Thursday, June 25, 2020

My Soul Shelf: A Tribute

The professor that had the most impact on my faith and vocation is a dynamite American lit professor named Christina Bieber Lake. I could rave endlessly about how the way she teaches and lives shaped me, but that's not the purpose of this post. Suffice it to say that when I saw this scrawled on a bulletin board in a dorm my junior year I thought that the Bieber was referring to Dr. Bieber, as her students call her. 

Alas - most people are as untouched by her influence as I am untouched by the Justin Bieber fandom. Their loss. One of my best friends and I have declared that Dr. Bieber and Dr. Mazzarella (one of the other professors in the English department) are our spirit animals and we will be a dynamic duo like them when we grow up and achieve our professorial dreams. 

Anyway. Dr. Bieber wrote a book that just came out this month: The Flourishing Teacher: Vocational Renewal for a Sacred Profession. I preordered it, squealed when it arrived in the mail, and read it in four days. It's a mix of wit and wisdom - practical and spiritual - for the teaching life. Though, to be honest, I would give it to just about anybody because it's basically just a good perspective on life in general. I laughed and nodded and underlined and cried and wrote notes in the margins that only I or friends who actually took her classes would understand. 

That was the huge gift of this book - I got to see how Dr. Bieber approaches teaching very deliberately and that the impact that she had on me and my friends was not by chance. I got to marvel anew at the privilege I had of sitting under her as a college student - and of being able to learn from her again as a new teacher, since she is one of the main reasons I figured out I was supposed to teach in the first place.

One of the many life-giving tips Dr. Bieber gives in her book is to build what she calls a soul shelf - a shelf of the books that you can always count on to rejuvenate, inspire, and give your soul rest.

Being the good student that I am (and also being someone who never needs to be told twice to rearrange a bookshelf as a good pastime), I went and built my soul shelf this afternoon. It only took me about 10 minutes, because I know the books that speak to me like that - I just had to collect them on one shelf.  It makes me happy just looking at it. 

Dr. Bieber ordered her soul shelf according to three categories:

Beauty -"What makes me remember that my life here is a gift of immeasurable beauty?"

Simplicity - "What helps me recognize that it is possible to live in the present moment in peace and the fullness of joy?"

Love - "What inspires me to come out of myself and cultivate a healthy love for others?"

Now. These are lovely and very helpful categories. I fully intended to order this list according to them as a handy reference for anyone who stumbles across it. However. Most of the books on my soul shelf fall into at least two of them, and there are many that belong in all three categories.

So here they are. In an order that makes sense to me. Some of them are already on The Bookshelf, while others are new to me in the two years since I created that list. I'll add those to The Bookshelf soon.


A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, edited by Czeslaw Milosz - 
I found this at a used bookstore in January and bought it because I loved the title, I know Milosz, and most of the poets were unfamiliar to me (highly unusual when I pick up a poetry anthology), and most of them did not originally write in English. This book is truly luminous. I read it from cover to cover, which is actually unusual for me when it comes to poetry anthologies. In case you're curious, and these names mean something to you, some poets included who I was previously familiar with are Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman, Raymond Carver, and Robert Frost.

Milosz says this in the introduction to one section:

Epiphany is an unveiling of reality. What in Greek was called epiphaneia meant the appearance, the arrival, of a divinity among mortals or its recognition under a familiar shape of man or woman. Epiphany thus interrupts the everyday flow of time and enters as one privileged moment when we intuitively grasp a deeper, more essential reality hidden in things or persons. 

A Thousand Mornings, by Mary Oliver 
 - This is the only volume of Oliver's poetry that I own (hopefully that will change soon), but it's a good one. Her poems are exquisite, humorous, and bracing by turns. I am always refreshed when I turn to them.

The Stream and the Sapphire, by Denise Levertov 
- I actually first encountered Levertov through Dr. Bieber, who gave me this slim little volume when I graduated. This is a collection of her poetry engaging with ideas of faith. I particularly love "Annunciation," which is too long to include here, and "Avowal":

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit's deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns that all-surrounding grace.

Come and Eat, by Bri McKoy - I wrote about this book in this post. Bri winsomely and with great joy makes the case that if we want to share the love of Jesus with the world, we need to start by inviting others to share meals at our tables.

"Too often I notice how I can become hardened by the seemingly insurmountable evil in this world. But here's the thing: we know who ultimately wins the battle. We know our Rescuer's name. He is not calling us to rescue anyone; he is calling us to pull out a chair and sit amongst the broken. He is the Rescuer. We are simply an extension of his great love and peace. And he calls us to continue stepping into brokenness and gives us the strength to face the unimaginable under the banner of his love. So we must show up."

Adorning the Dark, by Andrew Peterson - This book. It's a Christian creative manifesto. Peterson started the Rabbit Room, a collective of Christian creatives inspired by the Inklings and Wendell Berry, among others. I underlined and starred and annotated the heck out of this book.

"Righteousness means more than pious obedience; it means letting a strong, humble mercy mark your path, even when - especially when - you don't know where it is taking you. . .Your heart is so full it must be must be poured out. You see the world as a dark, messy place that needs rearranging, and with all that light shooting out of your pores your just the person to do it."

The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom – every Christian should read this at some point. As much the story of a family living faithfully in ordinary life as the story of how they handled the extraordinary circumstances of occupied Holland in WWII. 

“When He tells us to love our enemies He gives, along with the command, the love itself.” 

A Circle of Quiet, by Madeline L’Engle – lyrical memoir by the author of A Wrinkle in Time about faith, life, and creativity.

“An infinite question is often destroyed by finite answers...To define everything is to annihilate much that gives us laughter and joy.”

Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work by Kathleen Norris - very short, practically a pamphlet, on how important small, ordinary things are in developing the rhythms of life that give us space to walk with God. Dr. Bieber assigned it in the first class I took with her. 

“The ordinary activities I find most compatible with contemplation are walking, baking bread, and doing laundry. ” 

“My goal is to allow readers their own experience of whatever discovery I have made, so that it feels new to them, but also familiar, in that it is a piece with their own experience. It is a form of serious play.” 

One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp – beautifully crafted piece about gratitude, trust, faith, and living in the present. A long-time favorite of mine. 

“...the secret to joy is to keep seeking God where we doubt He is.” 

“A life contemplating the blessings of Christ becomes a life acting the love of Christ.”

Surprised by Oxford, by Carolyn Weber – riffing off Surprised by Joy, the author’s story of questioning and faith during her time as a masters’ student in Literature at Oxford University. Oozing with literary references and a delightful read. 

“He quickened his stride: 'The truth is in the paradox, Miss Drake. Anything not done in submission to God, anything not done to the glory of God, is doomed to failure, frailty, and futility. This is the unholy trinity we humans fear most. And we should, for we entertain it all the time at the pain and expense of not knowing the real one.” 

The Chronicles of Narnia
, by C.S. Lewis - beautiful, funny, poignant, and quick to read, these books provide better imaginative and intuitively graspable illustrations of the life of faith than a lot of theology I've read. (Which is why they so often crop up in sermon illustrations.) And they are simply good stories. The world is a different place with the Pevensie children and the people of Narnia in it. 

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien - I reread this trilogy every few years, and it gets better every time. Tolkien creates a world where evil is so palpable and powerful that there is only the slightest thread of irrational hope that good will win. The journey of the members of the unlikely fellowship to overcome evil and restore good is moving, funny, imaginative, and profound. It is a reminder that courage and beauty and hope and friendship can be found in the most unlikely of places - even when the forces of evil seem insurmountable. 

"There's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for."

(To be completely honest, I'm not 100% sure if the above quote is from the book or the movie, but it's a great quote all the same.)

The Tale of Desperaux, by Kate DiCamello – I love this book about a very small mouse with very large ears, a kingdom in desperate need of soup, and a princess named Pea. Is it choice or lineage that makes someone what they are?

“Once upon a time," he said out loud to the darkness. He said these words because they were the best, the most powerful words that he knew and just the saying of them comforted him.” 

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo – this book. Detective story, redemption story, love story, revolution story, with a good dose of random background information on the battle of Waterloo, the sewers of Paris, street slang, and obscure convents thrown in. Stunning on every level. 

“A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in--what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.” 

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee – a classic for a reason. It’s so much more than a story of racial injustice in the Jim Crowe South. It’s a story about childhood and growing up, family, community, and walking around in someone else’s shoes. And who doesn’t love Scout Finch?

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis – widely considered to be Lewis' best fictional work, this one blows my mind every time I read it. Reimagining of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, with profound things to say about love, integrity, the longing for home, and knowing oneself.

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” 

Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry - This novel is the ruminations of a man who didn't go many places or do much, but who led a whole, good life. It's a book about inward change even when externals haven't changed much. It's like the river which plays a prominent role in the story: it doesn't go anywhere, but it's always changing. It's a book about calling, about valuing what is, about quiet doubts and quiet faith, with a lot of dry humor thrown in. It's about letting go of the need to "make something of yourself."

"You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time."

"Faith is not necessarily, or not soon, a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark. Even a man of faith knows that (as Burley Coulter used to say) we've all got to go through enough to kill us."

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson – a stunningly beautiful book. One of my top 5 favorite books ever. A letter from a dying father to his young son, it’s a meditation on grace, fathers and sons, forgiveness, faith, and the beauty of this earthly life. People tend to either absolutely love it (that’s me) or be bored to tears because not a ton happens. I love the sequel, Home, too (it’s a kind of prodigal son retelling), but I may just be partial because it touches on themes near and dear to me. 

“This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

The Elegance of a Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery – pensive, funny, mildly crass and decidedly European book about a concierge in Paris who is actually a brilliant autodidact. A treasury of small and beautiful things. Originally written in French.

“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?” 

Little, Big, by John Crowley – I read this for a Christianity and Fantasy class in college, and I’m not sure whether I would have fallen in love with it as much as I did if I hadn’t had the guidance of a fabulous professor. That said, the poetry of the dense prose, the multigenerational narrative, the themes of faith, doubt, love, longing, home, and narrative make this a fantasy I’m confident I’ll return to throughout the years. Be alert to skip some bedroom scenes.

“The further in you go, the bigger it gets.”

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck – extremely dark at times but also at times exquisite, this book is well worth the 600 pages. Set in California around the turn of the 20th century, it’s a multi-generational story about individual choice, the consequences of familial love and lack thereof, and asking questions about what determines someone’s character. I love this book for the secondary characters. Like Les Mis, exceptionally well-done on every level. Lyrical description, powerful exploration of themes, excellent characterization. 

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

Monday, June 8, 2020

how to be a good conversationalist

I gave a  talk at the English Department Chapel at Wheaton my senior year. I closed with this:

We have a responsibility to act on the vision that literature gives us. This dovetails with our calling as Christians to see the world for what it truly is. We know that the world is good, because it was created by a good God as an expression of love. We can see goodness and beauty in places where other people see only the mundane. We are called to cultivate that beauty so other people can see and respond to it. On the flip side, we know that the world is deeply broken as a result of the fall. And we are called to see the world's brokenness, wade into it, get our feet muddy, and begin the work of restoration that will culminate in the Kingdom of Christ. This is our calling - to cherish the world's beauty and rebuild the world's brokenness. But in order to do that we have to have the kind of vision that can see beauty and brokenness. Through my time at Wheaton I have learned that literature is one of the most powerful tools there is to mold our vision. And vision leads to action. 

In many ways, this was the culmination of my academic experience - an experience that shaped my desire to examine the intersection between the world of ideas and the world of action.

During my first few years in college, professors encouraged me to ask questions to spark ideas for papers. "Don't start with what you think. Start with a question. And look for an answer to that question. Be willing to be surprised with where you end up."

Y'all, until my junior year of college, I had no earthly idea how to do that well. I would choose questions so big I couldn't possibly fit them into the scope of a six page paper. Or I would choose questions so narrow that it was ridiculously challenging to stretch my conclusions over six long pages. But the deeper problem is I would start with what I wanted to say and then write a question to which my opinion was the answer. That stunted my learning.

But then I spent a semester in Oxford. I had to write three research essays every two weeks. At the beginning of a week, my tutors would hand me a primary source and a list of about 20 questions to choose from. They always encouraged me to use the list as a starting point to develop my own questions. The essays I brought back to them were NOT meant to be my polished final word on the subject. Rather, they were meant to be evidence I was doing the difficult intellectual work - they were supposed provide a good entry point for a conversation with my tutors.

The process was about learning and dialogue, not about my establishing my authoritative opinion - which was good because I was 21 and had no business having an authoritative opinion on anything.

To prepare for my conversations with my tutors, I read extensively from vastly different perspectives on the subjects at hand before I began to formulate my response. In reading those sources, I felt like I was listening in to a conversation that had begun long before I walked into the group.

Basic lesson in human interactions: do not walk up to a conversation that other people are having, assume after two seconds that you know exactly what they are talking about and what you think about it and then jump in to make your two cents known. It doesn't usually end well. At best, you cause some awkwardness and confusion, and at worst you might spark a very unpleasant disagreement in which all the parties are talking past each other rather than listening to each other. (I know this from personal experience.)

Continued basic lesson in human interactions: when you walk up to a conversation that other people have been having, it is not only polite but profitable to actually listen to the conversation for awhile. Seek to know what's going on. Ask good questions to help understand what ground has already been covered, what conclusions have been drawn, and the trajectory of the conversation. You may find that you hold even more firmly to your initial opinion, and that it will add value to the conversation. Or you may find that your initial opinion actually is erroneous in the context of the conversation. Or your might find that you now have big questions that had never before occurred to you. Now it's time to join the conversation as an informed, invested participant rather than as a conversation crasher.

This is what I learned to do through hours in the English Faculty Library and the Bodleian Library, on walks through University Parks, and through conversations with my dinner group (now my online book club).

At this point you've probably realized that although my experience was extremely academic, it had real application to my actual life. I'm an opinionated person, and through my young adulthood I tended to approach difficult issues with a pre-formed opinion. (Who are we kidding? I still have a natural tendency to do that.) Whether I realized it or not, the questions I asked were often designed to validate my opinion as the right answer, rather than to facilitate listening and learning.

My approach to interacting with people and ideas was profoundly shaped by my academic experience at Oxford, the reading I do on my own time, and my relationships with other people. I have learned how important it is to listen for awhile before inserting myself into a conversation. This is NOT because I think my voice has no value or because I don't have strong opinions. It's because I want to be able to use my voice and my opinions to contribute to and shape the conversation, rather than shutting it down with my ignorance or intransigence.

Why am I saying all of this? You've probably guessed it by now.

This has been one heck of a week for our country. In the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery,  Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the nation is in uproar. Peaceful protesters are taking to the streets - as are rioters and vandals. My city has instituted an 8 pm - 6 am curfew until further notice. Not to mention the fact that there is still a global pandemic.

In a situation like this, it is so easy to shut down the challenging questions. It's hard to listen with humility and grace to a conversation that is so messy. It's easy to feel attacked by people who call for the complete defunding of the police and claim that the violent response to police violence is morally justified. It's hard to take the time to distinguish between those voices and the voices of people who are galled both by nationwide destruction and by the deaths that sparked that destruction. It's easy to state an opinion based on my gut response and biases. It's hard to listen to the voices who are begging us to pause and listen to the conversation and ask questions about the underlying issues.

But here's the thing. I think everyone agrees something's gotta change. And change only comes when people are willing to wrestle with difficult questions about the way things are in order to begin to imagine the way things could be. People may disagree on what that looks like, but the only way to develop a vision of productive and lasting change is to choose to be still, ask questions, listen to the response, ask more questions, and begin to formulate a way to move forward.

Please - don't shut out the questions. Don't shut down the conversation. Ask the questions. Learn the stories. Ponder the ideas. And let those questions, those stories, those ideas, push you into action.

Monday, May 11, 2020

a life in food

In her book Come and Eat: A Celebration of Love and Grace Around the Everyday Table, Bri McKoy makes a powerful and winsome case that if we want to share the love of Jesus with the world, we need to start by sharing meals at our table.

I have underlined and starred and hearted half the book. Many paragraphs have this annotation: "YES! So thankful to have learned this from Mom." I think this book is going to be a kind of handbook for me as I work through how to do life together around the proverbial table - the place where we come together and nourish our bodies with delicious food and build a community that nourishes our souls.

Somewhere in the book - I can't find the exact spot right now amidst the multitude of marked-up passages - Bri makes the claim that each of us can think of a meal that was pivotal to our lives.

That got me thinking. To be perfectly honest, I cannot yet identify a single meal that changed or defined the trajectory of my life. And yet - and yet -

One thing that was very important to my parents in my childhood was that we shared regular meals together. As homeschooled kids, Charlie and I were often left to our own devices for lunch, but nearly every evening of my childhood we gathered around table and shared a family meal. Many of those meals are ones that Mom - and later Mom and I - prepared in 30 minutes or less. Many were at our favorite local restaurant. Many were in the places we travelled. Most of my formative memories are in some way linked to food. I don't remember much about Krakow, but I will always remember the mouth-watering pirogies we ate there. I have many memories in Italy, but one of the most vivid is when the waiters at a restaurant on the coast all vanished to jump into fishing boats because a school of fish was swimming by and they needed fresh seafood.

While there is no one meal that fundamentally changed my life, the meals that I shared with my family were formative in ways that I can only begin to name. They created a space of security, a space for laughter, a space for hard conversations, a network of memories that is strong and steadfast. If I were asked to, I truly think that I could tell the story of my life as a story of meals. Here's a start.

I am six. Hair in a "truly" - the half-up hairdo that my family named for Truly Scrumptious. I'm all dressed up because I just "graduated" from kindergarten. We are celebrating at the Rose Garden Cafe.

I am eight. It is the Fourth of July. Pop, Charlie, and I have already participated in the parade. Now it's time for lunch. Perry's BBQ, with all the requisite sides: green beans, mac and cheese, hush puppies, coleslaw, collard greens. We lick our fingers and eat watermelon for dessert.

I am ten. A loaf from Panera bread, sun-dried tomatoes and olives from big Sams Club jars, cheese, and grapes are arranged tastefully on our coffee table. We are having a "European picnic" - a frequent meal in our home in Virginia as we practiced for a hoped-for return to life in Europe.

I am eleven. We just moved back to Germany, Dad is deployed, and Mom, Charlie, Nana and I are in Paris. We get crepes from a stand behind Notre Dame - a stand that became a standby for meals on the go in the city of lights.

I am twelve. We have already had gelato twice, but we've hiked for hours among Italian fishing villages. When we reach the last village and Charlie and I beg for one last scoop, Dad doesn't say no.

I am thirteen. My fingers and toes and nose are freezing but my throat is burning with too-hot Nurnberg bratwurst chased down by Kindergluhwein - the alcohol-free version of mulled wine that is a staple at German Christmas markets.

I am fourteen. We take the train to Venice with a friend who lives an hour from the floating city. We ignore all the tourist destinations (which we had seen on a previous visit). Instead, Reba takes us to a corner grocery stores patronized by locals (imagine being a local in Venice). We purchase just-ripe nectarines, a loaf of long white bread, and a cheese that is kin to provolone. We sit on the steps by a canal and make rustic sandwiches. The nectarine juice drips down our fingers.

I am fifteen. We visit London for the umpteenth time, and beeline for our favorite fast food place - Pret a Manger, which still has the best carrot cake I have ever eaten. Not to mention their prawn arugula avocado sandwiches. We take our loot to the fountains near the lions on Trafalgar square.

I am fifteen. We walk to Da Silvano, the local pizza place where Isabelle, the waitress, brings out our drinks before she takes our order - we are regulars. Another night we walk to the Greek restaurant that has the most delicious gyros salad you have ever tasted. One time my parents were on a date there, and the owner pointedly ignored Dad waving for the bill, because she had decided their date hadn't lasted long enough. Which would have been fine, except they were then late to Bible study.

I am seventeen. In London again, we make a pilgrimage to the cafe in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Decorated by William Morris, this cafe has the best scones and clotted cream our family has ever tasted.

I am eighteen. I have just graduated from high school, and my grandparents borrow a pontoon boat for an afternoon on the lake. My cousin Hannah makes to-die-for strawberry-filled cupcakes. I'm not a cupcake person in generally, but my mouth still waters at the memory of these.

I am nineteen. It's floor night on the college dorm, and we pass around a pan of pizookie, taking ritual spoonfuls straight from the pan. Sure, it's cold season, but who is going to pass up just-barely-baked chocolate chip cookie with ice cream on top?

I am twenty. Mom and Dad graciously take me along to Charleston on their anniversary trip. We savor the best shrimp & grits in the history of Southern cooking.

I am twenty-one. I fill my semester abroad with oatcakes and cheese and scones and clotted cream on study dates with friends. Occasionally I splurge on a mouth-watering, artery-clogging full English breakfast - complete with beans and grilled tomatoes.

I am twenty-two. I fling my tiny college kitchen open to whoever wants to come - the freshman who is a kindred spirit, the surrogate grandparents who bring over veggies from their garden, the core group of friends who have walked through all four years of college by my side. We laugh and we cry and we grow and we learn from one another.

I am twenty-three, living in Munich after college. A girl from church - a fellow expat - has decided we are going to be friends. She invites me over for countless lunches of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes - comfort food. Over those countless lunches, we become fast friends.

I am twenty-four. Mom, Dad, Nana and I are in a tiny village clinging to a hill in Galilee - Zafed. There we have the freshest-you-could-possibly-imagine falafel, fingers chilly in the cold rain, bellies warmed by the freshly fried food.

I am twenty-five. On Tuesdays, my church Community Group has themed potlucks. Asian food, childhood favorites, vegetarian night, appetizer night. Each dish comes with a story that we share as we do life together.

I have a list of formative/memorable meals that spans five pages of a legal pad - and that was only the ones that sprang to mind effortlessly. There are so many more.

I have no idea how the rest of my life will pan out, but one thing I can confidently claim is that food - good food, shared with friends, family, and strangers - is going to always be a key part of my life.

Mom and Dad, thank you. Thank you for building our family around the table. Thank you for recognizing and cultivating the richness of experiences built around food. Thank you for giving me my love of good food and good conversation and safe and holy spaces. What a legacy.

P.S. Mom, as I write this, I'm listening to the French Kiss soundtrack. Nothing says "dinner music" like that album.