Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. She is the author of the books Natural Saints (OUP, 2010) and Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012) and co-author of Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques (OUP, 2015). Find more of her work at MalloryMcDuff.com.
Posts By This Author
The Persistence of Flowers
At the end of the semester, I snipped an iris at its base, the luminous purple petals reminding me of our history as resilient people in diverse places. During my closing online class, I showed the students a vase of flowers, which my daughter and I had arranged on the wrought-iron table on my deck. Maybe I was subconsciously using perennials that return each year as some obvious metaphor for persistence as they peered at me from their childhood homes in California, Texas, South Carolina, and Maine.
Toward a New Conversation on Climate Justice
Maybe it was Rev. William Barber’s preaching that touched me with the moral call to climate justice, in partnership with Al Gore, whose organization Climate Reality Project brought this audience together for a three-day training. Later that night, I realized why the message felt personal: Barber pushed me to reframe my conversations with my daughters about climate justice in this country. I teach environmental education at a small college in North Carolina, but the way I communicated at home around the kitchen table needed a transformation.
My Students Show Me How Climate Action Is Better Than Despair
Juliana was in high school when she first joined Our Children’s Trust to sue the Governor of Oregon for a stable climate. During my environmental education classes, I’ve discussed the litigation to illustrate the importance of a long-term view even for an urgent planetary crisis. When my undergraduates prepare conservation workshops for local schools, they know that Juliana once sat in their places. She hopes to advocate for them in the U.S. District Courthouse in Eugene, Ore. in what may be the lawsuit of their lifetimes. And regardless of this Supreme Court’s decision, youth will gather on the courthouse steps to call for their right to a stable climate.
Staying Vulnerable in the Dark
As she speaks in a voice measured but forceful, Milly challenges us to hold the tension between vulnerability and vigilance in dark times. “We must learn to be vulnerable, she says. “But at the same time, we must be vigilant in the dark.” She reminds us that new life — from a cave or from the womb — comes from the dark and from discomfort, not ease. We must tap into that internal fire, the light that comes from the Holy Spirit.
Joy as Social Change
IT FEELS GOOD to laugh out loud. In the past year I haven’t felt lighthearted about weighty topics such as our political leadership, globalization, and climate change. But Bill McKibben’s latest book, Radio Free Vermont, reminds me that humor can be as powerful as protest in speaking truth to both injustice and abuse of power. Prolific writer, climate organizer, Sojourners columnist, and co-founder of the organization 350.org, McKibben has given his life to galvanizing the climate movement. He advocates for a diversity of strategies, from a carbon tax to public art, with a seriousness reflecting the high stakes of inaction. In his first work of fiction, the satirical plot of Radio Free Vermont revolves around the exploits of Vern Barclay, a 72-year-old radio announcer who finds himself at the center of a campaign to convince Vermonters to secede from the U.S. His motley crew of allies includes Perry Alterson, a teenager with technological expertise who ends every sentence with a question; Trance Harper, a former Olympic biathlon winner; and Sylvia Granger, a firefighter who harbors these fugitives while teaching investment bankers and corporate attorneys how to drive in the mud and fell trees for firewood in their new state. The narrative begins with acts of nonviolent and almost joy-filled resistance by the accidental activists, which include taking over the airwaves at Starbucks with Radio Free Vermont (“underground, underpowered, and underfoot”) and the rather polite hijacking of a Coors Light truck to replace the cargo with Vermont craft beers (which are mentioned by name in nearly every chapter). It’s like the Vermont Welcome Wagon received training in civil disobedience, with a local brew never far from reach.
What ‘The Bright Hour’ Can Teach Us About Living and Dying
This summer, I opened the pages of Nina Riggs’ memoir on living and dying, The Bright Hour, the same day that I walked into a cancer treatment center for the first time in my life. I’d waited for the publication of this book after reading about her embrace of daily life in Greensboro, N.C., as she faced a terminal diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. During the short period chronicled in the book, the author watches her mother and her best friend Ginny die of cancer: To say that Riggs — and here I just have to call her Nina — has a familiarity with grief is a bit of an understatement.
The Day We Left the Paris Climate Accord
Thus we began the week of healing as the media broadcast Trump’s reality-show drama that cast the climate as some meaningless backdrop for second-rate actors. I passed the time between administering dosages of oxycodone by reading predictions of this staged Rose Garden event. As I read, I wondered: How soon will my daughter heal from this extraction? And what does it mean to extract the second-highest emitter of carbon emissions from an international agreement? And why are these two extractions — on such different scales — linked in my mind forever?
How Do We Tell Time in Hard Times?
How can we learn to mark time, both chronos and kairos, when so many immediate crises seem to manifest as we sleep through each night? I want to learn to hold both types of time, even when I wake up anxious about the world on any given day. And that means I’ll need to practice mercy with myself and others, which isn’t always easy in hard times. At any given point, I can only be in one place in time.
Can I Take a Trump Sabbath for Just One Day?
As a teacher of environmental education, I need to stay informed. But as a mother and writer, I need to stay grounded so I can advocate for justice for my children over the long haul. If my father could give up talking about George W. Bush for 40 days, could I take a Trump Sabbath and fast from the headlines for 24 hours?
Fast for Families: Fasting and Waiting for Immigration Reform in Advent
On the first day of Advent, I began to fast for immigration reform.
I’m not a recent immigrant or a political activist. But I’m a mother, a teacher, and a Christian living in Asheville, N.C., a community affected by our broken immigration system. And I was raised in a faith that tells me that this country should not have an invisible class of people or a justice system that tears apart families. That’s not justice to me.
So Dec. 1-3, I joined the National Days to Act, Fast, and Pray in solidarity with those who have been fasting for three weeks in a tent on the National Mall. Their goal is to urge the House GOP, specifically U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), to call for a vote on immigration reform.
Why I Cry in Church
Skeptics might say that as a perimenopausal woman with a teenage daughter, I’m apt to cry at the slightest provocation, which may be true. But I believe something different happens when we expose our vulnerabilities in a community of faith.
A close friend told me her theory that we are being “seasoned” in church each week, preparing to be broken open in ways we cannot anticipate. So we pray the liturgy, sing the hymns, go through the motions. Yet this seasoning of our spirits prepares us to be tender-hearted, open to prayer working on us.
This makes sense to me. There are so few places where we can bring our raw emotions without a self-conscious need to explain or escape to the nearest bathroom, which happens when we get teary-eyed at work or in line at Home Depot. Perhaps church is one of those last safe havens, where we can cry in public for no reason.
Secrets of the Spiritual Paparazzi
Some people follow pop-star celebrities. I follow spiritual writers.
Rather than tracking news about Lady Gaga or Beyonce, I’m a fangirl of writers like Anne Lamott, Nora Gallagher, Kathleen Norris, and Barbara Brown Taylor.
The obsession is borderline embarrassing. Just last month, I announced at a party that writer Nora Gallagher, author of Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, friended me on Facebook. (In truth, I was bragging about an imaginary friend.)
After Nora accepted my friend request, I was bold enough to send her the link to an op-ed I had written about making my teenager go to church. Within 48 hours, Nora wrote back that she liked the title of my piece. So I was convinced she would like me too.
My love of spiritual memoirs has reached the point that my book club, The Literary Ladies, issues a collective groan when it’s my turn to suggest book titles. Many believe that memoirs about faith are slightly self-indulgent. In contrast, I view such writing as the deepest expression of sacred meaning in the chaos of our daily lives.
Why I Made My Teenager Go to Church
Making an ultimatum about church attendance to a sleep-deprived teenager may be my own version of hell on earth.
“We are leaving for church in 10 minutes,” I said, summoning my most authoritative voice before the lifeless lump under the covers.
My seven-year old Annie Sky watched the tense exchange between me and my 14-year old daughter Maya, who made periodic moans from the top bunk. With furrowed brow, my first grader sat on the couch, as if observing a tiebreaker at Wimbledon with no clear victor in sight.
For a moment, I wondered why I had drawn the line in the Sabbath sand, announcing earlier in the week that Maya would have to go to church that Sunday morning after an all-day trip to Dollywood with the middle school band. Somehow I didn’t want Dolly Parton’s amusement park to sabotage our family time in church. (The logic seemed rational at the time).
When Maya lifted the covers, I glimpsed the circles under her eyes and sunburn on her skin. But I repeated my command, with an undertone of panic, since I wasn’t sure if I could uphold the ultimatum.
When she finally got into the car, I breathed deeply and turned to our family balm, the tonic of 104.3 FM with its top 40 songs that we sing in unison. As the drama settled, I realized one reason why I made my teenager go to church: I want my daughters to know that we can recover from yelling at each other (which we had) and disagreeing. We can move on, and a quiet, sacred space is a good place to start.
Feeding our Imagination
CRITICS HAVE BEMOANED the lack of fiction centered on climate change, which seems to mirror our public sluggishness about this scientific reality. But two recent novels, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior (Harper) and Lauren Groff's Arcadia (Voice), artfully integrate climate change into their plotlines, weaving scientific truth about global warming into the lives of fictional characters. Just as compelling, both works of fiction feature spiritual community at the center of critical decisions about the future of the land and its inhabitants.
Flight Behavior is a lyrical story set in rural Tennessee with the fiercely intelligent Dellarobia Turnbow as the main character. She encounters a vast sea of monarch butterflies that seem to have taken a wrong turn on their migratory path, a result of a miracle—or a warming planet. Journalists, ecologists, and locals speculate about the misplaced monarchs. In an impassioned but measured plea for the land, the local pastor invokes a biblical mandate for creation care.
In Arcadia, climate change doesn't enter the narrative until the conclusion of the story, which is the tale of an intentional community started in the 1960s. The central character, Bit Stone, returns to a failed commune in upstate New York, where he grew up, to care for his ailing mother. Set in 2018, the dystopian conclusion is marked by climate change and global pandemics, but the values of the original spiritual community set up a struggle between the desire for freedom and the creation of shared life.
After Giving up Alcohol, I’m Addicted to Lent
This spring, I gave up alcohol for Lent, the forty days of penitence between Ash Wednesday and Easter. And now almost one week after the Alleluias and Easter baskets, I may be addicted to Lent.
On Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent began, my thirteen-year daughter Maya explained alcohol to her seven-year old sister in the backseat of our car: “See, sometimes adults just like having a drink after a long day of work. It helps them relax.” That same week, one of my friends said, “You aren’t a heavy drinker, but you are a consistent drinker.”
It was time to take a break, even if I knew that one glass of red wine at night wasn’t the end of the world. I needed to give it up because I wasn’t sure if I could.
Why I Return to Bikram Yoga, and the Church
As I waited in the room heated to 105 degrees, my friend Molly looked for a sliver of floor space for her yoga mat. “I probably need a more relaxing type of yoga,” I whispered, almost apologizing for bringing my type-A body to the crowded Bikram class, known for its intense heat and addictive practitioners.
At exactly 10 a.m., the yoga teacher entered the room: I stood in unison with the other students, much like I rise for the procession at my church on Sundays. Surprisingly, much of what draws me to Bikram yoga also brings me back each week to the Episcopal church.
A Little Climate Change Pleasure Reading
This winter, fiction revealed truth about climate change.
As a teacher, I relish the escape provided by pleasure reading before I return to the classroom for the next semester at Warren Wilson College, where I teach environmental education.
In December, without reading reviews or making a list, I visited my independent bookstore, Malaprop’s and purchased two books: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012) and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (2012). I’m a long-time Kingsolver fan and bought her book as a gift, with the goal of reading it before wrapping it. And the cover of Arcadia, with its teal VW bus and field of sunflowers, drew me into purchasing what I thought was my second random choice for recreational reading.
Both books, it turns out, integrated climate change into the plotline, weaving scientific truths about global warming into the lives of fictional characters. And just as compelling, both works of fiction featured spiritual community at the center of critical decisions about the future of the land and its inhabitants.
Of note, critics have bemoaned the lack of fiction centered on climate change, a paucity that seemed to mirror our public denial of this scientific reality. In a 2010 blog on openDemocracy, professor and author Andrew Dobson even outlined the components of a “climate-change novel” that include a grim future, characters who explore ethical choices around global warming, and (no surprise here) extreme weather events. He ended his piece with this challenge: “So there’s the recipe. Who’s going to write the book?”
A Christian With Conjunctions
For most of my life, I have been a “Christian with conjunctions.”
So I’m a Christian BUT… I’m not like that street preacher who yells about hell and damnation on the downtown corner.
I’m a Christian BUT I’m different from the televangelist who raises his fist in the air and screams about salvation.
My own priest, the Rev. Thomas Murphy, first described himself as a Christian with conjunctions in a sermon the morning before our Episcopal congregation took to the streets during a festival in downtown Asheville, N.C. Across the street from a karaoke booth, we handed out cold water to festivalgoers and offered a simple ministry with no judgment or obligation.
For most of us, it was the first time we had prayed the Eucharist in public, with our colleagues, students, and neighbors walking past. The white banner above us proclaimed: “God loves you. No exceptions.”
I have realized that the ubiquitous street preacher has something to teach me: there is virtue in being bold about my faith. Through my research on congregations and climate change, this public witness to God’s love has become easier for me as my church life now reflects my deep value of God’s good earth.
The stakes of silence are high. If we don’t speak out and act on our moral mandate to reconcile with creation, we risk destroying God’s very creation.
A Catholic Nun, A Teenage Girl, and Climate Justice
Sister Kathy Long turned toward my 13-year-old daughter and asked one question: “What will you tell your friends about spending this month in Mexico?”
In a public park in Cuernavaca, Mexico, we sat on a concrete bench next to six women who chatted and stitched embroidery patterns with brightly colored thread.
I glanced toward the sewing group, realizing that Maya would have rolled her eyes if I had asked her that same question. An intrusive query from a mother seemed compelling coming from a Catholic nun who worked in Mexico, promoted justice amid poverty, and even spent three months in jail for protesting the military training of Latin American leaders in the U.S.
“I will tell them that rich people and poor people are all people in the end,” Maya responded. “If you have three cars and two houses, you are a person just like someone whose house is made of cardboard or metal.”
Summer Lovin’ and Creation at Church Camp
Church camp was in my blood, with an Episcopalian lineage that began when my grandfather helped to build and then direct Camp Bratton-Green in Mississippi. Every summer of her childhood, my mother was a camp brat, the outdoorsy, lanyard-loving equivalent of an army brat.
As a 16-year old, she met my father when he drove his family’s car from Hattiesburg, Miss., to pick up his sister Marcia from camp in Canton, Miss. And decades later, two of my siblings met their spouses at camp.
But let’s be clear: church camp in my family was more than an easy way to find a summer fling from the same denomination. While none of my crushes lasted beyond the summer, I gained a more enduring life-long commitment to God’s earth. Summer camp integrated me into a Christian community that sought to reconcile humans with creation.