Friday, July 11, 2014

This Little Light of Mine

I love “This Little Light of Mine,” but I don’t like the verse that says, “Won’t let Satan blow it out.”

The five year olds in my class already know this verse, of course, and they get a little confused when I share a different version. “Don’t let anyone blow it out,” we sing (or, I sing, and hope they join in). I’m the teacher, and I am trying to teach them something here.

To an outside observer I suppose it might look as if I am hesitant to talk about Satan -- about evil, personified. It might appear as if I am distancing myself from the conversation about demons, spirits, all that complicated “woo woo” stuff that nice educated liberal Christians like me tend to avoid. I promise that is not my reason for choosing an alternate verse, though. My thoughts on angels and demons, Satan as an entity, and so on, are complicated and half-formed -- I’m simply not ready to go there, so that much is true. But that isn’t my reason for trying to teach the kids a different song.

My worry is that singing, “Won’t let Satan blow it out” forms a humorous caricature in their minds. Satan, as a concept, is one their little imaginations can run with, and I am not so much worried about that scaring them as I am about it putting them on a trajectory of theological development in which evil is compartmentalized into one cartoonish Devil.

Evil, unfortunately, is a bit more overreaching and amorphous than that. Satan is a convenient focus, a bit of a distraction, a scapegoat even. Of course, with five year olds I don’t dwell on evil -- my fellow teachers and I tend to focus on bible stories and lessons that talk about things like love, kindness, and the ways that the church is our family. But even at age five, children’s theological imaginations are already developing -- it shocks me again and again how much they remember from previous weeks of class. Their minds are story sponges. And so, when we talk about bad things that happen in the world, this caricatured form of evil is not the story I want to tell.

The simple fact of the matter is that as these children learn and grow their lights are not going to be threatened by some cartoonish character called Satan. Their ability to grow up and become faithful people will be threatened in ways more complicated than that, by evil more difficult to pin down, by broken systems and power structures, and yes, by other people.

“Won’t let anyone blow it out” is a theological statement of its own, one which I think we all need to hear from time to time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Aging Well


I’ve had some great birthdays in my life. And some not so great ones.

Five days before my 6th birthday, the summer of 1990, the summer before I started kindergarten, my little brother was born. My mom had a c-section, and missed my party because she came home from the hospital on the same day and was still recovering. That was the year I had ice cream cake and a clown who made balloon animals, at the Ground Round restaurant.

The year I turned 16 everyone teased me: “Sweet 16 and never been kissed,” they said, and I blushed because, though in fact I had been kissed, unbeknownst to the adults in my life, it was in a game of Truth or Dare, and in my opinion that did not count.

When I turned 21 I was working at a summer camp with strict rules about staff behavior, so I knew there would be no alcoholic raging (not that such raging was my style anyway). What I didn’t anticipate was that, so off-handed had my mention of my birthday been in the weeks prior, that the entire staff would forget it -- even staff who had known me for years, staff who had celebrated previous birthdays with me, at this very camp. I was director of the kitchen staff that summer, and my team felt so bad when they realized their oversight that they threw me a surprise party a week later. It more than made up for it, though the memory of everyone else’s oversight is inescapable. Birthdays have made me nervous ever since.

My 25th was the worst, though. I had just finished a master’s degree, my boyfriend had broken up with me a month before graduation, and I was unemployed -- this in 2009, arguably the worst year to finish a degree in pretty much anything, in terms of job prospects. David Sedaris was giving a reading in the next town over on my birthday, and I wanted nothing more than to go, but I couldn’t find anyone to go with me. I don’t drive, and the combined lame-ness of the hour-plus bus ride and going to the reading alone was more than I was willing to subject myself to on my birthday, so I stayed home all day, by myself. I managed to shoehorn a few friends into going to my favorite irish pub later in the evening, so the day wasn’t a total wash, but it was a rough start to a rough year. These days, I’d go to the reading alone, and thoroughly enjoy myself. Such are the lessons about self that come with age.

Since then, the midpoint of my twenties, each successive birthday had been better than the last. At 26 I moved into a new apartment (where I still live), and my landlords and their grandchildren, who had known me for less than a month, baked me a cake and had me over for supper. At 27, I threw my own party for the first time, complete with an Oberon mini-keg and homemade cupcakes provided by a dear friend. At 28 I was a visiting scholar at the Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf in Minnesota, and celebrated with new friends from all over the world (if my memory serves me correctly, I over-celebrated, in fact). At 29 I asked friends to bake cake and meet me at my favorite pub, and they showed up with not one but three different kinds, sending me home with ample leftovers, a bouquet of flowers, and a stack of sweet, thoughtful birthday cards.

Yesterday, I turned 30. Thirty.

I’ve been torn about 30. Actually, no, that’s not true -- I’ve been thrilled about 30, while keenly aware that society suggests, with little subtlety, that I should not be. As a single person whose accomplishments are mostly education or travel related rather than, say, monetary or familial or whatever else people tend to label “adult,” and as a woman whose value is often marked by physical characteristics that will lose their cultural currency in the years to come as I start to show my age (I love the laugh lines developing around my eyes, but I am probably not “supposed” to), I think this birthday was supposed to strike fear into my heart.

Every year I feel further and further from achieving such supposed markers of adulthood, and every year I care less and less about whether I ever will. The gift of my twenties is the hard won confidence to say, I’m a grown woman who knows what I want and will do what needs to be done to get there. This is my life, and I won't apologize for it.

I am grateful for the person I became in my twenties -- the woman who will pack up and move across country if needed, but isn’t afraid to put down roots and stay. The woman who can pack for three weeks in a carry-on bag, who reads both The New Yorker and Vogue, who isn’t afraid to take a hip hop dance class by herself even if it means looking silly in front of total strangers. When I was 6, 16, 21, and 25, I didn’t know that one real gift of age is a freedom from not only the expectations of others, but from those I’ve placed on myself. The best thing about being a grown up is that you never really leave your past selves behind. You take them with you; you get to be many selves all at once; you add up to a more incredible person with each year, each heartbreak, each joy, each ordinary day.

What I am trying to say, in the words of Dar Williams, is that I’m so glad that I finally made it here. I am part of an intergenerational group of women who I do yoga with every week, and one thing (of many!) they have taught me over the past few years is how to mark time, to honor transitions, to embrace each year with courage and grace, as a miraculous gift. When you have helped welcome women into their 60s and 70s, it seems so silly that anyone would worry about 30, that anyone would call it “old” or imply that each year should bring with it anything other than joy and possibility. I am just getting started, and I see ahead of me decades upon decades of wisdom and happiness and heartbreak and companionship and good work to do, surrounded by good people.

I’ve been called an old soul on more than one occasion. I’ve always been a bit on the serious side (my own mother has been known to tell me to “lighten up” from time to time. She is usually right). I suppose none of this is news, coming from someone who finished two masters degrees before her 30th birthday. I’m what you might call...driven.

If it’s true that I was driven at age 20, it is also true that it took most of my twenties to learn to slow down. To dance. To laugh (especially at myself). To know when to stay up half the night working, and when to stay up half the night having fun. I need both, and it took me longer than most, maybe, to learn that I don’t have to choose between them, to learn to embrace the contradictions of my own tendencies toward both earnestness and frivolity. To be present in the here and now, and worry less about the future.

I see the shift in myself when a friend makes a joke, and I deliver the perfect one-liner in response, without missing a beat, instead of coming up with a well-crafted retort hours later. I see it when the clock glows 2:00 am on a weeknight because I was out late with friends, and again on a Saturday night when I pour myself a glass of wine and settle into the couch to watch TV after a 12 hour day of writing. And I certainly see it in my decision to use some birthday-gift funds from my aunt to buy the purple skateboard of my dreams, which I will surely ride down the hallways of Duke Divinity School until someone with authority makes me stop.

I see it in a million little ways in a life that has taken me a decade to shape, in every little thing I’ve done that scares me (which is more things than you would probably guess).

I have been thinking of myself as 30 for a long time, and I think that is the main reason I couldn’t bring myself to throw a huge party this year as I had originally planned to do, opting instead for a relaxed night at Fullsteam. (That, and throwing your own party is a lot of work. Also, I hate being the center of attention.) I arrived in my metaphorical thirties a while ago, and I’m simply ready to get on with living them, with all “the things I know now that only time could tell,” in spite or because of all the ways my life doesn’t look like some people think 30 should. I’m lucky to have many, many people who know that my 30 is just right for me, and who have welcomed me into this new decade with great love and expectation for all the good that is yet to come.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Recitatif

I assigned William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway to my English 113 class this semester. I also assigned Flannery O’Connor, Kate Chopin, and Alice Walker. I wanted to assign Toni Morrison, but the syllabus was full. Could I cut out Faulkner, I wondered? I didn’t really want to teach Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” anyway, so maybe I could cut that.

This might be the only literature course my students ever take, and I had to make a lot of tough decisions about what to include and what to leave out. I left out a lot of classics: Joyce, Steinbeck, Hawthorne. Mostly “classics” by white men, as you can see. There just wasn’t time to cover everything, even if I limited myself to the accepted canon, which I refused to do. Our Analyzing Literature textbook, thankfully, covered a lot of ground, so I had plenty of material by women and people of color to choose from.

Even so, I there were some works on my syllabus that I honestly did not think needed to be there. I just didn’t have the guts to leave them off.

I should have assigned Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” or something by Zora Neal Hurston, or Ralph Ellison. Instead, I taught Faulkner and Hemingway. Why? The first reason, the way I rationalized it to myself, is that my students will encounter these famous writers later in their education. I feel responsible for exposing them to the canon, even if I reject its limited scope. They need to know who Hemingway is, if for no other reason than to appear well-read to those who define “well-read” as knowing the traditional literary canon. Do I think they can be well-read without reading Faulker? Yes. Of course. But not everyone else will, so I play the game, and assign “A Rose for Emily.”

There’s another, more personally difficult reason I didn’t assign Toni Morrison’s story in particular, as brilliant as it is, as much as I longed to include it in my course. As a graduate student, I had watched a class I was in crush a white professor for attempting to teach The Bluest Eye. That book changed my life and my thought forever, for the better. But reading it in that setting instilled a sense of caution about how I can and cannot teach certain texts as a white woman -- no, more than caution, fear. That professor was the only teacher who ever assigned Morrison to me, in four years of college and four years of graduate education. So, I also feel ill-equipped to teach her work on a basic intellectual level (same with Baldwin, Hurston, Walker -- the list goes on).

Yet the story is so good, on so many levels.

Instead of teaching “Recitatif,” I assigned it as extra credit. Students had the option of reading the story, watching a youtube video of Junot Díaz interviewing Toni Morrison about race and writing, and writing a one page essay about how the video illuminated the story. Honestly, I think it was a brilliant assignment. Three out of nineteen students completed it, and as I graded those extra credit assignments I keep thinking, why didn’t I make all of them do this? Why didn’t I require it? As one student told me how the video of Morrison and Díaz made a lightbulb go off in her head, I lamented the lost opportunity for the rest of my students, who will likely never bother to read the story on their own. It would have been difficult, but wonderful, to discuss that video, and that story, with them in class.

But it was my first time teaching an English class, my first semester as a professor, and I was too scared. I don’t know Morrison’s work well enough, I told myself, and I certainly didn’t know if I was capable of managing what would be a heavy, potentially volatile, classroom discussion with a bunch of freshman.

Still, I assigned Alice Walker and Langston Hughes and Sekou Sundiata. Considering that it was only an eight week course, we had a decent number of conversations about race and literature, starting -- painfully, awkwardly, uncomfortably -- with O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the first week. It has been a challenge to summon the guts to imagine I have anything to say to my students about race while also balancing that courage and confidence with the humility needed to let the texts we study guide the conversation -- to let the authors speak instead of me.

I want to teach Toni Morrison in such a way that she teaches all of us. I’m just the guide. The needed “expert” on literature, asking leading questions, making my students talk to each other, and trying somehow to impart not only knowledge but wisdom.

And so if there is one thing I regret it is that I did not have the guts to assign that story. Sure, we had a nice discussion about southern gothic literature and foreshadowing in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” But “Recitatif” is a brilliant piece of writing, a story I will spend years making sense of, a story that could have taught my students so much more about literature, about the world we live in, and even about themselves. While most of them had never read Faulkner, most of them had never read Morrison either. And they should. Oh, they should!

Next time she won’t be extra credit. Next time, Faulkner will be. We’ll keep him on the margins, and put Morrison up front, where she should have been all along.

As for me, I’ll spend my summer reading some of those authors I should have read in college, but never did. I’ll read them so that I can teach them in the future, but first I’ll let them teach me.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Thanks for Noticing

Yesterday I wrote a letter of recommendation for a student. This was a first for me; I am used to being the one asking others to recommend me. I hate asking people to write letters for me, but the process of writing one for someone else turns out to be really lovely work. I love saying nice things about well-deserving people. I love getting to say, “Hey, you! Yes, you! Admissions Office! This student freaking amazing and you would be crazy not to give her everything you’ve got. I am lucky to be her teacher.” I find myself grateful for a chance to say something good about students who may or may not believe all the good they have done and can do in this world, to say not only how bright they are, but what a gift they are to me, their teacher.

I remember a particularly low point in my senior year of high school, when I was feeling the crush of all kinds of pressure to succeed. I had applied to five colleges: two small liberal arts colleges, both of whom were wooing me gleefully, with scholarships that were a drop in the bucket compared to their high price tags, and three state schools. I got in to all but one: the University of Michigan wait-listed me. That was disappointment number one. Then a scholarship competition at Western Michigan University yielded only the smallest scholarship -- the one everyone got just for earning a spot in the competition to begin with. Disappointment number two. And then I didn’t get a writing scholarship I applied for at Hope College. Disappointment number three.

Though I suppose I could back up further. I could talk about how I felt like a failure because I fell short of every goal I set for myself that year. It would sound silly, because it was. These “failures” were things like getting a 29 on the ACT when my personal goal had been a 30, a 1290 on the SAT when my goal was 1300. And so on. These days, I refuse to discuss standardized test scores. I know too well what it is to place more emphasis on those numbers than we should. So whether I did well or badly on the GRE is nobody’s business but the graduate school admissions offices who reviewed my applications.

Back then, though, I felt like a big dumb failure -- always close, but not quite. I was average, normal, good enough. At 18, I longed to stand out for something, anything -- I was so quiet, such a wallflower, never the center of attention, never the “best.” So when various rejections -- or perceived rejections -- rolled in, I caved in on myself. I went into Eeyore mode. (Eeyore is my spirit animal to this day, probably.)

All this time my mom had saved copies of the recommendation letters my high school teachers had written for me. I hadn’t read any of them, though I was technically allowed to. It felt weird to me, somehow. I didn’t know how to take a compliment, much less pages of them proclaiming my merits to complete strangers.

When I hit my lowest my mom got out the folder of letters, brought it to me in the bathroom where I was hiding -- I always went into the bathroom to cry because I didn’t have my own room -- and made me read them.

I’m pretty sure that made me cry more.

I don’t know how many of those nice things people were saying about me I was able to believe at that point in my life, but I know that reading them helped. That knowing someone who had taught me, and had really known me as a person over the years, someone who had seen me grow, learn, try, fail, and improve, would care enough to take the time to say those things -- that meant something to me. It meant a lot more than a number, a grade, a test score, or even a scholarship.

So, writing a letter of recommendation for someone feels pretty damn good. Only 12 years ago I was in this student’s place, pouring all my dreams into college applications and hoping that somewhere in all the essays and numerical evaluations a future would take shape.

And wouldn’t you know, it did. And it still is. For me, and for her.

Tell someone how amazing she is today. Tell her she is so much more than a number, so much more than class averages and statistics and points on a graph. Tell her she’s freaking amazing, and that you’re lucky to know her.

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.