Heather Treadway, Poet
Do I dare
Disturb the universe? — T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Heather lives surrounded by the English language—by words. She is enchanted by them and enchants with them. With words, she creates images, empowers people, builds cities in the mind, breaks down walls, devises blueprints, feeds and houses, worships, and prophesies. Words don’t escape her. In fact, they gravitate towards her and emanate from her.
It is this quality that makes her intimidating at times. Few people have such an intimacy with language and familiarity with the written word, past and present, and an ability to make connections and exhort you, while leaving you speechless.
Nevertheless, Heather claims, “I actually don’t define myself as an artist.” When I asked her about being a writer specifically, she said, “It’s hard for me in my genre to say I’m a writer, because I’m not published.” But the truth is that she has been writing poems since she was a child, such as poetry for friends and family about the mundane things in life, and she has filled hundreds of journals with her poems and other writings over the years. And these days, poems and songs, particularly spiritual ones, are coming to her at a faster, more natural rate than ever before.
Heather has had a good life. She was raised the only child of parents who loved her and raised her to be a conscientious, creative person. Her first memory of being introduced to poetry was in her grandmother’s upstairs library when she pulled a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poetry off the shelf, discovered “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” loved it, and subsequently snuck it home with her, afraid that it would not be deemed age-appropriate by her parents. Heather aspired to be the first female governor of Tennessee and ran government campaigns when she was younger. After going to Carson-Newman College in Tennessee for political science and literature, Heather moved to Washington, DC, to experience the political world. After a year there, she entered law school back in Tennessee, which had always been her dream, part of her plan to enter politics. But during the first semester, she realized, “I don’t want to practice law” and boldly dropped out, returning to her alma mater to work in the admissions office.
At long last, it was time to move to Chicago where Heather had been accepted into a master’s program in literature at Northwestern University and gotten a job for an illustrious political media firm. Chicago had been tempting Heather for a while, what with her fascination with metropolitan centers and general knowledge of the city, so she was excited to make the move. The rest is history. From there she worked various jobs, governmental and not-for-profit, helping the poor and supporting the arts, sometimes both at once, and slowly but surely fell in love with the old political, architectural, cultural, Midwestern crossroads that is Chicago.
Heather is someone who has kept her spiritual life and her professional life separate in past years. Both arenas have been full, fulfilling, and rewarding but she has had reservations about being labeled religious by those in her workplaces. I am just speculating here, but I assume she would sooner be called a Democrat, a vegetarian, a feminist, a dog person, or a Southerner. There’s baggage associated with Christian culture. I am not sure how conscious this decision has been for her, but I imagine it has become more difficult over the course of the past year, since she became a pastor, the Arts Pastor, a job which involves overseeing and increasing the various roles of art within and outside of the church.
Heather describes herself as, “bred, born, raised and educated in my home state. A Tennessee girl through and through, who bleeds orange.” As a Tennessean myself for a few formative years, it is rare to meet liberals like this one down there. The church-going, yes, that makes sense. The warmth, yes. But the obviously intelligent thoughtful well-spoken-ness and fearlessly political feminist persona, coupled with the serious Jesus-loving-ness, not so normal. Most friends from my high school in Tennessee were in one camp or the other—they were all very sweet, but they seemed to be either outspoken Baptists or conservative Presbyterians, or they were eager liberals with a strong desire to change the tides of racism and sexism, not only in Tennessee, but in the country and the world. The two characteristics were not commonly found in one person. Maybe this is why Heather has kept the two separate. How do sincere Christianity and impassioned but liberal political views coexist in one mind and one body?
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind. — Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”
It is hard for me to write about Heather, because she and her life seem more poetic than sentences and paragraphs. Words, yes, but the confines of grammar are too structured, not “slant” enough to describe her. Heather sees life in an odic, spiritual context. She is someone who has crazy things happen to her, but she is aware that they are happening enough to recognize and recall them later.
Case in point. A few weeks ago at church, Heather was worshiping. She describes, “I saw a great golden gate, the ‘golden gate of beautiful.’ I heard the Lord singing a song over his people, helping them call forth its opening: ‘Open wide, open wide, open wide.’” From this picture, Heather was inspired to write lyrical “spontaneous prose.” Her poem, “Beauty Gate,” begins,
“How beautiful the feet of those who have danced over sorrow and triumphed
How beautiful the withered hands outstretched, reaching out despite, in spite of”and ends:
“Open. She will open. Open wide the gate. Come open. Wider. She will open still.”
The words and message of the poem are powerful and moving in and of themselves, but Heather went on to tell me that after the service, she realized there were deep associations behind what she had written. After doing a little research she learned that, indeed, the “Golden Gate,” otherwise known as the “Gate Beautiful,” was a real gate, which not only figures prominently in Christian scripture, but still stands, though sealed with bricks, in Jerusalem as the oldest gate in the Old City Walls. It was through this gate that the “Divine Presence” used to appear according to Jewish tradition, and it is through this gate that he is to appear again once the Messiah returns. Moreover, it was through this gate that Jesus came on a donkey, worshipped by the very people who would soon allow him to be crucified on the day we commemorate with Palm Sunday. And the “Golden Gate” or “Gate Beautiful” is referenced in the New Testament when Peter and John heal the man “crippled from birth” who leaves them “walking and jumping, and praising God.”
It would seem that Heather’s picture or vision, whatever you want to call it, was about this very real historical structure she was not previously aware of. We have no proof that God transmitted that image which inspired that poem into her head, but the whole thing does seem coincidental. But from what I have heard about Heather’s life, experiences like these are far from uncommon. They seem to happen on a weekly basis.
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what. — W. S. Merwin, “For the Anniversary of My Death”
I knew that Heather had not always felt the nearness to God that seems so influential in her life now, so I asked her how this stage had come about. Sometime after she had relocated to Chicago, Heather was in Tennessee visiting. She explains, “I thought, I’ll just go to church with Mom and Dad since I didn’t have anything else to do.” She brought a book to read discreetly in the back row. There happened to be a charismatic speaker from Africa preaching the sermon that week, and sometime near the end of his message, he stopped and his tone changed, attracting Heather’s attention.
He looked around and said something like, “There is a woman. God is calling her back to him. She doesn’t actually go to this church… You have a prophetic call on your life.” Heather explains, “To say it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I was thinking he was talking about me would have been the understatement of the year.” The man continued, trying to get the individual in question to come forward. He gestured to the area of the building where Heather was sitting. Finally, the preacher took it to the next level: speaking of God, the man said to the unidentified woman, “He’s gonna get you in the gut right now so you know it’s you.” Heather felt her abdomen immediately wrenched in sobs. She describes it as “total spontaneous combustion.” The pastor concluded, “He got you in the gut; you know who you are.” Heather went up afterward and she describes, “He said, ‘You’re the one,’ and began to pray very powerfully over me.”
In fact, years later the same speaker came back to Heather’s parents’ church and sought out her parents to ask after their daughter. He told them he had been praying for her every week since then. So, though I have never experienced that sort of thing myself, I can imagine how it would get you thinking. When she came back to Chicago, Heather says, “I decided I needed to go to church.”
After making friends and joining forces with a fellow lapsed churchgoer (Diane Marshbank Murphy) she had met through work, Heather took a lengthy tour of all the churches in Chicago. Well, at least a good sampling of most of them. They ended up at the Hyde Park Vineyard because “Diane’s mother had seen an ad in the local Hyde Park paper that they were ‘contemporary’ and offered free coffee,” but they both decided they felt too old for it. However, after deciding “we liked the casual vibe of the church” and getting a brochure listing other Vineyard churches in the area, they made it down the list to the unfamiliar suburb of Oak Park.
When they walked in, a woman was preaching, which helped seal the deal for Heather. And the worship music was good. That night there was going to be a Vineyard 101 meeting, so Heather and Diane decided to kill the day in Oak Park, only to find out when they returned in the evening that the meeting was part three of a three-night event. Nonetheless, they were welcomed with open arms and made some bizarre connections with individuals who happened to be there. For example, Heather found out one of the pastors was not only from Tennessee but from her own town and had even gone to school with her mother.
This poem is endless, the odds against us are endless,
our chances of being alive together
statistically nonexistent; — Lisa Mueller, “Alive Together”
If you attend Greater Chicago Church regularly, you have probably seen Heather, on stage. Though not a regular speaker or part of the worship team, you may find her making her way to the front to share a poem or song, often in spoken word. Over the last year, some of her congregational songs have begun to be sung as part of the general worship, but these songs I am describing are different. They are spontaneous. I have learned that they come to her during the worship periods at church, unavoidably, every week, all the time. In her own words she explains, “It’s hard for me to be in church and not have a song. I feel like I carry the song and it never goes away… Rarely does a day go by that I’m not thinking about a song.” Some of these songs lead Heather to go up and sing them in the moment (“I really sometimes don’t know how I get from my seat to the stage”), and some are written down to be saved for later. And she does not feel like they all are words from God: “I feel like there’s always a song in my heart, but it might not be his song. It might be my song. When I am interpreting his song, I feel it in my chest; it will be a physical, visceral reaction.”
To illustrate the strange spiritual coincidences that mark Heather’s life, I will give my own example. Not long after one of the first times I heard her read her writing—I think it was a poem about Chicago–in church, I told her that, not to be rude or anything, but the style reminded me of the notoriously offensive Allen Ginsberg poem, “Howl,” which begins, “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked…” If there is an opposite emotion than offended, that was Heather’s response. She informed me that when she had once asked God for a personal mission statement some years ago, he had given her that poem.
Again, in an email about this interview, Heather, probably not remembering my comparison and our conversation, wrote this: “Six or so years ago, when I was praying about what my ‘ministry’ or call might be, if I even had one, because I didn’t have a CLUE, God said this about as clearly as possible short of bellowing from the Heavens, ‘Here’s your mission statement…’” Heather continued by writing out the first several lines of the poem, as follows:
“‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war…’
Now do something about it…”
Let’s suffice it to say that Heather is no stranger to strange and unusual connections in her life. Every time we talk, she has a new story that she shares with me, albeit cautiously, assuming I will think she is crazy, but telling me anyway. The truth is I think she thinks it is all crazy too—not bad crazy, just unanticipated crazy. I know her life before her renewed faith was full of beauty and poetry and passion and vision, but her life now reminds me of an old blown-up computer chip of electric synapses. She’s like the Old Testament, better yet, a James Joyce novel, full of hidden, unlikely references past and future that mean much more than what is happening at any particular moment. It’s like each moment of her life seems to have deeper, eternal significance, not only for her but for others.
It almost feels unfair. While I am at home loading the dishwasher, who knows what unspeakably powerful spiritual experience she might be having. But maybe that is just what being in touch with God looks like for Heather. Her life was great before, and now it is overflowing.
Again, in an email to me after our interview, Heather explained, “When I had my ‘Damascus Road Experience’ (i.e. the prophet at my parent’s church), my life was really, really good, on course, on par… I wasn’t desperate. I was in graduate school pursuing my dreams, working at the Chicago Cultural Center, living in the city by the lake, and enjoying all Chicago had to offer as a single, free-spirited woman. I was in love with everything and everyone around me. Engaged to the smartest, kindest, most talented, literary and amazing man I had ever met. I have had and still do have loving relationships with my family. I loved my job. I was studying with brilliant scholars and getting encouraged and affirmed everywhere I turned. But God knew there was more. The great wasn’t enough. It had to be the Greater. And He continued pursuing me. Of course, the greater came at a great cost, and that’s a whole other story, but it is so worth it.”
So, in my opinion, Heather’s art is her use of language. Her poetry is flowing and methodical, characterized by strong rhythms and powerful, universal images, often about God and his presence, if not about something quirky and everyday. The songs and poems are both melodic and chant-like, filled with descriptive words and phrases that you don’t expect to come next, pouring, rolling, beating. She has a gift for describing beauty and inspiring change through her poetic words and songs. And this talent, this art, is being used by God as the manifestation of his presence in her life and a means of communicating with others.
Heather loves and appreciates places and spaces, like her home state and Washington, D.C., and granola-y Oak Park, and all of Chicago and the towns around it. Furthermore, she is someone who is aware of the pregnant moment, the moments, and chooses to find meaning in both the mundane and the bizarre. That is what a poet does. Her love of Chicago and her belief in God’s love for Chicago and his people is expressed poetically and in song, constantly and repetitively, like David’s endless psalms about the Hebrews and the Gentiles who will one day worship God themselves. What others may miss, like the archetypal beauty of a sunset or the experience between a mother and her child, the poet sees and shares. Heather does this about God and the mysteries with which he punctuates her life and the world around her. What details and messages we miss about and from God, Heather notices and describes in song and poetry.
* The art of Andy Goldsworthy was included because of its beauty and its inherent embodiment of the ethereal, supernatural mystery of life, time, and space on earth.
Read some of Heather’s writing:
Dissing or Dis-covering Excellence: Heather’s reflections on Arts Sunday October 31
Translations: Heather’s perspective on a morning worship service at church
Read about a few of the writers who inspire Heather: