Writing to Live: My Three (?!) Books

puzzle Written in October.

I keep thinking about Brittany Maynard. The 29-year old woman who has terminal stage 4 brain cancer and is choosing to end her life on her own terms. I keep thinking about that frail line between life and death, and how easy it is to look at our lives and realize we’re all dying in a way, as each day goes by, but then faith tells me that each day is the first day of eternity. I keep thinking about what it means to die with dignity. And what it means to live with dignity. What it means that each person has a right to that choice, and that choice is there each day.

“The livable life” – something I read in Judith Butler’s book Undoing Gender – chases after me these days. Or is it the other way around? That I keep chasing after it? What makes life livable? My hope is that through my writing, my investigation, my analysis, my reflection and discovery, all of this endeavor is connected to as Judith says of her own work – “tasks of persistence and survival.” To articulate life in particular and ideally, life universal. To speak truth to life.

Like most things, it’s a process. My first book, Making Paper Cranes was never meant to be a grand manifesto but it was important. It came out of a time I struggled to verbalize my sense of self as a Korean American woman of faith. What did it mean to embrace my cultural heritage? What did it mean to speak about racialization? What did it mean to be a woman of color in a predominantly white institution of faith? And what and how could I articulate something about God from the abyss of my own life? The book was deeply personal and became a theologically constructive work as I “conversed” with authors, theologians, liberation theologians, pastors, feminists and poets within the writing. While it only glanced the surface of so many questions about gender, race and identity, faith and vocation, even then I could feel there was so much more that was beyond my reach at the time. Still, it was a beginning. It gave me life.

Then Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Clergywomen of Color was a chance to give myself over to a deeply held belief about community – how we can’t survive without it. I needed to hear the stories of my people, my tribe, my sisters those who already knew and understood my questions about gender and race, and could speak truth to power in their own ways. I continue to read over those stories again and again being moved to tears by the bravery and honesty of the writers. There is so much at stake in these words, and these words continue to feed me.

And then, there were three. I’m not just talking Oz, who slept in my lap as we finished writing this book after his arrival. Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry came out of a compulsion to write out what it meant that our world was crashing down around us. To bring order to the chaos. Anyone who has had a traumatic experience can speak to how much life changes after that trauma. And anyone with children knows how having children falls into that category. Anyone with children knows how traumatic it is to become a parent for the first time. Also, anyone who has done anything like this with their spouse knows how traumatic it is to pick out wallpaper much less write anything together.

Andy, my husband, had the initial dream about this book when we first moved to Bloomington shortly after the twins were born. So much had changed in the span of two months – exciting with the new job, new family, new town, but grief, too, in the goodbyes to a career, community, and any familiar, comforting plans about the future. Yes, there are stories about ministry, specifically ordained ministry within the Presbyterian church. But, there are stories about what we carry into the pulpits and pews, like struggling with infertility, later the threat of foreclosure on our house, flailing under the burden of depression, and all the normal power and identity struggles within a marriage. It is a much more extensive self-reflection of our lives as we try to put pieces together to make sense of our life together.

All this leads me back to livability. The thread throughout all the writing is living and surviving. The constructive and narrative, theological and sociological, reflective and creative –  all are about the ways I’ve learned to embrace this way of living – stumbling and struggling, surrendering and trusting. And marriage – life together – has been the most relentless teacher. Everything Andy and I have gone through – all the good, bad, and ugly – we share it in the book as an attempt at saying what we believe about God. That God is certainly present in the struggle – the valleys and darkness – but it’s in the moments of surrender and trust that we actually see and feel God. We could certainly say that the book is about marriage – the push and pull of an imperfectly lived out commitment in the midst of covenant with God, or about parenthood and family – the ways having children fundamentally changes a person for good, or about ministry – how a vocation that is about giving oneself over to others is thankless but bizarrely satisfying at the end of the day.

But, it’s more than that and oddly – less than that. It’s just…our story. And we’re definitely not done making sense of it. I imagine if we were to write another book like this in twenty years our conclusions would be vastly different. We will probably look back on this book and laugh at it in much the same way I laugh through my old journals from middle school. Still, maybe someone else will find themselves in a part of these words.

Even if on face-value there might not be any point of overlap for the single person or the childless couple or the college student who thinks, “what does that have to do with me?” that’s where the Holy Spirit, the wild-child of the Trinity, my favorite, comes to play. I take Kwok Pui Lan’s words to heart in her book Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology, where she says when the Spirit is present, “one catches glimpses of oneself in a fleeting moment or in a fragment in someone else’s story.” The most important revelation I had when writing started to be a mode of living, I mean literally, breathing and feeling – each day – was that we’re not alone. None of us are alone. If the words found in any of these books, blogs, articles, essays, and ramblings offers that glimpse of shared life to someone else then I can’t imagine anything more satisfying, more dignifying about these stories. It would make life worth living.

Making Paper Cranes: The Inspiration

The book is finally done. And, it is…almost ready for publication. There was a snafu requiring an addition to one of the chapters. And now, instead of a June release, we’re hoping for November. Feels far away, but I know it will come quick.

A little backdrop: MPC came out of a senior year thesis in seminary back in 2003-2004. Then, I joined The Young Clergy Women Network. They started a joint venture with Chalice Press and put out a solicitation for books. I figured, what the hell? Might as well give it a shot. It was in 2008 that the proposal was accepted by TYCWP committee, and then accepted by the Chalice Press editors, and I worked like mad to expand the thesis into a book. When I finally turned in the manuscript in early 2009, it would be almost three years before I would get the copyedited manuscript back. They were going through some transitions, but I was honestly wondering if they thought I’d forget about it and move on. I almost believed that it wasn’t important enough.

But, we’re here. The finish line is so close I can almost taste the tape. And I’m in SUCH  a different place from my senior year when I first felt this fire, and then in 2008 when I finished it up, and then even when I worked on responses to the copyedited manuscript. It has been a strange and wild season all throughout, but one that I’m ultimately so grateful to have experienced these however many years. I have too many people to thank and praises to laud…so, I wanted to take some time to share who they are – and their stories, too. Why they inspired me. And hopefully, they will inspire you, too. They are academics, pastors, and teachers AND FULL OUT SUPER HEROES who have already articulated an Asian American Feminist Theology in their own way, through their own lives, their own passions, their own work.

This will not only be about them, but for them, for our sisters, mothers, and daughters.

[Photo credit goes to Debbi Conkle, an incredibly sweet woman from Andy’s church.]

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Laura Mariko Cheifetz: Courage and Community (June 5).
Grace Ji-Sun Kim: Speaking for Women (June 19).