Postcards From the Margins: Every Day Sacred

Vincent Van Gogh, "Still Life with Ginger Jar and Onions," September 1885
Vincent Van Gogh, “Still Life with Ginger Jar and Onions,” September 1885

I first heard Doris Stengel‘s poem “Vernon’s White Onions” in a reading at a publishing party for The Talking Stick (Vol 19, 2010).  Talking Stick is a literary journal published by the Jackpine Writers Bloc, a group of dedicated writers who live and work in central Minnesota.  The party took place in an unpretentious hall in Park Rapids.  I remember a low ceiling and rows of folding chairs, and a very long drive to get there.  Volume 19 included a piece of my flash fiction, and I would be reading, too. 

Here is what stays with me from that afternoon: how all these writers, everyday Minnesotans like me, people with work and children and a boatload of other obligations nonetheless gathered on a chilly spring day to read their writing to each other, to family, to friends.  Found or made time to sit in the company of other poets and storytellers to read, and to listen.  There was a teenaged girl whose piece was the first she’d ever read publicly.  There were many older writers, too.  Their work reflected all aspects of life, of course, but it was impossible not to hear volumes of loss underpinning much of it.

A friend who knows I am interested in these things recently sent me a link to a piece in the Guardian, “The Sacred in Art is About More Than Religion,” by Kenan Malik.  In the article Mr. Malik asks what it is that is “sacred” about sacred art.  He suggests that while for religious people the sacred may be associated with the holy and the divine, “There is, however,” he writes, another sense in which we can think about the sacred in art.  Not so much as an expression of the divine but, paradoxically perhaps, more an explanation of what it means to be human; what it is to be human not in the here and now, not in our immediacy, nor merely in our physicality, but in a more transcendental sense.  It is a sense that is often difficult to capture in a purely propositional form, but one that we seek to grasp through art or music or poetry.”

The sacred, then, in what it is to be human. You and me, right here in this world, seeing and seeking the sacred in the beauty and suffering of everyday life.  The sacred–unbelievably, really–how lucky are we?–in Vernon’s white onions.

Vernon’s White Onions

The rows of white onions
in my brother’s garden
grew straight as virtue
untainted by the gossip
of a single weed.

On my cutting board
they spill juicy little secrets
held inside all summer,
unaware they are the last onions
to be planted by his hands,
graced by his tender care.

I weep, not for onions,
but for my brother
now neatly planted in his own plot.

I chop this sweet harvest,
scoop its goodness into a stew
made from our mother’s recipe.
It simmers in a cast iron pot
inherited from grandmother;
she long dead, mother long dead.
My brother’s death only a rumor
until my onion bin is bare.

(“Vernon’s White Onions” previously published by Jackpine Writers Bloc and reprinted here with their permission and permission of the author, Doris Stengel.  Available in Doris’s new chapbook, SMALL TOWN LINES.)

Postcards From the Margins

Vincent Van Gogh's "Half Figure of An Angel, After Rembrandt," September 1889
Vincent Van Gogh’s “Half Figure of An Angel, After Rembrandt,” September 1889

WHAT IS “SACRED”?  Definitions are the (relatively) easy part. At the SACRED exhibit currently showing at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), dictionary meanings displayed at the start of the exhibit run from the fairly narrow, “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity” and “worthy of religious veneration,” to the more encompassing “entitled to reverence and respect.”  Most broadly, we’re given simple words like “holy,” “unassailable” and “inviolable.” 

The harder part, of course:  what is sacred to you?

I live in, and write from, the margins of my Catholic faith. When I was a child, “holy” was the operative word:  Holy Spirit, Holy Trinity, Holy Eucharist.  Even now, I can’t write any of these without using capital letters.  In a recent fiction submission I was asked to change a character’s statement from “Good God!” to “Good god!”  I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  Some things are sacred, even when much around them crumbles.

But maybe one key to “sacred” is both/and, instead of either/or.  Holy Spirit and holy spirits.  Good god and Good God.  The oil painting Christ Crucified by Diego Velasquez and Yamantaka Mandala (part of the SACRED exhibit) by monks of the Guyoto Tantric University.  And what about this, in an email from another margin–my nephew studying abroad in Ulan Batur:  “One of the central tenets of traditional Mongolian shamanism, Tengrism,” he writes, “is that nobody can really understand Tengri (god, associated with the sky) and if people are still doing good things but recognize something else as god, Tengri doesn’t really care and neither should you.” 

If you haven’t had a chance to visit the MIA SACRED exhibit you’re in luck because it’s here for a few more months (until July 13, 2014).  But you might want to drop in sooner rather than later if you’re interested in any of a number of MIA/Loft Literary Center events. In the Sacred Shorts Writing Contest participants are asked to respond to one of three works of art in the SACRED exhibit and submit a prose or poetry entry of no more than 250 words.  The deadline to enter is April 16.  The winning entry will be displayed next to the chosen piece from May 8 until the end of the exhibit.

Other upcoming Loft Writing Center/MIA collaborations can be found in two places on the SACRED‘s opening page.  Scroll down past the Yamantaka Mandala, past the ad and you’ll find two columns, Sacred Salons and Related Events.

First up (in Related Events) is a six-week class starting tomorrow, Wednesday, March 19, Writing the Galleries, led by teaching artist Jessica Orange. A few spots are still available.  Another great option (listed in Sacred Salons) is Karen Hering‘s Writing to Wake the Soul, a one-time guided writing session on Saturday, April 5.  And put this one on your calendar now:  The Hero’s Sacred Journey, Thursday May 8, 5:30 to 8:30pm. Join us for a drink, answer the call, and make your own (or another’s) hero’s journey.  Look for more info, including details about a class I’ll be teaching this summer at the Loft (“What We Write About when We Write About the Sacred”) here, on my blog, in upcoming posts.

Postcards From the Margins


Vincent Van Gogh's Raising of Lazarus (After Rembrandt), May, 1890
Vincent Van Gogh’s Raising of Lazarus (After Rembrandt), May, 1890

Best panel of AWP 2014, hands down:

KtB @ AWP, “Doubt is My Revelation”: Panel Discussion with Jeff Sharlet, Nathan Schneider, Kaya Oakes, and Brook Wilensky-Lanford

Philip Lopate has written that the essay as a form is all about doubt. But what if you’re an essayist obsessed with religion? How does a skeptic engage with devout subjects? Or alternately, how does a writer of faith reach across the divide to unbelievers? Editors of and contributors to Killing the Buddha, an online literary magazine specializing in “first person dispatches from the margins of faith,” share their experiences and discuss the essential role of doubt in writing about faith.

I’m not primarily an essayist. I’m a writer of fiction, and sometimes poetry. And now, a blog. A blog trying to find its place in a big blogging world.

I went to the panel described above at a big writer’s conference (AWP) in Seattle, just a few weeks ago. I listened to four great writers talk about doubt and faith and their work.  I learned about their website, Killing the Buddha. An online literary magazine with the subtitle “A religious magazine for people made anxious in church.”  Specializing in “first person dispatches from the margins of faith.”

It makes me feel like I’ve found my people.

But maybe you object, as I did, to killing anything? Does this help?

From: Daily Buddhism:
I have heard the phrase “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” many times. Can you explain this?
It actually comes from an old koan attributed to Zen Master Linji, (the founder of the Rinzai sect). It’s a simple one:
“If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”– Linji
…Whatever your conception is of the Buddha, it’s WRONG! Now kill that image and keep practicing. This all has to do with the idea that reality is an impermanent illusion. If you believe that you have a correct image of what it means to be Enlightened, then you need to throw out (kill) that image and keep meditating.

When I started writing fiction about ten years ago, I could not have imagined how my Catholic beliefs and disbeliefs—neither of which, I thought, had much to do with beliefs I generally hold about the universe—would nonetheless show their ugly, and sometimes beautiful, faces in my work. Often. Daily. It was surprising, to say the least. And puzzling, too.

Read anything by Kaya Oakes to get a glimpse into what it means to be a pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ rights feminist in today’s Catholic church. And yet what absolutely slayed me at KtB’s AWP panel was when Kaya Oakes, this self-declared relapsed lapsed-Catholic woman, read the following from her essay, “Torn Bread” , about attending an Episcopal mass where a woman presided:

So I waited for a difference, watching this Episcopal priest, this young, stylish woman with her beautiful voice, in this exquisite wooden church on a hill, where the congregation was busily assembling good-looking food in the kitchen before the service started, when I stumbled in looking for a garbage can. I notice when food looks and smells good. What can I say; I’m always hungry. I’ve always been hungry.

(What’s not to like about a smart, irreverent, Catholic woman writer who is always hungry? But I digress. Back to Kaya Oakes):

But in that “cannot” I have heard in my church, in the church I freely choose when it tells me all of the things I can’t do, I’ve never felt denied to the point of resentment. Because, vocation? My vocation isn’t behind an altar. My vocation is putting my ass in a pew, week after week. My vocation is the vocation of billions of people, in nearly every religion. It is the vocation of showing up.


Last week was the first-year anniversary of my father’s death. Maybe it was that, or the start of Lent, or the errand I did that day that had me walking past St. Olaf’s Catholic Church on 2nd Avenue South and South 8th Street in Minneapolis. But I’ve walked past that church hundreds of times in the seven years we’ve lived downtown. And never went in.

So you have to think it might have been Kaya Oakes’s ass in the pew that got mine there, too.