Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Freedom to Create

Last week I was sick. This was not just some little head cold. This was sicker than I can ever remember being in my adult life -- waking up in the night in a cold sweat sick, canceling class because I could barely get out of bed sick. I took two days off work, during which I did nothing but watch House of Cards, eat cereal, and post the occasional social media update just in case something really bad happened. (At times like this, when you live alone, it’s nearly impossible not to verbalize some version of, “If I collapse in the middle of my bedroom floor, how long will it be before someone finds me?”) I would have taken two more days off work but, well, I can’t actually do that. Hourly and contract labor has to be done, or my rent will not be paid. It’s that simple.

Two days off was a big concession for me. I’m the one who would show up for class with bronchitis in college. I forced myself out of bed and into a seat in the back of the room. I covered my nose and kept a distance from my classmates, but damn it, I was there. This is not a marker of pride for me (though it was at age 20); theologically, it’s a shortcoming. As a preacher and a teacher it is nothing if not poor modeling to get up in front of people as if everything is fine when you can barely get through a sentence without coughing. I’m learning to practice what I preach, to rest even when I am well and especially when I am sick, but after being knocked flat for an entire week I know one thing: I’m still working too hard.

The human body has a way of issuing wake up calls like this. I’ve been working on this blog post about work for a month or so (though I’ve been too busy with my paid work to finish it until now), so it’s no wonder that life has yet again collided with my words. How we work, why we work, what we work for -- there are so many questions, all of them deeply theological, that I want to consider, yet what I keep coming back to is the simple fact that so many of us work too much. That, and the fact that most of the work I do (like many artists) doesn’t “count” because it’s not paid. That in and of itself is laden with theological assumptions about value which I reject. Yet I also live inside that system, and as a descriptive statement, I cannot deny its truth. It’s a lamentable reality of my day to day labor, one which I feel powerless to change.

So much for that. As I said, I have been thinking a lot about work lately, even before getting sick and being quite literally forced to stop working for a couple days. I have been feeling overworked, and I have been trying to pay closer attention to how work is interwoven with the rest of my life: When do I work? How do I work? Which of the many things that I do count as work?

I am preoccupied by these questions because I am exhausted. I have three part-time jobs currently:

- Communications Coordinator at a nonprofit, RCWMS, where I work 10-15 hours a week.

- Writing tutor at the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School, where I work approximately 5 hours a week.

- Adjunct English Instructor at Durham Technical Community College, where I work way more hours than I am supposed to.

On top of this I take on the occasional freelance project helping nonprofits or other authors with their social media and web presence. I am also a full-time student, and I try to write things that aren’t for school on a regular basis as well, both because I like to and because it’s part of building the career I actually care about most: as a writer.

Last year I published seventeen things, none of which had anything to do with school or my “regular” jobs. I was paid for one of those seventeen essays.

Hear me loud and clear: litanies like this one are too easily twisted into cries for recognition, into declarations of our own self-importance. Look at everything I do! Look how important I am!

That is not my intent. My intent is to confess.

I do too much, I rest too little, I practice something other than what I preach. And I know I am not the only one.

Mornings like this, when I feel totally spent, while nonetheless sluggishly moving forward, trying to get things done, I take stock of everything I have to do, and instead of diving in and getting to it, I feel defeated. It all just feels so impossible. My brain can’t function well enough to do any of the things on my “to do” lists right now. I’m so spacey on days like this that a few weeks ago I left my passport on the copier at FedEx where I went to copy it for some paperwork I was filling out. (Thankfully it was still there when I realized what I’d done, a full 24 hours later.)

Sometimes I set my alarm a half hour early because I know when it goes off I will already feel defeated by the day, and will need 30 minutes of snoozing to ease into the possibility that I can do this, again, one more time.

I had been up for two hours today, and I still hadn’t eaten or showered, when I lamented that I was wasting my morning. I haven’t done any work yet, I thought. I went back over the first two hours of my day, which look a lot like most days:

I wake up around 7. I fold up the futon and put my bedding away (oh, glamourous writing life: I am almost 30, and I sleep on a futon!). I make coffee. While the coffee brews, I write in my journal: at least three sentences, every morning, whether I feel like it or not. Plenty of days I write more, though sometimes the “more” waits ‘til after I have a coffee cup in hand. After I’ve written by hand for a bit, I open my computer and check my email, reading and deleting all the listserv digests that showed up in the night, skimming the New York Times headlines and maybe reading an article from time to time. Then I check Facebook and Twitter. This generally translates into finding and reading news articles and interesting essays, and favoriting and re-tweeting interesting posts from writers and scholars I follow (in addition to the occasional hilarious tweet from @PinterestFake). The rule I set for myself for this “internet time” is that I need to be done with it, dressed and ready to head to my desk by 9am. This translates into about an hour online. My coffee hour.

Today I started my day an hour late because I slept in a bit due to residual coughing from last week, and since I am creature of habit I did things at the same speed I normally do, and closed my internet browser at about 10. This was when my lament began, about all the work I’d failed to do so far, feeling like the morning was half over. (Which is was.) Here is what I noticed, though: nearly everything I had read, posted, tweeted, etc. was related to my work (excluding the BuzzFeed “Which one of Jesus’ disciples are you?” quiz, I suppose). A beautiful essay from a literary journal, an article about adjunct labor and public intellectuals, a blog post from a favorite theologian, an interview with essayist Leslie Jamison -- literature, religion, the academy. Those are my work.

I’m so used to the phrase “wasting time on the internet” (and don’t get me wrong, I do that too) that I forget that a lot of what I do online is work. Good, important, enjoyable work.

Unpaid work.

Much of my effort to be a good literary citizen happens online. A lot of my published work appears online. All the publicizing and marketing of my writing and most other people’s writing, these days, happens online. Writing, activism, work -- they happen on the internet.

As someone who works from home a lot of the time, or at jobs where a lot of labor happens on my own schedule, it is really easy to lose track of what is work and what is not. There’s no “work-life balance” because I’ve ceased to separate the two. Work that happens at home, after I leave my paid job for the day, is still work, yet because it lacks the paycheck, or because it is something I do primarily because I love it, somehow gets relegated to a hobby -- it’s what I do in  my “spare” time. It’s "leisure." So, I rarely actually relax, in part because even when I try to intentionally set aside time to do so, I don’t rest well because I feel guilty and preoccupied because of everything I feel like I ought to be doing. Every hour I spend writing is an hour I could be doing work for money; every hour I spent resting is an hour I could spend writing. And so on.

If the aforementioned sense of self-importance is one reason we laud our busyness, this guilt is the flip side of that. Guilt, and shame. Since I am lucky enough to do work connected to my multiple humanities degrees, it is easy to feel like I am not allowed to complain about being over-worked. I have it so good! I am living the dream! I am not a hostess any more, nor a babysitter! (The latter is still one of the best jobs I have ever had in many respects.)

And, since I am stubbornly sticking to my goal of making being a writer the central work of my life, I feel like I need to jump at every opportunity that comes before me, even if I know I don’t have time for it. Or, since I am coming from a place of privilege, I sense that I should just be grateful and stop insisting I deserve a little rest now and then. There are plenty of people working as long and hard, or harder, than me at other, less “fulfilling” jobs.

The thing is, I think everyone else should be able to rest. That is where I am trying to go with this: this isn’t just about my own exhaustion. It’s also about the fact that I know I am far from the only one working too hard. It’s The American Way. Most people work too much -- CEOS, tenure track professors, PhD students, custodians, adjuncts, fast-food restaurant employees, medical students (especially medical students! dear God!), coal miners, HVACS.

The difference is that some people are paid lots of money to work too hard, while others -- fast-food employees, for example -- work multiple jobs for a minimum wage that is not enough to live on.

People like to tell me how many artists in the past worked full time at other menial jobs -- waiting tables, say -- while writing the “great american novel.” I want to explain to these people that most of us cannot do that anymore. That was a different world, a different economy. From what they say, a person could live off those wages, and that’s a great idea. But that is rarely true anymore.

We romanticize the “starving artist,” but artists are human: we need to eat. We need to rest. There is nothing more holy about a work of literature penned at night, after 40-plus hours at another job, versus one written with the luxury of artist grant. Art is not somehow worth more if you had to struggle harder to make space in your life to create.

The ugly truth is that there are many, many “great american novels” that have never been written because their would-be-authors could not afford the time to write.

I once read that most of us will spend our whole lives working, trying to earn the right to do the thing we really wanted to do all along -- in my case, to write. In other words, I have to buy the freedom to create.

The perpetual question guiding me these days is whether and how it is possible to resist that mode of being. To claim the freedom to create here, now, even -- especially -- when I can’t afford it.

When I daydream about a better world, I imagine a shorter work week, a living wage, quality public education for everyone, well-paid teachers, bike paths and public transit. And people who are paid for their writing. Not because payment dictates worth, but because payment makes the conditions for creative work possible.

And you know what? I feel guilty about that, too. Wanting to be paid for my work -- for my writing work. Yet what is so wrong with wanting to be paid for my labor? What is wrong with wanting a living wage for doing good work that is of value to other people?

We’ll pay $5 for a cup of coffee, but balk at online publications with a pay wall.

My way of living is unsustainable. If I keep trying to work like this I will not be able to write the way I can and should. I will be too tired, too distracted, and too guilty about all the paid work left undone in order to make the writing happen. I will run myself into the ground. Or, I’ll simply give up trying to create.

It is all well and good to say we have to write because we love it. Of course we do. But I can’t -- actually literally cannot do it without a roof over my head, food to eat, and a computer to type on. Facebook likes and re-tweets are not going to provide that.

I spent an hour on the first draft of this, and now I feel guilty about that, too. My school work isn't done, and I have papers to grade and a newsletter to edit. Let’s not talk about the subsequent hours of editing, thinking, and editing again before this link goes live.

"Balance" is a myth I've given up chasing.

Friday, April 18, 2014

He Loved Them to the End

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship Maundy Thursday foot washing service, 2014

I’ve been watching a lot of House of Cards this week. I love this show, but I also find it depressing, almost more so because -- while it is a glossy, dramatized, hollywood version of political game playing -- it feels, at times, all too accurate a portrayal of the evil human creatures are capable of inflicting on one another. A recurring theme in the show is money versus power. There’s overlap, of course -- those with power invariably have money, their own or someone else’s, that helped them get where they are, and those with money can leverage it to gain additional power.

But Francis Underwood, the main character, is very clear about which he wants: power. “Money,” he says, “is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” He manipulates, betrays, even kills, whoever he needs to in order to gain further influence. And why? Because he can. Throughout the series other characters get caught up in his game, pawns on his chess board, convinced that if they hand over this or that favor -- if they throw someone else under the bus just this once -- they’ll get what they want. Francis will deliver. Francis is a powerful man. They even believe they’re doing what they want, rather than what Francis wants them to want.

The picture of american politics painted by House of Cards is exaggerated, but what makes it successful storytelling is that there’s just enough truth in it for me to suspend disbelief for a little while. Power and manipulation seem par for the course in the american empire; or, to put it more diplomatically, influence, clout, leadership.

This is what I imagine Jesus walking into: our world of struggle with or for power, for influence, or even for mere stability -- as well as our expectations for what a leader is, what a leader does.

In the gospel today, we read that before the passover festival, Jesus knows his time is running short. He knows Judas will betray him, as he sits in this room with his followers, whom he loves. 

And his response to betrayal is to wrap a towel around his waist, and wash their feet.

How easy it is to resonate with Simon Peter, who refuses at first to let Jesus wash him! This is not the job of a Rabbi -- not the job they imagine for their leader, their teacher -- Simon Peter knows his place, knows who Jesus is -- or he thinks he does.

“Never,” he says, when Jesus tries to wash his feet.

Jesus doesn’t exactly argue with him, but simply says, “Unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me.” If there is one thing Simon Peter knows he wants, it’s that: to be with his teacher, and so he goes to the other extreme. In that case, wash me head to toe.

I imagine Jesus laughing at his exuberance. No, no, that isn’t needed. One who has bathed doesn’t need to bath again. You are already clean. Why is that so hard to believe, I wonder? You are clean.

It’s easy to relate to Simon Peter, perhaps because it’s also easy to relate to Judas. It is hard to grasp that we do in fact share with Jesus, because many of us are often so aware of our failings. Of the cruelty, selfishness, and betrayal we are are capable of. We are far from faultless. We imagine we need to be washed head to toe as well.

Instead, Jesus simply invites the disciples to join him. He says, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Forget trying to clean yourself up; come by my side and serve one another.

This image of Jesus with the disciples resonates with a story a friend of mine tells about his young daughter saying to him that the most important word in the world is with. Because we’re always with, she says -- we’re with someone else, with the world, with ourselves. We can’t be not with. And so, she concludes, we should probably try to make a really good with.

What is the story of Jesus’ life -- and ultimately his death -- if not a story of God choosing to be with?  When he washes their feet, Jesus enacts this with -- before his departure, before the coming silence of death, of holy Saturday -- and tells us to go and be with one another, too. Being with one another, in the community Jesus seems to be calling us to, means serving together -- washing one another’s feet.

Being with one another is not easy. Some of us are not particularly good at it -- at least, I know I am not. Personally, for many years of my life I balked at foot washing services. Too messy and awkward. I’d have to let people touch my less-than-perfect feet. My funny toes, chipped nails. All of which feels like a apt metaphor for letting people into my less-than-perfect life.

Our houses of cards are flimsy, even when they appear strong and insurmountable. Sooner or later a breeze -- or a hurricane -- will come along and blow things over, and who are we left with, then? Who gets to see inside the house? In the wreckage? Who will I let wash my feet? At whose feet will I kneel with a towel tied around my waist, inviting them to share their perfectly imperfect toes and calloused heels? Who will learn to love, like Jesus, in the wreckage, even to death, to the very end?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Over the Depths of the Sea

Life is very full here in Durham right now as I am teaching a college course for the first time, traveling a lot (next up, the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College in April!), and finishing my masters thesis. In the meantime, though, here is my latest review for The Englewood Review of Books: Over the Depths of the Sea, a review of Mikhail Shishkin's The Light and the Dark.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Making Peace

When I read the announcement that Theda Good had been approved for licensing as a pastor by the Mountain States Mennonite Conference of MCUSA, I wept. When I read Ervin Stutzman’s call to prayer a month later, I wept again. With each article that I read about this monumental shift for the Mennonite church, I weep. My tears are tears of joy.

My joy is the joy of a convert, and my tears are bittersweet. One might assume, wrongly, that as someone who became a Mennonite as an adult, without historical or ethnic ties to the denomination, I might not follow polity very closely. In my experience, people do not expect me to be invested in the Mennonite church as a whole, when my primary reasons for becoming Mennonite in the first place were very local. One might think that, as this decision forces a conversation that many Mennonites have been avoiding because of the fear of division it might cause, that I might be less worried about conference splits, churches leaving, pastors who worry about having their credentials revoked, and so on. Faithfulness over unity.

Yet I value unity so much my heart hurts, and when I look at what is happening, what I hope is that it will be a move toward greater unity. I hope that those who have been cut off from the church because of their sexual orientation will be welcomed.

I’m a polity nerd. I’ve only been a member of a Mennonite church for about three years, and it took me two years attending one before I was ready to take that plunge. The reason I wavered was the line in our -- our, for it is mine too, even if I disagree with parts of it -- confession of faith that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Could I claim a community that claimed that? Was I willing to be claimed by them? This question haunts me still. What I know is that I found so much good in the Mennonite church that I committed myself to faithful conversation, from the inside. I became a member of a church. I served as a deacon. I went all in.

This past summer, as a delegate in Phoenix, I was blessed to sit at a table with other Mennonites from around the country and discuss the issues facing our church. I learned more about how we make decisions, and about what is going on in other conferences. I felt out of place at times as a young woman, yet I also felt welcomed, and (mostly) heard. I was grateful to be Mennonite, to say that these are my people.

Yet precisely because these are my people, I needed to act with Pink Menno when they demonstrated during the delegate session on the last day of the convention. Because I love this church, I needed to be part of that silent witness, calling us to conversation. I don’t see myself as positioned against the church; I am in it, I am part of it, as we all are. Arms, legs, fingers, toes -- one body, many members -- and it breaks my heart to see division. But the division that I refer to is that which exists already, not that which might result from finally having to cope with the questions of same-sex marriage, membership of those who identify as LGBTQ, and yes, a lesbian woman whom God and the church have called to be a pastor.

What sense does it make to remain silent because we fear division? We are divided already. We have chosen to exclude.

As Joanna Harader put it so well in a recent article for the Christian Century about her own experiences after officiating a same-sex marriage:
...the disunity so evident at our gatherings did not spring fully formed out of the wedding at which I officiated. The things people said—in public and private—were not things they came up with when they read the news reports. People’s beliefs were long held, slowly formed, deeply etched. The disunity had been there all along, hiding in the dark corners. And it seems to me that the one who turns on the light is not necessarily responsible for the mess that light reveals.
She goes on to point out the difference between a warm, fuzzy, non-boat-rocking form of unity and supposed peace -- a peace that is really a mask for the disagreements we’re refusing to air. “I’m gradually understanding,” she writes, “that the Spirit’s unity isn’t so much about keeping everyone inside happy with each other as it is about tearing down walls so more people can get in. It’s about the faithful path, not the warm and fuzzy path; about making us hear one another, not necessarily agree.” In avoiding conversation about sexuality, we’re not preserving unity. We’re avoiding our own disunity. The Lancaster news may say, “a tradition known for peacemaking  faces conflict in its midst,” but the conflict isn’t new. It’s just that we’re finally being forced to talk about it. We finally have to do the hard work of making peace, instead of silently keeping with tradition.

Again and again the Mennonite church has taught me patience. My first encounter with consensus building was in a congregational life meeting mere weeks after I first walked through the doors of the church, and I now tell new attenders that if they want to really understand what we’re about, they should attend these -- sometimes boring -- meetings. We talk in circles. We go off on tangents. Just when you think we’re going to make a decision, someone pipes up with a new concern. Even when we’re on the verge of consensus, there’s a nervousness, an ever-present worry that we may not have made room for every voice to be heard. We want to make that space; we’re trying to do better. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like the topic at hand is worth all this effort. Sometimes we’re discussing things that seem so simple. Yet the way we approach those simple things is the way we will approach the theologically heavy things. Or maybe it’s just that the simple things matter, too.

I have always thought of myself as a patient person. I thought I was a good, sympathetic listener. You would think that I, feminist that I am, would be completely on board with the need to hear every voice. Yet a consensus model of decision making reminds me, no matter what the topic on the table on a given day, that it is easy to get carried away with my own vision of the truth, and to forget to listen. When I see an honorable goal in front of us, I want us to reach out and grab it, now.

I have been very open about my personal position about LGBTQ inclusion, even before I became a member of a Mennonite church. I’ve preached about marching in the Pride parade, about inclusion and exclusion. I’ve never intentionally hidden my views. But my position is only that: mine. Unless I bring it into conversation with others, unless I learn to speak with honesty and trust, unless I learn to really hear the voices of others.

The thing is, the voices that we haven’t been listening to are the voices of our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. A unity that does not welcome these voices is no unity at all, but a broken and fractured body. There is still much I don’t understand about the dynamics of different districts and conferences and how we relate on a national level as part of MCUSA. But I know we need to commit to listening to one another, and that means -- among other things -- that the voice that has dominated the conversation, the voice that has been the norm, the voice that speaks from a place of power and leadership, even in a “flat” structure such as ours, needs to listen to the voice of dissent.

Stop beating your bibles, and allow the Word to speak through unexpected people. Open your ears, as well as your arms. My prayer is that we would seek a unity that goes beyond appearances, and that we would work together to make peace, as beloved children of God.

Monday, December 30, 2013

On Success

I’ve been doing this a long time, you know. This writing thing. Many of the people I am closest to now met me in college, where I double majored in philosophy and religion, or graduate school round one, where I studied theology. I call myself a theologian, and slowly, with practice, I am starting to believe what I say about myself. “Writer,” though -- that is a title I took on at age twelve, a title I have believed for a long time. Maybe not all seventeen years that I have described myself that way, but most of them.

My high school teachers said I had “potential” as a writer. The dreaded “p” word, and all of its accompanying baggage of pressure to succeed. At eighteen my skin was not thick enough. I gave up too easily. I applied for a writing scholarship, and when I did not get it, I decided to major in literature instead. I submitted to the college literary journal, and when I was rejected several times I stopped submitting. It was easier to believe the rejection than the successes. Easier to focus on the judges who had said “no” than the ones who said “yes,” when they awarded me the first year writing prize. After all, I won that prize for writing the best essay in an English 113 class -- the class many of my smart friends got out of because they had taken AP courses in high school. I attributed the win to a big fish, small pond scenario. It did not even occur to me to suggest that my parents drive the hour from Kalamazoo to Holland for the honors convocation where I would receive the award.

I knew I was a writer, though. I just didn’t expect I would ever be successful at it. I didn’t think anyone actually cared about what I had to say. I didn’t believe that I had anything to say worth paying attention to, honestly. I wrote because it was something I needed to do. I wrote for me, and I didn’t show my work to anyone.

The philosophy department, where I wound up at my English advisor’s recommendation, was the place I learned that I had something to say -- and that it was worth saying. Most of the things I had to say, it turned out, were more philosophical than I realized. Many of the things I wanted to say were about God, too. And so I dove into studying religion as well. These became the things I wrote about most, besides my own life and how I got from one day to the next -- topics which were also related to philosophy and religion, perhaps unsurprisingly.

And so, my decision two years ago to pursue an MFA is not and never has been a career change. It’s a re-routing, as if my internal GPS has recalculated based on various circumstances, an interdisciplinary combination of interests, figuring out an alternate route to the same goals I had sitting in the philosophy department on the third floor of Lubbers Hall in Holland, Michigan.

I bring this up now because I have had, by most standards, a wildly successful year as a writer. And, as an article a friend shared with me this week expressed so well, it is easy to defer to luck when it comes to explaining that, rather than acknowledging that this has been the result of years and years of work -- work that’s not nearly over. Work that’s just getting started.

The work I am familiar with, though the recognition is new. So, much of this year, the parts I haven’t spent writing and editing and tutoring and teaching, has been spent learning how to respond to that recognition. I have had to practice saying thank you, without adding a self-deprecating tagline. I have learned, concretely, why people say, “Never read the comments.” I have met total strangers for the first time and had them say they like my work, and been rendered speechless -- that is, until I said something totally awkward that I wished I could take back as soon as it left my mouth.

I have written home to say, “I was quoted by the New York Times today,” even though my family doesn’t read the New York Times.

This year I learned that success hurts.

No one told me that. No one told me how writing would change when suddenly the audience wasn’t imagined, but real. No one told me that I would have to work harder than ever to overcome the internal demons of my own self-doubt that try to keep the words in my head away from that blank page. No one told me that all of this would feel like a big game of make-believe.

10,000 people could not possibly have read an article I wrote last January. That number cannot be real. Or if it is, that will never, ever happen again.

See what I mean? Even in an essay trying to say, here I am world, embracing my life as a writer -- a life I have worked hard for, a life that has and will continue to require certain kinds of sacrifice, commitment, and solitude, a life I love -- even here, a little bit of that self-deprecating humor sneaks in.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret, at the risk of seeming unfeminine, of coming across as overly ambitious instead of sweet, gentle, and receptive, just waiting for something to happen. People have asked me on more than one occasion how I got such-and-such piece published in such-and-such place, and I usually think too hard about how to respond. It feels a bit rude to just tell the truth: I sent it in, and they published it, because it was good.

I’m increasingly convinced that while markets are real, and networking is useful, and sure, luck exists -- what makes it in the end is good writing.

There’s no magic. I’m not playing a game. I’m more stubborn, more persistent, more thick-skinned than I was at eighteen when the college literary magazine sent me packing, and I’m putting words on paper every day regardless of where they end up. The last decade-plus has done me some good, both in the years of practice writing, and the tough shell I’m developing to handle criticism and disappointment. These days rejections -- though they still sting, and though there are more of them than there are acceptances -- feel like proof that I am really doing this thing I have wanted to do since forever ago.

As a young woman whose entire body has been socialized to shrink, to take up as little space as possible, to keep my voice calm and level and quiet, to avoid disrupting the important people and their important conversations, I now have to learn what to do when people are listening. How to stand up, take up space -- physically, verbally, with my whole person. I have to learn how to take credit for the work that I do. In short, I’m learning a new lesson about pride.

Virtue, as I learned in seminary, is a mean between extremes. An excess of pride may be a vice, yet we often forget -- if we were ever taught in the first place -- that a lack of appropriate pride -- excessive humility or shame, the kind of self-deprecating attitude beaten into young women’s bodies and minds since birth -- that too is wrong. A movement toward appropriate pride in one’s God given gifts, used -- I hope -- to bring some truth and beauty into the world -- that lesson may be years in the learning.

Every time I cross my legs, fold my arms, slouch down, and rest my chin on my hand as I so often do, I know I’ve internalized a sense of shame about the space I take up in this world. Every time someone asks me to speak up I know this shame has shaped even my speech patterns. Every time I feel bad about the number on the label of my pants, what I ate for dinner, and the run I did not take, I feel it in my flesh. Every time I apologize before I speak I know that there are lessons I never knew I was learning that I will spend the rest of my life trying to forget.

I’m lucky about one thing, which is that I have people in my life who want me to speak up. People who listen when I do. People who encourage me to eat pie, as well as to write poetry. And so, while I started this essay wanting to write about work, and success, I am also writing about community -- the kind of community that values women’s gifts, that encourages them to grow rather than to shrink, that forms them in the kind of humble pride that exists between those excessive extremes.

For the time being, I just want to say thank you for reading. Thank you for being the audience I never expected to have. Thank you for helping me learn pride in a world that would rather I feel shame, and for giving me the chance to say I am working hard for this, and it is worth it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Michelle Bares Arms and Bakes Cookies: So What?

I am humbled and grateful to introduce today's guest post from the brilliant Emma Akpan, a fellow Duke Divinity School graduate. Emma Akpan is an activist and minister living in Raleigh, NC. When not writing about women or repro health, Emma enjoys the gym and Netflix. Emma doesn't think time should be wasted spending sunny days inside or eating bad food.

When Michelle Obama burst by Barak Obama’s side in 2007, announcing her husband’s presidential bid, feminists everywhere, black and white, expected her to roll up her designer sleeves revealing well-toned arms and be our champion. She was going to influence equal pay, she was going to stop violence against women, she was going to break all glass ceilings for all of us. In 2008, she told someone that “for the first time, I was not proud of my county,” and was heavily criticized by right-winged media. She was called Barack’s “baby mama,” a derogatory term for mothers who are no longer in a relationship with their co-parents. They labeled her as “fierce” and “angry.” So naturally, to protect herself, she toned it down a bit. She picked a rather benign subject, healthy living and fitness, and focused on raising her daughters. Although she was still criticized by mostly the right media for forcing children to give up their sweets and goodies, the racialized criticism has waned.

But feminists continued to criticize her. In a recent Politico article, Michelle Cottle accused Michelle Obama of “Leaning Out”, in reference to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, push for women to lean into their careers and leadership. Because Michelle focuses on issues related to domesticity and motherhood, healthy living and exercise, she became a “feminist nightmare.” Because, of course, it is blasphemy for anyone to call themselves a feminist and prefer motherhood over making edgy career choices.

But let’s nuance Michelle Obama’s choices here. True, she didn’t enter the White House with her boxing gloves her publicly introducing policy. She didn’t choose a particularly tough issue as her pet cause. But she did something revolutionary for Black women -- she made the choice to be a mother.

Historically, Black mothers have not had the luxury of keeping a home and primarily raising their children. During slavery, Black mothers nursed white babies, prepared meals for their white slaveholders, cleaned the slaveholders yard, or if they worked in the fields, endured long hours outdoors through forced labor. After Emancipation, not much had changed. Black mothers were expected to work as primary breadwinners of their homes. Their Black male partners did not make enough to maintain a roof over their heads and food for their children, so two incomes were always necessary. Black women didn’t have the choice of staying home and doing what Michelle Obama does -- gardening, baking cookies, and making sure her presidential daughters have a well-rounded education and as normal a life as possible.

Oh, we know Michelle is qualified. Most of us can recite her credentials like a litany. Undergraduate from Princeton, J.D. from Harvard, young associate at a law firm where she met Barack, and years of activism to follow. Yes, she is more than qualified to influence policy.  Yet now, as her husband is president, she has an opportunity to make her daughters a priority. She chose a subject to help other mothers, of all colors, to keep their children healthy as she has chosen to do. There are so many mothers who desperately want to do this for their children. They want to provide healthy home cooked meals so important for their physical and mental growth They want their children to lead a lifestyle that will be the foundation for their careers. But so many mothers also must work 12 – 14 hour days, most of the time taking multiple jobs just to keep a roof over their heads.

Michelle, for many of us, inspires us to work hard and stick to our values so that our children can achieve their dreams. But Linda Hirschman wants to rob Michelle of the privilege many white women have enjoyed for centuries by mocking Michelle, saying: “She essentially became the English lady of the manor, Tory Party, circa 1830s.” Finally, when a Black woman has a chance to represent the role of the “lady” public, she is chided. Being the “lady of a manor” is a privilege many white women have enjoyed for centuries, and when a Black woman has a chance to represent the role of the “lady” public, she is chided. It reminds me of the poem by Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I a Woman” when she said: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?” The dichotomy between White womanhood and Blackness is highlighted in Truth’s piece. White women were allowed to be the pure, cherished and adored women whereas Black women were discarded; our bodies were used and not seen. Michelle Obama is the realized vision of many Black women before her; she is in a highly cherished role, traditionally sacred, as a wife and mother. Her role expands our society’s vision of Black women; we can be educated, enterprising, strong and independent, but also motherly, domestic and feminine.

For once, a Black woman is not an object of labor. And most importantly, it’s nice to see a Black woman have the choice to have a successful career and spend time being a mother. Feminists fight against motherhood and domesticity because society forced them to remain in the home and barred them from financial freedom. Large companies did not hire women. Women were unable to get a credit card until the 1970s. Forced domesticity and blockage from the public arena are important symptoms of patriarchy, but we must remember, feminism is about choice. A woman should do what she pleases, as long as she is doing it freely. Michelle Obama’s motherhood is liberating for many women across the country, because they can continue to dream to provide the same healthy and full lifestyle for their children.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

On the Road

This mennonite feminist scholar person has been on the move:

Two weeks ago I was in Provo, Utah, presenting a paper at the “Kierkegaard and the Present Age” conference. I got to spend time with a lot of fellow Kierkegaardians, and see some beautiful mountains.

Somewhere between SLC and Provo
Then, I stopped by Baltimore, Maryland for AAR/SBL, where I met face-to-face for the first time with the fine folks of Religion Dispatches. I also heard a lot of smart people speak on panels, listened to Wendell Berry read some poems, and met up with fellow Duke alums who are now scattered all over the place. It was like a big ol’ theological family reunion. From there I flew to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I was able to see a dear, dear friend from Hope College.
"It's a metaphor!"

Now I am in Kalamazoo, Michigan, also known as the place where I spent the first nineteen years of my life. “Home” is a good place to slow down for a while (though I admit I’ve been grading papers and catching up on work half the time I’ve been here). It’s a blessing to be with my family, who I don’t see nearly as much as I’d like to. My next stop is a short stay in Chicago with another college friend, before I head back to the other place I call home -- Durham, North Carolina.
Me: Flurries! Southern friend: Around here,
we don't call snow like that "flurries!"

Here’s something I’m learning this year: I love to travel, but I love to come home. The thing I miss most (besides my cat and my bike, I guess) when I travel is the good people of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. Tomorrow I’ll spend the first Sunday of Advent with the folks at Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship, and by next week I’ll be back teaching Sunday School to some tiny southern mennonite kiddos, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Happy [liturgical!] New Year!