Category Archives: Culture

i am the beggar of the world

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I was at a writing conference over the weekend, the first one I have ever been to. The highlight was meeting up with my friends, my lifeline, my cheering squad, my angel editors–calling them a writing group does not even begin to cut it. I also had the strange sensation of trying to match people up to their online profiles, with varying degrees of success. I knew, even before the conference began, that everyone would be so much more interesting than I could possibly believe. I wandered from session to session, from poet to writer to thinker to theologian. Sometimes I skipped and sat in the grass with good people. By the end, I was overwhelmed in every way.

During the sessions, my mind would sometimes wander. The conference itself was such a small microcosm: dismayingly white, educated, Christian, social media savvy types. I would think about my other life, the one back home. I kept thinking about my students, about the beautiful chaos of my classroom, my friends. As I listened to smart people talk about smart things, hovering between being accessible and literary, I was thinking about cell phones. I was thinking about how every morning I teach, the cell phones always ring, over and over again. I had given up on outlawing them; dozens of times a day I politely yet firmly tell my students to get up and go to the corner of the room to talk, so we can get on with class.

At the conference, I sat and listened to people talking about Novel of Ultimate Concern. My hand wanted to shoot up, to ask the same question in every session I went to: What about the poor? I should get the question tattooed on my forehead. I should make it backwards, just so I have to ask myself it first thing in the mornings when I look into the mirror.What does any of this mean if it is only available for a few?

I am thinking about how my ESL students are at the very bottom of our Empire, but whose lives are very much of ultimate concern. I am thinking about the cell phones, going off every few minutes, similar to the poor around the world, adapting to our shifting, stateless world. I am thinking about how they always answer the phones–not because they do not respect me or because they do not want to learn. They answer every phone call that they receive, because each one is of equal importance to them. They never know who is calling–a family member in Africa, a case-worked in America. They have to answer every single one, because it might be life or death, like so many things are.

They answer every call that comes in because they cannot read, not even the numbers.

 

 

I went to a session with Eliza Griswold, author of the Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, a women who has been on the frontline of war and poverty and religion, all over Asia and Africa. She talked about her new book of poems by Afghan women which she collected, and what they mean for those who create and recite them. Why does she share them? Because they are valuable. Why does she share them with us, with the world? Because she sees the limitations of how we portray people in the media, and she wants to subvert that. “I am not interested in the headlines,” she told us. “But I am very interested in the places where the headlines are happening”.

I’m taking that one for a new life motto. I am uninterested in the stories of poverty that you and I already know. I am very invested in the ones that surprise us, thrill us, knock us on our asses. The humor, the pathos, the sin, the ingenuity. Griswold shared with us one of the poems in her book, from which the title comes:

 

In my dream, I am the president.

When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

 

As you would expect, the rest of the poems are stunningly varied; tragic, violent, romantic, naughty, hilarious, contemporary, ancient. Reminiscent of my students, my friends, my neighborhood. Today, in class, another crisis was revealed, and I at a loss for how I can help, limited by my language and knowledge and the overwhelming magnitude of the problems that the poor and the non-literate face in my corner of the world. The beggars of the world is how some would view it, and I confess at times I am tempted to do the same. But we are not headlines. We are real people, real women, real stories. We are living in the places where the headlines take place, and I on a quest for the work of the kingdom of God in the midst of the violence and greed of our world.

I am thinking of the phones, ringing constantly in my ear, of what it means to never know who is on the other line. I am thinking about the frustration of never knowing how to translate well. I am thinking about how much I enjoy erudite, complex, academic conferences, and how ashamed and small it makes me feel. I am thinking about all the wonderful people I met this weekend, the gifts they are to me. I am thinking about all the people who weren’t there, who felt excluded in some way–due to race or education or religion or money. I am thinking about how rich we are in some currencies, and utterly poor we are in others. I am thinking of how in order to tell stories well we must first be obsessed with them, how love covers a multitude of transcribing sins.

 

I am thinking about cell phones. I am thinking about how little I know, what a beggar of the world I am.

 

 

 

 

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Upside-Down Art: Jaw Harp Jam

It’s trite to talk about culture/art allowing us to break down walls, but in my experience it is so true. Books, music, movies, paintings–all of it has brought me outside of myself and my own carefully constructed ghetto of imagination. I love Bethany’s perspective, because I too have had similar experiences. When you catch a glimpse of culture at it’s finest, so strange and beautiful and free of appropriation. In our world, where cultures vie for survival, for power, the influence of joy cannot be understated. I am so grateful to Bethany for writing this beautiful piece on the legacy of culture. 

 

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Jaw Harp Jam

By Bethany Bassett

 

When Marcus Mumford and his band of indie folk-farmers hit the scene back in 2010, I had never heard the term hipster. I didn’t know suspenders were the new rubric of cool; I just knew that their music spoke to me, that Mumford’s “newly impassioned soul” plucked the strings of my own longing for a full-volume life. I queued up Sigh No More and played it on repeat for the next six months. Chances are, you did too. The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200 and was the third most downloaded album of 2011. Everyone, it seemed, was getting his or her British bluegrass on.

 

But this story isn’t about Mumford & Sons. It’s about an almost impossibly obscure group of musicians from rural India who recorded an untitled EP with them.


Image from last.fm user rahsa

 

They went by Dharohar Project (pronounced “Dah-RHO-har”), and the only thing I knew about them was my own disappointment. I’d been hoping for a fresh dose of the barn-dance rock I’d been cycling through my stereo—not the wailing and twanging I associated with traditional Indian music. I gave the MP3 samples a once-over, but they only confirmed what I already knew: Jaw harp just wasn’t my jam.

 

My perspective landed on its head, however, once I saw the video of their live performance in London:

 

 

The quality isn’t amazing, but I didn’t need HD resolution to see the joy reverberating across that stage, bounding from banjo to bhapang, rippling down from Indian bells and up the soles of British feet. Do you see it too? The way they laugh and beat their drums and move to the pulse of their collective art? Do you hear their delight? I had goose bumps within thirty seconds, wet eyes within ninety. This was no gentrified performance with cultural differences smoothed conveniently away; this was harmony at its freest, tribes and tongues and traditions rollicking together to create a new song. I couldn’t shake the impression that I was watching a six-minute preview of heaven.

 

Dharohar Project fascinated me. I wanted to find out more about this group who had brought so much color to my view of Kingdom-come, and as I researched, my goose bumps returned full-force. I learned that the nine Indian musicians came from different castes and religions. Some were Muslim and others Hindu. They came from social classes with barriers as thick as history, but they united to test their belief that music can overcome cultural differences. No wonder I saw heaven in their performance; Dharohar Project’s very existence is a redemption story.

 

I know to some extent what it’s like to break out of oppressive traditions masquerading as birthright. For the Dharohar musicians, it was the caste system; for me, it was the Quiverfull movement. Like them, I was born inside a series of walls, and learning to see the humanity of those on the other side required some hefty dismantling.  I learned through that experience, though, that God is in the [re]construction business: beauty out of ashes, new songs out of olds spites, a bright and harmonious Kingdom out of discordant humanity.


Image from last.fm user rahsa

 

I don’t know if Dharohar Project is still together or not, but I do know that what they created together is here to stay. It’s right there in their name, in fact—what their redemption story entails for their community, their children, and those of us still facing down walls. “Dharohar,” you see, is a word that has crossed from ancient Sanskrit into modern-day Hindi, quietly defying all attempts to confine it to the past.

 

It means legacy.

 

 

 

unnamedBethany Bassett is a fundamentalism survivor, a sedentary snowboarder, and a cappuccino junkie. She originally hails from Texas but has been adventuring in Italy with her husband and their two little girls for the last seven years. She blogs at coffeestainedclarity.com, where you’ll find out quickly that grace is her favorite thing in the world.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.

 

 

 

 

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Upside-Down Art: Opera Outside the Mainstream

Some of the people who are most deeply connected to the joys and the sufferings of the world seem to lose their minds for the opera. I am not there yet, but I want to be. I absolutely adore this guest post by Newell, because he is writing about himself being the outsider–the one writing the operas for funsies. The history of the form and music also surprised me, in the best way possible. I encourage you to check out Newell and his other writings. This little post is like a teaser for his great, mysterious, music-filled life. 

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Opera Outside the Mainstream

by Newell Hendricks

 

I am in the process of publishing a collection of stories from my life.  One section of the book is five stories about major musical compositions I have written.  The last story in this section is about my opera, ASCONA.  The excerpt below is near the ending of that story.  

 

Writing operas was a wonderful way to spend my days.  I loved it – getting lost in my imagination – feeling the most extreme emotions and trying to capture them in sound and form – living a fantasy life to the max that actually had a tangible notation and had the possibility of being reconstructed by performers and experienced by audiences.  It was a constant high – living in ecstasy as long as I could maintain the energy and distance myself from obvious reality.

That reality is that the socio-economics of our day does not lend itself to the production of operas.  The larger musical forms of western culture evolved under a very different socio-economic system, one in which there was a highly talented, highly skilled, completely exploitable class that could perform the music.  In the Renaissance and earlier, the choir schools of the major cathedrals were where musicians were trained.  The church was also the institution that took in orphans.  This was the pool from which musicians came.  Some of the great composers of the Renaissance were Josquin de Pres:  “Joe from the field,” and Pierre de la Rue: “Pete from the street.”  Well into the Baroque period, many musicians came from orphanages.  All of the Vivaldi violin concertos were written for girls at the orphanage where he worked.  In the Classical period, the cathedral schools were still the center of musical education.  The Kapellmeister would go out into the rural countryside looking for talented peasants, take them back to the school as scholarship students, and train them and use them for their music program.  Hayden was such a student.  Even at the height of his fame, Hayden, the most renowned composer of Europe, had to dress up in his servant’s uniform and report to his patron for duty every day.

And well into the twentieth century, musicians were low down on the economic scale.  They were tradespeople.

It is true that in the nineteenth century a few musicians did achieve star status and became extremely wealthy.  Accompanying the phenomenon of the superstars was the cult of art as religion with these stars having their devoted worshipers.  Opera composers and singers were certainly in the center of this cult and Richard Wagner reigned supreme as the high priest.  His opera Tristan und Isolde was commissioned by a wealthy count who not only paid him a handsome sum to write the opera, but set him up in his summer villa to compose it.  Wagner responded by seducing the count’s wife, making that the story of the opera, selling the finished opera to someone else, and saying that it was a story about “ideal Christian love.”

What was I thinking, wanting to be an opera composer?

I loved writing opera.  It fit with the day dreaming, but I balked at the social role expected of one in this profession.  Denise Levertov, who had written the libretto for my oratorio, El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation, told Karen, librettist for my last 2 operas, that she had never known anyone as bad as me at promoting his art.

The year I lived under a tree I had a job conducting a church choir in Isla Vista, the student housing community for the University of California at Santa Barbara.  The popular service for the students was at 11:00 and was a joyous celebration with balloons ending with people dancing around the communion table singing Lord of the Dance.  I played string bass in the band as a volunteer.  But the church was funded by older people who, for themselves, wanted a more traditional service.  This was the service for which I was paid $8 per week to provide a choral anthem.  I had three women in the choir.  I sang tenor and the organist sang bass and we rehearsed at 8 a.m. before the church service on Sunday.  There was a time when I would go into the church on Thursday night, after the bulletin had been printed, and look at what the minister had written as “The Collect” words that were read by all at the beginning of the service.

For three weeks in a row, I took this text and on Friday and Saturday wrote a simple anthem using these words.  The bulletin simply said “anthem.”  No one ever asked or wondered how I had found the piece which used the same words as the Collect, but it felt good to me.  I was contributing in a special way to the worship experience of this community.

 

I think I would take that feeling over the adulation that Wagner received.

 

 

 


unnamed-8Newell Hendricks, as an opera composer, received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a grant from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts to write an oratorio: El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation, with poet Denise Levertov.   In honor of his 50th birthday, Richard Dyer, reviewer for the Boston Globe, wrote a feature article on him with the headline “An interesting and productive career outside the mainstream.”   This headline would equally apply to his later work leading popular-education-style workshops, his homesteading activities, or his political activism.  Newell lives in Cambridge, MA, with his violinist wife, Barbara Englesberg.   They have two adult daughters, and two granddaughters. Website: newellhendricks.wordpress.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/newell.hendricks
For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.
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D.L. Recommends vol. 2

D.L. Recommends vol. 2. 

Here are some things I recommend:

 

 

 

Busting out the Easter Dress Early

I got Ramona an Easter dress at the thrift store that gets all of it’s clothes donated from Target (I know. I found a way to work the system). Yesterday was nearly 60 degrees, so I had to let her wear it early. And go tromp around in the muddy rivers the snow was making. Because you are only 3 once.

 

Turning 30

It’s really quite nice.

 

Reframing the words to excellent songs in order to make them Toddler Appropriate

I used to sing “Oh Yoko” to my daughter when she was a baby, but I changed “Yoko” to her name, and the chorus became “my love will lead you home”. Tonight we danced around and sang it to each other. It was pretty great. Very Rushmore-esq.

 

Found

This is a book by Micha Boyett. I love the poetic-ness, and how she juxtaposes the mundane aspects of the stay-at-home life with the contemplative life of Benedictine monks. Since I am also a recovering savior complex, spend a lot of time with a certain 3 year old, and also yearn to pray more, this book was excellent. Slow, simple, and it made me realize how much space there already was for contemplation in my life.

 

Watching Cat Vines

Vine is very newfangled to me. But watching 6 second loops of cats being cute/ridiculous/funny is seriously soothing to my soul.

 

Eating Sugar Cereal

Having a bad week? Buy a $3 box of sugar cereal (preferably: Lucky Charms) and pour yourself a tall bowl. Aaaah.

 

Throwing Class Parties

As a teacher of adults, it really is my prerogative when it comes to throwing class parties. Sometimes the complexity of it overwhelms me: perhaps not everyone can afford to bring food, what if nobody shows up, how do we communicate (remember I teach level 0 pre-literacy). But I am leaning into this commitment to celebration thing we have going on in our order. This week we had a class party and it was so smashingly fantastic. I had SO much pasta and so many sambusas. East African food FTW!

 

Sambusa

If you have never had one, you are missing out. Like the Indian Samosa, but filled with ground beef and onions and occasionally peppers. The best East African snack/street food EVER.

 

Brooklyn 99

Oh my gosh this is our new favorite show. So funny, the characters are so endearing, Andy Samberg and his big goofy smile just win you over. It is not a cop show at all. It is a show about a bunch of dorky people doing what they love. This show makes me sad for other shows.

 

Applying/Pitching for Scary Things

Grants. Week-long retreats. An article at a place you have never written. For me and my writing, if I don’t push myself, I tend not to produce. And for every 99 rejections, there seems to be 1 acceptance! Yay!

 

Reading YA during Spring Break

I am officially on spring break. While I have a few deadlines to make (plus, I crammed in a ton of socializing time in like I do), I am determined to make it somewhat feel like a reprieve. Enter the Young Adult literature.. I have gotten all of John Green and Rainbow Rowell’s entire oeuvre’s on hold for me at the library. Remember when life was simple but felt really complicated? When you fell in love with the first boy you kissed? When you were s emotional and sure that nobody felt like you, until the one day you realized how beautiful the world was and everyone in it? Yeah, that’s like my norm. So YA just feels right.

 

Listening to Built to Spill While the Snow Thaws

It just feels right.

 

Americanah

You will be hearing more about this book from me at some point in the near future. Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie writes in a way that is lulling and piercing. Her descriptions of immigrant life in America resonated so deeply with me I was almost embarrassed. Her words on racism in America have not left my mind. It’s not ok, the author is telling us, over and over again. Cruelty is never ok. You don’t get to gloss over that fact, ever.

 

Figuring out your Rule of Life

Pope John Paul the II had one. So did MLK.  So do all the Benedictine  monks. Basically, pick a few spiritual disciplines and incorporate them into your life.  I personally like to crib from Dorothy Day (a personal hero of mine): find the face of Christ in the poor every day, and journal journal journal.

 

Ditching Netflix/Hulu plus for Amazon prime

Guys. Amazon Prime is amazing. Quit your Netflix and your Hulu and instead get free 2 day shipping and access to shows like Veronica MarsPushing DaisiesZach Stone is Gonna Be Famous, and the Pride and Prejudice that has Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Yes. If you divide the cost of Prime over 12 months, it’s like $6 a month or something. Caveat: Amazon is also not the best thing ever. Support local and all that. Make your own instead of consumption. Yeah. But I have ordered a few killer Doctor Who mugs and some organic fair trade coffee at some sweet deals. Just don’t go all crazy!

 

Read Genesis Again

I am in a Bible study with a neighbor and we are going through the Women of the Bible–starting in Genesis. Pretty bleak stuff, ammiright? Except there are so many stories of God hearing/seeing the oppressed. The stories of the Hagars, the Leahs. They just make me want to cry. I am also left with the unshakeable belief that God uses the most crazy miserable mess-ups to bring about his kingdom. I don’t get it at all, but it makes me feel a bit more hopeful about myself.

 

About Time

This movie came out last year and went under my radar. It is delightful–time travel, stiff upper lip British people, Bill Nighy!, that guy who played Bill Weasely . . . don’t be freaked out by the fact that there is a soft-focus Rachel McAdams on the cover. This is not the Notebook. It is very sweet and poignant and witty and just a really great movie (by the same people who brought you Love Actually). There is a phrase on love and death that will never leave me mind. But I won’t tell you. You will have to watch it for yourself.

 

 

 

So that’s what I am recommending these days. Hit me up with whatever you have got!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Upside-Down Art: Bakerwoman God

 

Alissa’s post today stems from a beautiful poem that encourages us to see God in new ways. I love it. This is also my year of reading/learning to love poetry, so I greatly identified with this piece. Isn’t that the point of art–to help us connect with people/Christ in new ways? To create threads between the world we experience and the ones we don’t? I’m so grateful Alissa shared this gorgeous piece, and gives us all a chance to think about the One who is kneading us. 

 

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Bakerwoman God

by Alissa BC

 

 

 

 

 

The summer I found myself perusing the shelves of the public library like it was my job, I was a newlywed, unemployed, college student in a new city. God had grown increasingly and unrelentingly distant over the past year, and by that summer I had become unable to pray, read my bible, or relate in any way to the God I knew, white and bearded in the clouds. So I filled my days with piles of books from the library and old films from the DVD section, alternately attempting to fix and distract myself from my new spiritual realities.

One afternoon, knee deep in the religious section looking for the God I seemed to have lost, I happened upon a book called The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. Published in 1984, the copy I held in my hands was old and worn, with an outdated, mustard design on the cover and what I assumed would be outdated contents.

Still, the concept intrigued me. I had not been raised with any sort of awareness of divine feminine nor with the option of calling God She. For most of my life, I had struggled with the concept of a male-only God, but I never once thought to challenge the traditions that had been passed down to me, to see God as both Father and Mother. That kind of thing was forbidden in the evangelical circles I inhabited, condemned as “goddess worship,” and I obediently accepted the restriction. Instead, I had worked quietly for years at overcoming the baggage that a male God carried for me. I tried my best to imagine a Father God who was nurturing rather than authoritative, who was loving rather than stern. But by the time I encountered The Divine Feminine, I had lost all ability to feel any sense of intimacy with or trust in the God of my youth. I took the book home.

Over the next few days, I pored over it in small chunks, soaking up each bit of wisdom I found within its pages. Despite having read the Bible in its entirety several times over, I was astounded by the amount of distinctly female imagery for God to be found there. As I read, I took my little neglected Bible and found every verse said to allude to the Divine She, highlighting each one in bright orange so I would never forget it. I learned to see God as Nursing Mother and Midwife, Homemaker and Mother Hen.

But the imagery that captured me most, was that of the baking woman. In this section of her book, Mollenkott quotes the first two stanzas of the poem “Bakerwoman God” by Alla Renee Bozarth:


Bakerwoman God,

I am your living bread.

Strong, brown Bakerwoman God,

I am your low, soft, and being-shaped loaf.


I am your rising bread,

well-kneaded by some divine

and knotty pair of knuckles,

by your warm earth hands.

I am bread well-kneaded.


The imagery wrapped it arms around me with its warmth. As I read, I could see Her hands, calloused but soft, moving silently over some divine countertop dusted with flour. I could feel Her knuckles, strong yet tender, digging, digging, digging into the doughy depths of my being. Bakerwoman God was gentle in Her firmness, kind in Her correction. Her kneading was not painless, but it was filled with love. I felt safe in Her hands.

This description of God felt more true and comforting than any I had ever known. It came as a brief but refreshing sip of cold water to my soul that year, allowing me a glorious peek into God’s love at a time when I had all but lost sight of it.

Even now, years later, as my feelings of distance from God remain, I often find myself returning to the image again and again. Sometimes, in my darkest moments, the nights when God feels like little more than a deep chasm of absence, I’ll close my eyes and remember Bakerwoman God, who even in Her silence is making me bread well-kneaded.


 

unnamed-7Alissa BC is a writer, wife, and mother. You can find her at alissabc.com, where she writes her heart out about doubt, mystery, and other everyday discoveries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.

 

 

 

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Upside-Down Art: Disappearing, Endless Love

I so resonate with Deidre in this piece. I am not a huge modern art fan myself, but when I do find a piece that speaks to me–it sort of takes my breath away. I am so grateful for this beautiful, succinct essay on finding universal themes of sorrow and love in art–and how similar we all are despite our world doing it’s best to convince we are all alone in our miseries. Any piece of art that asks us to crack our hearts open just a bit wider is to me a blessing from Christ himself. 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Disappearing, Endless Love

Guest Post by Deidre Sanchez

 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). Image from the Brooklyn Museum

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). Image from the Brooklyn Museum

 

I am not one for contemporary art. Most of the large scale displays in the big museums fail to evoke any emotion in me. I always feel so disconnected from whatever the artist is trying to say. As if we live on two different planes of meaning and we’re talking to cross purposes. It’s always the Pollacks and Van Goghs that I linger in front of. The O’ Keefes that steal my breath. The Chagall’s that draw me to wonder.  When I visit museums, I dutifully walk the floors of contemporary art, sometimes almost at a run. I don’t want to miss something creative and beautiful just because of my own prejudice but I am always prepared for disappointment. In the Chicago Museum of Art I was (almost) running the top floor, smirking inwardly at the two hipsters stopped in front of some tangled up string engaged in a very serious discussion on how this was so derivative of Lindberg. (I know. I’m the worst).

 

I enter a new room and a flash of glowing color catches the corner of my eye. I spin right. There is a luminous heap of something. Glass? Lightbulbs? I’m not sure what it is that’s piled in the corner of the room. It seems so alive, iridescent, incandescent. I thought this pile must be lighted up from the inside: pulsing with color and light as I move towards it. I read the card. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA). Ross Laycock was the artist’s partner and died of AIDs. The pile was originally 175 lbs worth of cellophane wrapped candy, which represented his ideal body weight. Visitors are encouraged to take a piece of candy to represent his slowly diminishing body weight. The artist asked that the museum replenish the pile “thereby metaphorically granting his partner perpetual life.” Love. The word rings like a gong struck in my head. All the pain of loss and love sitting on the ground in front of me. I reach my hand out to take a piece, meditating on the pain of watching someone you love shrink smaller with disease. Is that a universal experience? Do we all at some point lose one we love to deadly disease? Watch them disappear piece by piece. If we could all grant them perpetual life in the vast array of  colorful glory in which they lived!

 

I have the piece of candy still. It’s sitting in the basket by my bed. The cellophane wrapper dulled with dust, less stunning now that it’s separated from its mound. Every once in a while I take it out and roll it between my fingers. I don’t know Gonzalez-Torres. I wouldn’t recognize him if I passed him on the street. I don’t assume that I have much in common with a gay, Cuban-American artist. And yet his work threw out a thread and drew me in. Into his pain. He tied our shared experience together with one stroke of breathtaking imagery. And when I close my eyes I see the glow of cellophane wrappers lit by a skylight overhead and I think of Ross.

 

 

unnamed-6Deidre Sanchez is a Jesus-follower, wife and mother, a disillusioned optimist, amateur cook and obsessive reader. She currently writes at agapeeverywhere.wordpress.com. Her blog is a personal exploration of the nature of love. It’s an experiment in how far love can go, what it looks like and how people experience it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the Upside-Down Art series (and to submit your own!) click here.

 

 

 

 

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Upside-Down Art: Prison, Beauty and Common Grace

I’m so excited for this first guest post in this Upside-Down Art series. RO contacted me about an area she is passionate in–prisons and their inhabitants, whom she views with such grace and love. I had heard of writing/oral history classes with prisoners, but never art projects. This post eloquently explains the horror of incarcerating people and withhold from them the beauty of the world–while still showing that God is still there. A challenging, thoughtful post for us on the outside. 

 

 

 

 

Prison, Beauty, and Common Grace by R.O.

 

There have been times in my life where depression and anxiety have walked every step with me. Their weighty bodies cemented to my shoulders like gargoyles, mouths permanently open-wide, hissing into each ear: “You are not good enough. You don’t work hard enough. You will mess up everything good in your life.”

But even in the midst of these lies, God finds ways to remind me of his truth. So often he does this through the beauty of the world around me. I see pink light from the setting sun angled on a grey building, hear something as simple and amazing as an echo, feel cold air sting my cheeks. And I think, “even if I fail at everything, no one can take this away from me.” This everyday beauty of the world, available to me in some form no matter my circumstances, is God’s common grace to all people. It is our Father reminding us that his love for us does not depend on our good performance.

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It seems sort of simple when compared with all the atrocities of prison— the state’s misguided idea that trading violence for violence will end violence— but the profound indignity of denying a person God’s common grace of this world’s everyday beauty is striking to me. Prisons are designed for exactly this. They replace the beauty of creation that God would give to every person with cinderblock walls, artificial lighting, a stainless steel bowl acting as toilet a foot from your bed, access to an “outside” patch of concrete surrounded by walls for maybe thirty minutes a day—day in and day out, all the same.

And still there is beauty.

Prisoners become artists, creating the beauty that prison denies them, and I consider myself blessed to have heard some of their stories. There is the fourteen-year old boy who wrote poems in his cell, the man who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole who paints scenes of the world he hasn’t experienced in over thirty years, the girls at the youth prison who wrote and performed in their own musical, even the tough-looking young men who draw intricate and delicate designs on the backs of their letters.

These are people who are often excluded from that popular new category “creatives,” but they still are made (and are making) in the image of our Creator God. They create because there is no beauty unless they make it themselves. They create for the same reasons we all do: to comfort, to entertain, and to tell their stories. There are still more imprisoned people who are without the support of prisoner-arts programs, some without even pencil and paper, some in solitary confinement; let’s not forget that they are creatives, too. This is God’s common grace, which no one can take from us, that he has made us in his image; he has made us all creatives.

“For his participatory project, Some Other Places We’ve Missed artist and photographer Mark Strandquist held workshops in various jails and prisons, and asked prisoners, ‘If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?’ Along with the written descriptions, individuals provided a detailed memory from the chosen location, and described how they wanted the photograph composed. Strandquist then photographed and [an] image is handed or mailed back to the incarcerated participants.” from Prison Photography:

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R.O. is a Midwestern law student who will soon be a Southern public defender. She loves to talk (and learn) about justice and mercy, living in the upside down kingdom, and criminal justice reform. Her Enneagram type is 5 and she is an INFJ, if that means anything to you.

 

For more information on the Upside-Down Art series, click here. And submit your own essay!

 

 

 

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Expensive Narratives: Captain Philips and the Somali Community

I watched the Oscars on Sunday (how did I make it through award shows before the snarky, humorous insights of Twitter?) and I rooted for my boy, Barkhad Abdi. Even though I knew it was a long shot for him to win Best Supporting Actor, it was still surreal to see one of my neighbors, a Cedar Riverside proud Somali boy, walking that red carpet. And it made me long for the day when actors like Barkhad and Lupita have thousands of roles to choose from–and they don’t just have to play pirates or slaves.

 

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Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne

 

I recently wrote about what it’s been like to be at the periphery of the East African diaspora in America. Every day I am astonished at who is carving out a life in this frozen tundra of a land (Lewis and Clark deemed it “inhabitable” back in the day, and I am inclined to agree with them). I find myself living and working in the heart of a community which is complicated, inspiring, thriving–and repeatedly misrepresented by the media.

I haven’t written too much about my personal life here, for many reasons. The spotlight on Barkhad Abdi and his role in Captain Philips made for a timely piece, and it finally felt appropriate for me to share my own experiences here.  While I am not an expert on Somalis or the East African community, I believe that it might be helpful for other outsiders like myself to get a peek at a different narrative than the one we are being told over and over again.

Here’s the beginning:

 

 

My friend was celebrating Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic holiday commemorating the feast of Abraham, like everyone else was: by going to the Mall of America. I went with her and her family, wearing the clothes she had given me for the occasion. My dress was colorful and flowy; we wandered around the mall and people-watched. It was still a bit early, but the large East African diaspora in the middle of the Midwest was already beginning to pour in. Families, as far as the eye can see, laughing husbands, smiling mothers, children running and shrieking, everyone dressed up in their best clothes, shopping, riding the carousel. I followed my friends, insecure in my outfit, feeling like an imposter or worse—someone playing dress up. The clothes that hung so elegantly on my friends looked like a costume on me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had done something wrong, just by trying to fit in, to look like everyone else, to celebrate a day and a culture that is not my own.

After a few hours, my friend took off to go see the movie Captain Phillips in the the theater, while I headed home. Later, I asked her what she thought of the film. Oh my gosh, she said, it was amazing. Really? I asked, slightly taken aback. Yeah, she said, the whole theater couldn’t stop laughing. Laughing? I asked, at what? Isn’t it a sad movie?

Yeah, I know, she said, but we couldn’t help it! Although I was a little worried—the few white people in the theater started staring at all of us. But any time one of the Somali boys on-screen would start talking, we would start to laugh. It was just so funny to see them up there, talking in Somali.

Why was it so funny? I asked, still confused.

She turned to look at me, and said it matter-of-fact: because we had never heard anyone speak Somali in a movie before. It was so strange, and so, so funny.  She paused a beat, and then acknowledged: even if what they were saying wasn’t really funny at all.

Go to Christ and Pop Culture to read the rest. The piece is an exclusive feature that has been shared with you but is otherwise available only in Volume 2, Issue 5 of the Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. For more features like this, download our app for iPad and iPhone from Apple’s App Store.  More information here.

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Upside-Down Art

I’m having my annual reminder of how much I cannot write on this here site, which is slightly frustrating for me personally, but wholly preferable to you all being subjected to the lifestyle/mommy/missional living blog that runs inside my crazy head. Trust me on this. Being a part of a team, a community, a diverse neighborhood, working with refugees and people who have been consistently marginalized by the world, being in the precarious position of asking people to support us–these are all unique constraints on my writing life. And I am grateful for them, truly. But it sort of makes an odd conundrum–the louder my life, the quieter my writing. What is formative now will hopefully be settling inside for many, many years, and I trust something good will come of it.

 

So. . . life is pretty loud right now.

 

Which brings me to this space. I am so grateful for the readers, the ones who stick around, who challenge me and encourage me. I don’t want to leave this a blank space (because life is anything but blank). So I have been thinking about what I like to read about, and–to follow my favorite writing advice–I will start the blog series I want to read. Which is: Outsider Art.

Outsider Art traditionally refers to art made by people with absolutely no contact with the art world–the insane, children, extremely marginalized communities. It has been referred to as brut art (raw art) or folk art or naive art. I am going to be my rebellious self and use this term while gleefully ignoring the boundaries associated with it. I would like to highlight and talk about and drink in and absorb all different types of art that I feel like are being passed by in the strange insular worlds I inhabit here on the internet.

You know the books that everyone is reading, the music everyone is listening to, the photographs being shared on Buzzfeed. If you are anything like me, try as you might your Twitter feed is rife with the same types of people recommending the same types of things. I am not here to knock this system, but I am here to say that unless we immerse ourselves in new and different perspectives, we will become hopelessly myopic.

So here is where I need your help: I need you to share with me, with all of us. Who are some artists–writers, thinkers, painters–that bring in a fresh, raw, outsider perspective to your world? Is there a book or a painting that has been formative to you that has been overlooked by the majority culture? Is there an important perspective, a heartbreaking work of genius, a cheeky thinker, a window into a world so very different from our own? If so, I would love to hear about it.

 

I am looking for short, succinct essays on art (writing, visual, audio) that have brought on outsider perspective into your life. Something that has broken through the barriers of culture, which has expanded your world, opened your doors just a little wider in order to love God more. If you are interested, please e-mail me at dlmmcsweeneys [@] gmail [.] com. We will start this series in earnest in March.

 

I am in the midst of curating my own collection of art that is nourishing my soul, but for whatever reason is not getting the attention it deserves. From time to time I will post my own thoughts on art that is moving me (which should be very outsider-y in it’s own right, since I took one horrible community college class on Early Art and basically bombed it. So, I’m a real expert here). In a few days I will be posting about a painting that made me stand still in the middle of an art museum and bawl my eyes out (so artsy!) and caused me to reflect on how there are so few images of Christ that I connect with in our world. Again, to be clear that I am using the term “Outsider Art” very loosely (and incorrectly), this painting is by a Dutch man in the 19th century, at the bequest of a wealthy king. So, not exactly a mental patient. But still, the content struck me as so new and so outside of my traditional education, that I found myself crying and scribbling in a journal, wanting to share this piece of beauty with the world.

 

So, that is what we will do.

 

I look forward to hearing from you, my well-read, smart, artistic friends. I look forward to hearing about art from the upside-down kingdom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Missionary Kids, Downward Mobility, and My Friend Sarah–Guest Post by Brianna Meade

Brianna sent me this stunner of a guest post and I love how it swirls together several topics that are valuable to me: missionary kids (I married one), intentionality, downward mobility, and the facing the fears that are inherent when we interact with people who are so different from us. This is a lovely, thoughtful meditation, coming from the best place–in the very middle of a life being changed. I am so grateful for Brianna and her honesty here. 

 

 

 

Missionary Kids, Downward Mobility, and My Friend Sarah

Guest Post by Brianna Meade

 

 

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I’m a missionary kid who didn’t want to be a missionary kid. Instead of “I’m from Thailand,” I want to say “I’m from Chicago.” In fact this is what I do say.

Being an MK is interesting in a, “Wow, that’s cool, but I don’t understand you at all” type way. Not so great for relating to people. Living in a hut in the jungle on the border of a third-world country doesn’t help if you are desperate to fit in. People rarely know how to respond when it’s brought up. It can be a conversation jump-starter, but it can also be the type of thing where you start to feel alone as the conversation fizzles out because nobody knows what to say.

When my past is brought up, I’ll ramble on about Rice and Elephants and the Thai Language. I’ll hedge my sentences and stories with, “I know you don’t really want to hear this story, but…”  I’m embarrassed by how I grew up, but the bigger issue is that I feel alone. I don’t feel at home in Thailand and don’t belong among Americans–especially American women.

I know what you are thinking if you know anything about missionary kids. Feeling like I don’t belong is a classic MK attitude. MK’s feel as if they don’t fit in either culture. The whole idea of a “Third-Culture-Kid” came from the theory that those who grew up in two cultures only feel at home in a “third” culture that incorporates both–that is, in their “own” created culture. You’d think the one place I’d feel at home is among other MK’s who have the same background, but I don’t. I’m just as uncomfortable around other MKs as around girls who grew up in Chicago. During college, many MKs I knew found solace in International Dinners and Third-Culture Kid Retreats. I avoided all of this.

I don’t talk about Thailand, ever, unless it is brought up.  My years as a missionary kid were difficult and jarring and ended with a full-blown eating disorder that almost killed me. So when other MKs wax nostalgic for Asian noodles or dumplings or bring up how much they miss their “real” home, I feel disingenuous. I feel numb and apathetic.The twinge of sadness that exists just makes me want to run harder towards the American dream.

When I arrived in the U.S. for college, I tried to assimilate in order to avoid being the “weird” one. I abandoned my MK roots as soon as I could figure out how to dress in North Face jackets and procure boots that looked like UGGs. I tried to assimilate in every way. I steadily acquired pop culture awareness and memorized the names of celebrities.

I rarely claim my childhood in Asia (where I lived for 15 years–more time than I’ve lived anywhere else) as home. Was it my home? I was always an outsider there too. So where does that leave me?

Every once in a while during college, I would go to a Thai food restaurant and ball my eyes out. On the way out, I would swear never to go back to the restaurant again as I wiped snot off my face. It was too confusing and much too painful.

And so, when we moved to North Carolina, I was still hard at work leaving my past behind. So it seemed strangely serendipitous and out-of-nowhere that our apartment complex contained a greater percentage of people of Asian descent than it did  Caucasians. Did this make me happy? Did it make me feel like I was home? On the contrary, it made me feel more exposed and maybe even a little uncomfortable. I didn’t want to presuppose that I had anything in common with my Indian neighbors because I knew (and implicitly felt) that I was just as complicit in stereotyping people–just as likely to misunderstand someone and miss the real story. But in the process of avoiding any representation of my past, of side-stepping my roots and of trying to become someone else, I’d forgotten who I was.

One day I went to the park and found myself surrounded by a large Indian family and several Chinese mothers with their children. I was with my daughter in the sandpit and I felt that familiar feeling of being somewhere you have been many times. Of returning to a place that you have been away from for a long time.

Then we stumbled upon a church that was half-white, half-Chinese-American demographic and oriented towards reaching out to the cultural diaspora that was our town. I felt my shoulders slump a little and my butt relax deeper in the seats. I kind of wanted to cry, but it was a moment that again, I shared only with myself. It was the first time I felt slightly less alone in an American church. The first public place that it might be okay to work out my culture issues and feel safe.

It was also the place where a Southern girl (as American as mac n’ cheese) taught me how to re-embrace a part of me I had left behind. This friend was named Sarah*. Sarah and her family are Jesus-seekers and wholehearted members of the small Presbyterian Church (PCA) that we are all a part of.

When I first talked to Sarah, she mesmerized me with her stories of intentionality and engagement. Every afternoon, she takes her boys out to the parking lot, sets up some yellow cones to warn drivers, and they spend the late afternoon riding bikes. By six pm, her Indian neighbors have also come outside and their kids join the fun. She positions her lawn chairs and hands out extra bikes that her family has collected to any kids that don’t have bikes. The Indian boys and girls call Sarah “auntie,” a term of acceptance.

One story Sarah recounted was a turning point for me.The Indian women in her neighborhood often come out in groups for their afternoon walks. One day, all the women came out, gathered their things, and left Sarah to care for all their children.  Then this became the routine.

Sarah felt perplexed by this. Though she was thankful that they trusted her with their children, she felt left out. In Indian culture they explained, the communal aspect and “it takes a village” mentality meant that a single adult sufficed as a babysitter for all the children. One day, Sarah confronted them and said “I want to walk with you. I don’t want to always babysit your kids.” The women tilted their heads and giggled at her as she tried to convey her desire. The discussion was a mix-up of cultural confusion, clumsy language dynamics, and the desire to connect.

And so she joined their walk. She grappled and wrestled to grasp the conversation. She understood almost nothing during the trip.

This is everything that getting to know someone who is different than you should be.  It is the initial terrifying jump into the unknown of possibly offending someone. It is the unwieldy silences between difficult vocabulary words in other languages. It is the complexity of relationship when individualism and village mentalities clash and bang.  When the noise that goes up shatters into the loud dissonance of the family-frameworks and culture we have come from.

It can be a lesson in self-consciousness and embarrassment. It can mean perpetuating cultural stereotypes (sometimes unconsciously), and then backing up and understanding an individual story, turning around in your dialogue and realizing you have, perhaps, gotten it all wrong.

When Sarah told me this story what resonated was her feeling of being “outside” and out-of-her-depth. And I think this is important. When we think about downward mobility and cross-cultural interactions as vocation we are correct. But we also acknowledge that vocation is not easy, comfortable, or natural. Vocation can be gritty, like digging in a sandbox and getting granules of sand stuck under your fingernails. It forces you to question your motives—forces you to think about your own pride and perhaps even your own racism or aversion to cultural nuances. And this is not fun. This is far from fun—but it just might be vocation even though it hurts.

When I think about vocation, I think about writing, in which I feel the flow of an organic creativity that begins in my thoughts and ends up in my words on a paper. But I sometimes forget the agony and disruption of pen on paper, of trying to find the exact word I am looking for, of exhaustive editing and not explaining something well, or being misunderstood. Writing is vocation, but it is not easy, it is not trite. It takes time and patience and humility. Humility as we fight for words, fight to be understood and resist presuming or placing constructs upon other people and ourselves that do not fit or are not honest.

My neighborhood is composed of many Indian families. Should I reach out? By using the words “reach out” am I already conveying a kind of cultural superiority or colonizing mentality that exposes me? Am I okay with silence in between words? With trying to meet other people with open hands and finding closed hands or vice versa?

I think vocation means trying things on for size, even if the pants don’t fit you at the ankles and you have to roll the legs up a bit. Even if you were once-upon-a-time a missionary kid, but feel like that part of you has disappeared into the background. And I’m just at the beginning of this—at the starting line of “maybe I’m called.”

Yesterday, I was  coming out of my apartment and I noticed my Indian neighbor standing outside with a little girl my daughter’s age. I yelled, “Hello!” even as my words seemed to echo back at an embarrassing decibel. She looked around to see if I was saying hello to her, and the start of a loud and confusing conversation began. I walked up to her, and we exchanged the formalities of name and relation. Her name was hard to pronounce, and I rolled it over my tongue and under my breath several times, trying to grasp some fluidity. My little Zoe and her granddaughter eyed each other.

And then we had a moment. I don’t want this to seem like a “happy ending” or the conclusion to a story about race and culture and understanding. Because it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t conclusive and it wasn’t definitive.

This moment was mid-conversation. I think it was also mutual. I commented on her granddaughters absolutely gorgeous eyelashes—which were black and beautiful, and I said, “They look just like my daughters. They both have amazing lashes.” She nodded and laughed.

Was this moment as meaningful to her as it was to me? I don’t know. After this, we stumbled through another exchange. She asked her granddaughter to “high-five” my daughter (who refused to comply). Then I asked her questions about her family but I asked them too fast.  I needed to go. We laughed and nodded goodbye.

And that was it. Perhaps my vocation for downward mobility is a budding one even though I have past multi-cultural experiences. Maybe it is for you too. Maybe you aren’t equipped. Maybe you’re not sure you even want to go out in your neighborhood and meet people who have different backgrounds. Maybe, like me, you’ve left a part of you behind, and you need to reach out because it will help you even more than it will help them

 

 

 

unnamed-1Briana Meade is a 20-something writer and blogger at brianameade.com. She is a contributor to Early Mama, a site for young mothers and often writes about the intersection of faith, culture, and motherhood. She lives with her husband and two children in the Raleigh-Durham area and is a graduate of Wheaton College

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts on downward mobility, please click here.

 

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