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).
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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
Fiction with a climate change theme.
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