Do the Next Thing

And the heart does not die when one thinks it should

We smile; there is tea and bread on the table.

“Elegy for N.N.” Czeslaw Milosz (Selected Poems)

For over a year now, my teenage daughter has been going through a complex chronic pain journey that has pummeled our family in myriad ways. My last post referenced this, but when I wrote it, I thought we were close to the end (we were only two months in). 

How to describe what this last year has looked like?

Countless visits to doctors and specialists before she was diagnosed, and since. 

Numerous traumatizing visits to the ER in level-ten pain that ended with “I wish we could do something,” or “I wish we had a Plan B” and being sent home. 

Three weeks in a hospital inpatient pain program, followed by four weeks of all-day therapies. 

Multiple physical and occupational and aquatic therapy visits per week. 

Meds upon meds. 

Electrical stimulation therapy. 

CBD oil. 

Lidocaine patches. 

Multiple joint dislocations (hip, shoulder, knee, ankle, wrist, jaw, finger) every day.

Every variety of joint brace. 

Walkers, wheelchairs, knee scooters.

SO many missed school days.

And now, back into the inpatient program for the next several weeks.

When I was in college, I read many books by Elisabeth Elliot, who became a spiritual mentor to me through her writings. My brain instantly recognized as vital once piece of advice she wrote and filed it away in the appropriate drawer. It was this: Do the next thing. Based on a poem she read somewhere (which was based on an old Saxon legend), this phrase helped to steady her and keep her going when she felt overwhelmed with burdens, with responsibilities, and with fears for the future. And as a single mother, alone with her toddler in the jungle and attempting to minister to the very people who had killed her husband, she had reason to feel overwhelmed.

Her advice has helped keep my head just above water many times. But I’ve never had to put it into practice as often as I have this past year.

From practice, I’m learning to take the next step forward after hovering in the kind of moments that threaten to stop my heart from pain. I now have behind me a little history of doing the next thing right when it seems the most impossible. 

Now, when my daughter cries and tells me she cannot go on one more day—Sometimes the body just shuts down, Mom. Sometimes it’s just too much and it just stops—I hug her and we cry. Then, I pick up her pajamas strewn on the floor and put them away. Or I ask her if she wants pretzels and oranges for a snack. Or I make my monkey face to throw her off and make her roll her eyes. 

After a few “next things,” we are over the impossible mountain, for another hour or two at least. This doesn’t sound like much of a coping mechanism. It’s probably not. But sometimes it’s all that gets me over—remembering that I felt exactly this way a few days ago, or last week, or last year, and now I’m here. I’m still here. She’s still here.

My heart didn’t die when I thought it would. It doesn’t sound like much, but I recognize it as the grace provided, the grace promised.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

2 Corinthians 12:9

Crisis, Fatigue, Rilke, Prayer

When I go through a season of suffering or crisis, I am rarely able to write about it during or immediately afterward. It takes my soul and mind time to sift through it, to see what heals and how, what rises and what settles. And writing takes energy that is in short supply at such times.

The last two months have been such a season for me and my family. I am depleted and still somewhat traumatized by walking my daughter through an injury that developed into a complex, frighteningly intense pain condition. After many emergency room trips and visits to bewildered doctors, she is finally being treated for several weeks at an inpatient pain rehabilitation program, which will be followed by several weeks of all-day outpatient rehab. Her journey out of pain and disability is a long road yet. It is not a given that she will fully recover, though our hopes are high for complete remission.

It’s still too close for me to write about with any clarity. Even the sentences I just wrote are woefully inadequate to describe what this experience has been like for us.

The following poem by Rilke speaks for me, to my daughter. It speaks in short gasps, phrases that can be uttered in an exhalation. The mood is dreamlike—how I feel walking through a day utterly weary in body and soul, unable to speak to others much at all, suffering with my daughter whether I’m next to her or apart from her, sinking into the blessed exhaustion of sleep.

“I grieved so much. I saw you pale and fearing.

That was in dream. And your soul rang.

All softly my soul sounded with it,

and both souls sang themselves: I suffered.

Then peace came deep in me. I lay

in the silver heaven between dream and day.”

                        ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, from First Poems

It’s awkward to walk about so undone inside, sure that my inward raggedness is displayed on my face, in my skin, in my new gray hairs. I can’t speak to others for long without revealing it, yet revealing it is exhausting. I read this yesterday (Rilke, again, from “Title Page”, The Book of Pictures, II, 2):

“But the needy have to reveal themselves,

have to say: …

… things are not well with me on earth,

or: I have an ailing child,

or: I am patched together here”

It helps to borrow someone else’s words right now. Until I find my own. Any writing I’ve managed these last two months has been a cathartic hybrid of journaling, prayer, and free-writing. Whether or not something “polished” eventually comes from it all remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’m doing restorative practices as often as I can: sitting outside in the warming spring air, taking walks, drinking tea, reading, praying, and sitting in silence with God.

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“What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night He giveth.” Robert Lowry

Something Wildly More

One of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson, once said in an interview with Bill Moyers that human beings “exist wildly in excess of any sort of survival mode that could be posited for them.” She said that if you use animal behavior as a model or correlation to human behavior, “you’ve simply excluded everything that we call human….imagination, and art…things we have defined ourselves with over thousands of years.”

I would add poetry. The fact that human beings compose poetry is miraculous, if you subscribe to the notion that we are only animals.  Art, imagination, poetry, introspection, philosophy, story-telling, our concept of beauty, the study of any subject under the sun, our yearning for justice (perhaps the most anti-evolutionary characteristic of humans), and, yes, love —time and time again we say about these things (when they’re done well) that they make us “more human,” or “restore our humanity,” or facilitate a deep “human connection.” In using these sorts of phrases, we never mean that we are more animal-like, or closer to our “animal” nature. There is something more—always something wildly more.

“We milk the cow of the world…”

It puzzles me when people who are human rights advocates, poets, painters, or professors claim to be atheists. That strikes me as very ironic. It seems to me that they are daily, moment by moment, living a contradiction with their professed worldview. In Richard Wilbur’s poem “Epistemology”, he writes “We milk the cow of the world, and as we do / We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.’”

Think about what constitutes the majority of our thinking, energies, and time. We watch shows on TV, read novels, sketch cartoon figures, arrange bouquets of flowers for our spouses, fix our daughters’ hair, play baseball, cook gourmet meals, watch HGTV, create centerpieces on our holiday tables, crack jokes, complain about our current president’s amorality, wax our cars, write get-well cards, donate to charity, and shine our shoes—all miraculously in excess of survival. And it begs the question why? Why do we humans reach for a life more fully and justly and beautifully lived? Where does that desire come from?

Humans have always attempted to answer that question—it is the well-spring of all of our religions, as well as of agnosticism (which speaks to me of an honest but unfinished journey).

Our Best Stories

I know some of you reading may disagree, but I’ve not yet learned of a worldview paradigm that comports better with reality and with what it means to be fully human than the Christian worldview. The concept of an intelligent, good, just, holy, creative, powerful, merciful, and personal God who has made humans in his image (Latin, imago dei), and who has placed eternity in our hearts—this belief makes sense to me. The paradigm of creation, rebellion, redemption, and restoration explains for me the incredible order and complexity of the universe. It explains our shared human experiences of shame, brokenness, pride, love, and forgiveness. It is the deepest and truest theme running through all of our best stories—the stories that pay homage to the human spirit—whether in fiction, poetry, theater, or film (think of Les Miserables, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Fiddler on the Roof, etc.).

One day, Ravi Zacharias, a prominent Christian apologist, was riding in a car with a young man who pointed out to him the first intentionally post-modern building in the city—staircases leading nowhere, random angles, tricks of light, unexpected placement of windows, etc. Zacharias found it very interesting, indeed, and asked, “Does it have a foundation?” The answer, of course, was yes. The only way to create a “post-modern” building that wouldn’t cause injury or death to its inhabitants was to lay the foundation according to natural scientific laws, according to rules of structure.

The Known Order Holds

John R. Erickson writes about a similar necessity for structure in stories. He says, “Children see structure in the world around them. It provides coherence from one day to the next. It reveals beauty and meaning. They consider structure normal and take it for granted until, as adults, they are taught that it isn’t there. I could never accept that it wasn’t there.”

I think, too, of mathematicians and astro-physicists whose knowledge of and faith in pattern, order, natural laws, reason, etc. lead them to incredible discoveries about our universe. They hazard hypotheses based on the idea that the known order holds. I think about biologists who study the form of a species—its intricate parts—to gather clues about the various functions of those parts. They assume—correctly—that form holds clues to function (teleonomy/teleology). In their study of anatomy, they don’t look at a human hand and think, Why, that appendage must be used to create poetry! (Though increasingly we humans in the West protest the teleological clues our bodies give us, denying that they mean anything.) Mathematicians and scientists trust the natural order—it makes sense and it holds.

Against Nothingness

Beauty, too, exists wildly in excess of a survival paradigm. The fact that humans yearn for beauty, recognize it, understand instinctually that it is a force that exists both within and outside of ourselves, seek to create it, seek to capture it—why is that? Perhaps we’re afraid to ponder that question—we may not like where it will lead or what it may mean for us.

I submit that there is beauty in metaphor. We poets love metaphor. We find metaphors everywhere in the natural order. Perhaps they were placed there on purpose, that there would be no end to our discovery of them, to our learning from them. In memoriam of Richard Wilbur (1921–2017), James Matthew Wilson writes that for the poet, “the ‘glorious energy’ of the world tends toward ‘pattern and shape,’” and that in his generation, only he “spanned the gap” of “holding in tension the fallenness of the world with the underlying goodness of creation.” I’m drawn to those writers who attempt the same today, whose work celebrates and enjoys life—even plays a little—but also probes the wounds of the world with empathy and attentive gravity.

Lately I’ve been reading and studying the writings of poet Czeslaw Milosz. In the introduction to A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, which he edited, he says, “By necessity poetry is … on the side of being and against nothingness.” As a writer, I hope that my words rail “against nothingness,” witnessing to the beautiful, ever-present excess.

***

(A recommended starting place for exploring “something wildly more” further is N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian. It may surprise you.)

 

Piles (or What I’m Reading)

I don’t know many writers who only read one book at a time. (If you are one who does, I’d be fascinated to make your acquaintance and would try to question you about the reasoning behind your reading practice without making you feel as if you were a specimen under a microscope.)

I have piles, you see. 

There is a pile on the glass-topped elephant table in my bedroom, next to my favorite chair of all time. It includes my Bible, Dave Harrity’s Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand, Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and Bearing the Mystery, a collection of twenty years’ of some of the best works published in Image journal.

On the tiered side table in the living room I have The Poems of Richard Wilbur and A Year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with the last several volumes of Poets & Writers magazine and Writer’s Digest. The Book Thief was there until this past weekend, when my kids stole it to read after we watched the movie together. (Digression: this is one of my favorite books, and I was skeptical about the movie, but it captured the soul of the book & of the characters better than I expected.) 

My “library pile” on my bookshelf to the right of my desk has Letters Across the Divide: Two Friends Explore Racism, Friendship, and Faith, Francis Schaeffer’s classic, Escape from Reason, and Thomas Merton’s The Springs of Contemplation. (No more pics of piles, because I don’t have time to straighten up the mess & wipe the dust off any more surfaces with my hand.)

And on the coffee table are Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island (to counter-balance the weightier tomes), and the one I find myself reaching for most often this week: Compassion—A Reflection on the Christian Life (Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison). I found it in that thrift-store gem, Savers, a couple of weeks ago. A few thought-provoking quotes:

  • On a communal understanding of compassion: “Compassion is not an individual character trait, a personal attitude, or a special talent, but a way of living together.”
  • On massive exposure to human misery: “When we are no longer able to recognize suffering persons as fellow human beings, their pain evokes more disgust and anger than compassion …. Anne Frank we can understand; piles of human flesh only make us sick.”
  • On our response to suffering: “Therefore, the question is, how can we see the suffering in our world and be moved to compassion as Jesus was moved when he saw a great crowd of people without food …. This question has become very urgent at a time when we see so much and are moved so little.”

If I don’t have a pile of ready reading within reach in each room of the house, I feel itchy and unprepared. When I have a ten-minute span of time between finishing an editing job and starting dinner, I grab the nearest book (and push nagging reminders about wet laundry aside). When the kids are taking an extra-long time getting ready for bed, I plop down on mine with a book and a prayer that they’ll keep dawdling.

I can’t do without my piles. With my husband’s influence, I’ve mended my pack-rat ways in most areas, but don’t ask me to part with my books. (I know some of you reading this get me. We’re a tribe.)

Finally, a list of books I keep coming back to:

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Anything by Frederick Buechner (wrote about him more here) or Brennan Manning

The New Jim Crow—Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (please read this)

What titles are in your piles, and where do you stash them?

 

Adeste Fidelis

Many of us are closing down 2016 with a keen awareness of the darkness all around us in the world today—a bitter and divisive election that exposed a great deal of ugliness in our nation and perhaps even in ourselves; world events that stagger us in their brutality even as we want to look away—Aleppo, the global refugee crisis, Yemen, South Sudan; and closer to home for us here in Baltimore, the grim statistic of more than 300 homicides in the city this year. As you read this, I’m sure you could add more items to this dark list.

I recently re-read the chapter in Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, titled “Come and See.” I’m going to quote this essay at length today. He says this:

If darkness is meant to suggest a world where nobody can see very well—either themselves, or each other, or where they are heading, or even where they are standing at the moment; if darkness is meant to convey a sense of uncertainty, of being lost, of being afraid; if darkness suggests conflict, conflict between races, between nations, between individuals all pretty much out for themselves when you come right down to it; then we live in a world that knows much about darkness.

What do we do, then, with these words from the prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isaiah 9:2)? How do we understand these words in their past-tense proclamation?

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1608
“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1608

Has something like this really happened? Something that included angels too many to count singing to ignoble shepherds, that included wise men and a strange new star?

Buechner writes, “…let us be as skeptical as our age about this story of Christmas. Let us assume that if we had been there that night when he was born, we would have seen nothing untoward at all….the woman in labor….the smell of hay….the lonely barking of a dog.” He goes on to say:

Whether there were ten million angels there or just the woman herself and her husband when that child was born, the whole course of history was changed. That is a fact as hard and blunt as any fact. Art, music, literature, our culture itself, our political institutions, our whole understanding of ourselves and our world—it is impossible to conceive of how differently world history would have developed if that child had not been born.

Besides all that, all through the ages since that event people from every walk of life and corner of the globe have “found themselves in deep and private ways healed and transformed by their relationships with him”—made whole.

How do we find out for ourselves whether in this child born so long ago there really is the power to give us a new kind of life in which both suffering and joy are immeasurably deepened, a new kind of life in which little by little we begin to be able to love even our friends, at moments maybe even our enemies, maybe at last even ourselves, even God?

 Adeste fidelis. That is the only answer I know for people who want to find out whether or not this is true. Come all ye faithful, and all ye who would like to be faithful if only you could, all ye who walk in darkness and hunger for light. Have faith enough, hope enough, despair enough, foolishness enough at least to draw near to see for yourselves….Pray for him and see if he comes, in ways that only you will recognize….In whatever way seems right to you and at whatever time, come to him with your empty hands.

Come and see. Come with your doubting in your throat and your last slip of hope tattered by harsh winds. Come see if this outrageous story you deep-down wish could be true—God come down to you, to me— can be the light that dispels your darkness, can even make you light in the darkness.

I wrote the poem below a couple of years ago, for Advent. “If we are people who pray, darkness is apt to be a lot of what our prayers are about. If we are people who do not pray, it is apt to be darkness in one form or another that has stopped our mouths.” If it helps, read it as a prayer.

The Branch of Your Planting

Isaiah 60: 19-22

We are the branch of your planting,

grasping the earth

until it is too much with us:

soil on our leaves, arching petals

into cups to hoard the rain.

We are cut and grafted,

withered, unyielding, broken

even as we bloom another

improbable blossom.

We are the hidden, dying seeds,

trembling in our casings

with desire for glory: ours

and yours. And you promise it

and much else besides.

Hasten it in its time.

Because we mourn in exile here,

striving with unclean hands raised

toward heaven to grasp at your coming

or waiting silently with this dirt

ground deep into the lines

of our upturned palms,

all of us whispering

Come, come.

"The Birth of Christ" by Mariotto Albertinelli; 1503, oil on wood
“The Birth of Christ” by Mariotto Albertinelli; 1503, oil on wood

The Truest Thing I Know

By my desk, there is written on a green index card this quote that I see every day as I sit down to write:

“Say the truest thing you know, line by line.”

In Writing

I read it in a guide to writing poetry by Suzanne U. Rhodes, The Roar on the Other Side. My tendency as a writer and poet is to hide behind metaphor, or to talk my way around a thought, couching it in beautiful lyricism or visceral imagery. Many times I’m unaware that I’m doing it at first, but my phenomenal poetry workshop partners point it out with gentle stubbornness. They encourage me to push deeper, to dig for the stone at the heart of the poem and bring it into the light. Rhodes’ quote challenges and helps me in the same way.

An editor who gave me feedback on a short story of mine said it was “85%” there.” She told me to go back through it and expose the emotional state of the main character in a few key scenes. “Twist the knife,” was how she put it. Don’t be afraid to dig in, to poke at the wound.

In Life

If I have to push myself to write the truest thing I know, the challenge also applies to life, and specifically, to my relationships with others. I’ll be turning forty in less than a year, and the older I get, the less I can tolerate wearing masks in conversations with others. But to speak about true things—deeper things—with others requires courage and a killing of my own ego, or vanity. It forces me to push past self-protection (which can manifest as “niceness,” cynicism, sarcasm, judgment, and even shyness).

But speaking true things from our hearts, and listening when others do so, happens when love overrides fear, when the desire to connect our own humanity with others’ takes precedence. A couple of weeks ago I kept feeling a prompting to write a letter of empathy and encouragement to a woman I knew who was struggling with the long-term aftermath of a devastating end to her marriage, inability to get a job despite trying daily for two years, and anger at God for allowing so many trials in her life. I felt a bit foolish—we weren’t close friends—and I definitely didn’t want to preach at her. But I ended up writing four pages, letting her know that I see her, that I hurt for her, that I understand what it’s like to feel like you’re a ghost looking in at everyone else living their normal lives when your life is unraveled and on pause. I shared with her some words from authors* who have helped me to hope for something sacred and even beautiful to emerge from my own “dark nights of the soul.”

It was a pretty raw letter. I held onto it for a day before having the courage to put it into the mail. I heard back from her after a couple of days, and one thing she said was, “Just knowing that someone notices that I thirst and tries to bring me water…girl. No words can express my gratitude.” That letter opened up a life-giving dialogue. We were set free to be who we are with each other, no masks. (And it inspired her to apply to one more job that day, which led to an offer of employment as a teacher! She said she was “raw and genuine” in her cover letter, as I had been in my letter to her, and that is what caught the attention of the woman in charge of hiring.)

This morning I spent time reading, journaling, and praying about this very thing—how to be life-giving and human and real in my relationships. But I was also having a bit of a pity party because my deepest relationships with those who know and love me best are long-distance ones, dear friends scattered to the far corners of the earth, literally.

I finished, took a shower, and was just getting dressed when the phone rang. It was one of my best friends, who lives a few hundred miles away and is dealing with the pain and confusion of a recent divorce and doubts about her faith. We’d been emailing but hadn’t spoken on the phone for months. She just felt prompted to call me today, and to open up to me about her faith struggles and the grief she’s carrying.

A Balm

What followed was a half-hour, deep drink of the draught of heart-to-heart connection. It was a balm to my soul that she trusted me and loved me enough to express her doubts and pain, and that we were able to listen to each other and to hear everything beneath those words. We encouraged each other to be brave in the things each of us is facing even as we feel fear or grief, and we shed a few tears together.

In his sermon-essay, “The Killing of Time,” Frederick Buechner writes, “We are really alive when we listen to each other, to the silences of each other as well as to the words and what lies behind the words. ‘Looks as though we might get some rain,’ somebody says. Speak to me for Christ’s sake. Know me….I’m bored and tired as hell, if there’s such a thing as hell. A cup of cold water.’”

May the true things we dare to say, and the deep way we learn to listen, be a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty today.

glass-water

*Frederick Buechner, Brennan Manning, Larry Crabb

“And in the meantime, this side of Paradise, it is our business…to speak with our hearts…and to bear witness to, and live out of, and live toward, and live by the true word of [Christ’s] holy story as it seeks to stammer itself forth through the holy stories of us all.” Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark

I Didn’t Want To Be That White Woman

They saw me leave the house.

The two boys looked to be about fourteen years old. They had already passed my house and were walking down the middle of the street as I climbed into my car to pick up my kids from school. Something inside told me to wait a few minutes and watch. And no, it wasn’t because they were African American. Our city, neighborhood, and block are all majority black, so it would have been far more unusual to see white kids walking down my street. What was it? They were clearly school-age, and school hadn’t let out yet. They also weren’t wearing any of the nearby school’s uniforms. They were walking with a bit of a swagger down the middle of the street, not the sidewalk, laughing but looking intently at parked cars they passed.

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I sat in the car and watched for several minutes. Once or twice I saw one of them reach out like he might be trying a car door. Are they casing cars, or are they just walking? I didn’t want to jump the gun and call in suspicious activity, but I was conflicted. After waiting another minute or two, I decided it was safe to go. I did drive past them, though, and took note of their physical descriptions, just in case.

When they were just small figures in my rearview mirror, I realized that they had turned to walk back up my street. Uh oh. But I rationalized the feeling away. It’s probably nothing. I’ll be back home in a few minutes anyway.

As my kids and I walked up to our front door, I saw Ms. Janice, our next-door neighbor, motioning for us not to go into the house.

“Two guys were trying to break in! They might be in the house!” she whispered urgently from her doorway. She had called the police after hearing repeated banging and had seen the two boys in our backyard. The cops arrived just then and scoped out the house. The boys—it was the same two I’d seen, according to Ms. Janice’s description—had fled, having unsuccessfully tried to get through our back door (but they did leave a mess of shattered glass). The boys were never found, though the police walked the alley and drove around the neighborhood looking.

Looking back on it, I wondered why I didn’t listen to my gut. Because I didn’t want to be that white woman. I didn’t want to be the white neighbor who calls to report “suspicious activity” when kids are just walking down the street. When I saw them reaching for car handles, I rationalized it away. I felt stupid afterward, when my suspicions were confirmed, and I was telling friends the story. But I also felt a sense of contentment that I had erred on the side of assuming the best instead of the worst.

I wanted those boys to be just kids on their way home from school. My children have friends, classmates, youth group kids, etc., in their lives who are young black children, and we love them. I don’t want any of them to become a statistic, to be wrongfully accused, to be sucked into the unjust system of mass incarceration. And I didn’t want any of that for these two boys whom I didn’t know. (Dear White Reader, it happens ALL THE TIME to people of color, regardless of innocence, education, or socio-economic status. Listen. Read. Learn.)  I wanted it not to be what it was, more for their sakes than for my own.

I know I’m late to the conversation, having only in recent years begun to understand and learn about the insidious hold racism, both individual and systemic, still has on our country (thanks, Ta Nehisi Coates, et all, for the education–see various links below for a starting place). I used to think, “If people just obey the law, they won’t get into trouble.” I realize now what a myth that is for millions of people of color in this country; it shows that I was living in a dream. When you get up close to friends, neighbors, brothers and sisters in church, etc., who have personal experiences that contradict the narrative you’ve always believed—that “all that was taken care of in the Civil Rights Movement”—you realize that it’s time to wake up from the dream.  (By the way, the ability to live your whole life in the dream?  That’s privilege.)

Coates, who was born and raised here in Baltimore, writes to his son:

“[The Dream] is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long, I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our [black people’s] backs, the bedding made from our bodies” (from “Letter to My Son,” The Atlantic, September 2015).

Friends of ours recently had their first baby, a boy. I held him when he was about three weeks old, a wrinkly but handsome little guy with a high forehead and black downy hair that stuck to the crook of my arm with sweat—mine or his, I don’t know. His name is Emmanuel. God with us. God’s image in the face of this child, cradled in my arms.

But his mama and daddy carry this knowledge: all sweet on this earth is mixed with sorrow. “We worry about him growing up as a black child in Baltimore every day,” Christine, Emmanuel’s mom, says. Many will not see the image of God in this little boy, not once he’s tall enough to threaten just by walking down a street, or reaching for his license, or laughing a little too loudly with his friends in a store. And it won’t matter that his father has his master’s degree in engineering, or that his mother has her PhD in public health. It won’t matter that they are committed to their church, or that they are neighbors who will mow your lawn for you or babysit in a pinch. None of that is a guarantee that will save little Emmanuel from how others see his skin. I pray that this sweet boy is always seen as a person who carries the image of God in him, but it’s hard to be hopeful in light of reality.

If I could meet with those two boys right now, I would pray for the eyes to see the image of God in them. Foolish or not, I wouldn’t press charges. Not this time. I think I’d tell them how even though I had described them to the police, I didn’t really want them to be caught.  Because “the price of error is higher for [them] than it is for [their] countrymen” (Ibid.). This is a well-documented fact.

I didn’t want to be “that white woman,” so I hesitated. Was I right or wrong? That question doesn’t keep me up at night, but what does is wondering where I still get it wrong—where I still find myself wearing “blinders” that I need friends like Christine to help me remove.

White friends, let’s not live in the dream, even though it’s so comfortable there. Let’s wake up, pray, listen, learn, and then stand in solidarity, doing what is ours to do.

Things to read if you want to go deeper:

This Is What White Privilege Is

Reconciliation and Justice Network: Craig Garriott (the pastor of our church here in Baltimore)

Communion and White Fear

IVCF Theology of Reconciliation

Ta Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”

Coates’ “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”

Coates’ “Letter to My Son” 

Disparity by the Numbers

http://qz.com/250701/12-things-white-people-can-do-now-because-ferguson/

How Baltimore Became Baltimore

I Grieve With You

http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/12/05/eric-garner-black-christians-react-anger/

http://www.salon.com/2015/04/29/dear_white_facebook_friends_i_need_you_to_respect_what_black_america_is_feeling_right_now/

 

 

Like a Refugee (sort of)

Our caravan of white Toyota sedans wound its way slowly through the looted city on its way to the banks of the swollen, muddy Congo River. Some fires were still smoldering, broken glass all that remained of some shops and businesses—even doors had been pulled off their hinges and hauled away. Everywhere along the roadside people sat, hands between their knees, staring. There was nothing more to take, nothing more to do.

Since the airport in Kinshasa had also been attacked and looted by soldiers desperate for back pay and by citizens who followed them, the American Embassy was going to ferry us across to Brazzaville, Congo, to await flights out of the country. We had been allowed one suitcase each and had said goodbye to our cat that early morning, putting him outside the back porch with a heaping bowl of food. It was eerily quiet as we left our house—no bullets zipping through the streets, no yelling crowds—just the acrid smell of smoke in the air.

During the five days prior, soldiers and citizens had rioted and looted all throughout the city of Kinshasa, many frustrated by President Mobutu’s rich and corrupt administration, which drained the country of its astounding natural wealth and let its people suffer in poverty. Perhaps others were just opportunistic. We had watched tracer bullets zigzag crazily through the dark each night; some had lodged in the walls or roofs of the houses on either side of us. Our CB radio (we had no phone) crackled at all hours of the day and night with calls to the embassy from frightened expats who were told to lock themselves in bathrooms while the mobs raided their homes. We stashed backpacks of essentials in our bathtub and pulled the curtain to hide them, hoping we could run into the room and hide if people started forcing their way into our home. Rumors flew—somebody said that a Lebanese classmate of my brother’s had been raped as her home was being looted. Over several days, the embassy had gathered all the Americans in the city onto five compounds and were now arranging an evacuation.

After the ferry ride and the waiting at the diplomatic compound in Brazzaville for most of the day, we were bused to the tarmac in shifts and put on a plane bound for Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. One blessing of the experience was being able to reunite with friends whom we hadn’t seen during the whole week of violence and rioting in the city. We had this one flight to say our goodbyes. After three hours on the tarmac in the hot plane, and then a 17-hour flight (with one refueling stop in the Canary Islands), we landed in the U.S. to media crews and the Red Cross. While our parents signed multiple forms and made phone calls to relatives, we were fed hot dogs, bright plastic-looking apples, and bags of chips. We shivered in the late September chill, and the Red Cross produced blankets for us.

My grandparents drove from western Pennsylvania to pick us up, and we spent the next few days trying to settle in to the little log house we lived in during the summers. My grandparents’ church donated some fall and winter clothes to us, and my mom tried to shop for groceries. She fled the store halfway through, leaving her cart, because she was overwhelmed to the point of tears at the abundance in each aisle. She couldn’t help but think of how she had tried several stores in Kinshasa in the last few weeks just to find ones that still had butter, sugar, flour—the staples—while she carried plastic bags full of worthless currency. A local news channel did a human interest story on our family the night before my brother and I enrolled in the local high school—“Out of Africa,” they called it. We’re almost like refugees, we said, alternately chuckling and crying.

Almost like refugees. Except not, in so many ways. Yes, there was a potential for physical harm and we didn’t feel safe. We had to flee our home and most of our belongings, knowing that most likely we would never see them again. We were given food and clothing when we first arrived, and people were kind to us as we tried to settle in to a new life.

But we were returning to our own passport country, to family, to people who spoke our language (even though I had only lived in the U.S. once before for a year as a little child; and I experienced deep culture stress after the evacuation). In the midst of that stressful, scary experience, when we were also dealing with loss and grief, we were welcomed in. We didn’t have to hope for shelter—we already had a place to stay. We didn’t have to spend years in a refugee camp scrounging out an existence.

Our evacuation from Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) is the closest I’ve come to experiencing what refugees go through. So many of the stories I read, particularly those of people who have fled ISIS-controlled areas and the civil war in Syria, are mind-boggling in their horror. Women and girls are watching their fathers, husbands and brothers being slaughtered, and are then taken as slave concubines to the Islamic State’s slave markets. Families are fleeing their destroyed homes in Syrian neighborhoods after losing their children to exploding shells. HALF OF THE REFUGEES IN THIS CRISIS ARE CHILDREN.

And, friends, some in this country of embarrassing opulence are calling for the government to shut its doors in the faces of these vulnerable ones.

Those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ should be the LAST voices that should ever join in that call. Scripture reveals God’s clear ethic and call on this issue over and over again (look up the words “foreigner,” “stranger,” or “alien” in a Bible concordance or index). Remember the Good Samaritan? He asked no questions—Jesus was smart to describe the victim as half-dead and unresponsive. The Samaritan didn’t ask him his religious persuasion before tending to his wounds. It is abundantly apparent that loving our neighbor (and our enemy) trumps protecting “me and mine” in fear.

Today, as I write this, the Senate is debating a bill that the House already passed that would close the doors to refugees from Syria and Iraq. Click here to read a timely and urgent letter urging against this type of legislation, signed by former secretaries of state, homeland security, and national security advisors, as well as former chairs of joint chiefs of staff: http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/sites/default/files/FormerNatSecOfficialsLetterRefugees.pdf.

We in the U.S. have the luxury and capability to vet refugees. The process is rigorous. It is not 100% terrorist-proof—no process can be. But the cost to our country and to our souls is too great if safety is our idol. We’ll trade too much of ourselves away, and what will be left?

This country must remain a refuge for people in need.

 

What did you leave behind?

I had the joy and privilege this past Saturday of being able to attend the annual Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, held in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia.  As many other attendees noted, it was a beautiful thing to spend time with others—complete strangers from all over the world—with whom I could immediately connect because of our similar cross-cultural backgrounds and experiences.  I met other women who were trying to adjust, and help their families adjust, to life back in their “home” country after living abroad (check out this post about repatriation written by a new friend I met at the conference).  We commiserated about the feeling of being “hidden immigrants”—looking like we belonged in our passport country, but feeling so alien inside.  We shared tender stories of seeing our children navigate their own inner “foreignness” among peers who have no clue.

The conference theme was “Finding Home: Amidst Global Change.”  It was fascinating to listen to international business people, foreign service personnel, NGO workers, missionaries and grown-up missionary kids (MKs), international educators, mental health professionals, writers and others struggle together with the concept of “home.”  What does “home” even mean?  Is it possible to find “home” when you move over and over again?  What if “home” has nothing to do with our passport country?  Can we create a “home” for ourselves even if we are globally mobile?  What effects does that mobility have on us?  On our children?

The beautiful thing to witness was how gentle and gracious everyone was with with each other’s stories.  In myriad ways, we were able to say to one another, “Your story matters.  Your losses and triumphs matter.”  There was an intense focus on supporting one another, on helping different groups of people to navigate global mobility in healthy ways, and on making sure no one was left alone.

I was particularly struck by one question that a presenter said is important to ask children (or adults) who are struggling because of a big move, or as a result of frequent moves.  The question is, What did you leave behind?  

So, I’d like to wrap this up by asking those of you who have moved, especially often and/or cross-culturally, What did you leave behind?  I’ll start: I left the balcony where my daughter took her first steps; the apartment complex where my son learned to ride a bike; the ability to call out my kitchen window to friends hanging out outside; keys to all my friends’ homes; my electric scooter; neighborhood walks involving greeting all the shop keepers/fruit vendors we knew; and some aspect of my identity that now needs to be rediscovered or redefined in this new place.

What did you leave behind?

IMG_2011
My favorite mode of transportation

 

 

Paradox, Part III: Death Leads to Life

A few thoughts today on forgiveness:

Brené Brown said that Christ’s love began to make more sense to her when she heard a leader at her church explain that in order for forgiveness to occur, something has to die.  There has to be a death—of our expectations, our pride, our thirst for revenge, our control—before there can be real forgiveness.  But Brown says that her research has revealed that our culture is deeply afraid of grief and shame–two emotions that weigh heavily when forgiveness is in the balance.

Simone Weil writes, “The forgiveness of debts is spiritual poverty, spiritual nakedness, death.”  But we want to avoid the “spiritual nakedness” we’d feel if we released the debt another owed to us.  We also avoid asking to be forgiven for the same reason: our fear of the nakedness of humility.  We imagine humility and shame to be interchangeable.

But unforgiveness is well-disguised death of another sort.  It is a slow death—a secret calcifying of parts of our hearts and souls; it is another form of grief.  Grief that is unexpressed and unprocessed.  It is slow poison.  It never satisfies.  It empties and asphyxiates.  And it all happens as we walk about, deluded by a false sense of control.

Think of the ramifications of this upon our relationships.

Which death, then, shall we choose?  Only one death will set us free.  One is chosen out of courage and trust; one out of fear and grasping.  Only one death is followed by resurrection.  Weil’s statement above finishes this way: “If we accept death completely, we can ask God to make us live again, purified from the evil in us.”

Think of the ramifications of this upon our relationships.