Wednesday, September 14, 2016

literary, lately: travel edition

I have a love/hate relationship with professional conferences. Love: travel to new places, eating out on someone else's dime, staying in hotels (I love a clean bathroom, especially when I'm not the one cleaning it). Hate: spending all day in over-chilled rooms with no windows, uninspiring keynote speakers, networking (i.e. an introvert's hell).

I'm thinking about this because it's happening next week, I'm going to a new city, getting up in front of a lot of people to talk about writing (simultaneously my most exhilarating dream and worst nightmare), and hopefully getting lots of reading done on the flights there and back -- among other things. Here are a few links that are getting me excited about traveling, writing, reading and everything in between.

Listen to what makes your hair stand on end, your heart melt, and your eyes go wide, what stops you in your tracks and makes you want to live, wherever it comes from, and hope that your writing can do all those things for other people. A writing manifesto, in the form of ten tips. Maybe I'll scrap my presentation and just read this to the audience?

Airports are mini-civilizations, governed by their own rules and ritualsOn bookstores in airports. My airport rules: a magazine from those ubiquitous bookstores, peanut m&m's and stretchy pants.

The National Book Award long list selections are being announced this week. I haven't even heard of most of the nonfiction books just announced. Looks like I have some reading to do. Maybe worth an airport book purchase?  Follow along if you're interested...

I go in phases with writing music. Right now, it's this song and every other one from the album. He's, like, the male T.S. I'll probably also be listening to this on my flights. (Don't judge.)

Can't wait to find myself here. (Quick stop over to see my sister!)

(photo: NYC skyline, before flight to Kenya)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

what to do with this love

This morning I read about a popular author and her new romantic relationship. Her marriage has ended, she writes, because the illness of her dear best friend made her realize the truth that she is in love with this friend. She herself had posted about it on her Facebook page, an explanation that is thoughtful, well-written and probably only made public out of necessity, which I respect.

I don't know this author personally or really follow her all that closely, yet I had a deep response, one that invariably comes because of things I'm wrestling with myself. Part of the story this woman is sharing but not focusing on is that she is now in a same-sex relationship - this is not part of my struggle. That issue aside (I have thoughts I won't share here or now), the underlying story I read here is one of friendship, boundaries and recognition. Let me explain.

A friend of mine, a single man around my age, recently shared with me that he's taking a break from thinking about relationships to figure some stuff out. This after I told him I'd had a dream of him deciding to elope and not invite me or our other friends. Is there something you're not telling me? I joked with him. This led us to open small windows into our individual hopes and fumblings in what we both hope is movement towards our respective future marriages. What came to mind (and spirit) as I sought for a way to affirm him is that first love story, when man is put to sleep and, on waking, finds the one he calls "flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone." Here at last, one I recognize as made for me.

This caused me to read that story again, to see how the current of my friend's particular experience moves below the story, what waves the Spirit might stir in it. As I read, one version used particular names we are familiar with (Adam and Eve), which makes the story feel so very personal and singular. Maybe that can be my story, too, we might be drawn to wonder. Another version uses simply Man and Woman in place of names, which got me thinking differently about the distinctive recognition which takes place upon waking. Before, none of the animals fit the bill. Then, here, a new creature, and yet so very familiar because she is taken from me. I thought of this story again when I read news of this author, because of the same-sex issue but also because of the long friendship between then. Do we sometimes confuse partnership and friendship for something more? What if this author lived within the boundary of that love which guides us to recognize who is made for us and who is not? I am not trying to judge, and yet I wonder about the seemingly sudden lunge towards total commitment brought about in the face of illness and possible death. The prospect of death can make us do strange things, and yet death is not all of what there is, it is only a shadow. Is it possible that her recognition has shifted away from what is true?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that recognizing truth and beauty is an act that requires the Spirit. (That first love story, after all, happened in the Garden...) I have stories of men I've been close to or partners with and I've wondered, could this be the one? But they end up being part of that animal parade set before Man; they receive different names, but not that declaration that only one will receive (here at last, bone of my bone...). Recently, there is another story like this, one in which a man and I have partnered together and found our styles and vision the same yet different and complementary, in which I have moments of seeing more than what is on the surface, in which I feel I have grown to be more of who I am because of his presence in my life, and in which a few innocent onlookers have asked me about him. And I admit, I have wondered myself. But deep in my spirit, I know this friendship is given for a different reason.

So then the question remains - what do to with this love I have for him? The kind of love I am trying to cultivate is that which expands only within boundaries set for me and yet calls me beyond what I know. This love is painful and costly. It asks me to yearn for that person's good, and yet not put my own needs for love and affection on that person. This love fights to see clearly and hope against hope and hold on and let go at the same time. It simultaneously breaks my heart and puts it back together. I wonder if that's what we resist, that process of being broken for the sake of a good we haven't yet experienced, a love that is tasted only when we are able to lift our heads and ask for it and hope to be filled.

(photo: married couple, friends of mine, west los angeles)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

an unread library

There's magic in being surrounded by books... Collect books, even if you don't plan on reading them right away. Nothing is more important than an unread library.

- Austin Kleon, Steal Like at Artist

(photo: my library and messy bookstacks... only partially read)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

this is a story about desire

On a cool fall day when dry, brown leaves skittered across sidewalks and clouds lumbered across the tired sky, Jen and I sat in a car together. She was dropping me off, or I was dropping her off, I don’t remember which it was. We had probably just had coffee together, and I likely filled much of the time talking about Geoff and dating and how hard it was at that moment. And had been over the past few months. Jen was my mentor and from the very beginning of our relationship seemed to know more about my heart than I did. Looking back, I think it was that she knew her own heart, and God’s love for it, and therefore knew the nature of hearts trying to find that kind of love. So the question she asked me should not have been surprising, but it was.

Betsy, what do you want?

I remember being annoyed that she was asking me this. It’s obvious, I thought. She’d been listening to me talk the last hour, the last year about dating this guy. I want him. But even as that thought came, I knew it wasn’t all of what’s true. Yes, I had grown to love him and the times when we felt connected. But in the space of time between my initial response and trying to decide on words, I realized what I most wanted, really, was to be loved and to be free.

Outside the car window, trees were letting go of leaves and allowing themselves to be laid bare for the coming winter months. It would be another two months before Geoff and I broke up, but I think I knew it then. I needed to let go.

But this is not a story about giving up. It’s about desire.

That question got in to some crack in my heart that dating Geoff had opened. Up to that point, I knew I had many wants, many desires, but mostly I felt clumsy in the way I went after them, or assumed most of them were too big or not right. So I spent a lot of time hiding them or feeling stupid when I couldn’t. (Even now, when a desire rises so strong that I cry, I will say to myself – or, now more and more, to God – “I don’t know why I’m crying,” as I shake my head and wipe my tears and try to control my emotions.) 

Jen’s question that day made me realize that my desires can be named, and that they are likely much deeper and truer than whatever shallow form they might take on the surface of my life. A boyfriend, a husband, loyalty, humor – yes, I want these things. But more true is that I long for love, connection, being partnered, speaking into another's life in a way that realizes and sustains a deep vision, joy that trumps disappointment. Eyes that truly see.

What Jen gave me by asking that question was the opportunity to recognize these desires, and also to name them in the presence of somebody who could hold them before Jesus. There's a story in the Bible where a blind beggar hears that Jesus is passing by, and he decides to cry out for Jesus’ attention. Jesus stops and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Give me my sight, the beggar says. It was seeing, and also that deeper longing for restoration that he asked for. 

And it’s that last part of the question, the part that Jen didn’t ask me (because she couldn’t) that grabs my attention lately. Bringing desires before Jesus, who can do for me what no one else can (who can give me my desires), transforms them from random wishes to real, tangible seeds that contain all the fullness of what I’ve already been promised. Give me my sight...

Friday, August 26, 2016

what's happening inside and how to like it

If I were to be honest with you, I’d tell you it started even before I went to Kenya. But I keep using my trip as the before and after, the reason, the tipping point. The start of a season of transition. Because it was after I came that I found myself strolling into work later than usual, forgetting about important things and not really caring about others, wanting to eat more sugar than I have been lately (and not exercising much restraint). It was difficult to muster up much energy do things I don’t like doing or have much discipline. I cried at odd things, including in front of my boss. Strange things were happening.

I felt unfamiliar to myself, which is a scary place to be in, at least for someone like me who thrives on control and structure. So I searched for a metaphor to give me a picture or framework for what was happening. Unable to understand it myself, I asked the Spirit and the thought that came to mind was those early stages of pregnancy, when a woman’s tastes change so dramatically. I once worked with a woman who could only stomach McDonald's in those first few months. Another friend had craved only Swedish Fish. I get it, I thought. I knew that not all my behavior was helpful or healthy, but I had so little energy to redirect myself. They both told me they ate what they could to just keep going. I understood that what they were saying is this: You might think that living with respect to the thing growing in you means eating healthy, but sometimes it means, at least at first, just hanging on. Because that thing growing in you is going to change everything.

This morning, when I was turning some of these ideas around in my head, I kept confusing the word transition for transformation. Maybe that word is more fitting anyway. It’s not so much a moving from one thing to another but instead, being changed inwardly, taking on a new form. The metaphor is overused: a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. But I can’t get away from that idea of being able to ride the wind.

I’d like to tell you that this transition/transformation is the result of circumstances around me. There are changes at work, new friendships, some after-happenings from Kenya that have me busy and excited. But I go back to that metaphor I was given and remember that pregnancy speaks of something new inside. It is the inner shifting and growing that I want to follow and allow to shape the circumstances, not the other way around.

I started this post thinking I’d put together some kind of fun or smart list of things to do in transition. Good habits to keep, things to consume, things like that. I’d share the podcasts I’m listening to or the dietary habits I’m (failing at) keeping. But I’ll be honest with you – I’m still in that McDonald’s-Swedish Fish stage where I’m keeping down what I can, not sure when I’ll feel as if I’m being tossed around on a boat in the middle of a storm. This thing growing in me, it’s hungry with desire, and I’m following it, trusting that it knows what it needs. 

(photo: pennsylania farm, taken a few days before Kenya)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

friends, here are some books i read

Friends and books: two of my favorite things. I like to read with friends, about friends, talk about reading with friends. Today, as I play catch up on blogging books I've read, I see a theme and I'm going with it. These books reminded me of how good writing will sound to you like a friend's voice, how friendship will inspire our reading choices, how good friends will give good books, and how one of the most enduring stories we will tell is how we found our friends.

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

Well-known memoir by a widely-loved writer. I read it on the way to the writing conference I went to back in April because I knew he'd be speaking, and because I found it for five dollars at a used bookstore a few weeks before. The book was good. Here is my favorite quote: All my life I had recognized almost at a glance those who were meant to be my friends, and they have recognized me. Yes.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

About a week after my birthday, I came home to a mystery Amazon package on my doorstep. It looked like books. I got excited. In it was this book and another - both books I'd been wanting to read. They were sent by my sister. The woman gets me, even if she doesn't often understand me (which is probably the case a lot of the time because I can be crazy and text her a string of emojis that I expect her to interpret). That might be my new definition for friendship.

The book sat on my coffee table for two months until I decided I'd pack it for my trip to the east coast and Kenya. I started reading it in a Starbucks with my nephew. He wanted us to close our books and play cards, but I kept telling him to read another chapter so I could keep reading, too. It was good. Then I read it on the plane flying over the Atlantic, and in the van weaving in Nairobi traffic and struggling over the rocky, dusty roads that led to Maasai Mara. I read it while America was arguing with each other about why police were still killing black men and in between long looks out the window traveling around Kenya, trying to understand the country by what I could see.

I don't have the book with me (it is already lent out to a friend). If I did, I might give you a quote. Instead I will say that I loved her writing about Nigeria, and wondered what I could learn about writing about Kenya. I also loved her insights about Africans in America and how they relate to African Americans and to America in general, about what they love and what they find strange, about the ways that language and accent and hair and clothing and weight and food and love and the way air feels on skin all make moving to a different country so disorienting, and coming home, even after so many years, like encountering an old friend.

The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward

One thing I love about books of compiled stories or essays is that, if they are well-edited, reading them can feel like sitting around a table with some really smart friends. That's how this book felt. The writers invite us readers around their table to learn from them, to start a dialogue, to acknowledge our shared humanity. Each essay highlights the specific voice and experience of the writer, which makes the books feel like a collective, a community - a gathered group that, together, is something more than just the sum of its parts. My favorite themes were writing to remember and the emphasis on the physical experience of being black in America (and, really, our world).

I can't choose just one quote to share with you. Not one thought or sentiment would sum up what the book made me feel or think about. But I am still thinking about it, which is good, and I hope I will be for a while to come. Mostly, I hope what I read will stay with me and help me be a better friend to some very dear people in my life, and to people I have yet to meet.

(photo: books! though not the ones i read)

Monday, August 15, 2016

learning their names

I make it a priority to learn about names on this trip. I ask names and look hard at faces to commit them to memory. I listen to names and try to understand how people here understand their names by how they use them, by how they respond when called. But whenever I start to ask questions, I feel as if my words come out in a backwards language. Maybe it is because the people here always return questions with a shy smile, which makes me thing they’re amused by me. They likely are, but I know they are also shy, and probably unaccustomed to my direct inquisitiveness.

Maasai are given both English names and traditional names? I ask, even as I realize that it might be more appropriate to call them Christian names, like James and Jemima and Jonathan. Both of those terms carry tricky connotations and I don't know if one is better than the other. Yes, I learn, they have both. The Christian names are easier for me to learn and remember, but I want to learn the Maasai names, too, or at least allow my ear to become accustomed to them. Where do these names come from and what is their meaning? are questions I still have and will eventually learn at least partial answers to. 

During our introduction session, in which my plan is to get to know the students and, yes, learn their names, I decide to have them write their Christian names on one side of a piece of construction paper, their Maasai names on the other. Settled in the classroom, nearly fifty tall, lean students with dusty feet and ankles cram three to a desk with the colored paper before them, a bright contrast to the mostly monochromatic world they live in during the school week: wood beams, brown floors, dark skin, faded and dusty blue uniforms. (A day later, Saturday, I would see them again in their Western clothing – all yellow and red and blue.) When I give them the instructions, they start to write their names small in one corner of the paper, and I realize I should have made an example for them. Bigger, I tell them. Take up the whole page with your name.

Then I tell them that we’re going to line up outside the classroom in alphabetical order by our Christian names. The teachers lend order to the activity, sending out the As and Bs while I indicate where they should stand and shift the line up when we need more room. Then I see it: the line of students holding up their papers with names written across. It hits me that I have spent a few months thinking about these kids and wondering about their names. Call them out, I tell them. I want to hear you say your name loud, I say, because even though I know this is a people who speaks softly, I have been waiting to hear these names.

Ann. Dickson. Elizabeth. Esther. Isaac. Jacklyn. James. Lillian. Titus. I'm still trying to remember them all...

First draft from a longer essay about names and being named.

(photos: learning their names; because I couldn't pick just one)