Maren, tell us a little bit about who you are, what makes you tick, and what gets you excited to wake up in the morning.
I was born and mostly raised in Bozeman, and have seven generations of heritage in Montana. After high school, I lived out of state for about fifteen years, where I attended Whitworth University in Spokane, volunteered as a social service worker for a year as a Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer on the U.S.-Mexico border, earned a Master’s and PhD in Ethnomusicology at the University of Washington, and worked in arts and music at a majority-LGBT*QAI seminary in Berkeley, California, before moving back to Montana in 2016. I graduated with my doctorate a year ago, where I studied the intersecting roles of music, gender, race, power, theology, and pop culture at a controversial megachurch in Seattle.
I suppose I fancy myself equal parts academic, music minister, and social and community artist-activist, though it is all intertwined. I now commute between Bozeman and Helena where I work (variously) in ministry, higher education, and community music. My work truly gets me up every day. I honestly love it. That said, I feel like I’m a total novice in all things right now (especially as a teacher and lecturer), so I’m in a growth spurt of sorts.
My husband Michael and I met in 2010 and married in 2015, and we’re now expecting our first baby in February. Life is full, exciting, and adventurous—though admittedly sometimes very tiring!
I was so happy when you moved to Helena. You were in the process of finishing up your dissertation, and I needed your wisdom as I was about to tackle mine. You’re now a full-fledged PhD (congratulations!) and have reached the highest echelon of educational attainment. How does it feel to done, finished, full-stop?
I’m a little out-of-the-ordinary: I loved being a graduate student. I drank up the opportunity to learn from amazing professors and brilliant colleagues, and genuinely enjoyed researching and writing my dissertation—even while it was a very long process with various missteps and false starts.
I finished my final draft about one year ago, and am still in the process of figuring out what happens now. The academic job market is abysmal as full-time faculty lines are fast evaporating, replaced by poor-paying, precarious contingent teaching positions and non-academic administration jobs. In my field, hundreds of people apply for one full-time faculty job opening! I find it overwhelming.
Because my husband and I desire to live in Montana and are in the process of starting a family, I presently work as a contingent teaching faculty member at Montana State University. I love my positions, and appreciate the flexible schedule as my husband and I become first-time parents. But I wish academia offered better long-term economic stability, concordant with the years spent in training and preparation. No other job requires so much preparation for so little payoff, and in the long term this will inevitably undermine America’s preeminent education system.
These realities make finishing the dissertation a little bittersweet. I do hope to publish the dissertation as a book down the road, and hopefully that will give it some wings and a new audience.
Beyond entering this new phase of your career with your various jobs and responsibilities, you’ve entered another season – motherhood. What an exciting time for you and your husband. I am thrilled for you. I want to acknowledge something, though. No matter how it may seem, pregnancy is not always easy and many of our stories are filled with heartache and health scares. What lessons have you been learning about this?
Last week, I read a beautifully-written piece by Claudia Day in The Paris Review called “Mothers as Makers of Death” that captured how motherhood hovers in the liminal space between inspiration and expiration. By knitting a life, we simultaneously ordain death.
My husband and I experienced a miscarriage in March that thrust us into the existential precarity of parenthood. I chose to miscarry at home without medical intervention—an intense, but necessary, experience—and we named our tiny nine-week old child “Raspberry Hope.” Though devastating, and followed by a period of gray, emotionless dull, the experience opened a new proximity to life and death I had never previously experienced. I grew in my own physical and emotional strength. A huge percentage of women experience pregnancy loss, and I wish we would normalize public conversations, grief, and processing around it.
We are now delighted to welcome our “rainbow baby” in February, stand in amazement of the process of growing a vivacious, kicking person in the midst of my own body. I, of course, cling to hopes of his living a healthy, fulfilled, long life. Yet, the experience of miscarriage offers wisdom that these small lives we create are not fully our own or within our control. I stand aware that parenthood plunges us into vast existential uncertainty—we, parents and children, sojourn together in mutual precarity. Amid this reality, I hope to parent in love, gratefulness, and awareness, rather than in the fear, control, or worry that could easily overwhelm.
Describe your perfect day.
I truly love days in the heat of summer spent outside with my husband. A perfect day for us is enjoyed in a beautiful place. The Paradise area at Mount Rainier National Park and the Many Glacier area in Montana are two of our most special places. We wake up and enjoy a leisurely cup of quality coffee, spend a full day in a slow, long hike, and finish with a big, greasy, delicious dinner. If it were a truly perfect day, it would conclude with a meal at one of my favorite Seattle-area restaurants, like a big, spicy Ethiopian vegetable platter with tangy injera from Saba, or Pad Kee Mao, a Thai dish made with fresh wide rice noodles, vegetables, basil, and spicy sauce, from Thai Tom. Mmm.
When do you most feel yourself?
I feel most myself when immersed in a delicious conversation with a good and trusted friend, traversing between disparate topics—books or articles, movies or TV, personal concerns, fears, and joys, work, philosophical and moral quandaries, social justice and political issues, and so on—with no set agenda. This is especially satisfying over a meal or a cup of coffee void of time constraints or distractions, when cell phones are put away, and our presence is fully with one another.
This one may be hard to answer, but what’s the best book you’ve ever read?
This is a hard one to answer! This past year, the most impactful book I’ve read is The Color Purple by Alice Walker. A beloved classic, I scarcely stand alone in praising it, but I had an utterly spiritual experience reading it. Walker writes with such tenderness and compassion, capturing the sacredness of black queer womanhood. She consecrates the quiet relationships that sustain us amid lifetimes of trauma. I learned so much, and drank deeply of that book.
Since you are the literal music expert, tell us about an album that we all must go out and purchase immediately (or, I guess, download).
While very dated at this point, the most impactful album in my collection remains The Milk-Eyed Mender by folk singer and harpist Joanna Newsom (2004, Drag City Records). Newsom has a bright, grating voice that serves as a sort of rite of passage one must persevere. A lo-fidelity and amateurish production, Milk-Eyed Mender’s mediocre sound quality makes even more apparent the tension between the singer’s crude voice and the comforting warmth of her harp playing. Yet, I love Milk-Eyed Mender amid its uncanny sound, because it is eclipsed by Newsom’s thoughtful capsules of ingenious writing. Fifteen years after its release, I still go back to it often, and use it as a model for my own composing (when, maybe once per year, I spontaneously write a song!).
I can’t let this interview go by without asking you about your new album with Kate Plummer. Tell us about it and where to find it.
Yes! Kate is a marvelous guitar player and songwriter from Sydney, Australia, who has lived in Montana for about five years. She conceived of an instrumental album project a little over a year ago, and invited me in to play a bit of cello on one of the tunes. It sort of snowballed from there, and we ended up collaborating on the entire album, calling ourselves Hemispheres as a representation of our disparate origins and influences.
Each of the songs is Kate’s original invention, but we wrote the cello parts together over the course of the last year, and invited a few other fantastic Helena musicians—David Casey, who plays the Greek bouzouki, and Josh Loveland on percussion—to join us on a few songs. Though a completely instrumental record, it weaves through a wide variety of life experiences and emotions. Kate’s writing is influenced by sudden and untimely deaths of family members and friends, nostalgia for distant childhood happiness, ruminations on the dark and solitary side of spirituality, and immersion in the spaciousness of Montana’s natural landscape. It covers a lot of ground.
We recorded the album, The Corners of Mountains, with Chris Cunningham in Bozeman in July, and will release it with a live show on Friday, November 16th, at Free Ceramics Gallery (650 Logan Street). Tickets are available. Join us!
Can you talk to us a bit about what it’s like moving to a new town? I noticed right away that you were not afraid to get involved, to meet new people, to put yourself out there. I’m sure there have been times of loneliness, but do you have any tips for making a transition to a new place?
In the past fifteen years, I have moved to new cities five times, living in Bozeman, Spokane, Tucson, Seattle, Berkeley, and Helena. I experienced the move to Seattle, a larger, more impersonal, and faster-paced city than I had lived in before, as a culture shock, and I dealt with depression for my first year. I recall feeling so lonely at one point, that I felt if I died in my apartment, it might take days for anyone to notice. Loneliness is a crushing experience for me, and allows all my looming insecurities to foment and fester.
Amid that experience, though, I learned valuable lessons about moving to a new place. First, it is important to get involved and connected with people as soon as possible, and to feel accountable and useful to others. Millennials like me tend not to join traditional civic organizations, but I’ve learned to be a “joiner” as a survival strategy. That said, I also learned that the first people and places that foster some sense of connection may not end up being sustainable or long-term, and to be gentle and forgiving if these early connections do not feel fully bonded or authentic—and to let go of them (gratefully and graciously) when they are no longer satisfying.
I find it often takes about a year to feel settled in a new place, and two or three years to form trustworthy, life-long bonds. Amid transition, I find it crucial to treat myself well—to find a few comforts to indulge (I love coffee, food, and hot springs), to call and visit my old friends, to connect with God and nurture a sense of eternity and interconnection, to lean on my husband, to call my mom often, to visit a therapist, to exercise, and so on. And to cry. I cried a lot, until I no longer felt I needed to cry.
What are some qualities you see in the women you admire? What kind of woman do you hope to be?
I most admire women who simultaneously embody tenderness, courage, wisdom, accountability, and moral conviction, and have been unduly blessed to know an enormous number of women—and people of many genders—who walk this narrow road.
My mom, Dr. Deborah Haynes, taught me to value and serve other people, often (alongside my dad) bringing strangers into our home and family, while simultaneously pursuing her academic career and making important contributions to her field. Dr. Sharon Fennema, a mentor of mine while working at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, stands on the front lines of civil rights, queer politics, and racial justice in her personal, professional, and ecclesial pursuits. My dissertation advisor, Dr. Christina Sunardi, shepherded me through my doctoral program with unflinching support, modeling kind, compassionate, interdisciplinary colleague relationships and unwaveringly rigorous scholarship and teaching.
These women, and many others in my life, uncompromisingly yearn for a hospitable and abundant world, affirming of freedom, voice, and agency for people across race, religion, gender, sexuality, culture, ability, and economic status. Indeed, these women show through their actions that this renewed and thriving world is indeed possible—and immanent.
Where do you find hope?
I find immense and constant hope among individuals and communities built on the premise of loving one another. Love is a multifaceted concept, built of hundreds of layers, and it proves crucial to me that our love extends person-to-person, but also is embedded in our social and economic systems, philosophical and theological worldviews, our borders and boundaries of self and nation, and in the very ways we view and assign value to other people—and so on.
I see hope in the courage it takes to speak aloud one’s story and claim one’s innate worthiness (like in comedian Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special on Netflix), in those who assert a rightful place and power in spite of historical exclusions (like Montana’s Elouise Cobell), and among those who draw ever-wider circles where conventionally marginal and maligned people are celebrated, embraced, and empowered. These various living saints and prophets include Michelle Alexander, john a. powell, Bishop Yvette Flunder, Rev. William Barber, Dr. Martha Gonzalez and Quetzal Flores, Rev. Mark Charles, Janet Mock, attorney Matt Adams, and so, so many others, many far less well-known.
I see iterations of that hope fighting and flourishing in all kinds of places (even while these same spaces and institutions too often extinguish or co-opt these same ideals), including pockets of the church, the academy, the media, the political realm, and the arts. But, when hope flourishes in these upper echelons, it is because of proximity and accountability to ordinary, everyday people. I try to follow that lead and keep my focus there.
Final question. Your answer can be silly or serious, but what is saving your life right now?
Well… Goodness, that’s a tough one! My friends, family, and colleagues literally save my life. They are the basis of my happiness, sense of self, and feelings of worth. My husband is the absolute best—he’s kind, fun, compassionate, caring, intelligent, and courageous, and my very favorite person. My parents, siblings, and extended family continue to offer me so much care, presence, and support, while modeling compassion, family investment, and community engagement. I have great friends, spread across the span of my life, who model hope, compassion, engagement, and interconnection. I live far from way too many of them, admittedly, but I’ve grown to know wonderful people in Montana recently, too. And I’m loving the work I do at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, at Montana State University, and in the community music and arts scene, all of which keeps me exploring, yet grounded, in revolutionary, community-minded, invigorating, and spirit-filled work.
And, of course, delicious food, coffee, good music, and warmth save my life every day, too.