We moved into a house. A gorgeous, beautiful house that was built around 1860, and has been lovingly restored. The walls have been painted bright, soothing colors; the backyard is two lots of garden and trees. The owners are renting it to us at a song, partnering with us and blessing us. Today we planted seeds: kale and spinach and lettuce and snow peas and green beans and pumpkins and tomatoes and peppers and herbs and sunflowers. I know it is going to overwhelm us. I pick out weeds and I figure out what all those other gardeners already know: how nice it is to do something so tangibly good. What pleasure, what satisfaction. You are tilling the earth that the good Lord gave you. You are making the most of your talents.
My daughter wears a Tinkerbell outfit and declares herself to be a garden fairy, staring intently at worms and beetles, watering and mucking about. She has never lived anywhere with a yard before. She wants to get up first thing everyday and check on the plants. It is so beautiful, and so good, that I can scarcely keep from pinching myself. There is a room downstairs, with hardwood floors and little paintings I have put up, and I drink my coffee and journal in the mornings as the sun streams in. Someday, I will write there. This place is a gift. There is so much beauty here, and we all know that beauty is a part of what saving the world looks like.
In class, I am telling my students I moved. Just a few blocks away, from an apartment to a house. They ask me how many bedrooms. Three, I say, and tell them about the big yard and the garden. One of my students, the highest level in my class, looks at me and frowns. But teacher, she says, doing the math in her head. In your family there are only three people. She doesn’t say anything else. The question inherent in that statement hangs in the air; she is asking me about inequality, and there is nothing else I can say. I stare at her, and at the rest of my class. We never, ever forget the distance between us. But sometimes I pretend we do.
The possession I have that I am most ashamed of is my TV. It is a flat screen, large (don’t ask me the inches, as I don’t know). It is flashy and looks new. I would be quick to tell (if you only ever asked) that we did buy it second-hand, at a thrift store. And yet, still, here it is, hiding in our bedroom. I don’t want it cluttering up our bright and cheerful and cool living room. I want people to think we don’t own a TV, that maybe we are opting out of it all. But we aren’t. My husband and I are running running running ragged during the day, and then we curl up together and watch something funny, something stupid at night. I am embarrassed, even as I see similar or larger TVs in the apartments and houses of my friends. I almost don’t want to mention this to you, because some of you will already have a stereotype. The poor have large TVs. The poor live very hard lives. Maybe they are just like me, and they collapse at the end of the day, wondering how to muster the strength to get up and do it again tomorrow. Maybe they stream in the channels from their home countries, the ones with the dancing and the singing and the news that they are so thirsty for. Maybe they watch crime shows, maybe they watch romances. Maybe they watch people fight and spit and scream and hug and kiss while a talk show host looks on. Maybe they will never take a vacation, never even travel outside of their state or city or neighborhood. Maybe none of those things. I don’t know about everyone else, I just know about me. And I was supposed to be different, I was supposed to do everything so right.
I am also a little embarrassed about our house.
Remember when I used to write about downward mobility all the time? I did not coin the term nor did I perfect or improve upon it. I am traveling up and down a continuum. Truthfully I was glad to leave that squat, unlovely apartment behind. I could tell you of the hardships, but it would be a disservice to those that have no choice but to live there; and they will always be on my mind.
Of course the garden is beautiful. Of course it is a tangible expression of a very good God. But it is mere blocks away from so many utilitarian concrete stacks, and God is in those too. My husband likes to say that the real goal of downward mobility is simply reconciliation–to reconcile ourselves with others who are different from us. I would also say that it is a kind of reconciliation with ourselves, and the ways our very souls are wounded by the inequalities of the world.
I recently read a transcript of a testimony Pete Seeger gave to the Un-American house committee. They were asking him about his connections with communism, and if he was a communist. He repeatedly told them he wasn’t interested in the particulars, and that he sang for everybody and he loved his country very much. They kept pressing him. He articulated that he resented being asked to come before the committee. Then why don’t you contribute something for your country? they asked him. He replied: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it. The chairman interrogating him answered: I don’t want to hear about it.
When you want to tell the whole story of your life, you find few takers. We want either communists or patriots, sell-outs or self-righteous. We are seeking either blessing or lament, despair or hope, faith or faithlessness. But I have always had everything, everything in spades. Hope and doubt and fear and faith. I accept good gifts from God and I feel angry that others don’t get the same. I am embarrassed and conflicted and full of angst. I am also quick to celebrate every little thing, to be goofy, to cry over beautiful poetry and paintings. I am pushing myself hard to reconcile myself with people who are so different from me. I have found it true that relocation and redistribution had to come first, before the seeds of reconciliation will start. I am a part of the neighborhood still, I am living through tragedies every day, and I can see the connections growing up and out. I remember the early days, how lonely I was, how hard I worked for every acquaintance. I think about now, how I am drowning in relationships and needs, and I have to laugh.
The very medium of the blog, of the internet, is to be so quick and tidy and sure of yourself. But I want to tell you the story of my whole life, every time. I want to tell you the story of everyone I ever met, because they are a part of me. I want to be an observer, I want to be genuine. I want to detail how I am addicted to doing everything right, and how nervous I was about writing about this house. Until I decided to be honest and tell you:
I love it, and I am so grateful. I will cherish it and give thanks for it and invite my friends and neighbors who don’t have access to gardens over to enjoy it with me, together, in relationship. But underneath the appreciation there lies an unease. A sadness. The images of where other people in my neighborhood are living, many of them looking for better and bigger places themselves. I want to live for everyone, and I am tired of pretending otherwise. I am on a journey of reconciliation. I am not there yet. But I just wanted you to know the whole story of my life, starting with this house.
That is what I would like to tell you about.