Race, Contemplative Fails, and Being Overwhelmed
It seems the productivity comes in fits and starts--and that is true. Last week I had 3 pieces go up within three days of each other (of course, I had been working on them over the past few weeks, but still). And this week . . . not so much.
It's cold. This winter hasn't been as bad as last (shudder) so I try not to complain. But inside I think bitter thoughts to myself, like "Jesus did not have to deal with this weather." Super irrational and super helpful actually. I keep plugging away, dreaming of the day when I will be able to walk outside again (yesterday it was -22 with the windchill), when I will not have to wear wool socks, when going anywhere won't take enormous amounts of energy and frantic hunts for lost mittens.
So here are a few things I wrote in the past several week or so, in case you missed them.
1. First, a piece over at Good Letters on an epic Contemplative Fail I experienced a little over two years ago. True confessions time: I have not mustered up the courage to do another 24+ hour silent retreat. It scarred me, ok? But I have found other methods--several hours alone at the Art Museum, for instance--that give me contemplative time in the midst of the city. Anyways, this one was fun to write and makes my husband look like a spiritual giant amongst mere mortals (which I kind of think he is, anyways). Here is the beginning:
A few years ago, I decided to become more contemplative.
By nature, I am an action-oriented person (I frequently overuse the word “overwhelmed” and yet refuse to stop plowing forward). My husband and I work for a Christian non-profit with core central values of contemplation and activism. As we live and work in a diverse, chaotic, lovely neighborhood, we have been encouraged to regularly find time to be alone—to refresh and recharge in a culture of frenzy and productivity.
So two years ago, we tried it. We secured babysitting for our daughter and booked a twenty-four hour retreat at a nearby Catholic retreat center.
It was March in the Midwest when we drove two hours outside of our city and checked in at the central lodge of the center. Since this was our first time, we were required to sit down with the spiritual director for a chat. An older, firm woman, she went over a bit of the history of the center and gave us some advice and tips for our stay.
She was very stern in her admonitions that we were not to go visiting each other’s hermitages in the middle of the night; I successfully stifled my giggles as I realized she was not joking, not even the tiniest bit. She gave us each a walking stick with a sharp point at the end (there was a good thick inch of ice covering all of the pathways that week, plus it was good for keeping wild animals at bay). She encouraged us to roam the pathways and the woods, to enjoy the overlook at the frozen lake, to take the time to quiet our souls.
I said goodbye to my husband and was led to my own little hermitage, a tiny little cabin with little more than a bed, a chair, and a cross on the wall. I was left alone, so utterly alone, and I sat on the bed to take it in.
You can read the rest of the essay here.
2. For awhile, it seemed like being overwhelmed was my default. Now that I am in a wee bit of a better place I can see that now--and I see how it's ok to have these cycles of up and down, knowing it does even out in the end (or has thus far). There are very real factors like secondary trauma and vitamin D deficiencies and seasons of chaos that sometimes all converge on one another. My first two years in the Midwest often felt like that.
Tanya Marlow, no stranger to suffering herself, asked me to write a guest post on the topic and of course I chose the topic of being overwhelmed. Here is the beginning of the post:
“You sure say you are overwhelmed a lot,” my mentor mentioned to me one day. “And yet, when I look at your life—you don’t look overwhelmed. You are busy, you are doing a lot of different work, you are reaching out to others—so what do you mean by overwhelmed?”
I was stumped. If I tried to put it into more concrete words I couldn’t. But I will try here: the problem was that my brain would never shut off. I had a constant litany of questions in my head. I was teaching and living and working with people on the lower socio-economic scale in America, and the challenges and traumas and inequalities were piling up on top of me, one after another. I was being forced to reckon with how unreconciled our world was, which was causing me to wonder how reconciled I was to God and my fellow neighbor. Every decision, every relationship, felt fraught with both joy and complications, a way to experience resurrection and also a way to horribly muck things up ever further. I was overwhelmed that the world was so beautiful and terrible, overwhelmed by a very good God who let very bad things happen, all the time. The more my simple and easy solutions failed (literacy classes! Baking Christmas cookies for the neighbors! Raising awareness!) the more undone I felt. I was unmoored in the sea of the realities of life.
So I said it, louder. I was overwhelmed. I got angry at others who did not feel the same as me—all of those nice people on Facebook and Pinterest and Instagram, living their normal lives while everyone I knew was falling apart. I tried to poke sticks at other people, bring up genocides and conflicts and statistics on poverty and racism. I wanted them to bleed like I was bleeding too. I wanted others to be overwhelmed, just as I was. Of course, this only alienated me further. And so the cycle continued.
You can read the rest of the post here.
3. My husband and I saw a trailer for a film called Black or White and we both knew that I would probably have some strong thoughts on it. Correct! I went and saw it and wrote about it for Christ and Pop Culture. Short version: don't watch this problematic, boring film. Except perhaps if you want to see yet another example of how frustrated white males view the "problem" of race relations in America. Here is the beginning of the piece:
I was at a writing retreat once where a bunch of us gathered together to talk about how to write well about social justice issues in our world. A young singer-songwriter with a folksy vibe came and played a set for us. He introduced a song as inspired by how sad he was at the racial divide of the city, and how it seemed that white folks and blacks folks didn’t get along. He launched into a song, the chorus going something like this: we used to sing so beautifully together/perhaps one day we’ll sing together again.
Christians are guilty of rushing along discussions of race, hurrying towards the feel-good conclusions, the proclamations of unity in Christ.After he was done singing, one of my fellow writers—the only black man in our cohort, who also happened to live in North Carolina—asked the singer-songwriter to elaborate on the interactions that inspired the song. The singer stumbled over his words and told a few stories of interacting with African-American folks who to his perception seemed less-than-friendly to white folks. We all sat quietly as he shared his perspective, and later debriefed about that particular song. Why did it make us all feel so uncomfortable? Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, the leader of our group (a man who has been involved in racial reconciliation work for decades now) leaned forward and in his southern drawl poignantly identified the trouble. What I want to know is this: and just when, exactly, did we ever all sing together?
This one question exposed our troubled history in the church—how African-Americans were made to sing in the balconies of churches, or in separate buildings, or forced to start their own denominations in our very recent past—and how often we long to forget that these uncomfortable histories should have any bearing on our present. It showed the fundamental flaw in the perspective of that singer-songwriter, how he was unable to engage in the systems that have produced relational and economic divides in our country. It also proved how uncomfortable it can be to watch white folks struggle with race, especially if they are only committed to engaging on superficial, feel-good levels.
You can read the rest of the piece here.
Also, as a sidenote, I recorded a podcast about this particular essay, and I think it turned out actually pretty good (Tyler Glodjo, my editor, had a good word for us all in regards to the problems inherent in the words "racial reconciliation"). It was also super duper fun to pretend like I was a real actual author who wrote something and then had somebody ask questions about that thing that I wrote and I had to be a little bit prepared to talk about it more. Yay for being stretched!
Well I guess that is all for today. I am working on another list of things I recommend (spoiler alert, I am back into watching TV), so check back for that soon!