Sehnsucht: A Word That Does Not Exist in English, but Should

I was told once to use the French language for food, German for religion, English for money and Spanish for love. That’s a bit narrow, but it’s stuck with me.

The Germans have a word I’ve long admired: sehnsucht. There is no easy English translation, although it is generally translated “longing” or “yearning.” The German idea goes a good deal deeper into the quasi-mystical. (more…)

The Valley of the Shadow of Bible Verse Memorization

When I was young, memorizing Bible verses was to me what different knots and coin tricks were to other boys: a rite of passage. I would have preferred cards or comics or anything really to memorizing the Bible, but my little Midwestern church was convinced that the path to competent adulthood went through committing various swatches of Scripture to memory. And, to ensure that our maturation was unencumbered by the many rebellions of youth, we were started on this practice very young. I could recite snippets of John’s Gospel before I could say the Pledge of Allegiance.

The seemingly impossible feat of sitting dozens of crooked-toothed, freckle-faced, mud-flecked boys down around Bibles was accomplished through one of the church’s favorite tricks: reappropriation; take something fun, add something Christian, and see if the fun sticks.

In this case, the hijacked activity was Boy Scouts. Our church started a boy’s club in which boys received vests, and then recitation of different verses earned a variety of badges and pins for that vest. You started out as a “Skipper,” and when you memorized enough of the Bible you became a “Hiker.” And a few particularly gifted memorizers graduated onto become “Climbers” and after that, one assumes, “Pastors.” What memorizing the Bible had to do with skipping or hiking was never rightly explained, but it took me some years before I started to suspect that I’d been duped.



“It doesn’t look like I thought it would,” K told me.

“This is just the suit they give you to try on. The real one will be nicer.”

K looked at the mirror and frowned, unsure. We were in a tux rental shop and I was giving him a crash course in American formalwear, which ought to tell you something about how dire his situation was. K is my neighbor, new to the states, and headed to his high school prom. He had casually mentioned that he knew nothing about prom, one thing led to another, and I ended up going with him to pick out the limo, the corsage, and now, the tuxedo.

“Does it fit alright? That’s the important thing right now.”

“I don’t know,” he said, craning his neck to see how the jacket fell down his back. “I saw it differently in my head.”

“It looks good,” I insist.

K is from Baghdad. He’d moved to the States with his mother and his two little brothers after the Taliban shot his father’s head off in front of his eyes. K ran through the dusty streets, his father’s blood on his hands, until he found a US soldier and did not stop screaming at him until the soldier came back and put the lot of them on a plane bound for America. That plane landed in Dallas. And then they got on Nebraska-bound bus. And now they are my neighbors.

And now he is trying on tuxes for prom. I understood his plight – he’s the only Iraqi boy in a Midwestern high school. He has a lot to prove. Honestly, I did not believe there was a nice enough tuxedo in all Nebraska to suit his tastes.  There certainly wasn’t one at the rental store. But I did not tell him that.

“Should we go look somewhere else?” he asks me, right in front of a pretty, young sales clerk who doesn’t hide her distaste for his idea.

“I don’t think it’ll be any different anywhere else,” I tell him.

He spins in front of the mirror a few times, as if expecting magical transformation. I give what I hope is a friendly shrug to the sales woman, as if to say “what can you do?” My smile is not reciprocated, and I’m not surprised. We’ve been here nearly an hour. I’ve counted four groups of other customers cycle through in the time we’ve been here.

This loving my neighbor business has turned out very different than I thought. My head had spun with the idea of dazzling him with my expertise, like a father teaching his son to light a campfire. I had, as I often do, confused my desire to love my neighbor with my desire to be seen as a good person.  Turning friends into projects.

And, along the way, I suppose I had ended up loving my neighbor after all. It is not a grand affair, or even very interesting. It will have to be enough to love a little. To explain why to go for a wrist corsage instead of the chancy business of pinning it to the straps of her dress. To give tie-tying lessons. To explain that you only button the top button of the jacket.

He wanted to look like James Bond. I wanted to look like his surrogate father. We will both have to settle.

The morning after prom, I walk out on my porch with a mug of coffee and wave to K, who is smoking apple hookah on his own porch. “How was it?” I ask, hopping the little fence that separates us. He shrugs his shoulders.

“Sort of boring.”

I sit down and ask him to tell me about it. We are, after all, friends.

The Eager Hope That Sickens Me

“Come here much?” she asks, moving her baby to the other arm while she looks for a place to set her backpack down.

“Here?” I whisper. The rest of the crew is filming in the next room and I’m scribbling notes, listening through the wall.

“You know. Omaha?” She hands me her backpack, and I take it, not sure what else to do. She reaches in and fishes out some sort of toy for the baby. She touches my shoulder ostensibly to balance herself. I’m suspecting ulterior motives.

“Oh. Not really.”

I hold my finger up to my lips and she nods, apologetically. I don’t really think the microphones will pick up our whispers in the next room, but I’m hoping to dispell any future plans concocting in her head. It’s not that she’s unpretty or even unpleasant. It’s just that, looking around the apartment, I don’t want to get to close to all this. (more…)

Nobody Listened to the Latin Song

“15 minutes!” I shouted to everyone backstage, holding open all five fingers on my left hand and opening and closing the ones on my right. “Fifteen minutes till showtime!” The cast looked up at me and then redoubled whatever they were doing. Final swipes of make-up.  Last minute check of the battery on the wireless microphones. There’s not an empty seat in the house. The orchestra is warmed up and looking at the stage anxiously. The night is looking beautiful. I’m the director and I’m starting to feel pretty good about this play.

And I feel a tug at my arm, courtesy of Evan. At ten years old he’s the youngest cast member by a solid decade. I know very little about him other then he’s proved more dependable than a child ought to be and his parents are in the middle of a nasty split.

“Can I borrow one?” he asks.

“One what?” I say.

“One of your fifteen minutes?”

Mighty poetic for a ten-year-old, but it’s what he said, so I nodded. (more…)

The Perfect Mug: A Poem

The perfect mug is not clear, my dears

Not clear

Clear is cheap and very tacky

And full of thumb grease smudges

The perfect mug has a round lip, very thin

Not thick

For if I wanted to taste porcelain when I drink coffee

I would dunk a Precious Moment in a latte

You can fit three fingers through the handle of a perfect mug

And the handle is not so close to the cup that you torch your knuckles

Not fun

The perfect mug is halfway between big and small, but nearer to small

Small keeps your drink hot, if it is coffee

And your head clear, if it is spiked

It may have pictures, but never scenery.

It may have characters, but never cartoons

It may have words, but never quotes

The perfect mug is probably, though not necessarily, brown.

And the perfect mug definitely exists

I just don’t own it yet

Not yet

A Ruby Well of Lips

Topher and I had taken to pacing the hospital’s waiting room, seeing as both our computers and phones were out of batteries and we had exhausted our abilities to entertain ourselves. Night was turning to earliest morning, and there was still no word. We could just see the hospital room from where we sat, behind a glass paned door. Nurses ran in and out with towels. We had, I think, both thought we would have heard something by now.

I went up to the nurse at the reception desk and asked if she’d given birth yet.

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Can you give me a hint?”


“Why not?”

“I could lose my job.”

“Just nod your head if she’s given birth yet.”

She pressed her lips tight together and looked down at magazine, which I took as my cue. Topher look at me inquisitively and I shrugged my shoulders. Just then, Jon came out of the hospital room and wordlessly motioned for both of us to follow him. I had seen him tired before, but I had not seen him like this. But then, his wife had just successfully completed a 32-hour labor. That will do things to a man.

And then he told us the rest of the news, which began with him saying, “there’s no way to sugar coat this.” And a good many things that had been simple were suddenly complicated. And things that had seemed important became less so. (more…)

Why We Close Our Eyes

It’s interesting that all closing your eyes does is shut out the light – that the whole world is still right there, an eyelid’s breadth away. The darkness created by shutting your eyes feels much bigger than an eyelid – in truth, it feels utterly absolute, like staring into the vast blackness of a starless space. It feels infinite, really. Maybe that’s why we close our eyes when we sob, or make love, or pray, or hear some magnificent strain of music. Our surroundings seem too limited for what we’re feeling, so we shut our eyes and embrace the adequacy of the infinite inside each of us.

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