Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Safety zone.

Blogging is such an interesting communication dynamic. If you think about it in the barest sense of what it actually is, it's weird. It's a person talking to nobody, and at the same time it's a person talking to everybody. Personal blogging (as opposed to, say, tech blogging or something) is even stranger. It's someone saying, "Here. Sit down. I'll write you a letter and tell you all about my life. I might know you, or I might not. You might read it, or you might not. You might reply, or you might not. You might approve, or you might not." There are so many variables and unknowns and blogging leaves a lot of room for abuse of the medium. The (seeming) anonymity of the project can lead to oversharing, or fake curated lives. Similarly, the open-ended nature of the discussion can result in a misuse of trust. There are just as many jerks on the internet as there are in real life, but on the internet the jerk can walk right up to someone and say something jerklike and -- then walk away (without either being recognised or punched in the nose).

Yet even though the ability to misuse the medium is dangling within everyone's reach, I think it's worth it.
In spite of everything, I love blogging and what it represents. Even more than that, I am wowed by the people who have jumped into this pool with me. Life's busy; we've all got a million things to do. So when someone takes the time to read and, even more, comment, it blows me away.

I think I'm feeling this especially after my last post, which was raw and uncool and kind of intimate, in a way. Intimacy scares people. But in spite of the shaky ground, a whole bunch of you responded with your own honesty and genuineness and -- I'm actually grinning at my computer monitor just thinking about it.

So here's to you guys, the readers. I wish you tiny apples, fresh sourdough, and bush honey. You've made this blog a safe space, and you're great.

Monday, January 20, 2014

All things new.

For the last few years, I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions in the typical sense. I used to do that whole thing of portioning out goals for each aspect of my life, and I’m not against that, it just doesn’t happen organically for me anymore. Rather, the last few years for me have seen one key idea come to light, one concept that I’m able to hold in the forefront of my mind and consider for the length of a year. Usually it’s vague on specifics but generous with an ideal. One year it was “just say yes,” which was an experiment in me saying yes to things I’d normally want to say no to. Another year it was “holy confidence / bold love,” and that one became so important that I recycled it and reused it for the next year. I still catch myself pondering and praying about this idea now.

As the end of 2013 approached, I hadn’t really formulated one idea to keep with me throughout 2014. As I mentioned earlier, 2013 – especially the latter half – was rough for so many around me. In my own life, 2013 felt characterised by weakness and what I saw as a failure to be a thriving, productive adult. I was napping more, reading less, and seemingly getting through very little in a day even though I felt ridiculously busy and pulled in several directions at once.

At the same time, though, I was feeling the need to pull back on the things in my life that were leaving me emotionally, mentally, and physically depleted. But the thought of doing that made me feel ashamed and guilty. As a maturing adult, I should be fitting more into my life, not less. I should be doing more, being more, and achieving more, right? Instead, I was embarrassed about the fact that I actually felt like I needed sleep for the first time in my life, as well as for the tears that started to come a lot more readily to my eyes. “What are you crying about?” “Um, just nothing and everything.”

As so often happens (and this is where I believe God speaks to me, in all these little encouragements and markers, even though the idea is controversial), in the last weeks of 2013 and the first weeks of 2014, I kept stumbling across resources that pushed me towards an unexpected sort of goal for the new year. Via John Green’s tumblr, I stumbled across Woody Guthrie’s ‘New Year’s Rulin’s’ from January 1st, 1943 and was particularly struck by two of his incredible resolutions: ‘Keep Hoping Machine Running’ and ‘Wake Up and Fight.’ On the 7th of January, I re-read the age-old comforting words of Jesus: ‘my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I felt condemned – the good sort of condemned, mind you, the sort that makes you take action – when I read Emily Freeman’s chilling admonition in Grace for the Good Girl: ‘You have trained people to think you have no needs, but you are secretly angry with them for believing you.’

At the movies to see Frozen for my little brother’s birthday, the lyrics of ‘Let It Go’ restated this in a whole new way. While the music soars around her, Elsa sings, ‘The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside / Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I’ve tried. / Don’t let them in, don’t let them see / Be the good girl you always have to be. / Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know./ Well now they know.’ Later, she shouts, ‘Let it go, let it go / And I’ll rise the break of dawn. / Let it go, let it go / That perfect girl is gone.’ I listened to the words, and I thought, yes.

 I have always thought of myself as an advocate for authenticity. Growing up slightly in the public eye as early-generation homeschoolers in New South Wales, there was a lot of emphasis placed on appearance. People would frequently seek out my family to see what the fuss was about: can people homeschool their kids and have them turn out okay? Even more importantly: can we please have a blueprint for feminine Christian perfection? My sisters and parents and I recognised back then that this hope of cookie-cutter perfection was really unhealthy, and we strove in our own personal ways to fight against that. If it meant being honest about our flaws and the choices we made that might not align to other peoples’ ideas, then we tried to do that. People were frequently disillusioned when they met us. ‘Oh you’re normal and you don’t look like you came out of the pages of Perfect Holy Family Today? How disappointing.’ It was uncomfortable but important to us to be real. And I guess I thought that this was enough to make me into an honest person who didn’t overtly strive to present a certain image.

What 2013 has shown me is that while I told myself I was an advocate for authenticity, what I was really doing was being authentic about some of my life. Without even knowing I was doing it, I was giving people a sterilised version of my reality. ‘Yes, I went through this tough patch and here’s what I learnt.’ ‘Oh, it was a real struggle when this happened.’ ‘Yeah, I’ve wrestled with this, too.’ All past tense, all ‘my mess was back then; today I am okay.’ I wasn’t consciously holding back information; I just had subsconsciously decided that some of the nitty gritty of my life was too toxic for other people to handle. Also, I didn’t want people to know I was so pathetic. I mean, there’s weakness and then there’s weakness, right? If you break your arm, you deserve sympathy, but if a link in your brain is broken, you just need to grow up – or at least, this is how I saw it when applied to myself.

I made my own personal weakness a bad thing, and I made it shameful. What’s more, by assuming that my weakness was the dumb weakness and all other weaknesses were fine, I downplayed my family and friends’ love. In other words, I wasn’t trusting them to keep loving me even though I was being pathetic. Ouch. Weak and kind of a jerk.

What that all means for my 2014 is this: I aim to find peace with my weakness. To be truly honest, this feels weird, particularly since there are weak areas of my life that I know I need to be stronger in – and that’s okay. But if God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, then weakness begins to look less like ineffectiveness and more like opportunity.

I want to hold this in balance, however. Woody Guthrie’s ‘keep the hoping machine running’ and ‘wake up and fight’ remind me not to make weakness my identity. After all, this is just as deluded as making strength my identity. I won’t run to weakness, embrace it, gather more around me. But I won’t be ashamed of it, either. I won’t believe the lie that no one can love me if they see my flaws. I will try not to freak out about the fact that I have just paraded my frailty on the internet for all to see. And I will do my best not to berate myself when I need to take a step away and say, ‘Sorry; I’m not quite strong enough to do that.’

Being able doesn’t make me a better person and being unable doesn’t make me a worse person. It just makes me human.

(This post was written in response to Truth Thursday's #21 theme, All Things New.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

'Genesis', by Bernard Beckett; or: go read this book I should not have liked.

Bernard Beckett's Genesis is a novel that I really should have hated.

For starters, it's a science fiction story set in a dystopian setting, and while I am into the dystopian genre, I'm really not big on sci fi literature. Too much description about how things work or the systems that sustain everything. I get impatient. Show me characters, man! Then there's also the fact that the entire novel covers just a four-hour session in one day of the protagonist's life (which sounds a little boring, when you put it like that) and there are abundant flashbacks, which I loathe because I am an impatient reader and flashbacks tend to halt a narrative in its tracks. Finallly, there's a detached, almost clinical feel to the text. The story of main character Anaximander's entrance exam reads like a court procedural or an official transcript. There are few speech designations or dialogue tags, which should render the text drab and emotionless. But this is far from the case.

In spite of all these perceived 'flaws' which would normally put me off a book, Genesis is a powerful narrative that is both compelling and suspenseful. The back-and-forth dialogue between Anaximander and her examiners hearkens to Greco-Roman conceptions of debate and rhetoric, with the form of the text itself reinforcing the ideas, which can be read as a simple story or in multiple layers of meaning and even allegory. On one level, there is the suspense of whether Anax will convince the examiners she has earnt a place in the Academy; at another level, the rising tension and the debate indicate that there is a deeper story at work, woven amongst discussions couched in philosophy and logic.

What is not said -- and what is not even observed to have been left unsaid -- becomes incredibly important. Sarah Giffney (2011, p.64) described it as a 'metafictional critique of readership,' which is true, but it's also just a fantastic story with some solid surprises. I won't say anymore because I think this book works best with little foreknowledge of the text, but if you do read Genesis, please chat with me about it!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Reading my way through 2014:

This week over at The Broke and the Bookish, Top Ten Tuesday is all about bookish resolutions. I have a post in the works about my history with resolutions and the ones I'm pondering this year, but I'm going to deviate a little to talk about my resolutions specifically to do with books.

I don't tend to make book-centric resolutions, but a couple of years back, I resolved not to buy any secondhand books for a whole year. My library was getting all triffid-like and the worst thing about secondhand books is that you can sometimes pick up five for a dollar. There is no stopping the growth of the book haul when they're so cheap! So for a year I didn't buy any secondhand books (except for this one time my sister expressly invited me to a book sale and I couldn't refuse, on the grounds of social etiquette -- and so my excuse shall remain) and it was actually pretty liberating. For a whole year, I didn't buy secondhand books, which meant that if I wanted to buy anything, it had to be a new book, from an actual bookstore. It was a great year for me in learning to appreciate the humble bookstore, as I'd previously been a thrifted book junkie. New books cost a lot more and therefore the collection grows much more slowly -- which was exactly what I'd needed -- but for the first time in a while I also experienced the joy of reading new releases and keeping a closer watch on publishing news and developments. Not to mention the fact that my dollars went to authors and bookstore owners rather than garage sales and whatnot. It was a great experiment and it's actually changed how I shop for books these days.

This year, my bookish goals (all of them casual, none of them binding) are less about buying books and more about what I actually do with them. Oh, and there's less than ten, but you'll forgive me that, won't you?

  • write more reviews; I love love love to talk about books in real life, but my ratio of books read to books written about is woefully unbalanced. This year, I'd like to be more diligent about jotting down my thoughts post-reading, and then sharing them, too.
  • write more honest reviews; this one's a bit misleading. It suggests that my reviews thus far haven't been honest. That's really not true at all. However, I do have a tendency to only review books that I like, respect, or enjoyed in some aspect. Whenever I attempt to write more critical reviews, I can't help but consider the fact that the author -- who for good or ill has slaved over the words I might be panning -- may someday stumble across the review. Even if I don't respect the finished product, I respect the work that's gone into it, so it's hard for me to share reviews of books I don't think are great. Here's to bravery!
  • read more poetry and biography; the last few years have been very heavy on YA fiction and I'm not complaining because that's my jam. It's what I love to read and write, but I found that by the end of 2013, I was really craving some poetry and biography into the mix. I miss poetry! I miss real peoples' lives set down in words!
  • read the numerous e-books I've downloaded; reading for me is like 70% words and 30% the aesthetics of actually holding and interacting with a book. Therefore, I've been slow to jump on the e-book wagon even though I am seriously affectionate towards my iPad. Last year, a book I couldn't afford in hard copy forced me into e-book land so now I know I can actually read an entire book through a screen, I'm determined to get through more of the e-books I have.
  • read things way outside my natural choices; university has been fantastic for forcing me to read stuff I might never otherwise pick up, but I complete my Master's midway through the year, so I'll have to keep myself on my toes picking through some great literature I might have otherwise overlooked. It's eye-opening and challenging, and I think we can learn heaps when we read outside our comfort zone.
  • participate in more top ten tuesdays; because book memes are the best memes.
  • post book-haul pictures; because ditto for pictures. I love seeing others' books and bookshelves, so I assume the same must be true (for at least some of you) in reverse.
So there you go -- my reading goals for 2014. What's on your list?

Saturday, January 4, 2014


It’s not difficult for me to say goodbye to 2013. If we graded our years like we grade our movies, 2013 would not get five stars. I’d probably put it at a solid two and a half.

There were great things about 2013. I’m alive, and the people I love are alive. There’s grace, and that makes the living worthwhile. There are babies to squish, and FaceTime to look at their faces when they’re far away. People made my life better: among them, movie dates with Laura, texts and visits with Meaghan, my Thursday night crew who simply cannot stay on track with a Bible study and it is perfect, letters and emails from faraway people who don’t hear from me as much as they deserve. My mother was full of wisdom and grace, my sisters full of friendship and lives lived creatively. I have a job, and an amazing little houselet. I had my best semester of uni and, through one of my classes, was able to work on a project that grew my relationship with my grandmother in precious ways and opened my eyes to the beautiful and heartbreaking story of my great grandmother. I am blessed beyond the basics, and I have everything I need.

But there was a lot that was not great about 2013. And you don’t even necessarily recognise when you’re in it; you just look back and realise, whoa. That was hard. Mostly, it was stuff you can’t even see from the outside looking in, stuff that’s hard to talk about when it’s in media res. People I love went through some really hard and heartbreaking things for purposes that were not always clear. There were so many gaps between what was and what should be. There was a gap between what I imagine church can be and what my reality of it is. There was a gap between what I needed to do for my health and what I actually accomplished. There was a gap between what my faraway friends deserved from me in investment of time and friendship, and what they actually got. A friend who was growing to take a very important place in my life moved away from here. My creativity shrivelled up – or at least appeared to. And one of my jobs left me grinding my teeth and with tension headaches at the end of my workday.

In 2013, even normal daily activities were difficult. I was unwell physically, mentally, and emotionally for about half the year. I have never had so little energy before; it was a whole new experience, and one that left me feeling weak and useless and frightened. I was let down by some friends, let down by my own body, and I felt let down by God. There is, of course, a great difference between feeling let down by God and actually being let down by God, but the former makes the latter seem truer. In reality there was grace everywhere – there always is – but it didn’t necessarily come in the forms I was looking for or thought I needed.

At the end of each year, I tend to look for growth. In 2013, I see very little. But the knowledge that I am here writing about a lack of growth is its own small growth spurt. In a way, the fact that I can write this at all is testament to some level of peace with a lack of answers.

This year, I found myself drawn to a lot of stories in films and books that were content to finish unresolved – without all the loose ends tied up. As a child, I would have been uncomfortable with these unresolved resolutions; after all, if nothing appears to have actually changed, how is it the end? But in the best of these stories – or the ones that I think are the best – while things may look the same on the outside, on the inside there is a spark of something new, a spark of hope that says things may not be different tomorrow or next week, but they are going to change. Things will happen. Aslan is on the move.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my uncle and aunty when they visited later in the year. We were talking about the conceit of believing that Christianity means that everything will be fine. “Everything won’t be happy,” my uncle said. “But everything will have meaning, right?” I asked, maybe a little tentatively. And you know how sometimes, even as you voice something you already believe, it becomes a little truer for you than it did before, a little bit more fully embedded in your soul? That happened then.

2013 was not great. It ended, unresolved, leaving as many unanswered questions as it did answered ones. But if there was not a great deal of investment in happiness in 2013, there was certainly an investment in meaning, and faith, and significance. What’s more, that little spark of something is burning bright within, and it looks a lot like the hope that comes with the new year. Here’s to you, 2014.
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