Category Archives: Stress

The Book

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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mercy > sacrifice

there’s nothing like spending time with family and your closest IRL friends to shine a light on the murky depths in your heart. there’s nothing like rest, of sitting down with no screens in sight, of walking on a foggy beach, running in the pale oregon sun, listening/reading/soaking in the good stuff, the words that will lodge tight and remind you of truths you knew as a child but somehow shoved to the side.

everyone has already said it, but i will reiterate: it’s hard to be truthful on the internet. the levels of complexity here are fierce. i desire authenticity, and privacy. i want to share the deep parts of my life while never betraying the confidences of my neighbors and context and location. i want to process, i want to empower, i want to stir all the pots and but mostly i want to tie up everything in a neat little bow.

this is not how life is, however. so, here i am to say:

lately, it has been hard to drive. this is how i know my anxiety is getting to a place where it is maybe out-of-control, when the thought of driving paralyzes me, when i make excuses and walk or bike or (when frostbite is a real and pressing concern) have others drive me or simply stay at home. i am white-knuckled behind the wheel, the fear always a river running through it, illogical and senseless and frustrating. i am pulling, pulling, pulling on my bootstraps, and this is just one of many areas where daily pep talks are needed just to get myself out the door. the other day i charted a map in my mind of how my dislike of driving has turned to annoyance, then loathing, and now dread. in the chart in my mind, the fears just went up, up, up. i realized, in that moment, that if i continue on this path, there will come a day–perhaps next month, perhaps next year, or even the next decade, when i will be physically incapable of driving.

writing that down is hard, as i want my life to be all about going and obeying God, not fearfully staying in my apartment because it is the only place where i feel i have control, where i can keep everybody safe. and i am quick to point out that i am still doing a lot, i am still going out and saving the world, i am still busy and productive and i have all my little rags of righteousness clutched in my hand. but the question remains: how long can i hold on?

my anxiety, like many i suppose, is partly due to me and it is partly due to a battle being waged that i don’t quite have the eyes to see. oppressions take many forms, both systematic and spiritual, and you can’t seem to fight one without fighting the other. and for me, much of my fighting seems to stem from two competing thoughts swimming around in my brain, two slippery eels which propel me forward into places both good and bad alike, and they are these:

 

1. that i am invaluable to the world, that without me the work of the kingdom will stop, all of these beautiful people will be lost, that it is all contingent on me and my small determined shoulders, the entire weight of the world.

 

and

 

2. that unless i do all the things, God won’t ever love me.

 

 

 

and i really, really need him to love me.

 

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it’s hard to hate the lies, to root them our of your life for good, when they have taken you to where you need to go. i tell other people “don’t do anything out of guilt” and yet guilt is the backbone for much of my life, what i wouldn’t wish for others i gladly accept for myself. there are so many things i love about my life, adore even, and then there are other aspects–the nagging thought that i could always do more, more, more, the sense of worthlessness if the tangibles are taken away, the hysterical sense that nobody is doing enough–that i could surely do without.

i was mentioning this to a counselor not too long back, rolling out my litany of questions i have about my life, should i be doing more or less, tossing out that word that we in the business so often misuse–what is sustainable? i told this counselor about one of my dreams, moving into the high rises where i teach, taking it to the next level. there are many reasons why moving into this place would be amazing, beneficial, and life-giving. there are many reasons why it would also cause my anxiety to skyrocket, how it would grind down me and my little family,  how many things about our life would get harder. but doesn’t that make it the best option?

the counselor nodded her head, listened. and then she said something that shocked me.

you could move in there, she said, that is a choice you could make. and you would be a beautiful flame, a fire burning bright for God. and like the brightest flames, you would not last for very long.

but, she said, tapping into my truest, basest desire:

 

 

you would be very beautiful while you were burning out.

 

 

 

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the desire to be beautiful is deep within me, which has led me to places that are somewhat close to being extinguished. and i wrestle with this too, because currently in my life i am in a place of smoldering, a sputtering candle, tossed and turned by the winds of the world and the darkness in my own soul. but i think you already know where i am going with this, that it is these half-burnt out flames that Jesus most likes to use.

where my bruised reeds at? he says, looking for the walking wounded, the bent-over men and women, the smoldering wicks. where are my people who don’t even know up from down anymore, who can no more suss out what is sustainable than they can solve the problems of the world? where are my people at, he says, the ones who are beating back addictions, dysfunctions, lies that slink in and out around our ears? those are my people, he says, the ones i will not break. they are the ones i will not snuff out.

i used to think there were only two options for life: burning bright into the dying of the light, or sitting quietly to the side, snuffed out by the cares of life. now i am seeing all the middle places, the flickering candles, the fragile ones, the ones keeping vigil, praying, fasting, singing songs of truth, teaching, believing, creating.

but of course everything about Jesus is so upside-down, so the third way, eschewing the false dichotomies we create in order to love or loathe ourselves. he chooses the half-burnt out, the emptied, the white-knuckled. because it is for us, the ones who have tried so very hard to get both God and the whole damn world to love us based on merit, to whom the burden of following a radical servant-king seems light in comparison.

i don’t know how to end this right, i still want to say i am healed, i am loved, and everything is fine. but the truth is that right now i feel caught in a middle of a brush fire, all of my precious sacrifices going up in flames. and there, on the horizon, on the char-streaked hills, i see a glimpse of my future, being formed even now. i see a flickering candle, instead of a flame. i see a bruised reed, instead of a sunflower. and i see mercy, mercy, mercy, growing in the hardest heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Moving Downward, In Spite of the Safety Net–Guest Post by Annie

Oh my goodness. I opened up my e-mail last week to this stunner of a guest post sitting quietly in my in-box. These stories, from people in the very process of figuring it all out, speak to me so deeply. I identified SO much with what Annie writes here (being in America, my safety net is that much closer and more tantalizing and convenient). It is also a testament as to how not theoretical this conversation is. When you are friends with poverty, certain questions must be asked (and not always answered). I am very thankful Annie found this series, and that she added her own contribution here. 

 

 

 

Moving downward, in spite of the safety net

Guest post by Annie

 

 

 

I have a friend who decided to sleep on the floor for a few months, right next to his bed. It was an act of self-denial. But even as he spent his nights on the hard, unforgiving floor of his room, the bed was within arm’s reach. He might never choose to sleep in it again, but it was still there.

This is perhaps the biggest struggle of it all for me.

This downward mobility stuff is hard. As much as I want to deny myself, it is nearly impossible to forget that there is a wide, comfortable safety net around me. There is always somewhere to fall back on. And I know that. Even in my subconscious, I know that. I try to turn off my peripheral vision and forget that it is there in order to reduce my dependence on it, but the reminders are constant.

On most days, my privilege ostentatiously dances in my face and frustrates my desire to really, truly live in solidarity with the people I am surrounded by. The voices that call this pursuit of downward mobility “ignorant idealism” ring louder and surer than my unsteady, but wishful, belief that this type of living is not only beautiful, but possible.

I see it everywhere.

A terrorist attack occurs in my city of residence and I am keenly aware that, if I wanted to, I could be on the next plane out with so many of the other young, single American girls serving here–so quickly and easily removed from a perceived threat to my own safety and wellbeing. Somehow my safety is more important than the ones I moved here to live in community with, with no questions asked.

I offer a cup of coffee to a friend while we are out running errands and can see it in her face that she is uncomfortable with anyone spending 250 shillings ($3) on something that will be gone in 10 gulps. Why would we pay $3 for something that we can make for 20 cents when we get home? That much money can feed a whole family–all day long. And more than just knowing that (like me), she knows it.

A young girl is stuck in an unsafe environment and the only good option seems so glaringly clear in my mind…move the child. And fast. But what my mind doesn’t account for is all of the unplanned costs that will accompany this decision. How will the family possibly afford this swift action? They are in many ways trapped and I realize that I have never in my life felt trapped in this way. How can I know even an ounce of this pain my friend endures?

An unexpected illness strikes and a family is left with very few options — attempt to treat the child and acquire bills that exceed the amount that passes through their hands in 5 years, or take their child home and pray. I get a sinus infection and already have a prescription sitting there waiting in my cabinet. And if anything serious were to happen, you better believe my insurance would be airlifting me to Dubai or back to America for the world-class medical treatment I deserve.

I’m aware of my privilege when the weekly grocery bill is the same amount that my friend who supports an entire family makes each month. Bread and rice are not luxury items in my world; they are things I am allowed to groan about having to eat, again.

I’m aware when my spoon pushes even a small pile of bread crusts or stale crackers into the trashcan, now even further from mouths that are hungry. The guilt-inducing images in my mind aren’t from those Christian Children Fund infomercials of the 90’s, they are images of friends and neighbors who I care for deeply.

I’m aware when I frustratedly declare one of my things “broken!” and throw it in my closet or the trash can and my friends quickly scoop it out and ask for the chance to try to fix it themselves or at least take it somewhere to be saved.

I’m aware when paying $1 for a motorbike taxi is the obvious choice over walking for an hour in the hot sun, for free.

I lay in my bed that is surrounded by dozens of sleeping children, listening to the dogs’ howling alarm that things are not right outside the orphanage compound tonight. My thoughts race in wondering if the thugs get into our home tonight will my laptop, DSLR, iphone, and ATM card be accepted in exchange for the children’s protection? The undeniable reality is that I have something to offer.

Friends sit in jail cells for things that just don’t seem right and my privileged friends and I are calling everyone we know, using our “connections” to fight for what we consider justice. He is out within days, while others sit and sit and sit because their families and friends have known since childhood that their fighting doesn’t mean much.

I don’t generally make a habit of praying before meals because it seems ritualistic and unnecessary. They pray before meals because they are genuinely thankful that God has remembered them and provided food, even when they personally know so many who are without.

I wait in the crowded line of the government hospital for the schizophrenia medications that keep my friend functioning well in society and others ask me “wow! You’re ‘mad’ too?” I strangely want to say “Yes! See, we are just alike! I feel your pain! I’m with you!” but instead I bow my head and say “no, they’re actually for a friend.”

Maybe these examples are extreme, but they just begin to describe how I sometimes I feel like I am just playing dress-up. I put on a costume and play the part of friend to the poor, friend to the sick, and friend to the orphan, but remain so far above them (much to my dismay) that it seems a laughable feat to really live in solidarity with them. If I lived in America, I would most likely be dependent on government assistance. But here!? Here I am rich. I am healthy. I have family who call me their own and always have my back. I have people who would fight for me, if I needed it.

I cut back and I struggle, yes — but I have never been hungry. I have never truly felt trapped in a horrible, threatening situation because of an empty bank account. I have never had to choose between treating a sick child and putting food on the table. And most of all, I have about 10 people in my speed dial who would do anything to bail me out of whatever unfavorable situation I find myself in. I also like to believe that if I was in real trouble, my home country would fight for me—fight for justice for one of their own who is being oppressed in a foreign land.

As much as I hate that I cannot truly empathize with situations my friends find themselves in day after day, I am able to feel a portion of their pain because they have become my family. I want their pain to be my own and Jesus is so kind to grant that. I am learning there is so much to be said for “weeping with those who weep” even (and especially) when your own personal, present circumstances don’t call for weeping. And in my experiences, they have been so gracious to receive my weeping instead of resenting it.

We dream about our futures together and I decline engagement in the “big house, perfect job, lots of money, healthy and happy family” reveries because I have learned that these things don’t satisfy. I have had those things and quite honestly, could still have those things. I don’t have them because I don’t want them, but my access to them is undeniable… and I hate this. There is something almost prideful about having the option of this lifestyle, but turning it down.

As much as I want this to be a struggle of the past–something that characterized my first few steps down the staircase, I am not sure that will ever be the case. As difficult as it is to live in this tension, I cannot help but believe Jesus is glorified by our, albeit fumbling, attempts to live in solidarity with the poor, orphaned, outcast, widows, homeless, sick, and lonely.

One of the things I love most about Jesus and the way He used His time on earth to teach us how to live is how mind-blowingly clear He is. I am simple minded and need straightforward directions; He graciously made it so that we do not have to make any assumptions or decode any messages to understand His heart for the poor. He is crazy about them. He honors them and cherishes them and calls them His friends; not for charity’s sake, but for love’s sake. I love the way Father Greg Boyle defines this solidarity: “kinship– not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.”

Above all else, I want to know them and I want to struggle alongside of them. I want them to know me and struggle alongside of me. I want to share what I have with them and I want them to share what they have with me. I want to cry with them and I want to dance with them. I want them to cry with me and I want them to dance with me. I want to pray for them but I also want and need them to pray for me. I want to get angry with them about injustice and I want to fight alongside of them—arm in arm, not one in front of the other. I want to learn from them, but more than that I desperately need to learn from them.

This is what I want. And this is what God is doing, slowly but surely, and not without pain and difficulty and awkwardness and lots of fumbles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

unnamed-5Annie lives and works in Kenya where she has the privilege of helping to manage a transitional care center for infants. The best part of her “job” is being a foster mama to the little ones while they are rehabilitated and long-term solutions are sought to enable each child to grow up in a family. One of her greatest, but noblest, struggles is keeping sarcasm and dry humor alive in a county that does not (yet) recognize it’s worth. She rambles often, and sometimes posts it on the world wide web at www.ramblations.blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

 

 

 

 

 

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santa is not sustainable

Perhaps the first image of the modern-day representation of santa--done by Haddon Sunblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

Perhaps the first image of the modern-day representation of santa–done by Haddon Sunblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

 

 

Sustainability is something people in our line of work talk about a lot. How can you stay for the long haul, and not burn out? How can you make sure programs, traditions, and services are not based solely on you and your work, but can continue on for many years? Sustainability is like the opposite of how many evangelicals typically work: quick, fast, results oriented, crash-and-burn. One of the reasons we were so drawn to our mission organization is that they have a commitment to contemplation–recognizing that without taking the space for finding God in your own life, you will never be able to care for others.

Which is why it is super helpful to think about what can be sustained for the long haul when it comes to strategic decisions regarding time, money, and emotional energy. 

Like Christmas.

We made the decision that it wasn’t sustainable to fly to Oregon every Christmas. It’s a hard decision (um, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Dean Martin is on repeat this morning, along with “A Tender Tennessee Christmas” by Amy Grant, even though I never lived in Tennessee. Because Nostalgia). But it’s the right decision for us. Neighbors and friends have come out of the woodwork, and we are going to have ourselves a patchy, somewhat merry, somewhat sad little Christmas. Which seems pretty sustainable for our future.

What about celebrating Advent?  

We light Advent candles with our daughter, read some Scripture, and pray. She gets super excited to blow the candles out, and the rest is probably over her head. Is this sustainable? Yes, I think it is. As one of my friends pointed out, if one of my neighbors asked how we celebrated Advent, this would be an affordable, accessible option. Is unwrapping a piece of the $50 Playmobile nativity set every day of Advent a great way to engage your kids in the story of the birth of Jesus? Sure. Are “kindness elves” awesome? Totally. Are fair-trade chocolate Advent calendars the best thing ever? Yes, absolutely.

But are these things sustainable, for our neighbors both near and far? I don’t think so. Many people do not have the resources to pull off these bits of “Christmas magic” that we so casually revere. I am all for whimsy and encouraging imagination and celebrating with some good fair-trade chocolate, but I also want to recognize how so many children do not experiences these privileges in any way.

Which brings me to Santa. 

Santa, and his cultural counterpoint of the perfect, Norman Rockwell family christmas, took ahold of our cultural imagination many years ago. I used to not care at all about this. Growing up, we were pretty lackadaisical about it all (and my parents refused to lie–so if we asked, they told us santa was a fake). But we still laid out the cookies, got a few presents labeled “from St. Nick”. But my biggest memories were of Christmas eve services and sitting quietly in front of a brightly lit tree. 

Now, in my neighborhood, I can’t help but see images of a weird, materialistic holiday everywhere. Red-nosed reindeer and some fat man with presents, as far as the eye can see. And I am starting to loathe it. Because Santa is not sustainable.

For those who grow up poor in America, Santa is another reminder of failure. Kids can’t help but grow up and be saturated with the story, which puts pressure on the adults in their life to find the time/money/energy to get the presents the kids want. People go into debt, people spiral into depression, kids are disappointed and feel shamed, Christmas morning turns into another reminder of the inequalities of the world. The picture-perfect family Christmas is the same way–for many, all of these images we see in the movies and on tv are just a stark reminder of our own families–the mental illness, the addictions, the abuse, the empty seats around the table. The myth of the perfect family Christmas is not sustainable either, because our nuclear families were never supposed to be the point.

What is sustainable, then? 

I have learned some things from my Muslim friends. Their holidays are smashingly good–count yourself blessed if you ever get invited over for Eid. I have seen Eid celebrated in several different states and countries, and there are always striking similarities: the celebrations are marked by food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. 

That’s it.

A lot of food, or just a little. Your family, what remains of it, plus your new family you have formed in the diaspora. Friends, neighbors, co-workers invited to experience the richness of your culture and celebration. Prayer, early in the morning, and throughout the day, thanking the One who created us all. Generosity–extra food cooked, coins given to the children–reminding us to always extend our table.

That, my friends, is sustainable.

I’ve started to think about what I want the holidays to look like for me and my little family. Food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. All the elements have been modeled to me from the beginning from my own parents, and it is time to claim them for my little space now. Even thought sometimes I will be far from my parents and sisters, i will still value family, and use the definition that Christ gave me (we are all brothers and sisters). I will cook food, even if it doesn’t look pretty. I will pray the prayers that have been spoken throughout the centuries to celebrate the coming of Christ (the Magnificat, my friends, is extremely sustainable). And I will try to be generous, try to escape the pull to only seek out what is best for me and mine in these dark and bright weeks. I will try and stick around long enough to have space for those who have been bruised and battered by the cultural expectations of Christmas. And there are so many of these souls, more than we can possibly know, longing for a real, sustainable celebration–firmly anchored in this real world, yet a mirror of the great parties we will have in heaven.

 

Like Mary, may our souls magnify the Lord. May we seek out the humble and exalt them, fill the hungry with good things.

And most of all, may we be ever mindful of His mercy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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war photographers

I have been thinking a lot about how all I do here anymore is share videos, other people’s writings, random thoughts. The truth is I knew my writing would have to change, would have to evolve as we continue our path ever downwards. For awhile, I had a secret blog (just for real-life friends and family), which I thought would help. But it didn’t (plus, a secret blog is surprisingly hard to implement).

So this is our struggle. I am learning so much, and I want to share with everyone. This is a part of my personality, a part of how I was wired. But how much of what I am learning is tied to the lives of people, real flesh-and-blood and full of dignity people–people who you don’t know? The responsibility to portray nuanced and appropriate stories is a heavy mantle to bear. It is easier to shrug it off, and to be silent.

A bigger issue might be my own steep learning curve. It is probably not the time for me to be spouting off any deep thoughts or proposed answers or solutions or diatribes or rants; I am still struggling to catch my footing, lest I crush the path or fall off altogether. This is a very good reason to keep quiet, I think.

A while ago, back in Portland, I was ranting about people taking pictures and using them to “raise awareness” (or money). This is a huge topic, I know, and I have some very big thoughts on it. And one of my friends quietly told me a story of a war photographer, and how he justified taking pictures of people in the aftermath (and in the midst of) truly horrifying situations. the photographer said something along the lines of how he felt confident that publishing these photos for the world was the right thing to do, as long as the best interest of his subjects was his intention. he said people knew, would look his lens square and straight, because they trusted that these pictures would move people, would bring the world closer to them and their reality. he got permission from them, from their eyes and their words (where language allowed). and he used his responsibility wisely, to show the truth of the situation.

Thank goodness I can’t take a picture for the life of me (and it most surely would not be welcomed in my neighborhood, anyway). But I do like to write, and this is where I have been stumped: what is my role in all of this.

For the truth is that there is a war going on, all the time. Poverty in America is intense, complicated, fraught with both joys and casualties all the time. And by and large, we don’t know about it, and would be fine with keeping it that way. In some ways I feel like we need a war photographer or two around here; but something tells me it would take a whole lifetime to earn the sort of trust necessary to share in the task of telling stories.

I am only two months in. For now, I can only share me. But even that has its problems. If I tell you that I have been terrified, several times since moving here, you would only see a small part of my life. If I told you of the difficulties, you might not get the whole picture. Already, in these short months, I have found myself asking questions and dealing with situations (most often: should I call the cops or not? ) that are pretty foreign to me. This is real, of course, but this is only a small part. Far more often I feel bored, or lonely, or tired, or blessed, or cheerful, or industrious, or crafty, or hungry. And on the flip-side, there is the blessing of being in this difficult place. I cannot even begin to process how to go writing about these miracles. For they aren’t the ones I thought I was going to tell; it turns Christ wanted to heal me and change me, and draw me to himself.

There is the tension of being “in ministry”. We tend to minimize, or maximize, our situations depending on the context. More often than not people working on the margins tend to the former, perhaps out of respect for their neighbors or a misguided attempt at holy stoicism. But bottling up feelings never did anybody any good; the field is littered with burn outs and drop outs who may have been saved had they spoken of their troubles long ago. This is just one conundrum after another, people.

So, let’s wrestle through this. I have learned so much from war photographers, from biographies and stories of people living the kingdom out on the ground. If you know any good thoughts on how to best share our experiences in the margins, please share with all of us. Let’s make this a conversation, shall we? 

The image comes from National Geographic and the story behind it is stunning. Go here to read it

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one day

yesterday we moved into our new apartments, the place we have set our eyes on since we visited in June.

it was a day. due to circumstances it was basically just us moving, me packing and scrubbing, the husband carrying and loading and driving and unloading, time and time again. the baby either cried or unpacked or sat happily with her sesame friends, and i felt proud and exhausted and disheartened all at the same time. moving alone does this to a body.

we have long said we are on a journey of downward mobility and now our mettle is being tested. paper-thin walls, smoky hallways, bent-up burners that make it hard to cook, doors with holes in them, no dishwashers or fancy things here. we are on the ground floor, our windows just above the earth outside, which enchants the 2-year old as squirrels run by.  but the building is old, heated by water and radiators, no controls to be found in the apartment. there was a cold snap, and as a result, the apartment was sweltering. i thought of the book i so often read the baby, and i realized we could easily have a green house up in here. but i unlocked the windows and let the biting air in, the sounds of the city coming along with it. i wonder why everyone else has bars in their windows but ours don’t. i shut and lock them as we leave.

we went out to get a bite, because we realized we didn’t own things like ice-cube trays or trash cans, and we were tired. people thronged in the corners, shouting and laughing, we walked by quickly, hurriedly. i felt afraid, truth be told.

back in the apartment, i can hear the neighbors. hear them talking about the new people moving in, wondering why we are here. they are not happy, they don’t understand. a couple of weeks ago another little family moved in upstairs, people who look and act like us. a bunch of freaks, the neighbors said, and i crouched like a rabbit, frozen, caught where i was not supposed to be. the thoughts i never wanted spoken aloud, right outside my door.

and i get it, why would i expect people to be happy just because i have shown up?

in the dark, i had many thoughts about the people and places we left, the support systems we had in place back in Portland, the way we had been invited into the lives of others. what hubris is this, to try and insert ourselves into a place that feels to me as foreign as Timbuktu, everybody else speaking the same language of survival, me trying to speak the language of the soul. but it’s survival time for us, right now, and we could stand to learn a lot.

we shut our windows, sweated the night through and through. the bed we bought broke. the baby woke up at 3, and then at 5 (this time for good). the husband left for a job interview, because we need money. the baby and i took a brisk walk through the leaves, some of the first people to wander in the morning. and it felt so different, and a tiny part of it started to feel good.

we have been here one day.

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my week in review

what up, week? this hasn’t been a very easy one, has it? first there was the car that broke down on the husband’s birthday, at the nice bagel shop that we drove to (we wanted to pretend for a moment we were back in portland, that life was familiar and safe). we arrived to a smoking car, green ooze spilling everywhere. while we tried to figure out what to do on a sleepy sunday morning, i set down the diaper bag on a table. we left, took our sweet time driving the 3 miles back to the apartment, stopping to take walks so the car didn’t overheat. the toddler protested, cried some big fat tears. we finally made it back. we realized the diaper bad was no longer with us; calls to the bagel shop resulted in nothing. it was gone, taken, my wallet and my husband’s ipod the only real things of value in it (and the humor is not lost on me, that our stuff got stolen when we drove to the “nice” part of town for a little escapism). happy birthday, baby.

then there was the week of meeting new people, being exhausted by small talk and never really knowing how safe you can be, still be chafed by how little you know about this town, this community, the place you are now committed to (o acedia, you fought us hard this week, always dreaming of good times past, of alternatives to our present reality). there was the night i woke up in a panic, seized by a faceless terror, and could only think to pray from the book of revelations, some bit of holy truth about the blood of the lamb and the word of my testimony, repeating it over and over, telling things unseen to be gone. and if this sounds crazy, let me assure you that it is. our safety nets having been flung aside, the cracks in the world are starting to appear. but so is the gold, underneath.

there was the radiator in the car, of course, and the money to fix it. there were the carbon monoxide alarms that went off in the apartment, scaring the baby half to death, the fire department coming to check everything out, the night i thought for sure we would all die in our sleep. we slept restless, not very long, the sounds of the city reaching up to us and always reminding us to be wary, on guard.

and then there was yesterday. i got up and went downtown saw a little bit of a conference that was geared towards the very thing we moved here to do: to build up neighborhoods, to reconcile the divisions in our churches, to go to the forgotten parts of the cities and stay. and i got to hear john perkins give a bible study. does it really matter what it was about? he was beaten half to death by police officers just for being black, for loving peace and justice. and jesus told him to love those oppressors, that they themselves were bound and enslaved by racism, how it had affected them as well. i would listen to anything that man has to say, for he knows how to love, knows how to endure. it rather put things in perspective, really.

i saw all those young people with a passion for community development (and brown boots and scarves, evidently), drinking their coffee, taking copious notes. i felt detached, frumpy, only there for an hour or two and not succeeding in relaxing. i narrowed my eyes at all those dreamers, thousands of them stretched out in front of me, and i thought: well do it now, honeys. do it all, while you still have the brain capacity to think beyond the thousands of mundane life tasks that take over once you have children (it may or may not have been a rough week for a certain 2-year old in our house).

and even as i think these thoughts, i love those dear little children and their heart for something different. and i see, scattered throughout the crowd, people who have been doing it for twice as long as i have, married couples holding hands, living this different way together. and i have come and i have been encouraged by all of it, the naiveté and the experience and the excitement and the burn-out of it all. and i walk out the doors, because you always have to at some point, and the work has already begun again.

it’s been a long week, hasn’t it? and it’s only one out of 52.

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The world’s crankiest monk

I’m the world’s crankiest monk right now, cloistered away from all my dear ones, irritable from  taking a big leap to follow God and landing in stillness and isolation.

I’m a religious devotee with a crazy two-year old, trying to prayer walk for the neighborhood as my child shrieks every other second or so (stroller! mama hold you! walk! WALK! no no no, stroller! mama hold you! mama hold you! MAMA HOLD YOOOOOOOUUUU!).

I meditate on the pizza boxes on the ground, the razor in the plants, the boys fighting, the people talking in a language that sounds like music to me, rusting playgrounds, people bent on getting by, shy smiles at the grocery store. I meditate on how strange it is to be in a city where you don’t know how the shopping carts work, ruminate on the simple disorientation that comes from not knowing what the radio stations are, or where you can buy cheap and free range-eggs. I meditate on how I wish I knew how to do all this better; to sit and be silent and marvel. Instead it is all rushing by in a series of early mornings, wandering around the city, getting lost and crying, slowly starting to buy spices, getting the pots and pans out.

Fingers urging to write, head spinning with ideas for classes, programs, events, ways to help and help and help. But the Abbot says no, first we wait. We don’t wait in silence (for that is near impossible with the toddler), but we are trying not to drown in the clutter of surviving, either. We are just trying to listen, through all the noise. When you take away the church buildings, where is your tribe? When you take away your parents and sisters and grandparents, where is your family? When you take away people who like the same food or music or God, who are your friends?

I am not making a very good monk right now, but I am trying to sit in my place and listen for the answers.

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time for the sentimental last post.

I spent several hours this afternoon sitting in sweaty apartments, the walls covered in assortments of pictures of tigers, bucolic mountain scenes, gurus, homework assignments. The air smelled like spices and oil, seeping into my clothes. I sweat, I am forced to eat food, forced to watch my toddler shove multiple cookies in her mouth as women coo and laugh and pinch her cheeks. The sweat trickles down my legs and I laugh and joke and eventually say goodbye to my neighbors, the people I was supposed to be ministering to, the people who ended up being dear heart friends. I tried to tally up the number of such hours I have spent in similar apartments, stuffy no matter what time of the year, the hours I have spent in comfortable silence, where I discovered worlds hidden away from the glossy America we all like to believe exists. And I can’t believe it has been 8 years since I found these places hidden away, where I found my place in these worlds within worlds.

//

I had one last slumber party with the Somali girls I have known the longest, we watched terrible shows on netflix (Dinotopia) we ate pizza and chips and grapes and oranges and topped it off with birthday-cake flavored oreo ice cream. We put cheap, glittery fake nails on and lived it up for a night. We woke up grumpy, sleepy, not ready for goodbyes. As we were preparing to drive them home, my mom asked if she could pray for the girls. They said, ok, sure, mumbled it with downcast eyes. She prayed to God, prayed to Allah, bridging the gap like we are always wanting. She prayed for the next year in school, for Manoi starting high school, for Abey in her last year in the middle one. I watched the girls, watched them shift uncomfortable, watched them be prayed over. In the car, taking them home, the hubs asked what they thought of the prayer.

Manoi thought long and careful. Oh, it was ok, she said. It was nice. But my life right now . . . it just isn’t very good.

I wanted to cry, want to hug and protect and hate that I have to say goodbye. But instead of losing it completely, I felt at peace. I have known them for the majority of their lives, and I will see them again. We are family now, we are in this together despite distance, language, religion. They have changed me, completely. In a way, I am moving because of them. I am moving for them.

//

I wanted to write an ode to Portland, but how could I do that? The city that got into my skin, crawling with people both consumed with the present and with those who cannot let go of the past. I will miss the food carts, the fountains, the co-ops and farmers markets, the coffee (o! the coffee), the riot of colors in the fall. But the things I miss the most will be here for me to come back to: my beautiful, chaotic church, my fearfully talented and kind friends, my family who is my life and who has made me who I am.

As I was leaving the apartment complex where we have spent these past four years, I wanted to stop and take it all in. Let the memories and the smells and the comfort and the failure wash over me, take me down the path of my life. But there isn’t time for that now, and it doesn’t even feel very necessary. They were just the apartments that changed everything about me, and I am continuing on in that journey.

And as much as I wanted to, I realized I just can’t say goodbye yet. I’ll just say see you soon, and leave it at that.

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On being missional, and on leaving (oh, the irony).

Oooh, getting all fancy and theological over at A Deeper Church today, writing about the weirdly popular word “missional”. I have read arguments about how this word has icky connotations (which it does, totes) but it also seemed to miss the mark of all the people I had observed who were living out this life instead of writing treatises about it. The people I know who would be classified by the church as “missional” are not colonizers. They are mustard seeds, ground down in the dirt, trampled by the city and its inhabitants. They are a pinch of yeast, spreading slowly through the bread, doing their work with little to no programs or specialized plans (hence, no recognition). Most of my favorite people are unglamorous  hilarious, hardworking, celebratory, messy people. They are missional.

I can only hope to be one of them.

You can read the piece here.

As a side note, in several days I will be immersed in the Moving Tornado. I don’t know when I will have access to consistent internet again, so who knows when I will blog again. Things have worked out to such a degree that me, the hubs, one of my besties, AND my sister are caravanning out to the exotic midwest, so it is seeming more and more like a grand party/adventure. This is helping.

It is also helping that I am completely emotionally shut down. Apartment fell through? No problem. Transmission acting funny? Whatevs. Saying goodbye to people I have lived/worked with for 8 years? Ok, that’s fine.

Sigh. I do think at some point during the drive out I am going to put some Steven Curtis Chapman in on the ol’ car stereo and sob my guts out.

I’m divin’ in, guys.

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