D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Category: Culture

Writer's Gonna Write

from Austin Kleon, "The Life of a Project"  

 

There's this thing where writers tag other writers to answer questions about writing. I would hate it if it wasn't so darn interesting. My fancy writer friend Christiana tagged me (she's in my online writing group, she writes killer YA, and she is bursting forth into the world with her wonderful creative non-fiction--where she writes about Mennonite intentional communities, chickens, and death. Also, she is a poet, and once sent me a magazine of poetry in the mail. Swoon.)

 

So here I go. Writer's gonna write (especially about themselves!)

 

1. What are you working on?

Big picture: I already finished the manuscript for my first book, and it is currently off in the wilderness. I look forward to a rigorous editing process, hopefully sooner than later.

Small(er) picture: I currently have 2 different book reviews due (I love reading and I love talking about books--but writing about books can be so difficult at times). One is Americanah by Chimamanda Adiche, and the other is Life, Interrupted, a book on trafficking into forced labor. Reading these books (especially the latter) has led me down many rabbit trails, specifically in the area of how the U.S. has historically treated migrants (hint: abysmally). I have been sucked into the worlds of James Agee, Robert Coles, and an exceptional Edward R. Murrow documentary. I think I have something else due as well, but it is currently escaping me. Not very professional, D.L.

I am also working on some other creative non-fiction stuff (which isn't fit for public consumption). And I would die if I didn't journal/do morning pages nearly every day.

 

 

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

How do you answer this question without sounding terrible? To be honest, sometimes I feel like I am in a unique position of being someone who lives and works among the poor but who also devours McSweeneys, Image, and O! magazine (just keeping it real). People writing about life in the margins of American society tend to be male, make their own clothes out of burlap, and are not too concerned with literary merit. I love those guys, but that ain't me. I do, however, have a similar message in regards to finding Jesus in the outskirts of the Empire.

I like writing about poverty and privilege, and I also like taking a piss at myself every now and again. I am also deeply interested in how writing can be beautiful, and am not too terribly concerned with things being tied up neatly (either theologically or in a story arc). Where I live, there is a lot of sadness, despair, death, and destruction. There is also so much beauty and humor and people who transcend the word "survivor". I really, really like to write about failure, which seems to not be a super popular thing to do. So I guess that is different? I also use a lot of the "passive voice" and "run-on sentences" which I think is arty but my good friend Amy makes me edit out anyways.

 

 

3. Why do you write what you do?

My life choices are an obvious jumping point. I often find myself overwhelmed with life and writing helps. I also see huge gaps in the narratives we are being fed about who the blessed really are; I see how many of us have no real concept of what it means to be poor in America. As I catch a glimpse now and then I can't help but share what I am seeing, mostly out of a sense of isolation. If it was prime-time news I think I wouldn't feel the urgency.

I wrote my book primarily because the world could always use another reminder that the the upside-down kingdom is here, all around us. Also I think it is intrinsically an interesting story--one where I start out trying to convert everyone, and slowly start to realize how heretical my own view of God is. As an activist at heart, a small part of me must believe that what I write could change a minds towards a belief in the words of Jesus. Because once we start to believe what he said, everything starts to change.

I also have made a conscious decision to write for people who might not agree with my conclusions. It is important for me not to get bogged down in an echo chamber of agreement--only interacting with other writers/readers/thinkers who believe the same thing. I like writing about WIC for conservative Christian websites. I like disguising an essay on downward mobility and reconciliation as an argument about alcohol for a traditional Christian magazine. I like being surprised by what I read and I want to do the same thing with my writing.

Remind me of this the next time I complain about the haters, mmmmkay?

 

 

4. How does your writing process work?

 

I am forever in the throes of a busy season. I teach ESOL to non-literate learners 4 days a week. I also take care of my daughter in the afternoons/evenings. I have a variety of community events/relationships I am involved with and I also have multiple commitments with the non-profit I work for.  For an up-coming writers workshop I am supposed to write down when I write. Thus far it looks like this:

Wed: write during nap time. 40 minutes.

Saturday PM: write for 30 minutes, fall asleep.

Every Other Friday: write for 1 hour, check FB and Twitter for 45 min.

 

Soooooo, not great. The problem is that by the end of the day there is not a blessed thought in my head. But I am loathe to wake up early (as my many talented friends do). I am hoping for a few reshufflings in my schedule for the fall, but I never know what will happen. For now it is a very part-time gig, and I have honed my skills at writing fast and furious when I get a chance.

As far as what I choose to write--when the mood strikes, I often pitch ideas to various places and usually find myself writing at least 1-2 essays a month. I try and scare myself a little each time I write. Blogging is currently not a huge priority for me (see: time) and as I have said before the crazier it gets the quieter I have to be in my writing. For now I take the stolen minutes I get and type into my laptop (usually sitting on my bed, or the couch) and I consider myself lucky. When I get super stuck for ideas or I hit an editing fog, going on long runs really seems to get my thoughts in order (also, cake helps). Being in an online writing group has been the best motivation ever (they believe me! they really do!) and now I am in an awesome IRL one as well. I am basically surrounded by beautiful, talented writers who force me to keep producing content. It is awesome, and I highly recommend this to everyone.

 

 

 

 

Oh man. Now I'm done talking about myself and my "craft"! So now I get to gleefully tag two writer friends so they can also answer these questions and populate the world with more art and beautiful (and sometimes cranky) words.

 

The first writer is Becca over at Exile Fertility. I just love everything that comes out of her mouth. She gets it. She gets that everything is terrible and everything is beautiful. She is my favorite writer when it comes to womanhood, birth, beauty, and radical self-care. I wish she would write more, but I understand that her arms are very full at the moment. Go on over to her place and check it out.

The other writer is Kevin Hardagan, who I think is the Joel Osteen/N.T. Wright of Ireland. He could go either way, really. He is wicked smart, a little cantankerous, half the time I do not know what he is talking about but when I DO I really like it. And he always makes me think (a good sign, right?). I would dearly love to know what he is working on in regards to his PhD (I think it has something to do with mammon. Mammon!) and everything he writes is funny. Including a response to a blogging round robin.

 

 

So there you have it. I would love (and I mean this from the bottom of my heart) to hear from any of you in regards to what you are working on, what your process is, and how you see yourself fitting into the writing world. So please comment and share!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Jaw Harp Jam

It's trite to talk about culture/art allowing us to break down walls, but in my experience it is so true. Books, music, movies, paintings--all of it has brought me outside of myself and my own carefully constructed ghetto of imagination. I love Bethany's perspective, because I too have had similar experiences. When you catch a glimpse of culture at it's finest, so strange and beautiful and free of appropriation. In our world, where cultures vie for survival, for power, the influence of joy cannot be understated. I am so grateful to Bethany for writing this beautiful piece on the legacy of culture.   

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Jaw Harp Jam

By Bethany Bassett

 

When Marcus Mumford and his band of indie folk-farmers hit the scene back in 2010, I had never heard the term hipster. I didn’t know suspenders were the new rubric of cool; I just knew that their music spoke to me, that Mumford’s “newly impassioned soul” plucked the strings of my own longing for a full-volume life. I queued up Sigh No More and played it on repeat for the next six months. Chances are, you did too. The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200 and was the third most downloaded album of 2011. Everyone, it seemed, was getting his or her British bluegrass on.

 

But this story isn’t about Mumford & Sons. It’s about an almost impossibly obscure group of musicians from rural India who recorded an untitled EP with them.

Image from last.fm user rahsa

 

They went by Dharohar Project (pronounced “Dah-RHO-har”), and the only thing I knew about them was my own disappointment. I’d been hoping for a fresh dose of the barn-dance rock I’d been cycling through my stereo—not the wailing and twanging I associated with traditional Indian music. I gave the MP3 samples a once-over, but they only confirmed what I already knew: Jaw harp just wasn’t my jam.

 

My perspective landed on its head, however, once I saw the video of their live performance in London:

  [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EskBsvN5tDU]

 

The quality isn’t amazing, but I didn’t need HD resolution to see the joy reverberating across that stage, bounding from banjo to bhapang, rippling down from Indian bells and up the soles of British feet. Do you see it too? The way they laugh and beat their drums and move to the pulse of their collective art? Do you hear their delight? I had goose bumps within thirty seconds, wet eyes within ninety. This was no gentrified performance with cultural differences smoothed conveniently away; this was harmony at its freest, tribes and tongues and traditions rollicking together to create a new song. I couldn’t shake the impression that I was watching a six-minute preview of heaven.

 

Dharohar Project fascinated me. I wanted to find out more about this group who had brought so much color to my view of Kingdom-come, and as I researched, my goose bumps returned full-force. I learned that the nine Indian musicians came from different castes and religions. Some were Muslim and others Hindu. They came from social classes with barriers as thick as history, but they united to test their belief that music can overcome cultural differences. No wonder I saw heaven in their performance; Dharohar Project’s very existence is a redemption story.

 

I know to some extent what it’s like to break out of oppressive traditions masquerading as birthright. For the Dharohar musicians, it was the caste system; for me, it was the Quiverfull movement. Like them, I was born inside a series of walls, and learning to see the humanity of those on the other side required some hefty dismantling.  I learned through that experience, though, that God is in the [re]construction business: beauty out of ashes, new songs out of olds spites, a bright and harmonious Kingdom out of discordant humanity.

Image from last.fm user rahsa

 

I don’t know if Dharohar Project is still together or not, but I do know that what they created together is here to stay. It’s right there in their name, in fact—what their redemption story entails for their community, their children, and those of us still facing down walls. “Dharohar,” you see, is a word that has crossed from ancient Sanskrit into modern-day Hindi, quietly defying all attempts to confine it to the past.

 

It means legacy.

 

 

 

unnamedBethany Bassett is a fundamentalism survivor, a sedentary snowboarder, and a cappuccino junkie. She originally hails from Texas but has been adventuring in Italy with her husband and their two little girls for the last seven years. She blogs at coffeestainedclarity.com, where you’ll find out quickly that grace is her favorite thing in the world.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Opera Outside the Mainstream

Some of the people who are most deeply connected to the joys and the sufferings of the world seem to lose their minds for the opera. I am not there yet, but I want to be. I absolutely adore this guest post by Newell, because he is writing about himself being the outsider--the one writing the operas for funsies. The history of the form and music also surprised me, in the best way possible. I encourage you to check out Newell and his other writings. This little post is like a teaser for his great, mysterious, music-filled life.   

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Opera Outside the Mainstream

by Newell Hendricks

 

I am in the process of publishing a collection of stories from my life.  One section of the book is five stories about major musical compositions I have written.  The last story in this section is about my opera, ASCONA.  The excerpt below is near the ending of that story.  

 

Writing operas was a wonderful way to spend my days.  I loved it – getting lost in my imagination – feeling the most extreme emotions and trying to capture them in sound and form – living a fantasy life to the max that actually had a tangible notation and had the possibility of being reconstructed by performers and experienced by audiences.  It was a constant high – living in ecstasy as long as I could maintain the energy and distance myself from obvious reality.

That reality is that the socio-economics of our day does not lend itself to the production of operas.  The larger musical forms of western culture evolved under a very different socio-economic system, one in which there was a highly talented, highly skilled, completely exploitable class that could perform the music.  In the Renaissance and earlier, the choir schools of the major cathedrals were where musicians were trained.  The church was also the institution that took in orphans.  This was the pool from which musicians came.  Some of the great composers of the Renaissance were Josquin de Pres:  “Joe from the field,” and Pierre de la Rue: “Pete from the street.”  Well into the Baroque period, many musicians came from orphanages.  All of the Vivaldi violin concertos were written for girls at the orphanage where he worked.  In the Classical period, the cathedral schools were still the center of musical education.  The Kapellmeister would go out into the rural countryside looking for talented peasants, take them back to the school as scholarship students, and train them and use them for their music program.  Hayden was such a student.  Even at the height of his fame, Hayden, the most renowned composer of Europe, had to dress up in his servant’s uniform and report to his patron for duty every day.

And well into the twentieth century, musicians were low down on the economic scale.  They were tradespeople.

It is true that in the nineteenth century a few musicians did achieve star status and became extremely wealthy.  Accompanying the phenomenon of the superstars was the cult of art as religion with these stars having their devoted worshipers.  Opera composers and singers were certainly in the center of this cult and Richard Wagner reigned supreme as the high priest.  His opera Tristan und Isolde was commissioned by a wealthy count who not only paid him a handsome sum to write the opera, but set him up in his summer villa to compose it.  Wagner responded by seducing the count’s wife, making that the story of the opera, selling the finished opera to someone else, and saying that it was a story about “ideal Christian love.”

What was I thinking, wanting to be an opera composer?

I loved writing opera.  It fit with the day dreaming, but I balked at the social role expected of one in this profession.  Denise Levertov, who had written the libretto for my oratorio, El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation, told Karen, librettist for my last 2 operas, that she had never known anyone as bad as me at promoting his art.

The year I lived under a tree I had a job conducting a church choir in Isla Vista, the student housing community for the University of California at Santa Barbara.  The popular service for the students was at 11:00 and was a joyous celebration with balloons ending with people dancing around the communion table singing Lord of the Dance.  I played string bass in the band as a volunteer.  But the church was funded by older people who, for themselves, wanted a more traditional service.  This was the service for which I was paid $8 per week to provide a choral anthem.  I had three women in the choir.  I sang tenor and the organist sang bass and we rehearsed at 8 a.m. before the church service on Sunday.  There was a time when I would go into the church on Thursday night, after the bulletin had been printed, and look at what the minister had written as “The Collect” words that were read by all at the beginning of the service.

For three weeks in a row, I took this text and on Friday and Saturday wrote a simple anthem using these words.  The bulletin simply said “anthem.”  No one ever asked or wondered how I had found the piece which used the same words as the Collect, but it felt good to me.  I was contributing in a special way to the worship experience of this community.

 

I think I would take that feeling over the adulation that Wagner received.

 

 

 

unnamed-8Newell Hendricks, as an opera composer, received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a grant from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts to write an oratorio: El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation, with poet Denise Levertov.   In honor of his 50th birthday, Richard Dyer, reviewer for the Boston Globe, wrote a feature article on him with the headline “An interesting and productive career outside the mainstream.”   This headline would equally apply to his later work leading popular-education-style workshops, his homesteading activities, or his political activism.  Newell lives in Cambridge, MA, with his violinist wife, Barbara Englesberg.   They have two adult daughters, and two granddaughters. Website: newellhendricks.wordpress.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/newell.hendricks
For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.

D.L. Recommends vol. 2

D.L. Recommends vol. 2.  Here are some things I recommend:

 

 

 

Busting out the Easter Dress Early

I got Ramona an Easter dress at the thrift store that gets all of it's clothes donated from Target (I know. I found a way to work the system). Yesterday was nearly 60 degrees, so I had to let her wear it early. And go tromp around in the muddy rivers the snow was making. Because you are only 3 once.

 

Turning 30

It's really quite nice.

 

Reframing the words to excellent songs in order to make them Toddler Appropriate

I used to sing "Oh Yoko" to my daughter when she was a baby, but I changed "Yoko" to her name, and the chorus became "my love will lead you home". Tonight we danced around and sang it to each other. It was pretty great. Very Rushmore-esq.

 

Found

This is a book by Micha Boyett. I love the poetic-ness, and how she juxtaposes the mundane aspects of the stay-at-home life with the contemplative life of Benedictine monks. Since I am also a recovering savior complex, spend a lot of time with a certain 3 year old, and also yearn to pray more, this book was excellent. Slow, simple, and it made me realize how much space there already was for contemplation in my life.

 

Watching Cat Vines

Vine is very newfangled to me. But watching 6 second loops of cats being cute/ridiculous/funny is seriously soothing to my soul.

 

Eating Sugar Cereal

Having a bad week? Buy a $3 box of sugar cereal (preferably: Lucky Charms) and pour yourself a tall bowl. Aaaah.

 

Throwing Class Parties

As a teacher of adults, it really is my prerogative when it comes to throwing class parties. Sometimes the complexity of it overwhelms me: perhaps not everyone can afford to bring food, what if nobody shows up, how do we communicate (remember I teach level 0 pre-literacy). But I am leaning into this commitment to celebration thing we have going on in our order. This week we had a class party and it was so smashingly fantastic. I had SO much pasta and so many sambusas. East African food FTW!

 

Sambusa

If you have never had one, you are missing out. Like the Indian Samosa, but filled with ground beef and onions and occasionally peppers. The best East African snack/street food EVER.

 

Brooklyn 99

Oh my gosh this is our new favorite show. So funny, the characters are so endearing, Andy Samberg and his big goofy smile just win you over. It is not a cop show at all. It is a show about a bunch of dorky people doing what they love. This show makes me sad for other shows.

 

Applying/Pitching for Scary Things

Grants. Week-long retreats. An article at a place you have never written. For me and my writing, if I don't push myself, I tend not to produce. And for every 99 rejections, there seems to be 1 acceptance! Yay!

 

Reading YA during Spring Break

I am officially on spring break. While I have a few deadlines to make (plus, I crammed in a ton of socializing time in like I do), I am determined to make it somewhat feel like a reprieve. Enter the Young Adult literature.. I have gotten all of John Green and Rainbow Rowell's entire oeuvre's on hold for me at the library. Remember when life was simple but felt really complicated? When you fell in love with the first boy you kissed? When you were s emotional and sure that nobody felt like you, until the one day you realized how beautiful the world was and everyone in it? Yeah, that's like my norm. So YA just feels right.

 

Listening to Built to Spill While the Snow Thaws

It just feels right.

 

Americanah

You will be hearing more about this book from me at some point in the near future. Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie writes in a way that is lulling and piercing. Her descriptions of immigrant life in America resonated so deeply with me I was almost embarrassed. Her words on racism in America have not left my mind. It's not ok, the author is telling us, over and over again. Cruelty is never ok. You don't get to gloss over that fact, ever.

 

Figuring out your Rule of Life

Pope John Paul the II had one. So did MLK.  So do all the Benedictine  monks. Basically, pick a few spiritual disciplines and incorporate them into your life.  I personally like to crib from Dorothy Day (a personal hero of mine): find the face of Christ in the poor every day, and journal journal journal.

 

Ditching Netflix/Hulu plus for Amazon prime

Guys. Amazon Prime is amazing. Quit your Netflix and your Hulu and instead get free 2 day shipping and access to shows like Veronica MarsPushing DaisiesZach Stone is Gonna Be Famous, and the Pride and Prejudice that has Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Yes. If you divide the cost of Prime over 12 months, it's like $6 a month or something. Caveat: Amazon is also not the best thing ever. Support local and all that. Make your own instead of consumption. Yeah. But I have ordered a few killer Doctor Who mugs and some organic fair trade coffee at some sweet deals. Just don't go all crazy!

 

Read Genesis Again

I am in a Bible study with a neighbor and we are going through the Women of the Bible--starting in Genesis. Pretty bleak stuff, ammiright? Except there are so many stories of God hearing/seeing the oppressed. The stories of the Hagars, the Leahs. They just make me want to cry. I am also left with the unshakeable belief that God uses the most crazy miserable mess-ups to bring about his kingdom. I don't get it at all, but it makes me feel a bit more hopeful about myself.

 

About Time

This movie came out last year and went under my radar. It is delightful--time travel, stiff upper lip British people, Bill Nighy!, that guy who played Bill Weasely . . . don't be freaked out by the fact that there is a soft-focus Rachel McAdams on the cover. This is not the Notebook. It is very sweet and poignant and witty and just a really great movie (by the same people who brought you Love Actually). There is a phrase on love and death that will never leave me mind. But I won't tell you. You will have to watch it for yourself.

 

 

 

So that's what I am recommending these days. Hit me up with whatever you have got!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Bakerwoman God

  Alissa's post today stems from a beautiful poem that encourages us to see God in new ways. I love it. This is also my year of reading/learning to love poetry, so I greatly identified with this piece. Isn't that the point of art--to help us connect with people/Christ in new ways? To create threads between the world we experience and the ones we don't? I'm so grateful Alissa shared this gorgeous piece, and gives us all a chance to think about the One who is kneading us. 

 

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Bakerwoman God

by Alissa BC

 

 

 

 

 

The summer I found myself perusing the shelves of the public library like it was my job, I was a newlywed, unemployed, college student in a new city. God had grown increasingly and unrelentingly distant over the past year, and by that summer I had become unable to pray, read my bible, or relate in any way to the God I knew, white and bearded in the clouds. So I filled my days with piles of books from the library and old films from the DVD section, alternately attempting to fix and distract myself from my new spiritual realities.

One afternoon, knee deep in the religious section looking for the God I seemed to have lost, I happened upon a book called The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. Published in 1984, the copy I held in my hands was old and worn, with an outdated, mustard design on the cover and what I assumed would be outdated contents.

Still, the concept intrigued me. I had not been raised with any sort of awareness of divine feminine nor with the option of calling God She. For most of my life, I had struggled with the concept of a male-only God, but I never once thought to challenge the traditions that had been passed down to me, to see God as both Father and Mother. That kind of thing was forbidden in the evangelical circles I inhabited, condemned as "goddess worship," and I obediently accepted the restriction. Instead, I had worked quietly for years at overcoming the baggage that a male God carried for me. I tried my best to imagine a Father God who was nurturing rather than authoritative, who was loving rather than stern. But by the time I encountered The Divine Feminine, I had lost all ability to feel any sense of intimacy with or trust in the God of my youth. I took the book home.

Over the next few days, I pored over it in small chunks, soaking up each bit of wisdom I found within its pages. Despite having read the Bible in its entirety several times over, I was astounded by the amount of distinctly female imagery for God to be found there. As I read, I took my little neglected Bible and found every verse said to allude to the Divine She, highlighting each one in bright orange so I would never forget it. I learned to see God as Nursing Mother and Midwife, Homemaker and Mother Hen.

But the imagery that captured me most, was that of the baking woman. In this section of her book, Mollenkott quotes the first two stanzas of the poem “Bakerwoman God” by Alla Renee Bozarth:

Bakerwoman God,

I am your living bread.

Strong, brown Bakerwoman God,

I am your low, soft, and being-shaped loaf.

I am your rising bread,

well-kneaded by some divine

and knotty pair of knuckles,

by your warm earth hands.

I am bread well-kneaded.

The imagery wrapped it arms around me with its warmth. As I read, I could see Her hands, calloused but soft, moving silently over some divine countertop dusted with flour. I could feel Her knuckles, strong yet tender, digging, digging, digging into the doughy depths of my being. Bakerwoman God was gentle in Her firmness, kind in Her correction. Her kneading was not painless, but it was filled with love. I felt safe in Her hands.

This description of God felt more true and comforting than any I had ever known. It came as a brief but refreshing sip of cold water to my soul that year, allowing me a glorious peek into God's love at a time when I had all but lost sight of it.

Even now, years later, as my feelings of distance from God remain, I often find myself returning to the image again and again. Sometimes, in my darkest moments, the nights when God feels like little more than a deep chasm of absence, I'll close my eyes and remember Bakerwoman God, who even in Her silence is making me bread well-kneaded.

 

unnamed-7Alissa BC is a writer, wife, and mother. You can find her at alissabc.com, where she writes her heart out about doubt, mystery, and other everyday discoveries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Disappearing, Endless Love

I so resonate with Deidre in this piece. I am not a huge modern art fan myself, but when I do find a piece that speaks to me--it sort of takes my breath away. I am so grateful for this beautiful, succinct essay on finding universal themes of sorrow and love in art--and how similar we all are despite our world doing it's best to convince we are all alone in our miseries. Any piece of art that asks us to crack our hearts open just a bit wider is to me a blessing from Christ himself.   

 

Upside-Down Art: Disappearing, Endless Love

Guest Post by Deidre Sanchez

 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). Image from the Brooklyn Museum

 

I am not one for contemporary art. Most of the large scale displays in the big museums fail to evoke any emotion in me. I always feel so disconnected from whatever the artist is trying to say. As if we live on two different planes of meaning and we’re talking to cross purposes. It’s always the Pollacks and Van Goghs that I linger in front of. The O’ Keefes that steal my breath. The Chagall’s that draw me to wonder.  When I visit museums, I dutifully walk the floors of contemporary art, sometimes almost at a run. I don’t want to miss something creative and beautiful just because of my own prejudice but I am always prepared for disappointment. In the Chicago Museum of Art I was (almost) running the top floor, smirking inwardly at the two hipsters stopped in front of some tangled up string engaged in a very serious discussion on how this was so derivative of Lindberg. (I know. I’m the worst).

 

I enter a new room and a flash of glowing color catches the corner of my eye. I spin right. There is a luminous heap of something. Glass? Lightbulbs? I’m not sure what it is that's piled in the corner of the room. It seems so alive, iridescent, incandescent. I thought this pile must be lighted up from the inside: pulsing with color and light as I move towards it. I read the card. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA). Ross Laycock was the artist’s partner and died of AIDs. The pile was originally 175 lbs worth of cellophane wrapped candy, which represented his ideal body weight. Visitors are encouraged to take a piece of candy to represent his slowly diminishing body weight. The artist asked that the museum replenish the pile “thereby metaphorically granting his partner perpetual life.” Love. The word rings like a gong struck in my head. All the pain of loss and love sitting on the ground in front of me. I reach my hand out to take a piece, meditating on the pain of watching someone you love shrink smaller with disease. Is that a universal experience? Do we all at some point lose one we love to deadly disease? Watch them disappear piece by piece. If we could all grant them perpetual life in the vast array of  colorful glory in which they lived!

 

I have the piece of candy still. It’s sitting in the basket by my bed. The cellophane wrapper dulled with dust, less stunning now that it’s separated from its mound. Every once in a while I take it out and roll it between my fingers. I don’t know Gonzalez-Torres. I wouldn't recognize him if I passed him on the street. I don’t assume that I have much in common with a gay, Cuban-American artist. And yet his work threw out a thread and drew me in. Into his pain. He tied our shared experience together with one stroke of breathtaking imagery. And when I close my eyes I see the glow of cellophane wrappers lit by a skylight overhead and I think of Ross.

 

 

unnamed-6Deidre Sanchez is a Jesus-follower, wife and mother, a disillusioned optimist, amateur cook and obsessive reader. She currently writes at agapeeverywhere.wordpress.com. Her blog is a personal exploration of the nature of love. It’s an experiment in how far love can go, what it looks like and how people experience it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the Upside-Down Art series (and to submit your own!) click here.

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

Expensive Narratives: Captain Philips and the Somali Community

I watched the Oscars on Sunday (how did I make it through award shows before the snarky, humorous insights of Twitter?) and I rooted for my boy, Barkhad Abdi. Even though I knew it was a long shot for him to win Best Supporting Actor, it was still surreal to see one of my neighbors, a Cedar Riverside proud Somali boy, walking that red carpet. And it made me long for the day when actors like Barkhad and Lupita have thousands of roles to choose from--and they don't just have to play pirates or slaves.  

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I recently wrote about what it's been like to be at the periphery of the East African diaspora in America. Every day I am astonished at who is carving out a life in this frozen tundra of a land (Lewis and Clark deemed it "inhabitable" back in the day, and I am inclined to agree with them). I find myself living and working in the heart of a community which is complicated, inspiring, thriving--and repeatedly misrepresented by the media.

I haven't written too much about my personal life here, for many reasons. The spotlight on Barkhad Abdi and his role in Captain Philips made for a timely piece, and it finally felt appropriate for me to share my own experiences here.  While I am not an expert on Somalis or the East African community, I believe that it might be helpful for other outsiders like myself to get a peek at a different narrative than the one we are being told over and over again.

Here's the beginning:

 

 

My friend was celebrating Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic holiday commemorating the feast of Abraham, like everyone else was: by going to the Mall of America. I went with her and her family, wearing the clothes she had given me for the occasion. My dress was colorful and flowy; we wandered around the mall and people-watched. It was still a bit early, but the large East African diaspora in the middle of the Midwest was already beginning to pour in. Families, as far as the eye can see, laughing husbands, smiling mothers, children running and shrieking, everyone dressed up in their best clothes, shopping, riding the carousel. I followed my friends, insecure in my outfit, feeling like an imposter or worse—someone playing dress up. The clothes that hung so elegantly on my friends looked like a costume on me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had done something wrong, just by trying to fit in, to look like everyone else, to celebrate a day and a culture that is not my own.

After a few hours, my friend took off to go see the movie Captain Phillips in the the theater, while I headed home. Later, I asked her what she thought of the film. Oh my gosh, she said, it was amazing. Really? I asked, slightly taken aback. Yeah, she said, the whole theater couldn’t stop laughing. Laughing? I asked, at what? Isn’t it a sad movie?

Yeah, I know, she said, but we couldn’t help it! Although I was a little worried—the few white people in the theater started staring at all of us. But any time one of the Somali boys on-screen would start talking, we would start to laugh. It was just so funny to see them up there, talking in Somali.

Why was it so funny? I asked, still confused.

She turned to look at me, and said it matter-of-fact: because we had never heard anyone speak Somali in a movie before. It was so strange, and so, so funny.  She paused a beat, and then acknowledged: even if what they were saying wasn’t really funny at all.

Go to Christ and Pop Culture to read the rest. The piece is an exclusive feature that has been shared with you but is otherwise available only in Volume 2, Issue 5 of the Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. For more features like this, download our app for iPad and iPhone from Apple’s App Store.  More information here.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missionary Kids, Downward Mobility, and My Friend Sarah--Guest Post by Brianna Meade

Brianna sent me this stunner of a guest post and I love how it swirls together several topics that are valuable to me: missionary kids (I married one), intentionality, downward mobility, and the facing the fears that are inherent when we interact with people who are so different from us. This is a lovely, thoughtful meditation, coming from the best place--in the very middle of a life being changed. I am so grateful for Brianna and her honesty here. 

 

 

 

Missionary Kids, Downward Mobility, and My Friend Sarah

Guest Post by Brianna Meade

 

 

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I'm a missionary kid who didn't want to be a missionary kid. Instead of "I'm from Thailand," I want to say "I'm from Chicago." In fact this is what I do say.

Being an MK is interesting in a, "Wow, that's cool, but I don't understand you at all" type way. Not so great for relating to people. Living in a hut in the jungle on the border of a third-world country doesn't help if you are desperate to fit in. People rarely know how to respond when it's brought up. It can be a conversation jump-starter, but it can also be the type of thing where you start to feel alone as the conversation fizzles out because nobody knows what to say.

When my past is brought up, I'll ramble on about Rice and Elephants and the Thai Language. I'll hedge my sentences and stories with, "I know you don't really want to hear this story, but..."  I'm embarrassed by how I grew up, but the bigger issue is that I feel alone. I don't feel at home in Thailand and don't belong among Americans--especially American women.

I know what you are thinking if you know anything about missionary kids. Feeling like I don't belong is a classic MK attitude. MK's feel as if they don't fit in either culture. The whole idea of a "Third-Culture-Kid" came from the theory that those who grew up in two cultures only feel at home in a "third" culture that incorporates both--that is, in their "own" created culture. You'd think the one place I'd feel at home is among other MK's who have the same background, but I don't. I'm just as uncomfortable around other MKs as around girls who grew up in Chicago. During college, many MKs I knew found solace in International Dinners and Third-Culture Kid Retreats. I avoided all of this.

I don't talk about Thailand, ever, unless it is brought up.  My years as a missionary kid were difficult and jarring and ended with a full-blown eating disorder that almost killed me. So when other MKs wax nostalgic for Asian noodles or dumplings or bring up how much they miss their "real" home, I feel disingenuous. I feel numb and apathetic.The twinge of sadness that exists just makes me want to run harder towards the American dream.

When I arrived in the U.S. for college, I tried to assimilate in order to avoid being the "weird" one. I abandoned my MK roots as soon as I could figure out how to dress in North Face jackets and procure boots that looked like UGGs. I tried to assimilate in every way. I steadily acquired pop culture awareness and memorized the names of celebrities.

I rarely claim my childhood in Asia (where I lived for 15 years--more time than I've lived anywhere else) as home. Was it my home? I was always an outsider there too. So where does that leave me?

Every once in a while during college, I would go to a Thai food restaurant and ball my eyes out. On the way out, I would swear never to go back to the restaurant again as I wiped snot off my face. It was too confusing and much too painful.

And so, when we moved to North Carolina, I was still hard at work leaving my past behind. So it seemed strangely serendipitous and out-of-nowhere that our apartment complex contained a greater percentage of people of Asian descent than it did  Caucasians. Did this make me happy? Did it make me feel like I was home? On the contrary, it made me feel more exposed and maybe even a little uncomfortable. I didn't want to presuppose that I had anything in common with my Indian neighbors because I knew (and implicitly felt) that I was just as complicit in stereotyping people--just as likely to misunderstand someone and miss the real story. But in the process of avoiding any representation of my past, of side-stepping my roots and of trying to become someone else, I'd forgotten who I was.

One day I went to the park and found myself surrounded by a large Indian family and several Chinese mothers with their children. I was with my daughter in the sandpit and I felt that familiar feeling of being somewhere you have been many times. Of returning to a place that you have been away from for a long time.

Then we stumbled upon a church that was half-white, half-Chinese-American demographic and oriented towards reaching out to the cultural diaspora that was our town. I felt my shoulders slump a little and my butt relax deeper in the seats. I kind of wanted to cry, but it was a moment that again, I shared only with myself. It was the first time I felt slightly less alone in an American church. The first public place that it might be okay to work out my culture issues and feel safe.

It was also the place where a Southern girl (as American as mac n' cheese) taught me how to re-embrace a part of me I had left behind. This friend was named Sarah*. Sarah and her family are Jesus-seekers and wholehearted members of the small Presbyterian Church (PCA) that we are all a part of.

When I first talked to Sarah, she mesmerized me with her stories of intentionality and engagement. Every afternoon, she takes her boys out to the parking lot, sets up some yellow cones to warn drivers, and they spend the late afternoon riding bikes. By six pm, her Indian neighbors have also come outside and their kids join the fun. She positions her lawn chairs and hands out extra bikes that her family has collected to any kids that don’t have bikes. The Indian boys and girls call Sarah “auntie,” a term of acceptance.

One story Sarah recounted was a turning point for me.The Indian women in her neighborhood often come out in groups for their afternoon walks. One day, all the women came out, gathered their things, and left Sarah to care for all their children.  Then this became the routine.

Sarah felt perplexed by this. Though she was thankful that they trusted her with their children, she felt left out. In Indian culture they explained, the communal aspect and “it takes a village” mentality meant that a single adult sufficed as a babysitter for all the children. One day, Sarah confronted them and said “I want to walk with you. I don’t want to always babysit your kids.” The women tilted their heads and giggled at her as she tried to convey her desire. The discussion was a mix-up of cultural confusion, clumsy language dynamics, and the desire to connect.

And so she joined their walk. She grappled and wrestled to grasp the conversation. She understood almost nothing during the trip.

This is everything that getting to know someone who is different than you should be.  It is the initial terrifying jump into the unknown of possibly offending someone. It is the unwieldy silences between difficult vocabulary words in other languages. It is the complexity of relationship when individualism and village mentalities clash and bang.  When the noise that goes up shatters into the loud dissonance of the family-frameworks and culture we have come from.

It can be a lesson in self-consciousness and embarrassment. It can mean perpetuating cultural stereotypes (sometimes unconsciously), and then backing up and understanding an individual story, turning around in your dialogue and realizing you have, perhaps, gotten it all wrong.

When Sarah told me this story what resonated was her feeling of being “outside” and out-of-her-depth. And I think this is important. When we think about downward mobility and cross-cultural interactions as vocation we are correct. But we also acknowledge that vocation is not easy, comfortable, or natural. Vocation can be gritty, like digging in a sandbox and getting granules of sand stuck under your fingernails. It forces you to question your motives—forces you to think about your own pride and perhaps even your own racism or aversion to cultural nuances. And this is not fun. This is far from fun—but it just might be vocation even though it hurts.

When I think about vocation, I think about writing, in which I feel the flow of an organic creativity that begins in my thoughts and ends up in my words on a paper. But I sometimes forget the agony and disruption of pen on paper, of trying to find the exact word I am looking for, of exhaustive editing and not explaining something well, or being misunderstood. Writing is vocation, but it is not easy, it is not trite. It takes time and patience and humility. Humility as we fight for words, fight to be understood and resist presuming or placing constructs upon other people and ourselves that do not fit or are not honest.

My neighborhood is composed of many Indian families. Should I reach out? By using the words “reach out” am I already conveying a kind of cultural superiority or colonizing mentality that exposes me? Am I okay with silence in between words? With trying to meet other people with open hands and finding closed hands or vice versa?

I think vocation means trying things on for size, even if the pants don’t fit you at the ankles and you have to roll the legs up a bit. Even if you were once-upon-a-time a missionary kid, but feel like that part of you has disappeared into the background. And I’m just at the beginning of this—at the starting line of “maybe I’m called."

Yesterday, I was  coming out of my apartment and I noticed my Indian neighbor standing outside with a little girl my daughter’s age. I yelled, “Hello!” even as my words seemed to echo back at an embarrassing decibel. She looked around to see if I was saying hello to her, and the start of a loud and confusing conversation began. I walked up to her, and we exchanged the formalities of name and relation. Her name was hard to pronounce, and I rolled it over my tongue and under my breath several times, trying to grasp some fluidity. My little Zoe and her granddaughter eyed each other.

And then we had a moment. I don’t want this to seem like a “happy ending” or the conclusion to a story about race and culture and understanding. Because it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t conclusive and it wasn’t definitive.

This moment was mid-conversation. I think it was also mutual. I commented on her granddaughters absolutely gorgeous eyelashes—which were black and beautiful, and I said, “They look just like my daughters. They both have amazing lashes.” She nodded and laughed.

Was this moment as meaningful to her as it was to me? I don’t know. After this, we stumbled through another exchange. She asked her granddaughter to “high-five” my daughter (who refused to comply). Then I asked her questions about her family but I asked them too fast.  I needed to go. We laughed and nodded goodbye.

And that was it. Perhaps my vocation for downward mobility is a budding one even though I have past multi-cultural experiences. Maybe it is for you too. Maybe you aren’t equipped. Maybe you're not sure you even want to go out in your neighborhood and meet people who have different backgrounds. Maybe, like me, you've left a part of you behind, and you need to reach out because it will help you even more than it will help them

 

 

 

unnamed-1Briana Meade is a 20-something writer and blogger at brianameade.com. She is a contributor to Early Mama, a site for young mothers and often writes about the intersection of faith, culture, and motherhood. She lives with her husband and two children in the Raleigh-Durham area and is a graduate of Wheaton College

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts on downward mobility, please click here.

 

Christmas in 4 movies

Merry Christmas Eve, ya'll!

I wrote an essay on Christmas for Christ and Pop Culture. Of course I talk about advent, Home Alone, and the Abominable Snowman. I can't really think of another publication that would let me write about all three.

Truly, the best part of this essay is that Seth T. Hahne made an illustration for it. You can check out more of his work at goodokbad.

 

Here is the image (which I am now going to send to everyone in my family--Merry Christmas, guys!):

 

unnamed-3

 

 

 

So, see if you can guess which 4 movies I use to illustrate my changing perspective on the Christmas Season. And then go here to read the entire essay.

 

Also, my amazing friend Amy Lepine Peterson wrote her own essay on Christmas and movies. It is much smarter and better written than mine, and is also in the same issue of Christ and Pop Culture. You can read that one (which talks more about White Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life) here.

 

Happy reading, and happy Home Alone-watching. 

 

 

 

 

santa is not sustainable

Perhaps the first image of the modern-day representation of santa--done by Haddon Sunblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

 

 

Sustainability is something people in our line of work talk about a lot. How can you stay for the long haul, and not burn out? How can you make sure programs, traditions, and services are not based solely on you and your work, but can continue on for many years? Sustainability is like the opposite of how many evangelicals typically work: quick, fast, results oriented, crash-and-burn. One of the reasons we were so drawn to our mission organization is that they have a commitment to contemplation--recognizing that without taking the space for finding God in your own life, you will never be able to care for others.

Which is why it is super helpful to think about what can be sustained for the long haul when it comes to strategic decisions regarding time, money, and emotional energy. 

Like Christmas.

We made the decision that it wasn't sustainable to fly to Oregon every Christmas. It's a hard decision (um, "I'll Be Home For Christmas" by Dean Martin is on repeat this morning, along with "A Tender Tennessee Christmas" by Amy Grant, even though I never lived in Tennessee. Because Nostalgia). But it's the right decision for us. Neighbors and friends have come out of the woodwork, and we are going to have ourselves a patchy, somewhat merry, somewhat sad little Christmas. Which seems pretty sustainable for our future.

What about celebrating Advent?  

We light Advent candles with our daughter, read some Scripture, and pray. She gets super excited to blow the candles out, and the rest is probably over her head. Is this sustainable? Yes, I think it is. As one of my friends pointed out, if one of my neighbors asked how we celebrated Advent, this would be an affordable, accessible option. Is unwrapping a piece of the $50 Playmobile nativity set every day of Advent a great way to engage your kids in the story of the birth of Jesus? Sure. Are "kindness elves" awesome? Totally. Are fair-trade chocolate Advent calendars the best thing ever? Yes, absolutely.

But are these things sustainable, for our neighbors both near and far? I don't think so. Many people do not have the resources to pull off these bits of "Christmas magic" that we so casually revere. I am all for whimsy and encouraging imagination and celebrating with some good fair-trade chocolate, but I also want to recognize how so many children do not experiences these privileges in any way.

Which brings me to Santa. 

Santa, and his cultural counterpoint of the perfect, Norman Rockwell family christmas, took ahold of our cultural imagination many years ago. I used to not care at all about this. Growing up, we were pretty lackadaisical about it all (and my parents refused to lie--so if we asked, they told us santa was a fake). But we still laid out the cookies, got a few presents labeled "from St. Nick". But my biggest memories were of Christmas eve services and sitting quietly in front of a brightly lit tree. 

Now, in my neighborhood, I can't help but see images of a weird, materialistic holiday everywhere. Red-nosed reindeer and some fat man with presents, as far as the eye can see. And I am starting to loathe it. Because Santa is not sustainable.

For those who grow up poor in America, Santa is another reminder of failure. Kids can't help but grow up and be saturated with the story, which puts pressure on the adults in their life to find the time/money/energy to get the presents the kids want. People go into debt, people spiral into depression, kids are disappointed and feel shamed, Christmas morning turns into another reminder of the inequalities of the world. The picture-perfect family Christmas is the same way--for many, all of these images we see in the movies and on tv are just a stark reminder of our own families--the mental illness, the addictions, the abuse, the empty seats around the table. The myth of the perfect family Christmas is not sustainable either, because our nuclear families were never supposed to be the point.

What is sustainable, then? 

I have learned some things from my Muslim friends. Their holidays are smashingly good--count yourself blessed if you ever get invited over for Eid. I have seen Eid celebrated in several different states and countries, and there are always striking similarities: the celebrations are marked by food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. 

That's it.

A lot of food, or just a little. Your family, what remains of it, plus your new family you have formed in the diaspora. Friends, neighbors, co-workers invited to experience the richness of your culture and celebration. Prayer, early in the morning, and throughout the day, thanking the One who created us all. Generosity--extra food cooked, coins given to the children--reminding us to always extend our table.

That, my friends, is sustainable.

I've started to think about what I want the holidays to look like for me and my little family. Food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. All the elements have been modeled to me from the beginning from my own parents, and it is time to claim them for my little space now. Even thought sometimes I will be far from my parents and sisters, i will still value family, and use the definition that Christ gave me (we are all brothers and sisters). I will cook food, even if it doesn't look pretty. I will pray the prayers that have been spoken throughout the centuries to celebrate the coming of Christ (the Magnificat, my friends, is extremely sustainable). And I will try to be generous, try to escape the pull to only seek out what is best for me and mine in these dark and bright weeks. I will try and stick around long enough to have space for those who have been bruised and battered by the cultural expectations of Christmas. And there are so many of these souls, more than we can possibly know, longing for a real, sustainable celebration--firmly anchored in this real world, yet a mirror of the great parties we will have in heaven.

 

Like Mary, may our souls magnify the Lord. May we seek out the humble and exalt them, fill the hungry with good things.

And most of all, may we be ever mindful of His mercy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living More With Less

I bought boots at Target yesterday. I haven't bought clothes of any kind there for about 6 years now. I don't even let my glance fall on the clearance racks, lest I be tempted beyond what I can bear (the hands that made those dirt-cheap goods most certainly were not paid well, you can be sure). But it's supposed to snow this afternoon, and the snow boots I bought at the Salvation Army last year fell apart, literally, in my hands. Every day off we have we have been scouring the thrift stores, using precious time and gas to try and get ready for winter. But everybody else needs boots too, so there never was any to be found.

I researched ethical, sweatshop free boots and found some. Gorgeous. Perfect for me: I walk 1 mile to work and I need shoes that I can both walk in and then teach standing up in for 3 hours. I found these shoes. They were even a bit hipster! But they were $160, and no doubt worth every penny. I prayed and sweated and heard no clear answer. And then our vacuum died (bought on Craigslist) and the husband has to get a tooth pulled and if we opt to do a replacement that will be $1,200-2,500 (think through that next time popular culture asks you to laugh at people who are missing teeth as being stupid and ignorant and poor. They are missing teeth because state healthcare considers replacing teeth to be vanity).

So. There is no way I can buy these boots, no way my neighbors can, and so I don't. I see a coupon for 40% off of winter boots at Target, and I go and buy some for $20, and they will keep me warm and dry on my way to teach ESOL. When I buy them, I don't even feel guilty, except:

I have told everybody that I only shop at thrift stores.

//

I recently checked out a book from the library at my church called Living More With Less by Doris Janzen Longacre. I'm familiar with the More With Less cookbook (which I adore, to be sure--but more as a book on a theology of food and less as a book of tasty recipes), but I had never read the sequel until now. The original goal of the author was to write a "practical, how-to help to North American Christians who genuinely desire to live more interdependently with the poor." And she has, although it isn't as neat and tidy as we would like it to be (in fact, Longacre refuses to use the word "lifestyle" and instead focuses on "life standards"--because she felt "lifestyle" was too easy and flippant a term). She writes in the introduction that "the trouble with simple living is that though it can be joyful, rich, and creative, it isn't simple". It demands a complete change of theology and a committment to orientating your life to something much bigger than you and yours.

As I am sure you all have noted, the downward mobility series on this here blog has caused me no small amounts of consternation. Part of the problem is that I lead a rich, full, chaotic life and I rarely have the time to devote to good writing anymore--much less engage well with other writers, readers and thinkers. The other problem is that the conversation leaves out so many people--specifically those who don't have the luxury of choosing their mobility, and people who have been practitioners for many years but aren't public about their lifestyles.

Longacre addresses the latter issue directly. As she sought for personal testimonies and stories for her book, she found some intriguing patterns. She writes:

Testifying isn't easy . . . will people think my ideas foolish? Will they trust my experience? Is my life ever consistent enough that I dare open my mouth publicly?

These are the same feelings expressed by those who wrote (and sometimes refused to write) for this book. Entries began in humble tones, often with some version of "undoubtedly you already have some of these ideas. They may not be usable anyway, but I'll share them just in case." Postscripts frequently read, "I know we haven't arrived" or "I know my living isn't really consistent". People everywhere confided that they did have ideas but they were afraid others might find them proud or ridiculous.

When I read that, I sighed aloud in my chair. Here she had summed up so many of my problems with this series in a neat little paragraph, written 6 years before I was born. So, these kinds of issues have been around for a while, and they will certainly be here tomorrow.

Because I do feel proud, and I do feel ridiculous, and I do feel like a failure, almost every day. Writing about these kinds of subjects and asking others to do the same is vulnerable, in all sorts of ways. Many, many people who I would love to hear from stay silent, from these very fears. Longacre later says how many people didn't want to write because they were afraid of what their family and friends would think--because they often fell short of their ideals. But that's the thing, isn't it? We've only got the days set before us to do what we are meant to do, and often times we will fail.

//

N.T. Wright shared at the Simply Jesus gathering about how important the interaction in John 21 between Jesus and Peter was.  This is after Peter betrayed Jesus, after he was resurrected. Jesus, playing up on the 3 denials, asks Peter 3 times if he loves him. This anguishes Peter, who replies yes! each time. Then feed my sheep, Jesus says, over and over. Feed my little, precious lambs.

Jesus then goes on to do something strange, predicting Peter's death. Peter turns around and looks at "the one whom Jesus loves" (probably John, showing off) and says: "what about him? What's going to happen to him?" And Jesus replies: "what is it to you if he remains until I come? You, follow me!"

N.T. Wright made the point that all of us in ministry at some point will disappoint Jesus, and we will feel our souls crushed as a result. And this passage is so important for us to read, because it shows us that Jesus continues to ask us to follow him. He asks us to stop living in our imperfections, to stop worrying about if the person next to you is following Jesus--and just, follow Him.

I just want to share this with you as a way of extending the conversation here. Lord knows it's a truth I need to sit with awhile. I love having a few lifestyle choices in the bag that ensure I am following Jesus--like only shopping at thrift stores. It's a neat thing to say that makes me different from people, possibly even holier. But in reality, in the trenches here, I am finding I don't have the time, energy, or gas to go thrift shopping. Every purchase has to be carefully weighed out, every vegetable and sock and Christmas present. As I find myself going deeper and deeper into living interdependently with the poor, my easy and neat lifestyle choices no longer hold up as well. I question more, I feel less sure, and at the same time--feel a lot less guilty.

Because that is what it has to be about. It has to be about relationships with those who are at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. And relationships are messy, complicated, life-long affairs. No simple blog post or 10 EZ tips 4 downward mobility here. Just me, and a bunch of other people, plodding along, making mistakes, constantly holding a mirror up to our own faces and asking: are we following Jesus? Are we taking care of his children with our lives?

No doubt about it, we all will fail. We always will. And Jesus will always be there, reminding us that he wants to use us in spite of that.

As I walk through the snow in my boots, you can be sure I will be thinking of all of this. How living simply is not very simple in the least.

But it is rich.

 

 

 

 

the positive alternative

Just another day, another year, another afternoon hanging out with people from situations so different to me. Listening to teens and pre-teens talking about kittens and pumpkins and whatever current teenage band obsession; listening to them talk about fights in the refugee camps, deaths and ethnic feuds and hurricanes. Trying to keep up, this bouncing between worlds I sort-of know and worlds I know nothing about. Eventually, they turn to me and ask: so, what about your history? As nonchalantly as you please. I can't think of any story that would make sense in light of what they just spilled out, hands full of candy, mouths full of braces. My history? I say, stalling for time. It's pretty different from yours. But like yours, there was some very sad stuff. And just like yours, there was the wonderful. //

When I was 13 I started an evangelical punk band. I taught myself the bass guitar, rounded up a few older kids from the youth group (plus my older sister, who looked and sang like a young and sanctified Gwen Stefani). We practiced in the church auditorium, in the strip mall, where my dad was the pastor. We wrote songs about God, and relationships, and sin. We covered a lot of MxPx. We toured all the Christian coffee shops in Northern California. We opened for a few big Christian bands, we played with other young kids such as ourselves. We played terrible music, the same three chords over and over again. One time the local paper interviewed us. Christians! Punks! Extremely Young! It's hilarious in retrospect, but it's true. The article ended with a quote from me, thinking I was being extremely sage: "Christians can be punk rockers too". I cut my hair like a boy and died it various shades of orange, wore yellow-tinted glasses and dog chains around my neck. I was serene, calm, and in control with my bass guitar in front of me. I sang my back-up vocals with a surety in m voice, keeping my band on task at all times. I was a missionary, was the thing. I had dreams of Russia or China or Africa; of being a martyr, of going out in a flame of glory.  But when I was young, it was the punk rockers that was my field, and I threw myself into that world with abandon, all for the sake of saving others.

In many ways, I have nothing but kindness in my heart for my 13-year-old self. I had a lot of chutzpah. I didn't know how to not be myself: nerdy, intense, evangelical in every way. I didn't know that doubts would come, and that they would only strengthen me; I didn't know what a relatively charmed and secure upbringing I had experienced, a true minority in a world of exiles.

But mostly, I feel kindly towards myself because I didn't know what the love of God truly looked like. I thought it had to do with being pure, and righteous, and feeling assured of where I would go in the afterlife. Of having the right answers, of being comfortable on the winning side, of logic and reasoning and plain common sense. It was a safe, cozy, love--one that I had experienced from my first day on this earth. I sang songs about a consuming fire, but in my mind it was more of a warming glow.

What is my history? I was born in the church, I grew up in the church, I remain in the church. I used to dance and scream and shout for the Lord, surrounded by sweaty teenagers just like myself, people who were complicated and grew up in an alternative universe, one that was touted as being positive, sometimes to the point of being saccharine. We all had different experiences, but it was all strangely interchangeable: the concerts, retreats, books, music, youth pastors--we were all told of the love of God, in a way that the young and the privileged can understand.

The necessary shatterings throughout the years have been a form of kindness in of themselves. But I am grateful still for my history, my young hungry heart. When I was 13, resolute and happy, the underpinnings of a belief in a very good God was cemented in me, deep into the very core of who I was.

In many ways, I miss those years. Of being so happy, of feeling so right. The older I get, and the more I experience the love of God, the wilder and woolier it all seems. Because the flip side of love is grief; for every revelation I have of how I am perfectly loved just as I am, I get a flash of the grief God experiences over the injustices of our world--his children being raped, being killed, being herded like cattle in refugee camps. His love for me has led me to say yes, when I really would have wanted to say no. His love has led me to couches and apartments and classrooms of the hurting, stories washing over me, I don't know how much more I can bear. That love, that sorrow and joy so inextricably linked, it burns. Not the fiery glow of the martyr, but a thousand little deaths, a thousand tiny resurrections.

 

By His wounds we are healed, the scriptures say. He was wounded for us, and it was love that led him there. And the deeper I walk towards obeying and loving Christ, the more wounded I feel. Because He never once promised us safe. He never once promised us security. Instead, He promised us his kingdom, where there are more miracles and traumas than I ever thought possible.

 

It is a tender place to be.

 

//

 

 

 

 

 

//

This is for all of our dear, earnest 13-year-old selves.

My dear friend Addie wrote a book, about her own years in the wilds of evangelical subculture, of growing up in our ghetto. This girl is a legitimate writer, her words layered upon themselves, full of reflection and honesty and kindness. Her book comes out today, and I am telling you to go out and read it. You can read a few sample chapters here and here. Or, order it online (or ask your local bookstore!)

 

Linking up with the synchroblog here.

when we were on fire synchroblog

 

Blurring the Lines; Guest Post by Trudy

Trudy is another person I have met through this series--lucky me! I think by now you know that I adore people with a bit of skin in the game, and Trudy most definitely is that. This is a first-person account of smack dab in the middle of experiencing the joys and hardships of a form of downward mobility that looks extreme to most. But what I love about Trudy is that she is honest about it all (and how the hardest parts or those where you are forced to come to terms with yourself and your brokenness. But really, more than anything, you can sense her love and joy and peace in the midst of her crazy, upside-down life.   

 

Blurring the lines

Guest Post by Trudy

Last November, my husband and I moved into a slum in a big North Indian city. It was an objectively stupid thing to do—we spoke hardly any Hindi at the time, and even now that the Hindi is flowing we are objects of ceaseless curiosity as automatic ambassadors of that strange Other Country which our Muslim neighbors associate with wealth, George Bush, and “free sex”. There have been all the difficulties you might expect of adjusting to less space, less privacy, and a new culture. But starting life here has also been a beautiful experience of being accepted for who we are instead of what we represent (which is often more than can be said for foreigners trying to start a new life in our home country); of being sort-of adopted into new families that invite us to celebrate holidays with them, and take us to weddings and funerals and birthday parties. Those families have taught us how to cook Indian food and how to speak Hindi and how to navigate life and relationships in this new place. They’ve even given us new names (which is handy, since the local pronunciation of my English name sounded like something I’d rather not be called by!).

Actually, one of the most difficult things about living here—far worse than power outages and diarrhea—has been the way I am forced to learn about myself. It was easy back in the States to think of myself as a kind, compassionate person. I was generous. I was hospitable—so I thought. Or so maybe I am? But it certainly doesn’t feel like it now, when I’m not just faced with poverty but immersed in it. I’ve learned the limits of my compassion—those rough edges of tiredness and impatience where I just no longer have anything left to give to my fellow human beings and where I so easily recede into selfishness and survival. My neighbors offer lavish hospitality that depends on serving guests before, and instead of, yourself. My hospitality has been exposed in contrast as a logic of sharing excess with guests—it has often been “the more the merrier”, but it has rarely ever been sacrificial. Even now, the dilemma stubbornly stalks me—my neighbors’ income ebbs and flows with weather and health and the demand for day labor; my money comes from inserting a plastic card into a vending machine. To get technical, it’s an ATM, but is there a meaningful difference if the money never runs out?

And besides all that, I’ve seen enough non sequitur items distributed among sponsored children in our neighborhood whose circumstances have yet to improve, enough healthcare facilities rendered nearly inaccessible in spite of the free care offered, and enough of the messy, complex web of problems that make up poverty, to figure out that being poor is much more about a lack of relationship rather than a lack of money. I’ve seen how difficult it can be to help another person, or to change a situation when the entire system is stacked against the people at the bottom.

I’ve realized the limits of what I can offer, in spite of my education and privilege and good intentions. But I’ve also realized that, fortunately, the things that I can offer don’t require me to be as strong, as powerful, or as infinitely compassionate as I used to think I was. The most meaningful thing I have to offer is relationship. If the lives of the poor are constricted by an internalized sense of inferiority and powerlessness, then the wealthy are equally constrained by a false sense of strength, importance, and superiority. Rich and poor must meet, and work together, in order to recover our true selves. So this pursuit of transforming relationship is what keeps me here. Not because the poor need me, but because my neighbors and I need each other.

This week, I got roped into a volunteer training for a local non-profit that wants to improve the lives of women and girls in the slum where I live by training some of them to become social workers who can spread information about women’s health, education, and legal rights. The plan is to also train these girls to facilitate women’s and girls’ groups that will identify issues facing their community and help to develop plans of action for mobilizing the community to respond to those issues, often through organizing to demand their rights. So far so good.

But unfortunately, all of the theoretical talk about empowerment—listening to people, offering information and tools to them without telling them what to do—broke down at the point of practical application. The neat and tidy plan of 5 days’ in-house training, 5-days’ field training was much too fast for the pace of life in the slum, and certainly didn’t match the stride of uneducated teenage girls who, up to now, had never been allowed a role outside of their own homes. Can teenagers like that really be “empowered” in 5 days? And even if they successfully become efficient cogs in the grand development plan of this organization, is that going to be an “empowering” experience anyway—will it increase their sense of self-determination, confidence, or freedom of choice?

As much as everyone likes the idea of empowerment, it turns out that it’s actually much easier to do things for people than to work with people who don’t know what they’re doing and need to be patiently mentored and encouraged, after which time they will have minds of their own and may or may not want to carry out your pet project. Turns out that the poor have their own priorities, and at least in India, their relationships and family responsibilities are more important to them than some of the development goals set by outsiders.

Sometimes the well-meaning People Who Have Come to Help don’t react very well to these revelations—in the case of this training, the dissonance was handled by ignoring the ideas and experiences of the People Who Need to Be Helped in order to plough through the list of scheduled activities, come hell or high water (or reinforcement of top-down power structures or complete lack of ownership on the part of people whose slum is being “planned”). Which I suppose is why a lot of groups like to bandy about the catchword of “empowerment” without doing the slow, relational work of actually empowering anyone.

It’s not that the People Who Came to Help were bad people. In fact, I completely understand their frustration with schedules, deadlines, and efficiency being thwarted—because I have also been brought up in the Western obsession with time and efficiency and programs. Sometimes it still bothers me that most of my friends don’t own a clock, or that my neighbors’ financial priorities don’t make sense to me. But this last year in the slum has been a humbling journey of releasing my arbitrary agendas and my identity as one of The People Who Have Come to Help in order to get in touch with the daily rhythms of my community. I am struggling to unlearn my lifestyle of putting tasks and productivity ahead of relationships and people, so that I can be present to my neighbors as they express their own plans and concerns.

I still struggle with patiently walking alongside people instead of trying to just force my advice or plans onto them, but the longer I walk this road the more I realize that it’s the only road that really goes anywhere. Ignoring the poor in the process of trying to “help” them may produce some impressive graphs and scalable programs that look nice in the orderly headings and paragraphs of a grant proposal-- but it doesn’t actually mean much outside of those flimsy, paper constructions of reality.

And besides, the more I learn, the more I realize that I don’t have the answers people need. Real change will only come out of relationships that transform us both, my neighbors and I, and out of a higher synthesis that may come from putting our ideas and experiences together to imagine new possibilities for our lives. My hope is that the lines between us will become so blurred that we all recognize our poverty and receive help, and we all recognize our capacity to teach and serve each other.

 

P1060281Since moving to India with her adventurous husband a year and a half ago, Trudy has spent most of her time learning Hindi and getting to know her neighbors in the slum—which happily involves a lot of Indian cooking and chai drinking. She is passionate about women’s empowerment, creative nonviolence, and discovering Jesus amongst the poor. She loves telling stories, and shares many of her experiences and reflections on faith, culture, and her journey towards the poor on her blog, http://alreadynotyet.weebly.com/blog.html.

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

If You Knew Me, You Would Care

slide_280128_2092282_free Another day, another dollar, another crisis I should be caring about.

Another day, another post, another thought on downward mobility--how the term doesn't work, how it isn't good enough, how if we don't have love . . .

Another day, another question. Not the ones I used to ask (Lord, send me. Let my heart be broken by the things that break your heart.) but the ones I don't care to admit to anyone (have I done enough yet? Can I relax now? When is enough enough?)

//

I started a new job this week, it's perfect for me in every way, down to the level of chaotic ambiguity that surrounds the classroom. I teach literacy to adults who may never have held a pencil in their lives before. We meet in a computer lab, a battered fooseball table for my desk. I don't know all of the stories of my students, because we don't speak the same language. I can guess at the little I know, which is laughable. And it is hard, wearisome work, to go over the ABC's a thousand times and then for us all to realize that nobody remembers them still--the after effects of war, trauma, unmentionable acts committed against the body and spirit. Learning to write your own name becomes a symbol of something so much more: you are an overcomer.

Refugees have changed my life in so many ways. Once I meet a group, a clan, a tribe, I want to know so much about them: the way they dress, the tattoos on their face and hands, what their favorite food is. I want to know about their past, if they want to share it. I want to talk about all the ways that America has been kind, and all the ways that she has been cruel. I want to be a friendly face, a listening ear.

I want to know all these stories, and more, because they are the only things that get me to care about anyone besides myself.

//

My husband just checked out a book from the library called If You Knew Me, You Would Care. In it there are large, breathtaking portraits of women--survivors of unimaginable traumas. These women were interviewed and photographed by other women, and their stories shock and amaze. Their faces, so large, so human, so crystal-clear, run the range of human emotion: improbable joy, blankness, defiance. I could look at these pictures for hours. The stories, I only glance at briefly. How much more tragedy can I bear?

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Perhaps this is why the images in the book are so big. The hardest quotes, filling up an entire page. To me, they say: Don't look away. If you knew me, you would care. If you stopped to humanize me, even for a second, it would change the way you lived your life. Because caring doesn't equate with an emotion--sadness, shock, gratefulness. Caring equates with tangible, physical acts: cups of cold water, Jesus would say. A coat to someone in need if we owned two. An hour or two out of our day to visit those imprisoned or in the hospital.

But it's easier to close the book, go back to my life of worries. I write blog posts about downward mobility and dream at night of one day having a space for my child to run in the grass; I spend an hour or two praying for eyes to see and hands to bless my neighborhood, and sink exhausted on my couch every night, escaping either into a book or a television show.

Because I know people now, and they have made me care. But here is the other truth that no one want to talk about, that we spend all our time protecting at all costs: our culture thrives on forgetting. On distractions, petty concerns, and the crushing pursuit of individual comfort. Every day is a struggle to care. The only thing that makes it easier is if you are forced to confront it, time and time again. If you put yourself in the position where you can't opt out--where there are no drive-through Starbucks, clean and bright Barnes and Nobles, massive church complexes with state-of-the-art sets. Where instead there are tangible evidences of the disparity of our economic system, where people are much more comfortable in voicing both their joys and complaints in the streets. In order to care, it turns out, I have to be in a place where every day I have to look one simple truth in the eye: my reality is not the reality of the majority world.

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I read an excellent blog post this morning--honest, searing. In it, the author says:

"Can we, being part of the top 10% wealthiest in the world, be trusted?  How does our dependence on wealth color our self-assessment and judgment?  Regardless of how earnestly wealthy Christians try to be directed by the Holy Spirit of God, we've all still got our goods—not to mention our social standing, class, gender and ethnic power.  We remain comfortably perched above global exploitation.  Is that just "the path" Jesus has called us lucky ones down? Or have we neglected something in the 'I'll follow you wherever you go' tune?"

No matter where I go, I'm still comfortably perched. No matter what I do, it isn't enough. Yes, yes, Funfetti and all that. I know that God loves me no matter what I do. But he also loves the people being crushed by the systems that make my life better. He Loves them. He is in constant sorrow over them. He will avenge them, surely. And he would like me to get to know them, for my own sake as much as theirs.

Talking about downward mobility doesn't even begin to scratch the surface when we are talking about the suffering of people in places like Syria right now. Almost every day I am in contact with someone who has experienced their own form of Syria, has overcome so much more than I could ever imagine. Every day my hands are open, empty, pleading. I don't know how to help. I don't know how to do anything except show up again, to prepare to be overwhelmed once more. I look into their eyes and think: that's why I moved into your neighborhood--so then I can't escape your reality as easily as I would like. 

Shane Claiborne worked at a mega church for a year, and this is what he walked away with: "the problem isn't that there are rich folks and poor folks in the world--the problem is that the rick folks don't know any poor folks".

Because we all have the image of God in us. And if we knew the poor--as in, longer than a week, a blogging trip, a year in the ghetto--we would care. We would care to the point where love would compel us to do things both crazy and mundane. Our lives would revolve not around safety and security but around justice and righteousness.

And we would all be richer for it.

//

My internet friend Marilyn contacted me about spreading the word about some tangible ways we can help Syria. She put together a blog on some practical kits that concerned people can put together. Click here to read more at her space, or you can go directly to International Orthodox Christian Charities for more information on the kits.

All images from If You Knew Me You Would Care, by Rennio Mafredi. For more information on the book (a part of Women for Women International), 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.

The Baby Boomer's Inadequate Gift to Us: Guest Post by Shawn Smucker

You can read my intro/interview with Shawn from Tuesday here

 

 

 

The Baby Boomers’ Inadequate Gift to Us--guest post by Shawn Smucker

 

 

 

“We expected something,

Something better than before.

We expected something more.”

 

The National

 

* * * * *

 

We watched the sun set, all of us sitting there by the fire pit but it was warm so we didn’t light the fire. Deer wandered through the waist-high grass at the edge of the woods, and as darkness seeped up from the shadows and spread towards the sky, the lightning bugs began to blink.

 

My daughter, five years old and full of optimism, ran inside for a jar, then dashed back and forth through the night. She saw a light and ran towards it, but by the time she arrived, it was dark. Another light, another mad dash. Another light, another flurry of activity.

 

Darkness and empty jars.

 

* * * * *

 

“The things you own end up owning you. It's only after you lose everything that you're free to do anything.”

 

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

 

* * * * *

 

One can easily spend a lifetime chasing these fading dreams. I see it now all around me, as successful baby boomers stand in their quiet four-bedroom houses, their children gone, their retirements secure or completely lost, their businesses booming or folding. I see them as they look around, emptiness in their eyes and golf clubs in their hands.

 

They move some money around and spend some of the principal on a house where they can get away while all around them the world is crumbling. The poor are getting poorer and there are more slaves than at any point in the history of this planet. But they made a large contribution to their church’s building fund so they sit quietly in their seats on Sunday mornings and manage to bear the service by thinking of the fun they’ll have on their upcoming family vacation.

 

They bought into the lie that happiness awaits if you plan a responsible life, work hard, save and make your decisions based on financial data points. This formula will usher you to the grand old age of 65 where you will find happiness, wealth and the opportunity to pass this life strategy down to the next generation.

 

But so much of it is darkness and empty jars. Our generation has watched the generation before us arrive at retirement with good credit scores, a nice house, and a growing sense that they somehow missed out on a life worth living.

 

* * * * *

 

“… hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us alone but will fulfill the deepest desires of our heart...”

 

Henri Nouwen, Here and Now

 

* * * * *

 

At the root of our culture’s chronic unhappiness is an inability, or sometimes flat-out refusal, to live in The Now.  We dull our not inconsequential pain with hours of television, prescription or recreational drugs and staying very, very busy. We use every tool at our disposal to distract us from today, to numb the pain we feel, and to take the focus off of our unhappy lives.

 

We work hard to avoid The Now because it is a difficult place to exist. It requires intentionality. It requires things like forgiveness – otherwise the past will not remove its claws. It requires a tenacious hope – otherwise the specter of an unknown future paralyzes us.

 

Enter Materialism, the great idol of our time. Materialism gives us something to look forward to: the next big acquisition, the next big purchase, the next notch in our social standing. Materialism offers the great escape from this present moment of boredom or unhappiness. And because we sacrifice our time at the foot of its golden altar, we hold tightly to the “gifts” it gives us in return.

 

Each present second ticks by, quickly becoming a past we’d rather forget.

 

* * * * *

 

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

 

* * * * *

 

To me, the essence of Downward Mobility is best characterized by living in the present moment. Living in The Now. When I live a life of Downward Mobility I become so deeply entrenched in today and in what Christ is calling me to do, now, that the future and past no longer control me.

 

Living in the The Now allows me to enjoy what I have without always striving for what I want to get tomorrow or next month or next year. My obsession with material things evaporates when I begin to explore how I can contribute to the Kingdom of Heaven today, with what I have now.

 

In a word, Downward Mobility is abiding.

 

* * * * *

 

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”

* * * * *

 

Shawn is the author of "Building a Life Out of Words," the story of how he lost his business, his house and his community, then found happiness making a living as a writer. He lives deep in the woods of southern Lancaster County, PA, with his wife and four children. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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

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