Dear Annie Dillard

Dear Annie Dillard,

Would you believe me if I told you I’ve been trying to write this letter for seven years?

Perhaps I should start at the beginning, when I am a silent slip of a girl too self-conscious to inhabit her skin. Or perhaps I should start an hour after, when I am home, alone in my room, book open, fingers vaguely trembling from the staggering force of your words. But of course to start there, you must know my background, and that’s simply to much to fit into a single letter, and maybe I should set this aside and start to write a book.

I am babbling.

This is the part where I tell you who I am, what book I’m talking about, and why it’s come to mean so much to me, but these are the things that I can’t possibly write.

Do you understand, Annie? Of course you don’t. You are in a cabin with your husband in Virginia. You are painting and writing letters and living your own wild life. You have no idea who I am.

That’s the funny thing about writing, isn’t it? You put these marks down on paper and send them out into the world and suddenly they’re changing the lives of people you’ve never met.

I have read you in bathtubs, in creeks, in rivers, on top of mountains, and in dark dank pits. I have carried you through the streets of Portland, across fallen logs in Colorado, and down empty sidewalks of a college campus when I couldn’t bear to go to church. I have read you in the best of times and the worst of times and all the times between. I have spent whole semesters rolling in your words, reveling in the light and life they bestowed upon me, quoting them to anything and anyone who would stop long enough to hear me. You have inspired essays, infused journals, and insinuated yourself into every nook and cranny of my life.

And I am thankful.

I am so, so thankful.

Last year I read you alone in a giant house with only a stranger’s dog for company, read you with tears on my cheeks and a lump swelling in my throat. Last year I read you aloud, breaking the silence of the room like I broke my own heart every time I tried to picture my future and failed. Last year I read you, and wondered if you would be the last I ever read.

This year, I read you on the balcony outside my apartment while the breeze teased my hair and my roommate’s cat nosed my heels. This year, I took my time with you, not caring when my attention strayed, because this year, I knew I’d read you again—next year, and the next year, and all the years after that.

And maybe one of those years, I’ll finally figure out how to explain what you’ve done for me. But for now, this will suffice.

Love,

A girl who writes

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Lately

I am learning that

it’s okay to be silent

it’s okay to be angry

it’s okay to cut down on social media without explaining why

it’s okay to seek to grow

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it’s okay to admit you’re not okay

it’s okay to say you never felt loved

it’s okay to find love somewhere else

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it’s okay to find church in someplace other than a building

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it’s okay to be nostalgic

it’s okay to ask for hugs

it’s okay to miss someone

it’s okay to take your time

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it’s okay to spend half an hour courting the cat’s affections

it’s okay to watch only Julia Roberts movies for a month

it’s okay to cry when your favorite person wins her second Emmy,

and it’s okay to have a story behind those tears,

but it’s also okay to cry just because you’re happy

 

it’s okay to admit you’re struggling to love someone

it’s okay to seek a chosen family

it’s okay to love them fiercely

it’s okay to laugh

it’s okay to cry

it’s okay.

you’re okay.

you are learning

you are growing

you are doing just fine

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In Search of Mama God, Part 1

If you follow me on social media, you’ve probably noticed that I’m a sucker for feminist theology. Women’s roles, the feminine divine, and talk of Mother God light me up. However, since my passion for this subject is relatively new, I’ve kept my posts to a minimum. Lately, though, I’ve had several people express their interest in hearing about my quest for Mama God.

Like most of my stories, this one begins with books. Actually, it begins with paper and pen on a desk in a classroom at my conservative Church of Christ school as I listen to my women’s lit professor blast Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem for all the administration to hear, but that’s a story for another post. For now, all you need to know about my quest for Mama God is this:

Girl meets women’s lit, girl’s eyes are opened to the world’s injustices, girl’s heart breaks. Girl becomes an angry feminist, then a sad feminist, then a lost one. Girl decides she doesn’t believe in God, realizes she must believe in God, and begins to earnestly seek God. Girl cries out to God. God answers.

There is, of course, more to the story, and you will read it eventually. But for now, while I’m putting my vulnerable little ducks in a row, I offer what I always do: books.

Breaking Ground

It didn’t start with Mama God. It started with confusion. When I set out on this journey — this attempt to reconcile the faith of my childhood with the crisis of my college years — I had no idea where to start. Even after I took the time to write down all my questions, I still didn’t know what to tackle. Should I research baptism? women’s roles? homosexuality? My questions ranged all over the place and left me overwhelmed. Thankfully, I had adults in my life who were open to my questioning, and after consulting them, I decided to start with the basics. This led me to a book called Reading the Bible Again for the First Time by Marcus J. Borg.

10180068Though it isn’t about feminist theology, I encourage you to start with this book. It will equip you with a lot of the tools you’ll need, and it’s a great primer for the more complex books you’ll encounter down the road. (Additionally, if you come from an uber-conservative background like I do, Borg’s approach to reading the Bible will help you tamp down the voices in your head that insist you’re going to hell for asking all these questions.)

I’ve written about Borg more thoroughly in this post, so all I’ll say is this: Take what you need and leave the rest. This applies to all the books on this list, but perhaps especially to Borg’s. He has some great insights on what it means to read the Bible literally, but personally, I can’t go as far as he does when it comes to Jesus and the Gospels. But you know what? That’s okay. I don’t have to agree with him 100% to benefit from his work.

Note: If you enjoy Borg’s book but wish it dug a little deeper, William L. Holladay’s Long Ago God Spoke offers a more rigorous treatment, specifically of the Old Testament and its most problematic passages.

Getting Started

Now that you’ve dipped your toes in critical theology, it’s time to grasp what’s going on.

24711Though I didn’t know it at the time, my search for Mama God began in women’s lit when we read Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter. At the time, the book was a bit much for me to handle. Kidd’s use of the word “goddess” and her ritualistic search for the Feminine Divine struck me as pagan and hippy-dippy, but I credit her with opening my eyes to the resentments and wounds I didn’t know I had, a realization I now recognize as pivotal for the formation of my faith.

13544022Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood was another critical step along my path to Mama God. Though she doesn’t write about the Feminine Divine, Rachel does address what Kidd calls the feminine wound — that is, evangelical Christianity’s tendency to demand that women be silent in church and the damage this inflicts on everyone, women and men. She also challenges the assumptions that all women are meant to be mothers and wives and that single women are somehow less valuable than married ones. As a woman who has never wanted a husband and children and has had to put up with everyone insisting that I’ll change my mind, Rachel’s words offered comfort. She also helped curb some of my “angry feminist” tendencies and taught me the value of discussion (as opposed to outright argument).

Digging Deeper

171002As great as Rachel Held Evans is, she didn’t quite offer what I needed when it came to the Feminine Divine. Though Dissident Daughter troubled me, it also awakened something deep and primal in my soul; the more I read about God, the more I craved direct, unapologetic explorations of her in feminine terms. But I didn’t want Kidd’s mystical rumination; instead, I wanted scholarly insight. I wanted theological discourse. I wanted someone to talk about Mother God in a way that assured me my longings were okay.

I found that assurance in Elizabeth A. Johnson’s She Who Is. Subtitled “the mystery of God in feminist theological discourse,” it is by far the most thorough treatment of feminist theology I’ve found. Of course, I’ve only barely begun my journey, and I’m sure there are dozens — hundreds — of other equally scholarly books out there, but for now, this one remains at the top.

However, it’s long and dense and very theological, so unless you’ve been at this for a while, I suggest you start with one of the books in the Introductions in Feminist Theology series. Short (~100 pp) and succinct, they cover a wide range of topics, including non-white scholars’ perspectives (something She Who Is can’t offer). Though I’ve only read part of one title (Feminist Images), I highly recommend you check out the series. I’ve included a list below. If you get your hands on one, be sure to check out the bibliography in the back — it contains more reading material than I could ever offer.

  • Introducing Body Theology by Lisa Isherwood
  • Introducing Asian Feminist Theology by Pui-Lan Kwok
  • Introducing a Practical Feminist Theology of Worship by Janet H. Wootton
  • Introducing African Women’s Theology by Mercy Amba Oduyoye
  • Introducing Feminist Images of God by Mary Grey
  • Introducing Feminist Christologies by Lisa Isherwood
  • Introducing Ecofeminist Theologies by Heather Eaton
  • Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible by Susanne Scholz
  • Introducing Feminist Pastoral Care & Counseling by Nancy J. Gorsuch
  • Introducing Feminist Cultural Hermeneutics: An African Perspective by Misimbi R.A. Kanyoro
  • Introducing Thealogy: Discourse on the Goddess by Melissa Raphael
  • Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism by Rosemary Radford Ruether
  • Introducing Feminist Perspectives on Pastoral Theology by Zoe Bennett Moore
  • Introducing Feminist Ecclesiology by Natalie Watson

Note: If this list seems overwhelming, consider starting with Womanspirit Rising, a feminist theological reader compiled by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow. I haven’t read it yet, but I own a copy and recognize most of the contributors from my other readings, so it sounds promising.

Non-Theological Books to Read Along the Way (in no particular order)

Lucille Clifton’s poetry — Feminist theology spends a lot of time championing a God of compassion and justice and love, a God who loves so deeply that her heart breaks along with the world’s. There is no better embodiment of this God than Lucille Clifton’s poetry. Whether she’s writing about her life, the lives of her black kindred, or the joys and sorrows of the wider world, Lucille paints a portrait of love and beauty and grace and strength, even as her heart cracks in two.

Don’t know where to start? Try Quilting or Good Woman.

Gilead and Lila by Marilynne Robinson — Though I struggled with Robinson’s books the first time I encountered them, they have since become the bedrock of my faith. The deeper you dig into feminist theology, the more opposition you will find to an angry warrior God. Robinson’s books do a good job of loosening your grip on this perception without sacrificing his/her mystery and complexity.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert — I adore Liz Gilbert for a multitude of reasons, but perhaps the greatest gift she has given me is the permission to try new things. Every time I begin to doubt the legitimacy of my personal theology, one cobbled together from a mix of wide-eyed transcendentalists and mystic Catholic nuns, I remember Liz’s firm conviction that “if you bring the right earnestness to your homemade ceremony [or ritual or faith], God will provide the grace.”

Revelation of Love by Julian of Norwich — Speaking of mystic Catholic nuns, if you haven’t read Julian of Norwich, you absolutely must. After two years of faith crisising (and more than one bout with atheism), it was Julian who finally healed me. Though her book is jam-packed with spiritual truths and insight, she’s best known for introducing the concept of Christ as Mother.

Note: Julian lived and wrote in the 13th century, so reading her book isn’t exactly easy. However, if you choose the right version, you won’t feel too overwhelmed. Personally, I recommend John Skinner’s modern-language translation, as linked above.


Please note that my journey is ongoing. There are dozens of books I haven’t gotten to yet, and the ones I have read are pretty exclusively white. I’m working on expanding my horizons, compiling lists of books on womanist and liberation theology, and as I read them, I will share. And I’m of course working on a second post that explains my experiences more emotionally.

In the meantime, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. My inbox is always open. ❤

Listless

When it comes to summer reading, I’m usually a list-o-holic. May arrives, my fingers start to itch, and pretty soon I’m spending every waking moment writing and revising my perfect summer list.

This year, though, I was a bit preoccupied. In mid-March, I realized I wanted to move, not just out of my parents’ house, but to a different state. The thought terrified me, and I spent all of April hemming and hawing, but by the time May rolled around, I had decided to move. What followed was a frenzy of car-shopping, dog-walking, house-sitting, and half a dozen other odd jobs — anything, really, to earn money, because moving is expensive and so are cars. Amidst all this chaos, I had to actually move — as in, box up my belongings and drive them all to Arkansas — so instead of haunting Goodreads, I spent my summer packing.

One day toward the end of June as I was walking the dog and chatting on the phone, my friend asked what I’d been reading. I immediately felt guilty. I hadn’t been reading — at least, not the way I usually did. “Well,” I hedged, reigning the dog in as we passed a family of runners, “I’m almost done rereading Eat Pray Love.”

“Oh, I love that book. It’s such a good one, Shelby.”

“Yeah,” I agreed with a sigh. “I’ve been meaning to get back into novels and stuff, but I’ve kind of slipped into a rut of rereads. Liz Gilbert and Annie Dillard and Madeleine L’Engle, too. I guess my concentration is shot.”

“Well, you’re going through a major upheaval right now, so it’s only natural that you stick to the books you love. Don’t beat yourself up about it; you’ll get back to where you want to be.”

After that, our conversation shifted, but her words stuck with me. Don’t beat yourself up.

My friend Laura always says that life happens in seasons. Sometimes you’ll have a reading season; other times, a writing one. In my case, this season has been one of transition. All my energy — mental, physical, and even creative — has gone toward moving out of my parents’ house and into an apartment of my own.

When I look at my “books read” list in June and July, I see a lot of nonfiction. That makes sense, because nonfiction is my security blanket. It’s easy and familiar and reminds me that things are going to be okay; people have done crazier things than moved from Memphis to Arkansas. Anne Lamott survived a drug addiction, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to a new country to learn a third language just for fun, and Liz Gilbert traveled the world in search of happiness after her life fell apart. All experienced major upheavals…and survived.

So yeah, maybe my summer reading wasn’t as diverse or challenging as I imagined it would be, but you know what? That’s okay. I’m not gonna beat myself up about it.


Shelby’s Unstructured Summer Reading

The book that reminded me it’s okay for life to be messy (& even more okay to postpone trying to fix it)

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Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
Nonfiction | 275 pp | ★★★★☆

The book that made me want to move to Italy

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In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
Nonfiction | 233 pp | ★★★☆☆

The easy-to-read book on Christian identity in a multi-faith world that was so much better than its hokey title implies

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Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? by Brain D. McLaren
Nonfiction | 276 pp | ★★★★★

The book that has been there for me at all the right times

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Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Nonfiction | 334 pp | ★★★★☆

The book that lost a little luster on the second time through, but only because my first encounter was perfectly timed

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The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle
Nonfiction | 224 pp | ★★★☆☆

The book that reminded me why I studied literature in school instead of straight-up history

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The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
Nonfiction | 410 pp | ★★★☆☆

The book I thought would educate me on the inner workings of Trump supporters but ended up teaching me about all sides of the debate

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The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
Short fiction | 555 pp | ★★★★☆

Because Flannery is just that good.

The eccentric, exultant, esoteric book I love that probably only two of my friends will ever care to read

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Nonfiction | 271 pp |★★★★★

Dear Self

Every year on my birthday I write a letter to myself. Here’s what last year’s said.

July 2016

Dear self,

I told Jen today — in a letter, because that’s how I keep in touch these days — that 22 feels like I’m trying to cram too much into too little; 21 felt like a much more balanced number. It didn’t try to equalize itself; it just descended. But now I’m 22, trying to balance myself, and failing more often than not. I feel like I’m crammed onto a ledge, trying to move forward and having to stop every five inches because the ground beneath me is crumbling.

It hasn’t been so bad, though. This was a wonderful year. Well. The fall sucked. I was depressed, and there were a few times I caught myself thinking about suicide, but I never came close to doing it. I haven’t told anyone I thought about it. I’m not sure I ever will.

As hard as the fall was, the first four weeks after graduation were harder. I thought I was going to die. At one point, I seriously considered killing myself. Again, I haven’t told anyone. I don’t want to burden them. But I know I shouldn’t be afraid to tell them things — I know I need to be better about reaching out, asking for help, admitting that I have weaknesses. But it’s hard.

This isn’t how I wanted this letter to go. I’ve been thinking about writing it all day, but have stalled by writing letters to other people instead. It’s hard to sum up this year because so much has happened. I’m a different person at 22, the same way I was a different person at 18, 19, 20, and 21. I reinvent myself each year; in this case, I’ve reinvented myself twice since last December. I’m slowly coming to even ground, at least in terms of knowing myself. I don’t have a clue what my life will look like this time next year, but I know I’ll be writing and reading, and that’s really all that matters. Things like a car and health insurance are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, or so I try to tell myself. It doesn’t always work.

The first two weeks after graduation were an exercise in misery. I cried almost daily, thought about [the English department] at least fifteen times a week. Now it’s evened out to a few times and fondly. The pain has faded to an ache that only surfaces on weekends when I slow down long enough to realize I’m not going back. 

They do miss me, though. Dr. Q’s goodbye hug made me realize I wouldn’t be the only one shedding tears that day. She hugged me so hard and so long, told me to come back. Dr. E was crying when she walked away. They all kept telling me not to be a stranger, to come back and visit, but also to stay gone for a while first to give myself time to adjust.

Overall, it’s been a year of definition. Of deciding for myself what I do and don’t believe. Dad always warned me this would happen, but I thought he meant things like “will I or won’t I go to church” — as in, “will I or won’t I fight my lazy human flesh and make myself sit in a pew for three hours.” I always assumed I would choose the right thing, but now I realize that the “right thing” is much more complicated than I was raised to believe, and sometimes staying in bed on Sunday morning is the best, most spiritually healthy thing I can do.

God has done good things this year. I have close to a dozen pen pals, I’m writing every day, I’m reading more than ever. I know who I am as a person more than I did a year ago, I’ve learned my triggers and a little bit of how to handle them. I can’t read my Bible yet, but I can listen to worship music, and Laura and I have started a Bible study. I don’t know what I’m doing, where I’m going, but I know I want to write, that I am writing, and that I want to make a difference. God showed me that making a difference doesn’t have to be a big and monumental thing — it can be as simple as showing up to eat lunch every week with the English department or paying attention to underclassmen or not letting first impressions get the best of me. Younger girls look up to me in a way that scares me, but also in a way that encourages me to do better. To be better. To love them and encourage them and help them in any way I can. The trick is finding out how I can do that — find my niche — in Memphis.

Then again, it took me four years to make a difference at school. Maybe I should start by giving myself the grace to grow.

Love,

Shelby