Our Real Work | Words of Wednesday

Our Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

–Wendell Berry


I’ve always been a little wary of that most favorite of Tolkien’s quotes: “Not all those who wander are lost.” I’ve never found it particularly comforting, because A. it implies that some wanderers still are lost and B. it doesn’t offer much hope for that lostness. I far prefer this alternative which I ran across recently through Anne Lamott, who quotes it in her book Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Formatting is thanks to Gratefulness.org.

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Expanding the Spiritual Canon: Women’s Voices, Inclusivity, and the Imago Dei

Originally published 6 Dec. 2018 on Christians for Biblical Equality’s blog Arise. Altered slightly. 

While I was recently “home” in Jordan, I happened to notice 25 Books Every Christian Should Read lying on the coffee table. While there’s something humorous, it seems to me, in writing a book about the books one should be reading, I was intrigued to see what — with 2000 years and the vast world to pick from — the editors might have chosen. Flipping to the table of contents, I was frustrated and saddened (though not particularly surprised) to see that only two of the works listed were written by women (and none were pulled from outside the Western canon).

Why this matters — why it might be a problem — should, I would hope, be fairly obvious.

As Sarah Thebarge wrote, in “(Half) the Sky is Falling,”

The creation story in Genesis says that in order to reflect God’s image in the world, God created men and women.  So, just like Mao Zedong’s insistence that “Women hold up half the sky,”  there should be a similar statement in the Christian tradition that says, “Women hold half the voice of God.” There should be a similar insistence that we not only hear about God from women, but that we in fact hear God’s voice through women.

If we believe, as we claim, that women (not to mention people of color) are created equally in the image of an ineffable God — and if we long to know that God, whose image they embody — shouldn’t we be actively pursuing their voices and perspectives? In some ways, the more different we believe our experiences of the world to be, the more important it becomes to hear the truths only the Other — the one who is not me — can speak.

If we want more than our own voices echoing in our ears, we need to cast our nets wider.

And yes, I know the answer to this general line of questioning: these simply are the classics of Christian history.1 “That they are what they are, do not blame me.”2

And I get it; I really do. Many of these authors have been deeply significant in my own faith journey and in the faith journeys of many of the people I know. But isn’t there also a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here? If we keep handing our children the same handful of books, written by the same handful of men, those books will continue to be the ones that most powerfully shape their journeys and their lives. The “must reads” they, too, will pass on as an inheritance for the next generation.

Whatever important, beautiful, and challenging works have been written by women or composed in other quadrants of the globe, how will our sons and daughters value work to which they’ve never been exposed?

When we omit the spiritual commentaries of women from our lists,  we perpetuate the myth that texts written by men are the only ones that matter, the only ones with any authority. We retain the lie of the universality of the white male voice — somehow uniquely situated to speak into all lives, at all times, in all places — and the equal and opposing lie that all other voices are situational and specific (with nothing to say to anyone beyond the borders of their own culture, experience, or gender).

But the point of this post isn’t actually to rant. Or to disparage books that really are worth reading (regardless of who wrote them). Or to imply that this is somehow a uniquely Christian quandary (the entire literary canon is rife with the same challenges — the same implications and assumptions). Rather, it’s to point out a problem, and suggest (request?) an alternative. How do we stretch the boundaries of the books we value and pass on? How do we create a more inclusive reality? How do we embody what we believe (about diversity and the image of God) in the space we make for other voices?

How do we intentionally break this cycle?

In the midst of a conversation sparked by these questions, my father made me an offer: write up a list of my favorite texts by women and he’d do his best to read one for every book he read by a male author.

This suggestion struck me as both simple and extreme. How do we bring equality to the canon? Well, we make sure we’re reading as many books by women as by men. Yet this is so divergent from the norm that it feels like a profound and costly concession (esp. when you have as long a reading list as my father). And one, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’ve never attempted myself.

I am, you see, part of the problem, not detached from it. Ask me to list my favorite authors, and I can easily give you five men for every woman. Most would be from Britain. A handful would be from the US. And almost none would be non-white.

And this from someone who did her master’s in women’s studies, grew up outside the US, and taught Global Literature for four years. So, yes, I think it fair to say the problem is pretty widespread.

My challenge to you, therefore, is my challenge to myself: it’s not to stop reading books by men, Westerners, or white people (let’s face it: I’m never going to give up Chesterton, MacDonald, or Lewis). It’s not even to commit to a 50/50 split (though I’d consider it a worthy goal to work towards). Rather, I’d suggest we strive to be a bit more aware of what we’re reading and why. Whose stories and voices we’re privileging and how that impacts our implicit narratives of value — of what is and is not applicable, worth listening to, worth knowing, worth learning from.

And yes, I’d challenge us to cast our nets a little wider. To broaden our reading, hear voices we haven’t heard before, learn from the Other. (If you have yet to listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” stop reading this and go watch it — I promise you won’t regret it.)

Here, as with every other aspect of our lives, we need to be intentional, aware, and awake — so maybe next time we set out to create a collection of the 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, things will look a little bit different.

There will hopefully be a follow-up to this post with some of my personal recommendations for must-read female authors (both in the realms of fiction and non-fiction). In the meantime, what books have most impacted your own spiritual and personal journey? Whatever the race or sex of the author, share away! I love to have my reading list expanded, and finding new favorites is always a joy. 

Footnotes

1. And by this universal phrase we usually mean the history of the Western church.
2. I stole this phrase from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Introducing Words of Wednesday

To be a writer, you must be a reader. This is a truth every writer knows. But it’s not just because we learn something of form and the rhythms and music of language from studying the masters. It’s because, as writers, words are our medium. What fill our souls, activate our minds, and grant us something to ponder.

Without the words of others — the works that move me and call me to life — I really would have nothing to say. Writing may be a journey into wakefulness, but I am taught to walk that path by those who came before me — those who startle me from complacency and inspire me into recognition. Those who reflect life, and truth, back to me in a form that I can process, grasp — be grasped by.

In honor of those voices that are feeding me on a daily basis, I’ve decided to start something new. An experiment, if you will. Every Wednesday, I would like to highlight some of the words that have spoken to me that week — some of the words that have called / are calling me into wakefulness. Fragment, paragraph, or poem, I’ll tell you where I found it (so you can retrace my steps if you’d like) and I might, or might not, explain something of the whys and wherefores of my choice — what power, relevance, or meaning it currently holds in my life.

The purpose of this is two-fold: 1. The pure joy of celebrating, and sharing, beautiful words. 2. To act as a sort of monument or artifact — a place to collect, and pay tribute to, some of the beauty I’m finding along the way.

That, after all, is what this blog — In Search of Waking was always meant to be about. An invitation to mindfulness. A reminder to pay attention. To wake up to the details — to the gift — of one’s life. My life. Writing, for me, has become, more and more, about a practice of gratitude. A way to cherish wonder. Nurture awe.1

I want to be alive and awake to the mystery, the miracle, that is my life. This life. The only one I get.

And part of that miracle — that gift — is ink on the page. The power of other writers’ words to call me back to myself and wake me up, remind me what I had forgotten or teach me what I never knew.

Since no one says what I’m trying to express more exquisitely than Annie Dillard (I almost wrote “more clearly,” but my high school students would have passionately disagreed), here is one of my favorite passages from The Writing Life to get us started:

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.

Footnotes

1. As Anne Lamott alludes — both in her writing book, Bird by Bird, and in her audio-lecture, “Word by Word (which I recently re-listened to) — being a writer is about slowing down, becoming conscious, and asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be? Every writer I’ve ever loved has said the same thing in their own way.

Creation is a Sacred Act: An Ode to NaNoWriMo

My plan was to spend November writing a novel.

For those of you familiar with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), this won’t seem like such an extreme goal. After all, hundreds and thousands of people engage in the challenge every year, many of them successfully.

In the last six years, I’ve completed NaNoWriMo four times — once independently, the rest as collaborative efforts with a long-time friend and writing partner. From historical fiction, to fantasy, sci-fi, and retold fairytales, NaNoWriMo has been an opportunity to experiment, create, and delve into the unknown.

I am by nature a slow writer. A precise writer. A perfectionist. In college, it was not unusual for me to write, delete, and rewrite an opening sentence for several hours before finally stumbling upon the right introduction — the right entry into my topic, the right angle for my ideas.

As a writing teacher, this is not how I encourage my students to write. Nothing is more deadly to creativity than fear of the blank page, the blank screen. Than the pressure to get it right. If we are to create — anything at all — we must be willing to get our hands dirty. One can’t complete a project — no matter how long or short — without beginning. Without risking those first words on the page. Without braving imperfection and failure.

The artist, while taking their subject seriously, must be free to take themselves lightly. To experiment and play with their medium — with brush and paints and words on a page.

To this end, NaNoWriMo is a powerful tool. It’s impossible to write carefully, precisely, perfectly when one is writing 1700 words a day. Impossible to allow one’s inner-editor to speak too loud. When one must progress the narrative from one day to the next (no matter how incomprehensible — how stuck or lost — that narrative may seem at any given moment), there is no time to second-guess (to write, delete, and write again) — no time for anything but the day to day discipline of showing up, of engaging with possibility.

And the miracle — like an image emerging from finger-paints, paper-scraps, and plaster — comes through the mess. In the midst of useless paragraphs, dead-end scenes, and mind-numbing prose, comes a sentence here, a character there, a moment, an exchange, that ring unquestionably true and would never have existed if the exercise had not forced you to put words to the digital page. When the month ends, there is no finished product, only an unwieldy conglomeration of words and characters and scenes (which may or may not resemble a traditionally defined “plot”1). But there is also the heady rush of creation — of something existing, taking up space in the world, that a month before did not.

Not to mention the intangible impact of the discipline itself. A practice of courage, of playfulness, of creativity, and of faith. Showing up, day after day (whether filled with hope or overwhelmed with discouragement), to enact a belief that faithfulness on this long, slow road — no matter how imperfect today’s writing might be — will lead somewhere in the end.

And maybe that destination won’t be publication or writing contracts or fame. Maybe we’ll discover — as Anne Lamott suggests — that it was an inner journey all along. A journey towards remembrance, forgiveness, wholeness, peace. A journey about slowing down, coming alive, and paying attention. A journey to set us free from fear.

Fear of the other. Fear of ourselves. Fear of the questions (the ones with answers and the ones without). Fear of the unknown. Fear of not getting it right.

“Our real illiteracy is our inability to create,” declares the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. And if there’s one thing of which I’m convinced, it’s that fear is at the heart of this illiteracy. Every child comes into the world as a creator, an artist, inherently aware that the world is to be built with, played with, explored. The loss of that confidence represents an estrangement from our birthright — our identity as beings created in the image of a creator God.

The discipline, therefore, of showing up and reclaiming our creativity in the face of our fears (of worthlessness, of inadequacy, of imperfection) is much more than a cute hobby for young writers — it’s a spiritual act. An affirmation of sacred identity. A resistance of the accuser with their certainty that — as we are now — we have nothing of value to add, nothing of worth to say.2

To write, to create, to not give up is to affirm hope. Is to say yes to life.

If you completed NaNoWriMo on Friday, congratulations! Exult in that feeling of completion. In the knowledge that you set your mind on a goal (a pretty big goal at that) and followed through. That no matter how unfinished your work still feels — how messy or imperfect — you showed up. You said no to fear and birthed something into existence. Something that didn’t exist in October and would never have existed without your fingers on that keyboard (however exhilarating, or painful, those hours turned out to be).

But if, like me, that isn’t quite how your November went, take heart. Not stumbling isn’t the point; the point is to keep going once you do.

This was originally intended to be a post about why I failed to complete NaNoWriMo this year — but that ultimately seemed less important than why I believe in NaNoWriMo in the first place. 

Footnotes

  1. Some people seem capable of this particular aspect of novel writing. It is not, personally, much of a strength.
  2. You will be like God, the serpent tells Eve. You will know good from evil. You will be better. More. Enough.

To Give Thanks

In honor of American Thanksgiving (the first I’ve spent with family since 2013), and a week spent celebrating (my nephew’s birthday, my youngest brother’s presence, the beginning of that holiday feeling), here is a list of 31 items I am thankful for in this season — one for each year of my life.

1. For the sojourn itself. This painful, beautiful, challenging journey that is living. For the grace of time — to grow and learn and change. For all the possibilities and potentials of a day, much less a year, much less thirty-one.

2. For the places I have loved and been loved. The soil where I have planted my roots (however briefly) and called home. Seven countries, three in Africa (that most beautiful of continents?), two further east, and two further west. The mosaic that is my heart, filled with pieces from each of them.

3. The people who have journeyed beside me in each of those places — those whose friendships have spanned continents and decades, but also those who have come alongside me in specific seasons, for specific times — their impact, no less eternal.

4. My family, the only permanent home — outside of God — I have ever known. The stability and permanence they have offered in the midst of an oh-so-changeable and transient existence.

5. For trees (ancient olive groves, towering redwoods, outspread acacia, and so many others), branches spread against a myriad of skies.

6. For the oceans I have spent my life between — the salty waters of baptism and rebirth. The Atlantic of my birthplace, the icy refreshment of the Pacific, summers on the Mediterranean, the hidden wonders of the Red Sea, the warm embrace of the Indian Ocean.

7. The mysterious, beautiful creatures I get to share this planet with: tortoises, baby rhinos, lilac breasted rollers, butterflies, snails, grumpy camels, stealthy cats, building-sized whales, all-too loyal dogs . . . and all the rest of the teeming, living wonder that inhabits this planet. This world of marvel and awe.

8. All the experiences of stillness and silence: empty, sun-streaked rooms, fields and mountains, abbeys and churches, back yards and the small space under beds.

9. My mother’s laugh — a blessing and inheritance.

10. The art museums of London and Paris and Rome: that Van Goghs, and Rodins, and the Pieta all exist (which would be enough in itself), and that I’ve gotten to share their space and breathe their air, even if only for a moment.

11. The books, books, books, books (and the writers who wrote them).

12. The teachers who shaped me. From my parents, to the faculty at CCS, Moundsview, George Fox, and Oxford, I wouldn’t be the person I am if they hadn’t believed in me, challenged me, inspired me, befriended me, taught me. I owe them more than I will ever be able to express. They called forth the best that was in me, and set me free to wander the world of ideas, fearless, hopeful, full of wonder, and always confident that in doing so I would encounter the face of God.

13. The privilege of teaching. The platform it gave me and the lessons it taught me — from self-awareness to a forced embrace of imperfection, I am stronger, wiser, better for it. It remains (to this point) the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but also so very worth it.

14. My students. The lessons they’ve taught me (in grace, in patience, in joy — in the nature of God), the laughter they’ve brought me, the trust they’ve given me. If to be an adult, as opposed to a child, is to love as parents love (not for one’s own sake, but for the sake of the beloved), then I think my students quite literally “grew me up.” That I’ve received so much love in return remains an overwhelming bounty.

15. That, despite growing up overseas, live theatre has graced so much of my life. From high school productions, to college productions, to West End musicals — from acting to directing to viewing — this art form has brought me so much joy. Some particular highlights include Rosslyn Academy’s production of Les Miserables and In the Heights, George Fox University’s House of Bernarda Alba and Machinal, Oxford’s Last Five Years and Medea, every time I’ve seen Wicked or Blood Brothers, David Tennant’s Hamlet, and Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov. Not to mention watching my Whitman acting class perform scenes from Lion in Winter and Richard III.

16. A body that moves and finds joy in movement: feet that dance, legs that walk, arms that row, lungs that run, fingers that climb.

17. The women (and men) who have helped me grow confident in my own skin. Who have given me the space to be both female and strong. Who have encouraged my voice, respected my intellect, and honored the human God has created me to be — regardless of gender.

18. The gift of writing as a path to self-knowledge, spiritual growth, and healing. The encouragement and support I’ve received, especially from teachers who helped me discover writing as a tool for understanding myself and the world.

19. The spiritual communities that have invited me in and given me a home: our family’s supporting churches, the international churches I grew up in, the Quaker communities I discovered in college, St. Julian’s recent embrace, the interwoven families I grew up with (who remain one my truest experiences of what it means to be the body of Christ), and many others over the years. Places where — to one degree or another — I have been seen, valued, and known.

20. The prayers prayed over me by my parents, by my grandparents . . . by generations I’ve never even met. And all the other prayers as well — prayers prayed by mentors and friends and brothers and students. Those I have knowledge of and those I do not.

21. That I was raised an adventurer and gifted with adventure: from junkyard forts to mountain climbing, my spirit has always yearned for wilderness, for a taste of the wild. And I’ve gotten more than my fair share, from Oxford’s walking club to climbing fells in the Lake District, from roadtripping Alaska to hiking the Oregon Coast Trail, from scuba diving in the Red Sea to sleeping under the stars at Wadi Rum, from camping in Samburu to climbing Mt. Kenya. . . . There is so much I still want to do and to see (the northern lights in Iceland and the Camino de Santiago, for starters), but how rich am I to have already seen and done so much?

22. That there is still some wilderness in the world (where no roads mar the landscape) — and I have seen a portion of it.

23. Thirty-one Christmas seasons, with carols and candlelight and Handel’s Messiah and sleeping under the Christmas tree and fairylights and sugar cookies and spiced drinks and figgy pudding and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and lefse and stockings and Advent breakfasts and dear friends and so much light and warmth — everything tinged with love and contentment and the joy of togetherness, of family being family.

24. That I have lived so much of my life in sunlight and warmth — open courtyards, wall-less bandas, sunsets in the desert, oceanside resorts, tropical climates, equator living. So much of my life with sun on my skin.

25. Prayer labyrinths.

26. All the roses I have lived my life among.

27. Warm drinks — especially the mundane joys of daily coffee, matcha, and tea.

28. The color purple. There really is no way to express the joy this color brings me, just by existing. (Did God design it just for me?)

29. International cuisine — Korean food, and Ethiopian meals, and Thai flavors, and Middle Eastern salads (baba ganoush!). But, most of all, growing up in the land of harissa, red sauces, markas, couscous, and salata mashwiya.

30. That I journey onward with hope.

31. That from the moment of my birth — until now — I have been surrounded, always, with love.

The Sacrament of Choice

During a ten day silent retreat on the outskirts of Nairobi, a Jesuit priest stood before our group of retreatants — a community linked by silence and prayer, the communion of shared meals, the mundane kindness of a passed pitcher, a proffered mug, a quiet smile, and the holy mystery that is the Eucharist — and told us that to be human is to choose. To choose, and to accept the consequences of one’s choice.

It was the day of the feast of St. Ignatius (the man who founded the Jesuits upon principles of discernment), and four months later the priest’s words still echo in my heart and mind: to be human is to choose.

We live in an age ripe with decision fatigue. Where many of our foreparents were expected to live the lives set for them — by circumstance, by parental authority, by God — we are expected to choose our own. To forge our own paths: what to study; where to work; who to marry; where to live; when, and if, to have children; where, and if, to worship. Few of us have either the restrictions, or the comfort, of the seemingly ordained.

Yet I have chased that sense of destiny across continents, longing for a sense of calling that would put doubt to rest. Wanting to relinquish control (and responsibility) with the cry, “It wasn’t me, it was God.” Not my choice, not my fault, not mine, not mine.

I’ve never liked the weight of control. The responsibility of driving a car that could cause injury. The possibility of starting something only to see it go wrong. The culpability of saying “yes” and risking someone else’s heart. I’d rather be a passenger, called to the holy work of submission. Of finding contentment in the midst of a life handed to me, rather than forged through my own action and choice (with all the potential for getting it wrong).

And certainly we are called to that holy work: for we are not, will never be, truly in control. And there is great freedom to be found in accepting, and embracing, that fact. As Emily P. Freeman writes in her book Simply Tuesday, “Unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This day belongs to the Lord. And he has set out craft paper and Play-Doh. . . . He invites me to come sit at his table and pull up a chair made for small legs. He invites me to surrender myself to his agenda and trust that he intends good things” (134).

But the call of God is complicated and paradoxical. And even a child, invited into a preschool playroom, must choose where to start, where to focus, what to do. (Children, however, seem to lack the fear that paralyzes — trusting all choices as good, they inhabit the fullness of their moment without mourning the loss of what they did not choose. If only I, too, could embody such trust and fearless embrace!)

Perhaps I take choice too seriously. Rather than seeing it as an invitation to playful encounter, a way to explore the world God has placed before my feet (trusting always in his presence to comfort me in the bumps and bruises attained along the way), I dread choice because I recognize too much room for error. Certain choices preclude others, and how can I choose the best, when I know myself short-sighted, lacking in wisdom, ignorant of the future, blind to variables? When I know, in short, that I am not God?

Yet perhaps that is the point. That knowledge — recognition — of my limitations. That moving forward in a fear and trembling that is nothing if not faith.

I’ve been reflecting recently on grace. On what exactly it is (and isn’t). Within protestant traditions, we have a tendency to think about grace in the widest possible way: an unmerited gift. And don’t get me wrong, I love that definition. The breath in my lungs is grace, as is the strength to get out of bed this morning; the colors of last night’s sunset; my nephew’s smile when I walked into the room. I have done nothing to earn any of this, and the more I recognize the gift inherent in the details of my life, the more my soul is set free to worship. To exist in a state of wonder and awe not unlike that of which Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Mindful“:

It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.

Yet that is only one definition of grace. The more specific one (what Catholics usually mean when they refer to it) is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.”

The significance of this difference, in my mind, is that it helps us recognize — with gratitude — that which does not manifest as obviously as “gift.” Under this definition, much is grace that is also painful, difficult, and heartbreaking. As Cowper declares in his hymn,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

In fact, if the great human rebellion lies in determining to be God — to exist in ourselves and for ourselves, immutable, self-sufficient, and in control — then grace is precisely that which awakens us to our limitations. That which reminds us that we can’t, in fact, do it alone. That we are not — cannot be, will never be — God.

Choice, then, is not simply an oft-dreaded, ever-present, and inconvenient reality of my 21st-century life. It — like marriage (that joyous and painful winnowing ground) and singleness (a furnace all its own) — is a sacrament: an external reality through which grace enters the mundane, sacred details of our everyday lives.

My brother and I have discussed this subject often this fall, as we’ve walked through the fields around Santa Cruz or driven the hours to L.A. and back. Regardless of one’s best intentions, it seems transition cannot help but raise questions about the future. About all the unknown paths and the choices that must be made between them. As I’ve fielded questions (my own and others’) about those choices, my brother has been there to remind me that, while I might theoretically prefer a world in which the future was set and all I had to do was face it with humility and love, that is not my calling — is not the life I was born to.

My calling (the life I must strive to submit myself to) is this messy reality of choice. This is the sacrament I must accept with open hands. The tabernacle in which I am invited to meet with God.

The church calendar begins anew in two weeks (with the first Sunday in Advent). As we go forward into this new year, readying our hearts once more for Christ, may we face our choices with the courage, faith, and awe that Mary demonstrated in accepting her own sacraments — a pregnancy and marriage not of her own choosing. May we know the truth of Christmas in the deepest places of our being: we are human, we are frail, we are limited, but Christ is with us; we are not alone.

The Valiant Never Taste of Death but Once: Alex Honnold’s ‘Free Solo’

It was a few years ago when my brother first introduced me to Alex Honnold. “You have to see this,” he said, sitting me down to watch a twenty minute documentary about Alex free soloing Half Dome. At the time, I knew pretty much nothing about climbing, but I didn’t need to — the astounding nature of the feat was self-evident, and I remember feeling speechless . . . flabbergasted . . . amazed.

Not just at the physical prowess demonstrated in such a climb, but at the mental fortitude of the climber. Hesitate, second-guess, doubt — let one’s mind wander for the merest sliver of an instant — and all is lost. As with Neo in The Matrix, success relies on a single-minded faith few of us seem capable of possessing.

In other words, Alex Honnold has a mind of steel.

It was with that documentary in mind that I accompanied my brother to Alex’s newest movie — this one a feature-length documentary on his ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan — this past Saturday. I had the audacity to wonder, is this mostly going to be what I’ve already seen?

The answer is a resounding no. 

Whatever it was I was expecting upon entering the theater, Free Solo was more.

It wasn’t just the impact of watching Alex’s climb on the big screen (though that was certainly not to be missed). Or the raised stakes of an even more impossible, awe-inducing summit — an athletic feat to rival anything we’ve seen at the Olympics (even if one doesn’t factor in the repercussions of the smallest mistake).

We are watching a human being accomplish what no human being has ever done before, and there is something monumental in that awareness. So, yes, Free Solo is well worth watching for the cinematography and the sheer wonder of Alex’s achievement. I would argue, however, that it is as a memento mori that the film is most successful, and most powerful.

This is a movie made in the awareness of death. Of mortality. A fact powerfully driven home by the transparency of the filmmakers. Climbers all, they wrestle on-screen with the ethics of their documentary — the reality that a mistake on their part could cost Alex his life. The awareness that — at any moment — they may watch him die. May capture it on film. Alex is not a myth to these men — he is their friend, and he is human.

The relevance here is not Alex’s mortality, but our own. Driving away the night before Alex’s climb, his girlfriend states that she shouldn’t have to wonder if that was the last hug. The last time she’ll get to see him, hold him, say goodbye. But isn’t the reality, truly, the same for all of us, though we often refuse to face it? How are we to know when a hug, a smile, a goodbye, might be our last? We are all mortal — fragile and perishable — in a hard, sometimes violent, world. Can any of us, truly, avoid the hour of our deaths? Or do we simply live with the veneer of control because we can’t stand the sterner reality: that death comes for us all (and all those we love) and none of us knows the minute or the hour.

All of us have only one life. And all of us live under the perilous sacrament of choice: how will we choose to live it? Some would argue that Alex is being reckless with that gift — and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. Am not sure, for instance, that I’d personally want the honor of being his girlfriend. Of loving him, and letting him climb. On the other hand, are any of us less likely to take our loves for granted than she is? Or any so alive as Alex, living in death’s shadow, fully present to his moments?

Being mortal means to die . . . but being human seems to mean that unless we taste that death, we can’t appreciate the life. We value the gift to the degree we submit to the knowledge it won’t last forever. That it is gift. We all exist on a precipice — it’s just that, for most of us, it’s far less visible than Alex’s.

Am I trying to advocate we all take up free soloing tomorrow? Of course not. (No more than I’d advocate us staying in bed because there might be lions in the street.) But Alex can remind us to live our lives with courage — to engage in the holy act of choosing, and to accept the consequences of those choices.

It seems impossible to watch Alex climb — to listen to Alex talk about climbing — and not believe he was, in some sacred way, created to climb. And I am reminded of the words of Annie Dillard, in her iconic “Living Like Weasels”:

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

Alex has grasped his “one necessity” but our choice remains: how will we live and how will we love, mortals that we be? Have we courage enough — steel enough — to take the leap?

 

A Simple Tuesday

“But here, on our ordinary Tuesdays, is where we make our homes and learn to be human.” -Emily P. Freeman

I startled a deer today. (Well, to be accurate,
Magnus startled the deer, arms waving in a frantic joy,
calling out, in recognition, one being to another, in wonder,
in celebration, in the ecstasy of living. Do you see me? I’m here,
world, I’m here.) It raised its delicate antlers, eyes serious and calm,
the curve of its nose, its ears, its flank, somehow gentle
in their outline, a peaceable wildness in our midst.

Earlier this morning, I sat on a bench, traced words
onto brown paper, the patterned cloth of my Kenyan notebook
smooth against the inside of my palms. The wooden bridge before me
unfolding beneath a canopy of trees (Magnus sings them songs, these trees,
so tall and straight and heavenbound), as the dappled sunlight
filtered onto my pages, into my hair, between my fingers,
and Magnus studied the outline of a long sleek pen,
and wrote no words at all.

Later, I’ll crawl into my bed and nap,
papers strewn across my room’s brown rug
(Magnus’s fingerprints on each and every one), and
later still, I’ll walk beneath a rose-edged sky, wondering
about these moments, and what it means to live them well.
I’m here world. Do you see me? I’m here. A deer grazes
peacefully as I pass. Overhead, the sky darkens
towards dusk, and the first planets blink
into existence. I blink back.

Magnus and Deer

A Homesickness Unto Life

I spent over a year wrestling with the decision to leave Kenya — preparing my heart spiritually and emotionally for the move.

I wasn’t prepared, however, for the deep ache of homesickness that accompanied, not leaving Kenya, but leaving Jordan. Jordan, where I stopped briefly to visit my parents before heading on to Santa Cruz (where I am now ensconced in a room that welcomed me with fairylights and roses — engaged in the slow process of familiarizing myself with new spaces and new rhythms).

Home is complicated, as Marilyn Gardner recently reflected. Complicated for those of us who spend our lives flitting back and forth across the world, but also complicated, it seems to me, for all of us who have reached adulthood — whatever our backgrounds. We are all — in one sense or another — the dispossessed.1 Have all outgrown our childhood rooms and so much of the safety and belonging that went with them. Have all been exiled — like the Pevensie children — from a childhood kingdom we no longer possess.

As I flit once more from this continent to that, packing my life’s possessions in three overlarge suitcases (discounting, of course, the books, pottery, clothes, and childhood toys that live in perpetual storage in my parents’ house and grandmother’s attic), it strikes me that home is a gift that must be given and received.2 It is bound to our conception of place (the familiar, the safe), but, at its core, deals in intangibles that transcend the physical world home inhabits: love, acceptance, belonging. Home is that place where one is sheltered and cherished. Not simply where one is known, but where one is desired to be known. The place where grace is extended and perfection is neither required nor expected. Where there is room to play, experiment, and fail.

Where there is room to grow.

At least, this is my experience of home, an experience I know I am blessed beyond telling to have received. Global nomad I may be, but though I bear the ache of many places loved and lost, my parents, like Bedouins who carry their tents with them, or the Mongols with their yurts, transplanted our home to each new country we encountered. They carried it wrapped in the guise of familiar tapestries and rugs, favorite paintings on the walls and pottery on the shelves. We unpacked it with our belongings in each new city, each new house; yet despite its need for a place to unfurl its leaves and unwind its roots, it was never quite contained within those possessions, those cities, or those houses.

Like the Eucharist, which both is and is not the bread and wine which transmit the mystery, or a human being, which cannot be conflated with its physical form, home is the good kind of magic, always more than the sum of its parts.

It was the holiness of a life shared — embodied in the place in which we shared it. In which we played and laughed and read and ate and learned and talked and created and became. A place hallowed out for us (pun fully intended) by the resilience and joy and love and wisdom of our parents. And even as a child I recognized it for the sacrament it was — for the gift and the grace, the love, it transmitted to my life.

As Douglas Kaine McKelvey reminds us, in his liturgy for homesickness, “It is a good, good thing to have a home.”

That home — the one that grew and nourished me, and shaped the person I have become — no longer quite exists in any world but memory.3 My brothers and I are grown, my family scattered across time zones and continents, and though our love has stretched to fill the gaps that lie between us, we no longer share the holy, day to day sacrament of living.

But the resounding echo of the gift remains, reverberating in eternity, in our individual and collective lives, and — as I was reminded just last month — in my parents’ third-floor apartment in Amman, Jordan.

An apartment where I never lived, in a country that never bore witness to my childhood.

Those details seem insignificant, however (as do my 31 years of age), in light of the memories that pervade the space — memories encapsulated in those same tapestries and rugs, paintings and pottery that have so long transmitted home to me. Memories preserved in the Arabic on the streets and the food on the table. But most of all, in the presence of my parents — in the resilience, joy, love and wisdom that have only grown with the years (whether theirs or mine), manifest (as always) in the hallowed space where they partake in the day to day faithfulness of their ordinary, extraordinary lives.

A space that stands open — as it always has — to the fullness and brokenness of the person I am, the person I was, and the person I am becoming. And, thus, a space that is still home in the richest definitions of that word: an embrace, a belonging, an unearned gift. An invitation to intimacy. Room to grow.

I had not anticipated — grown-up that I am, competent traveler, nomad extraordinaire — to find quite so much of home still waiting for me. An elixir to strengthen the soul for the journey.

 

As I wrote in my journal in the LA airport, as I awaited my flight to Santa Cruz, “Though I’ve grown in my ability to be away from home — to be content and settled in my own life — going back reminds me what it feels like — what used to be eternally mine, and what I have been missing.”

So in this time of transition, as I find myself reflecting, once again, on what it means to have a home, to create a home, to be at home, especially when one is a 31-year-old, unmarried, globe-trotting nomad (as Christ once was before me), here is a liturgy for homesickness, and a reminder that the longing itself is its own kind of grace. Its own gift.

May it comfort and strengthen you, sojourners all, wherever you find yourselves on this journey. May you cast your eyes upon the One who has tabernacled with the wilderness-dwellers and built his tent among us.

Excerpted from “A Liturgy for an Inconsolable Homesickness” in Douglas Kaine McKelvey’s Every Moment Holy:

Let me steward well, Lord Christ,
this gift of homesickness–this grieving for a
childhood gone, this ache of distant family,
lost fellowship, past laughter, shared lives, and
the sense that I was somewhere I belonged.

It is a good, good thing to have a home.

But now that I have gone from it, let me steward
well, O God, this homesick gift, as I know my
wish for what has been is not some solitary
ache, but is woven with a deeper longing
for what will one day be.

This yearning to return to what I knew is,
even more than that, a yearning for a place
my eyes have yet to see.
O my soul, have there not always been signs?
O my soul, were we not born with hearts on
fire? Before we were old enough even to know
why songs and waves and starlight so stirred
us, had we not already tiptoed to the edge of
that vast sadness, bright and good, and felt
ourselves somehow stricken with a sickness
unto life? Hardly had we ventured from our
yards, when we felt ourselves so strangely far
from something–and somewhere that we
despaired of reaching–that we turned to
hide the welling in our eyes.

We knew it, even then, as the opening of a
wound this world cannot repair–
the first birthing of that weight
every soul must wake up to alone,
because it is the burden
of that wild and
lonely space that only
God in his eternity can fill.

That is the holy work of homesickness:
to teach our hearts how lonely
they have always been for God.

So let these sighs and tears, Lord Christ, prepare
me for that better gladness that will be mine.
Let all your children learn to grieve well in this
life, knowing we are not just being homesick;
we are letting sorrow carve
the spaces in our souls,
that joy will one day fill.
O Holy Spirit, bless our grief, and
seal our hearts until that day.

Footnotes

1. Though I believe this to be true, in a metaphysical sense, let us not forget the all-too tangible, tragic, and violent dispossession of almost 1% of the world’s population. “It is a good, good thing to have a home.” Let us care for the refugees in our midst.
2. As a single person, in a world where commitment and community are predicated upon marriage and family, this poses a complex quandary: for if home is a by-product (must be a by-product) of love exchanged — if home is a gift — then can we never experience it for ourselves? To be barred from home is a hard, hard thing to contemplate, and I think we must find new ways to give and receive that belonging — to practice hospitality — that redefine family along broader, more expansive lines.
3. This no longer holds quite the ache for me it once did, for surely God’s memory is the safest, most real place one can reside.