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? 

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Faith as Sight | Words of Wednesday

Seeing isn’t believing; believing is seeing. —The Santa Clause


Yes, I know. Disney isn’t exactly where one usually turns for words of wisdom. But this film has a special place in my heart, having been one of three movies (the other two being Bananas in Pajamas and The Wiggles) that accompanied my first summer in Egypt, the year I turned 9 (a summer spent with ten other individuals in a two-room apartment — one room of which had AC).

I hadn’t seen it since that summer (over 22 years ago) until we revisited it this Christmas season.

It’s filled with much of the wonder I remember (though I make no claims regarding it’s objective quality), and this line (easily dismissed as so much nonsense) caught my attention as encapsulating many of the conversations about materialism, objectivity, truth, and faith in which I’ve recently engaged.

We see the world through the lense of the reality we’ve chosen to believe in — the reality we choose, often, because we must, because we can’t imagine leaping in a different direction. We contrast science and faith when both represent their own belief systems, and neither offers the kind of proof we like to imagine, reference, and cite. What we believe about life — what we imagine to be possible — what we set out to seek — directly impacts what we will indeed see, experience, and find.

While I have no problem with apologetics, I’ve never found that line of argument particularly convincing in my own walk of faith. Ultimately, I believe because I must. Because, as with Life of Pi, I believe it to be “the better story.” I choose to believe in hope, in meaning, in significance, in love. I choose to believe in God. Because, in believing, I find. And without those things, I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.

So I’ll follow Puddleglum in living like a Narnian even if there is no Narnia. And is it not in living as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven that we usher in that Kingdom?

In this Christmas season, may we have eyes to see the presence of God in our midst, inhabiting the world where we least expect him. In the bodies of women and children, immigrants and refugees. In war-torn countries and forgotten nations. In Yemen and Syria, Gaza, the West Bank … Bethlehem. Amidst poverty and hunger, hopelessness, anxiety, and fear.

As we face the birth of a new year, may we carry with us the hope of Christmas: Emmanuel, God with us. God has stepped into our darkness. We have not been left alone.

A Year in Review (2017)

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

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

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

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

Here are 17 highlights from 2017:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnus

 

A Year in Books (2017)

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

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

Here are some of the highlights:

Best “Just Fun” Book

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

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

Best Audiobook

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

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

Best Fictionhomegoing

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

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

Most Read Author

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

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

rendezvousBest Sci-fi

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

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

Best Non-fictionblue nights

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

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

Best Non-prose

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

Book I Most Wish I Could Make You Read

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

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

2016 in Review

This is usually the point in the year at which I post highlights of the 2016-17 school year, or, at the very least, spring semester. Instead, I’m going to post my woefully late summary of 2016.

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2016 was a year of running and teaching, of travel and beauty; a year of visiting and being visited.

This is, by no means, an exhaustive summary of my year, but just a few of the highlights.

  1. I kissed a giraffe (and I liked it :)).  After two years, finally made it to the Nairobi elephant orphanage and giraffe center.
  2. I visited the Nairobi National Park (twice).
  3. I went to Amboseli.  While there I saw numerous cheetahs, lions, elephants, hippos, and birds, but the highlight was Mt. Kilimanjaro, in all its glory.amboseli-226
  4. I discovered the white sand, blue sea, tropical paradise that is Diani.  Spent both my spring and fall breaks swimming and reading, each time in the company of a different friend (one old, one new), and sipping all-inclusive cappuccinos and icy refreshments (when they weren’t stolen by the monkeys).
  5. I hosted several visitors — my parents, my cousin, my sister-in-law’s sister, and one of my closest childhood friends.  In the process I got to explore Nairobi, tick some adventures off my bucket-list, and grow more comfortable in the role of travel agent and tour guide.
  6. I finally made it to Hell’s Gate.  And Lake Naivasha. And watched baby hippos roll off their mammas’ backs.
  7. I hiked in Karen Blixen’s Ngong Hills.
  8. I re-visited Mt. Longonot.
  9. Safari with Mommy and Baba 747I took a five day safari with my parents. Visited Encounter Mara, Nakuru, Sweetwaters, and Mountain Lodge. With a stop at Trout Tree along the way. Saw two leopards and a myriad of everything else — including rhinos (both black and white), tree and rock hyraxes, and so many birds. Such a privilege to share such awe-inspiring beauty with those who first taught me to encounter the Creator within the majesty of God’s creation.
  10. I switched from coffee to green tea.  This was a desperate sacrifice born of necessity, and I still drink (decaf) coffee on the weekends, at coffee shops, to get me through my grading (and sometimes when I’m on break), but, in general, my brain is happier, and I’ve grown to love green tea in its own right.  garden 013(There’s nothing quite like sitting on one’s porch, at sunrise, wrapped in one’s shuka, watching the sacred ibis fly, sipping a pot of tea.)
  11. I moved on-campus after two years living in a small garden compound down the street.  I still miss the garden, but the transition was a good one, if for no other reason than I can now use the track to run after dark.
  12. I completed my first year of teaching AP English Language and Composition.  Despite the workload, a joy and a delight.  And rather a success, given the 100% pass-rate my students pulled off on the AP exam.
  13. 13524453_1145049805536734_6937956456801176815_nI got to spend my summer visiting faces I love — attending a cousin’s graduation party, meeting another cousin’s girlfriend (now fiance), hiking with a friend in Colorado, visiting another dear friend in Washington, hanging with the sibs in Oregon (missing the one who was working in Alaska), and experiencing my college roommate’s new life in California.
  14. I attended an AP Summer Institute and earned my first graduate credit in education.
  15. I co-taught a class on my favorite fantasy writers (called “Christianity and the Fantastic”) with a fellow George Fox grad who is both a colleague and a friend.  We first met in a “C.S. Lewis and the Bible” class (ten years ago this spring) so it felt a little like coming full circle.
  16. I ran seven miles . . . in one stretch.  Without really intending to.  I guess I’m a runner now?
  17. 14352438_10155047473025400_6506605762933148858_o (1)I took my 2nd annual trip to the Aberdares.  A trip that involved friends, books, fires, warm blankets, and lots of good food.
  18. I transitioned/am transitioning to contacts.  Though I’ve worn glasses since 8th grade, I’ve never liked them.  Never felt that they were me.  And though I still don’t relish sticking my fingers in my eyes, my childhood eye-phobia has dissipated enough to allow the experiment to be a success.  I made the choice for aesthetic purposes, never expecting to love the change this much — but not having frames in my line of vision?  Bliss.
  19. I took a silent retreat at Lake Elementaita.
  20. I renewed my contract and committed to at least one more year on this continent, in this country, at this school.
  21. I started going to counselling.  Trying to work through nearly three decades of accumulated loss.  And while it’s hard to know where this path will lead, I think it’s at least a step in the right direction.
  22. I became an auntie. No, not by blood, but we all know that family is created of more than genetic material.  And the Neufelds (and Neufeld-Pierces) are family.
  23. 15591250_842527836284_3309746140961268259_oI went running with my father.  And though, at twice my age, he outdistances me in every way possible, I have something to aspire to.  To work towards.
  24. I went camping in Wadi Rum.  Slept under the stars.  Ran through the desert.  Experienced the peace and beauty of one of my favorite places on earth.
  25. I spent Christmas at home, in Jordan, with all my siblings, all my sisters-in-law, and all my pseudo-siblings (and my new niece =)).  There were many hugs to be had, many games to be played, many traditions to be upheld, many delicious foods to be eaten, and much merry-making all-around.  Joy-filled, delightful, so, so right.

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And here are five goals to be accomplished before I turn 30:

  1. Climb Mt. Kenya.  (I did, and it was spectacular.)
  2. Pay off my Oxford loans. (I emptied out my savings account at the end of February, and am now officially debt free.)
  3. Get a tattoo.  (It’s healing as we speak.)
  4. Run a half marathon.  With my dad. In honor of our 60th and 30th birthdays. And the fact I’ll be exactly half his age. (It’s scheduled for the 9th of July, in OR.)
  5. Go on a spiritual retreat.  At an abbey, or a monastery, or a convent . . . you get the idea. (I actually have two booked for this summer — one in Oregon and one here in Kenya.)

A Year in Poetry

Once again, I tried to write a reflection on the year. This was what came instead.
 
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-T.S. Eliot from “Little Gidding”

So, I realize we’re already into March and this post was rather pathetically long in coming.

But here’s the thing: 2017 has already been a rather eventful year.  Besides the requisite teaching and grading (rather time-consuming in their own right), I’ve climbed the second-tallest mountain on the continent, gone hunting with the Maasai (no lie), and, just a few weeks ago, been stampeded by a giraffe (while camping with some students during an integrity retreat).  It turns out I really do live in Africa.

2017 is the year I turn thirty, and while I’m trying to downplay this benchmark in my life, the reality is I’m a bit scared.

I know this is how everyone feels, but I’m just not quite sure where the time has gone. And the past decade of my life has certainly been rather different than I anticipated. These last few years it’s been hard to balance what is against what is not, to measure reality against once-upon-a-time expectations and potentials.

In my mid-twenties, a lot of my friends had the same questions I did — questions about meaning and purpose and the point of the narrative. But, for most of them, those questions seem to have slowly found answers, while I, at thirty — after living in 7 countries, teaching for 6 years, attending university and grad school, etc., etc. — seem destined to be exactly where I started (asking the same questions, pondering the same mysteries).

I have always been a lover of story, rather than a lover of poetry.  A lover of the journey that reaches its destination; the sacrifices proven to have meaning in the end; the narrative where no piece, no thread, is ultimately wasted or left without purpose.  These days, however, while I struggle to identify, in the jagged edges of my life, what my story is and where it lies — the narrative thread that will grant meaning to the losses and significance to the joys — poetry reminds me that even when the narrative is unclear, the moment remains sacred. Reminds me that as long as there is breath in my lungs, I stand on the holy ground of existence. Reminds me that “acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” does not require a story arc I recognize; nor does prayer, worship, or the act of loving my neighbor, all of which only require that I commit to holistic presence in this moment. And this one.

Poetry demonstrates that when we commit to paying attention — to truly seeing the world that surrounds us — we become alchemists, capable of transforming lead into gold and the mundane into miracle.

We learn to call forth — to recognize — the beauty inherent in each moment.  A beauty that exists, not because the moment has a role to play in some grand narrative (though perhaps it does), but simply because the moment is. And in that moment — in that existence — the I AM is present.

In the beginning God created, and it was good. A theologian friend of mine spent much of last year impressing upon me the significance of the goodness of creation. That the very existence of that which is bears (no matter how distorted) the sacred holiness of being.

Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

-Mary Oliver

I have spent much of recent months lamenting what is not. Grieving the losses of my nomadic, transient life. And while that has had its place — has been healthy and necessary — it is time, I think, to remember what is.  Time to see, not the negative space of all that has been taken (the Israelites in the desert, calling out for a return to Egypt), but the shape of all that remains, all that has been given.  All that was. Even if it is no more.

In her poem “Burning the Old Year,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes,”So much of any year is flammable . . . so little is a stone.” She’s right of course, but it’s hard for me to understand how she can celebrate that fact: “Where there was something and suddenly isn’t, / an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space. / I begin again with the smallest numbers.”

Unlike Nye, I do not want to burn the old year, do not want to leave a vacancy where once there was a fullness. Do not want to let go of the old so the new may have space to grow. Rather, I want to create stones out of my fragile, flammable minutes. Want to transform the transitory into the permanent. Want to build a temple of my life: for how else will I know the presence of the living God? But I am reminded that the God of Moses was a God who tabernacled in the midst of his people, a God who dwelt with them in a tent — a God who traveled. And Jesus declares in Luke, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

I am reminded that too many stones weigh down a life, and that one needs both stone and flame if one is to offer a burnt offering to the living God.

And so, in the spirit of celebrating what is and what was, here are my “few words,” un-elaborate and patched together, not from 2016 (as I originally planned), but from the last 29 years of life — my “doorway / into thanks.” I do not know which of my moments will prove to be stone, and which flame — which will build themselves into the story of my life, and which are, even now, sparking upward as a glorious moment in time, beautiful and brief — but I do know that this life I am living is sacred, because it is. This is the place I am — the place God has met me, the place God will meet me, the place where stone and fire meet on the altar of worship.

I have lived in the Lake District and in Oxford, in Kenya and in Cairo. I’ve seen the pyramids and the Pietà, Petra and Big Ben. I’ve called three continents home. I’ve danced, I’ve acted, I’ve even sung. I’ve studied art, I’ve read classics, I’ve directed, I’ve taught Shakespeare. I’ve ridden camels and elephants, kissed giraffes, owned dogs and a few cats. I’ve gone on a cruise and a few safaris — I’ve scuba dived and snorkeled and climbed mountains. I am a cousin and a sister, a sister-in-law and a daughter. I’ve been in love and I’ve been kissed and I’ve had friends who’ve shaped and molded who I am — friends who’ve walked important sections of this journey with me. And I may be single, but I have never been alone, not truly. And I have been saturated with beauty — the Sahara, the Mediterranean, the fells, the African sky. I have dreamed the dream of dreaming spires and northern lakes, and seen those dreams come true. I have written words, and read words, and watched the hours slip by in silence and wonder and awe.

What a blessed life I have lived. What an existence I have known. 


In part inspired by an AP Lang prompt on the role and significance of poetry.

 

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.

Not Quite 30 . . .

Twenty days ago, exactly a week after my 2nd-cousin Jamison, his wife Kathryne, and their three small children died in a car accident, I turned twenty-nine.

Jamison was also twenty-nine.  So was Kathryne.   Their children’s ages ranged from two months to three years.

This birthday, the last I’ll have before I’m thirty, has reminded me, more than any other, of the precious gift of time.  Older friends and colleagues love to remind me of how young I am — love to laugh when I voice a sense of urgency.  But age, really, has nothing to do with it.  We are all mortal, and none of us knows how long our sojourn on this earth might last.

20305804241_c1683640fb_z

If this was my last year here, would I be living it as I am?

This is the kind of question, the kind of contemplation, that would once have unleashed deep anxiety within my soul.

These days, it comes with a strange sense of peace.

I don’t know if my journey will be long or short.  I don’t know what God might ask of me in the months or years ahead.  But I do know that it is God, not I, who is in control.

I do know that the sum of a life is not something that can ever be weighed this side of eternity.

6593760807_e3e0af8940_z

I once had a long list of achievements I dreamed of accomplishing before thirty.  I once had a specific image of what I expected life to look like by this particular point in time.

Now, when I think about my goals and dreams, they are concerned less with what I might do — in the next year or ten — than with who I might become.

I want to enter my thirties (if I am given that gift), not with degrees or publications to my name, but as someone who is centered in a reality that transcends those externals.  In the words of Mary Oliver, I want to “know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, / how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields / which is what I have been doing all day.”

970061_636935644684_470848756_nI want to claim a different paradigm of worth and meaning and root myself there unapologetically.  I want to gain the strength that would allow me to let the world pass by — at its frenetic, dizzying pace — and proclaim, with Dickinson, the freedom to be “Nobody.”

The philosopher Simone Weir declares prayer to be “absolutely unmixed attention,” which is, she says, the “rarest and purest form of generosity.”

I long for my life to be formed of such prayer.  Such generosity.  Dictated by the deeper things.  By the living water running clear.  By green pastures and a restored soul.

There is river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells. -Psalm 46:4

To Write of Evening

I walked home today in the dusk.  The bright of Kenya’s greenery stark against an overcast sky.  Walked home in the knowledge that the year is almost done.  Home in the relief of exams graded.  Of a to-do list shrunk to an odd assortment of final bits and pieces: more textbooks to collect, a graduation to attend, some portfolios to grade.  And then it will be Friday, and I will be closing the book on this particular chapter of this particular story.  This particular combination of weeks, and months, and essays.  Of students and lessons and whiteboard markers.  Of all the odds and ends, victories and defeats, joys and exhaustions, that make up a school-year.  Make up the life of an English teacher.

Ipod Pics 055If this was the year of any one thing, it was the year of AP Language and Composition.  The year I spent every Saturday, without fail, grading at Dormans — the quietest of the local coffee shops.

The year my students wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

A week ago (much less a month) I could not quite imagine today.  Could not quite see over, or around, the terrible to-do list that demanded that particular day’s attention.  Couldn’t think past the scattered, frantic, fullness of my brain.

And, even now, I know that pressing just beyond the borders of this coming Friday, and the boundaries of my teaching responsibilities, there are other lists demanding my attention.  Travels to plan, emails to write, details to take care of.

And, most terrifying of all, in two short months, it is time to start all over again.

But I cannot think about that tonight.  Tonight is not for beginnings.  That is what the morning is for.  The morning, with its sun tipping over the horizon, and spilling brightness new-born into the world — restoring hope to all new things.

Tonight is for endings.  Tonight is for finish-lines crossed and mile-stones reached.

Tonight is for all of those words read.  All of those papers graded.  All of those comments written.  Tonight is for remembering.  For setting aside a moment to acknowledge what my students and I did this year, what we created, in that awkward space that exists between the quest for perfection and the acknowledgement of failure.  That space where all living happens.

Sometime in July the College Board will let me know what my students achieved.  Sometime in July they will pass on their judgement.  But I really don’t care what the College Board has to say.  Because I know what we achieved.  What we strove for.  What we overcame.

I have read words birthed in fire, and I am content.

And so I will leave you with an evening poem.  A poem for tonight — for the gathering dusk, for the dark.  A poem for endings, and for the grace that undergirds all things.

Let Evening Come
by Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

“Let it come, as it will, and don’t / be afraid.  God does not leave us / comfortless.

* And yes, this post does include a link to every one of my AP students’ blogs.  And no, I’m not sorry.  Not even a little bit.

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.