The Making of a Soul | Words of Wednesday

We’re social animals, but we crave solitude to make our souls. —Ursula K. Le Guin, Words Are My Matter


From Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Very Good American Novel: H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn” in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books 2000-2016 (a collection of essays, book reviews, author notes, and introductions). 

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A Worthy Life | Words of Wednesday

And she hoped she’d lived a life worthy of the great books she had read. –Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage


This is the cry of my heart. To live a life worthy of the meaning I have glimpsed, the beauty I have tasted.

As my brother reminded me recently, a life spent reading is not a bad life. I certainly hope that is true, for while I can’t claim to be doing much these days, I am certainly reading … as I have read all the years of my life, in all the places I have journeyed.  

Paul Elie’s The Life You Save is an interwoven biography of Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day (the “she” of the above quote). It is “the story of four modern American Catholics who made literature out of their search for God”1 (and very good literature at that: two of them won the National Book Award and all four continue to be read, and read, and read).

I wrote a fairly substantial review on Goodreads, so rather than repeat that all here, let me just say that this spiritual biography is unique in that it is also a literary biography. Not just in its treatment of what these authors wrote (and how they engaged their faith in that process), but in what they read — for all four, to one degree or another, read their way to God.

As I noted in Reading is a Sacred Act, that is a trajectory with which I am intimately familiar.

The story of their lives, then, is also its meaning and its implication for ours. They saw religious experience out before them, they read their way toward it, they believed it, they lived it, they made it their own. With us in mind, they put it in writing. –Paul Elie

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

Footnotes:

 1. Quoted from the synopsis on Goodreads.

Reading is a Sacred Act: A Follow-up

A semi-companion to this post about writing and a direct sequel to this one about reading spiritual books by women. 

I promised, a while ago, to follow up my post about women’s writing (and why we should be reading more of it) with a list of some of my personal “must-reads” — the books by women that have most deeply impacted my heart and mind.

At the time, I didn’t quite realize what an impossible task I’d set myself.

How does one curate such a list? Even if the only criteria is “personal impact,” how is one to measure and define such impact? Especially across genres and years? How do I compare Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Moccasin Trail, for instance, one of my favorite Newberry Honor books from grade school (which spoke to my heart deeply on the topics of exile and displacement — the losses and gains of straddling worlds) with Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or (on an even more different playing field) Jeannette Winterson’s Art Objects? For that matter, should Moccasin Trail even be a candidate, given that its protagonist is male? And what about Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, loved so dearly for its lyricism and strangeness, which I would claim as one of my all-time favorite classics … but which boils down, in the end, to a masterfully told tale?

I can hear the hecklers already, It’s your list, do what you want. Yet it’s such a knotty business, choosing favorites. Publicly declaring, This matters more to me than all those others I left off the list. And whether one wants to admit it or not, the public aspect also gets messy. By posting this on a public blog, I’m not really saying, simply, Here are some books that moved me, challenged me, changed me. I’m saying, Here are some books I think you, too, should read. Yet, as a teacher, I recognize that my personal favorites are not always the best books for my classroom. Personal impact is not the same as “objective” worth (or general value). Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, is an important read, and, dealing with gender and religion as it does, leaving it off the list seems almost irresponsible. It would certainly belong on a list of “books you should read.” Yet, while it was certainly thought-provoking, engaging, and worth my time, its personal impact was limited.

And if you’re thinking, Wait, I thought the whole point (as stated in the aforementioned article) was that these were meant to be spiritual books by women … well, that isn’t as simple as it might sound either. You see, there’s a reason I majored in literature in college. A reason I cared enough about what and how students were reading to become an English teacher upon graduating. Literature has been inextricably tied up with my faith journey since I read my first Newberry Honor book when I was eight. Earlier, actually, since I was already listening to stories (read aloud, played on tape, told orally) long before I could read them. I’ve read, and been deeply impacted by, my fair share of nonfiction over the years, but it is in the pages of fiction that I most consistently come face to face with the deep truths, beauty, and goodness that have drawn my heart, over and over, back to God.

If I hadn’t known Aslan as a child,1 or had my heart pierced by Justin’s sacrifice,2 or longed for the glory of Arthur,3 or tasted Hassan’s goodness4 — if I hadn’t had my imagination sanctified, over and over again, with glimpses of meaning, of sacrifice, of hope — if I hadn’t tasted life so often and so young — would I have recognized, in Christ, the fulfillment of my heart’s yearning? Or even known what I was yearning for?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that I came to God by way of story. By way of literature. By way of books. And for me there is no clear demarcation between the spiritual and the secular in this realm. Rather, there are books that send me back to the world alive and awake (to wonder, to beauty, to pain, to the search for truth, to the need for healing, to the yearning for joy) — and books that do not.

As a Christ-follower, I also believe that part of our calling, as readers, writers, artists, people, is to search for that goodness, coherence, meaning, and beauty in the world around us5 (to create cosmos out of chaos, as Madeleine L’Engle might put it6). Are some texts drivel that do little more than de-sensitize us to the sorrows and joys of our fragile, beautiful world? Of what it means to live, to love, to die — to be human? Undoubtedly. Pornography’s a real thing (the dangers of which go far beyond the boundaries of trivializing sexual encounter — for treating sex casually is nothing compared to treating people casually, treating life casually, treating meaning casually). Yet I’d rather be on the lookout for the sacred than spend my time decrying the profane. Which is why I’d happily declare Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and James Goldman’s Lion in Winter two of the most moral, spiritual, and powerful texts I know.

So, yes, I’m still working on those lists (which will probably appear as a series of several shorter lists — divided by genre, topic, etc. — to make the act of choosing less traumatic). It’s quite possible that many (most) of the selected books won’t explicitly deal with faith — or be written by those who identify as people of faith. Even so, I see them connected, inextricably, with the purpose laid out in that original blog post: to cast our nets wider and encounter the image of God in places we have long ignored (namely, the words spoken by women).

As you wait for my lists with bated breath, what are some of your favorite texts by women? Or some of the unexpected places where you have encountered God? What stories remind you that there is hope and goodness in the world? Something to fight for, something to gain, something to lose? Something to this business of living that matters and matters mightily? 

Footnotes:

  1. C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia
  2. Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
  3. Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy
  4. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner
  5. Philippians 4:8 — “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
  6. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

 

Searching for Sunday | Words of Wednesday

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security … More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, “Give them something to eat.” —Pope Francis (quoted in Searching for Sunday)


The above quote opens Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Churchthe first book I read in 2019 (Malafrena, the first book I finished in 2019, was begun months earlier). And, like Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith, it was a book that spoke to my heart, to my yearning for a spacious, generous faith — a faith that would welcome all to the table: pain, fear, doubt, and question alike. A faith that would say,You are welcome here. While you wrestle. In your uncertainty. Even when you don’t believe. Come anyway. Come to the table. Come eat and drink and be refreshed. Come rest in the presence of Christ.’

This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more. –Rachel Held Evans

From the moment I read Evans’s prologue — parts of which read like a millennial manifesto (articulating what she perceives to be the questions, frustrations, and hopes of this “post-Christian” generation) — I knew I was going to love this book. I found myself chanting yes, yes, yes over and over in my head as I moved from paragraph to paragraph. Evans puts into words (beautiful, articulate words) the heart of much that has been building within me over these past several years (as a quasi-millennial myself, but, even more-so, as a teacher of young adults — young adults who have amazed me, over and over again, with their levels of integrity, courage, compassion … and despair). This book is, in many ways, both an answer to the students who asked me, “Ms. Magnuson, why are you still a Christian?” and a plea to those who (all-too unwittingly) made them think they no longer could be or should be.

It is an attempt to communicate, to bridge a divide, to tell a story. Her story, but also so many of our stories. It is her attempt to point us (all of us, regardless of generation) back to the Jesus we have been searching for — and to encourage, challenge, inspire us to be what he called us to be: his body, the church.

Like every generation before ours, and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus — the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these. –Rachel Held Evans

As Evans notes in her prologue, millennials are not looking for a hipper version of Christianity, but a truer one: “We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.” Pushing back against a triumphalism that would proclaim Christianity a religion of victory and success — of ascent — Evans claims church as the moment “when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.” She reminds us that Jesus didn’t come bearing quick fixes, and that the church doesn’t offer any either, only “death and resurrection” and “the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation.” Only grace.

Evans’s book is a reminder of the power of vulnerability and authenticity in a photo-shopped world. A reminder that “there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in [a] hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud.” A reminder that the Kingdom of Heaven is for the hungry, not the ‘worthy,’ and that our hunger for church is a hunger for “safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth.” That sanctuary — sacred space — is created not so much in the answering, in the fixing, but in the listening, in the holding. In the tears, and the table, and the perfume poured out on dusty feet. Christ came and dwelt among us, yet what he offered was not theological treatise, but life (and life abundant).

Sometimes I wish they’d find someone with a bit more emotional distance to give these lessons, someone who doesn’t have to break herself open and bleed all over the place every time someone asks, innocently enough, ‘So where have you been going to church these days?’ … And yet, I am writing. … I am writing because sometimes we are closer to the truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties. Because … even when I don’t believe in church, I believe in resurrection. I believe in the hope of Sunday morning. –Rachel Held Evans

As I wrote in my Goodreads review, “A book that re-instills hope for all the Church is called to be, while elucidating the pitfalls of so much of what we choose to be instead. Prophetic, powerful, truth-speaking.”

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

A Year in Review (2018)

2018 was a rather momentous year.

A year ago, I owned kitchen-ware, had a consistent paycheck, spent my weekends grading essays, lived in a one-room apartment above a close friend, and generally knew my way around my small corner of a wide and spacious universe.

But if you’ve been following my blog, you know all that. I’ve already written extensively about my last few months in Kenya — my last few months teaching — and I don’t yet feel ready to revisit those goodbyes.

I’m still trying to figure out what this transition means. Who I am in the aftermath of teaching. In the aftermath of acacia trees. In the aftermath of my twenties.

Even though it is less than six months since I last listened to the Kenyan rain, or scraped red mud from my running shoes, there is a vast gulf between the there and then and the here and now. The gulf I have always felt, to one degree or another, as I’ve traversed this globe from East to West and back again. How strange to be such a composite creature — to have loved so many pieces of earth and sky, so many disparate histories and cultures, such varied landscapes and worlds. Is it any wonder, as I embark once more into the great unknown, unsure where the next decade, or year, might take me, that I sometimes despair at ever finding my place in this beautiful, perilous world?

2018 was a year that straddled that divide — a year that held the tension of what was and what is. A year that let go of the past, of security, of the known, and stepped forward into…well, into the dark, I suppose. Back into the storm of questions that four years in a single role, a single city, a single campus, had allowed to lay dormant (at least a little).

Though, in many ways, my transition to Santa Cruz — to writing, and reading, and mornings spent strolling through the redwoods with my nephew — was the easiest, safest move I could have made, it was also a trust fall into what comes next. What comes after the ocean and the sun and the evenings watching anime with a beloved brother and sister-in-law? Though I am conscious of the time in Santa Cruz running down, running out, I am no closer to answering that question than when I first arrived five months ago. I have no plans, only a maybe-dream of writing — of making a living with words.

And, in truth, it’s not the words that are the dream (though the literary in my soul calls that heresy) so much as the living: the freedom to move about the globe, untied to this or that paycheck, free to labor and work in the roles that move me, without concern for whether that work can pay. Free to study Arabic, to volunteer in refugee camps, to return to school, to wrestle with theology, to teach orphans, to write books…free to go or to stay or to do as the s/Spirit bids — wrestling with job applications not included.

Yes, it sounds unrealistic, even (especially?) to me. And I make no claims on any certainty that this vision could ever be reality. Or even should be. But this is what the second half of 2018 gifted me: the desire to freelance and the time to start exploring (oh so slowly) that possibility.

The first month of 2019 has already come and gone, and I am, as I will ever be, a pilgrim. And though each step feels, in many ways, like groping in the dark, I am reminded by Fr. Richard Rohr that the dark is “sacred space” — a space of “tension, spiritual creativity, and…transformation.”1 And by Ignatius of Loyola that the only choice is towards “what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.”2 So may I keep walking — in faith, in hope, in love — towards a full embrace of this life I am living, one moment at a time.  And may the questions that hover, and the future that looms, be fertile ground for growing me in the dependence — the smallness — necessary for throwing myself, ever more fully, on the mercy, and grace, of God.

Here are 18 of the significant happenings of 20183:

1. I started the year as I ended it — an aunt. I ushered in 2018 (as I ushered in 2019) on the California coast, and spent the first mornings of the new year rocking my nephew to sleep. Though Magnus Joy is not so small, or so sleepy, as he once was, it seems appropriate that my year should have begun, and ended, in his company.

2. I went camping in the Ngare Ndare forest. Though 2018 contained many final trips to beloved locations around Kenya, Ngare Ndare was significant for being a final trip of new discovery. Not a trip to say goodbye, but hello. Other than a day-hike in May, it was my final act of exploration in a country still rich in the unknown. It was also the first break of the semester, and it was filled with laughter, sunshine, and rest. We walked the forest canopy looking for elephants, jumped off waterfalls, feasted on camp-fare, and spent afternoons sprawled on shukas in the sun. I even wrote some poetry. A weekend bright with friendship, freedom, and refreshment.

3. I competed in Jam Rock, my first climbing competition. Other than a brief stint as a softball player in my early teens, I’ve competed athletically a grand total of three times, each in a different sport. The first, in 2010, as a member of my Oxford crew team. The second, my half marathon in 2017. The third, Jam Rock in 2018. Of the three experiences, the half marathon was the greatest personal achievement; Jam Rock the most fun.

4. I gave my first homily. With only a week to prepare, it was, among other things, a submitting of my desire to speak well to a desire to “speak as best I could in order to please God.”4 An enactment of trust in the God who provides daily bread — manna always, and only, for the now.

5. I was introduced to In the Heights. Making the acquaintance of a new musical is never something to sniff at — especially one so unapologetically heartwarming and fun. And no, it didn’t hurt that I simultaneously got to watch some of my favorite students do what they love (and do it so well). I went to the show a grand total of four times, and couldn’t get enough.

6. I said goodbye. To my students — seniors, juniors, sophomores alike. To my classroom (with its name-plaque on the door). To my campus apartment. To the hammock on my porch. To my colleagues. To my friends. To Kenya. I spent months (oh-so-slowly) sorting, and packing, and selling, writing notes, journaling, going to counseling, and generally trying to do this big thing well: to transition with intention (and attention), with eyes, and heart, and palms wide open.

7. I celebrated the wedding of my dearest childhood friend. Hers is a friendship that has spanned countries, continents, and decades — one of the few constants in this life of transience. Having known her since I was three, I truly don’t remember my life without her in it. Without the acceptance, loyalty, and love she has lavished on me — without condition or hesitation — since that first meeting. We were horrified to realize it had almost been a decade since we’d last seen each other, but I was welcomed back into her life like a long-lost sister. The days in Seattle (a July hiatus in the midst of packing up my life in Kenya), a reminder of what it feels like to have a home — and where that home truly lies.

The days in Seattle also happened to coincide with an extended family reunion in northern Washington. I snuck in for a single night (thanks to a grandmother graciously willing to share her room), and it was its own joyous reminder of family and home — of the history and roots I’ve been gifted regardless of how far I roam. It also overlapped with my mother’s birthday, so we visited the Space Needle to celebrate.

8. I spent ten days on a silent retreat at the Mwangaza Jesuit Center in Kenya. Following on my first retreat at Mwangaza by exactly a year, it was a powerful opportunity to take note of God’s faithfulness in the intervening months. I walked the prayer labyrinth, read scripture, drank tea, partook in Eucharist, and journaled my gratitude for a heart made ready to step forward in faith — trusting the far-seeing eyes of a loving God.

9. I got my second tattoo. Like my birds, it, too, circles back to the central message of my life: hope. Hope for the journey where Christ shall be encountered as he ever-was — in the midst of sojourn, pilgrimage, and wandering, in the face of every stranger on the road. (And, as Mary Oliver or my nephew might remind me, in the colors of every sunset, the shape of every petal, the miracle of every purr. Only humans, it seems, must be re-taught how to pray: every other created thing seems to proclaim hallelujah with every breath of oxygen or touch of breeze — proclaiming mystery and miracle through the sheer wonder of their existence.)

10. I started freelance editing. Having spent thousands (tens of thousands?) of hours editing thousands (tens of thousands?) of papers over the course of ten years spent in a variety of roles — academic resource center writing consultant (three years), high school English instructor (six years), and university adjunct professor (one year) — it occurred to me that editing might be the single job I’m most directly qualified for (and it seemed logical to put that perfectionist need to give thorough, detailed feedback to good use). So, if you need something edited, whether it’s a blog post, college application essay, or PhD dissertation, you know who to contact. (Insert winking emoji…but no, seriously, drop me a line — the passion to help writers communicate is what got me into teaching in the first place.)

11. I spent three weeks in Jordan where I feasted on Middle Eastern sunlight, the sounds of Arabic, the tastes of home (manaeesh, baba ganoush, limon bi nana, etc., etc.), and the delight of having my parents all to myself. (I love my brothers — I love my brothers — but I’ll admit that one-on-one attention is enjoyed.) I also introduced my parents to the Sleeping at Last Enneagram project, spent a few days lounging by a pool in Aqaba, and took my first forays into freelance editing (working with an Oxford University DPhil student from the comfort of my parents’ spacious apartment). It was a delightful hiatus between the leaving and the arriving.

12. I was welcomed to Santa Cruz with fairylights, mini-roses, a “super cool aunt” mug, a belated birthday lobster, a ride on the boardwalk’s gondola, an all-I-could-eat taco crawl, and a general sense of space having been carved out for me in my brother and sister-in-law’s two-room apartment (and, analogously, their lives). I was taken on lay-of-the-land walks, treated to bubble tea, allowed to claim my brother’s spot on the couch by the window, and generally told to make myself at home. While I have a general fear of taking up too much space — of not contributing enough to the world in general, or my community in particular, to make my presence anything but a bother — it was hard for those worries to survive the clear message of we want you here that was so consistently spoken (explicitly and implicitly) over my life.

13. I took a brief foray into the crazy world of online dating. To summarize my findings: while it turns out that it is actually possible to meet reasonable, interesting human beings online, it also turns out (as anticipated — for a myriad of reasons) that this isn’t really my scene. Also, where are all the Jesus-following feminists hiding? I’d like to date one, please.

14. I continued to run. Sometimes every morning, sometimes not for weeks on end; sometimes long distances, sometimes just a mile at a stretch. But whenever I stopped, lost my momentum, took a break, I always started back up again. Running, for me, is a reminder of the discipline of imperfection — the refusal to allow a failure of the ideal get in the way of continuing the hard work of the actual. An unbroken streak is a beautiful thing, but so, in its way, is the choice to run again after a two-month hiatus. To start over, and, in this way, to continue on.

In a year split radically between two worlds, running was one of my through-threads: I ran in Kenya (oh, the joy of having a track not 5-minutes from one’s bedroom), with my dad in Jordan (maybe only once, but it counts, right?), and with my nephew in Santa Cruz. And, for the record, running up hills with a stroller is a whole different ball-game than running up hills without one. Even so, the effort was worth the company (and we ran somewhere in the vicinity of 60 miles together over the course of the fall).

15. I submitted (and published) my first piece of writing since college. The hiatus has been long, but hopefully more will follow.

16. I celebrated my first Thanksgiving with family since moving to Kenya. Like my last family Thanksgiving, it was a sibling affair (though my middle brother, unfortunately, was not in attendance), and we made the family classics from scratch, hosted friends, and generally delighted in each other’s company.

We also rode the Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train in honor of the upcoming Christmas season. (The second train ride of the fall, as we’d ridden the Redwood Forest Steam Train earlier in the season — sipping hot apple cider and watching the redwoods glide by).

17. I spent Christmas with the family in the Minnesotan “homeland.” I’m not sure when I was last in Minnesota for Christmas, but it had been ten years since the extended Magnuson clan (my father’s brothers and their families) had last been together in one place. The trip included a three-day hop across the boarder into Wisconsin, where we rented a cabin large enough to sleep my grandmother’s entire brood of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and grandchildren-in-law (with a few grand-dogs thrown in), as well as broomball, skiing (twice!), cardamon rolls, coffee, lefse, snow (a little), potatiskorv, my grandmother’s roast dinner, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a midnight Christmas Eve service at the episcopal cathedral, board games, cousin time, Vikings’ games, theological discussions, books exchanged, puzzle making, and just general family mayhem and delight.

18. I celebrated the ordinary joys of my existence. Those that followed me to Santa Cruz, those I left behind in Kenya, and those that met me on this side of the ocean. The rhythm of morning matcha and evening rooibos; the quiet of evening walks; the delight of a book, a porch, and a shuka; my nephew’s belly-laughs; trees and flowers and growing things (roses, roses, roses); birds and deer and Jarvis (the cat I borrowed for the summer); a hot water bottle; a warm bed; watching TV shows with loved ones; views of the ocean; cappuccinos and pumpkin spice lattes; sunshine; almond croissants; cookies; conversations; friendship; family; liturgy; breath and movement and the gift of being here, for this moment, and this one.

And, as for this blog, WordPress is telling me I published 23 posts (just shy of 18,500 words) in 2018, and received a grand total of 4,264 views and 234 likes (over 500 of those views going to “A Homesickness Unto Life” in a single day). While those numbers don’t mean a lot compared to many blogs, it’s far more than I ever expected for this collection of life-reflections — this place to think out-loud. For all of you who read my blog, comment, like, share (and especially to my former students who somehow aren’t yet tired of hearing me ramble) — thank you. I’m aware that there are a million other things you could be doing with your time (and several million other blogs you could be following) — that you would choose to read my words is honoring, humbling, and extremely motivating.

Blessings on your own journeys in 2019 — wherever they may lead, may joy, hope, and courage accompany you on the road.

Footnotes:

  1. From Everything Belongs.
  2. As quoted in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, SJ (quote provided by my father).
  3. If interested, here’s a more extensive list from the first half of the year, compiled upon leaving Kenya.
  4. From The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton (quote provided by my brother).

Loving Questions | Words of Wednesday

I have given myself over to questions: large, hard, loving, full-blooded questions.
–Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith


I’m currently on a roll of reading one excellent book after another (well, not one after another, exactly, as I’m currently reading 8 books simultaneously — 5 actively, and 3 at a more gradual tempo — but you know what I mean). Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith, the third of my January reads, was no exception.

I wish Krista Tippett needed no introduction. But though I know she has a wide audience for her NPR podcast, On Being — and thus a wide readership — I also know that most of my friends have never heard of her.

Suffice it to say that I consider her one of the wisest, sanest, most hopeful, reflective, careful, balanced, and, well, loving thinkers in the world today.

Her gift is ultimately one of listening, and in her years of interviewing some of the most extraordinary voices in our world — Thich Nhat Hanh, Fr. Richard Rohr, Elie Weisel, Mary Oliver, Parker Palmer, Naomi Shihab Nye (and so, so many more) — the mystics, poets, reformers, and prophets — she has developed deep wells of truth from which to draw.

Her book, Becoming Wise, which I read in 2016, gifted me hope in the midst of a heart-wrenching election, and Speaking of Faith did something similar.

The last few years have left me heartsore and bruised (more so than I realized) from too many run-ins with a version of evangelical Christendom that finds it necessary to draw the lines in bold — the lines separating truth and heresy, the in and the out, the allowed and the repudiated. What is safe and what is not. A kind of Christianity described by Fr. Richard Rohr in Everything Belongs: “It wants to attach itself to everything in order to figure out everything, in order to control everything. It doesn’t have a high tolerance for mystery or even for ambiguity. [It] is preoccupied with clarity and control.”

More than the obsession with right thinking over right action, the disproportionate obsession with sexual “purity,”1 or even the tendency to literalize certain passages of scripture while discarding others as idealized object lessons (the sermon on the mount, anyone?), I am weary of the claim to certainty. Weary of being offered prepackaged answers to prepackaged questions. Weary of being told where to look, what to ask, how to think, who to be. Weary of having this perilous journey of faith simplified into something easy, manageable, logical, safe.

And weary, perhaps most of all, of having to defend (over and over) the sacred spaces where I have encountered God. (In the silence, in the questions, in the what-ifs, in the stories, in the possibilities, in the midrash, in the unknowing.)

Weary of having to fight for the privilege of calling myself a Christian.

And into this weariness, Krista Tippett spoke. For Tippett’s book is, ultimately, a defense of faith. A defense of meaning, mystery, and spiritual truth in a culture that likes to maintain that civilization has moved beyond religious fairytales, but also (more significantly, in my case) a defense of faith as something spacious and large. Something big enough for our questions, our hopes, our deepest longings, our pain. Something not to be dissected, defended, and defined so much as journeyed with, wrestled with, and embraced.

How can I not love a book that qualifies questions as large, hard, and loving?

For sometimes the questions need to be asked (wrestled with, journeyed with, embraced) far more than they need to be answered. And that is a truth I wish the evangelical church could re-embrace.

I have no idea if Krista and I (it feels wrong somehow — too impersonal — to call her Tippett) would agree on any elements of theology. But I don’t really think it matters. This was a book that refreshed my soul and gave my spirit space to breathe. A book that called me back to the life of the spirit, the heart, the mind. A book that restored hope.

I have precious few quotes on-hand from the text (mostly because I was listening to it in audio format — and was often out walking while I did so — so finding the pertinent places to transcribe was difficult at best), but here are a few random snippets taken throughout:

I had decided I believe in God because the world makes too much sense; I still believe in him . . . but no longer that the world makes sense.

___________________________

And paradox always gives me hope. It means there are tensions that long for resolution, gaps that might be pried open by human understanding and connection.

___________________________

This angle of approach to the broken world resists choosing sides and accepts antithesis and contradiction as given realities much of the time. I find that I grieve as bitterly for the broken humanity of the perpetrators of crimes as for their victims. . . . I find it harder and harder to label and dismiss them, render them abstract. I am constrained to be mindful of both the fragility and resilience of the human spirit. I sense that seeing the world the way God sees the world means, in part, grieving in places the world does not forgive and rejoicing in places the world does not notice. It would mean, therefore, to live with a patience that culture cannot sustain and with a hope the world cannot imagine.

Footnotes:

1. I don’t mean to discount the significance of a holistic purity. However, if one were to count up all the times Christ addressed sex in his teaching vs. all the times he addressed other things — well, it would be hard not to get the idea that we’re far more obsessed with the topic than he ever was (and far less obsessed with issues that he took far more seriously: like feeding the poor, for instance). 

A Conscious Act | Words of Wednesday

For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena


Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death. An award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer, whose published work spans more than five decades, Le Guin was (among other things) a woman in a male-dominated field (specifically, the science fiction genre), a life-long student of Taoism, an astute observer of human nature, and an unparalleled tale-weaver, word-smith, and world-builder.

Le Guin sold her first novel at the age of thirty-seven (a fact that, at thirty-one, gives me great hope), and the years she’d already spent as a scholar (as an undergraduate at Radcliffe, as a graduate student at Columbia, and as a Fulbright recipient in France) — not to mention as a mother, wife, and generally thoughtful, engaged human being — lent her books a care and depth that is unquestionably literary (despite their broad public appeal).

I’ve long been a fan — a lover — of Le Guin’s work (especially her Earthsea cycle, which, in contrast to so much contemporary fantasy, manages to create worlds of depth and originality with an economy of pages and words), but it’s only recently that I’ve started to realize the true breadth of her genius. There is a particular kind of joy in discovering that a favorite author is not only brilliant, but prolific — and prolific across genres. I’ve read fifteen of her books to date, and numerous short stories, ranging from fantasy, science fiction, and retold myth to young adult novels and historical fiction, yet there remain a veritable feast of books, essays, and short stories to discover. 

This quote comes from my most recent Le Guin read (which also happens to be the first book I finished in 2019). Set in the early 1800s, in an imaginary central European country, Malafrena was utterly refreshing and unexpected. Published in 1979, it was written (at least in draft form) over twenty-five years earlier, and thus represents the oldest of Le Guin’s published work. It reads . . . well . . . like a text written in central Europe in the early 1800s.

Despite my love and appreciation of Le Guin, her ability to write so far outside her expected canon still took me by surprise. The prose, characterization, and narrative are each rich, complex, nuanced, contradictory, and, ultimately, alien. Not familiar as even her most far-flung worlds are familiar, rooted as they are in a contemporary genre whose questions, contours, and tropes are our own. In contrast, the world of Malafrena is remarkably other: these are not our people (not contemporary minds and hearts, playing dress-up in historic clothes); this is not our time.

Yet the very strangeness echoes like a memory, reminding us of something important we’ve forgotten. As with Chesterton’s “moor eeffoc” (“coffee room” encountered backwards), we are startled awake — and the world is strange and wonderful and new once more.1 

It is a book, ultimately, about the nature of freedom, intentionality, necessity, and all the paradoxes and perils of our entangled, tragic, beautiful, brief, and confounding existence. What a perilous thing is choice; what a marvel to be human and alive.

If this was her world, she was strong enough to live in it. She was a woman, not trained for any public act, not trained to defiance, brought up to the woman’s part: waiting. So she would wait. For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena

Footnotes:

1. This is an effect I’m more used to attributing to fantasy, than realism (and thus the shock is somehow greater and stranger encountered in a historical novel like Malafrena, hiding as it is in plain sight), but Chesterton himself declared it “the motto of all effective realism.” So who am I to argue? 

A Year in Books (2018)

Looking back over my reading this past year, I have to say I’m pretty pleased with the results. Over 15,000 pages read, across 45 books (which is 3 more books, and 1,500 more pages, than in 2017). But it’s not just the numbers I’m pleased about — it’s the books themselves.

I read some good books this year, from excellent contemporary fiction (which is not my usual fare) to inspiring memoirs — with quite a few joy-rides thrown in. With only a few exceptions, my reading was enjoyable and thought-provoking (sometimes one or the other, but often both at once) — ranging in topic from bird-watching (A Guide to the Birds of East Africa) to writing (Word by Word) to technology (You are Not a Gadget) to depression (Noonday Demon). If I was forced to group this year’s reading by category,  however, the prevailing theme would overwhelmingly be faith. Whether rooted in contemplative tradition (Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh), Christian heritage (Anne Lamott, Emily P. Freeman, Henri Nouwen, Jan Karon, and Sigrid Undset), or elsewhere (Malala Yousafzai, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Elif Shafakmore), much of my reading this year was concerned — directly or indirectly — with the question of how one is to know and follow God. Of where the Kingdom of Heaven is to be found. Those that resonated the most strongly invited the reader to encounter the divine in the ordinary, holy moments of their lives — here, in this present moment, one inch above the ground.

I’m also proud that, of 45 books read, 20 were written by women. While this is not quite 50%, it’s closer than it could be (closer than it’s often been in the past). Flipping this ratio is one of my goals for 2019 (which is boding fairly well, given that, of the seven books I’ve either completed or begun since January 1st, six were written by women).

Best “Just Fun” Book

Shockingly, despite having read a Rainbow Rowell this year, it’s not making it on the list. Attachments was light and fun — the perfect read to buffer transition and dampen jet-lag — but it was a more forgettable version of the normal Rowell magic, and did not, ultimately, leave much of an impression.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer (The Lunar Chronicles)The winner, therefore, is the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. By no means life-changing, this young adult series was just so unapologetically fun (with the noticeable exception of the second book of the series, Scarlet, which left something to be desired). I inhaled these, staying up reading late into the night, despite my work schedule and teaching commitments — something no book had made me do in a long, long time.

Runner up: It seems only fair to give this to another series which also kept me reading late into the night — this time the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown. Hardly faultless, it was, nonetheless, gripping — and for the days it took me to complete the series, I could barely put the books down. (Unfortunately, unlike the Lunar Chronicles, which started and ended on a high note, Red Rising took the more expected trajectory of starting strong and weakening over the course of the series.)

Best Audiobook

The Present Moment: A Retreat on the Practice of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat HanhThich Nhat Hanh’s The Present Moment: A Retreat on the Practice of MinfulnessIt would be hard to overstate the impact this audio-recording had on me. It was enlightening in the deepest sense of the word — a door swinging open onto life, and life abundant. Though I’ve listened to some Thich Nhat Hanh in the past, this (in combination with a first-hand account of his lived reality, as told by Sister Chan Kong at the end of Hanh’s novel The Novice) clicked for me in a new way, and I suddenly get what all the fuss is about.

Runners up: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild — which was beautiful, powerful, life-affirming, and among the best nonfiction reads of the year — and Malala Yousafzai’s I am Malalawhich was educational and inspiring.

Best Fiction

The Gunslinger by Stephen King (The Dark Tower series)I read several amazing novels this year, but I have to give this honor to Stephen King’s The GunslingerNot a fan of horror, the only King I’d read before this year was his guide to the craft, On Writing. I’ve had several friends recommend his fantasy, however, so I finally took the plunge, shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz this fall. I’ve read the first four books of The Dark Tower series thus far (inhaling them, one after the other), and I have to say that I’ve enjoyed them all. It is the first one, however (which many cite as the most difficult of the series to enjoy), that I absolutely loved. It is terse and sparse (much like the man, and landscape, it describes), and I was blown away with how much King does with how little. A piece of art.

Runners up: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (one of the most brilliant executions of tone I have ever encountered), Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers (stylistically masterful and not quite like anything else I’ve read), Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (strange and haunting, even if somewhat incomplete in narrative), and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (essentially a thousand or so pages of character study — yet every word delightful).

Best Non-fiction

Texts of Terror by Phyllis TriblePhyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical NarrativesThis is a fairly technical piece of biblical scholarship, yet it would still top my list of books I’d recommend from this past year. Even beyond the powerful treatment of its content (which grapples with violence against women in the pages of the Old Testament), I loved this book for how it engaged with scripture. For the care and respect it gave the living text — the attention it paid to the mechanics of syntax and structure. Trible is a scholar who understands that respecting a text means questioning it, wrestling with it, demanding answers of it — and then trusting it to speak for itself.

Runner up: Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. A unique and powerful exploration of language, exile, and identity. And Sigrid Undset’s Stages on the RoadA fairly uneven collection of essays, yet it has stayed with me in the subsequent weeks and months.

Most Read Author

Stephen King with the first four books of his Dark Tower series and Marrisa Meyer with her Lunar Chronicles (though, in pages read, Stephen King wins out by far).

Runners up: Pierce Brown with his Red Rising trilogy and Jan Karon with the first three books of her Mitford series.

Worst Read

Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely DiscipleThough I prefer avoiding this category whenever possible, I’m afraid Roose’s book earned it. While the premise (a Brown University student spending a semester undercover at Liberty University) might be intriguing, Roose (or perhaps Liberty) does no justice to the complexities of faith or culture that such an exchange should elucidate. There are many people I deeply respect who recommend this book, but I personally found it maddening and not enlightening. And couldn’t help feeling that Roose (and perhaps Liberty) had utterly missed the point.

You can find a complete list of my year’s reading here or follow me on Goodreads for an up-to-date record of my reading, rants, and reviews.

Okay, your turn: What were the best books you read in 2018? What did you love about them? Any reading goals for 2019? 

When Death Comes: The Legacy of Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver died today. The poet was 83 years old, and while she lived she reminded us of the miracle inherent in the everyday details of our world: the white heron taking to the sky, sleepy cats dozing in the sun, a grasshopper perched on an open palm.  She taught me to see the links between poetry and prayer, between attention, gratitude, and worship. She instructed my heart “over and over / in joy / and acclamation” — in “the prayers that are made / out of grass.”

She was a soul fully awake to life, and she welcomed her readers into that wakefulness — into a fearless embrace of the present moment. She was, indeed, “a bride married to amazement.” And I hope that I, too, can declare, when the end comes, that I wasn’t just a visitor to this place.

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

The Sparrow | Words of Wednesday

And deeper, in a place she rarely inspected, there was a part of her that wanted to believe as Emilio seemed to believe, that God was in the universe, making sense of things. –Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow


I was introduced to the science fiction novel The Sparrow through Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being. An account of a Jesuit mission to “know and love God’s other children” (the ones not inhabiting Earth), the story — written by a life-long scientist, former atheist, and later-life convert to Judaism — deeply intrigued me.

I’ve been immersed in The Sparrow‘s world for about a week now, and though I’ve yet to reach the end, I already know that I would highly recommend it. Whether you’re interested in sci-fi, or faith, or just a really well-crafted narrative, this book is for you.

And, yet, I don’t recommend it lightly. Whatever the above quote may imply, this is one of the most uncompromising explorations of devastation I have encountered. It is, in its way, a subtle, deeply original, and utterly un-didactic retelling of the Old Testament book of Job. What does one do when it is God who destroys one’s faith? God, as Emilio tells us, who breaks one’s heart? 

Whatever peace I’ve made with the presence of suffering in the world (a peace predicated entirely on the incarnational presence of a God who enters into that suffering — wearing it like skin — in all times, and all places), this text (more, perhaps, than any other) has forced me to wrestle again with who God is and what God wants from us. How to reconcile the paradoxes of Old and New Testaments — of a God who both gives life and takes that life away.

And this I think is the point — these questions, this wrestling — and why I can declare Russell successful, regardless of where she takes the narrative from here. Whether she concludes with consolation, or answers, or only with silence, she has forced us to look again, question again, wrestle again. To acknowledge that we are mortal and dust, and God is mystery, vaster and deeper than any expanse of space, or time, or unknowable universe. 

And so, as Marc, one of the book’s priests, declares, “Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.” And yet, he continues, “The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds.” 

So, with Job and Jacob and all the patriarchs of old, we must keep wrestling, keep questioning, till we meet God face-to-face, receive our true names, and hold our hands over our mouths. 

“And then,” Marc finishes, “we shall dance with God.” 

Lilac Breasted Roller in Flight (Naibosho Conservancy, Kenya)

You can listen to the On Being episode that first inspired me here