Since moving to North Carolina, I have started teaching ESL to adults. At one point, I was teaching students five nights a week. It was overwhelming, and I wasn’t very good at lesson planning yet. One of my South Korean students has been dedicated throughout this process. He keeps an organized three-ring binder and shows up to lessons on time. His English has improved significantly since we first started working together.

My student and I were talking about families and cultures recently. I had created a discussion-based activity with an imaginary character for the exercise. There was a question in the activity that asked about religion. My student pointed to the question and shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Which word?” I asked.

He tilted the paper with his finger below the word “religion.”

“Christianity, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Hinduism are all examples of religions,” I said.

He immediately made the connection and nodded. Since we were talking in the context of family, he first answered for his mother and father. When I asked if he was religious, he said, “No, no. I’m not superstitious.” The word was awkward, more than three syllables, the /er/ sound muddled in his pronunciation. Never cross a black cat in the middle of a road. Don’t knock over the salt. Leave an apple on the tree at the end of the harvest. Hold your breath when you pass a cemetery. That was always one of my favorites. I would ride our horse through the cemetery near my grandmother’s home, pretending I was a character from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or some unknown female figure from the American Revolution, and hold my breath the whole time, spurring the horse faster and faster and faster until we were both thick with sweat, wondering if we would ever get caught.

Superstition remains a compelling force where I grew up, and these superstitions and images from my childhood live somewhere in the back of my mind as comfortable rituals and absurd mysteries. Maybe I could argue that these memories opened me up to a richer world, or maybe I could argue that they are evidence of a culture deeply flawed and clinging to its own suspension of disbelief. Other days, I just try to see the magic in it and remember myself as a girl sitting on a hardwood floor next to my cousin during a lightning storm, lining up acorns on the windowsill, and thinking we were furthest thing from death.

A Dog-faced Return

I am finally back to blogging. I can’t say how good it feels to sit in front of a blank screen this morning and quietly ripple out into a larger digital world without pressure or time constraint. A lot has happened since my last entry in February, and there will be plenty of opportunities to comment on that in the future.

Lately, I have been thinking about this short Christopher Hitchens clip rather a lot.

When I talked to a friend about the above clip last week, she said, “Doubt is scary. To hear atheism talked about in such a way makes it too appealing for people like me.”

In secular news. . .

I have some interviews planned, forthcoming blog features, and I am accepting nominations for the Laika Spotlight. Enjoy your anarchy this Guy Fawkes Day, everyone. Another post to come soon!

To [read] aloud is very brave – (138)

During the past six months, I have been told that I read poorly aloud by multiple people. Never in my life has anyone said this to me so frequently.

When I was twelve years old, I started becoming interested in public speaking. (I say my interest starts at twelve, because I remember going to nationals for the science fair that year. I was more con artist than scientist affectionately.) I began participating in debate groups, dabbled in stand-up comedy for awhile, and even started recording myself just talking about things to see how it sounded. It’s something I still do. I loved standing in front of a crowd, but now I wonder if that love is leaving me.

I have been feeling down lately about it all. Even if my writing isn’t that great, I hope to at least read a piece well before an audience and connect with someone. In the last six months, I keep hearing things like:

“I can’t pay attention, because I get lost in your voice.”

“You sound robotic.”

“Stop reading that way. Just let me read it to myself.”

These words rebound in my thoughts too often. Just this past week, I was going to read a few paragraphs from Chris Offutt’s “My Dad, the Pornographer” to my student organization, a group that I am considerably comfortable with, and I hesitated before reading and became apathetic to a degree. I thought for a moment that I should have asked for someone else to read and spared them all the sound of my voice.

I like to think back to a moment in my Keats class last spring when a student said to me during discussion: “Sarah Key, I love it when you read aloud. It just makes things click.” I think back to my best friend and how she was the first person to ever tell me that she liked my voice. I think back to last summer when one of my students raucously shouted, “I love your voice!” over the drum of other oddities being yelled my way, and that stands out to me more than anything.

Lately, I hear the words robotic and stop when I begin to read aloud. I wonder if I am dragging my feet to submit an abstract to this forum or neglecting setting up certain local lit events, because I don’t want to hear my own voice at them. I wonder if I have stopped reading to myself in the mornings when I am alone for the same reason.

Blasphemy Law: Don’t Poke Your Nose

Taslima Nasreen is a writer and humanist who I was privileged enough to meet last year at a conference in Virginia. When I approached her after a panel, I thanked her for sharing and speaking, and we shook hands politely. Then, I walked away to the coffee stand, kicking myself for not saying something more important or engaging, and talked to an elderly woman about her dog. In all truth, I felt pretty humble in Taslima’s presence, not in the manner of intimidation, but rather a silent awe and respect.

Screenshot 2015-02-09 at 10.02.10 AM - Edited

I was researching blasphemy in the United States recently and came cross an organization called End Blasphemy Laws (link) that Taslima supports. The website ultimately raised a lot of questions and good points for me. I was surprised to see that the United States was not highlighted on the website’s home page map and then further surprised to read about “blasphemous libel” in Canada, which is punishable for up to two years in jail. When looking at their map, I wonder if the creators of End Blasphemy Laws are simply doing a preliminary keyword search to find blasphemous law in global legal databases or what their research methods entail. For instance, I live in Tennessee and would consider Section 2 of Article IX in the Tennessee Constitution blasphemous law. The section reads:

No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.

There are similar laws in the states of Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and others across the board. (You can see similar laws internationally in Pakistan, Ireland, India, and other countries. Even the United Nations has some notable complications in this particular field of legality and religiosity.) The Texas legal statement on public office is particularly interesting. The law reads:

No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

I would consider these legal statements under the category of blasphemy law, but often these particular laws are considered “unenforceable” as well and thus dismissed from conversation.

My research into blasphemy law comes admittedly from the Charlie Hebdo internet movement and influx in media representation. My thoughts on Charlie Hebdo are complicated to say the least, too involved with censorship and then Islamic blasphemy law, and thus convoluted and perhaps even ill-informed as some opinions tend to be. And maybe, I am too late in on the conversation. Anyway, it’s blasphemy thoughts for today, readers. And I find that I am all too reminded when researching law of the familiar childhood phrase, “Don’t poke your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

A Review of Kate Schmitt’s Singing Bones

Sarah Key:

Working with Kate Schmitt’s Singing Bones has been a phenomenal and healing experience. This review from Vivian Wagner really hits it on the head for me.

Originally posted on BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog:

bonesBy Vivian Wagner

Kate Schmitt’s Singing Bones came to me during a fragmented time of my life, and this book about suicide, depression, and storytelling spoke to me in deep, mysterious, and ultimately healing ways.

Ever since my dad shot himself several years ago, I have been alternately grief-stricken, numb, and inquisitive about his death. Why did he do it? What did it mean? And what does his suicide say about who I am and who I’ll become?

Singing Bones is a fragmented quest for Schmitt to understand her grandmother’s suicide, even as the author descends into an underworld of depression, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts. It’s a memoir that takes the form of loosely interconnected flash essays, bits of poetry, epigrams, and other hybrid forms. In fact, the book’s fragmentation is vital to its meaning, purpose, and overall effect. Her story could not have been told in the same way…

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Jesus Goes to Hobby Lobby

At my university, I manage a student organization for creative writers. In addition to workshops, readings, etc., we host craft nights that pertain to writing and literature. Since we are located in a smaller town with few available art-centric resources and since I am admittedly not always the best planner, I occasionally end up buying some of our supplies from Hobby Lobby, the begrudged craft store not far from campus. For example, the organization’s Writer’s Block Party required acrylic spray that would add a glossed finish to members’ works, and I (poor planner that I am) ended up at Hobby Lobby on the day of our event asking an employee to help find the product. Alas.


Me with that damned Hobby Lobby acrylic spray. *pitch forks! fire!*
Someone! Quick! Mop that floor.

With a more liberal-leaning membership and support system, some people voiced concerns about purchasing products from Hobby Lobby. Our more conservative members were silent. They didn’t praise our “support” of Hobby Lobby. When asked, many of them said they didn’t care at all and thought the whole thing was being “blown out of proportion.”

The popular view in the media was that conservatives were going wild over the Supreme Court decision to favor Hobby Lobby’s charged mandate against providing female employees with contraceptive coverage. Hobby Lobby has claimed to be a reflection of Christian values. (I guess, this explains why I never see any snazzy Margaritaville signs in their stores.) Many conservatives who support the pro-life movement thought Hobby Lobby was making a crucial stand for their freedoms and quickly joined in the crusade by posting their opinions on social media websites. The most popular question being, “How can the Government make Christians pay for abortions?”

On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court decision was made, and conservatives celebrated. Many considered this ruling to be a success for freedom of religion and began writing posts on Facebook and Twitter about a “rare triumph. . . in the war against Christianity.”

During all this yaysaying and war victory celebrating and liberal head shaking, we failed to see one simple detail:

“The most straightforward way of doing this would be for the Government to assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any women who are unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers’ religious objections.”

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

Who is “the Government” exactly? Well, taxpayers. Me, the conservatives and their pro-choice neighbor. In celebrating the rights of for-profit corporations to have religious freedom, many conservatives failed to see the scope of this detail. Corporations were the winner in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Not conservatives or Christians or protesting activists. Hobby Lobby decided not to pay their share and thus burdened taxpayers. None of this is a new story. Pacifists have long been paying taxes that go to military support. Atheists have shouldered a larger tax responsibility, because many churches are tax-exempt.


Hobby Lobby sold its case as being a huge victory for the conservative pro-life movement to garner customers and higher sales. It made Christians believe that their corporation was carrying some huge burden for them on the front lines of the “war against Christianity” when really this court ruling was a huge loss for everyone but Hobby Lobby and other future corporations that could possibly pass off their fiscal obligations to taxpayers.

It does make me feel somewhat disgusted to find myself shopping in Hobby Lobby and to know that I will probably end up there again sometime in the next year, but it’s not because of my anti-religious leanings. It’s because of my feminist ideology. I am exhausted at women being treated like objects again in some sort of religious contest. I am exhausted at seeing the working class woman disproportionately affected by a demagogic corporation. I am exhausted by reading another ridiculous gender-based legislative act. Here is to hoping that we remain conscious of the disingenuous nature in these acts and the consequences of such ubiquitous crusades.

Scientists Think They Know Everything

Occasionally, I hear a person say something like, “Scientists think they know everything.” I am always slightly off-put by these statements, because I think it’s the furthest thing from the truth. In many ways, ignorance is the motivation for scientific thought and investigation. Some scientists even believe the primary goal of a scientist is to remain forever uncertain. Whenever I hear people talking about “know-it-all” scientists, I think about a lot of things—ego, responsibility, indeterminacy, magic wells. Mostly, I think of this particularly amusing (somewhat controversial) TED talk by Dr. Stuart Firestein:

Firestein talks about the nature of science, knowledge, and even formal education. (And magic wells, which is likely my favorite part of the talk and probably also indicative of my reverence for Murakami.) Essentially, Firestein’s argument boils down to the idea that there is progress in “less pejorative. . . thoroughly conscious ignorance.” At the same time, I don’t think Firestein is saying that all approaches to knowledge are equal. He emphasizes the importance of Kant’s “question propagation” in how he talks about turning molecules into perceptions or even the oddities of robotics. Firestein isn’t dismissing the validity of science. He is simply expressing that scientific knowledge isn’t complete or perfect.

“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.” ―Jacob Bronowski

Science that expresses an absolute knowledge becomes dogma. Dogmatic science, to me, isn’t science.

If you want to talk about uncertainty and how we grapple with it as a collective people, I can roll with Alan Watts and primary consciousness and the age of anxiety. Or we can move to John Keats and meander with negative capability. Then, we can play a hand of cards with Voltaire. This grappling is expressed in varying areas of culture from philosophy to literature to film. For me, it’s ludicrous to think that uncertainty theory exists only outside of science and in the pursuit of artist presence. I cannot help but wonder if this concept of factual knowledge and ego has trickled down from the type of “bulimic education” that Firestein mentions in his lecture, but maybe I will propagate a bit more on that after a cup of coffee, or several.