Saturday, May 12, 2018

My Mother, The Writer

My mother loves her children deeply. All five of us grew up with total confidence in her devotion, and even now she loves to hear from us, rejoices in our triumphs no matter how small and mourns with us in times of trouble. She raised us to be as inquisitive, creative, faithful and compassionate as she is herself. I doubt that any of us meet that lofty mark, but know that she would disagree with me. It has always been her way to see our best deeds as a reflection of our true nature. And even I will confess to some small glimmers of goodness in my own character, so she is sure I am a saint.

My estimation of myself and my siblings should in no way be interpreted as a judgment on my mother’s child rearing skills—she has always been a miracle worker with children, both her own and those of others— but rather a measure of her own tremendous virtues and our ingrown stubbornness. It does not help that she married a recalcitrant contrarian with a devilish streak of impertinent humor a mile wide and a fierce temper, and we inherited as much of his mulishness and mischief as we did of her sunny disposition and preternatural kindness.

Though she loves us dearly, I have always known that her children are not everything to my mother. She has an identity beyond us, and she made sure that we knew that we were not the be all or end all of her creation. I speak here not of her professional life, though my mother has always been happy to work hard when she felt she needed to, but of her vocation. We were never her only creations,  because my mother is a writer, and the stories she finds inside her have always brought her meaning and joy.
You have most likely never read any of her work. She is not a NYT best seller. She wrote a story here, a poem there. Some she sent out and published in one magazine or another. It was not the center of her life, but it has always been a part of who she is. And so I grew up with my mother’s stories, seeing her write and revise and imagine, watching as she read publishing industry magazines to market her work, hone her craft, and participate in a community of creators.

She worked on and off as well, through my childhood, to help support us. She did work she felt was important and made the world better. But the work was always incidental to who she was— a writer and a mother. She did not write to make money, she wrote because it made her happy, because it was a part of her and without it she would not be herself.
We grew up and moved away from home. She still mothers us and cares for us and loves it whenever we call or visit. She had her work as a Spanish teacher at an inner city school. And she still has stories, and poems, and the novel she’s been working on for years. She is happy. And even though I doubt whether mother’s children can never match her constant optimism or her immediate, unlearned generosity, I think we all learned the lesson of her writing.

My eldest sister is a photographer who has never stopped capturing unexpected beauty through her camera. I have never doubted that she is an artist first and foremost, though her own photography has never been her sole source of income. It’s who she is, not how she earns her living. One brother is an author and playwright. Straight out of college, he ran an experimental community theatre by night while working days in a call center. When no publisher wanted to buy his first novel, he decided he wanted to share it with the world anyway, and published it himself. Telling stories is in his blood. Brother two is an engineer who writes poetry. He met the woman who is now his wife in middle school, they were both members of “power of the pen.” They grew close as actors in high school theatrical productions long before they dated. The youngest in finishing her degree in industrial design and continues to make art for her own enjoyment, not just her job.

And though I am more of a reader than a writer, I thought of my mother recently as I submitted one story to a literary competition and began work on another. Her writing is the reason why, no matter my day job, I continue to jot down story ideas in notebooks wherever I go. Quite possibly, her writing is behind every post I’ve ever written on this blog. This Mother’s Day, I celebrate my mother, the writer. And I thank her for showing us that in a world that wants to flatten us, atomize us, make us all perfect drones and consumers, that it is always possible to create something, and that making something new because it’s part of who you are will always be satisfying, even if it’s only for yourself.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What are you reading? Lent Edition

In February 2011, I was six months in to an LDS mission in Southern India, serving in a small congregation in a small town near an abandoned gold mine. Missionary work came with a steep learning curve. I had gone to church, read scriptures, and prayed for my whole life. I believed in God and religion had always been a major part of my life. But for the first time, I was immersed in the work of the church, spending day after day preaching the gospel of repentance and baptism, and worrying about conflicts and growth within the congregation I was part of. I stopped seeing religion from my own perspective and started seeing it through the eyes of the people I talked to all day, and through both institutional structure and sacred covenants. It became less about my own private experiences and more about the community of believers I was part of.

In India, religion was a more major and public part of almost everyone's life, and the question was less about whether to even believe in God, and more about which God or Gods to believe in, what they expected of you once you committed to them, and how that tied you to others and to traditions going back millenia. In addition to numerous Christian churches ranging from well-established and well-heeled denominations to numerous home churches, and charismatic fellowships, there were also numerous strands of Hindu and Muslim tradition, as well as Sikh, Jain, and Parsi communities. Watching these communities, and working with seekers who were open to the possibility of conversion, I observed that a network of human relationships was tied to every individual's religious commitments, and that the breaking or changing of ties with loved ones, neighbors, and friends made the prospect of conversion frightening, while the promise of new bonds of community made conversion enticing. Each prospective convert had to weigh their fear against their hope. Any I saw many who had made the journey, accepted baptism, and started building new relationships, who then fell away as the church failed to meet their expectations of community, or as old ties pulled them back to old associations.

Within the congregations I served with, I saw how strongly individual personalities could impact the community, and how each congregation felt different and functioned differently, even as all shared the same faith and same gospel. And I saw how the dynamics of those communities created both tension and peace for their members.  And I struggled to find words for the things I witnessed, to make sense of them for myself and for others.

As I saw all this, I also began to read the New Testament in a different way, not only as an account of the life of Jesus, but as the story of the early disciples, their confusion and conflicts, and the hard work of building a church and maintaining belief in the face of obstacles and persecution. And as I began to read scripture in this new way, my brother wrote me to tell me he was writing a book, a novelization of the gospels, and he began sending me excerpts from the early chapters. From the beginning, it spoke to my heart and my own changing relationship with my faith, the New Testament, and this strange man, Jesus, who had broken the pattern of history and whose teachings and actions continued to run against the grain of the normal order of the world, even after they had been accepted by so many of its people.

One passage in particular spoke to my own experience at that time as a missionary. In the first chapter, John the Baptist goes into the wilderness near the Jordan River, and people flock out of the city to hear him preach repentance:

"And then John walks into the river, and you can see the shape he cuts downstream in the current. And that shape is a knife which cuts your heart open, so that by the time you reach the water you’re aching to give up all the wrong things you’ve ever done. And you tell him “I can’t go on this way” and he says “you don’t have to” and you say “but how?” and he looks at you hard, so hard you see your life with new eyes, and when he tells you what you have to do, you’re ready to make your decision: to walk away now, forever, and staunch the bleeding with an old rag until you can harden your heart, or to step forward, cut your own shape into the current, then lose yourself for a moment beneath the water, immerse yourself in a commitment it is no small matter to break."

As I read this, it cut to the heart of my own experience, and what I had seen from the people who came to us seeking cleansing, forgiveness, community, and a new way to live. And as I read on, I saw the early disciples, just as confused by Jesus as I was, and just as determined to follow him. And I saw the struggle to form a new community of believers, and the pull of old ways, and the difficulty of throwing away something familiar, even when it was painful, for the uncertainty of a new faith.

My brother continued to write and think and edit, and he published The Five Books of Jesus in September 2012, one month after I returned home from India.  I read it again then, and it continued to speak to what I had experienced, and to help me see the New Testament and my relationship with Jesus and with my community through new eyes, to break out of old patterns of thinking, and to recognize my kinship with those first disciples and the disciples who surrounded me in congregations in India and the US.

So for Lent this year, I am re-reading my brother's book, and blogging my way through this retelling of the story that began with John, the wild man by the river, calling people to change their hearts and commit their lives to God, and then with Jesus, who gave his followers a kingdom that would force them to re-examine so much of what they comfortably believed.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Who are you? (And what are you doing here?)

My name is Mattathias Singh Goldberg Westwood. Having been blessed by my parents with a long and impressive name, I occasionally sought during my youth to make it even longer, adding additional identifiers, such as the patronymic Davidovitch, or de Jesus as a mark of my allegiance to Jesus of Nazareth (after all, the scripture says we are to take his name upon us). Now, I am mostly happy to let the name stand as it is.

But telling you my name is not the same as telling you who I am, for identity at times seems to be layer upon layer of translucent skin, as of an onion, which can be infinitely peeled back to reveal further recursive layers, and at times seems like a box of crayons which have been melted by light and heat into one mass, an indissoluble whole composed of incongruous parts.

I am many things, and it feels like I am all of them at once much more than it feels like they are costumes I can take up and remove. Contra Whitman, I do not contain multitudes, I become multitudes as I ingest culture and history, science and religion and music and literature and humor and experience, and those multitudes become unified in me.

I am interested in questions of identity, of belonging and origin. I am interested in all the things that humans have done and thought and made in their time on Earth, and all the things that have gone on in the universe before us and around us, which we can only perceive with awe. I am interested most of all in the stories we tell to make sense of all of it and how those stories change us and become a part of who we are, how stories change our future and maybe even reach into our past.

I began blogging here in 2009, when personal blogging was at perhaps its highest ebb, and I've continued fitfully, with long breaks during the time I spent as an LDS missionary in Southern India, then during the years when I met, courted and wed the love of my life. For the past two years, this space has served solely as a record of my leisure reading.

Starting this year, I plan to write more, to investigate again who I am, and to say a great deal about what it means to be me, to live inside this skin and think with this particular mind, to have this name, this family, this history, to live in this place and this time and this corner of the vast universe. And I hope that in saying much about being me, I might say a little about what it means to be human, and perhaps even something about what it means to be you.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Top Books of 2017

As I did for 2016, here are my 40 favorite books which I read last year. 2017 was a busy year for me, but I still managed to find time to read 271 books, from far-future sci-fi to ancient history and from picture books through massive serialized novels (Well, really just one of those). From everything I read, here are the ones that stood out most.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

What Are You Reading? December 2017 Edition

Comics and Graphic Novels
Thoreau at Walden  John Porcellino, Henry David Thoreau

Picture Books
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph  Roxane Orgill, Francis Vallejo

Text Fiction 
Sunbolt (The Sunbolt Chronicles #1)   Intisar Khanani
Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest   Sherman Alexie
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg  Rodman Philbrick

Text Nonfiction
The Princess Saves Herself in this One  amanda lovelace

Visual Work
A Map of the World: The World According to Illustrators and Storytellers edited by Antonis Antoniou, Robert Klanten, H. Ehmann, Hendrik Hellige
All My Friends Are Dead  Avery Monsen, Jory John

Thursday, December 14, 2017

What Are you Reading? Top 100 Comics and Graphic Novels

NPR released a list of the 100 Best Comics and Graphic Novels as its annual Reader's Choice Summer Reading list for 2017. I always enjoy reading lists like this, and I love many of the books they selected. As always happens when I look at a 'best-of' list, there were also other books I wish had been included. And it got me to thinking, given the considerable amount of comics that pass through my reading stack on a regular basis, I could probably cobble together a list of my own. So without further ado, here is the heavily subjective Mattathiasing Top 100 Comics and Graphic Novels. Each category begins with some decidedly kid-friendly offerings and then grows increasingly mature in focus and content towards the end of the section. Some are well-known classics, some are obscure gems, all are great reads. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What Are You Reading? November 2017 Edition

Comics and Graphic Novels
The Silence of Our Friends    Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, Nate Powell
Castle Waiting    Linda Medley
Rocket Girl: Times Squared    Brandon Montclare, Amy Reeder
Moon Knight: Lunatic   Jeff Lemire, Greg Smallwood, Jordan Bellaire
Ultimate Comics: Spider Man, Vol. 1    Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli
Ultimate Comics: Spider Man, Vol. 2    Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Samnee, Sara Pichelli, David Marquez
The Midas Flesh, Vol. 1   Ryan North, Shelli Paroline, Braden Lamb
The Midas Flesh, Vol. 2   Ryan North, Shelli Paroline, Braden Lamb
Sumo   Thien Pham
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, Vol. 1: Activation   Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Yoshiyuki Tomino, Hajime Yatate

Thursday, November 16, 2017

What Are You Reading? October 2017 Edition

Comics and Graphic Novels
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF    Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, Natacha Bustos, Tamra Bonvillain
Black Hammer #1    Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, Dave Stewart
Usagi Yojimbo, Vol. 1: The Ronin    Stan Sakai
Giant Days, Vol. 5    John Allison, Max Sarin, Liz Fleming, Whitney Cogar
Last Sons of America    Phillip Kennedy Johnson, Matthew Dow Smith, Doug Garbark
Astro City, Vol. 2: Confession    Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, Alex Ross
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 2    Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, Chris Sprouse
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 3    Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, Chris Sprouse
Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Vol. 1    Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli
Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Vol. 2    Brian Michael Bendis, Nico Leon, Sara Pichelli

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

What Are You Reading? September 2017 Edition

Comics and Graphic Novels
Wolverine: Old Man Logan Mark Millar,  Steve McNiven
Gwenpool Vol. 1: Believe It Christopher Hastings, Danilo Beyruth, Gurihiru
Gwenpool Vol. 2: Head of M.O.D.O.K Christopher Hastings, Irene Strychalski, Gurihiru
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 Alan Moore, Kevin O'Neill
Secrets & Sequences Gene Luen Yang, Mike Holmes
Giant Days, Vol. 1 John Allison, Lissa Treiman, Whitney Cogar
Giant Days, Vol. 2 John Allison, Lissa Treiman, Max Sarin, Whitney Cogar
Giant Days, Vol. 3 John Allison, Max Sarin, Whitney Cogar
Giant Days, Vol. 4 John Allison, Max Sarin, Whitney Cogar
Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia Greg Rucka, J.G. Jones, Wade Von Grawbadger, Dave Stewart

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

What Are You Reading? August 2017 Edition

Comics and Graphic Novels
X-Force (1991-2004) #1 Fabian Nicieza, Rob Liefeld
Astonishing X-Men (2004-2013) #1 Joss Whedon, John Cassaday
Domino (2003) #1    Joe Pruett, Brian Stelfreeze
The Infinity Entity (2016) #1   Jim Starlin, Alan Davis
The Stone Heart (The Nameless City, #2) Faith Erin Hicks
Long Walk to Valhalla Adam Smith, Matthew Fox

Thursday, August 3, 2017

What Are You Reading? July 2017 Edition

Comics and Graphic Novels
One Trick Pony   Nathan Hale
Web Warriors (2015-) #1   Mike Costa, David Baldeón, Julian Tedesco
Secret Wars #0 (FCBD 2015) Jonathan Hickman, Paul Renaud
All-New, All-Different Avengers #1 (FCBD 2015)   Mark Waid, Mahmud A. Asrar, Frank Martin,  Charles Soule, Brandon Peterson, Justin Ponsor
Marvel Avengers Alliance (2016) #1  Fabian Nicieza, Paco Díaz, Sam Wood