Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Uncertain Present

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
February 26, 2017
Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Peter 1:16-21

In today’s gospel text, we enter the story of Jesus’ public ministry in the middle of things. John has baptized Jesus, the devil has tempted him, crowds and crowds of people have listened to his words, and he’s healed people who thought they might never be well. Jesus has also called twelve particular people to follow him as he teaches and preaches, healing people in God’s name. The disciples answered his call, following him, listening as he tells multilayered stories, parables that teach lessons but also begin to reveal his true nature. Over and over throughout the gospels they just don’t quite seem to get it, though. This interests me, because responding to a call like Jesus’ call when you don’t really know who this guy is yet is more mind boggling to me than, say, reading these texts centuries later and thinking, okay, yes, this guy triumphs over death, seems worth dropping everything to follow him, to be part of what he’s doing in the world.

But the disciples don’t really have that kind of knowledge yet. He is their rabbi, their teacher, and certainly they know he’s something special. How could they not? They’ve witnessed the healing, they’ve heard him speak. They left their old lives behind to join him. Here in Matthew 17 things become more clear. This chapter sheds some light – literally – on what is to come.

Jesus has already told the disciples what’s ahead, though Peter refused to believe it. And now Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up a mountain side, retreating from the crowds, echoing Moses’ mountain top sojourn in Exodus 24. And lo, Moses himself, along with Elijah, joins them there. At first Peter wants to stay, to build some shelters and set up camp and spend some time here with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Things have been chaotic for Jesus and his disciples, traveling around, followed by crowds. And things will become even more intense in the days to come. The disciples are following Jesus, but they’re still learning who he is, and I think they’re unsettled by what he tells them is on the horizon. This mountain top transfiguration reveals something new to his followers. Some call it the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

“He was transfigured before them,” the text says, “and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” This interruption, this revelation, is scary, what with the voice booming from the clouds: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Jesus is glowing, resplendent. His terrified disciples fall to the ground, overcome by their fear. The text continues, “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

Jesus tells the disciples to keep what they’ve seen to themselves until after he’s been raised from the dead, which no doubt confuses them, though they seem to comply. Later, in 2 Peter, this story is retold, an eye-witness account for posterity. “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter says, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

This idea of accounts of the transfiguration as a lamp in a dark place resonates with some of what I see going on around us, as do Jesus words of comfort and instruction, “Get up and do not be afraid.” This week the Washington Post unveiled a new motto, “Democracy dies in the dark.” And while theologically I think we’re concerned with something other than mere democracy, I think there’s a resonance here that I hope I can make clear.

I read a novel this weekend, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani author who spent many years living in both New York and London before returning to his home in Lahore. In the novel, a young Pakistani man named Chengez has recently graduated from Princeton and been hired for a highly competitive position in finance. He is living an American dream of sorts at 22, brilliant and successful and dominating his new job. And then the planes crashed into the twin towers on 9/11 and everything changed. Not only how others perceived him, not only his fear for his family back home in Lahore, but also in how he saw himself, the path he was on, what it meant to be working twelve hour days to build a capitalist empire intent on destroying people like him, and his home.

Suffice it to say that this felt like a timely read for many reasons, especially following the bombing of a Sufi shrine in Pakistan last week, which drew little media attention. While our president continues to fight nonexistent boogie men, people are dying. Who has reason to fear whom, when Muslims and people of color in the U.S. who “look” Muslim to some are told to “go home” – or worse, violently attacked, sometimes killed, as happened this week in Kansas. We cannot claim to be a country that values religious freedom. And increasingly it’s clear that for many, faith in God is not stronger than faith in America.

Hamid has this to say about the challenges of moving home to Lahore after his time living abroad:

My faith in this place has, I will admit, been shaken. But my faith in New York was once shaken, when I lived there. My faith in London was once shaken, when I lived there. 
I suppose I have learned to live with intermittent faith in a place. I leap from moments when I think, yes, my home will flourish, to others when I think, no, all that awaits is decline. Maybe this ebb and flow is common. Maybe it has more to do with me. Maybe it is the nature of a fiction writer, some fiction writers, to exist suspended between what is and what we desire there to be, unable, in the end, to pick one over the other, to commit to the life, to reality, or otherwise to the dream.

Hamid’s words about his home connected with a lot of what I hear in people’s fears in the U.S. lately. Some of us probably gave up our faith this place we call home a long time ago, if we had any faith in it to begin with. Many more of our friends and neighbors are for the first time struggling to hang on to their beliefs in this thing called America, this empire, this crumbling democracy. Others double down on that dream, claiming alternately that this seeming crisis is making us great again, a return to a past viewed through rose tinted lenses. And still others respond by noting all the ways a nation built on slavery and genocide has never been great, but dreaming that we could be, someday. In Hamid’s novel, after 9/11 Chengez says, “I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.”

I wonder now if the dream that is dying needs to die – much as the disciples’ visions for who Jesus is and what he would accomplish died in the time following this mountain top transfiguration. This is not to say we shouldn't resist the current sad excuse for national leadership, but rather that our Christian and particularly Mennonite resistance is to dream, and to live, for something different. To get up, and not be afraid, to resist the current regime not in order to maintain the status quo of the U.S. government and so-called “American” ideals, but to shine light on all the dark places created by human lust for power.

2 Peter says, “no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Would that we might also be so moved by that Spirit. We'll enter Lent later this week, the journey toward Good Friday followed by Easter morning alleluias. The world will turn. But it does not turn on the transfer of human power – peaceful or not – in the US, or anywhere else. In revealing himself on the mountaintop, Jesus' otherness is obvious. He is not the leader we expect or even want, at times. What sort of world does that usher in?

Hamid wrote of existing “suspended between what is and what we desire there to be,” and that is precisely the story that narrates our lives together, as followers of Christ – an imperfect past, an uncertain present, a future we have yet to grasp.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Unfinished

I am hungry for art lately, hungrier than usual. I am overflowing with words for the first time in a long time, not because it’s easy to write right now (on the contrary, I’m having a terrible time finishing anything), but because it’s harder not to write, to keep it all inside. I have always been this way; I have always been unhappy when I am not writing. I fold in on myself, unable to express the world inside of me and therefore, somehow, unable to connect to the world outside as well.

One morning a couple weeks ago, I woke up in a funk. I’d slept terribly, my neck was stiff from falling asleep at a weird angle after working too late on a project with a tight deadline. I read too many distressing articles from my phone while still in bed. Finally I got up, made coffee, and started sorting through my inbox. My usual morning routine. PledgeMusic had notified me that The Shadowboxers had written an update about their recent shows, including the one I went to a couple weeks ago in New York, and I clicked through and watched a video of them singing at the meet and greet I attended. The tumult in my head slowed down, and I was able to pay attention to one thing, for a few minutes. Three men, a guitar, harmony - a song.

A song cannot change everything going on around me. It cannot fix what is broken in the world. But it can sustain me when I am struggling to believe that beauty and joy are still possible, when I am struggling with my own ability to create.

I am at my desk, now. I am working (on this, on other things, on everything). And I am thinking about that weekend in New York, about how it feels to watch and listen as someone else does the thing they somehow seem made to do, as no one else can do it. The uniqueness of a performance, the way some of us come alive on stage. The writing life, the creative life, is hard, and little parts of my soul that are sacrificed to survival are restored when I get to be in that space with other artists. It helps me keep going. It is why I want to keep going.

It is strange to say, at the most successful point in my career so far, that writing has never felt more difficult. My book is coming out. But what if people hate it? Even if they don’t hate it, it will inevitably not live up to many readers’ expectations. Good reviews may be just as strange to read as bad ones. I am entering a new phrase as an artist, and that is unsettling.

I am proud of what I made. I am also scared of what comes next.

I am trying to write new things, now, and while I find myself spitting out words semi-regularly, I seem only able to finish articles and reviews for other people’s deadlines. That is, assignments from editors, rather than my own heart’s work. In some respects this is okay, because at least those deadlines keep me working, and the only way through these kinds of walls is to keep writing until the breakthrough happens.

I find myself missing the casual nature of my work when I first started blogging, when it felt like practice, a way to get used to being read by someone other than a professor. A blog read by ten of your friends is less scary than submitting to a magazine (or a hundred magazines) and being rejected (98% of the time, in case you were wondering). I am not a big deal, but I am no longer totally obscure, and the stakes are higher. One only need experience the horror of having something you dashed off in a couple of hours go viral once or twice to realize that your unfinished thoughts will follow you whether you like it or not. I consider myself lucky that I stand by most of what I’ve written, even as I continue to grow and change as a writer. Nonetheless, I write with a greater degree of self consciousness now than I ever had before.

Sometimes I think my biggest flaw is that I want so badly to share with you only my best work.

But that work will never really exist, will it? It always lives off in the distance, moving further out of reach just when I think I am getting closer. Maybe I prefer it that way, always chasing after bliss. After all, as much as I love sharing the finished work with you, I don’t love that more than I love the actual hours at my desk. I love words. I spend my life with them, and my life is a good one.

Part of the reason I chose to pursue an MFA is that I wasn’t sure what my best work would look like, only that I wasn’t there yet, that my writing wasn’t what it could be. I wanted to be pushed. I was tired of compliments. I knew I was capable of more; I still know that. I am learning that the hunger I feel will never be satiated, a hunger not for fame but rather to have made something good, to grasp the ideas in my mind and weave those disparate threads together into something that moves you. Or stops you in your tracks. Or both.

Weeks ago, on my way back to my hostel after listening to The Shadowboxers play a stunning encore medley of songs from artists we lost in 2016, standing on a freezing train platform at 1:00am in Queens, I recalled how I felt on the few occasions when I’ve given a public reading (the closest to that kind of a performance I will ever get, my Hope College coffeehouse covers of Jennifer Knapp songs aside). I am always a wreck beforehand, questioning my entire life’s work and existence, but once I’m at the mic, once I start to read my own words with my own voice, the me on the page melding with the me embodied before you, the nerves dissipate. It only takes a sentence or two before I am transported to a world where there is only me and the page, doing the only thing I’ve wanted to do since I was old enough to name my desires for my own life: to create.

Nothing else feels the way that having an audience laugh in all the right places feels, the way the air seems to change as everyone holds their breath at the same moment, the communal exhale as an essay finds its way home. I started off writing in private, for myself, but I love writing for an audience, I love that I get to share. I am still unused to it, and I know that I will hesitate to click “publish” on this meandering blog post. But I promise I will, because I am just getting started.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Year in Words

At this time of year, the proliferation of end of the year lists can be a bit overwhelming, but I want to offer up one of my own if for no other reason than that it helps me to see what I did in 2016. Invariably, I accomplish less than I hope to in a given work week, especially now when so much of my time is consumed by teaching rather than writing, and yet somehow I end up stringing words together, creating essays, reviews, sermons. And there's more to be done next year.

"Write as if you were dying," Annie Dillard says, "At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?" Here at the end of 2016 her words are the closest I can come to describing why I press on. "At its best," she continues, "the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace."

Here, in no particular order, my year in words:

"Contentious Women of the Old Testament," originally published in Leader magazine, cross published here.

"Pencil Skirts and Power Ties," in Rhubarb magazine. Consider buying a copy here.

Two posts for Words & Spirit, here and here.



An op-ed for Religion News Service about my pastor's credentials being revoked, as detailed in the article above.


A review of 99 Stories of God by Joy Williams for the Englewood Review of Books.

Hunger, an essay about women and soccer, for The Other Journal.

A series of six columns for the Mennonite World Review: here, here, here, here, here, and here.

A ten-week series of snarky feminist commentary on The Bachelor last winter, on Patreon, because over analyzing bad TV is my preferred form of self-care.

Oh, also: I finished my book. Forthcoming from Cascade books in 2017. Time for some champagne...or a really long nap. Cheers!
 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Link Roundup

Meghan Florian, Hannah Heinzekehr, Megan Ramer.
The biggest news of the week is that the Femonite and the Femmonite finally met in person! Hannah Heinzekehr and I started our respective blogs back in 2012 within mere weeks, with no knowledge of each other at the time. Four years later, she's the Executive Director of The Mennonite, and I sometimes get to write for her there. As Drake would say, Started from the bottom, now we're here/Started from the bottom now the whole team here...

Now, on to this week's recommended reading:

Alexander Chee on historical fiction.

David Remnick speaks with ANNIE DILLARD! This is a fifteen minute recording; I wish it were 1500.

I loved this piece about makeup and men’s unwelcome, uninvited opinions on it.

Pickled radishes on Reading My Tea Leaves. YUM.

The P.G. Wodehouse Society of Lahore.

A new comic from Kate Gavino on Catapult.

Laura Turner on The Insufficiency of Self-Care.

Book-wise, I finished 99 Stories of God by Joy Williams. And now I’m trying to figure out what to say about it. I'm also slowly working through Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones. It's phenomenal.

Tonight: I have a hot date with Elena Ferrante’s fourth Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child. Unless I collapse from exhaustion and spend the evening watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries instead. Stranger things have happened.

Subscribe: www.patreon.com/meghanflorian

Friday, June 3, 2016

Link Roundup

It’s been a big publishing week for me! I'm giddy and exhausted, excited and also sad, insofar as I'm writing a lot about events that I lament. Here are the links:

In case you missed it, my article about my pastor’s suspension, in The Mennonite: Love is a verb, not a suspension.

An op-ed I wrote about the same situation, this one aimed at a general audience, over on Religion News Service.

The RNS article was republished by Sojourners.

And finally, a short piece about Lucy Knisley for Words & Spirit.

This is probably a good time to alert my readers to some changes to my Patreon page. Check it out here. If you don’t know what Patreon is, you’re in luck, because there are some links below that will explain. Some people think of it as a subscription, others as a sort of online "tip jar." One thing I’m noticing with Patreon, though, is that people hesitate because they still seem to think they need to subscribe at a high rate, maybe because they’re used to giving larger one-time amounts to Kickstarter style campaigns, or maybe because we assume that for artists to be paid art has to be “expensive” somehow. These are just guesses, but in any case, with Patreon, you really, really don’t have to pledge a lot. My Patreon is set up as a monthly subscription. It’s a little at a time, over a long time (the kind of time it takes to make art, incidentally). Personally, I subscribe to several writers I like on Patreon at the $1 level, because that’s what I can afford right now. But if a writer has hundreds or even thousands of readers at the $1/month or $5/month level, they can make big steps toward making a living by making art. It’s pretty simple.

What I’ve been reading:

How do artists make a living? An ongoing, almost impossible quest, by Monica Byrne (who is also on Patreon writing brilliant fiction, here).

On the flip side, here’s a Jacobin article about the issues with crowdfunding. Yes, I realize it seems weird for me to share this article while also saying, “Hey! Subscribe to my Patreon!” I'm nothing if not nuanced, eh? Ultimately, I want to see both the economy and the publishing industry completely revolutionized. But that won’t happen next week, next year, or maybe even in the next decade, unfortunately. (Call me cynical, but really, can you make an argument that I’m wrong about that?) So Patreon just makes sense. I mean, really, HOW is it acceptable for well-known publications to just not pay their writers? Writing is labor, and these publications don't exist without us, yet the choice is often write for free, or don't get published at all. We're screwed, over and over again. So, I'm slowly realizing that I'd rather write for small publications and crowdfund than write for big publishers who could pay me but won't.

99 Stories of God by Joy Williams. Yes, indeed, it’s summer and I’m reading a book. I’ll be reviewing this one for the Englewood Review of Books. Look for that in the next print issue.

What I've been listening to:

This week's Book Riot podcast: I listen to this podcast every week, but I particularly recommend this episode because it includes a nice breakdown of what Patreon is and why it matters for mid-career writers in particular.

Nicole Cliffe talking about her conversion to Christianity. I adore Nicole Cliffe, and was super confused when one day she started tweeting about looking for a church. I thought she was an atheist! Well, turns out she was, and then things got interesting. Hear her tell the story on this podcast. It made me cry, in a good way.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Roundup!

You might have noticed that I haven’t posted a roundup in about a month (or maybe you haven’t, and could care less, which is fine...you do you). I was on the road for about three weeks straight, first attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual meeting in LA, then back to North Carolina for a couple days at the coast with my sister, then up to Grand Rapids, Michigan for the Festival of Faith and Writing. Upon my return to Durham, it was time for final papers (which I am still grading…), so I haven’t had much time to decompress from either of the conferences, much less read the many articles and essays sitting in my Instapaper account. I have a lot I want to think about and discuss from both AWP and FFW, but it will keep for a while. I’m not much for hot takes lately, anyway. I’ll let ‘em cool. In the meantime, here are a few things I’ve been enjoying from airplanes and hotel rooms over the last few weeks.

The best thing I did to prepare for all the flying I did in April was download some audiobooks to my phone. I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and the first half of Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, both read by the authors. (Bonus: fend off chatty strangers with headphones.)

On paper, I finished The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck. It was great, and confirmed some of my instincts about where I've been directing my own time and energy. I’m waiting until I post my final grades to start the last of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child, so I can savor it over glasses of wine on my porch. Then, on to the huge stack of books I acquired at AWP! More on those later.

I re-read this older essay from the now PULITZER PRIZE WINNING Emily Nussbaum on Sex and the City, and I still love it.

Nicole Chung wrote a fantastic piece about money and anxiety that resonated with me.

Apparently I’m having a throw-back kind of week, because I also re-read this essay from Laurie Penny on sexism and storytelling. Yep, still good.

Have you heard about Kazoo magazine? I can’t wait to get a subscription for my nieces. (They’re not even a month old yet, so I guess I’ll have to get a subscription for myself in the meantime.)