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 tinykierkegaard.tumblr.com, so check that out for some fun Selfies on Life's Way.

Reading
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.

Listening
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.

Watching
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.

Reading
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!)

Listening
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.

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

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

Monday, April 13, 2015

Broken Bread

Note: I wrote the following for a collaborative Lent devotional with Shalom Mennonite and Community Mennonite of Harrisonburg, VA. Though Lent and Holy Week are over for this year, I wanted to share this short reflection from Maundy Thursday here anyway.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

In our little church in Chapel Hill we celebrate communion seven times a year, so it’s not that often that I get to help serve bread and cup. Having washed my hands thoroughly in preparation for serving, I delight in taking hold of the crisp crust of the fresh loaf, getting flour on the clean skin of my bare hands, and tearing it down the middle as someone else reads, “This is my body that is for you.” It makes a mess, crumbs on the table and the floor. It’s tactile. I hold the bread up, half in each hand, for all to see. It feels awkward, this moment of quiet reverence in our blessedly informal lives together. But I love that awkwardness, as I love what follows, when the servers walk around the circle, breaking off chunks of bread and pressing them into open hands.

Someone once told me that people are never so beautiful as they are when they approach the communion table, and I look for that beauty now in my friend’s faces. I try to make eye contact as I say, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” For you, you, you -- and for me, for us. As the text says, we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes, but this practice points to more than that. In our communion together we proclaim that our faith is an embodied faith. Christ’s body is for us, we are for Christ, and in belonging to Christ we belong to one another. Body and soul, we are each one for the other. During Lent -- a season of fasts, to be followed by feasting -- it seems appropriate to ask, then, how we can better care for the bodies that make up the body of Christ. Physically and spiritually, we are hungry and in need. Those crumbs that scatter when I break the bread are as much a part of the body as the larger chunks of bread in my hand -- all parts broken off from the whole. When one is ill, isolated, in mental or physical pain, brokenness is perhaps all too easy to understand. What is harder is belonging, naming and caring for our individual crumbled lives as a way of re-membering, of holding ourselves together as one, as Christ did on the night he was betrayed.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Masks & Mirrors

Last night I read with a group of local women writers as part of the Masks & Mirrors exhibition at Cassilhaus. I haven’t had many opportunities to read in public yet, though I’ve attended more readings than I can count. As a freshman at Hope College I loved attending the school’s Visiting Writers Series. The student jazz band would play beforehand as people trickled into the Knickerbocker Theater on 8th St in downtown Holland, Michigan, a few blocks from campus, and I would get there early to listen. Whether because some professors assigned extra credit for attending, or because the readings were just that good (I err on the side of the latter), VWS events packed the house. I was a bit spoiled by this introduction to book events.

In any case, I think my love of attending readings, which began with those readings at the Knick, prepared me to love offering readings of my own, because I know what fun it is to listen to someone else share their craft. Reading in public makes me nervous, especially in the final minutes leading up to an event, yet once I begin there is only me, the page, and the audience. I forget to be nervous. I hope they will laugh in the right places (and not in the wrong ones), that the piece will have its desired effect. But I can never be quite sure it will until after I’ve read it, which is another thing I like about reading in public. When my work is published, I am unable to observe people’s reactions, so I never really know if my words inspired the emotions and connections I hope they will. When I read to you, your reaction lets me know if I’ve succeeded in the ways that matter to me most. Are the words on the page what I thought they were? Hopefully so. If not, I can (probably) fix it for next time.

The essay I read last night had not previously been shared with anyone besides my classmates and teachers when I was at Queens. There was an added thrill for me in the act of sharing something fresh, new -- excerpts from the unpublished manuscript. Part of that thrill is that, though I write for myself in many ways, I also write for readers. I write in order to share what I write. (Mostly. I also write things that will be kept under lock and key f-o-r-e-v-e-r.) So it makes me happy to read to people, and find that yes, as I had hoped, my humor brought them joy, my analysis made them think, my story resonated with their stories, and these connections coalesce into an evening of delight for us all. Reading and writing connects us.

I kept thinking last night about when I took piano lessons, and had recitals throughout the year. Every few months we prepared for a performance. All of that practice -- the scales and arpeggios, drilling difficult sections -- paid off when family and friends gathered to listen to us play. Sometimes things went well. Other times, less so. For my final recital, in high school, I enthusiastically performed Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, only to turn around later in the program and completely blank out on Bach’s Invention #14. I played Bach well enough, but he never seemed to stick in my memory.

Sometimes a performance goes well, sometimes it does not. But either way it has the potential to send the artist back to work with new perspective (needless to say my Bach needed some practice). On this occasion, I found that I wrote something that brought people delight. The experience affirmed that the piece I wrote and shared was successful, in the ways that matter.

I like to write. I like creating things that other people enjoy. It is both humbling and motivating when those two things coincide.