Posts by Annie Newman

Radically Liberal Christian. Autism/Girl/Pitbull mom. FarmHER. Incurable maker of things.

DOUBLE Book Review: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and Untamed

A woman, unless she submits
is neither a mule
nor a queen
though like a mule she may suffer
and like a queen pace the floor.

The above is an excerpt of an Alice Walker’s poem, found again in one of the collected essays of In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. I wonder if Glennon Doyle has read it. I think she would enjoy it, as much of Untamed is spent discussing exactly how to avoid being either a mule or a queen, so to speak. It was by complete happenstance that I started reading them at the same time: Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens being the arbitrary starting point for me off my list of 36 Minority Writers on Faith and Glennon Doyle’s Untamed being gifted to me by my sister. Reading them together was a heady experience, as they uncannily complimented each other in their ability to speak directly to my own life. Perhaps this speaks to the universality of our shared experiences, which is a nice thought in and of itself. Perhaps God meant for me to read them together, which will make some people roll their eyes, but I think it is also a nice thought.

Neither of these books is “religious” per se, though both books do touch upon “religion.” But I do not see my Christianity as separate and apart from the rest of my life, something that needs only be acknowledged on Sundays and holidays. Things as varied and mundane as gardening, child-care, and drunken late-night conversation can have a real bearing on our souls. I believe God designed it that way, so I wanted to share these two books with you on a “religious” blog, since they were stepping stones on my spiritual journey. (You can read my in-depth reviews of these books, as well as my other recommendations, on my GoodReads account.)

In short, Doyle’s book galvanized me and Walker’s book uplifted me. As a woman who is searching for meaning, finding out what it means to be something beyond “wife,” and “mother” while stepping back from the business I helped build with my husband, the prologue of Untamed rattled me so much I almost didn’t read the rest of the book.  In it, Doyle recalls seeing a cheetah born in captivity who clearly still has some sort of ancestral or muscle memory of the wild. 

She gives this cheetah a voice: “Something’s off about my life. I feel restless and frustrated. I have this hunch that everything was supposed to be more beautiful than this. I imagine fenceless, wide-open savannas. I want to run and hunt and kill. I want to sleep under an ink-black, silent sky filled with stars…I should be grateful. I have a good enough life here. It’s crazy to long for what doesn’t even exist.”

“You are not crazy,” Doyle answers the imaginary cheetah-rambling. “You are a goddamn cheetah.”

I felt – I still feel – exactly the way she described that cheetah, and it was unnerving to have a person I’ve never met before put into words something I was having trouble defining even for myself. I used to be scared that whatever creative endeavor I’m starting might fail, afraid to see them through to the end. But now, after reading Untamed, I’m afraid not to see them through to the end.

Walker, for her part, caught all the complexities of my Southern, female soul. Forty years my senior, a different race, different occupation, different sexual orientation and religious beliefs than me — and all I could feel was our similarities. I felt so much less alone after reading In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Her writings gave me permission to love the South. For all its wounds and wrongs, it is still a place of wondrous beauty and deep inspiration. Her essay, “One Child of One’s Own” encapsulates perfectly the joy and revelation, as well as the frustration and constraints, I have experienced as an artist who is now a mother. Throughout the book Walker highlights the sisterhood of women – yes, black women to be sure, but all women, as well – reminding us that it is our duty and our benefit to listen to each other, to lift up one another. To that end, I think her essay “A Talk: 1972” (titled further on in the text “How to Speak About Practically Everything, Briefly, From the Heart”) should be required reading for all women in America.

I (re)realized something, reading these two books together: If we answer Walker’s call in earnest to lift each other up, we will achieve Doyle’s proposed goal of finding our own wild again. We will live freely, neither mules nor queens, but wild and beautiful as cheetahs. And that, I think, is the way God would want it.

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Psalm 65 – A Blackberry Sea

You care for the land and water it;
    you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
    to provide the people with grain,
    for so you have ordained it.
10 You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
    you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
11 You crown the year with your bounty,
    and your carts overflow with abundance.
12 The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;
    the hills are clothed with gladness.
13 The meadows are covered with flocks
    and the valleys are mantled with grain;
    they shout for joy and sing.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here)

This past spring, I was walking through the farm with the girls, meandering and exploring. We walked behind the fence-line of field four, a part of the property that had been timbered a few years ago. The undulations of the land were completely festooned in sprays of blackberry flowers. It was a sea of white and green. Since then, I have been eagerly watching roadside berries grow and turn dark, knowing that the same thing was happening in my secret blackberry sea. Last weekend, we went to pick some and were not disappointed.

I was overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of the land, a land that had been used for its resources and left as a ravaged wound. When we arrived here a few years ago, what is now a blackberry sea was a hot, depressing place: raw dirt, old stumps, and piles of brush baking and bleaching in the sun, with nothing to break the heat and wind but the occasional scraggly clump of weeds. Now, in addition to the blackberry, there is wild grapevine, shiso, and milky oats. On the perimeter, there are young paw paw trees already producing, and what I have a suspicion are persimmons too young to produce fruit yet, but full of promise for future years. I felt like I was in Eden.

God is so generous, Xe gives us solutions to problems of our own making. My blackberry sea is but one example. The other one that had me marveling anew this week was the fact that oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico are inadvertently growing huge reefs of those wonderful water filterers – oysters – on their charged, underwater metal equipment. And I think I’ve shared before that trees sequester carbon (up to forty-eight pounds per mature tree), provide oxygen, and literally seed clouds – yes, more trees equals more rain.

I do not think this means we get a “get out of jail free” card when it comes to caring for our wonderful island planet. Nor do I think that “letting nature be” is necessarily the best approach. Certainly, there are some areas of the wild that need to stay just that: completely wild. But if you remember, our original role in the Garden of Eden was gardener, so Biblically, you could argue that is humankind’s original and preferred vocation. There is constantly unfolding research about the Americas that show pre-Colombian populations were those edenic gardeners: tending the lands on a broad scale to make God’s fertile gift even more abundant. Early explorers were astounded by the park-like settings of eastern forests (which still had bison roaming through them) and the overwhelming number of fish in the Hudson river. 1491 and Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America are both excellent books if you are interested in learning more about how humans have actually, at least at some point in time, been beneficial to the earth.

What our role in caring for the Earth should be is something I’m sure I’ll revisit in greater detail in future posts, since that is what our farm is all about (and my husband, Chris, writes about it with more knowledge and eloquence than I, here). Today, though, I just want to celebrate the amazing abundance that is earth, from the cancer-fighting properties of ancient algae to the oxygen-producing capabilities of the Amazon Rainforest, and everything in between.

I thank God for the shade of the oak trees, the sweetness of a strawberry, and the puffs of dandelion seeds that delight my girls. (If there was ever proof that God loves play I think the answer lies in the irresistibility of a dandelion head to a small child.) I thank God for volunteer squash in the old pig paddock, the ever-forgiving and ever-cheerful zinnia blossoms, and the meteoric growth of my ten foot high corn. I thank God for the surprise stand of persimmons at the end of the driveway, quietly growing for a decade from seeds thrown there by my father-in-law many years past and just fruiting now. I thank God for the lush grass in the well of my front yard – a marsh in the winter but perfectly evergreen and inviting in the summer, where my girls run and roll and play with the dogs. I thank God for wildflowers. I thank God for gentle, rolling hills. I thank God for cool rivers and warm summers. I thank God for my blackberry sea.

Psalm 22 – COVID and the Coming School Year

11 Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls surround me;
    strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
    open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
    you lay me in the dust of death. (Read the rest of the chapter, here)

The coming school year

Indulge me, if you will, in a moment of self pity. I got word from our school-board the other day that we as parents have two choices: Half-time instruction in-school, with children alternating weeks they are in-classroom and receiving at-home instruction, or opting for full-time at-home instruction. I am extremely concerned about the recent COVID spikes in states that attempted re-openings, and am scared to death of what schools across the nation opening in a few weeks is going to do to these numbers, so I opted for the latter.

Let me be clear, I think the school board made the best decision they could: no one is going to be happy with any decision they make, but this is probably the closest they’ll get to “getting it right” in an impossible situation. I also am deeply grateful to the teachers who are essentially going to have to come up with two lesson plans – one for in-school and one for remote teaching. But essentially, I just signed on to a full year of being little M’s teacher and therapist, in addition to her mother and advocate. I have never been someone who wanted to homeschool. It has never been remotely tempting. Yet here I am, doing it. I’ll be working with her teachers, but she’s a special-needs kindergartner, so let’s be honest here: self-directed study is not going to happen. I’m staring a new full-time job in the face come August 10.

Yes, I’m grateful I have the option to do this with and for my child. Yes, I will relish the time we get to spend together. Yes, I love being a part of her progress as she learns and grows. I am grateful. I really am. But I’m also so very tired. I’m tired of limiting her opportunities for social development because of a global pandemic. I’m tired of being afraid to go to the river with the girls too late in the day because there will be too many people there. I’m saddened that my youngest is now afraid of people walking by us when we walk the dogs, because I’ve tried to explain we need to be friends from afar for now. I hate having to explain to my girls for the millionth time that we can’t do a car-ride to their grandmas and grandpas, who they haven’t seen, outside of Facetime, in months. But more than anything I’m so, so worried about how many families might lose children come fall, reopening schools, and COVID spikes. So even though I’m tired, we will stay home: for our health and theirs.

The Psalm

Psalm 22 is the most quoted Psalm in the New Testament. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are the words Jesus cries out on the cross. Other parts allude to Jesus as well: “a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet” (v. 16), “they divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (v. 18). It is a lament, an anguished cry of a psalm, which is why I chose it for this week’s reading. “Why, Lord?” it asks. Also, “where are you, Lord?” Those two questions have been my heart’s cries for weeks now. I am sad, I am tired, my efforts feel futile.

Yet here I am, “declaring your name to my brothers,” as v. 22 puts it. Even as tired as I am, I cannot resist the gravity of God’s pull. I saw something on Instagram today that said “God is the God of your valleys as well as your mountains.” It’s comforting, in a small way, to know that God loves us even when we aren’t feeling our best selves, perhaps even when we are feeling a little sorry for ourselves, or shaky in our beliefs. And for that, I will continue to sing Xyr praises even while asking “why?” and “where?”

I find it comforting, too, that this psalm has already been fulfilled, not only through Jesus, but through the declaration at the very end: “Posterity will serve Xyr, future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim Xyr righteousness, to a people yet unborn — for Xe has done it.” It is estimated that the final compilation of the psalms was in the third century B.C., which means many of these psalms had been sung for a long time before. Millennia of generations have sung these psalms, and the goodness of God has carried us here, in that tide. It may not always seem good, but something about that longevity gives me hope, and gives me perspective. My tired is real, but it is temporary. Even if it lasts the rest of my life (and I hope it doesn’t, and I don’t believe God wants that for any of Xyr children), it is still temporary. I may wallow around in my valley of self pity for a bit, but God is there with me. And when I’m ready to climb back to the mountaintop, God will walk with me then, too.

If you are learning from what you read here, please follow the blog so you don’t miss what’s next.  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  Please also consider supporting the blog through Patreon or Venmo.  Thank you!