Friday, December 11, 2015

Publication Update

This is just a quick update for readers who don't follow me on Twitter or Facebook to let you know that I have a new essay out today, in Lunch Ticket's Winter/Spring 2016 issue. You can read it here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ben Higgins likes Kierkegaard (and other reasons S. 20 of #TheBachelor fills me with glee)

Season 20 of The Bachelor starts in January, featuring Benjamin Higgins, aka “The Perfect 10...I mean, BEN.” Ben is handsome, kind, polite, endearingly unassuming about his desirability. He loves Donald Miller. He looks damn fine in flannel according to his Twitter header (hey Ben, wanna go for a hike sometime?). He’s a “software salesman,” and, while I am surprised to find that is still an actual thing a person can do, it does sound like a real job, unlike what a lot of Bachelors and Bachelorettes claim to do (Chicken Enthusiast, anyone?). And if all of this wasn’t enough to fill me with glee in anticipation of Season 20, our boy Ben knows a thing or two about Kierkegaard, (and shares my love of pizza):

I mean, okay, I’m not sure he actually knows what’s he’s talking about, but I can totally help him out on that part.

In all seriousness, there are a lot of things I find fascinating about The Bachelor franchise. The show has a crappy track record with respect to how it portrays sex and sexuality, particularly the consistent double standards, as Kaitlyn Bristowe’s season of The Bachelorette highlighted (three cheers for Kaitlyn, best Bachelorette ever!). Just as intriguing to me though are the bizarre ways that matters of faith are portrayed on the show -- or not portrayed, as the case may be. The conversations between cast members that make it to television are, quite often, totally boring Define The Relationship talks, whereas much of the really important stuff that anyone would talk about with a potential mate -- or even just a boyfriend or girlfriend -- is left on the cutting room floor.

This season will focus on a man who was in the top three on one of the most dramatic (workin’ on my Chris Harrison here, y’all) seasons the franchise has ever had. And here’s where it gets really good: the survivor of all that drama has also sent a consistently guarded yet intentional message that he is, in some way, shape, or form, religious. Kierkegaard, Don Miller, international volunteer work? I mean, seriously, his Twitter bio is “sweetly broken, wholly surrendered” -- if that’s not thinly veiled Jesus language I don’t know what is. I need to write about this.

If you’re late to the party, let me fill you in: I love watching the Bachelor. It’s not a “guilty pleasure,” and I don’t do it ironically, nor am I naive about the fact that the show is in many respects totally ridiculous. (Newsflash: modern romance is ridiculous. Have you heard of Tinder?) On the contrary. I love that The Bachelor is so ridiculous. How else am I supposed to get through the darkest months of the year? I need a beautiful man to watch, I need archaic gender norms to critique, and I need a LOT of champagne.

As a writer, I am interested in storytelling. I am fascinated by the ways we try to narrate our desires, to fit our lives to archetypal storylines, to live our own modern fairy tales. I’m equally fascinated by the decision to reject those storylines. There is a thin line between fiction and reality in both the creative nonfiction craft that I practice, and in these television series we call “reality,” and while I watch the show for enjoyment, I’m incapable of turning off my intellectual curiosity. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” wrote Joan Didion, in a very different context. I want to dissect the stories we tell ourselves about love.

So here’s the pitch: Do you like snarky feminist commentary? Do you like frivolous reality television and/or people who overthink it? Do you think I am funny and/or want to support my writing? Well, you’re in luck.

I’ll be writing a weekly column, via Patreon and on here my blog, recapping each and every episode of Season 20 along with sharp, witty analysis of everything the show reveals about semi-fictional modern romance and, hopefully, the religious over-or-undertones of Ben’s season. I work best when I have clear deadlines and structure, not to mention an eager audience, so I anticipate that this format will be ideal for this project.

Those who have followed my weekly feminist live tweets during past seasons claim that my tweets are better than the show itself. So, what I am saying is, you’re gonna want to subscribe to this business. We’re talking brilliant cultural commentary, my friends. Hit the link, choose how much you wanna pitch in per column, and off we go.

I can’t wait for this amazing journey to begin.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Praise Her at the City Gates

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
September 20, 2015
Proverbs 31:10-31

Over the last ten years or so I’ve been unlearning the interpretation of Proverbs 31 that I grew up with, a reading that governed much of my adolescence and young adult life, as it does for so many girls in traditions that are concerned with raising godly women, ushering them into carefully defined and controlled ways of being feminine. And in that sense, it’s important to not merely talk about the text itself so much as how Proverbs 31 has been, and in many ways continues to be, misused.

This text was always at the forefront of “Girls Night” at the Christian summer camp I attended. Each summer I would jealously watch as the boys marched out into the woods to play capture the flag for “Guys Night,” while we young ladies prepared to have a spa night and watch Everafter. I have no particular problem with spa night or Everafter, mind you -- it’s the prescribed nature of the thing, the assumption that our identities are so narrowly defined. The fun activities were just the beginning of the night, though.

At some point in the evening we would inevitably listen to a talk about what it meant to be a godly woman. A Proverbs 31 Woman. This woman was so ingrained in both the young men’s and young women’s minds by the time we were in high school, and then working as staff in college, that we’d abbreviate it: “Yeah, she’s a real P31,” a male counselor might say, of his girlfriend who was coming to visit that weekend. It was somewhat tongue in cheek, but always somewhat serious, as well. You wanted to be a P31, because P31s were who good Christian guys wanted, and good Christian girls wanted to marry those good Christian guys. And if God didn’t bring you a husband, there was a good chance it was because you hadn’t yet lived up to the P31 standard.

And so, in curving script, using dry erase markers or possibly pink lipstick, counselors would write on bathroom mirrors: Charm is deceptive, beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Proverbs 31:30. I don’t have to look it up to quote it to you, because it’s written on my mind, forever. As a reminder that one’s worth as a woman, or dare I say as a person, doesn’t come from physical beauty this seems all well and good, but the tyranny of effortless perfection can take on other, equally insidious forms. The P31 woman will forever stand in my mind alongside supermodels and professional athletes, an archetype of a different sort, a seemingly unreachable standard to which we nonetheless compare ourselves.

I distrust archetypes. I distrust ideals. There is too little grace in them, too little of God’s love for our imperfect selves.

In this sense, I don’t think it is wise to separate this passage from its history of misogynistic interpretation or application. I know that Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis wrote a wonderful essay on Proverbs 31, which illuminates the agrarian context of the passage in a way that could be described as empowering. I also know that -- as blogger Rachel Held Evans has popularized -- another interpretation of the opening phrase, “a capable wife” is “woman of valor.” But neither of those things changes the way this passage has been used to shape and pressure girls and women. Nor does the emphasis on getting the interpretation “right,” now, diminish the perceived standard of perfection that I see embodied in this passage. At the end of the day, it is still about how to be an ideal woman.

We might emphasize how independent and industrious she is, making clothing, buying property, selling her merchandise -- she’s a producer, a maker, not just a consumer. Her contemporary equivalent would no doubt have an Etsy shop, grow and can her own vegetables, maybe even brew her own beer. She probably does CrossFit or runs marathons, too -- not to be beautiful, for beauty is vain, but to be strong. “Strong is the new pretty,” they say. Reading the passage through this lens, I think of every overachieving, over-extended woman I’ve known. And I honestly just wonder, if she is really doing all of this, when does she sleep?

The text says that her lamp does not go out at night, so perhaps she simply doesn’t.

The real clincher comes at the end though, for me: “Give her a share of the fruit of her hands,” the writer says, “and let her works praise her at the city gates.” Her husband is still the authority, over the household, over its resources, over her. She gets a share. I don’t know that there’s an interpretive dance we can do to get around that one. Understanding a passage and its context can’t magically erase every difficulty we encounter in scripture. Some texts are messy, and alway will be.

In Proverbs 31, today I find not so much as model as a warning about how our notions of virtue can crush us. Conversations with women around me echo my sense that this passage, these pressures, are a burden -- and not the holy kind. Refusing to acknowledge the pain such interpretations have caused perpetuates a cycle of self-doubt and perfectionism that seems to be pretty far removed from who we believe God to be. Instead of praising women for “doing it all,” I like to imagine a world where we feed them cupcakes and they get to take naps -- a world where women are multidimensional, imperfect, with needs and desires of their own, not separate from the needs and desires of those who depend on them daily.

I am many things, as are each of you -- women and men alike. But I am not a woman of valor. I don’t make my own clothes. My garden consists of a single tomato plant. If my alarm goes off before daylight I will get up, but I will grumble -- even though I’m only going as far as the next room to write in my pajamas, rather than off to consider a field and buy it. I’m not weaving wool and flax; I’m no good with a distaff.

I’m sure you could make a list of your own, of the ways you fall short of ideals, the reasons you feel don’t deserve to be praised at the city gates by your partner. And while there is much to admire in this passage, much that men as well as women might reasonably emulate, I come back again and again to the fact that society and the church expect so much of women, while still offering so little in return.

Some days, I wear strength, though often I don’t. And we need to be a community where, on the days our strength fails us, others will pick us up. A place where we can speak words of wisdom, but, likewise, a place to say the hard things, in a community of love that can hear the difficult words, too. A place where it is safe to name our needs, to acknowledge our insufficiency, to ask and receive help.

Charm is deceptive, as Proverbs 31 says. And I think this valiant, hardworking “How does she do it?” P31 woman is charming. Rather than a mere prescription for “womanhood,” I hear in this text a warning against the ways society continues to break women’s spirits, by expecting them to do it all, have it all, and give it all away to those around them -- always with a smile, for “she laughs at the days to come.” And that image, there, is perhaps the worst deception of all -- woman as superhuman, perfect without her efforts ever showing sweat and exhaustion -- rather than a fellow human, who must cope with the inevitable limitations and heartbreaks of our precarious lives.

What if women didn’t have to be exceptional in order to be praised at the city gates? What if the options weren’t as cut and dried as fleeting beauty versus this perfect, industrious standard of godliness?

What if this Proverbs 31 woman, like every other person I have ever known, had good days and bad days, and needed to be loved on every single one of them?

Monday, August 17, 2015

On Hospitality

I am doing laundry. I am vacuuming. I am stocking the fridge. I am -- maybe -- going to clean the bathroom. If I have time.

I am preparing to host a friend from out of town for a night.

Did I mention that I live in a 350 sq ft apartment?

I am, at heart, a minimalist (as I’ve studied the Enneagram this summer I’ve learned that this is a characteristic of my type five personality, and my lifestyle choices make so much more sense now). I love my tiny apartment. It is plenty big enough for me. Sometimes it even feels like more space than necessary. It is more space than necessary, if I am honest, but it is good space and I inhabit it well, I think. There is plenty of room for books, if not quite enough for pots and pans -- but then, I own more books than I do pots and pans, so perhaps all is as it should be.

With the exception of a year and a half in which I shared a 950 sq ft two-bedroom house with a friend in grad school, I have always lived in small spaces (though 900 sq ft is small by contemporary standards too, it felt large to me). I dream about buying a bit of land and building a tiny house, or perhaps a cozy A-frame, and living out my days in stuff-free bliss.

People admire my small space. Or they seem to (sometimes I wonder if they’re just being polite). But even those who genuinely appreciate my choice to live small express reservations, lists of reasons why they could never do what I do. Most common is this: “I want to have enough room to have people over” or “I want to have a spare room for guests to stay in.” Ah. Hospitality. I understand the hospitality response. There are limited places to put people in an apartment of this size.

Ironically, such responses are sometimes voiced by people who are in my apartment.

I resist the urge to deliver a sarcastic “OH REALLY?” I do host people, though not perhaps as much I could or should, for reasons I’ll try to explain. Heck, two years ago I sold my bed and replaced it with an IKEA futon precisely because it is more hospitable seating for guests than a bed (and more comfortable for quiet nights spent reading on my own, to be honest). When people come from out of town, the futon sleeps two, and I can roll out a sleeping bag in the 70 sq ft space I use as an office, effectively transforming my studio into a quaint B&B for the night.

If I am frank, what I hear in this statement, “I want to have enough room to have people over,” is a subtle judgement. It stings when someone you have invited into your home implies that you don’t have enough room to host people well.

My apartment is not fancy. It’s not even particularly comfortable once you put 6 or 7 adults and 4 children into the main room for supper. But there is enough room to offer you a place to sit, a bowl of soup, a chunk of bread (and I don’t care if you get crumbs all over the floor, because I can just sweep them up after you’ve left, having never bothered to buy a rug).

Still, I’m not sure when it became normal to imply that one can only host overnight guests if one has a dedicated guest room. If you do, that’s lovely, but what friend in need of a free place to crash would argue with clean sheets and towels and a reasonably comfortable futon? If you’re lucky, I’ll even make you coffee and cinnamon rolls in the morning (though the cinnamon rolls might come from a can, because I can’t do it all).

I’ve hosted small parties, numerous deacons meetings, church dinner groups that filled my space with laughter and warmth. I once hosted my mom and sister for an entire week. (That was a stretch, I admit. But I would do it again in a heartbeat.) Somewhere along the line we confused hospitality with that thing we see in Martha Stewart Living and Dwell magazine. But real hospitality isn’t like that -- even if you do have a spare room and a guest bathroom.

Hospitality means that what I have I will share with you (or, in Merriam-Webster’s definition, “generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests”). That this space, which is enough for me, has enough room for you, as well. Just as there is room for you in my life, when needed I will make room for you on my couch. I will wash my spare set of towels. I will do the dishes that have been piling up, if for no other reason than we can then get them dirty again cooking dinner together.

There are many reasons to want or need more than 350 sq ft. But I am tired of people pretending that hospitality is one of them, as if living small is a failure of virtue. Every time I hear this line of reasoning, I wonder again how to feel about welcoming people into my home. What is my hospitality if others reject it? If they declare that what I have decided is enough is not, in fact, good enough for them? (When I told a church friend about this conundrum, she suggested I call this piece “You need new friends.” Thankfully, I don’t actually need new friends...but I hope you see her point.)

It has taken me a long time to learn that my apartment doesn’t have to be spotless to welcome you into it. (I didn’t have time to wash the cat hair covered futon cover before my friend’s arrival for the night, and that is ok -- though it will still drive me nuts, because my mother raised me to be clean, if nothing else.) That even though “cozy” is used as code for “tiny” in craigslist ads, my tiny apartment really is cozy. That I don’t need to be embarrassed that I can’t offer my guests their own room and a private bathroom.

It’s likely that this sounds judgmental, and that is probably because it is, a bit. I feel my capability at offering hospitality is judged based on my lack of space, my thrift store pots and pans, my worn but clean towels, my apartment that lacks those shiny, matching items you may or may not have registered for at Bed, Bath, & Beyond. There’s not room for the “beyond” in my apartment, so it’s just as well I’ve had no reason to register for it. And so, if I come back at this perceived judgement with a little judgement of my own, so be it.

In Works of Love Kierkegaard discusses how mercifulness is a work of love, even if it is able to do nothing and give nothing. The short explanation of how I understand this playing out in the book is that a person’s ability to show love is not limited by his or her circumstances -- material, emotional, or otherwise. I am, here, discussing hospitality rather than love, and yet the Kierkegaardian in me thinks there’s some connection. My ability to offer hospitality isn’t dependent upon looking like a page out of Dwell. I don’t need a pretty, or large, space in order to welcome you. If I had such a space, I could welcome you there too, but hospitality is not made of granite counter tops and matching towels. I’ve worked hard to make my space welcoming, even if most of the time I am the only one in it. I like to be comfortable, so I try to make my space as comfortable as I can with the limited means at my disposal. I’ve lived in this apartment for five years; it is no longer just another apartment to me, it is my home.

At the risk of being trite, or self-righteous (not to mention totally out of liturgical season), I cannot help but think of Mary and Joseph, of the story of an unwed mother making room for a child, of an inn with no room, and of a dirty, smelly stable in which God was welcomed, born of Mary’s messy hospitality.

I’m not asking you to sit in straw and animal shit. I’m offering you a cup of tea and a cat hair covered futon. And that is enough.

Friday, July 3, 2015


I dared to hope that the decisions in yesterday’s delegate sessions at #MennoCon15 would surprise me. They did not. Yet last night I felt as stunned and hurt as if I had actually believed a better outcome was possible, as if I was shocked the Membership Guidelines resolution passed, as if I had expected better of my church. Perhaps it is only that I wish I could have expected better. But working for inclusion in recent years has made me cynical and reluctant, withholding of trust, and perhaps it hurts that much more to be hit when you see it coming, when a peace church chooses to continue its practices of internal violence, when so much screams that inclusion is a lost cause.

Love should never feel like a lost cause.

It’s hard not to feel that way though, when just this morning on Twitter a Mennonite brother called me, and others, lame and ignorant for our support of Pink Menno. Is name calling, being bullied and then told one needs a “thicker skin” and “isn’t ready for this” (whatever “this” may be) what disagreeing with one another in love looks like?

I don’t go around calling Mennonites who disagree with me names; I have never called the conservative voices in our church lame or ignorant. I know our disagreements are more complicated than that. But that’s the thing: I know I will be held to a higher standard than those carrying the majority opinion. I have to tread carefully. I have to be polite and well behaved, a nice, sweet church lady, or else no one is going to give me the time of day. Straight men with authority can call me names, and they will lose nothing. Nothing but my respect, which perhaps means nothing to them anyway, since to some I am just an ignorant woman. I am not ignorant, though – I understand something about power, and I know that playing by the rules doesn’t help you change them. That disruption, resistance, direct action, and strong words are necessary. (Strong words, yes; name calling, no.)

That both the Membership Guidelines and Forbearance resolutions passed simply confirms what I already suspected: that plenty of people are happy to pay lip service to the idea of bearing with one another in love, so long as they can continue the practices of exclusion they've held to all along.

I am tired of playing nice. I am tired of being your well behaved church lady, tired of writing with nuance and balance, tired of trying so hard to get you to listen. Yet here I am again, because as we saw yesterday, you are not going to listen to your queer sisters and brothers when they try to help you understand their lives and their experiences. You aren’t going to listen to their stories – that you have made unbelievably clear.

You are scared. I can see that; anyone can see that. And this decision will do nothing to dispel your fears.

Perfect love casts out fear. But this? There is no love in this. And so your fears will grow, they will fester, and beautiful, faithful Mennonites will continue to be silenced by your fears, and by your violence.

Make no mistake: this is violence.

Do not call it unity, when you widen the cracks in this already fractured body. Do not call it unity when you reject God’s own. Do not call it unity when you choose to ignore not only queer voices but the very voice of the holy spirit moving in your midst, clothed in pink.

I fear that after remaining controlled and polite and gracious for so long, I will lose it. I will give up, or break down, or turn tables. I will tell you what I really think – to your face – instead of letting someone vet my words first, helping me edit out the passion, the anger, the indignation, helping me play the political landscape in hopes that maybe then you’ll listen.

I can do all of that, and still you will not listen. You will never listen because you do not want to hear. This much I know to be true.

Why won’t you listen, when we want so much to gather with you, to sing with you, to live with and worship with you?

What are you so afraid of?

Are you so afraid of what might happen if love goes unchecked? If you give in to the immense, overflowing, gracious, abundant love of God? If you trust that love, vulnerable as it may be, would not overwhelm us, but would bring us together?

I keep looking for a turning point here, a hopeful conclusion, a place to stand and look forward to a better future, but I can’t find one. Can’t – or won’t.

You don’t deserve that today. What little hope I had you crushed.

For now, at least.

Friday, June 19, 2015

When Squirrels Attack

Friday link roundup, Kierkegaard Camp edition, means not many links, because I’ve been reading a lot of <gasp!> books. I love books. But enough about that...

The Two Ages, Søren Kierkegaard

Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, Joakim Garff (this sucker is over 800 pages and I am afraid I may never finish it).

Girl Runner, Carrier Snyder: get this novel and read it, now.

“Stranger in the Village,” in Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin.

The Writer on Her Work, ed. Janet Sternburg: Found on the St. Olaf library free table, includes Joan Didion’s “Why I Write.” ::swoon::

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the history of the confederate flag. White supremacy survives, in part at least, because of the lies white folks tell ourselves about who we are and where we've come from. Times like these I grow frustrated with my inability to know where to even begin to dismantle a structure so basic to American society, an evil so prevalent, but here is one thing: take down the Confederate flag. Tell the truth about that history. Tell the truth, and take it down, and then figure out what's next. As long as we labor under the a-historical illusions that allow that flag to fly, I despair as to whether we can get anywhere at all. Baldwin is right I think: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

Jesicca Valenti on sexist bookshelves: “...passive bias is still bias - and it has ripple effects into the broader culture. Is it really so much to ask that we pay attention to what shapes our tastes?”

WOMEN’S WORLD CUP 2015. If you care about the men’s World Cup but not the women’s, I have NO TIME for your sexism. Red cards for all misogynists. BYE.

Here’s the thing about being at Kierkegaard Camp. I am already a person whose head spins with more thoughts than I can pin down, and here I have these long, wide open days to write and think and read and think and talk and think get the idea. Sometimes I just need my own mind to shut up for a bit. So, I take a lot of long walks with headphones and have a lot of dorm room dance parties. Music of choice? I’m so glad you asked:

Taylor Swift’s Red and 1989, respectively, because the line I knew you were trouble when you walked in sums up...well, most of the boys of my youth, I guess. And because singing “Blank Space” while dancing around in my pajamas reminds me I’m still young and reckless, all evidence to the contrary. (Did I mention I have a birthday next week?)

Tyler Lyle’s latest, The Native Genius of Desert Plants

Mandolin Orange’s new album, Such Jubilee, which is simply stunning and has me all homesick for North Carolina right now. Check out their performance of "Little Worlds" on NPR's Folk Alley.

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, because it’s good rainy day, staring out the window, moodling music, and I’ve been doing a lot of that.

The Shadowboxers, Red Room: because harmonies. See also any number of solid covers on their YouTube channel, especially this one, if like me you grew up on Simon & Garfunkel:

I got to see the guys play a show in Minneapolis last weekend, and it was a delight. They’re hitting the east coast next, so check ‘em out.

Finally, a link that didn’t fit anywhere else. Here’s the aftermath of the squirrel invasion in my St. Olaf dorm room:

A video posted by @meghanpauline on

It’s time to go home, kids.

Friday, June 12, 2015

lightness has a call that's hard to hear

I'm trying to tell you somethin' about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
And the best thing you've ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously
It's only life after all

I always feel a little weird about how much I like the Indigo Girls “Closer to Fine,” given that I majored in Philosophy and have spent some of the most formative summers of my life at grown up philosophy “camp.” Then again, it makes sense that a Kierkegaardian would be skeptical of “the doctor of philosophy/With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee” while simultaneously being, well, a philosopher. This week my suitemate and I discussed an elaborate analogy for how Kierkegaard fits into the wide world of philosophy: he is like the crazy uncle who gets seated at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving because, well, we know he’s one to start food fights, so let’s just be preemptive and put him in the corner now, shall we? Good ol’ Uncle Søren. In certain circles, studying his work isn’t going to make you any friends, but I like sitting at that table.

Yesterday, during the first Summer Fellows seminar, we had a lively conversation, each person reading a passage from Kierkegaard’s work that is meaningful to us and sharing why. After one person started, others slowly piped up, picking up a thread from the person who had spoken before, noting that perhaps her passage resonated a bit with his, and carrying the discussion forward. Our interests are wide-ranging, yet certain ideas echoed throughout our chosen passages and research interests.

Visiting the library these past few years has been for me both an academic testing ground (a place of great seriousness and searching), and a place I have learned to take my life less seriously, as the song goes. Not that I am actually much good at taking life less seriously, but at least I know that about myself, now. My first summer here I arrived a ball of nerves because I wasn’t sure I could hack it at the big kids table (I can), but throughout that summer those knots started to loosen. And now, when I return, I feel myself begin to unwind as soon as I set foot on campus. To be as high strung as I am capable of being, as serious as I have been for much of my life, and study a philosopher-poet as playful as Kierkegaard is a bit silly, isn’t it? Then again, he’s also intense beyond anything I have ever been. What a vibrant (if also heavy) inner world he must have had. I relate to that, the flurry and mess of my own mind so wild I can barely keep up with it. I admire the way Kierkegaard set those imaginary constructs down on paper, painstakingly, day after day. And that, perhaps, is why lately I am so interested in the man himself.

My days here find a neat rhythm, one free from certain practicalities of daily life, and that too helps me to unwind. It helps me to settle those wiley thoughts a bit, to set a few down on paper myself.

Well darkness has a hunger that's insatiable
And lightness has a call that's hard to hear
And I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it
I'm crawling on your shores

Friday, May 29, 2015


If you only have time to click through one link today, let it be this one: New Rule by Tariq Luthun on The Offing.

Also from The Offing (have I mentioned you need to check out The Offing?), poetry from Victoria Lynne McCoy.

Edith Wharton on Starbucks is everything you never knew you wanted.

Poetry from Kim Addonizio.

Feministing’s Dana Bolger responds to Meghan Daum’s piece on campus sexual assault the LA Times. Full disclosure: I didn’t read Daum’s piece. The clips I read from it, to be frank, were enough to make me think that reading it in full would make me physically ill. Not only did the content of those excerpts bother me, the knowledge that those comments came from another woman is, I think, what unsettles me further. I am sadly used to men not taking sexual assault seriously. But a supposedly progressive feminist woman? I’m sure you’re getting lots of hits and making waves for being "controversial" by criticizing these young women. In any case, Bolger’s response seems spot on based on those bits of Daum’s piece I could stomach reading, and she makes important points that stand on their own, apart from responding to Daum, anyway.

Tyler Lyle explains one of my favorite songs.

And finally, books: This week I read Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, and then moved on to YA novelist Sarah Dessen’s Saint Anything. I’m about to start Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder. Getting my fiction in before I head to Kierkegaard Camp, you see.

This NPR piece on books and e-readers, mostly because it begins with a bit about one of my favorite used book stores, Capitol Hill Books, but also because I’m working on a personal essay with some overlap.

If you follow me on Twitter you already know: I’m watching, and live tweeting snarky feminist commentary on, The Bachelorette on Tuesday nights.

I  also watched the last episode of Inspector Morse, and then I ugly cried that it was all over. (That last part is not hyperbole, I really did cry.)

I woke up on Tuesday and though, “Cinnamon Tea Cake would be just the thing for breakfast.” So I baked this, and found that I was correct.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Thinking Against Oneself: Kierkegaard's Godly Satire and the Art of Nonfiction

The following paper was presented at the Kierkegaard and the Present Age conference at Brigham Young University in November 2013. As promised, I'm publishing it here as a small token of my gratitude to those who contributed to my summer research project.

As a writing tutor, I repeat myself a lot: “Your thesis needs to be a statement, not a question,” I say. “In your paper you are going to answer the question proposed in the paper prompt, not “explore” it, not “consider” it, not hopefully possibly maybe show that such-and-such could be the case,” I continue. “Make a statement. Answer the question.”

When I am not hammering this thesis mantra into students’ heads, I am debating the appropriateness of the use of the first-person “I” in academic writing. The goal of supposed objectivity, as well as residue from high school english composition courses, leave most of the students I work with convinced that they are to remain invisible in their papers. Instead of “I,” they write, “This essay will argue,” and I cringe. Worse still, they turn to the passive voice, and write  “It will be shown.” It will, will it? By whom? By zombies?

Though I primarily teach academic writing, I have some concerns about how it is practiced. I tell students to write in a way that I secretly think is unhelpful at this stage in their education. Rather, I think that they need to wonder before they prove. They need to understand and acknowledge themselves as interpreters, and to develop a voice that converses with the texts that they study.

With regard to Kierkegaard, I have two main concerns in relation to the situations I’ve narrated: first, to consider the tension between exploration and argument in the essay, and second, to discuss the possibility of the nonfiction writer becoming a character in his or her own work, and the rhetorical possibilities thereof. Given this, I will first provide some background on the essay as a literary form, before embarking on a dialogue between Søren Kierkegaard’s The Point of View for my Work as an Author, and contemporary nonfiction writer Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.

I am primarily interested here in Kierkegaard’s use of what he calls “godly satire” and its ability to “deceive into the truth.” By discussing the essay as a literary form, my intent is to show how one can appropriate the fluidity of genre Kierkegaard employs in his philosophical writings to both creative writing and writing pedagogy more generally. The difference between the essay as it is taught in creative writing courses -- what we would now call a “personal” or in some cases the “familiar” essay -- and the thesis driven thing now normative in undergraduate composition courses is unfortunate, if not pedagogically disastrous. At the very least, it results in a lot of boring papers. I would like to suggest that Kierkegaard’s approach to philosophical and theological writing provides a way to bring these two kinds of essay writing into conversation, with broad implications for how young scholars learn to think and write.

So. What do I mean when I say “essay”? The word itself means an attempt or trial, and as such the essay is an adventurous form. It is a process -- a becoming. Beginning with Montaigne, who is often cited as the exemplary model and one of the earliest practitioners of the form, Phillip Lopate explains that the essay is generally not concerned with providing logical proof. It does not read like a legal brief, nor does it even have to have the singular goal of persuading the reader of something -- though it might also do so. There is a fearlessness to it, in that the essayist need not fear refute, for the point is not getting it right so much as thinking it through, issuing and accepting an invitation to surprise. An essay may be as full of ideas as narrative; it is philosophy plus personality. It shows and tells. An essayist of this sort does not sit down with an outline containing an intro, three points, and a conclusion. She may have a sense of where she wants to go, but she invites her reader into her process of discovery. She creates a dialogue along the lines of that which Montaigne’s essay “Of the inconstancy of our actions” describes when he writes:
If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously; all the contrarieties are there to be found in one corner or another; after one fashion or another: bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal: I find all this in myself, more or less, according as I turn myself about; and whoever will sift himself to the bottom, will find in himself, and even in his own judgment, this volubility and discordance. I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion.
What Montaigne gets at here, and what the essay form specializes in, is the process of thought, the variance, the way we can change our minds as we sift through ideas. The essay also captures the delight in doing so.

Reflecting further on this, Lopate notes that, nonetheless, his own essays,
...always contain an implicit argument and make an attempt to persuade (or at least seduce, entertain, distract the reader into amusement, which are other means of persuasion, ones that Montaigne himself was happy to use). Even when I set out with no end in sight, I still am aware as I am writing when an argument is building underneath, and I nudge the prose along in ways that accentuate the architecture. (Lopate 108)
Considering the essay as a process of discovery in this way has pedagogical implications, insofar as it is perhaps somewhat backward to berate students about the need to settle on a thesis when they do not yet know what they think. Why do we put such “unreasonable pressure on students...before they have explored their thoughts on the page,” Lopate asks (108). Furthermore, here we begin to see the Kierkegaardian connection emerge:  Whether he is genuinely sifting through ideas and altering his opinion, or purposefully crafting a persona, on the page this is often what Kierkegaard looks like: that is, like the essayist who appears to be changing her mind. She sets herself up as wondering, yet underneath that she works intentionally -- or does she? You can never quite be sure. In any case, the process is as important as the end point.

Sadly, what the students I work with are expected to write are not essays in this traditional sense. We operate with a split between composition and the personal essay that is only as recent as the 70s and 80s, according to Lopate, and most courses expect students to stay on the composition side of the fence. Even among practitioners of the essay, in fact, there is some conversation about what constitutes an essay, and the subsets thereof. Essayist Anne Fadiman reflects on the state of affairs in the preface to her collection, At Large and At Small, where she writes, “Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal -- very personal -- essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both).” Fadiman’s take on the personal essay understands it over and against the familiar essay, which strikes me as a bit off. Much of what is labeled “personal essay” these days, in the way Fadiman references -- more heart that brain -- is actually more like short-memoir, which is not the same thing as an essay in the vein of Montaigne, and is not what I am talking about here. Rather, Lopate considers the personal essay to be close kin of the familiar essay. He lays out a distinction first between the formal essay and the informal essay, with the personal essay as subset of informal, and the familiar as subset of personal. If there is a difference between these last two, he says, it is that “The familiar essay values lightness of touch above all else; the personal essay, which need not be light, tends to put the writer’s ‘I’ or idiosyncratic angle more at center stage” (xxiv, The Art of the Personal Essay). I bring this up not as mere tangential digression, nor to split hairs about genre, but because this marriage of what Fadiman calls “heart” and “brain” is what I am trying to get at here, and where Kierkegaard fits into this conversation: in short, I think that there is room for more “heart” in my students’ essays.

Still, the informal  or personal essay may be perceived as a quaint, curious thing, easily dismissed by intellectual heavyweights. Lopate writes, “I once shared my introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay with a learned English department colleague who pronounced it ‘charming,’ which I took to mean insufficiently theorized and dilettantish” (To Show and To Tell, 110). The tension between the formal and informal forms can result in what feel like a nice pats on the head to the traditional essayist -- as if one cannot be charming and also intellectually astute. As if it would not be a worthy goal for my students to learn to be interesting.

Delving further into what makes the essay, despite its lack of a thesis or pointedly driven argument, an intellectual as well as artistic exercise, Lopate speaks of purposefully “planting knots” in in the body of an essay which he can then untie along the way in order to move the essay forward. He notes, finally, how one of his colleagues refers to Plato’s Dialogues as, other than Montaigne, “the writings of [one of] the greatest essayists” (111). How could a dialogue be an essay, Lopate wonders, only to conclude that “all good essays are dialogues, and all partake of both exploration and argumentation” (111). The essayist never lacks for a conversation partner, because she specializes in self-interrogation. She can argue with herself.

I hope that I am beginning to sound Kierkegaardian at this point, though one might wonder what there is to say in comparing a writer as long winded as our dear Kierkegaard with any writer who works in a form as compact as the essay. Length aside, I would venture -- indeed, I might even argue, hesitant as my essayist impulse may be to do such a thing -- that Kierkegaard thinks like an essayist. Furthermore, thinking of him as such has implications for how we teach his work, and how we require students to write about him.

Kierkegaard writes of his work that, “The movement of the authorship is: from ‘the poet,’ from the esthetic -- from ‘the philosopher,’ from the speculative -- to the indication of the most inward qualification of the essentially Christian” (POV 5). His work, he asserts, articulates a path, a movement -- specifically, “the Christian movement” (POV 7). He sets out in The Point of View to explain his process, what precisely he’s been up to with his varied and contradictory authorial voices. He claims that now, here, he will explain his “author character” (POV 26).  Insofar as we determine that we can take him at his word here -- for there are few things of which I am more certain than that Kierkegaard is nearly always messing with our heads -- he presents his own work as an attempt at communication as reflection. His goal is “to deceive,” albeit with the intent that such deception is ultimately revelatory (POV 7). If one is to reach the goal, though, this deception cannot go on indefinitely. It is merely a means of uncovering the truth. Sooner or later one must take a more direct approach, but this directness, this simplicity, is the better for having followed this process of, “in working also to work against oneself” (POV 9). Is he in earnest here? Is he making claims about his work’s intentionality that cannot be substantiated? Possibly. As any essayist could tell you, “intention” is rarely that simple.

For Lopate, as discussed, the use of contrariety is at the heart of the essay. “Let us begin with the assumption that the essay feasts on doubt,” he writes, “on self-doubt, ambivalence, contradiction, and paradox” (Lopate 64). This is a characteristic he calls “Thinking against oneself” -- a process that sounds much like the Kierkegaardian idea cited above, namely, to work against oneself. The essayist is mischievous in this way -- messing with your head by exploring the nooks and crannies of her own. For Kierkegaard, this thinking against oneself takes place via pseudonyms, full-fledged characters he creates for himself. Here, again, Lopate’s description of the essayist is illuminating. He argues that characterization, perhaps often assumed to be the domain of fiction writers, is a key component of the essay. One must turn oneself into a character on the page. “The art of characterization,” he writes, “comes down to establishing a pattern of habits and actions for the person you are writing about and introducing variations into the system” (To Show and To Tell, 18). Doing so is a way of creating some distance from oneself, “to see yourself from the ceiling”(18). The essayist must create a memorable/compelling narrator, must dramatize herself, must highlight her own ambivalence and internal contradictions. “The reader must find you amusing,” he writes, “amusing enough to follow you, no matter what topic you propose” (22). There is a strategy in Kierkegaard’s work of “esthetic incognito” -- a sense in which he understands himself as “a kind of secret agent in the highest service” (JP 1858-1855, 6192) -- and uses the esthetic to his advantage. He assures his readers that we needn’t be concerned by his use of deception, however, for one can “deceive a person into what is true” (POV 53). He is not lying; he is making a point. And it is through this seeming lie that the truth can be revealed. He goes all in, not merely considering conflicting points of view, but becoming them. As Lopate instructs the essayist, “You must get in the habit of inviting, not censoring, the most far-fetched, mischievous notions, because even if they prove cockeyed, they might point to an element of truth that would otherwise be inaccessible” (Lopate 24). This last line seems to me to speak to the heart of the confusing pseudonymous dance Kierkegaard enacts, for what is writing in the way that he does if not wild? Brilliant, but strange? Lopate would likely say to embrace such an impulse.

It is all well and good to note such similarities between Kierkegaard and Lopate’s description of the essay, but why should this matter to us? Why is this thing Kierkegaard calls “a godly satire” good, or perhaps even necessary? (POV 17) Why ought one attempt to “deceive into the truth”? (POV 7) For that matter, what if we do sum all this up as the author simply changing his mind? (POV 29) Does it matter whether he really changed his mind, or was merely acting? Here looking at Kierkegaard’s work from the angle of creative nonfiction becomes particularly fruitful. Like the essayist, who crafts a given piece to take the reader through a tangle of ideas, to lead her to a specific thought or feeling, a certain revelation or sense of delight, each move is purposeful. In creative writing we call this craft. It’s not something philosophers speak of -- or at least not in my experience. But it is at play in Kierkegaard’s authorship, from word choice to imagery to characterization.

This matter of craft is central, as is the role of human personality in analysis. When considering a thinker often characterized as the “father of existentialism,” it stands to reason that the human subject, in all her malleability, would be visible. Lopate writes:
Personal essayists from Montaigne on have been fascinated with the changeableness and plasticity of the materials of human personality. Starting with self-description, they have realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality. So they have elected to follow an additive strategy, offering incomplete shards, one mask or persona after another: the eager, skeptical, amiable, tender, curmudgeonly, antic, somber. If ‘we must remove the mask,’ it is only to substitute another mask. The hope is that in the end, when an essayists lifework has been accumulated, all these personae will add up to a genuine unmasking. (The Art of the Personal Essay, xxviii)
There is a sense in which it is only by embracing our own varied masks that we can reach the place vulnerability in which such genuine unmasking can take place. Kierkegaard wholeheartedly embraces this contrariety which is so characteristic of the essayist -- so much so that he doesn’t merely play the curmudgeon for a paragraph or two, but creates entire personas with authorships of their own which he can variously interact with, contradict, or affirm. Ultimately to read one of these characters without consideration of the others may even leave one with an incomplete understanding of the point of the given persona. The dialogue, the conversation, is only half-finished if you don’t consider one voice in comparison with others. Which voice is really Kierkegaard’s voice?

All of them -- even those we might argue are speaking words he doesn’t believe. The essayist will play devil’s advocate to herself if need be, whether she has really changed her mind or not.

The question arises, then, as to what it means to be an author in this way. As Kierkegaard asks, is it “to be an x, an impersonal something that, by means of printing, addresses itself abstractly to thousands upon thousands but itself is unseen, unknown, living as secretly, as anonymously, as impersonally as possible, presumably so that the contrast between the enormous means of communication and being an individual human being does not become obvious or glaring”? (57). I think not. In all of this, I hope we might see an invitation, quite simply, to squash this business about being invisible in our work. Not only is it an act of self-deception to think the individual is not present anyway, despite our efforts, but we also destroy the possibility that our collective intellectual work might actually be strengthened by the well-defined and clearly articulated voices of individuals. Revisiting the essay itself as a form, along with a kind of Kierkegaardian posture of authorship, creates potential to infuse life and accessibility into academic writing in way that moves it out of the academy and into public discourse and communal imagination.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Uprooted and Sent

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
May 17, 2015: Seventh Sunday of Easter
Psalm 1, John 17:6-19

My favorite yoga pose is the tree pose. I love the experience of shifting my weight to one leg, finding a center, imagining my foot sending strong roots deep into the earth to hold me, as I raise my other foot, resting it against my calf muscle. I love to breathe deeply and reach my arms out and up, stretching my fingers skyward. On a good day -- one where I’ve found and held that elusive balance -- I’ll wave my arms back and forth as if swaying in the wind, trusting my roots to hold me steady -- flexible, able to give when the wind rushes in, but made strong by roots mostly invisible beneath the soil.

Psalm 1 compares the righteous to trees, the unrighteous to chaff driven away by the wind. This time of year especially this growth metaphor suits, as trees bloom and spring gardens start to bear fruit. It’s a season of newness, of life.

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, the Psalmist writes.
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on [that] law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

My college chaplain used to reference Psalm 1 when I was frustrated by the season in which I found myself. As a student at a Christian college, more often than not this frustration stemmed from pressures to “do something” for God, and for the world, while slow hours of study left me feeling guilty, as if perhaps I’d gotten off that path of righteousness and was instead lollygagging with my nose in a book. I imagine many of us have experienced something like that during a season of waiting, or education, or illness, or other seemingly fallow seasons.

No, he preached to me -- this work would bear fruit later. I was in a season of deepening roots. In seasons without visible fruit, the tree is still alive, is still being faithful to its tree-ness. The work we do during such seasons is “doing something,” it’s not just sitting around, twiddling our thumbs. And so we can learn to look forward to other seasons, and take more pleasure in rooting ourselves, in finding a place to stand and sway.

I’ve been thinking about this passage, and my college chaplain’s message, lately because this is the season in which college towns so often have to say goodbyes. Every spring -- not only spring, but especially spring -- we say goodbye to people leaving the triangle. When I first moved here wasn’t so hard. I was recently uprooted myself, I was the one who had left others to come here. But each year our roots grow deeper, each year we live in a place with particular people our love for them will grow, if we let it, if we cultivate it, as we do here each Sunday and in small groups and in so many other small moments of life together throughout our days, weeks, and years.

But seasons come to an end, and sometimes “fruit” looks like a new job or a new home in a far off place. Sometimes our delight in the Lord and in God’s gifts, God’s call upon our lives, leads us away. As the gospel passage today from John reminds us, we do not belong to this world -- and so, rooted as we may be in God’s ragtag community of the faithful in this world, we remain nomads, following God through the wilderness.

Indeed, shifting metaphors, the last verse of Psalm 1 assures us that the Lord watches over the way of the righteous. The paths we tread when we go out from here each Sunday, but also those longer roads that lead to other splits and turns we cannot yet foresee. We may be called to be rooted like trees, but we are also supposed to be movable, with the promise that God watches over our paths. We are not driven about forcefully by any wind that blows; but we do move, step by prayerful step.

“I am not asking you,” Jesus says in John’s gospel, “to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us, so we send each other.

Part of our lives together, this tension between rootedness and mobility, is the necessity of acknowledging our limited claims upon one another. We cannot make one another stay when God calls us elsewhere. We share the gifts of the spirit together for a season, in this little corner of the world, but we don’t belong to the world. Neither are we driven aimlessly when we depart a place. Rather, we leave as those who are sent, with a purpose rooted in God’s love, rooted in righteousness, even when we can no longer be rooted in the literal ground of this particular place.

We have said goodbye to many people over the last year, and those goodbyes aren’t over yet. Sending loved ones off after seasons of work and education and growth here in Chapel Hill and Durham never gets any easier. Indeed, I think it gets a great deal more difficult every time. Sometimes I joke that I want to move too, just so that I can go somewhere that people won’t leave me so often. It takes a long time to put down roots, though, and I’d rather not pull mine up, even if being the ones who stay is hard. Being the ones who stay is another kind of calling.

Being the ones who stay means welcoming new faces into our communal life, new friends and new seasons. It means being a place that nurtures and cultivates relationships knowing full well that, one way or another, we are likely to say farewell eventually. It means trusting that our leaves will not wither with each departure, but that God is faithful to those who find “delight in the law of the Lord.”

And so we stay, and we send, and we pray together when God calls people elsewhere that God would protect them, watching over their paths even when their steps lead away from us.

May we be like those trees, with roots that go down deep to streams of life-giving water. May our fruit be sweet and plentiful. May we share it freely, widely, and with all who are in need, for it was never ours to keep.

Friday, May 15, 2015

It's Friday Again

HAPPY FRIDAY! Let me start by saying people are great and my Kierkegaard campaign is almost -- almost -- completely funded. Seriously. A handful of readers could put it over the top, no problem. So thanks. And if you’ve been thinking about contributing but putting it off, now is a good time. Let’s finish it up. You rock. Click here.

Now, links! My internal monologue this week was focused on infrastructure and economics, with some bits about criticism/praise thrown in, and these links reflect that. Here are the best things I read this week:

John Cassidy on transportation infrastructure in the United States. Sobering, and extremely important in light of this week's Amtrak crash.

The Writer as Merchant by Jim Ruland on Lit Hub. Keep a place by the fire for me, will ya?

The Assistant Economy, by Francesca Mari in Dissent Magazine. I know Susan Sontag was incredible, but I'm kind of glad I wasn't her assistant.

Mallory Ortberg on How to Accept Compliments and Handle Praise. “8. Carefully wrap yourself around the leg of whoever praised you like a frightened cat, and force them to drag you around with them wherever they go for the rest of their natural life.” I feel that.

The Complete List of Insecurities by Britt Appleton, which is both funnier and more serious/sad than I anticipated when I first clicked the link. If you need me, I’ll be here worrying about chillness, card games, and current events...among other things...

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Abide in Love

Note: This sermon was given on May 3, 2015 at Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship. I cannot reproduce the rich discussion we had together about the text after I spoke that morning, about the specific walls we encounter in our own communities and lives, and the ways we are learning to break through them, but I hope readers will find opportunities to consider those questions on their own.

1 John 4, the passage we are focusing on today, is deceptively simple, in that while is sounds easy enough, it’s actually quite complicated when it comes to our lived experiences. Statements about love, like “Love wins,” for example, sound well enough on a bumper sticker. Christians repeat again and again that we are to love one another, love is from God, abide in love. Love, love, love. Love can become our go-to description of Christian ethics. “You just gotta love…” And while I suppose I basically agree with that, if our text today tells us anything it is that love is more difficult than we sometimes want to believe. And love – this kind of love – finds its beginning and end in God. “In this is love,” the author of 1 John writes, “not that we loved God but that [God] loved us.”

So the question remains: what does love really mean, according to 1 John? What does love actually do?

My pastor in Chapel Hill says every preacher really only has one sermon that she or he preaches over and over again in different ways, and I have a hunch that mine might be about this word, love. And, if love really is some kind of summation of the gospel – love God, and love your neighbor as yourself – then I suppose I can’t apologize if I come back to it again and again. It is an inexhaustible topic, because as followers of Christ this is what we’re called to spend our lives doing: learning to love one another, as an outpouring of the love God has for us. Becoming people who love, as well as learning to be loved ourselves, is lifelong work. Perhaps that is why it comes up in the bible so often.

1 John 4 is a passage that rings familiarly in my head, but as I meditated on the text this week I kept coming back to two particular things: first, the idea that love abides – “abide” not being a word we often use, in my experience. Second, the assertion that “perfect love casts out fear.” So I first want to invite you all to think with me about what it means to abide:

To abide can mean to accept or bear (even abiding someone or something unpleasant), or it can mean to stay or live somewhere, to remain or continue. These last are what comes most readily to my mind when I read 1 John. We are called to live in, to continue in, love. It’s a sustained sense of being in a place – a place of love, perhaps a community of love.

As I tried to think about what living in love like that means, a book I am reading right now gave me a glimpse. In Wanted, Chris Hoke shares stories from his life and work as a chaplain in a small county jail, and as I read about his work there and about what pulled him in and kept him in that unlikely community, it struck me that what he found there was a place to abide.

See, contrary to what most of us probably imagine for a jail chaplain, Chris implies that what kept him coming back was his own loneliness. He was looking for friends – looking for love, and for God – looking, it seemed to me as I read these stories, for a place to abide. And he tells about what he found – or, perhaps, who found him. I won’t do a disservice to the book or the lives shared therein by trying to summarize it, though I definitely recommend reading it and letting those stories speak for themselves – but I do want to share a couple moments and what I think they might illuminate about our text from 1 John.

Chris shares about the friendships he formed with men in jail, connections which were raw, vulnerable, physical, as they held hands and prayed, as they embraced – these tough guys, who loved getting hugs from the chaplain. And then he talks about what changed when the county jail “caught up” to the rest of the prison system by instituting a no-contact policy. The ability to touch one another was taken away, creating a barrier – in some cases a literal barrier of plexiglass that stood between him and friends he now had to talk to through a little phone, a wall in place he could see through but not cross. But, also, invisible barriers when he could be in a room with people he was not allowed to touch.

Chris’s story got me thinking about how such barriers prevent us from abiding with one another, and in so doing, from abiding with God. And – here, again, coming back to the text, it seems like most of the barriers we live with, the ways we are cut off from our neighbors, stem from fear – which the second part of our text that I want to focus on.

Fear is the enemy of love, according to 1 John. And love is that which banishes fear.

We – whether “we” is our government, our communities, or us as individuals – construct barriers to protect ourselves from that which we fear. We build walls so that we cannot see the things – or often, the people – that scare us. We are like my cat, when she burrows her face into a blanket at the veterinary office: If she can’t see the thing that scares her, perhaps it’s not really there.

But of course it is. And, while my cat perhaps has good reason to be a little nervous about the vet, the vet is also good for her, vital to her thriving life. I think that often we are hiding not from real danger but from the possibility of love – messy, challenging, vulnerable sorts of love, but love nonetheless. Our fears, the author of 1 John implies, cut us off from God – a refusal to abide with one another is a refusal to abide with God. A refusal of love. When we cut ourselves off from one another, we cut ourselves off from the source of life.

The text closes with a hard hitting assertion: those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

How, he seems to be asking, can you claim to love God – who, let’s face it, is not always easily discernible – when you don’t see the people right in front of you? When sometimes you willfully look away? When we put up walls – sometimes literally – between us and our neighbors? Between ourselves and our fellow children of God?

1 John addresses the reader as beloved. It names us as loved, and calls us to bear with one another, to stand in the same space, to inhabit the world together, and to look at one another without blinking, without fear. I do not think the author expects we will like everything we see, at least not at first – but love drives out fear, and looking on one another with God’s love cannot help but propel us past our divisions, and together, toward God.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


I'm a couple days late on last week's link roundup because I was traveling all day Friday. The Orlando airport promised me free wifi, but alas, it proved unreliable. In any case, I'm back in North Carolina after a good week in Michigan (I'll share my sermon from Kalamazoo Mennonite later this week), settling into my summer schedule. If you haven't yet, check out my crowd funding page for my Kierkegaard project here. A couple of contributions have come in the old fashioned way, via paper check, so I am now 80% funded! The remaining $245.00 should be a snap, right dear readers?  Thanks for reading, and contributing as you're able.

On to the links!

I love these yoga photos from around Chicago.

Joanna Harader on the MCUSA Executive Board resolution.

Jessica Valenti on padded bras. “Is it really women’s responsibility to hide the well-established fact that most of us have nipples, or is it men’s not to be such damn oglers? You know we have them under there, after all. Can’t we all just give up the ruse?"

A great essay from an adjunct who also works in a grocery store.

This NYT piece about the young black activists who’ve been building a movement online and in the streets since August. Unfortunately the author didn’t highlight Johnetta Elzie’s work as much as it should have, continuing the trend in downplaying the black women who are are the forefront of the moment. The article is a great profile of DeRay Mckesson, but should also send you scurrying to follow Elzie on Twitter.

Alana Massey’s thoughtful take on being culturally Christian.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Baltimore and nonviolence as compliance.

And finally, a recipe for coffee ice cream. I haven’t made it yet, but I will do so as soon as I make my post-travel grocery run.

Friday, May 1, 2015

May Day Links

I’m keeping it brief this week because I’m in Michigan for my brother’s college graduation. (Congrats, little bro!) It’s sunny and warm on my sister’s front porch in Grand Rapids, where I’m working Sunday morning’s sermon for Kalamazoo Mennonite. The semester is over, and I’ll be taking a few days vacation starting Monday.

Jessica Valenti on why going without make-up isn’t radical.

Hannah Bonner on white privilege and active resistance. She writes, “to be passive and an ally is not a possibility”

This week I re-read two different pieces by Amy Laura Hall that have contributed to how I think about that thing people refer to as “sexual ethics.” I recommend both: A Christian Vagina Monologue and Pregnancy as Punishment.

I am about halfway through Chris Hoke’s Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders. As many who know me well could tell you, I have strong (and often negative) opinions about the proliferation of so-called “spiritual memoir” these days (not because I don’t like writing about spirituality, or memoir as a genre, but for other more complicated reasons I plan to write about in the next couple weeks). But I heard Chris read this week, and his book is the real deal. Wanted is beautiful and challenging, and I recommend it to you.

Dear Sugar Radio, Episode 2: The Stories We Tell. Wounded Feminist’s letter, and Cheryl and Steve’s response, hit me in the gut -- in a good way.

President Obama talking about Baltimore: “If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could; it’s just that it would require everybody saying, ‘this is important; this is significant.’ And, that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids.” That’ll preach.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Lesson from Meinrad

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story that Meinrad Craighead tells in the documentary Meinrad Craighead: Praying With Images:
"I couldn't decide what I wanted to be. A Trappist monk, so to speak, or Dorothy Day. So I wrote her a letter. “Dear Dorothy Day, I am a young artist,” I mean this kind of letter, “I want to dedicate myself and my work as an artist to the church and the work in the world and so on.” She wrote me a letter and said--and this was so fantastic--she said "My dear, the first thing you should do is think only in terms of doing your college education, and feed the hungry by being an artist.” And that was a massive impact on me because then it wasn't about me making pictures, it was about me making pictures that somehow were supposed to feed people!"
Feed the hungry by being an artist. That is what Dorothy Day told her?! I have felt the tension Meinrad alludes to here -- I have asked these kinds of questions about what I am to do, what I am to be. For me, vocation is a complicated notion. If pressed, I would describe myself as bi-vocational, but my work life actually implies something of a tri- or even quadrivocation (which is most certainly not a word, and shouldn’t be, because four vocations is too many).

This time last year I was, predictably, exhausted. The end of the semester does that when you’re an academic. I wrote this piece about longing for the freedom to create, and about the financial instability of the writing life. I have tried, in the year since, to make some changes to my work life to find a better balance (despite my continued reluctance to make “balance” a central value). I have continued to learn the fine art of saying “No” so that I might say “Yes” at the right times. I have become more of a hermit, because as Zadie Smith says, you must protect and the time and space in which you write, even from the people you love most. In that vein I am also learning to be more intentional about relationships, and the ways I want and need to engage with the communities in which I live my life.

I am trying to figure out how to survive as a writer, because I think, like Meinrad, this is one way in which I can feed people.

The crowd funding campaign I have going on right now has been a strange experience. I was hesitant to even do it for a couple reasons: First, I have not been socialized to ask, and you can’t do a crowd funding campaign without asking repeatedly. Second, the lefty part of me is frustrated that this has become the culturally acceptable way of funding everything from creative projects to medical bills to college education. I actually think that, rather, we should put policies in place that make college affordable. Also, that everyone should have access to affordable healthcare to begin with. And finally, that just as we pay for other goods and services, we ought to be willing to pay a little bit for art, music, writing.

That is not the world we live in though, so I have psyched myself up, and asked. Meinrad in the back of my head has helped me to do this, but I will not stand here and deny the feeling of shame attached to asking. I will not hide the part of me that still wishes deep down to be an island unto myself that needs no external support. I also know that impulse relies on a false sense of reality, and values I reject.

And yet there is also this: each email that comes in informing me of someone’s contribution awes and humbles me. My work as a writer has always been supported by my community in intangible ways. Without my family, friends, church, yoga group -- all the people who know and love me and keep saying to me, especially when I get discouraged, “Keep going, we need your words” -- I don’t really know where I would be with all of this. I feel, in the most simple terms, empowered -- I am empowered by your trust and commitment to keeping me fed and clothed while I go about my work. I am empowered by your participation in the messy economy of the arts. I am empowered by the simple fact that you read the words and sentences I string together.

I have been most struck by the fact that nearly every contribution has come from someone I consider a friend -- or, in a couple of cases, someone I hope I will be able to know as a friend in the future. It feels weird to receive money from friends, but it is a blessed weirdness. I have said before in various places that though I write for myself, alone at my desk -- though I crave solitude, though I love being lost in a sea of words on the page -- I also write for, and in some sense with, others. I am more aware of that now than I have ever been, and I am grateful.

[In case you were wondering, no, I have not reached my goal yet. If you want to contribute, you can do so here.]

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Links

As you may know, I am seeking support for a summer research project. If you enjoy reading this blog and my other writing, please consider making a small contribution here. I keep reminding people that small amounts add up quickly. If every person who reads my blog contributes $5 I'll be well over my goal. Speaking of which, once I've reached that goal, I'll be publishing my essay "Thinking Against Oneself: Kierkegaard's Godly Satire and the Art of Nonfiction" here on the blog. Meanwhile, I'm starting to post shout outs to contributors at, so check that out for some fun Selfies on Life's Way.

These words + this photo from Andrea Gibson.

Sarah Larson on Why We Loved Gilbert Blythe. “Through meaningful looks and other subtleties, he showed that Gilbert wasn’t threatened when Anne could spell “chrysanthemum” and he couldn’t; he appeared deeply concerned when she fell off the ridgepole, and didn’t mock her for braving it; he was kind during the “The Lady of Shalott” escapade, while executing a dashing rescue. In this video, a young Crombie explains that the moment Anne breaks a slate over Gilbert’s head is the moment he starts growing up.” Be sure to click through after reading and watch the video of Crombie discussing his portrayal of Gil. My only quibble with Larson is the past tense: loved? I love him still.

Hua Hsu on Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis“Your thesis,” Eco foretells, “is like your first love: it will be difficult to forget.” This piece made me excited to read Eco’s book now that it’s available in English. Hsu reflects on thesis writing, “All that remains might be the sensation of handing your thesis to someone in the departmental office and then walking into a possibility-rich, almost-summer afternoon. It will be difficult to forget.” I remember. I climbed to the 4th floor of the Langford building on a day much like today, six years ago, to slip my thesis on Kierkegaard's Works of Love under my advisor’s door. But she was there, having a meeting with one of my friends. She took it from my hands, and said (having read much of it already), “It’s beautiful.” I go back to that moment when I doubt myself, when the world seems the opposite of “possibility-rich,” and I remember. I remember the work, the challenge and thrill of that process, and I remember that I made something beautiful, even in a moment in my own life when beauty was difficult to grasp.

This story about the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who left his job recently to work in PR because of financial instability is bittersweet. I hope this opens doors for him to return to journalism; I’d be surprised if it doesn’t.

Saeed Jones's review of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. He begins, “When we talk about Toni Morrison, we are also talking about what it means to thrive in the midst of well-manicured and eloquent hostility.”

I started re-reading Kierkegaard’s The Present Age in preparation for my summer studies, and went back to read Walter Kaufmann’s preface to the Harper Perennial Modern Thought edition, which I skipped the first time through. It turns out to be a delightful Kierkegaardian consideration of prefaces, which I usually skip, for reasons both Kaufmann and Kierkegaard seem to understand. In this case, the preface is worth perusing. I like this paperback edition for both it’s pocket size and the fact that it’s available for about $10, making it good for the ordinary reader who doesn’t want to drop big money on the Princeton editions (though I do adore those Princeton editions...). I also have a copy of the 1962 Harper Torch edition (pictured above), which my aunt found at a thrift store. I love that purple cover.

Speaking of Kierkegaard, Tyler Lyle finally recorded “Winter Is For Kierkegaard” and you can listen to it here. It gave me goosebumps. I’m excited for The Native Genius of Desert Plants, out on June 2. You can pre-order the album here.

Toni Morrison on Fresh Air: “Part of it, for me, is the sound. I'm a radio child with the ear up against the gauze…” Good enough to make you want to sit in your car after you arrive at your destination to hear the end.

The New Yorker’s new Comma Queen series on YouTube.

Wolf Hall on PBS.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Summer Plans

This June I am headed to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota for two weeks to begin work on my next long-term project, a work of literary nonfiction that will be part personal narrative, part commentary and criticism, focused on selected works of Søren Kierkegaard.

Can you help support this project? Click here to read more.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Link Round Up!

I’m trying something new: an annotated “link round-up” of some of the best essays, articles, podcasts, etc. I’ve encountered each week. Leave a comment to let me know what you think.

The newly launched Lit Hub. Brilliant content, and the best-ever Joan Didion tote bags. Subscribe to their daily email for the best of the literary internet (and while you’re at it, unsubscribe from those other lists you delete every morning, if you’re anything like me).

Lindsay King-Miller’s spot-on analysis of the latest Dove “Real Beauty” campaign.

Kate Bolick’s review of Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (edited by Meghan Daum). I’m hoping to get my hands on the book soon, too.

Rachel Vorona Cote on Productivity Anxiety: “These are things that I must learn, and on my own: to set my own pace, and turn away from the fray,” she writes. As a recovering work-a-holic with the kind of career that is especially prone to productivity anxiety, this resonated with me.

George Orwell on the cost of books vs. cigarettes. I re-read this essay this morning due to my current project, downsizing my library, and also because I’ve been paying attention to how much my contemporaries and I spend on coffee (today's acceptable vice). Books, we think, are a costly luxury, while $5 coffee drinks are -- well, what? A need? I’d venture most grad students I know spend the equivalent of a hardcover book (or my grocery bill...) in coffee shops each week. I’ve been buying books lately, and making my coffee at home. When I can’t spare the cash for books, I support my local library.

Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin: This is not a link, but a strong recommendation. Brilliant in both the intellectual and the literary sense, as timely today as when it was written. (Speaking of libraries, you can definitely find a copy at yours.)

Little Anodynes: Poems, by Jon Pineda: You need Jon Pineda’s poems in your life. (You might not be able to find it at your library yet, but you can support your local bookshop and a small press by foregoing a few lattes and buying it. You might also request that your library procure a copy!)

Toni Morrison talks about her new novel, God Help the Child. Let’s all go read the novel, now.

Krista Tippett interviews Danah Boyd: Online Reflections of Our Offline Lives. This is fascinating and helpful, especially for any of you who work with young people (but even if you don’t).

The new Villagers album, Darling Arithmetic. I’m happy Conor O’Brien has drifted back to what I think of as his “one guy with a guitar” style for this album.

Inspector Morse, Season 5, on Hulu Plus. I’m a sucker for a good mystery series. Always have been.

These life-changing small batch cinnamon rolls. Christina Lane’s Dessert for Two might be my next book purchase.