TIME Religion

What I Learned About God After My Son Died

Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love
Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love Courtesy Penguin Random House

A new memoir, Rare Bird, chronicles the loss of a child, and the emotional and spiritual aftermath of tragedy

When Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s 12-year-old son, Jack Donaldson, drowned in a creek behind her family’s suburban Virginia home three years ago, she turned to her blog, An Inch of Gray, which she had previously used to post about her kids and daily life. There, she chronicled her emotions, grief and spirituality. Eventually, she realized she wanted to write a book, which became the recently published Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love, from which this is excerpted.

We begin visiting a different church. We don’t feel Jack’s absence as keenly here, even though it meets in a local elementary school in the same room where he attended Cub Scout pack meetings for five years.

We go at first to support the young pastor who showed up for us the night of Jack’s death, but then we keep coming. I have yet to tell him about a conversation I had with my pastor Linda three hours before the accident.

“Did you know there’s a new church coming to Vienna this fall?” I asked. She didn’t. I continued, “Well, I was reading their website during lunch, and I have a feeling we’ll be connected to them somehow.”

Strange. I guess I thought we could lend the church space in our building or maybe I would help them order materials for their Sunday school classes. Looking around the elementary school cafeteria now, months later, I know I got it wrong. I see two friends who recommitted their lives to God after Jack’s accident and started bringing their families here. I see the family we went to the beach with summer after summer when the kids were small, who understand what a precious person we lost in losing Jack. I see his math teacher, who got to teach him for only the first two days of seventh grade, but who is helping shepherd his classmates through their grief.

I see men who put on raincoats and traipsed through the mud, thinking surely they would find Jack injured but alive. And there are the couples who formed small groups in our neighborhood initially to talk about God and the death of a young boy, but who continue to meet and support one another week after week as more deaths and cancer diagnoses rock our small community. We are connected to this new church, just not in the way I had expected.

I don’t know if this is where we belong, but I’m open to it, even though I have worshiped in the same church my entire life. I’m not worried. What would have once seemed like a sea change feels more like a blip in comparison to losing Jack.

And whether I’m here or across town, I need church. I am not one who regularly sees God at the ocean, in the mountains, or in a sunrise, although since Jack died, I am increasingly finding Him there. God and I tend to meet in community, and even though I dread the exposed and vulnerable feeling I get walking into His house now, I can’t stay away.

It has nothing to do with obligation or religion. I need to show up, sit on the hard plastic chair, and say, “Here I am, Lord.” For me. I sing when I can, but I don’t push it if I don’t feel up to it. Margaret sometimes moves up to the front rows where the tweens sit, and I feel more freedom to cry than I do from our exposed perch in the balcony of our home church where my emotions continue to embarrass her.

The pastor, Johnny, jokes with Tim that he knows when we’ll visit because when we do, they always seem to have Jack and Margaret’s favorite hymn, “In Christ Alone,” on the schedule. They’ll start the music, he’ll scan the congregation, and bingo, there we are, wiping dripping eyes and noses with the back of our sleeves, because even though crying is inevitable, I don’t always remember tissues.

It feels a bit weird to be at a different church, even just part-time, but if we’re learning anything, it’s that life is weird. I take communion, but I don’t serve it anymore. I am not here as a leader or a giver. I don’t go out of my way to meet new people and make them feel welcome and comfortable, as would be my instinct. Instead, I am here to partake and absorb and let God’s words fall down on my head. I soak up the truth of who He is. I tell Him I am open to receive grace and comfort. I remind Him I trust Him, even though His ways are not mine and I am still sad and hurt.

I don’t know if I’ll speak at women’s retreats again or lead Bible studies. I don’t know how long I’ll work in a church. The look of my faith may be changing in light of Jack’s death, as I step back from what I saw as my work and my effort of growing closer to God and being a good Christian, but God hasn’t changed. It seems like this is a season for me to rest in love and just keep showing up.

Excerpted from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson Copyright © 2014 by Anna Whiston-Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

Australia’s Richard Flanagan Wins Man Booker Prize

Australian author Richard Flanagan, author of 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' speaks after winning the prize at the awards dinner, at the Guildhall on Oct. 14, 2014 in London.
Australian author Richard Flanagan, author of 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' speaks after winning the prize at the awards dinner, at the Guildhall on Oct. 14, 2014 in London. Alastair Grant—Getty Images

Third Australian to claim the $80,000 prize

Australian author Richard Flanagan was awarded the 2014 Man Booker Prize Tuesday for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Flanagan’s novel tells of an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, haunted by his affair with his uncle’s wife. The story is set during World War II as Evans struggles to treat prisoners of war forced by Japan to construct the Thailand-Burma Railway.

“The two great themes from the origin of literature are love and war. This is a magnificent novel of love and war,” said British philosopher A.C. Grayling, who chaired the judging panel. Written in prose of extraordinary elegance and force, it bridges East and West, past and present, with a story of guilt and heroism.”

Flanagan’s novel—his sixth—took home the $80,000 prize over the five other shortlisted novels announced in September. He is the third Australian and first from Tasmania to win the prize, considered the U.K.’s most famous literary award and one of the most prestigious in the world.

This 2014 Man Booker Prize was the first year the award was available to all writers outside of the Commonwealth of Nations, Ireland and Zimbabwe. Two Americans, Joshua Ferris and Karen Joy Fowler, were among the shortlisted authors.



The Knockout Game: Erik Koch’s Perfect Punches

Kerry Howley is the author of Thrown.

An excerpt from Kerry Howley's new book, Thrown, about two MMA fighters and the bloody world they inhabit

The ref checked his hands. Duke vaselined Erik’s cheeks, and for a moment Erik stood perfectly still, eyes closed, as Duke rubbed two greased thumbs over his cheekbones. Brown-orange complected, head shaved, Erik was a completely different creature than he had been in Vegas. Instead of looking ill in a recognizable way, he looked simply other, glowing brown-orange under the lights, shadows over his sunken eyes, under his pecs and neck, under each tiny ripple of stomach. He accepted a hug from Duke, a hug from Pettis, and stepped through the cage door to a bright, white, sterile cage. He had never fought first before, never seen a cage so clean.

Raphael Assunção walked out, singing along to his entrance music. He was four inches shorter than Erik, with broad muscles unlike anything on Erik’s body. He had a flat brown fighter’s nose, a wide brow, dark stubble about his mouth.

“Are you ready?” the ref shouted to Erik. Erik, looking grim, gave a thumbs up. “Are you ready?” the ref shouted to Assunção, and he nodded. “Let’s fight,” said the ref, clapped, backed himself toward the cage.

“Here we go!” said the TV color man.

Erik runs in and leans low on his legs, almost squatting—the stance of a man preparing to be pulled down, afraid to be knocked off balance by an opponent five inches shorter than himself. And yet even in this awkward fearful hunch Erik moves so fast he is hard to see, arms up and down, hands fisted then palms open, a step here and a step there—to Assunção’s every motion, three in response. Erik kicks high with the kick that had downed Cisco but Assunção just throws an arm in front of his face, blocks it. The TV color man compares Erik to Anthony Pettis—“long and lean, that reach”—as Erik carefully hops toward Assunção, and Assunção carefully hops away. Assunção stops his slow backward walk, swings, misses, and backs away more. They are falling into a partnered pattern, rarely touching, forward and back. “He’s got that right hand loaded,” the color man says of Assunção, and it’s true, Assunção is just waiting for the moment to lunge that right hand into Erik’s face, knock him to the ground. Assunção throws a high kick, and Erik pops away with a single deft jump, so smooth it seems Erik knew where Assunção was headed long before he threw. Assunção swings, misses, and Erik does not retaliate.

“Come on guys,” shouts someone from the crowd, “this is a contact sport!”

“Just throw!” shouts Duke from behind the cage.

Erik is afraid of losing focus; the fight is a minute and a half in; he feels that he must end the fight or he’ll simply fall. But he hasn’t yet found a range, and there is that loaded right hand. A normal fight for Erik is a moment of total absorption, but with the newfound cloudiness, the way it throws him off, he must somehow keep track of his own body in addition to Assunção’s. It is as if Erik is standing outside himself, reminding his body to do what it is told. It’s all so unstable, the body’s obedience so subject to chance, that Erik is desperate for a way out.

Assunção lands a light kick to the shin, as if checking to make sure Erik is solid matter. Erik hits back with a left but Assunção dodges it. Erik finally lands a loud thwap of a kick to Assunção’s chest; the sound resonates through the silent stadium.

“Set it up!” says Duke.

Assunção jabs with his left, misses, and charges, swings hard with that loaded right. Erik sees him coming. As Assunção runs toward him Erik throws a light left hook, barely visible. His fist hits the soft spot behind Assunção’s ear with all the strength of his cocked arm, but also the force of Assunção’s own charge; it appears as if Assunção has run full speed into Erik’s clenched hand. It is a moment in which Erik hardly moves; his arm only slightly extends past his own body, a movement almost impossible to see, and so there is a confused silence as Assunção hits the ground, his head with a thud, his flaccid arms hitting the canvas above his head a millisecond later. A realization passes, the silence breaks. Nineteen thousand people scream.

“It’s all over!” shouts the color man. “Just. Like. That!”

This moment lasts for days. We can only open our mouths in a united wordless moan. We are each of us simple tools of perception, free of the cloudying intellect, allowed a thinking of the body only accessible when men like Erik can, for a single solitary second, lead us outside ourselves. He has torn a small hole in consciousness. It is already closing.

“Wow,” says the color man. “Wow. Perfect.”

Erik collapses onto his knees, lifts his hands to his shaved head, looks up in tears of gratitude at the fact that he is still alive. He places his head on the mat, kowtowing, jumps up, fist bumps Bruce Buffer, who doesn’t break pace as the ref raises Erik’s hand: “Referee Kevin Mulhall has stopped this contest at two minutes thirty two seconds in the very first round, declaring the winner, by knockout, Erik ‘New Breed’ Koch.” The color man hops onto the canvas with a mic, which Erik grabs so as to pump up the crowd: “What’d you guys think, was that a good opener?” And the crowd launches into its scream once again.

But now he is shooed off the stage for bigger, more important fighters. We watch the other fights as we come down, reenter ourselves, reacquaint ourselves with the limiting walls of perception. We wait for Shogun to defend his title as the best light heavyweight in the world. In his last fight, against Lyoto Machida, he was glorious. But Shogun is twenty-eight and we realize, as we watch him pummeled, kicked, ground into the mat, and finally slumping against the cage like a tired drunk as a younger man knees him in the face, that Shogun has grown prematurely old. The ref steps mercifully in. The fight is so unexpectedly quick that the Pay-Per-View gods have time to fill; there is room to televise an extra fight. And so a million people, after they see Shogun fall, watch Erik watching himself knock a man to the ground.


From Thrown, copyright © 2014 by Kerry Howley. Used by permission of Sarabande Books. All rights reserved.

Kerry Howley is the author of the new book Thrown. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and Bookforum. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where she was an Arts Fellow and the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME The Pope

Exclusive Excerpt from Forthcoming Pope Francis Biography

Pope Francis: Life and Revolution: A Biography of Jorge Bergoglio
Pope Francis: Life and Revolution: A Biography of Jorge Bergoglio

Elisabetta Piqué is an Argentinean journalist who reports on Italy and the Vatican.

Divorce, clerical celibacy and the ordination of married men (and possibly women) are all issues the Pope has known he may face—and is committed to handling by synod

Toward a Different Kind of World

The challenges Pope Francis faces are gigantic. Beyond his intended cleanup of the central governance of the Church, beyond making its finances more transparent—both of which are essential if the gospel is to be spread throughout the world—he has many other issues to deal with. These revolve around putting into practice the rich outcomes of the Second Vatican Council that have yet to be realized: greater collegiality, more synodality in the decision-making process of the Catholic Church, and decentralization.

Sooner or later, however, he will also have to tackle burning issues such as the situation of divorced people who have remarried and the ordination of married men (viri probati) to solve the problem of the shortage of priests—as well as reconsidering the role of women and laypeople in the life of the Church, and perhaps also the obligation of clerical celibacy…

The pope’s creation of the advisory council of eight cardinals that must help him reform not only the Roman Curia but also assist in the governance of the universal Church confirms the determination of Pope Francis to advance in a collegial way, listening through its members to the voices of the bishops. The pope also intends to proceed in a synodal way: the word synod derives from the union of two Greekwords, syn, “together,” and odòs, “journey.”

Although the concept of synodality is an old one for the Church, it has fallen by the wayside in recent decades. With power ever more centralized in Rome, although synods of bishops have taken place, they have not been listened to by the Vatican. “Decentralization is urgent because, as we have seen… all the minutiae of church life around the world, its cultural manifestations, and its diversity cannot be controlled and directed from a central point,” argues the Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, president of the American Episcopal Conference from 1997 to 2000.

His thinking coincides with that of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster, London, who, when speaking of the changes the Church most urgently needs, stressed the importance of the principle of subsidiarity and the need for its implementation. “There are many issues that can and should be decided at the local level. There are issues that are often sent straight to Rome when, in fact, they could be analyzed and resolved by local bishops. The principle of subsidiarity is very important, and implementing it would help the Church with its mission,” he insists.

“The Eurocentrism of the past few centuries has definitely come to an end. In the new context, the unity of the Church can only be a unity in plurality and a plurality in unity. This state of affairs does not diminish the role of the Petrine ministry as a sign and instrument of unity; but it does require that the notion of collegiality be brought up to date, as was intended by the Second Vatican Council. The new council of cardinals from every continent is a step in that direction,” states Cardinal Kasper.

Pope Francis, advancing with determination on this road, on January 12, 2014, announces the names of the nineteen new cardinals that he will create at his first consistory in February. His choice indicates a clear desire to correct the imbalance of Europeans (especially Italians) and North Americans in the College of Cardinals and to reduce the number of Roman Curia officials who get the red hat. At the same time, he gives a greater voice to the churches of the Southern Hemisphere, including those in Latin America. In particular, he pays special attention to the peripheries of the world, areas hit by poverty and conflict. Thus, he gives red hats to Church leaders in Haiti, Nicaragua, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, and Mindanao in the Philippines….

According to Quinn, the ad limina visits—obligatory meetings between bishops and the pope, during which each bishop reports on the state of his diocese—that take place every five years have not been very useful either. On these visits, bishops from all over the world visit different departments of the Vatican and meet the Holy Father.

“It would have been different if the [former] popes had used the ad limina visits to meet with the bishops individually, in private, and say, for instance, ‘Tell me, what do your priests think of the encyclical I’ve just written? Have they said anything? How have they reacted to the text?’ Or ‘What’s the biggest problem you encounter in teaching the faith? Do you think you have enough priests celebrating Mass in your parishes? What do you think we should do to solve this or that?’ The truly important issues never get talked about in ad limina visits,” says Quinn. . . .

“The Roman Curia has a long history, and in the past it has had to adapt to new situations, challenges, and needs. Many in the curia carry out their work competently and efficiently, with great modesty. Blanket criticism would be unfair. But like the Church, the curia, too, must constantly renew and reform itself. It isn’t—and can’t be—an intermediate level of governance between the pope and the bishops,” argues Cardinal Kasper. Will Francis run into resistance in the Roman Curia? “Of course, it’s only normal, but there is a sense of awareness, which is more or less shared by all, that some changes are inevitable and necessary.” . . .

When Gian Guido Vecchi, the Vatican expert at Corriere della Sera, asked Pope Francis about the delicate issue [of divorce and remarriage], he said it was a complex issue but one that should be analyzed and reconsidered.

“It’s a topic people always ask about. Mercy is greater than the case you mention. I think that this is the time for mercy. This change of epoch, when the Church is having so many problems, like corruption or clericalism, for instance, has left many wounded. And if the Lord doesn’t tire of forgiving us, we have no other choice: take care of the wounded, before all else. The Church is our mother and must walk the path of mercy. She must find mercy for everyone. This is a kairos—a moment—for mercy,” says the pope. . . . After observing that the Orthodox churches have different practices, he also admits that the problem needs to be analyzed within the context of pastoral care for marriage.

[The pope commented in one interview]: “My predecessor [as Archbishop of Buenos Aires], Cardinal Quarracino, used to say that half of all marriages were null because people get married without being mature enough to do so, without realizing it’s for life, perhaps for social reasons. And all this comes into the pastoral care of marriage.” . . .

Archbishop Quinn states: “When we talk about communion, we have to ask ourselves about the nature of the Eucharist. Is the Eucharist just for the elite, the saintly spiritual elite, or is it also for those who are struggling to be better people and who want to grow? Is the Eucharist only for those who are no longer sinners?”


Elisabetta Piqué is the Vatican correspondent for La Nacion, Argentina’s premier newspaper, and author of Pope Francis: Life and Revolution, out Wednesday.

Excerpt from Pope Francis: Life and Revolution by Elisabetta Piqué (Loyola Press 2014). Reprinted with permission from Loyola Press.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

Lena Dunham to Adapt YA Novel Catherine, Called Birdy

ABC's "The View" - Season 18
Lena Dunham visits "The View," on Sept. 30, 2014. Lou Rocco—ABC/Getty Images

Karen Cushman's novel follows a clever teenager in the thirteenth century

Corpus bones! Girls creator and author Lena Dunham is working on a film adaptation of Karen Cushman’s award-winning 1994 young-adult novel Catherine, Called Birdy.

Dunham, who just released her debut essay collection Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”, announced the project on Friday at the New Yorker Festival, the Huffington Post reports.

“This is actually my first time talking about it publicly,” Dunham said at the event. “I’m very excited about it. I’m not sure when it’ll happen, but I’m in the process of [working on it].”

The book follows a thirteenth-century teenager who finds clever ways to scare off the unsuitable suitors her father tries to marry her off to.

[Huffington Post]

TIME technology

The Future of Civilization Is a Battle Between Google and Wikileaks

Julian Assange appears by hologram at The Nantucket Project on Sept. 28, 2014, alongside Eugene Jarecki. Meghan Brosnan

Eugene Jarecki is a New York-based writer and film-maker.

Eric Schmidt and Julian Assange's new books offer an unsettling portrait of our unpreparedness for a truly digital world

Last weekend, I participated in an event that grabbed headlines around the world, even making it into Jimmy Fallon’s opening monologue on “The Tonight Show.” Yet the real cover story has to date gone unreported.

The fourth annual Nantucket Project (co-sponsored this year by TIME) is a weekend of TED-style talks for the luminary set that hobnobs off the Massachusetts coast. I interviewed notorious Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by hologram, beamed in from his place of asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. News coverage the next day focused in one way or another on the spectacular and mischievous angle that Assange had, in effect, managed to escape his quarantine and laugh in the face of those who wish to extradite him by appearing full-bodied in Nantucket before a packed house of exhilarated conference attendees.

Beyond the spectacle, though, what got less attention was what the interview was actually about, namely the future of our civilization in an increasingly digital world. What does it mean for us as people to see the traditional town square go digital, with online banking displacing bricks and mortar, just as email did snail mail, Wikipedia did the local library, and eBay the mom and pop shop? The subject of our ever-digitizing lives is one that has been gaining currency over the past year, fueled by news stories about Google Glasses, self-driving cars, sky-rocketing rates of online addiction and, most recently, the scandal of NSA abuse. But the need to better understand the implications of our digital transformation was further underscored in the days preceding the event with the publication of two books: one by Assange and the other by Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt.

Assange’s book, When Google Met Wikileaks, is the transcript (with commentary by Assange) of a secret meeting between the two that took place on June 23, 2011, when Schmidt visited Assange in England. In his commentary, Assange explores the troubling implications of Google’s vast reach, including its relationships with international authorities, particularly in the U.S., of which the public is largely unaware. Schmidt’s book, How Google Works, is a broader, sunnier look at how technology has presumably shifted the balance of power from companies to people. It tells the story of how Google rose from a nerdy young tech startup to become a nerdy behemoth astride the globe. Read together, the two books offer an unsettling portrait both of our unpreparedness for what lies ahead and of the utopian spin with which Google (and others in the digital world) package tomorrow. While Assange’s book accuses Google of operating as a kind of “‘Don’t Be Evil’ empire,” Schmidt’s book fulfills Assange’s worst fears, presenting pseudo-irreverent business maxims in an “aw shucks” tone that seems willfully ignorant of the inevitable implications of any company coming to so sweepingly dominate our lives in unprecedented and often legally uncharted ways.

No sooner had these divergent visions been introduced to the world in print than their authors went toe-to-toe in the press, with Assange characterizing Google as the “privatized version of the NSA” and Schmidt firing back that Assange is simply “paranoid.” These simple sound bites belie the depth of each author’s worldview and even of their views of one another. Though Assange is an anti-establishment vigilante and Schmidt comes from a wildly different position as chief shopkeeper of the digital marketplace, their 2011 conversation shows a surprising level of agreement in key areas, such as the importance of information architecture and the way the digital world promotes public bargaining power. Assange of course wishes to promote these in the service of a more informed citizenry, while Schmidt seeks to empower more and better consumers.

Strangely, any such depth is absent in Schmidt’s book, which is more a sort of Pollyannish collection of “what they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School”-type maxims, gleaned at the helm of the world’s most dominant company. As with so much about Google, one is drawn to read Schmidt’s words despite oneself, though they are really just thinly veiled propaganda for his company. I felt like fact-checking some of what I read, but where would I go? Google?

So suddenly, a classic standoff has emerged across the digital town square. On one side, we see an exhausted but indefatigable vigilante, half-armed, bleeding, possibly half-crazed. On the other, the gleaming company man, armed to the teeth, with stars and stripes billowing behind him, swaggering with the confident ease of invincibility. As their crosshairs train on one another now across the digital frontier, I am reminded from Assange’s book that they were, in a sense, friends once, or at least kindred spirits in the quest to understand the road ahead.

For me, the most significant takeaway from this duel of perspectives came during my interview with Assange. I passingly referred to the Internet as a kind of Wild West, one with limited regulation and desperados vying for control. He stopped me and said I was only half right to characterize it this way. Citing his own legal difficulties and the larger ongoing NSA scandal, he argued that the Internet is in no way a lawless place when it comes to government controls. Rather, it is only lawless where the rights of citizens are concerned. Assange painted a picture of the old world — admittedly imperfect but built upon a legal system that seeks to balance human rights with human accountabilities, the privileges of citizenship with its costs. He then went on to describe the new world, where this delicate architecture is being replaced by one with highly developed structures for the enforcement of accountability but little or none to ensure the rights and freedoms of citizens.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in the same week that Assange and Schmidt squared off as adversaries, Tim Berners-Lee, the person credited with actually creating the world wide web (sorry, Al) returned to the role of cool-headed arbitrator, calling for a Magna Carta of the digital age. “The power to abuse the open Internet has become so tempting both for government and big companies,” Berners-Lee warned, that a kind of bill of rights for Internet users is urgently needed. Berners-Lee’s testimony offers, perhaps, a third way between the extremes represented by Assange and Schmidt, coolly reminding us that somewhere between the heedless profit-pursuit of those in power and the strident antagonism of those opposed, we are long overdue for a kind of constitutional convention, the kind of democratic gathering necessary at the dawn of any brave new world to ensure that we strike a balance between the better and lesser angels in our nature.

Eugene Jarecki is a New York-based writer and film-maker. His Peabody, Emmy and Sundance-winning works include Why We Fight, The Trials of Henry Kissinger and The House I Live In.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME women

I Was an Elite Female Firefighter

Forest fire and helicopter
Erik Simonsen—Getty Images

A female hotshot may spend six months a year out in the woods with 18 hot-as-hell firefighters, but if she acts like she’s in her own private season of “The Bachelorette,” she’s going to lose their respect with the quickness


This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

The sound of my squad boss’s voice invaded my sleep. “Spot fire! Spot fire! Get up! Hustle! Hustle!” I pried open my eyes and tried to orient myself. I was lying in the ash of a forest fire, curved for warmth around a small, smoldering stump. Around me members of my elite Pike Hotshot Crew rubbed their eyes and pulled on their packs as they lurched to their feet. I glanced at my watch. It was 6 am. Other than the brief nap we’d just had, my crew and I had been working to fight a raging wildfire on the Angeles National Forest for 24 hours straight.

I jumped to my feet and joined the line of my crew members hiking hard and fast towards a large spot fire that had sprung up in a flat of manzanita, a tangled, fast burning brush native to California. If we didn’t dig a fireline around the spot fire in a hurry, the fire would likely explode, and there was no safety zone we could retreat to easily.

Another day in my life as a wildland firefighter had just begun.

When I arrived to start work as a wildland firefighter on the Pike Hotshot Crew, I had only been camping a couple of times. I’d rarely gone more than two days without a shower. I didn’t even know how to dry brush my teeth. I knew that soon I would hike up and down mountains towards raging wildfires with a 40 lbs. pack on my back. I would suck smoke, and dig fireline for 15 hours a day, and sleep in the ash. I would go two weeks at a time without a shower. I would spend every waking moment with my crewmembers. I knew a little bit of what I was in for, and I was excited and afraid.

When I parked my car at the Pike Fire Center, a cluster of old cabins built in the mountains of the Pike National Forest in Colorado, I was nervous as hell. As I stepped out of the car I heard voices yelling at me, “Make way for the rookie! Rookie on the deck!”

I glanced around, but saw no one — just a life-sized Smokey the Bear cutout that said, “Welcome to the Pike Interagency Hotshot Crew.” Whoever was yelling at me was doing so from the cover of the old wooden buildings surrounding me. I took a deep breath and headed for the bunkhouse, where I would live with the other members of my crew for the next two fire seasons.

When I met my fellow hotshots, the men barely lifted their chins at me. Most couldn’t be bothered to even say, “Hey.” They looked me over, and their looks said, “We’ll see how you do.”

Most of them were from rural Colorado or Wyoming. They had grown up out in the woods. They dipped tobacco and drank Coors. They knew how to swing a Pulaski and run a chainsaw. They could gut a deer, and start a campfire with no matches. I, on the other hand, grew up in Austin, Texas — a hipster and hippie haven — and had just graduated from a small liberal arts college. I loved Kathleen Hanna and films by Jim Jarmusch, novels by Virginia Woolf and micro-brew.

And I was a woman — I would be one of only three women on the 20-person crew that year. All-male crews were generally considered tougher than crews that included a female or two. The hotshots did not give me a warm welcome.

But let me make it clear: No one arriving on a hotshot crew — male or female — gets a warm welcome. Hotshot crews are clannish. The work is so dangerous that no hotshot wants someone on their crew who can’t handle the stress, demands, and dangers of the fireline.

“Hotshots are the best-trained and best-equipped wildland firefighters, sometimes referred to as the Navy SEALs of their profession,” says Rolling Stone magazine. The world of hotshotting is an insular, masculine and exhilarating place. Crewmembers have to trust each other with their lives on a daily basis. And so the guys on my crew wanted to wait and see what I was made of before they gave me even a smile of encouragement.

I’d trained hard, and so I held my own on the initial physical fitness tests. By the time we were called out to our first fire, my crew had seen me keep up on hard training hikes, dig some practice fireline (rather badly at first, but with enthusiasm), and get hammered with them at several crew parties.

I had not hooked up with any of them. Female friends with wildfire experience had warned me against beginning any sort of romantic involvement with a crewmember. A female hotshot may spend six months a year out in the woods with 18 hot-as-hell firefighters, but if she acts like she’s in her own private season of “The Bachelorette,” she’s going to lose their respect with the quickness. Were many of my crewmates ripped and beautiful and manly and sexy as hell? You bet. Did I pretend like I didn’t notice? Absolutely. In fact, I realized soon enough that I would fit in best if my crewmates more or less forgot I was a woman at all.

We finished our training and were soon dispatched to our first fire. After driving for hours through the night, we stopped and slept on the ground outside of a Forest Service District Office for a few hours. We woke up before dawn. My teeth felt furry. I went in search of a bathroom and running water. When I came out of the district office, all four rigs were idling. Everyone was loaded up, waiting for me. I ran towards the rigs and jumped in. “What in the hell were you doing, rookie?” my crewmates asked.

“I was looking for a sink,” I said. “I needed to brush my teeth.” My crewmates gave me hell for that small fail for a long, long time. And I was never late getting to the rigs again.

We arrived at fire camp as the sun began to rise. We loaded into helicopters that flew us up onto a mesa where a wildfire burned through the piñon juniper. We hiked in to the fire and got to work. The sawyers on my crew used their chainsaws to open up a 15-foot space in the tree canopy called a “sawline.” With the other diggers on my crew, I helped to dig a shallow trench or “fireline” underneath the sawline. I bent over and swung my fire tool, helping to scrape a 24-inch fireline. My hard hat tilted on my head, perilously close to falling off. Sweat ran stinging into my eyes. Within 15 minutes, I was desperately out of breath, and felt like I might keel over.

In the following days, the palms of my hands blistered. My entire crew was doused with fire retardant dropped by a “slurry bomber” airplane. We were covered in sweat and dirt and ash, and none of us got a shower. And one afternoon we had to run full speed to our safety zone to escape the 200-foot flames crowning through the treetops. For at least 12 hours a day, I swung my fire tool, and at night I lay on the ground in my sleeping bag— not even bothering to put up a tent — and I slept like the dead.

But a few days into the work, I began to find my rhythm.

In my two seasons on the hotshot crew, my crewmates and I often saved each others’ lives — so often that it was sometimes not even commented on after the fact. We did so by calling out when a burning tree crashed to the ground unexpectedly, by yelling for someone to get out of the way of a falling boulder. If one of us tripped and fell into a stand of burning chaparral, someone else would yank the fallen back to his or her feet before s/he was burned.

Once, when I was pushing over a tree stump that my friend Mark O’Shea was cutting with a chainsaw, I lost my balance and fell with my arms outstretched toward the roaring saw blade. Both of my hands would have been cut off by the chainsaw if O’Shea had not thrown the saw away from us.

The danger that my crewmates and I survived together bonded us. And we grew to love each other. And I got used to basically being a dude. My hotshot buddies would cut warts off my leg with a Leatherman, or ask me how my crap in the woods had gone. And I’d tell them.

Once I was accepted by my crewmates, I did eventually break the golden rule of firefighting and hooked up with one of my buddies (albeit discretely). While it caused ripples of teasing and even some disdain, it didn’t essentially capsize my standing on the crew.

When I left the crew after two years, it was in part because I wanted to hunker down and write a novel inspired by the adventures we had together, and by the challenges of finding a place of belonging as a woman on a hotshot crew. My novel “Wildfire” has just been published, and is dedicated to my friends on my crew. (“Wildfire” has been optioned for film as well, and I’ve written the script. I’ve found out that that only 10% of screenwriters of major motion pictures are female — probably even less than the percentage of female hotshots fighting wildfires. And that’s something we got to change.)

If my life falls apart tomorrow, and I find myself in need of shelter and support, I know that I could show up on the doorstep of a friend with whom I fought fire. I know that he and his wife would take me in. And that’s a sort of miracle.

Mary Pauline Lowry is an author living in Southern California.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Why You Haven’t Heard of Patrick Modiano, Winner of the Nobel in Literature

A French novelist just won the most prestigious literary prize in the world, but many English-speaking book lovers haven't read him

Once again, the Swedish Academy has awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and left many Americans scratching their heads. French novelist Patrick Modiano won this year’s prestigious award, which is not only a serious literary feat, but also a lucrative one, as it comes with a $1.1 million prize.

According to the academy’s Permanent Secretary Peter Englund, Modiano was selected “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies.” The 69-year-old writer made his debut in 1968 with the novel La Place de l’Etoile. Since then, he has gone on to write dozens of books, frequently touching on the Nazi occupation of France, and has drawn comparisons to renowned countryman Marcel Proust.

So why does it seem that so few in the English-speaking world have actually read his work? Though the Swedish Academy has always seemed to swing between wildly popular writers (William Golding, Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison) and those who are more niche (Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson), this year’s choice seemed to have confused even the most well-read. Soon after Modiano’s name was announced, much of the literary world — including critics — took to social media in order to ask, essentially, “Who?”

The puzzlement could have to do with the fact that despite Modiano’s prolific output — with more than 30 books and screenplays to his name — less than a dozen of his works have been translated into English, and even several of those are now out of print. Even Englund noted that many people outside of France would likely be unfamiliar with Modiano and his work. “He is well-known in France, but not anywhere else,” he said in an interview on Thursday, before recommending that newcomers should start with the English-translated novel Missing Person.

This is not the first time that the Swedish Academy has left scores of readers in the English-speaking world puzzling over the winner or, perhaps, even privately worrying about their own literary credentials. In 2009, when the Romanian-born German novelist and essayist Herta Müller was awarded the prize, many people were unfamiliar with both her work and her name. Literary critic and Yale professor Harold Bloom told the Washington Post, “[I have] nothing to talk about because I have never heard of this writer” when he was asked to comment on Müller’s win. And, like Modiano, only a fraction of her work had been translated into English, though the New York Times also noted at the time, that “[e]ven in Germany, Ms. Müller is not well known.”

The scene was something of an echo of 2004, when Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek was named the Nobel winner in recognition for her “musical flow of voices and countervoices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” Yet many state-side announcements of her win made sure to note her low-profile outside the German-speaking world.

Of course, the Swedish Academy — currently made up of 16 men and women who pick the winner each year — has long been criticised of Eurocentrism in its selection. In 2009, shortly after being named Permanent Secretary, Englund admitted that there was some truth to the accusations, telling the Associated Press, “I think that is a problem. We tend to relate more easily to literature written in Europe and in the European tradition.” He did, however, go on to acknowledge that there were many writers outside of Europe who deserved the award and, since then, winners have included Peruvian-born writer Mario Vargas Llosa (2010), Chinese novelist Mo Yan (2012) and Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro (2013).

But it’s important to keep in mind that while foreign translations from most literary writers can be hard to come by, there really isn’t reason to complain about Nobel winners being inaccessible. After all, the vast majority of winners since the prize’s debut in 1901 had written in English.

What’s more, awarding the honor to little-known writers — at least, from an English-reader’s perspective — can help introduce authors to a wider audience. Shortly after Jelinek won the prize in 2004, the American distributor of her book The Piano Teacher ran out of copies because demand was so unusually high. That was famously one of the goals of the Swedish Academy’s previous Permanent Secretary, Horace Engdahl, who once responded to criticism saying, “The purpose of the prize is to make them famous, not to tap them when they are famous.”

That prospect has already excited fans of Modiano’s in France. Anne Ghisoli, the director of the Parisian bookstore Librairie Gallimard, told the Times she had long been a Modiano fan, “but this prize will help raise the global profile of one of our consummate writers.”

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