On my spiritual health
I read A Woman’s Place by Katelyn Beaty and Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey while wrestling with mixed messages from the church regarding women. As much as I hated the concept, I’d started to think God wanted to see me hobbled. Not only was it nice to learn that I’m not the only one who finds certain church teachings insane, these books also offered an invitation to take part in God’s redeeming work using the gifts I’ve been given. Thank these books for my recent blogging kick.
I really needed Randy Alcorn’s If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil my senior year of college. I started that school year in spiritual distress, unable to believe God gave good gifts or did good things. I spent much of my reading experience looking up the numerous Scripture references Alcorn drops. I like that when Alcorn makes a statement, he wants his readers to know how he got there. I didn’t finish the book (it’s over 500 pages, with 9 additional hours of frantic cross-referencing) but I spent a ton of time reading my Bible, which I believe was Alcorn’s intent.
More recently, I read and loved Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans. I left the church I’d been attending for two years for reasons that continue to feel unfair. I’d lost faith in the idea of a loving body of believers after repeated rejections. I felt beyond comforted to read Evans’ account of discouragement and doubt after leaving her longtime church. I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one who struggles to reconcile her beliefs about a loving, accepting God with the imperfect, impersonal American church. It might sound paradoxical, but reading about the church’s failings gave me hope that a better body might be found elsewhere.
On my creative health
My mom stole my copy of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and hasn’t given it back. My former church started an Artist Support Group based on Cameron’s book, an act that assured me I’d found the right place (HAHAHA.) Thus began 12 weeks of intense art therapy. One week, the book prohibited reading. Another week, we drew comics about our emotional lives. Another week, we used our favorite form of exercise to fuel ideas. I loved how many things this book gave me to DO in the quest to reclaim my imagination.
Another empowering favorite of mine is Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I don’t meet a lot of Christian artists, and those I do meet squirm at the idea of creativity as a divine force. Liz Gilbert shows no such fear. What I like most is how seriously she takes creativity; too often I apologize for doing the same, i.e., “I know it’s not a real skill, like quoting irrelevant theological passages.” Gilbert gives artists permission to treat their creativity like a gift and relieves some of the pressure artists put on themselves to Make Important Things. This was the first book I read that treated art-making as something to be enjoyed.
On my mental health
Moving to Seattle proved to be not at all what I’d expected. I came for freedom, creative community, and good food. I stayed because I ran out of money and refused to move back home. Most of my friends (past and present) have been unsupportive of my move. When I came out about my depression, a friend told me, “That’s what happens when you move to a big city.”
THANK GOD for Lauren Graham’s Someday, Someday, Maybe. I’ve been keeping all my “young woman meets big city” books close at hand, and this book is on the top of the pile. Graham captures the hopelessness that comes with moving to a hostile environment. I love Franny’s defiant attempts to enjoy herself by splurging on crossword puzzles and cheeseburgers; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve longed for Pay Day, checking my bank balance to see if buying a chocolate bar will overdraw my account. Every time I run into successful relatives or meet people with giant apartments, I wonder if moving here wasn’t a mistake. This book makes me cry with its uplifting message of, “You are not a failure.”
I bought Katie Heaney’s Would You Rather? this spring and have since reread it at least 5 times. In the years since publishing her last book, Never Have I Ever (another of my favorites), Heaney moved to New York, came out as gay, met the love of her life, and started a new medication – that’s a LOT of change in a short amount of time. I’ve encountered many setbacks – romantic, physical, and financial – since moving to Seattle. What I intended as a new chapter turned into a season of depression, doubt, and lackluster church connections. It helped in the darkest parts to learn that Heaney felt the same things after her Big Move. Her relationship offers the most hope; I’m relieved to learn that good can come from dating, impossible as it seems to me right now.
I unearthed my copy of Cupcake by Rachel Cohn several weeks ago. The book – my favorite of Cohn’s Gingerbread trilogy – has taken on new relevance since I first read it in 9th grade. Cyd Charisse gorges herself on cupcakes, struggles to find good coffee, and seeks out gay friends; I recognize parts my own big city experience in these details. That both Cyd Charisse and I became baristas during our Big City Adventures is no coincidence.
On my love life
Even though it glosses over (not to mention oversimplifies) egalitarianism, Gary Thomas’ The Sacred Search made me weep. This was the first Christian relationship book I’ve read to legitimize city life as a valid marriage option. I read Thomas’ description of city couples surrounding themselves with art and went, “THAT’s what I want!” Christians come at me with the assumption that I’ll give up Big City Living once I find a man; I’m glad to know that isn’t a requirement.
I didn’t want to include Debra Fileta’s True Love Dates on this list. Her advice is sound, but I’d hoped I’d grown past it. I haven’t. I reread this book after buying it for the first time four years ago and all the dating advice is just as, if not more, relevant to my life. At least I reacted better to the ending this time – four years ago, I threw the book at the wall when it told me there might be a years-long wait in my future. Looks like that book was right and I was wrong. I’m still not thrilled about being single for several more years, but I’m not gnashing my teeth. So that’s progress, I suppose.
No book has been more validating than Sara Eckel’s It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. I’m going to take a detour to mention a book that DOES NOT belong on this list; Henry Cloud’s mean-spirited take on why women are single (as described in his book How to Get a Date Worth Keeping) really discouraged me. By focusing almost entirely on women (EVEN THOUGH SINGLE MEN NEED HELP, TOO), Cloud perpetuates some very outdated beliefs about what keeps women from finding true love. From that book, I absorbed the idea that I’m single because I deserve to be. That others have said as much hasn’t done wonders for my mental health.
BACK TO SARA ECKEL. I loved her take on the single life. Eckel challenges the myth that single people (women especially) are sad and hopeless. Her book communicates, “You’re doing the best you can and nothing is wrong with you.” THAT’S SO NICE TO HEAR. She also shares her own experiences of dating awful people who ask, “What’s wrong with you?” and meeting her husband later in life. So nothing is wrong with me and I’ll meet someone eventually. I can live with that.
I got more out of Susan Quilliam’s How to Choose a Partner than I initially expected. It helps that I bought it on sale at my favorite bookstore and read it at Cal Anderson park in perfect fall weather. Aside from that, the advice given is sound. I appreciated Quilliam’s justification of focusing: since one can’t give every single person a chance, it’s fine to funnel prospective partners through strict standards to narrow the field. The book also provided emotional touchstones for the search. In my favorite exercise, Quilliam instructed readers to imagine meeting a partner in a public place. She guided readers through different emotions: warmth, anticipation, peace, trust. She then revealed her purpose: readers could use those emotions to evaluate potential mates. A self-trust exercise in a romance book? What a surprising gift!
My love for Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed keeps growing. Many have accused millennials like myself of commitment phobia. In the church, adults tend to challenge each other to “just commit” as proof of their devotion to God, marriage, and maturity. Liz Gilbert resists this advice. Strongarmed into marriage by the U.S. government, Gilbert approaches marriage with a critical eye. She asks large, looming questions many Christians I’ve known would prefer to ignore: “Why does marriage exist?” “How does marriage benefit women?” “What happens to autonomy when two people marry?” Though Gilbert isn’t religious, this approach illustrates to me a working out of faith with fear and trembling. Gilbert doesn’t blindly accept, doesn’t “just commit”; she grapples with marriage and does not let go until she receives its blessing. I am so grateful for her journey.
On my gender identity
Thanks to bullies, middle school, and years of churchy sideeye, I’m extra-conscious of how I come across in the way I dress. I’m sick of the looks I get when I dress in the way that’s most comfortable to me. I’d really like it if I could wear my brothers’ hand-me-downs to church without having to watch Christians make mental “Is she a lesbian” calculations.
I didn’t realize how much I needed Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens. I LOVED reading about Billie McAffrey, the tomboy preacher’s kid surviving gossip in her stupidly small town. Billie describes always being on the defensive, lamenting that this prevents her from examining her sexuality. I stupid-loved Billie’s supportive mom, whose stance can be summed up as, “Church ladies are stupid. Wear Doc Martens.” This book brought healing.
Reading Liz Prince’s Tomboy was a really gratifying experience for me. In it, Prince puts forth her childhood for consideration. WHO KNEW there were other straight women who grew up being “one of the boys” and still get called “sir” ALL THE TIME?
For all-time favorite graphic novels, though, Something New by Lucy Knisley still reigns. Knisley and her groom refused to fulfill the predetermined duties of “bride” and “groom.” Instead, they shared the responsibility of planning the ceremony and incorporated only the traditions that suited them. From this, I learned I’m not locked into a cutesy white dress wedding fantasy. I have hope yet.