Monday, May 4, 2015

Tackling Transitions

Next week, a new series of blog posts will begin to be published on the site Off The Page, a ministry of Our Daily Bread. I am excited about this opportunity to reach a larger audience and hope that the posts are engaging, inspiring, and thought provoking-- sincere and maybe even a little funny now and then.

My first series with Off The Page was about transitions and what it's like to change jobs, change communities, and change churches. Here are a few excerpts:

Changing Directions
I recently did one of those things you do in your twenties and thirties: I changed jobs. The job change was a package deal and included a new town, a new commute, a new house, and a new school district for my kids.

I wasn’t really looking to change jobs. It’s rare to think that you’ve found the job you are made for when you are twenty-five, but I was certain I had: administering a graduate writing program, managing a small press and literary journal at the university I had graduated from four years earlier, working with faculty members who had mentored me when I was an undergraduate … I was in happy spreadsheet, literature, and poetry heaven.

Everything had fallen into place to make it happen too. My husband, Brandon, and I had prayed through the job offer and acceptance, the house sale and moving plans, the birth of our second child … every single little detail that summer. And it was good. Read More...

Church Hunting
I hate trying to find a church.

The last time we moved, Brandon and I fell by mercy into a community of believers that met our deep need for friendship and community. We only visited one other church in the land-of-a-thousand churches before we found 5 Stones Community Church.

5 Stones is filled with people who praise Jesus for his extravagant grace, make no claims of perfection but aspire to become the truest versions of themselves, and drape other people in that same outpouring of mercy and forgiveness. For realz, I know that was a lot of church-y talk and all, but I’m serious. Like all churches that exist here on earth, it has its battles and bruises, its history and its weaknesses. It’s made of a bunch of broken people covered by God’s grace, so that’s to be expected. Read More...


Life Together
I started the new year feeling a need for some meaty inspirational reading, so I picked up a book that’s been sitting on our shelves for a while now, Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Hangin’ out with other believers and talking about Jesus is one of my favorite things to do, but deep and sustaining relationships in the church are sometimes hard to come by. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Christians can be kind of judgmental and easily offended. Whaaaaaat?! I know. Crazy. Because of this and my incapacity for small talk, I don’t find it easy to jump right into faith communities. I’m not always sure if they’re going to get me, and I don’t want to offend them by my sarcasm, self-deprecation, wide laugh, and loud grace.
Read More...

Bringing the Word
You should know that I didn’t grow up reading the Bible—though we did have a basic illustrated Bible stories book floating around among the Dr. Seusses.

One Thanksgiving Day, I paged through a King James Bible looking for the section on Thanksgiving prayers, resolved that I would provide the most eloquent of blessings on our meal. This made perfect sense to me; after all, I had found the proper formal place setting arrangements for Thanksgiving in the cookbook. Surely there would be an index of holiday prayers in the Bible.

Later still, my mom bought me a red-letter, black, leather-bound, New International Version study Bible for Christmas. I was sixteen, and the hunger and curiosity from internal and external sources burned. I wanted to know: Is there a God? Is he real? Who is he? How do I reconcile all I’ve learned in sixteen years with this book? Can I?

I started reading at the beginning, like you do with most books. Genesis wasn’t so bad, and the start of Exodus is eventful, but then you get Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy all up in there, and my interest waned. Read More...


Tune in beginning May 13 for the next series on Off The Page: The Desire to Be Desired.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

April in Books and Birds

I finished listening to two books in the last couple of days, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, both of which I highly recommend. 

I'm really into figuring out structure of books lately and thinking about the ways that authors assemble their thoughts, especially in nonfiction, and the image that came to mind for Solnit's book is a french braid. The entire book does this incredible job of weaving in apricots, Alzheimer's, loss, Frankenstein, Iceland and Icelandic tales, storytelling, meaning, and more. Each chapter introduces a new strand without leaving the previous strands behind, delivering an overarching gift of interconnectedness. I listened to the book on my commute, and while I really loved it, I don't think I'd recommend listening to the audiobook-- this is the kind of book that deserves a more attentive reading, a pencil, a glass of wine, and the time and space to set it down, think about it, pick it up again, and think some more.

Bird by Bird, on the other hand, was a great car listen, and since it's a bit shorter (four hours to listen, I think), it would be good for those who have a shorter commute. I'll admit that there wasn't a whole lot I hadn't heard before in terms of authorly advice, but that doesn't matter, because writing wisdom is like Bible verses: it doesn't matter how simple the concepts are, it's the doing that's the hard part, and any additional encouragement and companionship along the way helps.

Speaking of birds, I wrote two whole poems this month! This is up from zero the last year, so please, round of applause. They are both inspired by birds. It felt so fun to write new things about birds that I have something of a poetic project in mind with them. I have a secret ambition to write a poem a day in the month of May, but shhh. If it doesn't happen it, no big deal.

In other April-related news, I spent four days in Minneapolis for the AWP Conference, where I presented on a panel called Bravery and Bearing Witness: Vulnerability in Writing, and I think we knocked that panel's socks off. All of the panelists brought wonderful perspective and insight, but who's surprised by that, since they were Bonnie Rough, Kate Hopper, Brenda Miller, and Marilyn Bousquin? You just can't go wrong with that line-up. I also spent loads of time with my community of writers of faith, and that always fills the soul (and belly) like nothing else for me.

Brandon and I went to the John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett concert this past Sunday, together, alone. Date night reminds us both that we're funny and goofy and obnoxious and sexy and that we quite like each other as human beings, actually. Sometimes that's forgotten in the daily shuffle, eh? The concert, for me, put the lid back on my Pandora's box of insecurities, and from this side of the box, I stare in disbelief at that sad, hollow person who couldn't imagine ever escaping the spiral. I dislike the ebb and flow of these seasons... except for the growth and reminders of grace and mercy that come along with them.

I don't know much else, except that I will have a series of blog posts on Off the Page in the next few weeks, I think, on the desire to be desired, so hang on tight.

Back then --
2011: Explaining Easter (poem)
2009: Thunder (poem on top of a photo... blech)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Easter Poems - Last Words

Copyright 2010, Matt Durbin
mattdurbinart.com
For the next week, poems I wrote in response to the last seven things Jesus is recorded as saying are being shared as part of Jody Thomae's Create-a-Day Virtual Art-Walk. These poems, for me, were entrance into verses in Scripture that for me began to feel worn down by ritual and repetition. I wanted to experience these moments anew, for myself.

The poems are paired with artwork by Matt Durbin, who painted them in response to the verses as well.

I hope you will follow along!

Virtual Art-Walk Day 1
Virtual Art-Walk Day 2

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

War and Peace and Devotion and David and Goliath

At the beginning of the year, I set a goal to read 12 books in 2015. That's one a month - totally reasonable, I figured. I like to read.

That was before I discovered audiobooks.

I finished two books yesterday - Devotion by Dani Shapiro and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I've always wanted to read Russian novels but never took a Russian lit class where they were required, and the heft and weight of books like War and Peace intimidated me. Who has time to read War and Peace, and how good is it really? War, after all. I don't like war.

I loved War and Peace. I loved its characters and its ebb and flow between scene and dialogue and essayistic reflections on war and human nature, I loved Tolstoy's astute assessments of character and the inner workings of men and women, I loved the relationships and the interactions and the "tragic humor" of Russians, I loved it soo much I didn't want to get out of the car after my commute to and from work. I am so happy for the characters in the novel and so sad that it's over.

I started listening to Devotion by Dani Shapiro when for two whole days, I couldn't renew War and Peace. I also loved Devotion, which is not a Russian novel, but we can't ALL be Leo Tolstoy, amIright or amIright? I loved Devotion for its honesty and self-exploration, for its wrestling with matters of faith and its resolution without resolution, for Shapiro's sincerity of pursuit and her desire to comprehend matters of faith and devotion in the midst of suffering and uncertainty.

This morning, I began listening to David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, and I am loving that, too, already. I love books. Books books books, all day, reading reading reading. With my usual hour or so commute, plus a ten minute walk to and from my car during which I continue listening to whatever I'm listening to currently, I get in a solid 140 minutes of "reading" a day.

This gives me about 700 minutes a week of reading time, a little under 11 hours each week. Gladwell and Shapiro's books are each about 7 hours long, which means I could conceivably finish at least a book a week this year, so long as I don't sign up for many more Russian novels (the unabridged War and Peace clocked in at a mere 61 hours).

Twelve books in 2015. Psha.

What I love about books - all books, whether novel or self-help or spiritual or nonfiction or poetry - is the power they have to make me a different person. By reading these stories and listening to these people share their personal accounts or fictitious accounts or contemporary assessments of life, I discover with every book yet another sliver of humanity. Another example of the connectedness of our species. Another witness to the fact that we are all wrestling, we are all stretching, we are all striving for understanding. We are not alone, and behind each book is a person telling us so, sharing part of his or her story. We are built out of story and live through story, we find meaning through story. Sharing our stories with each other defines who we are. Reading other people's stories shows us humanity.

Also, I can't stand morning radio talk shows.




Saturday, March 14, 2015

That Time of the Month

There have been a grand total of about 36 months of my adult life (let's say, after 17 or so) that I have not worried about, wondered if, hoped for, stressed over, prayed for or prayed against being pregnant. My reproductive history is such that I get pregnant when I don't want to be pregnant, don't get pregnant when I want to be pregnant, and put up reproductive barriers to avoid getting pregnant only for one persistent little ovum and eager little sperm to unite anyway, so any time things are running a few days behind my anticipated "schedule," I freak out a little bit. Okay, a lot.

What if I'm pregnant? WHAT IF I'M PREGNANT?!

I've had a tubal, even, and we are officially, officially done with the baby-making business. Please tell me I'm not alone in this matter, girlfriends. I realize probably the combination of a tubal and this fear catapult me into a whole other category of neurotic, but surely you've been there. The monthly "friend," as we call her, is not a very reliable visitor. She's all tied up to other hormonal functions I don't quite understand, so I don't really want her to just go away. It seems extreme to have a tubal and to take birth control just to regulate that crazy girl, especially when those pills destroyed my complexion and altered my moods.

Add to her irregular visitations and my irrational fear of pregnancy the unfair fact that for about two or three days each month I turn into a needy, anxious, sensitive, sad little girl who only wants to be adored and complimented because she can't imagine ever feeling beautiful or happy again, so please just love me love me love me. And when that time passes, and I emerge on the other side, I look back at that sad, anxious person and wonder what the heck was wrong with her, how could I ever feel like that, who is she, anyway?

The temptation, during those angry, sad, and anxious days preceding That Time of the Month, is to say, "Oh, it's just PMS." But it's still two or three sad and anxious days (or longer, sometimes) a month, completely out of my control, that spin me in a thousand directions of feeling needy, then feeling angry that no one is filling my emotional gulf, then feeling ashamed at my neediness, then feeling bitter that I'm still sad and needy, then asking why no one loves me the way I need to be loved right this instant, then asking am I worthy of love, and then WHAT IF I'M PREGNANT?! and so on in a slow death spiral that ruins my psychological state of being for two or three days a month. Just two or three days a month. But... two or three whole days a month!

When I finally moved beyond PMS to That Time of the Month earlier this week, balanced hormonally and back in the beautiful and happy place, Lydia asked me why my stomach hurt. I decided, for some reason, that it was time to introduce the Period. I told her that it happens to all women. I told her she probably won't need to worry about it happening until she's around 12 or so, since that's when my period started. When she asked about what you have to do I told her about pads. When she asked why, I told her that it's related to having babies, and that women are the miracle bearers of carrying children, and that the menstrual cycle is the releasing of an egg that holds the potential to become a child, every month, the potential to become a child, and that led into the Dad's role and WOAH PEOPLE WE'RE TALKING ABOUT SEX NOW, that most intimate of acts, and I am blushing, and she thinks it's so weird but okay, whatever, Mom, I'm going to my softball evaluation.

Whew. That's over. Not really, though - we have entered the age of talking about sex, gradually, discussing body parts and what they do and why they do them. We all have bodies. Our bodies are different. They do different things. They make babies together. I don't want this to be weird and awkward, and the best way to remove fear and awkwardness is to talk about it until it isn't awkward anymore.

That Time of the Month--after I am through it and back in the beautiful, happy place--amazes me. This thing that happens to me each month is the very beginnings of human life. It is my most intimate tie to the Creator of the universe. It is my most intimate tie to the earth and the moon with its strange gravitational pull on our bodies that moves a woman's seed into cycle or body into labor. It is my most intimate tie to my husband, that urge to become one with another human being, to love and to be loved, to create new life yes but also to maintain a deep and mysterious connectedness unique to this marriage relationship, tied bodily and emotionally and spiritually and legally, all expressed by this giving and receiving of each other.

The fear that shakes me in those days preceding my period exists because all of these other things are real and true. I fear that I may be pregnant because God has done crazier things in history to bring about a baby (e.g., Jesus). I fear that I may be pregnant because the body and its systems are mysterious functions of breaking and healing and more bizarre odds have been beaten before when people have tried to stop having children. I fear that I may be pregnant because I know that my husband would freak out, that it would change our lives, again, that it would be scary and risky given my three c-sections. I fear that I may be pregnant because I have three people we've created together already who are beautiful strange amazing miracles and, wow, can you imagine another beautiful strange amazing miracle? This last is my secret awe, my secret fear--that I might defy all odds and rationale and medical exactitude and be pregnant again, that my body insists upon it, that I might get to bear this miracle again.

I used to just want to know, God, give me the exact times and dates of my children's births, the exact days numbered out for me, but nothing has ever gone the way I thought it would. The more I seek to know the more I see is mystery. It is the mystery of God and the mysteries of life that propel me forward in awe and wonder, propel out of fear and into love.

Eventually this cycle and potential for life creation will end and with it will come a whole other host of life changes I can't even imagine and have no desire to research right now. There will be certainty: no, no more children. There is no chance you will conceive again. This little bug of uncertainty that flickers about around me those few days before That Time of the Month will burn out. I wish for it and I don't wish for it.

The body is a crazy and mysterious creature, Lydia. Be afraid and don't be afraid.


Back in Time:
2014: I Don't Read Postcards from Hell
2013: Instructions for Crazy
2012: First World Problems: An Encounter with Infomercials
2011: Mercy Me, It's Broccoli
2010: Size Six...
2009: Homecoming

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Writers, Just Do It

Since switching jobs this fall, I've thought a lot about the writing life and how you go about making time to write. Writers bemoan the lack of time they have to dedicate to their craft more than any other group of people aspiring to something. There are dozens of articles written-- by writers who apparently can find the time to do it-- about how to succeed as a writer. It's easier if you have a spouse that can support you, they say. It's easier if you are a man, they say. You are more likely to succeed if you have only one kid or no kids, or you have a tenure-track job instead of an adjunct position, or you have a non-creative arts job or a creative arts job, a non-writing job or a writing job, no job at all or job security.

Writers everywhere are looking over the fences and assessing each other's grass to determine who has it better or easier or worse or harder in some frenetic attempt to assess one's position relative to the rest of the writing world. Hmmm, looks like she has blue fescue and I only have Kentucky bluegrass, and his lawn is all crabgrass but look how freakin' productive he is in spite of his weedy lawn. The nerve.

So much energy and emotion is wasted in this comparative analysis. Pride and envy get blended with a little navel-gazing until we're just exhausted. Look at all of those other writers, those successful writers, writing all of the time, in spite of or because of their circumstances. It's not fair.

"Oh, if I only had more time to golf," my husband says. So he makes more time to golf.

Just do it. Just go out there and write. Do it. Resolve to, whether you have children or don't, whether you are married or not, whether you are working or unemployed, whether you love or hate your job, if you want to write, just write. Just do it. You want to write, so do the thing. It is not so painful. You are writing words on pages, you are opening your heart and your mind. Write something playful if the painful is too painful. Write something other if the self is too vulnerable. Open a notebook or a Word doc or a journal and write already. You will only find time to write if you find time to write, so find time to write, in the crevices of your day, when you are idling at a stoplight, write in your head or in your phone's notes app or on a legal pad, write while you fold laundry or in between flipping pancakes in the morning, write after the kids go to sleep or the dog goes to sleep, write instead of watching another episode of American Idol, don't idle, write instead of scrolling through Facebook, write while you are on Facebook or Twitter, make each tweet you send out into the world a poem a sentence the briefest fiction the most succinct piece of prose you could compose today and then kiss it on its way into the world, write, write, write, log the thought away until the sun sets or until you need a coffee break or while you eat your lunch, write while your kids do their homework or on a pocket notepad in between waiting on tables, write on napkins, write on a schedule, write when inspiration hits, write for fifteen minutes before you leave for the rest of your day, make your day your poem your prose your composition pad, live your life so your writing is rich with the stuff of life and not the self-pity of envying other's successes and your apparent failures, write because you want to, because you need to, because you have an itch to scratch a thought to develop a ponder to wonder upon until it's pushed to its limit in your life, write, write, write.

Just do it.

Looking Back
2014: Westbound and Down, Rollin' Up and Truckin'
2013: Visiting Ghosts: Writing about the Past
2012: Praying for Enemies
2011: The Weekend
2010: Season of Productivity
2009: A Voice in the Crowd at Capernaum

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Reading the Bible with My Kids

We started reading the first book of the Bible, Genesis, with our kids this month. Up until now, besides praying with them and the occasional aside about God's love and being kind and other such directives throughout the day, we've left the Bible up to their Sunday school classes. Illustrated pictures and crafts are easier to handle, and really, I don't think our kids were ready to hear and make any sense out of the Bible. Now that we've moved and aren't part of a traditional church currently, I felt like we should be doing something.

I also read Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to kick off the new year with some what I assumed would be butt-kicking spiritual writing, and I was right on that part. I didn't expect the how-tos of living in community to be as direct about daily readings with your family, even with young children. If you are looking for a simple, clear and inspiring account of what Christian community can look like and how to get there, read Life Together.

The trick with all things that seem clear and simple is implementation. "Love God and love one another" is so simple and yet here we are, wars, terrorism, greed, selfishness, murder, violence, etc.

I expected resistance from the kids and instead found anticipation. At dinner time, they remind me that we haven't read from the Bible yet today, and so I open it up and dive in.

The strangest truths come out of my mouth as I'm reading. Not so much the text itself, although they are fascinated by it, but my midrash of it. Beyond just reading what is on the page, midrash is a practice in Judaism of interpreting and analyzing the text, filling in the gaps where details are only hinted at. For instance, one might extrapolate "the beasts of the field and the birds of the air" to include the wallaby and the peacock, the platypus and the jellyfish.

We are only four chapters in to Genesis, and a lot has happened already. There was creation, to start. That was something. Then you've got the temptation and deception in the garden, the discovery of shame, sex and babies, murder, lying, pride, arrogance, and bigamy. That's a lot going on up in here. Without any kind of guidance or extrapolation, how are they to know what to take away from this book?

I've discovered by reading this to them for the first time a renewed energy and excitement over biblical texts. I am remembering why I read the Bible, how this book is sacred because it tells us about God's faithfulness even when we royally screw up. In this way, the bulk of the Bible is not "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth," but one of the biggest soap operas of all time interwoven with the most faithful and true love story in history.

I tell my kids, "Every time we read the Bible, God's spirit speaks a new truth or conviction into the heart of the listener." We are talking about reading the Bible over ice cream at Sweet Henrie's. "It's the only book I read over and over again."

It is a living and breathing book because we are inhaling and exhaling it together with the Holy Spirit, bringing new human knowledge and information from all across the universe to expand upon a text that was written thousands of years ago. This combination of general revelation and divine revelation expand awe and wonder rather than deflate it. The narratives and poetry teach us how God relates to us and how we can relate to him. It gives us a common reference point in a world of stories, all of which seem to me to be mini-gospels, mini-Bibles of people pursuing truth, goodness, and beauty in its many colors and iterations against a backdrop of darkness.

I tend to find slivers of God in everything, even when the other person didn't intend for him to show up. We are walking Bibles with our own bruises and injustices, arrogance and pride, our own stories of how God has intersected our lives and when we have heard him and when we have not and when we've outright ignored him. The Bible gives us access to common stories across the ages we can relate to (or not relate to) in order to see God's grace.

These strange truths leak out as we're reading stories that are on the page confusing and odd, but I have the benefit of decades over my kids, years spent reading and being taught by others, and so I can explain bigamy in the Bible. I can talk about cultural differences. I can show them God's protection and provision over Adam and Eve and Cain and beyond. I can talk about how just like in science our understanding and knowledge of God is an ever-expanding universe of detail and depth and size, and even in our sacred texts we can see our own knowledge of God unfolding. It isn't God but our understanding of God that unfolds, like a flower bud, over these thousands of years.

Yeah, I've imparted all of this wisdom on my kids four chapters into Genesis.

Their journey is just beginning, their capacity for understanding is just opening, and I am excited to be a part of that. I expect they will spin their own midrash in our readings and reveal other truths to me as well so that we can all grow together. This coupling of knowledge and wonder, this life together, it is wonderful.