Inscrutable titles

Amaranth
The backyard garden has become a bizarre Seussian jungle. Guion grew these giant elephant amaranth plants from seed. From seed! They are now between five to six feet tall.

“Do you ever feel lonely in your particular brand of Christianity?” I asked Guion last night, as we ate dinner on the back deck. The evening was mild, with scant humidity. The mosquitoes were out but I daresay as a reduced horde. We took our time with our food. We had been talking about the meteoric (terrifying, seemingly unflappable) rise of Donald Trump and then we took a turn toward religion. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I sometimes feel like I have more in common intellectually with agnostics or atheists than with mainstream Christians,” I said, with a fretting tone. “And what worries me more is, What if the mainstream version of Christianity really is true Christianity and I’m just clinging to this specific, progressive, grace-filled Christianity that I—and our church and Mockingbird—believe in, which isn’t real Christianity at all? Is that a problem? Do you ever worry about that?” He paused, took a sip of (weird, juicy) red wine, and said, “No. I don’t worry about that.” And so maybe I shouldn’t either.

Semi-related humbling observation/note to self: Abby, when you are eager to write off an entire swath of people, based around some media-generated stereotypes or some fervent book you just read, go meet a person from this group. Learn his name. Ask her what led her to be a part of this group. Imagine her at home, alone, with her thoughts, or him interacting with his dog in a tender way, or taking care of his mother. And let go of the judgment.

I love inscrutable, lyrical blog titles, if you can’t tell. There is usually no rhyme or reason to them; most often, they are plucked at random from the brain, frequently related to some musical phrase I have been privately enjoying.

“All I really want to do with my life is sit on the couch and eat Sabor de Soledad,” Jonathan told me recently. That about sums it up for me too.

Clan identity

(I was going to write this livid post about how all conservative religion wants to do is control women’s bodies, but, eh, been there, done that, so you’re getting this bit instead.)

Family weekend

Someone (a novelist, I think) somewhere said something to the effect of: A family is just a group of people who think they’re better than everyone else.

I think this is what people mean when they talk about “blood ties.” Love them or hate them, your family is going to inspire these super-intense reactions from you, because you’re part of their clan, for better or worse. And part of being a clan is the belief in your inherent superiority to every other clan.

Arrogant and self-serving as this is, I like this part of being a family. Of reveling in each other’s company and in your relatedness. Of feeling surges of pity for everyone else because they don’t get to be part of your clan. (This is why clubs and memberships are so appealing to us on the whole; we all want to belong to something that excludes other people, by definition.) It’s easy for me to feel this way, frankly, because I have this really fabulous, funny, and talented family.

I also feel this way about this band of friends I had during my freshman year at college. We operated like a mini-family (again, for better or worse). We ate daily meals together. We got all up in each other’s emotional business. We exchanged gifts and aphorisms. We created observable traditions. We were proud of each other and we bragged about each other’s accomplishments and talents, like cheerful siblings. We fought and forgave. And we eventually disbanded, but I still feel this surge of intense feeling when I remember them or see them, even from afar. It was a fraught family unit, but we loved each other, in our own clumsy ways.

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Remnants of my freshman-year family.

Of course, the intense pleasant feelings for one’s family are always paired with intense unpleasant feelings too. It’s part of the bargain of clan identity. You will love and hate your family more than you will love or hate almost anyone else.

These are not especially profound or novel thoughts, but they’ve been taking residence in my brain. My family is traveling to the Midwest for my grandmother’s memorial service, and I am mulling over all of those little sayings (“these are the ties that bind,” whatever that literally means) about family and family identity. But on the whole, I am pleased to be a member of my clan and to bear all of the psychological luggage that comes with it. There are very lovably complex humans in our family unit, and I delight in being with them.

Best wishes for a pleasant Memorial Day weekend to those in the US and to all those who will be plunged into clan identity gambits.

House tidying, copy editing, letter writing

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How I spent all of my free time in college: Reading for pleasure. (Here, The Portrait of a Lady!) Circa October 2008.

Recent realization: I have a very consistent personality. Since I was a small child, I have been this way. Here’s the progression, as best I can chart it.

1. WORDS, READING THEM

It starts with words. When I was two, I would sit on my grandfather’s lap while he read the newspaper and identify letters that I knew. Letters were intrinsically interesting to me, as a baby, and I’m not sure why. I was read to continually by my family. I began memorizing full books when I was very little, but soon, by the age of three, I had taught myself how to read. (Mom says I pulled a random, unfamiliar book off the shelf while we were in the library and sat down and read it to her.) And so, naturally, I have surrounded myself with books ever since. Mom realized, when I was young, that time-out was an ineffective punishment for me. When she came in to let me out of my room, she was greeted by my solemn face as I pored over a book. “Oh, I’m not done yet, thank you,” I said dismissively. Words have always held a deep, deep pull for me. For whatever inexplicable reason.

 2. WORDS, WRITING THEM

Once I learned how to read, I then devoted myself to learning how to write. From the age of 7 until the present, I have kept a journal, mostly in handwritten form. As a child, I acquired scads of pen pals all over the country and the globe (some of whom I am still in touch with). I have always been fanatic about high-quality writing instruments and would hoard my good pens from the rest of the family. I took up calligraphy in middle school, and I am presently a calligrapher on the side. Loving words as much as I do, it has made sense to me that I should also love the process of physically writing them.

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Recent calligraphy on wedding invitation envelopes. Bluestocking Calligraphy.

3. WORDS, EDITING THEM

I was a persnickety child who loved rules. Applying this legalistic devotion to my love of reading, I cared tremendously for words and it hurt me when others did not equally care for them. (It still does. The large majority of writers on the internet, especially in the comments section, are constantly hurting my feelings, in a grammatical sense.) As a young girl, I was naturally good at spelling and at picking up the dictates of grammar (primarily through the natural osmosis of excessive reading).

I eventually went to college and got a dual degree in English (dreamy and fun) and journalism (practical and cut-throat). I thought I was going to be a reporter, because I loved print media and writing, but reporting made me extremely anxious, and I swiftly realized that I was not cut out for the competitive, high-energy demands of the job.

Around that time, I had an aggressive but insightful journalism professor who encouraged me to try copy editing. He goaded me to apply for a nationwide copy editing internship program, and I did. I got accepted and got to spend a glorious summer at the Denver Post copy editing and hiking. I had found my calling.

Copy editing, as I’ve written about before, brings me a lot of joy, and I’m really happy to be in this odd little profession. It’s a career for rule-loving introverts and jubilant nerds, and I’m delighted to be one of their number.

Quiet, simple home

4. SPACES, EDITING THEM

The leap that this personality bent takes is this: I seem to have a parallel approach to both words and spaces. I like to edit sentences. I also like to edit rooms. Or my wardrobe. Or other people’s junk drawers. Reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was a revelation. I spent about eight hours over the Christmas holiday cleaning out and organizing my parents’ closet, and it was fun for me. I loved it. The fastest route to my domestic happiness is a clean kitchen. I cannot abide visual clutter (even though I can get very lax about some things, like sweeping or dusting or vacuuming curtains, ever, in their lifetimes).

The epiphany was that my deep need for a tidy home maps perfectly onto my deep need for a tidy sentence. There’s a reason why I am this weird, obdurate person! It’s all very consistent. I understand that the reason I insist on Inbox Zero … is the reason that I can’t read a restaurant menu without itching for a red pen… is the reason that I compulsively make lists for everything I want to accomplish… is the reason that I read voraciously still… is the reason that I have to fold my shirts in a particular way… is the reason that an un-alphabetized bookshelf is anathema to me…

So. This is a poorly articulated question, but here it is: Do you find, like me, that your interests and hobbies converge into this seamless presentation of your (rather uniform) personality? In other words, the reason that you love X is because it’s really a very similar thing to your other great love, Y.

I’m sincerely curious to hear from you. I don’t think I’m alone in this…

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Sodom and Gomorrah (#2)

Sodom and Gomorrah.

#2: SODOM AND GOMORRAH, Marcel Proust.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

It is easy to get lost in Proust. He writes sentences so long and lush that you have to come up for air halfway through. His narrator’s imagination is so tangled and intricate that just a page over, you can easily forget what he started talking about in the first place. Often, the conversations are rendered in such a way that you feel like you were dropped in the middle of a party, with no reference to what anyone is discussing; you’re the loner at the cool kids’ table. And the absence of any linear plot whatsoever is just another bump in the road for your tired brain.

So, why do I keep reading this monstrosity? (This is my fourth year of reading a volume of In Search of Lost Time during the summer; I read Sodom and Gomorrah while we celebrated our first anniversary at the beach, and while it didn’t exactly make for easy beach reading, its depth and thickness filled up my long, lazy days.) Quite simply, I keep returning because I haven’t found any other author who can expand my mind like Proust can. He forces you to think differently about people, to give them the benefit of the doubt even when they don’t deserve it, and to observe every wink, every movement, every quip, believing that they are small windows into the depths of the human heart.

Marcel Proust.

It is fruitless to try to describe the narrative flow of this story, but on the most basic level, it is a bildungsroman, perhaps more obviously than the other volumes are. In Sodom and Gomorrah, the shades are finally drawn from our young narrator’s eyes. The book begins with a scandalously voyeuristic vignette, in which we find the narrator spying on the Baron de Charlus and his tailor, Jupien, while they make love in a courtyard. More than ever before, Proust allows his narrator to explore the period’s complex social relationship with homosexuality, which permits the upper class to both ignore and flaunt gayness to varying degrees, and to examine his own sexual identity. While the narrator continues to pout, flop around, and toy with the emotions of his girlfriend, Albertine, there is an awakening in his consciousness that we have not seen before.

Alongside these personal revelations, the narrator is also realizing that the upper class, the people he has so desperately tried to join, are not as glorious as he once thought them. He recognizes the polite film wrapped around their coded, hierarchical speech:

I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority in those persons towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that sense, for in that case it would no longer have any reason to exist. “But you are our equal, if not our superior,” the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the most courteous fashion imaginable, to be loved, admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.

The affected personas and artificial bearings of the rich come clear to him; their displays of noblesse oblige no longer charm him. Around these epiphanies, the narrator’s beloved grandmother dies, he attempts to get engaged to his girlfriend, friends betray him, and the entire upper-class is seemingly engaged in the Dreyfus Affair. It may sound like a lot of action, but Proust is capable enough to draw out all these events into a dull roar, blurring time so that our narrator’s psyche may step out in front.

In Sodom and Gomorrah, we find a narrator thoroughly possessed by his Author, who pulls the strings to move him toward adult development and social aptitude. Proust uses all of his tricks here. No character can escape his all-seeing, all-knowing eye. On a practical level, I took more pleasure from this than I did from The Guermantes Way, the previous volume. Now we find the narrator more completely realized, more in possession of his own thoughts and motives. He is still petulant and spoiled, still too conscious of rank at times, but he is a few steps closer to the goal of wholeness and contentment.

As with the others, it is a beautiful, tangled, and complicated novel, but it is worth every meticulous word.

On being a feminist and a Christian

Hiking at ShenandoahIn the community I grew up in, the phrase “Christian feminist” would have been perceived as a laughable oxymoron. Surely, one could not be both a Christian and a feminist! This is what my childhood community believed and taught. For all of its benefits, the evangelical homeschool community has never been a champion for women. Thankfully, my parents were thinking humans. They never forced us to conform to our culture’s limiting and backward perspectives of women, which advocated that girls stay home and learn to sew and practice “godly homemaking,” in preparation for the strapping husband who would show up at their doorsteps to court them in a pre-arranged agreement between their respective fathers. We knew some families who wouldn’t let their girls learn how to drive or go to college. This is not a joke. These extremely patriarchal notions were taught, believed, and perpetuated. I am always grateful, however, that these beliefs were not taught, believed, or perpetuated by my parents. My sister, for heaven’s sakes, became a nationally acclaimed hockey player. If that’s not a slap in the face to the conservative picture of meek, dainty girlhood, I don’t know what is.

As I grew up, I learned to laugh about the misogynistic ways of the community I was raised in. All of the tight-fisted and closed-minded reasons I had for clinging to conservative gender philosophies began to fall away. My university education was eye-opening, as it was for all of us to varying degrees. In particular, I began to respect women as artists and academics in a way that I had not before. My primary school and high school education, while broad, was traditional and credible information always came down from the infallible hands of a white man. The university introduced a new way of thinking and a new way of perceiving women as leaders, teachers, and creators. UNC-Chapel Hill, unlike other universities of its size and prestige, does not give preference to applicants based on gender; so, UNC’s class profile is nearly 60 percent female. I had no shortage of intelligent, capable, ambitious young women to surround myself with. As you know by now, I also fell in love with Virginia Woolf and her beautiful and compelling words in her essays, novels, and letters were particularly formative for me.

But as all of my old beliefs about women were chipped away, what continued to bother me was how those patriarchal ideas about men and women weren’t entirely gone from my life. Vestiges of these patriarchal politics cropped up in the Christian groups and churches all around me. Yes, they weren’t as blatant as what I knew as a homeschooler, but the church at large wasn’t very progressive toward women. The general message I received from church was that I, as a woman, was expected to serve on the cupcake committee but not contribute to church leadership, which was a boys-only club; I was expected to be a stay-at-home mother and if I wasn’t, I was failing God, America, and my children; I needed men to teach me anything worth knowing.

This struck me as odd. It still does, I guess. Jesus was all about justice and fairness for women. Things get murky with Paul and other writers, but if we’re just talking about what Jesus did and said, his approach toward women was extremely radical and loving. Women were not second-class humans to Jesus, although they were to the rest of his entire civilization. Jesus would not have asked the ladies he knew to bake cupcakes while the men did important stuff. No! Some of the very first churches were started by women in women’s homes (at least in the beginning, until they were edged out of any positions of leadership). From what we know of Jesus in the Gospels, women deserved the same respect, attention, and education that men did. While the world at large still doesn’t believe this (yes, even us “modern” Americans, where women are STILL paid 77 cents for every male dollar for the same jobs), shouldn’t the Church at least believe this?

Yet. It’s not polite to self-identify as a feminist among Christians. This was something I learned early on. Eyebrows shoot up. Women whisper that you shouldn’t say that; don’t you want to get married? Men back away. Suddenly, you’re not a thinking human, you’re a MAN HATER! A destroyer of FAMILY VALUES! A lot of Christian men I know are afraid of feminist women. In their defense, they may have met some unfortunately vociferous and self-righteous feminists who made them feel evil just for being male. That’s wrong. But this, however, is not the majority of feminists. The majority of feminists I know love men and want men to do well and prosper. But they also want women to do well and prosper. That’s all. When I say I’m a feminist, all I mean is that women should be treated like Jesus treated them. In love, fairness, justice, and equality under the law. The majority of women around the world today are not treated with fairness and justice. This is why I call myself a Christian feminist.

Feminist friends find it hard to believe that I’m a Christian. It goes both ways; they also see the terms as exclusive. I remember the disapproving and surprised looks from my Harvard-educated lesbian thesis adviser when she found out that not only was I a Christian, but I was also getting married at the age of 22. “I know how this looks,” I always wanted to tell her. “I’m writing a thesis about the subjugation of married woman in a patriarchal society, and here I am getting married straight out of college! I know it sounds like I have no self-awareness! Maybe I don’t. But I think these values of feminism and Christianity can live together peaceably.”

They can, after all. If Jesus wasn’t a feminist, I don’t know who is.