amanda rowe

I don’t like blogging
November 11, 2008, 4:12 pm
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Therefore, I’m going to stop. I try it every once in a while to see if things have changed. Then I remember why I stopped. I simply don’t like this medium. I wish I did. I know the wonderful things it can do – create a platform, connect people, provide structure and discipline to writing, etc, etc. But I find it constraining, and I don’t like the writing I produce through it. It’s time to stop wishing I liked blogging. This is my final post. Hopefully I will remember all this before I begin and end another failed blog in the future.

However, I do like the photo I uploaded in the header, which I took on our recent trip to Maine. For that reason, and because this blog archives all my previous failed blog attempts, I’m going to keep it online rather than delete it altogether. Every once in a while, though I have no intention of writing, I visit the page just to look at the photo and how nicely it contrasts with the dark gray sidebars. Perhaps if blogging consisted only of uploading photos, it would hold more appeal. Hmm. That sounds a lot like flickr, a social networking medium that I genuinely enjoy.


Book sale

In a previous post I stated, “We never buy things we don’t need.” Ahem. We occasionally invest less than $100 (!) for 47 used books from the library book sale. Occasionally. And I’m not entirely convinced we didn’t need those books. All 47 of them. Being the considerate and selfless parents we are, we even bought one for Nadia.

We have a weakness for library book sales. My favorite experience was stumbling upon one down a side street in Maine last year when I was extremely pregnant, where we became so engrossed that we nearly missed our flight. That sale was the beginning of our obsession, and resulted in a few books we’ve referenced again and again this year: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (a 1960s copy with cover art that looks like Herman Hesse designed it) for me, and The Great Crash of 1929 by John Galbraith for Trent (oddly prescient).

While the Maine sale was my favorite experience – as it was just a few weeks before Nadia’s birth, it is one of my last memories of carefree childless days, not to mention a sunny fall day on the New England coast – this Arlington County sale was far superior in quality and selection of books. Most of the ones we bought were like new. A few worth noting, for various reasons:

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, and the copy I picked up was in great condition. It was the first book I found at the sale, and I was practically beside myself with my good fortune. I even smiled smugly at those around me who’d missed this gem (it was in the wrong section). Unfortunately, in my exuberance I failed to notice the word “abridged” on the cover. Let this be a warning to future library book sale patrons: be wary of beginner’s luck. Remember the tortoise.

The Best American Nonrequired Reading (2003), edited by Dave Eggers. I adore Dave Eggers. My first published article was a review of his What is the What, and I often fantasize about submitting a humorous letter to McSweeney’s notifying him of my obscure, but brilliant, review (in this fantasy, uproarious laughter and a lucrative publishing contract ensue). Needless to say, I’ve long wanted to read the books in the Nonrequired Reading series that Eggers edits. The 2003 edition has always been at the top of my list. In the Barnes and Noble in my hometown, I was reading the forward to this edition and laughed so loud that a staff member was sent to quiet me. Said staff member was none other than Kent, the gangly pothead who’d had a crush on me in high school. Because Kent worked at Barnes and Noble, I was usually a vigilant lurker in the store. But my laughter at this book blew my cover and led to a lengthy and awkward conversation about Kent’s new hobby, glass blowing. Which is actually really fascinating. 

Many additions to our burgeoning South-Afrophile library: a novel by JM Coetzee, several by Nadine Gordimer, Biko by Donald Woods, and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. We have just shy of a bazillion books on South African themes. It was important that we purchase a few more.

Women in the Material World. This book is such a great find that I’ve added a link to its Amazon page. One of the first gifts Trent bought me was Material World, this book’s predecessor. Material World was a photo project in which families all over the world were asked to bring all of their possessions out of their home, have them photographed, and talk about what they mean to them. The contrasts from Bhutan to Mongolia to Ethiopia to Texas are striking. Women in the Material World does the same thing, but goes a little deeper, asking women more questions about their lives. A woman from Texas cites one of the worst events in her life as her mother’s forgetting her 16th birthday. Her tragedy is sandwiched between women who have been kidnapped as wives, who have undergone female circumcision, who cannot own property, and other injustices. It’s outdated – 1993 – but still very moving. The copy we found was a beautiful hardback signed by the author and photographer (bonus: a birthday greeting to Judy).

I’ve already written far more than I intended, and yet I’m eager to share more of our finds. Instead, I’ll wait and let you know more as I read them.

Just a few of our finds

Just a few of our finds

October 23, 2008, 4:35 pm
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I am reading a so-so memoir by Anne Lamott that is punctuated by flashes of brilliance, mostly in the form of quotes and paraphrases of other writers. One of these captured my attention the other day, and has been rolling around in my head ever since:

“It’s like Czeslaw Milosz said when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature: ‘In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.'” (Operating Instructions, p. 47)

Ironically, my chief complaint with Lamott’s book is that it rings false. Despite her endless self-deprecation and flaunting of her deepest, darkest secrets, it feels as though I am reading a novel in which she has crafted a version of herself as the main character. The main character is interesting, and often shocking in her irreverence, but ultimately does not ring true.

But Lamott’s book is a memoir, and I’ve long believed that nonfiction is often much farther from the truth than fiction. I recently read Anna Karenina, which is probably the truest book I have ever read, in the sense that at every turn something inside of me shouted an overjoyed, “Yes! That is exactly the way things are!” John Gardner has said that much of our delight in truly good writing is this discovery of truth.

On the other hand, I also recently read The Poisonwood Bible, and was deeply disappointed because for reasons intangible, the book seemed false. The characters seemed more like vehicles for the author’s political and religious allegory than like real people. Their behavior was unbelievable, and though the action of the novel was fascinating, it did not resonate on the deep level that Anna Karenina did. It was not true, and therefore, in my opinion, not truly art.

How does all this relate? The Milosz quote has caused me to reflect on my own writing. I’ve experienced a subtle dissatisfaction with many of the posts on this blog, one that does not dissipate when I mentally correct for poor wording or awkward construction. I’ve realized that much of what I have written is not true. Like Lamott, I have not written my actual thoughts, but those of a character I created, loosely based on myself. Much of what this character thinks approaches the precipice of truth but stops at the brink, hesitates, and takes a long backward glance at the comfortable expanse of formulaic thinking behind her.

At times, I see myself as an artistic person (at other times, I scoff at that thought and change another diaper). I believe as an artist, I ought not to perpetuate the conspiracy of silence but to fire shots of truth. I’m not writing under a totalitarian state as Milosz was, but I do want to produce something that reveals a truth that transcends what is considered politically, artistically, or intellectually interesting at the time. I have no idea how to do that.

Urban simplicity
October 8, 2008, 6:03 pm
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My friend Tina recently wrote a post on “lessons from the island” inspired by her time on a tiny island off of Maine’s Bar Harbor. She praised the simple pleasures of life on an island – knowing one’s neighbors, a feeling of safety, necessary resourcefulness, walking rather than driving, smaller space, etc.

I often long for simplicity in my own life. Trent and I lived in a tiny, 1960s mildewed camper on a South African farm for a few months in 2004. We think back on that time – the early mornings, physical exertion, difficulty in performing common tasks (e.g., laundry, cooking) – with such fondness. We had two changes of fraying clothing apeice, and had to wrestle our dinner from the warped cookware and expired ingredients in the kitchen. We zipped our sleeping bags together and cuddled at night (not our norm) on a lumpy mattress to fend off S. Africa’s cold, wet winter wind. But every morning, we opened our door to the most amazing view of clouds rolling in over the Cape. We walked a half mile up the road for coffee with Auntie Pat, passing wild calla lillies and daisies and terrific views of rolling canola-blanketed hills.

When I think simplicity, I think of that time. So perhaps I have conflated the idea of simplicity with the that of “more difficult but worth it” living. If so, then my urban lifestyle actually seems quite simple. Much more so than my suburban apartment in Texas, at least, or the suburban home I grew up in. Here’s why:

– Walking. Driving and parking in the city is a huge pain. My daughter and I walk everywhere. This requires some foresight. If we’re walking to the store, we must consider our list: too many items means a grueling or downright impossible walk home. Walking also promotes community, as Tina pointed out, as I meet my neighbors out on the street and have time to pause and talk.

– Small space. We live in a one bedroom apartment because it’s what we can afford. It’s not the environment in which I imagined raising a child. I pictured a yard, a nursery with a wall mural, and a carpeted hallway to toddle down. But living in a small space naturally limits your consumption, something we want to model for Nadia far more than we want smiling pastel animals painted on the wall.

– Bonding. This is tied to the issue of space. In a small apartment, conflict must be resolved because there’s nowhere to hide. Close physical contact between us and Nadia is inevitable – she sleeps either in or next to our bed because the space necessitates it (although we quickly discovered this to be one of the greatest joys of parenting). I often wore Nadia in a cloth sling on my chest – we simply didn’t have the space for some monstrous 3-in-1 carseat-stroller-with-developmental-toy-bar-system, much less the array of substitutes for mom’s arms that have become popular: bouncy seat, swing, etc. And the space sometimes forces me to play with Nadia because again, there’s not room for the elaborate baby distractors that would do it for me, like exersaucers and jumpers. (But let me be clear – if we had the space, I’d love one of those carseat strollers and some baby distractors. )

– Resourcefulness. What can we make for dinner when the local grocery store is out of a key ingredient (as is often the case in our Soviet-esque Safeway)? How does one knead bread without a counter top? Where do kitchen utensils go when the kitchen has no drawers? What games can we play using a sidewalk, dry leaves, and our imaginations?

– Outdoors. Ironically, I spend much more time outdoors living in an urban area than I ever did in the suburbs. Perhaps because my home is just tight enough to squeeze us outside every day for open spaces and fresh air.

We’re hoping to add some containers to our balcony this year to plant a small kitchen garden (if we can somehow finagle a little more sunlight). If our efforts are successful, I hope to try my hand at canning, preserving, and pickling. I think I was wired for the “difficult but worth it” simple life.

First birthday
October 3, 2008, 7:08 pm
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Yesterday I watched Nadia quietly eat blueberries and ached with the realization that she was one year old. I have come to believe that all the cliches and hackneyed sentiments and trite sayings are true – deeply, beautifully, embarrassingly true. I scribbled a poem with my right hand at 4am many months ago, while my left hand held Nadia’s limp neck against mine. I was thinking about a cross-stitch I remembered from my aunt’s house when I was a kid. It ended with a line that went something like “I’m rocking baby and babies don’t keep.”

Your neck in my neck

Grunts in my breath


On the mole beside my left shoulder

And I think –

      the needlepoint pillow on the couch –

It’s true.

(Oh, I was so cynical!)

When Ugandans visit your home
October 2, 2008, 5:22 pm
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I would say we have a pretty simple, minimalist lifestyle. We never buy things we don’t need. We make do with old, ugly, stained, even broken stuff for as long as possible. Our diet includes lots of cheap protein (dry legumes) and homemade baked goods. And we live within 600 square feet of dusty, mildew-prone space.

Last week I hosted a visit from three Ugandans to our home – a child named Innocent that recently underwent heart surgery in the U.S., her mother Antonia, and an interpreter, Jean. Knowing that guests from a developing country were visiting made me realize the frivolity and waste all around us, and that our simplicity is relative, not absolute.

I once read in a Mennonite cookbook something to the effect of: “you no more need a different meal for dinner every night than you need a different dress for every day.” Either half of that equation is a bit shocking to read – the same meal every night? My kitchen is stocked with a wide variety of grains, legumes, produce, etc. You could argue that the variety of foods is important for nutrition . . . sure. But I have to admit that my primary motivation is entertainment – pure hedonistic pleasure in the act of eating different textures and flavors night after night (even bite after bite within a given meal), and impressing others through my meals – not nutrition.

The same dress every day? Despite my nonexistant fashion sense, we have two closets, three underbed storage containers, a dresser, a cabinet, and three storage cubes full of clothing. Again, excuses can be made – different seasons and occassions necessitate appropriate clothing. But honestly, most of the variety in our wardrobe is decorative, not functional. We like having choices and dressing to suit our mood, rather than being forced to wear the only warm sweater, or only pair of jeans, or only dark jacket available.

Trent became more aware too. On the morning of the visit, he suggested that we hide some of our shoes in the closet (we keep about 8 different pairs lined up by the front door).

Is all this stuff bad? Is it so wrong to own things with purposes that are primarily decorative, entertainment, or convenience? I don’t think so. As with so many things, I think those things are just an external symptom of our inner life. Is our lifestyle becoming too crowded for contentment, contemplation, true hospitality, and the spiritual life? Are the things we consume so ravenously actually consuming us? What can we learn from our Ugandan visitors, who possess far less, but whose level of generosity and family/community closeness many of us would envy?

Our friends Matt and Sandra kept a blog of their time in Uganda last summer that has some interesting reflections on similar ideas.

Vietnam blog: Final questions
May 28, 2008, 5:52 pm
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21 September 2006

I was in Vietnam as a 26 year old amidst a culture that values age and worships ancestors; a middle class American evangelical amidst poor ethnic minority Christians; an American citizen amidst Vietnamese patriots; a product of individualism amidst a collectivist society; a religious freedom NGO representative amidst Vietnamese officials accused of violating religious freedom.

Ta Phin commune (similar to a county) in Northwest Vietnam was the place where these identities most obviously collided.  There, wealthy and individualistic American evangelicals encountered poor Hmong Christians whose faith was causing deep familial and societal rifts, in a region where Communist officials that had historically mistreated ethnic and religious minorities and considered Christianity a subversive American religion. I will conclude this travel blog by describing my visit to Ta Phin and raising a few of the questions that resulted.

We met with the president of the People’s Council of Ta Phin, a communal administrative body, in a second floor room of the local Party building. Inside the small ochre room, a gold bust Ho Chi Minh was positioned beneath an oval plaque of Marx’s and Lenin’s faces on a faded red drape against the back wall. Two windows with no glass overlooked miles of rice paddy terraces climbing up valley walls toward lumpy, bright-white hilltop clouds.

The president was a slight, soft-spoken man from the Dzao ethnic group, wearing the olive jumpsuit with red shoulder tassels that seemed to be government standard issue. He told us first about the peaceful coexistence of the “3 brothers” – the Hmong, Dzao, and Kinh (Vietnamese) ethnic groups that predominated the region. To prove his point, he gestured toward the terraced hills outside the window, explaining that if we were to visit these local farms, we would see all three ethnic groups working side by side to prepare for the fast-approaching harvest.

Vietnam, he explained, highly values social harmony. 

Then he began to explain the new religious phenomena in the region, evangelical Christianity. Radio gospel broadcasts out of the Philippines began to reach the area in the 1980s, and the first conversion to Christianity in Ta Phin occurred in 2003. Since most Christians worship privately in their homes, which are geographically remote, an accurate numerical count is difficult. Still, he estimated 240 total Christians (later, a local pastor would estimate a number many times higher). “Following a religion is a right,” he stated.

But that right is complicated. Christianity brings particular economic and social benefit to families who convert.  For example, in Hmong culture (which has been especially receptive to the gospel message), traditional beliefs dictate that families must make regular sacrifices to ensure protection against evil spirits. Such sacrifices create an economic hardship for families in one of the poorest regions of Vietnam. Christianity, conversely, states the Jesus himself was the ultimate blood sacrifice, rendering all others unnecessary. Additionally, the status of women in Hmong culture is quite low. Christianity elevates their status significantly by claiming they are equal to men and possess inherent dignity.

For these reasons, some believe economic and social incentives are driving the large number of conversions among the Hmong. Their unconverted family members and neighbors resent the laziness and spiritual irresponsibility by these new Christians, whose foolish behavior could provoke evil spirits and bring calamity to those around them. The government official explained that much time had been spent arbitrating family and village disputes arising over sacrifices and land use.

As he spoke, I was struck suddenly by how ridiculous my questions to him about church registrations must have sounded. In this remote agrarian society, families and neighbors are dividing, and traditional religious and agricultural practices are rapidly changing. Issuing official pieces of paper to house churches seemed peripheral when the entire social fabric was so quickly unraveling. Still, the official smiled thinly and answered my questions, talking about a new pilot program to register local churches and reiterating the right of people to practice their faith.

After this government meeting, we drove a few kilometers up a steep mountain road to meet one young convert, Chang a Cang, a Hmong pastor who was just 20 years old. He, like most Hmong, was small in stature, the top of his head level with my chin (I am 5’3″). Cang’s home was a tiny shack of mud, wood, and corrugated metal surrounded by steep hills of terraced rice paddies and intersecting streams. As an urban apartment dweller, I was struck by the remoteness of this pastor and his extended family, living among the hills of Northwest Vietnam with no visible neighbors.

In the rear of Cang’s home, about 10 total women, children, and infants intently watched our conversation, half-hidden in the dusty dark shadows cast by the sloping metal roof. They wore traditional dress – black linen layers made iridescent (and waterproof) by vigorous rubbing with beeswax, punctuated by bright red and purple embroidery and by tiny bells and coins. By contrast, most Hmong men I had seen, including Cang, wore Western dress.

Communication was difficult because Cang spoke limited Vietnamese, and what little he spoke was in what our translator called “the Hmong manner of speaking.” What’s more, our conversation was interspersed with Christian jargon – baptism, Holy Spirit, blood of Christ, communion, deliverance – with which our translator was unfamiliar. So we fumbled through about an hour of conversation about beliefs (he felt that Matthew 7:7 was the heart of the gospel); reason for conversion (“I used to be plagued by evil spirits, but then I heard about Jesus”); church registration (Cang had submitted an application and was waiting for response); and the  everyday struggles of an uneducated, remote, poor Hmong pastor.

(Much of this meeting has been better documented elsewhere by others with whom I traveled, and I’d encourage you to read the accounts of Mark Galli, Kevin Colon, and Bob Roberts.)

Toward the end of our visit, one pastor asked Cang what he needed. Cang mentioned Bibles and a computer. On the spot, the pastors decided to drive Cang into town and buy him a computer. So Cang rode with us for an hour to Lao Cai Town, where the pastors pooled their money to purchase a computer and printer before sending him back home in a taxi, instantly bringing decades of technological advance to his small mud shack in the valley.

As Cang was riding with his new computer in the back of a taxi, I was laying on the bed of my room in the Communist Party Headquarters in Lao Cai, picking absently at the frayed chenille blanket as my mind ran through countless questions.

Is it better to act out of spontaneous generosity, even if that generosity may later prove to have been ill-planned, unsustainable, or even detrimental to the recipient? Or to not act until we are certain that our generosity will contribute to something well-planned, long-term, and locally sustainable?

Spontaneous acts sometimes seem more “pure” but can also mask tainted motives: soothing our guilt for being so wealthy and comfortable; feeling important and necessary as the bearers of expensive gifts; reporting impressive numbers of “lives changed”; maintaining a healthy distance from the complex difficulties of the recipient’s daily life, opting instead for a fast fix; and so on.

Similarly, well-planned acts sometimes seem more “wise” but can hide equally bad motives:  inactivity and laziness; excessive desire to control outcomes;  avoidance of dirtying one’s hands with less-than-perfect situations and people; captivation with one’s own intelligence, cleverness, and particular theological or philosophical bent; etc.

Which type of act (with all its beautiful and ugly motives) more pleases God? Glorifies God? Disappoints God? Resembles God – who sometimes lavishes generosity on undeserving people, and other times withholds material comforts for purposes mysterious and sovereign?

Underlying these questions, and the many more that I have left unwritten, is a basic idea: engaging the world as a 26 year old American Christian is messy business, fraught with emotion, confusion, moral ambiguities, mistakes, stereotypes, cultural blunders, deception, and some very unlovely people.

But this is the world that Jesus chose to embrace, taking on all its ugliness and frailty and destructiveness in his own body before dying on its behalf.

So what choice do I have?