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Book Excerpts, Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Stranger Care by Sarah Sentilles, an excerpt

May 2, 2021
trees

A couple of weeks ago we told you about an incredible writing opportunity available if you preorder Sarah Sentilles Stranger Care. Read more about how to join us in a generative writing workshop here. Sarah was kind enough to give us an excerpt, so if you are like me and can’t wait for the release of the book on Tuesday, here is a taste of what the buzz is about.

Excerpt from Stranger Care, by Sarah Sentilles

trailing spouse

I always imagined myself a mother. I kept a list of possible names for my future children, pictured myself pregnant and listening to fast fetal heartbeats, looking in wonder at the image on the screen. But I had reservations. I’d absorbed the messages in the cultural ether that framed motherhood as both holy work and trap. My ambivalence grew.

When Eric and I married in 2004 we agreed we’d eventually have a child, but we were busy doing other things—­writing dissertations, writing books, chasing academic jobs around the country—­and by the time we started talking in earnest about becoming parents, I was in my midthirties, and Eric was close to forty.

We moved to Southern California in 2007 and lived in a townhouse subsidized by the university where we both taught. Eric had been hired for his first tenure-­track faculty position in a graduate school of education, preparing teachers for public school classrooms. I was the “trailing spouse,” language that reminded me of the signs along some California highways that show an adult holding the hand of a small child who appears to float in the wind, feet not touching the ground.

Eric liked our life as it was. He liked our freedom, the ease of escaping to the Sierras to backpack and to the Alabama Hills to climb, the unfettered time for activism, for work that might make a difference. We could turn our attention and our resources toward all children, he reasoned, not just our own.

“You’re enough for me,” he said. “I’m okay if it’s just the two of us.”

My friends had desperately wanted to be pregnant, and many had been willing to do anything to make pregnancy possible—­take hormones, give themselves shots, find egg donors, buy sperm, endure IVF procedure after IVF procedure, go into debt, hire surrogates. Their certainty threw my uncertainty into relief.

“I don’t know what I want,” I said.

“Figure out what you want,” he said, “and we’ll do whatever you decide.”

I’d struggled for most of my life to name my desire, separate it from other people’s expectations. To know my answers to even the smallest questions—­pizza or burrito, hike or bike ride, comedy or documentary—­I had to meditate, write in my journal. And when I did manage to figure out what I wanted, it was hard for me to say it. I didn’t trust my knowing. Especially when someone else wanted something different.

Eric does not suffer from indecision. He knows what he wants, and he isn’t afraid to say it. For him, this isn’t about control. It’s about integrity and honesty. It’s about not making other people read your mind. He says what he needs, and he trusts I will do the same.

But I didn’t do the same. When it was time for us to figure out if we wanted to have a baby, I hadn’t been saying what I wanted for years. And Eric was always so sure. If I didn’t know what I wanted for dinner, then why not eat what he wanted to eat? Why not watch what he wanted to watch? Why not hike where he wanted to hike?

These little deferrals accumulate.

I imagine it feels good to be married to someone who accommodates, especially if you don’t know that’s what’s happening. It makes it easier to say “We’ll do whatever you decide” because past experience indicates we always agree.

Until we didn’t.

Until I wanted a baby, and he did not.

the biggest gift

I wanted a baby, but I’d also swallowed whole the story that being a mother would ruin my writing, ruin my life. If I have to play with trains for one more second, a friend texted me, I’m going to shoot myself. Everyone I knew who had kids complained about it. There wasn’t enough money. There wasn’t enough sleep or sex or play. There wasn’t enough time to paint or write or read. There wasn’t enough time alone or time off or time, period.

“Work, kids, marriage, health,” Eric said on repeat after he read some article in some magazine about parenthood and its demands. “Choose three.”

I didn’t believe that scarcity narrative, but I couldn’t point to anyone’s life where it wasn’t true.

Sometimes when we shopped at Target, we’d see tired parents wheeling carts filled with plastic through the aisles, kids running behind them. “Why do you want to be a mother?” Eric would ask me while a toddler screamed and threw himself on the floor next to shelves and shelves of detergent.

“Because I want to” was all I could muster.

Eric didn’t want to have a baby because of the stress parenthood would bring, but there was a deeper resistance, too. Eric loves the earth and hates what people do to it. He follows me around the house turning down heat, turning off lights. “When did you two become vampires?” a friend asked when she came over for cocktails and walked into our dark kitchen. The environmental argument against making another human was a logical one for him to make, an ethical extension of his worldview. “We’re a cancer,” he said and emailed me article after article about overpopulation and melting ice and the great Pacific garbage patch and how much an American child consumes compared to a child born somewhere else. “The biggest gift I can give to a planet under stress is not creating another human,” he said.

Knowing that Eric thought having a baby would cause the earth harm made it harder for me to admit my longing for one. How do you pit personal desire against planetary destruction?

the wisdom of mother trees

In the forest, underground, there is another world. In a single footstep, hundreds of miles of fungal networks are buried in the soil. The ecologist Suzanne Simard studies how trees use those networks to talk to each other, to communicate their needs and help their neighbors. These pathways connect trees, allowing the forest to behave as if it were a single organism. Through the fungal threads, trees share carbon. They send warnings and distress signals to one another. And they look for kin.

Scientists have mapped those underground grids, which look like our brain’s neural networks. The trees are the nodes and the fungal highways are the links. The busiest nodes are called hub trees or mother trees. A mother tree might be connected to hundreds of other trees. She nurtures her young, the new growth of the understory.

Simard wanted to know if mother trees could tell the difference between their seedlings and seedlings from other trees. And if they could, did they favor their offspring? She did an experiment. She grew mother trees alongside both kin and stranger seedlings. And it turned out mother trees knew their offspring. They colonized their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks than they did the stranger seedlings. They sent them more carbon. They even reduced their own root competition to make room for their young. And when the mother trees were injured or dying, they sent carbon and defense signals to their seedlings, messages of wisdom that increased the resistance of their young to future stresses.

But trees also help strangers. They cooperate and share. As the climate changes, as the earth heats up, ponderosa pine, a lower elevation species, will replace Douglas fir. In a greenhouse, Simard and her team grew Douglas fir and ponderosa pine seedlings. They then injured the Doug fir that was acting as the mother tree. When the mother fir was injured, she gifted her carbon to the ponderosas. She also sent them a warning, information that gave the ponderosas an advantage as they took on a more dominant role in the ecosystem. She shared what she knew about the warming world with the trees that would take her place.

brave enough to have your heart broken

Eric and I met in divinity school in 1999. I was studying to become an Episcopal priest; he was studying to confirm that if people think they know God it is not God they know. Radical agnostic read the bumper sticker on his car. I don’t know and you don’t either. In school, instead of Does God exist? we were taught to ask What do our ideas about God do? Whom do they harm? Whom do they help? We learned to engage not whether someone’s belief about God is true—­because how could you prove it?—­but rather the ways faith affects people’s lives. That can be measured, observed, evaluated, changed.

Humans play a crucial role in creating the world in which we find ourselves, its beauty and its terror—­about this, Eric and I agree. We understand that the world is made and believe it can be unmade and remade to be more just and life-­giving for the most vulnerable among us.

But Eric thinks humans, as a species, will never choose to do that.

And I think we might.

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her next book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, will be published by Random House in May 2021. Her writing has appeared in The New York TimesThe New YorkerOprah Magazine, Ms., Religion Dispatches, Oregon ArtsWatch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She’s had residencies at Hedgebrook and Yaddo. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale and master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard. She is the co-founder of the Alliance of Idaho, which works to protect the human rights of immigrants by engaging in education, outreach, and advocacy at local, state, and national levels

*Excerpted from Stranger Care by Sarah Sentilles Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Sentilles. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Jen Pastiloff, Jen's Musings

Sabotage!!

May 22, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Jen Pastiloff.

I warned you that I was going to start blogging again so here I am. Friday night. Feeling kind of disgusted with myself over how disorganized I am, how bad at time management, how messy. If you knew you wouldn’t be my friend anymore. Wait: Are you my friend? Will you be? Gah, I am so needy.

Sometimes I worry that the really earnest people who read me, that they won’t get my sense of humor. But I can’t worry about that, right? < Needy. needy. Right, right? It’s weird because I have this big following (again, barf at the term following) of love and light and namaste people who, when I post the “Don’t be an asshole” videos will say things like: You are not an asshole, Jen. You are human.

Totes. I know this. I know I am not an asshole but I kinda am. We all are kinda assholes, at least sometimes and if you aren’t in on that joke, you are missing the big joke of life. The big joke of life is that we absolutely cannot take ourselves so seriously because we are just not that important. (Cue: Jen, we are so important. We matter.)

We do matter. We are enough. But you know why I tell my yoga peeps not to take themselves seriously, especially at 7 a.m.? Because it is so fucking boring,

It is really boring. Ever hang out with someone who takes themselves really really seriously?

Excuse me while I pour myself a stiff drink because even the thought of that is just. too. much. Continue Reading…

Beating Fear with a Stick, my book

Fear of Flying

September 24, 2012

Here I am in the air, headed back to Los Angeles from Atlanta. Having internet in the sky is still a novel idea to me and one that makes me feel like a wizard wedged in between 22D and 22F.  I’m a word wizard up here, a magician in the clouds and yet I feel like I have nothing to say. Like I have said it all. Some days are like that. I am a vessel of ideas and words and firecrackers and other days, a body in a chair, a body in the car, a body going through the motions.

So I post on Facebook and say: I’m going to write a post from the plane. What Should  write about? And I acknowledge that I am distracting myself from writing my book. #Distractingmyselffromwritingmybook.

Someone tweets me that I should write about fear of flying and another procrastination.

Procrastination, well I wrote the book on that one, so surely I could write a blog about it. But, fear of flying? I am not scared of flying.

Not anymore.

Or so I thought.

I used to have heart palpations every time I was on a plane and there was turbulence. I thought for sure that my time was up, I was dying, this was it. Then, I started to fly more and more and one day you wake up and that fear is gone. The things we get used to! People dying. People leaving us. Flying! Wi-fi in the air! We can get used to anything.

With time.

I started to think about it as I sat here in my middle seat (which I grumbled about of course, because in my mind I should be flying first class.) I don’t know why I think that but I got offended when they changed my seat and stuck me here in the middle as if they should have known better. Then I got over myself. For the most part. I still don’t like it but I have wi-fi. There’s that.

I am sitting here squashed and thinking about fear of flying and I realize that I am scared still, of heights, of expanding past what I think I am capable of.

I was in Santa Fe a couple weeks ago visiting one of my best friends you’ve heard me talk so much about: the writer Emily Rapp. Now Ms. Rapp is one of the best writers, living or dead, I have come across so when I am around her, well, I feel more like a real writer. Whatever that means. So I am with her in Santa Fe, Emily and her dying son Ronan (he has the incurable Tay-Sachs Disease) and she says something about me being a writer. I can’t remember what but I do remember I said I want to be known as Jen the writer not Jen the yoga teacher.

I realize that. My dharma, my purpose, my calling, whatever hippy dippy or non woo-woo word you want to use for it, well, I am not sure teaching yoga is that for me for me. But who decides?

Does it matter what I am known for?

These are all questions I ask myself as I buckle into my seat and get ready for take-off because you know once you are soaring there is little you can do to change what is behind you. Even though I have spent most of my life thinking I can change the past, and alternately, living there.

Does it matter if I am known, period?

It does if I want to write a best-selling book. So where is it? I write daily. Where is my book? I write blog after blog and some that I really love but my book is the the thing in the sky I am scared of. What if I write it and? There are a million ways to finish that sentence.

What if I can’t finish it?

All the what if’s are like turbulence and here I am up in the air trying to balance a cup of coffee. It keeps spilling and I have to refill.

What if I tell the story of who I am and they see me?

Who is “they”?

The fear of flying is so great that it sometimes keeps us grounded. Wayne Dyer has this great saying which I may butcher but it goes something like: Flight wasn’t discovered by  contemplating the staying on the ground of things.

So why are we so scared of flying?

I think it boils down to death. We are scared we are going to die. We are going to crash. (It feels somehow blasphemous to be writing about crashing and death while sitting on a plane.)

Let’s break it down?

How can I crash with my book?

I can expose myself. I can write a flop. People might hate me.

Okay, there’s that.

So what?

So what?

I need to do it anyway. My calling ( I imagine a deli and a man behind the counter calling my number) is to be a writer. A connector. A communicator. A healer. All of it. So yes, I use yoga to get my people in the room. I also use writing. I use whatever I can, whatever method I can travel by. Sometimes, in NYC, I take the bus. Look, I will get there how I need to get there unless my fear of flying debilitates me so much that I stay locked in my room playing on Facebook.

Why are we scared of success? Why do we need to apologize for it? (Okay, read: me.)

Usually when I saw we I mean me. I can only ever talk about what I know.

This I know: I am here in the sky in a chair and I am ready to tell the story of who I am. I am not scared of this plane crashing oddly enough just of my own light allowing to live the life I want. And why is that scary?

It comes down to worthiness.

I am a writer. I am flying. Look, I haven’t crashed yet. It’s only my fear of it which is keeping me filled with anxiety white fingernails.

Is the fear real?

You tell me.

I will tell you this. All of my fears originate in my mind which is a breeding ground for trouble. I love my mind but i will be damned if I have it control me and my piloting skills.

I am flying this motherf*cking plane.

I am a writer. We are what we say we are.

I am flying.

**Love to hear your thoughts below. Who are you? Where are you scared of flying? Of your own light?

** as a side note, my book agent came to my sold out workshop at Pure Yoga in NYC last week and every person went up to her and told her how excited they were to read my book. There’s that.