Book Review: Attention and Pilgrimage in Damon Falke’s By Way of Passing

Damon Falke is the author of Broken Cycles and two plays produced by Square Top Repertory Theatre, including The Sun is in the West and Canaan.  He lives in Texas. (from his website, here:

Author, playwright, and poet Damon Falke’s new novella By Way of Passing, coming in August 2013, enchants with striking beauty and meditative silence. Through sensual details such as “the stove ticking… the smell of hay and feed and blankets… of leather and mink oil,” Falke looks and listens for what distinguishes one place and one life from another. His focus on small details makes one forget that he reads rather than rides and works beside hunting guide Jim Winters in the snow-covered countryside. As Jim contemplates his daily rituals such as fixing pack animals’ panniers and cleaning tack, his attention yields “memories of a land and a youth,” as he continues on through the winter of his life.

Falke conveys an incredible awareness of winter’s presence, its threats, and simultaneously its gift of incredible beauty. He sets apart each mountainside, each twig, each snowfall mentioned as a character in itself, precious in its own right to Jim simply for existence; nearly all the verbs in the novella are active ones, nature acting as much as Jim and his fourteen-year-old trainee Ray. Jim reflects that ultimately “Nothing…can be saved” in himself or in the land as he begins to face the effects and questions of age and as Ray faces the loss of his dog Belle. The world decays, and life passes. Yet at the same time the earth and sky announce themselves, the mountainsides share echoes, and Jim holds his breath in wonder when he sees “the peak, jutting upwards towards an opening where a pallet of the brightest stars shone like gifts.” With beautiful, long sentences Falke shows us a world “hemmed now into dying hands,” and at the same time he invites us to see both beauty and threat in equal measure, neither good nor bad but simply extant.

Each of the four perspectives in the novella – Jim, Ray, Ray’s dog Belle, and the bull elk – lose something by way of passing through this vivid winter countryside, yet all continue on. Falke compares movement through it to the silent march of “a holy order moving toward the altar of an unknown god or gods.” Falke suggests that each life is a pilgrimage toward an undefined, unseen something, toward “some other not quite known world” and “the peaks still invisible.” While mysterious, Falke assures us through puns on the religious and through connotations that, like the present seen world, the beauty and threat of that unseen life are simply extant, independent of our perceptions of “good” and “bad.” Falke writes on his website that “that’s a fascinating part of who we are, the fact that we just go on.” In the novella each character does just that after the losses they experience.

The novella ends with a prayer and a silence. Jim waits in silence in his own “someplace familiar to rest” after uttering what he feels to be an insufficient prayer. Falke chooses not to tell us if the prayer is answered, leaving us looking and listening for something after the losses we have encountered. For Falke, this looking and listening in meditative silence seems to sanctify the world around us, enabling us to continue on.


Other works by Damon Falke:

Notes on Paper: A Poem. Damon Falke with Laura Mae Jackson, Illus. Anchorage, AK: Shechem Press, 2012.
(Reviewed here by James Rovira:

The Sun is in the West: A Play by Damon Falke. Damon Falke. Tyler, TX: Shechem Press, 2010.

Broken Cycles: A Collaboration. Damon Falke, poems, and Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton, photographs. Tyler, TX: Shechem Press, 2007.

Check out his website:

Book Review: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead has caused a stir in both Christian and secular literary circles. Acclaimed as “a masterpiece” by the Sunday Times, Gilead earned both the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2005 National Book Critic Circle Award. The New York Times chose Gilead as one of the top six novels of the year. The Daily Telegraph heralded it as “stunning,” and the Times Literary Supplement called it “one of the best American novels in recent memory.” Religion and Ethics News Weekly calls it “a passionate meditation” and “an exquisite and wonderfully realized story… one of fiction’s finest reflections on the sacramental divisions of the Christian life” (Anderson). Christianity Today writers explore the doctrine set out in the novel (Stone). Its acclaim places Gilead on the “to read” list, but it is not only the acclaim that continues to captivate both Christian and non-Christian readers. A novel written as a letter to a son from a seventy-six-year-old Christian minister, Gilead transcends religious preference to, as Flannery O’Connor writes, “penetrate the natural human world as it is” (164-165).

Through the format of the letter to John Ames’s young son, we enter Ames’s thoughts in a not unrealistic manner. Ames’s relaxed, conversational tone invites us to imagine that we sit as his feet, leaning on his knees as he tells us stories and advises us how to live well in a beautiful yet sinful world while a beautiful yet sinful human being; he tells us that “There are a thousand reasons to live this life, and every one of them sufficient” (277). His metacommentary – like “How”s that for advice” (139) – and the rambling nature of his paragraphs endears the old minister to us and compels us to listen to Ames’s wisdom as we would to the wisdom of our own, beloved father or grandfather. His stories of times when horses and wagons were the only transportation makes real the time in which Ames lives as a boy, and the larger story of Ames when his faith is real makes those situations real to us as well. The concrete and realistic manner of the storytelling authenticates the reality of faith in a believable character’s life.

Ames’s struggles and thoughts touch us with their honesty. As he confronts his death and “the inevitability of it all” (Robinson 105), the practical concerns of clearing out and burning all of his old sermons, not being able to climb the stairs to his study, his wife’s concern about Ames dying alone after wandering off, and other such struggles connect us to reality and its emotion. Ames’s struggles with jealousy and unforgiveness toward Jack, his best friend’s son, also touch us. Ames shares with us his private thoughts, the thoughts that confess a feeling of superiority and a supreme dislike for the prodigal Jack as well as jealousy when Ames sees his much-younger wife befriending Jack. Ames confesses, “I have never been able to warm to him, never” (215). These thoughts show us an un-idealized man, and that realness makes his faith, prayer, and willingness to change admirable.

As he approaches death, Ames thinks on the fact that we exist in the physical world yet also are spirit. Beautiful descriptions of the scent of earth in the evenings, the springy strength of boys, and the lovely moments of drinking lemonade with friends on the porch cascade down the pages, but, more than that, glinting on every page of the novel are jewels of measured reflection and wisdom such as this: “My father brought me some biscuit that had soot on it from his hands. ‘Nevermind,’ he said, ‘There’s nothing cleaner than ash.’ But it affected the taste of the biscuit, which I thought might resemble the bread of affliction, which was often mentioned in those days, though it’s rather forgotten now” (108). Ames shows us, through the consistent images of communion, resurrection, and family, the incandescence of the soul and the sacredness that comes from the intertwining of the physical and the spiritual, that, being bound up together and also separate, exist in every part of our lives. Ames sees the connections, and we as readers and as people that live in a physical world have our attention focused on that connection as well. The Holy Mysteries must be taken in hand, hands are laid on in blessing, the world has a cycle of the dead helping the living to grow, and we worship and pray and minister through the body to others in bodies, so profundity must exist in the physical; the physical must add something to the experience of life that we would miss if we were only spirit.

Marilynne Robinson, through the musings her character old minister Ames, prompts us to such thoughts on every page of Gilead. Her ability to “penetrate the natural human world,” as O’Connor writes, makes intelligible and understandable the faith of narrator; the realness of struggles like unforgiveness and jealousy authenticate Ames’s faith when it helps him to overcome them. Above all, it focuses our attention on the details of the beauty of life as well as the struggles of life, showing us things unlooked for and so unseen. Gilead shows us one way to live life, and Robinson shows us that it is indeed sufficient.


Works Cited

Anderson, David E. “Book Review: GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson.” Religion & Ethics News Weekly. Education Broadcasting Corporation. 18 Mar. 2005. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Novelist and Believer.” The Christian Imagination: the Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing. Revised and expanded ed. Ed. Leland Ryken. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2002. 151-167. Print. 

Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. London: Virago, 2005. Print.

Stone, Rachel. “Why Marilynne Robinson, Narrative Calvinist, Doesn’t Fear Fox News.” her-menuetics. Christianity Today. May 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

a letter (to be continued)

Dear _______ ,

I know it’s been a few years, but I was thinking of Charley’s dance class the other day. You know, back in high school, where we each first learned swing and waltz and salsa and all those other dances. Goodness, all those Friday afternoons we spent in that band hall. You boys always vastly outnumbered by the girls! I remember everyone would exclaim whenever a slick, fast new move was demonstrated, especially in the tango. Do you remember when you caught me, that one time I slipped on the corté? The very first time we all tried it? I fell right smack into you. Good thing you were so tall, even then! But your arms caught me in a caring way, and we stayed there for the longest two seconds of my life. Fitting, isn’t it, that we began during the tango? Flared by that encounter, our souls grew together over the next few years. We laced our roots like lovers’ fingers, as slowly as the Old Forest in Middle Earth is said to grow. It turns out that Tom Bombadill couldn’t save us, after all.

We were dancing too the first time I was mad at you. A man twisting a handlebar mustache watched us as you led me onto the Electric Cowboy’s dance floor. I tried to follow your unfamiliar dance leads, but my toes in my gold metallic sandals steadily turned black and blue, and my ego as a ballroom dancer burst into flames. I scowled at you throughout the song and let my restless tongue flame out my mouth like a hideous dragon when we sat down afterward on rickety black wooden stools. Were you trying to make me look like a fool? You know I didn’t learn the two-step with you! Your blue eyes shifted. Puppy dog. I tried not to look. I remember the smell of the beer, the dimness of the room, and which pair of jeans you were wearing. I can’t believe I didn’t know how much of a jerk I was. I peer backward in time and appreciate you.

There are many more memories, of course, to choose from. Do you know, the first kiss I ever received was from you? The stars shone with a fresh, clear energy, and Jack Frost began to nip at our noses. The night’s blue sky cloaked the air above the car whose door you opened for me. The party waited for us inside, but your warm fingers caught my arm to say, thank you for a wonderful night in advance. You had stepped so close, gazing into my grey eyes with yours like deep blue pools, that I stepped back in surprise. Pulling me to you, your lips gave just a peck, but my heart danced the jive around my chest that felt like white feathers caught in a firestorm.

I can still feel your lips lingering on my cheek, even now as a blast of cold winter air sneaks through the door on the coattails of café customers. I’m sitting in a coffee shop instead of the cold apartment that I can’t afford to heat.  Ha, alone in a coffee shop, reminiscing on love… how cliché. It sounds like something from a movie. I bet a movie heroine’s scarf never trails into her latte while she reaches for her journal. I’m near the end of it now. You’re scrawled on nearly every page, bound in ink to the pages containing my life. I wish you could read it, I wish you could understand what I was going through, and I wish you could understand why I was a jerk. I know I probably can’t make you understand, but at least here I can bring myself vindicate my soul.

5 E Lesson Plan

Ok, I know that this is a departure from my usual posts, but I’d like y’all’s input. (Yes, I’m from Texas. Yes, I say y’all. Yes, I know it’s not academic.) Those of you who are teachers, students, or really just anyone with a good head on his shoulders, is this a feasible lesson plan for a class period? What do you think?


Engage (Presentation):

            I read La Oruga Muy Hambrienta (The Very Hungry Caterpillar) by Eric Carle to the students. The book itself will capture their attention: everyone, including high schoolers, loves to be read to; the book has bright colors and might hold fond memories; and they will be thrilled to already know most of the vocabulary. It will be a good review for them too, if they have forgotten. This lesson, therefore, can focus more on verbs. It will be an introductory lesson, not an in-depth one.

Explore & Explain (Attention &Co-construction):

            Use questions – Socratic Method – to co-construct what is different about the verbs, such as, “What’s going on in this story?” “What words were you unfamiliar with?” “Where are the verbs here?” “How do you know they’re verbs?” “Ok, they’re verbs, but what’s different about them than we’ve studied so far this semester?” “Who’s doing the action? (What is the subject?)” “So what’s this saying?” “So if I want to say ‘….’, how would I do that?” Etc.

Explain & Elaborate:

            Explain the endings for –er verbs and have them copy the verb endings chart for “-er” verbs, since “comer” (“to eat”) is the main verb in the story.

Elaborate & Evaluate (Extension):

            Play Pictionary: I have a list of the current unit’s vocabulary words, and an infinitive from their vocabulary is on the power point. Two students from each team come up. I point out a vocabulary word (a noun). They draw the word. The first person to make a sentence with the noun and the correct form of the infinitive on the power point gets a point for their team. If they get the vocabulary and not the verb, they get one point.

I apologize for not posting consistently; the above is what my life currently consists of, although I am researching heroism in the Harry Potter series for a term paper, which is exciting.

Thanks for reading and for your input!