Justice and ancient storytelling: The book of Jonah

The book of Jonah is a remarkable work of storytelling.

There is urgency, an immediacy. God’s word is given in the first line, and it feels like it is everything we need to know: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” We are thrust into the concerns of God, and the storyteller gives it to us in straightforward prose. He does not linger or waste space. He does not have time for poetry—yet. The wickedness, cruelty, and oppression of the great city have risen up—like Abel’s blood—before God, but we cannot even pause to consider these things, because Jonah is already on the run, feeling from God, paying money, boarding a ship, and—before we can think about where he is going and what he is doing—falling asleep. We, however, cannot rest because already a sea storm is rising. People are crying for salvation. And Jonah is neglecting his responsibility (his shipmates’ words) to join them in prayer.

Here we see the shipmates asking a string of questions we would have been asking all along if we had had space to take a breath. By virtue of the shipmates’ insight or by a device of the storyteller, the text gives us language for our questions, and it is in the language of justice: “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” How does your corporate identity square with your responsibility to do right by your God and your people?

Jonah responds with unimaginative facts. This isn’t the earnest truth-telling of a prophet, not the overflowing revelation of God’s word, not even the unfolding of hot information or breaking news. It is the reductionist claim to be a “Hebrew”—(but the outsider’s expression for it, a foreigner’s word for a people whom he has already disowned)—and the reductionist description of God, who made the sea and the land. (There is a stirring when he mentions God’s name, but when he says he “worships YHWH,” how can we believe it?) And he offers a reductionist view of justice: throw me overboard and you’ll be safe because I am the one who deserves this punishment. Filled with fear, both for the storm and for the wickedness of such an action, they grant his wish, and Jonah, no longer committed to his people and hardly committed to his God, expects his death in the abyss of the waves.

To our great surprise (and the storyteller has a full store of discoveries to make), Jonah’s words are effective. He has opened his mouth to spout out half-truths, and all around him, people are saved. The storm stops. The shipmates make sacrifices, they make vows, and in a way Jonah could not, worship this new God. And God, who has surprises of his own, provides a fish that by swallowing Jonah keeps him alive.

Now–at the center of this short book—the storyteller takes time to give us poetry. Here, finally, we hear Jonah speak like a prophet, and his words read like one of the psalms of his people. There is the crushing water. There is the grave, not just an evocation of it but a startling imagining of it—the “roots of mountains,” “weeds wrapped around” the prophet’s head. There is salvation in looking to the temple. And, like a psalmist, the singer comes to a decision: “Salvation,” he says, “comes from the LORD…what I vowed I will make good.” And the fish vomits Jonah onto dry land.

As the storyteller continues, the events sound strikingly similar. Reaching Nineveh, Jonah speaks one sentence of prophecy and everywhere people turn and are saved. They pray for salvation. They acknowledge God. And—the parallelism is brutal—to the great sadness and confusion of listeners and readers everywhere, Jonah slinks back once more into his bitterness, his chosen selfishness, his rejection of a people God has called him to. Once more, this time on the outskirts of town—east of the city, in the path of the dry desert wind—he flirts with his own destruction. And once more, he speaks to God.

Here the storyteller turns over another card: “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home?” Jonah asks. “That is why I was so quick to flee…I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God–(These are not the words he used for God on the ship)–slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

It was for this moment that we see the storyteller has crafted his biggest surprise, the grand revelation, the subversion of expectations. We had thought we knew Jonah. We had thought we knew why he had run from God. We had thought we had figured it all out. We had thought Jonah’s was a fear of others (the very real threat of the people of Nineveh). We had thought he had a death wish. We had found all this understandable. Be we had also thought that he was reckless, lazy, spiteful, a rejector of his identity as a Hebrew and his commitment to be a prophet for God, and we had thought that this could never be excusable. We had distanced ourselves.

But we had gotten something wrong about Jonah. And what we had missed about Jonah was that he had missed something about the justice of God, that God’s justice makes space for compassion, that God in his justice rescues wicked people, that God, who once saw the wickedness of a people come up before him, could also see when this oppressive people turned from their evil ways, and that God, in having this compassion, was still good.

“Shouldn’t Jonah have known all that from his own story?” we ask, accusing him. “We would never act as Jonah did,” we claim. But as we start to talk to the text, it fires right back: Do we really believe God is gracious and compassionate when dealing with the violent people in our world, in our communities? “But surely the oppression of the Ninevites is nothing compared to the violence we see today,” we argue. Now that the story is asking challenging questions about God’s justice, we want to make it about Jonah and Nineveh again. But the story has shifted. The storyteller has provided us—the readers and hearers of Jonah across the centuries—a new entry point, and with that, he resumes his narrative.

God “provides” a vine that “eases Jonah’s discomfort.” Here is another stitch in the pattern of storytelling. We have already been told that God had “provided” a fish to rescue Jonah. Now, even in this economy of words, we see that God “provides” three times—first the vine, then a worm to eat the vine (we start to imagine the mythic potential of these images, the underworld poetry from the belly of the fish still fresh in our minds), and then, coming like a punch to the gut, God “provides a scorching east wind.”

“It would be better for me to die than to live,” Jonah says to God.

And God responds in the language of justice: “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” Jonah answers. “I am angry enough to die.” He does not mention the vine.

But God does not seem to waver in his focus. Again he brings up the vine, and though his words do not ring in our consciousness with the symbolism of myth, they stir our philosophical imagination. “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow,” God says. There are suggestions here of God’s sovereignty over creation, but also of a tenderness, the role of a nurturer. “It sprang up overnight and died overnight,” God says, echoing the most ancient psalms in their wisdom of the transience of creation and the frailty of all human life. God continues: “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left and many cattle as well.” We cannot yet pause to wonder at this somewhat strange declaration that the number of cattle should be a factor at play here, because God’s words conclude with an even sharper question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

And so concludes the narrative, abruptly. We lurch forward. Was Jonah listening? There is much for Jonah to hear in these words. Does he rejoin the city? Does he return to Judah? We assume that he does not die in the desert, because who would tell his story otherwise? And then we ask the broader questions: Is this really what God’s justice looks like—forgiving a people’s wickedness because of their ignorance and their many cattle, planting a vine and destroying it to prove a point? Why, we are still asking, should God be concerned with this great city of violent people? And does God, we ask—the readers and listeners to the story of Jonah across the centuries—still concern himself with our own great cities—willfully violent, depraved, and filled with people who do not know their right from their left?

We do not know what to do with these questions. Where is the poetry, the rousing prayers we find in later prophetic works? Where are the lamentations, the mind-bending apocalyptic visions, the intimate promises? What happened to the storyteller who rushed, prodded, and guided us through this story so knowingly?

Perhaps an ending like this requires something else from the listener, not merely emotional engagement (in the sense of a catharsis—we cannot feel relieved until Jonah does) or intellectual engagement (in the sense of solving a puzzle—the lack of information cuts us off), but the actual work of completion. The unsatisfying suddenness, the sense of not having closure when our questions about Jonah and God’s justice are at their peak become a provocation that forces us to dig deeper.

Our questions remain, but maybe it is the storyteller’s intention that we enter Jonah’s story and imagine the rest of his conversation with God ourselves. And God’s emphasis on the vine could be our starting place.

jonahandhisgourd.jpg

Jonah could not have taken God’s challenge lightly.  Here is God, meeting a prophet at the moment of his greatest weakness and need, speaking in words that resound with the imagery of his people’s scriptures.  He could not have shrugged it off. “You have been concerned about this vine,” God tells him, “though you did not tend to it or make it grow.” But as God begins to make the connection between this vine and this great city, does Jonah have a rush of feeling and thought? It feels almost as though Jonah should cut God off. He waits to hear the rest of God’s word, but then, does he respond? “But Lord, I was not concerned about this vine.” We have scene Jonah’s bluntness before. We cannot imagine it takes either him or God by surprise. He was only concerned about his discomfort in the sun and the wind, he argues. Of course he did not tend to the vine or make it grow. The life of the vine meant nothing to him. And neither is he concerned about the life of the city—or of its cattle—and maybe God shouldn’t be either. Is Jonah bold enough to utter these last words?

But God’s words keep challenging Jonah. Maybe the vine is–more than a symbol–a parable for the people of Nineveh. Jonah had not tended to the vine or made it grow, but now God was tending to this city with his compassion. To kill the vine, to “chew at it until withers” would be more unbearable for Jonah than he could have seen, as bitter as he was. Does Jonah here at last discover the pain of his selfishness? Or does God have to show him that he alone—the prophet whose word of warning had saved the city—was getting a taste the destruction he had prophesied? Jonah was by his choice sitting in the path of the “scorching east wind” on the eastern edge of a city whose citizens had by their choice turned from their violence and received God’s compassion.

The parable of the vine challenges further. Maybe God is saying that Jonah’s rejection of God’s compassion can result only in suffering. If God’s compassion was effective in his own life–he had only recently been rescued by a fish–why not for the lives of the people of Nineveh (and our own)? “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs,” said Jonah in the belly of the fish.

Maybe God is saying that this vine, which God had grown and tended to, was a poor substitute for the shelter of a city whose people God is concerned about, that this plant, a passing shelter, cannot compare to a city whose one hundred twenty thousand people had turned from their violence. (It is hard for the readers of this story at any period to imagine the world’s perpetrators of violence as a future source of safety, but the image sticks with us.) God cares more for this city than for the vine, Jonah ponders.

Maybe God is even directly challenging Jonah’s system of justice: Jonah may be willing to sit under a vine and watch a city be destroyed or to sleep while a ship full of innocent people goes under, but for the sake of the one hundred twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right from their left—even for their cattle (This is what reductionist justice sounds like, God suggests)—God is not willing to neglect his purposes of compassion. You in your selfishness did not tend to the vine or make it grow, but should I not have compassion for this city?

These are only possibilities. We still have our questions. We still do not know how Jonah reacted or what he did next. We still may not understand God’s justice or feel the compassion that it requires. We are still aware of our own complacency and, if we admit it, our own hatred. We still wonder if the vision of justice proclaimed in this story applies to the most violent places of our cities today. The rest of Jonah’s life may have been brief or it may have been long enough for him to have told, maybe even have written out, his story. We do not know. But the master’s stroke of a masterful storyteller—who gave us urgency of narrative; who gave us all the parallels, the ship and the city of Nineveh, the fish and vine; who gave us poetry, and who asked us all the right questions in the right moments, in the words of people and in the words of God—was to leave off at the moment of Jonah’s decision and by so doing to force us—the listeners and hearers across the centuries—to respond.

 

Advertisements

When snails love

Birds and fishes have rightfully earned our respect and our sympathy. But what if two snails fell in love? Where could they hope to make a home?

And does it happen every day, now at the end of winter? Do they find each other in the shady patch of their garden, underneath a plant whose flowers they have both eaten from, never before meeting? Or do they first encounter each other after the rain, each clinging to the edge of the curb? They have traveled separately to this place and suddenly they feel themselves now in the presence of another. And in the new rush of togetherness (they have begun to uncurl themselves, slowly, always evaluating the dampness of the changing air, the intensity of the sunlight) they sense the thrill of another morning on their skin, and the promise of returning to their shell somehow different than when they set out minutes ago from their familiar corner of the garden. Does one call out to the other, saying “My springtime!” for what is a better name of love for this friendly figure, this safe shadow, this weighty companion? Does the other ask, “You too?” surveying the trails they have each stretched across the pavement to this boundary, to this limit of all they have known, seeking their own freedom from the drowning rain? They do not. Birds can sing, are renowned for it, and fish can wriggle the sounds even of oceans across their bodies. Each morning and evening the leaves and waves will be ripe with their songs. But the snails know only this silence of love, the sensation that says, without words, or meter, or any outward vibration, “I have come a long way to be here with you,” (the sameness, the difference!), “and you have come a long way to be here with me, and we both have come a long way.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” : Psalm 22 and Good Friday

This is a small sermon I gave this week for a group of men at a homeless shelter as part of a worship service. In addition to finding holy week music from the 70s and 80s to be sensational and deeply moving (and who doesn’t?–if it was good enough for our parents and Bob Dylan, ok I’ll stop), many of them were Christians and seemed to come from traditions that have a value for the authority–even the commanding authority–of someone who teaches from Scripture. I tried to speak with conviction when I said something that I think is true. When I quoted the words “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” I tapped my fist against my heart to mimic the sound of a heartbeat. There were several people from the congregation who joined in with me to perform this gesture at the end.

Jesus, when he is dying, cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Why does Jesus say this? Jesus is God. At the same time he is sent by God. Even the Roman soldier who saw how he died says, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

If Jesus is this connected to God, how can he say he feels rejected, forsaken by God? Many have suggested that Jesus is actually crying out his real feelings to God as he is dying.

But Jesus is also quoting an old worship song from Hebrew scripture: Psalm 22.

The opening lines—that people would sing in worship–are, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me? So far from the words of my groaning?”

People for centuries said these words from Psalm 22, asking God, “Why are you so far from the words of my groaning?’ “ And now—interestingly—we hear Jesus—God himself—using these words to ask the same question.

And I think we need to hear Jesus say these words, because many people at some point in their lives feel forsaken by God. 

For several months a while back, I remember this was almost an everyday experience for me—feeling forsaken by God. I didn’t feel like I could pray these words. One thing that was helpful during this time was some friends who prayed for me and helped me pray.

That’s what this Psalm does. It helps us pray.

And when Jesus uses these words, it shows us that Jesus himself experiences our agony. He knows all that afflicts us. And if we follow Jesus, he isn’t afraid to take us to a place where we pray these words—where we cry out, in the rhythm of a heart beat, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?–My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Jesus even insists sometimes that we say these words when we feel them.

1de40d70cc4009ee1757fed0f366974c--christian-artwork-catholic-quotes.jpg

Jesus’ ministry shows us this. There were people he healed who had sickness that caused them public shame—their whole community rejected them. I imagine Jesus could have privately healed them, but Jesus chose something a lot more risky to them: he healed them publicly. Sometimes, he would even ask them to come forward and show him–in front of everyone–their sicknesses. It was like he was saying, “Show me, show us, where you are hurting.”

Then he would say to them, “Son, daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” And these people would go from being afraid, shamed, dishonored by their community, to being publicly honored, filled with joy, restored to their community. And it is in part because they had the faith and the courage to show Jesus where they were hurting that they were healed.

When we cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we are showing God where we are hurting.

And we can trust God with these words because he is willing to go there himself. I think that any healing God offers would feel superficial to us if he didn’t understand our pain. But Jesus is saying, “I’ve been there.” When he said these words, he showed us he knows what this is like.

And because we see Jesus walking there with us, we can trust him to lead us.

I had a friend a few years back who had experienced some of the same feelings of shame and rejection by his family and community. He told me he had this fear that God–and he didn’t even know if God was real–hated him and wanted to send him to hell.  My friend knew that I was Christian, and one morning he saw me reading the Bible, and he came up and said, “I want to talk to you about becoming a Christian.” And he said, “I was thinking today about how Jesus knew what it was like to be rejected by others, because he was forsaken himself.”

To my friend, this was good news, that Jesus himself felt forsaken.

And Jesus doesn’t just know what it’s like to be forsaken, but he does something about it. The good news of Jesus wouldn’t be good news if it did not respond to the evil, in our world and in our own lives, and the pain and ultimately death that is a consequence of this evil.

Jesus not only knows our suffering and affliction, but Scripture says that when Jesus died he chose to take on our suffering and affliction, our pain, our sin, the evil of the world and our own personal evil. Scripture says that Jesus “died for sins once for all, the righteous (Jesus) for the unrighteous (us), to bring us to God.”

And Jesus didn’t just die and get defeated by death, but he himself defeated death and rose from the dead and is ready to offer us and the world life in him.

And Psalm 22—the same Psalm—it’s so complete—gives us a picture of what this life we can have in Jesus looks like. It shows us a vision of what Jesus can offer us because he knew our suffering, because he died for us, AND because he rose from the dead. The author of Psalm 22 says:

“The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him–may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and the families of the nations will bow down before him.…All the ends of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—those who cannot keep themselves alive…Future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn (and that’s us)—for he has done it.”

There’s a challenge in these verses, and the challenge is this:

If we believe this good news, then we need to share this with others. Earlier in Psalm 22 the writer says, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you. You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!” And then he says, “For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”

Wouldn’t that verse be good news to that friend of mine I was talking about? Don’t people come to mind who need to hear that? And they need to hear it from us: “He has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”

And I also want to offer an invitation—which Jesus offers too–to join him in saying these words. If you right now feel rejected, forsaken by God, use these words of Scripture to cry out to him:

“My God, my God,”

(Let’s say it together)

“My God, my God,

why have you forsaken me?”

I pray that the God who prayed these words—who knows every thought we’ve ever had, who knows everything that has ever happened to us—will meet you there in saying these words.

We are going to sing a few more songs about Jesus–dying on the cross, meeting his followers after rising from the dead–and one of the messages of these songs and of the messages of Easter itself is this:

Because we heard Jesus say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we know he can lead us to a kingdom where the families of all nations will feast and worship and bow down before him—for he has done it.

A guide for backstage reading

Yepikhodov: How nice it is to play the mandolin.

Dunyasha: That’s not a mandolin. It’s a guitar.

Yepikhodov: To a man crazed with love it’s a mandolin.

I started to develop a philosophy for backstage reading while working on a production of Sweeney Todd in Stockton, California. Reading Jack Kerouac didn’t do the trick. It wasn’t that it had me too often escaping to the dusk falling on the vines in Tracy, or the rainy night slices of apple pie with ice cream in Iowa, or the night that blew itself out with Denver jazz. It was that there wasn’t enough to hold on to. Only one passage: when Dean foresees the days when Sal will grow older and “sit in parks,” and Sal, feeling old, erupts at Dean, who leaves his uneaten plate of food steaming on the table and spends “exactly five minutes” outside the restaurant before returning to explain that he had been crying. The reconciliation scene that follows is one of the finest I’ve ever read.

Backstage books need to wrestle with us for our attention. They can’t just be mirrors to our mindfulness: we have mirrors all around us, and we’re constantly looking at them. Just as we are looking at the door swinging open at us, or the actors and actresses running shirtless down the hallway, or the wigs springing out of their pins, or the mugs of tea being spilled in a shock of steam, or the sweat melting our mics and our glittery makeup off our faces.

Being in the Sweeney ensemble was a costume-changeless vacuum of “Are they still singing ‘Kiss Me’ who turned down the monitors?” and “Which swing your razor is it this time?”

Under these conditions, I needed a book to sink my teeth into–and my heart.

This time around, I’ve been reading Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” It had me from the first stage directions: “A room which is still known as ‘the nursery.’ ” It had me with the first line: “The train’s arrived, thank God. What time is it?”–isn’t it always with the Russians a story of what time the train is arriving? And by Mrs. Ranevsky’s entrance–even before I could gaze out at the frozen cherry blossoms under the moonlight, or breathe in the orchard air, or hear the birds singing–I could feel the sleepiness of a midnight journey in their bodies and smell the coffee: “I’ll just drink this coffee, then we’ll all go. Thank you, my dear. I’ve got used to coffee, I drink it day and night.” And I could taste the salt of tears.

In the interest of not spoiling the ending, I will say nothing more of “The Cherry Orchard” other than to say I have been afraid to read another Chekhov play for about a week. (As I said, it had me.)

I wish I could talk about all the books that carried me through other recent productions, but I know that I cannot offer a reading list that will appeal to everyone. (In honesty, most folk who hang out backstage are more interested in telling the whole green room what show they are doing next or singing the songs from a different show or actually interrupting our reading to ask us what show we are going to do next.)

Nevertheless, no one should have to brave a backstage experience alone. Here is a set of guiding questions. Here are all my hard-earned principles. May they provide the direction you need the next time you have to get through that “poignant” scene at the start of Act Two that gets longer by about two minutes every time you look at the clock.

When choosing a backstage book, ask yourself:
#1. Is it something you want to pick up? This will protect you from staring at the flicker of the fluorescent lights for twenty minutes or watching your castmate change while he tells you what he ate for dinner that night. It might be a challenge, but you need to find a book that you think will be more interesting than what your castmate ate for dinner.

#2. Is it something you can easily put down? It can’t be a page turner. It can be something by G. K. Chesterton or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Something where you have no idea what’s going on anyways and–like the feeling you have when on a spree in an art museum–you just drift from image to image thinking, “It’s all so beautiful! Yes. Yes, that! This is it! Thank you five minutes to places.”

#3. Will it make others more interested in you? Sometimes this is positive–and who doesn’t bring a book with a colorful cover to their early rehearsals to help spark conversations with people they are too afraid to approach? But be careful, because your backstage reading can be self-defeating. I remember the time I was trying to finish Balzac’s La Cousine Bette during one matinee performance and everyone was like, “You read French?” and all possible sarcasms aside, all I wanted to say was, “I’m just trying to be freed. Please let me finish.” I take Balzac that seriously. No one else.

#4. Does it pair well with your show? The answer should be “No.” Not literally. Don’t believe me if I told you I was reading Virginia Woolf in an effort to preserve the socio historical consciousness of the 1910s when I stepped off stage. This was for a production of Mary Poppins. But believe me if I told you I had picked Mrs. Dalloway because of its language, both mind-bending and commonplace, its glimpses into the darknesses of the human soul along with its flashes of color, its climaxes that felt dizzying but at the same time like a gulp of fresh air.

I can’t say that every show will be like this. But, like a fine wine pairs well with the meal about to be brought out–we can’t see it yet but we know that it is coming, the steam is rising, our stage manager has told us the house is open, already the orchestra is tuning, and the voices of the gathering crowd are beginning to buzz in the monitors–the books we choose to read should help us savor the show we are about to feast on, with the people we will feast with, for hours on end, every night.

Slices of Onions, Part 2

white-sweet-spanish-onion.jpg

On Saturday, for the second time this month, I thought of my brother when chopping up an onion and texted him a line from an unwritten poem about onions and some theme of love. It feels like the time to share these lines, and what they have become, more broadly. This time I won’t even attribute what is said in the back rooms of my mind when I’m craving breakfast to the writings of French author, as I have been known to do on occasion. For, as the French say, “Occupe-toi de tes oignons.” Mind your own onions. Yes, they really say this. And I am taking it to heart.

The Blues

I could fall in love faster than I can cut up an onion
And when I hold the slices of my heart
I could cry more too
I could cry more too

 cezanne18.jpg

After the Blues

Last night, I cut up an onion, and I didn’t feel any sting in my eyes. No tears flowed. I imagine this is what it was like for you when you broke my heart.

But did you still put it in the sauce–this onion, your clean work of five minutes? The light of the end of the afternoon coming through your kitchen, did you stand over your stove and empty, with one pass of the back of your knife across the cutting board, the pieces of onion into the pan? Or did you pick them apart one at a time, the roughly cut ones, the thick wedges, the slivers too tiny to withstand the heat, the cones and the spirals, and place them with your fingers into the burning oil?

Maybe it was too late in the day. Maybe it was already too dark for you to see the rush of steam rising from the pan. But you could hear the hissing because you stepped back from each flash of oil, for seconds at a time, when you lowered each new piece into the heat. Still your hands got pricked, didn’t they? For precious too many minutes, you made this music of singeing then waiting then singeing again until all the slices of onion were in the pan and the burner had brought the oil and onions to a gentle hum.

You flicked on the light. The fleshier cuts were translucent and already turning brown. The thinner ones were crisping at the edges. You could feel the glow of warmth on your cheeks as you gazed into the pan, now close enough almost to feel the heat in your eyes. Could you?

You stepped back to the counter and returned with handfuls of diced garlic and shavings of ginger, which you stirred in with the onions. This is the part of the recipe that everyone asks for but that everyone knows is a secret. In another bowl were freshly cut chiles, and you added them to the pan, sprinkling them with salt, with pepper, and with lime. And soon even the back rooms of the house were filled with the perfume of spices, and filled too, when you turned back up the heat, with the sounds of sobbing: the gaspings, and then again the sighs, coming from the onions, the garlic, the chiles, and the ginger, in ruffles of steam.

I wish that I could have been with you to smell this sadness, to taste with you this love we shared one last time.

Slices of Onions, Part 1

minamisoma_deserted_street.top.jpg

I remember listening to a news story a couple years back about Japanese families returning to their homes in villages harmed by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. For years, homeowners were only allowed one visit per month, and this not an overnight stay. They would use this time mostly to tend their gardens and take care of their houses.

This feels like the makings of a beautiful anime. It could show moments from before and after the Fukushima accident in the life of a family. It could show how generations of a family grow together and grow separately. It could show how we recover from tragedy and how we maintain our families in the loss of our home as it used to be.

My brother says that if you were writing a Japanese anime, you would have to start with the visual style. He says that this, rather than the verbal language, is the foundation of anime. I agree with him, but if I were to write a Japanese anime, I would write something like this. Here is my latest exploration of genre. Think of this as a scherzo. 

1028308279.jpg

UNCLE: This is none of your concern.

JIROU: Isn’t it uncle?

[Steam rises from UNCLE’S bowl of rice. He grunts. JIROU sits in silence.]

[Rays of sun fall on YOUNGER UNCLE and YOUNGER JIROU in their vegetable garden before the accident. YOUNGER JIROU struggles to pull up a weed stalk. YOUNGER UNCLE watches on with a smile of delight before placing one of his large hands over his nephew’s and the other further down at the root of the weed stalk. Together, they pull it up. It glints in the sun. YOUNGER JIROU’s eyes fill with water. His hands sting. But then he looks up at his uncle, his eyes shimmering through his tears with wonder. It really is a large weed stalk.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: In France, they have a saying. Occupez-vous de vos oignons.

YOUNGER JIROU: What does it mean?

[YOUNGER JIROU beats the weed stalk against the ground, casting off chunks of earth.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: It means, “Mind your onions.” It is, I suppose, what a woman might say to her neighbor when she catches her listening to her conversation over the garden fence. It means, “This is none of your concern.” Go back to your own garden.

[YOUNGER JIROU knocks more pieces of dirt off the weed stalk with increasing violence.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: But of all the plants in our garden, there is one that we should tend to with the greatest care.

[YOUNGER JIROU is distracted. YOUNGER UNCLE tugs at the root end of the weed stalk.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: One is the sweetest to taste. One is the most useful, when we are sick, for healing. When we are hungry, one is the most sure to fill us up with goodness. Jirou, do you not want to know what this plant is?

[He tickles YOUNGER JIROU. YOUNGER JIROU giggles. YOUNGER JIROU, curious, looks up into his uncle’s eyes.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: I am talking about the heart.

[JIROU grows silent. Gray clouds appear in the sky. Rain is coming.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: Above all else, we must occupy ourselves with the heart.

[YOUNGER UNCLE takes the weed stalk in his hands as YOUNGER JIROU releases it.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: If weeds take up root and choke the heart, even if the garden is filled with color and alive with the buzz of insects and replenished by its seasons of rain, even if we have all these, if we do not let the heart grow…

[He looks up at the sky]

YOUNGER UNCLE: …there is nothing left.

In honor of Saint Valentine

I get phrases stuck in my head.

Lines from poems that are unwritable. Bad moments of prayer. Bob Dylan lyrics. Psalms. Just glimpses. Just the words.

I was telling my friends today about the phrase I repeat, “I want slices of mango and avocado,” a line from a very sensual poem, a statement of something that she, that we all–let’s face it–profoundly desire.

But there’s another line I’ve been carrying with me. If I had to write a Valentine’s Day card, I think I would include it in the note. In the interest of being more romantic, I offer here a glimpse of my decidedly unromantic life.

I went on a sort of date once with a friend in college. It was the end of her senior year, and I was a sophomore. When we got in the car, she said, “You should feel special. I shaved my legs for you today.” I didn’t realize it in that moment–sitting in the car, parked, the spring wind still feeling cold in the trees, too early for fireflies, music playing in the grove–but that was the most provocative thing anyone had ever said to me. I did feel special but I guess I didn’t feel that special.

Tonight I broke the spell. My roommate asked me what I was doing later. Later. “What are you doing later tonight?” he said. He brought out a Chimay beer. “I thought we’d drink this. I’ve been saving this since you gave it to me.”

“I gave it to you?”

“Yes, when I drove you to the airport one time last year, you gave it to me as a gift.”

“Yes, I vaguely remember that now.” Then I said, “You should feel special. You’re the one person I’ve given a gift to in two years, and I’ve had a lot of people drive me to the airport.”

Sometimes I can’t tell if I’ve broken the spell or just doubled the force of the incantation. Blues poetry works the same way. “I’ll always be in love, it hurts me so bad. I’ll always be in love, it hurst me so bad.” Not demystifying but adding another layer of enchantment.

I’m still waiting for him to get back so we can drink that beer.