A round-up, of sorts
So, I keep forgetting to post things here that I have written in other places. If you have some time this weekend for reading, here are a few pieces I have published (plus a very special essay by a friend that I implore you to read).
1. A Review of On Immunity by Eula Biss
This review (done for Books and Culture) turned out to be more timely than I could have imagined (measles outbreak, anyone?) The thing I appreciate about Biss more than anything is the fact that she has so much compassion and empathy and understands why parents fear vaccinations, but she also lays out the case for how harmful individualized choices are for the community. As someone who has always felt uneasy about vaccinations (yet I got them on schedule for my daughter) this book put me solidly in the camp of pro-vaccines due to what my theology of interconnectedness already is. For those who are similarly in a middle-ground place, this is a smart, compelling, lovely read that forces us to consider how much we do or do not love our neighbors (in a myriad of ways).
Here is the beginning of the review:
"Reading On Immunity: An Inoculation, I am unprepared to be plunged back into the high drama of first motherhood: the sleepless nights, the endless internet articles sent by earnest and well-meaning friends, the googling of symptoms, that sensation of closing the laptop with a deep unease in my stomach. I suddenly remember my daughter, six months old, happily splashing in her baby bathtub as I hovered over her. I remember vague recollections of an article where Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo had been linked to chemicals which might cause cancer. I remember absorbing the information, adding it to the litany of cautions and chastisements that had begun the moment I had learned I was pregnant. Watching my daughter gleefully slap and smash the bubbles, I felt a deep despair settle over me, staring at that tell-tale yellow bottle. Of course we, and everyone else we knew, used Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo. It was the cheapest one available. We were living in low-income housing, surrounded by families hovering near the poverty line. I watched my daughter play in her bath, both frightened and paralyzed by all that I knew. I chose to comfort myself with the blackest of thoughts. Well, if my daughter gets cancer, at least she will get cancer with all of the other poor children. I told this to my husband, wild with futility. He gently suggested that perhaps I needed to take a break from reading articles on the internet.
As Eula Biss would point out, I am but one of a slew of mothers who are trying to outrun the fears of our age. My desire to protect, to love, to nurture, to make all the right informed decisions, can be traced back to the mother of Achilles, who dipped her own baby into the River Styx in order to protect him from harm. On the cover of On Immunity, we see the mother, holding her upside-down fat cherub of a child. We see her fingers grasped around his heel, preparing to dip him into immortality. We know, of course, how this story ends. How the very place she clutches her child will, in the end, cause his undoing.
Biss takes this as her starting point in a book that is not neatly categorizable. It is a book about Achilles’ mother, and it is a book about current Western obsessions with self-preservation, especially in regard to our own children. Using vaccines as a metaphor for our fears, Biss writes a series of short, interconnected essays to highlight how—well, how very interconnected our fears, hopes, and bodies are. It is an argument for a very un-American view of science. It asks us to believe in myths, and it asks us to look at the preservation of an entire community instead of the individual."
2. A small piece of writing advice
I wrote a little bit about the best piece of writing advice I have heard in recent years over at Good Letters. If there is one faux pas of the novice (or experienced) writer that bugs me more than anything it is endless self-promotion without regard for the sharing the quality work of others. The second one would be when big name people pick on the little guys--this happened to me in a startling way this summer and I just couldn't figure out why famous people would feel the need to quash someone so obviously less-established, and in a very offhand way at that (to be clear, definitely think that criticism plays a role in refining art, just not a fan of people taking a piss at others in order to feel good about themselves/their work/their views). Anyways, let's all take a moment to reflect on how we can be more generous in sharing the work of other creatives. Here is the beginning of the piece:
“'I want to write,' people often tell me, eager to talk about the myriad ways that this happens in our mysterious, internet-driven world.
Writing means different things to different folks: “I want to get published,” or “I want to be seen,” or “I want to be heard,” or “I want to change the world.” This last one, so full of hubris and hope, is especially dear to me, and the trap I fall into the easiest.
I try and encourage others the best I can, mindful of the journey I have been on, and how I am only at the beginning. But the best thing I can say to anyone who wants to write is this: you have to be a reader, and you have to be a generous one.
Writing was never a part of my plan A: at six years old I told my family I was going to be a missionary to Madagascar, and while the geography changed, the vocation remained. Over the past few years, the combination of my chaotic life coupled with a need to process led me to start writing, and I was astonished by the community and solidarity I began to discover."
3. A Guest Post
My friend Martyn is one of my favorite new writers. Everything he does is surprising--which ain't easy when you try and write for evangelicals. He writes a column for Christ and Pop Culture that basically has iconic status now, where he takes an object steeped in Christian culture and writes an essay that somehow always makes one ponder death and life and human fragility and resurrection. He is like super smart and has some sort of high-end philosophy degree. He is a shooting star, and I don't know where he will land.
Anyways, he is getting married and asked for people to guest post for him for a bit so I wrote a little something about missionary maps (it's also very personal, which is par for the course for me I guess). Here's the start of the piece:
"The little blonde girl stands in the foyer, thick bangs in her eyes, and stares up at the large map of the world tacked to the wall of the church. At the top of the map it says that phrase she has heard her entire life: “Go Ye Into All the Earth and Create Disciples.” She reads it again.
“Go Ye.” She has memorized the shape of the continents; she knows a bit about most of them (the starving babies in Africa, the orphans in Russia, the communists in China, the shirtless cannibals in Southeast Asia); she knows all of their wants, both spiritual and material; she knows how much they need her. When will she grow, when will it be her time to go, when will all of those other verses she memorizes on Wednesday nights to get fake plastic jewels in her fake plastic AWANA crowns apply to her?
Blessed are the feet of those who bring the good news. She looks down at her own feet, clad in scuffed Mary Janes. She looks at the map again. There are faces pasted all over, portraits of families and singles, spread wide over the earth. She cannot see the feet in most of the pictures, just the smiling faces, the nicely brushed hair, the polo shirts and khaki pants. The families with the multiple children, serving in the Congo, in Guatemala, in India. The young marrieds in Russia, in China. The single women, posing alone and strong, scattered all over the map.
“Go Ye,” says the sign above the map, and the young girl stares hard at the ones who were good enough to obey. It is easy enough for her to imagine her picture up there in a few years, her hair cut short and efficient, her blessed feet clad in sensible shoes. Perhaps she will be a Bible smuggler, or an orphanage director, or an open-air preacher in the refugee camps. Her dreams fill up the map; she is not called to one specific area. She wants to live everywhere, do all the important work, save all the souls."
You can read the rest of the piece here. And be sure to check out the other columns!
4. The Proper Weight of Fear
Now, I did not write this next piece but my good friend Rachel Pieh Jones did and it is stunning--so stunning, that I wanted to make sure I shared it with all of you. Rachel lives in Djibouti and lives the most fascinating, authentic life. My life is very far away from hers yet we are connected in so many ways (the apartments she writes about living in Minneapolis, where she first met all her Somali friends, is where I currently teach). It is a great look into the culture and climate of Somalia too, for those of you who are interested (or obsessed, like myself). It is a long, lush read, so I suggest taking some time this weekend to sit down with a cup of coffee and savoring it. Here's the beginning of the piece:
"As soon as the Jubba Airways plane lands I fold in on myself. I tug on my black scarf with fringes and a maroon hem, settle it over the masar that already tightly conceals my curly blond hair. I defer to my husband. I disembark behind him. I keep my eyes on the ground. I don’t smile at the immigration officer, make small talk, or even look at the Somali man with the power to deny me entry. I’ve been here before, to Somaliland, done these things before.
So when the woman behind me presses her large purse with the gaudy gold buckle and her massive breasts into my back in a futile attempt at moving forward in line, I press back. I speak in a voice even more hushed than my normally quiet voice. I notice the color of my ankles, peachy beige, and the way they flash, scandalously, if the wind blows just so and lifts my long black dress.
The first time I landed in Hargeisa was in 2003. Less than a year later my family was part of an evacuation of all foreigners, after three expatriates were murdered.
Annalena was shot in the head in the dirt lot outside her tuberculosis/HIV clinic in Boroma, a ten-minute walk from our house in the village that we referred to as the end of the earth. Her murder is still unsolved. Richard and Enid were English teachers in an even more remote village. Drive to Boroma and keep on driving, over the edge of the end of the earth, and you will find yourself in Sheikh. The couple was shot through the windows of their home there while watching television in the evening. Their murderer was put on death row, where he remains. I sometimes wonder who died first, if they knew what was happening, if they tried to grasp hands in the space between the living and the dying. Their maid found their bodies the next morning. The television was still on.
I never met the Eyeingtons but their death has shaped the past ten years of my life. I never met them but I attended their memorial service in Nairobi, Kenya. I wanted to memorialize what they had given to Somalia and what we all had lost. A life. A dream. Educating leaders in a country awkwardly and painfully pulling itself out of hell. I never met the Eyeingtons but I will never forget them."
So that's it. Have a great weekend, everyone. I am going to take my daughter swimming for the first time this winter and then spend my weekend in a training learning how to work with traumatized people. You know, like you do.