humble roots

At the beginning of the year, I started reading Humble Roots, by Hannah Anderson. A good friend recommended it at the very end of last year. A lady at my church in St. Louis started a group to read it together at the beginning of this year. I went for a few weeks until school got overwhelming. I kept reading it in tiny chunks, journaling along, and finally finished it in July. I recently went through my journal entries and typed up the highlights. Going through those now to process a bit more and see what comes. Also, keep in mind that almost everything I’m writing comes directly from Hannah Anderson’s mind…not mine. And it’s not a short post, but it’s easy.

This book ended up having a larger impact than I expected. (As if I can really predict the way I’ll learn and grow.) I’m prone to reading books that are supposed to speak to the soul as if they can be processed at the rate of consumption. I’ve been learning a lot lately…processing…but not necessarily reflecting and incorporating. I live a tense-hearted life. God meets me in his own time, at my right time, usually slowly because I am stubborn and he is kind. My walk with Jesus involves a lot of breaks…or times where I stop and sit down on a bench for a little bit. But that doesn’t mean that God is taking a break.

This book spoke to (so much, but starting with) the interpersonal comparison that everyone does and the insecurity it brings.
(1) I don’t really care whether people like my personality or lifestyle choices or way I operate or that I like what I like.
(2) I want to be loved in friendship so badly. I haven’t grown up with one best friend. I’ve been so fortunate to have different friends in different places, and I love all of them. But it’s hard not to have that one person that will always know you and has always known you – the good and bad. I have a friend who knows me well and who asks after my heart…and she has lost that one person who was that person in her life. I wonder if she feels this a little, though we are close.

I am married, and in one sense it’s true that he is my best friend. But there is something so sweet and so missed about deep and sweet female friendship. I went to see a movie (the documentary “Whose Streets” – definitely recommend getting this perspective on the events in Ferguson) with a friend from St. Louis, and went back to her house briefly afterward, where her roommates were talking about life and we joined in for a moment. I miss those moments passing in the dining room where you can hear all those voices speaking into your life and love on each other.

I compare myself to other women constantly, which is why I feel insecure in every friendship I’ve ever had. I need the humility to recognize that it doesn’t matter – that the criteria I’m using to define myself and them means nothing. It has become the basis of how I relate, and it usually comes out with them on top, me admiring and mostly feeling inferior. [I feel like the queen of third-wheeling friendships. I’m the third friend tagging along with the two best friends. I expect that it’s going to be a tricycle, but when I get there it’s actually just a bicycle and an extra wheel. Nice to have that extra wheel, but ultimatly unnecessary. This has been a theme pretty much all my life, and I see hints of it as I’m starting to make friends here. It’s hard not to go ahead and fortify the walls. For me, it’s not about trying not to put up walls – it’s about trying to tear down the ones that go up automatically in new places…when I want to strengthen them. I think I try to hang on hard to friends that maybe want to let me go? How does one become content with being the odd friend out? Then I realize this is all completely selfish and I don’t deserve to have friends in the first place, so gratitude should be the only thing I’m feeling.]

When it comes to improvement and growth, I tend to impose regulations or sweeping statements intended to make myself better. But am I actually changing on the inside? I need the humility to seek holiness, not just better qualities or habits. I need Jesus, not self-help. How would humility change me?

“Humility is not feeling a certain way about yourself, not feeling small or low or embarrassed or even humiliated. Theologically speaking, humility is a proper understanding of who God is and who we are as a result.” (103)

The morality of our culture is that if something feels good, it must be good: “But today, being true to yourself doesn’t mean making an honest evaluation of yourself; it means embracing your emotional experience of the world as truth.” (103) I can get obsessed with how other people feel about me and how I feel about myself. How I feel about myself/the world/others isn’t reality…it’s corrupted. This statement really spoke to my heart: “Instead of responding to the pain of being misunderstood, I can rest in the fact that God understands me even better than I understand myself.” (106) I need to hear that every day for life.

Humility should free us from self-condemnation. I’m not God – I can’t condemn, not even myself. My assuming unnecessary guilt (or shame) keeps me at the center of my mind and life. Honest anxiety leads to usurping God’s position of authority. We should adore God -> be humble -> have confidence. Anderson includes this Hildebrand (philosopher) quote: “The question whether I feel worthy to be called is beside the point; that God has called is the one thing that matters.”

I feel like it has become increasingly popular or socially acceptable to be openly judgmental. I’m sitting in a coffee shop where the wi-fi is being slightly fickle but mostly working fine (for me at least), and the girl at the table next to me has been trying to figure out the network/password. Loudly, she said, “I’m never coming here again.” I’m listening to music through my headphones, and I heard her. I’m sure the baristas just across the way could hear her. Her friend said, “I’m fine with that. The coffee is…*makes a face*” I mean, wow. I guess taking a couple minutes to figure out the Internet is a deal breaker, and it’s all right to complain about the coffee in front of the people who made it. That’s a minor example…

People talking about others who are difficult to love or be around – who have awkward or problematic tendencies — really just want to get away from them. They talk in a belittling and irritated manner. When Christians operate this way, I want to shove a copy of Life Together into their hands. I know not every difficult person is also a part of God’s family, but I think that acknowledging the image of God in everyone means that we can’t openly shame others. (But the Internet, for instance, says we MUST shame anyone who says anything remotely wrong.) I think doing so reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the sin and inconsistencies inherent in our own hearts. When we are gratified by pointing out others’ deficiencies, we probably don’t see our own clearly enough. I usually don’t want to hear you gossip about someone else if you don’t have a hopeful bent – if you’re not interested in engaging with the person and doing life with them.

Nick is so good at engaging with people that others would disregard. I’m constantly challenged by this. He gives rides to strangers – has done this multiple times since we’ve been married. He talks to the Jehovah’s Witnesses sitting on the park bench (which generally means he listens to their speeches for ten minutes without interrupting or looking for his out). He listens to the man playing music on the street and tries to learn what he’s about. And he does not complain about this. He loves it. He loves people. His heart is open. What if we all operated this way?

Humility can redeem the inner life. We can bring our emotions to God and feel them deeply. God is not emotionally manipulative. “So…when humility frees us from the oppression of our emotions, when we finally learn that ‘God is greater than our heart,’ it also frees us to enjoy the depth and variety of our inner life. We are free to enter into our emotions, letting them do what God intends for them to do: draw us back to Himself.” (114)

Remember, we always have something to learn. I can very easily assume the posture of knowing what everyone is talking about all the time. Usually I am just trying to assume a listening posture, but sometimes it can also lead people to think that I’m already in the know. I don’t speak up when I don’t get a reference, but it happens all the time. The book I’m reading now describes this well in reference to a particular character. Indulge me and read this paragraph…

“It was therefore with a very well-concealed ignorance that Moody played interlocutor to Gascoigne, and Clinch, and Mannering, and Pritchard, and all the others, when they spoke of Anna Wetherell, and the esteem in which they held her, as a whore. Moody’s well-timed murmurs of ‘naturally’ and ‘of course’ and ‘exactly so,’ combined with a general rigidity of posture whenever Anna’s name was mentioned, implied to these men merely that Moody was made uncomfortable by the more candid truths of human nature, and that he preferred, like most men of exalted social rank, to keep his earthly business to himself. We observe that one of the great attributes of discretion is that it can mask ignorance of all the most common and lowly varieties, and Walter Moody was nothing if not excessively discreet. The truth was that he had never spoken two words together to a woman of Anna Wetherell’s profession or experience, and would hardly know how to address her – or upon what subject – should the chance arise.” (The Luminaries, page 397)

Ignorance can be masked by reserve, and I don’t have the humility to admit the ignorance most of the time. That’s my point.

Humility also applies to the limits of human reason. God’s ways are so far beyond our own. We should not be concerned with being right for the sake of being right. We shouldn’t be self-righteous about our knowledge or wisdom. Anderson describes this using someone else’s term: epistemological humility. I think people in my theological/faith/denominational circles need to hear this. We must have faith in the truth of revelation, not faith in our own knowledge or understanding. We need to be able to acknowledge when we are wrong (and see that we will always be fallible…and sinful). We will never ever know everything, so get used to it, and start acknowledging limits more. It will put others at ease. When I’m around people who seem to have tons to say or seem super secure in their own understanding, I’m either intimidated, or I don’t have much desire to talk to them, because it’s already clear what they think and that they might not be great at listening to the opinions or perspectives of others. Yet, I do this. Nick will feel shut down in conversations when I feel strongly or have a lot of thoughts about a subject. I have to shut myself up. (I interrupt with occasional smothered noises now, rather than with fully-formed sentences. 🙂

“Not only does humility teach us that knowledge comes from outside us, it also reminds us that we cannot perfectly categorize and process the knowledge that we do have.” (123)

We all have resources at our disposal. I learned this well when I first went to Sunshine Gospel Ministries in Chicago. They teach college groups (which tend to be made up of kids from at least semi-privileged backgrounds, and in our case very clearly privileged) about communities of poverty – how they are constructed, what their struggles are, and how injustice contributes to the cycle of poverty. I learned that it’s very unlikely that I’ll end up homeless. I have a savings account. I have a family that could support me financially or house me for a time. They would have compassion. I actually have multiple arms of family that could do this. I am white and have a college degree, so I can easily get different kinds of jobs. I have the technology to engage with current trends and to fit into society. There are people against whom systems are biased. There are people who get subpar education based on where they live and how much money their community has. People who live in unsafe environments because they have no choice and are more prone to danger, drugs, or sickness and who grow up with incredible trauma. People who have to struggle to gain stable employment, let alone higher education, and whose families are in the same situation. People who are targeted and charged with minor crimes and fines, who can’t afford to get out from under that burden. The cycle can start in so many places, and I am not vulnerable to its sinkhole. I didn’t do anything to DESERVE this invulnerability. Anderson gets to this briefly in a footnote: “In failing to recognize how much previous generations have shaped our own success, we can also fail to see how much generations of poverty and oppression will shape other people as well. While we may inherit blessing, other people inherit hardship.” (142)

So, Anderson writes about having resources of all kinds. We can honor them, and we can engage them with humility. Everything we have, we’ve been given (material and relational and everything). We don’t deserve to have things a certain way, and we haven’t earned a particular lifestyle. I complain from a position in which God has given me more than I need. Humble thankfulness is not based on comparison (I have more than others, so I should be grateful). It is “a gratitude rooted in having anything at all.” (143)

I need to make sure I’m not putting myself at the center of dealing with privilege. This is very difficult, because the first and easiest way we try to understand the world is through our own eyes. I’m thinking about the parable of the talents. Do I steward (plant) my resources, or do I bury them? (Bury them. or get paralyzed. or don’t realize I have them.) Am I using my freedom well? (Hm) Do I accept gifts without guilt, without trying to earn them? (Either so guilty or so entitled. depends.) Do I let God lead me in using them? (Mostly I do not.) We have responsibilities because of the gifts we have been given. Asking whether we deserve them is not productive. Asking what we are responsible to do can lead to action and growth. God is at the center. Everything has a purpose.

“We know that we don’t deserve more than another person, but we also know that we have more than another person. And so in an attempt to deal with this guilt, we can pursue a form of asceticism, all while keeping ourselves at the center of the conversation.” (HR, 146)

I am one of those people who often feel that planning and wishing seem presumptuous because we don’t know God’s step-by-step plan. I needed to hear that it is right to have desires and hopes (and even…plans !) and that we should speak them, so that God can redeem and shape and reform them. This was a huge learning moment for me.

It’s actually not virtuous to refuse to make a plan before we know what’s to come. It’s arrogant. It’s reaching for knowledge that is beyond us, that only God knows. We will never have a perfect map, but we do have the most gracious guide. A verse that kept coming to mind was Proverbs 16:3, which says, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.” I think I’ve always been incredulous at the thought that the Bible says the Lord will establish *your* plans. My plans, really? I thought it was all about God’s plan though… Something I realized as I meditated on this idea and continued to read Humble Roots is that because of this incredulity and focus on God’s unknowable plan, I don’t actually commit my hopes, my work, or my plans to the Lord. So the focus shouldn’t be on God establishing my plans, but on committing everything I do to Him.

Three distilled conclusions from Hannah:
“I will not overlook my privilege.”
“I will not feel guilty about what God has put in my hands or attempt to earn it.”
“I will allow God to lead me in cultivating these gifts for His glory and the good of those around me.”

“Just as God is the source of your life and gifting, God is also the source of your desires… In this sense, the greater presumption is not found in speaking your desires but failing to acknowledge their existence in the first place.” (159)

“Surprisingly enough, humility teaches us to embrace desire as a means of learning to submit to God. It is precisely through the process of wanting certain things that we also learn to trust God to fulfill those desires or to trust Him when he changes them. It is precisely through the process of learning to plan that we learn to depend on a God who makes our plans happen.” (159)

We are kept dependent on God when we don’t know everything. This has altered the way I think: “As much as you cannot make yourself or orchestrate the events of your life or shape your unique personality, you can no more create the desires of your heart.” (161) Desires feel completely selfish. I want this or that – I want to do this or that – it’s all about me. But, DUH, we have nothing we haven’t been given, including our lives and bodies and minds and desires. To acknowledge them is to own them, and that is a risk. To tell God about them is a risk. But it also means, “agreeing with God about who He has made you to be.” (162) We have to learn to ultimately desire the one thing we will never be denied, which is God himself. But we also need to trust Him with our plans, and submit to the idea that they will be fulfilled in ways that we can’t imagine. The possibility of failure is no excuse. We still work.

“When we limit ourselves to working when the time is right, we reveal that we are still clinging to the notion that success is dependent on our choices and our ability to control outcomes.” (168) I have a real strong control issue. That probably gives you the picture of what this feels like for me. 🙂

The world is broken. We can respond to this brokenness with humility. In Luke 8/Matthew 13, Jesus talked about the different kinds of ground upon which the seed of the truth is sown. The seeds that fall on thorny ground are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. We try to replace the giver with the gifts. Sloth…that’s not often how I think about this defeated way of living. God can make our efforts fruitful in the midst of the broken world. “Rooted in pride, sloth factors God out of the equation entirely. If God is not present or powerful here, there is no guarantee that your work or time will be rewarded. So why even try?” (181) We get defeated and more defeated as we stop trying.

Jesus trusts God and accepts the crown of thorns and defeats evil. “What better way to diminish the King of the universe than to crown Him with the very curse that hangs over His creation? What better way to triumph over Him than for evil to adorn his head? What could be more humiliating than to have our brokenness rest on Him?” (184) He trusted God – “Humility trusts God.” (185)

Do I believe the truth about God even when the situation suggests he’s someone doing something I can’t trust? I can’t be ruled by anything other than His word. I can confess my brokenness and rest by telling God and others that I need help. Surrender and stop thinking I can be enough – there is hope.

The most humbling experience of all is death. “All our life, humility is working to this end: Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” (195) We experience the deaths of others until one day we are dying. We have no control. Jesus commits his spirit to the father – the destroyer of death, which destroys us now. Those who humble themselves will be the ones exalted. “…when the creature is finally and fully humbled, the world rights itself. When Jesus humbled Himself and submitted to death, He unleashed a power greater than death.” (196) It’s an upside down kingdom.

The struggle to sleep is another picture of the struggle to give up control and trust God. Put down the day. It’s a small way to practice letting go every day because we literally can’t live without it. “In many ways, the act of sleep itself is a spiritual act, an act of humility.” (204) I have to trick myself into sleeping most nights (if I’m not just exhausted) by leaving a light on or reading a book. God offers rest at the end of every day and at the end of every week. He welcomes us to rest, and he will restore us and sustain us.

The whole exercise of writing has had no place to fit in my life lately. I’m interested in politics/keeping up with current events. I’m interested in being a part of my community (though school and work mean that so much of my time is occupied). I’m interested in writing and reading fiction – I love it so much. I’m interested in too many things? I’m not sure what realm I’ll end up working toward when it comes to career time. I’m in seminary slash grad school. My program is focused on the connection of social justice to theology. I’ve been able to learn the outworking of that in terms of bringing justice+gospel to bear in different aspects of work in the city, whether that means working with refugees, working in community development, working in medicine, housing, etc. I’m interested in building relationships, but also in connecting people to the resources they need. How does someone get from the exit door of the prison to the front door of an employment agency (willing to talk to them) that has connections to employers (willing to give them a chance)? I’m interested in the broad and the sweeping…one of my strengths (according to Gallup) is “Connectedness”. Another is “Restorative”. I’m interested in restorative justice and the connection of the gospel to all of life – and its call on our lives to be righteous, which has huge implications for how we engage the poor and marginalized. I’ve written a little about that here before.

This was also very long, and if you made it this far then consider yourself part of my blog’s VIP club.

Recommendations:
“Autumn” – a BRAND NEW album by Nick Dahlquist!!! I know him!
“Whose Country ‘Tis of Thee?” – Latino USA podcast episode
“All Things Work Together” – new Lecrae Album! SO GOOD.

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Strange & Norrell

So, I did finish my first year of seminary this Spring, but probably my most exciting accomplishment of 2017 so far has been finishing this book! Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (by Susanna Clarke), oh the journey we have had. Last summer, I checked you out from the library too optimistically close to the start of the semester. I had to renew you twice and give you back without having gotten a hundred pages in. One day, my friend sent you to me as an encouragement, and I tried starting once more during the school year, but no dice.

So, it did take me a couple of weeks, but come on the thing was 1006 pages long. It was a lot, and I wont say that I loved every minute of it because there were a lot of minutes, and I got tired of how long it was. This was mostly because I was anxious to start reading another book, which I broke down and did, vowing that it would not deter me from my purpose with the magicians.

This is a book worth reading. (I mean it! In person, I have trouble conveying enthusiasm in recommendations because either I don’t want you to see how much I love it or I don’t want you to think that it’s too hyped and feel cynical or I just am not that comfortable with you yet. But I mean it!) I’m going to say some negative things about it and some positive things about it, but don’t let the negative things fog you up.

From the outset, after every description told me it was a book about magicians and magic, I had high fantasy expectations. While there is a LOT of magic, it also hints at SO MUCH magic that we never really see up close. Sometimes I felt like Clarke was off having fun in some magical land that she would never describe for me, while I sat in England hearing talk of cool magical things but not experiencing them. Like I said, we get a lot of magic and this is a bit of a ridiculous negative, but I did repeatedly wonder when we were going to dive in beyond the tension of real-England vs. magic-stuff. I don’t know if this will make any sense or how it will sound if you haven’t read the book, but there it is.

Characters can make or break my reading. I didn’t find myself capital-I Invested in any particular character(s). This was a little disappointing. I did like most of them in general…I appreciated them all as characters, but I wanted to really love somebody, and I just didn’t. Fortunately, I did not notice this detracting from my reading in the moment; I noticed it toward the end of the book when I wasn’t sure exactly what to hope for.

I should say that I’m currently watching the mini-series the BBC made, which is on Netflix. Y’all, it is GOOD. If you already know that never in your life will you read this book, you should watch it. If you do want to or think you might want to read the book, I beg you to read it before you watch. I shouldn’t even have told you, because maybe you didn’t know it was an option and I take it back what are we talking about?

Ugh, I can’t help it. In the miniseries, I am finding that I do enjoy some of the characters (I already liked) a lot more. Maybe my imagination wasn’t going far enough with them when I was reading. Along these lines, it also makes my complaint about the role of magic seem even more ridiculous.

What I enjoyed about the characters was their authenticity. Clarke wrote some accurate human beings. Overall, I think we see more of their darkness – what the human mind/heart/will is capable of motivating in the sense of deception or selfishness or curiosity. There is goodness to be found, but it does seem a book that intends, for a while, to bring the reader to despair of the characters and the world. And that really does happen in regards to people and the world – at least it happens in my brain.

There were many clues and hints at later events that appeared in footnotes or in smooth switches to first-person narration. The narrator was a good companion. I aspire to write something so seemingly effortless. But some of the clues made me so eager or had me ready or appeared several times, and the object became less something-suspenseful and more something-long-awaited (perhaps only because I’m impatient).

Clarke’s writing mirrors its setting: the story begins in 1806 in England.

“Clearly such an opportunity as this was scarcely likely to come again; Mr Norrell determined to establish himself in London with all possible haste. ‘You must get me a house, Childermass,’ he said. ‘Get me a house that says to those that visit that magic is a respectable profession – no less than Law and a great deal more so than Medicine.’
Childermass inquired drily if Mr Norrell wished him to seek out architecture expressive of the proposition that magic was as respectable as the Church?
Mr Norrell (who knew there were such things as jokes in the world or people would not write about them in books, but who had never actually been introduced to a joke or shaken its hand) considered a while before replying at last that no, he did not think they could quite claim that.”

I don’t know what I can reasonably quote without spoiling one part or another. It’s frustrating – I know you would like it. This line stood out as a favorite:
“He had never much cared for the world and he bore its loss philosophically.”

So…think what you will about that. It made me stop and look up at the room and laugh.

I mentioned there were footnotes. Yes. The footnotes throughout were brilliant. Some went on for three or four pages, telling stories about past magicians or describing books the characters referenced – which books of course only exist in the world of Strange & Norrell.

There were real events woven into the storyline (or vice versa), and real people with real roles (one being Lord Byron). This was delightful and super clever. I believe Clarke’s non-writing work has to do with history? This was her first novel, if you can believe that. I do not envy the people who had to write 1-2 paragraph descriptions for the book cover, the back of the paperback, Amazon, etc. Where do you even focus? There’s so much. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m struggling to write about it.

As I said, I am thoroughly enjoying digesting the story in film format now. I have to keep a notebook and pen at the ready for moments when I want to exclaim at something that seems to be happening early or something that DID NOT go down that way in the book or something I like that the series does differently. Nick is watching it with me and wouldn’t be able to handle such outbursts (nor do I want to ruin everything for him). It’s a joy to talk about the intricacies and the meaning with someone else now.

It was somewhat taxing, yet I almost feel the need to turn around and read it again. I do want to read it again eventually, having full knowledge of the story at the outset. I’d like to remember side characters and other things I’m sure I’ve already forgotten.

Sorry if this post seems scattered – I think I have over-caffeinated-brain going on right now. It’s also our last week in Indianapolis, and I am thinking about the things I did and didn’t do and the fact that going back to St. Louis brings some realities to the forefront that I have been glad not to think about for a bit. I am ready, and I’m not ready.

Ok, bye.

 

writing about reading about writing, again

Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, was an interesting one to read directly after Stephen King’s book (On Writing). The two are so different. I’ve loved Dillard for a long time, although I have read strikingly little of all that she’s written. I wrote a long essay inspired by one of her essays for one of my favorite writing classes in college.

In this book, she winds metaphor after metaphor, linking them with a few real-life stories, to describe what it’s like to build a life as a writer.

You lay out a line of words.
And then another.
The page is what teaches you to write.
That’s her thing.

At times, she seemed to be trying to hard, but I also wanted to be swept up in her descriptions of nature and loosely connected threads of thoughts. She acknowledged this perceived high-brow-ness with a story; she was humbled when a child referenced one of her essays that she thought only “the critics” had appreciated. So that helped.

It’s a short book – barely a hundred pages. Fun fact: I own a first edition, which I must have gotten from a used bookstore. Reading her perspective reinforced the ideas that I started marinating after King’s book. There were a few more relatable moments with Dillard, though. She has a love-hate relationship with the practice of writing, and I FEEL that.

She talks about chopping wood. By the way, context: she would spend whole seasons in a cabin on an island somewhere off the coast of Washington. So, that’s where she’s coming from…we have the same life…

She talks about trying to chop wood and aiming for the log itself and getting nowhere. She only started chopping through wood when she aimed for the chopping block. That hit me like a ton of logs in the moment when I understood exactly what she meant about writing.

Another very relatable thing that I appreciated was her hypothetical timeline for writing a book. Stephen King’s is three months. Annie says, “It takes years to write a book – between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant…Out of a human population on earth of [billions], perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year. Some people lift cars, too.” I was definitely laughing out loud. Every writer/person is different, y’all.

Read these little quotes that express my feelings, and then I’ll talk more.

“…your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever. You are free to make several close judgment calls a day. Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality.”

“What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days….Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading – that is a good life.”

“Politely, he asked me about my writing. Foolishly, not dreaming I was about to set my own world tumbling down about my ears, I said I hated to write. I said I would rather do anything else. He was amazed…Why did I do it? I had never inquired. How had I let it creep up on me? Why wasn’t I running a ferryboat, like sane people?”

And this, quoted at the beginning of Chapter Seven: “It’s easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers, and very little harm comes to them.” – Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot

(Although I would say that a lot of my anxiety comes from the fact that…most people are calling themselves writers, man. There just isn’t a market for that…even an intellectual/individual market. I can’t possibly read all of the personal blogs by people I know who are good writers, and keep up with whatever kind of journalism I’m into, and read books, and read emails, etc. And neither can you. How are you even reading this? And if I’m really just one of the voices screaming into the void, and not good enough to pursue publishing – or not productive enough [duh] – then what am I doing? Just more triviality? This is my spiral.)

Writing all day everyday is not a real thing. It’s not a full-time job unless you’re living on an inheritance or have a spouse that’s supporting you and your children and your nanny…which I suppose is more realistic than being an heir to fortune.

But even if it seemed like a real possibility, I’m not sure I would choose it. It’s not that I mind being alone. (Frankly, I often choose it, mostly because I tend to feel like an idiot whenever other people are around. I lose my speech because my head empties of anything interesting and fills up with vapidity, and I know that everyone in the room is more immediately interesting to everyone else and I would prefer to go home where there’s nobody making their first impression of me or affirming their first impression of me or giving me a chance which I will somehow butterfinger away.) I am obviously more comfortable by myself. But hours upon hours? With just my thoughts? The above parenthetical rants are pretty good examples of what that’s like. It also means there’s a deficit…the inspiration well is never being filled up. In one way, that’s part of writing. To quote Dillard one more time, “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. This explains why so many books describe the writer’s childhood. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.” She’s not exactly endorsing that approach, but I think every writer is probably in danger.

I want to do more tangibly meaningful work. I also want to write tangibly meaningful work. But like I was saying, most writers have to make it work. Stephen King and his wife worked long hours in low-wage jobs, scraped by with little ones, and he wrote in the back room or the hallway or wherever he had to, continually trying to get paid for it. I’m not used to having to work that hard. Privilege has been my reality, and it has given me so much to be grateful for. It has also robbed me of some valuable life lessons, so that I’m a little behind and a little bit eating-humble-pie about it. Oh, you have to work and try and fail and keep going if you really want to do something? What if it’s too hard? Then maybe you’ll just never do it.

Oh, also! This is the book that the quote at the top of my blog’s home page came from. SHOUTOUT! Here’s the longer chunk that bit came from:
“Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

Recommendations!
Podcast: Pass the Mic
Show: Brooklyn 99
Music: supafun new singles from Arcade Fire. Also, Blind Pilot always. Listening to them riiight nowwww and feelin’ warm like whiskey. The Staves. Music is my writing backdrop sorry.

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on on writing, etc.

I’ve finished my second nonfiction read of the summer (well, of the Indianapolis segment of summer): On Writing by Stephen King. Not that I’ve read anything else he’s ever written. But the movies Stand By Me and The Green Mile were based on his stories, and I loved them. That counts? Anyway, he’s a great nonfiction writer as well, and it was super cool to read a little about his life and his process. I could see ways that my process might be different, and I was definitely intimidated by some of his remarks and his natural giftedness/ability to write book after book after book – just cranking out the ideas that he gets from everywhere. I’ve struggled a lot with ideas this summer.

His anchor rule for writers is to read a lot and write a lot. It’s so simple, yet so hard for me. I love it when I’m doing it but have yet to achieve consistency. Self-destructive and self-sabotaging – that sounds about right.

I didn’t mark up this book because I borrowed it from a friend – someone I admire who is reading a LOT and discovering her gift for writing and supporting my desire to do both of those things with encouragement and books. The best. I had to make sure there were no visible pens nearby as I was reading, or else I would have underlined and starred all over. Definitely need to find my own copy. Oh yeah I was saying that because the way I’ve done these posts so far has been to go back through all my marks and reflect on the book and write as I go along.

I purchased a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style as a result of both King and Truss (the author of that punctuation book I read – lol look at this blog post and all its grammatical glory?) harping on about it. I got the illustrated version, but I would’ve been excited about the plain one.

Can we talk about how there are always too many books to read? I feel like the whole world of worlds between book covers is constantly taunting me – reminding me that I will never encounter all of them. I used to feel the delight at all of that possibility whenever I walked into the library at school. I told myself that one day, I would read them all. Oh, little Emily. Oh, dear.

Now there’s just anxiety wrapped around the reading list. But I constantly buy more books that I know are important. Why do I even try to set a course for myself? The very first book I read this summer was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. It was a WONDERFUL mystery, and I knew that it would probably be followed-up, but I hadn’t yet investigated even though I definitely wanted to read more (q.e.d. too many books already). Yesterday, Nick and I went to Indy Reads Books, this great independent used and new bookstore (why oh why do I do this to myself?) where I FOUND the second in the series (WHICH I JUST TOOK A GOOGLE BREAK TO INVESTIGATE AND ATTENTION EVERYONE THERE ARE STILL 4 MORE I HAVEN’T READ AND STILL 4 MORE TO COME IN THE PROMISED 10 BOOKS IN THE SERIES OH. MY. STARS.) I bought the second book, and I intend to read it directly after I finish my current fiction selection. Then I intend to buy all of the rest and do nothing except read them – goodbye sleep and friends and food.

This post is supposed to be about Stephen King’s book about writing, but I’m sure he would approve of my taking the story wherever it goes. Hey-o! Applying what I’m learning already. Things are lookin’ up.

One thing I loved about the book is its three forewords, three afterwords, and structure of the 3 main parts: “C.V.”, “On Writing”, and “On Living”. This gave it a playful feeling, and indeed he is a humorous person. It was fun reading and helpful, and I was glad that so much of it was his personal story and experience with writing. There were some blanket statements and suggestions, but I didn’t feel like he was trying to teach me or prescribe some formula for me to follow. Now, I just have to take on the task and START. Always always always the hardest part.

(Thanks, Christina!)IMG_3208

Marilynne Robinson has my heart

When did I stop thinking about all aspects of my life as undeserved gifts? That’s the question I’ve had to ask myself this week. Prompted by a wonderful book which I’m sure will prompt the longest post around the end of the summer when I finish it because I’ve been reading it slow on purpose. The fact that I have time to read and time to write is unbelievable. I’m trying not to fritter this time away. I’ve also had time to make some coasters with coffee beans, to finish knitting a scarf, and to bake bread & brownies. I’ve had time to consider reading and writing fiction a “productive” use of my days – to really focus on what it might take to do this consistently – to maybe gain some momentum to carry me through the days when I’m full-time-student and part-time-worker. Can I carve out the time and space and give up my procrastinating, micro and macro?

The book I’ve finished most recently is Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. She is one of my favorite authors, and I feel I can actually say that because I’ve read a few of her books, and for the most part I haven’t read enough, and I usually feel like a huge fraud when people ask who my favorite authors are and I’m like…(idk I’ve had syllabi my whole life and seemingly only time to read what other people told me to read for the last 7 years)?

Anyway, Housekeeping was Robinson’s first novel and so quietly spectacular. It’s like prose-poetry narrative. The descriptive details focus on the feelings rather than the physical elements – I didn’t know that one of the characters was a redhead until halfway through, but who cares? I don’t want to tell you why it’s called Housekeeping because I really enjoy sussing out the reasons for titles of things and want you to enjoy it too.

I think it’s worth talking about all the new words I learned while reading this book (sort of an embarrassing amount…including words that I thought I knew but didn’t really know even though I’ve read them and used context to get around that ignorance in the past):

  • insouciant – a relaxed and calm state; not worrying about anything
  • prescience – the ability to know what will or might happen in the future (so, not pre-science?)
  • moil – to make wet or dirty (in this context)
  • quotidian – ordinary or very common; done each day
  • tumulus – an artificial hillock or mound (as over a grave)
  • invidious – unpleasant and likely to cause bad feelings in other people
  • exculpatory – to exculpate (to prove that someone is not guilty of doing wrong)
  • parturition – the action or process of giving birth to offspring (as opposed to?)
  • nimbus – a circle of light
  • fatuous – foolish or stupid (I was close on this one…)
  • carapace – a hard shell on the back of some animals
  • miscible – capable of being mixed (without separation) (just say mixable?)
  • incipient – beginning to develop or exist (so…nothing like insipid)
  • noisome – very unpleasant or disgusting
  • parsimonious – very unwilling to spend money (unrelated to persimmons)

 

Definition creds: Mirriam-Webster. Yes, I did pass the SAT and ACT and my English BA. Sad, no?

The book is about two sisters growing up with their mother then grandmother then great-aunts then one aunt, the dysfunction of their upbringing and the sadness of being in a family. It’s all women, which didn’t strike me until right now. Husbands and fathers are dead or abandoned, and the children were all girls. The plot isn’t really the point. So if you’re looking for tons of action, I’d maybe not go with this one. But if you’re looking to read a moving composition of words, this is that. I find myself sitting in a feeling similar to the post-Tinkers almost-sadness. I found myself more invested in Housekeeping, advocating more for the characters and affected by the force of the writing.

So much of the plot movement happens in the first third of the book…and the writing builds in potency toward the end, to the point where I had to put it down with about 25 pages left because it felt like I had been eating something savory for so long that I was too full and needed to let my stomach rest before eating again. Or…it’s more like when something has so much flavor that while you’re chewing it you start drooling too much – dried tart cherries are like this for me. When some feeling begins to get overwhelming and you have to stop because experiencing it all at once would be too much.

My connection to the story firmed up when I read, “’I suppose I don’t know what I think.’ This confession embarrassed me. It was a source of both comfort and terror to me then that I often seemed invisible – incompletely and minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares. But my allusion to this feeling of ghostliness sounded peculiar, and sweat started all over my body, convicting me on the spot of gross corporeality.” (105-106)

“It was difficult work, but I have often noticed that it is almost intolerable to be looked at, to be watched, when one is idle. When one is idle and alone, the embarrassments of loneliness are almost endlessly compounded.” (158)
(This is what I imagine it feels like to some people to beg.)

“I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected – an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind.” (166)

That’s a lot of quoting, and there was so much more I wanted to repeat here, but that would have been a lot. Those are some of the moments that punched me in the gut and made me sigh out of truth. I couldn’t have described the feelings as well, but that’s part of what I love about reading. Ugh. And hate.

eats, shoots & leaves // eats shoots & leaves

My third summer book is called Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. It’s written by Lynne Truss. I purchased the book at a farmers’ market near my house. Side note: how awesome is it that there’s a book tent at the farmers’ market? (It’s given me new joy in going to the farmers’ market.)

This book was SO entertaining. I laughed out loud many times, prompting Nick to take a picture of me during one of the more uncontrollable and teary sessions (which occurred in a very quiet library).

Oh, right, the reason I was telling you that I found it at a farmers’ market is this: it came with a sticky note on the front that said, “A great book for grammar Nazis lovers.” So that’s mainly why I bought it. As we were walking home I read the back and laughed out loud, as I hope you will when you read it in the picture I’ll include at the end.

The main result of reading this book is that I am now terribly self-conscious about all of the mistakes (or minor amateur-style giveaways) I’m making as I write this. The author goes through the main marks of punctuation that we use every day and gripes about their misuse (very cathartic – where most of the laughter was induced); gives brief instructions on the correct usage of each mark; and talks about the historical background and evolution of each one. It’s wonderful. I did consider myself a “grammar…lover” or at least a stickler, but I am ashamed (and delighted?) to say that I also learned some things about my grammar methods that will hopefully help me to improve.

The biggest thing she affirmed is that you must know how to use punctuation correctly in order to deviate from it strategically. I like to think that this is what I’m doing most of the time when I throw parentheses or dashes in the mix haphazardly for effect. But you have no way of knowing that, and I probably seem amateur (and definitely am) most of the time.

I’m currently kicking myself for not marking up the book’s pages with my pen, but I just didn’t want to bother stopping at the time for the sake of my future self. I also anticipate referring to it again from time to time for the laughs as much as for the advice and rules. There was one thing I put a star next to toward the end:
“Even in the knowledge that our punctuation has arrived at its present state by a series of accidents; even in the knowledge that there are at least seventeen rules for the comma, some of which are beyond explanation by top grammarians – it is a matter for despair to see punctuation chucked out as worthless by people who don’t know the difference between who’s and whose, and whose bloody automatic ‘grammar checker’ can’t tell the difference either. And despair was the initial impetus for this book. I saw a sign for “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it, and something deep inside me snapped; snapped with that melancholy sound you hear in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, like a far-off cable breaking in a mine-shaft.”

And I shake my fist in the air and say, “HUZZAH!” And I sigh in relief that there are people out there doing the good work of spreading the word and reminding losers like me to stop every now and again and go back and remember what I was taught. I need to teach myself these lessons again, especially if I’m going to purport to be some kind of a writer or nerd or grammar person. First good sign: I loved this book.

the summer of Write

I came to
I came to in the library,

where every book stared back at me,
like it was I who had disturbed them.

I did come to the library this afternoon, to work on this blog post which will be the most official thing that I’ve written since we’ve been in Indianapolis for a little over a week, aside from a few embarrassing poems (worse than that one up there for sure). By the way, the downtown library in Indianapolis is kind of amazing. It’s beautiful inside and out, just like books. 😉

I did intend to write about the first two books I’ve read since being here. I brought 16 (17? 20? Who cares?) books with me for the summer, with a tentative plan to read them all, and I’m probably not going to finish them all if I’m really serious about the writing goals I also want to reach, but I have TIME so much time, and that is not SO much better than having no time, but it is better.

The point is, I didn’t bring those two books with me (to this library this afternoon). I brought the one I’m still reading, which is worth writing about, but I haven’t finished it yet. So, I guess I’m just going to write a little bit about the books anyway because what else?

The first is called Tinkers, and it was written by Paul Harding. It caught my eye one day with a white cover and…well, I’ll include pictures at some point. It had a Pulitzer Prize circle on it and a quote from Marilynne Robinson. (Either one of those things by itself would have been enough.) It’s about a dying man (George) – a tinker, someone who mends “utensils”, slang in this case for horologist. (Lots about horology lately what with S-Town.)

It gets a little too real about what it might be like to have your family members awkwardly caring for you as you rest on your hospital bed in the living room and don’t move or have meaningful conversations about anything. It jumps into flashbacks that sometimes are not flashbacks from George’s memory just flashes from the past and sometimes flashes into the first-person perspective of his father as a young man. It’s jarring at first as some books are until you figure out how they’re going to come at you, but then it makes sense.

It’s a bit heartbreaking in offshoots about the cruelty of a mother who isn’t sure whether she loves her husband and children and the bitterness that comes out of fear and a heart that won’t communicate. It doesn’t ask you to fully sympathize with any particular character, and George seems to be more of an anchor to remind you where you stand in time than a real person you’re getting to know (possibly making some sort of statement about time *wink*). I got whiffs of profundity, whiffs of boredom. It’s the understanding of life that makes it profound, but is it the sense of reality that makes it meaningful? I think I found it more profoundly sad, and I don’t want my life to end up anything like it.

After that (though it was really short), I needed something I could digest quickly. I read Someday, Someday Maybe (not sure if there’s a second comma but meh), written by Lauren Graham. The Lauren Graham who wrote Talking as Fast as I Can and played Lorelai in Gilmore Girls and Sarah Braverman in Parenthood. She’s pretty great. This was indeed a novel (I thought you might ask). The book was devoured in two days in the way that those of you familiar with Sarah Dessen might recognize with a closed-mouth smile. It was sweet, insightful in a sense, and the story was predictable in a comforting way, like watching You’ve Got Mail for the 1000000th time.

I find that I don’t have a whole lot more to say, so maybe that’s it for today and we go for it with some harder-hitting real-life writing tomorrow?
I also just discovered a post that I saved a long time ago on here – seriously, it must have been at least three years ago – that reminded me once again that my past self has consistently been more mature than my present self. Does that sound like something to worry about? I feel like I was born a 30 year old, and so maybe now I am 55 and starting to forget things? haha jk but really

 

Recommendations: Well, yes I’d recommend the books…but only if they sound remotely good to you.
Also, Deb Talan’s new album, Lucky Girl (!)
Deb Talan is half of The Weepies, and she is the half whose solo music sounds like The Weepies. And she is wonderful. yes.