Honoring God’s Creations by Richard Decker

The Sun was outside today:

A Trademark (stamped on Creation),

which shined.

The wind was calm,

the wind was refreshing.

The sky was blue, as blue as a sapphire,

but certainly not as dark.

Laughter could be heard:

students outside,

playing,

throwing around a frisbee.

I smiled, I laughed,

I let myself find joy in it all.

I let the beauty of the day

be seen by myself,

And then I thought…

…she must be outside today.

Hip Hop’s Answering Machine: In Memoriam

By Adam Snavely

I recently attended a lecture in which a bestselling author gave a talk on the craft of writing, and was asked a question about literary fiction and the aesthetic qualities of writing. Literary fiction, as she defined it, generally contains a great wealth of beautiful aesthetic detail and devices that are pretty to read but are useless[1] on the whole and make the work a little boring to read. “I’m more concerned with writing page-turners, books you really want to finish,” she confidently asserted before moving on to the next question.

After I managed to quell the existential rage swelling in the back of my throat, natural to the white-male-creative writing savant, the comment still had me questioning the distance between the literary elite and lowbrow novel. Could excellent technique and aesthetic beauty be used in a work that appealed to the masses? Something that didn’t descend immediately into cliché?

The problem, I found, was one familiar with anyone that really loves books and literature: not enough people read anymore to get a nice sample size. There is no readily apparent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel hailed as the next great American tale that not only causes the critics to weep by its sheer existence, but also copies to fly off the shelves in a manner which demands some sort of media attention. Sure, there have been plenty of great books written in the past ten years or so, but not that many people know about them, if we’re all being honest with ourselves. Searching different mediums for the type of piece I was looking for, however, proved a bit more fruitful, and possibly even more obvious: a piece of music, a rap album, no less, by one Kendrick Lamar.

*****

Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was both critically-loved and commercially successful when it was released in 2012. Featuring an opening week of 242,000 copies sold and an eventual platinum certification (or 1,000,000 units sold, a feat practically unheard of in the second golden age of piracy), the album was also a smash with internet rap sites and more traditional music magazines alike, making Lamar an unlikely crossover star and ushering in the reemergence of what many called “true” West Coast hip hop, its lyrical skill and production harkening back to rap greats like Tupac and N.W.A. Furthermore, the album makes liberal use of specific devices common to music and hip hop, ones that correlate to “useless” aesthetic literary devices in written literature.

The album opens with a lo-fi audio recording of one of the more-loaded creeds in contemporary American culture, the Sinner’s Prayer:

Lord God, I come to You a sinner,

and I humbly repent for my sins.

I believe that Jesus is Lord.

I believe that You raised Him from the dead.

I will ask that Jesus will come to my life

and be my Lord and Savior.

I receive Jesus to take control of my life

and that I may live for Him from this day forth.

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for saving me with your precious blood.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

The song following, “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter,” details a young Lamar (or K. Dot, as he is referred to within the narrative of the album) chasing after a girl named Sherane, graphically describing the sexual interest the two seem to have for each other before an abrupt and unexpected ending. As the song ends, Kendrick’s vocal track cuts directly to the sound of a phone ringing and his Mother leaving him a voice message asking where he is and when he’ll be bringing her van back. It’s cell phone voicemail, but the quality of the sound recording clearly recalls scanning back through messages on an answering machine, listening to which ones you can delete and which ones still need to be dealt with.

Rappers (and some of the best rap albums of all time) love skits. They come in thirty-second bytes at the beginning and ends of songs. They can get their own track listing, or even appear in secret after the album ends; often adding humor, sometimes mixing gravity into the album’s content, or (as in the case of Kendrick’s album) building a storyline to follow throughout, these skits perform any number of duties on an album, and one of the most common devices seen in the skit is the answering machine interlude.

Whether it’s a friend recounting a wild night on the town back to Common or one of Guru’s (of Gang Starr fame) many girlfriends trying to meet up with him, or even K. Dot’s mom trying to figure out where he is so she can get her van back and get food stamps, the answering machine plays many different roles but itself remains a staple in hip hop, although its appearance has dwindled over the past several years. The appeal of the answering machine, especially in skit form, is simple: it serves to record memories, memos and other things to be done. An answering machine message is a reminder, something to be done that can either be addressed or ignored in the following song. And it can be as ridiculous as a Ludacris automated phone system designed only to make a crude joke to lead into a cruder song, or it can be used as Kendrick uses it, to add the artistic complexities of memory to his story.

Essentially, the sound of a sound recorder clicking on before the Sinner’s Prayer and a computerized voice telling his mother to leave a message after the tone is rap’s Tennessee Williams moment, the point where Tom Wingfield walks onto the stage and announces how the following production will run: “The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”[2] The problem with memory and discerning historical fact using memory as a primary source is the inherent fallibility of the human mind and ego[3]. It’s simply too easy to misremember or embellish facts over the course of any period of time. The artist, on the other hand, uses this distortion as a tool. The facts don’t all have to be right. They can be ordered and arranged in such a way that works according to the artist’s vision and emotional motives. An answering machine is an answering machine, sure, but it’s a record of the past, and possibly a signifier of a distorted emotional connection.

Such a distinction is obvious in just the layout of the good kid m.A.A.d city narrative. It’s non-linear, and while it moves forward during the album, it often jumps forwards and backwards in relation to the pacing of material and the types of songs being placed back to back. For example, the listener hears the Sinner’s Prayer twice during the album. The album itself opens with it, and it’s immediately followed by a song about, as Lamar himself raps, “love or lust,” quite literally “the music of being young and dumb.” The Sinner’s Prayer immediately creates tension with the source material of the song it’s placed in, and makes sense given the conflicted nature of the album as a necessary opening[4]. But the Sinner’s Prayer as it actually occurs in the context of the K. Dot narrative occurs much later in the album, when a darker series of events has led to the death of one of K. Dot’s friends. Directly after the song “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” in which Lamar raps about his frustration with life in Compton, running around and endlessly seeking revenge for lost loved ones, K. Dot and his friends are confronted by a woman who tells them of their need for God, and the same exact Sinner’s Prayer is recited as in the beginning of the album. It bookends the narrative of life in K. Dot’s neighborhood, not occurring naturally according to chronology, but according to the emotional narrative of memory that Kendrick creates; it didn’t happen exactly that way, but it belongs there.

*****

The problem with using devices, then, and where they can travel into the realm of uselessness, is using such a device without a specific purpose, or just to be witty. If the answering machine can affect the emotional distortion of memory to great artistic effect, then its major downfall is the same as any device or landmark harkening back to a less-advanced time: the descent into cliché, sentimentalism, and kitsch. After all, as much as an answering machine could potentially signify a shift in memory, it can also be just a dumb old answering machine, thrown in because it’s clever, or worse, because the presence of the answering machine itself is supposed to carry some sort of artistic value. All literary genres and movements have their own hallmarks and similarities, and music is no different. But dropping an image or device into a song because the presence of that image or device is supposed to elevate the song regardless of what the artist does with it destroys possibility of meaning. This is a similar problem to the issues sentimentalism runs into often. Pining for a forgotten place or time not because of any specific reason but simply because that place and time existed and is now lost often leads to poor depictions of such places. They’re elevated to such a high place for really no good reason, and any good audience sniffs that stuff out quickly.

To see this problem in action, look at “Payphone” by Maroon 5[5]. The chorus, in case you can’t recall that fateful stretch of radio doldrums, goes as follows:

            I’m at a payphone trying to phone home

            All of the change I spent on you.

            Where have the times gone

            Baby it’s all gone, where are the plans we laid for two?

The payphone in question performs a basic narrative function, begins a trite witticism, and then tries to create an atmosphere of nostalgia. Obviously, the narrator is attempting to contact a lost love. Where he found a payphone still in working order that is preferable to simply asking to borrow a cell phone in such dire straits, we may never know. Second, the payphone starts a pun that receives its pay-off in the very next line with the narrator spending his metaphorical “change” on the partner he previously engaged in romantic relations with. No further comment needed there. Finally, the payphone is supposed to connect the feelings of lost love to a sepia-toned time somewhere in the past of Adam Levine’s mind, where people talked on payphones and fiercely chased after their broken relationships. The payphone must do this by just being there. It is dropped into the song as a wink to the past and not given any real purpose beyond being there because, as we all know, payphones used to be really great.

But everyone knows that’s not true. Payphones have always been the dingy, health-prohibitive emergency back-ups of anyone needing to call another person, least of all a guy trying to rescue a relationship. Maybe he could actually go talk to her. I don’t know. That seems like a pretty good idea, though. You can’t just put a payphone in there because the audience will understand that payphones used to be a thing and you trust them to go with it. It’s a lazy and ineffective way to write, creating more ridicule and scorn for the song than appreciation for the music you’re making.

*****

The answering machine as a tool seems to be dying out in hip hop, which makes some sense on one hand, and is a little sad on the other. Obviously, answering machines just aren’t around anymore. The natural subject matter and available imagery to choose from for the aspiring rapper shifts, and shifts quickly in an age driven by the quantity of content a website can possibly push out in a given day. Things become obsolete. When’s the last time you even left a voicemail message for someone as opposed to just hanging up after a few rings and shooting off a text?

But maybe the point and purpose of using something like an answering machine is being lost too. It’s telling that the latest good example of an answering machine skit that I can write about is already three years old, just as telling as a best-selling author opining to students at a liberal arts college that literary fiction is boring and its devices useless. That’s a bigger problem. If we cannot produce good art, how do we expect to be able to think for ourselves? The canon of literary fiction is littered not just with vast descriptions of people and places. There is methodology and purpose behind it, a message to be conveyed by the author more than just a plotline in order for the reader to more easily “turn pages.” Throughout history, oppressive regimes did not shut down radio stations, raze news headquarters to the ground, or invade technical and engineering schools. Usually they could buy those places out or force their people into management positions easily enough. The things they burned, utterly destroyed so that no trace could be found, were books. And it seems that there’s not a lot of books left that are worth burning.

[1] The exact wording was closer to “there will be five pages of exposition on setting and theme, and you’re kind of reading along like ‘why is all this here?’”

[2] from The Glass Menagerie

[3] Ask Brian Williams.

[4] As an aside, Lamar’s faith makes frequent appearances in his music, but his frequent use of coarse language typically disqualifies him from being considered a “Christian” artist by many of the Contemporary Christian Music crows. And while I’m hesitant to link to a Buzzfeed article pretty much always, this article by Reggie Ugwu does a great job exploring the tension between Lamar’s supposed “secularity” and “Christianity,” using examples from his music as well as interviews with people like Evangelicalism’s favorite rapper Lecrae.

[5] I’m jumping genres here, obviously. I’m not claiming the image of a payphone as artistic currency in either hip hop or that white-washed RnPop (or whatever it is Maroon 5 does). I’m just saying it’s a lazy image. Follow along. You’ll see.

Poppop And I Go Fishing

By Andrew Hahn

It is the first nice day in a while. Mom is still sleeping. She is hung over. I eat Honey Smacks in the living room with PopPop. He is watching a news talk show and eating a cinnamon twist pastry he got from the bakery yesterday after work. He drinks coffee from a Christmas mug with reindeer on it, even though Christmas was four months ago.

“Hey,” he says turning off the TV. “Do you want to go fishing?”

“Yeah,” I reply. I eat my cereal and drink the milk before placing it in the kitchen sink. “Should I ask Tyler if he wants to come too?”

“No,” he says. “Leave your brother here. This is just for me and you. Go put on your jacket. I’ll be out by the garage.”

“Okay!” I run upstairs and slowly open the bedroom door. Mom is sleeping on the farther of the two beds. She is facing the door. Drool goops from her mouth and she snores softly when she exhales like a puppy growl. I see the red cap from the Smirnoff bottle poking out from underneath the bed. I want to throw it out, but instead I grab my red fleece zip jacket and tiptoe out of the room. The door latch clicks shut, and I leap down the stairs and run out the back door to where PopPop is waiting for me.

He is holding two fishing poles. One is a kid’s pole with a button release. The other is the adult kind where you have to hold down the line, flip the release, then cast. I know how to use that one, but I don’t think he knows that.

“You ready?”

“Yeah!” I notice that he doesn’t have his car keys. “Where are we going?”

“To a secret place in the back.” He leads me back past the wooden pool area and the trailer attached to it where they keep all their junk. Past the lines of trees like an orange grove and into where the willow tree stands with her green, straight hair. Behind the willow is a long rusted gate, which is hidden behind spikey bushes with flowers and bugs. It leads to a dirt path lined with grass and tall, round bushes. We walk down the trail slowly as if to show nature we are a part of it and want to be one with it. We amble over the knolls and we are on a path that is in the middle of a sweeping pasture. Cows graze unrestricted and mosey slowly over the green. A brown, dog ear fence lines the far end of the pasture. A black and white dog barks and runs circles around the cows who act like they can’t hear it.

“It’s right up over here,” PopPop says.

We come up on an oasis—a pond. A tree arches over it and its branches hang like a green chandelier. Small plants grow out of a beached rowboat. At the edge of the path are large, smooth stones perfect for sitting, which we climb on and ready our lines.

“Where are the worms?” I ask.

He pulls out a sandwich bag of bread from his jacket pocket. “We’re going to use this instead,” he says. We ready our hooks and cast our lines into the center of the water. The red and white bobs float on the wind ripples.

We wait.

“You know,” he says. “You can’t fix your mother.”

“I know,” I say.

“I see you trying and worrying about it all the time, but it’s not your responsibility. She has to realize it herself. She just can’t stop the drinking and drugs. Have you heard that the first step to change is recognizing you have a problem?”

“No.” My bobs sinks but comes right back up. No catch.

“We can tell her she needs help all we want, but she has to be the one to recognize it. It’s different with addicts.”

“Then I guess someone telling her that drinking and drugs are bad only makes her want to do them more,” I say. “Like a kid.”

“Exactly,” PopPop says. “She lives in her own world where she doesn’t understand consequences.”

“I don’t understand that.”

“That’s because you have a good head on your shoulders. Stay that way.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and shakes me to make sure my head is on there tight.

I get a nibble on my line. The bob sinks and starts to swim away in the mouth of my catch. I pull up to hook the fish, but my bob flies out of the water. The hook is empty.

“Aw, man,” I say.

“It’s okay,” PopPop says. His line pulls and he effortlessly reels in a catfish. It’s dark and ugly, gasping for breath as PopPop holds him securely between the dorsal and pectoral fins so he doesn’t get stung. The fish’s mouth opens and I imagine him wheezing. Its gills like vents flap open to suck whatever moisture he can from the air. PopPop unhooks it and lets it go. I don’t want to fish anymore.

“Can we go?” I ask.

“Yeah, sure.”

We secure our poles and walk back down the paths, through the rusty gates, past the willow, the trees, the trailer and pool, and back to the house. I wait with him while he puts the poles away in the garage. He takes out the extra bread and gives it to me. I eat it. I go inside.

Mom is downstairs watching Roseanne on TV Land.

“Where were you?” she asks.

“Out fishing with PopPop.” I start to go upstairs.

“That doesn’t sound very fun.”

“It was,” I say. “It was very nice.”

I went into our room to take off my jacket. I cross to the bottle of Smirnoff and put it in a different place where I think she won’t find it.

Top 5 Sexiest Theological Movements by Adam Snavely

Upon writing this piece of literature that will undoubtedly be canonized in the annals of art with such pieces as Macbeth, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Fast and the Furious, I am looking at an advertisement that reads, “Click here to reveal the top 15 sexiest nationalities!” While I do appreciate these so-called “Smart Ads” for being both concerned with my lack of any online relationship presence and correctly assuming my deep interest in the cultivation of sexiness, I thought I would take it a step further and relate such an important list to the Christian context we here at LAMP work within. Now, I could have written about how labeling an entire people group as “sexy” seems to visually generalize and gentrify that group as a whole to a ridiculous degree, or about whether dual-nationals are possibly made half-seventh sexiest by their respective ethnicities (or conversely, maybe doubly-third), OR even made a blog post on the objectification of physical beauty, since no one[1] has ever done that before.

But that’s no fun.

  1. The Anabaptists

Oh boy, here come the Anabaptists. These people were the early forerunners of the eventual Amish and Mennonite groups. Now, I know you may be thinking “Ok, Adam, I do love my organic carrots and illegally non-pasteurized milk, but how are these people sexy?” One word, my chums: attitude. These dudes had it. If you put any stock in the “I did it before it was cool” mantra, then look no further. The Anabaptists proposed their theological leanings so far ahead of their time that no one ever really thought they were cool at all. Like, they were burned at the stake and given what ol’ King Ferdinand of Spain called “the third baptism”[2] as the true antidote to Anabaptism. You want commitment to your persona; you want charisma that exudes “Pff. Whatever?” The Anabaptists had it.

Maybe you’re still unconvinced. Maybe you don’t think some Amish-looking people can overcome their Amish-ness in the name of sexy with attitude alone. You need some style, something of substance to bite into, like a succulent mango fresh from the tree, or the word “succulent.” Fine. Let me direct your attention to this hat.

I understand it’s hard to not focus on Beyoncé, but take a look at her headgear for a second. We’ve got a full-blown Amish hat on Beyoncé, who is standing beside Jay Z and the Mona Lisa. It’s not obnoxious, but also not unassuming. It’s bold but knows its role. And if the only thing the Anabaptists ever did for their sexiness ranking was to inspire a splinter group to wear a hat that Beyoncé would eventually also wear, they are far sexier than you or me.

  1. The Great Awakening (Vol. I)

We’re not concerned with the second, third, or even fourth Great Awakenings. The original’s always better than the sequel, and trilogies are a sure way to kill the soul of your source material this side of Return of the King. Just ask Christopher Nolan[3]. The first Great Awakening was marked by massive crowds and preachers taking their preaching back to the streets, and nobody did it better than the guy George Whitefield. Confidence, swagger, charisma, and the knack for saying the right things in tense situations, Whitefield had it all. No one was passing the mic to him, 1. because he was pretty much the greatest street-preacher of all time, and 2. microphones weren’t going to be invented for another century or so. Yes, there were other important MCs working the Great Awakening (shouts out Jonathan Edwards), but Whitefield hit it out of the park consistently. He even had Ben Franklin giving it up, a noted Deist and non-Church attendee. Bonus points for winning both the spiritual hearts of the people and the brains of the Founding Father Operation.

On the style front, Whitefield seemed a pretty unassuming corpulent white guy. But some of his portraits reveal both an impressive wig and an equally impressive lazy eye. Whitefield liked to go with the extra curls. And if you can get people to respect you and actually listen to what you’re saying while your eyes are crossed that bad, you must be pretty sexy.

  1. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits

            High fives to the one Catholic that none of the other Catholics never really had a major problem with (see: tried to execute or excommunicate). Ignatius grew up a pretty cocky soldier, taking a liking to dueling people in his native Spain. Giving up his soldier life for the path of a monk following his conversion, Ignatius set up the Jesuits, a highly respected monastic order well-known for their hard work and influential views on education. Ignatius was sainted (beatified, in the fancy terminology) and eventually canonized in the 1600s, and his longevity of popularity is remarkable for an institution as famous for their religious policies as they are for, you know, the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition and all the death and stuff.

Ignatius was a pretty great guy by all accounts, but let me tell you, his robes were something else entirely. I don’t know if Iggy was always rocking stuff like this around the monastery, but he was stuntin’ on the other monks on at least a semi-regular basis. Note the red and gold motifs, almost like a home and away uniform style with the switching of primary and accent colors. He’s also mixing up his patterns to keep it interesting. Note the flower and other natural imagery in gold on the red primary, while the primarily gold outfit switches up the prints into more “religious image” style. They’re just too good, and Ignatius earns number three on this list through sheer sartorial quality.

  1. The Emergent Church and their black-rimmed glasses

            I know a lot of people in the theology crowd like to spontaneously burst into flames at the mention of Rob Bell’s name, but to deny he pioneered one of the strongest and most consistent style games in Christian culture is to do a disservice. First off, the Nooma videos almost single-handedly introduced American Christian culture in the early 2000s to little things called “graphic design” and “color theory,” as we really hadn’t changed the way we presented visual media since the heyday of the Religious Right. These videos were undeniably cool: slick presentation, visually interesting and metaphorical subject matter, and even background music that wasn’t Point of Grace. The Emergent Church crowd really adopted this focus on aesthetics and made the Church, for the first time in a long time, look sexy.

But it’s impossible to not talk about those glasses. What hip pastor didn’t have those things in 2005? What hip pastor doesn’t have those things in 2014[4]? Classy black, square-rimmed to denote both the intellectualism inherent in the Emergent pastors and reflecting the early days of the rise of Nerd-dom, the Church had a legitimate trendsetter on its hands. And while opinions remain largely (and rather viciously) split on the actual theological propositions put forth by the Emergents, their aesthetic is undeniable.

95-stellingen

  1. Martin Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses

I’m sorry it ended like this. It’s not terribly exciting, a bit like starting a big countdown of greatest quarterbacks of all time and then ending it with Peyton Manning; it makes sense, but you really just wanted to see something crazy happen; you[5] wanted to see me name someone from the Bills.

But, sometimes the safe picks are the best ones. The irony inherent in this safe pick is that the Ninety-Five Theses was anything but safe; for Luther, it was probably the riskiest thing he could possibly do. He questioned nearly every practice the Catholic church had (outside of the worshipping Jesus thing), and then instead of just, I don’t know, giving it to a messenger to send to a priest or something like that, HE NAILS IT TO THE DOOR OF HIS UNIVERSITY CHURCH. This was akin to making an official university-wide announcement, something everyone would readily see and disseminate amongst everyone else they knew. Luther did not know subtlety. In fact, his blunt nature even inspired a present-day Martin Luther Insult Generator, making him one of the only Reformation-era preachers with an active online presence[6]. Martin Luther: OG bad boy of Christianity and Protestantism, and the sexiest of the sexy in the realm of theological movements.

[1] Apparently you can even buy “inner beauty jewelry” at that link. GO CRAZY FOLKS

[2] That is violent forced-drowning, in case you can’t read between the lines there.

[3] Yeah, I said it. Dark Knight Rises was about as anti-climactic as adding one word to the title of the last movie and saying it’s completely different. Only EPMD can do that.

[4] Even though that trend has passed in the current style climate by and large. Classic American Church.

[5] *I

[6] My favorite so far is Luther telling me that I am “a crude ass, and an ass you shall remain!” Thank you, founding father of my faith.

Poof by Ryan Masters

I spent most of my time at Diarmaid Funeral Home operating the crematory, a hulking metal box big with an iron body the size of a bailing machine, but that could also set itself on fire. When you turned a key, the machine would suck in a heavy breath and its red lights would pop on like it had woken up suddenly, and in a bad mood. In five minutes it was hot enough to burn up to 400 lbs. of human down to his/her densest bones in about an hour, and it did so in remarkable quiet, like a man chewing stale tobacco who is not inclined to small talk.

Debbie taught me how to use it, a thick southern woman who spoke loudly and with a smirk. She had a heart like a good truck, made of steel and combustion, reliable, aggressive. She embalmed her own mother because she didn’t trust anyone else to do a better job. Her gestures, as she taught me how to cremate a human body, were as quick and stoic as if she was teaching me how to feed a Gila monster.

These were my instructions:

  1. When the temperature’s 1600, open the crematory door and wheel the box in front (the machine, you observe, is blinking and groaning madly by now, hungry, its belly on fire).
  2. Roll the box from the hydraulic cart, making sure to kind of center it (inside, walls of human soot-covered brick).
  3. Remember that the metal ID coin goes on the box, if you forget, just slide it in, inside of the crematory as far as you can get it (the heat licked your knuckles clean of all their hair and oil).
  4. Close door, set to “process,” set timer (the great metallic monster brooded and grumbled like an obese teenager at a buffet, seemingly, wickedly, pleased).
  5. In about an hour, come back, scrape remains into center where the machine is hottest, (this rendered the human-seeming skeletal structure without shape, just a fiery heap).
  6. Let cool, scrape remains into metal bin at front of machine, bring to processor (a smaller machine made of metal teeth that garbage-disposaled man into dust.

This, she told me, would probably be my main task, “bein’ the new guy and all.” I took notes.

She taught me one other thing during Step 5, when she opened the crematory door too early. The lesson was a sort of live visualization of ashes to ashes, or from dust you came, or another one bites the dust. Debbie thrust the long metal scraper into the machine, the long sharp claw of it reaching into the blazing chamber of fire and shadows and the metal bit into what was once flesh, and when she raked the scraper across the body’s chest, it sounded like a barbecue being cleaned.  Ashes leapt out of the fire like panicked crickets. Then she shut the metal door and looked at the timer.

Well. Maybe oughta give it more time.

Don’t get squeamish now.

                I swallowed hard. I blinked and there was an imprint of a burning skull grinning. Oh yeah, I was just thinking. Like, does it need to be cleaned regularly?

On nice days I would keep the garage door open and sit next to the crematory and read Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking. I would set my feet and my coffee on the desk. I could hear the muffled roar of the fire. Outside, dogwoods were shedding their blooms.

Writes Lynch:

The themes for me were and remain sex and love and grief and death – the things that make us and undo us, create and destroy, how we breed and disappear.

I sipped my coffee and breathed deeply. The sperm-like dogwood smell mingled with the faint eau-de-toilette of burning human remains. “Life-in-death image” I muttered aloud, nodded, went deep into thought.

I was surrounded by the urgency of life ending throughout our city. I wrapped bodies in bedsheets and wheeled them quietly through their living rooms at midnight, gently greeting the newly widowed. Yet I kept getting lost on the way to homes, and I couldn’t embalm worth a crap. I sat around bored and burned bodies and wrote about it in my Comp books, wishing I didn’t have to wake up to pick up the next sad sack that died at midnight (they always died at midnight) and that I could just do something I liked and was good at.

People worked every day, then slept, and sometimes they died.  In between, they wondered if they were well compensated. I thought: How am I not inspired by this? Why do I feel like I am still working at Target, only the shelves are stocked with the dead, the air filled with their ashes?

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, moaned MacBeth. In the crematory the women come and go, leaving as thin white snow.

Another day I was heaving bone and ash out of the crematory with the heavy, awkward scraper, which was like trying to use a 15 foot broom to pull a lawn mower toward you. I was in a suit and the metallic, blood-iron hot smell getting on my clothes, and there was the ash of someone’s loved one was on my pants, and the sun was being merciless with the pavement outside. Two Haitian men that our manager had hired to clean the cars were there, and they had moved on to cleaning around the crematory. Their eyes orbited the grumbly machine like full moons, while their hands tried to keep busy.

One cowered far away, cleaning one spot over and over, while one cleaned up in a circular pattern around the metal beast, and made reverential noises.

He came up to me while the door was open, the heat and odor flowing out.

In deh? That where you put em?

Yep.

Ohhhhh. Put em in deh, come out like dat? –pointing at the remains, finger tentative—Where da rest go?

I don’t know. The sky I guess. There’s a chimney.Pointing up, vaguely.

Ohhhhh. How it wuhk?

Turn the key, push the button. Then—poof. –Shrug.

And just poof! In the sky like that, no? –He reached both hands suddenly into the air as if in worship, tossing up some invisible thing, a soul maybe, perhaps someone he loved he was throwing there to get him out of the brooding machine that lit itself on fire over and over again.

He opened his charcoal lips to smile for some reason, revealing a whole row of tall white teeth. He swayed his arms like a child wondering where to go next. We stood there for a second, in the whoof whoof of the machine’s exhaust fan.

And all I could feel was the sweat under my collar, and all I could smell were the ashes, and all I could say was Yes just like everything, poof into the sky.

Then he went away, shaking his head and innocently sweeping up the stray ashes as they spread everywhere.

Wish Me Well by Andrew Hahn

I had my first panic attack late September 2012 my senior year of college.  I forgot about Spanish homework until I got to class and my friend Kidder asked if I understood a question on the assignment.

“Um, what?” I said.

“We had homework,” she said with a little head nod and a little grace.

I frantically pulled out my course syllabus and flipped today’s date.  We did have homework.  I hated when the professor called on me and I stumbled through an answer, so I pulled out my textbook and flipped to the back where all the answers were.  I started to write the answer to question one, but my hand couldn’t make it past the first word without messing it up—ella.

My body tightened up.  My heart raced like I was running.

Ella.

I couldn’t breathe properly. My vision went in and out of focus like apertures.  My heart palpitated.  I thought it was going to explode.  My hands. armpits, and back started sweating.  I wiped my hands rhythmically on my thighs. 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and on top of my skinny jeans.  My sweat stains showed through my oxford shirt.  The room was spinning like I spun my head around on a bat, and I realized that I wasn’t okay to be sitting in a classroom for the next hour thinking I’m walking the balance beam of my body exploding.

My belongings thudded in my bag as I sloppily tossed them in.

“I’m skipping class,” I said.

My few friends in the class all scrunched their brows.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m not sure,” I said picking up my bag and racing out of the classroom.

_____

I made a counseling appointment one day while I was on break at work, walking around the parking lot outside.  I kicked all the small sticks I came across to see how far I could send them.

“Thank you for calling Wishing You Well Counseling.  How can I help you today?”  She was happy and helpful like you’d expect someone at a counseling office to be.

“Hi,” I said.  “I’d like to make an appointment.”

“Okay, and have you visited our site to know who you’d like to meet with?”

“Uh, no,” I replied.  “Yes, I visited your site and read one of the bios, but no, I don’t know who I would want to be with.”

“Well that’s totally fine,” she said.  “Why would you like to make an appointment?”

“I’ve just been very anxious.  I’ve felt at the edge of myself for the month of July.”

“Well, I’m very sorry to hear that you’re going through that,” she said.  I could hear the threads of compassion in her voice.  “I know exactly who to set you up with.  How’s Wednesday at noon?”

“Sounds perfect.”  I smiled, feeling the pulses of hope beneath my ribs.

_____

The counseling office was in a quaint, brick house off one of Lynchburg’s busiest streets.  The house itself released an aura of kindness and rest, like I was being hugged by practiced arms.  It whispered softly, “Everything is going to be okay.  Please, come in.”

So I stepped into the foyer of an old house with a charming staircase in the entryway.  To the left was the waiting room with two chairs and a door in view of the foyer and as I stepped in, I saw a sofa and a table with a checkerboard.  There was a woman sitting in one of the chairs, so I sank in the chair cushion next to her on the opposite side of a box of magazines that looked like it was from Pier 1.

I browsed Twitter on my phone as I waited.  Nothing but rap critiques and quippy rap puns, desperate passive aggressive pleas for love, and a t-rex who can’t do things like wave down a cab and shuffle playing cards.  I flipped through pictures of the poor trying t-rex and chuckled to myself.  The lady next to me kept glancing over until her counselor called her to her appointment.  I signed off Twitter.

The door next to my chair creaks open and a kind-faced, blond haired woman says, “George?”

“Must be me, right?” I say.

“Come on in.”  She smiles.  Her blue dress brings out the blue calm in her eyes.

There are two brown suede sofas—one along the near wall and one facing the entryway.  Each has colorful pillows tucked into the corners like rainbow sprinkles on a chocolate cone.

“Sit anywhere you like,” she says.

I sit in the far corner of the nearest sofa and face the chair in the middle of the room that I assume is where she’ll sit.

“First,” she says, “before we move on, do you go by George?”  She shuts the door behind her and takes a few steps toward her chair.

“No,” I say.  “I go by Andrew most of the time.”

“Okay. I want to make sure that this is as comfortable a place for you by calling you something familiar.”  She takes a seat in the chair and writes notes on a sheet—my “file.”  She lovingly brings her hands together like reuniting best friends.  “So, what brings you in today?”

“I am anxious,” I say.  “For the past month, I haven’t been able to take a full breath.  I feel like I’m teetering at the edge of a breakdown all the time.  I panic at the most random times, and then I’m on the phone for hours with my grandmother and aunt.”

“Hmm.  You find a sense of security in them?”

“My grandmother helped raise me, so I would definitely say I do.”

She scribbles notes.  “What else?”

I gaze out the window into the field behind her and thought of how to turn my feelings into words like connecting the dots without the numbers.

“Last week, my friend asked me if I loved myself.”

“And what did you say?”  She never looks away from me.  And she nods her head and listens with affirming yeahs.

“I said that I do, but she said she didn’t believe me.  I spend so much time taking care of other people and making sure their needs are met that I don’t know how to spend time with myself.”

“Do you believe your answer?”  She tilts her head like a puppy who’s heard a strange noise.

I shut my eyes.  “No.”

“No what, Andrew?”

“No,” I take a deep breath.  “No, I don’t love myself.”

“And why is that?”

“I don’t like what’s happening to me and how it makes me.  I hate being alone all the time and I hate that I have to spend all of my time with me.  And I hate feeling like what I want for my life isn’t good enough for my family, and I hate that I spend all my time talking about how anxious I’m feeling or if I feel safe and not doing things or eating things that have suddenly become triggers for all of it.  And I hate feeling like people are annoyed with me because I give so much to meet my friends’ needs and it feels like no one is willing to care for me the way I need to be cared for.”  I wipe my eyes.  There’s a difference between knowing something about me and speaking it out, but when I say something, it’s true.  It’s looking at your feelings saying, “I know you exist.”

“Wow,” she says.

“One more question before we move on if that’s okay.”  She leans forward.  “Do you feel like there’s something wrong with you?”

I look out at the window again and watch a little girl with a balloon tied to her wrist run around and around in circles.

“Yes, I do.”

“Andrew, let me tell you something.  This anxiety you’re experiencing doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you.  It’s just your body’s way of telling you something’s wrong.  Your brain’s function is to keep you alive and do it well.  Your brain doesn’t understand that anything would be going wrong inside of your body, so it equips you to handle conflict externally.  Does that make sense?”

“So far, yes,” I say.

“The blood rushes to your fingertips in tingles.  Your heart beats hard and your breath tightens to get the blood to your feet quicker so you can run away from the danger.  The important thing to remember is this—It is not that type of fear.”

“It’s not that type of fear,” I repeat.  “I love that.”

“Yeah,” she says nodding and smiling.  “And anxiety is fear of something unknown.  And right now you don’t know yourself.”

“That’s beautiful.”  I feel the cushions beneath me.  Feel the air from the vents.  Look out across the expanse of the field.  I’m grinning, knowing that my anxiety comes from a lack of love and misinformation about my body, my feelings, and what my brain has learned to believe, and all this can be cured with a little love for myself.

She notices me smiling and she bares her teeth and cocks her head.  “You love that, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” I say.  “I really do.”

I have problems, but it’s nice to know they’re not the kind of problems I thought.  I am a house that’s a little messy in all the hidden places.  Anne Lamott, in Bird By Bird, says, “[C]lutter and mess show us that life is being lived.  Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground—you can still discover treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip.”  I am a house that’s been dusted and vacuumed, but it’s been cleaned like a man’s cleaned it.  What it feels like my counselor and I are doing is lifting up the sofa cushions, pulling the sofa away from the wall and collecting the trash and vacuuming up the dust bunnies.  With each particle we pull from between and underneath the cushions, we examine it and remember how it got there and also try our best to not let it happen again.  And we do this in every room, in every cabinet, in every drawer, until I love myself for who I am.

Results and Re-reading

By Roni Olson

I am a results-oriented person. I have a really hard time following through with something if I don’t see the point. I’ve never been into scrapbooking, leaf-blowing, or most of the crafty activities on Pinterest. On the other hand, there are few things I enjoy more than seeing tangible results for my efforts, whether that is a picture-perfect pumpkin pie, checking a book off my reading list, or having a student take my advice. I find it ironic that I am this way—that I function based so much on whether I believe something is worthwhile or not—because I wouldn’t describe myself as the pragmatic type at all. I’m much more of a romantic. And although I suffered through hours of mandatory “fun,” “girly,” or “crafty” activities in middle school, high school, and even college, I enjoy running in the rain, watching old cartoons, and driving just to drive.

There are no learning objectives from these activities. The very thought of saddling such activities with a learning objective is an oxymoron. But it made me realize, everyone has some activity(ies) which they enjoy doing for no overarching, purposeful, profound reason. We do things like this every day. Why do we set our beds? (As my boyfriend says, what’s the point, you’re just going to mess it up again that night). Dust the tops of shelves? Organize our closets? I think it speaks to the creative aspects of being human. It’s comforting to know that we don’t always have to have a clear objective—sometimes we do things because we are more than programmed robots. Because we have souls. Because we are whimsical. Because we want to.

Re-reading books is one of those kinds of things for me. When I read books for assignments (which I generally also enjoy), I am usually reading them for the first time, but when I pick up a book that is already an old friend sitting patiently on my bookshelf, it is an entirely different experience. I pick that book up again because I enjoyed it the first time. I am coming to that story with a lot of preconceived notions—funny bits of dialogue, tense points in the plot, memorable descriptions—but oftentimes rather than coming away with more of these aspects of the book, I find that the story has become a mirror in which I realize how much I myself have changed.

For example, I just began re-reading A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I first read this book in high school—my junior year, I think. It was over my head at the time, but it is good literature, and instinctually I realized this, so it drew me—because it is good literature and because of the unique storyline, the author’s writing style, and the vivid sense of setting and character. But now, upon re-reading it, I find myself being so much more aware—of the book’s aspects (character, writing style, vivid descriptions, themes), but also of myself. I already know basically what happens with the plot, but the book still captivates me because it shows me, for one thing, that I have come a very long way in appreciating and understanding literature since I was sixteen.

A lot of people who enjoy reading make reading lists. I do this too. I even have the Goodreads App. I enjoy chronicling my progress through books and checking them off my list. However, I recently realized that reading, particularly in terms of literature, should not be a one and done kind of deal. Reading does have a purpose—many purposes: to learn, study, be amused, entertained, enlightened, etc.—but I am realizing more and more that re-reading is really just as valuable, perhaps more so. In our fast-paced 21st century, small-attention-span-society, however, we often tend to miss the value of re-reading.

I like to view it this way: when I read a book for the first time, I’m reading it “normally”—to understand it itself: to be immersed in the plot, to get to know the characters, to discern the themes, but when I re-read a book I read it in order to get to know more about myself, because it is only after you have begun the journey of reading a book for a second or third time that you begin to see that the story starts to become a reflection of your own growth. It’s not that the story seems to be changing, the plot unfolding, the characters developing, as they did upon a first read, but that you realize you have changed—are changing—precisely because of the fact that you know the book has not—the book is a fixed mark, like the foot of the compass such as in Donne’s apt analogy. Upon a first reading of a book, we stretch to reach a level of understanding of the story, but upon a re-reading, the story seems to stretch to reach us on our new level of understanding.

And that’s why I love books so much. They are filled with stories that make impressions on us—change us and show us how we have changed. And that is why I re-read. So perhaps I do have a reason, after all.