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

 

Creation is a Sacred Act: An Ode to NaNoWriMo

My plan was to spend November writing a novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

To Give Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25. Prayer labyrinths.

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

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

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

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

30. That I journey onward with hope.

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

Thoughts While My Students Write

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

14 Jan. 2015

For Global Lit.

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

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

17 Sept. 2015

For AP Lang.

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

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

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

Then cover me —
cover us all —
in grace.

The Slow Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a journey it has been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Coming
by Reid Carpenter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Acacia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything my heart had hoped for.

The Leaving Behind
by Reid Carpenter

Naivasha, Kenya. February 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

 

The Setting Out (and the Letting Go)

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

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

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

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

At reconciling meaning with brevity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe we’ve learned something of grace.

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

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

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

Walk Cheerfully

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

A Year in Review (2017)

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

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

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

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

Here are 17 highlights from 2017:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18922159_10158938648760599_3502160609445980864_n (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnus

 

On Failing to Accomplish Work

Wednesday, Dec. 6th. 

No, I accomplished no work today.
Other than a handful of blogposts graded,
a handful of comments typed,
a single class taught.

I accomplished no work today.
Despite the proximity of finals,
the growing pile of ungraded projects
making their home upon my desk,
the dwindling number of days
in which to complete these necessary
tasks.

I accomplished no work today.
But I sat with one student while she cried
and another while she talked.
And I wonder what Mr. E. thinks
of this new habit his students have acquired:
skipping 6th period (who needs AP Lit,
anyway?) to come lie on my floor and stare
at my ceiling and let their grief — frustration —
anger — pool into puddles by their feet.

I accomplished no work today.
But I attended a recital
in which a former student made
her violin sing as though it were an angel,
and I partook of tea and Christmas
cheer, and spoke to a colleague
at some length, and braved the art
studio for all of 30 minutes, and ran
3.14 miles (another half hour conquered),
and wrote my daily words.

I accomplished no work today.
But I am sitting on my couch,
in an apartment all my own, drinking
krest from a handmade glass,
and eating the remnants of an
Ethiopian feast (shared this weekend
among friends).

I accomplished no work today,
or yesterday, or — lets be honest —
in a while. And my hope for tomorrow
isn’t very high. But I climbed this week,
and maintained my 750 streak,
and watched Survivor, and slept
barely any hours, and shared a devotion
with my bosses, and hosted
my Covenant group girls, and prayed
with students, and Skyped my cousin,
and lived my small piece
of a large and messy life.

Five Manifestations of Joy

Yes, yes, I’m aware that it’s December. And yes, I am aware I haven’t written since the spring.

There have been some significant life developments since then: For one, I went skydiving. For another, I turned thirty. I also ran a half marathon, spent a week in silence at a Jesuit retreat center, took my first art class since the 8th grade, and decided not to renew my contract. Oh, and I got a tattoo.

So yeah, some changes in the air.

I hope to revisit some (many?) of those topics in the future, but this post isn’t about any of that. Instead, it’s about November, and giving thanks, and the places in my life where I am finding joy (ordinary, beautiful, life-sustaining) at this particular moment in time. So here are five snapshots of my life right now.

1. NaNoWriMo

I spent most of November writing. Or, if not writing, thinking about writing.

Some of you may be aware that November is National Novel Writing Month. When one falls off the writing-wagon, there’s nothing quite like this particular challenge to whip one back into shape. I spent October trying to warm up for the endeavor, following a former professor’s advice to write at least 250 words a day. Even that felt like a challenge (though there was some unexpected poetry to show for it).

I have to admit that while I have won NaNoWriMo on my own (the year I spent in the U.K.’s Lake District), I have only undertaken the challenge, while teaching, as part of a co-writing endeavor with one of my close friends. This November was our third such undertaking, and our third successful completion. While sharing the burden may sound like a cop-out, and is certainly less impressive than writing 50,000 words individually, if you think writing a minimum of 1,000 words a day, while teaching full time, is easy, then I invite you to try it.

The discipline of daily writing is alternatively exhilarating and mind-numbingly frustrating (not to mention exhausting), but also consistently satisfying. And I’m reminded, whenever I undertake it, that stringing words together into sentences and paragraphs seems (even now) to be a central part of who I am. Of what brings me to life and gives me joy. I still don’t know if I really have anything to say — any words of beauty or truth to lighten the darkness or bless others on their way. But exploring the possibilities of language and story certainly lightens my darkness and blesses me on my journey, and, for now, that will need to be enough.

2. Climbing

I think fall 2017 may always be associated in my mind with the discovery of rock climbing.

I’ve had a free membership to a climbing gym, here in Nairobi, for the past two years, and always meant to give it a try. Realizing I was leaving at the end of the year finally forced me into action. I have several friends who climb regularly, so I started inviting myself along, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s been life-transforming.

I have a long history of struggling with stress and anxiety, and learning to care for my mental health has become a top priority these past few years. Exercise is, of course, an important (and effective) way to combat stress, which was a significant motivation for becoming more serious about my running last year. However, as an over-thinker, running still leaves quite a lot of room for mental noise, and quieting my mind is a consistent battle (one I rarely win).

Climbing, however, leaves no room for noise: it requires my complete presence, both physical and mental, on the climbing wall. (Looking back, I wonder if this is one reason ballet played so significant a role during my teenage years and why I was willing to give up sleep to row while I was at Oxford.) Climbing is exercise, but it is also meditation. And since I go with friends, and one has to rest between routes, it also provides room for community.

Needless to say, I am loving it.

3. Community

I grew up in a family that deeply valued community. I shared my room, off and on, with young women who lived with us for months or years at a time, and my parents modeled what it meant to share life with others — to work, minister, and play together, to rejoice and mourn, learn and grow.

Community is probably one of my deepest longings and highest values — and one of the central reasons I find teaching so difficult.  As a single adult (now in my thirties), community is not forced upon me by the demands of family, rather I have to seek it out, cultivate it, choose it. And this takes effort and time (not to mention energy) — all of which teaching leaves me little by way of reserves. Learning how to cultivate balance — how to leave room for life, and not just work — has been another ongoing battle, and while I’ll never claim to have mastered the struggle (in fact, my choice to move away from teaching next year is due — in large part — to not having mastered the struggle), this has been a year of growing in my sense of belonging. Of knowing and being known. Mostly due to my awesome Bible study group and Netflix’s Stranger Things. (If you want to know how Stranger Things can help cultivate community, I suggest you make some food, get some drinks, light some candles, and invite over some friends to watch the show. Repeat the process once or twice a week until you’ve successfully consumed both seasons in each other’s company.)

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My lovely Bible study ladies at Sunbird Lodge on Lake Elementaita.

4. Students

I struggled intensely last fall over the decision of whether or not to renew my contract for another two years. I finally compromised by negotiating a one year contract, and if this year has done anything, it has confirmed, over and over and over again, that I am meant to be here, at this time, for these students.

Students who brighten my life, every day, in a million tangible and intangible ways. And sometimes bring me poems, just because.

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5. Magnus Joy

This, right here, is my nephew, born November 21st. Need I say more?

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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.