on homesickness

There was a moment, just a moment, when the happiness overwhelmed me. I was driving a white minivan through the sun-drenched outer boroughs of Portland, the one where the grass was already dead and brown, where the cars pile high in the front yards, where the hipsters are few and far between. Navigating the streets I know so well, driving on auto-pilot; almost audibly my thoughts came: I’m home. The sweetness inherent in that thought–of being known and wanted and comforted–is quickly swallowed up by the realization: no, I’m not. I don’t live here anymore. I am embarrassed, look to my left and my right. But no one is there to see my slip into nostalgia, watch my new life and my old cause confusion in my eyes.

It is so cliché, but it must be said: I am homesick, no matter where I am.

One great thing about being married to a counselor is that sometimes they give you free observations about your life. The other day my husband told me that to an outside observer, it might look as though I was compelled to seek out relationships with people who are very, very different from myself. Conversely, he also noted, it appeared that my family and community were consistent sources of comfort for me. These two poles on which I staked my life sometimes seem to be in opposition to each other: what is safe, what is unknown. What is comfortable, what is exhilarating. To pursue one means that naturally, the other falls by the wayside.

Last week, in Portland, I was fed full and watched my daughter play with her cousin, I attended a baby shower for my older sister, I went for long walks with my mother, I made root beer floats with my father. Everywhere we went and ate and played I was looking for others, the worlds hidden between, for the marginalized of our society. They are few and far between in Portland, a city that is supremely silly and somehow never satiated in the desire for acceptance. I walked into a coffee shop where everyone looked so exactly alike that it felt like a slap to me: the calculated outfits and language and coffee drinks totaling up one very exclusive experience, designed more to keep others out than to usher them in. I went to church and cried all during worship, aching at how wonderful it was to see a large group of people together and singing about freedom; I slipped away into myself during the sermon, thinking about all the people who would not be able to step inside these doors. Surrounded by family and friends, I couldn’t help but feel a bit homesick for the life I have created in the exotic Midwest, long for my neighborhood and my neighbors

Last week, in Portland, I was driving across town in a white minivan. I was by myself, driving to see very old friends, the ones who first showed me where the upside-down kingdom was. I know every street, have a story for almost each city block. I let myself go down the nostalgic trail of thoughts: I met my husband here. I had my baby here. I went to Bible college here. I met the friends who changed my life here. The other part of me–the one who grew up thinking that those who gave up everything to serve God–quickly pushed these thoughts away. I actively, aggressively chided myself into submission. Geography means nothing to me. My entire childhood was spent moving, every 2-3 years. What was important was family, the new church we were at, the next calling of God on our lives. But somehow I stayed in Portland for nearly 9 years, and the asphalt and the street signs and the brown grass in the summer has burrowed into my bones. I am homesick for a place. And it is completely divorced from any sense of mission within me. I just love it for what it is: my home.

A month or so ago here in the exotic midwest I went to visit a friend who moved into the suburbs. Her and her little family are on their way up, moving out of the cramped and crowded-to-overflowing house in the middle of the city. I am happy for her, even as I am sad at the natural distance that will come at her being 30 miles away. I saw her apartment complex, large and full of similarly placed families, everybody packed tight together, everybody trying to make it. The outside facade so clean, the hallways inside rather grimy. I instantly loved it. As I left, I let my hands trail along the walls, imagining what it would be like to move in there. It was then that I realized that I wanted to live in every apartment building in the city, in the country, in the world.

And even though I know this is not even possible in the slightest, there is a large part of me that wants to try.

The problem is: I have so many homes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Writer’s Gonna Write

from Austin Kleon, "The Life of a Project"

from Austin Kleon, “The Life of a Project”

 

 

There’s this thing where writers tag other writers to answer questions about writing. I would hate it if it wasn’t so darn interesting. My fancy writer friend Christiana tagged me (she’s in my online writing group, she writes killer YA, and she is bursting forth into the world with her wonderful creative non-fiction–where she writes about Mennonite intentional communities, chickens, and death. Also, she is a poet, and once sent me a magazine of poetry in the mail. Swoon.)

 

So here I go. Writer’s gonna write (especially about themselves!)

 

1. What are you working on?

Big picture: I already finished the manuscript for my first book, and it is currently off in the wilderness. I look forward to a rigorous editing process, hopefully sooner than later.

Small(er) picture: I currently have 2 different book reviews due (I love reading and I love talking about books–but writing about books can be so difficult at times). One is Americanah by Chimamanda Adiche, and the other is Life, Interrupted, a book on trafficking into forced labor. Reading these books (especially the latter) has led me down many rabbit trails, specifically in the area of how the U.S. has historically treated migrants (hint: abysmally). I have been sucked into the worlds of James Agee, Robert Coles, and an exceptional Edward R. Murrow documentary. I think I have something else due as well, but it is currently escaping me. Not very professional, D.L.

I am also working on some other creative non-fiction stuff (which isn’t fit for public consumption). And I would die if I didn’t journal/do morning pages nearly every day.

 

 

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

How do you answer this question without sounding terrible? To be honest, sometimes I feel like I am in a unique position of being someone who lives and works among the poor but who also devours McSweeneys, Image, and O! magazine (just keeping it real). People writing about life in the margins of American society tend to be male, make their own clothes out of burlap, and are not too concerned with literary merit. I love those guys, but that ain’t me. I do, however, have a similar message in regards to finding Jesus in the outskirts of the Empire.

I like writing about poverty and privilege, and I also like taking a piss at myself every now and again. I am also deeply interested in how writing can be beautiful, and am not too terribly concerned with things being tied up neatly (either theologically or in a story arc). Where I live, there is a lot of sadness, despair, death, and destruction. There is also so much beauty and humor and people who transcend the word “survivor”. I really, really like to write about failure, which seems to not be a super popular thing to do. So I guess that is different? I also use a lot of the “passive voice” and “run-on sentences” which I think is arty but my good friend Amy makes me edit out anyways.

 

 

3. Why do you write what you do?

My life choices are an obvious jumping point. I often find myself overwhelmed with life and writing helps. I also see huge gaps in the narratives we are being fed about who the blessed really are; I see how many of us have no real concept of what it means to be poor in America. As I catch a glimpse now and then I can’t help but share what I am seeing, mostly out of a sense of isolation. If it was prime-time news I think I wouldn’t feel the urgency.

I wrote my book primarily because the world could always use another reminder that the the upside-down kingdom is here, all around us. Also I think it is intrinsically an interesting story–one where I start out trying to convert everyone, and slowly start to realize how heretical my own view of God is. As an activist at heart, a small part of me must believe that what I write could change a minds towards a belief in the words of Jesus. Because once we start to believe what he said, everything starts to change.

I also have made a conscious decision to write for people who might not agree with my conclusions. It is important for me not to get bogged down in an echo chamber of agreement–only interacting with other writers/readers/thinkers who believe the same thing. I like writing about WIC for conservative Christian websites. I like disguising an essay on downward mobility and reconciliation as an argument about alcohol for a traditional Christian magazine. I like being surprised by what I read and I want to do the same thing with my writing.

Remind me of this the next time I complain about the haters, mmmmkay?

 

 

4. How does your writing process work?

 

I am forever in the throes of a busy season. I teach ESOL to non-literate learners 4 days a week. I also take care of my daughter in the afternoons/evenings. I have a variety of community events/relationships I am involved with and I also have multiple commitments with the non-profit I work for.  For an up-coming writers workshop I am supposed to write down when I write. Thus far it looks like this:

Wed: write during nap time. 40 minutes.

Saturday PM: write for 30 minutes, fall asleep.

Every Other Friday: write for 1 hour, check FB and Twitter for 45 min.

 

Soooooo, not great. The problem is that by the end of the day there is not a blessed thought in my head. But I am loathe to wake up early (as my many talented friends do). I am hoping for a few reshufflings in my schedule for the fall, but I never know what will happen. For now it is a very part-time gig, and I have honed my skills at writing fast and furious when I get a chance.

As far as what I choose to write–when the mood strikes, I often pitch ideas to various places and usually find myself writing at least 1-2 essays a month. I try and scare myself a little each time I write. Blogging is currently not a huge priority for me (see: time) and as I have said before the crazier it gets the quieter I have to be in my writing. For now I take the stolen minutes I get and type into my laptop (usually sitting on my bed, or the couch) and I consider myself lucky. When I get super stuck for ideas or I hit an editing fog, going on long runs really seems to get my thoughts in order (also, cake helps). Being in an online writing group has been the best motivation ever (they believe me! they really do!) and now I am in an awesome IRL one as well. I am basically surrounded by beautiful, talented writers who force me to keep producing content. It is awesome, and I highly recommend this to everyone.

 

 

 

 

Oh man. Now I’m done talking about myself and my “craft”! So now I get to gleefully tag two writer friends so they can also answer these questions and populate the world with more art and beautiful (and sometimes cranky) words.

 

The first writer is Becca over at Exile Fertility. I just love everything that comes out of her mouth. She gets it. She gets that everything is terrible and everything is beautiful. She is my favorite writer when it comes to womanhood, birth, beauty, and radical self-care. I wish she would write more, but I understand that her arms are very full at the moment. Go on over to her place and check it out.

The other writer is Kevin Hardagan, who I think is the Joel Osteen/N.T. Wright of Ireland. He could go either way, really. He is wicked smart, a little cantankerous, half the time I do not know what he is talking about but when I DO I really like it. And he always makes me think (a good sign, right?). I would dearly love to know what he is working on in regards to his PhD (I think it has something to do with mammon. Mammon!) and everything he writes is funny. Including a response to a blogging round robin.

 

 

So there you have it. I would love (and I mean this from the bottom of my heart) to hear from any of you in regards to what you are working on, what your process is, and how you see yourself fitting into the writing world. So please comment and share!

 

 

 

 

 

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The beautiful ruins

I wrote a little stream-of-consciousness style post that is up over at A Deeper Story today.

 

Here’s the beginning:

 

 

 

 

Q: how do you ruin your life?

A: Start with a scarf. Start with shoes, hip glasses, the coffee in your cup. Start with that, but don’t stay there. Dig deep into the roots of why you must connect your purchases to your soul, that gaping chasm that feels the disparity of the world, that part of your spirit that can’t un-see or un-know all those tragedies of birth and geography and class that didn’t happen to you. Buy that beautiful scarf made by women half the world away, and tie it fiercely around your neck as you head out into your own kingdom of darkness; a world where the devil is prowling like a lion, hungry to see us satiated and superior and calm. You will need every bit of beauty you can take with you on the journey. There is a Calcutta everywhere you look, especially in your own heart.

 

 

 

 

aaaand, it just sort of goes on from there. Click on over to A Deeper Story to read the rest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Women, Infants, Children

us, just trying to survive.

us, just trying to survive.

 

It’s been a rough few weeks on the internet. I have wanted to write about violence, #yesallwomen, abusers, rape apologetics, and #howoldwereyou; instead I wrote an essay about WIC.

 

Of course, it really isn’t about WIC (or Whole Foods for that matter). It’s really about a much bigger issue that creeps into my bones: how much I would like to forget about the most vulnerable. In my life, there have been a few times I have been confronted with this, and in the end it is better to face it than explain or medicate or wish it away. The world has always had a hierarchy that was very much at odds with the kingdom of God, and it still continues to do so. Every day I see the fruit of this, teaching English to women who were never allowed to step foot inside a classroom before–due to outright discrimination or due to the constraints of crushing poverty.

I suppose this piece comes out of a renewed sense of wondering how our family is going to grow and the frailties inherent in all of our options. I am also thinking about the meals my daughter eats at the park, all the children who come to get fed. I am thinking about my own #howoldwereyou story, which I would much rather forget. I am thinking about a God who is so relentlessly for the vulnerable that I feel nearly swallowed up in his love.

So it’s not really about WIC. But it is about the good news, for people who tend to not experience very much good in our current world.

 

 

Here’s the beginning of the piece:

 

Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. - Jeremiah 22:3

The other day, I walked into a Whole Foods to pick up a few items, my WIC vouchers in hand. I have the luxury of thinking carefully about my food purchases. My husband and I do not want to support the torture of animals, and we do want to put money back into the hands of our local economy. We try to eat more in-season, locally, organic, fair-trade. We still, however, sit somewhat close to the poverty line, and we have had to make a few sacrifices. Less meat, more beans. Rice and pasta to tide us over. Eating what is on sale, doing without non-essentials like alcohol or snack foods.

The WIC vouchers help too (especially in more expensive stores like Whole Foods). I wandered the aisles, looking at the beautifully stocked shelves, until I found a clerk at the back of the store. “Do you participate in the WIC program?” I asked. He had never heard of it before, but his female co-worker was sure that the store did. I didn’t see any of the tell-tale blue stickers placed under the proper cereal boxes or bags of dried beans, but I took her at her word. As I queued up to pay and saw the look of confusion on the cashier’s face (male, hipster glasses) when I handed over my voucher, my stomach started to sink. As the line piled up behind me I tried to explain what the WIC program was.

The boy was interested, but he had never heard of it. He called his manager and confirmed what I already knew. Whole Foods did not participate in the program. I left my small bag of groceries at the register and walked out the door, trying to keep my smile bright. I went home and e-mailed the customer service team, who responded to me within several days. “Unfortunately,” they wrote, “we cannot participate in the WIC program” due to conflicts with “quality” in regards to specific products such as infant formula. It was short, conciliatory, dismissive. It was clear that they did not need my business, nor the business of anyone who found themselves in need of a little assistance when feeding their children.

The e-mail brought me back into those harrowing first months of my daughter’s life: due to a vicious medical emergency, she was born nearly 2 months early and I was left without the ability to breastfeed her. I was sad and shaken up by my traumatic birth experience, grieving the loss of my ability to feed my own child. I remembered the price of formula, the staggering realization that it would cost us upwards of $150 a month. Due to both my medical emergency and the financial strain of losing work hours, WIC was a godsend in the area of feeding the baby. I had never felt more vulnerable in my life, both physically and financially.

In a flash, as I deleted the e-mail from Whole Foods, I was reminded of my vulnerabilities all over again. And I did not like it.

//

Go on over to Christ and Pop Culture to read the rest.

 

 

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A piece of the body torn out by the roots

 

 

 

photo by Walker Evans. Please go look at all of his gorgeous photographs right now.

photo by Walker Evans. Please go look at all of his gorgeous photographs right now.

 

Sorry I have nothing to write about. Life is extremely loud and incredibly private, etc etc.

 

However, I have been thinking about Artists, Experts, Poverty, War Photographers, Sentimentality, Detachment, Acceptance, Fame, Privilege, Power, and Money. I have been thinking about all the people I know and the exquisite terror of how beautiful and complicated and made in the image of God they are. And, as always, I have been reading. Here is a long quote I have been mulling over:

 

 

 

“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite the novelty; critics would murmur  yes, but is it art; and I could trust the majority of you to use it as a parlor game.

A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.

As it is, though, I’ll do what little I can in writing. Only it will be very little. I’m not capable of it; and if I were, you would not go near it at all. For if you did, you would hardly bear to live.

As a matter of fact, nothing I might write could make any difference whatsoever. It would only be a “book” at the best. If it were a safely dangerous one it would be “scientific” or “political” or “revolutionary”. If it were really dangerous it would be called “literature” or “religion” or “mysticism” or “art” and under one such name or another might in time achieve the emasculation of acceptance. If it were dangerous enough to be of any remote use to the human race it would be merely “frivolous” or “pathological” and that would be the end of that. Wiser and more capable men than I shall ever be have put forth their findings before you, findings so rich and so full of anger, serenity, murder, healing, truth, and love that it seems incredible the world were not destroyed and fulfilled in an instant. But you are too much for them: the weak in courage are strong in cunning; and one by one you have absorbed and captured and dishonored, and have distilled of your deliverers the most ruinous of poisons; people hear Beethoven in concert halls, or over a bridge game, or to relax; Cezannes are hung on walls, reproduced, in natural wood frames; van Gogh is the man who cut off his ear and whose yellows have recently become popular in window decoration . . .

However this may be, this is a book about “sharecroppers,” and is written for those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down in the South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats; and in the hope too, that he will recommend this little book to really sympathetic friends, in order that our publishers may at least cover their investment and that some kindly thought may be turned our way, and a little of your money fall to poor little us.”

 

James Agee, introduction, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

 

 

 

Your correspondent, has a very bad head cold and needs to go think some more thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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D.L. Recommends Vol. 3

 

It’s time. Time for another volume of completely arbitrary things that I, D.L, recommend.

 

 

from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

 

 

Moone Boy

Pretty sure I have recommended this before. But I am going to recommend it again. Because it is even better when you watch it a second time and you actually start to understand the Irish accents/slang/inside jokes. Go watch it! (You can find it on Hulu).

 

James Agee

The ultimate War Photographer. You guys, I can’t even. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is bizarre and wonderful. In it, Agee goes to write about poor sharecroppers in the South and leaves a shaken man. It is lyrical and uneasy and so very worth reading. Now I want to read everything about this man who saw every human as being excruciatingly unique and worthy of honor.

 

The Empathy Exams

This book, by Leslie Jamison, is worth the hype (and it is what pointed me to James Agee). There were a couple of her essays where her self-consciousness was crippling, but I am all for anyone who is trying to feel it all. I read later that her mother is a pastor who works with the poor, and that influence to me could be felt rippling under the surface.

 

Planting Things in the Ground, Even though You Feel Skeptical

It really helps a tired soul find a few seeds of hope.

 

Looking at Pictures of Babies

Squee!

 

Lupe Fiasco

OK, OK I really only listen to one of his songs when I plod along on my jogs: The Show Goes On. What is better than a white girl sweatily running and singing about throwing her hands up in the air? A lot of things, actually. But this one consistently works for me.

 

Adult Bands Pretending to Be Kid Bands

Did you know this is a thing? It is. My friends are in an awesome band named Destroy Nate Allen and they do kick-butt shows for kids (Ramona loves them). And they introduced us to this band called Koo Koo Kangaroo which is basically like the Beastie Boys taking over Yo Gabba Gabba (complete with gold fanny packs). My husband is currently obsessed with their album which is all about cats.

 

Custard

Don’t ever go back to plain vanilla ice cream. Don’t.

 

Longform Podcast

I am loving this. It basically interviews an interesting long form journalist/writer/essayist and they talk about the craft. I have found some new favorites from this podcast (including Alice Gregory).

 

Fosterhood in NY.

The best, most honest, transparent, hopeful, exasperating, beautiful and tragic blog ever written on what it means to be a foster parent. I love how the author is SO committed to being in relationship with the birth parents and their extended families. I cannot stop reading this blog, and it is more gripping (and harrowing) than a novel.

 

Thunderstorms

Or, as I call them when I am pretending to be from Northern Ireland, “tunderstorms“. Being a transplant to the MidWest, I find a lot of pleasure in the wilds of the storms that we get here in the spring.

 

Image Journal

I wanted to think that this literary journal was a bit snobby, a bit elitist, a teensy bit out of touch. But I consistently sit down and find myself carefully absorbing every word in the latest volume. I highly recommend supporting this endeavor, and I wish it wasn’t such a rare unicorn of a journal.

 

Signing With a Literary Agent

It has been a long road to this point for me, and I can’t say that it has been easy. But I did it. Here’s to one more step on this adventure.

 

Applying for Crazy Things

I heard about the Collegeville Institute from a tweet; I applied for a summer workshop on a hope and a prayer. And now I get all-expenses paid week at a monastery where I get to hang out with awesome people like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and have lots and lots of time to write. And be alone. Basically the dream of every poor writer. Take THAT, Donald Miller (or, as I like to call him: DonAHLD Miller). All the deadlines for this year have passed, but bookmark the site and apply for next year. You never know what will happen until you put yourself out there.

 

Taking Uncouth Selfies

Everyone should do it, or else you will get a big fat head.

 

dorkily excited about the article.

dorkily excited about the article.

 

 

 

 

So that’s it. I haven’t watched anything great lately and I would love some recommendations there. Also, I need a few light reads for my summer. Hit me up, people!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I kissed whiskey goodbye*

 

mmmm. milk.

mmmm. milk.

 

I wrote a piece for Christianity Today that ended up being the cover (!) story. I am super excited about it, but I am aware that it might ruffle a few feathers. In short, last year I quit drinking, mostly due to my experiences with my neighbors. While I am not asking you to stop drinking, I am asking all of us to be a bit more thoughtful about it (or at least how we portray it/possibly exclude others). Really, I am asking all of us (myself included) to put ourselves in the position of minority/learner. Hanging out with alcoholics has changed my life.

I can’t think of much else I want to add to this discussion that wasn’t in the article. I will say that in doing the research for this piece I was so encouraged by the witness and testimony of all of those stout-hearted temperance women. Women who cared about the poor, about equal rights, about social inequalities. It’s a pretty fabulous, and a very different story from the common ones we have heard of moral piety.

So do me a favor and read the piece. I would be very interested in hearing thoughtful push back.

 

 

 

*title suggested by the one and only Darren Prince. Sadly, it did not make the final cut.

 

 

 

 

 

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happy birthday dad

My dad is 60 today. He is far away from me, and I am tearing up as I realize that afresh. I moved away almost 2 years ago now, and I miss him every day. His spiritual gift is helping others: picking up people at the airport in the wee hours of the morning, vacuuming out the carpets in your car, running to the grocery store for that last-minute ingredient you need, taking you out for Chinese food when your heart feels like it will burst from sadness.

When I was younger, I was foolish. I spouted my ideals like they were the gospel truth, because I thought they were. My dad did not always understand me, but he always took care of me. When I was in college, I had a beat-up old Toyota Corolla that I loved with all of my heart. I never once checked the oil, and so one day the engine caught fire. I called my dad late at night in a very bad part of town and tried not to cry. Not only had I ruined my car, I had done it in the most foolish way possible: by ignorant neglect. My dad got up out of bed and came and rescued me, and he never said an unkind word. Instead, he told me that he wanted to give me my college graduation gift early, which was our family’s Toyota Camry. I think he just made that up on the spot. He is the kind of dad who gives good gifts, and who gives them early when his children are acting particularly like prodigals.

It is not a stretch to say that my own dad has shaped my view of God, and it has been so comforting: God is reliable, God loves me, and the very moments when I am most scared to approach and seek out his love are the times when he is most willing to lavish it on me. Today I am crying as I write this because I miss my dad so very much. He will come and visit me in a few days and I will be comforted by his steadfastness and genuineness, his ability to be comfortable in nearly every culture and continent. He will probably buy me some Chinese food. And then he will get back on an airplane and fly far away from us once again.

 

Even if I said it every day, it wouldn’t be enough: I love my dad. He ushered me into the kingdom and he made it incredibly easy for me to view God as someone who is good and kind and gentle and utterly reliable. He also made it easy for me to miss him so incredibly much, to cry on his birthday, to be so grateful for the good gifts I have been given.

 

my daughter and her beloved pop-pop.

my daughter and her beloved pop-pop.

 

 

 

Happy birthday dad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Upward Mobility

Image found here.

Image found here.

 

 

We moved into a house. A gorgeous, beautiful house that was built around 1860, and has been lovingly restored. The walls have been painted bright, soothing colors; the backyard is two lots of garden and trees. The owners are renting it to us at a song, partnering with us and blessing us. Today we planted seeds: kale and spinach and lettuce and snow peas and green beans and pumpkins and tomatoes and peppers and herbs and sunflowers. I know it is going to overwhelm us. I pick out weeds and I figure out what all those other gardeners already know: how nice it is to do something so tangibly good. What pleasure, what satisfaction. You are tilling the earth that the good Lord gave you. You are making the most of your talents.

My daughter wears a Tinkerbell outfit and declares herself to be a garden fairy, staring intently at worms and beetles, watering and mucking about. She has never lived anywhere with a yard before. She wants to get up first thing everyday and check on the plants. It is so beautiful, and so good, that I can scarcely keep from pinching myself. There is a room downstairs, with hardwood floors and little paintings I have put up, and I drink my coffee and journal in the mornings as the sun streams in. Someday, I will write there. This place is a gift. There is so much beauty here, and we all know that beauty is a part of what saving the world looks like.

 

//

 

In class, I am telling my students I moved. Just a few blocks away, from an apartment to a house. They ask me how many bedrooms. Three, I say, and tell them about the big yard and the garden. One of my students, the highest level in my class, looks at me and frowns. But teacher, she says, doing the math in her head. In your family there are only three people. She doesn’t say anything else. The question inherent in that statement hangs in the air; she is asking me about inequality, and there is nothing else I can say. I stare at her, and at the rest of my class. We never, ever forget the distance between us. But sometimes I pretend we do.

 

//

 

The possession I have that I am most ashamed of is my TV. It is a flat screen, large (don’t ask me the inches, as I don’t know). It is flashy and looks new. I would be quick to tell (if you only ever asked) that we did buy it second-hand, at a thrift store. And yet, still, here it is, hiding in our bedroom. I don’t want it cluttering up our bright and cheerful and cool living room. I want people to think we don’t own a TV, that maybe we are opting out of it all. But we aren’t. My husband and I are running running running ragged during the day, and then we curl up together and watch something funny, something stupid at night. I am embarrassed, even as I see similar or larger TVs in the apartments and houses of my friends. I almost don’t want to mention this to you, because some of you will already have a stereotype. The poor have large TVs. The poor live very hard lives. Maybe they are just like me, and they collapse at the end of the day, wondering how to muster the strength to get up and do it again tomorrow. Maybe they stream in the channels from their home countries, the ones with the dancing and the singing and the news that they are so thirsty for. Maybe they watch crime shows, maybe they watch romances. Maybe they watch people fight and spit and scream and hug and kiss while a talk show host looks on. Maybe they will never take a vacation, never even travel outside of their state or city or neighborhood. Maybe none of those things. I don’t know about everyone else, I just know about me. And I was supposed to be different, I was supposed to do everything so right.

 

//

 

I am also a little embarrassed about our house.

 

//

 

Remember when I used to write about downward mobility all the time? I did not coin the term nor did I perfect or improve upon it. I am traveling up and down a continuum. Truthfully I was glad to leave that squat, unlovely apartment behind. I could tell you of the hardships, but it would be a disservice to those that have no choice but to live there; and they will always be on my mind.

Of course the garden is beautiful. Of course it is a tangible expression of a very good God. But it is mere blocks away from so many utilitarian  concrete stacks, and God is in those too. My husband likes to say that the real goal of downward mobility is simply reconciliation–to reconcile ourselves with others who are different from us. I would also say that it is a kind of reconciliation with ourselves, and the ways our very souls are wounded by the inequalities of the world.

I recently read a transcript of a testimony Pete Seeger gave to the Un-American house committee. They were asking him about his connections with communism, and if he was a communist. He repeatedly told them he wasn’t interested in the particulars, and that he sang for everybody and he loved his country very much. They kept pressing him. He articulated that he resented being asked to come before the committee. Then why don’t you contribute something for your country? they asked him. He replied: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it. The chairman interrogating him answered: I don’t want to hear about it.

When you want to tell the whole story of your life, you find few takers. We want either communists or patriots, sell-outs or self-righteous. We are seeking either blessing or lament, despair or hope, faith or faithlessness. But I have always had everything, everything in spades. Hope and doubt and fear and faith. I accept good gifts from God and I feel angry that others don’t get the same. I am embarrassed and conflicted and full of angst. I am also quick to celebrate every little thing, to be goofy, to cry over beautiful poetry and paintings. I am pushing myself hard to reconcile myself with people who are so different from me. I have found it true that relocation and redistribution had to come first, before the seeds of reconciliation will start. I am a part of the neighborhood still, I am living through tragedies every day, and I can see the connections growing up and out. I remember the early days, how lonely I was, how hard I worked for every acquaintance. I think about now, how I am drowning in relationships and needs, and I have to laugh.

The very medium of the blog, of the internet, is to be so quick and tidy and sure of yourself. But I want to tell you the story of my whole life, every time. I want to tell you the story of everyone I ever met, because they are a part of me. I want to be an observer, I want to be genuine.  I want to detail how I am addicted to doing everything right, and how nervous I was about writing about this house. Until I decided to be honest and tell you:

I love it, and I am so grateful. I will cherish it and give thanks for it and invite my friends and neighbors who don’t have access to gardens over to enjoy it with me, together, in relationship. But underneath the appreciation there lies an unease. A sadness. The images of where other people in my neighborhood are living, many of them looking for better and bigger places themselves. I want to live for everyone, and I am tired of pretending otherwise. I am on a journey of reconciliation. I am not there yet.  But I just wanted you to know the whole story of my life, starting with this house.

That is what I would like to tell you about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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the ministry of watching sparrows fall to the ground

image found here: http://the-worship-project.tumblr.com/post/54327156660/his-eye-is-on-the-sparrow-civilla-d-martin

image found here

 

 

 

 

It has been a few weeks. Death has been stalking this neighborhood. Suicides, both passive-and-not, have haunted us. I have sat in the apartments of recent widows and had nothing to say but “I’m sorry”. I have listened to people as they told me about all of their possessions going up in a blaze, looked at the floor where they and their 8 children now sleep. I have had people clutch my arms, tell me their stories in snippets, beg for bus money. I have heard so much that I cannot share with anyone.

Lately I have taken to chastising myself– what right do you have to be sad? You are just a newcomer, an outsider. Don’t co-opt the grief of others and pretend like it is your own. So I have settled into a numb sort of dullness. Objectively identifying situations with my lips: yes, yes, this is all very sad. But I am floating far above it all, afraid of being an emotional, slobbering wreck; tired of the increased distance I feel between myself and people who are not living this same life; hesitant to plumb the depths of my feelings towards the person who got me into this mess. Who is, of course, God.

Some people feel called to do certain things called by God they say and I listen with envious ears. I imagine a gentle voice, a guiding light, when all I ever feel (like my good friend Jessica says) is a great big shove from the Almighty one. A grim sort of determination is the sheen around everything that I do. Of course, there is joy–I cannot get over the pleasures of living in diversity–but still I think that compulsion fits the bill for me better than calling.

This compulsion does have its benefits. I am good at what I do. I decided I wanted to work with the poorest of the poor, the people on the margins, and I found them. I wormed my way into a situation where I work with them, live with them, eat and shop and play at the park with them. I believe that Jesus meant it when he said the real blessings of his kingdom were to be found with the poor, the sad, the sick and the oppressed. I believe it, but lately it has seemed as if the blessings are such a long ways off. I went there, to the place of promise and the kingdom, and I found crushing poverty, illness and death and depression, systems so broken they seem beyond repair. Where are the blessings? I am starting to demand. I thought I was going out to both preach the good news and receive it as well. I thought I would be a witness to God’s dream for the world and I would get to experience it too. But instead of debating the finer points of Pauline doctrine or sharing the stories of Jesus I find myself sitting in stuffy apartments, listening to sad stories being translated to me. And all I can say is: I’m sorry.

Is this witnessing? Is this being a witness? I don’t get to use a whit of my degree in Theology. Instead, I am burrowing deeper and deeper into the forgotten parts of our world and I am trying to keep my spirit and my eyes open. Really, when it comes down to it, I am not the famous missionary or preacher or theologian I always yearned to be. Instead, my ministry is about watching the birds. His eye is on the sparrow. I know this because he has asked me to be the witness to it, to be his eyes and ears and hands on the earth.

And I am here to tell you, they are falling to the ground in droves.

//

A boy wanted me to help him write his life story. It was very tragic, and he was insistent. I vaguely agreed, and then forgot about it. He was found dead this last Wednesday, and the newspapers did not print his name. Anonymous. A body in a neighborhood where no one cares what happens.

Some friends came over the other night and we prayed. I was ready to ask questions of God. I was ready to be angry. I was ready to listen. I was ready for him to speak. I was desperate for hope. We read Scriptures to one another, and they washed me of my self-consciousness. For the first time in a long while, I was able to cry.

My friend Molly read from Zechariah 8, inserting the name of our believed neighborhood for Zion. At the end, the prophet writes this:

 

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the Lord and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going. Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favour of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you. (20-23).

 

 

When I heard that, I could not stop sobbing. This is all I ever wanted to do. I never truly wanted to convert anybody–I have never been comfortable with the notion that I have all the right answers. But I have held on very tightly to the robe of Jesus, my priest and my prophet and my king. And he has taken me to places I would never have imagined for myself. He has wounded me and healed me and he has led me to the heart of the city, and to all the nations that reside within. And he has shown me that all the Father God wants is to be in relationship with me. He wants me to entreat after him, to seek him, ask him my questions, tell him of my sadness, burn with anger towards him, beat back the numbness of the Empire with everything that I have got. And all he wants to do is invite other people along with me.

He never wanted me to have all the answers. He wants me to follow Jesus towards the sparrows that the world has forgotten, to stick around and be a witness to their beauty and dignity as they drop, one by one, to the ground.

 

So I guess I am asking if you want to come along. Because I myself am going.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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