Category Archives: Contemplation

The State of Our Union Address

What are we doing here? is a question we ask ourselves often, constantly, a thrumming beatbox to our jam-packed lives. What are we doing here, what is the point of all of this: relocation, downward mobility, eschewing hierarchy, doggedly believing that Christ is here?

All we ever do is learn from people, I told my husband last night. That is truly all we do. We don’t do anything of importance, we are stretched too thin by too many needs to ever really be of use (the one thing that I so wanted to be). We do not have opportunities to share complicated doctrines or theologies, we are not making a difference in the world. But oh, how we are learning from people. How we are wide-eyed and mouth-closed, how we are the opposite of workers, how we are trying so hard to pay attention and notice all of those important lessons we somehow missed along the way.

Peter didn’t pay good attention in the Bible. He scoffed and scorned those women who showed up and said what they all wanted so badly to be true but couldn’t let themselves believe: that Jesus had transcended death, that he was alive, that his kingdom was here, that forgiveness and resurrection was now available for all. Peter didn’t believe them, he ignored the marginalized just like everyone else. But when no one was looking, when he could no longer ignore the hope in his chest anymore, when everyone else had left–he ran to the tomb as fast as his legs could carry him.

All we ever did was try to be good, productive, correct. All we ever do now is stand still and notice. All we ever do these days is run, run as fast as we can to where we can only hope our signs of resurrection will be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I Don’t Go to Church*

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

 

 

image from here.

image from here.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Reasonably Bright, Reasonably Average

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

 

 

 

Drawing by the unbelievable Chris Clother (for Cordella Magazine)

                                                   Drawing by the unbelievable Chris Clother (for Cordella Magazine)

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

on homesickness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem is: I have so many homes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A piece of the body torn out by the roots

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

James Agee, introduction, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Upward Mobility

Image found here.

Image found here.

 

 

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

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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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I am also a little embarrassed about our house.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is what I would like to tell you about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Poetry as Empire Resistance

the view outside my window right now. April, so cruel.

the view outside my window right now. April, so cruel.

 

 

April is national poetry month. My friend Amy is doing a link-up today, for non-poets to bravely reveal something they wrote. I view it as a form of Empire Resistance. World wants poets to be esoteric, unattainable, segregated from the commoners. But I think everybody can write poetry, because everybody can pay attention. It’s basically just a Cliff Notes For Life–distilling the essence of noticing and feeling into short little words.

I don’t have my MFA; I have barely read any poetry. But in my little journal I still sometimes find myself lost until I let the imagery take over. As my act of resistance, I will put one up here. The more I try and resist the urge to be palatable, wise in the ways of Empire, to be successful–the better it is for my soul. The world goes not well, but the kingdom comes. And one of the ways it comes is by being vulnerable, writing terrible poetry, and sharing it with others.

Go on over to Amy’s site–and then why not put up one of your own poems? I promise you I will read it, and I will ask it to change me in some small way.

 

 

 

Sister Lawrence

 

Put a penny in your shoe they said

Remember the Lord all the day

A rubbing sore reminder

Of the presence, all around

 

Instead I turned my life to burlap

Rough and raw for  reddened skin

Instead of a penny, the poor and sick

Blurred vision, two worlds, one sun

 

I listen, hum, bless the sounds scraping

The irritants, the pepper, the ash

For every neighbor, the slow suicides

Copper prayers left on the ground

 

Child, your heart is made of corduroy

And the world is so full of burrs

Some days you collect them in the brambles

Let your Father pick them off one by one

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*i was this close to naming the poem “Burlap to Corduroy”. Christian band puns FTW.

Now seriously. Go resist the empire and write your own poem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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