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 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? 

The Sparrow | Words of Wednesday

And deeper, in a place she rarely inspected, there was a part of her that wanted to believe as Emilio seemed to believe, that God was in the universe, making sense of things. –Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow


I was introduced to the science fiction novel The Sparrow through Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being. An account of a Jesuit mission to “know and love God’s other children” (the ones not inhabiting Earth), the story — written by a life-long scientist, former atheist, and later-life convert to Judaism — deeply intrigued me.

I’ve been immersed in The Sparrow‘s world for about a week now, and though I’ve yet to reach the end, I already know that I would highly recommend it. Whether you’re interested in sci-fi, or faith, or just a really well-crafted narrative, this book is for you.

And, yet, I don’t recommend it lightly. Whatever the above quote may imply, this is one of the most uncompromising explorations of devastation I have encountered. It is, in its way, a subtle, deeply original, and utterly un-didactic retelling of the Old Testament book of Job. What does one do when it is God who destroys one’s faith? God, as Emilio tells us, who breaks one’s heart? 

Whatever peace I’ve made with the presence of suffering in the world (a peace predicated entirely on the incarnational presence of a God who enters into that suffering — wearing it like skin — in all times, and all places), this text (more, perhaps, than any other) has forced me to wrestle again with who God is and what God wants from us. How to reconcile the paradoxes of Old and New Testaments — of a God who both gives life and takes that life away.

And this I think is the point — these questions, this wrestling — and why I can declare Russell successful, regardless of where she takes the narrative from here. Whether she concludes with consolation, or answers, or only with silence, she has forced us to look again, question again, wrestle again. To acknowledge that we are mortal and dust, and God is mystery, vaster and deeper than any expanse of space, or time, or unknowable universe. 

And so, as Marc, one of the book’s priests, declares, “Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.” And yet, he continues, “The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds.” 

So, with Job and Jacob and all the patriarchs of old, we must keep wrestling, keep questioning, till we meet God face-to-face, receive our true names, and hold our hands over our mouths. 

“And then,” Marc finishes, “we shall dance with God.” 

Lilac Breasted Roller in Flight (Naibosho Conservancy, Kenya)

You can listen to the On Being episode that first inspired me here

 

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.

A Year in Books (2017)

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

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

Here are some of the highlights:

Best “Just Fun” Book

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

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

Best Audiobook

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

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

Best Fictionhomegoing

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

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

Most Read Author

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

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

rendezvousBest Sci-fi

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

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

Best Non-fictionblue nights

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

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

Best Non-prose

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

Book I Most Wish I Could Make You Read

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

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

End of the Year Haikus

It’s that time of year everyone is waiting for.  When I force my students to sum up their learning in well-formulated (or not so well formulated) haikus.

While I’m wading through this year’s exams, I thought I would give you some of the highlights from last year:

Life of Pi

Stuck on a life boat
with a tiger, for a year.
But guess what? He lived. -B.A.

In the lifeboat there
was one boy and one tiger
hungry to survive. -K.L.

Tiger and Pi. Boat.
Death swirling like a black bird.
Peace is kept. Life wins. -D.F.

A boy in a boat
Accompanied by his God(s)
And a large tiger -N.J.

Things Fall Apart

A culture crumbles:
The will of a “loving” God;
a man can’t stand it. -M.M.

He was a strong man
But he resided in fear
Destruction followed -Y.K.

Valiant we stand
Together unbreakable
They betray; I die. -K.G.

The Mission

The Lord is the light,
that’s on top of the darkness,
to light up the world. -K.N.

The Alchemist

I march to Egypt.
The treasure lies before me.
Wait, no, it’s back home. -J.T.

A shepherd no more
for dreams called him into a
golden world of love. -C.M.

Treasure can be found
If we travel great distances
We will find it there -A. H.

He dreamt of treasure,
Adventure. He searched for Gold
And found destiny. -C.M.

Personification and Hyperbole

My shoe attacked me.
It was like a mad falcon
falling off that shelf. -B.A.

The oceans roared and
Pi felt his whole world drowning
in the deep blue sea. -R.H.

The frozen drops dance
in the wind, then fall on me
smashing me apart. -M.F.

The chair talked to me
as I sat down. He said, “You
weigh a thousand pounds.” -K.L.

The sea receded.
The wave rose like a giant–
And then face planted. -Y.K.

This test is eating
me alive. My brain is mush.
Oh! What will I do! -C.G.

I have never felt
fear like this. The paper stares
at me with malice. -C.M.

Lessons Learned in Failure and Grace

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Some lovely students I taught as 7th graders and again as 9th graders.

I was asked this past fall if I would write a blog post about teaching literature and what it has taught me about God.

I was intrigued, but also stumped. Literature itself has been a significant–vital?–part of my faith journey, but has teaching it taught me anything about God I couldn’t have learned by simply reading it myself? By simply studying it myself? Certainly one of my great joys as a teacher are those moments when student insights clarify, deepen, and even reshape, my own understanding of a text. When I come away enriched and stretched in ways I was not anticipating. When teaching allows me to issue an invitation into the sacred space where ideas are shared and souls enlivened–where teaching and learning becomes a communion, a meeting (as my Quaker friends might say), between the self and the other (as represented by the classmate, the student, the teacher, the text) in the presence of God. When learning awakens us to the truest longings of our souls, and we encounter Beauty and Truth in deeper and richer ways than we knew ourselves capable of.

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Reviewing a year’s worth of Ancient Literature (Whitman Academy, 2012)

But that experience is not new to me. I have long been on the receiving end of that invitation–an invitation first issued to be by my parents, my teachers, my professors, and the texts themselves. If I now seek to extend the hospitality that was once extended to me, it is simply the natural progression of the same lifelong journey. Not a new encounter, but simply the next stage of an old one.

Teaching itself has certainly taught me much about God and about myself; lessons I could not, perhaps, have learned any other way. But those lessons would have been the same, I think, regardless of my subject matter. Responsible for the growth of eternal souls, I have felt the weight of my own inadequacy as I never experienced it while responsible for myself alone. A lifelong perfectionist, I have come to know myself (irrevocably, deeply, painfully) imperfect and have been forced to throw myself, daily, hourly, on the mercy and grace of a God who is bigger than I.

I am a craver of control, and teaching is nothing if not a thing uncontrollable. I cannot outplan or outmaneuver the unknown which will meet me in each new day–which will require a hundred tiny (and not so tiny) in-the-moment decisions. I cannot outrun my own failure (which, when one believes all that is not perfect is failure, meets one around every corner and in every moment)–failure which will be witnessed by (at minimum) twenty-some pairs of watchful eyes. Failure which will impact, not just myself, but the students under my care.

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My 9th Grade Ancient Literature Class (Whitman Academy, 2012)

When I choose judgement over grace, frustration over encouragement, exclusion over embrace–consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or not–I am shaping students’ perceptions of themselves, of authority, of life (of all they may expect from it), and of God. This, of course, is true of all of us in our daily interactions with eternal souls–but being a teacher has made me deeply, painfully aware of it.

This is a job too heavy for me to carry. A role far too large for my slight frame.

And so I learn (or try to learn) how to trust the God who heals brokenness, who turns ashes to beauty, who uses the weak to shame the strong, and who can feed the multitude with a handful of bread and two small fish.

I am learning (oh so slowly) that what I know, what I can do, will never make me worthy enough or useful enough. Will never make me good enough. No matter how hard I try, I will never be “big” enough for this job or this life. And so I must learn instead to be small enough–small enough to go where I am sent and stay where I am put. Small enough to trust the God who is bigger than I. Small enough to acknowledge mistakes and imperfections–to model the grace that pours through our cracked and broken lives, and waters the garden at our feet.jill briscoe

This is what teaching has taught me and is teaching me. And though the road has been long and filled with stones, I am thankful for the journey.

A Year in Books (2016)

I realize that I am lagging terribly behind in updating anyone on my life.  Failing to post for half a year is a woeful state of affairs — and one that I hardly have an excuse for (especially since I was writing an average of 1,000 words daily for a few of those months). Regardless, it’s 2017, the U.S. has a new president, a new semester has begun, and it’s time to take stalk of the year’s reading.

Having read 44 books and 12,441 pages (which averages out to more than 1,000 pages a month — not quite sure how I pulled that off), I would say that 2016, when measured in reading, can be counted a success.  A success kickstarted by the first book of the year (which, at 795 pages, was also the longest): The Brothers Karamazov (a quiet Christmas in Budapest, it turns out, is just what a reader needs).

This was the year I crossed a few important must-reads off the list (The Brothers Karamazov, The Silmarillion, and Beloved, along with Eloise Montgomery’s Emily series, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, and more), re-read a few favorites (mostly for the Inklings class I co-taught this past fall), and discovered, rather inexplicably, classic sci-fi (and what a discovery it was!).  All in all, not a bad year.

Here are some of the highlights:

Best “Just Fun” Book

night-trainElizabeth Peters’ Night Train to Memphis.  No, this is in no way as good as Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels.  However, it was delightful in its own right (and it doesn’t hurt that it’s dotted with Peabody references for those in the know).

Runners up: Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Moorchild (which has been on my to-read list forever; she’s been a favorite author since I was in grade-school) and Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan (loaned and recommend by one of my students).

Best Nonfiction and Best Audiobook

becoming-wiseKrista Tippett’s Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  As I wrote on Goodreads, one of the wisest, most hopeful, and most inspiring books I’ve read in a long time.  I highly recommend the audio version, which is peppered with excerpts from her podcast interviews. A brave and beautiful book.

Runners up (nonfiction): An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor (a simple and beautiful reminder of the sacredness of our own lives, our own living) and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (an AP Lang requirement, but thought-provoking and worth the read).

Runner up (audiobook): Brene Brown’s Men, Women, and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough.  I listened to many excellent audiobooks this year, but Brown’s voice, speaking her own words, ultimately makes this a cut above the rest.

silmarillionBest Fiction

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.  Hands down one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.

Runner up: Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter.  A gentle, beautiful book about living well.

Most Read Author

blackLloyd Alexander, with 5.  His Chronicles of Prydain were the highlight of spring break.

Runner up: Ursula K. Le Guin, with 4.  Her Annals of the Western Shore were the highlight of the fall.

placeBest Re-Read

Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion.  Almost a decade since my first read-through, and his books still burn.

Runner up: Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings.  The book that first introduced me to the Inklings as a community (rather than a disconnected handful of beloved writers).  It was, and is, love at first sight.

hyperionBest Sci-fi

As my most read genre this year, it seemed only fair to give this its own category.  My favorite single piece would have to be Hyperion by Dan Simmons.  Atmospheric, terrifying, and littered with literary references. Lovely (though I didn’t care for the sequel).

Runners up: Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (which, as a collection of interconnected short stories, was not what I was expecting but was far more perfect) or anything by Arthur C. Clarke, whose work has yet to disappoint — specifically, 2001: A Space Odyssey is actually as good as it’s cracked up to be.

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

A Year in Books (2015)

One of my goals for 2015 was to invest more in my own reading.  And I seem to have done just that.  Despite what felt like whole months of reading not at all (November, mostly), I still managed 42 books, and almost 11000 pages (10894, to be exact).

It was a year of non-fiction (due, mainly, to teaching AP English Language and Composition, and wanting to consciously engage out of my own reading and thinking and learning), with just over 40% falling into that category  (including, rather tellingly, almost all of my highest rated reads of the year), and it was a year of audio books (being able to simultaneously read AND shop, cook, do dishes, stretch, etc., is a wonder) — I owe almost half of the year’s reads to my iPod and the setting that allows one to listen to books at x2 speed.

Here are some of the highlights:

Best “Just Fun” Book

landline1-673x1024Rainbow Rowell’s Landline —  I think it safe to say that Rowell (who continues to surprise me with how right she gets it) has secured her place as my new favorite author in this category.    As I wrote on Goodreads, Landline was delightful:  “A book on par with hot chocolate, warm blankets, falling snow, Christmas trees, frosted cookies, fairy lights, and the laughter of family. There is brokenness in the world, but there is also wholeness. This is a book that celebrates the latter.”

Runner up: Holly Black’s Doll Bones.  I’ve long enjoyed Black’s imagination, but this was in a league of its own.  Her propensity for Gothic horror, handled with a subtle and masterful touch.  Bridge to Terabithia-esque, but (dare I say it?) better. A book about friendships, magic, and growing up.

Best Nonfictionmind of the maker2

Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker — Metaphor, theology, literary criticism: this book is an example of thinking at its most creative.  Thought-provoking and interesting.  I want to read it again.

Runner up: Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook.  This was mostly common sense, yet somehow still burned with vision.  (Though not a book, Henry David Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience” also took me by surprise.  I did not enjoy Walden, so was not expecting to be so impacted by his call to political integrity.)


american childhoodBest Memoir

Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood — This is a book I wish I had written.  Despite the difference in our worlds, she somehow captures all the unnamed truths of childhood and reveals them to me anew.

Runners up: C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.  Both, in their way, love letters.

americanahBest Fiction

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah — A thought provoking and enjoyable story, well told.

Runners up: Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder and Other Stories (an excellently crafted narrative; not so much a collection of short stories as a fragmented whole) and A.S. Byatt’s Possession (a complexly woven, enjoyable tale).

Best Audiobook

mark twainThe Autobiography of Mark Twain — Simply excellent.  It felt like it lasted a lifetime (in the best way possible).  The hugeness of the character (and life) housed therein was staggering.  Like the Tardis, bigger on the inside.

This was also the year that I discovered Librivox recordings.  Far from imperfect, but freely accessible (and without which I never would have encountered Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Grey Woman).

Most Read Authorviolent bear it

Flannery O’Connor with 3.  Each one torturous, powerful, and tinged with grace.  Some of the most memorable reading of the year.

Runners up: Karen Blixen and Rainbow Rowell, each with 2.

sun also risesMost Surprising

Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises — I detested it fairly strongly while reading, but it’s truly grown on me in retrospect.  A masterpiece in the marriage of form and content.

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

 

To Teach A Poet

I’ve written elsewhere about my journey with poetry.  How I never loved it until I started to teach it.

These days, one of my greatest joys as a teacher is getting to teach poets.  Getting to read the beauty they craft from words and ink and the break of a line on a page.  Getting to catch a glimpse of the world they see when they open their eyes in the morning or close their eyes at night.

I have never been a poet — not really — and I don’t think I ever will be.  The beauty of narrative will always be the language of my heart.  But I fall more in love with the medium every year I teach it — every time I watch an artist discover that there exists within them a burning core of words.  A vision.  A brightness.

That they have something to say, and words with which to say it.

The following were taken from short answer questions on my Global Literature final exams.  They were created hastily and under pressure (as evidenced by the inconsistent punctuation).  Yet even so, in 17 syllables, many of them capture profound (and unique) truths about the texts read, and some do so while utilizing well-developed imagery and sophisticated enjambment.

I’m proud of these poets, these readers, these thinkers.  I’m proud of these kids.  And I’m thrilled that I get to teach some of them again next year.

Life of Pi (by far the most popular choice): 

Pi survives alone
In the lifeboat with Richard
But God is with him.  -M.R.

A boy of 3 faiths,
Stranded on sea with tiger,
No one believes him. -N.S.

Struggles in the sea,
Full of fear but not lonely–
Richard was with me. -J.H.K.

Pi almost lost hope
through fear, hunger, thirst and pain.
Then, he reached the shore. -J.J.

I’ve lost everything.
Hope grows thinner every day
I wait.  I watch, Pray.  -A.T.

Could this be a dream?
A tiger and a young boy.
What unlikely friends. -A.R.R.

Reading Life of Pi
was like a journey to me,
never-ending ‘ifs’. -G.O.

A boy all alone,
imagination was all
he ever had left.  -N.G.

The Mission: 

God sends Gabe to the falls.
Rodrigo joins after pain.
All is lost; light stays.  -R.C.

Things Fall Apart:

Okonkwo showed strength
His fear of weakness got the
Best of him. He died. -J.O.

I want to succeed.
I can’t be like my father.
In the end I was. -B.O.

The Alchemist:

He looks far and wide
The treasure that he must find,
in his heart it lies.  -N.M.

Not connected with a particular text, but needed to demonstrate hyperbole and personification:

Like a stoic mime
the rock sat atop the cliff
its ignorance, bliss.  -M.N.

the wind whistles through
the tress; like God would whistle,
loud; unforgiving. -R.C.

The rains have come here,
we hear the thunder screaming,
A sign, the world is dying. -N.S.

Agony screams.  Screams
Because her world is over.
Freedom is now queen.  -A.T.

The boat cried with fear
waves tall as mountains crashed down
we just wait and pray -J.A.

And one of my students wrote me a fairly long, utterly spontaneous “Ode to Global Lit.”  It began with this foreboding stanza:

Global Lit.  A class
full of homework and writing.
Where one can feel
the breath of death.
Where knees tremble like an earthquake
where fear can be made.

But ended with this one:

Well there is no class
like the Global Lit class
Where the teacher always,
Always laughs and smiles
and makes the class
smile with a laugh brighter
than the sun.
Thank you, Ms. Magnuson. -H.R.L.