My Pablo Neruda scrapbook: This week

Para que tú me oigas
mis palabras
se adelgazan a veces
como las huellas de las gaviotas en las playas.

…like the tracks of the seagulls on the beaches.

Who introduced me to Pablo Neruda? It has to have been Joshua. He posts his poetry all the time and I think it was he who told a beautiful story–an incredible story–about a Spanish speaking worker, or someone like that, who discovered that they shared an affinity, and maybe developed one for each other, when the man noticed Joshua’s book of Neruda poems on his dashboard. I also had friends in college before this who read to each other poems and stories and translated vocabulary pages at the same table as me. It could have been a few months ago too, when I read as many banquet speeches of the Nobel literature prize as there were writers I was familiar with. I recommend Márquez’s, Camus’s, and Svetlania Alexiavich’s. I had to have at least recognized Neruda by then.

In his banquet speech, Neruda offered thanks and said that he would return “to the blank page which every day awaits us as poets so that we shall fill it with our blood and our darkness, for with blood and darkness poetry is written, poetry should be written.”

Part of me thinks of the suffering of political prisoners in Chile as Neruda knew it and in every civilization that oppresses its workers.

…porque con sangre y sombra se escribe, se debe escribir la poesía.

The Christian in me thinks of Jesus.

The still growing up part of me wants to shout, “This is when art is” and return to browsing the movies in the HBO GO account I don’t even pay for. And count out my likes later.

The child in me wants to share this with all of my friends.

And then they will come watch with me the 2016 film Neruda, directed by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. It made me want to visit Chile–its cobbled streets lined with plane trees, its mountains filled with snow. It made me want to sing when I read poetry aloud. It made me want to read Spanish detective novels in bed and fall in love. It made me above all want to read more of his poetry.


I texted my sister on Wednesday night saying, “I wrote a love poem in French. I’m a poet now.” She said something like, “Send it to me.” My sister “reads” paragraphs to me from French philosophical treatises on the subway in New York City. She even does her own “translations.” One time, in 2009, she was reading to me about the horse négligée that Lindsay Lohan once wore. My sister is as obsessed with language as I am. She does Spanish toasts in weddings. She has studied for the GRE.

I wanted to be as free as he was. I wanted not just to see the evening haze rise into the hills across from San Francisco, I wanted to feel it roll through me, like spirit. One of my favorite images from scripture is the Spirit of God moving in our hearts, filling them with love.

But I still get caught in the rhythms of what love poetry was supposed to be, what it must have meant for Victor Hugo. What people who love each other say out loud. “I strove to love you in the old high way of love,” wrote Yeats. And doesn’t language too often have a way of smoothing–as with a rich butter on a piece of crust–the sensations of our life together? I wasn’t picturing someone I’ve been in love with. That would have been different. That wouldn’t have been“Come to me, I see you standing by the lake.” It wouldn’t have been “The moon is rising on your skin.” These sound like bad translations of Chekov. We can’t be more in love with the moon than we are with the one we love or the words of love we share. It would have been “Your body is wet with the crests of waves. I’m chasing you.” It would have been “Your hair is dripping in shiny pearls, falling on your chest,” if I were picturing someone whom I loved.  Nevertheless, this is what I wrote, trying to be free.

Les eaux sont calme ice-bas, ce soir.
Les eaux qui te caresseraient le visage
qui t’appeleraient et qui t’emmèneraient au plus profond
qui t’embraseraient avec leur fraîcheur
ne sifflent plus, ne tremble plus,
ne chuchote qu’en mots d’écume.

Et toi qui savais une fois danser
qui exultais dans la valse vagueuse
de touches brusques, de secrets partagés, et de douces retraites,
es capté par le même silence
la même intransigence,
la même crépuscule douloureuse.

Veille bien tendre l’oreille,
faire descendre la main,
regarder autour de toi.
Fais un seul pas.
Toi, qui ne vois qui l’image d’amertume,
le reflet fixe, la surface mate,
tu vas voir le monde contorsionne à fleur d’eau.
Toi, qui ne sens que l’air frigide, tu vas réussir à sauter
avec des cris de joie.
Et toi, qui n’entends rien de vagues ni de soupirs de vent
tu vas ressentir, même au centre de cette nuit pesante,
les palpitations du cœur qui bat.

The water is calm here this evening, still.
The waves that would caress your face
that would call to you and lead you farther out
that would embrace you with a cool kiss
no longer stir, or tremble,
or whisper anything but words of foam.

And you who once knew how to dance,
who gleamed in the waves’ waltz
of quick touches, secrets shared, and soft goodbyes,
are stuck in the same silence,
the same intransigence,
the same painful obscurity of the evening.

 But come incline your ear,
lower your hand,
look around you.
Make just one step.
You, who only see the bitter image
of your fixed reflection, a matte surface,
you will see the world twist itself on the upper layer of water.
You who who only feel the frigid air
will rise to jumping with cries of joy.
And you, who now hear nothing of waves
or the breathing of the wind
will feel, even in the middle of this heavy night,
the palpitations of a beating heart.


The Nobel prize committee in 1971 evoked Pablo Neruda’s sense of, his yearning for, man’s harmony with nature. Some day, we’ll find this harmony. We won’t dream of disaccord and intransigence. We won’t be an unsettled people. We’ll sing our suffering and our jubilation, ours and each others, from the fullness of our breaths in our once sunken chests. Some poets have reached this. Some poets have lived this. Some poets have died for this. For the rest of us, and until then, we will have them–the ones like Neruda–to help us search our darkness and find our blood still moving in the life inside.




I Will Think About Your Heart

“Does the earth know what passes in those stars that are hurled like a spark of fire across the firmament–so far that we perceive only the splendor of some?…I never feel myself more alone than when I open my heart to some friend, because I then better understand the insuperable obstacle.” – Guy de Maupassant

In the morning we’ll have oysters and fruit. Leftovers, nuts, pieces of pie. I’ll watch you run on the beach until the fog rolls out. I’ll offer you coffee and another piece of pie. I’ll go for a swim. You’ll read a book. We’ll take naps together on the one scrap of grass we can find. If we were to die or if aliens discovered us, this remnant of civilization, they’d find our hands crossed into the leaves of our book, our chests rising and falling with breathing, even in a second Pompeii.

In the evening we’ll go dancing. Do you remember when your mom surprised us back in your high school room? “We’re only dancing,” you ran down the hallway calling after her. I only snorted out laughter so hard I could have made water fly.

I’ll collapse too early back into the wicker chair. There will be uneaten cuts of meat on my plate. Pork chops and slices of chicken, beef juice and scalloped potatoes turning lukewarm. The saxophonist will be swaying. The stars will start to dance a little too. I’ll search for you but won’t find you until I see you crying softly in the corner behind the plants. You’ll pretend you weren’t crying, and I’ll pretend I didn’t see you. I’ll read you poetry I wrote on my napkin. It won’t be mine. Chaucher’s.

We’ll order coffee and bring it up to our rooms. You’ll carry the cream and the sweet caramels that the waitress brought to us on a plate. We’ll stay up the night talking, both slowly and quickly, until the moon begins to fade into the smear of light that crosses the sky. We’ll pack our suitcases. We’ll forget about the caramels. We’ll sleep in and forget for just one moment about the sadness and the pain.

We will drive to your old home in the early afternoon before it gets too hot. Your sisters will clean the house. Your older sister will offer us drinks. Your younger sister will sit in the couch between a roomful of people that feel to me like strangers, beckoning us into the next piece of conversation.

So we will pass the afternoon until the curtains can be drawn and the windows opened to let in the cool smells of the evening. Everyone will leave. Your older sister will go to bed with a remark about the kitchen, not needing to say that she wished she had the strength to help more with the rest of the house. Your younger sister will stand with me as we see her off. I’ll say my sad words to her. She will touch my hand then touch my arm, feeling its hair. I’ll meet your eyes across the room. You’ll be standing in the door. You’ll be too angry to be tired. You’ll be exhausted. I’ll try to come to you, with your sister on my arm. But you, for a moment, will slip away.

You’ll have made it as far as the table. The iced tea will have run watery and warm, but we’ll drink it anyway, the three of us. We’ll play cards. We’ll try to make each other laugh, first you and then each other, until our chests feel sore as if we were coughing.

We’ll eat what is still good of the food your sister brings in from the tables and watch as she takes everything that is left to the trash and some to the sink. We will hear the scraping of the garbage disposal for about four seconds. At first it will sound like the way our laughter felt in our chests. I will think about sleeping on the beach with you the day before, our faces getting burnt, our arms and legs, water bottles, and the pages of our books crusted with sand. We will watch your sister filling another trash bag. You will stand to help. I will be too dizzy with tiredness and free of logic to notice you are gone until I am surrounded by the silence of curtains and buzzing fans.

You will come back and say you saw the stars out, tears in your eyes.Your sister will join you on the front deck, and I will find a bed to sleep in.

As I nudge my body into the sheets, I will think about your heart, and the saxophonist’s and the way your arms clench when you run and imagine the sounds your feet make, puff puff against the floor of the beach sky, tossing the sand behind you as you propel yourself into the disappearing morning fog.

The lesser-valued foreign language skills, and maybe rightly so: A list


Because it is not always about the grand moments, the flourishes, the ecstasies. It is not even the culminations, necessarily, the closing of good books after a prolonged period of study, that characterize our knowledge of a foreign language. We may use them to define our ability and ease–I have asked for a seat on a bus–I have read Balzac–I have made a friend–but these are just benchmarks. If, in life, there are a few simple, uncomplicated rules that govern the new heights and depths, the few important moments of our lives, there are countless complicated rules that govern everything else. And I wonder if getting to know another language, like getting to know another person, resides mostly in the expansive matrix of everything else.

When I was studying abroad in France, I convinced myself to ride my bike from where I was staying in Tours to the nearby town of Ambroise, a popular route, one that followed a river, clung perilously to a highway, took me over a bridge to avoid a railway, and then deposited me in a forest of dark green leaves where I discovered a network of mountain bike trails. Not having a mountain bike, I stuck to the safest-looking paths, but what little I did of the twists and bumps and rises and falls was exhilarating enough to make me dream of coming back someday to take the trails more adventurously.

When we learn a language, we we follow the wide-ranging paths, laid by wide-stepping people who have crossed in both directions and in every direction (can I just add that the word for direction in French translates to “sense?”) we experience the same movements that we undergo when we meet a new “other”–the same awkwardness, the same formality, the foul and fair territory, the shifting between the poles. And whatever our capacity for familiarity or intimacy may be–will she be a friend, a regretted companion, a counselor to me (a judge, an executioner, a priest)?–few would argue that they knew the precise moment their love for each other became something different. Few could say that the warmth of their companionship consisted in the outline of cold hard facts of desires recorded, laughs counted, and tears measured. No one who is in love can keep track of the hours spent together. Time flies from this. So it is with the languages we learn to love, to hate, to reject, and sometimes to forget, but ultimately, I hope, to cherish.

These have never made my list of defining moments. We don’t get to learn them in class. No one thinks of these skills when they applaud your ability. But they are the kinds of things we do–and often half to do–when we choose a path and step into the matrix. And though we were following a clear, well-established thoroughfare, before we realize it and after several steps and missteps, we find ourselves cycling in the afternoon shadows on a woods-rutted path somewhere outside of Ambroise, rushing through the bushes down a sudden incline at full speed.

1. That one word.

For decades scientists, moralists, and middle school teachers everywhere have debated how often the human mind thinks about sex. I can’t speak for everybody, but I can say that at the very least, I think about it every time someone uses the reflexive verb “s’exprimer:” to express oneself. This has been a source of untold giggling, and please tell me I not alone. We all need that one word that keeps our 11-year-old self within reach, that keeps his unparalleled mind-unraveling wonder at the transgressive beauty of language–its curious new forms, its inexplicable forces, its bodies of work–in fresh supply. We keep him just around the corner. Because we have entered a new room: We are twenty-two. One of our classmates is applying Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction to a novel by Émile Zola that we did not take the time to read. We cannot concentrate. Our mind buzzes with white noise. If there is cultural capital to be gleaned, we are on the wrong field. We want to look out the window, but this classroom has none. We are enveloped in darkness with nothing but the gently intoned words of our classmate dripping like pieces of melted silver onto the blank pages of our notebook. And then we hear him first, the 11-year-old’s clinking footsteps on the hallway tile. He peers in the doorway, and at that moment, like a thunderclap, the word is used. Bourdieu sexpresses himself. We sexpress ourselves. The individual suffering the blight of a post-industrialist existence sexpresses himself. Words cannot sexplain the vistas, the curtains raised, shuttered windows flung open, and, in less than a second, if we can respect our classmate who is still presenting, our 11-year-old self disappears, he has run down the hallway, he is basking in the morning sunshine, he is doing somersaults in the quad grass. And, invigorated, we are listening to our classmate’s lecture and, finally, taking notes.

2. We still need to know how to do things

I didn’t want to get political, but I discussed Sarah Palin’s possible candidacy once in 2011 with an older French woman. She said, “Dans la politique, il faut savoir. In politics, you have to know things.” And I would agree wholeheartedly, except that I had just been stopped when walking by the cathedral. A woman had noticed the watch on my arm, and she asked me what time it was. This is among the first things we learn in language class. Don’t ask me why I still wear an analog watch. Don’t ask me why I am twenty-seven and I still cannot tell time. This is among the first things we learn in kindergarten class. Don’t ask me why a French woman was asking me for the time like she didn’t already know it. (Telling time and complaining about the presidents all the way back to Henry IV are France’s national obsessions.) I looked at my watch. I looked at my wrist. I fumbled awkwardly in my pocket, opened my phone, and translated to one minus fourth in my head before brashly proclaiming it to the woman who, miraculously, was still standing there. When she heard my accent, she apologized. I’m sorry too, I wanted to say. I’m sorry for being a foreigner. Every time I look at a clock, I murmur an apology to this woman who accosted me at the cathedral. In politics and in life, you have to know things.

3. We still need know things, like really basic things.

Students who travel abroad are counseled to let moments sink in, to cultivate a sense of presence, to catalogue their sights and joys and then, in the angled sunlight of a different terroir, to let the pages ruffle open, and for several precious seconds, to practice breathing. I did this for a half hour once in an outdoor café in Montmartre. Actually, it may even have been longer. And I did it because I could not figure out how to pay for my coffee. Do I go up to the front? Do I keep looking around for a server? No one is coming. Do I just keep practicing breathing cigarette smoke and staring at a man reading a newspaper? The coffee was less than four ounces and took fewer than four seconds to drink. Do I just keep watching all the schoolchildren walking home from school? Do I wait for the next presidential election so that maybe the man will look up and I can say something witty I thought of myself about Sarah Palin? Is the person who served me invisible now? Is she a ghost? Are there ghosts all around us? Is this how the world ends? Is there even a man behind this newspaper? Finally, I just walked back inside, found the nearest human being–not even sure if she worked there–and said, of all things, “I need to pay.” And then I whimpered, “Where…” This is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. She told me to wait, disappeared–(French servers are great at this)–and then came back to receive my payment. On the counter was a toilet paper-looking roll of receipt paper, the kind that the machine keeps printing but that is never torn, the mythical snake not even looking for its tail that keeps growing. It was on this ledger that she recorded my payment. Ghosts don’t keep short accounts.

4. Culture

There might be a lot that I do not know, but there are a number of things I know how to do. One time I was so interested to know how the French internet interpreted Adele’s “Send My Love,” that I looked it up and went line by line, ultimately agreeing that on the whole it worked as a translation. I don’t even like that song.

5. More culture

One time I stood at the edge of a glacier field during a family trip to British Columbia reading the wonderfully informative description on a placard of Earth’s unchanging forces that have joined to create this icy marvel of eternally advancing ephemera. Because the placard was also wonderfully succinct, I read the same description in French. I still had time to watch the wind blow and think about my heart and wonder how many more minutes it would take until we were all back in the car if indeed the glacier could outlast the length of the line at the visitor’s center restroom.

6. Social media capital

Sometimes I make French posts on Facebook and then wonder why know one likes them. In these times, I need a friend to talk me through this–it could even be my 11-year-old self. He could say to me, “John, no one speaks French. No one knows who Marguerite Duras is. And look at what you wrote, ‘Tu as le droit to sangloter.’ You have the right to sob? No one is going to like, love, laugh, or be thankful for this. Even if Facebook had a baguette button no one would use it. Your posts would make Charles de Gualle himself quit the presidency again.”

I just want to add that the photo at the top of this page, which I took in Paris, received only one like. This is the kind of thing that happens in our world.

But thank you, small John, for your advice. I will take it to heart.

7. Trial but mostly error

Except I didn’t, because this was a conversation that I tried to have with my English-speaking family.

Mom: Who wants a slice of pie for dessert?
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Daniel, would you like a slice of pie?
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Daniel: Yes, please.
Mom: Here you go.
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Catherine, would you like a slice of pie?
Catherine: Yes, please. Thank you.
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Anyone else? Any last takers?
11-year-old self: Because you need to speak in English for your family to understand you when you say, “I, I want of the that.”

8. I would have liked to see…

Sometimes I feel frustrated that people who don’t speak French don’t quite know the thrill of starting a sentence with the words, “J’aurais…” Perhaps some of the most interesting sentences–in any language–begin with the words, “I would have…”

9. More “J’aurais”

And though there are many times I regret having spent years learning a language that has only served to help me judge the translations of Adele songs and glacier placards in Canada, I feel the regret the strongest when I think of all the Gabriel García Márquez novels I could have been reading (“J’aurais pu lire?”) in Spanish all these years. My 11-year-old self tells me there is still time. That’s actually a lie. Those books leave him alone in his room crying.

10. The modern conversation

But of course, nothing can compare–even if nothing can prepare us–to the everyday conversation with a familiar speaker of the foreign language into which we have invested our hearts across years of trial and error, classrooms full of inspirational messages and blank stares, and embarrassing encounters with the authorities in airport security lines. I was playing basketball with an uncle who speaks French. Another family member asked him to do something, and though my uncle is never given to complaining, I could tell that he wanted to keep beating me at horse rather than fulfill this request. Seasoned with a semester’s worth of the vibrant literary culture of 17th-century France, I turned to him and said, “Le devoir est beau. Duty is beautiful.” He shrugged and said, “What?,” sunk a basket, and then went inside to do his beautiful duty leaving me alone in the driveway to practice my breathing.

But the beauty of basketball is that one can still shoot hoops with oneself, even if one’s self is 11 years old. His defense is no good, but he knows how to s’exprimer once he gets you in the key.




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.


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.


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.


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.