Resurrection

The cross on the wall
of every church
I’ve ever called
my home (evangelical
gypsy that I am)
has been empty,
harmless.

Nothing but the sheen
of polished wood,
a finish so smooth
I want to rest my cheek
against its softness —
a pillow, like Jacob’s rock,
on which to dream
of promised blessing.

Nothing to hint
at blood
or guts or the stench
of remembered
pain.

After all,
it is the ending of this story
that we love.

And so we skip ahead —
an empty tomb,
a bloodless cross,
a king triumphant
on his clouds.

So quick to preach
of heaven, where every
tear, like water in the desert,
shall turn to mist and be
no more, we forget
it was the world — this broken,
bloody thing, where thorns
grow wild and snakes
can bite one’s heel —
that he loved enough
to die for.

In a Jesuit chapel
on the outskirts of Nairobi,
I stare at the pierced and broken
body of the king I claim
to know. The crucifix a heavy,
holy reminder that to be human
is to break. That neither
love nor life will ever burst
into being on this globe
without the mother’s share
of suffering and pain. That on
the very morning we sing
“hosanna” and call the battle
won, the victory proclaimed,
Mary is weeping in the garden,
cursing an empty tomb,
a missing body, and our walk
to Emmaus has just begun,
tired travelers with blistered
feet, bereft and heavy
hearts.

Our hope upon the road:
that one day we may turn
to the stranger
at our side and recognize —
in the sound of our name
on their chapped lips or the broken
bread in their work-roughed hands —
that Life has pitched its
tent among us

(and today
is the day of resurrection).

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On Mortality: A Lenten Reflection

As Lent begins to draw to a close, and we find ourselves moving towards Easter, I have been doing some reflecting on the paradoxes of this season.  This time of self-examination, repentance, prayer, and fasting. This time of preparing one’s heart for the cross.

Lent begins with the words, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Yet as the cross is traced in ash upon one’s forehead, there is a powerful irony in the words: for we are dust no more. The living breath of God has been restored to us. Christ became dust for our sake — became a mortal formed from clay, destined for death — so we could know life. Yet we are still poised in this space of in-between. Caught between the cross and the resurrection.

Lent calls us back to our mortality. Reminds us of our frailty. But does not do so in order to imprison us there. Rather, we are reminded so we might turn and be healed. When Christ declared that he came not for the healthy but for the sick, he was not implying a dissonance between those who had need of him and those who did not. Only that there were those who refused to acknowledge that need, for only those who know themselves sick will seek a physician’s care. As I have written elsewhere, I am coming, more and more, to believe that salvation through faith is not about being saved by faith — by one’s ability to believe passionately enough — but in fully submitting to the reality that one cannot save oneself, and in ceasing to strive to do so.

And perhaps it is that striving, that insistence on a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency — a pride that demands we earn our own place in the world — that is, in itself, at the heart of our sickness. I doubt it was Eve’s longing for knowledge that brought death into the world, but perhaps it was a demand for that knowledge on her own terms — not a relational knowledge (and perhaps the knowledge of good and evil can only ever be relational if it is not to be destructive) but an independent, self-sufficient knowledge. The right to declare truth for herself and by herself. Give me my inheritance, demands the prodigal. I can do this on my own. But can such self-reliance ever be aught but a rejection of love? And can life exist where love does not?

The journey back to the Father, as Henri Nouwen reminds us in his The Return of the Prodigal Son, is simply (and not so simply) about allowing ourselves to be found by the love that has been pursuing us all the days of our lives.

Yet here, too, is irony and tension, for what lies on the other side of a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency but a vulnerable, broken, openness? Nouwen writes, “It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering.” And so we are brought back to the cross and the life that is somehow found on the other side of death. In this upside-down economy, where the first are last, and the last first — where one must lose one’s life to save it — it would seem that to be whole one must choose to be broken, for Christ bears his scars even on the right hand of the Almighty, and if love wears the face of suffering, then, in wearing that face, one wears the face of God.

Do we have courage enough to root ourselves here? In an open, vulnerable, brokenness? To choose to reject the temptation of self-protection and the illusion of control? To recognize that only God can be perfect and sufficient in God’s-self, yet even God has rooted that perfection within relationality, and chosen the dependence, vulnerability, and heartbreak of relationship over an independent self-sufficiency?

Is it possible we’ve misunderstood, from the beginning, where strength, wholeness, and life truly lie? Misunderstood what it means to be like God?

Whatever the case, Lent reminds me that coming home isn’t about striving for perfection, but accepting imperfection, embracing my humanness (and the death that comes with it), and allowing God to meet me there with the love she has been speaking over me since the day I was born.

God did the work, all I must do is allow myself to be found. 

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountain and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

A Juxtaposed Reality

On a Wednesday that is both Valentine’s Day and the beginning of Lent, here is a poem that points towards the costly nature of love. Our culture idolizes a version of romance rooted in consumerism and instant gratification. In feeling good, looking good, and getting what we can for ourselves. But Ash Wednesday points towards a different paradigm, a different narrative and reality. It reminds us of our brokenness to remind us of the face love truly bears: the face of one who joined us in that brokenness, that darkness, that loneliness, so we might be healed.

May you have a blessed Valentine’s Day. A blessed Ash Wednesday. A blessed Lent.

May you know yourself truly loved.

Quarantine
by Eavan Boland

In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Eavan Boland is an Irish poet, born in 1944. Her memoir/treatise Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time was one of my all-time favorite university reads, and I’d highly recommend her work for anyone interested in issues related to poetry, gender, or displacement.

A Year in Review (2017)

Last year, I ushered in the new year outside the Jordanian airport where my family had gathered to see my brother and I off on our Mt. Kenya adventure. We toasted the year  and each other (drinking fruit punch from plastic cups), then hugged and kissed, said our farewells, and headed our separate directions.

I don’t think any of us (maybe not even my brother and sister-in-law) would have imagined that we would be gathered, exactly one year later, on the Californian coast (just south of Santa Cruz), to ring out the old while celebrating a new life in our midst.

My nephew is the first Magnuson of his generation, and, needless to say, we are all delighted by his presence.

In between those two midnights were 365 days of laughter, exhaustion, learning, joy, struggle, and life (in all its messiness, beauty, fragility, and pain). If I were to sum up this past year, and the growth that occurred within it, I would say it has been one of God calling me further into the person I am. A year of growing in confidence and self-awareness. Of shedding baggage and growing hopeful in the face of what might yet still be. I’m no more sure of what the future has in store than I have ever been, but I am learning once again to trust the journey, the wilderness wandering, the God who calls us out upon the waters and names that which is not as though it were.

Here are 17 highlights from 2017:

1. I climbed Mount Kenya. This is something I’ve been wanting to do since first moving to Kenya, and getting to do it with my brother was an incredible joy. I know that Kilimanjaro is the more famous of the two mountains, but everyone I know who’s climbed both claims Kenya as the more beautiful of the two. And it was utterly breathtaking.

If 2017 was a year of slowing down, this climb set the pace.

We did the longest, most scenic route (going up Chogoria and down Naro Moru) and took five days for the total climb. And yes, we did it the Kenyan way (which might mean the British, colonialist way). Guide, cook, porters, and afternoon tea included.  

2. I got a tattoo. Ever since reading The Tattooed Map, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of mapping one’s life onto one’s body. Obviously this happens, in some senses, regardless of our intent: our bodies bear the marks of living. But as a global nomad, who leaves so much of myself behind in any given place (yet with so little evidence beyond footprints in the sand), there is something comforting (and holy, it seems to me) about carrying a physical representation of my journey. I want to be marked by the countries I have loved and the memories I have stored. Marked unambiguously and evidently — a harmony between external and internal reality.

My birds are for Kenya, and they are for hope. They are for the freedom of flight — of life well lived — and for the faithfulness of the One who sends the winds and names the sparrows. They are a yes to the open skies of my journey.

3. I paid off my student loans. Six years post-Oxford, and I am once again debt free. I’m rather proud of this fact — especially since I was either on a volunteer stipend or working two minimum wage, part-time jobs for half of that time.

4. I spoke at graduation. This was a big deal for me. A very big deal. I actually cried (mostly from terror) when I received the official invitation. But it was also a huge honor and the beginning of a year-long process of closure on my time here at Rosslyn.

The class of 2017 was my first group of sophomores and my first AP Langers . . . the class I sponsored . . . went on CFSes with . . . chaperoned on serve days. In many ways they defined my Rosslyn experience. And it was a joy to get to say thank you — and goodbye.

You can read my speech here or listen to it here.

5. I chose to be brave and take action. For the first time in my life, I asked a guy out.

6. I went Skydiving with my beautiful family for my father’s 60th birthday. It was a surprise (for him, not for us) and can best be summed up, perhaps, by my mother’s comment upon landing: “That was so worshipful!”

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7. I ran a half-marathon. With my dad, for our 30th and 60th birthdays. This only became a goal of mine — or even a thought in my head — fall of ’16 when I went out one night and inexplicably ran seven miles without stopping (the longest I had ever run in my life). Following that run, I started taking the whole process more seriously (even competing as part of a triathlon relay team here in Kenya), but the greatest joy (besides watching the miles accumulate) was getting to share the experience with my father, a dedicated long-distance runner and one of my all-time heroes.

8. I took time. Chose to follow through on what I’ve learned about my needs for space and stillness and quiet and solitude. For the inner journey and the still, small voice.

In part, this looked liked mornings on my porch, watching the sun rise, listening to the ibis call, and reading words to set the world aflame.

In part, this was the choice to take a train from MN to OR this summer, letting the country move by at a pace I could feel, see, and understand. Taking time to let here become there. 

In part, it was three days spent at Mt. Angel Abbey, walking the grounds, attending the prayers, breathing in the roses, reading my books.

In part, it was a coast walk with my brother. A day and a half where the world receded (grew?) to the size of a beach, and an ocean, and the sky, and each other.

And, in part, it was eight days spent in silence at the Mwangaza Jesuit Retreat Centre, tracing the prayer labyrinth, walking the trails, meeting the birds and the dik-dik and the snails, watching the sun recede against an acacia-strewn sky — letting my soul grow quiet, and empty, and present, as the moment grew holy, and full, and mine.

9. I attended my college-bestie’s marriage celebration and got to reconnect with many precious faces. It felt like the culmination of something significant. We’re no longer the children we were — and our lives have gone in many different directions — yet the years I spent in close proximity to those laughs, those faces, those bright inquiring minds, shaped the person I have become in a million traceable and untraceable ways. They sojourned with me through hard, important years, and I am thankful beyond the telling of it.

10. I turned 30. Did so amid candlelight and prayer. Surrounded by women of faith, their blessings poured out like anointing oil.

11. I got a smartphone. I’m not sure this was a highlight, per se, but it does mark a turning point in my life. I turned 30 and I entered the 21st century.

12. I was (I am) a teacher. This school year is (rather inexplicably) my 7th year teaching. Three schools, three age-levels (middle, high, college), and almost a decade later . . . and I think I am finally realizing — finally able to admit — that teaching is not just something I do. A job I stumbled into for a while; a place-holder for other things. It is, rather, a part of who I am.

I think I am also realizing what that actually means: being a teacher. Both the joys and the responsibilities of it. And it isn’t about the grading, or the “great” lesson planning, or even, exactly, my passion for words and meaning. Rather, it’s about my students and the practice of hospitality. About seeking to be present, seeking to listen, seeking to create space for encounter — for tears and rants, frustrations and conversations.

It’s about offering my few small loaves and fish, and trusting a God who is so much bigger than me.

I never expected the trust I have been given. Never expected to be allowed into my students’ lives and pain, uncertainty and fear, in quite the way I have been. What an honor — what a privilege — what an awesome responsibility — this job entails. What a holy calling. What a powerful trust.

If this year has taught me anything, it’s that I’m here for my students. End of story.

The irony, of course, is that I’m also leaving. But I always sensed God brought me to teaching — at least in part — to cure (or at least break down) my terribly enslaving perfectionism. Maybe I’ve finally learned something of my lesson: I’m not really here to do more than be myself (in the context of seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God). And in God’s grace, maybe that’s enough.

Though there have certainly been academic joys this past year (teaching AP Lang remains a significant one), most of my teaching highlights have little to do with the classroom: over the course of the year I chaperoned two CFSes (both with seniors, both into Maasai land), one senior trip (a week spent with seniors in Watamu on Kenya’s coast), and multiple school events (HS retreats, leadership retreats, HS dances, bonfire nights, serve days, integrity retreats, etc.); I co-lead a Covenant Group for 10th/11th grade girls, met with students over breakfast and lunch, coached seniors working on their college application essays, and helped host a post-chapel discipleship group; I had conversations on every imaginable topic in every imaginable setting, and had the honor of praying with students whenever feasibly possible.

Not to mention that I got to watch some pretty amazing theatre.

climbing13. I started climbing. I’ve already posted a little about this, but 2017 marked my long overdue discovery of rock climbing. Though I’ve never been athletic in a traditional sense (due, at least in part, to poor eyesight and growing up in nations where girls don’t play sports) I’m beginning to realize that physical activity has always been an important part of my identity. Whether it be ballet classes in Cairo studios, crewing on the river Isis, 20-mile hikes in the Lake District, or — more recently — running through the suburbs of Nairobi, physical exertion (of the non-competitive variety) has almost always played a significant role in my life. A form of meditation — a way of practicing presence. An important process of re-embodiment that, as a 5 on the Enneagram, I sorely need.

I get lost in my head a lot. But it’s fully embodied, fully present, that I’m most at peace.

14. I pursued life. This took many forms, large and small: cutting back to part-time for the 2017-18 school year; taking an art class for the first time since 8th grade; consistent involvement in a small group bible study; choosing to say yes to community; choosing to say no when necessary; choosing to voice my fears, struggles, and needs; choosing to give myself grace for the bad days, the overwhelmed days, the tired days; choosing to fight my all or nothing mentality; choosing to recommit to healthy habits no matter how many times I’d broken my streak.  But one of the most significant and pro-active forms it took was regularly attending counselling with a local therapist.

15. I traveled Kenya. Returning to places I already loved, and exploring places I had yet to discover. Some highlights were camping in Samburu (where I definitely saw a leopard with her cub, was almost stung by a scorpion, and had to share a campsite with an elephant), spring break at L’ol Dacha (which ranks among the most remote and beautiful places I have ever stayed), finally making it to Crescent Island (with Rosslyn paying the entrance fee), the Menengai Crater with Mindy (where I did nothing but read and sleep), CFSes in Olepishet and Kimana (hunting with the Maasai and standing in the shadow of Kiliminjaro, respectively), camping at Carnelley’s (with and without students), a girls’ weekend to Sunbird Lodge on Lake Elementita, an annual trip to the Aberdare fishing lodges, and four distinct trips to the coast (twice to Watamu, twice to Diani).

16. I wrote. Sometimes 1,000-words-a-day, sometimes 250-words-a-day, sometimes not at all; sometimes poetry, sometimes fiction, sometimes something else altogether; sometimes sporadically (one day out of thirty, if that), sometimes consistently (every day for more than two months); sometimes stream of consciousness, sometimes every word chosen intentionally; sometimes writing I loved, sometimes writing I hated, and sometimes writing I simply forgot. But altogether, I finished the first draft of one more novel, and wrote somewhere in the vicinity of 83,000 words (that I bothered to record). Not quite an average of 250-words-a-day, but almost.

17. I became an aunt. The status of every member of my family changed — irrevocably — in November. I’m something I wasn’t before. More than turning 30, more than deciding to change careers, more than climbing mountains or accomplishing goals or getting tattoos, this was the moment of transformation, when everything shifted. Whatever else my life entails from this moment on, loving this little person is going to be part of it.

Magnus

 

A Year in Books (2017)

This was a slightly strange reading year. A year where most of my fiction reads were “just for fun” and many of my nonfiction choices were informative rather than literary.

I read for entertainment, I read for understanding, and I read for spiritual insight — but only rarely did I read for literary merit. I did, however, finally add Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to my “books read” list. And though much of this year’s fiction will prove — is already proving — forgettable, I am hopeful that most of the year’s nonfiction will stick with me into the future.

Here are some of the highlights:

Best “Just Fun” Book

death in kenyaM.M. Kaye’s Death in Kenya. Yes, I loved this book because of the setting. Loved it because of how right it gets that setting. Like Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, this is wonderfully evocative of a moment in British history that is no more. Of a world that ceased to be. And yes, that world is unwaveringly problematic. But I still loved the glimpse.

Runners up: Though I read (and enjoyed) several others in this category, none really survived the test of even months’ worth of time. The one that came closest was A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro.

Best Audiobook

mindfulnessThich Nhat Hanh’s The Art of Mindful Living: How to Bring Love, Compassion, and Inner Peace Into Your Daily Life. Many of my nonfiction reads this year were consumed via an audiobook format, and many were excellent, but this was excellent because it was audio. Not precisely a book, it was a recording of Thich Nhat Hanh teaching on meditation, peace, fulfillment, love, and the Kingdom of Heaven — and his wisdom, compassion, and humor are embodied in the sweet, soft rhythms of his voice.

Runner up: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly EverythingFascinating, mind-boggling, and so well read.

Best Fictionhomegoing

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. A beautifully crafted narrative about history and identity and the interwoven shape of our lives.

Runners up: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (which reminds one of the glory and power of books) and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

Most Read Author

George R.R. Martin with five books — or, perhaps more significantly, nearly 5,000 pages.

Runner up: Ursula K. Le Guin with three books and just barely 400 pages — for Le Guin is a master of brevity, a gift sorely underrated and rare.

rendezvousBest Sci-fi

Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. Mystery, wonder, awe, exploration, and discovery — everything great sci-fi should entail. Once again, Clarke does not disappoint.

Runners up: Le Guin’s City of Illusions and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes — which, let’s be honest, is definitely fantasy and not sci-fi. But whatev.

Best Non-fictionblue nights

Joan Didion’s Blue NightsThis was probably the best read of the year, regardless of genre. Certainly the most beautiful. A poignant reflection on children, aging, identity, loss, and love.

Runners up: Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk. Rainer Maria Wilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. All three are books to feed the soul.

Best Non-prose

This is totally cheating, because I only read one collection of poetry this year, but Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Drawn to the Light was so beautiful I have to include it here.

Book I Most Wish I Could Make You Read

Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World and Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself. Taken together, these two books changed my perspective on how we should teach, learn, and live.

You can find a complete list of my year’s reading here.

22 January 2018

Not so much a poem as a prayer. Not so much a prayer as a whispered thanks. Inspired by Reid Carpenter’s “9 October 2017.”

I started today with a strip of sun against a dark sky.

I started with the sound of thudding feet, the tingle-cold of a Kenyan dawn, the huffing breath of a mile run.

I started with a cat in my kitchen, languidly bumping its nose against my leg, submitting to a pat, a scratch, a pet — always hopeful for a tasty snack.

I started with matcha and overnight oats, filled to bursting with chia seeds, toasted coconut flakes, slivers of almonds.

I started with the words of Paul and Nouwen and the misty morning light, snuggled beneath a blue shuka on a large porch.

I started with my nephew cooing from the confines of a small screen, his smile sudden and bright and too beautiful to bear.

I started the day with grace. May I walk forward in that promise.

On Failing to Accomplish Work

Wednesday, Dec. 6th. 

No, I accomplished no work today.
Other than a handful of blogposts graded,
a handful of comments typed,
a single class taught.

I accomplished no work today.
Despite the proximity of finals,
the growing pile of ungraded projects
making their home upon my desk,
the dwindling number of days
in which to complete these necessary
tasks.

I accomplished no work today.
But I sat with one student while she cried
and another while she talked.
And I wonder what Mr. E. thinks
of this new habit his students have acquired:
skipping 6th period (who needs AP Lit,
anyway?) to come lie on my floor and stare
at my ceiling and let their grief — frustration —
anger — pool into puddles by their feet.

I accomplished no work today.
But I attended a recital
in which a former student made
her violin sing as though it were an angel,
and I partook of tea and Christmas
cheer, and spoke to a colleague
at some length, and braved the art
studio for all of 30 minutes, and ran
3.14 miles (another half hour conquered),
and wrote my daily words.

I accomplished no work today.
But I am sitting on my couch,
in an apartment all my own, drinking
krest from a handmade glass,
and eating the remnants of an
Ethiopian feast (shared this weekend
among friends).

I accomplished no work today,
or yesterday, or — lets be honest —
in a while. And my hope for tomorrow
isn’t very high. But I climbed this week,
and maintained my 750 streak,
and watched Survivor, and slept
barely any hours, and shared a devotion
with my bosses, and hosted
my Covenant group girls, and prayed
with students, and Skyped my cousin,
and lived my small piece
of a large and messy life.

Mary, Mother of God

An Advent Sunday at St. Julian’s.

Sunday morning
in the chapel on the hill,

he sat among the children —
while the candles blazed
and small hands wove threads
with clumsy fingers,
listening ears —
and spoke of strange
and awesome sights.

Of a young girl
working with cloth,
with wool, with a gift
from sheep she knew,
as the midday sun warmed
the world outside her door
and she hummed herself
a half-forgotten song.

There was a second
(there must have been) of in-
between. A breath of space
when the world was just
as she had always known
it, before the walls grew
thin and the air grew strange
and the radiant being proclaimed
a great and terrible joy.

There was no returning
once the message was proclaimed
like burning coals upon her lips,
like flame engraved upon her heart:
Blessed are you, 
favored of the Lord.

Did she ever wish,
in the years ahead, that he had left
her at her sewing and found
some other maid to carry
the living, dying, Lord?

If so, we do not know it.

We only know her words,
echoed in a garden where her
child cried tears of blood
and all the friends were nowhere
to be found: May it be to me
according to your will.

Surely she was the mother of God.

*I meant to post this yesterday, for the second Sunday in Advent. But it’ll have to do for this Advent Monday instead. 

A Daily Walk with Death

In honor of the first Sunday in advent and this season of hope and waiting — of the now and the not yet, of the light and life that is coming into the world — here is a poem I wrote in October. 

“We die daily. Happy those who daily come to life as well.” -George MacDonald

Recently, I have been dead.
Mostly dead, or perhaps all dead —
it’s hard, sometimes, to tell.

It came to my attention
while watching the beginning
of a YA sobstory — she’s dying, he loves
her, the typical.

But what caught
my interest in the midst of too long
pauses, and awkward stares, was her life.
The one she was still living. Her house of white
furniture, her bookshelf of stacked books,
her time spent writing, and building, and thinking,
and growing.

Simultaneously, Rainer Maria Rilke
has been speaking to me
from my beat-up ipod, via a dead
poet he once wrote to — telling
me to take my sadness and let
myself inside it. The suffering, the solitude,
the mystery, the life.

Saying to trust to time,
to the slow work of living. As long
as one is living.

But I have spent so much
time learning not to live.
Learning to hide myself inside
the worn pathways of my thoughts.
The stories I retell inside my brain,
turning and turning them
until they, too, are dead. Burying
my discomfort in that airless
room where no breath of wind
can rustle it.

I used to be alive. I know this. I remember
this. Remember (though it grows vague, muted
by time and inattention) what it was to be
a child. To have skin so thin the light shone
through. To have the world always
present to one’s senses. To have nowhere
to hide from the bigness of life, of solitude,
of joy, of pain. To have everything
mean too much.

How do I find my way back
to that beginning? Only when
dry bones dance, and children
are reborn, and petrified hearts
return to flesh —
only then could such a thing
be. And so we say, Come
Lord Jesus, come.

Five Manifestations of Joy

Yes, yes, I’m aware that it’s December. And yes, I am aware I haven’t written since the spring.

There have been some significant life developments since then: For one, I went skydiving. For another, I turned thirty. I also ran a half marathon, spent a week in silence at a Jesuit retreat center, took my first art class since the 8th grade, and decided not to renew my contract. Oh, and I got a tattoo.

So yeah, some changes in the air.

I hope to revisit some (many?) of those topics in the future, but this post isn’t about any of that. Instead, it’s about November, and giving thanks, and the places in my life where I am finding joy (ordinary, beautiful, life-sustaining) at this particular moment in time. So here are five snapshots of my life right now.

1. NaNoWriMo

I spent most of November writing. Or, if not writing, thinking about writing.

Some of you may be aware that November is National Novel Writing Month. When one falls off the writing-wagon, there’s nothing quite like this particular challenge to whip one back into shape. I spent October trying to warm up for the endeavor, following a former professor’s advice to write at least 250 words a day. Even that felt like a challenge (though there was some unexpected poetry to show for it).

I have to admit that while I have won NaNoWriMo on my own (the year I spent in the U.K.’s Lake District), I have only undertaken the challenge, while teaching, as part of a co-writing endeavor with one of my close friends. This November was our third such undertaking, and our third successful completion. While sharing the burden may sound like a cop-out, and is certainly less impressive than writing 50,000 words individually, if you think writing a minimum of 1,000 words a day, while teaching full time, is easy, then I invite you to try it.

The discipline of daily writing is alternatively exhilarating and mind-numbingly frustrating (not to mention exhausting), but also consistently satisfying. And I’m reminded, whenever I undertake it, that stringing words together into sentences and paragraphs seems (even now) to be a central part of who I am. Of what brings me to life and gives me joy. I still don’t know if I really have anything to say — any words of beauty or truth to lighten the darkness or bless others on their way. But exploring the possibilities of language and story certainly lightens my darkness and blesses me on my journey, and, for now, that will need to be enough.

2. Climbing

I think fall 2017 may always be associated in my mind with the discovery of rock climbing.

I’ve had a free membership to a climbing gym, here in Nairobi, for the past two years, and always meant to give it a try. Realizing I was leaving at the end of the year finally forced me into action. I have several friends who climb regularly, so I started inviting myself along, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s been life-transforming.

I have a long history of struggling with stress and anxiety, and learning to care for my mental health has become a top priority these past few years. Exercise is, of course, an important (and effective) way to combat stress, which was a significant motivation for becoming more serious about my running last year. However, as an over-thinker, running still leaves quite a lot of room for mental noise, and quieting my mind is a consistent battle (one I rarely win).

Climbing, however, leaves no room for noise: it requires my complete presence, both physical and mental, on the climbing wall. (Looking back, I wonder if this is one reason ballet played so significant a role during my teenage years and why I was willing to give up sleep to row while I was at Oxford.) Climbing is exercise, but it is also meditation. And since I go with friends, and one has to rest between routes, it also provides room for community.

Needless to say, I am loving it.

3. Community

I grew up in a family that deeply valued community. I shared my room, off and on, with young women who lived with us for months or years at a time, and my parents modeled what it meant to share life with others — to work, minister, and play together, to rejoice and mourn, learn and grow.

Community is probably one of my deepest longings and highest values — and one of the central reasons I find teaching so difficult.  As a single adult (now in my thirties), community is not forced upon me by the demands of family, rather I have to seek it out, cultivate it, choose it. And this takes effort and time (not to mention energy) — all of which teaching leaves me little by way of reserves. Learning how to cultivate balance — how to leave room for life, and not just work — has been another ongoing battle, and while I’ll never claim to have mastered the struggle (in fact, my choice to move away from teaching next year is due — in large part — to not having mastered the struggle), this has been a year of growing in my sense of belonging. Of knowing and being known. Mostly due to my awesome Bible study group and Netflix’s Stranger Things. (If you want to know how Stranger Things can help cultivate community, I suggest you make some food, get some drinks, light some candles, and invite over some friends to watch the show. Repeat the process once or twice a week until you’ve successfully consumed both seasons in each other’s company.)

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My lovely Bible study ladies at Sunbird Lodge on Lake Elementaita.

4. Students

I struggled intensely last fall over the decision of whether or not to renew my contract for another two years. I finally compromised by negotiating a one year contract, and if this year has done anything, it has confirmed, over and over and over again, that I am meant to be here, at this time, for these students.

Students who brighten my life, every day, in a million tangible and intangible ways. And sometimes bring me poems, just because.

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5. Magnus Joy

This, right here, is my nephew, born November 21st. Need I say more?

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