Favorite Non-Fiction of 2017

I didn’t get a chance to write about all of my favorite books as I read them this year, so instead, I thought I’d do an end-of-the-year wrap-up. Be on the lookout for my fiction favorites, which I should be posting in a week or two!

March: Book Three, John Robert Lewis I read this book while on my social justice-focused spring break trip to Memphis, Tennessee. I already wrote some thoughts about this book after that trip, so I’ll just briefly repeat myself: if you want to learn about the civil rights movement but feel overwhelmed by the breadth of the subject, this graphic novel series is a good place to start. By focusing on Representative John Robert Lewis’s life, readers enter into an engaging, maddening, and moving history of our country.

Black Boy, Richard Wright This book surprised me. I read it for my thesis research, and it makes such a compelling argument for the importance of access to education and to stories that it quickly gained a place on my favorites list. It does all this while being, primarily, a memoir of Wright’s childhood in the South in the early 1900s. He uses his own experience to demonstrate the role the written word can play in human flourishing.

I wanted a life in which there was a constant oneness of feeling with others, in which the basic emotions of life were shared, in which common memory formed a common past, in which collective hope reflected a national future. But I knew that no such thing was possible in my environment. The only ways in which I felt that my feelings could go outward without fear of rude rebuff or searing reprisal was in writing or reading, and to me they were ways of living.

When We Were on Fire, Addie Zierman This memoir is about the on-fire faith we can feel as adolescents and the way this faith can fail us and leave us empty. It’s about the search for something truer—more complicated and more nourishing. It is also about relationships: how your first love can burn hot and, like that first faith, leave you barren when it is extinguished. It is about depression and finding a way through it; it is about making a home and a family in this hard world. So much of Addie’s story echoes my own. While reading this, I was broken and made new. It is full of so much truth and so much encouragement.

…maybe this is the way you move on. You find the small slivers of light, and you hunker down in them. You hole up in the still warmth of this kind of beauty and you wait, knowing that the beams will get wider and wider every day. Knowing that one day, you will wake into the full power of the sun, and you will finally be warm.

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Felicity, Mary Oliver This book showed up in my favorite poets post a few months back. I mentioned then that her poems often take the natural and the spiritual as their subject, but nestled in this collection is also a delightful bunch of love poems. Coming from a woman in her 80s, I am inclined to trust what these poems have to say about love. They speak of love that is tender and kind, joyful and true. Here is a poem from Felicity called “Everything That Was Broken”

Everything that was broken has
forgotten its broknness. I live
now in a sky-house, through every
window the sun. Also your presence.
Our touching, our stories. Earthy
and holy both. How can this be, but
it is. Every day has something in
it whose name is Forever.

What were some of your favorite books of the year?

 

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Nature as classroom and teacher

“In the years before the Civil War, nature emerged in Transcendentalist thought as the ideal environment for moral, cultural, and intellectual development.” —Abigial A. Van Slyck, Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture

I have always felt a closeness to the natural world. This comes, I think, from a childhood spent on the prairies of Nebraska where my ancestors lived from and with the land. While my path through graduate school draws me indoors in front of a computer for hours a week, I still try to listen to my soul’s pull toward nature, for healing and growth. When I went home this summer and worked in the hayfields, I felt, viscerally, that it is good to do work that leaves you dirty and sore and tired. It is good to do work that connects you to the messy particularity of a place.

One thing I did not expect about living in a new country was the need to learn a new seasonal rhythm. Cold weather came slowly this fall, leading me to believe that time was also passing more slowly. November, though it arrived right on time, surprised me. Its brilliant warm afternoons whispered of late summer.

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The different pace of seasons here in France does not feel like a betrayal. Rather, I am thankful for it. It helps ground me in the reality of this new place.

I want new practices to further my connection with the specificities of nature in this country. Gabriel Popkin suggests the practice of learning to identify the trees you see around you every day. “It’s…a way to start paying attention,” Popkin writes.

“For me, learning about trees is more about seeing, and knowing. It’s about not being a stranger in my own country.

And it’s about not letting the built environment make me too tame. When you engage with a tree, you momentarily leave the human-created world.”

As the trees lose their leaves, I think it’s time I pick up an interest in them.

What I Learned (About Myself) While Traveling Alone

At the end of October, I went on a week-long trip to Italy. For the first half of the trip, I met up with a friend and explored the east coast. Then I went off on my own to Florence for the final four days. Here are three things I learned about myself in that time.

  1. I like taking it slow. Wandering through a neighborhood is often more fulfilling to me than blazing through museum after museum. Sure, maybe I miss out on seeing one of the most famous sculptures in the western world, but in exchange, I get a few hours of contentment discovering quirky street art and architecture, tasting local treats, and stepping into shops that don’t make it onto most tourist maps. The slow work of walking and seeing fills me up.IMG_8209Also in the taking-it-slow vein, I allowed myself the freedom and pleasure of going to bed early during this trip. Thanks to daylight saving time, the sun set around 5pm every day, and the dark and the cold made wandering around a strange city by myself a little less fun. Instead of putting myself in uncomfortable situations for the sake of experiencing as much of Florence as absolutely possible, I let myself off the hook and decided 8pm was an acceptable time to settle down with a book for the night.
  2. A little bit of planning in the food realm goes a long way. This could be said about many categories (restaurants, museums, transportation, etc), but on this trip, I was particularly aware of how nice it was to have a list of pre-vetted restaurants at the ready. A couple hours of research at home saved me the agony of walking around a strange city, hungry and indecisive. Food is one of my favorite cultural experiences when traveling, so I want to make every meal count. I ended up eating some amazing meals in Florence. See below for my culinary recommendations.  
  3. I am good company. While planning this trip, I was reluctant to spend so many days alone. I am so glad I took the risk, though, because never once did I get tired of being with myself. There were a few times when I wished I had a friend along to share the delicious experience with or for some assistance in deciding between two plans of action, but otherwise, I was perfectly satisfied with my own companionship. I cherished the ability to move at my own pace, to nerd out at an old library for longer than most people would deem necessary, to eat when I was hungry, to sit in a garden and read and people-watch while the sun sank below the horizon. For days I was alone my own thoughts. At the beginning of this trip, that prospect terrified me, but by the end, I had made friends with my mind. _MG_3629Since moving to France, I’ve eaten at a restaurant alone for the first time, took a solo day trip for the first time, and now I’ve done a multi-day trip by myself. I feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride in the independence I am growing into here. There are still things that intimidate me, including the fear of loneliness, but I am learning how capable I am to handle them.

 

Emily-Approved Florence Restaurants

  • La Prosciuterria: I had the most divine sandwich with thinly sliced cured beef, big chunks of cheese, fresh tomatoes, salt, and olive oil on a flat bread. It was my first taste of Florence and set the tone for an excellent visit.
  • Le Volpi e l’Uva: This is a wine bar where you can order small dishes as well. I had a glass of white wine and a piece of bread with melted cheese, fresh tomatoes, and olives.
  • Tamerò Pizzeria: A hip pizza place. There is a pasta place with the same name that I didn’t get a chance to try but looked really good. I got a pizza with ham and mushrooms.
  • Fuori Porta: I was determined to get some pasta in my belly before leaving Italy! At Fuori Porta I had pici (thick round noodles) with wild boar ragù. Paired with a glass of chianti classico, this was one of my favorite meals.

 

Reading Series: Favorite Poets

I was laying in bed two nights ago trying to decide what to write about this week. I knew I wanted to talk about reading in some form, but I couldn’t decide which book to focus on. I’ve read some really wonderful titles over the last few months, but it doesn’t feel like the right time to write about any of them just now. I watched this video a few weeks ago, and it got me thinking about which poets I would recommend. So I landed on this: a short list of my favorite poets—specifically poets whose poems I prefer to read (which is to say I’m not including spoken-word poets on this list, and maybe they’ll get their own list in the future). So without further ado, here are my favorite poets to read.

Margaret Atwood: I’ve written about Margaret Atwood before on this blog, but my, oh, my do I love her. I first came across her work on Tumblr; this line, specifically, is what I first read of Atwood: “Hearts are said to pound:
 this is to be expected, the heart’s 
regular struggle against being drowned.” I squirreled away those lines until I needed to write a paper in my Critical Approaches to Literature class—one of the hardest classes I took in college—and I dug through my scraps of poetry and chose Atwood. That began my deep dive into her poetry.

One of my favorite poems by Atwood is called “The Settlers.”

They dug us down

into the solid granite

where our bones grew flesh again,

came up trees and

grass.

Now horses graze

inside this fence of ribs, and

 

children run, with green

smiles, (not knowing

where) across

the fields of our open hands.

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Mary Oliver: I was first introduced to Mary Oliver by my resident director at Taylor University; she sent me a note with a couple of Mary Oliver quotes after we had a talk about faith and doubt. Later on in college, I was assigned Mary Oliver books for various writing classes. Most recently, I went to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris and was overwhelmed and overjoyed by their huge selection of books. The poetry section on the second floor drew me in, and I found this lovely copy of Felicity. I’ve been soaking up the poems in this collection little by little. Her poetry is beautifully restorative and contemplative. It balances the miraculous mundane of the natural world with the untouchable ether of the spiritual realm.

Here’s the beginning of a beautiful piece titled “I Wake Close to Morning”

Why do people keep asking to see

God’s identity papers

when the darkness opening into morning

is more than enough?

Nayyirah Waheed: A couple of years ago, Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry was all over social media, with dozens of people posting photos of her minimalist poetry. The craze seems to have died down recently, and I think that’s a shame. I read her collection salt. last year and thought it was phenomenal and important. I wrote a paper for one of my graduate classes in which I used Waheed’s salt. to complement the assigned reading, Dark Matters by Simone Browne. Waheed writes about race, colonization, gender, and cultural appropriation in a way that is personal and direct. If you want to learn more about any of these topics from the perspective of a black woman, I highly suggest this collection.

black women breathe flowers, too.

just because

we are taught to grow them in the lining of our

quiet (our grandmothers secret).

does not mean

we do not swelter with wild tenderness.

we soft swim.

we petal.

we scent limbs.

love.

we just have been too long a garden for sharp

and deadly teeth.

so we

have

grown

ourselves

into

greenhouses.

 

—greenhouses

Do you have a favorite poet or poem? Share it below!

Politics and Empathy

I spent this weekend crying over Puerto Rico.

Yesterday morning I woke up to the news of the shooting in Las Vegas and so many dead.

I don’t like to get political online—not because I don’t have political opinions, but because I don’t want to take the heat for having opinions that others disagree with. I’m also wary of having lasting evidence of my younger self’s beliefs on the internet. I want to give myself space to change my mind. And that is so privileged of me.

But if it’s political of me to cry over people dying, sign me up. I’ll cry a dozen political rivers a week.

Politics are complicated; I know that. Every policy I try to engage with—whether concerning relief efforts or the citizenship status of unincorporated US territories or gun control or health care—is more complex and nuanced and tangled up than I can understand. Every politician has done things they should be ashamed to have in bold type on the front page of a newspaper (we all have, I think). It’s so complicated, and I can’t see a clear way through this mess.

But.

I do understand this: My heart moves towards those whose homes are filled with water and ripped from the earth. My heart pulls towards those who are not able to evacuate, for whatever reason. My heart aches for those shot dead by one heartless man and for families of those victims; for the concert-goers who survived but will live with the trauma of that night forever.

And when my heart moves like this, the politics fall away. The laws and policies are unimportant in the strong light of this compassion and empathy. Political affiliation means so little in times like this. Compassion and empathy—the ability to see people and connect with their visceral humanity instead of standing behind issues and laws—those are my motivators today.

If you read this post as too political, so be it. Our government and politicians, as representatives of the people, do have a lot to answer for. And if it’s radical (or even, heaven forbid, liberal) to be lead by empathy and compassion, that’s a label I’m willing to bear.

And here’s my call to action: donate money or time to a cause your heart pulls you toward. Give to hurricane relief funds. Give to earthquake relief funds. Donate blood. Call your senators to talk about issues that are important to you. Donate to shelters in your hometown. Do something.

Here are some links to make it easier for you:

www.convoyofhope.org/donate/

act.moveon.org/donate/hurricane-maria

Summer 2017

Summer 2017 has been full.

I went to Germany and Poland with my family in May.

In June, I moved back to the ranch and helped in the hay fields. The beginning of July brought a gathering of family and friends to Valentine.

Then I transitioned into a long weekend in Colorado with more family and more friends. And mountains!

I got my wisdom teeth out (that was not a highlight of the summer).

My parents and I visited my brother and sister in Missouri. I used to hate going down to Missouri, but it’s growing on me.

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Chicago was up next, with an appointment at the consulate and a boat tour along the river and out onto Lake Michigan.

Nebraska was in the path of the eclipse’s totality, so we loaded up a vehicle and drove two hours south and sat and waited and witnessed one of the most beautiful and wonder-full occurrences I’ve seen in my life. Pictures don’t do it justice, even the professionals’. I think maybe the closest I can get to reliving the enormity and magnificence of totality without seeing it again in person is listening to audio recordings of my fellow humans losing their composure over the event. There are some of those captured moments at the beginning and end of this podcast. The whole episode is delightful, and I highly recommend listening to it all.

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And now—in one week!—I’m moving to France. If you’d like to get a closer look at this looming adventure of mine, I’m starting a Tinyletter. You can sign up to receive it here. I plan to keep blogging, but the letter will be a more informal and (hopefully) more frequent update on what’s going on over there in France.

Goodbye for now! Enjoy the rest of your summer.

Colorado

Colorado helped me believe in fairies again.

Not fairies as corporeal beings with wings, but fairies as a stand in for magic and childish wonder, for serendipity and felicitous simplicity, for the feeling I get when I reread my favorite book and marvel at the conjurings of words on a page.

On an evening hike along a ridge, when the sky to the west is pastel peach and orange and purple from fog or haze or dust, and afternoon heat and rain releases the spicy musty scent of pines into the air, my spirit begins to rest. The weeks leading up to this moment have been long, hard, lonely. But in the mountains, where cell phone signal is weak, with a college friend who has a bed to spare and a list of hiking trails to choose from, I feel as if I am coming home to a younger, more-ready-to-believe-in-fairies version of myself.

When, in the cool of the morning, we sit on benches in a clearing in the woods, alone with the dew, the waking rustles of small animals, and our thoughts, I hold in my hand, hot and pulsing, the ancient belief that if I look close enough, I might just see something miraculous emerge from the trees. It might not be a fairy or any other magical beast, but it might, miraculously, be joy.

mountain wildflowers

Later that day, we hike up a mountain and talk about books for hours. We marvel loudly at the wildflowers. Then the hail finds us, and I am aware of the smallness of my life and the largeness of the world. I begin to realize how ill-prepared I am for this hike, but I think this is the most beautiful mountain my two legs have ever carried me up. We keep going and I am terrified and in awe. As we walk back down the mountain my toes go numb from trudging through piles of hail on the path.

mountain lake

The next day, we have a lazy afternoon at a lake nestled against a mountain range. Between two trees, I sit in my hammock for the first time. We eat hot dogs and splash in a stream. My friend and I borrow two kayaks from the family we are with. We haven’t been on the water long when we see and hear a wall of rain drumming along across the lake. Laughter seems like the appropriate response. I throw my head back and laugh at the serendipity of it all. When we are our most vulnerable—crossing the tree line or paddling out to the middle of the lake—the skies unleash their torrent on us. We can race back to shore, we can take cover under a hammock, but we will never truly escape this downpour untouched.

I am not mad at our bad luck; I am not scared. I am joyous. This weekend, I have walked into the wilderness and it has met me with the honesty of itself. In 48 hours, it has shown me solace and fury, peace and tumult, and it has all been good. It has woken me up to the enchantment of this world.

Reading Series: The Most Human Human

It seems that every few weeks, this blog turns into a diary of my emotional health practices. Sorry if you’re not here for that, but I obviously am (this is my blog, after all).

On my radar most recently has been mindfulness. A few months ago, I found Alayna Fender’s Youtube channel. She has made a series on mindfulness and self-compassion. The way Alayna talks about mindfulness makes it feel extremely accessible; it’s not about striving or reaching some perfect Zen state. It’s about noticing your days and moments as they are happening.

We should approach every experience as if it’s our first time. We take the ordinary for granted. We take the things we see and smell and taste and feel every single day for granted. Even though you’ve heard the wind in the trees a thousand times, notice it. Hear it again. Approaching every experience as if it’s a new one strips away our previous judgment and allows us to have a fresh start.

Noticing is hard. It takes energy that, when I’m in the thick of a semester and trudge from bed to work to class to bed, I think isn’t available for such a frivolous thing as being mindful. It requires that I open myself up to excitement and enjoyment as well as pain and disappointment—and every other ordinary emotion in between. But the expended energy is worth it to so I can catch up with myself throughout the day and readjust plans if necessary.

Alayna’s videos pair nicely with a book I read for my communication theory class last winter: The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian. Brian explores the question of what it means to be human. I find his answers satisfying. The key to being human, Brian concludes, is showing up to the moments that compose our days and resisting the temptation of streamlined interactions that our automated, autocorrected world offers us.

…complacency—because it is a form of disengagement—is a whisker away from despair. I don’t want life to be “solved”; I don’t want it to be solvable. There is comfort in method: because we don’t always have to reinvent everything at every minute, and because our lives are similar enough to others’ lives, the present similar enough to the past that, for example, wisdom is possible. But wisdom that feels final rather than provisional, an ending rather than a starting point, that doesn’t ultimately defer to an even larger mystery is deadening (92).

Sinking into the comfort of routine is nice; routine can keep us sane. A morning cup of tea, reading before bed, soaking in a hot bath once a week—these routines helped me through weeks of grad school and teaching. But routine can also deaden us, as Brian says. It can lead us to approach our days as obligations and our encounters with the people around us as drudgery. If we only see as far as our routines allow us, we blind ourselves to the details and delights of the wide world beyond our expectations.

Mindfulness helps me expand my vision. It’s a practice I’m trying to pick up in this interim season of my life when I’m living once again in my childhood home. Here and now, mindfulness is prayer.

If you’re interested in mindfulness or what it means to be human, I highly recommend Alayna’s video series and Brian’s book.

The highest ethical calling, it strikes me, is curiosity (257).

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A Student of Travel

In one of my college classes, I was introduced to the concept of literary citizenship. My professor encouraged us to be active participants in the literary world. This meant reading and commenting on blogs, buying and reading books and literary magazines, writing book reviews, talking to our friends about books, creating our own content in support of and in conversation with existing literature.

These simple actions helped me develop a sense of belonging and worth that I had struggled to nurture before this point. Before learning and practicing what it meant to be a literary citizen, I had felt like a nuisance and imposter in the literary community. But thinking of myself, and all the other readers and aspiring writers like me, as a vital part of the community emboldened me to claim my place in the literary world. My feedback and support of authors and creators was and is valuable.

These days, I’m taking the things I learned in that class and applying them to new situations.

As a quick side note, a few months back I listened to a This Rhetorical Life episode critiquing the rhetoric of citizenship. That conversation is playing in my mind as I think back on the literary citizenship I learned. I don’t think the term “citizen” is necessary here. The literary world shouldn’t be shrouded in language that connotes governmentality and belonging (citizen) that is countered with unbelonging (alien). You do not need proof of citizenship within any community to be a reader, creator, or lover of literature.

This hesitancy to use “citizen” language forces me to get creative in finding other language that describes active participation in a community. Right now, I’m going to use the word “student” in a setting in which “citizen” might be the first word you reach for.

Over the last few months, I’ve been traveling and thinking about traveling a lot. I spent a week in Memphis in March. Last month I traveled to Germany and Poland. Travel, for me, is fraught with implications of exploitation. I try to approach travel as a student instead of as a tourist. As I wrote about in one of my Memphis blogs, learning about a place before I go there is important to me. My most meaningful trips have been the ones where I studied up on the history, culture, and politics of the place.

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This fall, I’m moving to France for ten months. It will be, by far, my longest stay in another country.

I don’t want to go as a tourist, and I won’t be going as a citizen either. Instead, I want to be a student of the place. And just as I found my place in the literary community while practicing participation, I hope to do the same with France. I am learning the language. I want to read up on the history, follow the news, dive into the culture—get invested in this country across the ocean. Learn all it has to teach me, and offer what I can through my interest and involvement.

I’ll try my best to keep you updated as I go, to share with you what I’m learning. But right now, I need your help building my syllabus. What recommendations do you have for French books, films, documentaries, music, or blogs? Merci!

Art Journals

Over the past few years, I’ve been finding my way back to art. I’ve been inspired by people like Caroline of Made Vibrant and Crystal of #yearofcreativehabits. This year, I made it one of my goals to create every day. I have a huge list of creative projects I want to tackle, but so far I’ve mostly been focusing on mini art journals. And I wanted to share them with you! I’ve finished three this year. Most days I only spend a few minutes putting a few pieces on paper, so it’s slow going. But I love it. I gather inspiration and bits of paper from the world around me, then make something with it.

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Work in progress.

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This is my first art journal of 2017. I was exploring ideas of expanding and moving outward. Pictured is one of my favorite spreads—the words are cut from a running shoe catalog and a bra catalog and make a lovely found poem.

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Here’s the second art journal of the year. This one memorialized a quick trip I made to Nebraska in February. Winters are really hard for me, especially because they last so long where I live in Michigan. Being able to spend an unseasonably warm weekend in my home state with my family was the perfect respite, and I loved capturing some of the small, precious moments on paper.

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And this is the third art journal! It’s pretty short and filled with warm, bright colors to celebrate sunnier days. It’s going to be sent to a dear friend later this week!

Finally, I’ll leave you with a quick glance through all three journals! Enjoy.