D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Category: Contemplation

2018 (and a lil' sabbatical)

I miss writing. I miss my beautiful, uncomplicated brain. I miss not waking up in the mornings with headaches. I miss being a confident person. I miss the way essays would unfurl behind my eyes as I walked through my neighborhood. I miss not being in constant conflict. I miss the days when my thoughts were my own, and I wasn’t constantly judging them through a filter of what I should be saying or how someone would perceive it. I miss creativity.

It’s time for a social media sabbatical. I have been ruminating lately on how my soul is not big enough for Twitter; I am not grounded enough to take in the constant bad news interspersed with humor and intelligence and sermonizing. Every morning I have a crisis of faith as I scroll and scroll and scroll through the litany of despair. I mainly follow activists, and the stories are all different yet alike in the suffering. Every morning I read and the old fears come back to settle like a dense and muddled cape I clutch tightly to my shoulders:

does God even care? 

and

is God any good?

I think the answer to both of those questions is yes, by the way. But in order to live as if I believe that, I need to feed my soul. I need to take a break, mostly due to my own immaturities. I fluctuate between the poles of self-importance (I need everyone to know my opinion on this breaking horrible thing) and paralyzing self-disgust (I am not doing anything with my life and I will never be right or good so what even is the point). I am looking forward to the chance to remember how small I am and yet how I live my actual life really matters.

To those who love social media and find it life giving: I hear you! I have made so many amazing connections, and I have learned so much from the voices I follow. Especially for people in isolated or homogeneous contexts, social media can broaden and expand our worlds and our theologies in profound ways. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the real effects of technology and our unfettered access to trauma.

In some ways I am very much an addict, and I expect the process of taking time away will be tough. I plan on stepping away from social media (except my private instagram account) until Easter. I will be on once a week to share links to articles and such (I already have a few writing projects planned that I am very excited to share). I am having my husband change my passwords and everything, since I don’t have much self-control.

One thing I know I will really miss is the goofy and helpful nature of y’all. I think one of the main reasons I am so active on places like Twitter is because I am a little bit lonely in real life. I don’t think this is a negative thing, but it is one side effect of being the mother of young children and living in a neighborhood where my friendships are primarily with people from very different backgrounds. It is a lovely, chaotic, beautiful life. But I miss out on pop culture conversations or connecting with Christians doing good work around our country or being intellectually challenged. And social media has offered me all of these things! To everyone who interacts with me, I am so grateful for you. And I will see you again soon.

In the meantime, I will be diving into writing more (and hopefully longer pieces). You can always email me (I can’t promise I will get to it in a timely manner, but I read and treasure every message). You can sign up for my newsletter, which I will send out once a month. In the newsletter I will let you know where I am traveling and who is inspiring me and what I am reading/listening/watching.

//

Here’s to a 2018 fill of digging deep inner wells. Here’s to accepting who we are, instead of wishing to be someone we are not. Here’s to learning how to forgive others and ourselves. Here’s to holding people accountable for their actions, and to commiting to the life of conflict that true peacemaking entails. Here’s to finding our place in the movement. Here’s to not missing out on what is right in front of us. Here's to doing the hard work of soul-care, perhaps the biggest act of resistance we have.

 

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the summer of mustard seeds

I almost forgot my password for the blog, so I know it's been a long time. School ended in the middle of June and we have floundered, predictably, ever since. Half of my time is spent gazing out the window while my children argue and scream over some small slight and I wonder at what all is going on in the big wide world; the other half I am in a frenzy of research, internet scrolling, keeping up with the horrors of politics, both local and big, always behind on emails and ideas. 

It's the summer of la croix (who am I kidding, the past 4-5 summers have been the summer sparkling water). the summer of trying every kind of pan dulce at the tienda. the summer I got a tattoo inspired by the parable of the mustard seed (and done in the style of Ade Bethune, the artist for The Catholic Worker). it has been a pleasantly hot, rain-free summer. saturdays we see everyone at the school for a BBQ event for the kids, once or twice a week we get together with neighbors, I see people at church and at Tuesday night prayer, but mostly I am alone with my children. When my husband is home a few mornings a week I try and slip out to write but instead find myself filling up my precious few hours with meetings, so many meetings, or answering emails or applying for grants.

one moment I think to myself: what am I doing? I am doing nothing. I am kissing babies and trying not to lose my temper and cooking meals and keeping tabs of all that we need and all that we want and all that we can't afford. nobody in my family is very good at crowds and chaos and unfettered free time so in a tangle we rove around the house together, making messes and cleaning up, playing for a few precious moments in the sun-filtered outdoors, clamoring around for more screen time, reading the same precious books over and over again. What am I doing? I am being a mom.

the other moments I think to myself: how am I doing it all? I have been working on a few writing projects that have staggered me emotionally (why, o why do I choose to exclusively write about gentrification, racial injustice, and white supremacy these days?). I will have two stories on the covers of magazines this year, and a few pieces up in places I have never published before but have long admired. I interview people (badly) sometimes. I read and read and read and never quite have the time to sit down and start writing what I hope is another book. instead, when I open my computer I see the dozens and dozens of emails that linger, begging something from me. I helped start a non-profit this year, which is simultaneously draining and life-giving. We are trying to start places of welcome and hospitality for refugees and immigrants in E Portland (now more than ever this feels urgent). The work is slow and tangled and complicated and full of forms and expenses, but the end result will be good, we know this. None of us get paid and we all get more added to our plates every day, because the need is there and we are here too. I feel the transition. the one between where I would see a need and rush to fill it, and the place I am in now: I see too many needs, and I want to create pathways for other people to join in the process, I want us all to be changed by the ways of radical hospitality and mutual relationships. I train other people to run English classes and welcome centers, I stand by while they do the work I always did: standing at the front, greeting people, serving coffee and tea and snacks, gathering people from so many places who are hungry to learn, hungry for connection, hungry for a space in the wilderness that is our neighborhood. 

and always, always, there is the undercurrent. the thought that never leaves me, that I am never doing enough. there are so many people, so many apartments, so many friends. so many injustices, so many meals being prepared the same way they have for generations, so many children running around trying to save every little ladybug and flower that they find. the needs, the experiences, the relationships spiral out from me in circles, ripples that I cannot catch. I have no rhythm or routine, just my children asking for more water to drink, my thoughts gnawing on some problem or another, a thousand different points I need to try and connect, both online and in my real life.

I am never enough for the people in my life. Sometimes this thought crushes me, sometimes it liberates. I read my Bible in the mornings and drink my coffee and write my frantic thoughts for three pages in my journal. I relish the cool Oregon morning air and the fact that my husband gets up with the kids so I can have a few moments to collect my scattered and despairing and curious self. I drink sparkling water as if I was royalty and share empanadas stuffed with coconut cream or pineapple with my children. I hang out with a refugee friend and know that she needs more from me than I can give, I read text messages full of problems too complicated to fathom. I watch silly TV shows at night and glory in the luxury of a partner who listens to anything I might want to process about. I grieve my country and the religion that has co-opted it, every day. 

And then I get up, and do it all over again. minute by minute, this summer, this year, this life is being built. And the reason I am writing this out right now is to tell myself something that I know I have a hard time believing. it all matters. every second of it. the kingdom of God comes through small things. seeds of obedience, of self-sacrifice. seeds of tiny little pleasures and the seeds of listening patiently to little children with big emotions. and of course, the seed that is hardest for me to honor the most of all, is the one I am becoming friends with, it is starting to sprout and grow. 

the seed of accepting that you are not as useful as you once were, that you are small and fragile and yet still driven to stretch out, wherever your are, reaching for the birds looking for a place to sit and rest.

 

 

 

 

(I hope your summer is going well! a few quick things: my book is currently on sale for kindle for 1.99 and it ends on 7/31 so snatch it up! secondly, I'm still sending out my newsletter every once in awhile which includes a round-up of all the places I am writing at. Thirdly, if any local folks want to help out with the Refugee and Immigrant Hospitality Organization, hit me up! We are always in need of volunteers . . .)

 

transitions (on upward mobility)

 

I’ve lived most of my married life in low-income or affordable housing (almost nine years now). I’m known for waxing poetic about the great things about life in the upside-down kingdom, about the benefits of downward mobility. But here, on my first full day of living in my brand-new-to-me house, a house that I bought and that I own, I have been thinking a lot about all the apartments in my past. I’m 32, married, with two kids, I cook and clean and wrestle strong-willed small people all day long. I go to parent meetings at the local elementary school, I shop at the discount liquidator grocery stores, I try and exercise every now and again. Tonight I stared into space as my baby splashed in the bath, tired after a long couple of days of moving and unpacking and painting. Our new bathtub is nice—new fixtures, a shower head that actually has water pressure. As my baby happily babbled to himself I thought of a movie and a scene that had struck me. My husband and I watched the film Short Term 12 a few years ago and in it there is a scene where the protagonist takes a bath. Lining the bathtub was a strip of mold, dark gray/green. When I saw that scene, I gasped. I too, like taking bubble baths from time to time. It is the introverts haven—also, no electronics are allowed. But for the past nine years I have lived in places with disgusting bathtubs—cigarette burns and yellow stains, mold lining the sides no matter how hard you scrub with bleach. And still, desperate for some peace and to get away from my crazy life, I would light candles and pour in the soap and maybe carefully break a bath bomb from Lush into four pieces and use one section, saving the rest for a later date. I would grit my teeth and take a bath and try and forget everything around me. So what did it mean to me to see that girl in the film take a bath in an old, grungy tub? What did it mean for me to see it and identify with her, and realize that she was poor, in that this is what luxury she was afforded? I suddenly know: this is what she lived with, and she did the best with it that she could.

That’s what I tried to do, too. 

 

//

 

Here are some things I did not like about living in low-income apartments:

 

Mold (in the bathtubs, windowsills, creeping up the walls when the upstairs neighbors overflowed their toilet).

Cockroaches.

Mice.

Ants (one time we had anthills literally explode out of our carpet)

Not having screens on our doors/windows

Listening to people scream at each other

Listening to people drink themselves to death.

Listening to our upstairs neighbor pass out over and over again, crashing like a ton of bricks onto the floor. Listening as he fell out his window and broke his arm. 

Outlets that never worked, or that cords would just fall out of. 

Doors that were warped and didn’t close properly.

Door with holes in them, doors that previous renters had punched in their anger.

Carpets that smelled likes years of cigarettes and grease. 

Entryways littered with cigarette butts.

Entryways with shattered bullet proof glass. 

Trash in the shrubbery, always.

The fire alarm for the entire building being tripped constantly, usually after one of my children was already asleep and in bed, forcing me to wake them up and take them outside in the cold/dark, wondering if there was really a fire this time or if it was another case of too many sticks on incense. 

Stoves that were temperamental, burners that were stuck on high, ovens that were lopsided. 

No counter space. 

Loud neighbors, even when they are cute toddlers or people celebrating their glorious holidays in their own culturally appropriate ways.

So many other things, most of which are not appropriate to write in a public blog. 

 

 

 

Here are some things I do miss about living in low-income apartment complexes:

 

The people. The glorious, chaotic, amazing, troubling, people. Oh my Lord they broke my heart in so many ways, Oh my Lord they healed me of things I didn’t even know I needed fixing. 

 

//

 

My neighbor told me she will no longer open her window anymore, since both I and our dear friend both moved out in the space of a few days. Before, I could not sit in a chair on my porch without one of these two women calling out to me, usually asking me to come over and visit. Not once, not once, did I sit in a chair and drink a cup of coffee and contemplate anything. There were too many people I knew, too many others living life in this communal space. This neighbor, she looks at me very gravely. I have shown her my new house as we walk back and forth to school, and I tell her that she will visit. She says she will, but I don’t know if she will. I tried to give her a few things as we moved, but she waved me away. She didn’t want anything. All she wants to do is sit in the sun by herself and think for awhile. She might be moving soon, herself. A refugee, she is used to instability, used to saying goodbye. 

 

I know the right words to say: we bought this house to invest in this neighborhood. And it’s true, as true as I can make a statement be. But the layers of meaning—that we were able to get a loan, for instance, or that my husband earns enough to pay the mortgage, that we don’t have to send every extra penny we make to family members across the globe or in our own city, that we have the freedom to think of ourselves—it all adds up to something more complicated. I am happy for my children to have their own bedrooms, to decorate them in cute ways, I am happy for a backyard for my active little boy and the hardwood floors that thrill my heart. 

I know I only moved around the corner, that I will see my friends at the school and at the grocery store and at English class, but I am still so afraid. I am afraid of what this all means, owning my first home and how I know the cares of life grow sweetly around us until all of the sudden they have choked the good news until we cannot recognize it. Because the thing is the good news for me has always been made real in people, in the poor and the sick and the sad. In the midst of mold and cockroaches and loud noises. And so I am afraid of distance and safety and comfort and pleasure and I am scared of how to be me in this unequal and unjust world. 

 

Jesus, I have stopped asking you to make it easier. Now, I just feel comfort knowing that you lived your life with an eye to the inequalities too. Is that what makes our hearts and homes such fertile ground for your kingdom to grow? I don't know. All I know is my place right now just happens to look like a beautiful little house in the middle of a neighborhood full of the struggling. A place where I look at my gorgeous baby in that white tub, feel grateful for all that I have been given, and still burst into tears at the thought of all the sorrows that surround us. 

 

 

On Top of the World

In the airplane, I put on my headphones [this is the first time I have flown since we moved back to Portland 10 months prior, the first time I have ever left my baby behind, the first time I am going somewhere to talk about my writing, the first time I wore boots and a faux-leather jacket borrowed from my sister in order to appear confident, calm, professional, put-together].

The words and music that pour forth unnerve me [ I had listened to my husband’s weird and wild and quirky album before, sure—while I cleaned the house or had the same conversation ten times in a row with my child. My husband knew for some reason I needed to hear it through his fancy headphones, in a suspended place, I needed to pay attention. My husband is bearded, kind, adorable. He hides his angst and is learning to better understand that it is OK to be angry at things that are unjust and unwell].

During my talk, I unabashedly cribbed from my husband and his songs [I said, to a certain extent, that I love to write troubled, to write scared, to approach our life and work and our compulsion towards meaning-making with a bent towards complicating matters. Heaven knows Twitter wants to take my thoughts and make them short and snappy and sanctimonious. Heaven knows I want to be seen as good and perfect and an artist and an activist. Heaven knows we are just grappling, all the time, with the ways the devil convinces us that the world should work]. 

So here, I will just leave them here. The words that reveal so much about our hearts. We long for that equitable kingdom to come. We long for it to not cost us so much. But the very best things are worth everything, aren’t they?

 

 

Top of the World 

By The Maiden Name

 

 

top of the world 

bourgeois at least 

it’s clear it’s engineered 

for folks like me 

top of my game, I mean top of the game 

but then again from my end I didn’t really have to compete 

 

white, straight, master’s degree 

cards lined up in hand, so it’s guaranteed 

that this world will work for me, was built for me 

my demographics is my skeleton key, 

 

at least this system runs 

so let’s tweak it gently 

yeah, when the Kingdom comes, 

let’s, let’s change things gently 

 

power isn’t a problem 

gotta get it in the right hands 

fingers in front of me are fit enough 

just watch, I’ve got compassionate plans 

 

let’s raise wages just enough 

don’t raise the prices 

and don’t lower my salary 

or take away any of my write-offs 

 

we’ve basically arrived, right? 

seems like it from where I stand 

at the top the game, it’s good 

offer the less fortunate a helping hand 

 

justice vs. compassion, take the latter every time 

it feels better to give than to pay a proper dime 

 

let’s raise the valleys 

without tearing the mountains down 

I want justice to roll down like river 

but I’m afraid I might drown 

 

I’m opposed to violence 

and I’m opposed to not feeling safe 

and when those two come head to head 

I’m still not sure which choice I would make 

and I used to avoid paying war-taxes 

by keeping my income low enough 

but with both of us working 

can’t bring myself to donate the surplus 

and my neighbors next door 

yeah, they’re on the run from war 

while I’ve been sitting on my sofa 

writing theology behind closed doors 

yeah, I’m safe and I’m secure, 

even in my neighborhood 

they say it’s the hood, hood 

but I know that I don’t look like you’ll think I’m up to no good 

 

so I walk down dark streets 

and I don’t look over my shoulder, 

and if there’s no one I have to meet 

then I’ll walk a little slower 

without a worry or a care 

I take my walks without falter 

maybe that’s the reason why never had 

any use for the Psalter 

 

question: can I ever be saved? 

you know my face looks enraged 

but I have slave trade chocolate 

silently running through my veins 

before we give these valleys a raise, let’s wait 

cause I’ve escaped the curse at the cost 

of inequality’s iron rod 

of others being crushed by the weight 

of a system I did not create 

but I’ve bought into it in a literal way 

my money for products at a low wage 

my vote working in what I pay 

my heart in exchange for what I gain 

my soul in exchange for what I save 

I’ve never worked the ground from which I was made 

-can I ever be saved? 

 

Up on a mountain looking down 

you only see loss 

so when the Kingdom comes 

I know it will come with a cost 

I know it cost someone like me a lot 

 

I want to justice to roll on like a river 

its current to flow strong and mighty 

but I want to keep my feet dry 

and from what I hear that’s just not likely 

 

what did I go out into the desert to see? 

a wind-swayed reed? 

did I hope to stay as I am? 

or did I hope to be redeemed?

 

 

(You can listen to the song/hear the rest of the album here)

 

 

 

 

On Running Well

A few weeks ago, I ran a half marathon. I didn’t do too badly, either (10:40 miles, for those who wonder about such things). 

If you had told me a few years ago that I would run for 13.1 miles, that I would run for over two hours straight, I would have just laughed and laughed. Me? The non-competitive, doughy, un-athletic girl who has never ran more than a single lap without wanting to die in her entire life? Um, I don’t think so. 

But then life happens. I had a baby five years ago and the only way to get some peace and quiet was to strap her into a stroller and walk briskly. I started breaking into a very slow form of jogging every now and again, and soon enough, I found I could run a mile. And then, slowly, slowly, I could run two. And I started to discover that there was this way to get out of the house and get into my head and benefit my body all at the same time. And best of all—it was free! Feet slowly pounding the pavement, I worked through my thoughts and saw patterns emerging or new puzzles forming or interesting ideas just wouldn’t wander away and I started to get to know myself a little bit better. The years of doing doing doing, of school and crappy jobs and getting married and then new motherhood had made me lose myself, a bit. Running became a way to reclaim a small space, just for me and my thoughts. Although it didn’t feel like the prayer I was used to, it also became a way to notice what God was up to, all around me.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that right around the time I started running, I started writing in earnest. 

Although I run consistently, I have never been fast, or terribly in shape, or very committed to schedules and training. So signing up to run a half marathon was scary for me. But the past year has taught me a lot about overcoming, about kicking anxiety to the curb, about not giving up and giving into fear. I found a half marathon that looked nice. Easy. There were many pictures on the website of overweight women dressed in pink tutus. The course was flat, along a gorgeous river. There was brunch at the end. This will be perfect I thought. A fantastic empowering experience, surrounded by others just like myself, with cinnamon rolls galore to eat at the end.

The training went ok. I slowly started to run farther than I thought I could. A few miles into my long runs, when I knew I had a few more miles to go, I would be tempted to quit. I would tell my legs you’ve got this. You’ve trained for this. You can do this. It was a little counseling sesh for me, each time. It felt pretty good. At the end, I would feel tired, but accomplished. Sometimes I would remind myself: hey, remember how you almost died but didn’t? How you barely could leave your room for months because you were so worried something bad would happen to your baby? How you stopped driving for awhile? Remember when you moved across the country, how you wrote a book, how you are always putting yourself in a position as an outsider among outsiders? I tried to remind myself of the good and the bad, to recognize how it all has affected me and yet—here I still am. Pounding my feet into the pavement. Expecting something different. Doing new, harder things than I would have thought possible. Hoping that it will work out. 

Leaning into faith, undergirded by showing up and putting in the work. There is a reason writers love to talk about running. The metaphors practically write themselves. 

 

//

 

I ran a half marathon a few weeks ago. I ran it with my friend Lindsey, who has also had her fair share of troubles and disappointments in her young life. It was a beautiful morning, slightly cold but sunny. I noticed, however, that everyone lining up at the starting gate seemed like actual, well, runners. Long, lean legs. Men with severe faces and aerodynamic sunglasses. Short shorts and energy gels and fanny packs and t-shirts declaring they had run entire marathons before. I started to feel nervous. Wasn’t this supposed to be a slow-lady-empowering-brunch race? We started running, and it became clear that no, it wasn’t. And so began the next 2.5 hours of my life of getting passed by people, feeling slower and stupider with every mile. Still, I trudged along, ticking the miles off in my head, listening to a blend of empowering pop music (“Magic” by b.o.b. and Hamilton featuring prominently), trying to be content within my limitations. I thought about running as a way to combat anxiety, as a way to show my five year old daughter that women are strong, as a way of creating more space for myself and my body in the world. But my the end of the race, these empowering thoughts had left me. I was too tired to keep running, but to walk the last mile or so would have taken forever. So I just went on.

At the finish line, my family was there—my husband and my two kids and my parents and my sister. They cheered for me and I got that last burst of speed and made it across. I sat down in the grass and thought about throwing up. I did not feel empowered. I did not feel proud of my accomplishments. I felt happy to see my family, but overall I just felt very tired, and like nothing much at all had changed. I was still chubby, still slightly sad, still anxious about things both big and small.  I thought: I’m still just me.

 

//

 

I have only gone running a few times in the past 2 weeks. It doesn’t come easy. It feels like I have gone back to square one. But it has been sunny and I know it is good for me, so I go. Even though I don’t look like one, I am a runner. Even though I’m not very fast, I can run a long ways. Even though I never expected this for my life, I have two kids and live surrounded on all sides by immigrants and people experiencing poverty, I teach English to people to try and help make their lives better in any small way I can, I wrote a book and soon it will be going out into the world for good and for ill. My life keeps changing, I keep being surrounded by the saddest stories I have ever heard and yet am asked to imagine miracles taking place. “Holding on grimly,” writes Walter Brueggmann, “is an act of atheism.” Ol’ Brueggie is right. Both letting go and taking wild leaps of faith seem to characterize myself these days.

A few months ago I got an email asking if I would like to come and be a part of a writing conference, they were asking me if I would like to speak about something in relation to faith and writing. It seemed so ludicrous to me. Did they know that I slept on a mattress on the floor, that we didn’t have enough money to buy curtains, that I woke up sad most days and unable to do much more than keep everyone in my immediate family alive and clothed and fed? I said yes, but inside felt fraudulent. I never imagined these extremes for myself. I never realized what a hard thing it would be to bounce between being microscopically small in real life, and in plumping myself up big to send words out to a bigger audience. If you had told me, years ago, how mundane and hard real life would be, punctuated occasionally by big grand adventures, I would have stared at you, uncomprehendingly. 

Now, all I can do is laugh and laugh. And that, in its own way, feels like a gift I have not earned.

 

//

 

 We can do hard things is a sort of mantra I hear tossed out a lot, usually towards and from women, urging us to be strong, to overcome, to empower. It’s the type of sentiment I assumed would carry me through running a stupidly long distance, a sentiment I have clung to in hospitals and waiting rooms, in the dark cold hours of a sleepless morning, the dull hopeless moments of the sun setting down on another night. 

Did I do a hard thing, when I ran that half marathon? I talked about it with my friend Lindsey later. We ran a race, that was all. We did it, we felt really sore afterwards, I’m not sure either of us are going to do it again. Lindsey said something that stuck with me. I’ve done a lot of hard things in my life she said. And running that race wasn’t one of them

When the past few years of your life have been hard, perhaps running along a river with a bunch of other (privileged) people who could afford to pay the entrance fee, had the time to train, bought new shoes with adequate arch support isn’t the most telling indicator of your spiritual and emotional health. It was a thing I did, and now it is over. I learned a few things, like that I am much more competitive than I give myself credit for. That when I do something, I want to do it well. That I can change, and be different, than who I thought I would be at 32. I am a teensy bit driven. I am a teensy bit ambitious. I got mad when all of those other runners passed me, when I thought I would just be thrilled to the point of tears at even making it across the finish line.

 But here’s the other thing I learned: I didn’t feel the glow of empowerment overwhelm me at the end, I wasn’t overcome with my own resilience, I didn’t glory in the pride of my accomplishment. Because deep down I knew I could do it. I had kicked my anxiety to the curb a long time ago, and now I am just in the business of managing it. Of course I did a hard thing. I, like so many in our world, so many who live next door to me, live a hard life. And yet we keep showing up for it, day after day after day.

 

 

 

 

 

//

 

 

 

 

PSSSST if you are at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids this week, PLEASE say hi to me! I will be the one with short, very fake blonde hair wearing serious I AM A WRITER glasses (Warby Parks, naturally). I will be doing a session on Thursday at 4:30PM with Chris Hoke and Dennis Covington on “Portraiture and Power: On Representing the Lives of Others.” I perceive this session to be very interesting and chock-full of questions! I am also very pleased it will be moderated by the one and only Jeff Chu. 

 

I’ll also be on a Saturday AM panel (bright and EARLY at 8:30) with a bunch of the greats (John Wilson, Rachel Marie Stone, Chris Smith, and Richard Kauffman) talking about “The Art and Craft of the Book Review.” If you come to this one I will know you love me bc it is so dang early.

 

Looking forward to seeing at least a few of you there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Privilege of Lent

Lord, not many of us could sustain hope in the midst of such horrors as Apartheid South Africa. Thank you for the witness of people like Nelson Mandela, who remind us that hope is a lifeline for those who hang by the threads of injustice. As long as there are people held in captivity, oppressed, and denied basic human rights, help us all to consider ourselves to be hanging by the same frail threads.
— From Common Prayer for today

 

I drive 25 minutes to my parents house, my children in the backseat. We take the back-route, winding through our burnt-out suburb and heading into the hills and farms and subdivisions. Every once in awhile the trees clear out and I see them, scattered up and down the gorgeous green hills: large houses, in various shades of brown, pristine and similar. Every once in awhile the thought creeps into my brain: there are enough people in this area to afford to live in these houses? Houses that cost upwards of half a million, 4 and 5 bedrooms, backyards and play structures, two car garages? How can there be so many people with money, I wonder, truly in awe. But it's obvious to me that this is true, although it does not speak to my reality. As soon as the questions appear in my heart I shrink back into myself. The layers of disbelief, judgement, sadness, isolation come and go in waves. I am starting to make peace with the idea that I might always be in culture shock, all the rest of my days.

In a book I am reading, the author discusses two stories which are placed side by side in the Scriptures, but which are often told separately. First, Jesus stands on top of a great green hillside, and he feeds the 5,000 people. And right after that, his disciples go out on the water and get caught up in a terrible, chaotic storm, where Jesus eventually meets them. The book said, we look at those two stories side by side, and we accept them as true. For every person sitting on a hill with Jesus, their every need met, there is another in the midst of a terrifying pitch-black storm. Both are real. And the sooner we accept the truth of where we are, the sooner we can accept the truth of where others live. 

This leaves me weepy with gratitude. It feels beyond my power to change my personality anymore. I am a stormy person. I am more Hamilton than Burr (I can't talk less or smile more). I am also drawn to other such persons—the hollow-eyed, the doubters, the single-minded activists, the outsider voices. And this is ok. This is my reality, and I accept it (even as I wish it weren’t so, as I wish it were all easier, more tidy, that I was more content). And already, by voicing this, I can see it starting in my heart: my indifference towards others is getting smaller. I can see us all coming from different places, I can see the beauty in a kingdom that thrives on vast and varied lives and perspectives. 

At least, that is what I am hoping for. Hello to being honest about where we are, whether in the storm or on that great, green hillside. 

//

The way I celebrate Lent is very non-denominational. It’s all over the map. It is for the messy and tired and for people who can’t parse out all the theological reasons for it. Some years I skip it altogether, and it’s great. But this year, I feel the prickling to actually do a few things. Like: I will not be mindlessly scrolling on my favorite social media spaces (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). I’m not going to check out any hot new book titles from the library. I will decrease the clutter of words and focus on a slow reading of my own bookshelves, choosing those books that nourish me. I hope to create some emotional margin in my life so I can start an ESL class/tutoring time in my apartment complex. I will be praying along with Common Prayer every morning (feel free to join me!). I want to start dreaming up ways for me to get outside the boxes I still continually build up for myself. 

But there is something else, something more amorphous, that I am feeling drawn towards this year. Pope Francis says we should give up our indifference for Lent this year, and I agree. And we all flounder in this area, no matter where we live—at least, I certainly do. Lately I have found myself surrounded by books and tv shows and churches where there seemed to be no sense of the struggle. The struggle against inequality, the struggle against complement consumerism, the struggle against a system that isn’t just broken but rather insidiously designed to elevate some at the expense of so many others. Any time someone mentioned a good gift from God I wanted to scream and cry in rage, my mind flooded with the thoughts of all of those who don’t receive that same thing. If you are blessed, does that mean they are cursed? I had lost it, all of my perspective—whatever that means. I had a bad week and my depression made me feel alone, drifting further and further into my own mind. 

But then I opened up this book in a coffee shop and I was sobbing before I knew it, especially when the author started talking about testimonies:

“Jesus fed me when I was hungry, we hear, and those who are hungry feel bereft. Jesus healed me when I was sick, say the healthy, and the burdened feel more burdened. Meditation cured me of depression, say some, and others make plans to hide the Prozac. Upon whom is the burden of words? I don’t know. I don’t think there is an answer. I cannot dampen gladness because it will burden the unglued. But I cannot proclaim gladness as a promise that will only shackle the already bound. Faith shadows some and it shelters others . . . Hello to what we do not know.”

And there it was, what I needed to say: hello to recognizing where we are.

Hello to the hard work of not becoming indifferent to all of those not in the exact same spot as ourselves. 

//

Today is Ash Wednesday and I will not have time nor be able to attend a service. I will not be marked by an ashy gray cross on my head, but this is OK for me. I grew up never celebrating this particular holiday, I would feel like an outsider amidst the language and the ritual, but perhaps in the future I will risk baring my ignorance and attend one all the same. I think about what I know of Ash Wednesday, how it begins: a bright green palm leaf, so exotic, so full of promise, waved around a sanctuary by joyous and un-scarred children. And then, that same leaf, a year later: dried out, burned, ground into ash, smeared onto the foreheads of murky, complicated souls on their way to the next trial to be overcome. 

I have been thinking how marked I have been by my life, by my friends, by all the very hard stories I heard last week, or last month, or last year. What a sorrow, what a privilege, to be scarred like this. To carry a reminder,  everywhere you go.  Always, always, hidden in your heart: the ashes of those lives around you which are hanging on by a thread. 

 

Lord, hear our prayers. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Guns

I am in the WIC office, there to answer some questions and get my vouchers from the government for free food—the milk, the cheese, the cereal. The woman is pleasant and professional, she coos over my fat little baby and tests the iron in my blood. I don’t drink or smoke or eat all that unhealthily, and I answer questions in a conciliatory manner. Five years ago I was in this same office with my firstborn, I remember it all—the dingy gray walls, the posters with fruits and vegetables arranged in a rainbow. As the woman gives me the informational packet, she rattles off what I can and cannot get—yes to tuna, no to those fancy-ass organic eggs—and then she gets to the juice page. She purses her lips and pauses. I interrupt her, eager to please—Oh, we don’t drink juice in our home. She is visibly relieved, and nods her head approvingly. We share a smile of those in-the-know. She finishes entering up all of my information in the computer, and I bounce my son on my knee. It’s just so crazy, she says, more to herself than to me. Years ago we used to be worried about people being vitamin C deficient, so we put juice on the vouchers. Now we know that in the long run, giving your kids juice is so much more harmful than any residual vitamin benefits might be. It just causes so many problems, it’s just so contradictory. She looks at me and shrugs. But, you know. We are a government program. And the juice lobby is pretty powerful.

I leave the office, my vouchers clutched in my hand. I didn’t know, until just now. I keep my baby's teeth free from the sugary juices, and I feel good inside. But there are so many others, caught up in a game of making money off of the most vulnerable in our society. Women, Infants, and Children. We are nothing compared to those that whisper in the ears of the powerful. We drink our juice, and it sure does go down easy.

//

I always try and think of cheerful and yet accurate ways to describe my neighborhood. I never know if I am hearing gunshots or fireworks I tell people brightly, my anecdote tightly crafted. My neighborhood is under-resourced, pre-gentrification, “diverse”, post-urban. I want people to know something about me because of where I live. I am tough yet hopeful. Sometimes it’s actually both. Gunshots and fireworks, I mean.

One day I was putting my daughter to bed. I was pregnant with my son. I am patting her back and I hear gunshots, loud. It does not really sound like fireworks at all, it sounds like it is right outside of my window. In the end, I never know how close it is, if it happened in my front yard or in the back alley. It is all so disorienting to me. I am not afraid, probably because I did not see the gun, I did not see the person holding it, and myself have never been at the business end of a revolver.

One time, we called the police on a neighbor. He had been in a downward spiral for a while and there was a lot of drug activity, a lot of shouting, women wandering the hallways wearing nothing but an open trench coat, extremely lost. The screaming got so loud that grown men stood frozen in the stairwells, the shouts bringing back memories that made us all long for quiet. We called the police because at that time we didn’t know any better. The police showed up and they had guns that looked fake—so large and so black in such bulky yet long shapes. They waved them everywhere, running down the hallways, my daughter asleep behind paper thin walls. They screamed at us to get on the floor. Our neighbor barricaded himself and his guests inside, refusing to let anyone leave. There was a lot of pounding and shouting. And then, he left with them. The police questioned my husband, because he was the one who called. They were very unkind. Why do you live here? One asked, but it was not in a curious tone of voice. We reported him, we did not appreciate his attitude. We now knew why nobody else had called the police, preferring to walk quickly and quietly into their own apartments and to shut their doors.

//

When I was in high school, I was in a play. It was loosely based off of the Kip Kinkle school shooting—in Thurston, Oregon--where that sweet-faced boy with the bowl cut went and stopped the hearts of four people with the bullets of a gun. I played the shooter’s girlfriend, who breaks up with him for another boy. The play ends with all of the characters—a best friend, a teacher, a rival—standing on stage dressed in white. When we are shot, we each take our right hand, full of ketchup, and plaster it over our hearts before crumpling to the ground. We gave a several performances at our high school and then did a mini-tour of a few other places. I can still remember lying on the worn-out stage, breathing heavily, the smell of tomatoes and vinegar upsetting my stomach, the loud silence of an audience shocked and excited by the drama of it all. We held Q and A’s after the performance, but I don’t remember much of what we talked about. It was so horrible, so horrible, we would have told anyone. These kinds of shootings have got to stop. We really thought we were making a difference, our eyes sober and clear, our hands full of ketchup. The shooter was lonely, he felt wronged by the world. If you are sad, talk to someone. If you are sad, don’t shoot anyone. In my own heart, I knew what the answer was. It was love, always love. If you loved all the people, then nothing bad would ever happen. I didn’t know that there were so many more factors, so many more unseen forces, all pulling us in the same direction.

//

My husband grew up in Roseburg, Oregon. A mill town, small and sleepy with hints of generational poverty hovering everywhere. He took swimming lessons at Umpqua Community College. A shooter walked in there today and killed 10 people, and injured more. I imagine my husband as a small boy—brown eyes and hair bleached blonde by the southern Oregon sun—paddling underwater, carefree.

We live several hours from there, now. Our landlord is a real character, small and fidgety, dressed professionally but with eyes that dart all around. The rumor is that when he first showed up a year or two ago he wore a bulletproof vest and went door to door, evicting all of the tenants engaged in illegal and violent activity. I don’t know if it’s true but there is a stillness to where we live now; families, mostly immigrants and refugees, push strollers through the parking lot. I went for a walk this afternoon and there was a young boy on a pink bike, pedaling furiously. In the back of his shirt he had a long plastic assault rifle delicately tucked.

//

I have been a bit depressed, these past few months. I went and saw a counselor for the first time the other day. She looked at me and she was so calm. You have a lot of anxiety, she told me. Yes, it was true. Things had happened in the past few months: I almost died in childbirth, my son got very sick, I moved across the country, I changed jobs. Our brains always want to solve a problem, my counselor told me. Your brain wants to solve the problem of you being anxious. This was why I was depressed, why the future felt like one long horrible event to be endured, why I found no joy or pleasure in my current situation or in thinking of what would come next. Buckle down and survive, was the answer to my existential questions. Suicidal tendencies can be the same. The brain just wants to solve the problems of sadness and misery. It’s not a good solution, but the brain never made those promises. It just fixes the problem.

Death is your trigger said my counselor, and I knew it was true. I lived in neighborhoods where thirteen year old boys were shot and killed in front of the community center. I worked within refugee communities where the stories of trauma piled on top of one another. Everyone had dead babies, starving relatives, stories of rape and war and famine. Sometimes it felt like everyone I knew had stared down the barrel of a gun. And sometimes I would log into my Facebook, and scroll past the posts. The ones about second amendment rights and tyrannical governments and yellow-bellied liberals. I thought about how protected the people who own guns are, and I thought about the rest of us. The women, the infants, the children. How we are just pawns in a game that was started long before we were born. That there were lobbies, ears being twisted, mouths moving fast, to keep our rights free.


It doesn’t matter that it isn’t good for us, it doesn’t matter that it is the most vulnerable that pay the highest price. We have rights, is the thing. And besides, it probably won’t ever happen again.

 

 

 

A few questions I got asked recently.

Q: what drains you about relational/apartment/incarnational/missional/neighborly/whatever-the-heck-we-are-calling-it-now living?

A: Hearing the domestic disputes through the paper-thin walls. Loud, angry voices, at all hours of the day. Wondering if you should call the cops, then being very regretful when you do. The cockroaches. The mice. The anthills exploding up through the carpet. The constant threat of bedbugs. 

Becoming embedded in a community and a neighborhood so different from the one you were brought up in, far from the successes and the upwardly mobile of the world, then being asked on a dime to enter back into the other America, where you are meant to smile and give poignant updates and do no harm and not make anyone feel terribly guilty all the while withering inside for more people to just do the hardest simple things, to be planted and sprinkled like seeds throughout the entire world, to be relationally embedded, to commit to not going anywhere. to try to communicate both the depths of trauma and chaos and despair and also speak into words the fact that you have met Christ here, the one you had always dreamed about, the kindest, best, most prophetic, caring, angry Savior one could ever hope for, and he is out wandering the wilderness and he cannot possibly be as tame as we desire him to be. 

also: trying to convert people. 

 

 

Q: what energizes you?

praying with people and reading the scriptures, begging for eyes to see and hearts to obey, none of us knowing the answers, our eyes continually grower wider and wider to the ways the Spirit moves in the world, experiencing the kingdom here and now, longing with broken hearts for it to come in full. 

acknowledging the truth that I am a privileged, racist, emotional girl, working through her savior complexes and moralistic interpretations of scripture, moving into a neighborhood with so much baggage as to be back-breaking, a do-gooder, a mistake-maker, a failure, a colonizer. and people, my neighbors, choosing to love me anyway: reading scripture, opening doors, showing up to classes, cooking me meals, shoving presents and dollars bills into my daughter's hands, texting me, embracing me, enveloping me with clouds of perfume and jangles of bracelets, accepting me just as I am, their eyes seeing right through me, their hearts of love and hospitality healing me more than I could have ever known I needed. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Post On Advent

 

The last thing the world needs is another depthless post on Advent. This doesn't mean our world doesn't need a bit of good news about light entering into the darkness--no, we sure could still use that. But we surely don't need another post yammering on about expectation and longing, all self-contained and individualized, ignoring the fact that a large portion of humanity is suffering terribly right now--that people are hungry for freedom and justice, ready for the systems of oppression to fall now. All people have to lose is their chains. And they are tired of waiting.

//

I had the absolute privilege to hear Dr. William Barber preach a sermon. Me, white girl from the NW, sitting in front of the leader of the Moral Mondays civil resistance movement, a man who so believes in Jesus--that he came to preach good news to the poor, the sick, and the sad--that he he cannot stop preaching--even when he is the general assembly for the state of North Carolina and it gets him arrested. 

Dr. Barber pointed out that the birth of Jesus involves mourning. Not just holy longing, but gasping, painful sorrow. Matthew 2 quotes Jeremiah:

 

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be comforted,

because they are no more.”

 

This isn't the song we like to sing at Christmas, but it is one that too many already know by heart. It is hard for me not to think of Trayvon, Mike Brown, Eric Garner in this words. It is hard for me not to think of all of my refugee friends, so many of their families devastated by war and death. So many people in our churches and communities with empty seats at the table--people taken from us by addictions, broken relationships, unjust systems, or the plain old evil of death. 

 

For so many people, they are living in Ramah, that is their reality. And this Advent, they are never far from my mind.

 

All of these things and more have made it impossible for me to just write another post about Advent. So instead I wrote about how tired I am of waiting, and what my Somali friends have taught me in regards to this. Click on over to read it. 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

full

 

 

 

 

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.

 

//

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

//

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).  

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

//

 

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?

 

//

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upward Mobility

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.

 

//

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

i am the beggar of the world

url 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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