State of the Blog

Today I thought I would take the time to tell you how I think this blog is doing and to ask for feedback from you, my readers, without whom this blog would be nothing but the digital equivalent of a secret diary hidden under my mattress.  A couple things prompted me to do this.  For one thing, it’s been about a year since I implemented my weekly (usually Monday, sometimes Tuesday) post–before that, I was writing whenever I felt like it, and sometimes months would go by before you heard anything from me.  Another reason I wanted to stop and assess the blog this week is that I heard from some people yesterday who either mentioned a specific post they had enjoyed or indicated they knew something about the style of my blog–people I had no idea were reading it.  So that made me curious as to how many “silent” readers I have out there and what they’re thinking.

Let’s start with the weekly post thing.  I began this practice as part of a larger discipline of writing something (anything–could be a PowerPoint presentation for a class or a sketch of one of my screenplay ideas) for 30 minutes each weekday afternoon, which was inspired by the class on spiritual disciplines in the workplace that I audited last summer at Regent College.  (See below for a link to the series of posts I wrote following the course.)  Besides the fact that I’m now posting every week, another thing this practice changed about my blog is that my posts are now limited to what I can write within half an hour, which–I think–is keeping them to a manageable length, in contrast to the marathon posts that I used to write.  But, with the emphasis on actually writing for 30 minutes, I’m including fewer pictures, videos, and external links in my posts.  What do you think about all this?  Am I posting too often/not often enough?  Have my posts been too short lately, or are they still too long?  Would you like me to shut up occasionally and direct you to other people’s work (through the aforementioned pictures, videos, and links)?

I would also like your feedback about the topics I write about.  My blog has always been, unapologetically, about a wide variety of topics.  I know that I’d probably get a bigger readership and more mentions on the web if I focused in on a niche, like travel or home decor (or even something that I actually know a lot about, like Harry Potter), but I’m not trying to get famous or make money through my blog.  Although, as I hope this post attests, I do care very much about my readers, my blog is just as much a vehicle for me to process what I’m thinking and learning.  So I’m not sorry for writing a string of posts recently about The Godfather, even though most of you–at least those who are talking to me–don’t care about the Corleones (and, I still maintain, don’t know what you’re missing).  But I do want to know which topics you’d like to see more of–and what topics I haven’t addressed that you’d be interested in reading about.  Anecdotally, it seems that some of my most popular posts have been the confessional, gut-spilling ones where I let you snoop into the embarrassing parts of my interior life, usually through the screen of humor.  But I know that many of you also share my love of music, movies, and TV, and so you prefer posts on those topics.  Let me know what you think.  I will take your suggestions seriously, and I’ll write about pretty much anything that I know something about (and maybe even some things I know nothing about!).

In closing, let me share what I think have been some of the highlights of this past year on penelopeclearwater:

  • Here is the first of the series I wrote following the class on spiritual disciplines.  The series continued through July and August 2016–check out the archives.
  • There was a lot of excitement on my blog leading up to and following the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
  • This post from a few weeks ago–which was both a confessional post and a music post–got a lot of good feedback.

I’ll walk slow.

In the fitness program that I’m in right now, we were asked to choose a “power word” or phrase (that’s the acceptable Christian substitution for “mantra”) and keep a record of how often we used it.  I chose something off the top of my head and ended up using it only a few times during the week in question.  But last Tuesday, two events converged to suggest a power phrase that I’m actually going to use–and that I consider worth blogging about.

Event #1: Tuesday evening, my team completed a tough AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) workout involving sandbags.  It wasn’t a race, but for the first few rounds, it would be very obvious how fast each person was working.  Cocky and obnoxious as I am, I assumed that because I’m already a regular exerciser, I would be one of the faster participants.  So imagine my pride-goeth-before-a-fall devastation when I realized I was the only person still at the starting line doing overhead lifts while every single other member of my team–all nine of them–had moved to the next spot to do squats.  I was in dead last place.

If you’re even a casual reader of my blog, you probably know that I like winning, and I tend to turn things that aren’t competitions into competitions.  So even though I got a really great workout Tuesday night, and my team ended up getting more reps in this workout than any of the other three teams (that part of it actually was a competition), I went home feeling embarrassed at how slow I had been.  The fact that I started out using one of the heaviest sandbags didn’t make me feel better, especially because I had to give it up fifteen minutes into the workout and use a lighter weight.

Event #2: When I got home, I decided to mow my lawn while I was sweaty anyway.  While mowing, I listened to Mumford and Sons’ Babel.  (I was listening to this album over and over last week in preparation for a podcast I recorded on Thursday with my colleague The Pop Song Professor–more on this next week, probably.)  One of my favorite songs on that album is “Lover’s Eyes,” which contains these lyrics, repeated multiple times: “I’ll walk slow/I’ll walk slow/Take my hand, help me on my way.”  I had already noticed that the whole album seems to have a theme of humility and willingness to be taught and led–think of lines like “Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn” (from “Below My Feet,” another of my favorites).  But on Tuesday night while I was mowing, the line “I’ll walk slow” struck me for obvious reasons.  And later, yet another of my favorite songs, “Not with Haste,” struck me as well–again, for obvious reasons, I hope.

Since Tuesday night, that line “I’ll walk slow” has come to my mind many times, such as when I worried about once again coming in last place in Thursday evening’s workout.  It may be a counterintuitive “power phrase,” but–like many people, I suspect–I usually don’t have to make myself try harder or go faster.  I have to make myself slow down and enjoy what I’m doing.  I have to learn how to accept not being the best, and specifically, the fastest.  I sometimes have to, as the lyric says, reach out my hand and allow myself to be led by people who are better at things than I am.  I have to be okay with slow progress in areas of my life where I want to see immediate change.  Because–and now I’m going to preach for a second–walking slow is better than standing still.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

What most people think of when they hear the proper noun in my title–if they think of anything at all–is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol.  And since I can’t let a reference to Charles Dickens pass without pausing on it, let me digress before I even begin.  My guess is that Dickens chose the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” for its sound.  Dickens tended to choose names for that reason, and this particular name is odd and old-fashioned like its owner, but also harsh like its owner, with all those long vowels and hard consonants.  “Ebenezer” is the type of obscure Old Testament name that might be given to the child of people who subscribed to the type of bleak, joyless religion that Dickens so hated.  (Dickens fan fiction writers–I know there are a few of you out there–here’s a topic for you.)  Whether Dickens intended it or not, the name may also have a deeper significance in a story about a person reaching a milestone in his life.  And it gets even more interesting: his pivotal moment takes place at a literal stone–a memorial stone.

That’s significant because the name “Ebenezer” was originally given to a stone set up by Samuel the prophet.  The word literally means “stone of help,” and when Samuel dedicated it, he said, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).  This statement is quoted almost verbatim in my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which I in turn quoted in my title for today.  Here’s the full line, addressed to God: “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come / And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”  A similar idea occurs in another beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this concept of stopping and looking back on the road by which God has led me to this point and looking forward in hope–the theological kind of hope, which has a sure basis.  (By the way, it’s almost impossible to talk about this concept without using road metaphors; even the word “milestone” comes from road travel.)  One reason it’s been on my mind is that last week I had to write my salvation testimony and reflect on my spiritual growth over the years since then.  I closed my response by referring to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  I don’t know where he will lead me next, I said, but I trust that he will lead me into green pastures and beside still waters (and sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death, but never to stay there).

I’m also thinking about the Ebenezer stone because it seems that change is in the air–for an unusual number of people around me, and maybe even for me.  I used to be afraid of change.  I was scared of not being able to control how things changed.  The so-called butterfly effect–the idea that if I go a different route to work this morning, I could change the whole trajectory of my day and even my life and maybe even THE WHOLE OF HUMAN HISTORY–didn’t make me feel powerful; it terrified me.  But I’m coming to understand and trust that God’s guiding hand–what old historians and theologians called Providence–is working to shape those events.  I’m not in control, and that is a very good thing.  I probably wouldn’t have chosen the job I’m in, the friends I have, or–dare I say–the family I belong to, and yet these are the greatest blessings of my life.  God has brought me to a good place, and he will continue to guide me.  Ebenezer!

Calling all fans

I submitted a proposal for a panel discussion on fandom as part of my university’s English Department Colloquium Series for next year, and last week the selection committee gave me the go-ahead to begin planning the event.  I started by emailing a number of colleagues (including my thesis student who just graduated, and whom I’m proud to call a colleague now) I thought might be interested in participating, and within a few hours of sending the email, I had more than enough people to make up a panel.  And these weren’t just “sure, I’ll help an academic sister out” responses; these were “OMG I’VE BEEN WAITING MY WHOLE LIFE FOR SOMEONE TO ASK ME ABOUT THIS” responses.  That’s only a slight exaggeration–I had co-workers coming to my door within minutes to share their thoughts; I got email replies filled with multiple exclamation points, and I even had one student (now alum, as of Saturday’s commencement) who is so keen on participating that he plans to fly back here from Texas to be on the panel, even though I told him we could easily Skype him in.

So if I wasn’t already excited about the panel discussion, I am now, and I’m even wondering if this could turn into a conference eventually.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The reason I’m telling you about all this, dear readers, is that I need your help.  I posed a number of questions in my proposal, but they’re very broad, so I’m looking for more specific questions that I can actually ask the panel–as well as other questions on fandom that I may not even have considered.  If you have questions you’d like to hear the panel address, comment on my blog or tweet them in my direction (@Tessarama).  I’ll see if we can get the discussion live streamed or recorded, and if for some reason those options don’t work out, I’ll definitely write a summary post.

Here are the questions I posed in my proposal, along with some off-the-cuff and by no means exhaustive answers from me:

  • Why do people become fans (of texts, fictional worlds, celebrities, teams, etc.)?  Another version of this question: Why do some people/things seem to inspire fandom more than others?  One possible answer to the second question, in the context of stories: The stories that have major fan followings often, but not always, have a large cast of characters, meaning that even if you don’t connect with the supposed protagonist, there’s almost guaranteed to be a “minor” character that you can identify with, fall in love with, or otherwise latch onto.
  • How does people’s fandom contribute to their identity construction? A very intricate psychological question, of which I’ve merely scratched the surface in previous blog posts, but here’s a personal answer: I am proud to identify myself as a fan of Harry Potter, especially.  It’s one of the first things I tell people about me when I meet them.  And at some level, I consider it integral to the person I’ve become over the past eight years.  (Harry and I are going to celebrate our eight anniversary this summer.)
  • Can a person be both a fan and a critical scholar of the same text or cultural phenomenon? Yes, as I’ve striven to show in my own academic work and on my blog.  See also Henry Jenkins’s much better blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan.
  • Are fans passive consumers or active contributors? Often, and contrary to early, negative assessments of fandom, the latter.  See Henry Jenkins’s book, Textual Poachers.
  • What is the relationship between fans and authors, especially as traditional notions of authorship become blurred? Oh, jeez.  This is a big one.  See my dissertation. 🙂
  • As Christian scholars, what can we learn from fandom about belonging, passion, and critical engagement, and how can we best minister to people (including each other) who strongly identify as fans? I posed this two-part question not only because Christian worldview engagement is expected in my English department, but also because I think it’s important to think about this.  Without viewing fans through some sort of distant, haughty, anthropological lens (“let’s study these weirdos who are totally Other than us”), I think it is important to think about fan communities as “people groups” (“unreached people groups,” in some cases) who need Jesus’ love just like everyone else, and who can be ministered to in unique ways.

Send me your thoughts!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

With apologies to the Christmas season (which I do love), the time of year when I typically experience the greatest and most consistent sense of well-being is the mid-to-late spring time period we are in right now.  Here are some reasons why:

  1. It’s warm, and the days are getting longer.  In case you care, here are my favorite seasons in order: spring, fall, summer, winter.  I like change as long as it’s regular, predictable change, so the seasons in which the weather, plant life, and day length are going through obvious transformation are my favorite.  Of those two, I prefer the spring for the obvious reason that everything is coming back to life.  It’s not just the symbolism; I actually feel physically and mentally healthier (aside from pollen allergies) when the world is waking and warming up after the seemingly interminable winter.
  2. It’s a time for celebration.  This is the most exciting time of year in my world of academia.  I’ve always loved graduations, probably because I’m secretly British and therefore really enjoy pomp and ceremony (also “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduation song).  As a Harry Potter fan, I also appreciate long robes and funny hats.  So even though I’m not a fan of crowds or of wearing heavy black garments in the blazing May sun, I enjoy putting on my doctoral regalia (for which I paid a hefty price in both effort and actual money) and marching around as a symbol of intellectual weightiness.  Even more, I enjoy seeing graduates celebrate with their loved ones and anticipate the future with joy and hope.  (Crap, I’m starting to cry!)  I especially like the opportunities this time of year provides to see students share what they’ve learned and what they’re passionate about.  (See my post on this from a couple of weeks ago.)
  3. I’m about to be a lot less busy.  Another good thing about working in academia is that, for most of us, there’s not as much going on in the summer.  I don’t truly get the summers off because I’m also an administrator and therefore on a 12-month contract, but I don’t teach on campus in the summer (I’ll have one online class), and the cycle of department, committee, and student meetings slows way down.  So I’m looking forward to reading the backlog of books I’ve bought over the past few months, spending lots of time outdoors, going to bed early more often, and having adventures (or just passing time) with my favorite people, near and far (because I also have more time to travel in the summer). I got a little taste of that this past weekend when I had only a few children’s lit papers left to grade.  Friday night I read a little bit of Jurassic Park (the book I’m reading for fun right now) and then went to bed at 9:30, with my windows open and my Thomas Newman Pandora station playing.  Saturday morning I got up at 5:30, threw some clothes on, got an iced caramel mocha at McDonald’s, and headed to a local park, where I spent three hours.  I did some yoga on the lake pier, walked around the lake (it’s more of a large pond), read my Bible and another book, and did some journaling.  That may not sound like a fun morning to you, but I had a great time.  And I still had the whole day ahead of me when I was finished!  This is why I sometimes fantasize about being retired.  Anyway, although point #3 has been, strictly speaking, about summer, I still count this as a reason why I love spring, because right now I’m just beginning to enjoy–and still anticipating–all the delights of the coming season.

Do you enjoy this time of year, and if so, why?  (That feels like an essay prompt.  It’s also final exam time.)

I’m a church lady.

I hinted last week that I might post about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this week, but after watching the Blu-Ray, including the deleted scenes (which were enjoyable  but didn’t fill in any of the story gaps I’d hoped they would), I found that I don’t have a whole lot that’s new to say about the movie, except that I still love it, story gaps and all.  I will briefly mention, however, that I now have a favorite sequence: the one in which Newt and Jacob work together to catch the Erumpent in Central Park.  It starts off with that lovely little scene in which Newt does the Erumpent mating dance, showing that he has no problem making himself look ridiculous for the benefit of his beloved beasts (and making us love them too, vicariously).  After that, it’s a well-paced, purely fun caper through the park that solidifies the partnership between Newt and Jacob–at the end, the latter puts out his hand as if they’re meeting for the first time and finally says, “Call me Jacob.”  The music is also perfect in this sequence; it’s beautiful and sounds like something that should be in a ballet, but it has just enough of a sense of humor to fit the tone of the events.

But that’s not the topic of today’s post.  Instead, I want to write a little bit about the wonderful time I had this past weekend at my church’s women’s retreat at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Ashville, NC.  I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m a mountain lover, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed my surroundings, especially the feeling of being enveloped by the woods while zip-lining on Saturday.  I also enjoyed The Cove’s gourmet meals, the music and teaching sessions, and getting to sleep in almost total darkness and quiet.

But my favorite thing about the retreat was looking around and realizing just how many women from my church I recognize and, of those, how many I can call my friends.  This is significant to me not only because I belong to a large church, but also because for a long time, I didn’t think I was a “church lady.”  During college and for a number of years after that, I did not consider myself the type of person who would go to a women’s retreat–nor who would attend a Beth Moore Living Proof event (which I did last fall) or who would wear a piece of jewelry inspired by a book from a women’s Bible study I participated (and I love my necklace pendant that looks like the bird’s nest on the cover of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts).

Now, when I look back on the period when I thought I wasn’t a church lady, I realize that my attitude largely stemmed from pride and prejudice.  (I promise that was not an intentional Jane Austen reference, but I decided to run with it.)  I had a very narrow definition of what a church lady was.  Although I couldn’t have pointed to one person who fit this description, my stereotyped mental image of a church lady didn’t like to read non-Christian fiction, hugged everyone who came across her path but didn’t really know them, would have considered me unspiritual and just plain weird for liking Harry Potter and rock music, and used Bible verses in all of her decorating.  She was also, although I may not have ever articulated this is a verbal thought, intellectually and spiritually inferior to me.

Of course, I was wrong, not to mention lousy with pride.  My erroneous thinking derived from two main problems.  First, I was forgetting that the true definition of a “church lady” is any woman who belongs to Jesus Christ, even if she lives in a country that doesn’t have a single Lifeway.  Second, I didn’t know very many women from my local church.  It took me a long time and some deliberate actions–serving in various ministries, becoming an official church member, deigning to attend Wednesday night Bible studies–before I really started getting to know some of them.  Now, in my church, I have running buddies, I have fellow Harry Potter fans, and I have women who may not have any superficial interests in common with me but with whom I can have a genuine conversation about life.  It was beautiful to look out over the crowd in our sessions over the weekend and realize that.

It’s not a competition.

This past weekend, I participated in two competitions: a chocolate-themed 10-mile road race, and my family’s annual Oscar prediction contest.  Of course, the Academy Awards themselves are also a competition and are surrounded by a number of unofficial competitions of the “who wore it best?” variety.

I am a competitive person, and specifically, I like to win.  This explains why I prefer playing trivia and word games, which I’m good at, over playing card and strategy games, which I’m not.  It explains why I was disappointed not to receive the Dissertation of the Year award last year when I should have been happy just to be done forever with being a student.  It also explains why, although I’m proud of both of my friends who completed Saturday’s race with me and I’m glad we got to have that experience together, it irks me that one of them finished five minutes (and five places in our age and gender category rankings) ahead of me.  I’m not mad at her; I’m mad at me.  I should have trained better.  I shouldn’t have eaten all those fish and chips the night before.  I should have started slower to preserve my stamina.  I could have beat her–that’s what I’m still telling myself three days later.

I have this mantra/piece of unsolicited advice that I frequently use on myself and others: “It’s not a competition.”  Of course, some things, like races and the Oscars, actually are competitions.  But there are a lot of things that we turn into competitions that were never intended to be.  Who contributed the most to this project?  Who’s the busiest?  Who has the most friends?  When I was in grad school, the competition that never stopped happening in my head was about who made the smartest-sounding remark in a class discussion.  Now I host a similar head-competition: Which professor is the most popular with the students?  But that’s just one of my many mental Olympic events.  There’s also “Can I run longer than that guy two treadmills down from me?,” “Do I look more physically fit than that woman my age?”, “Whose food looks the nicest at the potluck?”, and “Who knows the most about [insert topic here]?”

Participating in all these competitions all the time is exhausting.  It’s also antithetical to the way Jesus lived and asked us to live.  When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them would have the highest place in the kingdom of God, he told them that they had to become like little children in order to even enter said kingdom.  Here’s something about little children (older children start growing out of this): They’re not good at games, in part because they don’t understand the concept of competition.  Another competition I tried to get started this past weekend was a relay race in the 3-year-olds Sunday school class I teach.  A very small minority understood what they were supposed to be doing, but most of them just stood there and looked cute at me.  And I got annoyed with them for not being competitive enough.  True, little kids will fight over toys–they can be a bit greedy–but that’s not the same as competing.  They really seem unconcerned about who wins and who’s the best.

I would love to press a reset button and go back to that non-competitive mental mode of childhood.  Because I can’t do that, I have to work really hard to be happy for others who can do things better than I can, to be content with who I am and what I’m capable of (not that I shouldn’t strive to improve where I can), and to be like Jesus, who was perfectly happy giving all the credit to his Father.