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 does 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.

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Thoughts While My Students Write

As September marches on, and I prepare myself for what I hope will be a year of words — while wrestling with the implications of having given up my classroom (and all that was both lost and gained with that choice) — here are some thoughts composed while my students worked.  

14 Jan. 2015

For Global Lit.

What is poetry?
It is the muscle and sinew
of words:
The leaping
and the dancing,
The burning and
the breaking,
The place where
truth and beauty meet
with no veil between —

no place to run and hide
from the blazing
brightening face of God.

17 Sept. 2015

For AP Lang.

The sun on this grass,
these leaves,
a thousand shades of
brightness — of dancing
gold. My students
in the world,
thinking, writing.
And I want to gift
them this — wholeness,
wonder. “Pictures that shimmer.”
The world grown deep
and clear,
mysterious and living.

If we chase this brightness
always, will we find that we
have long pursued
the very face
of God?

Can we drink this cup?
Dare we? And what if I —
if we — find ourselves
too frail a vessel
for this gift?

Then cover me —
cover us all —
in grace.

The Waterfall Pools

Ngare Ndare Forest, 18 Feb. 2018

The specks of color flutter
by us, as each step we take raises
a small cloud from the dry
earth, almost as if the dust
were breathing

and I wonder if it were
on such a day, in such a place,
that the hands of God first
formed us from the ground.

The water, when we reach
it, has gathered into
pools of cloudy blue,
and as I watch the shadows
uncertainly for snakes, I wonder
if the serpent ever swam
with the woman and her
mate.

Dust we may be,
and to dust we may return —
here like grass
today and gone upon the morrow —

but isn’t it a lovely thing
to be alive?

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The Slow Goodbye

I mentioned, in my last post, that I have been practicing a slow goodbye. (To Kenya, to teaching, to this season of my life.) A discipline of taking time. Pausing at the threshold. Recognizing, and naming, the griefs of transition, the fears of loss.

Despite all the leavings of my life, I have never felt I know how to end well — how to grieve well. How to move my life — with all its threads of memory — from one place to another, and not feel somehow lessened by the process. A piece of me lost in transition, misplaced (with a pair of shoes here, a favorite book there) along the way.

When one is a global nomad, with a life that must fit in suitcases, one carries very little but one’s memories. And that is a heavy weight to bear alone — the sum of one’s life, in all its pieces and fragments. Oneself, all too often, the only connection between the disparate places and people that one loves.

And though my greatest longing has always been (and likely will always be) to rightly understand my life — to weave together the loose threads and create a coherent whole — I am learning that such a task may be too large for anyone but God. My role, it seems, not to grasp my life — with its frayed edges, misplaced elements, and empty corners — but to be grasped by it. To give myself up to wholehearted embrace. To saying “yes” to each journey, each sunrise, each moment, each breath. To living wholly alive.

And in that strange, paradoxical way life seems to function, it appears that being able to let go, to unclench one’s fist, to say goodbye, is rooted, not in self-protection, but in that fearless embrace. Being fully present, loving well, naming the gift, the key to trusting that this new journey — even with its accompanying goodbyes — is somehow also gift.

In the words of the Lady from C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, “We shall meet when [God] pleases…or if not, some greater good will happen to us instead” (78). “Every joy is beyond all others,” she tells us, and “the fruit we are eating is always the best fruit of all” (74).

So this season of transition — this last summer, which I chose to spend in Kenya, and the year that preceded it — has been for me, not a season of mourning (though grief and joy, it would seem, are often intermixed), but a season of gratitude.

Of mindful attention to the details of my life — the specific joys of this particular place, and the people (glorious, beautiful, so very much themselves) I have known within it.

And it has been sweet beyond the telling of it. Though I will never be able to list all the blessings of this past year — all that I am grateful for in this time of transition — here are a few of my lasts from this spring and summer, a few of the goodbyes (oh, how strange to say it!) for which I am thankful:

1. The first church I visited in Kenya was St. Julian’s, a small Anglican chapel nestled into the hills outside Nairobi. Though I loved the environment I found there, I opted for something closer, attending an international church in Nairobi for almost two years before eventually finding my way back to St. Julian’s. A mixture of Anglican practice (the ritual, beauty, and intentionality of the liturgy) with Quaker beliefs (the insistence that each person — each voice — has value, regardless of sex, age, or level of education), it is a place where my spirit has found room to breathe, to live, and to find itself at home. With no official clergy, it is a congregation that takes seriously the priesthood of all believers — a church (the first such I’ve ever actually attended) filled equally with the voices of women as the voices of men.1

It is also one of the most fearless faith communities I have ever been a part of — a congregation where questions and doubts are voiced, rather than silenced, and where the community gathers to worship, even as it wrestles together with grief, loss, and the very nature of faith, doubt, hope, and belief.

During Lent, I had the honor of being asked to speak, and, on March 18th, I gave my first ever homily (on themes similar to those I reflected on here).  As someone who has grown up in the church, and loved the church, but been so often silenced by the church, I’m not sure I can overstate the impact of the experience. Having my personhood (woman though I am) recognized and valued, my identity as a Christ-follower — child of God, joint-heir of the Son, image-bearer of the Divine — so explicitly acknowledged (not with lip-service, but with action) was powerfully healing.

A final gift from a community that has blessed me in innumerable ways over these past years. A benediction for my going.

2. I first visited Sunbird Lodge, on Lake Elementita (in the Great Rift Valley), during the fall of 2016 — while I was considering whether to stay in Kenya or leave. I had expected the weekend, which I’d set aside for reflection, to confirm my choice to renew my contract for another two years. Instead, it set in motion the beginnings of my transition away from teaching.

Thus, Sunbird has played a significant role in my current journey. And, more significantly, has become one of my favorite places in Kenya to be quiet, reflective, and restful. At the beginning of May, I managed to visit one last time. It was a grading weekend (my last!) and the perfect mixture of productive and restorative.  I spent the days marking poetry collections from the comfort of a hammock (which overlooked the flamingos on the lake’s distant shore) and the evenings fellowshipping with a dear friend who had accompanied me.

It was a lovely end (of sorts2) to four years of intense grading, a lovely beginning to my final month of teaching, and a glorious (if bittersweet) start to the process of goodbyes — the Rift Valley (as beautiful and green as I had ever seen it) with its lakes and its birds and its acacias and its memories.

3. Nothing, of course, has defined my experience in Kenya as much as Rosslyn itself — my classes, my students, my colleagues. Despite various end-of-the-year acknowledgements (a staff banquet in which speeches were given and pictures taken; an all-school assembly in which gifts were handed out), the true goodbye to this part of my life has been a cumulative process over weeks and months. A litany of lasts — both the large, obvious ones, and the smaller, no less significant ones3 — leading inexorably to a stack of graded finals, an empty classroom, and a pile of handwritten notes I shall always cherish.

What a journey it has been.

4. Despite its late introduction to my life, climbing (with its twice-a-week frequency) was a defining factor of this year for me — both in the joy I received from the activity itself, and for the community that came along with it.

If there’s been a crowing achievement of my bouldering thus far, it was probably Jam Rock — the spring climbing competition I allowed my friends to talk me into joining. Not only was it a highlight for the experience itself, but I also climbed the best I’ve ever climbed — either before or after (I guess adrenaline’s a real thing). I flashed problems I couldn’t even send in the weeks following the competition, and managed to catapult myself from V0 routes to V1+ in a single day.

I kept climbing consistently until the last week or so of the school year, when I inadvertently missed my last few chances due to other obligations. Thus, my conscious goodbye to Climb BlueSky was actually later in the summer, when I took visitors there in June. It was delightful to climb with my brother and sister-in-law — to introduce them to bouldering (such a significant part of my life this past year) and be introduced, in turn, to top-roping. A celebratory ending to my time in that gym (though not, I hope, to climbing in general).

5. My first trip to the Indian Ocean was during my first year in Kenya, when I spent spring break with some friends in a rented house a few hundred yards back from the Watamu beach. It wasn’t until the next year, however, when I visited the white sands of Diani, that I truly fell in love with the Kenyan coast. Since then, a semester hasn’t passed without at least one visit to the beach — or, occasionally, two or three.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to say goodbye to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean (that make even the Red Sea seem cold by comparison), or lazy days spent reading in the shadow of a baobab, or the warm, quiet breeze of coastal evenings. I am thankful, however, for every moment I was able to spend in that humid climate: my pulse slower, my limbs looser, my soul attuned to the rhythm of my body and not a clock’s demands. Thankful for the books I read under the waving palm trees (The Chronicles of Prydain, Annals of the Western Shore, and Lonesome Dove, among others), by the sparkling water.

And thankful that the spring contained, not one, but two final trips to that shore: over spring break, with the family of this incredible poet (and one-time student), and again when the chaos of the year had faded, and there was naught to do but process and write and rest.

The Coming
by Reid Carpenter

This is the way the sun comes up over the Indian Ocean:

A painting erupts
out of the long darkness
of a Kenyan night.
The clouds wait for the sun like
disciples who wait for the Coming.
They face due east, their edges slowly, slowly
turning white then orange with anticipation.

The birds, small white and black creatures,
flit over the low ocean, flipping and diving and flying as if
escaping a monster that has long since given up.

The sand — coarse and forgiving, “a pearly rubble” —
slopes down toward the ever reaching fingers of the waves.

The crabs scuttle back and forth, carefully
and methodically digging a temporary home for themselves,
knowing that the waves will come again and again.
Their eyes are attentive and their legs quick.

The palm trees lean toward the sea.
Always rejoicing, they offer their branches
in celebration.

The baobab tree stands in the shadow
of its own branches, the leaves dark green.
Grandparent of the ages, it is
playground and home to the monkeys.

What I’m saying is this:
We have been made as alive as the
ocean and clouds and sand and crabs
and palm trees and the baobab and monkeys.

You, too, are waiting.
You, too, belong here.

6. While my two most recent Thanksgiving breaks were spent in Diani, at the beach, my first Thanksgiving in Kenya was spent on safari. I was homesick, and tired — so, so ready for Christmas break — and the pavlova4 I’d baked to share at a neighbors’ Thanksgiving feast had not gone according to plan; I remember Skyping with my parents, in tears, the weight of life heavy on my spirit, convinced I should cancel the following day’s trip to the Mara. They, however, talked me into going, and I shall ever be thankful for their wisdom.

It was my first safari, and my first time at the Mara Naibosho Conservancy, and it felt like the trip of a lifetime — one of the most miraculous and worshipful experiences of my life (which I wrote about here).

Over the course of my time in Kenya, game drives were an experience I was blessed to repeat over and over again — in places like Samburu, Ol Pejeta, Tsavo, Amboseli, Nakuru, and, of course, the Nairobi National Park.

No matter where else I went, however, the crowning jewel was always Naibosho’s Encounter Mara — with its tented camp, its bush breakfasts, and its soul-piercing views of acacia trees against open savanna. Two summers ago, my parents and I repeated the experience (along with days at Ol Pejeta, Nakuru, and Mt. Kenya National Park), and this June I had the privilege of visiting one last time (thanks to the incredible generosity of my brother and sister-in-law) before saying goodbye to this country of roaming lions, gentle rhinos, parading elephants, towering giraffes, and elusive leopards.

7. If I had to name the one joy of my time at Rosslyn that has most impacted my daily life, it would have to be the beauty of the campus. The view of the open sky — and whirling kites5 — from both lower and upper fields; the thoughtful architecture with its embedded mosaics and hanging glass; the tall acacias and even taller Seussical trees; the flowers, blooming as they do every month of the year (though some of them — especially the trees — take turns adding their colors to the riot of campus verdancy); the armies of safari ants marching back and forth across the nature trail; the peaceful quiet of the prayer labyrinth at dusk. It is a campus laid out by artists, and upkept by hardworking, talented gardeners, and though I loved the small, quiet yard of my off-campus housing, I never regretted my choice, two years ago, to move onto the campus itself — the days I spent watching the sunrise from my porch, or enjoying the rainfall from my hammock, or experiencing the sunset as I huffed in circles around the track.

Like my goodbye to the school itself — my classroom and my classes — this particular farewell was conducted over weeks and months. Many lasts slipped in, slipped by, without me quite realizing what they were — the final afternoon spent reading in my hammock, the final run of the campus and neighborhood loop, the final sunrise viewed in reflected colors across the Rosslyn gorge, the final walk of nature trail and prayer labyrinth, the final time laying out my shuka to bask in sunlight on the lower field, the final morning spent wrapped in that shuka on the porch, reading, writing, drinking matcha, eating my yogurt and homemade granola. And, of course, the final time seeing the acacias of upper campus spread against an African sky.

The Acacia

The sun is bright
on the leaves of the acacia,
its bark like parchment,
smooth, yellow,
the secret green of living wood.

Does the Creator’s heart
stir like mine
with joy and longing
in the presence of this
masterpiece?
Did she bring me
here to love it?
Did she create it,
somehow, just for me?

Though I may not have realized, the last time each of these activities occurred, that it was the last time, I had a whole summer of days filled exclusively with these activities (with some mandatory sorting and packing on the side), and I am thankful.

8. Two week before my departure, I took eight of my last days for a silent retreat at the Mwangaza Jesuit Spirituality Centre in Karen. Following on my first such retreat by almost a year exactly, it was a powerful time of looking back at where I had been last August and where God has brought me since. It was a time of giving thanks and letting go — handing memories, fears, and hopes alike into the hands of the One who has never left me destitute.

Though I had been unsure of taking so much time, at such a critical moment, to withdraw and reflect, I think it was the single most important choice I made in the transition process, and I returned from the retreat with a spirit at rest, ready to engage my last week with a full and grateful heart.

9. If you asked me about my favorite activity in Kenya, I would probably tell you about camping. Escaping the city into the wondrous wild of this spectacular country. I’ve camped in Tsavo (where an acacia thorn pierced the sole of my shoe and embedded itself half-an-inch into my foot), and in Ol Pejeta (where I walked within meters of the smallest elephant I have ever seen — and its quite protective mother), and in Samburu (where our campfire attracted, rather than repelled, neighboring scorpions and elephants), and in the Ngare Ndare forest (where I jumped off waterfalls and caught glimpses of brightly hued turacos), and, of course, at Camp Carnelley’s in Naivasha (where I’ve eaten pizza with dozens of teenage girls during integrity retreats and survived a stampeding giraffe).

One of the longings of my heart was to camp one last time before leaving. To get out of the city with some of my dearest people — to enjoy time with them and with nature — to fellowship in the joy of God’s creation. My friends graciously humored me, and my final weekend in Kenya, right before students returned to classrooms and the school year officially began, six of us embarked for Carnelley’s campground one last time. With a full day and night at the lake (before returning to Nairobi for tattoos), we had hours of glorious conversation, sunlit naps, bird-sightings, photo-shoots by the water, good food, firelight, and s’mores.

Everything my heart had hoped for.

The Leaving Behind
by Reid Carpenter

Naivasha, Kenya. February 2017.

I sit watching the marsh plants and the
tree skeletons ‒ there is a
bird now resting on top of one, just
a silhouette (who can imagine its eyes?) ‒
and the white egrets, bright among the greens.

I am listening to the ibis cry loudly,
and the other birds whom I don’t know by name,
and now the bird on the skeleton tree
has flown away.

I am imagining his eyes ‒ wide, I
think, and bright and moving.

And I breathe deep enough that I
feel the very spin of the earth, the inevitable
movement, the passage of time, just an idea.

And as I sit, the world waking up,
I can only think of leaving.

What if I never had to cry goodbye to the
sacred ibis? What if I never had to leave
this bright existence, this bright life?

10. And, of course, there were a myriad of other “lasts” both large and small. My last birthday celebration in Kenya (and, simultaneously, last dinner at a favorite restaurant). Last Java House coffee and almond croissant. Last Stoney (which I first tasted after climbing Mt. Longonot for the first time during my first week in Kenya). Last Krest. Last fresh passion fruit juice. Last Domino’s delivery (no, I don’t buy Domino’s in America). Last time at Artcaffe. Last time at Village and the Maasai Market. Last time getting my legs waxed, at home, for under ten dollars. Last affordable massage and manicure/pedicure. Last walk down UN Avenue. Last meal at Habesha. Last walk through the school offices, the flag poles, the zone. Last goodbyes to friends, co-workers, and students.

So many places, and tastes, and experiences that — for four years — were the ordinary, everyday details of my life.

In the face of such bounty, what can one do but say, Alabanza?

Footnotes

1. A church where it is considered no more strange, on a given Sunday, for the liturgist, homilist, and readers all to be women than it would be, in most churches, for the opposite to be true.
2. There was still plenty of grading for the month of May, but those were the last of the large written assignments for year.
3. A few of those lasts include: my last chance to watch a Rosslyn production (In the Heights, the spring musical); being asked to speak in chapel one last time (representing singleness on a panel about relationships); praying with my last AP Lang class before they sat for their exam; addressing seniors on the topic of consent (my last chance to speak into their lives); my last Roscars and Award Ceremony; being given the honor of presenting the Eagle Award; graduation parties; graduation; and all the final conversations, classes, hugs, smiles, laughter, and tears.
4. Pavlova has always traditional at our family’s Thanksgivings — thanks to a dear Australian family friend.
5. The birds of prey — not the flying toys.

 

The Setting Out (and the Letting Go)

I would apologize for all the Perelandra quotes in the footnotes — except it’s the most powerful book I know on the subject of embracing gratitude in the face of the unknown. So I guess I’m not actually sorry.   

Almost exactly two weeks ago, on the first day of the Rosslyn school year, while my (former?) colleagues welcomed students back to their classrooms and worked to set the groundwork for the year ahead, I walked in Karura Forest one last time, processing endings and beginnings, and the 31 years I have now spent on this planet (four of those years, and five of those birthdays, having been lived, and celebrated, in Kenya).

Two days later, I ate my last Ethiopian meal, gave my last hugs, and got on a plane bound for all that comes next.

As I have written elsewhere, I am not good at goodbyes. Not good at endings. Not good at letting go of the things, the places, and the people that I love. Not good at holding the tension of the eternal and the temporal.

At reconciling meaning with brevity.

Which is one of the reasons I have taken so long with this particular goodbye. This “so long” to a community, a place, and, it seems, a profession. This letting go — in some ways — of the first third of my life.1 Of this particular story arc, with its heartbreaks, lessons, losses, and joys.

And so we circle back around — back to what feels, in many ways, like the beginning. Back to the precipice of the unknown. Of looking out at the mystery of one’s life, and wondering what could possibly lie ahead.

But, of course, we are not quite who we were the last time we were here. Like Santiago,2 finding his treasure at last beneath his very own sycamore tree, or Gilgamesh,3 returning to the walls of his city, the journey itself, circular though it may be, has changed us — more, perhaps, than even we know. As with Santiago and Gilgamesh, perhaps we are now capable of finding the treasure that was always before our eyes (or beneath our feet) because the journey itself (and all we have encountered along the way) has taught us to see our world anew. (And at least a little bit more truly.)

Has taught us to find beauty and meaning in the world around us — in sunsets, and deserts, and cities, and art, but also in mortality and suffering and distance and loneliness and tears.

Maybe we’ve learned how to find traces of God with us, here, at this moment. Whatever this moment may contain. Maybe the words of the Catholic mass have become engraved upon our hearts, proclaiming “it is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,4 always and everywhere to give You thanks, Lord, holy Father, creator of the world and source of all life.”

Maybe we’ve learned to let go a little more. Trust a little more. Be human a little more. Be loved a little more.

Maybe we’ve learned something of grace.

And so, as I face my thirties, knowing little of what comes next, I am not afraid. And though I recognize that girl I was in my early twenties, so desperate for life to mean something, for the picture to cohere, for the story to make sense — she also is not me. And I am thankful that I am no longer (quite fully) her.

Yes, she is younger, with more potential, more drive, more certainty in her vision of the world and its requirements of her — more expectations of herself and of life.

But I think I am more patient, more self-aware, more at peace, and more dependent upon the God who is not me.5

Walk Cheerfully

My newest tattoo, in honor of my birthday, transition, and my favorite George Fox quote: “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.”

I think my palms are open wider to whatever good God may choose to place within them.6 My heart more attuned to the gift. My soul more fully submitted to a journey I may never wholly understand.

And so I set out, once more, upon these winding paths of life. More vulnerable, less certain; more brave, less armored. I set out, seeking to walk cheerfully, to walk courageously, to walk humbly, to walk gracefully, to walk wholeheartedly. To walk with my hands wide open.7

I set out, trusting that — in the words of Julian of Norwich — “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” and that the power of an unearned grace shall sanctify every moment of this precious, precarious life.

May I never forget what a miracle it is to be alive.

Footnotes

1. At least conceptually. Who knows how many years any of us might actually have upon this globe.
2. From The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (one of the required reads of Rosslyn’s 10th grade Global Literature curriculum).
3. From the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of my very favorite texts to teach.
4. As C.S. Lewis demonstrates in his beautiful and wise Perelandra, it is within our ability to reject the gift, and thus reject our own joy: “One joy was expected and another is given….The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished…you could keep it there. You could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of the turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other.” (61)
5. “But how can one wish any of those waves not to reach us which [God] is rolling towards us?” (60)
6. “The best fruits are plucked for each by some hand that is not [their] own.” (Perelandra 194)
7. “‘I thought,’ she said, ‘that I was carried in the will of Him I love, but now I see that I walk in it. I thought that the good things He sent me drew me into them as the waves lift the islands; but now I see that it is I who plunge into them with my own legs and arms….It is delight with terror in it! One’s own self to be walking from one good to another, walking beside Him as Himself may walk, not even holding hands….I thought we went along paths–but it seems there are no paths. The going itself is the path.'” (Perelandra 62)

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).

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!”

18922159_10158938648760599_3502160609445980864_n (2)

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.