The Second Annual Reading Round-Up

Welcome to my very un-democratic list of my favorite reads of 2016!

This year, my reading skewed towards non-fiction (I read a ton of memoirs), which is pretty unusual for me. The fiction I read tended to be re-reads of favorite books, I guess because I was traveling for most of the year and hanging out with favorite characters felt kind of like being home for a while.

As I said last year, there are people who get paid to read new books and make “the best of 2016” lists, but I am not one of them. I read old and new books, and I have Opinions about all of them.

A Very Long And Boring Book I Get To Brag About Reading

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Non-fiction (Miscellaneous)

A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking by Adam Briggle – This was written by a philosophy professor at the University of North Texas who found himself almost inadvertently caught up in the anti-fracking movement in Denton, Texas.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer – Prepare for a feminist rage spiral from page one.

Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivens – A New York Times reporter who covered Katrina from New Orleans returns ten years later to trace the recovery (or lack thereof) of New Orleans and it’s surrounding areas.

The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollary Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports by Jeff Passan – Okay, this is my obligatory baseball book. If you’re a baseball fan, you know that Tommy John surgery is painful, only sometimes successful, and on the rise. This book delves into why pitchers’ elbows have become tiny time bombs, and how doctors, managers, and players are trying to stop it. You kind of wish it wasn’t so well-written when he starts describing exactly what happens during a Tommy John surgery.

Memoirs

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald – While grieving her father’s death, Macdonald begins to train a goshawk. This book was hyped by pretty much everyone when it came out, and for good reason.

The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books by Azar Nafisi – Part literary criticism, part memoir, so pretty much exactly up my alley.

Surviving the Island of Grace: Life on the Wild Edge of America by Leslie Leyland Fields

Traveling With Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor – This  is a joint memoir of a mother and daughter’s trip to Greece. Maybe I was just missing my mom a lot but it was heart-wrenching. Ann (the daughter) is wandering through her last year of college, trying to find a direction in life, and Sue (the mother) is coming to terms with aging and trying to write a story about a girl who is visited by a swarm of bees. (That story eventually becomes The Secret Life of Bees, which, bonus recommendation, is one of my all-time favorite books.)

The Liars Club and Lit by Mary Karr

Fiction

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Girls From Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe – This might be my favorite book I read this year. It focuses on the enduring friendship between two women, starting when they were teenagers in California. By turns heartfelt and shocking, I thought about it for weeks after I finished- the language is that beautiful, and the story that affecting.

YA Fiction (These Are Actually The Only YA Books I Read But They Were All That Good, Okay)

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen – I’ve been reading Sarah Dessen books since I was 12, and her newest is my favorite so far.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner – While it does fall into the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope at times, this book is a great, fast read. Also there’s a twist that made my mom throw the book across the room.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven – One of the most honest stories about grief and mental illness I’ve ever read. I cried ALL THE TEARS.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson – Art! Sibling rivalry! Affairs! Mysterious cute boys! LGBT main characters!

Christian (Because I’m One Of Those)

An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor – This is about experiencing the sacramental in everyday life, and one of the reasons I ended up applying to the Episcopal Service Corps.

Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table by Shauna Niequist – I read a lot of books about food and God, and this list reflects that.

Tables in the Wilderness by Preston Yancey

Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sarah Miles – An atheist left-wing journalist was perfectly content until she took communion, met Jesus, and then did something about it. IT’S GREAT.

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes of a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith by D.L. Mayfield – Again, I cried all the tears.

So Nice I Read ‘Em Twice (Notable Re-Reads)

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – read while in Swaziland (on the continent of Africa), so bucket list item= checked

Finding the Game by Gwendolyn Oxenham – This is a memoir that goes along with the documentary Pelada, about pick-up soccer around the world.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

The Ministry of the Kitchen Sink

Hey y’all! Today I’m over at the Seattle Service Corps blog, writing about what serving my community looks like these days. You can read my latest post there, and make sure to read all of my roommates posts because they are pure gold.

Here’s the beginning. You can read the rest of the post here.

The other night we were sitting around the table eating sweet potatoes, and Jon was telling a story.

It’s the kind of story that doesn’t resolve; it’s sacred, an honor to carry alongside him, but heartbreaking to hear. It made me angry and sad for him, and I wanted him to know how much he was loved, tell him about the grace I have found in his friendship.

I got up to do the dishes, in the silence that followed his story. I collected the plates.

Letting the Light In

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” -Leonard Cohen

I realized I was queer in a church. Which is incredibly on-brand for me.

Actually, what I realized was that I couldn’t hide anymore.

In my head, I’d been planning on quietly dating whoever I wanted and never telling anyone, and I’d changed the settings on my dating app accordingly. But standing and listening to the liturgy of the Table, something inside me cracked. I realized that I couldn’t come to the table to receive Christ’s body and blood as anyone other than myself- whole, complete.

When I was little, I had an illustrated children’s Bible. In the story of Jonah, it depicted Jonah trying to hide from God in the hold of the ship- but God finds him there, as the light that shines through the small porthole into the dark room. On that page, the Bible simply said, “But God found him there.”

One Sunday, the choir was singing my favorite hymn, and my new community was moving forward to receive the Eucharist. And I sat in a pew shaking, because God had found me there.

//

I’m bisexual. That’s the “B” in “LGBTQIA,” and it means that I’m attracted to both women and men. (There’s no percentage system here, like I’m 50% lesbian now- I am all bi, and always attracted to both men and women, all the time.)

I could tell you how I’ve always known this, deep down. I could tell you how hard I fought to pretend I was only attracted to men for twenty-one years, trying to fool myself more than anyone. I could tell you how the first time I said the words, “I think I’m bisexual,” I was drunk in my friend’s kitchen, scared to death because I was leaving on the World Race in a week, scared of who I was and what even saying those words meant. I could tell you about my gay friends whose nice, Christian families rejected them, and how terrified their stories made me of ever acknowledging my sexuality.

I could tell you how I came out to my roommate, and his face cracked into the widest smile, and I knew things would be okay.

I could tell you about the stacks of books and articles I read and hours of conversations I had in college, rethinking my theology, re-learning what it means to love LGBT people, going back and forth around Scripture and context and the original Greek and Hebrew.

I could tell you about the shame I carried for so long, convinced that there was a part of me that God would never quite love.

But in all of these things I could tell you, there was the light trying to get through.

//

I didn’t want to come out on the internet. On top of the fact that it’s super cliche, and literally anyone can read this post anytime, and it’s attached to my name forever- on top of all of this, my sexuality should be none of your business. Should be.

But existing as a queer woman is a political act. Like existing as a a woman, as a person of color, a trans person, a disabled person, is a political act. Our very lives are a threat to the powerful, and our freedom is bound up together.

So, as a queer, female Christian, I felt the need to publicly come out to my communities.

Most of my communities are in the South, the region Flannery O’Connor called “Christ-haunted”; and this Christ-haunted Southern spirituality is woven into who I am and how I understand Jesus and the Bible. Several of my communities are in the Methodist church, and the UMC is currently struggling with how to fully accept LGBT people- people like me. The people and churches who shaped me with their love, their presence, and their faith deserve to know me in the fullness of who God created me to be.

These communities always taught me the mission of the church is bound up with freedom for the downtrodden. Where there is brokenness and cries for healing, there is the Spirit.

And when our response to the cries of the LGBT community is rejection, or silence, we are complicit in their suffering.

Sharing our stories, living together in the wholeness, breaks open the darkness.

Hatred, fear, anything other than love and acceptance- it flees at the light that finds us in the darkness, even the darkness we make ourselves. And so I am trying to push the door open a little wider, let a little more light in, exist in spaces I have not been welcomed to.

//

I didn’t want to write this post, because this shouldn’t be anyone’s business.

But I needed to write this, because I cannot come to the table as anything other than who I am. And this is me- bisexual, feminist, left-handed, semi-Episcopalian, Gryffindor. Child of God. Loved, as I am.

Over and over, God has found me hiding, and claimed me yet again.

Bookshelf: Moving Across the Country Edition

Occasionally, I’ll be making posts about the books I’m reading/why I think you should read them too. I’ll compile them all over here. If you’re not into that, then skip the posts labeled “bookshelf.” But honestly, if you’re not into books, you’ve kind of come to the wrong blog.

As you might have noticed, about a month and a half ago I packed up all my belongings and moved across the country. I listened to a ton of podcasts on the drive (The Liturgists, What Should I Read Next?, and the Cespedes Family Barbecast are quality binge-listening material), but no audiobooks, because I am still reveling in the post-Race euphoria of holding a physical book, written in English, in my hand. I did, however, read a few books in the process of moving that I absolutely loved.

Along with my annual Harry Potter re-read, here’s what I’ve been into the month since I moved to Seattle:

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes of a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith by D.L. Mayfield This collection of essays centers on Mayfield’s experiences as a missionary living in low-income housing among refugee communities (in the book, primarily Somali Bantu refugees). Y’all, I all-out bawled four different times while reading this book. Mayfield is painfully honest about her motivations for becoming a missionary, and the seismic shifts in her faith that living in low-income housing created. As a very recently returned missionary, some of the things she said hit far too close to home. I immediately gushed about this book to all of my roommates, and now here, because I think everybody should read it.

Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God by Rainer Maria Rilke I’ve only recently started reading poetry again, for a lot of reasons. The beauty of some of these poems took my breath away. It is poetry for anyone who has ever doubted God deeply while also loving God deeply. (Also, there’s a really pretty 100th anniversary edition you can buy if you’re into that.)

Wearing God by Lauren F. Winner In this book, Lauren Winner focuses on a different metaphor for God in every chapter. But they aren’t the traditional “good father/shepherd/Savior” metaphors; one chapter is all about the metaphors in the Bible that describe God as clothing. Winner is an excellent writer, and each chapter made me think more deeply about how I speak about God, and how that speech shapes how I interact with the world.

Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish Do yourself a favor and make some bread. I’M HERE FOR IT.

Re-Entry is Hard and I’m Not Okay

It’s been two months since I got home from the Race.

For the first month, I swear, I was fine. I was surrounded by my best friends and my family. Bless the Lord, oh my soul, I ate Chik-fil-a probably four times a week. I preached in church without crying.

To be honest, I didn’t cry at all in that first month. I was caught up in the familiarity of home, soaking in all the love my newly-retired parents and my friends on summer break could give me. Not every Racer is so lucky, I know, to have a place to come back to that fits so well.

This second month has been… different.

For example: I’m standing outside the largest REI in the country. There was a mix-up with my account, and I was embarrassed in front of the cashier and Hilary, my new roommate. Outside, I’m trying not to cry and also calling my mom, ostensibly to figure out the mix-up with the REI membership but mostly because I need to hear her voice right then, so that I don’t cry in front of all the rest of my new roommates, who are now gathered and ready to go. Like a child, I need my mom to tell me everything is going to be okay.

That was the moment I realized I wasn’t doing okay.

//

Lately, my journal entries have been strings of questions.

Is it okay that I cry so much now? Should I have moved to Seattle? Am I a coward for being so scared?

I have struggled to find language to explain how God communicates for a long time. It’s easiest to say “and then God spoke,” but God does not speak to me. God is not silent; God is also not audible, and hardly ever like fire or rushing wind or immediate answers, like I and others have tried to make God out to be.

In this season, God is like a seed. Like something small and surprising, nestled in damp soil. God is a thing to be nourished, the point of all my hopes.

So in the silence that always follows my list of questions, I sense the presence of the Spirit: because my faith feels like a field lying fallow, and I hope there is something beneath the surface, waiting to emerge.

//

In this second month after the Race, I moved into a new community with five total strangers. (A weirdly familiar experience.)

Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote about being asked to speak, and when she asked what she should speak on, her friend replied, “Tell us what’s saving your life right now.”

Right now, what’s saving my life is these five strangers.

I have one roommate who says profound, deeply-felt words with a gentle voice. One is the most brilliant and passionate person I’ve ever met, and another one is wise and caring beyond his years. One entrusts his story to others with insane courage. And another carries his family history, his life story, and his passions like the sacred things they are.

They are so beautiful. They are so different from me, and they are what’s saving my life right now.

I’m not okay right now. I’m overwhelmed by a lot of things, like REI and my community’s monthly grocery budget and not having to constantly be in the same room with someone. What I’m learning from my roommates is how okay this is, to not be okay. I get to come home anyway.

God is like this, too. God can be a seed and a home, all at once.

Probably, in the next couple of weeks (or months), I will call my mom again just because I need to hear her voice. I might cry in the grocery store (but I really hope I don’t). I will probably have another moment where I am confronted with how hard the Race was, and all the ways it is still affecting me.

But I still to get to come home. And I get to make a home, with the people who are currently saving my life, so that someday I might do the same for them.

I’m Here For the Bread (A Manifesto)

There is nothing to eat,

seek it where you will,

but the body of the Lord.

The blessed plants

and the sea, yield it

to the imagination

intact.

-William Carlos Williams

I moved to Seattle a little over a week ago, after four days of driving until my eyes crossed from staring so long at a distant horizon. Now I live in a white house with five other people. My four boxes of books have been unpacked, and my shoe organizer fell this morning, and I’ve showered every day, and it is so strange, moving through life as if this is normal, as if every time I open the fridge to find all the food still fresh and the power still on, it isn’t a miracle.

Yet it is so normal, waking up to the sound of someone else breathing across the room. Sleeping in a too-short bed, moving carefully through a new shared space, sitting exhausted on a couch and talking until too late in the night over leftover ice cream someone gave us. (Making the joke that in the Surbaugh house, there is no such thing as leftover ice cream.) Starting over again, with new people, in a new place.

//

During our orientation week, I caught myself saying, “I’m not here for that.” As in, “I’m not here for that thing I hate.” “I’m not here for the patriarchy. I’m not here for racism. I’m not here for mayo.” Then, the creeping thought: what are you here for, then?

Because it’s easy to define what I’m against, but so often harder to focus on what I am actually for.

I’m here for the bread.

I’m here, in Seattle, starting over again, because of the bread a priest handed to me Sunday morning, the cup of wine he extended to me, which was bittersweet and so different from the grape juice of my childhood. The familiarity of the act of communion in another new church, this time a high-ceilinged cathedral with white-washed concrete walls.

It was so normal and yet so extraordinary, to be offered grace again by yet another stranger, and experiencing it as if for the first time.

//

Manifesto means “a public declaration of policy and aims.”

In the last week of the Race, a teammate had me write a letter to myself to read a month after I got home. I opened it this morning:

If it feels like everyone is moving on, and you are standing still; or, if you’re crying too much or not at all; or, you are talking too much about the Race, and haven’t figured anything out, and have even less of a plan than ever: sit down and remember.

Remember the way you leaned into every shovelful of rocks today, the way the muscles in your back ached and the blisters on your palms burst. Remember that you finished a hard task. Remember that you did it with other people. Remember that you have achieved what felt impossible, and you’ll do it again. And again. And again.”

In the constant movement of the last year, it’s been easy to forget what keeps me rooted. What keeps me real, in the most literal sense of that phrase. What keeps me right here, right now, in this place, with these people, in a white house with handmade quilts on the beds.

This is my manifesto: I am here for the bread. I am here for the back-ache and the impossible task and the sweetness of ice-cream on a Wednesday night for no reason at all.

I am here for blistered palms and not having to hold everything in my calloused hands.

The hard work is done with other people.

The new bleeds into the old, the average into the extraordinary, the bread dissolves into the blood of the covenant.

Because my manifesto is really only this: the bread and wine, the tradition my Episcopal roommates call the Eucharist, which they believe is the literal body and blood of Christ, transformed in us. Transforming us. I’m here for the ancient work of the Eucharist, because it’s really the only work I’ll ever be able to do.