Not long ago, I read an article on BuzzFeed which caught the attention, once shared, of a large subset of my friends. Titled Why I Miss Being a Born-Again Christian, the op-ed related the Jessica Misener's journey from accepting Christ as her personal Lord and Savior at the age of 16, through high school youth group events, into college and its influx of both knowledge and doubt, etc. For some, the idea of reading about such a predictable "Jesus phase" might sound boring and tedious. For the rest of us, the article was like a walk down memory lane. Ms. Misener is also a gifted writer. A couple of my favorite lines:
To use the jargon of my former life, I became a "believer" in Christ shortly after my mom "got saved" -- the term evangelicals use to mean a conversion to a very specific kind of Christianity, the Billy Graham and gay Teletubbies kind that preaches Jesus as the only path to salvation.
Once at a college party, I tried to convince people not to drink by asking them to think deep existential thoughts about why they drank. (A beneficial thing to ponder, probably, but not one undergrads are dying to muse on between keg stands.)
Yeah. it's familiar. Which, after a chuckle or two could have been the end of it. But a friend of mine from high school sent me an email in response:
That Buzzfeed article you posted a few days ago about the girl who misses being an evangelical got me thinking. I also identified with much of her story, and lately I've been debating whether or not I still want to claim the "Christian" label. I've definitely distanced myself from evangelical culture and flat out reject a lot of the views typically associated with evangelical Christianity (inerrancy and divinity of all scripture, beliefs about gender and sex, etc), but since that's the brand of Christian I've grown up in, I'm not quite sure how to be a Christian without being an evangelical one. I know a lot of things I don't believe anymore; I'm not sure what exactly I do believe. I do know that I miss feeling connected to a church community, and the sense of purpose and belonging and connection to divine that comes with it.
So I'm curious: you said you would still call yourself a Christian, and I'm wondering what that means for you, or how that plays out.
A perfect set of questions. Stuff Christians should, in my opinion, always be asking themselves and each other. The following is my reply:
Though we're currently celebrating America's Independence Day in Oslo for the fourth time in a row, and though we're watching soccer as part of that celebration, Jonathan and I do miss lots of things about being home for this wonderful holiday. I rooted around through our photo bank for a few of the things we miss the most (and made myself terribly homesick in the process):
Every year, our home church puts on a BBQ. This includes food, games for the kids, music, and a car show. Jonathan participated in the car show for a couple of years, showcasing his beloved 1990 Jaguar XJS V12. Pretty sweet ride. Sometimes we miss that car.
The July 4 BBQ is all about relaxing and being a kid again. This includes juggling. My man can juggle anything, even lawn flamingos. This also includes water wars. Somehow I was always a target in these super soaker battles, and I unfailingly ended up drenched to the bone. That's young John Cromie on the right, looking every inch the BBQ nightmare scenario he was for me.
In high school, I had a poster taped up in my bedroom that read:
You run like a girl. You hit like a girl. You throw like a girl. You serve 60 mph in their face like a girl.
Which, I think, is why I kicked so much ass.
But this is not to say I didn't understand that "like a girl" was meant to be an insult. As a child, one of my favorite movies was The Sandlot, a film about a troop of best buddies playing sandlot baseball over one amazing childhood summer. In a key scene, the sandlot players are confronted by a bike-riding crew of Little Leaguers, and the two sets of eleven-year-old males trade insults. They say some pretty sick, plausibly child-imagined stuff. But the crescendo, hollered by Ham--the heavy, freckled catcher--is, of course: "You play ball like a girl!" Someone snort-laughs.
The boys shoot one another panicked looks. As though, with this, Ham might have gone a bit too far.
It never got to me. Because I was one scrappy chick. I ran faster, hit harder, threw longer than any boy in my neighborhood. When I watched The Sandlot, I was Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez, not his little sister. Not the main character, Scotty Smalls, who can't catch a baseball to save his own life. Sure, when my hormones began sparking, I developed a crush on Benny, but in my daydreams, I never sat in the bleachers to cheer him on. I was on the field, too.
I gifted myself two hours of reading time today, over lunch. At hand was Twice Eggs, a new essay from Alex Johnson, one of my mentors at Lesley University, and a writer I deeply admire. Approaching her new work, I looked forward to hearing Alex's voice again--that effortless intelligence and poetry, manifested in a shrewd eye for detail, and a light-handed delivery.
Twice Eggs is the story of Alex's return to southern Italy after years away to visit the family of Giorgio, an old flame. As much as Giorgio and his current desires to leave his homeland figure into the narrative, the heart of the piece lies in Alex's relationship with Anna, the woman who, had things worked out differently at that long ago crossroads, would have been Alex's mother-in-law.
Perhaps it is fitting that I began reading over lunch: one hand clicking through the pages on my Kindle, the other collecting spilled sesame seeds with my fingertips and bringing them to my tongue. Food is everything in Twice Eggs. It fuels the narrative from the opening glimpse of Anna's garden, "planted with nightshades--eggplant, tomatoes, firecracker red peperoncini hot peppers whose oil is drizzled over warm waxy potatoes." And everything we see and learn of Anna revolves around her garden and her kitchen. Alex's return to this kitchen triggers every kind of sensory memory, both for her and for the reader.
We all have those moments, coming into contact with the scent or taste of a place and time so distinct in our past that our minds drop everything else and leave the present behind entirely--the olfactory gland being the secret to time travel. Then, often, once we have found that rain-on-the-blacktop middle school quad or that milk-sour corner of Grandma's kitchen in the back of our minds, we wish either that things could have turned out differently or, sometimes, that they could have remained exactly the same. Regret and nostalgia spring from the same soil.
Alex's return to Viggiano, a village "deep in the Mezzogiorno, the instep of Italy named for the blinding mid-day sun," recalls her earlier visits to the same place, on the arm of young Giorgio. A time of almosts. Of younger motivations. Of instant gratification and ecstasy and a reproving potential-mother-in-law. Alex makes her reader feel the danger and beauty of Viggiano. It is a hot, dry place. The hillsides are barren, remote, hard, deceptive. It is not ground I expect much from, but when locals scour the same hillsides, they come up with honey. It is in this sun-baked village that she might have made another choice, turned a down a different road.
Crossroads are the main concern of the narrative, and Twice Eggs does what solid, powerful essays are supposed to do: present something in common with the reader in an uncommon realm, then slice open the moments and places and interactions for observation, and set them out to dry in the sun under crystals of salt. Such common ground in this case includes the beauty of being chosen and accepted by another family, the impact of myriad superstitions on everyday life, and, even in the contented present, finding your gaze trailing backward toward the what-ifs of doors long closed.
Read it. Revel in the way Alex deftly drops out of chronology for quixotic asides about history, geology, religion, and drama. Wander the streets of this village in southern Italy, where Alex was warned not to travel alone since the waves of Tunisian refugees began to wash up on the coast. Realize the weight of life and slowness of time in a region which has experienced Fascism, leprosy, and the wiping out of Pompeii. And then want to go there, with every fiber of your being, with every taste bud of your tongue. Always, somewhere in the room, you'll find a platter of "tissue-thin salami flecked with fennel or shot with Senise pepper."
Alex Johnson is the author of The Hidden Writer, which won the PEN/Jerard Award for nonfiction. She is also the author of Leaving a Trace. Her personal essays have been included in several anthologies, including I Always Meant to Tell You and To Mend the World. Her essays, reviews and travel pieces have appeared in numerous national publications, among them: The New York Times, O, (the Oprah Magazine), The Nation, Ms. Magazine, AGNI. Her work has been featured frequently on National Public Radio, including on "Talk of the Nation" and the "Diane Rehm Show." She has taught memoir and creative nonfiction at Harvard, Wellesley, and in Lesley University's MFA Program. Twice Eggs is adapted from The Saint's Laundry, a memoir in progress.
Ploughshares Solos is a digital-only series of stories, essays, and novellas published by Ploughshares Literary Magazine in Boston. Previously, I hadn't heard of Ploughshares Solos, but it will heretofore be something I seek out, perhaps with a bit of an insatiable reader's desperation. Three cheers for excellent writing in the short form!
Fate is nothing; fate is everything. I find it hard to believe in chaos, even when that's what whirls and crashes all around me. Probably because I'm a writer. My serendipity sensor is on overdrive. Not only do I notice the details of life--the scent of the roses, the placement of their thorns--but before my eyes, they arrange themselves in patterns. Like crop circles. Like fairy rings.
My trip to Ireland last week was a literary one. It was my reward for winning the Irrgrønn Flash Fiction Award here in Oslo, last March. Three nights in Dublin, courtesy of Tourism Ireland. I was giddy with excitement on the plane, armed with a checklist of bookish things to do in the homeland of Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Stoker, O'Brien and Enright. Again, what we accomplished (saw, learned, basked in, drank, explored) is far too weighty for one post. Here, I want simply to relate something fun that happened our first evening in the city.
I'm home from a bookish, whiskey-laced, World Cup-ful week in Ireland. There are far too many wonderful bits to blog all at once. Suffice it to say, the trip ticked every box on my Perfect Vacation List. This is a list which has evolved over the years and now includes this shocking item: Finding time and space to go for a run.
You read that right. My on-again-off-again relationship with running is, well, on again.
My shins are fickle. My attachment to my couch profound. My wheezy lungs as good an excuse as any to move at a snail's pace through the majority of my life. But when I run regularly, I do enjoy it. Particularly the bit just after the initial fifteen minutes of hellish breaking-in which my body is bound to undergo every single time... and just before the devastating throb of my lazy heart as The Blerch pops up to tell me I should stop immediately and buy some ice cream instead. If I can drown out The Blerch's protestations with the help of Beyoncé or Ira Glass, I inevitably finish my run glowing (sweating, actually, but glowing just sounds less sticky, slick, and gross), breathing deeply, and proud of myself. Every time. Proof: This photo of me, post-run, posing with my favorite Georgian door in Dublin, number thirty-three, and the same shade of bright red as my poor, little, panting face.
Which is why I've signed up to run the Oslo Half Marathon in September this year, partnered with fellow American expat blogger Corinne to train for the race, and even managed to complete two training runs while on vacation!
When Jonathan and I trained for the Disneyland Half Marathon in 2008 and 2010, we did our final tapered runs in Anaheim the night before the big race. We did the same thing in Death Valley before the 30K we ran in 2009, too. But just plain going for a run while a tourist in a foreign city is something I've never tried before. It almost didn't happen, too, because when I Googled around for advice about jogging in Dublin, I saw the same thing over and over: Don't do it. Running on city streets in Dublin is, apparently, very tough to do. They're crowded. The intersections are terrible. (And if you're not a local, it's easy to forget which way to look when you cross the street, too!) Thankfully, the advice I found went further than that. If you want to run in Dublin, choose one of the many beautiful, safe little parks in the city, and do laps.
This spring, I was invited by Editor Michael Sandelson to write a series of pieces for The Foreigner, a website for Norwegian news in English. I accepted at once! After all, writing about life in Norway is already what I do for fun. Why not spread my reach a little?
So far I've authored three pieces for The Foreigner:
Alone on the 17th of May (May 2014)
Norway's Constitution Day arrived suddenly my first year, as international holidays do to those who aren't used to celebrating them. That was three years ago. Looking back now, I realize there'd been plenty of signs in the weeks leading up to it. Planter boxes suddenly overflowing with freshly planted tulips, their yellow heads the size of coffee mugs; and, of course, an onslaught of teenagers in cherry-red pants. But I'll get back to that. Continue Reading...
Digging-in (May 2014)
Each spring, the tenants in our Oslo apartment building come together for an afternoon of voluntary, community work. This is a dugnad, a Norwegian tradition in which a bunch of people join forces to spruce up their shared, public spaces. Like a barn-raising, but on a smaller, less sweaty, less Amish scale. We'd been living in Norway only a month when our first dugnad notice showed up in our mailbox. At first we didn't know what to think of the typed, unsigned page requesting our presence on a Thursday afternoon in late April. Google Translate helped. Unfortunately, allusion to a small fine, owed if we chose to skip out on the dugnad, tainted the notification. We marked the date on our calendar and began to dread it. Continue Reading...
The Ski-in (April 2014)
Native Norwegians make cross-country skiing look like a glide-stepping walk in the park. As expats in Norway have heard a thousand times, this is because Norwegian babies are born with skis on. An atrocious thought, sure, but if you visit any cross-country trail in the Oslomarka on a sunny day, you'll see how plausible it is. Children as young as three zoom right by you: without poles; without fear. Only kids who are too young to walk get away with being too young to ski. I hopped on the cross-country skiing bandwagon with both feet, our first winter in Norway, and promptly slipped and fell into the snow. Continue Reading...
The Foreigner is a subscription-based website, but you can access a few articles each month without paying the fee, so please stop by and read these and let me know what you think. Hopefully you'll find something there that makes you want to stick around and/or check back more regularly.
Before moving to Norway, I did several things to prepare. I purchased books about the country and culture, fully utilizing Amazon's if-you-bought-this-you-might-also-like algorithms. I Googled around and came up with a list of expat bloggers living in Norway, dutifully combing their archives for insights into Norwegian life. There was never any way I would find it all, would be truly prepared. But no one was going to accuse me of not trying!
There is one resource I didn't come across at the time and now wish I had. Norway: A Handbook for New Residents (198 NOK) is a book by M. Michael Brady. He collected as much information as he could find about every conceivable topic important to someone living in Norway, and compiled it in a single book. First printed in 2005, I own the updated 2012 edition, and I cannot overstate how convenient and useful it is!
I do want to point out right away that Mr. Brady supplied me with a copy of this book for the purposes of my writing a review. This does not affect my personal take-away. All opinions expressed about Norway: A Handbook for New Residents are mine and absolutely sincere.
The Handbook is not warm or fuzzy. As the back cover states: "This is a book of facts taken from printed and online Norwegian resources and from country comparisons published by international agencies."
At almost 500-pages long, that's a lot of facts! But Brady has thoughtfully organized the tome, allowing three separate ways to track down the information you need quickly. First, the book is divided into an alphabetical list of chapters by overarching topics (e.g., Arriving and settling, Clothing and footwear, Foreigners, immigrants, minorities and integration, etc.). Then, individual subtopics are listed alphabetically within their relevant chapters. And finally, Brady has supplied two separate indexes by keyword, one in English and one in Norwegian.
When I say the Handbook is comprehensive, I mean it includes everything useful I can think of. From Second-hand shops to Halal meat, from instructions for Pant to an explanation of Julebord.
Chapter 23 is a timeline of Norway's history, from the first traces of human habitation (ca 9000 BC) to 2012, the year Norway passed a Constitutional amendment separating church and state. Chapter 6 (Church, religion and beliefs) breaks down the religious history of Norway's population, but also provides lists of Christian denominations in English and Norwegian, as well as phone numbers and links to churches, synagogues, and mosques within the country. Information on women's shelters for victims of domestic abuse can be found in Chapter 10 (Crime, wrongs, and countermeasures). Meanwhile, Chapter 25 (Housekeeping) diagrams the different widths of available light bulbs and explains municipal fees due for refuse collection and recycling.
You're either a feminist or you're not; and if you're not, I have no time for you. Today is too important to spend even a moment bickering about the definition of the word, or whether my desire for equal position, equal expectation, equal opportunity, equal pay, equal protection, and equal value in this world might make you and the rest of the non-feminists uncomfortable. You either believe your daughter is worth the same as your son, and can accomplish all the same things, and deserves the same size piece of the world, or you don't. And if you don't, I have no time for you. Your time is over. This is 2014, and we're sick of being statistics, sick of suffering the status quo. You think I'm exaggerating the problem? I'm not. Residual prejudice against our gender affects all women. The threat of violence affects all women. Yes all women.
Because a woman walking home alone at night knows how to carry her keys like a weapon. #yesallwomen
Because women make up more than 50% of the US population, but only 20% of the Senate and only 18% of the House. #yesallwomen
Because I minimize the time I was sexually assaulted, justifying that there was no penetration or skin-on-skin contact. #yesallwomen
Because when you hear the words doctor or lawyer or dentist or cop, you're more likely to think "he" than "she". #yesallwomen
Because a gentleman walks a lady home. This isn't untrue, just sad because it's necessary. #yesallwomen
Because Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are taught far more than Anne of Green Gables in public schools. #yesallwomen
Because microaggressions add up. #yesallwomen
On Tuesday night, the Oslo Writers' League launched its second annual anthology at Oslo's Litteraturhuset. I'm proud to announce that the event--which included a panel discussion, readings, and an art auction--raised almost 10,000 NOK for Utdanningshjelpen; this will provide more than three full years of education to scholarship recipients. All in all, a fun, successful evening!
Tammy Dobson Photography came away with some excellent photos...
Crammed as many OWLs on stage as possible. We're a colorful bunch!
You can pick up a copy of All the Ways Home on Amazon in the U.S., or the U.K., as well as The Book Depository. All profits go to Utdanningshjelpen. Don't forget to leave a comment and let me know how much you enjoyed the book!