D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

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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 . . .)


an ode to McSweeney's

My last column at McSweeney's is up here. Nearly ten years ago, I submitted my first piece to a oddly named literary website, Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Drawn by the allure of Mr. Dave Eggers, I stayed for the spare, funny, and biting writing that graced this weird little corner of the internet. When I submitted my piece I had just dropped out of my Pentecostal Bible college; I was suffering what I didn't know then to be anxiety attacks. I had packed up my dorm room and lived in my sister's apartment, crowded with other roommates, where I sat at her PC and banged out a an emotional essay on How I Still Loved Jesus but Didn't Love Christians Very Much at All. It was all very dramatic, as I remember. I sent it off, still in my pajamas, working up the nerve to think about what I was going to do next in my life. I waited. I went to the Santa Monica pier and got a tattoo, a small heart with a "J" in it, my own inconsequential and obvious way of declaring that Jesus was indeed still in my heart. I eventually got on a train and went to be with my parents in Portland, 33 hours of supposed morose reflection, my depression lifting the closer I got the gray skies of my future, the place that would become my home for the next 9 years.

I got a very nice e-mail back from the site, from the then-editor Mr. Eli Horowitz. I don't remember it exactly, but it was very polished and polite, explaining that they didn't really publish personal essays, but he did wish me the best of luck. I took it on the chin, and went on with rebuilding my young life. Through the years, I was a regular reader of McSweeney's, devoured all the humor books they published (I remember going to Powell's with my crazy southern friend, him reading the lists in exaggerated drawls, us busting up with laughter; I remember buying the books for my then-boyfriend K, hoping and hoping that he found them funny so I could marry him--luckily, he did). I especially loved the columns they published, the outsider perspectives from massage therapists, skateboarders, transvestites, escorts, teenagers. I lived in such a narrow world, and these narratives opened up my doors, put a personal, thoughtful spin on alternative ways of living life.

Last year, I entered the contest. Can I be all evangelical and tell you that God told me to? That he told me exactly what angle to play, how to write it? I'm sorry, but that is the story. And then I got in, I was picked to be one of the lucky few. I had a platform, I had a space to tell my stories, and the stories of my friends and neighbors. When I got the news, I sat quiet, still, and stunned. It had always been a dream of mine, a list of the top 3 things I dreamed about (the other two were, strangely, writing an essay about love for the NYT and being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air).

I got some criticism with the first column, some deserved, some not so much. I changed my perspective on a few things, stopped projecting so much onto others and instead jumped headfirst into examining the murkier aspects: faith, doubt, and always failure, failure, failure. People like to read about it, evidently. I wish Christians understood this more.

I love McSweeney's. I love the site, comment-and-ad-free, a writer's dream. I love the editors, who were encouraging when I was freaking out, told me when I wasn't being very funny, said nice things all the time. I love the readers, who (for the most part) wrote me when they didn't have to, talked of their worlds being opened a little wider as well. I love that people gave me, an outsider, a chance to think my thoughts, in public.

When friends found out I was doing this writing thing, almost none of them knew what McSweeney's was (a common response: Oh, you're a writer? You should do the church bulletins!). It further cemented in my mind the way the Christian world is distrustful of the secular, how we have retreated and created our own publishing companies, blogs, bookstores. And as many other, more articulate people have noted, this retreat into our own ghettos has not been kind to us. It has robbed the art and it has robbed the artists. After writing for McSweeney's, I know I can't go back to writing platitudes and easy moral stories. I was pushed to ask questions, to be honest, to be vulnerable. And this should be expected of all of us, those who are writing stories, those of us who are living great stories.

And so, I thank you, kind folks of McSweeney's, for doing what you do. May the next batch of columns be grand, the perspectives wide and varied and funny and honest. I know I will be reading.

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