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.

Almost May: Catching Up and Springing Forward

Almost May: Catching Up and Springing Forward

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-Louis Armor-

Someone posted this on Facebook. It felt like it was pasted there really purposefully. For me. I have tried to take a hiatus from blogging because of one pressing deadline and wanting to get going on the other one due this summer. Feeling like lately the hiatus has been less rest though and more paralysis. But … My brain is turning. It’s been a fruitful month with a Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting, then the editorial team meeting for a special Young Adult issue that will be put out by Presbyterians Today, Presbyterian Women, and Unbound next May 2014, joining the Deeper Story writer tribe, and winding down with UKIRK for the summer (saaaaaddddd).

A lot going on but then with the horrible week of tragedies and defeats – like tidal waves one after another crashing down on the world – it felt like it was almost too much to try to make sense of … So I mentally crawled back into the bed under the covers and tried to pretend it was still night. That I could still sleep, and eventually wake up to a day where everything would be sorted out.

Not so much.

Sleep is not friendly towards us these days. But, that darkness seems to cling nonetheless.

I’m not going to lie. There are days I can’t help but be totally self-absorbed and consumed with the going-ons in my little corner of the world. A friend – who also has multiples – calls it the “vortex.” Which seems like an apt name for that time period post-nap up until heads are in beds. I’ve taken to calling it the same. The vortex is enough of a challenge (to put mildly) to try to survive the day-to-day with my three little monkeys literally crawling all over me All. The. Time. Miss Banana loves to jump on my back out of nowhere like a howler monkey. D-Money will climb Andy and pull himself up by grabbing a handful of Andy’s hair and end up standing on his shoulders. We are seriously physically fighting for our lives each day. When I have a moment to let my eyes glaze over I have little left in me to turn towards the happenings on the rest of planet earth.

But I trudge on. Some days seem quick. Others feel as though the minutes are an eternity. Still, I try to remember all those hours and what I have done. And my mind turns to Daylight Savings Day and how it feels like my body is still missing that hour. Did we really spring forward already? I am pretty sure the kids sprung forward. They keep making bedtime spring forward. I am playing catchup, I suppose. But the light stays longer in the evenings so it makes sense that the kids want to drink it in a little longer. And I admit that I feel that longing, too. After a long winter the sunlight is delicious.

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver

I guess there’s something to be said about how the darkness makes the light all the more sweeter. And sometimes it’s only darkness that gets me to see and feel it all. Which in turn gives me something to write towards … And those words though they may seem trite and random do something to me, too.

Words traded back and forth, words mimicked, words slowly stitched into whole sentences. Recently, while cleaning out the attic, I ran across a note on my oldest son’s first full sentence: “Mommy come pick me up after work,” a life-saving sentence for him that I probably wrote down with mixed feeling about leaving him to go to work. Words in books, rhyming Dr. Seuss words, Good Night Moon, and books with only one or two words per page, picture books without words for which we make up stories. Words shared around the dinner table, words sung by heart on Mark’s lap with guitar about Casey Jones the railroad engineer, words rejoicing in worship, words debating language for God, words spilled in anger, words recanted. Words with holy potential. The Word as the holy itself. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). (From In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore

But I know people will say, what about how the power of words has been abused and taken for granted by nearly all of humanity? Still, I need this imperfect and messy platform for expression and connection, I need words, to hear them, to write them, to speak them, and drink from them, whether from seasoned theologians or from pithy status updates on Facebook, or from the children. Because there is something holy there … and a gift … whether in the darkness or the light.

Versatile Blogger: Mothering Spirit Holla

LOL I’m pretty sure none of those words together really make much sense.

Apparently there’s something called the Versatile Blogger Award. I was on the list from Mothering Spirit. I don’t know what that means exactly but I feel honored! I love her. I love her writing. I love her insight. I love her honesty. Anyways, in her words, “you can read more about this award geared towards sharing the love here.) For this award, you’re supposed to share 15 blogs that you follow regularly and then share 7 facts about yourself.” (I couldn’t muster up the brain cells to figure out how to explain it. Clearly.)

Okay. Top 15 Blogs I follow, in no particular order, because it’s too hard to rank them, some very well known, and some new ones:

  1. Mothering Spirit (Duh): Her words are drenched in God’s spirit. I’m always fed by them.
  2. These Stones: Dear friend Christine is prolific and always has wonderful reflections and great quotes.
  3. Any Day a Change: Dear friend Katherine (whom I have yet to meet) just wrote a book. Reading her blog it’s hard to miss the appeal of her writing. She’s thoughtful and honest, and entertaining.
  4. Rage Against the Minivan: Kristen Howerton is crazy intelligent and provocative in a good way – challenging anything that is normative and wrong with the world.
  5. Windows Down: Dear friend Meredith recently got her PhD from Baylor. She is brilliant with everything but especially religion, pop culture, and music. She makes these kickass CDs of music that she loved from the past year. It seriously kicks off my year in the absolute right way.
    6. Bruce Reyes-Chow: All around great guy, and gives me hope that the Church is going to make it.
  6. The Blue Room: Maryann is a beautiful and inspiring writer. She has incredible insight, and I ALWAYS appreciate her Friday Link Love.
  7. Mommymergent: Love these thoughts about motherhood and spirituality.
  8. Still Waters: Theresa is a fireball. She writes on everything from Asian American culture, religion, and being a pastor and mother. She’s the best thing for the Presbyterian denomination next to Jesus.
  9. PhD in Parenting: Annie gets my brain juices flowing by integrating so many topics connected to parenting. I always appreciate another level of thinking.
  10. Science of Mom: Alice has some really helpful tangibles about parenting, but she doesn’t skimp at all on what’s emotional and spiritual. Love her perspective!
  11. Hapamama: Grace lights a fire under my butt about Asian American parenting.
  12. Reluctant Pilgrim: Enuma is a lovely writer – always refreshing.
  13. Fidelia’s Sisters: The Young Clergy Women Project’s E-zine. Always some amazing stories and perspectives.
  14. (Im)possible Things With God: Elsa is GREAT. She is gorgeous, strong, and everything I want to be when I grow up.

There are blogs like Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, Micha Boyett, Carol Howard Merritt, and Momastery, but these are so popular and obvious choices. Actually, Rage Against the Minivan should fall in that category, too. And there are guys like Landon Whitsitt and Yo Rocko to include in the list. Of course, I should mention my husband, but he hasn’t blogged in a while.

OK. For Mothering Spirit – 7 things: 1) I could eat a whole jar of Nutella in one day. Just give me a spoon. 2) I love sci-fi. 3) I have dreams about doughnuts sometimes. 4) I get crazy thinking about the kind of world the babies might end up in someday. Not a good kind of crazy. 5) Insecurity hits me out of nowhere like a ton of bricks sometimes. I end up eating my way out of it. 6) I am happy that it only takes a couple of drinks to get me buzzed. 7) I’m a cheap date.

Thanks for the award!

Show Don’t Tell: Not Just For Poetry

Show. Don’t tell. That was hammered into my head so many times this week, and I still feel like I could stand to hear it a few more times.

I was at the IU Writer’s conference which was wonderful for so many reason, but for 1) being local and accessible, and 2) being affordable with a scholarship. I can only guess that they saw my manuscript and took pity on me. Because I discovered that I am a bad writer. A. TERRIBLE. WRITER. And, I’m seriously not trying to be modest.

We went through all sorts of writing exercises that not only massaged my brain but sparked so many connections. Here are a few examples:

Jenny Browne taught a poetry class called “Love Letter to a Stranger.” We toyed with notions of familiarity and unfamiliarity, and the tensions in various levels of intimacy.
1. On the last day she gave us something called the Bermuda Triangle. Write three lists: Fears, Desires, Images, and take 2 from each and write a love letter to stranger.
2. Some free writing we did was in response to questions like “What do you smell like?” and “What have you lost?”
3. She also had us write a postcard from an emotion – short, 5-10 lines.
4. There were some great form suggestions like writing a pantoum, which basically you write a 4 line stanze and take lines 1 and 3, and make them 2 and 4 in the 2nd stanza, and then keep going.

Jenny was a wonderful teacher – she was incredibly encouraging, and made it seem like everything anyone said in class was genius.

My workshop teacher, Erin Belieu encouraged exercises that were contemplative:
1. Stare at something for an hour. Don’t bring paper. Don’t look away. Don’t think.
2. For a more practical revision-type exercise she suggested taking one line from a poem and writing something completely new from it.
3. Write a poem like Auden’s thesis-example-argument
4. What a rhyme-ish poem and explore the O (not orgasm).

I have to say how much I appreciated Erin – she was honest and genuine, and incredibly kind.

Dan Chaon and Lou Berney were also fabulous – entertaining, insightful, engaging, and just so sharp. Unspeakably amazing writers. And then, in the evenings there were readings from the IUWC faculty as well as some other folks like Jean Thompson, and Susan Gubar, who is a professor emerita at IU.

All this is to say that I realized I could stand to be much more vigorous, thoughtful, and intentional about my writing. The way I run everyday, the way I tinker on the piano everyday…I should be doing these kind of exercises for writing, too, and not just word vomit all over this blog. It’s pretty obvious that this kind of writing will infect everything else I do – in a good way, of course – whether it’s writing thank you notes or sermons, reading newspaper articles or blogs or short stories, and even going about my day with the babies.

I’m so thankful for the chance to meet some locals, and hopefully connect more with the writing community here. And even more grateful to the writing group I’ve been a part of this past year (who I’ve subjected my awful poetry to twice a month!). I would highly recommend to pastors to do a writer’s conference for your study leave!!! It’s rich, and I’m surely going to be mining this experience for a while.

Christmas Expectations: Grace Came Down

Luke 2

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

***

I’m sitting here in my living room on Christmas Eve.

Andy has one more service tonight, and will be home close to midnight. Meanwhile, we are home, and the babies are (thankfully and miraculously) fast asleep (though it wasn’t without a struggle tonight). The dishwasher is purring, and the rest of the kitchen is clean while the smell of slowly rising banana bread permeates the air.

I continue to ponder with Mary.
…To pray with Joseph.
…To pursue with the shepherds.
…To praise with the angels.

I’m struck by the image of the manger. The other night, we were flipping through the channels and paused for a moment on The Bible Network – a preacher was talking about Jesus being born and laid in the manger, which he described as a trough, or a place where the animals ate their fill. I’m not really drawn to any of the shows on TBN, but for some reason, these words have stayed with me, even though we spent less than a minute listening to this TV pastor.

I’m thinking about the later Christmas Eve service, which is typically a smaller, intimate time of worship, and much slower, meditative, and usually accompanied by communion. And I find myself missing it. There is something incredibly appropriate about taking communion on Christmas Eve, and in light of what I’ve been mulling over in terms of Jesus’ second vessel (the first being Mary) being a feeding trough, it resonates for me. Jesus, being offered to us, not on a silver platter (suddenly my mind flashes to what happened to John the Baptist, but that’s neither here nor there) but in a filthy receptacle for slobbering pigs, sheep, and cows.

Once again, I’m floored by what is offered to us. It’s so basic. Jesus comes to us, to feed and fill us. To give us grace.

Perhaps, also, in this season of life, the manger is before me because I am aware of my own hunger. I long for that grace to knock me off my feet, make my heart swell, and brighten all the colors around me. I’m so exhausted but I feel like…I should be feeling so much more, and that’s what I’m hoping for this Christmas Eve, so much so that I want to just stick my head in that feeding trough and bob for grace like I’m bobbing for apples.

And then, I remember that hunger is good. It is part of what makes us human…and realize the divine. So I’m thankful for that hunger and for its connection to grace, how they mysteriously go hand-in-hand, this emptiness and satisfaction, the hollow and simultaneous satiation. A miracle of sorts, at so many levels, this God coming down to be with us, around us, for us, and in us, to lead us, fill us and to light the way.