How to stand tall in the noise of these days

I am reluctant to speak into the din of these days.

An observation: we have reached a point where the two major sides in our debates are both driven by fear. Our president was elected for his projections of strength: for promising to protect us from bad hombre immigrants, from the globalized market, from terrorists, from the pace of social change. And now his policies have stricken terror into the hearts of his opponents—worried for themselves, for minority friends, worried about international relations or about creeping authoritarianism.

Though the cacophony appears to address many issues, in the end we are mostly responding to threats. We all perceive our particular threats to be very real, while dismissing others’ fears and blazing with disbelieving outrage when they dismiss ours. In our anger we cannot see how lonely this has made us. We feel the loneliness, but not consciously; the ache only fuels our outrage.


The Ph.D. in political science whom I keep on retainer who is my dear friend tells me that the biggest protests work, even when they’re not supposed to, even when no one expects it. So I will go to the protests. But I won’t be outraged; it’s not in my nature. With Paul I will proclaim that we all have gifts differing and I will thank God for those who do outrage well and righteously. I’ll be the one giving out water bottles, or crying. You’re probably not supposed to cry at a protest, but I’m mostly sure that’s what I’ll do.


What is in my nature is to passionately declare the extreme urgency of everyone sitting down and thinking some more. This is an unglamorous and unpopular vocation. Thinking sells best when paired with a vice—traditionally pipe tobacco or whiskey. Outrage is brighter, the work of a moment, and pairs well with that comfort food, superiority.

Still, even the most active of activists is already acknowledging that our task won’t be over for a long time, and we’re going to need something that burns a bit slower. I hasten to add that, while we must equip ourselves for a long-haul future, we have a yet lengthier past with which we must also deal. This crisis did not develop overnight, as if caused by some particular genius of Trump’s for villainy. This is the overflow of ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years. If we accomplish political goals without any mention of these things, they will only fester. The colonization of rural places, for instance: extracting resources from a place while systematizing contempt for its people. The abandonment of national politics to lobbyists and of local politics to the dogs. The abandonment of our minds to our screens. The utter lack of restraint on our consumerist desires, so that each side accuses the other of entitlement with great accuracy and total hypocrisy. And an extreme failure, on all sides, to know the oppressed, to sit with them in their pain, to share bread with them.

These things, of course, cost more than five minutes and 1000 words. These things rarely go viral.


But perhaps, I concede, the past is a discussion for another time. Perhaps what is before us, just today, is to excavate and banish our fear. If you are a Christian, you have no excuse for it; if you are not, let me assure you fear remains a hindrance to you. It is not naive to resist fear. You may be aware of a danger without giving that thing power over you. To the contrary, once fear is acknowledged and set aside, you are more agile, more perceptive, less prone to mistakes. Once fear is set aside, it clears the way for that most searing weapon: love.


I read an article several days ago about what to do, the basic actions that would be essential to resisting the extremism we’re witnessing. I found it wise and compelling in its simplicity—things like interacting with your representatives; seeking out reliable news sources; taking care of yourself (in the long term, going to bed on time and eating your vegetables); learning about privilege and oppression; getting to know the people in your community who stand to lose the most. And as the list went on, I realized that these were all things a truly excellent citizen would be doing regardless of who was in power. It was comforting and intimidating, I suppose, to realize that all anyone needs to do to stand up against a bullying President is become a truly excellent citizen.

What was, for me, conspicuously absent from the list was becoming aware of any new development within ten minutes of its occurrence; scrolling through Twitter with increasing indignation and despair; firing one-liners or articles at people on Facebook who would then be compelled to recognize the error of their ways. As the days have gone by, I’ve felt more and more antipathy towards the hot takes and the outrage machines and even the copied-and-pasted Bible verses. So much blame for our situation goes, in my mind, to our penchant for preferring the viral to the true; to our self-righteous armchair activism; to our willing deliverance of our attention to the antics of national figures, at the expense of understanding the goings-on in our own cities and states.

Do you want to drive out fear? It doesn’t happen when you get a good grasp of the situation from twitter or even from the news. It happens with love. Have the courage to love yourself without the safety blanket of self-righteousness. Have the courage to love someone else without assuming you already know who they are. Walk around your neighborhood and talk to the people you meet. Plan an uncomfortable dinner party: invite someone different from you. (Have lots of comfort food.) Call your representatives on behalf of someone else even though it inconveniences or terrifies you. Read about an issue you don’t want to face. Take up that habit you know you’re supposed to do—riding your bike places, donating to charity, praying for your enemies.

Pray. Pray more than you tweet. Pray before your political calls. Pray for the country. Pray for refugees. Pray before you eat. Pray before you buy. Pray with other people.

Read books. Gather with friends. Don’t think about doing good deeds; do them. Be aggressively present to your own life, your place and time.

Be still. The Lord will fight for you. The noise will take care of itself.

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)
  • Time: 3hr
  • Print

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.

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