Friday, December 30, 2016

a new orientation



My  first trip to Kenya, I never knew where I was. I guess this often happens when you visit a new city, when you haven't walked or driven those streets, haven't seen that tree or billboard or building before. But this disorientation felt particular. There was a way of getting from one place to another that felt unfamiliar in a whole new way. On my first day there, we drove from Nairobi to a small Maasai village near the border of Tanzania, and the second half of the trip wasn't guided by a road that showed us the way forward. Our drivers made their own way (or, remembered the one from before) over dusty ground and through thorny acacia trees. Then, there it was: a building, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

I thought of that feeling of disorientation, then sudden arrival, as I read The Bright Continent. A book about a new way of looking at Africa, its author opens by using maps and orientation as an illustration for how we would journey together through this book and its stories. Expect a Google map of the continent and you'll miss the important landmarks that are really the way to get from A to B. Be guided by those on the ground, and you'll find your way.

This book is well-written and well-researched. And, as someone who is Nigerian and has lived in the West as well, the author is able to straddle the continental culture divide and pull you along with her to explore stories of people and organizations in Africa and help you see them in a new light. Her main point is that, if we look from a formality-bias -- expecting Africa to conform to formal institutions and ways of doing things in the West -- we will miss the informal and customary traditions and innovations that are helping communities and individuals thrive.

I found this book at a used bookstore earlier this fall, and oh how I needed it. It started taking me apart, in the smallest ways, and readied me to be completely disoriented when I arrive in Kenya in a little over a month. I like maps, I like plans, I formality. But, now, I'm a little more ready to look in new ways.

Friends -- this is it. My last book completed this year, my last blog post on books I've read in 2016. Phew.

***
(photo: Nairobi streets)


Thursday, December 29, 2016

these winter rains






Today, the temperature is cold enough to chill, just warm enough to keep things from freezing. It is raining. From where I sit in my parents' den, I can hear car tires sloshing water aside as they drive by, drops dancing on the box air conditioner that chills this room in the summer. Out the window behind me, everything is shades of gray and brown. Tree branches are silhouettes against the barely-lit sky. It is the kind of day that makes you want to hide under a heavy blanket.

They say home is where the heart is, and I guess they are right. I am always looking for ways to get back here, to the place where the roads swerve between old farm houses and trees sprouted up long ago beside tiny creeks. Like veins in the hand, these roads could tell you about my life: how I got from there to here, the places I traveled, they way my life was formed. And yet, once here, I find my heart is still restless. My heart isn't really here; this isn't really home anymore. Or, it is home, but this isn't what I'm really searching for. Because it is also where my heart grew around hurt. I imagine the roots of those same trees, thirsty for water, cut short when the roads were paved years ago. Necessary to keep life moving, but without regard for some of the precious growth still happening beneath the surface.

Still, the trees are rooted. Their trunks grow thick. They shoot leaves and bear their fruit. Grace.

I have been trying to figure this out, the way my heart yearns for family. Then, once I am here, I remember, even in my body, the old ways we all learned to accommodate or ignore or just get by. I slip into these old moves we learned together and feel unfamiliar to myself. Not that I have turned every old leaf into something new, but there is a dullness that comes over me, a decision to just let things be. That is how we learn to survive, and maybe that is fitting for some seasons. And yet. I am learning to ask, seek and knock, still learning to turn and live, so this settling feels unnatural. This, too, is grace. 

Spring is a long way off still, but the nights are getting shorter. These winter rains are watering the ready ground and making way for what has died to feed new life. May it be so.

***
(photo: childhood home backyard, old maple tree in a season without its leaves)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

half, whole, made one


I am having trouble finding a starting place. But here is one: last night, after dinner, my sisters and their husbands and me sitting around the table, empty dessert plates, surrendered forks, pie crumbs. Phone in hand, I look for a photo to show one of them. I see one of me at a fancy event wearing a dress that stopped well above my knees. I hold it up for my mom, who moved around us to clear the table of dessert, and who, when I was young, always lectured me for wearing dresses and skirts that were too short. Now, it's a joke I perpetuate. I can't believe you called me a hussy! I say, remembering our fights.

I'd have a hard time bending over in that dress, my sister says.

I tell her you don't bend over, you bend down. And anyway, men should do things for you when you where that kind of dress.

That starts it -- a short, heated exchange between my brother-in-law and me about what I meant by that comment. Double standard, we both accuse the other of holding. Way to advance the feminist agenda, he says to me. I never claimed to be trying, I shoot back.

We both let it go, both go back to our phones or the other conversations happening around the table. I try to understand why I feel so frustrated and why I had a hard time communicating what it was I actually did mean. I also wonder why he responded so strongly, and how he's felt hurt or deceived or let down by women in his life. (Or, it's completely possible I read too deeply into his reaction.)

Earlier in the day, I had tried to start writing this post, so I was thinking a lot about to my response the book I'd just read. From a writerly perspective, Half the Church was just ok. The author is clear enough, but not necessarily very skilled or artful as a writer. She draws largely on her emotional response to reading another book, Half the Sky, which leads me to think she didn't do extensive research on the themes she attempts to address. My hunch is that the book is mostly ideas recycled from her past books and studies, compiled as a response to some global issues she is just beginning to think about.

But that aside, I deeply appreciated this book. Much of it is an exposition of the creation stories in Genesis -- her starting point for much of what she has to say about women and their relationship to men and to our world. I love thinking about those original intentions God had for man and woman when he created us, and reading this book now -- during a season when I've had many new questions and doubts about how our relationships can be redeemed in a very practical way -- gave me a newly grounded desire and hope.

I'm also grateful for the author's ability to see in scripture the dignity, love and purpose God gives to His people, so that more than commands to obey, the Word is read as messages and stories that are meant to empower and expand. She draws largely on Jesus's command to love the Lord with all of our hearts, souls, minds and strengths, and suggests it's an invitation to live more expansively than we'd previously imagined. It's also a call to all of us to make it possible for women all over the world to respond to the invitation.

She doesn't stop in Genesis. She writes that throughout, the Bible stretches our imaginations and calls for a complete paradigm shift. New Testament teachings expose the fact that the way of relating as male and female that we lost back in Eden looks nothing like anything we see in our world today. To help us see this, Jesus resurrects a form of higher math that originated in Eden. In Jesus, she writes, we see a new kind of relational one-ness (in the trinity) in action. In him, we also see God's original intentions for us as image-bearers. This reminder of Jesus also felt incredibly hope-giving to me.

***
(photo: just because i like it)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

christmas day, a light has come




It  is late afternoon, the time when the winter light is a thin layer of yellow over the trees in the horizon. It has been a long day that started when little ones emerged from their rooms with big, eager smiles. Ready for gifts. Since then, there has been a scavenger hunt to find hidden gifts, pancakes and turkey bacon, a church service. Now, my nephew is sitting next to me on the couch, computer open, video playing. My niece is on the floor in the next room, making a roller coaster out of plastic pieces that snap together, move and light up. She is being helped by her dad and the younger neighbor boy. "It works!" they just exclaimed over the hum of a small motor.

We are together. It has not been a perfect day. Ones of us have been frustrated, disappointed, sick. But it has been a good day. Gifts, wrapped to hide their contents, were opened to the delight of being thought of and known and loved. The sun warmed everything it touched. Ice nearly melted - though not enough for the ducks to swim on the lake that I ran alongside. Instead, they waddled slowly on top of the thin layer between water and sky. This, too, a grace: walking on water.

To those who were in darkness, a light has come. Wonderful, mighty, everlasting, full of peace.

Now, as I finish writing, the light has faded. But it will not leave.

Merry Christmas, friends.

***
(photo: morning light during a run, northern new jersey)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

you almost forget to breathe

The day after my last day of work, I woke up too early and ran under a dull sky that hid the sun until I was done. I arrived back at my apartment by 8am, the sun shining now but not giving much warmth, with the entire day before me and few plans to fill it until the evening. I called my sister, cleaned my kitchen, showered.

Then, I picked up a book of short stories. I read slowly. I let my heart catch up.

The introduction spoke of stories as a form of art capable of putting a reader in touch with life's fleeting, inexorable rhythms. Good ones can move you somewhere beyond yourself. You almost forget to breathe. Even in these first few pages, I remembered why I love short stories (short forms of most writing, really) -- the intensity, the conciseness, the simple complexity -- and knew this would be a book full of characters and stories to disorient me from what life had been and turn me about. Ready, somehow, for the new one that's ahead.

This particular compilation, The Best American Short Stories of 2016, was edited by Junot Diaz, one of my favs. He curated a notably diverse group of authors to tell all kinds of stories. I liked nearly all of the stories, but I have to admit that the ones with female protagonists appealed to me the most. The women in these stories are vulnerable yet strong, recognizing that their fates are, in many ways, at the mercy of the men and societies around them, and yet not letting those seemingly predetermined stories be all that is said about them in the end. In one story, a young Bangladeshi woman with a history that is slowly revealed works in a garment factory and agrees to becoming one of three wives as a means of survival:
Jesmin sees marriage as a remedy. If you are a girl, you have many problems, but all of them can be fixed if you have a husband. In the factory, if Jamal puts you in ironing, which is the easiest job, or if he says, take a few extra minutes for lunch, you can finish after hours and get overtime, you can say, but my husband is waiting, and then you won't have to feel his breath like a spider on your shoulder later that night when the current goes out and you're still in the factory finishing up a sleeve. 
In another, a young Ojibwe girls is rescued by a white man (or, is is that she rescues herself?) from what is essentially slavery. She never speaks to the man, never tells him her name. He calls her Flower. To him, she is beautiful and sweet. But,
That he called her Flower made her uneasy. Girls were not named for flowers, as flowers died so quickly. Girls were named for deathless things--forms of light, forms of clouds, shapes of stars, that which appears and disappears like an island on the horizon. 
And my favorite, I think, about a young woman dealing with the aftermath of a miscarriage of a baby about which she felt indifferent, who finds home in a strangers home, and the desire to mother in the grief of losing what she thought she never wanted:
All of my senses opened in recognition. The mixed scent of newsprint and butter, the muted ticking of the modern cuckoo clock on the wall, the enamel tea kettle gleaming atop the immense stove, the marmalade still sharp in my mouth: home. Here it was. Or something like it. Something homelike. Heimlich. How would the Germans say it? Gemutlich. Touchingly, where the soul or spirit belongs.
What happens to each of these women might seem like what you would expect, and yet each finds a kind of freedom: power over her body, her name, her vocation. It is only in the small entries into the women's narrations, the open window through which we hear whispers of what's really going on, that we understand this. Stories like this can ready you for a new season, ready you to look beyond what you think you know, ready you to know nothing at all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

arrival



I step toward the door and it slides open, as if to invite me into the night. The cold is a kiss, and then it is something deeper, digging past my skin to muscle and bone. Cars shine and blink and breathe at the curb, people cart and shove. Behind me, two men smoke until all that's left is ash. I look into darkened car windows as they approach, willing the people that appear faintly behind them to be someone I know.

I am here. They soon find me and scoop me into their car. He takes my suitcase, I open the door. My niece and nephew, their hair still impossibly golden, their smiles gold to me after six long months of seeing them only on a screen and in the faint memories I can conjure. They ask me if I'm hungry and hold up a golden bag of red gummy fish: that sweet, familiar string that connects each visit with the last and, inevitably, with the next to come. I pull my own out of my bag. I remembered, too, I tell them. My niece holds out her hand for the one I am ready to give her. The entire ride she is laughing too loud, is told over and over to calm down. My nephew makes a joke about bathroom habits and we all laugh too loud. He is pleased.

My smaller bag is heavy in my lap until my niece offers to take it onto her own, a show of strength and care. She rests her head against my shoulder for just a second before popping up again to make a joke and laugh again. On the other side of me, darkness lies still outside of the window as we drive fast on the highway towards home.

***
(photo: dtla... not where i have arrived this time)


Thursday, December 15, 2016

books i didn't finish



Here's the deal: I've written, or at least posted, about each book I've read this year. Ok, that's a lie, because I can think of two that I didn't write about, not because I didn't like them but because I got busy and moved on to the next one before I really thought about these two. (The Turner House and We Should All Be Feminists, for the record.)

But, there are a few books I started and never finished. When Goodreads sent me an email and had tallied the number of books and pages I've read this year, I realized I wasn't totally truthful, with Goodreads or with you (though I'm not sure you care). I read more than I say I did. There's a reason, however, for putting each of those books aside, and some of those reasons my be worth writing about.

Pulphead by Jeremiah John Sullivan. A book of essays, one or two of which I'd read in other publications or for classes I've taken. Most reference pop culture in some fun and also thoughtful way. I really liked the first half of the book - the essays I've read before, plus one on the Real World, which consumed a nice part of my late high school and early college years. But then I got bored, and realized, yet again, how difficult it is to write and edit a book of essays that can keep one's attention, even when the reader isn't always interested in the topic.

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. I know a lot of other readers, especially liberal Christian women my age or a little older, really liked this book. I gave it at least 50 pages and couldn't get into it. She didn't say anything new about relating to God, and many of the anecdotes or illustrations she used felt untrue or not very meaningful to me.

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton. Oh, I have strong feelings about this. First, I should say I listened to it on Audible (which is a whole other post, possibly). The opening took my breath away - such beautiful writing. But then it just got heavier and heavier, all the things she shared about her life, in present tense (so immediate!), with no pull back into present day for reflection or to guide the reader through all the crap that happened. This is the problem with the genre of confessional memoir that's so popular these days - the underlying ideology that's taking hold is it's ok to be messed up! Wear it proud! I'm all for vulnerability, but only in my close circles, and with people who are committed to seeing me through it. Not for the sake of wearing our bruised skin always on the outside. What is the point of that -- so we can all celebrate that it's ok to be bruised? What about healing?

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. This was supposed to have been a good one, I think it even won some awards. The writing was nice but the two main characters, a married couple, were too self-involved and I could feel it all going south. I can't do a cynical book about marriage at this point in my life.

I've got 15 days of the year left and two books I'm partway through -- some short stories and a book about Africa that I put aside and intend to finish real soon.

***
(photo: taylor taught me this)

Sunday, December 4, 2016

to catch words one day



I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands.

from Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson

***
(photo: sunset at Griffith Park)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

reading bad feminist




I know nothing about cars. When I take my car to the mechanic, they are speaking a foreign language. A mechanic asks what wrong with my car, and I stutter things like, "Well, there's a sound I try to drown out with my radio."... I don't want to be good at cars. Good feminists, I assume, are independent enough to address vehicular crises on their own; they are independent enough to care.
-Roxanne Gay, Bad Feminist

This is one confession in a list at the end of Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay. It made me laugh, the part about turning up the radio to cover up the sound. It also made me nod in agreement, the part about not caring, and yet wondering if I should (to be an independent woman, i.e. a good feminist).

And that's probably a good way to sum up the book. There was some laughing, some nodding. In the middle there was some skimming because I got a little impatient with some of the essays. (And, I'd chalk that up to an editing choice. Some of these sections felt like a bunch of blog posts plopped there, instead of a more thoughtfully edited collection of essays - some previous writing that was expanded or combined or re-written.) In the middle of said essays, I also started to wonder if the author had anything positive to say. Where was the joy or the positivity? It was just critique of one bad movie after another (the section was on culture, gender and race). But then I felt caught - maybe it's because there's not much joy to be found, not much positive to say when it comes to how African Americans and other minorities are represented in film. Ok, keep reading...  

What I appreciated most in this book was the author's flavor of vulnerability. She wasn't confessional, but she did reveal a lot about what makes her human. That made her critique more credible. She's telling us that she's not a perfect feminist, that she's nuanced and complex and that she fails. So when she calls out others for ways they, too, have failed their art or their brothers and sisters, I can swallow it. We can be imperfect, yes. And, let's all try to be better. Yes.

***
(photo: coffee, reading, of course)


Friday, November 25, 2016

thoughts on writing as one being re-made




I heard a writer, speaking of the transition from being a writer who wrote for herself to one who was read by many people, say that she understood the experience of putting her thoughts and heart in words for people to read as being a living sacrifice. I know the passage of scripture where that phrase - living sacrifice - is mentioned. It is one that's been popularized by Christian culture, put on t-shirts and greeting cards and wall hangings. And yet when she said that, it was like I understood in a new way what the words mean. What she meant is that her writing is a way she gives her life back to God. It feels like sacrifice - letting go, surrender, maybe even being burned. A living sacrifice, though, isn't burned up to ashes but has a heart that still beats, limbs that move and eyes that continue to see. It is in the living, in the writing, in the figuring things out and then allowing my mind and heart to be re-made, that I sacrifice. That I live as one given over to another.

***
We don't need to make the gospel new; the gospel makes us new.
I heard this a few months ago and thought, yes. There are so many Christian books out there that try to give a new spin to the gospel. A catchy phrase and a trendy cover design, a format that reflects the kind of thing that people read now. I read a lot of these when I was in high school and working at a Christian bookstore, but at some point realized the authors weren't able to tell me anything new. I've come back to these kinds of books now, curious about what's being written and how my writing fits (or doesn't) and find that, once again, a lot of the same kinds of things are being said over and over again, and yet not much is really being said.

But then there are times when I hear a word and, even though it's a word I've heard many times before, it's like new, because it's making me new. How is it that the Word that was written so many centuries ago is like new each time I come to it? It must be something of the life of God in it, is all I can conclude, the same life that makes the day new, gives mercies that are new, renews me from the inside to re-make my heart, my sight, my love.

I wonder, then, how being made new then drives me to speak or write the gospel in a way that does, indeed, make it new for others. This is how it starts: a seed of a word that grows and makes a shady place for others to find rest for their souls, makes branches that birds can find a home in. The kind of work that lays foundations for many generations and brings peace to places that have been ruined.

***

So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. Fill your stomach with this, he said. And when I ate it, it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.  
- Ezekiel 3:2-3

***
(photo: flowers and concrete, griffith park, los angeles)

Monday, November 21, 2016

dreams from a bumpy van ride



So, here it is: I'm going to Kenya. Six months, ten time zones away, a few friends and many more to make. It was all a dream at first, one I conjured up on the long, bumpy van ride from maasai-land back to Nairobi. My skin red and bumpy from the strong, constant equatorial sun (even from behind the clouds, I felt it), bags under my eyes from six nights of sleeping (or not) in a tent while the night air scatters dust from on place to another. Exhausted but for the adrenaline, some might say. Spent but for the love, is what I knew.

Dreams are hard to pin down, the way they whisper in a jumbled tongue in your ear and leave you to decipher their meaning. Could this be for real? I wondered as I tried to hold onto the thought even as it slipped away. But then someone else said it, too: what if I could move here? Just for a few months? I said, me, too and I began to understand that something new was happening. Just maybe, I thought.

Bits of dreams make their way to the surface of life, cracked shells washed up on the shore to remind us of all that's living out in the depths beyond. Every time I told the dream to another, however tentatively I traced its outline, pieced together what little I knew, the response was always yes.

That feels right. 

I had a sense. 

I always knew you would love this.

Seers, not into the future but into my heart, into the way that perhaps was always laid out before me.

I think now of the bumpy van ride, the many hours I've spent in that van, the way it makes my butt hurt, the way I am often needing more air, the way it fills with dust when we leave the windows open while driving through dirt, the way it breaks down then, with a jiggle it comes back to life (or so it always seems to me). The way I reach out the window with my phone for a photo, but I'm never able to capture what I see. It's just too expansive. By now, I know the way a way forward is often like this -- bumpy, imperfect, too big to comprehend.

***
(photo: trying to capture what i see from the van, kenya 2014)


Saturday, November 19, 2016

as a means to communion



We  are hungry. We eat. We are filled... and emptied. 
And still, we look at the fruit and see only the material means to fill our emptiness. We don't see the material world for what it is meant to be: as a means to communion with God.
- Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, emphasis hers

(reminds me of some things I've been thinking about...)

***
(photo: the material world, in Atwater Village to be exact)

Friday, November 18, 2016

the only way through is through









I lived with a small family for a few years. These were friends of mine who were a newly-married couple when we all moved in together, and a family of four when I moved out four years later. She, the wife, was pregnant twice. During the early months, she stayed in her room during most dinners to avoid strange smells, and when we watched Project Runway together she’d get up to spit into the bathroom sink at every commercial break. Her body changed slowly at first, then fast, from what I could see, anyway. Her belly stretched, her body tired, her breathing become more strained. Inside of her, a new life took form.

One evening partway through her second pregnancy, she sat across from me in the living room. It was quiet, dark outside. The first child was asleep, our other housemates doing other things. She and I were likely both reading. I remember pausing what I was doing and looking over at her. Her legs were tucked under her, her breathing a little louder than normal from the weight of her belly. She would have been at least six months along at this point.

Are you afraid of labor? I asked her.

She looked up from whatever she was doing and, without much thought, responded something like, No, not really. That was how she was about most things – calm, deliberate, un-phased.

I don’t remember if she asked me why I asked or if I told her or how long our conversation lasted. What I remember is thinking that, for her, the only way forward was through such great pain.

I’ve often wondered at my impulse to shut things down partway through. I get scared and turn around. When I was five or six, I went to the town carnival with my family and followed my sisters into a haunted house, the kind where you enter and are guided through until you reach the end, exiting through a different door. Once in, I got scared and backed up and went out the front door, probably crying and looking for my mom.

Transition can feel a lot like pregnancy (and maybe a little like that haunted house, too). When you enter into it, the thing at the end is what you’re thinking of: the baby, the delight, the new life. But halfway in, when the only way through is through, can feel frightful. I think of pregnancy and how the only way to prevent the pain of labor is to cause death to what’s inside, and even then, it still needs to come out. I’m sorry if that’s graphic. But maybe I’m not sorry because it’s true, of babies and of the things being birthed in us. 

Jesus uses this illustration to tell those following him that they would experience great sorrow, like a woman in labor. But, he said, you will also have great joy, like that of a women in her new baby, so great that the pain of what you went through will be forgotten. And no one will be able to take this joy from you, he says.

She had her baby, this housemate of mine. The girl is three years old now, with big, sparkling eyes, a laugh that comes quickly and a stubbornness that befits a younger sister. She was given the name Naomi, meaning beautiful, delightful, pleasant, and I am touched knowing what lively delight and deep, abiding love such pain as labor can bring.

***
(photo: three-year birthday date with Naomi)

(uh, guys, I fell off the nablopomo wagon. Oops.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

it is finished (but not final)







It is sunny today, that kind of clear brightness that makes the deep blue sky stand out against the brown folds of mountains to the north. I walked out of my apartment shortly after eight, and the air was warm, unseasonably so. Even in all this brightness, the mood feels dulled. There is disbelief and disappointment, there is pain, and maybe there is also relief.

It is finished.

That’s the phrase that keeps turning around in my head. Jesus said it just before giving up his spirit and dying. There has been a death, for sure, and who can say when it started. I’m not just talking about the election of a man whom many think ridiculous, racist and unrestrained. The death is one of hope, community, understanding and peace.

There is a lot of pain, to be sure. I feel it when I think of legislation that is meant to protect but ends up dividing. I feel it when I think of how we’d hoped women might be empowered through the campaign of our first female presidential candidate, but instead degradation has only been more prominently exposed. I feel it when I think of how it seems that most people felt so strongly against that it drove them to vote for (shouldn’t it be the other way around?). I feel it when I think of how few options so many people feel they have, on many levels.

And yet. When Jesus said it is finished, he didn’t mean it is final. New life would come, a new kingdom would start to gain momentum. I am trying to cultivate this hope.

And here are a few ways:

Needing someone to speak truth to me, I listened to the latest The New Activist podcast episode. David Gungor, a peacemaker/musician, talks about using music to speak beyond “his tribe” to prompt people to see the other in new, more compassionate ways. I can’t think of a better voice to listen to this morning.

This song has been my comfort over the past few weeks, in both the personal and the political and everything in between.

I haven't been reading as much online (so I don't have links for you). But, I'm reading and listening to a mix of books right now that, I think, offer humility, hope and some directions to move in. Bad Feminist is my easy and fun read. Strong and Weak plays on Audible during some of my commutes and is such good news that I think I'll read it over the next few months. The Bright Continent tells how Africa shines in ways only the ones who truly look can see. And Soul Feast, as assigned reading, has some gems.

Hope to you...

***
(photo: light shines in darkness)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

more than a fairy tale

I grew up going to Sunday School, which means a few things: I drank a lot of red juice from dixie cups, I made a lot of Bible-themed crafts, many involving popsicle sticks (why?), and I memorized certain stories that were taught over and over.

These became like fairy tales to me: full of drama and the stuff of dreams, but diminished and made metaphorical. They were not to be taken literally. These stories were told maybe to expand our imagination (about who God is), but mostly to shape our character and actions in a more tame, straightforward manner. Moses and the burning bush didn’t teach me to look for the fire of God, Zaccheus didn’t teach me to climb trees recklessly, Esther didn't teach me to speak my mind to kings. Trust in God. Love Jesus. These were the polite and domestic (and too abstract) morals of the stories.

This morning I remembered the very not-tame story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. It was always one of my favorites. When I was in third grade, our Junior Choir at church performed a musical production of the story. If I remember right, my oldest sister and two of her friends (the oldest – and coolest – girls in our church’s small group of kids) got the parts of the three main characters. I sang my first and last solo, and had my dream of becoming a singer/songwriter dashed in the first few notes, which I could not find. In my nervousness, I sang the whole verse completely off key. 

I don’t remember how we re-enacted the scene where the three are thrown into a furnace, or who played God, that forth figure that shows up among the flames. In my Sunday School mind, I see four cartoon characters, slightly transparent against dancing flames. For some reason, they slightly resemble the seven dwarves (fairy tales, I tell you). Smiling, cheeks rosy from the heat.

But let’s be real, this is a gruesome story. I think of other events in our history when people were thrown into furnaces, and how these are remembered still with our deepest collective horror. And then, I think about how these men could have easily avoided the furnace by bowing down. And then I also think of a verse in Isaiah, where God tells his people that he'll be with them when they walk through the fire. Not if, but when, and how had I never connected that or thought about that literally before? I think of the fire and remember when I suffered an incredibly difficult season with my health, or when people at work treat me wrongly. Painful, but not capable of burning my flesh. 

I don't know what I'm writing towards, exactly, except that those men are way more interesting to me than the seven dwarves ever will be, their substance more than three men with the silly names, their story more than a fairy tale. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

yes, and



.... Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart.

from Thirst by Mary Oliver

This is a line from one of my favorite poems. The first time I read it, I sat on the floor between shelves of books in Borders, probably looking through a stack of magazines I piled in my arms and lugged with me. The title of the book, which is the title of this poem, stuck out to me from the binding of the thin paperback where it sat on cart of books to be shelved. I picked it up, thumbed through, read a few short poems, and cried when I read this one, stuck in at the very end of the collection. And, when I first read it, and for years after, this line seemed to me to describe a battle. An either/or. You choose the earth or "you" (God) and the author, trying to choose God, gives away a lot of things (we read in the next lines of the poem). 

The poem appealed to something in me, but I struggled with this line because, I realized, I really like the earth. Not just like the geese and ponds that Mary Oliver usually writes about (though sometimtes I like those, too). But I'm talking the way I feel after a run, sweaty and satisfied. Feeding my people with brunch or a really good salad. Tears that are happy or cathartic. Rhythm and dancing. Holding a book in my hand. Finding a piece of clothing or jewelry that I love or that are flattering on me. I like being carnal - of the body, of the earth. But am I supposed to not like these things? What does it feel like to like God more? To let him dominate the conversation? Win the battle?

But the word she uses isn't "battle," but "conversation."

My friend is a comedian and has taken improv classes. She's hosted groups of creatives at her apartment, and as a warm up activity, she leads us in "Yes, And." Two of us sit across from each other, are given a premise, and make a story by affirming what the other says and building on it. "Yes, and." 

The last time I read the poem, that word "conversation" stuck out to me and I realized that  it was this kind of conversation that these loves may want to have in my heart.

Yes, and. The things we love about being in a body, being on an earth, holding and smelling and feeling and being with - all this in conversation, affirming and building on the things we love about being God's, of the spirit, able to sense and intuit mystery and be filled with grace and see how one plus one can equal some crazy number we didn't think possible. 

***
(photo: lights in trees, pasadena nights)

Friday, November 4, 2016

on limitations and creativity

Years ago, when I was beginning to understand creativity as something deeper and more resounding than a playful pastime, a wise person in my life told me that creativity was more about limitations than total freedom. I’d never thought about it that way before, but I realized he was right. I thought of the collages and cards I loved to make from magazine cut-outs throughout high school and saw this dynamic at play. Limited space, images that could only be chosen, and which could be altered only by choosing where to cut and how to place within the frame.

I see the power of the limitation dynamic in non-fiction writing, too. I’ve heard authors talk about what to do when memory fails, or when the details of family or community history that will add depth to your story aren’t available. Not knowing becomes the story, one writer suggests.

I’m thinking about this in part because of the post I wrote yesterday. It was about me, but it was also largely about other people who may or may not want details, identifying or otherwise, on my blog (small readership though I may have). I didn’t want to say too much about my coworker and her relationship. I didn’t want to mention much about my family history of disease. And I didn’t want to mention my visit with my aunt this summer, and how I saw remnants of disease and treatment in her body, and how she told me important information about my other aunt, who passed away years ago.

These details may have made my story more interesting, more compelling. But in writing non-fiction, I want to be mindful of how I give away my life (or rather, how I protect and preserve my life) in my writing. Another writer talks about aspects of this dilemma of disclosure in terms of voice and criticism, which are other issues to consider. In another way, choosing to withhold certain details can be seen as limitations that force more creativity. How can I say this in a different way? What other details or scenes can I share? What is enough but not too much?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

happy hour with coworkers usually goes like this

Happy hour with coworkers usually goes like this: We sip our first drinks, share anecdotes about our co-workers and dating lives, laugh. I stop after one, they keep going, and halfway through the second drink and throughout the third, words become a little more harsh and stories of boyfriends a little more raw.

Here is how it went last night: The coworker sitting next to me shares about her live-in boyfriend. She is considering leaving him, and by her description, for good reasons. She draws a picture for us of what life is like with him with a story about him bailing on a dinner in West Hollywood with friends, and later, with a text he just sent her. Eventually my sadness and shock show on my face, perhaps read as naiveté. And maybe it is true that these women have more experience in certain areas of life. But what I am really wondering about is why women would let men treat them like this, and what is so bad about being alone that these women seem to be avoiding it with a relationship that’s not really a relationship, and (I am trying to resist this one) are all men like this? I think of what to say to her that has more substance than the trite feminist sentiment, girl, you deserve so much more. But that’s what’s true. She is beautiful and smart and funny and engaging and she is a child of the living God.

Happy hour with coworkers usually goes like this: I come away with the headache that whiskey always gives me and feeling overfull from the greasy food and wondering how so many people think this is life.

***

Today my sister will give her blood to understand her genes. Specifically, she will find out whether certain mutations that are believed to have caused disease in our dad’s sisters are present in her, and as a result, put her at risk for the same sickness. This has been a conversation my sisters and I have been having for at least a few years now. Do we get tested? What will we do with the information? Better to live not knowing than to live with the information? Which is better, the fear of the unknown, or the fear of the little-bit-more known? What do we do with the possibility of death?

When I woke up this morning, I texted my sister to let her know that I’m praying for her. We exchanged messages back and forth, and what I began thinking about as we texted and as I prayed is the force of life. I’m not talking about life like, these daily happenings all combined make up my life. I’m talking about the breath of God sort of life, the light that appeared when He spoke into darkness and chaos. I think about what that first man and woman might have experienced of life before things like tiredness and depression and disease and un-forgiveness entered the picture. Did they wake up and need coffee? I’m guessing not.

***

One definition of life: the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death. But what kind of change? I want to ask.

***

I drive to work this morning, drinking my coffee. The sun is in my eyes, but I try to be thankful for it all the same. Life is buzzing all around, in the traffic of people heading to work and school, in the sun climbing the sky and the leaves still clinging to trees. I go over our happy hour conversation even as I mean to be praying for my sister. I am a little embarrassed that I showed my shock and disappointment at my coworkers stories. But then I think about how much I want to know what true life is, that kind of change that’s the process of being made new each day, and how I want to be a bearer of it in the lives of others, and I’m no longer ashamed but glad. And I keep driving into the sun, that never-dying bearer of such bright day light.

***

(photo: morning light)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

what love longs to be



In the end, this is what love longs to be: capable of meaningful action in the life of the beloved, so committed to the beloved that everything is at risk. If we want flourishing, this is what we will have to learn.

-Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak

***
(photo: late afternoon light in pittsburgh)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

let's just see what comes



I don't know why November is the month for mustaches and writing, but that's what it is. And pumpkin and turkey, as my nieces and nephews are now calling Thanksgiving. I am not growing a mustache and I can't think ahead far enough to know what my plans will be on Thanksgiving. I am taking one day at a time these days. And now, committing to write one day at a time. I've always regretted not doing nablopomo (that's national blog posting month, for those of you not in the know). It feels important this month because I've been losing track of a lot of things, including some of my friends, my email inbox, my sanity and my writing.

I actually hadn't been planning on doing this until just now, so I haven't really thought about what I'm writing in this post, or if I should stick to a theme this month. Let's just see what comes.

Here is what's going on right now: There is music playing from my speakers and pumpkin muffins cooling on a white wire rack in the kitchen. The light outside my window is going faint while a small bright flame flickers in the candle on the table at my side. Just the other day, I dug the thick purple blanket my mom knit out of the basket next to my couch, and now it is on the couch next to me. I hope it will be a staple for the weeks ahead. Soon, women will knock at my door and I'll hear the teapot announce the water is ready for tea and we'll all sit with each other expectantly, the way that women who have shared tears and laughter and confusion and all manner of stories do.

I love these evenings of inviting my women (my small group) into my apartment. Part of it is that I love hosting (the candles, the teapots, the muffins), but it's also that I love what the spiritual transactions bring to a place, and vice versa. I've been thinking about the new name I was given in Kenya this summer - they called me "peacemaker." I have to admit, I was disappointed by it at first. The Maasai version is beautiful, but the meaning was underwhelming to me. And is that really me, anyway? Did they get it right? But I have been remembering how many times friends have told me what a calming presence I am, and I have been realizing what strength there is in nurturing peace. A household of peace welcomes, restores, blesses and sends, and if that's what I can do for people, I would be incredibly honored. The Bible speaks over and over of peace as what God intends for his people, and so it must be a good thing, not just the absence of bad but an incredibly powerful presence of something good. To be called to make peace, and to restore places of peace to peoples' lives and cities, even to memories or hopes or desires - that is quite a call.

So tonight, I am embracing it. Tonight, these women and I -- we will sit with one another as the light outside fades, and hope for more light in our hearts, the warmth of the tea we sip perhaps reminding us of the living water we seek - the way it fills every emptiness in us. The way it brings a deep peace to every battered place in us.

Friday, October 28, 2016

pack nothing, except the prayers



...Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

-from the poem Thirst by Mary Oliver (a fav)

***
(photo: pasadena, ca)

Friday, October 21, 2016

pay attention to what makes you cry



Nearly a decade ago I interviewed for a job. I sorta wanted it; more, I wanted to escape the one I was in. I remember being confused and exhausted by my seeming loss of direction. Instead of becoming more of who I was, my twenties felt mostly like I was being asked to let go of important parts of myself.

After the interview, I sat in my car and cried, the built up emotions flowing out through tears.

That weekend, over the phone, I told my mom about the interview and the post-interview tears. She said, you always were a cry-er, to which I took offense at first. I didn't cry that much, I probably said back to her, not wanting to be known as whiney or weak. But underneath, it felt reassuring to know that my mother saw my emotions, even when I might have thought I did a good job at hiding them. And I started to think of times I remembered crying: from the discomfort of hearing my sisters fight about wearing each other's clothes to school. The shame of my best friend telling me my wrists were fat. (Wrists can't be fat, my mom had assured me.) The loneliness and uncertainty of my senior year of high school.

***

Pay attention to what makes you cry, I heard someone say recently. Here is what has made me cry this week: finding that a new friend I was connecting with over email with a new friend went to the same college and majored in the same course of study as I did. The desire to write. Trying to fit something in my car all by myself and it not working. Entering my church around 5:30pm, the light slanted through the windows and the cool stillness and the way I always feel God's presence there, always. Disappointment, shame, frustration, thankfulness, hope, exhaustion. Pay attention because there is information there, is what she was saying. Crying tells us about our hearts, what state they're in and what they want.

Tears can drain us, but they can also lead us to springs, a psalmist says.

***

Tears can take me two ways: further into the problem - whether that be by obsession or avoidance - or closer to God. I remember how Jesus himself (image of the invisible God) cried with a crowd sobbing over the death of their friend. And I remember a woman who, it is said, stood behind Jesus and, weeping, wet Jesus' feet with her tears. Maybe she was already known for her shameful public demonstrations (she was a prostitute), so that makes me wonder what the scene was like and how I would have responded if I'd been there. Likely, I would have been repulsed by her tears, like most other guests. But Jesus calls her weeping faith - the way she let the tears fall, didn't hold back, allowed her feelings to be what they were and lead her to Jesus.

Your faith has saved you; go in peace.


Friday, October 14, 2016

literary, lately: not about me edition



Writing quick and dirty this week has meant writing a lot of random thoughts about me. Ugh, I know. You're probably even more tired of it than I am. So I give you some other things to read, listen to, think about that are not about me. (Well, mostly not about me... This whole exercise leads me to some existential thinking about whether that can even be possible since obviously these are coming to you through the filter of me... but I'll spare you from that.)

Food tells stories and holds memories -- about our past, our wars, our ways healing. On stories and recipes from northern Sri Lanka.

This blog is helping me think less about me. Loved the update this week on the stories of #15girls and the short post on the new secretary-general of the U.N. (a stark contrast to a certain presidential candidate). And, using narrative to change attitudes toward FGM.

Someone else's favorites. I love these kinds of posts!

This podcast* is exactly what I need to hear, every week. And the host hits the heart by talking about her life (someone to learn from!).

Love this quote. ... it just begins to live that day.

***
*I know, it's really white privileged Christian content but... still, I think Christy Nockels, through her music and speaking, has such a deep and unique grasp on the Word that I really admire.

(photo: looking up)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

i will try to be myself



After more than thirty years of doing something, you'd think I'd have it down by now. But being myself isn't that easy. I'm always trying to be someone else. Take this week, for example. I came into it after a weekend away and Big Things on the near horizon, which meant I had a lot to get done. I blocked out all social activity after work and decided I'd hunker down and do it. Emails, texts, decisions, tasks. Cross them off the list and move on to the next. I was channeling my Type A sistas, one in particular who doesn't stop until it's all done. I always thought I was type A until I met her. Now I realize I'm more like type F or J or M. But this week, I wanted to be her and get it all done and motivate others to get their stuff done and be amazing.

Two nights of that and it caught up with me. Last night I plunked myself down at a coffee shop to keep working on Big Things and found myself leaning my head against the wall next to me, not sure if I had the will to make one more decision.

What I realized is that I was plowing through things without giving my heart a chance to catch up. This friend, these other friends, who can function fast and furious have different heart rhythms that, though I don't understand, I respect. But I am not them. For me, decisions are best made after spending some time in my head. My best energy comes when my heart has time to grow its enthusiasm and love for a thing. And after that, I often need to share and process and have others agree with or affirm where I'm headed.

So here is what I'm going to do tonight: send one or two more texts to make sure these Big Things are on track, then eat my dinner, light a candle, and listen carefully for what's next instead of looking at my list. I will try to be myself.



Wednesday, October 12, 2016

my many people




On my drive home today, I listened to a virtual bookclub from a podcast I just started listening to. In the conversation between the regular host and her friend, they discussed how much they like this one particular memoirist. Then, one of the hosts started rattling off a list of authors to whom she pledges allegiance. I recognized the names, and have read some of their books, but I didn't recognize the names as those of my authors.

Which got me thinking, who are my authors? Who are the people I'll buy a book from as soon as it comes out, whose books all appear on my shelf, whose mantras or ideologies or quotes tether my heart to life in a specific way? I thought of a few novelists whom I enjoy, and then a few nonfiction writers whose one or two books or essays mean a lot to me. But none to who I'm loyal, or whom I feel are loyal to me in that particular way that fans can feel.

In this short mental search for my authors, I started to feel a little desperate, and then a little sad. It went deeper, because I realized it wasn't really about being able to name my own personal tribe of authors, it was about being able to name my own personal tribe of friends. Or, even more importantly, those one or two who will always be there for me.

Now let me say - I have some incredible friends who love me and have my back. They feed me, volunteer airport pickups and drop-offs (a true test of friendship in LA), bring food and keep my company when I've overextended myself in planning an elaborate dessert party, listen to my sometimes in-cohesive reflections, and tell me I'm ok. But here's the thing: I've always wanted a person. Some might say I had one growing up. My best friend and I knew each other since the time we were five and were often inseparable, and yet there were always other friends who came in and out of the picture and, to my scared and lonely heart, threatened our relationship. Now, friends have husbands and families and college friends and their own important things going on. Sometimes I wish their important thing were me.

I write this knowing that it points to my core brokenness: that one way (or, one of the ways) in which I will always feel an ache of what's missing. My senior year of high school, that best friend I'd met at age five had already graduated and left town for a city a few hours away, and then for another continent. I felt incredibly lonely, only intensified by the fact that I knew she was making new friendships during a new, meaningful experience in her life.

It was the struggle of that year without her that still defines me today: I would learn to let go and trust that I'd be ok even if I didn't have a person.

Or, rather, it was the realization that I could have many people. Since then, I have had many close friends, but nobody I would call a best friend. And I hesitate to do that (possibly still out of brokenness - will they then leave, to?). It is a discipline I practice: welcoming others, offering myself, cultivating a sacred in-between-us space. What this has allowed is a life full of persons without attaching myself fully to a person. Knowing a friend as one of many instead of my one and only has made space between me and her for others to be in my life. (And, if I can go there, for Jesus to be my one and only.)

It all does come back to the books, because if you come to visit me, you will see a really random assortment of authors and styles that fill my shelves. Some may see this and point to my lack of self control at bookstores (and they may be partly right). But I would also say that I've developed a way to let many voices and hearts in, and I'm still learning to enjoy the way this practice simultaneously crowds and empties my ever-searching heart.

***
PS I realized after writing this that I do have an author. Henri Nouwen is my guy, which is a little ironic because it was probably his writing that influenced this approach to keeping sacred distance in relationships.

(photo: alone with my shadow, Minneapolis, 2015)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

the stories we tell, and the stories we won't tell again






Last week, I ate salad with a friend at my small dining room table and told her a story. The events of the story had taken place a few months prior, but I hadn't told her yet and I needed her to hear it. I had already told it to other friends: several weeks ago to a friend over coffee, to a teammate by the dinner fire one night in Kenya, over text to a few friends after it happened, even to an imaginary audience in a rough draft of some kind of essay I thought it might turn into. Something about it merited re-telling again and again, and now to this friend.

Sometimes we tell stories because they explain our lives to others. This is how I met my best friend when we were five or this is how my daughter came into the world or this the way my mother made lasagna over and over when I was young. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, says Joan Didion, by which she meant that the form of a narrative, and perhaps also the act of telling it, gives shape to our lives.

But other times, I find myself telling the same story over and over precisely because it doesn't make sense. I tell it hoping that the way it comes out this time might flip a switch, or that the particular friend I'm confiding in will help me find the key. This story, the one I found myself telling my friend over salad, was like this. It ended with my being hurt and disappointed, and though it didn't leave me on bad terms with anyone in particular, it did leave me feeling confused. This particular scene didn’t seem to fit into the larger story I thought was forming, and I wanted it to. Maybe the story wasn't over? Maybe the larger story itself needed to change? Maybe not every story has a conclusion?

And then this happened: I was praying (though not about the story) when I heard the Spirit say that I wouldn't tell the story again. It wasn't instruction as much as description: the new way in which I was being arranged inside made it such that I wouldn't feel the need to go back over what had happened. The details have started to fade, their edges are dulled and less provoking. Even now, it’s as if the story is floating out to sea, a message I’ve shoved in a bottle and sent away with no intention of reclaiming. We tell ourselves stories to live, and sometimes we let them go to live more fully.

***
(photo: water and wood at tenaya lake, yosemite national park)

Monday, October 10, 2016

it always must be lost in some way



On a quick visit to my sister in Durham, I stopped at one of my favorite used bookstores. The day before, I'd finished a book and was ready for a new one - the perfect excuse to buy something there. This might sound silly, but I prayed as I entered that bookstore, hoping the Spirit would lead me to find what I needed to read next. I always end up finding books that mean a lot to me.

I bought three: a book of short stories, a book on Africa and a book called A Severe Mercy. This one had been ringing in my ears over the past few years - repeated in conversations or things I read online. So the title stuck out to me. What I knew about it was that the author tells the story of the death and his subsequent grieving of his wife, as well as of his friendship with C.S. Lewis during this time. Comparatively, I've read only a small spattering of Lewis, but I know that I love his letters and more contemplative writing, and hoped I'd love reading about this friendship.

The book starts with a strange prologue/chapter 1, then jumps into the story at the beginning of the story: boy meets girl. Neither follow any kind of religion. About a third of the way through, the author reminds the reader that, "this book, after all, is a spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers." He describes their early stages of love as a pagan love, since their orientation was inward. Their aim was to protect their love at all costs. He writes with a sense of superiority and great mission, which felt cumbersome at times (capital letters for the Shining Barrier they constructed for protection of their love,  the Appeal to Love which was their modus operandi in making decisions in their marriage). He also includes love poems he wrote -- for his love and about their love.

The writing wasn't exactly my taste, at least until he starts communicating with C.S. Lewis. Their friendship starts when the couple begins to consider Christianity. During their conversion and early days of following Jesus, as well as after the eventual death of the author's wife, Lewis writes with his characteristic clarity about themes of love, grief, joy and eternity.

For me, this book really hit its stride after the author's wife's death, perhaps because I'd had enough of his verbose descriptions of their love and life together. That's also where the universal truth he's trying to convey in this autobiography of love crystalizes: that like every life, every love must also die and be reborn.

Suggesting that the wife's death may in fact be a mercy from God, though a severe one, C.S. Lewis writes to the author:

I sometimes wonder whether bereavement is not, at bottom, the easiest and least perilous of the ways in which men lose the happiness of youthful love. For I believe it must always be lost in some way; every merely natural love has to be crucified before it can achieve resurrection and the happy old couples have through difficult death and rebirth. But far more have missed the rebirth.

A mercy because the rebirth is less likely to be missed, because the letting go is a forced one.

The book held a few other precious Lewis-isms, but really this the piece that keeps turning around in my head. Though young love is so much fun, I've always been drawn to that long-established love that has gone through the fire and burned off what was never going to last long anyway. I also love the idea of a love that has a life of its own, a story to tell, something to share with others.

***
(I've been falling behind on writing - both book re-caps and everything else that has a chance to flit through my head or heart. This week I'm hoping to write and post at least a little every day. It may not be good, but there will be words.)

(photo: at a coffee shop with my niece and nephew. styling by my niece, photography by my nephew. they're already hipsters.)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

feeding along the way







In my last post I wrote about my love/hate relationship with professional travel. This time it was all love, and I’m so grateful. This particular conference felt like it was a stepping stone along the path of some of the new things that are happening during this season (that transition/transformation I wrote about a little while back). These kinds of experiences are true grace, a breeze at your back, a gentle nudge to continue in the same direction.

So, a list of highlights, if you’re interested…

City of Bridges // Running in new cities is always a highlight, especially when that city has some water running through it. Pittsburgh has lots of it – three rivers, with more than 400 bridges crossing them at various points. (Did you know it’s the American city with the most bridges? I didn’t.) The first morning I left my hotel just as the sky was beginning to brighten and followed a haphazard loop over all three rivers, stopping for lots of photos. The second morning, I crossed the Rachel Carson Bridge (so cool there's a bridge named after this author) and ran along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, a concrete path bordered by green overgrowth and yellow wild flowers, with a river just beyond. It was pure Pennsylvania and made my heart so happy. (I didn’t realize how much Pittsburgh would feel like home…)

Medicine, mission, mercy // Remember those uninspiring keynotes I referenced? Not at this conference. The second morning was my favorite. Dr. Jim Withers shared his story of providing medical care to Pittsburgh’s homeless folks for decades and helping to create Street Medicine programs at medical schools around the world. The concept of mobile medical care that creates access and cultivates justice has become my heart, especially since traveling to Kenya. It was such an honor to hear him share his stories, and with such humility and passion.

The life of an artist // I made a few friends, one of whom works at the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh. Over dinner, I mentioned that I might visit the Andy Warhol Museum after the conference. The next morning, she found me to tell me she’d arranged for my free entry. Later that day (which was also after I’d given my presentation), I wandered the city, found some coffee, and made my way over. Warhol’s art is funky and fun, and observing the trajectory of an artist’s life is incredibly inspiring. My favorite part was the display of contents from his time capsule from the year 1984. His collection of all kinds of random paraphernalia reminded me that inspiration can come from anywhere, and being an avid collector of it can keep creativity fresh.

Something you said…” // After I presented on the last morning of the conference, several people came up to talk to me afterwards. One woman introduced herself, then started her comments on my presentation with this phrase. It stuck with me because this year has in some ways been one of strengthening my voice. My dream is to hear this over and over – that the things I say have impact, stir something in people, inspire change and vision. Years ago I often found myself afraid to speak, and when I first started this job I wasn’t thinking I’d one day be one who teaches and encourages others, especially by the room-full. It’s one of those dreams I never thought to dream, but the One who knows our truest, deepest desires knows how to bring those about, and how to keep directing our hearts beyond those things to eternity.

I could write more – of really good coffee and chatting with the same barista each day, of great food, of an inspiring session on diversity that was a helpful way to process some of the violence erupting on the streets of cities across our country, of a man who passed me on the street and told me I looked like Taylor Swift (ok, his sanity was questionable but I’m thinking this was one of his lucid moments?). There was just so much. 

There’s a verse in Isaiah that speaks of the people of God feeding along the way and finding provision in places they thought barren -- reminders of God’s goodness and restoration as they make their way to their true home, the City of God. And it’s these seemingly little or mundane things that I think Isaiah might be referring to. They aren’t the thing to shoot for, but they signal to us that God knows our truest desires and has put eternity in our hearts. They bring joy, but what’s better is that they keep us along the path to the One who holds our hearts and is the ultimate thing (relationship/beauty/wonder) we yearn for.

***
(photo: fort duquesne bridge at the beginning of morning run)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

literary, lately: travel edition




I have a love/hate relationship with professional conferences. Love: travel to new places, eating out on someone else's dime, staying in hotels (I love a clean bathroom, especially when I'm not the one cleaning it). Hate: spending all day in over-chilled rooms with no windows, uninspiring keynote speakers, networking (i.e. an introvert's hell).

I'm thinking about this because it's happening next week, I'm going to a new city, getting up in front of a lot of people to talk about writing (simultaneously my most exhilarating dream and worst nightmare), and hopefully getting lots of reading done on the flights there and back -- among other things. Here are a few links that are getting me excited about traveling, writing, reading and everything in between.

Listen to what makes your hair stand on end, your heart melt, and your eyes go wide, what stops you in your tracks and makes you want to live, wherever it comes from, and hope that your writing can do all those things for other people. A writing manifesto, in the form of ten tips. Maybe I'll scrap my presentation and just read this to the audience?

Airports are mini-civilizations, governed by their own rules and ritualsOn bookstores in airports. My airport rules: a magazine from those ubiquitous bookstores, peanut m&m's and stretchy pants.

The National Book Award long list selections are being announced this week. I haven't even heard of most of the nonfiction books just announced. Looks like I have some reading to do. Maybe worth an airport book purchase?  Follow along if you're interested...

I go in phases with writing music. Right now, it's this song and every other one from the album. He's, like, the male T.S. I'll probably also be listening to this on my flights. (Don't judge.)

Can't wait to find myself here. (Quick stop over to see my sister!)

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(photo: NYC skyline, before flight to Kenya)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

what to do with this love



This morning I read about a popular author and her new romantic relationship. Her marriage has ended, she writes, because the illness of her dear best friend made her realize the truth that she is in love with this friend. She herself had posted about it on her Facebook page, an explanation that is thoughtful, well-written and probably only made public out of necessity, which I respect.

I don't know this author personally or really follow her all that closely, yet I had a deep response, one that invariably comes because of things I'm wrestling with myself. Part of the story this woman is sharing but not focusing on is that she is now in a same-sex relationship - this is not part of my struggle. That issue aside (I have thoughts I won't share here or now), the underlying story I read here is one of friendship, boundaries and recognition. Let me explain.

A friend of mine, a single man around my age, recently shared with me that he's taking a break from thinking about relationships to figure some stuff out. This after I told him I'd had a dream of him deciding to elope and not invite me or our other friends. Is there something you're not telling me? I joked with him. This led us to open small windows into our individual hopes and fumblings in what we both hope is movement towards our respective future marriages. What came to mind (and spirit) as I sought for a way to affirm him is that first love story, when man is put to sleep and, on waking, finds the one he calls "flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone." Here at last, one I recognize as made for me.

This caused me to read that story again, to see how the current of my friend's particular experience moves below the story, what waves the Spirit might stir in it. As I read, one version used particular names we are familiar with (Adam and Eve), which makes the story feel so very personal and singular. Maybe that can be my story, too, we might be drawn to wonder. Another version uses simply Man and Woman in place of names, which got me thinking differently about the distinctive recognition which takes place upon waking. Before, none of the animals fit the bill. Then, here, a new creature, and yet so very familiar because she is taken from me. I thought of this story again when I read news of this author, because of the same-sex issue but also because of the long friendship between then. Do we sometimes confuse partnership and friendship for something more? What if this author lived within the boundary of that love which guides us to recognize who is made for us and who is not? I am not trying to judge, and yet I wonder about the seemingly sudden lunge towards total commitment brought about in the face of illness and possible death. The prospect of death can make us do strange things, and yet death is not all of what there is, it is only a shadow. Is it possible that her recognition has shifted away from what is true?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that recognizing truth and beauty is an act that requires the Spirit. (That first love story, after all, happened in the Garden...) I have stories of men I've been close to or partners with and I've wondered, could this be the one? But they end up being part of that animal parade set before Man; they receive different names, but not that declaration that only one will receive (here at last, bone of my bone...). Recently, there is another story like this, one in which a man and I have partnered together and found our styles and vision the same yet different and complementary, in which I have moments of seeing more than what is on the surface, in which I feel I have grown to be more of who I am because of his presence in my life, and in which a few innocent onlookers have asked me about him. And I admit, I have wondered myself. But deep in my spirit, I know this friendship is given for a different reason.

So then the question remains - what do to with this love I have for him? The kind of love I am trying to cultivate is that which expands only within boundaries set for me and yet calls me beyond what I know. This love is painful and costly. It asks me to yearn for that person's good, and yet not put my own needs for love and affection on that person. This love fights to see clearly and hope against hope and hold on and let go at the same time. It simultaneously breaks my heart and puts it back together. I wonder if that's what we resist, that process of being broken for the sake of a good we haven't yet experienced, a love that is tasted only when we are able to lift our heads and ask for it and hope to be filled.

***
(photo: married couple, friends of mine, west los angeles)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

an unread library



There's magic in being surrounded by books... Collect books, even if you don't plan on reading them right away. Nothing is more important than an unread library.

- Austin Kleon, Steal Like at Artist

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(photo: my library and messy bookstacks... only partially read)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

this is a story about desire






On a cool fall day when dry, brown leaves skittered across sidewalks and clouds lumbered across the tired sky, Jen and I sat in a car together. She was dropping me off, or I was dropping her off, I don’t remember which it was. We had probably just had coffee together, and I likely filled much of the time talking about Geoff and dating and how hard it was at that moment. And had been over the past few months. Jen was my mentor and from the very beginning of our relationship seemed to know more about my heart than I did. Looking back, I think it was that she knew her own heart, and God’s love for it, and therefore knew the nature of hearts trying to find that kind of love. So the question she asked me should not have been surprising, but it was.

Betsy, what do you want?

I remember being annoyed that she was asking me this. It’s obvious, I thought. She’d been listening to me talk the last hour, the last year about dating this guy. I want him. But even as that thought came, I knew it wasn’t all of what’s true. Yes, I had grown to love him and the times when we felt connected. But in the space of time between my initial response and trying to decide on words, I realized what I most wanted, really, was to be loved and to be free.

Outside the car window, trees were letting go of leaves and allowing themselves to be laid bare for the coming winter months. It would be another two months before Geoff and I broke up, but I think I knew it then. I needed to let go.

But this is not a story about giving up. It’s about desire.

That question got in to some crack in my heart that dating Geoff had opened. Up to that point, I knew I had many wants, many desires, but mostly I felt clumsy in the way I went after them, or assumed most of them were too big or not right. So I spent a lot of time hiding them or feeling stupid when I couldn’t. (Even now, when a desire rises so strong that I cry, I will say to myself – or, now more and more, to God – “I don’t know why I’m crying,” as I shake my head and wipe my tears and try to control my emotions.) 

Jen’s question that day made me realize that my desires can be named, and that they are likely much deeper and truer than whatever shallow form they might take on the surface of my life. A boyfriend, a husband, loyalty, humor – yes, I want these things. But more true is that I long for love, connection, being partnered, speaking into another's life in a way that realizes and sustains a deep vision, joy that trumps disappointment. Eyes that truly see.


What Jen gave me by asking that question was the opportunity to recognize these desires, and also to name them in the presence of somebody who could hold them before Jesus. There's a story in the Bible where a blind beggar hears that Jesus is passing by, and he decides to cry out for Jesus’ attention. Jesus stops and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Give me my sight, the beggar says. It was seeing, and also that deeper longing for restoration that he asked for. 

And it’s that last part of the question, the part that Jen didn’t ask me (because she couldn’t) that grabs my attention lately. Bringing desires before Jesus, who can do for me what no one else can (who can give me my desires), transforms them from random wishes to real, tangible seeds that contain all the fullness of what I’ve already been promised. Give me my sight...