Author Archives: D.L. Mayfield

Write Like A Mother

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Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin wordshumilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned 35 a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

–Cheryl Strayed (as Dear Sugar)*

 

 

 

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I have two friends who are very pregnant right now, and both of them are writers. They are smart, thoughtful, beautiful souls, and when they pour themselves onto the page you just want to stop everything and sit with them. They both have other children (beautiful, loud). And they both told me that with the upcoming birth of their next child, they felt like the writing part of their life was going to be over.

I understand where those thoughts come from–the hormones, the panic, the sleep deprivation that acts like a very bad batch of drugs for a very long time–but I can’t condone them. I know my friends, and I know the work they have produced, and I know what is in their future. They will experience the mess and the chaos of birth and newborn land and shifting, growing families. They will cocoon inside of themselves, for months and even years perhaps, pouring out their bodies as sacrifices of love, rocking and shushing and feeding and cleaning and wiping, all while they tend to the endless minutia of everything else they are in charge of in their lives. They will continue on in that long obedience of selflessness, the continual little deaths and rebirths that parenting is comprised of, and one day they will lift their heads up and find that their head is clear and their mind is itching. They will start writing again. And they will be better than ever. Their babies will make them better writers.

 

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If you asked me, point blank, what my thoughts on motherhood were, I would hem and haw for as long as possible. I have nothing eloquent to say, except that it wrecked my life in so many ways, and it healed it in just as many. Marriage for me was no big adjustment, just a lot of fun to have a partner to roam the world with, and we made a lot of space for us to be our individual, introverted selves. But motherhood was the great shedding of selfishness that I didn’t even know existed, it was the time of confronting how very tied up my own identity was in being productive for God: helping others, loving my neighbors, teaching ESOL classes, volunteering with refugees, working full-time. Then I got pregnant, developed a rare-and-life-threatening condition, and found myself both very ill and with a premature baby to care for. Suddenly, I could not do most of those things that had always defined me as me. I was alone with a sad baby who was not quite ready for the world, and it was my job to keep her alive.

When she was 6 months old, possibly 8, I started to write. In earnest. The hours of being alone-but-not-alone, of rocking and shushing and swaddling and feeding and cleaning and walking and breathing, had built up to a point of pressure in my mind. I started, for the first time, to objectively look at my life. To assess my background, how I grew up, what I was taught to believe, and what that meant for my life choices. My baby, with her round-the-clock-needs, turned me into a bird that soared high above my own life. It was the first time I was able to step outside of it. The first time I realized how important honesty and vulnerability were to be in my life going forward.

I wrote for her, that chubby-cheeked spitfire sitting on her bumbo on the kitchen table while I slowly started sending pieces off into the void. And she helped me, in so many ways, push beyond the narrow confines of what it meant to be in the world, of where my value came from. And this, my friends, is the backbone of what it means to have prophetic imagination, of what it means to be a creative in a very conforming world.

I learned to write when I became a mother, because that was my vehicle for stepping outside of myself. For you, perhaps it was something else; something tragic or wonderful (or some combination therein). Something that helped you to see your small place in a very big world, to wonder at what your response might be to it all. Motherhood certainly doesn’t necessitate great art (in fact, many can cling to the trappings of motherhood as yet another symbol of productivity in the world) but I have known enough great writers now to know that it spurs you on towards the deepening of things.

Motherhood, for me, has been my agent of becoming small, of living a true upside-down life, of whittling away at my draughts of self-absorption. I am more afraid than ever, and yet I continue to do very brave and hard things. And I just want to say to all of my friends out there, the ones who adore and fear the changes coming: write like a mother. Write like the souls that you are, the ones who were put here to notice whatever it is that God placed in front of you.

The kingdom of God comes through babies, I imagine Christ whispering to his disciples as they tried to shoo the unkempt, uncouth, loud and beautiful children away. They didn’t understand, because they so badly wanted to be doing something so good for him, their savior. But later, through their own forms of death and rebirth–watching Jesus slowly die as a failure in front of them, huddling up in an empty room together–they would be cracked wide open by the pain and joy of being so connected to everyone in the world.

And luckily for us, some of them stopped and wrote about it.

 

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a little present i have been making for some dear friends . . .

a little present i have been making for some dear friends . . .

 

 

 

 

*to read Strayed’s entire advice column (of which I “Christian-ized” a bit in this post–sorry, Sugar!) go here. You will not regret it. While you are at it, why don’t you go and read all of her columns? You will not be left the same.

 

 

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when i go out, i want to go out like elijah

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Yesterday my friend sent me an old picture of hers from Instagram–a photo of my daughter, age 1, crawling around the floors of our apartment. my friend said “I just want to be back at [your old apartment complex] with you, drinking French Press and getting scratched by your cat Huckleberry. SOB. Can we go back in time a bit when life was simpler? I’ll meet you there.”

The picture, and the sentiments, stopped me cold in the middle of my day. My baby–so little, so adorable, such a weird little mullet–I had almost forgotten what she had been like at one. Then there was the apartments: the well-kept low-income housing complex where we lived for four years in SE Portland, which in my minds eye seems cleaner and quieter than anything we have experienced since (a dishwasher! no cockroaches! my husband’s life only got threatened once!). I remember the huge windows, the natural light streaming in (even if it was a bit cloudy), sitting on my orange corduroy couch and drinking coffee with my friend. How we agonized about our lives, how far they were from our ideals, how we were always itching to get on to the next phase of life.

And now here we are. My friend and her husband moved to Uganda, their lives are a mishmash of experiences I cannot even imagine, her photo stream filled with joy and sweat, me wishing I could reach out and touch her. Me and my grown-up baby and my husband moved across the country and plunged ourselves a further bit down the ladder of the American dream, our lives a beautiful jumble and we can’t keep track of all that we have learned or all the ways we have been changed. And as much as I love my life now, I still, just for a moment, longed to go back in time. To sit with my friend, clutching my baby, in my beautiful cozy apartment surrounded on every side by refugee friends and neighbors, to drink coffee and to appreciate the day for what it was.

I told my husband about this. Remember when we lived there? I said. It was a great time to be alive. We were so happy.

I don’t know, my husband answered slowly. You always seemed a bit lonely to me.

 

 

 

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There is another picture I thought of the other day, which I tracked back to my Myspace page (oh my word do you remember those?). This is me when I was probably 20, maybe 21. I am untroubled by the world. My face is smooth and unlined, my hair short and swingy, a beautiful baby strapped to my back. i was no doubt running around tacking up flyers for the kids homework club that I started, visiting various families, sitting on floors and eating with my fingers, sitting on couches and being ignored, just showing up week after week for this amazing life that I had discovered in the pockets of America. I did not have angst. I was pleased with myself, pleased with the part I was doing in the world, pleased to know I was using my gifts well.

On second thought, that isn’t quite true. I was, after all, there to “practice” on people before I moved overseas, before I really dedicated myself to God, when I had all my theologies sorted out and a team and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. I was testing it out, seeing if I was any good at it, slowly becoming suspicious of all of the people I knew who loved to talk about mission but couldn’t be bothered to come once a week and help refugee kids learn basic math. I discovered that I was not good at a whole lot of things: proselytizing, supervising homework clubs with 50+ kids and no other volunteers, doing it all on my own without getting bitter. I was more than a little bit lonely. And instead of being good at anything, I began to realize how much pleasure I found in being with people who were different from me.

 

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I’m thinking about all of this, because the angst has never really left me. Even in this season, it is here, lurking underneath. I recently watched Ragamuffin, the story of Rich Mullins (a personal hero of mine), and it left me more than a bit uncomfortable. I recognized so much of myself in him, both his depths of unhappiness and fierce propulsion to continually move forwards. How can somebody continually have revelations from God, write songs about his love, and then have moments of being completely unconvinced of that truth? But this is how it is, this is the reality of the world. We hear revelations, and we forget. We experience love, and we forget. We witness the miracles of forgiveness and resurrection, and we forget. We see the kingdom come, we are filled with love for the church, we are content to be little mustard seeds and then–it all flows away like water.

I have no doubt that in three years time I will look back at this time, this day, this season in my life with nothing but kindness. Through rose-colored glasses I will only see the good, will only see the revelations, will choose to not see the clouds of forgetfulness. I will be kind to my un-perfect self, realize that if I spent over 20+ years of my life willing myself to be the one who goes out and saves everybody then it might be realistic to think it would take some time to gently undo those faulty beliefs and all the relational brokenness that comes out of them.

If I could go back in time–ten years ago, three years ago–what would I tell myself? I would probably say:You can move across the country, sell all that you have and live in a poorer neighborhood–and you will still feel that restless urge. You will not be able to outrun your demons, the sense that you are never doing enough. You will continue to fluctuate between deliriously happy in the love of God and what he is up to in the world and being crushed by the inaction and apathy of so many around you. The angst is not going to go away. The love will continue to grow until it engulfs you. You will be crushed, and you will be resurrected, time and time again.

 

You will still be so very lonely. You will still be so very loved.

 

I am writing this here to remind myself. There is no doubt in my mind that I will soon forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Signs Your Neighborhood Might Be Gentrifying

a list. because I am in a weird mood, and it is Thursday*.

 

 

 

image from Wreck City.

image from Wreck City.

 

 

Signs Your Neighborhood Might be Gentrifying

 

1. Ethnic restaurants crop up by the dozens; however, no ethnic people appear to be eating there.

 

 

2. The nearest Redbox is consistently out of any Aronofsky, Anderson, or Lynch films. Tyler Perry for days, though.

 

 

3. Sometimes, there are books other than religious tracks marketed towards children inside that one Little Free Library.

 

 

4. Your garage door gets vandalized with an aggressively optimistic Oprah quote.

 

 

5. Your neighborhood hosts a block party and everyone brings veggie pasta salad.

 

 

6. The ice cream truck/narcotics man goes out of business. Instead, a man on a bike tries sell you butternut squash soup out of his attached trailer.

 

 

7. Donut inflation becomes a serious, crippling issue.

 

 

8. Blonde-haired children strapped to their father’s bosoms are suddenly everywhere. Especially on Saturdays, waiting in line for an vaguely ethnic-sounding brunch spot.

 

 

9. A neighbor offers unsolicited mulching advice and invites you to join his guerrilla gardening squad.

 

 

10. All the poor people move out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*don’t worry, I won’t give up my day job to start writing comedic pieces.

 

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Places My Name Has Been

I’ve got a few things floating out in the wide world and I thought I would just quickly tell you about them. I also thought for a few of you it might be interesting to know how I got myself into writing these pieces/what they were about.

 

 

 

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1. Books and Culture

Firstly, I wrote a book review that was published in the September edition of Books and Culture. I had e-mailed the editor (the illustrious John Wilson) out of the blue a few months before because I so admired the high level reading and writing they had going on in this publication. To be honest, I also wanted to write for them because most of the reviews I saw were written by very academic (and very smart) folks who all worked in colleges and had published highly-acclaimed books. Since I am none of those things, it made me want to try just a bit harder. John Wilson was very gracious and sent me a book on labor trafficking to review (Life Interrupted, by Denise Brennan), which sent me down all sorts of rabbit trails (the best kind of book there is, in my opinion). Since then I have read and reviewed another book (I believe it will be coming out in January) that John also sent to me and now I must say I trust his taste implicitly.

If you like to write, then reading/reviewing books is such an excellent way to hone your skills/figure out what the power of the written word means to you. I regularly now find myself reviewing at least one book a month (although, I have discovered that if I just truly don’t like a book, I can’t bring myself to review it. There are too many good books out there to focus on the bad. And let me tell you, there is a lot of bad in mainstream publishing). Besides Books and Culture, another favorite place of mine to read (and review) books is over at Englewood Review of Books. They are the coolest (they started out as a church community that read/reviewed books together, and now it is a big beautiful collection of fascinating reads from people all over the country).

The review is online, but is behind a paywall. I do highly recommend the subscription, however, especially if you like your scholarly + theological sides to be challenged/unlocked.

 

 

 

2. Timbrel

Timbrel is the Mennonite Women USA magazine (I know!). My good friend Claire is the editor of Timbrel (besides being an awesome writer herself, as well as an occasional model for Christian Amish book covers). She asked me to write about my journey in pursuing foster care as a means to growing our family for their “mothering” issue.

I am not someone who writes a ton about motherhood or things that can be strictly considered “women’s issues” and to be honest this was one of the more difficult pieces I ever had to write. Motherhood, mothering, and growing your family are all so very personal, and I am well aware of the variety of experiences. Just a few short months ago we made the decision to stop pursuing adoption through foster care, after many months/years of prayer. I hesitate to explain our decision because it is tied up in the lives of so many people we now are in relationship with–so many of our friends and neighbors who were in foster care themselves when they were young, or who had their own children taken away from them). As we have journeyed into the system, and seen others do the same, there is just no way around the brokenness to be found in every corner of this world. While we most certainly do believe there is still a definite need for people to be involved in foster care (and many children need permanent homes) we also realize there are many ways to support families in crisis, and we are being drawn to help families stay together.

I know, big topic right? It is so hard to even address in anything fewer than a hundred thousand words. The wounding of our families in this country is incredible. The space for transformation is breathtaking. Lord, may your kingdom come. This article is also not available online, but you can purchase a subscription here. I also have a few copies of the magazine if anyone desperately wants it I will send it to you!

 

 

 

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3. Image Journal

My friend (and amazing photographer) Fritz Leidtke got me a subscription to Image last year and it has been one of my favorite gifts ever. It is a beautiful, meditative, smart and thrilling journal. I mean it. I have always been a bit out of my mind and so I decided that Image was one of my favorite places to read I should most certainly send something in. Perhaps it is because my identity has never been tied up with being a writer (but oh my, don’t you dare touch my do-gooder/missionary/social justice identity or I will cut you) but I don’t seem to suffer the paralysis or nervousness that can affect some. I tend to read good things, get inspired, and then type away and send my stuff out into the cold world. And sometimes, it works! Like with Image–while I can hardly believe it, they accepted a piece I sent them and published it in the October issue. Now, sadly, there is nowhere to go but down (also, I sense a theme: being the least qualified writer in the joint. This makes me feel a teensy bit proud but also pretty insecure).

This piece was born out of a really intense season this spring. I thought: I have never read a literary exploration of what it means to burn out. I know people toss that phrase around like old change, but that truly is the sensation I experienced. Being surrounded by people ricocheting from one chaotic situation to the next really took a toll on me. Writing it out helped me more than I can say (as did making a few changes to my schedule). This is probably the most personal (and raw) piece I have ever written.

If you don’t already subscribe to Image, I would highly encourage you to do so. You will not be disappointed. I believe you can sign up to get a digital copy for free–so check it out, and I trust you will be astonished as I have been by the craft and care of this publication.

 

 

4. Interview

Lastly, a few months ago Heather Caliri asked me a few questions about how I read the Bible. I think I thought it was for an e-book or something and would be highly edited, so I dashed off some (ahem) casual thoughts. She just recently put the answers up on her blog as a part of a series she is doing called “Quiet Time Confidential” (all the evangelical kids shiver a little bit when they read that). So if you have been dying to hear about what I think about reading the Bible, you should go on over and read it.

 

 

Thanks for reading!

Your Correspondent, srsly has got to go eat something with pumpkin spice in it right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I Don’t Go to Church*

*Ha! I totally got you! That, my friends, is called clickbait. Of course I go to church. I just am not very good at it.

 

 

image from here.

image from here.

 

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Yesterday I did not go to church. I did not feel well at all, and usually we come to the ends of our week ragged both with the good things and the incurably mundane. I read a Walter Brueggemann sermon instead (suggested by a dear friend) and cried my eyes out. I watched a video of a prophetic demonstration, and cried some more. I listened to a podcast while I cleaned my kitchen and–you guessed it–the tears came again.

A few times a month we go to a little Mennonite church in our neighborhood. We started going there because we could walk to it when the weather is nice. Before we started attending, a year and a half ago, we had never been inside of a Mennonite church before. We really like it. It is so peaceful (a result of their theology, perhaps?) and I sit and listen to the songs I didn’t grow up singing, the four-part harmonies that spill so easily out of the lips of my neighbors. I am lost, but I enjoy it. I sit in the pew and soak up what I do and do not know.

Before the Mennonite church we were in a beautiful little house church. People coming together to share their gifts and their crockpot casseroles, everybody has a job, everyone has something valuable to share, the children run around and wave prayer flags, there is shushing and nervous silence and awkward sermons and it is so empowering to be reminded that all the church is are people. We are it. And we are enough.

Before that we came from churches where the music was gospel, the music is one white boy with a guitar, the music is non-existent, the music is projected onto the 3 large screens up front. We come from churches where the pastor tells us what to think, where he tells us how to live a better life, where all are supposedly welcome, where only some are. I have a bit of charismatic in me, a little bit of conservatism, a tiny bit of anti-intellectualism, a dash of anabaptist with a sprinkle of old-school evangelicalism. A lifetime of Bible Studies centered on the rapture, of pentecostal Bible colleges, charismatic conferences, Baptist professors, church of Christ doctrines, a non-denominational pastor dad. I can’t leave any of it behind. Nor can I forget all of the ways I have grown in the love of God that have happened outside of the doors of the church: friendships and relationships with those that would never feel comfortable stepping inside a traditional church. The uneducated. Those experiencing poverty. People of different religions. People who can’t bear to be marginalized again.

So we don’t really belong to one particular church. Oh, we attend somewhat regularly and are involved in the “body”, as it were (volunteering for nursery, serving on the mission committee). But no matter where we are, what season of life we are in, we always have one foot out the door. The question of my whole life has started to thrum louder and louder until it becomes hard to hear anything else: who isn’t here? Who is excluded? Who are we missing out on being in relationship with? And no matter where you go, there are always so many who are missing.

We’ve got to start broadening our definition of church; perhaps our unwillingness to be forthright about the exclusivity that undermines nearly every element of every Sunday service in this country is a reason why some might feel less than thrilled at the prospect of a traditional church. The world is too beautiful and varied and wide for us to fiercely hold to one pastor, one building, one sermon series. Whenever someone is a bit too gung-ho about their particular location/brand/sermon podcast I always have to wonder: that all sounds lovely, but surely you know that this isn’t all there is? That none of us, on our own, ever truly figure it out?

I have been changed, in the best way possible, by my experiences and interactions with everyone in my life. The fundamentalists, the progressives, the charismatics, the un-churched, the Baptists, the mennonites, people of different cultures and ethnicities and spiritual backgrounds.

I’m all for supporting and encouraging the local church. But I’ve got two eyes in my head and I see that God’s dream for the church is nowhere to be found in my neighborhood. It’s always one tribe, one tongue, one nation over here. So until we have the imagination and the wherewithal to bring God’s kingdom down to earth, I guess I will continue to keep one foot out the door, always looking for who isn’t here. I will of course continue to go to church most days, support it, love it, learn from it, push it, and prod it. But may I never fully belong there, may I never fully be satisfied. May I never, ever stop asking: who isn’t here?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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teeth and kitties

the other day i almost bought a living social deal for a costco membership, until my husband gently reminded my of my scruples. this is the problem with public journaling blogging. people remind you of grand-sounding things you said once, quite some time ago. but life marches on, and you move into a beautiful lil’ house that actually has a basement where you could purchase and store sensibly-priced paper goods in bulk, where your life could be just a tiny bit easier. time is a river rushing by and there are so many ways to remember that you are always coming up short in your quest to identify with people on the margins. there are so many ways to tune out the prophets.

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where we live, going to the dentist is an ordeal. we live in the midst of a city, as urban as i have ever experienced. we are surrounded by payday loan companies and “treatment centers” and halal markets. But the only available dentists for miles and miles around are all students: bright-eyed young things who poke and prod your mouth and have to call in a crash of supervisors for any little old thing. it takes forever (it costs relatively little). people make mistakes. a one-visit procedure stretches into 3 or 4. i take my daughter to these students because she is complaining of tooth pain. they look at me and my medical insurance card from the government, and they loudly tell me that i really should be bringing her in for a cleaning every few months. i hang my head, ashamed, letting this young thing think whatever it is she wants to about me. my daughter’s teeth are perfect, they cannot see any cavities. i only feel slightly better.

my husband got his tooth pulled last year. it is one of his canines, you can only tell when he smiles so wide that his eyes get lost in the crinkles. before this happened i didn’t know there was yet another way to categorize people in our society, a way that we not-so-subtly put people in their place. there are people in our country who are missing teeth, and there are people who get them replaced. nowadays, i know so many people with the tell-tale gaps. my students, the ones who are so recently arrived here in this country, they are in the midst of it. a student will be gone for a few days, then come to class, holding an embarrassed hand over her mouth. she doesn’t want to talk. when she finally does, i see it: 4 or 5 teeth pulled, many in the front, just like that. no replacements, no nothing. we all have the same insurance. the government will help us all pay for the teeth to be removed, but replacing them is viewed as “cosmetic”. vanity of vanities, to want to look in the mirror and remember for a second, how it all used to be.

i don’t mind the gap in my husband’s smile, i think it is rather cute. but the dentists said that since my husband is so young that is could permanently mess up the way the other teeth in his mouth move around, could cause him many problems in later years. so we scrimp and save for a year, shelling out what amounts to more than what we paid for our (admittedly not-so-great) minivan, our identification coming to a screeching halt. my husband is on his way to let students insert a screw into his jaw; in a few months they will affix a new, shining tooth. he will go on with his life, eating whatever he pleases, working in his professional capacity, bearded, pleasant, whole.

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a few months ago our cat was bit by another; the wound was large and gaping and we didn’t know what to do. we tried to clean it up but by the next day it was clear that this was bad news. we found a cardboard box and brought her to the vet; they put her anesthetic and cleaned her wound and put in a drain. she was gone the whole day and when she came home we had to put a cone around her miserable head. she moped, for a week, and we bought her special kitty food to coax her. she got better, day by day. we fixed the screen door so she couldn’t get out anymore (our neighborhood does have the meanest cats you ever did see) and she meows pitifully, longing to be out. but it cost us so much money to save her that we can’t afford for it to happen again. a neighbor came over and sat under our tree in the backyard and we talked about pets who got hurt, and all the ones who died because vets were not even an option. all the animals we loved so much when we were young, the ones we clutched and cooed at and kissed; the ones who fell by the wayside, who were attacked by the robbers of the world, the ones that we were always powerless to save. i look at my cat, gleaming and whole, and it is a marker of difference. of options. the opposite of identification.

teeth and kitties, such vulnerable parts of ourselves. the whole world is a place that is liable to hurt us, to weaken us, decay us and bite us. some of us have access to resources and money where we can forget about these realities for a few more months, a few more years. we can justify ourselves to people just like us all the day long, but in the end, the same Christ looks at all of our hearts. and he will ask all of us: did you learn from the prophets, the ones i sent you all along? the gap-toothed and the sad, the wounded and the un-whole? because they are preaching to us, all the time.

they are the reminders of the kingdom that is slowly barreling into our hearts and our minds and our lives, a kingdom where every tooth and every kitty is cherished, valued, and most importantly, mourned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Book

As per usual, I couldn't take a glamorous picture because I have a very crappy phone (which blesses me and allows me to feel smug and superior, but is annoying on the whole instagram level).

As per usual, I couldn’t take a glamorous picture because I have a very crappy phone (which blesses me and allows me to feel smug and superior, but is annoying on the whole instagram level).

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a hard spring and summer, harder than I care to admit; now that everything is better I realize what level of stress and sadness I was operating under. Coming out of a winter where it was colder than mars, we ran headlong into a season of chaos and being crushed under the burdens of trying to neighbor well in intense situations. I thought I became allergic to something, found my throat closing up, started gasping for breath at the most inopportune times. I went to the doctor and had them stick all the needles in my back, but it came back negative. The doctor gently told me that there was no biological evidence that I was allergic to anything. You might want to consider panic attacks, he told me, and I instantly felt foolish. I didn’t know that was what they felt like–I assumed shaking and jittering and crying. Not wanting to drive or talk on the phone of feeling like your throat was closing in on you–this was just my new normal.

Now I breath clear and fine, I have forged through rough relationships and came out tender and new on the other side: what lesson better than forgiveness can we ever take to our graves? It is truly a mystery, finding yourself rock solid in selfishness, having the Spirit crack you wide open, deciding that you are the worst and everyone is the worst and why don’t we all consider the lilies together? Because there really are some lovely ones in my neighborhood.

This summer I went back to Oregon for a visit, the place of my family and my people and so many of my threshold experiences. I visited with the Somali refugee family that changed my life, nearly a decade ago now. The girls are tall and tower over me, high schoolers who take inordinate amounts of selfies, giggling into laptops, cooking the evening meal. I wrote a book, I told them, feeling more than a little nervous. They were non-plussed. Oh yeah? I thought you liked to write or something. I pushed ahead. The book has a lot to do with you guys. They look at me, but don’t say anything. You know, how you guys changed my life. How you taught me so much about God, about what it is like to be a refugee, what America looks like to you . . . I trailed off. I suppose I was looking for their approval. They shrug their shoulders and look back at their screens. Yeah, you did learn a lot from us, both of them say. This has been apparent to them since day one. They are bored of this conversation, and pull out a baseball cap that is completely covered in large gold studs, the bling just dripping off of it. Want to take your picture wearing this hat? they ask, and of course I say yes.

 

//

 

Very few people I see everyday care about books. They do not read the magazines I read, they do not adore the same authors, they do not understand the intricacies of industry and marketing and platform, the great big desire to be noticed, to be new, to be good, to be admired. They do not understand how people who publish books can sometimes become giant cardboard cut-outs of themselves. They do not know how easy it is to fall into those categories, to wander in the way of self-righteousness, irony, elitism, hubris, or easy breezy moralism. Most of the people I hang out with are refugees, many of them non-literate, the majority of them all carving out lives in the hard stone of the American Dream. The other person I hang out with is 4, and she is a wormhole of ferocious need, an excellent advocate for herself, a barreling ball of kingdom values (truthfulness, faith, love), and she most emphatically does not like anything that takes my attention away from her.

It is good to be small, good to have more than a handful of identities (wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, neighbor, teammate, teacher, advocate) that vie for your attention, split you up and keep you on the ground. For awhile I looked in despair at the discrepancies of my life: living and working within one population (people experiencing poverty in America) while writing for another (mainly Christians who come from somewhat privileged backgrounds). But now it starts to seem like a gift, an authentic whole, a way to beat back the sin of pride (which comes at me from every direction). To be small, everywhere. Living in the upside-down kingdom, and writing about it. To try and be honest, to be vulnerable, to open yourself up for the inevitable misunderstandings and criticisms, to forge on ahead and practice forgiving and being forgiven. What lesson better than forgiveness can we ever take to our graves?

 

//

 

I was born a reader and fed by a mother who let me be interested in the world, by small-town libraries, by a quest to know truth. But I did not start writing (beyond the college paper or a re-cap of a missions trip) until a few years ago. I now pinpoint the shift to when I had my daughter. I was made small and still by that experience. I had many more hours to contemplate (feeding and rocking and jiggling the baby), and it seems to me writing happens in your head when you give yourself some space to think. So I wrote a few things and sent them off, was legitimized by places I adored and read religiously. And I was surprised to find that the element underlying my new obsession with writing my own words was this: I finally wanted to be as honest as I could. And the only way I could be honest with myself is if I wrote it down.

And in the past 3+ years, that is what I have been doing. Eventually I realized I had written a book. It took me a long way to get to the place of saying I am ready for people to read that book, but here I am. I am over the moon. I am entering into this new part of life, this plan I never expected for myself. I just signed a contract with HarperOne (such a dream choice!) and I am excited for the expertise and the bridge-crossing that this particular publishing house is capable of. I’ll be sure and give you all the particulars as I come to understand them, but for now I just wanted to say thank you. It’s been a hard season, it has been one that has changed me. I am still coming to terms with all of my different selves, especially the ones that I never lived up to. When I started writing, I was finally able to be honest with myself and with God. And it became my way of considering the lilies–especially the ones that the world forgot. When I started writing, I started to finally start being able to understand the radical nature of honest in relationship to reconciliation and forgiveness. And I know I will have to keep re-learning it until I can learn no more.

I guess I just want to say thank you to everyone: thank you so much for reading along with me, for encouraging me and praying and being the cup of cold water that I generally always seem to need. But most of all, thank you for letting me write it out as I need to. It means more to me than you can possibly know.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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The Book that Changed Josina’s Life

I met Josina at my Collegeville retreat this summer. I was immediately struck by her beauty, her warmth, and her very sweet way of speaking the TRUTH! Her writing is extremely powerful, and I love this reminder that art means more when we have suffered–which reminds me of the beauty of Christ (Also, I now really need to get this book). Be sure to read more of Josina’s work, and find out more about the amazing community that she is a part of.

 

 

 

 

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Cries of the Spirit edited by Marilyn Sewell

Guest Post by Josina Guess

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps it is cheating to choose an anthology of poetry as the book that changed my life.  With more than 300 poems by women from Hildegard of Bingen to Audre Lorde each one speaks across history, ethnicity, geography and class and draws me in to a deeper sense of myself as a woman.  I received Cries of the Spirit as a graduation gift from a housemate at Earlham College.  I knew so much more then than I do now and sometimes read smugly the voices of cynicism, rage and doubt that cry through these pages which are a “Celebration of Women’s Spirituality.”  I was pure, hopeful, idealistic and passionate for Jesus and justice- I wanted more happy and righteous poems.  Over the years I have become a wife, mother, witness and bearer of grief and joy that my twenty one year old heart could barely fathom.  As experience has made my heart break and harden and crack open once again I read these poems over and over with eyes that always cry at wisdom that transcends what I thought I knew when I first received it.

This book is not Chicken Soup for a Woman’s soul.  It is the whole bird: feathers bones and blood, mouth gaping with eyes wide open; the shock of feet with toenails floating in the broth.  This book has a flavor so rich and deep – never canned-that is always good medicine for my sin-sick soul.  Tough poems on suicide, rape, abortion, domestic violence, divorce and menstruation are joined by tender poems on washing dishes, peeling apples, planting a garden and making love.  This book reliably primes the pump of my tear ducts and keeps me feeling in a world that tempts me to go numb and give up.

Now that I have sat with a friend and wept over the divorce papers that finalized the death of a marriage that her husband had been killing for years; now that I have watched my friend carried out of his house in a blue body bag after losing his battle with psychosis; now that I have had a friend tell me of running from gun fire with her baby shot dead on her back; now that I have had my body four times stretched and poured out through the birth of children that keep stretching, pulling and pushing me I see in this book a mirror.  This book gives me words when all I have are sighs too deep for words.  When my friend’s mother died I emailed her an Alice Walker poem when I had no words of my own to give.

Though Cries of the Spirit is heavy on the pain I am still hopeful, idealistic and passionate for Jesus and justice.  Now I can see more clearly that these burdens and blessings we women bear are worth sharing with one another and the one who made, loves and redeems us.  It makes the poems that radiate joy, hope, forgiveness and redemption all the more sweet.  Gathered in these pages I see myself: white and black, urban and rural, broken and healed.  At 35 I know I’ve only just begun.  Maybe it has not changed my life as much as help me to articulate life as a woman in all its complexity.  As my life and perspective has changed, Cries of the Spirit has given me words to embrace those changes. In some grace-filled moments I find myself writing poems when nothing else will do.  I know I have this great cloud of mothers, sisters, grandmothers and friends, whose voices sing through this book- who give me courage to raise my own- to thank.

 

 

 

 

 

 

unnamedJosina Guess lives with her husband and their four children at Jubilee Partners, a Christian service community in Comer, Georgia.  Josina has written for Conspire, Communities Magazine and Red Letter Christians Blog. Pull up a chair at Josina’s Kitchen Table to read a few more of her thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

East Of Eden

The Giving Tree

The Irresistible Revolution

Winter’s Tale

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

 

 

 

 

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Reasonably Bright, Reasonably Average

“David Foster Wallace once said that he thought good nonfiction was a chance to “watch somebody reasonably bright but also reasonably average pay far closer attention and think at far more length about all sorts of different stuff than most of us have a chance to in our daily lives.”–from Austin Kleon in Sell Your Work

 

 

 

Drawing by the unbelievable Chris Clother (for Cordella Magazine)

                                                   Drawing by the unbelievable Chris Clother (for Cordella Magazine)

 

 

A reminder for myself on a day like today. A day where everything is so very normal (slow walks to the library with a small, curly-haired child, a messy kitchen, faint and ebbing headaches) and where the world is cracked in every direction that you look. Our tiniest decisions, thoughts, purchases insurmountably inane and important, I can never quite remember which one. I dream some day of being a wise old turtle, calm and peaceful, one of the cloistered kinds of saints. But for now I am rather more like the unhinged ones, stumbling about and repeating the truths as I find them, aware that they never quite sink in. This is why I so struggle to identify as an artist, or a writer. Being honest about the restless heart within me, and pursuing it–it is not safe and it is not exactly what I had planned for this life. 

 

But to be awake–that’s all God ever wanted for his artists, anyways. To pay attention, to cry when everyone is laughing, to laugh when everyone is crying. To be all wrong, all out of sorts, ridiculous and hopeful, so plain and so honest and so frail. In that vein, I wanted to point you to an essay of mine that I wrote about for a dear friend’s gorgeous new literary magazine called CordellaI wrote a bit about my own story wanting to be like Joan of Arc, and how that never quite panned out. Head over to the site to see the piece, and then check out the rest of the first issue.

 

Here’s to a weekend of being our (un)reasonably bright and average selves. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Book that Changed Lydia’s Life

I met Lydia at my Collegeville workshop in July. She was a pleasure to meet and hang out with, and the stories of her life (growing up in the Catholic Worker house in Detroit) and her current work as a water activist were so inspiring. Her writing is amazingly evocative, filled both with a sense of activism and a deep lyricism. I too love the Narnia books, and for me they are so tied to family as well. I want to honor the richness of this essay by telling you it would be best if you find a quiet space to read it and be prepared to be moved: when Lydia writes about her mother there is something deep happening. I am so grateful for her words here, and am honored to host them. 

 

 

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Love Story to Narnia

by Lydia Wylie-Kellermann

 

Frustrated he said, “Well what would you do if you were trying to convert someone?” He had been following my mom around campus for months trying to convert her to be a Crusader for Christ by following the 5 spiritual laws of conversation. Without needing a minute to think about it, she said “I would ask them to read the Chronicles of Narnia and then invite them to talk about it.”

She was raised on those stories, traveling Europe with her parents. She read them aloud in the little chapel on the hillside in Taize, France while the monks chanted prayers. On the Queen Mary, she carried her small metal Reepacheep sword around the decks. Narnia came alive in her as her sense of imagination, adventure, and wildness grew.

That deep magic found its way into our home. Tucked under the covers, I feel her hand on my back and her voice carrying the pages into my own dreams. We were a family who craved winter, to walk through the snow and trees imagining being in Narnia where the animals and trees are alive with spirit and speech. It was a tale and a land that nurtured my love of the seasons, honored the animals, instilled a sense of hope and faith against all odds, trusted in the unseen sacred spirit around us, and taught me an unfaltering belief in resurrection.

At twelve, my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. Given six months to live, she miraculously lived for seven and a half years. It was a season in my life marked with surgeries, seizures, and long hospitals stays. On the times when I would sit with my mom waiting for her to regain consciousness, I knew there was only one thing I needed to bring. Chronicles. We read those stories over and over from one hospital bed to another.

In the final months of her life, my dad took to reading her The Last Battle (the seventh and last book). On December 30, the night before she died, my sister Lucy (a name not unrelated to Narnia I believe) and I crawled into the hospital bed that lay beside our Christmas tree in our living room. We tucked ourselves under her arm, as my dad read the final chapter out loud to us all. He read the final words as we all clung to that moment with warm tears hanging on our cheeks.

 “And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Narnia had woven its way through my childhood with a sense of mystery, kept me company through my teenage years beside hospital beds, and now at 19 years old it led me deeper into my own grief. When we closed her casket, I placed a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in her hands. I held onto a deep sense of knowing that when I read those books throughout my life, I would continue to meet her on those pages.

At her Memorial Service, I read about the sisters, Lucy and Susan, caring for Aslan’s body as we cared for my mom’s washing them both with our tears. A couple years later, in a moment of numbness and loneliness, I found my way to that little chapel in Taize. I curled up in a corner leaning against the cold stone and found the courage to open the page and speak the words aloud. We buried my mom’s ashes up in the thumb of Michigan in a patch of tall pines she loved. The only thing that marks the spot is a lamppost. A young girl and her grandmother wandered into the woods and finding the lamppost, the girl cried out “We have found Narnia!” Indeed they had.

To be clear, there are also many problematic pieces of the stories as it is rich with patriarchy, warfare, and blatant atonement theology. None of that is to be ignored or excused. But for me, they are the stories that wove through my life holding a sense of home, mystery, and awe. In some ways, it almost doesn’t matter what the books were, but that they were.

As an adult, in moments when my belief in God or heaven are challenged or the reality and  possibility of building toward the Beloved Community, I find myself thinking of Puddleglum from The Silver Chair. He is a lovable, pessimistic, Debbie Downer, dreary, pain-in-the-butt, but completely loyal froglike friend. Towards the end of the book, him and his companions have been captured and taken to an underground world and tortured into believing that there is no world above, no Narnia, no Aslan. In an incredible act of faith that breaks the spell, Puddleglum cries out “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things- trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones…I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” Amen.

 

 

 

unnamed-2Lydia Wylie-Kellermann is an activist, writer, and mother in Detroit, MI. She is part of the Jeanie Wylie Community, focused on urban agriculture, immigrant justice, and nonviolence. She works for Word and World- an experiment in alternative theological education bridging the gap between the seminary, the sanctuary and the street.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

East Of Eden

The Giving Tree

The Irresistible Revolution

Winter’s Tale

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

 

 

 

 

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