Wednesday, December 30, 2020

feeling complexity

 One of the most important lessons I've learned, and that I have tried to teach my children, is that you get to feel your feels. Our shared experience of the cycles of grief since their father died seven and a half years ago has been one of sadness and fear and anxiety and concern and anger. Those are the expected feelings for people experiencing tragedy and loss. 

But our experience has also been joy and wonder and laughter and love. 


This is, I think, a lesson that bears repeating, and even shouting, right now as we come to the end of 2020.

This year has been one tragedy after another. The world has battled a pandemic caused by a novel virus with no cure and little effective treatment. Fascism has reared its ugly head in the US and elsewhere. The systemic violence of white supremacy has shattered the lives of more Black folks, Indigenous Americans, and other people of color. Unemployment and precarious employment have destabilized our lives, threatening access to health care, to housing, and to food. Natural disasters have ripped through communities. Some threads of commentary on social media hold that despair is the only possible response. 

Certainly, 2020 has been a year of mourning and lamentation. Fear, anxiety, sadness, anger--all of these are valid responses. It feels like just surviving this year is an accomplishment akin to running a tough mudder. As we arrive at the end, we bear the visible marks of our endurance. 

These are, however, not the only valid responses to the year.  

Even as the world has borne trauma after tragedy after trauma after tragedy, people have gotten married, babies have been born, relationships have been strengthened, birthdays have come, personal milestones have been reached. It might feel strange to celebrate during a shit year for the world. Some might say it's a bit like fiddling while Rome burns. 

Let me tell you, though, you deserve to celebrate your wins. You deserve to feel joy. You deserve to smile and laugh. Marriages are sacred, birth and birthdays are magic, relationships and milestones are hard won. Whatever your feelings are, take the time to feel them without shame or judgement. Then, and only then, reflect on the actions you can take to make 2021 a better year for you, for your community, and for the world. 

It's difficult, I know. Americans are, on the whole, terrible at nuance and complexity. But I believe in your ability to feel two things at the same time. 

The pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, the epidemic of violence caused by white supremacy, and the wave of storms and fires caused by global climate change are awful. We must acknowledge these realities, and we must commit to taking action to change these things. At the same time, though, we can celebrate our lucky wins and our hard-fought ones. 

When you share cake with your household on your birthday, you also know that thousands of Americans will die that day. When you toast your personal milestone with special treats, you also know that some people in your community will be going to bed hungry. When you congratulate newlyweds, you also think of the newly widowed. Don't shy away from the contradictions. 

As you reflect on 2020, if your year has been pretty good on the whole, if you have your health and your investment portfolio and your job, given thanks. Then, examine the luck and privilege that play a role alongside your hard work and look for ways to increase your giving to the established organizations in your community that are helping those who haven't had your luck and privilege. Be grateful for the joy you have and use that energy to work for the change your particular community needs. 

In 2021, resolve to feel all your feels, including the complicated, bittersweet, contradictory ones; and resolve to let those around you feel all their feels, too. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020


This post originally published as a devotion in Mount Olivet United Methodist Church's e-mail series on April 22, 2020, in the period of the stay-at-home order caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

For Christmas, my friend Kendra gave me The Green Bible, an NRSV translation with additional scholarly apparatus that promises to help the reader "understand the bible's message for the earth." I held it my hands and thought of the many bibles already collecting dust on my shelf, wondering why she thought I needed another one. Some of these thoughts must have shown up on my face (I have a terrible poker face), because she said, "to help you with your work on the Caretakers Committee."

"Ah, yes. Thank you," I said.

As it turns out, this book is the bible I didn't know I needed. It brings together ideas I had gathered from years of reading in a variety of places and synthesizes them with the familiar biblical arc from creation to fall to redemption, from Adam to David to Jesus.

The front matter includes perspectives from several Christian and Jewish scholars and creation-care activists. One powerful message that emerges among these voices is the idea that the creation was not a historical event that God completed in the past, but rather an ongoing process in which we human beings are partners with God.

This creation theology, a theology of our ongoing generative partnership with God, has broad implications for our environmental activism, particularly with regard to the scope of our efforts. A history of Earth Day would show fifty years of well-meaning initiatives and projects in schools and communities--reduce, reuse, recycle; buy recycled paper; bring your own bags; skip the straw; meatless Monday! These initiatives are well-meaning, of course, and they give otherwise busy people an action they can embrace, but too often they miss the bigger picture. These slogan-driven initiatives gloss over complexity as they strive for easy answers and single-action messages.

Creation is a complex process. As Christians, as partners with God in the ongoing process of creation, we are called to stewardship, we are called to wrestle with this beautiful mess we have helped to create. And that means zooming out to view the systems into which our actions fit. Only the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent divine creator can see all of the complexity of all of the systems, of course, but you can choose one.

This Earth Day, consider which aspect of environmental activism is most important to you--sustainable transportation, renewable energy, resilient agricultural supply chains, clothing and textile production, industrial materials, waste and compost, urban development--and commit to learning more. Read beyond the single-action slogans and let yourself be overwhelmed by the complexity of interdependent impacts on different groups of people, on wild and domestic animals, on the air and water. When you feel helpless, when it seems too complex and overwhelming, resist the temptation to go back to the slogan. You are God's partner in this creation process. God sees the whole picture, and other people are working on other systems and even other pieces of your system, you can look for something you can do on the system you care about. You might elevate the voice of an expert in this field or the perspectives of marginalized groups who are negatively impacted by the single-action slogan by sharing their work on the social media platforms you use. You might write to your elected representatives to urge them to consider the complexity of the system you care about. You might push back against rigid calls for total compliance with single-action slogans in conversations with friends and family.

Creation is a complex process, and we are in the middle of it. This middle is messy and the complexity is overwhelming. Know this: you are not obligated to do everything, but you are called to do your part well.

My prayer for us today:

May we get comfortable with discomfort. May we dwell in the overwhelming complexity of many interdependent systems. May we answer the call to educate ourselves about the systems that matter to each of us. May we act with integrity and nuance, recognizing that there are no single-action solutions. May our examples inspire others. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

significant, but not radical

This week, my niece Abigail and I made signficant changes to our hair:

A buzz cut for me, and a mohawk for her. Abigail, it turns out, was inspired by someone she'd seen online. I was just done with the shaggy stay-at-home mop my pixie cut had become. 

This is, of course, not the first time I've been frustrated by my hair. For years, I've joked about shaving it all off, and I've written about my hair angst on this blog before

While these new haircuts are significant changes for both Abigail and me, the degree to which other people treat them as radical is......not okay. 

The social norm that tells women and girls that we should have long hair, that our hair needs to be full and thick in order to be beautiful, that we should tame our hair with clips and ribbons and headbands instead of ball caps and buzz cuts, that a woman's hair is an indicator of her worth and a signal of her virtue is patriarchal bullshit. It's a holdover from a bygone era when rules also kept women from voting, holding credit, and owning businesses. 

When rules are shitty, break them. Every person gets to choose what they do with the hair on their bodies--shave it, grow it, curl it, straighten it, dye it, adorn it with ribbons--and all options are actually open to all of us. 

One friend said, 'You're a braver woman than I!' And I thought, 'I was not motivated by bravery, more by frustration and opportunity.'

But if I'm being honest, I should also say that I did this now because I have no one to impress, no reason to worry about not looking 'professional.' I'm not expecting any invitations to job interviews, my current students already expect me to do unexpected things. I've been frustrated with my hair before, and I've talked about doing this before, but I never have. I did it now because the stay-at-home order made breaking society's shitty rules safe. 

I don't know that I'll keep buzzing my hair after the world reopens. Next time, if there is a next time, Sofia and I think we should probably use the #2 setting instead of the #1, for sure. What I do know is that I've made a significant change in my appearance, and sometimes it still surprises me in the mirror. 

It also surprises me that other people see this choice as a radical one for a woman in the twenty-first century. I was not intending for this haircut to be an act of protest, but it certainly has become one. 

Nota bene: When rules are shitty, break them. But also be prepared for the consequences. The world is actually much colder when your hair is 1mm long. Hats are a good thing. 

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Lent: wilderness

Most of the time, I love my city life. I love the density of human beings and bookstores and groceries and coffee shops. I love the sidewalks and bikeways. But sometimes it can be overwhelming.

Sometimes, a ramble in the #wilderness is the only logical choice.

this post is part of Rethink Church’s photo-a-day during Lent 2020

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Lent: led

Yesterday my world literature students and I were discussing Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” so I gave them each a labyrinth on a piece of paper and told them to trace their way to the center and back out. Every time I teach this lesson, it’s interesting to watch them discover the difference between a labyrinth and a maze. This time, one student exclaimed, ‘There are no choices! Just one path, and every time I think I’m getting close to the center, it sends me away again!’

Indeed. In a labyrinth, the only choice is whether to keep going as you are led.

this post is part of Rethink Church’s photo-a-day during Lent 2020

Thursday, January 30, 2020

2019, slightly late

I usually manage to post this sort of album for you during Christmastide. This year, I assembled it except for two pesky photos that wouldn't upload properly. And then the semester started and I got busy, so it didn't happen. Here it is!

Merry Christmas 2019

But it feels right to post this album showcasing our last year today, the day after my forty-first birthday. I wrote to you last year about how scary forty felt. Forty-one feels...different.

I am relieved that I survived forty. Like I-woke-up-yesterday-and-breathed-a-sigh-of-relief relieved. Then I punched the sky and said 'Yeah! I beat him! I win!' (Keepin' it classy, I know.)

I feel lighter today than I did two days ago.

I am still in a frustrating state of career uncertainty. I've just gotten more used to it, which is not an improvement, really, just a reflection of the current reality of academic work.

I am bemused that I am the parent of an adult child. I mean, she's still in high school, but legally, she's an adult, and I'm super proud of her. And sad for Adam that he isn't here to see it.

I am, in short, a complicated, beautiful mess.

Thanks for sharing this wild ride with me.

Happy next rotation around the sun!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


Erin says that I'm part selkie. And she's not wrong.

It took me aback at first because if asked I would have said that my superpower should be flight, not the ability to don a sealskin and live underwater. But she's totally right.

If there's water nearby, I need to get as close as possible. On the particular weekend pictured above, I had flown to Chicago and dragged her to a state park resort along Lake Michigan north of the city to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. And she let me.

At Rustic Lakehouse, I set up my bed and desk in the dining room because it had the best view of the lake with two entire walls of glass, and when I think of leaving Lovely Apartment in favor of a row hose with a back garden, I'm brought up short by the thought of losing my view of the tiny ribbon of the Potomac River that we can see from the balcony.

I recently traveled to Acadia National Park with friends, and as we were planning, I was mostly interested in hiking the woods and mountains. I knew, of course, that this is a coastal park, and my friends chose for us to stay in Bar Harbor, so I was certainly aware that some time with the sea would be part of the trip.

But I wasn't prepared for the way the salt air rushed through my lungs and into my soul.

Jim and I had been hiking through the woods for a bit and emerged unexpectedly onto this sand beach, and I was overwhelmed.

As I walked ahead of Jim, the landscape filled my awareness--the sound of gentle waves in a sheltered cove, the tang of salty air, the cold breeze off the water moderated by the bright sun.

I stood like this for a while, boots sinking into loose sand, palms and face raised to the sky.

Jim called it an act of praise, but to me it felt like coming home and greeting a beloved sister. Lake Michigan and the Potomac River are like distant cousins.

When we're done hiking, we're coming back here, I said. And I'm putting my feel in the water.

And we did.

The water was so very cold and so very important.

I need to learn to take my love of salty water into account when planning my life.