If we were having coffee today, I’d tell you that it’s been a thrilling week teaching in the Freshman Scholars Institute program at Princeton, talking with my new students (about Plato, Freire, Hitchcock, and Du Bois), and also hearing some of their stories and their passions. When I sat with them on Sunday evening during dinner, I noticed that while they were saddened by the violence in their country, they were not defeated by it–their hope for the future is inspiring.
I’d tell you how challenging I think it may be for me to keep a handle on my writing projects and professional goals with this busy summer semester course. A month ago at the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop Institute at Princeton Theological Seminary, several workshop presenters talked about the efficacy of collaborative writing partnerships. In one pair, two academics set quarterly writing goals and checked in with each other on writing schedules once a week, also exchanging work, and talking about writing over a weekly call. I’m striving to set and keep writing goals myself and considering such a partnership as one possibility.
How do you keep your writing goals? What are your best tips? Would love to hear from you!
Finally, I’d talk to you about all the excitement and anticipation my family and I have about moving into a new house in the coming weeks. As you know, we’ve been living in other people’s apartments, and God’s been providing for us so effortlessly, but at this last stage, I feel the anxiety creeping over me. It’s been easier, I think, to be faithful with little, and I struggle with the grandeur and responsibility of moving into a bigger place. Also moving is just the worst, and the thought of that upheaval leaves me weak.
A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon on the trust psalms, particularly Psalm 27, entitled, “Trust, Perseverance, and Doggedness.” When I went hunting for a closing hymn for the service, I stumbled upon a relatively new one entitled, “Faith Begins by Letting Go.”
While I ended up selecting it for the service, I felt a bit puzzled by the title, the lyrics, and the sentiment. The first stanza is as follows:
Faith begins by letting go Giving up what had seemed sure Taking risks and pressing on Though the way feels less secure Pilgrimage both right and odd Trusting all our life to God
I wasn’t sure I believed that faith begins by letting go of our foundation, taking risks, and that one’s pilgrimage should feel “both right and odd.” Still, something about the hymn seemed to resonate with the content of my sermon, especially the ode to one of the great contemporary spiritual writers, Anne Lamott, on perfectionism and they way in which our writing cramps up around our wounds as in life.
These past few weeks I’ve encountered my own cramps and struggles to write, and am starting to believe in this whole wisdom of letting go.
You see I was having a lot of trouble getting my thoughts to find substance and clarity on the page, writing and rewriting pages and pages of an article on my research with foster mothers in China. I kept thinking that despite my frustrations, I needed to have faith that these meanderings, however seemingly futile, had some semblance of progress and that I would eventually find my way if I kept at it.
However, this morning during my prayer time I realized that in the writing process, I’d started to lose the joy and excitement that is so genuine to my work with families in China. And I decided to give myself the freedom to reflect freely on what I learned and what I love about the families I worked with. In a away, I decided to free myself from the burden of writing something smart and relevant and pertinent to the academy and instead tap back into what these families, this culture, and these people taught me about God and life.
And suddenly I was at no lack for thoughts, ideas, and even words on the page.
I’m so thankful for the wisdom of letting go today–not only because it’s getting me closer to getting this article down on the page, but because it’s taking me to a revelation that I couldn’t have found on my own, by my own strength, might, or wisdom. It’s making clear my need to rely on God and others for insight, faith, encouragement, grace, and communion.
And despite how scary that is, it’s an an amazing place to be.
A few weeks ago in a teachers training, we read the first few paragraphs of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” In it, Nietzsche outlines the bleak philosophy (Nietzsche, bleak?!) that all (human) knowing is but prideful deception. As is my typical reaction to such existentialism (and which tapped into my fears that my life spent as a graduate student has been little but frivolity), I sensed a dark cloud hovering.
But as I’ve ruminated on the depth of Nietzsche’s claims these past few weeks, I’ve realized with deep refreshment, that while perhaps knowing often goes hand in hand with self-deception, learning can remain a joyful, humbling pursuit.
I remember in college, when I took an elaborate spiritual gifts inventory, how surprised and rather deflated I was to find one of my top gifts listed as curiosity. Is that really a spiritual gift, I mused? What good is curiosity about others and about the world to God? Many years later, after pursuing higher education for nearly fourteen years, I often wonder the same thing. I worry that the career of a graduate student, at which I have spent almost the last decade of my young life, is not an exercise in self-deception, futility, or frivolity.
But when I think on what fascinates me about the world, what drives my curiosity, and that is not a deep understanding or knowing, but a desire to know and understand, I consider that anthropology might just be my calling. When I recall that being in the position of graduate student, one is always in pursuit of knowledge, but never quite the apprehender, the expert, or the master of that knowledge, I relish the deep passion and humility one must have for apprenticeship and learning to be a student. And when I remember that all ministry begins from a place of common humanity, and how much I learn day in and day out from others, I feel quite at home.
I realize how blessed I have been to be able to be a diligent student of ministry and anthropology all these years, and how essential it is that when I step into those roles of preacher and teacher that I do so with the heart of a student. God is always teaching, and we are always learning. It’s when we become certain of our knowledge and prideful of that fact that life, as Nietzsche warns, and we, become a tangle of twisted lies.
May we always be curious, may we always be humble, may we always be eager to hear the voice of God in those around us. May we be life-long students who never tire of the mysteries of God and life and the joys of learning. Amen.
I’m learning that writing a dissertation is all about excess.
You write and write and write (or at least this is the way it has gone for me), without any sense of the whole, blindly, and at best, faithfully, and when you generate enough material, things start taking shape. You’re no longer writing so much, but sifting through material, arguments and descriptions, and assembling something piecemeal, slowly and methodically.
It works best when there is excess, but that’s hard to accept when you’re first getting started. You want it all to fit. You want not a moment to be wasted. But not everything will make its way into the larger work. There will be pieces that stand alone, and pieces that are ultimately set aside.
Here’s a bit of excess for the moment. Something I wrote months and months ago and finally came back to, and liked, but who knows whether it will make it into the dissertation.
Consider it a sneak preview!
I remember sitting with my Chinese professor in his office in Princeton explaining my intent to go to Southwest China to study foster families. When he heard Guangxi, Nanning his ears perked up, and he bellowed a guttural laugh, “I don’t even understand a thing they say there, ha! Good luck!” I remember not only the cacophony of languages and accents upon touching down in Nanning, but the pervasive smell of mildew, the sea of e-bikes stretching across the broad avenues, and my first forays through neighborhood markets searching for foster mothers alongside a friend who swore they could be found.
I met not a single foster mother that first summer. Instead, I met many people, all Chinese, who told me emphatically that they did not exist. Most people who I met in Guangxi apologized obsessively for the “backwardness” of their region, and they urged me to go somewhere of more importance in China. Chinese professors of anthropology wondered how what I was studying could be called anthropology if it did not concern the Zhuang minority culture for which Guangxi was famous. They misunderstood the focus of my research to be international adoptions, because as they and many others stated, there was no Chinese culture of adoption.
But in March of 2011 all of my fledgling questions brought me to an unassuming concrete office in the middle of the city, where a small NGO staff assembled and told me they supported hundreds of families in Nanning and thousands outside of the province to who took orphaned and abandoned children into their homes. That April, in a nearby city orphanage, an elderly woman with a kind smile told me how she’d started foster care projects in Guangxi in the early 1990s out of necessity, poverty, and concern. Guangxi, it turned out, despite the naysayers, was at the center of a disperse, yet expansive foster care movement.
When you’re sitting in classrooms and carrels imagining anthropological fieldwork, you can only think in systems and power and theories. It was no different for me, and despite the draw of foster mothers’ joy and pain, I imagined a China in which movement of children from public orphanages to private homes represented an unprecedented receding of the state from private family life. I conjured a sophisticated state, modern cities, and rapid social change.
But instead what I found is time nearly standing still in the cinderblock homes of foster families, whether they lived in the capital city or off the rice paddies between mountains where people plowed with oxen, a rickety tool, and their own two hands. I learned that despite the narratives about the strength of the Chinese state in my textbooks, power was always locally negotiated. Despite the myriad of books on China’s urban centers, the people of Guangxi are, as Fei Xiaotong wrote decades ago, firmly “of the soil.”
And I discovered that despite the literature on families and family life in China, nothing prepared me for the sudden expressions of emotion I would encounter on the inside—the secrets people confided in me, illegitimate children, illegal adoptions, and how parents clung to me briefly and then physically pushed me away. So powerful and yet fleeting were these displays of emotion that I often wondered whether I imagined them, or if they did occur, what it was inside of me or between us that elicited such rawness, even as I relished the intimacy. Even if you know in your heart that you are dealing in the realm of truths and the kindred, there is, for the anthropologist, always the concern for what will someday make it onto the page and into the readers’ conscience. And the fact that your informant is never so concerned with representation in these real moments, but only concerned with living itself, that’s what always gives me a sinking, slithery uneasiness.
For every anthropologist of China there is this sense that you become irrelevant once you leave and China goes on changing at the speed of light. And for every human being who has ever done fieldwork or loved another they’ve left behind, there is also this hope that while others will go on living, that you’ll never, ever be the same.
“I was in love with reading and literature. There were stories only I knew about my family, about my first kiss, last haircut, the smell of sage on a mesa and my kinship with the flat plains of Nebraska. I had to get slow and dumb (and not take anything for granted) and watch and see how everything connects, how you contact your thoughts and lay them down on paper.” –Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
I’ve just started reading Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and I love the way she talks about writing as practice and meditation, and all the things that you, and only you know.
Sometimes I think everything that’s good and true in my life and the direction thereof, I owe to my mother–especially that ninth grade world lit class that she pushed me to take when I wondered why anyone would take two English classes at one time (!) and whether it was kosher for a lowly freshman to enroll in a senior-level course. And then, there I was with that young, handsome teacher and a classroom of older students that I found so momentously my equals, but most importantly, with a stack full of books from authors like Camus, Achebe, and Shakespeare, who I began to believe might actually want something to do with me.
Looking back, however, I question where or how I lost that enthusiasm for books or English and somewhat, history. Or writing, for that matter–where did I become convinced that the few things I loved and was good at paled in the shadow of the world’s more noble pursuits of science, objectivity, and real life? I think it was Clifford Geertz who said that all anthropologists are really just wanna-be, disguised, or failed writers, and I suppose the real question is, can we be both?
I have not read like I did since that high school English class, or written the sonnets, the stories, and the prose that used to win me awards, even. Anthropology, yet another pursuit that my all-knowing mother launched me toward, has opened up so many doors and windows into my soul and others, brought me to so many corners of the Earth, and taught me new languages, and not just the ones we speak with words, but the deeper meanings of life, culture, and spirituality. But what doors has it closed? As I began to call myself an anthropologist, rather than a reader, a writer, or a poet, did I, in some ways, surrender the creativity in my mind to the limited ways of being found in this world?
In Paris this past week I’d see people painting scenes of the city and the gardens, scribbling into notebooks in cafes as I imagine Hemingway doing, or even doodling shapes and faces while listening to lectures at a conference at which I was presenting. I used to doodle, I thought, as I watched the glamorous professor from Milan to my left sketch the contours of others’ cascading hair, sloping shoulders, and curved backs. I don’t anymore. In fact, my second thought was to wonder how an assistant professor can doodle, so juvenilely, during a conference presentation to which I assumed she’d be rapt with attention. Perhaps that’s what the Italians do, I thought, but then I glanced around the room and the other scholars–French, Portuguese, Brazilian…all doodlers.
The fact is, it seems novel to realize that I, the committed anthropologist, can pick up a pen or a pencil and create something other than empirical social science, and that I want to. In many ways that’s what this blog has been for me, a place to doodle a bit and without crafting a conference paper or treatise, dream something a bit more “inner worldly” rather than the worldly travel notes, kinship charts, or ethnography I’m used to writing. Perhaps that’s why the words have often so hungrily leapt onto the page, why posts can feel effortless even while the conference papers won’t come. They are vestiges of that innocence, that playfulness and self-discovery that led me to read in the first place and to even dare to call myself a writer.
I’m not wanting to part with ethnography–in fact, I’m writing one, and I love reading them because they capture some of that creativity, that art that life clearly has and science tends to stifle. I often tell people that I love anthropology because it’s deeply concerned with culture but at such a fundamentally human, relational level. I love ethnography because it doesn’t efface the author, but brings he or she into view, into relationship, if you will, with the other subjects and cultures and problems.
But the anthropologist isn’t her own protagonist; she relies on others. And she doesn’t write about all the little things, the things that I and only I know so firmly. She doesn’t write about her mother, her freshman English class, Camus, Achebe, Shakespeare, or a life trajectory that includes physics and Puerto Rico, ministry and China. Those kinds of stories, I’m realizing, are left to be written and pursued, by doodles, scribbles, and practice, one word, dream, and recommitment to the world of imagination, at a time.
What about you–do you doodle? What stories do only you know and have left to tell?