Tuesday, January 6, 2015

On Reading

It’s resolution season, and the people of the Bookternet are all about the reading resolutions, setting goals and making plans to “read harder” this year. There are some fantastic challenges to take on, and since books are central to my life and work, it would make sense if I were to tell you about my grandiose reading goals for the year, too.

Instead, I’ve been thinking about how much time I spend thinking about how much I haven’t read. There are so many classic novels I just haven’t had a chance to read yet, and there’s exciting new work coming out by contemporary writers all the time. Even with Kierkegaard, one of my main academic interests, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. For a feminist academic, I’ve read remarkably little feminist & womanist theology and queer theory. And don’t get me started on Karl Barth and everything I simply flat out know I will never get around to reading.

I read constantly. Novels -- both “literary” and “popular,” new and old. Poetry. Essay collections. Memoirs. Magazines. I try to read literary journals, too, though lately they’re mostly gathering dust in a corner. I read so many great online sources, too. And now I get the Sunday Times, the arrival of which is like a mini-Christmas each Sunday. My favorite section? The Book Review, of course.

But I have always read slowly for the most part. With the exception of mysteries and YA novels, even a book I really like will take me a few days to get through -- if not a week or two. I will never, ever get through all the books I want to read, even if I stopped adding to the list today (which I won’t). At the beginning 2014, frustrated by this fact, I set out to read a book a week, with an end goal of 50, figuring I could plan in a couple of reading vacation weeks. I made it to 37, if you leave out a handful of other books I only made it halfway through. Like I said: slow. (If you're curious about what I read, click here. I read a lot of YA novels and it was great.)

As far as goals go, it was fine. I read many wonderful books, and I got to choose most of them myself, having finished up my school reading requirements in mid-January. But I am realizing the whole reading goal thing just doesn’t work for me. It makes me feel anxious about something that has always been a delightful escape for me, guilty because I’m not doing more, not checking off the boxes, not stuffing enough information into my head. I read for more than just information.

This week, I remembered the summer my college friends and I created the Best Ever Book Club, and one professor met with us to discuss Madame Bovary, her recommendation for our ambitious little book group, a classic I was reading for the first time. We asked her what her summer reading goals were. She said she was reading Middlemarch.

“That’s it?” we asked.

“It’s a big-ass book!” was her response.

This was a revelation to me, this kind of commitment to being with one book, spending one whole summer in Middlemarch. (Note: I have never read Middlemarch.) A great book is worth that kind of time.

I remember, too, how one of my favorite English professors used to tell us to read things twice whenever possible -- one for the story, and a second time to begin our analysis. I was crazy enough to try to do this (hence my lack of sleep sophomore year), which I don’t necessarily recommended while you’re still in college, but definitely recommended as a general practice. I know that, first, if I read for analysis right away I miss the whole point of the reading in the first place. And second, if I do plan to analyze, my analysis simply won’t be as good if I’ve only read a text once. (The real reason I haven’t read more Kierkegaard? I was too busy re-reading Works of Love multiple times.)

Reaching further back still, I know how much of my love of language was born from my mother reading aloud to my siblings and I, the same series, again and again. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. That is how we got through long Michigan winters. It’s how I get through winter, still. I’ve lost count of how many times I heard those books, and I don’t regret that I didn’t hear more books -- though of course there were always stacks of library books in my room to read on my own, as well. And I did, hungrily, in bed each night with my Itty Bitty Book Light clipped to the back cover. The Betsy-Tacy books, the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, and others I’ve long since forgotten. I read and re-read and re-read.

In that spirit, instead of setting a numerical reading goal this year, I’m aiming low. Let it be a year of re-reading, of working through massive tomes that have intimidated me, and of getting through the winter with all the good stories I can find, even if they aren’t classics or so-called “literature,” and even if there are a lot of things I “should” read that I am not going to get to this year. I want to read slower, not harder.

So what am I excited to read this year? For starters, I got halfway through Joakim Garff’s 827 page biography of Kierkegaard over a year ago before setting it aside, so I’m going to finally finish it. Also, though I have read all of Jane Austen’s novels, I feel that one could re-read them every single year and never exhaust them. Plus they’re just...the best. So I’ll re-read some of them, or maybe all of them if I feel so inclined. Then I’ll probably re-watch all of the film adaptations again too, for “research.” My favorite mystery novelist, Laurie R. King, has a new Mary Russell novel coming out in February, so you can just plan on not hearing from me for about 24 hours after I pick it up. I've been digging into James Baldwin's essays lately, so I'm sure I'll read more of those. I’m thrilled about the new Toni Morrison novel coming out in April, too.

If don’t read all of these things promptly, I’m not going to beat myself up about it, though. When you think about how much time someone like Morrison puts into crafting a novel, it seems obvious that it’s worth entering the world she’s created and staying a while. It’s worth coming back, again and again.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Year of Feminist Selfies

In truth, before this year, I was not a big fan of the selfie. Not so much because I thought them narcissistic (though I suppose that to a certain extent I did), but because I had never much liked photos of myself. That is probably something I am not supposed to admit, as a “confident” feminist woman who values my intelligence over my looks, but supposedly also has well-balanced (but of course never prideful) self-esteem when it comes to my physical appearance.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

As I noted in my review of Bad Feminist earlier this year, the Good Feminist role sometimes feels almost as difficult to live up to than the other ideals many of us have tried to leave behind. But 2014, more than anything, has been the year in which I have had to cease keeping up appearances, if for no other reason than I could not hold the brokenness of life (my own and others) at arm’s length any longer. My father’s heart surgery and stroke 14 months ago left me completely undone, unmoored, in a way I had never experienced. I began 2014 perhaps more vulnerable than before, but also more afraid of where that might lead me. For someone who reveals so much, you might be surprised at how much I tend to hide -- how comforting it can be to remain invisible, even while wishing to be seen as I really am.

I spent the first six months of this year finishing my MFA thesis, a body of work of which I am more proud than anything I have ever created in my life. It is -- in so many ways -- a part of me, and I want to share it as much as I wish to hold it close, to keep it safe, instead of sending it out to the world, where it will declare that I exist, asking you to see the world through my eyes for 120 pages or so.

In those words you will be able to see me, as well as to see with me. That is part of what creative nonfiction does, at its best, and what I am learning to do with my words, though I hope in time to be better than I am now. At 30, I am just getting started.

What does all of this have to do with selfies, then? Early in 2014 someone shared the #feministselfie concept with me, and I was challenged by it, quite frankly. It called to my attention both my own discomfort with images of myself, but also the way in which woman so seldom get to control how they are portrayed and perceived. To declare I exist, and I am not sorry for existing, and to choose how you get to see me by taking the camera into my own hands felt both frightening and liberating. It felt much like the publishing part of writing feels. And so, I started to take selfies. Not every day. But when I felt like it. When I was having a good hair day, or when a book arrived and I wanted to share the excited grin it caused to spread across my face, or when my expression seemed to describe how I was feeling more precisely than words, or just when I was feeling pretty and wanted to own it for once.

I can’t tell you that posting selfies has radically redefined my body image or self confidence, or somehow freed me from years of negative messages from glossy magazines and the beauty industrial complex. That sort of things takes years to work through. But it was fun. And, truthfully, I like these pictures -- these pictures of me. Having never been particularly good at accepting compliments, there was something peculiarly blessed about the discomfort of letting people double-tap, favorite, and like self-selected photos of me. I choose the photos, I consent to let you see -- and appreciate -- them. (Does it still annoy me that my selfies get more likes than blog posts, pretty much always? YES. YES IT DOES.)

I used to like to quote Ani DiFranco, “It took me too long to realize that I don’t take good pictures, ‘cause I have the kind of beauty that moves.” Perhaps, really, it took me too long to realize that I needed to take control of the camera. That while I can reveal myself on the page, I need not hide behind it if I don’t want to. That I exist, a whole person, not mere intellect, not mere flesh, but embodied, beautiful, even when parts of myself I’d rather hide are visible on the edge of the frame.

Beauty moves, and I move with it, keeping up, if only just barely.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Writing & Community

A piece I wrote during my September "Facebook hiatus" was published today on the Collegeville Institute's blog. You can read it here.

Perhaps it's strange that, during a season in which I felt compelled to step back from social media, in part due to some unfortunate experiences with what I will simply sum up as bullying, I also felt compelled to write about why I love the internet. Yet it makes sense: when a space that is often home to stimulating conversations and upbuilding friendships becomes hurtful, even dangerous, it's not the location itself that's at fault. I wrote about the internet in part because I was mad that I had been made to feel (at the very least) unwelcome, if not unsafe, expressing myself in a place that is normally a boon to my creativity and well being. I was angry that I felt the need to silence an entire social network on account of a few misogynist fools. I shut out supportive voices because of the fear instilled by a few hurtful ones. That should not have felt necessary, but it did and it was.

Words can be weapons if we want them to be. But they can also be gifts.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014


I started writing something about Ferguson this week, but I am not ready to share it yet. I don't think I should be. There are others to listen to first. Start here: I am utterly undone, by Brittney Cooper.

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil..."

Monday, November 24, 2014

Wisdom & Word

My first bible column for the Mennonite World Review is out. You can read it in print or online here.

In the meantime, as you liturgy nerds out there probably know, yesterday was Christ the King Sunday. And so, I give you Stephen Colbert's liturgical dance: