A Worthy Life | Words of Wednesday

And she hoped she’d lived a life worthy of the great books she had read. –Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage


This is the cry of my heart. To live a life worthy of the meaning I have glimpsed, the beauty I have tasted.

As my brother reminded me recently, a life spent reading is not a bad life. I certainly hope that is true, for while I can’t claim to be doing much these days, I am certainly reading … as I have read all the years of my life, in all the places I have journeyed.  

Paul Elie’s The Life You Save is an interwoven biography of Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day (the “she” of the above quote). It is “the story of four modern American Catholics who made literature out of their search for God”1 (and very good literature at that: two of them won the National Book Award and all four continue to be read, and read, and read).

I wrote a fairly substantial review on Goodreads, so rather than repeat that all here, let me just say that this spiritual biography is unique in that it is also a literary biography. Not just in its treatment of what these authors wrote (and how they engaged their faith in that process), but in what they read — for all four, to one degree or another, read their way to God.

As I noted in Reading is a Sacred Act, that is a trajectory with which I am intimately familiar.

The story of their lives, then, is also its meaning and its implication for ours. They saw religious experience out before them, they read their way toward it, they believed it, they lived it, they made it their own. With us in mind, they put it in writing. –Paul Elie

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

Footnotes:

 1. Quoted from the synopsis on Goodreads.

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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

 

A Year in Review (2018)

2018 was a rather momentous year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are 18 of the significant happenings of 20183:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

Introducing Words of Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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.

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.

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.

Writing Class Conversions

I wrote this post four years ago — while teaching WRIT 110 at George Fox — for a writing prompt about conversion (a prompt I eventually responded to here). I did not post it then, because I think it felt too personal, too vulnerable somehow. I was a new adjunct, teaching college students for the first time, many of whom came from particularly conservative Christian homes, and I guess I wasn’t quite sure I was ready for this conversation. The ending also felt too abrupt — unfinished — and it seemed that I said less (about a particularly complex topic) than I left unsaid. 

Regardless, I’m posting it now, in honor of International Women’s Day and the women in my life who’ve reflected the face of God to me — especially those professors who spent four years challenging my thinking and shaping my life.

It was the spring of my freshman year of college, and, as a newly declared English major, I was taking my first writing class from the ever-incredible Melanie Springer Mock.

I suppose it was a semester of conversions for me, for that class, an introduction to biographical and autobiographical writing, would forever change the way I viewed narrative (and thus my world).  It taught me to apply the paradigms of meaning I found so powerful in fiction to the living, breathing world around me — to look for the story being woven from the threads of my own life, to create (as Madeleine L’Engle would put it) cosmos from the chaos.

But if that wasn’t conversion enough, it also set me on a path of self-discovery that would ultimately lead to pursuing graduate work in Women’s Studies at the University of Oxford.

I certainly did not consider myself naive when I entered Melanie’s class.  I had grown up in third world countries my whole life, and had experienced first hand what being a woman tended to mean in the world.  I had worn my middle name, Amel (the Arabic term for hope), like a sacred seal, for it meant my father, the firstborn of sons, had wanted me, a daughter — had longed for me as the patriarch of old had once longed for Isaac.

I was not naive, and yet I believed I had escaped unscathed from the prying eyes of strangers, from the social conventions that demanded I cover every inch of skin and look no man in the eye, yet still left me open to unwanted touches and the constant hissing of boys in the street.  It never crossed my mind to wonder why I filled my head with books about kings and adventures, or why all my heroes seemed to wear my brothers’ and my father’s faces — never my mother’s, never mine.

I thought I knew who I was — my father’s daughter, God’s child, cherished — even if I was a girl.

It was Anne Lamott who unapologetically shattered my illusions with the use of a single pronoun.  We were reading her book Traveling Mercies as an example of memoir writing, and I had been enjoying her humor, her honesty, and her faith.  That is, until she had the audacity to refer to the Divine as feminine.  The three letters of that pronoun offended me more than any four-letter word she could have used, and I found myself suddenly convinced that, no matter what she claimed, Lamott could not be a Christian.

And it was that thought that brought me up short.  Why did I find Lamott’s comment so irreverent, so demeaning?  Surely I didn’t believe that God actually was a man, or that language could ever come close to encompassing the essence of the Divine, so why should it matter (and matter so much) if she used an unfamiliar metaphor?  For wasn’t that all language could be in regard to the I AM — shadows and metaphors and glimpses of the unknown?

What did it mean about my views of femininity and womanhood if I found it so blasphemous to insinuate that God might share my gender?

I had believed sexism to be something that existed out there, manifesting itself in unjust laws and occasional bursts of violence.  I had not realized it had the power to creep into my mind without permission, or warp my perspective without my awareness.  I had thought it blatant and ugly, not insidious and deceptive.

I realize that, for many, feminism has taken on negative connotations, meaning things I can’t quite comprehend.  For me, however, it has been a path opening onto healing, wholeness, and restored vision — a tool God has used to help me encounter his mother’s heart anew, and recognize that I, a woman, bear the image of One who made me and named me “good.”