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

#StolenLives

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:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Unspeakable Things

When reviewing a book, I like to give a sense of its trajectory, and pull out a few specific examples from the text that highlight the book’s strengths and weaknesses. With Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution, I find that approach difficult, because each chapter is so vibrant. Penny considers her subjects with such depth and grace, such honesty and intelligence, that to leave anything out is unsettling. I can’t quote the whole book to you; I can only say that I really hope you will read it. Penny, who is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, has long been one of my favorite political writers, due to her clear grasp of the intertwined nature of the political and the personal.

Unspeakable Things arrived at my doorstep at an opportune time. As a young writer, I am learning the consequences of speaking one’s mind in public, that it’s dangerous business simply to exist as a woman and be good at what you do. Why, I wonder, are so many men shocked and offended that women have the audacity to narrate their own stories, instead of letting someone else do it for us? With this question on my mind, I cracked the spine of Unspeakable Things:
This is not a fairy tale. This is a story about how sex and money and power put fences around our fantasies. This is a story about how gender polices our dreams. Throughout human history, the most important political battles have been fought on the territory of the imagination, and what stories we allow ourselves to tell depend on what we can imagine. (1)
Laurie Penny is not afraid to name the causes of women’s legitimate anger, nor the repercussions thereof. “One sure test of social privilege,” she writes, “is how much anger you get to express without the threat of expulsion, arrest, or social exclusion” (1). She goes on to lay out the realities of love, sex, and gender under neoliberalism, and the prevalent ideologies that dictate discourse about these subjects across the political spectrum. Penny understands that the problems we face are structural, and that their solutions will involve more than simply tweaking the existing rules. The system is broken; the storyline is flawed. And we need to overturn it if there is to be any hope of moving beyond misogynist norms. She writes:
There comes a time when you have to decide whether to change yourself to fit the story, or change the story itself. The decision gets a little easier if you understand that refusing to shape your life and personality to the contours of an unjust world is the best way to start creating a new one. 
There comes a time when you have to decide what you will permit yourself to want. 
While we’re on the subject, here’s what I want. I want mutiny. I want women and queers and everyone else who’s been worked over by gender and poverty and power, which by the way means most of us, to stop waiting to be rewarded for good behaviour. There are no gold stars coming and there are few good jobs left. Even if we buy the right clothes and work the right hours and show up every day with the same cold gag of a smile clenched between our teeth, there’s no guarantee we’ll be left alone to grow old before the flood waters come in. 
Forget it. It’s done. The social revolution that’s been clocking and stumbling down a gauntlet of a century and more, the feminist fightback, the sexual re-scripting, the tearing up of old norms of race and class and gender, it has to start again, with all of us this time, not just the rich white kids who needed it least. So it has to be mutiny. (21, emphasis mine)
What do we want, anyway? What are we supposed to want? Desires are constructed within a web of expectations about right ways of being women or men, such that sometimes what we think we want and what we actually want are not the same thing. And when you begin to realize that, to reject the story you’ve been told, the trajectory you’re supposed to follow, what then? You are confronted with the choice of refusal, of saying no to the world as is, and yes to wanting something else, something better. And you will likely be punished for that desire.

Throughout Unspeakable Things Penny lays bare truths both women and men don’t want to speak of, don’t want to hear. From “Fucked-Up Girls” and “Lost Boys” to sexism on the internet and love in dangerous times, each chapter is a treatise on a particular feature of the current landscape of gender and sexuality. Together, they make a compelling case for her central claim: that gender polices our dreams, and that all of us -- each and every one -- have to imagine a way forward together, a way out of the tangled web of categories and boxes we try to squeeze ourselves and everyone else into. We have to dare to want something more than what is currently offered, something more than “hard work, bland beauty and romance leading to money, marriage and kids: the definition of total freedom that has been allowed to conquer our imaginations, leaving no space for any other lives. But what if we want something else? Is that still allowed? What if we want freedom?” (21).

I worry that it’s not allowed. Not now. And we must dare to want it anyway.

Doubtless there are theological connections here, which Penny herself would not make but would, I hope, excuse me for wanting. The current matrix of neoliberal capitalism, of violence and social control, is not the kind of freedom Christians are called to, despite how the church has been sucked into that narrative. A vision of life beyond human categories that define and separate, of freedom made possible in the Christ who heals us all and makes us whole, as creatures who are more than the limited definitions we try to project onto one another -- sadly most of us are not taught in church to imagine that kind of freedom.

Unspeakable Things left me with a deep hunger, one that has gnawed me for years but has only now been named. I decide, daily, what I will permit myself to want -- not only for myself, but for the world I live in, for the children I may never have, for the sisters and brothers who labor day in and day out in a system that it seems will never change. What will you permit yourself to want?

I fear that I want too much.

What does it mean to refuse to change my life to fit the story, and instead to change the story itself? To use my body, my life, my voice, to help reshape the contours of an unjust world?

Penny named so many things I have felt, so many injuries I bury deep down, wounds I have almost forgotten are there but can never fully leave behind. Wounds I know are only a small part of widespread epidemics. And yet, Penny ends her book with more hope than I can sometimes muster. “Revolution begins in the human imagination,” she writes, and I want to believe her. I don’t have that kind of hope in us, though I think she is right that we must dare to imagine something more, something else, and that means relentless hope, rejecting the story as it is now being told, and joining in the re-scripting of a world turned upside down by grace.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Femmonite Book Club

I had so much fun reading and reviewing Roxane Gay’s fabulous essay collection, Bad Feminist, last month that I decided this sort of thing should become a regular feature on the blog. A Femmonite Book Club, minus the need to squeeze an extra meeting into your no doubt already overstuffed schedules. You might think of this as me turning the Femmonite into a mini virtual classroom on feminism and literature, or simply as a way to choose which of the many books published each month are, in my highly subjective opinion, worth your time.

If you’re interested in reading along, here’s the full schedule:

September: Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution
October: Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
November: Mallory Ortberg, Texts from Jane Eyre
December: Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl

Look for my review of Unspeakable Things TOMORROW!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When an Apology is Not an Apology

During a New Student Orientation panel on Diversity & Inclusion at Duke Divinity School last week Dean Richard Hays made some comments about homosexuality, and read a passage from the Methodist Book of Discipline, that many students found inappropriate and unwelcoming. In response, students planned a peaceful gathering at the DDS opening convocation on Tuesday, which you can read about in the Durham Herald-Sun here.

Then, yesterday evening, Hays sent a letter to the Duke Divinity School community in response. Even though I have tutored and precepted at Duke for two and a half years I don’t receive community emails, so I asked a student friend to forward the letter to me. Turns out I could have just waited, because the letter was publicly tweeted by DDS a while later. This should not have surprised me. The letter sounded more like a public statement than a personal letter to the community to begin with.

When people are writing letters to you about violating the university’s diversity policy and CC’ing President Brodhead, and when the newspaper is reporting that one of the top divinity schools in the country is not welcoming to LGBTQ students, as Dean you have a bit of a PR problem.

That letter was not an apology. That letter was an attempt to make sure Hays doesn't get in trouble for violating university policy. Dean Hays’ response during orientation was inappropriately timed, and his words poorly chosen. Then, to make matters worse, instead of simply acknowledging the pain he caused and apologizing, he wrote a letter attempting to explain it all away as a big misunderstanding. The letter was dismissive and disrespectful, not to mention a poor model of leadership for incoming students training to be pastors. His letter was a form of crisis communications, a PR document designed to set the record straight by putting, in print, publicly, his version of the story.

The irony of the situation is that he got himself into this mess in the first place. He was not even one of the faculty members speaking on the Diversity & Inclusion panel. He did not need to say anything. He did not need to insert his voice into the discussion. He did not need to take the mic and make sure his voice was heard. But he did. And no, people did not mishear him. They heard him loud and clear.

Dean Hays’ views on homosexuality are no mystery in the halls of Duke Divinity School. There was nothing surprising about what he said. What was surprising, and hurtful, was the time, the place, and the manner of delivery -- the context. People who were not there have asked for a transcript of what was said initially, but I do not personally think that makes much difference. More than simply what he said (which has been clearly communicated by the intelligent, capable students in attendance), what makes the difference here is when and where and how he chose to say it. I am choosing to trust the room full of students who shrank into their chairs when he spoke, who in a few brief moments went from feeling welcomed to feeling scared. Multiple eye-and-ear-witness testimonies.

I have always disagreed with Hays’ stance on sexuality, but I respect his work as a scholar and I believe in academic freedom. He can research and write what he wants, and I will research and write what I want. But this situation is different. This situation is not about whether or not Hays is himself welcoming in his theological position about human sexuality. This situation occurred because Hays overstepped a boundary, as Dean of a Divinity School that is part of a wider university that does not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation. Because he is the dean, because he can, he inserted his voice into a conversation on a topic he had not been asked to speak on -- a textbook example of the privilege of straight white men with PhDs.

When you are in a position of power, you do not get to decide what is or is not welcoming to those who are not. You cannot tell people how they should feel.

Perhaps what irked me the most about the supposed “apology,” though, was the implication that Hays is doing so much to promote inclusion in the Divinity School. It is deceptive to act as if he has ever been supportive of the Gender, Theology, and Ministry certificate program or Sacred Worth. Both of those programs are wonderful and do a lot to make DDS a safe, welcoming, thriving community for students.

Hays is not involved in them.

Other people may work hard to make the divinity school a welcoming place for LGBTQ students, but he is not one of them. To appeal to their work to absolve himself of offering a real apology is a desperate move indeed. Normally Hays walks the line between his own beliefs about sexuality and university policy, creating an atmosphere of silent unwelcome rather than this more vocal outburst. But it is frankly dishonest to imply that he is actively making DDS a welcoming place for those who identify as LGBTQ.

If Hays is serious about being supportive of the programs he name dropped, then I would suggest that he attend the GTM certificate program graduates’ final presentations every year, and learn about all of the important research they are doing. I would suggest, also, that he meet regularly with the leaders of Sacred Worth and listen to what they have to say about how to make DDS a more safe and welcoming place.

And after he listens, he should listen some more.

The use of the word "reconciliation" in that letter disgusts me. You do not get to use that word unless you are willing to do the work. You do not get to jump to reconciliation if you are not also willing to repent for the pain you inflicted, purposefully or not. Deploying the word “reconciliation” as a weapon in a letter meant not to apologize but to placate, to dismiss, is not reconciliation. It is a reminder of who controls the PR machine, of who narrates the events that take place within Duke Divinity School walls, of who decides which stories matter.

It is not the students. They do not get to tell their own stories.

They will be told what they heard, how they should feel, and that, apparently, as leaders they never have to admit that they were wrong.

Most days I am proud to be a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Studying with Amy Laura Hall, Willie Jennings, J. Kameron Carter, and others (not to mention the many doctoral students who precepted my classes and have now moved on to other institutions) has formed me as scholar and as a Christian. Many of my closest friends are people I met within the walls of Duke Divinity School. But make no mistake: those hallways do not always feel safe and welcoming, not even to me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

#Ferguson

I don't usually do "link round up" posts, but given the shoddy reporting the mainstream media has been doing in Ferguson, I want to share some links to good commentary, as well as places to find ongoing, on-the-ground updates in the wake of Michael Brown's death.

For the Sake of Michael Brown, from the St. Louis American

The Front Lines of Ferguson, by Rembert Browne, for Grantland

Black Kids Don't Have to Be College Bound for Their Deaths to Be Tragic, by Jasmine Banks, for The Root

Reparations for Ferguson, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, for The Atlantic

A Movement Grows in Ferguson, by Jelani Cobb for The New Yorker

How to Deal With Friends' Racist Reactions to Ferguson, by Jenée Desmond-Harris for The Root

fergu(losta)son: mourning michael brown, by J. Kameron Carter, for The Marginalia Review of Books

What Will I Do? A Call to Theologians, by Brian Bantum

For ongoing news updates from Ferguson, head to Twitter and follow:
@AntonioFrench
@WesleyLowery
@elonjames
@jelani9
@chrislhayes
@TheRoot

Finally, if you're not already following @tanehisicoates and @AntheaButler, what are you waiting for?

Educate yourself. Keep paying attention. And get involved in your own city.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Voices in the Streets

A sermon for Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, August 17, 2014. Lectionary texts: Matthew 15:21-28, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-31, Psalm 133, Genesis 45:1-5.

This week I was glued to Twitter on more than one evening, watching the events in Ferguson, Missouri unfold in the wake of Mike Brown’s murder. In light of these events, today’s gospel passage, one that always frustrates and challenges me, has mostly saddened me. Here we are again. Mourning another life cut short, yearning for a gospel that can make sense of the senseless.

In Matthew 15, we read that Jesus is with his disciples when a Canaanite woman approaches him, shouting for mercy, asking for help, for healing for her demon tormented daughter.

And Jesus? At first, he doesn’t even answer her. His disciples urge him to send her away, and he responds that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. He uses a kind of insider/outsider language that seems to tell only half the story of who he is and why he has come.

Why, Jesus? Why do you blow off this child of God who wants nothing more from you than the healing you have offered so many others? Why do you call her an outsider?

I imagine the story going down so much differently. I imagine Jesus listening to the woman immediately, rather than waiting for her to call him out. I love it when eventually she does, though, this Canaanite woman who supposedly has no place bringing her request to Jesus. She challenges him, even as she restates what she knows others think of her: that she is no better than a dog, eating scraps from the master’s table. And he listens, albeit belatedly.

I thought of this passage this week, as I watched horrific footage from CNN of an officer in Ferguson referring to the largely peaceful protesters as “animals.” I thought of it again and again as we saw proof in hateful language and violent images of all the things that have not changed in the last fifty years. I thought of it while reading about the history of race, class, and education policy in Ferguson, about the series of choices and laws over long periods of time that shaped this city to be what it is today: a town where a police officer killed an unarmed boy with his hands in the air, asking for mercy he should not even have had to ask for in the first place.

Ferguson’s story, and Mike Brown’s story, is an American story. This is not the story the dominant voices in this country like to tell -- it’s not the story of American exceptionalism, of a “City on a Hill.” It’s a story of sin, of brokenness, and in response to that sin and brokenness, of a deep need for healing and hope in the face of despair, anger, and violence.

Returning to our text from Matthew, my frustration with Jesus eventually turns back onto myself, as I wonder how many cries, like the Canaanite woman’s, we close our ears to. Why does it take a cold blooded murder, a body bleeding in the street, to capture my attention like this? This event wasn’t isolated; this story isn’t new. Perhaps what is most frustrating in Jesus’ behavior is how easy it is to act similarly, to play the insider/outsider game, or to simply believe the lie that we’ve moved on. We would have listened, wouldn’t we? Yet a headline this morning described how images from Ferguson bring up “memories” of historic racism -- when in fact, they reveal our racist present.

Even the language police and news reports used this week tried to turn a blind eye to moral responsibility, stating that “bullets were fired,” and “violence escalated,” as if the gun somehow fired itself, as if a person -- a white police officer -- did not make the decision to execute a black boy for walking down the street. “Who did what?” I would write in red ink next to that sentence, if any of my students were to write it, trying to help them see why passive voice matters, why they need to clarify who is responsible for the action in their narrative.

Though Mike Brown was shot over a week ago, it took several days for the story to make its way into national news -- and even then, much of what was reported was grossly skewed, if not downright wrong. But the stories from tweeting reporters and online news outlets were plentiful, and I have tried if nothing else this week, to listen: to be a sponge, soaking up as many words from as many sources as I could, such that I didn’t know when I would ever stop and write, what words I could add to the chorus on social media, what truths scripture might speak to what we’ve seen and heard.

Roxane Gay uses the language of this Matthew passage (whether intending the connection or not) in an essay where she describe the kinds of representation black folks are expected to settle for in movies, literature, media -- scraps from the table, she says. And when I look at Ferguson, I can’t help but think that perhaps, if I were to have the audacity to make any sort of statement about what it is to be black in America, perhaps part of it is that one is expected to settle for the crumbs, for the scraps from the master’s table. Things are better, people will say -- so much better than slavery, so much better than Jim Crow -- look how far we’ve come! We even have a black president!

Settle for the crumbs. Don’t ask for a seat at the table.

I’m still not sure what it means to try to compare a Canaanite woman kneeling before Jesus, saying “Have mercy on me!” to a boy in 2014 St. Louis kneeling with his hands up, saying “Don’t Shoot!” -- a posture of surrender, a posture that should have been more than enough to save an innocent young man, but was not, and never has been.

If I’m honest, sometimes Jesus’ response in this passage doesn’t seem like enough. There will be no instant healing here, as there was for the daughter in this passage. Yet this is only part of the story. Just a few verses later Jesus is healing everyone who comes to him, and turning a few small loaves and fish into a meal for thousands. There is enough for all.

Romans 11 asks, “Has God rejected [God’s] people?” No, as Jesus said, he is sent for the lost sheep of Israel, and in God’s acceptance of Israel we -- we Gentiles who are not God’s chosen people -- we are grafted in, their salvation a salvation for the rest of us. We become kin. The Canaanite woman is not an outsider; we are not outsiders; the people of Ferguson are not outsiders.

As our Psalm declares, it is good to dwell together in unity.

But the world we live in today is one in which that unity is unrealized, and the cries of many go unanswered, at best, and at worst, are answered with bullets and tear gas and riot gear.

It’s tempting to talk of unity in order escape the evil in front of us, to say that Jesus is the answer, as if that were the end of the conversation instead of the beginning.

What glimmers of hope I saw this week came from people who, like the woman in Matthew’s gospel, refused to settle for same old stuff. People who refused to be overlooked. Parents and children singing and dancing in the streets in memory of Mike Brown, and others continuing their protest into the night, asserting their right to gather. Reporters on the ground in a city where they knew full well they might be shot, where some were arrested, enveloped in tear gas, nonetheless committed to making sure the rest of us saw the truth of what was happening, committed to revealing the harsh reality, the new normal of militarized police, committed to telling the story of racism in America that isn’t over -- not nearly. And then there was a St. Louis alderman tirelessly working in the streets with legitimately angry young black folks fed up with the world they’ve been handed, not trying to placate them, but trying, rather, to redirect anger into constructive action -- to refuse violence, yes, but not to stand down. Haven’t we all settled for long enough?

These voices calling out from the streets of Ferguson remind me that the unity Christ calls us to is reached by a long and winding road that we must tread together. Our feet have many more miles to walk -- some in protest, some in penance, none of them easy -- before we will see our sons and daughters healed, and truly dwell together in peace.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Party of One

Note: Last fall I attended the Collegeville Institute's "Writing Spirit, Writing Faith" workshop with Mary Potter. Before we arrived at the workshop Mary instructed each of us to prepare a 1-page "self portrait" to share with the group, to introduce ourselves. This was mine.

When I returned from a solo train trip to Chicago to visit the Art Institute one summer while I was in college, in Michigan, I told my roommate Mackenzie that I’d had an epiphany at Giordano’s Pizza. The place was packed when I went there for lunch, but because it is my favorite I put my name on the list. It couldn’t take that long to get a seat at the bar. Sure enough, twenty minutes later the hostess called out, “Meghan, party of one!”

“Yeah,” I told Mackenzie, “I am my own party.” It became a running joke between us, but it comes to mind often as I travel or even when I go places by myself in Durham, where I live. I used to avoid going anywhere without “armor” -- a magazine or something to occupy me if I ended up stuck by myself in a restaurant. But a couple weeks ago I sat at the bar at my favorite brewery on Friday evening, no armor, waiting for my friend Ruthan for nearly an hour while she sent apologetic texts about waiting for a pie to finish baking. I was almost done with my first beer by the time she arrived, but I didn’t really mind, especially since she brought me a piece of the pie. After a long week I enjoyed the time alone with my thoughts. Besides, as Ruthan likes to remind me, if the bartender knows your name it’s not drinking alone. It felt good to sit there, by myself.

I don’t ever want to choose not to do something I really want to do simply because I might have to do it alone. One of my favorite bands played a show in Richmond, VA recently and no one would go with me because, well, it was Hanson -- the blonde heartthrobs of the 90s hit “Mmmbop,” though they’ve made a lot of music since then, most of which I own. I wasn’t about to let some teasing or the lack of company stop me from seeing the band I have followed for fifteen years, in whose songs I can trace my life from junior high to the present. So I bought a bus ticket, found a room on AirBnB, and took a mid-week 24 hour vacation. I danced my heart out. I sang along. I regret nothing.

It feels like a peculiar, small act of feminist rebellion, proclaiming I have a right to sit at a bar alone or take myself out for dinner and concert. Not to mention that I love music that hardly anyone else of my generation would be caught dead listening to, unless they’re being ironic.

A party of one is small, but it is still a party.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Bad Feminist

I have been waiting for this book since I first encountered Roxane Gay on Twitter (@rgay). I was drawn to her words immediately, glad to have found a feminist willing and able to apply her sharp mind and biting wit to serious issues like sexual violence as well as to questions like why we watch reality television. I finally admitted that I sometimes watch The Bachelorette after realizing that Roxane Gay not only watches it, but live tweets it. Her commentary is both gleeful in its enjoyment and cutting in its analysis.

Have I mentioned that I adore Roxane Gay?

Under most circumstances I refuse to write gushy reviews. Gushy reviews are not helpful to the potential reader, I tell myself. Besides that, I am difficult to impress; I rarely want to gush. The critic in me enjoys finding diplomatic ways to point out flaws. There is no perfect book, and my job as reviewer is not to pretend there is by giving either a thumbs up or thumbs down to a book, as if it were that simple: good book, bad book, end of story. I want to get at the nuance; I want to explore how even the flaws in a book are part of what drives it forward, part of what keeps the literary conversation moving forward. I like flawed books as much as I like criticizing them. “Good” and “bad” are complicated, after all.

I like flawed books, but I LOVE Bad Feminist. Don't get me wrong, the book isn't perfect, but how could it be? A central premise of this essay collection seems to me to be that we would all do well to say "To hell with 'getting it right'" and embrace the fact that our feminisms are all failed feminisms because we are imperfect people.

Gay gets right to the heart of the matter, and the reason for what some might consider a provocative title, in the introduction:
How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do? In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement. (x)
She goes on to critique the way in which we tend to fixate on the most visible feminist figures, what she calls "Professional Feminists," blurring the distinctions between feminism as a movement and feminism’s most famous representatives. "I openly embrace the label of bad feminist," Gay writes. "I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain...interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist" (xi).

In embracing the messiness of feminism as a lived, embodied thing, rather than stopping short with an abstract concept or ideology, Gay creates space to embark on a wider conversation, multivocal and multifocused, and always, always, always deeply human. She is honest, and she is brave with her words, even when there is much at stake, even when she is laying herself bare before us. She writes like a person who cannot help but do so, and she does so with both brilliance and heart.

As with any collection, Bad Feminist has some essays I like more than others. And yet, this is one of very few times I have read such a collection and at the end of it realized I did not dislike a single one. There were many I would love to mull over more, to discuss in detail and perhaps build on, or to ask Gay, "What did you mean by ______?" But there we others that hit on intersections and ideas I have been trying to put together, struggling to make sense of on my own, about which finally Gay's words turned on the proverbial light bulb in my mind.

In "The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help" Gay teases out the problems with Kathryn Stockett's depiction of race in the south, her use of the "magical negro" trope, and the challenges of writing across difference. Gay illuminates the problems of the book while going one step further to discuss whether and how and why one can ever write across such differences. Gay challenges the reader intellectually, yet she also induces laughter, as in “The Alienable Rights of Women” when she discusses birth control options and the fact that the responsibilities of contraception continue to fall solely to women, and the reality that none of those options are particularly good (though better than the alternative):
I will take a pill every day when when men have that same option. We should all be in this together, right? One of my favorite moments is when a guy, at a certain point in a relationship, says something desperately hopeful like, “Are you on the pill?” I simply say, “No, are you?” (277)
And then there are the moments Gay delves into gut wrenching tragedy, and there too her words sing, albeit songs of lament. In "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion" and "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence," Gay writes some of the most important pieces I've read on sexual violence, on safety and triggers and protection and the lack thereof, and the horrible ways the media discusses these tragedies. In "What We Hunger For," Gay explores trauma and its effects through personal narrative and her own love of The Hunger Games, in order to consider what it means to endure "the unendurable" (146). All of these essays are in the section of the book dedicated to Gender & Sexuality, and it is telling that so much of a section with that subject heading deals, necessarily, with violence. This, too, is one of Gay's gifts to us as a writer, in days when the language used to discuss rape and abuse is, as she says, so careless. Gay is not careless; she is careful, she is honest, and she is as blunt as she needs to be. If we are going to talk about gender, and about sex, we have to talk about violence. We cannot look away. Roxane Gay is one writer who will not let us.

Gay's essay on Orange is the New Black is another high point of the book. She criticizes the show, while acknowledging why one might think she "should" love it, and pointing out some ways it does succeed, perhaps in spite of itself. Yet as people laud the show's diversity as if she ought to love it just for that, she says, "Time and again, people of color are supposed to be grateful for scraps from the table. There is a strange implication that we should enjoy certain movies and television just because they exist" (250). She goes on to detail all the ways OITNB is "diverse in the shallowest, most tokenistic ways," along with the implication that people of color should simply be grateful to be represented at all. She writes, "I am tired of feeling like I should be grateful when popular culture deigns to acknowledge the experience of people who are not white, middle class, or wealthy, and heterosexual." The bar is set so low, according to Gay, that such shows seem smarter than they are. "The conversation," she writes, "is how much we are forced to settle or, perhaps, how much we're willing to settle" (253). Gay refuses to settle. She refuses to settle for so little from others, and she has given us a book that shows she refuses to settle herself.

I flew through Bad Feminist, but when I reached the final two essays, “Bad Feminist: Take One,” and “Bad Feminist: Take Two” I slowed down to savor these last words. I am glad that I did, because it was “Take Two” that I most needed to read, not as a reviewer, but as a person, as a feminist who tries and fails and is all too aware of the many ways I do not live up to my own expectations for what a feminist looks like.

As Gay begins the essay listing the reasons she feels that she fails as a woman and a feminist, I saw my own list between the lines. I am too soft spoken. I cry so easily, about so many things. I am so shy. I am afraid to ask men out on dates. I tried to quit shaving, but my hairy armpits drove me crazy. I am uncomfortable wearing a swimsuit in public. I subscribe to Vogue. I love to cook, and knit, and though I am not particularly sure that I want a child of my own there are few bad days not improved by the chance to hold one of my friends’ babies. For much of my young adult life I made my living as a nanny. I am an educated white woman and struggle to learn right ways to engage with feminism beyond the white neoliberal version I most often come across. I am a Christian. And, perhaps most notably, I love theology written by dead white guys. I am a bad feminist.

I was glad to read this last essay in the safety of my own home, because in the final paragraphs I wept.
At some point I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman...bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself, and so I write. I chatter away on Twitter about everything that makes me angry and all the small things that bring me joy. I write blog posts about the meals I cook as I try to take better care of myself, and with each new entry I realize that I’m undestroying myself after years of allowing myself to be damaged. The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist but, I hope, a good woman -- I am being open about who I am and who I was and where I have faltered and who I would like to become. (318)
Gay’s life and my life are different. Her story is not mine, and I do not want to pretend that it is. I am grateful for her writing for many reasons, but one of them is that her words here speak to a tension I have felt for much of my adult life, wherein by claiming feminism I have felt a new set of ideals and a new set of pressures that at times feel no less damning than the ideals of a submissive, modest Christian woman, the “Proverbs 31 woman,” that I spent the first 20 or so years of my life trying to be. At some point I started claiming feminism anyway, and I stand by it: I am a feminist, for more reasons than I can count. But there are perhaps more ways of being a feminist than any of us imagine.

“Like most people,” Roxane Gay concludes, “I am full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated  like shit for being a woman. I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

Monday, July 28, 2014

Swallowing the Sea

Last semester I read Swallowing the Sea by Lee Upton, and it challenged me to think about the importance of being multi-genre in my work as a writer. I write nonfiction, with some slight variation in the style and content, depending whether I am writing for a journalistic setting, or working on a personal narrative, or this blog where I can do whatever the heck I want. But nonfiction is my genre. The occasional sloppy poem in my journal, while worth writing for my own sake, is not for public consumption, and is not meant to be.

As I read Upton’s book and thought about genre, and about my own work, the conclusion I came to is that theology is, in fact, my other genre.

Theology is a specific kind of creative act. One of my favorite seminary professors, J. Kameron Carter, used jazz as the primary metaphor for the work of theology in my introductory courses with him, and this has helped me rethink what precisely we do when we do theology. (Odd, isn’t it, that his work on this subject isn’t included in more conversations about “theology and the arts”? I have theories about that, but that is a topic for another day.)

Words about God are written within certain confines and limitations; there are certain traditions that shape the way in which we speak about the Divine. Theological traditions, but also linguistic, grammatical, epistemological, and so on. All genres have their own confines, their own limits which the artist presses up against, choosing whether and when and how to cross over, or when the work is best served by working within those confines. Variations and improvisations.

In my Creative Nonfiction (CNF) workshops at Queens we might, for example, talk about the dangers of using “we” language, while pointing out the one time in The White Album where Joan Didion does so. It’s the exception that proves the rule. I of course am terrible about this, and have had to learn to restrain my tendency toward “we” language in my CNF. I only recently figured out why I struggle with this more than others seem to: in theology and philosophy I am always trying to speak beyond myself, to interrogate the human condition, our -- not just mine, but our -- relationship to divinity, the nature of the world and humanity’s place in it, and what it all adds up to in the end. Not just, “Why am I here?” but “Why are we here?” The “we” language that, in CNF, assumes too much of the reader, that projects the author’s thoughts and inclinations and experiences onto someone else who may or may not share them, is precisely the language that drives many theological questions. When you’re trying to talk about what it means to be human, some “we” language is bound to slip in. Theology, after all, is the work of the church. It is work that takes place in and for communities (or ought to). It is work that is very concerned with “we,” the people, God’s people.

Yet my CNF training has helped me discern when I am using “we” in a useful, true way, and when I am merely projecting my own struggles onto everyone else. This does not mean I do not still draw on my experience of the world when I do theology (or that I don’t sometimes get the “we” wrong); rather it means that I work very hard to be precise about who and what I mean, what I can and cannot say, what all of that means, for us.

Theology and CNF share one thing, at least: both require precision in one’s use of language.

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, 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 an artists 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 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.