Tag Archives: writing

remember death

Recently, a friend sent me this piece in which Russell Banks discusses his inspiration for writing: a gravestone inscription of Remember Death that sits near his desk.

I’m reminded (as I read Banks’s words now, and often when I write) of Andrew Marvell’s line, “at my back I always hear Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.” For some reason it gives me the feeling of a hand lightly touching the small of my back; a feminine image, a tuxedoed man ushering me inside while holding open the door. I don’t need to look over my shoulder to know that it is no mortal, but Death’s skeletal hand, resting on the curve of my spine.

Yet death is such an abstraction, so hard to keep near. I’ve more than once tried to be decisive about killing myself, tried to pick a date, so that I could write a suicide letter about the way I experience the world. Undoubtedly, the letter would turn into an essay and then a book and maybe something worthwhile would come of it. But I can’t convince myself quite enough that I’ll actually follow through with the suicide, at least never for long enough to actually write something worthwhile. Or, the times I begin to draft such an essay in my head, I’m already so far in despair that I know—with supposed certainty—that nothing worthwhile would ever come of it, or of any work at all. Everything is meaningless, I mumble to myself, everything is vapor.
Sometimes I worry that because I don’t remember death and because I don’t write—the causation is important—I’ll be diagnosed, someday soon, with an exotic, fast-moving, incurable disease and have to scribble down just one of the dozen books I have inside me before the spirit expires.
So here I am. Anxious, unproductive. Paralyzed.
Jesus said: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring  forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will kill you. It feels true. And I don’t now how to get it out.
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discernment: behold the bookshelf

Growing up, I was taught that God lived in church and we spoke to him in prayers that only counted if our hands were folded and eyes closed. It’s taken me years to unlearn this, to realize that for those who are listening, God’s voice can be found anywhere and everywhere, and spoken to through all manner of actions. Meditators find Her in silence, musicians hear Her in rhythm, yogis touch Her in asanas.

I’m a reader through and through. Even before I could read, I loved the pictures in books, the worlds they contain. That love, combined with a mildly developing case of obsessive compulsion, led to an obvious career choice by the time I hit middle school: librarianship. My father suggested it, not as a matter of discernment or dreaming, but as a practicality: it fit our community’s standard of professionalism, and the skills required seemed to fit my natural abilities. So the plan was set: I would be a librarian. Specifically, I would be Dean of Libraries in an university, by the time I hit middle-age.

Occasionally I doubted my career path, but I would look at my crammed two-rows-deep bookshelf and be reassured. Certainly my towering collection of literature from all eras and for all ages pointed in this direction. Sure, there was that shelf holding works of Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, C.S. Lewis, and Donald Miller (alphabetical by last name, as compulsion demanded), but Christianity was only an aspect of my life, an interest. It had nothing to do with my search for a vocation.

My last semester of undergrad I began searching for a library science program. I drove around the midwest touring. I don’t entirely know what I was looking for on those campuses—I had compared programs and costs, pros and cons, all in an elaborate spreadsheet—but no school I toured felt right. Finally I made the thirteen-hour drive to UNC Chapel Hill, where my sister was about to start a graduate program. On paper it was the perfect option: top-ranked in the nation, my sister nearby to help me adjust, the only city in the world my parents were guaranteed to visit.

It felt wrong. The moment I set foot on campus. I still kept my appointment with admissions, of course; I politely took the brochure and application and scholarship forms, but I knew I wouldn’t be enrolling, or even applying. I told my family that I didn’t think I was “supposed to be” a librarian; they thought that I was irrational, made some comments about “that church” I had been attending.

Back in Michigan, I restlessly tried to settle myself enough to listen and discern. Despite my parents’ outspoken skepticism, I knew God would call me to something if I could stop planning long enough to hear.

I read a lot. I looked into my books for an answer.

It took a few weeks to realize that I was looking too closely, peering through a microscope when all I needed were glasses. I put the books down and took a step away from the bookcase. I started noticing a weird slant in my recent literature choices: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Saramago; Malamud’s God’s Grace; Lamb by Moore. As I looked again at the shelf of theology, so readily ignored in past moments of discernment, the obviousness of my call broke me.

It wasn’t just the bookshelf, it was that so many things converged in my life that I hadn’t noticed until that moment. In those same weeks that I had been uncomfortably waiting for some sort of direction, I had been asked to lead a small church group in which I was a member (which I fought every step of the way; “I’m a woman” was my first excuse), asked to be involved in other parts of the church, told by my pastor that my baptism statement “changed lives”, and was approached by enough people in the congregation to begin believing his statement; I had become a kind of figure in my church, much to my surprise and my parents concern. The bookshelf broke me because, although God had been whispering in other aspects of my life, it was here that She shouted.

Of course, that’s not the end of my discernment process. There were lots of conversations and tears and prayers before the choice to enter seminary. Even now, I accept the call to study and learn of God, but there are still many questions about what’s next. Some people call being in seminary without wanting to be a pastor “denial”, but for me it’s just life. One graduating student recommended that I find a niche in which to direct my assignments, an area of focus that will guide my work and maybe lead to vocation when it’s time. This time I knew where to look: my bookcase, sorted now into literature, theology, and general nonfiction (although still by author’s last name). So many of the books in all three categories are on themes of bodyliness, physicality, complications of sex and sexuality. Which is where I’m choosing to start, averting my gaze from the stack of writing about writing, books on producing books.

And yet, that little stack nags at me, interrogates me. What are you doing at this school? Is this a four-year Resistance, delaying the work you know needs to be done? The work you were meant to do? In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says,

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Is my education in a new field something that is saving me, or a masochistic continuation of refusing to bring forth what is within me?

Unfortunately, these questions can’t be answered by my bookshelf. My theology studies epiphany came into an area into which my community had spoken and experiences were directing me. Now, my little stack of books is asking questions that I must bring outward into a community for evaluation and consideration. I must learn to have ears to hear all over the place, beyond churches and libraries.

This piece was originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on discernment; I specifically was asked to not do any more research, but to write on my experience.

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the year of the pen

Last time the year rolled over, I decided to give up my obsession over goals and achievements in favor of focusing on one thing. An ancient Greek poet wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  I was driving myself crazy trying to be a fox and never achieving enough to meet my standards, so I decided to try being a hedgehog.

I’m naming 2013 the Year of the Pen, the year in which I commit myself to writing. I chose a specific topic and am making notes on it every day. I enrolled in fewer classes so that I have more time to dedicate to my own projects. For Christmas, my husband bought me a beautiful leather notebook that safekeeps my thoughts, observations, ranting internal monologues.

I’m nervous. This feels like a big risk, and an unstable career path. For someone who was so goal-oriented and achievement-driven, stepping back from academia feels like a failure in itself. To leave a sturdy career path with regular paychecks in order to write feels irresponsible. But I’m doing this. By the end of the year, I’ll have at least one substantive work to start sending to publishers.

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writing life

Here’s my confession: I don’t love to write. Finding the right words with the proper connotations is tedious. Moving those words into a linear order to convey non-linear thoughts and emotions is frustrating. Constructing a piece so that the reader has all the needed information before arriving at the next point and the next point and, eventually, the conclusion, requires an out-of-myself-ness that’s draining. My thoughts, I find, are unwieldy. They are animals, some angry, fighting, blood-thirsty; others weak, starving, simply thirsty.

And yet, here I am. At my desk, as I aim to be every morning (but truthfully, after checking emails, I only manage to keep myself here about half my mornings). I have a mug of tea, or maybe it’s just a glass of water, my phone is face down, my everything notebook at my side in order to refer to my scribbles about my life and try to make some sense of them. I swivel in the chair, I look out the window. I wonder when the dog will interrupt me to be loved. I manage to get a sentence or two out. Swivel, stare. Where is that dog? I hope he comes by soon, to check on me, to be loved.

I’m here because, while I may not absolutely love the process of writing, I do love reading. Everything is arranged in a logical way, and after going through a well-written paper I understand the conclusions and it’s all so simple; I could explain the universe, or at least this fraction of it. For a few minutes, I feel secure in some new knowledge. Then the information gets admitted into my inner jungle of a world where it interacts with lurking creatures who live there, and this new piece quickly mutates into another unwieldy beast.

So I write something, I wrestle, I struggle, I re-phrase and re-order. I hate the piece. I hate my poor writing. I boil. This is shit!, I inwardly yell. Eventually, I decide I can’t take any more of that topic, or, as a godsend, the deadline approaches, and I stop. I call it good enough.

Some weeks go by.

Then, my hatred calmed, cooled, and stilled, I revisit the work. Perhaps I decide I’m able to work on it again, perhaps it was just returned to me from my professor. I read my own thoughts but more clearly explained. The wild beasts are tamed, the fledglings are cared for. I realize, this is really good. I second-guess myself, check the header, Did I really write this? It all seems so much more manageable in this black-and-white linear space.

And I sulk back to my desk, hoping to tame the rest of the jungle.

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