a place to stay

One way to become a minimalist is to have 15 addresses in 8 years.

Our house has gone from a total shambles to starting to clear itself up—all the traces of Nate and me soon to disappear. I am catching a breath on this last day in our first house together, a cottage in a pine forest that’s terribly far from anything useful and is the very definition of a little newlywed nest. We will miss it.

There was a time, maybe for the last year and a half, when leaving any place made me feel physically ill. Going on a weekend trip, coming back from the trip; it wasn’t that I ever hated my destination, just that I was dizzy from the revolving door my life has been since moving North. Between changing dwellings, visiting Nate, flying home twice a year, and attending weddings and holidays, I measured my life in time until the next departure. I was an expert at Greyhound travel and duffel-bag-packing.

I bought some of those big plastic storage tubs and lived out of them when I wasn’t living out of the duffel. A bunch of my stuff has just resided in there for years now; I know where it is and if I need it, I use it, then carefully repack it for the next move. I used the tubs as furniture. They have handles. They have kept my clothes and stuff safe in rain, in suspicious basements, on airplanes, with no tape and no box cutters. I love the tubs. For a while they were the most constant and dependable things in my life.

I don’t know if the place we’re going will be a place we never leave, but I know that South is the right direction. A year ago now, I took a month off to recalibrate my life, and it felt like everything that had ever been true was saying to me that moving North had been a good thing, and that now it is time to come home.

And so this leaving doesn’t feel like illness, but like healing. There are people who love New England, who think that even the bad things about it are, in the end, still the way things should be. I was never going to be one of those people; this leaving was always inevitable.

I’m grateful for our nest. I’m grateful for a husband who believes me when I say I don’t know what my career will be, but this move carries the urgency of a calling. I’m grateful to be moving towards establishing a place to put down roots and pick up responsibilities, a place that becomes part of us and we, of it. Something more than a place to stay.

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me and what matters

There is no good balance between trying not to “center yourself” in issues that are not about you, and acknowledging that everyone has to deal with racism and cultural conflict on an intensely personal level. This is part of my story.

I grew up reading books on leadership, beginning at the age of nine to take on every “office” I could, believing my role in life was to make things happen and to change the world. My college experience deepened this view of myself as I took on more and more stuff: a classic big fish in a small pond.

When I left Tennessee for a volunteer position in upstate New York, I thought it was the next step in changing the world, the next place to go be really good at things. And while I certainly wasn’t bad at things, I constantly worried that I wasn’t really earning my keep. I never fixed the East Side of Syracuse or started some kind of revival at SU, and it seemed at the time like I had done nothing. Every week someone at church would tell me how they were energized and challenged by my presence there, and every week I would go home and ask God why he wasn’t “using” me.

I decided to go to seminary partly because it was time to have A Career. I would become a beloved, influential writer and teacher; people would look to me for leadership and advice. Then I actually started the work of grad school, and nearly every day
felt newly confusing, often discouraging. When I failed to get in to a Ph.D. program, I had to finally wonder whether any of this had been worth it.

I can list for you fifty ways that I have grown in these years, but I still struggle to accept that the measure of success, and even of my worth as a person, is not only in quantifiable achievements or the world, changed. I am more likely to believe that I must have taken some wrong turn, or not tried hard enough, because it is the destiny of people like me to Do Great Things but I—I have only twiddled around earning a master’s degree.

It is no exaggeration to say that all of this time I have felt oppressed and often angry about the lack of clarity and purpose I have felt in my life. And much of this time, I have heard God saying to just be here, to let myself feel small and bewildered. It is enough to keep trying to pray, to try to love, to not know.

It is enough to be humble.

Still I fought for the need to achieve things. Today, in fact, I fight for it; I think I will find significance in becoming An Author, I pin my self-respect to my Hustle, and I write and write but nothing is ever good enough because it is not The Best.

It has only begun to dawn on me that true humility—contentment in doing my little part—is not only enough for a time. It is the foundation of Doing Great Things.

Excruciating honesty is one of the truest signs of humility and so I will tell you: I have been burdened by how to write about Black Lives Matter. Or so I have told myself. Deeper down, I have believed that I could Steward my Privilege and Make a Contribution by writing the perfect piece, the essay that would educate without condescending, take a stand without offending, succinctly communicate the nuances of the cultural img_20160716_102317368.jpgconflict at hand and also inspire both sides to come together under the universal hope we share for safer communities and a more loving world. This would be the essay that would cut through the noise.

I’ve tried to write this essay many, many times in my mind and a couple of times on paper. I’ve tried to balance everything I’ve learned about oppression, privilege, and being an ally with sympathy for those who don’t have a graduate education in the humanities: trying to explain each side of myself to the other. And each time, the essay ends up with some conclusion along these lines: I guess the best I, or anyone, can do is to keep listening, being honest, asking for forgiveness, speaking up with imperfect words, and praying we’ll all have the courage to set aside defensiveness and seek one another’s good.

Then I start over on the essay, because I so much want to come to a different conclusion. I don’t want these things to be all I can do. I want to Fix Racism and Classism, I want to go viral, I want to solve a problem or at least lead a nonprofit that makes me feel like I’m solving a problem. I am the target audience for all those quotes you see: What will you tell your grandchildren you did about racism??!! I don’t really want to tell them I stayed in tough conversations and wrote some letters to my police commissioner and cultivated peace in my own heart.

It occurs to me that this need to Tackle Problems and Accomplish Change seems like a self-evident, universal human, but only because it is such a white lady approach to the world. In other cultures, people can be sad without compiling action items. They can believe in change before statistical evidence for it exists. Groups can work together to do things without everyone demanding credit for the group’s accomplishment.

The world may someday need my overachieving habits and even my Extraordinary Writing Ability, but today is not that day. Today is the day I listen and learn and try to support the people who are fighting for their own lives. Today I add one medium-sized voice to the insistent chorus: Black Lives Matter. The best I can do is to follow so others can lead; to be patient so others have space to be angry; to ask my own family and friends to have courage, to understand. But I cannot ask them to set aside their defenses unless have taken my own ego out of the equation.

Maybe once I’ve done that, it won’t matter whether one side thinks I’m a dupe for joining the liberals or the other side polices my language. I’ll be able to learn and ask forgiveness even from those who seem unfairly accusatory. My self-worth won’t depend on whether I fix anything. And I won’t mind writing my little, non-viral pieces, because this is how I know to be faithful, this is how I know I become less fearful, because honesty, over and over, is where we will eventually recognize ourselves and one another as agents of a difficult, unthrilling, humble peace.

picture-perfect

In a Pinterest wedding, it is always sunny or sunset. Pinterest weddings exist in a land of perfect weather, of greenery without precipitation.

Pinterest wedding preparation consists entirely of papercrafting, cake tastings, and bridal salons, all of which are accompanied by champagne. Engagement is, in fact, just a year of champagne. Being engaged, apparently, empowers you to do things and make decisions while buzzed, just as awesomely as you thought you could do things while buzzed when you were a single, mortal person.

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On Pinterest, your wedding day is the day of your life you don’t wear a scarf

On Pinterest, life stops when you become A Bride. You not only have time to go the aforementioned cake tastings but also to shop for your cake tasting dress, and the other 20 Outfits Every Bride Needs. On Pinterest, moreover, you do not have any emails, spreadsheets, or weird relatives’ preferences to deal with when choosing said cake. Cake is fun. Cake is pretty. Cake for 200 is easily managed.

Pinterest weddings generally treat grooms the way society treats women every other day of their lives: they are considered vaguely necessary if not terribly interesting, assigned to look adoringly at the bride unceasingly throughout the day. Under no circumstances are grooms included in Pinterest’s decision-making process without careful prior consideration on the part of the women in charge.

Pinterest wedding guests examine the event’s components minutely. They are wedding conoisseurs, and not in the sense that they love drinking and dancing; their attention is primarily occupied by comparing the centerpieces, wedding logos, signature cocktails, and useless doo-dad favors of every wedding they attend. “Your guests will appreciate these details,” Pinterest proclaims in all seriousness.

Pinterest weddings consist mostly of glitter, carefully avoiding most any whiff of marriage. And Pinterest engagements consist entirely of white-smiled women laughing in a circle around a blonde bride somewhere floral.

You do not learn from Pinterest that life goes on and on while you are engaged, that while you try to wrestle your role of Bride into submitting to your wishes, your boss keeps giving you deadlines and your friends keep needing you and your relationship with The Groom keeps growing and changing. You don’t expect to develop, overnight, skills like overseeing a budget of several thousand dollars, working with contractors, project management, or people appeasement, but you do it; you accept this inauguration into the world of women’s work, unpaid and unrespected, the way you accept the workout plans and etiquette guides tailored to your Situation, which would be laughable if aimed at grooms.

You learn from Pinterest that your engaged life will be happy, and it will be, but the airy photos don’t show just how full and even crowded life becomes. You quickly discover that no color-scheme paint swatches can cover over the family history and identity crises that demand you finally deal with them; no cute graphic can depict the timeline of fights and reconciliations, money talks and politics talks, silent drives and quiet hikes that really make up your life with your beloved. It is all deeper and more boring and brighter and darker and stranger to be engaged than people bother to say to you. And to be a bride—at least in the South—is all of these things and more, because it binds up so many threads of your womanhood for display and therefore scrutiny. It is, by very odd turns and at very odd times, to be searingly lonely and to be overwhelmed by sisterhood; to be feminist, and unfeminist, and guilty about betraying tradition, and guilty about betraying feminism; to be the gracious and caring woman-hostess-daughter-friend-fiancée you always wanted to be, and to be the weary bitchy mess of a person you thought you left behind with your teenage years.

All this is too much for Pinterest. You can throw all the neatly-lettered slogans of empowerment you want at it, but they won’t crack it. And you won’t have time to resent it, either, only to carry on with whatever you figure is best for you and your family and the new family you’re creating. That is what a good woman does, in the end, traditional or feminist or gracious or not. And by the time you make it to the end of the aisle, ready or not, you’ll be a Bride, and with any luck or work or help, all of this will have helped you recognize that you were Beautiful all along.

If not, at least there will finally be champagne.

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graduation goes on

A few weeks from now, it will be four years since I graduated from college. It is one of those personal milestones you might try to tell people about, and they will probably kind of get why it’s important, but only you can really know all that it means to you. Broadly, it means that a little college in a little Tennessee town will no longer hold the majority of my days as an “adult.” Specifically, it means that I’ve fallen in love, changed my mind, lost my way, had my heart broken, re-found grace, and reset my course a thousand and one times since that town sent me on my way.

I’ve grown as much in those four years as I did in my four years of college, but it’s all a little more lonely and a little less exhilarating. Sometimes it seems people don’t want to tell college students this, as if holding out hope that someone will have a better time of it than most of us have. But you have to recognize, before you leave, that college is a helpful but highly artificial environment. College lends a certain rhythm to life, an immediacy to big ideas, an urgency and intimacy to friendship, that just don’t easily materialize in the average adult’s life. Could the things we loved about college teach us about building a happier society? Probably, but it hasn’t happened yet.

I digress.

It was exhilarating, in its own way, to step off a plane in Syracuse, searching for a stranger I knew only by voice to drive me to my new home. It was exhilarating to walk out of a catering shift at Boston’s Museum of Science at 2 A.M. and find myself bowled over by the beauty of a city I’d dreamed for years of living in. But these things are also lonely and exhausting, and in between are many days trying to demand purpose from life, feeling small.

It was worthwhile to learn new things, meet new people, and change my mind, but it was also confusing, frightening, difficult to navigate, sometimes using up all my reserves of generosity and humility.

It made me stronger to work a few 50 and 60 hour weeks there in grad school, to bite my nails wondering if the rent would get paid, made me more responsible to try to plan those things around a long-distance relationship. Those things also felt completely overwhelming and, through the irrational lens of exhaustion, hellish at times.

I wish I’d gotten a tattoo when I left college.

I wish that every day I’d opened my eyes and somehow been greeted by these words: trust the process.

You can’t really see yourself growing. Often other people can, but to you, it just feels like struggle. Far, far too often in the past four years, I have been lost in anger and disappointment because I couldn’t understand the purpose of things. I have needed my stories about How God Was Using Me to remain intact so that I could feel in control. I have wanted to find A Lesson in something that, at the time, seemed to represent only cruelty, or futility, or depressing weather. I have expected, time and time again, that doing my best to follow God would result directly in my own happiness.

When you start a new workout routine, everything in you screams that you should quit because you are so weak. You have to believe that these actions, which seem to do nothing but demonstrate your weakness, are actually making you stronger. When you start a new job, and the routine of it makes you feel utterly unimportant to the world, you have to remember those times you prayed for humility.

At these times, I’ve found myself returning to the stories of the wilderness. I don’t know if that sounds melodramatic, but the wilderness itself isn’t that exciting. It’s where people learn, one day at a time, to trust in God’s provision. It’s where people get over themselves. It’s where people learn to pray. In between all of these exciting and heroic stories are these episodes in the desert, where the purpose of things is uncertain, the way forward is unclear, and the landscape is monotonous. Here, the work of God is slow and inscrutable. Here, there is danger without much excitement, and boredom without much to show for it. But here, God is faithful, and it slowly dawns on us that God’s work is bigger than this moment and bigger than us.

trust the process.

I don’t have to understand every moment of the last four years to see that I have emerged with a much clearer vision of my vocations, a better understanding of the world, a re-sorted list of priorities, and a relationship with God that’s been refined. All are things that could fill up an essay of their own, and none I could have found any way towards other than the twisting paths I’ve traced.

God willing, I will soon be moving into a more stable phase of life—not wondering what I want, but trying to make it happen. Others I know made it to that phase sooner, and some have no desire at all to stop wandering yet. But I wish we could all gather to toast each other for this graduation-versary and tell our best stories we couldn’t have predicted on the day we performed that weird, robed pageant. All those stories would be parts of who we are now, and I think most of us are finding we’re really happy to know these selves. Maybe we’re even starting to really make friends with the process.

your life as a badass

This is the scary basement where I work out.

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It is full, totally full, of spiderwebs. And spiders. It’s lucky I hate snakes and have a strange affinity for spiders, and not the other way around.

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The ceiling is 7 feet off the ground at best. The floor is uneven, so I have to find the right level-enough spot for whatever lunge or plank or squat jump I’m doing. I took my yoga mat down there, and I’ve accepted that it’s become part of the scary basement now. Composed partially of dirt and only borrowed from the spiders.

No one forces me to work out down there. I could probably make it happen in my living room; or I could just skip it, except I’ve discovered that getting a sweat on is essential to my winter mental health. Plus WEDDING: I’m much more vain about all those photos than I ever thought I’d be. But still. The scary basement is pretty repellent.

Here is the main way I get myself into the scary basement and through the lunge jumps: I pretend I’m one of those people in a movie who is unjustly thrown into prison, but spends their time plotting revenge/getting super ripped.

I guess I think of this as a genre of movie character, but the only one I can really think of is Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises. So, yeah. I pretend to be Batman. Except I haven’t been imprisoned by a mysterious ally of the warped, brutish demagogue who plans to destroy everything I love and protect. I’m just a victim of extreme cold and my own vanity/desire to eat french fries.

Even so, after a while, having to work out in the scary basement can kind of be its own motivator. Once I had done it a couple of times without dying by spider bite or ankle twist or the wrath of the skeleton-ghost who could very well live its eerie half-dead life in the nether reaches of the darkness— once I got through it a couple of times, I felt free to consider myself A TOTAL BADASS. Sometimes I let myself feel secretly superior to my coworkers when they’re talking about their fancy gyms. “My gym is free,” I don’t say to them. “Lots of people would pay to not go there.”

I think the same thing is one part of the appeal of CrossFit, too. I’ve never been, but I get the impression there’s something people like about the no-frills, no-excuses, objectively and plainly miserable workouts: they feel like you’re getting stronger, and they feel like what you’re doing matters. You are honest about the sacrifice you have to make to get where you’re going. And your circumstances help you recognize your inner badass.

Working out is somehow easier when you feel like you’re allowed to frame your quest for greater strength as an epic battle. I wish we gave ourselves more license to understand all of our struggles that way.

Whether you’re resolved to finish a degree, to get out of debt, to be more patient with your family, to get through a day without alcohol, to keep up with your Lenten practice even though you’ve already failed multiple times, to learn a musical instrument, to care for an aging parent, to learn to love your body, or just to get out of bed again tomorrow, sometimes the most discouraging thought is that this isn’t worth it. That decay wins eventually, so why bother with growth? That you are not the kind of person who does these things. That you are making a mockery of yourself by struggling through to the end.

I don’t know if I believe in a red pointy Devil, but I believe in an Enemy. And that Enemy is those lies. Here is the truth: that thing you do wouldn’t be worth doing if it were easy. And it wouldn’t be yours to do if you weren’t up to the task. And if it weren’t worth the effort, you wouldn’t have started. You wouldn’t have stared this huge thing in the face and said, bring it on. Maybe you didn’t know just how hard it would be, just how weary you would feel. But that weariness isn’t a sign that you are too small or your problems too petty. It is a sign that you are in the midst of a great battle. It is in the daily decisions, the uncertain hours, the thousandth resolution that the warrior quietly, finally wins.

Of course there is a time in all of our lives when we must face a reality that forces us to quit on some great fight, and there is no shame in that. But I mean to talk about those things, big and small, that you know (or once knew) God has somehow placed before you for this time; those things that, in your best moments, you believe are making the world a better place. Cling to that belief. Let it compel you to go on. Even if there will never be a musical montage of your struggle, even if the darkness against which you strain is not apparent to anyone else, know that it is a great thing you do to hold once more your candle against it.

When a person is baptized in the Episcopal church, he or she is asked to assent to all sorts of absurd projects.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Will you persevere in resisting evil?

These are daunting, audacious, overwhelming goals, to say the least.

The person replies: I will, with God’s help.

It is such a simple answer. We use such a humble and honest five words to make such outrageous claims. But it is enough to face down demons; even, and especially, those who tell us we are small and our struggles unimportant. It says that is no matter. It is God’s help that matters. He is the one who calls, who provides, who is sufficient.

I will, with God’s help. This is enough for one day.

One day in your life as a total badass.

 

Dear Governor Deal

Or, a Southern lady has a word.

Dear Governor Deal,

I am a deeply proud native and voter in the state of Georgia. I belong to the white, well-off, Christian population you count among your constituency, and I am ashamed beyond belief by your most recent executive order barring Syrian refugees from Georgia. Your actions are not representative of our views and wishes, and they defy common sense as well as American values.

Let us consider the people involved in this situation.

First, there are the Syrian refugees. You point out that there are gaps in the process for “screening those from war torn areas,” and of course you are correct. It is because their homes and lives are war-torn that these people cannot be vetted as we might wish. Their clothes and their documents are literally torn by terror in the same way that their homes are demolished, their governments and police records disintegrated, and their lives ripped to shreds by violence. No one hates and fears terrorism more than Syrian refugees. No one hopes to live as a simple, productive citizen, to maintain order and normalcy, more than a Syrian refugee. Surely Lady Liberty calls to Syria when she proclaims,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp,” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me;
I raise my lamp beside the golden door.”

Some of these people have already made their way to Georgia, and your treatment of them is particularly disturbing. Since they have already endured a vetting process, demanding that their backgrounds be “confirmed” displays an attitude dangerously similar to that of the Americans who interned Japanese-American residents during World War II. Fear of others based solely on their nationality is the definition of xenophobia.

Next there are the terrorist groups and individuals who wish to do harm to innocent civilians – including, conceivably, Georgians. These people are full of anger and hatred, and their movements thrive on the hatred and fear of others. Continuing to stir up suspicion and anxiety towards Syrians allows them to accomplish their goals: making us feel constantly unsafe, and convincing more of their countrymen that we hate them. We do not hate them, Mr. Deal. We will not be bullied into hatred or fear of anyone.

Because these people are so hell-bent on doing harm, refugee visas have very little to do with their ability to carry out their plans. They are not foiled, as if they might say to one another, “We will not be allowed to take up residence in Georgia; let’s get a beer instead.” If terrorists care to attack Georgians, their nimble organizations will find ways to do so. They have American recruits in their ranks, means of traveling between countries and states, false documents, conventional weaponry and evil imaginations. It is reasonable to increase security around transportation hubs and entertainment venues. It is unreasonable to exclude desperate people from our great state based on their country of origin. Multiple acts of terrorism have been committed this year in our country by white men with guns, and no such panic has gripped our people.

hkscc2wAs we wrestle with these decisions, the main group of people under consideration here is the citizens of Georgia. Twenty-something tornado seasons have taught me that Georgians are not a people given to panic. We are a courageous, resilient, and occasionally even belligerent lot, and we will not be cowed by the tactics of extremists. We choose to follow the example of our own Dr. King by driving out hatred with love. We do not choose the hollow and pretended “empathy” referred to in your letter to President Obama. “Empathy” is a transliteration of the Greek word for compassion; both words literally mean suffering with. If taking risks and sharing the blessings of our rapidly growing economy (or as you prefer to say, our “valuable limited resources”) constitutes suffering, these are things we are willing to do for the sake of mitigating the horrendous pain of our fellow human beings. Courage means doing the hard thing, and we are prepared to meet that challenge.

The Georgia I know is a place of abundance. We have found room for more and more as our population has boomed in recent decades. We are proud that we have an abundance of human and natural resources to share. Do you wish to imply that, under your administration, it is a place of scarcity?

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Amicalola State Park

The Georgia I know is a place of faith. It is 79% Christian, and the Christian faith tells us undeniably to welcome the stranger. Our faith – our God – absolutely requires that we act with generosity and love towards friends, foreigners, and enemies alike. We will not live like those who have no hope nor like those who believe God deals only in afterlives. We choose love for others and trust in God; we choose them tangibly, and we choose them now. We welcome the hurting and make space for their healing, terrorists be damned.

The Georgia I know, Governor Deal, is absolutely misrepresented by your actions today. We are famous throughout the world for our hospitality, and you panic-driven knee-jerk reaction to others’ tragedies is an insult to my home and my Mama’s pecan pie. This is a matter for hard thought, prayer, and democratic debate, not for bull-headed executive orders and absurd harassment of our Syrian neighbors trying to reclaim a single normal day while they still live. The Southern way is to greet guests as precious gifts, not as liabilities. The people of your state demand that we be allowed to lead this country in offering a place of rest to refugees, rather than cowering in our corner and succumbing to suspicion and hatred as our enemies hope we will do.

The final character, Mr. Deal, is you. Some sweet old church ladies taught me that what goes around, comes around. Georgia stands for warmth, hospitality, civil rights, and plain old faith. What do you stand for? From here it seems you act out of reactionary panic or political opportunism. Be bigger than your actions today.

With all my kudzu-covered heart,
Lyndsey Graves
Cumming, Georgia

 

These rings

This ring still feels strange and a bit uncomfortable, a foreign object. So often, thinking about our future, I have semiconsciously scratched an itch on that fourth finger, yet the weight of it is still a new and unexpected thing. It’s silly, but I really did feel more like we were really engaged after the ring fit and was on me. The most valuable thing you’ve ever owned always glinting at you has a way of reminding you, of making you think.

I know that soon enough I’ll never notice this feeling; it will be like the high school ring on my right hand – also a gift someone sacrificed to put there. I’ve kept it on all this time because I loved my high school; I want to remember where I come from and the serious teenager I was. They are part of me. Now, soon enough, he will be part of me. We have promised to become a family.

wpid-img_20151010_203821615.jpgI asked him to marry me, too, and gave him a ring, too. I am proud that it fits and looks handsome on him even though I made it from a thousand miles away. He is hyperaware of his own ring, takes it off when he washes his hands. I like that we are both reminded, both taken, newly conscious, connected somehow by these gifts.

Dating is like one big question, a tightrope of opportunities to fall deeper into a harder, worthier love – and chances to say no. Always that possibility that someone might decide against forever, and the parts of you that have become intertwined will have to be slowly surgically extricated, or else shut up in a locked box labeled “past” that you hardly dare to open. But now we are preparing to cast our foolish lot with a promise that that will never happen, that the days of ‘no’ are behind us. I am glad, in the end, that the months before this moment saw me air a lot of fears, for I know now that I am sure. And I am glad that when the time came, it got to be both of us; we said yes.

Seven states’ worth of home

It is cloudy and dark, puddles merging into ponds, barely-orange leaves prematurely dripping from sodden trees. “What a beautiful day,” says the man across the coffee shop without a trace of irony. It is the relieved sigh of Cape Cod after summer, after tourists in jaunty nautical garb, after traffic. The locals take back the rock-studded beaches, windy and drippy though they are – loved.

I am back in Boston. After a hectic week, I tag along with Nate to work in Hyannis. I have accidentally crashed a morning gossip-gathering of older folks, skirting the edges with my backpack. My enormous backpack, which has accompanied me to seven states* in the past four weeks. Which holds everything a person could need – clothes, toothpaste, and books – without complaint. After all of this journeying, I feel like a sea-creature hefting my home onto my back.

When I packed this bag to leave Boston in August, it gave me a sick feeling. It is the eleventh time I have moved in seven years, inspiring a preconscious bodily dread of leaving any place – even for journeys I have happily chosen.

There is much I could say about the ways I’ve centered in the past month. I have discovered that sometimes growing pains are, in fact, wounds, and that the growth is only complete when the wounds have begun to heal. Returning to my places of comfort and safety in the South allowed me to stop triage-ing the nicks and scrapes of the last three years; but not because I took a few weeks off of work.

It was because of the way I was welcomed. In all the borrowed places me and my backpack have alighted this month, soul-friends have made space and made food and made time for me to be. In long, long conversations with past professors, in breakfast with my parents, on a drive to the woods, I have been given peace. It seems that at some point I dropped off pieces of my heart with these dear humans, and years later they are giving them back, reminding me who I am. Reminding me Who is my home, even when the only constant in life is travel-size toiletries and the sound of zippers.

Wallace was also welcomed.

Wallace was also welcomed.

It has been fitting to end my journey, in the few days before I move into my next place, as a literal guest in my own house – on my former roommates’ futon. Even in brief meetings I discover that they, too, hold pieces of me in trust; and in that knowledge I discover a deep peace with the transitory phase of life I have been longing to escape. Finally I remember it is an adventure and a gift to be a sojourner, a not-quite-local of so many neighborhoods. Finally I begin to find some love for New England in me. Finally I recall how to be present in only one state at a time. And I can pray with faith that my many friends who are far from home will find welcome. Wanderers and missionaries: there will be home again.

I have heard it is in the character of God to make room for others. If so, there are few holier acts than to give hospitality, and few more humbling than to receive it.

——

*I’ve spent nights in Georgia, Tennessee, Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina, New York, and Massachusetts.

how to get things done in spite of computers

Today I had the thought that I should do some productive things, so I sat down with my computer.

That is the end of the story.

I did some stuff for a few minutes, then got stressed out, and then the Internet took over. My thoughts of writing, designing, planning or even just learning something completely dissolved into pictures of The Trumpster and Instagram updates on other people’s vacations.

I repeat this boring story nearly every day, and then feel bad about all the things I don’t get done. I watch other people (on Instagram) doing way, way more cool stuff than me. Then I keep scrolling. And still, when I want to be productive, I instinctively reach for my computer. Somehow that one object has come to represent for me all the things I should do, all the things I don’t want to do, my entire capacity to do them – and all the distractions I’ll ever need to pretend I can alleviate the pain of to-dos by prolonging them with useless not-that-fun “breaks”.

I’ve known for a while not to do this with personal writing. Going to the Internet for inspiration is like going to a buffet for its pleasing variety of diet-friendly food. You might find it eventually, but not before thirty-two other things have caught your eye and you’re so full you need a nap like NOW.

I’m starting to think of my computer – in all situations – as that friend who can be funny and helpful sometimes, but also keeps you sitting around gossiping or whatever long after you’ve dropped several hints and glanced ever more often at the door until you finally fake a phone call to extricate yourself from the needy situation which is that friend. Every meeting needs an exit strategy. wpid-img_20150923_155407753.jpg

The computer doesn’t actually contain productivity rays that make things get done. YOU DO. And your new (reliable, nice,
emotionally healthy) best friends are going to be a pen and paper. Maybe a planner if yours is really swell with lots of writing space, or if you are one of those people who gets crazy eyes about their planner, takes it to cocktail parties, and occasionally gives it a fond stroke throughout the day.

Write down all the things you have to do. I don’t usually think of these things in any manner of logical order, so I leave space for putting like tasks together.

Prioritize your tasks.

Set a high but realistic goal for today, and envision a reward for getting it all done (even if it’s just “stop working and go outside/eat with family/drink eleven beers.” whatever.)

Put your smartphone in another room. BE STRONG. You are going to do all the things you just said you are going to do. This requires you to not do other things.

Before you start on any task, figure out exactly what you need the computer to do for you in order to complete it. You may need some facts from the Internet, but be able to analyze the data or have a phone conversation about it without the computer! It is often more helpful to extract the information from the light-box and walk away. Sure, it can feel like handily skipping a step to just refer constantly to the thousand tabs you have open, using the computer as a Portal to All Times and Dimensions – but who really, deep down, wants one of those? (hint: not your brain). You look like a rat playing a game of “Where’d I Hide My Cheese” in a lab experiment to study mammal confusion and desperation. Organize the information in a way that’s useful to you – printed or written – and you can stop “accidentally” clicking on the “GIFs of Raccoons Doing People Things” tab.

Don’t do all the computer things at once. Work on one project or set of tasks at a time. When you get to a point where you really need the computer, think, “time to pull out my fact-finding/word-processing/advertising/telecommunication machine!” and only use it for that fact, that document, that email. Distractions are your enemy! Funny/compelling/worrisome off-topic emails are the barbarian hordes threatening your productivity Rome! THEY CAN WAIT TIL AFTER LUNCH.

At least do a better job of using one program at a time.

Do email for specific chunks of time during the day.

Tick off your to-do tasks with markers, stickers, or by tearing them off and burning them! Whatever makes you happy! Stay focused. Gettin’ stuff done feels good.

mystic’s credo

When theological disagreements get personal, it has a way of messing with a theologian’s soul.

Those of us trying to make a living out of thinking like to convince ourselves that ours is the most important task – that if we get our facts in a row and our arguments right, if we use the correct hermeneutic and the most accurate sources, we can unravel at least a few quandaries, come to some agreement, and know What’s Right for once and for all. We might tell you it’s about belief and truth and the ways our words can alter our realities, and we would believe ourselves. But just as often, it’s simply about making our homes in books and theories. When school has always been easy for you, you think keeping God there will make God easy. You hope that the theoretical world can make the real world into the place you want it to be.

So when arguments come to an impasse, or our brothers and sisters simply tune us out – when our ideas fail to change others’ behavior – we’re likely to have a bit of a meltdown. Or, even more often, to reassure ourselves that We’re Right, denounce those other parties, and take our pocket concordances elsewhere, much to the relief of those we’re trying to spite. Churches, schools, nonprofits beware: self-righteousness will destroy all diversity of opinion faster than you can say “interpretation”.

I had just such a dustup with my church in Boston this year, and it nearly ruined me. I’d always knownwpid-img_20150717_110802275.jpg theology could be used to hurt people; but finally confronted with my inability to Set It Right (from my perspective, of course), I sort of lost my will to live (as a theologian). If two people can study hard, care deeply, love Jesus, and come to opposite conclusions, what is the point? A question theologians often ask each other in the honest light of a couple of drinks – are we just making stuff up here?

Months into my slough of despond, pondering some unrelated episode, an observation blazed into my mind, answering for me the argument at hand and the question it provoked. God has never spoken to me about my theology, I realized; only about our hearts.

The longer I study and pray, the less I am convinced – as maybe I was when I started this journey – that the world is a puzzle, where God has hidden clues about herself for our little brains to busily connect, rearrange, and cogitate until we stumble upon The Right Answer. I think God wants us to look for her, but I don’t think she’s hiding at all. Of course she’s in the onion-paper sheets of the Bible and the languages histories, traditions that help us interpret it. But, as the Bible says, God also speaks the languages of rock and tree, works in all of our histories, and asks us to live both in deepest reverence and radical defiance of tradition.

And, as the Bible says, God takes it upon himself just to speak to us. I believe in that kind of a living revelation – in a God greater than a book – in tongues and gifts, nudges and voices, in the knowledge of the heart and
body whewpid-img_20150909_133500309.jpgn the mind fails. I cast my lot with the mystics of Christianity – the Pentecostals, Quakers, Charismatics, Eastern Orthodox, the early church and all the holy fools ever to say that God lives and speaks in our hearts with knowing exactly what we could possibly mean.

It is not the role of theological study to shackle our hearts and lives to the pages of books. It is to help us cleave ever closer to Jesus Christ, image of the Father, through the comfort and help of the Holy Spirit. My concern for “correct interpretation” – for orthodoxy – is just as strong as it’s ever been. Only I’m realizing that the authors of our scriptures were madmen and poets, priests and pastors, storytellers and prisoners – only a few wrote in comfort and solitude. Our greatest theologians have been dreamers, desert demon fighters, busy bishops, seers and itinerant preachers. God spoke to them through and into the circumstances of their lives; though remembering God’s past works was vital to them, they were not simply regurgitators or gatekeepers over other, older men’s words.

Those precious ancient texts remain central to my faith, plumb lines for the many voices speaking every day, reliable sources for hearing God’s voice. But that voice leads me always to overwhelming awe of God, greater compassion and gentleness and confidence, awareness of my own sin, recognition of the beauty and belovedness within myself that I so often bury. It does not offer systems for organizing reality or even deem for certain which translation from the Greek is better. When the words of scripture and tradition have transformed my theology, claiming my allegiance and submission despite myself, it is because I have recognized the character of God in them – not out of grudging, uncomprehending duty and not because they support my own position.

Academy-trained theologians are not the arbiters of doctrine, though we dearly wish we were. We interpret and champion the voices of the past, deeply undervalued in the 21st century – a hugely important task. And we may draw from other disciplines and theories to understand the world we mean to connect with, helping fellow Christians to see clearly what it is we have in common with our ancestors in the faith. But our task is incomplete without taking seriously the revelations of God to the illiterate and the child, the unholy and uninitiated, to the obviously wrong, the unfavored, the poor and the mad – and until we recognize ourselves among them.

And if in the end we come up with something that doesn’t sound mostly crazy, it’s a good sign we’ve really just been making stuff up.

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