Reading is a Sacred Act: A Follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

 

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A Year in Review (2018)

2018 was a rather momentous year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are 18 of the significant happenings of 20183:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

A Year in Books (2018)

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

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

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

Best “Just Fun” Book

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

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

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

Best Audiobook

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

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

Best Fiction

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

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

Best Non-fiction

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

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

Most Read Author

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

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

Worst Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do we intentionally break this cycle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

Creation is a Sacred Act: An Ode to NaNoWriMo

My plan was to spend November writing a novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

To Give Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25. Prayer labyrinths.

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

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

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

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

30. That I journey onward with hope.

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

The Sacrament of Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in joy,
and acclamation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is a resounding no. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Homesickness Unto Life

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

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

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

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

Where there is room to grow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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.