About a Poem: Gary Geddes on Don McKay’s “Waking at the Mouth of the Willow River” (May 2013)
Shambhala Sun | May 2013
About a Poem: Gary Geddes on Don McKay’s “Waking at
the Mouth of the Willow River”
WAKING AT THE MOUTH OF THE WILLOW RIVER
Sleep, my favourite flannel shirt, wears thin,
shreds, and birdsong happens in the holes.
In thirty seconds the naming of
begin. As it folds into the stewed latin of
afterdream each song
makes a tiny whirlpool.
One of them zoozeezoozoozee, seems to be
making fun of
sleep with snores stolen from
comic books. Another hangs its teardrop high in
the mind, and melts; it was, after all, only
narrowed air, although it
unheard, perfectly. And what sort of noise would
make, if it could, here at the brink?
Scritch, scritch. A claw, a nib, a beak,
its surface. As though, for one second, it could let
the world leak back
to the world. Weep.
If mindfulness is a virtue, then Canadian poet Don McKay should be
considered one of the major voices of our time. He describes his credo in “some
Remarks on Poetry and Poetic Attention” by comparing the act of writing to the mental set of bird-watching: “...a kind of
suspended expectancy, tools at the ready, full awareness that the creatures
cannot be compelled to appear.”
Writing about nature does not make one a nature
poet. It’s the quality of attention that is paid to language and to creatures
and objects in the natural world that makes all the difference.
“Waking at the Mouth of the Willow River” is one of
my favorite McKay pieces. I love this prose poem for its verbal play and for
the way it conjures the mysterious territory between sleep and waking, where
dreams unravel and things are no longer, or not yet, quite what they seem. Read
the first sentence aloud slowly and let its sounds and stresses linger on your
tongue and in your ear. It’s so subtly scored—its trochees, iambs, and the
final stress of the anapest that allows the metaphor to end with the same
authority as it began. Talk about tools at the ready; McKay’s poetic toolkit is
also equipped with near-perfect pitch, able to marshal all those recurring
consonants (f-, sh-, t-, l-, h-sounds) like an organ base and make them nest in
If you know your Shakespeare, you might notice the
link between that first line and Macbeth’s speech in Act II, scene
refers to “sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of
care.” McKay, a less
troubled Scot, is not ashamed to riff off the master, making new music. In his
case, it’s a guiltless moment, thinking his way into and giving linguistic form
to the varieties of birdsong he hears on waking. A poet who can blend Shakespeare and comic books and turn them into a meditation, not so
much on the
act of naming as on that moment beforehand,
when the poet—suspended, expectant,
aware—struggles for the appropriate sound and can only weep at the folly,
unavoidability, and joy of the task, has clearly demonstrated a quality of
attention we could all do well to ponder.
Gary Geddes has been called Canada’s
best political poet. His most recent books are Swimming Ginger, poems
set in twelfth-century China, and the nonfiction book Drink the Bitter
Root: A search for Justice and Healing in Africa. He lives on Thetis Island,
Books in Brief (May 2013)
Shambhala Sun | May 2013
Books in Brief
THE TRUE SECRET OF WRITING
Connecting Life with Language
By Natalie Goldberg
Free Press 2013; 256 pp., $25 (cloth)
The title of this book is somewhat tongue in cheek. It’s a phrase
that Natalie Goldberg has long used when a student is late for
one of her writing classes: “Oh, I’m so sorry,” Goldberg likes to
tease the tardy individual. “You just missed it—a moment ago I
told the students the true secret of writing. I am only able to utter
it every five years or so.” In actuality, Goldberg’s stance is that
no one possesses the one single true secret of writing and that if
you ever meet someone who claims otherwise, you should make
a run for it, as all of life is about diversity—nothing is singular.
That being said, in this new release Goldberg does offer a fresh
practice for writing, and it is rooted in the Zen tradition. A frequent contributor to the Shambhala Sun, Goldberg is the author
of twelve books spanning fiction, poetry, and memoir, but is best
known for her writing guide, Writing Down the Bones, which has
sold more than 1.5 million copies.
FEARLESS AT WORK
Timeless Teachings for Awakening Confidence, Resilience, and Creativity in the Face of Life’s Demands
By Michael Carroll
Shambhala Publications 2012; 304 pp., $16.95 (paper)
How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press 2012; 120 pp., $12.95 (paper)
Years ago, I taught ESL to children in Korea. Not well suited to
working with kids, I dreaded all my classes, but teaching students
aged two to four made me feel particularly hopeless. According
to the curriculum they were meant to learn colors, numbers, and animals, yet my little charges preferred (quite literally) to run in
circles. I remember one low moment when a tiny boy cried in
my lap and attempted over and over to tell me something in his
native tongue. “I’m sorry,” I kept repeating. “I don’t understand
Korean.” Clearly, I was in dire need of these two new titles: Fearless at Work and Work. Michael Carroll begins his book by asking
readers to complete the following sentence with the first word
that comes to mind: At work, I want to be... In his experience,
most people say, happy, successful, stress-free, effective, fulfilled,
or appreciated. Yet—since it’s not actually possible to always
be any of these idealized states—what we should really try to
cultivate is a sense of confidence no matter what arises. Fearless
at Work then lays out the path—rooted in Buddhist thought—
for developing this confidence. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, he
emphasizes the importance of right livelihood and teaches that
no matter what our profession, it offers us the opportunity to
help others and create a happy work environment. I particularly
enjoy Nhat Hanh’s final chapter in which he lists thirty practical
ways to reduce job-related stress.
THE WISDOM OF COMPASSION
Stories of Remarkable Encounters and Timeless Insight
By His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan
Riverhead Books 2012; 272 pp., $26.95 (cloth)
Just out of college in 1972, Victor Chan drove a used VW camper
from the Netherlands to Afghanistan. When in Kabul he met a
New Yorker named Cheryl Crosby, and they were at a chai shop
when they were abducted at gunpoint. By the time they managed to escape their kidnappers, the harrowing experience had
bonded them, and they left for India together. There, because of
some of Crosby’s connections, they were granted an audience
with the Dalai Lama, yet Chan managed to blurt out just one question: “Do you hate the Chinese?” In
those days the Dalai lama’s English was
bare bones, so mostly he relied on a translator, but he answered this question in
English—emphatically. “No, I do not hate
the Chinese.” Then his secretary translated, “His Holiness considers the Chinese his brothers.” Fast-forward to today
and Chan, of Chinese descent, has written two books, which he has created by
interviewing the Dalai Lama extensively.
In their new release, Wisdom of Compassion, they explore the idea of compassion
in thought, speech, and action.
BUDDHA'S BOOK OF SLEEP
Sleep Better in Seven Weeks with
By Joseph Emet
Tarcher 2012; 160 pp., $15.95 (paper)
A dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s
tradition, Joseph Emet is the founder of
the Mindfulness Meditation Centre in
Montreal and the creator of A Basket of
Plums, a book with two CDs of songs for
the practice of mindfulness. In the introduction of his new release, Emet draws
attention to a recent survey that claims 75
percent of us have some difficulty sleeping, then goes on to say that many of us
have failed to find relief from the standard
recommendations. We’ve tried creating a
positive sleeping environment, we’ve tried
avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the evening, and maybe we’ve even tried medication. Still, however, we find ourselves
tossing and turning in bed. Now Buddha’s
Book of Sleep gets to the heart of the problem: our agitated minds. For readers new
to mindfulness meditation, Emet explains
the basics of the practice. Then he offers
seven guided meditation exercises geared
toward helping us get the rest we need.
GROWING IN LOVE AND WISDOM
Tibetan Buddhist Sources for Christian
By Susan J. Stabile
Oxford University Press 2013; 272 pp., $19.95 (cloth)
Susan J. Stabile ordained as a Tibetan
Buddhist nun and followed the Buddhist
path for twenty years. This was such a long
time that even after she returned to the
religion she was raised in, Catholicism, she saw it through a Buddhist lens and
found herself spontaneously incorporating Buddhist practices into her Christian
prayer life. In Growing in Love and Wisdom, stabile explores why it’s helpful to
look outside one’s own tradition for the
means to spiritual growth and offers fif-
teen Tibetan Buddhist contemplative
practices adapted for Christian purposes.
One of the fifteen is a modified tantric visualization practice. Tibetan Buddhists visualize themselves as a Buddha or
bodhisattva for the purpose of recognizing and bringing forth their own buddhanature. So in this vein, Stabile suggests
that Christians visualize the shining face
of Jesus and generate a strong desire to
be Christ—to manifest his love and compassion. Stabile then makes compelling
arguments for why this practice, though
borrowed from Buddhism, is a fit for
Christianity. Scripture, of course, is her
starting point. she quotes Philippians 2:5,
“let this mind be in you that was also in
The Complete Works of Shunmyo Masuno,
Japan’s Leading Garden Designer
By Mira Locher
Tuttle Publishing 2012; 224 pp., $39.95 (cloth)
In addition to being a celebrated landscape
architect, Shunmyo Masuno is an eighteenth-generation Zen Buddhist priest
who presides over the Kenkohji Temple in Yokohama, Japan. When he was a child, he
and his family went to Kyoto, where they
visited various temple complexes with
outstanding gardens, and this affected him
deeply. By junior high he was tracing photographs of great Zen gardens and in high
school he was sketching his own designs.
At this point, he met Saito Katsuo, a garden designer who allowed him to observe
his work and later become his apprentice.
Now Masuno is the creator of both modern and traditional gardens across the
globe; their settings range from temple
grounds to high-end hotels to private residences and even to some more unexpected
locals, such as a crematorium. Zen Gardens is a stunning volume that showcases
thirty-seven of Masuno’s finest works.
3 Heroes, 5 Powers (May 2013)
Shambhala Sun | May 2013
3 Heroes, 5 Powers
Look inside the new comic book celebrating nonviolent heroes THICH NHAT HANH, ALFRED HASSLER, and SISTER CHAN KHONG.
After the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh is probably the most famous
Buddhist teacher of our time. But what’s this? He’s a superhero now?
Well, not quite. But Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay, as he is affectionately known,
is most definitely a hero for peace, as is his closest collaborator, Sister Chan Khong, and
the late antiwar activist and guiding figure of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR),
Alfred Hassler. The three star together in The Secret of the 5 Powers.
In 1956, Hassler even published a comic book himself, called Martin Luther King and
The Montgomery Story. When Hassler’s daughter Laura showed it to Gregory Kennedy-Salemi, then a worker/volunteer at the FOR, Gregory saw the power of the medium.
“I had no background in comics,” he told me. “But when I met Laura, I discovered
that Alfred and Thay had been highly creative, ahead of their time. Then I learned
the comic’s story, that it was still being used today.” In fact, an Arab translation, with
its emphasis on nonviolent protest, has been cited as an inspiration for the Egyptian
revolution of 2011.
The seed of The Secret of the 5 Powers had been planted. It
would grow into a comic and a stylized hour-long documentary currently making film-festival rounds. Gregory and his
team—which includes comic artist Erich Tiefenbach, colorist
David Pridal, writer Gretl Satorius, and media editor Stuart
Jolley—kept Thich Nhat Hanh in the loop throughout the creative process and got his blessings and input. “We put in a lot of
twenty-hour days,” says Gregory, “but we did it for love.”
In this exclusive excerpt from The Secret of the 5 Powers, the Peace Comics team offers two rare looks at the young Buddhist activist Thich Nhat Hanh. First, we sit in on a real meeting, held as U.S. involvement
in Vietnam was escalating rapidly, between Thich Nhat Hanh and a delegation of
American pacifists led by Hassler.
This is their first encounter in what became a lifelong friendship. According to
Kennedy-Salemi, whose team prizes research, the dialogue in this scene is “about 80
or 90 percent verbatim.” We see that Thay’s articulation of how and why nonviolence
must be employed is already diplomatic, firm, and persuasive.
Next, the scene flashes back one year to a famous and formative scene in which Nhat
Hanh and his compatriots, including Sister Chan Khong, are face to face with war’s
horrors. There is gunfire all around as they travel upriver delivering supplies to desperate
refugees. It’s an impossible, intimate moment, emblematic of the commitment to peace
that Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, and Alfred Hassler would come to embody.
—Rod Meade Sperry
You'll find an exclusive excerpt from The Secret of the 5 Powers inside the May Shambhala Sun. And for more about The Secret of the 5 Powers, visit peacecomics.com.
Quite a Cup of Tea (May 2013)
Shambhala Sun | May 2013
Quite a Cup of Tea
The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea
By William Scott Wilson
Shambhala Publications, 2013; 256 pp., $14.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by BONNIE MYOTAI TREACE
We sat without the marking of
periods, without bells (or whistles).
It was the last night of the year. I’d
asked the tea master to set up at the
back of the temple hall and prepare tea every four hours or so, and instructed an attendant how to
quietly invite those sitting to line up when it was their time to be
served. But he surprised me, bringing the first cup forward, bowing toward the altar, and then to me in the teacher’s seat. The
grass scent blossoming like a green roar in the dark. Turning the
cup, lip to edge, suddenly nothing but bitter froth.
“Zen and tea are of one taste.” That famous phrase was coined
in the fifteenth century by Zen adherent Murata Juko. His story
is one of the charms of William Scott Wilson’s new book, The
One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea. We learn
that Juko, a somewhat obscure Zen priest, was struggling with
some attitude issues. Wilson writes that he was “troubled by his own slack attitude toward his priestly superiors and the fact
that meditation simply put him to sleep.” Juko conferred with
a doctor, who prescribed tea, and Juko then went on to build a
small thatched hut for tea drinking, hang a scroll in the alcove
for inspiration, and not only seemed to turn his personal issues
around but also set in place an aesthetic and spiritual direction
lasting centuries. That’s quite a cup of tea.
The first myth most of us hear about drinking green tea is that
Bodhidharma, the First Ancestor of Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism, was so sincere about staying wakeful that he yanked off
his eyelids. Wherever they landed, tea plants sprouted, becoming
the brew of choice for future enlightenment-seeking monks.
In The One Taste of Truth, Wilson, one of the foremost translators of traditional Japanese texts on samurai culture, offers us
a more developed, exquisite invitation to the dance of tea culture, its history, and its evolution alongside Zen. In his introduction, he informs us that true ceremonial tea drinking began with Eisai, who brought the precepts of Chan Buddhism from China
to Japan, along with tea seeds, bushes, and the customs of tea he
had learned in Chinese Zen temples.
What is perhaps most interesting about Wilson’s book is his
approach to this “one taste” of tea and Zen. After a few lines
acknowledging the obvious—“what is called in English the Tea
Ceremony (chanoyou) incorporates the mindfulness, quiet, and
simplicity required for Zen study,” and “what is most important
to both is the awareness that each and every moment is unique,
and is to be valued and savored...”—he makes an apt bow to the
possibility of saying too much. He points to the presence of the
ubiquitous hanging scroll at the entrance to the place of practice,
and in doing so recreates the necessary pause, the breath at the
entry, the liminal. Most of the book illuminates the words and
characters on these scrolls, focusing on the single-line phrases
(ichigyomono) from the Zen classics, familiar Confucian and
Taoist works, or classical Chinese poets. A hunger of sorts is created to see the scrolls...but that is a different book.
So the grass-hut practice of Murata Juko had been in place,
in a way, in China for several hundred years prior, when monastics would appreciate the calligraphic works of their teachers or
their teachers’ teachers. It would be brought into fine focus by
the most famous of all Japanese tea masters, Sen no Rikyu, who
would ask that the “essential virtue” of the calligrapher be part of
the host-guest experience, not just the meaning of the brushed
words. Yet in Murata Juko there’s a possibility to see into the cup,
to taste that moment when medicine and sickness no longer
divide a body, and, as they say, history begins fresh.
Perhaps it’s just that I like thinking of Juko’s hacking miscanthus to make that hut. There’s that moment when after all the
promises and vows, after all the public ceremonies, you notice
that you haven’t done your own work, not quite. I find it’s perpetually this way, noticing that we’re still somehow falling asleep.
That there’s an edge to our promise, a condition on our practice.
I think of one of my early training periods at the Zen monastery, as I was transitioning to a more senior role. One of the
routines was to go several times a day to each of the many altars
in the monastery and do a series of bows and silent services. All
my life I had disliked public shows of earnest behavior, simply
found them distasteful. As I moved through this requirement as
part of becoming a Zen priest, I could see so clearly the difference between the relaxation and sheerness of my practice when
I was “alone” versus how it felt when I’d come into the dining
hall, where I’d be aware of others’ observation while they were
hanging around prior to the noon meal. To generally reside in
an interior way in the midst of others was easy. But I’d not yet
learned how to be on focus while I was, nominally, in the center, and let there be a lightness about it all. What is it to build a hermitage “within the city,” selfless and
boundless, perhaps inspired by Tao Yuan-ming’s lines:
I built a hut right in the city,
But there is no noise of horses and carts.
You ask me how this can be so,
But when the mind is far away, the land follows of itself.
Wilson makes clear that such ichigyo-mono are no longer limited to tea room
or zendo—but they appear with equal
frequency in restaurant alcove and martial-art dojo. The threshold is everywhere.
His gift in this volume is both the way he
opens up some of the cultural allusions
that enrich appreciation of the scrolls and
how he creates each as an indication that
when “tasted” deeply, life itself is more
genuine, less guarded.
If there is a caution, it might be simply
that as with any gathering of tastes, some
are richer than others. For those who love
word and character derivation, Wilson is
generous. In sections such as Zen, nen, we
learn that on its own the character connotes a condition of doing something
with such totality or completeness that
nothing remains. And then the gift of
the translator’s extra touch: “Originally
the Chinese character meant ‘to burn’ or
a ‘flame burning’... the character com-
pound often translated as ‘nature’ or
‘spontaneity’... this [has been termed] the
‘self-immolating’—again with the idea of
an entity being so itself that there is nothing left for anything that is not itself.”
In this same thickly composed section, Wilson goes on to argue that “the
compound term for ‘nature’ reveals one
fundamental difference between Eastern
religions, in which the world is self-generating, and the Western Semitic religions of
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in which
the world is created by an outside force
(i.e. God).” Again, as with Juko’s cup of tea,
a world or two is contained. This is reading to slow down with, to sip and savor.
To my eye, the selections may strike
some as being slightly heavy on what could
be considered the samurai end of the scale. There are a good many with the taste
of jukunen fudo, “at peace and unmoved.”
Wilson explains that this seems to come
directly from the Confucian commentaries on the I Ching, one of the most ancient
Chinese works extant, studied in Japan
from the eighth century if not earlier.
“When the water flows quickly, the moon
is not carried along,” an ichigyomono from
the Zenrin Kushu often found in tearooms
and dojos, is explained: “If your training
is sound, you will remain unperturbed,
regardless of the situation.” It is inarguable
that this is an aspect of wisdom; whether it
is fully balanced remains, I think, arguable.
There is also the manners aspect of
the included ichigyomono: “A gentleman’s
relationships are light as water.” This
is glossed as being about not allowing
for “familiarity” in our relationships, to
which Wilson adds the comment, “which
often breeds contempt.” We learn from
Chuang Tzu that the “relationships of
the man of little character are as cloying
as sweet wine.” The advice continues that
should we be like water we’ll glean affec-
tion, whereas if we carry on like sweet
wine distance will result.
This may or may not be helpful to
know, but we’re at a different level of
instruction, to say the least. Also by this
point a sense of something somewhat
male begins to be a mild undercurrent.
Female readers will also note that as a
translator, Wilson’s choice is to maintain
the gendered nature of the original texts,
so advice arrives in the classic Confucian
form: “The Way of the Gentleman...,” etc.
Given that there are 109 ichigyomono
dealt with, however, the book offers many
chances to simply open to a page and taste
directly. Indeed, my favorite way of being
with the book, after reading through once
and sensing the gentle organizing principles Wilson has used to segment the
sections, was to do just that: randomly
enjoy a single “teaching” for an entry into
my own evening tea, entering that place
where the grasses sometimes roar.
From what temple it is unknown
The sound of the bell
Sent by the wind
Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei, is the founder
and head priest of
Hermitage Heart, a training program
that is primarily Zen
in flavor, and puts a
special emphasis on
home practice. A student of Zen for more
than thirty years, she
is a dharma heir of the
late John Daido Loori,
Roshi, and was abbess
of the Zen Center of New York City. In
addition to the literary
studies reflected in her
poetic writing style,
Treace had a career in
to her monastic training. She lives in Garrison, New York, home
of Hermitage Heart’s
Outside the Tent (May 2013)
Shambhala Sun | May 2013
Outside the Tent
It’s true that DONNA JOHNSON was
raised under one of the world’s biggest gospel tents. But the truth of a story
moves like water, she says. It’s this, and this, and this too. We shape it, and
it shapes us. There is always something more.
I am not a Buddhist. Not by
traditional standards. I’m more a Buddhist wannabe, a self-taught meditator who
reads books by Buddhist thinkers and lets the ideas trickle through her
Judeo-Christian consciousness in their own sweet time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m
not exactly a Christian either, at least not a flavor most would recognize.
What I am, if I’m anything at all, is a writer. The
act of putting black on white, as Hemingway once described writing, has been
for me a way to organize and make sense of the world. The truth, you see, could
be found in the story. My early journalism training took it one step further:
the truth was the story. Only in recent years has it occurred to me to
ask which truth, which story.
My own narrative comes into focus under the world’s
largest gospel tent, an elephantine canvas that stretched the length of two
football fields. We were the crazies who believed in miracles, for whom religious ecstasy meant rolling in the
sawdust (hence the term holy roller) and jabbering in nonsensical words and
phrases. We were quite literally a rolling freak show. Respectable folks walked
blocks out of their way to avoid us.
As a kid I was conflicted about my place among
these people, my family. Arrogant and proud to be counted among them one
minute, daydreaming of escape, of becoming someone else, the next.
I left in my mid-teens, attended college, studied a
little philosophy, and began to try to write. At eighteen I happened upon
Alan Watts’ This Is It in a used bookstore. On page twenty-six I
underlined a quote from Zen Master Gensha:
If you understand, things are such as they are;
you do not understand, things are such as they are—
In my zeal to leave my history behind, I understood
Zen Master Gensha to say the past was of no consequence, that it was only the
present that mattered. It was an ill-informed interpreta- tion no doubt, but
one that fit the new story I wanted to craft for myself.
We all abandon the people we once were to some
degree when we leave home. We reject the familiar in service of our new and as
yet unrealized life. Embarrassed by my roots and unsure how to integrate the
self I had been with the self I hoped to become, I severed my connection to the
past. When the tent came to town, I hid in my house. Eventually word spread
among my new friends
that the infamous preacher, the healer turned cult
leader, was my stepdad. A couple of people mentioned it in passing. something
about my demeanor must have warned them off, because no one questioned me.
Cut loose from all that I had known, I led a sort
of ghost life, insubstantial and unreal. Memories presented like hieroglyphs
carved into a wall. I was the wall. The decoding began almost by accident.
After several years of avoiding all mention of the tent, I wrote about it for a
class assignment. An inexplicable decision, except that I knew the tent story
would play well on the page. I turned in the paper and arrived late as usual
for our next class. I walked in and found the teacher reading aloud. Everyone
turned and stared. It took a moment to recognize the words as my own:
“I was three and my brother was one when my mother
signed on as organist for tent revivalist David Terrell. We traveled and lived
with Terrell and his wife and two kids for several years... until the day my
mother and the tent left town without my brother and me.”
Entitled “The First Time she left,” the essay
described my mother’s leaving and my five-year-old brother’s heartbreaking
“He scrambled up the chain link fence, cutting his
legs on the sharp metal at the top. I remember the blood streaming down his
scrawny legs and the way he shouted No, no no as someone pulled him
down. I remember my mother’s face framed in the rear window, her mouth forming
a perpetual Oh, her arm waving back and forth, Goodbye, goodbye.”
The professor looked up. Well done, she said, well
done. A few students asked later if the story was true. It was true, except for
the title. My brother’s breakdown was the culmination of the many times my
mother left us to travel with the tent. I shrugged. It’s just a story, I said.
And it was, in a way.
The process of finding the right words to distill
the emotion of my mother’s abandonment had so thrilled and seduced me that I failed to register my pain. until I saw the
looks on my classmates’ faces. I knew the pain then, knew it in my body. The weight just below my solar plexus, that was the
dread of her leaving. I noticed for the first time the way I carried my
shoulders, hunched up to my ears.
Disconnected from time, events large and small
surface like pieces from an old shipwreck. We sift and choose and discard and
arrange. This is the definition of story. We do it with great care or without
thinking at all. We say, Remember that time... and when I was a kid... and
my mother always... and back then we never... Patterns emerge.
We tell the story, and over time the story begins
to tell us: who we are, who they were, what they did. I began to embody the
story of abandonment. I abandoned my dream of finishing school, of becoming a
writer. I abandoned integrity and spirituality. I abandoned relationships,
one after the other. Finally, I abandoned my own daughter, not physically but
emotionally, hiding behind chemically induced numbness. I was there, but I was
I wrote the story. I lived the story. But I could
not, would not, feel the story, and that somehow kept me outside of it. Here’s
what I did not know: stories have a way of brushing up against the present, a
way of whispering their secret, twisted narratives until even those who are
willfully deaf are forced to listen.
One day I came upon a self-portrait my daughter had
drawn for class. I recognized her braids, the carefully outlined freckles. A
tear rolled down each cheek. Under the drawing she had written: This is me.
If you understand, things are such as they are;
you do not understand, things are such as they are—
You might say love awakened me, or at least began
to shake me from the slumber. There was pain and surrender. My lack of
understanding caused my nine-year-old daughter enormous pain. My understanding
meant she didn’t have to be alone with it anymore. Things such as they were
began to change. I began to change.
Eventually a different narrative emerged, one large
enough to encompass the abandoned parts of myself, including the story of the
girl who traveled with the world’s largest tent. I began to put it all down in
black on white.
I wrote about my mother’s secret relationship with
Terrell, and the three daughters they had together and kept hidden. I wrote
about the time my mom asked Terrell how they would explain things to these
girls as they grew up. His answer: Jesus will come before then. And he meant
it. I smiled, amazed at the absurdity, and at how often the stories we tell
contrive to keep us from shifting the narrative.
I wrote about how Terrell “went incognito” in
lime-green leisure suits in the rural communities where he and my mother set
up their secret households. How he topped off his outlandish outfits with sunglasses the size of dessert
plates—which he refused to remove even
indoors. What a relief to discover elements of Shakespearean comedy in our
sad little family drama.
There was something else, too, something that pulled my imagination back
to the tent. It was the people. Too poor,
too black, too white trash, too uneducated
to matter. I remembered the apologetic
way they shuffled up the sawdust-covered
aisles, their eyes steady on the ground.
Their bodies, thin and stringy from too
much work, moved as if carrying a great
Until my mother’s fingers began to
pound out a backbeat on the keyboards.
The music worked its way inside them
and they sang I’m so glad Jesus lifted me
and clapped and twirled and stamped
at the ground until the dust rose and
hung over them like a cloud. Hundreds
of hands reached up through that haze.
Hundreds of lips moved in a strange
patois of English and what they called,
what we called, unknown tongues. For a
brief time everything that separated them,
everything that defined them, fell away,
and their faces really did seem to shine.
I recalled the experience of the tent for
the first time without judgment, and for
the first time I entered the story. I discovered how the utter foolishness of these
people, my people, afforded a glimpse
of something extraordinary, the world
beneath the world, a place of infinite
What was that? I try to pin it down and
I’m caught in the story again, wrestling
with what was or wasn’t, what is or isn’t.
I type in the words and the action freezes.
No, that’s not it at all.
Here’s what I’ve learned, or rather
come to know: The story, the truth of
the story, moves and turns like water,
like a reflection of light on water, like a
fish swimming below the surface of all
that light and water, like a living, mutable
thing. It is always changing, always breaking apart and coming back together. It is
this, and this, and this too. We shape it,
and it shapes us. There is always something more.
Donna M. Johnson escaped the
holy-roller life at the
age of seventeen and
has spent her time since
outrunning the apocalypse. “So far, so good,”
she says. She is the
author of Holy Ghost
Girl, an award-winning
memoir acclaimed by
The New York Times, O Magazine, and The
New York Review of
Books. She lives in
Austin, Texas, with her
husband, the poet and
author Kirk Wilson.
Illustration by Tara Hardy
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