New Xmas essay: Snowballs at Midnight Mass

And a summary of my writing this year

I have a short Christmas-themed essay online at Notre Dame Magazine this morning. “The Christmas Gift Unwrapped” is a memoir of going to midnight Mass one Christmas Eve in Buffalo about 18 years ago, during a storm that dumped seven feet of snow on the region. It’s the only Mass I have ever been to that resulted in a snowball fight. There’s a theological point in there about the Incarnation — the doctrine that God became fully human. If you don’t join in the snowball fight, are you fully human?

The essay is thematically similar to my NYT Magazine essay on cheap sushi that came out last week. Both pieces are about the mistake we make in thinking that transcendence is something aspirational, like owning a Lexus, rather than something you already have access to with the humble material reality right in front of your face. In Christian theology, the transcendent became humble material right in front of our faces. That truth can be very hard to accept.

The difficulty of seeing the highest good right before our eyes is evidently an abiding concern of mine, because even though the two pieces came out at the same time, they were written years apart. I wrote a version of the Christmas essay 15 years ago, then revised it this past spring. I only got the idea for the sushi essay late this past summer.

Hardcore fans of Annie Dillard — what shall we call ourselves? Dillheads? — will notice how much of the snowball essay I ripped off from “An Expedition to the Pole.” And while I’ve got you thinking of Dillard, you might read the brief and lovely “God in the Doorway” for Christmas, too.

The sushi essay got a positive response over the past week. It was nice to receive so many appreciative notes from you all. The few negative responses I saw on Twitter all had to do with overfishing and sustainability. If only those critics subscribed to this newsletter, they would know that I at least recognize this problem.

The year at its end

I took the measure of last year with my rejections. I measure this year by one big acceptance: my book proposal, by University of California Press. (My article pitches and subsmissions still got about 40 rejections.) I seem to have published about 22,000 words this year, wrote about that many in these newsletters, and then wrote several times that amount in getting one and a half drafts of the manuscript for my book on burnout. I pledged last year that I would just keep going, despite frequent rejection. I did. And I make the same pledge again.

Here's the full list of my publications in 2019. I’m proud of each of these, but the pieces marked with an asterisk are my favorites:

The really decisive essay was the one on burnout, the first thing I wrote in the new year. It got me interviewed on CBC's Tapestry, and it got me the book contract to write about burnout, which I have been doing since June. Compared to last year’s publications, this year’s are much more personal. I’m grateful to my critique partners for convincing me I could write personally without losing the analytical edge that’s more typical of the academic writing I did for most of my career before now.

I gave talks on work and burnout this year at Ohio University, University of Texas — Arlington, and Abilene Christian University (twice). And I spoke to church groups and high school teachers. I already have several talks booked for Spring 2020. (Please get in touch if you would like me to speak to your group!)

We are also the end of a decade. Ten years ago, I definitely did not think I would have quit a tenured academic job (I didn’t even have tenure yet a decade go), moved to Texas, and begun calling myself a writer without too much imposter syndrome. I could not have imagined myself happy outside of academia in 2009. But by the middle of the decade, I could no longer imagine myself happy in it. What can we say? Things change.

I am grateful for your faithful readership and support all year long. It’s always nice to get responses to these posts, and I try to reply to as many as I can. Please encourage others to subscribe if you think they’ll enjoy receiving this newsletter. The full archive is here: (click “Let me read it first”). Each post has its own page, which you can share just as you would anything else. You can get in touch with me by replying to this email.

Best holiday wishes,