Wednesday, November 30, 2016

reading bad feminist

I know nothing about cars. When I take my car to the mechanic, they are speaking a foreign language. A mechanic asks what wrong with my car, and I stutter things like, "Well, there's a sound I try to drown out with my radio."... I don't want to be good at cars. Good feminists, I assume, are independent enough to address vehicular crises on their own; they are independent enough to care.
-Roxanne Gay, Bad Feminist

This is one confession in a list at the end of Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay. It made me laugh, the part about turning up the radio to cover up the sound. It also made me nod in agreement, the part about not caring, and yet wondering if I should (to be an independent woman, i.e. a good feminist).

And that's probably a good way to sum up the book. There was some laughing, some nodding. In the middle there was some skimming because I got a little impatient with some of the essays. (And, I'd chalk that up to an editing choice. Some of these sections felt like a bunch of blog posts plopped there, instead of a more thoughtfully edited collection of essays - some previous writing that was expanded or combined or re-written.) In the middle of said essays, I also started to wonder if the author had anything positive to say. Where was the joy or the positivity? It was just critique of one bad movie after another (the section was on culture, gender and race). But then I felt caught - maybe it's because there's not much joy to be found, not much positive to say when it comes to how African Americans and other minorities are represented in film. Ok, keep reading...  

What I appreciated most in this book was the author's flavor of vulnerability. She wasn't confessional, but she did reveal a lot about what makes her human. That made her critique more credible. She's telling us that she's not a perfect feminist, that she's nuanced and complex and that she fails. So when she calls out others for ways they, too, have failed their art or their brothers and sisters, I can swallow it. We can be imperfect, yes. And, let's all try to be better. Yes.

(photo: coffee, reading, of course)

Friday, November 25, 2016

thoughts on writing as one being re-made

I heard a writer, speaking of the transition from being a writer who wrote for herself to one who was read by many people, say that she understood the experience of putting her thoughts and heart in words for people to read as being a living sacrifice. I know the passage of scripture where that phrase - living sacrifice - is mentioned. It is one that's been popularized by Christian culture, put on t-shirts and greeting cards and wall hangings. And yet when she said that, it was like I understood in a new way what the words mean. What she meant is that her writing is a way she gives her life back to God. It feels like sacrifice - letting go, surrender, maybe even being burned. A living sacrifice, though, isn't burned up to ashes but has a heart that still beats, limbs that move and eyes that continue to see. It is in the living, in the writing, in the figuring things out and then allowing my mind and heart to be re-made, that I sacrifice. That I live as one given over to another.

We don't need to make the gospel new; the gospel makes us new.
I heard this a few months ago and thought, yes. There are so many Christian books out there that try to give a new spin to the gospel. A catchy phrase and a trendy cover design, a format that reflects the kind of thing that people read now. I read a lot of these when I was in high school and working at a Christian bookstore, but at some point realized the authors weren't able to tell me anything new. I've come back to these kinds of books now, curious about what's being written and how my writing fits (or doesn't) and find that, once again, a lot of the same kinds of things are being said over and over again, and yet not much is really being said.

But then there are times when I hear a word and, even though it's a word I've heard many times before, it's like new, because it's making me new. How is it that the Word that was written so many centuries ago is like new each time I come to it? It must be something of the life of God in it, is all I can conclude, the same life that makes the day new, gives mercies that are new, renews me from the inside to re-make my heart, my sight, my love.

I wonder, then, how being made new then drives me to speak or write the gospel in a way that does, indeed, make it new for others. This is how it starts: a seed of a word that grows and makes a shady place for others to find rest for their souls, makes branches that birds can find a home in. The kind of work that lays foundations for many generations and brings peace to places that have been ruined.


So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. Fill your stomach with this, he said. And when I ate it, it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.  
- Ezekiel 3:2-3

(photo: flowers and concrete, griffith park, los angeles)

Monday, November 21, 2016

dreams from a bumpy van ride

So, here it is: I'm going to Kenya. Six months, ten time zones away, a few friends and many more to make. It was all a dream at first, one I conjured up on the long, bumpy van ride from maasai-land back to Nairobi. My skin red and bumpy from the strong, constant equatorial sun (even from behind the clouds, I felt it), bags under my eyes from six nights of sleeping (or not) in a tent while the night air scatters dust from on place to another. Exhausted but for the adrenaline, some might say. Spent but for the love, is what I knew.

Dreams are hard to pin down, the way they whisper in a jumbled tongue in your ear and leave you to decipher their meaning. Could this be for real? I wondered as I tried to hold onto the thought even as it slipped away. But then someone else said it, too: what if I could move here? Just for a few months? I said, me, too and I began to understand that something new was happening. Just maybe, I thought.

Bits of dreams make their way to the surface of life, cracked shells washed up on the shore to remind us of all that's living out in the depths beyond. Every time I told the dream to another, however tentatively I traced its outline, pieced together what little I knew, the response was always yes.

That feels right. 

I had a sense. 

I always knew you would love this.

Seers, not into the future but into my heart, into the way that perhaps was always laid out before me.

I think now of the bumpy van ride, the many hours I've spent in that van, the way it makes my butt hurt, the way I am often needing more air, the way it fills with dust when we leave the windows open while driving through dirt, the way it breaks down then, with a jiggle it comes back to life (or so it always seems to me). The way I reach out the window with my phone for a photo, but I'm never able to capture what I see. It's just too expansive. By now, I know the way a way forward is often like this -- bumpy, imperfect, too big to comprehend.

(photo: trying to capture what i see from the van, kenya 2014)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

as a means to communion

We  are hungry. We eat. We are filled... and emptied. 
And still, we look at the fruit and see only the material means to fill our emptiness. We don't see the material world for what it is meant to be: as a means to communion with God.
- Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, emphasis hers

(reminds me of some things I've been thinking about...)

(photo: the material world, in Atwater Village to be exact)

Friday, November 18, 2016

the only way through is through

I lived with a small family for a few years. These were friends of mine who were a newly-married couple when we all moved in together, and a family of four when I moved out four years later. She, the wife, was pregnant twice. During the early months, she stayed in her room during most dinners to avoid strange smells, and when we watched Project Runway together she’d get up to spit into the bathroom sink at every commercial break. Her body changed slowly at first, then fast, from what I could see, anyway. Her belly stretched, her body tired, her breathing become more strained. Inside of her, a new life took form.

One evening partway through her second pregnancy, she sat across from me in the living room. It was quiet, dark outside. The first child was asleep, our other housemates doing other things. She and I were likely both reading. I remember pausing what I was doing and looking over at her. Her legs were tucked under her, her breathing a little louder than normal from the weight of her belly. She would have been at least six months along at this point.

Are you afraid of labor? I asked her.

She looked up from whatever she was doing and, without much thought, responded something like, No, not really. That was how she was about most things – calm, deliberate, un-phased.

I don’t remember if she asked me why I asked or if I told her or how long our conversation lasted. What I remember is thinking that, for her, the only way forward was through such great pain.

I’ve often wondered at my impulse to shut things down partway through. I get scared and turn around. When I was five or six, I went to the town carnival with my family and followed my sisters into a haunted house, the kind where you enter and are guided through until you reach the end, exiting through a different door. Once in, I got scared and backed up and went out the front door, probably crying and looking for my mom.

Transition can feel a lot like pregnancy (and maybe a little like that haunted house, too). When you enter into it, the thing at the end is what you’re thinking of: the baby, the delight, the new life. But halfway in, when the only way through is through, can feel frightful. I think of pregnancy and how the only way to prevent the pain of labor is to cause death to what’s inside, and even then, it still needs to come out. I’m sorry if that’s graphic. But maybe I’m not sorry because it’s true, of babies and of the things being birthed in us. 

Jesus uses this illustration to tell those following him that they would experience great sorrow, like a woman in labor. But, he said, you will also have great joy, like that of a women in her new baby, so great that the pain of what you went through will be forgotten. And no one will be able to take this joy from you, he says.

She had her baby, this housemate of mine. The girl is three years old now, with big, sparkling eyes, a laugh that comes quickly and a stubbornness that befits a younger sister. She was given the name Naomi, meaning beautiful, delightful, pleasant, and I am touched knowing what lively delight and deep, abiding love such pain as labor can bring.

(photo: three-year birthday date with Naomi)

(uh, guys, I fell off the nablopomo wagon. Oops.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

it is finished (but not final)

It is sunny today, that kind of clear brightness that makes the deep blue sky stand out against the brown folds of mountains to the north. I walked out of my apartment shortly after eight, and the air was warm, unseasonably so. Even in all this brightness, the mood feels dulled. There is disbelief and disappointment, there is pain, and maybe there is also relief.

It is finished.

That’s the phrase that keeps turning around in my head. Jesus said it just before giving up his spirit and dying. There has been a death, for sure, and who can say when it started. I’m not just talking about the election of a man whom many think ridiculous, racist and unrestrained. The death is one of hope, community, understanding and peace.

There is a lot of pain, to be sure. I feel it when I think of legislation that is meant to protect but ends up dividing. I feel it when I think of how we’d hoped women might be empowered through the campaign of our first female presidential candidate, but instead degradation has only been more prominently exposed. I feel it when I think of how it seems that most people felt so strongly against that it drove them to vote for (shouldn’t it be the other way around?). I feel it when I think of how few options so many people feel they have, on many levels.

And yet. When Jesus said it is finished, he didn’t mean it is final. New life would come, a new kingdom would start to gain momentum. I am trying to cultivate this hope.

And here are a few ways:

Needing someone to speak truth to me, I listened to the latest The New Activist podcast episode. David Gungor, a peacemaker/musician, talks about using music to speak beyond “his tribe” to prompt people to see the other in new, more compassionate ways. I can’t think of a better voice to listen to this morning.

This song has been my comfort over the past few weeks, in both the personal and the political and everything in between.

I haven't been reading as much online (so I don't have links for you). But, I'm reading and listening to a mix of books right now that, I think, offer humility, hope and some directions to move in. Bad Feminist is my easy and fun read. Strong and Weak plays on Audible during some of my commutes and is such good news that I think I'll read it over the next few months. The Bright Continent tells how Africa shines in ways only the ones who truly look can see. And Soul Feast, as assigned reading, has some gems.

Hope to you...

(photo: light shines in darkness)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

more than a fairy tale

I grew up going to Sunday School, which means a few things: I drank a lot of red juice from dixie cups, I made a lot of Bible-themed crafts, many involving popsicle sticks (why?), and I memorized certain stories that were taught over and over.

These became like fairy tales to me: full of drama and the stuff of dreams, but diminished and made metaphorical. They were not to be taken literally. These stories were told maybe to expand our imagination (about who God is), but mostly to shape our character and actions in a more tame, straightforward manner. Moses and the burning bush didn’t teach me to look for the fire of God, Zaccheus didn’t teach me to climb trees recklessly, Esther didn't teach me to speak my mind to kings. Trust in God. Love Jesus. These were the polite and domestic (and too abstract) morals of the stories.

This morning I remembered the very not-tame story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. It was always one of my favorites. When I was in third grade, our Junior Choir at church performed a musical production of the story. If I remember right, my oldest sister and two of her friends (the oldest – and coolest – girls in our church’s small group of kids) got the parts of the three main characters. I sang my first and last solo, and had my dream of becoming a singer/songwriter dashed in the first few notes, which I could not find. In my nervousness, I sang the whole verse completely off key. 

I don’t remember how we re-enacted the scene where the three are thrown into a furnace, or who played God, that forth figure that shows up among the flames. In my Sunday School mind, I see four cartoon characters, slightly transparent against dancing flames. For some reason, they slightly resemble the seven dwarves (fairy tales, I tell you). Smiling, cheeks rosy from the heat.

But let’s be real, this is a gruesome story. I think of other events in our history when people were thrown into furnaces, and how these are remembered still with our deepest collective horror. And then, I think about how these men could have easily avoided the furnace by bowing down. And then I also think of a verse in Isaiah, where God tells his people that he'll be with them when they walk through the fire. Not if, but when, and how had I never connected that or thought about that literally before? I think of the fire and remember when I suffered an incredibly difficult season with my health, or when people at work treat me wrongly. Painful, but not capable of burning my flesh. 

I don't know what I'm writing towards, exactly, except that those men are way more interesting to me than the seven dwarves ever will be, their substance more than three men with the silly names, their story more than a fairy tale. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

yes, and

.... Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart.

from Thirst by Mary Oliver

This is a line from one of my favorite poems. The first time I read it, I sat on the floor between shelves of books in Borders, probably looking through a stack of magazines I piled in my arms and lugged with me. The title of the book, which is the title of this poem, stuck out to me from the binding of the thin paperback where it sat on cart of books to be shelved. I picked it up, thumbed through, read a few short poems, and cried when I read this one, stuck in at the very end of the collection. And, when I first read it, and for years after, this line seemed to me to describe a battle. An either/or. You choose the earth or "you" (God) and the author, trying to choose God, gives away a lot of things (we read in the next lines of the poem). 

The poem appealed to something in me, but I struggled with this line because, I realized, I really like the earth. Not just like the geese and ponds that Mary Oliver usually writes about (though sometimtes I like those, too). But I'm talking the way I feel after a run, sweaty and satisfied. Feeding my people with brunch or a really good salad. Tears that are happy or cathartic. Rhythm and dancing. Holding a book in my hand. Finding a piece of clothing or jewelry that I love or that are flattering on me. I like being carnal - of the body, of the earth. But am I supposed to not like these things? What does it feel like to like God more? To let him dominate the conversation? Win the battle?

But the word she uses isn't "battle," but "conversation."

My friend is a comedian and has taken improv classes. She's hosted groups of creatives at her apartment, and as a warm up activity, she leads us in "Yes, And." Two of us sit across from each other, are given a premise, and make a story by affirming what the other says and building on it. "Yes, and." 

The last time I read the poem, that word "conversation" stuck out to me and I realized that  it was this kind of conversation that these loves may want to have in my heart.

Yes, and. The things we love about being in a body, being on an earth, holding and smelling and feeling and being with - all this in conversation, affirming and building on the things we love about being God's, of the spirit, able to sense and intuit mystery and be filled with grace and see how one plus one can equal some crazy number we didn't think possible. 

(photo: lights in trees, pasadena nights)

Friday, November 4, 2016

on limitations and creativity

Years ago, when I was beginning to understand creativity as something deeper and more resounding than a playful pastime, a wise person in my life told me that creativity was more about limitations than total freedom. I’d never thought about it that way before, but I realized he was right. I thought of the collages and cards I loved to make from magazine cut-outs throughout high school and saw this dynamic at play. Limited space, images that could only be chosen, and which could be altered only by choosing where to cut and how to place within the frame.

I see the power of the limitation dynamic in non-fiction writing, too. I’ve heard authors talk about what to do when memory fails, or when the details of family or community history that will add depth to your story aren’t available. Not knowing becomes the story, one writer suggests.

I’m thinking about this in part because of the post I wrote yesterday. It was about me, but it was also largely about other people who may or may not want details, identifying or otherwise, on my blog (small readership though I may have). I didn’t want to say too much about my coworker and her relationship. I didn’t want to mention much about my family history of disease. And I didn’t want to mention my visit with my aunt this summer, and how I saw remnants of disease and treatment in her body, and how she told me important information about my other aunt, who passed away years ago.

These details may have made my story more interesting, more compelling. But in writing non-fiction, I want to be mindful of how I give away my life (or rather, how I protect and preserve my life) in my writing. Another writer talks about aspects of this dilemma of disclosure in terms of voice and criticism, which are other issues to consider. In another way, choosing to withhold certain details can be seen as limitations that force more creativity. How can I say this in a different way? What other details or scenes can I share? What is enough but not too much?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

happy hour with coworkers usually goes like this

Happy hour with coworkers usually goes like this: We sip our first drinks, share anecdotes about our co-workers and dating lives, laugh. I stop after one, they keep going, and halfway through the second drink and throughout the third, words become a little more harsh and stories of boyfriends a little more raw.

Here is how it went last night: The coworker sitting next to me shares about her live-in boyfriend. She is considering leaving him, and by her description, for good reasons. She draws a picture for us of what life is like with him with a story about him bailing on a dinner in West Hollywood with friends, and later, with a text he just sent her. Eventually my sadness and shock show on my face, perhaps read as naiveté. And maybe it is true that these women have more experience in certain areas of life. But what I am really wondering about is why women would let men treat them like this, and what is so bad about being alone that these women seem to be avoiding it with a relationship that’s not really a relationship, and (I am trying to resist this one) are all men like this? I think of what to say to her that has more substance than the trite feminist sentiment, girl, you deserve so much more. But that’s what’s true. She is beautiful and smart and funny and engaging and she is a child of the living God.

Happy hour with coworkers usually goes like this: I come away with the headache that whiskey always gives me and feeling overfull from the greasy food and wondering how so many people think this is life.


Today my sister will give her blood to understand her genes. Specifically, she will find out whether certain mutations that are believed to have caused disease in our dad’s sisters are present in her, and as a result, put her at risk for the same sickness. This has been a conversation my sisters and I have been having for at least a few years now. Do we get tested? What will we do with the information? Better to live not knowing than to live with the information? Which is better, the fear of the unknown, or the fear of the little-bit-more known? What do we do with the possibility of death?

When I woke up this morning, I texted my sister to let her know that I’m praying for her. We exchanged messages back and forth, and what I began thinking about as we texted and as I prayed is the force of life. I’m not talking about life like, these daily happenings all combined make up my life. I’m talking about the breath of God sort of life, the light that appeared when He spoke into darkness and chaos. I think about what that first man and woman might have experienced of life before things like tiredness and depression and disease and un-forgiveness entered the picture. Did they wake up and need coffee? I’m guessing not.


One definition of life: the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death. But what kind of change? I want to ask.


I drive to work this morning, drinking my coffee. The sun is in my eyes, but I try to be thankful for it all the same. Life is buzzing all around, in the traffic of people heading to work and school, in the sun climbing the sky and the leaves still clinging to trees. I go over our happy hour conversation even as I mean to be praying for my sister. I am a little embarrassed that I showed my shock and disappointment at my coworkers stories. But then I think about how much I want to know what true life is, that kind of change that’s the process of being made new each day, and how I want to be a bearer of it in the lives of others, and I’m no longer ashamed but glad. And I keep driving into the sun, that never-dying bearer of such bright day light.


(photo: morning light)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

what love longs to be

In the end, this is what love longs to be: capable of meaningful action in the life of the beloved, so committed to the beloved that everything is at risk. If we want flourishing, this is what we will have to learn.

-Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak

(photo: late afternoon light in pittsburgh)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

let's just see what comes

I don't know why November is the month for mustaches and writing, but that's what it is. And pumpkin and turkey, as my nieces and nephews are now calling Thanksgiving. I am not growing a mustache and I can't think ahead far enough to know what my plans will be on Thanksgiving. I am taking one day at a time these days. And now, committing to write one day at a time. I've always regretted not doing nablopomo (that's national blog posting month, for those of you not in the know). It feels important this month because I've been losing track of a lot of things, including some of my friends, my email inbox, my sanity and my writing.

I actually hadn't been planning on doing this until just now, so I haven't really thought about what I'm writing in this post, or if I should stick to a theme this month. Let's just see what comes.

Here is what's going on right now: There is music playing from my speakers and pumpkin muffins cooling on a white wire rack in the kitchen. The light outside my window is going faint while a small bright flame flickers in the candle on the table at my side. Just the other day, I dug the thick purple blanket my mom knit out of the basket next to my couch, and now it is on the couch next to me. I hope it will be a staple for the weeks ahead. Soon, women will knock at my door and I'll hear the teapot announce the water is ready for tea and we'll all sit with each other expectantly, the way that women who have shared tears and laughter and confusion and all manner of stories do.

I love these evenings of inviting my women (my small group) into my apartment. Part of it is that I love hosting (the candles, the teapots, the muffins), but it's also that I love what the spiritual transactions bring to a place, and vice versa. I've been thinking about the new name I was given in Kenya this summer - they called me "peacemaker." I have to admit, I was disappointed by it at first. The Maasai version is beautiful, but the meaning was underwhelming to me. And is that really me, anyway? Did they get it right? But I have been remembering how many times friends have told me what a calming presence I am, and I have been realizing what strength there is in nurturing peace. A household of peace welcomes, restores, blesses and sends, and if that's what I can do for people, I would be incredibly honored. The Bible speaks over and over of peace as what God intends for his people, and so it must be a good thing, not just the absence of bad but an incredibly powerful presence of something good. To be called to make peace, and to restore places of peace to peoples' lives and cities, even to memories or hopes or desires - that is quite a call.

So tonight, I am embracing it. Tonight, these women and I -- we will sit with one another as the light outside fades, and hope for more light in our hearts, the warmth of the tea we sip perhaps reminding us of the living water we seek - the way it fills every emptiness in us. The way it brings a deep peace to every battered place in us.