Friday, December 30, 2016

a new orientation

My  first trip to Kenya, I never knew where I was. I guess this often happens when you visit a new city, when you haven't walked or driven those streets, haven't seen that tree or billboard or building before. But this disorientation felt particular. There was a way of getting from one place to another that felt unfamiliar in a whole new way. On my first day there, we drove from Nairobi to a small Maasai village near the border of Tanzania, and the second half of the trip wasn't guided by a road that showed us the way forward. Our drivers made their own way (or, remembered the one from before) over dusty ground and through thorny acacia trees. Then, there it was: a building, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

I thought of that feeling of disorientation, then sudden arrival, as I read The Bright Continent. A book about a new way of looking at Africa, its author opens by using maps and orientation as an illustration for how we would journey together through this book and its stories. Expect a Google map of the continent and you'll miss the important landmarks that are really the way to get from A to B. Be guided by those on the ground, and you'll find your way.

This book is well-written and well-researched. And, as someone who is Nigerian and has lived in the West as well, the author is able to straddle the continental culture divide and pull you along with her to explore stories of people and organizations in Africa and help you see them in a new light. Her main point is that, if we look from a formality-bias -- expecting Africa to conform to formal institutions and ways of doing things in the West -- we will miss the informal and customary traditions and innovations that are helping communities and individuals thrive.

I found this book at a used bookstore earlier this fall, and oh how I needed it. It started taking me apart, in the smallest ways, and readied me to be completely disoriented when I arrive in Kenya in a little over a month. I like maps, I like plans, I formality. But, now, I'm a little more ready to look in new ways.

Friends -- this is it. My last book completed this year, my last blog post on books I've read in 2016. Phew.

(photo: Nairobi streets)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

these winter rains

Today, the temperature is cold enough to chill, just warm enough to keep things from freezing. It is raining. From where I sit in my parents' den, I can hear car tires sloshing water aside as they drive by, drops dancing on the box air conditioner that chills this room in the summer. Out the window behind me, everything is shades of gray and brown. Tree branches are silhouettes against the barely-lit sky. It is the kind of day that makes you want to hide under a heavy blanket.

They say home is where the heart is, and I guess they are right. I am always looking for ways to get back here, to the place where the roads swerve between old farm houses and trees sprouted up long ago beside tiny creeks. Like veins in the hand, these roads could tell you about my life: how I got from there to here, the places I traveled, they way my life was formed. And yet, once here, I find my heart is still restless. My heart isn't really here; this isn't really home anymore. Or, it is home, but this isn't what I'm really searching for. Because it is also where my heart grew around hurt. I imagine the roots of those same trees, thirsty for water, cut short when the roads were paved years ago. Necessary to keep life moving, but without regard for some of the precious growth still happening beneath the surface.

Still, the trees are rooted. Their trunks grow thick. They shoot leaves and bear their fruit. Grace.

I have been trying to figure this out, the way my heart yearns for family. Then, once I am here, I remember, even in my body, the old ways we all learned to accommodate or ignore or just get by. I slip into these old moves we learned together and feel unfamiliar to myself. Not that I have turned every old leaf into something new, but there is a dullness that comes over me, a decision to just let things be. That is how we learn to survive, and maybe that is fitting for some seasons. And yet. I am learning to ask, seek and knock, still learning to turn and live, so this settling feels unnatural. This, too, is grace. 

Spring is a long way off still, but the nights are getting shorter. These winter rains are watering the ready ground and making way for what has died to feed new life. May it be so.

(photo: childhood home backyard, old maple tree in a season without its leaves)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

half, whole, made one

I am having trouble finding a starting place. But here is one: last night, after dinner, my sisters and their husbands and me sitting around the table, empty dessert plates, surrendered forks, pie crumbs. Phone in hand, I look for a photo to show one of them. I see one of me at a fancy event wearing a dress that stopped well above my knees. I hold it up for my mom, who moved around us to clear the table of dessert, and who, when I was young, always lectured me for wearing dresses and skirts that were too short. Now, it's a joke I perpetuate. I can't believe you called me a hussy! I say, remembering our fights.

I'd have a hard time bending over in that dress, my sister says.

I tell her you don't bend over, you bend down. And anyway, men should do things for you when you where that kind of dress.

That starts it -- a short, heated exchange between my brother-in-law and me about what I meant by that comment. Double standard, we both accuse the other of holding. Way to advance the feminist agenda, he says to me. I never claimed to be trying, I shoot back.

We both let it go, both go back to our phones or the other conversations happening around the table. I try to understand why I feel so frustrated and why I had a hard time communicating what it was I actually did mean. I also wonder why he responded so strongly, and how he's felt hurt or deceived or let down by women in his life. (Or, it's completely possible I read too deeply into his reaction.)

Earlier in the day, I had tried to start writing this post, so I was thinking a lot about to my response the book I'd just read. From a writerly perspective, Half the Church was just ok. The author is clear enough, but not necessarily very skilled or artful as a writer. She draws largely on her emotional response to reading another book, Half the Sky, which leads me to think she didn't do extensive research on the themes she attempts to address. My hunch is that the book is mostly ideas recycled from her past books and studies, compiled as a response to some global issues she is just beginning to think about.

But that aside, I deeply appreciated this book. Much of it is an exposition of the creation stories in Genesis -- her starting point for much of what she has to say about women and their relationship to men and to our world. I love thinking about those original intentions God had for man and woman when he created us, and reading this book now -- during a season when I've had many new questions and doubts about how our relationships can be redeemed in a very practical way -- gave me a newly grounded desire and hope.

I'm also grateful for the author's ability to see in scripture the dignity, love and purpose God gives to His people, so that more than commands to obey, the Word is read as messages and stories that are meant to empower and expand. She draws largely on Jesus's command to love the Lord with all of our hearts, souls, minds and strengths, and suggests it's an invitation to live more expansively than we'd previously imagined. It's also a call to all of us to make it possible for women all over the world to respond to the invitation.

She doesn't stop in Genesis. She writes that throughout, the Bible stretches our imaginations and calls for a complete paradigm shift. New Testament teachings expose the fact that the way of relating as male and female that we lost back in Eden looks nothing like anything we see in our world today. To help us see this, Jesus resurrects a form of higher math that originated in Eden. In Jesus, she writes, we see a new kind of relational one-ness (in the trinity) in action. In him, we also see God's original intentions for us as image-bearers. This reminder of Jesus also felt incredibly hope-giving to me.

(photo: just because i like it)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

christmas day, a light has come

It  is late afternoon, the time when the winter light is a thin layer of yellow over the trees in the horizon. It has been a long day that started when little ones emerged from their rooms with big, eager smiles. Ready for gifts. Since then, there has been a scavenger hunt to find hidden gifts, pancakes and turkey bacon, a church service. Now, my nephew is sitting next to me on the couch, computer open, video playing. My niece is on the floor in the next room, making a roller coaster out of plastic pieces that snap together, move and light up. She is being helped by her dad and the younger neighbor boy. "It works!" they just exclaimed over the hum of a small motor.

We are together. It has not been a perfect day. Ones of us have been frustrated, disappointed, sick. But it has been a good day. Gifts, wrapped to hide their contents, were opened to the delight of being thought of and known and loved. The sun warmed everything it touched. Ice nearly melted - though not enough for the ducks to swim on the lake that I ran alongside. Instead, they waddled slowly on top of the thin layer between water and sky. This, too, a grace: walking on water.

To those who were in darkness, a light has come. Wonderful, mighty, everlasting, full of peace.

Now, as I finish writing, the light has faded. But it will not leave.

Merry Christmas, friends.

(photo: morning light during a run, northern new jersey)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

you almost forget to breathe

The day after my last day of work, I woke up too early and ran under a dull sky that hid the sun until I was done. I arrived back at my apartment by 8am, the sun shining now but not giving much warmth, with the entire day before me and few plans to fill it until the evening. I called my sister, cleaned my kitchen, showered.

Then, I picked up a book of short stories. I read slowly. I let my heart catch up.

The introduction spoke of stories as a form of art capable of putting a reader in touch with life's fleeting, inexorable rhythms. Good ones can move you somewhere beyond yourself. You almost forget to breathe. Even in these first few pages, I remembered why I love short stories (short forms of most writing, really) -- the intensity, the conciseness, the simple complexity -- and knew this would be a book full of characters and stories to disorient me from what life had been and turn me about. Ready, somehow, for the new one that's ahead.

This particular compilation, The Best American Short Stories of 2016, was edited by Junot Diaz, one of my favs. He curated a notably diverse group of authors to tell all kinds of stories. I liked nearly all of the stories, but I have to admit that the ones with female protagonists appealed to me the most. The women in these stories are vulnerable yet strong, recognizing that their fates are, in many ways, at the mercy of the men and societies around them, and yet not letting those seemingly predetermined stories be all that is said about them in the end. In one story, a young Bangladeshi woman with a history that is slowly revealed works in a garment factory and agrees to becoming one of three wives as a means of survival:
Jesmin sees marriage as a remedy. If you are a girl, you have many problems, but all of them can be fixed if you have a husband. In the factory, if Jamal puts you in ironing, which is the easiest job, or if he says, take a few extra minutes for lunch, you can finish after hours and get overtime, you can say, but my husband is waiting, and then you won't have to feel his breath like a spider on your shoulder later that night when the current goes out and you're still in the factory finishing up a sleeve. 
In another, a young Ojibwe girls is rescued by a white man (or, is is that she rescues herself?) from what is essentially slavery. She never speaks to the man, never tells him her name. He calls her Flower. To him, she is beautiful and sweet. But,
That he called her Flower made her uneasy. Girls were not named for flowers, as flowers died so quickly. Girls were named for deathless things--forms of light, forms of clouds, shapes of stars, that which appears and disappears like an island on the horizon. 
And my favorite, I think, about a young woman dealing with the aftermath of a miscarriage of a baby about which she felt indifferent, who finds home in a strangers home, and the desire to mother in the grief of losing what she thought she never wanted:
All of my senses opened in recognition. The mixed scent of newsprint and butter, the muted ticking of the modern cuckoo clock on the wall, the enamel tea kettle gleaming atop the immense stove, the marmalade still sharp in my mouth: home. Here it was. Or something like it. Something homelike. Heimlich. How would the Germans say it? Gemutlich. Touchingly, where the soul or spirit belongs.
What happens to each of these women might seem like what you would expect, and yet each finds a kind of freedom: power over her body, her name, her vocation. It is only in the small entries into the women's narrations, the open window through which we hear whispers of what's really going on, that we understand this. Stories like this can ready you for a new season, ready you to look beyond what you think you know, ready you to know nothing at all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


I step toward the door and it slides open, as if to invite me into the night. The cold is a kiss, and then it is something deeper, digging past my skin to muscle and bone. Cars shine and blink and breathe at the curb, people cart and shove. Behind me, two men smoke until all that's left is ash. I look into darkened car windows as they approach, willing the people that appear faintly behind them to be someone I know.

I am here. They soon find me and scoop me into their car. He takes my suitcase, I open the door. My niece and nephew, their hair still impossibly golden, their smiles gold to me after six long months of seeing them only on a screen and in the faint memories I can conjure. They ask me if I'm hungry and hold up a golden bag of red gummy fish: that sweet, familiar string that connects each visit with the last and, inevitably, with the next to come. I pull my own out of my bag. I remembered, too, I tell them. My niece holds out her hand for the one I am ready to give her. The entire ride she is laughing too loud, is told over and over to calm down. My nephew makes a joke about bathroom habits and we all laugh too loud. He is pleased.

My smaller bag is heavy in my lap until my niece offers to take it onto her own, a show of strength and care. She rests her head against my shoulder for just a second before popping up again to make a joke and laugh again. On the other side of me, darkness lies still outside of the window as we drive fast on the highway towards home.

(photo: dtla... not where i have arrived this time)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

books i didn't finish

Here's the deal: I've written, or at least posted, about each book I've read this year. Ok, that's a lie, because I can think of two that I didn't write about, not because I didn't like them but because I got busy and moved on to the next one before I really thought about these two. (The Turner House and We Should All Be Feminists, for the record.)

But, there are a few books I started and never finished. When Goodreads sent me an email and had tallied the number of books and pages I've read this year, I realized I wasn't totally truthful, with Goodreads or with you (though I'm not sure you care). I read more than I say I did. There's a reason, however, for putting each of those books aside, and some of those reasons my be worth writing about.

Pulphead by Jeremiah John Sullivan. A book of essays, one or two of which I'd read in other publications or for classes I've taken. Most reference pop culture in some fun and also thoughtful way. I really liked the first half of the book - the essays I've read before, plus one on the Real World, which consumed a nice part of my late high school and early college years. But then I got bored, and realized, yet again, how difficult it is to write and edit a book of essays that can keep one's attention, even when the reader isn't always interested in the topic.

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. I know a lot of other readers, especially liberal Christian women my age or a little older, really liked this book. I gave it at least 50 pages and couldn't get into it. She didn't say anything new about relating to God, and many of the anecdotes or illustrations she used felt untrue or not very meaningful to me.

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton. Oh, I have strong feelings about this. First, I should say I listened to it on Audible (which is a whole other post, possibly). The opening took my breath away - such beautiful writing. But then it just got heavier and heavier, all the things she shared about her life, in present tense (so immediate!), with no pull back into present day for reflection or to guide the reader through all the crap that happened. This is the problem with the genre of confessional memoir that's so popular these days - the underlying ideology that's taking hold is it's ok to be messed up! Wear it proud! I'm all for vulnerability, but only in my close circles, and with people who are committed to seeing me through it. Not for the sake of wearing our bruised skin always on the outside. What is the point of that -- so we can all celebrate that it's ok to be bruised? What about healing?

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. This was supposed to have been a good one, I think it even won some awards. The writing was nice but the two main characters, a married couple, were too self-involved and I could feel it all going south. I can't do a cynical book about marriage at this point in my life.

I've got 15 days of the year left and two books I'm partway through -- some short stories and a book about Africa that I put aside and intend to finish real soon.

(photo: taylor taught me this)

Sunday, December 4, 2016

to catch words one day

I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands.

from Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson

(photo: sunset at Griffith Park)