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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Introducing Words of Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

A Simple Tuesday

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

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

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

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

Magnus and Deer

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?

img_6244

22 January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Is [Not] The End

sunghee and majdIt hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I’ve hugged, and hugged, and hugged, and hugged these seniors. And yet, I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that this was truly it. Today, their last day on the Rosslyn campus. Tomorrow, spreading across the world on grand, beautiful adventures.

It dawned on me today that my entire experience of Rosslyn has been shaped by them. I’ve never known this school without them in it. Never known my classroom except as a place they wander by, periodically, and call out, “Hello, Ms. Magnuson!” in bright, cheerful voices (and perhaps pause to read a poem or two).

The tears today, shed by seniors, teachers, and underclassmen alike, are a testimony to the incredible impact this class has had — the legacy they are leaving behind. They have loved well, they have cared deeply, they have invested freely — and they are ready to go forth and bless the nations.

Graduation 045

We spend weeks (months? years?) building up to this moment, yet it always seems to arrive too soon. No matter how intentionally one tries to mark the threshold, honor the moment, one’s attempts always seem insufficient. I will never have words that are big enough for these goodbyes.

Grief, I’ve learned, is really love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go. -Jamie Anderson

As I sit in the gathering dusk of a closing school year, surrounded by notes of gratitude and appreciation, there are no words left, only the ache of anticipated loss, and the simultaneous recognition that I have been blessed indeed.

A Theology Of Abundance

There was a time when I held a deep, passionate disdain for all things ornately decorative.  For anything and everything that verged on the gaudy — on the “too much.”

And there is certainly still a place in my heart for the simple.  For clean lines, and white walls.  For non-decorated churches that declare Christ’s nearness — his immediacy — to all peoples in all times.  A god who does not need temples made by human hands.  Who does not revel in gold and jewels and riches, but makes his home among the poor and needy of the world — the refugees, the downtrodden, the oppressed and enslaved and forgotten.

But while I can’t deny the puritan strain in my heritage, I have come, with time, to appreciate gold candlesticks, too.  The place for incense and cathedrals.  Stained glass, and perfume squandered on dusty feet.  The creator of peacocks and sunset skies — the God who turned water into the sweetest of wines — is not a pragmatist.  Rather, the God who longs for a relationship with his people that echoes the strains of Solomon’s Song of Songs is a God of extravagance.  A God who declares that we should sell all we have to purchase a pearl of great price (a pearl whose only possible function is delight — sell all you have, Christ says, but get Beauty: not because of its monetary value, not to do anything with it, but for its own sake, for love of the thing itself).

Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, talks of (or at least alludes to) the Church’s role in communicating that beauty to the people.  Manifesting the soul-nourishing beauty of God in a world that knows much of hardship and utilitarianism, and little of God’s economy that does not place value on usefulness, but on something else entirely.

Grace means an unlooked for gift, but it is also a word that communicates beauty in movement — a way of being in the world, moving through the world, that creates and communicates loveliness.  And God’s grace in our lives is, I believe, at least in part, that God enables us to be filled with just this kind of grace.  Enables us to be beautifiers of our world.

I am spending this Christmas in Budapest, and I am surrounded, in this ancient city, with tangible reminders of this kind of grace, this kind of extravagant beauty.  And I am blessed.

Budapest 059.JPG

Matthias Church (Budapest, Hungary)

Dread-Head

Thursday marked the 5-week anniversary of my dreads.

dreads 017Sometimes I think I should surprise myself when I catch my reflection in the mirror, but I never really do. As with my nose-ring, I forget that I no longer conform to an expected physical appearance. Forget to wonder what others see, and think, when they pass me on the street, or at the store, or at school. Forget I bear what some might call a “counter-cultural” or “alternative” physicality.

I forget, I think, because the reality is I am alternative and counter-cultural, and not just in appearance. While attending a wonderful, but not particularly diverse, liberal arts university in the Pacific Northwest, I never worked particularly hard to fit in. I couldn’t quite see the point of it. I was different and I thought it would save both time and effort to be up-front with that fact. It was the same reason I refused to answer the question “where are you from?” with some innocuous, but patently untrue, reference to the Midwest. If the response “I grew up in North Africa” was going to scare the majority away, I thought it better to get that process over with. I was, after all, only really interested in those with stronger stomachs. Those open to the reality of my difference.

Jetlag 004Even if I had wanted to conform, I could only have done so on the most arbitrary and external of levels. There was simply no way to force my life’s history — and what that history had formed me to be — into a socially acceptable shape. I could not unlove the taste of spicy red harissa, eaten from shared ceramic bowls of blue and white. Could not erase my longing for the soft gutturals and twining caress of Arabic, spoken by women with kohl on their eyes and henna on their feet. Could not unmiss the desert sand, the Mediterranean blue — even the towering skylines of cities like Cairo and Beirut. No matter what I wore, or how I behaved, I would always be an outsider — a child of the border, of the space between — with shapes to my soul that simply could not be mapped on this side, or that side, of the ocean.

So even though I have never particularly enjoyed the attention of strangers, I refused to be what I was not — at home. I wore ankle-length skirts in bright patterns, wore dresses over my jeans, kept my jewelry large and clunky, and always introduced myself as a stranger in a strange land.  dreads 029

Perhaps it was not always the kindest of choices. Did not always make others feel safe or comfortable. But it was the only choice I knew how to make, and still be true to who I was. To the little girl, sojourning far from family and friends, desperate for a taste of home.

Sometimes I think I have grown, in the years since college, in wearing my identity, my difference. Sometimes I think I still have a long way to go. But whatever the truth, I still rebel at being labelled with sameness. Perhaps, for those of you familiar with the Enneagram, this is simply my four wing raising its head. But whatever the case, I would rather be rejected for difference than simply ignored.

065Which brings me back, I suppose, to my dreads. Which, despite a few moments of unsureness, I mostly love. They came into existence as the work of community — of good friends who were willing to spend hours of their time turning my hair into something new. Thus they are a gift — something I did not, could not, have brought into being myself. And they are also a risk. They are an embrace of change, and of the unknown, neither of which are concepts I particularly delight in or desire. And they represent a choice, a decision, a non-bending to others’ preferences — which, as a five, is always a small, difficult victory for me.  057

There is much in the world that I cannot control. This is a small piece that I can.

I suppose they also represent, for me, the belief in diversity and acceptance. That we can love each other in our differences — not because we have masked them with sameness, but precisely because we see, and appreciate, the non-sameness. The different manifestations of beauty.

I love living in Africa, in part because it reminds me that hair (among other things) is not a 075universal norm. Many of the things we take for granted are simply a manifestation of our particular experienced reality. I love the differences — in hair, in clothing, in body art, in jewelry. Love the reminder that there is so much to be discovered, and experienced, and appreciated.

There is a fearlessness in being different that I admire greatly. The same sort of fearlessness that is present in writing. In pouring oneself out upon the page. To be seen. To be known. There is a faith there, and a hope — that maybe, just maybe, that which is within us might be loveable after all. Just as it is. 086Not dressed up, and bleached clean; not disguised with designer labels and adherence to particular cultural norms. But the raw, true self, in all its difference, all its beauty, all its nonconformity and discomfort.

In the words of Sara Groves, “Maybe I was made this way / To think and to reason and to question and to pray…Maybe that’s a selfish thought / Or maybe there’s a loving God.”