I fell down a flight of stairs on Labor Day. Tiptoeing on our airbnb’s long shag carpet, trying not to wake the other people in the house (who didn’t have three offspring reminding them of the 6am hour) my plans were foiled when those 50-year-old strands of glorified yarn created a perfect slope for my raucous descent.
Ever since then, sitting has been a unpredictable affair. Bending for the 457th toy that day, a gamble. (Don’t worry, Mom, I have an appointment.) In some settings, the injury doesn’t cross my mind; in others, I’m exceedingly tender. Day in and day out, this body reminds me of itself and it feels a little precarious.
Each week, layers seem to be peeled back revealing greater depravity. While many people are able to distance from the daily the unraveling of our young country, the growing, infected wounds in the Church, and the threats upon everything we might hope to leave our children, others are decidedly more absorbent. Life is so tender, and there is no sphere of my own experience right now that is not reminding me of it constantly. Every place I sit, each time I try to settle in, there is a pain, a doubt, a haunting, or anger.
Sometimes I feel untethered; I question if I have really only lost other people’s faith (a disorienting grief to be sure), or if I have lost my own. I question decisions, before and after they are made. I am distracted with the yesses filling my days. I extract myself from the noise and silliness more often, I wonder why I feel this range. How can all these things be. How can I cry with a lady on CSPAN, at a country song, in an argument, and watching Madam Secretary. How can I laugh with a dancing two-year-old, the dear librarian who always makes the same jokes, at the comedian singing about interracial babies and the discomfort of frequently running into people who have maligned me more frequently. I wonder how long can I keep calling the child welfare system to help us find a daughter, Senators to request decency, family only to tiptoe around the things that I called the Senators about, and foundations to check on checks.
I am sore, so painfully present but also so dreadfully distant. I remember in counseling, in our brief minutes of catching up to begin a new hour, the therapist’s amazement that I listed the despair over a friend’s betrayal as well as the water in Flint. That was months ago, but the term marches on. And the heart keeps beating.
I’m not particularly informed, sensitive, or emotional; I don’t think my experience is fringy, which is why I’m talking about it. There are a lot of us paying attention, juggling hats, and grave with the gravity of here and now, pushed out of the molds in which we once fit. There are a lot of us who have, through painful and rhythmic contractions, found space for concern about what is clogging the bathroom sink and who is sponsoring the affordable housing proposition. It’s no longer odd to me that I am thinking about immigration reform while I’m changing batteries to a remote controlled car; it’s odd to me if someone isn’t.
In the midst of this dizzying space of And and We, this sometimes lonely and desolate wilderness, a few things have been a shelter. Podcasts of people who worship Jesus and are not towing the Christian America line. Books like Inspired, by the incredibly impressive and dry-witted Rachel Held Evans, which keep me reaching for my Bible and sensing that I’m still in the long line of people who have done the same. Friends, like Barbara, and my mom, who demonstrate change and growth, deep emotions and ordinary life, like it was always the plan. The daily (crazymaking but terribly grounding) rituals of feeding the children, volleying morning routine chores with my spouse, matching socks.
More than anything, being connected and attentive to my neighbors has helped orient me. I haven’t found God to be answering many of my prayers as of late, but I do suspect Jesus was telling the truth when He said “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” When looking for God, loving your neighbor works well. When doubting the miraculous and the meaning of anything, the souls at the margins shepherd our faith. When feeling anxious about the actions of others or the import of the future, the orthodoxy of service folds us back together. And so while I don’t often find God in private conversation, I have, unsurprisingly, on the sidewalk.
Housing prices are skyrocketing in our neighborhood and have been for a long time. It has been upsetting to see the progress in our community followed by the displacement effects of gentrification; it has been terrible to see organizations and greedy landlords profit, both in underpaying despite cost of living and in renting or selling to the highest bidder, to the detriment of historical residents. As a result of this changing landscape, there are both freshly painted homes on our streets and curbs lined with RVs that are residential, not recreational.
I’m becoming friends with one family in an RV and recently stopped by because I saw a police SUV parked and an officer speaking with the mother. I suspected the worst but was so encouraged that the officer was trying to help her after responding to another issue. In a non-threatening way, he was with her exploring onramps to some assistance she needed. She happily included me in what was going on, and later texted me about another concern–something simple I could help with. Her spelling isn’t perfect, my Spanish is very shabby, but friendship persists. She has agreed to help me learn her first language; I will buy her flowers (her business) and share toys with the kids (not to mention lean heavily on my bilingual fluent friends). We go to sleep, both pleased to know one another. Both needy and feeling and trying.
The tenderness not only makes my step heavy sometimes; it also leads me to appreciate the most basic parts of my day, like connecting with a stranger. Under the legitimate groans of a life spent paying attention, I also feel a truthfulness and a steadiness when I manage to be present to those nearest, those most vulnerable, through the simplest ways. This blasted tenderness, though terribly inconvenient, turns out to be an invitation to love what’s in front of me for all my confusion about the rest. Availability, proximity, service–our bridge to one another, a buoy to the endless tides of introspection.
On our streets, along the RV-lined sidewalks, sense is made from the tenderness of this time. Outside of my self, I feel not as far from everything I have known but also nearer to everything for which I hope. What seemed at first a distraction or an interruption is the sacrament itself.