what we do not see

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photo: Jovi Waqa

Maybe it sounds odd for a theologian to say, but here it is: it’s been a very long time since I thought or cared much about faith. I mean, I think all the time about the faith. But faith itself—the act of believing something—maybe hasn’t been high on my list of concerns since sometime in high school.

Part of this is a philosophical choice: I think the church of my childhood overrated faith. In their fervor to get me to convert, and to get me to get my friends to convert, those well-meaning people had me so wrapped up in “believing in Jesus” that my overserious little self constantly worried about what that could mean. How exactly do I know that I believe in Jesus today? How can I believe that Jesus lives in my heart when I still don’t understand what that means? Why is God so wrapped up in my ability to “be certain of what we cannot see,” like, why is that the prerequisite skill for heaven-entrance?

I’m honestly still not sure of the answers to all of those questions, and I don’t think they’re quite as important as they were made out to be. Faith is part of following Jesus, but the greatest of these is love. I think God cares a lot more about who and what we love than about all the specifics of what we believe. The greatest commandment is not to mentally assent to a list of propositions, but to orient the desires of our hearts toward God. And I’ll admit, maybe this is a convenient way for me to think about things, because when you’re in theology school, you’re never sure what you believe. If you had to write a creed on any given day in theology school, it would be something like “I believe in skimming, the deadline Almighty, and the power of a good night’s sleep.” The rest is up for grabs if you’re giving your reading any serious thought.

Those were pretty much all my thoughts on faith until the gospel of Matthew kind of slammed into me a couple weeks ago. It started with the Beatitudes, just reading them over and over with a level of obsession I’ve only dedicated to Wendell Berry’s poems and, before that, Ding-Dong, the red book where all the different animals come to the doorbell. One night I finished the Beatitudes and just kept on reading all the way through to “the end of the age” and it felt like everything was new. Every old truth about Jesus and how he was utterly crazy and also just speaking the most obvious common sense, all these things he said and did felt so outrageous and scary and good and true.

It’s a moment I’ve been reaching back for, trying to hold on to, ever since, because nothing else feels to me like it could possibly become new these days. Trump’s absurdities and the reactions to them are wearying in equal measure: anger and blame going around in circles, while even those calling for care and compassion so often mean their words to challenge everyone but themselves. The problems seem so big and getting bigger as we watch, not least because so many think they have solutions to the problems if only everyone else could be marched over to their own point of view. Add to that the loneliness and bewilderment of being new in town, and my feet are dragging. I want to quit my job and hunker down for the (nonexistent South Carolina) winter with my puppy and some junk food and Netflix or maybe a sci-fi novel. It just feels so patently obvious that the world is being devoured by humanity’s worst impulses, greed and anger and violence and indifference to suffering and fear; it’s hard to want to go out there in all that.

In Matthew, Jesus knows about greed and anger and violence and fear. He speaks constantly against them; but he doesn’t just berate people for giving into them. He says where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. He says be reconciled to your brother. He says turn the other cheek, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He says do not be afraid; even the very hairs of your head are numbered. He is not saying that greed and anger and violence and fear are bad and destroying the world. He is saying that they are empty lies. Jesus is showing the world as it truly is and, in the process, sucking all the power out of those evils that seem so all-encompassing.

Jesus is, in fact, asking us for our belief. He is imploring us to believe the truth even though the world will call us crazy: the truth that even so long as the smallest light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it. The kingdom of God is like the tiniest seed. The kingdom of God is humility. The kingdom of God is giving two pennies. It does not obey the laws of physics and its power does not equal money. The kingdom of God is pilgrims sent out two by two, not armies deployed by the millions. It is servanthood, not political clout. It is a meal with the least of these, not the thinkpiece of the year.

Faith means we act like this is true despite all evidence to the contrary. We pray as if it matters. We love as if people could change. We sing as if war and death did not have the final word. We get up in the morning and listen kindly to our coworkers or teach people’s children or clean our houses or feed people or write our little pieces as if these things could be cosmically significant, as if thankfulness could feed five thousand, as if compassion could heal diseases, as if a servant could lead justice to victory. As if love could raise the dead: so by faith we practice resurrection.

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the good news about my racism

Senator John McCain, like every other Republican senator, supported the silencing this week of Elizabeth Warren from reading the words of Coretta Scott King about Jeff Sessions. His words: screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-10-43-38-am“I’m not sure you should read a letter that calls someone a racist.”

It confuses me why labeling someone as ‘racist’ is considered name-calling (leaving aside the question of why Jeff Sessions needs protection from name-calling [#snowflake?]). Calling someone a name like “dumb stinky loser” is about the opinion of the speaker. Calling someone a racist is about the fact of whether they are or are not a racist. And as long as we fear to name our disease, it will continue to poison everything we do.


It first occurred to me that I might be a racist when Mary Elizabeth Moore mentioned offhand that she is one. Dr. Moore is the Dumbledore of Boston University School of Theology—wise, compassionate, smart, talented, and selfless. It’s hard to describe the love people at BU cherish for her.

My first reaction when my teacher said this was a sort of pity. How could she have been convinced to adopt such a self-loathing posture? It is clear that she loves, respects, and often defers to people of color. She shouldn’t believe such a nasty thing about herself.

Besides, if she’s a racist, I’m a racist.

At its most benign, I gravitate towards people who look like me and away from those who don’t, on the bus, in the store, and at church.
At its most shameful, I wonder if black men in hoodies are drug dealers; I feel contempt towards black teenagers being loud on the train; I try to avoid the teller at the post office who I assume to be from India.
Are those things my “fault”? No. It’s human nature to want to associate with those who are similar to you, and even, perhaps, to be wary of those who aren’t.
Are those things still shameful? Are they still racist?
Yes.

When I learned about the civil rights movement in school, it seemed a lot of people bent over backwards to demonize racists. Racists were those who wanted to segregate hotels, buses, and schools, and they were evil for believing that others were inferior based on the color of their skin. These lessons made it seem that the struggle was over and the racists had disappeared as soon as they “lost” segregation. Even for a room full of white students sitting one block from the site of a lynching that spurred the forced exile of every black person from the county, the lessons made it easy to feel proud of ourselves for not thinking slavery or segregation were good ideas.

In their attempts to teach us the right answers, our schools taught us half-truths. Of course racism is deplorable and unacceptable. But of course also, tragically, it dwells within all of our hearts. The problem is, there’s no right answer on a multiple-choice test for facing the sickness inside ourselves. Our schools thought we could bury it and it would never make its way out of us; but that only shoved it closer to our cores, intertwined it with every piece of us as we grew. This happened not least because it was intertwined with everything else we were a part of, too: neighborhoods segregated through tradition and economic barriers; stereotypes as shortcuts for cheap laughs and cheap thrills; a culture that rewards values of white people like quietness, rationality, and procedure; rhetoric that convinces us the safety of white people depends on the surveillance and punishment of black people. We didn’t know these things were making us feel superior to others. It was just the way the world was. Meanwhile, outside our town that many black people still feared, perhaps we couldn’t know, as children, that black people were suffering from the legacies of concerted efforts to make and keep them unemployed, uneducated, poor, and imprisoned.

The grown-ups couldn’t bear to believe, let alone tell us, that the sickness was all of ours. Now we are the grown-ups, and we are deeply ill-equipped to deal with our sickness and theirs, the sickness that infects everything; but we have to try.

A thing about sickness is that it is never, ever, fair. It’s one of the main reasons we resist the diagnosis of racism. No one deserves something like that, twisting up their insides and skewing their well-intentioned lives off course.

I’m glad I had an education outside of my school. All my life I’ve been wrestling with the idea of original sin and the words of preachers who said I couldn’t be saved until I accepted my own depravity. It never struck me as a nice way to look at the world. I prefer the thought that Jesus, by “saving” me, just wants to make me even better than I already am. He isn’t here to mess up my life or my society too much. He likes me just fine and he wouldn’t make me feel bad about myself. That’s the line they took at school, after all: developing character is about improving yourself and being nice, not, like, examining things too deeply. Sin is “out there” and your job is just to not be a part of it.

Sin, too, in school, is something you either did or didn’t do, are or are not responsible for. This left us totally unequipped to talk about what it means to share responsibility for something you didn’t do. We don’t know how to talk about the ways we are all connected to one another by the ways we organize ourselves—the systems we live under—as well as the actions we directly take towards each other. We would rather believe that evils we didn’t personally create are someone else’s problem. We won’t face the fact that the someone else is the person who’s dying as a result.

I am grateful now to believe in confession, repentance, salvation, and the hard work of healing. Here it is, y’all, here is the good news about racism: we were all born to be better. We were made to receive the love of God and to be with other people. There is no limit to the goodness you and I are meant to behold and to reflect, no end to the joy and love we can spread. And at the very same time we are born into a world that makes this impossible for us. One moment it threatens us and turns us ferocious out of self-preservation; the next it flatters us and makes us bloated with greed. Now we know we are victims of unfairness but we also know, in our moments alone, that we have become perpetrators. We remember moments of pure cruelty, cowardice, selfishness, and deceit. We think of them, and we hide.

But God comes for us. God always comes for us. She sees and she weeps for the destruction we have wrought, but she also sees through the mud we’ve crawled in and the pathetic armor we’ve built to who we really are: she knows our little lights, dimmed, flickering beneath so many layers of sin and despair. And this God is not some princess, gingerly pinching her prize by the nape of the neck to lift it out of the mud. This God still loves the whole swamp and once she is invited, she wades, swims, without hesitation straight through the sticky mud to embrace us: no lectures, no punishments. Only a whisper: this will hurt. But I am with you. I am always, always with you.

But you have to call out from where you are. You have to know that you are drowning in the swamp. You have to let it be true that you will always be both sinner and saint—always rooting out that illness.

Our light could flare out, pierce through the dim, and our patch of the swamp could become a garden. We could live with joy and without fear and without condemnation. But there is no healing without pain, no growth without humility.

We can go on drowning in inequality, violence, and an utter failure to exercise compassion or understanding for one another. Or we can cry out for rescue.

I think it will look like one small, brave, wavering voice at a time.
I am a racist, and I want to be healed.

 

Reality on November 9

The election is coming and everyone is in retreat mode. We are hunkering down with our families and our favorite foods, our senses of dread and our hopes that the end of the election, whatever it is, will bring some relief: from the drone of news coverage dissecting scandals, the clamor of opinions on Facebook. Maybe then we can settle into the holidays. Go back to some kind of normal—even if the wrong candidate is elected.

We are completely burned out on hyped-up emotion and whiplash twists. We’re absolutely through with being lied to, condescended to, berated, flaunted and flattered. Everything about the process and the people reminds us that the world where these decisions are made is far removed from the worlds where their impacts are felt. We still hope to come out on the winning side, but mostly we just hope to come out with our hearts intact. The fun of participation is replaced by guilt and mild hysteria.

I think this must be how reality TV contestants feel as the end of shooting nears.

Do people on those shows ever lay in bed and wonder how they got there? Treating some manufactured situation like it is life or death, being manipulated by powerful people for the sake of entertainment.

It is no new idea that reality TV has nothing at all to do with reality; nor that the U.S. presidential election has taken on the character of a reality show. But this election’s utter lack of coherence should move those ideas from the realm of “interesting thought” to “theme for meditation.” We have some hard questions to ask ourselves about how and why we have spent an entire year participating in this parody of representative democracy.

So many are looking for some sort of hope and comfort amid the vitriol, but writers and leaders I know are at a loss. We have not found some new perspective that can flip the situation and make things seem less bleak. We are watching our country take sides in a battle between a blustering, authoritarian billionaire and a calculating political dynasty; we have seen what passes for democratic debate drive people farther apart, not closer to understanding one another. Issues of policy and discussions of philosophy of government have been completely buried under personal attacks, hysterical accusations, buzzwords and resentment.

We need to admit that this is a time for mourning.

Of course it would be a relief to go on from here and pretend that 2016 never happened; the week after the results come in is absolutely going to be one long exhale of pure gratitude that it is over. Throw a party; burn some election signs; go back to posting pictures of your food on social media. But please don’t just check out after that.

Don’t accept that an election has to tear a nation down instead of building it up. Don’t blame others for your despair. Don’t believe that we are powerless to make something good of our country. Despite the profits others stand to gain from your believing otherwise, there are choices between pinning all your hopes to the head of state and retreating to blissful ignorance by your own fireside.

It may be that little to come out of this election will seem to be worth the price. But we have another choice ahead: whether to treat this moment as a nightmare we can forget about, or to make this the moment we start to ask our own questions and take our own actions. We can look around at the shambles of this process and realize that the things we think it stands for—democracy, citizenship, dialogue—can only be rescued if we rethink them from the inside out.

We will not heal our country by electing the right politicians, reading the right thinkpieces, or convincing others of the right opinions. We will not be free of corruption and bribery, mud-slinging, lies, or demagoguery in our elections by continuing to focus all our energies on a single member of the federal government every four years. We will not escape from anxiety as long as we continue to hand over our attention and our emotions to everyone on the internet without discretion.

If we are going to rebuild our democracy, we each have a brick to lay. We can get involved (or at least informed) in local politics so that Washington and the president don’t loom so large that we can only speak about them in hyperbole. We can make an effort to spend time with someone who is different from us and imagine how their values make a positive contribution to the world. We can pay attention to all the ways we exercise power as citizens: by volunteering, in the ways we spend and give money, even by choosing where to turn our attention instead of letting Facebook and TV lure us into places of fear, anger, or division.

Still, none of these things will happen, nor will they make much of a difference, unless we face our pain and frustration. The change I’m talking about is a 180 degree turnaround: in Christian language, repentance, and it is really never a pretty sight. There is hope in it, but first there is pain. There is love, but first there is conviction. You have to stop chasing hatred and blame and admit that you are frightened, you are small, you have been hurt in the past, and admit that your pride has turned you ugly: “in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

Only then can you see reality as it truly is.

why we need adult recess

I am at a picnic table in my neighborhood park under the canopy of live oaks, taking in the  weather and failing to write. Suddenly, my fanciful outdoor office is invaded: teachers from the elementary school down the street have brought a swarm of children for recess. Soon I am surrounded. Some kids are buzzing about on the playground in front of me; ten or so have PE class on the basketball court behind me.

The class of six-year-olds behind me is consumed for at least five minutes in the intricacies of lining up behind Zoe, counting off by ones and twos, putting on their listening ears, not touching the cones and jump ropes, and watching their teacher demonstrate their activity. She is kind to them, but the main duty of her job seems to consist in admonishing them, most especially when they have failed to stay in “their group.” Finally they are released to crawl through a tunnel she’s brought, jump through a hopscotch, bounce a ball around some cones. In their groups. Basically, they are completing a much more colorful version of the circuit-based interval training I put myself through this morning. The patient teacher compliments them once: when the exercise is over, and they have put their various implements neatly away. The kids are quiet. They are none so happy as when they form a tiny shuffling conga line and give an impressive performance as a choo-choo train chug-a-chugging back to the playground; then this, too, is cut short so that they can “walk quietly” the final ten yards to the gate.

I did not come to this park to conduct an impromptu evaluation of the education policies at the elementary school down the street, but the contrast between the exasperated teacher’s voice behind me and the wild, shrieking, busyness in front of me leads me to wonder how on earth the regimented routine is Physically Educating children in any way that simple play cannot. I cannot see a single child on the playground who isn’t running, climbing, jumping, or balancing. In the process they are starting disputes and resolving them, inventing games, working together, building things. It escapes me why they should be interrupted to have hopscotch enforced upon them.

I’m irresistibly reminded of the little paragraph of Wendell Berry’s that this morning astonished me by calling tears to my eyes.

Scared for health, afraid of death, bored, dissatisfied, vengeful, greedy, ignorant, and gullible—these are the qualities of the ideal consumer. Can we imagine a way of education that would turn passive consumers into active and informed critics, capable of using their own minds in their own self-defense? It will not be the purely technical education-for-employment now advocated by the most influential “educators” and “leaders.”

Let me be allowed to escape charges that I condemn PE wholesale when I say that the main goal the six-year-olds appeared to be pursuing was to not exasperate the teacher, and their main lesson how to stay in line, follow instructions, and accept that one is a “1” or a “2” and that 1s do not mingle with 2s during Activities. How to show up on time, follow the boss’s policies, and accept a yearly raise that keeps one’s salary on pace with inflation.

I will not here outline my solutions for overhauling the American public education system, which consist chiefly in paying teachers as their profession—part-scholar, part-tutor, part-entertainer, part-psychologist, part-politician, part-administrator, part-wizard—warrants, as well as starting children on Plato and Aristotle by the age of 10 so they can graduate with a basic but thorough grasp of Foucault and Derrida.

Instead, I mean only to point out that much of the work of our twenties and far beyond is in unlearning what we have been taught, especially the implicit lessons formed by years of practice (along with the fears and habits instilled in unforgettable moments of trauma). And that we can live our whole lives having forgotten that our purpose is to invent games, work together, and build things, not to satisfy the teacher by completing assigned tasks. It is convenient to others that we forget this, and these others, themselves, work hard at telling us that our assigned tasks are so exhausting that we can’t possibly do those other things. Incidentally, it is convenient for them, too, if we are afraid of the world and afraid of each other. They offer us infinite entertainment (such as the pageantry of presidential elections) and we dream of a life where we can outsource all of the essential functions of our life—cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, errands, praying, neighborliness—so we will be left with responsibility only for our assigned tasks and our entertainment.

We wonder why we are always bored, tired, and alone. We undertake therapy or volunteering or extremely serious religiosity or drinking in hopes that we will become less frustrated. Perhaps they work to some degree.

But I wonder if we do not all have some other responsibility to ourselves and to the bored, tired world than to Be Responsible, a responsibility to find some big or small way to inject more recess into our lives. Not Physical Education like my circuit-training class; recess—to produce fun out of nothing but ourselves. To join a kickball team, audition for community theater, tell a child a story, bake some cookies, grow an herb garden, or just bring a coloring book with us to our nightly Netflix binge.

The same people who tell us that voting for a third party is morally wrong will probably tell us that these things are frivolous and selfish and un-Productive and therefore, un-American. But I think we will not even begin to escape the fears and frustrations and hurts that have recently been thrown into such relief until we take the time to learn from six-year-olds: that we are not just cogs in a tremendous economic machine. Each of us is a source of power, of creativity, of purely beautiful and joyous things, and together we are able to create new worlds.

the fantastic, or, why we really have to stop buying stupid crap

Often, facing down all the misery in the world, the best I know how to do these days is to do a little less. More specifically—it all starts, for me, with being kind to my neighbors and buying a little less.

As a kid, “doing the right thing” seemed so easy. People are poor? OK, we’ll send them money. I didn’t know it was more complicated than that; that greed and graft and the complex interplay of history, politics, and culture prevent dollars from doing good. I certainly didn’t know that well-intentioned dollars could make a situation worse.

As a college student, I learned about the slavery and near-slavery required to produce a cheap cup of coffee or bar of chocolate for people hundreds of times wealthier than the workers.This seemed so extraordinarily unfair—that every Halloween, for example, we’d all been munching away at something made with literal slave labor—I fought an impulse to un-know it, to just not believe it, or to believe that this was how things had to be for some reason.

Now I know so much more, and I know so much more about what I don’t know. From fashion to furniture, strawberries to Spaghetti-O’s, all you can really count on about the average product at the average chain store, lacking any specific information, is that its production and sale were intended to maximize profit. Large amounts of profit can be obtained by respecting the Earth, laborers, and consumers. Maximal profit can’t.

The truth that I’m still absorbing is that once we start peering beyond the prim store shelves and seductive advertisements to find out where our things come from, we realize that we don’t get to just shift our consumption habits down the aisle, from the blue bag of coffee to the green one. If we want to change our relationship with the world, we have to…well, change our relationship with the world.

We need to think of buying things as an activity that connects us to the people who made and sold them, and to the Earth that supplied the materials.
We need to re-prioritize our budgets to reflect a willingness to pay more for quality items.
We need to look at our things as precious: to choose repair and re-use over replacement.
We need to buy from our neighbors more often than from corporations.
We need to examine our shopping addictions and put down the things we don’t need.

And at the same time, my mantra remains something like ever forward…one step at a time; or, more realistically, do whatever the hell you can manage today, sweetheart. I’m not under the illusion, after all, that my personal buying decisions make a speck of difference to the machinations of the consumer-society machine. That’s what tends to bring me to tears, really: a sense of futility. Maybe buying a pound of direct-trade coffee puts an extra 50 cents in the pocket of a Central American family, and maybe my refusal to buy new clothes makes some kind of statement, but these things feel so small in the face of lobbying groups and bribes and corporations functioning like cartels and, good heavens, the poverty of people in the U.S. and elsewhere that prevents them from even considering these more expensive items.

So every once in a while, I let all of that wash over me and I just sit with it. And then I cry in the grocery store. And then, eventually, I peel myself off the floor so someone else can stare in bewilderment at the coffee, and I make the best choice I know how to make, and sometimes I even go home and remember to find a local coffee roaster who’s actually transparent about the source of their beans.

It is, like most difficult things, a balance between self-gentleness and trying super hard.

Your personal buying decisions do, after all, make a difference to you. The challenge of making principled choices can create a person of integrity and a prayerful shopper. Saying no to an unnecessary Target run gives you the chance to ask yourself whether peace or happiness was ever in the Target to begin with. Trying to consume fewer new goods or less meat inspires creativity, resourcefulness, groundedness, thankfulness. And your purchases can become connections to others in your community, fueling efforts to do things differently. To create a better web.

And in the end, it’s not just about trying to attain fewer crappy plastic Halloween decorations or fewer miserable cows. This is—I really believe—this is among the many moments in life where we are being called to choose faith in what we do not see. A rational person is supposed to believe that the system can never change; that even if somehow laws about this got past lobbyists, maximal profit would find a way to win; or we even believe the lie that the world economy would simply fall apart if things changed too drastically. And somehow we fall for these lines. After a hundred stories of impossible situations, hopeless underdogs, and false dilemmas between two evils, we still, deep down, won’t let those stories be true for ourselves; we won’t act on our convictions; we won’t believe that love can shatter those false dilemmas. love does the fantastic.

By buying less of what we don’t need, we can be people who offer more integrity, more creativity, more thankfulness, more relationships.
That is what will change the world.

a blank space, baby

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One day Nate and I decided to move from Plymouth, Massachusetts to Charleston, South Carolina, and three weeks later we did it. I think I was about as ready as anyone can be for something like that. I think I was about 80% ready.

And usually with these huge changes, I’ve been a lot less ready—but someone else has been ready for me. Americorps, grad school, they had routines and duties and people lined up for me to throw myself into. I knew people who’d moved to new cities completely alone after college, but I couldn’t relate to them. I envied them their spending money and their professional-wardrobe jobs; only now can I even approach any understanding of the crushing loneliness they must have felt, dropping their keys every night in whatever tiny apartment they had found. Of what it’s like to feel a riptide pulling you away from your perfectly fine life, to follow it with some excitement, and then to ask the ocean several times when you’ll be there until you realize that this, treading water in this wide nothing, is it.

In our case, we went from spending, collectively, four hours a day commuting, to forty minutes a day. We went from having four or five groups of people we could make weekend plans with, to zero. From a little downtown church we liked to the land of a thousand (seemingly identical) churches. From a cozy little house that seemed made of windows to an apartment whose blank white walls seem to expand, retreating us farther into the dim building, overnight. I went from a bustling startup office space 40 hours a week to working from home 30 hours a week.

It’s been an eerily quiet few weeks.

I bought Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect on a bit of a whim, and when I started reading it, one little chunk at a time, trying to drag it out and absorb everything, I was immediately disappointed. The writing was so lovely and funny and honest, the story so familiar and yet different from mine, but the whole entire damn thing is all about living a slower, more grounded life. About eliminating commitments and half-real relationships and tasks of imaginary importance.

To say that I resented being told I should do what I was being forced to do would be an understatement. My eyes would travel from the book to my blank planner to Nate, my only human connection within a four-hour drive, and somehow, knowing that millions of people would revel in this state of affairs only made me deeply, inexplicably bitter toward those people. But Shauna kept drawing me in. And I started cooking.

It’s our shared love of elaborate meals that will keep me reading every book Niequist writes until the end of time. If at every other hour of the day I hated feeling alone, unuseful, and boring, I was able to lose myself in cooking. I gloried in our new dishwasher. Our CSA shares started coming, baskets brimming with local food, and this, at least, made me feel that the ground of South Carolina was mine, too. I made bread. Nate made me breakfast sandwiches out of it.

And some combination of that near-daily ritual with Shauna’s gentle words—full of wonder at how lovely the quiet life can be—soon made me half-grudgingly, half-elatedly realize that this little window is a gift. Who in the world gets to make food for their family every day? How many people are ever offered such a blank slate after they’ve grown up a little, figured out what they really want? How often does anyone get such extravagant margins with which to decide how they will live? How many books would my favorite mama-writers have written in the amount of time I’ve already wasted?

These questions, though, they often take on the tone of your life. When I was still thinking of this time as an exile, they felt accusatory. Of course I knew I should be grateful. Of course I was inadequate to the task of making the most of the situation.

Until, as is usually the case with me, I started pretending to be the good person I wasn’t.

I just got tired of railing against the situation, and stopped. And then there was even more of the dreaded, horrible quiet.

And then there was a whisper: stop seeking. just wait.

And in that blank space, like floating in water, the beginnings of a life began to emerge, one little thing at a time. Not the things that are, like, recognizable as a life—a full schedule and a full travel mug of coffee and a car and people who breathlessly tell you how much they appreciate you as you pass each other rushing in different directions. Just, the realization that I am not only able but, in fact, driven to collect as many houseplants as possible. Just a little writing opportunity I wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for my new days off. A cascade of writing ideas where before there had been only overwhelm. A few  prayers besides the same frustrations, fears, and questions I’d been hurling at the sky the past many months. And a lot of fresh-vegetable meals.

This may not be anyone else’s definition of success, but this is my life. This is the life I get to say yes to, one little thing at a time.

Breakfast Sandwich Bread

  • Servings: 12 (2 loaves)
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If you're sitting around the house, you might as well be baking bread. The loaves pictured are a little dense because I let them rise just a bit too long, which causes the dough to weaken and lose its shape.



Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 cups (10 oz) warm (not hot) water
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 cup (8 oz) milk – whole, 2%, or skim
  • 1/4 cup (3 oz) honey (or sugar)2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 2 3/4 cups (13 3/4 oz) all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
  • 2 3/4 cups (13 3/4 oz) whole wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon salt

Directions

Mix the water and honey in a bowl and sprinkle the yeast over top. Let this stand for a few minutes until the yeast has dissolved and begun to foam a little. Stir in the milk and oil.

Add two cups of all-purpose flour and the salt, and stir to combine the ingredients. Add the rest of the all-purpose and whole wheat flours. Stir to form a shaggy dough. Let this stand for 20 minutes to give the flour time to absorb the liquid.

Knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes against a floured counter. If the dough is bubble-gum sticky against the counter, add extra flour a little at a time until it is no longer sticky (I usually do this several times throughout my kneading). The dough is kneaded when it is smooth, feels slightly tacky, forms a ball without sagging, and springs back when poked.

Rinse out the mixing bowl and film it with a little oil. Form the dough into a ball and turn it in the bowl to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm spot until nearly doubled in bulk, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. This dough won’t double quite as dramatically as other recipes, but the dough should look visibly puffed.

Sprinkle a little flour on the counter and turn the dough out on top. Divide the dough in two and shape each half into a loose ball by rolling it lightly against the counter. Sprinkle out a little more flour on the counter and let the balls rest for 10 minutes.

Grease two 8×4-inch (or 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch) loaf pans or film them with non-stick cooking spray. Shape each ball into a loaf: pull and pat it into a rectangle the size of a large book. Fold your rectangle in thirds like a letter and pinch all the seams together (including the short ends) so they seal. Repeat this step by karate-chopping and folding your cylinder in half again (hot-dog style), then seal. If your dough is perfect, this will result in a nice taut surface on your loaves, which will help them rise and prevent an overly-dense interior. If your dough isn’t perfect, your bread will likely still be delicious. Place your loaves in their snug little pans and let them rise a second time until they start to dome over the edge of the pan, 30-40 minutes.

Heat the oven to 425°F about halfway through the second rise.

Slash the tops of the loaves with a serrated knife and put them in the oven. Immediately turn down the heat to 375°F and bake for 30-35 minutes (start with 30 and then check on them). Finished loaves will be dark golden-brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove the loaves from the pans and let them cool completely before slicing.

Loaves will keep at room temperature for several days. Loaves can also be wrapped in foil and plastic, and frozen for up to three months.

Dear Conservative Relatives: I Think We Feel the Exact Same Way

Dear Conservative Relatives:

I know we don’t talk about it much, but I hope you know I do think about your reactions when I post my “liberal” thoughts and ideas and memes. I can feel your disapproval and anxiety shimmering through the air at me. Even if you don’t mean for me to feel it—of course I do. I grew up watching you talk about people like me. I worry about you worrying about me.

I think, for instance, about whether your hearts sunk, reading my note this week to my LGBTQ friends that thanked them for being themselves.
“There are two genders,” I can imagine you saying. I imagine you play out scenarios in your minds—whether I’ve turned my back on God altogether, or just the Bible. Whether I have a grip on reality anymore. Whether too much pot-smoking with my weirdo Northern liberal friends has turned me into an impressionistic ivory-tower childishly naive egghead.
(No. I’ve never smoked pot.)

“Didn’t we teach her better than that?” I imagine you asking each other.
“Doesn’t she know what we believe?”
“Who told her these outrageous things?”
Maybe you pray for me.
Maybe you’ve blocked me.
Maybe you’ve given me up for lost.

Here’s the thing though: I feel that same utter lack of comprehension sometimes when I hear your political views; and never so much as this week when I’ve seen you defending Donald Trump.

I thought you were the people who taught me the word character. That even our most secret behavior matters because it forms who we are; because who we are when no one’s watching is who we will be when people are depending on us. And now you try to separate the office of the President from the person of the man who holds it.

I remember your outrage and vitriol demanding that Bill Clinton be convicted for his lying and womanizing ways. But the man you now support has done nothing but lie since he first stepped onto a political stage. And most recently he has demonstrated that the first thing he would likely do as President is find an intern who would give him a blowjob in the Oval Office. That is the ultimate power move, isn’t it? And Trump is all about power.

Sometimes I worry about using language you might think was vulgar in my writing. But when you let “locker room talk” like grab her by the pussy slide past your ears, I realize that propriety isn’t the most important thing to you.

You’ve told me before that the most important things to you are truth, family, and the love of God. Which of these things does Trump stand for?

You encouraged me to get an education, and my education has taught me a lot of truths. It has forced me, for instance, to understand that when the world is changing as fast as it is now, things are sometimes too complicated to operate under the principles of common sense. That’s why I can’t just base my vote on a “pro-life” position. To prevent abortion, we have to care for the lives of mothers and children, not just fetuses.

You taught me to prioritize family in life and in politics. And the more people I’ve met, the more I see we have to gain from honoring families that don’t look like ours. I don’t think the people who have praised and fought for these families are deluded at all. They are growing genuine, self-giving love between couples and making miraculous homes for children who need them. Their “agenda” is to be safe, to be respected, to be in most ways unremarkable. And in the process of achieving it, they are demonstrating creative and powerful and grace-filled love.

You taught me that the love of God conquers all. You taught me that compassion was the trait one should be proudest of in this life. You happily took the precious quarters I gave you as a child for the other children who needed help overseas. But today you call “naive” and “dangerous” those who want our country to provide safe haven for refugees.
People who have lost their families, their livelihoods, their homes, their towns, their churches, their neighbors and friends are asking the world for nothing more than not to spend the rest of their lives in tents. But you support a candidate who would prefer that our country cower behind its wide ocean, incredible military, and extreme prosperity rather than trust in God’s command to extend welcome to the stranger.

Don’t you know what we believe?
Who told you these outrageous things?

I wish that we could keep politics impersonal, but I can’t help taking it personally. The thing is, I defended our ideals for so long. I do understand that my stance on the issues above is not the only platform based on the values of truth, family, and compassion. I’ve spent days of my life, long after I no longer thought of myself as particularly Conservative, demanding respect for people who don’t fall into step with the liberal elite. We all have a lot of the same goals, I said, but different ideas about how to get there. People aren’t required to pursue change for its own sake. It’s lazy, lazy thinking to pretend that your political enemy is an amoral troglodyte; so I don’t sit and listen to redneck jokes, trailer park jokes, or Religious Right jokes. I’ve fought much more for your positions than for mine among my weirdo Northern liberal friends. Because I know you. Because I love you.

I’ve been on both sides, and I know that people on both sides can arrive at hard-fought, careful and prayerful, opposing positions. I know that casting all Conservatives as fear-driven, susceptible to hate-mongering, and respectful of nothing but money is unproductive and downright false. I tell people I know plenty of Conservatives who instead live principled and courageous lives, care deeply about protecting minorities, and practice extreme financial generosity.

But I can’t bring myself to believe that those people are voting for Trump.

3 things about my CSA share

img_20160930_172812158.jpgI have been on the path to utter hippie-dom since my first semester of seminary. That was when I quite accidentally took a class that asked me to really face the realities of climate change, and the interconnected ways that the patterns of life defined as “prosperous” in the developed world very often actually impoverish everyone.

Those patterns are very, very slow to change, though, and I’ve had to learn to be gentle with myself as I try to adopt better habits. And now it’s been a few years, and I find myself sometimes tempted to feel that my little actions don’t really matter. But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Barbara Kingsolver’s devastatingly lucid, well-researched, and beautiful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I expected to enjoy but didn’t expect would be a galvanizing force in my life. Reading the book, though, it was clear to me: it’s time to stop making excuses about food. I don’t mean to say that I am switching to the very most perfectly ethical diet—far, far from it. (Who really knows what that would be, anyway??) But I did want the move to Charleston to be a time to purposefully create new habits and expectations as a move toward being part of a food system that is healthier for everyone. We moved just in time to get in on a fall CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) share: we’ve paid up front for 10-12 weeks’ worth of organic produce from a local farm. We help take on some of the risk inherent in farming by paying ahead of time, and give up the chance to cherry-pick our favorite items; but the price, in the end, should be significantly lower than the cost of buying at the farmers’ market every week.

We picked up our first bag on Thursday, and here are my first impressions.

  1. This is a lot of food.
    One of many reasons I’m enthusiastic about the CSA is that, after a summer of celebrations and traveling, we are on a not-diet diet. We all basically know how to eat healthy, right? Lots of vegetables, whole grains, beans, eggs, and lean meats, easy on the sugar. For me, all of this often falls into place if I can accomplish two things: acquire lots of vegetables, and make time to cook them. Step 1 is now complete and I didn’t even have to go get them.
    img_20160930_172902887.jpg
  2. We’re gonna be eating a lot of greens this week.
    This week’s bag included Red Russian kale, mustard greens, and turnips. With turnip greens. This is completely fine with me; I love greens by themselves—cooked, or comprising a salad that is actually filling—and you can throw them into all kinds of things if you need to use them up (eggs, soups, pizza, stir-fries…). But the sheer volume of greens does drive home the fact that eating seasonally means giving up a lot of the choice we’re used to having at the globally-sourced produce section of the grocery store. It’s not a terrible thing, but it’s a fact.
    We are so used to this state of affairs, where we can wander into the store and grab a few tomatoes, some root vegetables, a head of lettuce, some chicken breasts, and a seasonal decor item. In one sense, we have a great amount of choice in what we eat and when, what we buy and how much. Election-time talk of trade deals and consumer prices has this as its underlying goal: making prices as low as possible gives us even more freedom to do and have what we want. Yet, in another sense, we are losing choices with extreme rapidity. We have been conditioned to think that a tomato is a tomato, a bunch of kale, a bunch of kale—but the small farmers of our country could easily list you 30 kinds of each, out of the hundreds or thousands that exist. Kingsolver’s notes on raising heirloom turkeys were especially eye-opening in this regard.
    When I first decided that sustainability needed to be a priority in my life, I thought that it would be a major sacrifice. The changes I have made so far have, indeed, been a major adjustment—but they have nearly all made my life more beautiful. And I think there are ways we can balance the opportunities afforded by our newfound choices with some restraint, choosing contentment over entitlement.
    img_20160930_172917861.jpg
  3. This food is beautiful.
    It’s not terribly hard to be content with this bounty. I could wish for lettuce and tomatoes right now, but looking at what’s in front of me, that would be the height of ingratitude for the opportunity to become a connoiseur of greens, for the heirloom okra and sunflower sprouts I simply can’t get at the store, for the incredible beauty of each egg. I know that each of these items was planted, cared for, and harvested by four people who are invested in preserving the land in and around my home. What a privilege to be sustained by the labor of their hands and to know that their work enriches, rather than impoverishing, the soil.

calling, these days

This is something I’ve been pretty embarrassed to admit: for the last year, I’ve been dealing with low-level but fairly continuous anxiety. Too many days to count, I’ve worried, I’ve twitched, I’ve been hyperactive but exhausted, I’ve snapped at people close to me, I’ve lain awake at night. I wouldn’t say these are the life-ruining symptoms of a disorder, but the real and uncontrollable responses of my body and brain to the stress of applying for Ph.Ds, getting married, and moving across the country. I try to pray, but so often I’m just worrying at the sky.

For the last year, everything in me has been pulling toward the South, but I never imagined myself in Charleston. I didn’t think we’d be entirely friendless or nearly seasonless or clueless in a hypercompetitive real estate market. And so the worrying that I thought might stop post-move keeps dogging me, mocking me even. Eight days into our Charleston life, I feel this desperation to get everything perfectly in order. I spend hours researching how we can be happy here. I am short with my husband. Mental lists of things to do scroll on a loop in my head. I begin to think that I am losing it. I begin to think that I am a tiresome and gutless person, unable to handle life transitions and unacceptably poor in faith.

Sometimes it is a relief when the lies finally start screaming; you’re able to shine a light on them and in the process, you illuminate the half-truths you’d been accepting all along.

Here is a whole truth: even when I don’t believe much else, I believe that we were called here—to the South, and to the careers we’re making. There was a time when I thought being called was its own kind of contract, that it meant things had to go well for you in some sense or another. I don’t believe that anymore. I know now that God’s love takes on more and deeper forms than just handing us our preferred circumstances or emotional states or even “lessons” we can file neatly in drawers. Transformation is more than that and life would be a little boring if it were entirely comprehensible. “Calling” isn’t a comforting word to me anymore, but I do still think it exists. I believe that if I sit, friendless and clueless, on the seasonless porch of this characterless apartment every day forever, it’s because this is where I’m meant to learn to praise the Lord.

Because when I set down the computer and the classifieds for just a minute, when I get my controlling self to simmer down, I can feel the other parts of me unknotting already, leaning with a sigh into this less-familiar bit of the place I love. My body stretches into the steamy nights and my voice springs back into an easy smile when strangers smile and chat. It is still vegetable season and my family can visit on the weekends and yes, there are all the South’s problems, too, problems that feel like mine. And a voice calls again: breathe. 

I crack an egg into a batch of zucchini bread.
I settle into the good company of my husband.
I let the list of fears hang where I said them this morning.
To breathe is prayer enough.

26 things I’ve learned about food

photo-1444952483853-7c36e902e722

Y’all, I am 26 now. This sounds like the age of a person who has a career and knows how to accessorize. But I am not that person. I am mostly just a person who loves, loves food.

Some might say that the main achievement of civilization has been to allow most of us to focus the majority of our daily efforts on things other than feeding ourselves. But I would still contend that it is in our nature to treat food as life—to schedule our days around it and to treat feeding each other as an act at once vitally basic and transcendently holy.

Looking at it that way, I’m willing to say that the things I’ve learned about food in 26 years are things I’ve learned about life. Here they are, in roughly the order I learned them.

  1. You have to try it at least once.

    This was such an ironclad rule for me growing up that I am truly astonished to encounter picky adults. Why would you deprive yourself of the wonders of the food world that way? It won’t kill you. Have a chaser ready and try a bite.

  2. Pack a lunch.

    Once you’re in the habit, it’s the easiest way to save thousands of dollars and calories every year.

  3. Anyone who can read a recipe can cook.

    Pretty much all of the foods and a lot of the baked goods you want to eat regularly require no special skills. Here is most recipes: Chop. Skillet. Medium-high.

  4. Grow an herb garden.

    OK so I, personally, have successfully kept exactly one basil plant alive in my life, but my mom’s garden taught me there is no comparison between fresh herbs and dried, especially when the fresh herbs are free.

  5. Cake of all kinds is a breakfast food for the week following any birthday or major or minor holiday, and also on Sundays, or when there cake in the house.
  6. A sharp knife will transform your attitude toward cooking.

    If you don’t like cooking, it could be because all your life you’ve been machete-ing vegetables and fighting with your meat as if it were still alive, instead of slicing them with perfect economy of motion in a blissful dance of color, shape, and flavor. When your pen is out of ink, you don’t keep trying to write; you get more ink. When your knife is dull, you should sharpen it. The deli people at nicer grocery stores will often do this for you for free.

  7. Say grace.

    Just because it’s a ritual doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. Even if you’re not religious, mealtime is a time to cultivate gratitude.

  8. Practice saying “it’s too sweet.”

    Sugar is one of the main ingredients in many “savory” convenience and fast foods (check out the labels on pasta sauce, teriyaki stuff, Wheat Thins, lunchmeat…). The people who make this stuff have us hooked on sugar, but if you get used to eating homemade, you’ll be surprised how much of it doesn’t taste right.

  9. Double the recipe.

    Leftovers are the best lunches.

  10. Less meat isn’t as depressing as it sounds.

    Whether you’re trying to save the earth or you’re just poor, you could probably cut down more drastically on meat, without making huge sacrifices, than you think. Just a couple strips of bacon can add a lot of flavor and heft to even the biggest pot of vegetarian chili.

  11. Double the garlic.
  12. Plan your meals.

    Everything worth doing takes a little planning. Take 20 minutes to find some recipes and make a list before you head to the store.

  13. Food connects us to everything.

    Everybody eats, and everybody eats things that come from the earth. The way we consume and share these resources affects everyone and everything around us.

  14. Don’t throw away food.

    Plan to use up what you have.

  15. Good food is satisfying.

    You know what’s not a good food? Those cheezballs in the giant tub that leave a film in your mouth but somehow you want to eat them all even though they are nothing but air, corn dust, and orange. Put down the cheezballs and pick up a food made from food.

  16. On that note, don’t buy cheap chocolate or cheap cheese.

    You’ll end up using less of the full-flavored, higher-priced ones, so the costs even out.

  17. Don’t diet.

    It’s one thing to cut out sugar  for a few weeks because you find yourself eating the stale plain Munchkins in the office break room after everyone has picked out all the other flavors, and you realize you’re on the sugar addiction train.
    It’s another thing to subject yourself to the rules of any diet for a long time. Those rules create shame and fear and even when you succeed you come out with this weird self-righteous mindset about what a good skinny rule-follower you are.
    Start with this rule: get at least 6 fruits and vegetables every day. Then make a list of healthy proteins and starches to balance out your meals, and you’re well on your way to a habit of eating healthfully.

  18. Pay attention to your eating.

    I eat stupid snacks like Funyuns when I’m bored and lonely. Whenever I want Funyuns, I congratulate myself on another victorious day of NOT eating Funyuns and put a little effort into becoming less bored and lonely.

  19. F*** the patriarchy.

    People sometimes seem to expect women, especially small women, to eat like we are actual fairies, sipping tea out of thimbles and nibbling micro greens while smiling fondly at our men as they devour seconds. That is so incredibly not my style. Only since I’ve gotten a wee bit angry about that have I recognized that my love of food actually helps me eat better. And that it’s one of my favorite things about myself. And that the quest for the perfect buffalo wing is a noble one indeed.

  20. Pay someone else to deep fry things.

    Not worth it at home.

  21. oatmeal + peanut butter + 1 sliced banana + 8 chocolate chips.

    You’re welcome.

  22. If you cut up bird’s-eye chilis for your super-spicy Thai curry, throw all the refuse in the trash and don’t spray it off the cutting board with extremely hot water.

    That’s called pepper spray.

  23. Feed people.

    Even if it’s frozen pizza. Even if they have to sit on the floor. They don’t care; they’ll be grateful. Don’t miss out on the love and life found in sharing a meal just because hosting seems intimidating.

  24. Instant oatmeal is a scam!!!!1!!

    Regular rolled oats microwave in 90 seconds if you use just enough water to cover them.

  25. Be kind to yourself.

    Lots of people make resolutions to cook more often or eat better, but get caught up in a lot of weird food shame when they fail one week. Congratulate yourself for trying. But don’t set yourself up for failure: recognize that these things require you to make time for them.

  26. Fulfilling the Ultimate Quadrilateral of an Excellent Food—cheap, easy, healthy, and delicious:

    Hummus.
    Curried lentil stew.
    Tabbouleh.
    Granola.
    Breakfast burritos.

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