Emily Gilman

Making Stuff Up and Writing It Down Since (Before) I Learned How to Write

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Christian Values

The past several weeks have been exhausting for me for a variety of reasons, but none of it was quite like the days since Tuesday. I’ve been focused a lot on private conversations, and figuring out what kinds of help and support I’m best positioned to offer, and then making those offers/doing that work. I’ve been trying to keep my own head above water.

And I’ve been trying to decide what, among all of the private conversations, I would want to say more publicly. So here is one thing out of many, not because I think it’s anything new or earth-shattering or special, but because saying nothing is not an option and because this is one part of the whole shitshow I feel qualified to comment on:

I am angry. I am feeling, to borrow a phrase from Fr. James Martin, SJ, consumed by zeal. Those Men have been elected President and Vice President of my country. Those Men who would ignore the very real dangers of climate change, who would deport millions of immigrants and build walls (literal or metaphorical) to keep others out, who would condone (both explicitly and tacitly) racism and misogyny and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, who would torture LGBT+ people with so-called “conversion therapy” and try to take away their equal human rights because of their own homophobia and call it the will of God, who would fight to get rid of groups like Planned Parenthood and all the health services they provide because some of them also perform abortions as a small (non-federally-funded) part of their work (and damn the consequences), who would mock the disabled and mock veterans and mock anyone and everyone (but God forbid anyone offer even the most gentle criticism of them), and at least one of them would do it all claiming that he is “a Christian, and a Conservative, and a Republican, in that order” and that this is a Christian nation rather than a nation that separates church (broadly speaking) and state so that people of many faiths and philosophies can live together in mutual respect.

If you’ve clicked any of those links you may have noticed that, with one exception, they are not about Those Men, nor will I dignify Those Men by naming them here. Part of that is because I am so very angry — too angry to organize my thoughts and my evidence for the scathing, sarcastic denunciation I had originally intended — but part of that is because they are already too puffed-up, too proud and full of their own self-importance, for me to want to give them the satisfaction. Let me think of God’s words instead. Let me think of Pope Francis’s calls for sincere and caring dialogue between people of different faiths and his calls to care for the planet, our home and God’s creation, with love and respect.

I’ve never been good about praying regularly, and I rarely feel Jesus’s presence the way some people describe, like he’s a friend who’s physically there in the room. But every so often the entirety of what just happened, the enormity of its implications for individuals and our society and our planet, hits me: for a few minutes it’s all there in my brain at once, the big picture, instead of my little corners that I’ve been trying to focus on to stay sane. It is overwhelming.

So last night I prayed. I thought of what Jesus experienced growing up as a poor child living under a brutal imperial occupation, his torture and sadistic execution (one of countless such executions) as an example to others; I thought of what his parents and friends went through, the grief and fear they must have felt and the danger to their own lives. I thought of the people living that reality now, the people who never stopped living that reality. And I asked for help to be brave. I asked for help to be better than I have been, for help not to turn away even when I’m afraid, even when it’s dangerous, because there are so many who don’t have that option and never did and they deserve better. I need to do better.

And I felt it then, that presence that people talk about but that I’ve never quite understood. In that moment I felt certain that if ever I am in danger because of who I am, or because of who I try to help, or because of who I see as human and a child of God and worthy of love, that I will not be alone. Jesus will be there, because he is intimately familiar with those dangers, those fears. He lived them. In Catholicism, we believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. (It’s a mystery. Just go with it.) And we believe that when God became human he didn’t become someone like Those Men. He was not rich. He was not powerful. He was not the kind of person that his society was set up to help. And he didn’t set out to get rich or to be popular or to control other people’s lives by force. He was a nobody, and he was poor, and he was killed for questioning the status quo and for insisting on loving everyone, even his oppressors, even his murderers.

He will not be with Those Men, except perhaps to soften their hearts (I can only pray). And he is already with us.

One final note on failing and on doing better: I’m a big fan of the idea of original sin. I find it very hopeful. The way I figure it, original sin means that we’re all imperfect, we all fail, and we cannot change that. We cannot be perfect, at least not in this life. We can, however, apologize, and do better, and forgive, and be forgiven. So I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned, in what I have done and especially in what I have failed to do. I promise you (and God) that I will do better, and that I will renew that promise every time I fail. And if you feel like praying for me, that’s cool. I’ll be praying while I work.

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Good Things

I can tell it’s almost the end of the school year by how tired I am. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like the end of the school year because the weather’s been so mild. (Not that I’m complaining, mind you! I’m just as happy to save the hot weather for when I can wear tank tops and sundresses and not worry about work clothes.)

I have at least one entry that’s been rattling around in my brain for a while now, but I’ve been too tired and too busy to actually write it and have it make sense. I’m getting impatient, though, so to tide me over here are some things that have made me happy lately:

  • I just read Mikki Kendall’s story “If God Is Watching” and holy cow are there a lot of things to like about it. You should just go read it, but I especially liked her narrator’s strength and the way she tries to navigate what she can do vs. what she’s willing to do. But I also love the narrator’s parents. And her brother. And her friends. And why are you reading this when you could be reading that? (Unless you already have read it and are coming back, in which case thanks.)
  • Galen Fitzpatrick is a friend of friends whose music I’ve been hearing about for years. After hearing his song “Mud” I finally sat down and really listened to his album James McGovern about a week ago, and I’ve been listening to it pretty much constantly since. To be able to listen to the same seven songs on repeat for days and not get bored? Bliss for those of us with music addictions and obsessive tendencies.
  • I generally prefer paper books to ebooks (“prefer” might be putting it mildly), but a recent conversation with an old friend finally convinced me to invest in an ebook copy of Middle East Patterns: Places, Peoples, and Politics in addition to my paperback copy. My hope is that this will make it easier to work on story research whenever I find myself with a few minutes of downtime without having to lug a textbook around everywhere. I’m also finding the book fascinating in its own right, since the areas and cultures it covers were so poorly represented in my formal education. Which is all to say: hooray for increased productivity and hooray for new things!
  • I also found a copy of The Jerusalem Bible for a quite reasonable amount of money! As a former literature-and-theology major whose hero-since-she-was-thirteen has been Mary Russell, it’s great fun to have a different translation of the Bible that is full of scholarly notes. I’ve also been slowly working my way through a translation of the Qur’an, and while I am very much enjoying the text itself, the version I have is also just a beautiful book from which it is a pleasure to read; it’s nice to finally have a Bible of which I can say the same. As if that weren’t exciting enough, the copy of The Jerusalem Bible I found is the same hardcover-with-slipcase (in the same color, even!) as my mom’s copy that’s been on our shelf at home my entire life, so it’s very satisfying to see it there on my own shelf looking The Way A Bible Should Look.
  • I got to go to my five-year college reunion a couple weeks back. It was great to reconnect with people I still like a lot but haven’t kept in touch with. I loved the fireworks, which were gorgeous and so close and especially satisfying since I’d missed them at my own graduation. It was good-but-strange-but-good to walk around a campus that is still so familiar and that I still love deeply and see all the big and small changes both in the campus and in myself. (More on that next time.) And I got to both acquire and show off my newest tattoo, which I’d had to postpone after car troubles prevented me from making my original appointment. The tattoo ended up looking a little different from how I’d pictured it in terms of size and placement, but it is perfect and I love it, and it’s probably good for me to be reminded every so often that when things don’t go exactly the way I plan it’s sometimes because they turn out even better.

That’s enough for a post, right? And, I hope, enough to put off the I-must-write-NOW impulse for a couple more weeks while I let that other entry finish coming together in my head. While I work on that, what are some things making you happy, dear readers?


Reading and Reflection

Today I finished Mohja Kahf’s beautiful, fascinating novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, about a Syrian-American girl and her changing relationships to her family, to her friends, to politics, to religion, and ultimately to herself. I’ve also (finally!) been reading Connie Willis’s time-travel-slash-historical-fiction novel Blackout, which is fascinating and engrossing (but also rather stressful!). And I’ve slowly been reading (a translation of) the Qur’an, one sura at a time, both for research and for my own curiosity. And I just started reading G.K. Chesterton’s essay Heretics, which (along with Orthodoxy) I’ve decided to read as part of my Lenten observance. And then of course there are the young adult books I’ve been reading for work . . .

The funny thing about reading again is that the more I read the more I itch to write. It’s like I was dehydrated from too little reading, and now I’ve finally caught up enough that reading is no longer enough, I need to be doing something with it. I need to be participating in that creative process. And it’s hard, because I love the story I’m working on right now, but it’s the kind of story that comes out as a sentence here, a paragraph there, slowly growing or perhaps slowly revealing itself to me. I’m not sure. (With luck, writing this entry will help tide me over until I have time and energy to sit down and work properly, maybe this weekend.)

I think, though, that I’m glad I’ve been reading so many different kinds of books — books for adults, books for children, fiction, nonfiction, holy, secular, all in different styles and with different emphasis (on plot, on character, on language . . . ). Because, you see, I am also slowly working my way through the draft of a friend’s novel, and every so often I feel that pang that always reminds me of the scene in Velvet Goldmine, when Brian Slade says of Curt Wild’s performance, “I wish it had been me. I wish I’d thought of it.”

The thing is, I don’t wish that, at least not in so specific a sense. I could wish that; I could sit here and be jealous and unhappy and let those bad feelings rot inside me. What I really wish in those moments, though, is that I’d done (or I were doing) something like whatever I’m reading or watching or hearing: I wish I were doing something meaningful, something beautiful, something creative. Reading lots of different things helps remind me of that distinction, because just as I can enjoy all of these different books I can appreciate that my friend wrote her novel and also be excited about my own writing projects and how we’re both doing such different and interesting things.

I suppose I’m also thinking about this a lot today because it’s Ash Wednesday, and after several long months of being tired and stressed-out and unhappy and never quite catching up I’m finally sorting out what I want to be doing and finding the energy to do it. I have no interest in giving things up, right now, but I welcome the extra motivation to focus on reflection and discipline, on making time for the important things in my life and in some cases discovering through that process what those important things are. Mostly so far I’m finding that making the time, investing the energy even when I’m tired, is what’s giving me the most joy and energy back.