noticed acedia creep into my writing in graduate school, when constant drinks or breaks could beleaguer the completion of a paper for a few hours.

Acedia comes on in subtle ways more often than not. It is often subconscious, presenting itself without a trace. This happened recently in the morning, as I went to pray. I was tired, having just woken up, and as I went to sit and pray, I walked over to get a drink of water. Sitting on the table was an open issue of Poets & Writers. Before I knew it, I was two paragraphs into an article. I looked up. Wasn’t I supposed to be praying? How had I gotten to the article? I didn’t know, it just happened.

Acedia happens like that. It is sneaky, deceptive, and subtle. It is a chameleon, manifesting itself in what Norris calls “extreme lethargy or hyperactivity.” In a nutshell, it is what keeps us from our vocation. And from my experience, it is hard to cure once diagnosed. I think in my case it’s chronic: it will be with me for the rest of my life. Yet I recognize it now, when I have an article due or watering to be done and I watch clips on Hulu or check my e-mail, and shake myself out of restlessness before it takes over. One day, I hope I can conquer it.

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Trial By Canning


I was trying to stay calm while holding a 20-quart water bath full of hot water that was starting to spill onto the kitchen floor. There was no place for the huge pot to go. There were other pots all over the oven. Sitting atop the range in various states of use were pots for scalding tomatoes, pots for scalding Mason jars, a pot to gently boil lids, and a container with the last bit of crushed tomatoes in it. I had started this step in the canning process too soon, out of order, and now there was no room on the counter for me to put this container of Herculean proportions I was trepidatiously balancing as trickles of hot water lapped over the edge and onto the floor. My wife stared at me quizzically, bewildered at the situation unfolding in our kitchen, and began clearing the oven range for the water bath. Watching with a half-smile of feigned patience on my face, I lunged for the oven range once it was cleared and stepped back as a cloud rose from over spilling water that hit a burner and began to steam. This chaos over which we hovered, the scalding, skinning, and crushing of tomatoes, the spilling water on the floor, the covering the range in layers of quickly staining tomato juice, was our trial by canning.

This was our first experience canning for preservation. It took us six hours for the first batch, three hours for the second. The apples we later spiced and preserved went even faster. We were clueless the first time, with that bushel basket of tomatoes. A few months prior, when we were first seeding our garden, we had made the decision to can our produce from our little backyard garden along with what we bought at the farmer’s market so that we would have enough tomatoes stored up to make it until next season. It was an adventure I had to get myself into, and my wife gracefully followed along. In our third year of gardening, I wanted to go the extra mile and can some food. It was something I knew nothing about but we are all supposed to have a collective remembrance of doing or enjoying: who has not enjoyed homemade jam? We constantly, almost every day, enjoy a food from a can. Yet, why did I not know how to put in what I so casually took out each day?

If I blame anyone else for this, it is Wendell Berry. I forget really how I first read his work, but he has either restored or ruined my daily experience of food, depending on how much one is willing to maintain certain levels of ignorance when it comes to how we are attached to food. The way we all have been getting our food has changed drastically in a brief span of fiftyish years. For someone like me, who has been alive for only half that period and making conscious decisions about purchasing food for only the few years I’ve been out of college, the loss of collective food history-the means of production from farm to market to home-has been overwhelming. What we were learning for ourselves just this autumn is an art that was commonplace for our grandparents, a time in reality not so long ago. Our trial by canning was a sudden reclamation of a way of life, a home economy. We were taking a small step toward filling our own pantry. We were acting together, celebrating our harvest by trying to make it last far into the next year.

But we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, not knowing where to start. The only thing I was certain of was that canning food on your own (intoned the government pamphlets and various books) could lead to a full pantry of food that lasted into the springtime or a catalog of improperly handled cans that all contained clostridium botulinum, the wonderful bacteria that causes botulism and then death.

Canning is a project in which you truly learn the reality that everything dies. You are hands deep in the fruit of the harvest, the culmination of nature’s process of turning dirt into edible earth. You are learning the age old practice of cheating death through preservation, the simple act of boiling food and sealing to prevent spoiling. The thing is, cheating of death by preservation is to realize that death will occur and must be somehow confronted and accepted as an everyday reality. The grocery market world of red tomatoes in February is a simulation-not a reality. It is a show, a sleight of hand, a magic trick. The modern supermarket is a simulacrum of reality, showcasing a semblance of fresh, out of season vegetables and fruits in the middle of winter, catering to a mesmerized public that decides to carry on purchasing this fantastical produce, willfully ignoring that seasons, time, and death exist. To can is to enter back into the real, to humbly choose to live in a world of limits where time is allowed to act upon us all.

Eating locally, eating organic, growing your own food, canning: these are all actions that are both ethical economically and theologically. When we choose to limit ourselves in such a way, to no longer deny that life may spoil, fruit may over-ripen, or that harvests may come and go, we choose to live with the understanding that we can not delude ourselves any longer with cheap tricks and gimmicks of food purveyors, the clever marketing of multi-national distributors or the cutting edge science of industrial agriculture. We must admit to ourselves that we live in a world that is bold, dangerous, decaying, and beautiful beyond compare. To capture part of that chaotic grace in a Mason jar, to look each morning into the pantry and see tomatoes from our garden or apples we picked ourselves from local orchard is to connect all the dots of our existence from season to season, from sowing to reaping, from the darkness of dusk to the light of dawn, from life to death, from death to immortality.

In the can is an artifact of a time and place that is real to me, one that is not created for me by nutrition labels and marketing gimmicks. It is as real as the air I breathed or the sweat that beaded on my brow as I toiled in the care of small tomato plants that grew and gave us fruit out of the earth, an abundance we enjoyed throughout the summer and then canned and stored up in remembrance of the harvest we enjoyed. We enjoy the harvest still with each pasta meal or freshly made pizza, recapturing the bounty of late summer, though the weather has turned cold and bitter, and the earth has changed from green to stale yellow, and the tomato plants, void of any fruit or leaf, are bound together in a knot of decay on our compost pile. We enjoy with remembrance in each gazing look upon our harvest and in each bite of what we have known from soil to completion. We enjoy all the way until next spring, when we begin again our trials anew, knowing full well that we hover above the chaotic grace of an age old cycle that will repeat forevermore.