D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: art

Write Like A Mother

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Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin wordshumilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned 35 a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

--Cheryl Strayed (as Dear Sugar)*

 

 

 

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I have two friends who are very pregnant right now, and both of them are writers. They are smart, thoughtful, beautiful souls, and when they pour themselves onto the page you just want to stop everything and sit with them. They both have other children (beautiful, loud). And they both told me that with the upcoming birth of their next child, they felt like the writing part of their life was going to be over.

I understand where those thoughts come from--the hormones, the panic, the sleep deprivation that acts like a very bad batch of drugs for a very long time--but I can't condone them. I know my friends, and I know the work they have produced, and I know what is in their future. They will experience the mess and the chaos of birth and newborn land and shifting, growing families. They will cocoon inside of themselves, for months and even years perhaps, pouring out their bodies as sacrifices of love, rocking and shushing and feeding and cleaning and wiping, all while they tend to the endless minutia of everything else they are in charge of in their lives. They will continue on in that long obedience of selflessness, the continual little deaths and rebirths that parenting is comprised of, and one day they will lift their heads up and find that their head is clear and their mind is itching. They will start writing again. And they will be better than ever. Their babies will make them better writers.

 

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If you asked me, point blank, what my thoughts on motherhood were, I would hem and haw for as long as possible. I have nothing eloquent to say, except that it wrecked my life in so many ways, and it healed it in just as many. Marriage for me was no big adjustment, just a lot of fun to have a partner to roam the world with, and we made a lot of space for us to be our individual, introverted selves. But motherhood was the great shedding of selfishness that I didn't even know existed, it was the time of confronting how very tied up my own identity was in being productive for God: helping others, loving my neighbors, teaching ESOL classes, volunteering with refugees, working full-time. Then I got pregnant, developed a rare-and-life-threatening condition, and found myself both very ill and with a premature baby to care for. Suddenly, I could not do most of those things that had always defined me as me. I was alone with a sad baby who was not quite ready for the world, and it was my job to keep her alive.

When she was 6 months old, possibly 8, I started to write. In earnest. The hours of being alone-but-not-alone, of rocking and shushing and swaddling and feeding and cleaning and walking and breathing, had built up to a point of pressure in my mind. I started, for the first time, to objectively look at my life. To assess my background, how I grew up, what I was taught to believe, and what that meant for my life choices. My baby, with her round-the-clock-needs, turned me into a bird that soared high above my own life. It was the first time I was able to step outside of it. The first time I realized how important honesty and vulnerability were to be in my life going forward.

I wrote for her, that chubby-cheeked spitfire sitting on her bumbo on the kitchen table while I slowly started sending pieces off into the void. And she helped me, in so many ways, push beyond the narrow confines of what it meant to be in the world, of where my value came from. And this, my friends, is the backbone of what it means to have prophetic imagination, of what it means to be a creative in a very conforming world.

I learned to write when I became a mother, because that was my vehicle for stepping outside of myself. For you, perhaps it was something else; something tragic or wonderful (or some combination therein). Something that helped you to see your small place in a very big world, to wonder at what your response might be to it all. Motherhood certainly doesn't necessitate great art (in fact, many can cling to the trappings of motherhood as yet another symbol of productivity in the world) but I have known enough great writers now to know that it spurs you on towards the deepening of things.

Motherhood, for me, has been my agent of becoming small, of living a true upside-down life, of whittling away at my draughts of self-absorption. I am more afraid than ever, and yet I continue to do very brave and hard things. And I just want to say to all of my friends out there, the ones who adore and fear the changes coming: write like a mother. Write like the souls that you are, the ones who were put here to notice whatever it is that God placed in front of you.

The kingdom of God comes through babies, I imagine Christ whispering to his disciples as they tried to shoo the unkempt, uncouth, loud and beautiful children away. They didn't understand, because they so badly wanted to be doing something so good for him, their savior. But later, through their own forms of death and rebirth--watching Jesus slowly die as a failure in front of them, huddling up in an empty room together--they would be cracked wide open by the pain and joy of being so connected to everyone in the world.

And luckily for us, some of them stopped and wrote about it.

 

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a little present i have been making for some dear friends . . .

 

 

 

 

*to read Strayed's entire advice column (of which I "Christian-ized" a bit in this post--sorry, Sugar!) go here. You will not regret it. While you are at it, why don't you go and read all of her columns? You will not be left the same.

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Prison, Beauty and Common Grace

I'm so excited for this first guest post in this Upside-Down Art series. RO contacted me about an area she is passionate in--prisons and their inhabitants, whom she views with such grace and love. I had heard of writing/oral history classes with prisoners, but never art projects. This post eloquently explains the horror of incarcerating people and withhold from them the beauty of the world--while still showing that God is still there. A challenging, thoughtful post for us on the outside.   

 

 

 

Prison, Beauty, and Common Grace by R.O.

 

There have been times in my life where depression and anxiety have walked every step with me. Their weighty bodies cemented to my shoulders like gargoyles, mouths permanently open-wide, hissing into each ear: “You are not good enough. You don’t work hard enough. You will mess up everything good in your life.”

But even in the midst of these lies, God finds ways to remind me of his truth. So often he does this through the beauty of the world around me. I see pink light from the setting sun angled on a grey building, hear something as simple and amazing as an echo, feel cold air sting my cheeks. And I think, “even if I fail at everything, no one can take this away from me.” This everyday beauty of the world, available to me in some form no matter my circumstances, is God’s common grace to all people. It is our Father reminding us that his love for us does not depend on our good performance.

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It seems sort of simple when compared with all the atrocities of prison— the state’s misguided idea that trading violence for violence will end violence— but the profound indignity of denying a person God’s common grace of this world’s everyday beauty is striking to me. Prisons are designed for exactly this. They replace the beauty of creation that God would give to every person with cinderblock walls, artificial lighting, a stainless steel bowl acting as toilet a foot from your bed, access to an “outside” patch of concrete surrounded by walls for maybe thirty minutes a day—day in and day out, all the same.

And still there is beauty.

Prisoners become artists, creating the beauty that prison denies them, and I consider myself blessed to have heard some of their stories. There is the fourteen-year old boy who wrote poems in his cell, the man who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole who paints scenes of the world he hasn’t experienced in over thirty years, the girls at the youth prison who wrote and performed in their own musical, even the tough-looking young men who draw intricate and delicate designs on the backs of their letters.

These are people who are often excluded from that popular new category “creatives,” but they still are made (and are making) in the image of our Creator God. They create because there is no beauty unless they make it themselves. They create for the same reasons we all do: to comfort, to entertain, and to tell their stories. There are still more imprisoned people who are without the support of prisoner-arts programs, some without even pencil and paper, some in solitary confinement; let’s not forget that they are creatives, too. This is God’s common grace, which no one can take from us, that he has made us in his image; he has made us all creatives.

“For his participatory project, Some Other Places We’ve Missed artist and photographer Mark Strandquist held workshops in various jails and prisons, and asked prisoners, ‘If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?’ Along with the written descriptions, individuals provided a detailed memory from the chosen location, and described how they wanted the photograph composed. Strandquist then photographed and [an] image is handed or mailed back to the incarcerated participants.” from Prison Photography:

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R.O. is a Midwestern law student who will soon be a Southern public defender. She loves to talk (and learn) about justice and mercy, living in the upside down kingdom, and criminal justice reform. Her Enneagram type is 5 and she is an INFJ, if that means anything to you.

 

For more information on the Upside-Down Art series, click here. And submit your own essay!

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art

I'm having my annual reminder of how much I cannot write on this here site, which is slightly frustrating for me personally, but wholly preferable to you all being subjected to the lifestyle/mommy/missional living blog that runs inside my crazy head. Trust me on this. Being a part of a team, a community, a diverse neighborhood, working with refugees and people who have been consistently marginalized by the world, being in the precarious position of asking people to support us--these are all unique constraints on my writing life. And I am grateful for them, truly. But it sort of makes an odd conundrum--the louder my life, the quieter my writing. What is formative now will hopefully be settling inside for many, many years, and I trust something good will come of it.  

So. . . life is pretty loud right now.

 

Which brings me to this space. I am so grateful for the readers, the ones who stick around, who challenge me and encourage me. I don't want to leave this a blank space (because life is anything but blank). So I have been thinking about what I like to read about, and--to follow my favorite writing advice--I will start the blog series I want to read. Which is: Outsider Art.

Outsider Art traditionally refers to art made by people with absolutely no contact with the art world--the insane, children, extremely marginalized communities. It has been referred to as brut art (raw art) or folk art or naive art. I am going to be my rebellious self and use this term while gleefully ignoring the boundaries associated with it. I would like to highlight and talk about and drink in and absorb all different types of art that I feel like are being passed by in the strange insular worlds I inhabit here on the internet.

You know the books that everyone is reading, the music everyone is listening to, the photographs being shared on Buzzfeed. If you are anything like me, try as you might your Twitter feed is rife with the same types of people recommending the same types of things. I am not here to knock this system, but I am here to say that unless we immerse ourselves in new and different perspectives, we will become hopelessly myopic.

So here is where I need your help: I need you to share with me, with all of us. Who are some artists--writers, thinkers, painters--that bring in a fresh, raw, outsider perspective to your world? Is there a book or a painting that has been formative to you that has been overlooked by the majority culture? Is there an important perspective, a heartbreaking work of genius, a cheeky thinker, a window into a world so very different from our own? If so, I would love to hear about it.

 

I am looking for short, succinct essays on art (writing, visual, audio) that have brought on outsider perspective into your life. Something that has broken through the barriers of culture, which has expanded your world, opened your doors just a little wider in order to love God more. If you are interested, please e-mail me at dlmmcsweeneys [@] gmail [.] com. We will start this series in earnest in March.

 

I am in the midst of curating my own collection of art that is nourishing my soul, but for whatever reason is not getting the attention it deserves. From time to time I will post my own thoughts on art that is moving me (which should be very outsider-y in it's own right, since I took one horrible community college class on Early Art and basically bombed it. So, I'm a real expert here). In a few days I will be posting about a painting that made me stand still in the middle of an art museum and bawl my eyes out (so artsy!) and caused me to reflect on how there are so few images of Christ that I connect with in our world. Again, to be clear that I am using the term "Outsider Art" very loosely (and incorrectly), this painting is by a Dutch man in the 19th century, at the bequest of a wealthy king. So, not exactly a mental patient. But still, the content struck me as so new and so outside of my traditional education, that I found myself crying and scribbling in a journal, wanting to share this piece of beauty with the world.

 

So, that is what we will do.

 

I look forward to hearing from you, my well-read, smart, artistic friends. I look forward to hearing about art from the upside-down kingdom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Downward Mobility -- Guest Post by Jenny Flannagan

Jenny Flannagan is super cool. Into drama, music, and the arts, she writes about the realities of her neighborhood with crushing clarity, empathy and a much-needed sense of humor. Seriously, the girl is funny. I had my eye on her writing for this series from the get-go and am so pleased to have this essay here today. I identify with so many aspects of her story, but none more than the apparent joy she gets from all the pleasures of her abundant life. It just doesn't look abundant in the way that the world would have for us.

Make sure you check out her blog (Jenny from the Block) and find her on Twitter.

 

 

Downward Mobility -- Guest Post by Jenny Flannagan

 

 

A few years a man who was compiling a book entitled Success wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success.  I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me.  I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success.

So wrote monk and mystic Thomas Merton in 1979 in his typically provocative and paradoxical manner.  His words feel important and at the same time bewilder me.  They’re not what I grew up with.

More words, quoted recently by Shawn Smucker in his guest post:

My whole life I have been surrounded by well-meaning encouragement to go ‘higher up,’ and the most-used argument was : ‘You can do so much good there, for so many people.’ But these voices calling me to upward mobility are completely absent from the Gospel. 

Henri Nouwen, Here and Now

These words give shape to the fears and anxieties that assail me when I hear the term downward mobility, a phrase we have used in the past few years to describe how we are trying to live.

The truth is, I’m not sure quite what it means and if I qualify or if we’re just kidding ourselves.  When I really think about it, I get confused as to whether it’s even a goal we should be pursuing.

It makes sense when I think how we’re not trying to earn as much money as we could, that we’ve chosen part-time work and rejected career ladders and embraced a lifestyle with less money to have more time in our neighbourhood and for our family.  It explains why we’ve chosen to stay in the inner-city and live on a government housing block alongside people from different immigrant communities as well as long-term locals, many of them on low incomes or benefits.  It’s a fitting commentary on our attempts to live light and cheap and thrifty and open-handed.

It feels hollow and pretentious when I head out with my suitcase on another international adventure for my job, past my neighbours, some of whom have never left the country and who have lived their whole lives within a mile radius or others who can rarely afford to visit their homeland.  It feels like a lie when I consider the choices we have because of our family’s support and our savings and our education; the invitations we get to share our stories at conferences and write books and make albums.  Occasionally people tell us “we could never do what you do,” and I think of my comfortable bed and colourful home, our friendly neighbours and amazingly central location, and wonder what on earth they have in their head.

We aren’t part of a missional order or an organisation.  We have taken no vows. We don’t have a project.  No-one supports us with donations or ministry gifts*.  We just live here and try to be good neighbours and listen out for what God is saying and doing so we can be part of it.  And pray to see the stuff we read about elsewhere happen here.  And plug away.

We don’t have a team.  We have church, and a few friends who are trying to do similar things, but no-one in the same neighbourhood or building.  Most of our friends are making really different choices, the ‘responsible’ choices that give them bigger houses and gardens for their kids to play in, and on my worst days my heart is full of pharisaical judgement for them, my thinly disguised resentment of their successful upward mobility.

Often I feel lonely and wonder what we’re trying to do exactly.

Even working out what downward mobility looks like in the UK is a stretch.  The inner-cities have become the preserve mainly of the extremely rich and the poorest communities (whose housing is subsidised), with few others able to stay.  It’s at its most extreme, of course, in London.  The private market is so obscenely expensive that anyone on an average or even fairly good income usually has to leave the moment they need some space or have a family.  But we have a system of social housing that means that subsidised accommodation is available across our cities for those who meet particular criteria like homelessness, sickness, unemployment – and other kinds of intense social needs. If you don’t qualify for this kind of housing but want to stay on the stigmatised council estates, the supposed hotbeds of crime and your only chance of life in a mixed income environment, it won’t be cheap.  You will have to pay a lot of money to rent them privately or buy them.  The most expensive places I’ve ever lived are inner-city council flats.

So somehow you need to find enough money to live amongst people with a lot less money, making a real sense of solidarity increasingly inaccessible.  And, like them, you end up living across the street from the crazily-wealthy whose lifestyles are insanely out-of-your-reach.

Downward mobility feels complicated and compromised and confusing.  As an end in itself it seems a bit pointless. Unless, unless it makes other things possible.

And I think that’s what I believe.  I keep coming back to this conviction that God doesn’t call to us to more frugal life, but a more abundant one.  Only it looks totally different to what the world would make us assume.  Abundant living is free from aggressive and destructive (and even complacent) consumption, which numbs us and distracts us from really experiencing life.  It is rich in relationships and vulnerability and community, it isn’t sheltered from chaos and pain, it is sometimes agonising but always creative and steeped in hope and faith.

It was certainly never the life I planned. Oh no, I was going to be wildly successful but then generously give away most of my winnings.  Invisibility, obscurity, doubt, identity crises, these were never my ambition.  Success was inevitable.

But then if downward mobility means anything at all to me, it has started to mean a death to success in more and more of the ways I counted it.  I have old friends from college taking Hollywood by storm, sitting in Parliament and writing acclaimed novels.  That’s not my life.

We’re here because we believe it does make a difference when people stick around in the inner-city and build lasting friendships and raise their kids here and love their neighbours and work for reconciliation and hope.  Even if the fruit of it is hardly visible in this generation, we have faith that we’re part of a bigger, better story that has a good ending, and we want desperately to be part of that story in this neighbourhood.

But we’re not just playing an endgame.  We live this way because we believe it is a better life (on our good days we believe that).

It is, however, a daily affront to all the assumptions I made for so many years about how successful I would be, an affront to my pride and my competitiveness and my belief in what a difference I can make.

I don’t know if our income or square footage or CVs will look ‘downwardly mobile’ in the decades to come (and maybe that would just become a counter-intuitive, an alternative success indicator for me), but I hope that my heart will find the long-haul courage to choose something real rather than just something everyone else is trying to sell me, to look down more up, and most of all to listen for the life Jesus is inviting me to live rather than everyone else.

 

 

 

 

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Jenny Flannagan is a writer, actress and film-maker.  She has worked for Tearfund for the past 9 years, spending the past 6 of them travelling a lot, finding ways to capture and share stories of Christians serving their communities in diverse and amazing ways all around the world.  But now she is pregnant and can't get on any more planes. She is also a founding member of the theatre company The Ruby Dolls, described by Time Out as "an elegant, inventive and absorbing fusion of theatre, music, storytelling, dance and puppetry".  She lives on a council estate in South London with her husband Andy, where they are trying to be downwardly mobile.  They are part of The Well Community Church and lead a fledgling missional community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Remember: You Will Die-- Guest Post by Jenny Stockton

Jenny is a wonderful human being who is genuinely interested and curious in so many aspects of life. We bonded after writing pieces for the same issue of Conspire! magazine (one of my favorite publications out there, btw) and I love how this story underlies the freedom that we gain when we finally give up trying to be "normal". Because there is no normal, is there? There is only radical love, which asks us to takes risks and reap great benefits. Be sure and check out Jenny's site (she is always introducing me to new artists/books/writers) and say hello on Twitter.

 

Remember: you will die.

 

For most of my life, I pictured my future as an adult in a static manner: complete with spouse, house, kids, meaningful work, Carrie Bradshaw’s wardrobe, and the obvious contentment that comes with acquiring it all. I spent a number of years and a lot of dollars I didn’t have chasing after those things, convinced that if I could just get them and keep them under my control, I would be happy and things would stay that way forever.

At a certain point during my college career, however, the Jesus of the Bible began toteach me that seeking the kingdom of God is actually the most important thing and, try as I might, I couldn’t deny it. I decided to become a teacher out of a desire to serve the poor and help young people learn to seek truth for themselves. It felt like the best way for me to help build God’s kingdom. It felt like a noble, selfless decision and it led me to some of the most valuable and worthwhile work I’ve ever done. I’d be lying, though, if I said I never imagined myself as Michele Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, saving kids by wearing a leather jacket and pointing out the similarities between canonical poetry and popular music. I thought I’d find a place to become that lady, then stay for 30 years while I worked on building the rest of my static, perfect life.

Guess what? It didn’t really work out that way.

Last April, as I wrestled with the feeling that I was wasting my days as a classroom teacher (because so much had changed since I started and I often found myself requiring kids to do things I thought were a waste of their time), I read a post on Donald Miller’s site about the process of maturing from consumer to creator, and it struck to the core of everything going on in my heart and mind. Justin Zoradi’s words encouraged me to see myself in the middle of this transition from consumer to creator, and though it was a bit scary, I knew deep down it’s what I wanted. I wanted to be a writer.

I’d spent seven years working full-time in a field that provided me with a decent salary, good benefits, and the promise of retirement security. The idea of simply walking away from all of those things seemed crazy. Eventually though, I came to the conclusion that if I continued doing what I was doing, it would be solely because I was afraid of change. And let’s face it, ain’t nobody got time for that.

Luckily for me, I married a man who has believed he’s meant to be creative his whole life. He doesn’t compromise his principles about life and work and doing things that are meaningful with his time. He’s earned his living for the last seven years by playing the drums, and he is not at all concerned about acquiring an extensive wardrobe. When he took me out on our first date, he wore a watch with hands that read “Remember: you will die”. He’s constantly encouraging me to fight my fears and to press in to the inevitable change that comes with being alive.

I quit my job last year to spend more time writing and to work with my husband and his band. I let go of my need to have a regular job so that I could buy new clothes all the time. I discovered, quickly and easily, that we actually need very little. Over the last year, I’ve bought less new clothes, but I’ve spent most of my days doing just what I want. I’ve been able to rest and write and pray and travel with my husband and help kids in my community get new books. I’ve had time and space to dream about the future. And miracle of miracles, we’ve still had enough money for for everything we need, plus a mani/pedi for me every month.

I’m learning to believe and to trust that my desire to be a writer is not simply a selfish, nonsensical one. That maybe it’s one of the things I’m supposed to do before I die. That maybe things are always changing and the best I can hope to do is learn to find peace in the face of fear.

There is a sense of adventure in my daily existence now that I never believed could happen to me, much less would. And there is SUCH freedom in the ability to spend so much of my time as I choose. There is SUCH freedom in the knowledge that my husband and I could go, tomorrow, wherever we feel called. There is SUCH freedom in the deep peace that comes with recognizing that it’s God’s kingdom already. That He has rescued it and that we get to help in the work of redeeming it. That nothing in life is static forever, and that one day I will die.

 

 

 

Jenny StocktonJenny Stockton's development as a writer started at a young age, when she self-published her first work of fiction as a first grader. It was entitled The Bear Who Got Married, illustrated by the author, and dedicated to her sister Amy. She lives in Denver, CO with her husband Dann.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Image Bearers: Guest Post by Meg Hers

One of the things about writing about Downward Mobility is that people have all sorts of opinions about it. I have found myself getting push back from both sides (too self-righteous! you aren't doing near enough!) and to be honest sometimes I just thought about scrapping the project. But then people like Meg Hers come out of the woodwork, and it changes me.

Meg is an artist living in one of the most marginalized neighborhoods in Canada. She inspires me with her passions, talents, and joie de vivre (plus, I identify with her story of grocery store shopping so much I can't stand it). She makes me feel less alone, points me back to the prayers I always needed to be praying in the first place. Lord have mercy on me indeed.

 

 

 

I’m new to this whole downward mobility game. One year ago I finished a degree in art theory in Canada’s biggest city and was perfectly set up to work my way up the ladder in the art world. I was fluent in artspeak, the tongue of the high art world, and connected to all the right people. Instead I heard the Spirit whisper in my heart, start tugging in all the wrong directions, and I turned around and moved to one of the poorest and most economically depressed cities in the country. Hamilton, Ontario, is considered the armpit of the province, and is rife with unemployment, and a plethora of mental health and social service agencies to assist its struggling population.  I was offered what is now my dream job, working in a drop-in art studio with homeless and at-risk teenagers. I moved into the poorest neighbourhood in the city with some like-minded folks, chose a bike and a bus pass over a car, and set out on my adventure.

What I’ve realized over the past year is that although I’ve changed my postal code and chosen into a simpler way of life, that doesn’t erase the fact that I grew up quite comfortably in the suburbs. I can spend most of my waking hours at the shelter, in the group homes and transitional housing buildings, but I will never fully understand what it’s like to have grown up under the poverty line. My heart’s desire might be to fully internalize the realities of my neighbours or the youth that I work with, but it remains that I’ve never been abused, or silenced, or pushed to the fringes, and so I am left with this gaping hole of understanding.

The complexity of navigating solidarity with my neighbours always seems to crystallize when I open my fridge. I’m no gourmet, but I appreciate my organic produce, my funky health foods, and eating fresh and healthy meals. Yet I’m not willing to naively convince myself that the fridges of my neighbours are full of the same kinds of goods. In fact, I know that they aren’t, because the legacy of childhood obesity in the city is proclaimed in the papers, and lumbers daily down my street. I know that when you’re struggling to survive at all, like so many families in my neighbourhood, food and healthy meal planning is generally the last thing on your mind. I struggle daily with not knowing how to extend my solidarity with the marginalized to this refrigerated sphere.

So I get panicky and anxious on a pretty routine basis when I visit the grocery store in our neighbourhood. This particular store has a reputation in the city, and those who don’t have to shop there won’t, unless it’s to see the man who brings his pet birds in with him, and is always eventually chased out. It smells really, incredibly bad in the egg section. The store branding involves huge swaths of neon yellow cracked paneling that seems to press against the back of your eyeballs after twenty minutes of wandering the aisles. Even the guy ahead of me in line the other day said that he’d rather have done an extra two years in the ‘pen than shop there.

Yet I won’t stop going, because this weakness that these visits produce in my heart is bringing me back to a space of needing God, and realizing that the world is a broken and hopeless place without Him. I’ve started standing in the longest check-out line (and trust me, they get long), because it lets me watch those coming in the front doors. They’re my neighbors, the youth I work with, and their families, and they’ve endured more than I can imagine. The poverty they have experienced is written all over their faces, speaking through their body language, and is concretized in the items they put on the conveyor belt ahead of mine.

Yet what I find myself chanting under my breath when I’m confronted with the broken people walking in through that front door is the reminder: ‘humanity, humanity’. This grocery store is the place where I am most vehemently reminded that we are all image-bearers, not just the shiny, happy Christians who we tend to imagine ourselves hanging out with in heaven.

There are bad days, of course, when grace-filled attitudes take too much effort and all I want is for someone to drive me to Whole Foods so I can buy imported cheese and overpriced granola bars. They are the days when the legacy of poverty in this city makes my chest tight and I get overwhelmed by how dirty the baby in the cart ahead of me is, and by the fact that most of the kids in the store are wearing pajamas instead of clothes. On those days I find myself whispering ‘maranatha, maranatha’ instead. On those days I want Him to come soon, to soothe my anxiety and solve these problems.

On those days I retreat to prayer.

 

Come Lord soon, come and be our refuge.

Come love the unloved, and feed the hungry.  

Come and give my youth who are standing outside the front doors begging the 25 cents that I can’t, because of the contract that I signed with the social service agency I work for.

Help me to know how to reconcile the way that I chat with them before going in to buy my dinner, walk past them with a timid smile on the way out and then claim to be desiring solidarity with those on the fringes.

Lord, have mercy on me.

 

 

Author picMeg Hers is an artist, dreamer and youth worker living in the post-industrial steel city of Hamilton, Ontario. She lives in intentional community in the East End of the city, and is the studio co-ordinator at RE-create Outreach Art Studio. RE-create is a drop-in art studio space where at-risk, street-involved and homeless youth can come and express themselves. She loves her neighbourhood, riding her bike and trying to figure out how to grow her own food in the community garden down the street. She blogs about wonder and daily life at thehers.blogspot.ca, good art at perfumeanddebtors.wordpress.com, and is on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the Downward Mobility series, click here. For all the posts in the series, click here.

 

 

War Photographer: K Mayfield

I am so thrilled to have my dear husband here today to talk about art, therapy, movies, and the importance of repentance over outrage. He has some good things to say. And he is the cutest. And the nicest. And the smartest. I married up, ya'll. I couldn't think of a good pseudonym for him, so feel free to give me your suggestions in the comments. 

I have had a strong desire to express our family’s experiences these past few years; our continual encounter with the Kingdom of God, how it turned everything upside down. But as it turns out, it’s really hard to do so without seeming preachy. So, gathering from the likes of some of my favorite artists like Why?Mewithoutyou, and Freud, I tend to write and see what comes out, hoping the adventures of my super-ego will meet yours along the way. Besides, metaphors work well as free-association techniques. Typically, rather than choosing a particular topic or theme, I write about my life in general to see what emerges. And hopefully, the Kingdom peeks through alongside lots of latent issues surround identity, vocation, etc.

I think that social justice is such a tricky subject to talk about; many  musicians who engage the topic walk a fine line between something artistic and three-point Sunday sermon on the topic. However, my greatest concern about justice themes in art is that rather than prophetically pointing the way to justice, it can create a false imitation of it.

I watched a movie a few years ago where George Clooney takes on a corporation, and throughout the movie I felt the weight of oppression that corporations can wield. But as the movie resolved, my anger dissipated. And of course it did; a major film company isn’t going to release a movie that actually motivates people to action against the system and culture which it benefits from. Documentaries be better or worse than the typical box-office affair. They can also be overwhelming, with a notable absence of resolution (and if you’re my wife, this means you find yourself sitting horrified, paralyzed and grieved at the end of the five hours or so of The Corporation). But watching these documentaries produces an emotional, if not physical response to what we have seen, and we can tend to focus on that--as though adding something to my Netflix queue has helped change the world.

It’s way easier to consume in order to feel that I am producing change. We are a very aware society, aware of what is wrong (sweat shops, global military presence, the flaws in the political system, the educational system, genetically modified foods, etc.). And in response, I will quickly pay to feel that I am on the side of social justice (e.g. Toms, Charity Water, Warby Parker, short term mission trips). And we will pay our artists to give us the experience of taking part in social justice simply through reading a book, listening to a song or watching a movie, as though experiencing that media is the same as responding to it.

There is a gap between seeing the problems in the world and responding to them. I think that gap is our discomfort with facing our own brokenness that contributes to the these existing systems that. I can call for change of a particular system, but until I face my own greed, racism and disproportionate priority of convenience and low prices over the human value, my wishes are hollow.

I recently came across an old article by psychologist and author Robert Coles in which he reviewed a 1967 documentary titled Titicut Follies, about the mental hospital attached to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where the criminally insane were housed and treated.

The film received fierce heat from the local authorities, even the superintendent who initially authorized the documentary, in hopes of receiving improved facilities. Coles points out that this was hardly the first exposé on the low standards in mental health institutions of the day, nor was Bridgewater anywhere close to the worst he had personally seen, as a psychologist. But what differed about this documentary was not the physical setting, but the relationships and humanity the viewer came into contact with. And, Coles argues, the most impactful part of the film is not the patients or the fragile, unsettled air of insanity, but the doctors and the professionals. He suggests that the way the doctors failed to see humanity in the patients, the way they labeled and categorized and withdrew these men from society is recognizably familiar urge that we ourselves experience. Coles points out that the difference between this film and others like it is that instead of being forced to look at a broken system, we are forced to look at our broken selves.

And this is why the filmmaker, at the time Coles wrote, had multiple civil and legal suits charged against him. Coles writes, “Titicut Follies is a brilliant work of art, and as such it will not go unnoticed, despite the opposition to it.  We are asked not to be outraged at others – a cheap and easily spent kind of emotion – but to look at ourselves, the rich and strong ones whose agents hurt the weak and maimed in the name of – what?” (p .25). Strangely, it was the implicit individual reflection rather than a systematic critique that really upset the powers that be.

Those of us who wish to share the stories of the oppressed often do so in order to encourage our audience to do justice and compassion in our world. But it is a thin line between kindling the desire for justice and satiating it. Does our audience leave with a feeling that they have already participated in social justice when they are simply enjoying a good, artful experience? Or are they challenged and empowered to make changes in their own lives -- and their own hearts? As artists, I believe we need to ask: through the way we tell stories, is there a way to not only confront evil systems, but to identify and indict the parts of us that are complicit with these systems?

The fact that Titicut Follies upset the powers that be demonstrates that the empire knows, as Cole says, outrage is a “cheap and easily spent emotion,” but internal reflection and response has the power to make real change in the world.

After some time facilitating group therapy, I’ve learned that anger is a paper tiger next to mourning. Yelling begets yelling, yet tears pave the way for reconciliation and change. Walter Bruggeman says it this way: “Tears break barriers like no harshness or anger. . . when one addresses numbness clearly, anger, abrasiveness and indignation as forms of address will drive the hurt deeper, add to the numbness . . . this denying and deceiving kind of numbness is broken only by the embrace of negativity, by the public articulation that we are fearful and ashamed of the future we have chosen”. I love the communal terminology here, which is particularly appropriate in such a global climate; we, at least in some way, have chosen for the world to be as it is today. Thus, anger is somewhat impotent, as it is only useful against others; sadness is a response to our own actions, the fruit of internal reflection.

And perhaps this is why, out of all the ways to be wronged, God often chooses adultery as a metaphor for our broken relationship with him. In an affair, anger is just the tip of an iceberg of deep mourning. Likewise, Bruggeman suggests that “Jesus wept” is one of the most powerful verses in the cannon. God isn’t angry at us, but he’s really sad about the world we’ve chosen.

As good war photographers, it seems our goal is to not only bring us to tears over the injustice against the least of these, but also the potent experience of weeping over the choices we have made in our own lives that lead to such circumstances -- and weeping over the ways in which our hearts still wish it so.

601380_10152602957695648_1255881302_nK Mayfield is married to D.L., and father to the cutest/most spirited child ever. He is a therapist with the heart of an artist (or is it the other way around?). You can find his music here. He is the best at growing beards. 

For more posts in the War Photographer series, click here.

poetry and prophecy

It's two days before Christmas, and this will probably be my last post on the subject. So it's fitting to end with a poem that my husband wrote, his reflection on the world we live in, our new neighborhood, and Advent in general. He makes me coffee every morning, gets up with the toddler in the middle of the night, listens to my every wandering thought, and writes killer poetry. I know.  typical.

Advent

by the Maiden Name

Shootings, and sweatshops, rising regimes sometimes it feels like your ever expanding rule is nowhere to be seen, like a seed in the ground that’s yet to start a sprout you tend to sometimes circumvent instead of intervene looking around as the almond branch turned the boiling pot north and drained out the drowning lifeblood of the guiltless poor

it’s beginning to feel like the harvest is passed, summer has ended and we are not saved someone’s crying in the closet for all our ill-mannered misbehaved We’ve sown wheat, and we’ve reaped thorns For the mountains and the wilderness I’ll mourn So do not listen to your prophets, your dreamers Until we break the yoke of the shorn

Our exile has been long enough to grow a bounty that has been taken away, time and again, by country and by county Are you coming quickly? Please, tell me you’re coming with haste Some say they’re patient, some say they can wait But I’ve seen abusers go their own way, unchained and I’ve seen oppression walk the streets midday and the wolves live among the sheep without dismay while we pine away

Flannel pajamas, soot-stained script Candles in the kitchen, I remember always watching that wax drip As we sing songs of the one coming, and to the one who came And it’s all sorts of awkward, the highs and lows that we sang

and I still practice advent, even in my own home my daughter calls it a birthday cake, we say it’ a private protest against Rome but we still fail and find ourselves at the mall and department stores and a few other of places I’d tell you about, but I find it too embarrassin’ of all those who might have trouble falling asleep on Christmas eve amongst all the children, it seems the empire should be most at unease

I tried my hand at Advent Conspiracy and at Buy Nothing Christmas, But justice and peace seem to just be unpurchased items on my wish list Oh well, that’s how it goes, maybe I’ll get it next year And I sing hallelujah as I chug chug chug down the cheer in the most jolly of fashions but this can’t last, it won’t last forever so our eyes are on you, King of the broken, ruling from a manger

 

 

Nothing like reading the prophets while we think about the babe in the manger.

Merry Christmas to you and yours. 

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