A Good Neighborhood

The drums are out tonight. There’s a special party across the street, breaking a 6 week pause, and our upstairs bedroom window is perfectly positioned to meet the music before the noise is drowned out by the freeway behind our headboard.

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I met a lady this week while shopping who had two young children, our toddler boys’ friendliness only surpassed by her eagerness to also make a new friend. They have lived here for a couple of years, renting, and were not sure about buying, the neighborhood and all. Their church is in Pasadena, their job at USC, and we met next to a water fountain in the middle of USC’s new village shopping area–the reason Trader Joe’s is now a local grocer.

As our conversation continued about where we lived, how long we’ve lived here, if we wanted to stay or just accidentally let 12 years slip by, I shared about some of the things I liked about the neighborhood though we are not homeowners. People commonly ask us about this–what is this LA thing all about? Yes, we have chosen over and over to stay, and yes, we really do love it here. I admired her baby, Lucas shared some popcorn and we went on our way, pleased to make their acquaintance. I ended up walking away confused a little too. Could Western in any way be considered Inglewood? I thought to myself. No. And what is wrong with Inglewood? I have often admired the small, landscaped homes surrounding my local Costco, and thought it’d be a nice area to live in. The guys ringing up my cases of diapers and granola bars are always adding a good joke or two to the lineup, or bantering about the latest bad call. They’ve had to endure incredible construction over in Inglewood on their thoroughfares, as the new Rams stadium has suddenly inspired greenspaces, palm trees, and asphalt for better or worse.

Tonight as the drums and indiscernible hollers of the the band backdrop our home, I remember one night our first year living here. We were not used to mariachi and parties from our home cultures are muted, controlled affairs. It was summer, and windows had to be open in hopes of any relief from the heat. From the second floor of a wobbly apartment building, it felt like we were the actual tent of our next door neighbor’s party, hanging over and pulsating with the sustained chords. As the party wore on, I became increasingly agitated. Joining the raucous, I yelled out the window something I cannot remember but undoubtedly was embarrassing and ineffective, a winning combination. I blame my behavior on being hot and 21. But really, it’s because I hadn’t endeared myself to this neighborhood yet, and it to me, and I thought I could assess what should and should not happen amongst neighbors. I thought I knew what was good for a neighborhood.

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This weekend I’ve spent some time in an old school kitchen with a hood exhaust fan whose volume rivals an airplane ready for takeoff. A dark, forboding stove, oven and grill line one side and a stainless countertop with wonky drawers and off-brand foil lines the other. One day we were plating tacos for about 75 people; the next we were cleaning up desserts from our young breast cancer survivor, bad ass math teacher friend’s baby shower. That kitchen is emblematic of my neighborhood and now I understand it better. Not perfectly, but better than I did when I was 21.

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The kitchen and everything in it is shared by about 4 churches, one school, and a lot of us who just think we can use it whenever we want to–and somehow it works. The shelves are a jigsaw puzzle of mismatched volunteer work and loose sugar packets, the green tiles on the floor could use some ammonia, and no matter what, there are a lot of jugs of expired creamers in the fridge. In the walls of that kitchen, people have shared news of births and deaths, arrests and miscarriages, leaving and joining. Next to the stained potholders and the greasy industrial pans used to heat lunches daily, women have shared of abuse, betrayal, giving in and letting go. We’ve cut wedding flowers in those sinks and cried hard, away from the memorial service, leaning on the stove.

The doors to the kitchen are never closed; I don’t know why. The kitchen has witnessed and held and built resilience even as its appliances groan and endure with all their use. There, people have made and stepped into and tackled messes for decades, and the place is still standing. There is a respect and humility by the queens of the kitchen I have witnessed many times in the form of differing when they know best, laughing off criticism or speaking up for one another. Their royalty informs and trains those of us who are younger and rushed. In the kitchen, abuelas have graciously let interns from Missouri help them prepare the beans (or me plate tacos), and tías have shown teachers how to make horchata. In the kitchen, a million different stories have strengthened each other’s voice, not to mention all the stomachs and souls who have been fed from its labors.

There is not one thing visibly impressive or relevant about the kitchen in terms of Joanna Gaines, DIY, vintage, modern, or otherwise. It is not particularly safe, or well-planned. Parts of it drive me bonkers. But even I can see its sacred space now. Even I recognize that there’s a magic of an anchored spot where crowds of people have spent their lives serving, giving, sharing, with just enough belonging and ownership to maintain the space for the next person. The next neighbor.

I’ve had to stay to see it. To learn it. I’ve had to wash dishes on the outskirts while I watch the real stuff unfolding by the oven. It’s a kitchen with utility and beauty that surpasses any on my Instagram feed, but this was a slow dawning. The way the towels are organized has become less important and the wonder of so many people working out a dance in such a small, assorted place now catches my eye and hooks my heart.

The drumbeat tonight may be waking babies, and generally doesn’t help my migraines, but it far preceded my calling of this place home. My children learned to sleep through parties at an early age, me a little later. Tonight at least, the beat marks that some people are having a good time, generously sharing what they have to celebrate with others, to enjoy this moment, whatever it is. Tonight, the drums announce a break in the rainfall and the perseverance of life and culture despite the mud, much like our beloved school kitchen.

Tonight the drums signal home in my neighborhood, and yes, we love it here.

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Family of Things

It has been a minute.

I’ve dived more deeply into a few relationships and wallowed in the shallow, muddy waters of self-pity and resentment. I’ve upset people, disappointed people, impressed people, and loved people. My jeans are tighter as I’ve started exercising again, and I didn’t think those would/should necessarily go together. It’s been a little cranky since, like the jeans, some things haven’t worked out the way we thought. A lot of the crooked scoundrels are still galavanting and a lot of the luminescent shepherds are still barely getting by. I let go of some things, not only because they didn’t spark joy, but also because they robbed it. I went to South Dakota, by way of North, and returned through Denver unfrozen. I’ve enjoyed hours around tables, with new and old friends, eating, serving, playing and drinking. I’ve seen my fair share of hangry homework tantrums and wrinkled worksheets and chapter books printed on the worst of all paper. I have made a small dent in a gallon of molasses and maybe that is also related to the jeans sentence. I’ve kept in touch with my mother, and my husband, and neither one of them seem surprised by anything I do or say. I broke up with a couch, and then with another, but the latter still lives here. I have spent many hours with a fish tank I never wanted but enabled and enthroned in my entryway (it is the worst). I wrote out my life story in three pages and it is completely different from the same exercise 10 years ago. I’m facing a new daunting, long-awaited hope, and it makes me a little misty when I put the curly toddler down for a nap. I’ve taught in some settings, and learned in all the others.

I’ve missed writing here though. Today, I talked about tender things with a couple brave women and then I heard about a teenager ending their life, and a poet who left us hers. Today seemed like a good day to say hello. You’re beloved and broken and I am too. Ignore the naysayers, the ones you cannot mend or shrink down enough for. We each have a place in this family of things.

 

Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Follow on Instagram @findwideplacesblog.

Orthodoxy of Service

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An Ancient Answer

It’s a strange thing to pay someone to be a safe listener. And yet I frequently recommend that people do just that. I cannot overstate the work of gifted and learned therapists–to be sure, it is not only being a … Continue reading

Local Love for Central Los Angeles

As a little detour away from typical subject matter, I wanted to share about some local places I frequent. It’s a random assortment but for the USC/West Adams/Koreatown/Downtown community, especially if you’re planning a party or new in town and … Continue reading

Looking Again

Sometimes our kids require a double take. What at first presented as misbehavior, hyperactivity, or whining over nothing can often, in our case, turn out to be a symptom of earlier hurt feelings, hunger, or the need for an introduction or some extra explanation.

With each subsequent kid, we have realized we are less and less expert when it comes to parenting but also more and more here for it. Parenting is baptism by fire, every time! We know that we don’t know (whereas after the first one ate his veggies and went to bed so easily, we thought we likely KNEW), and that seems to be the key to keeping our sanity, give or take.

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As the kids grow up and sadly don insecurities and defense mechanisms, vegetable intake has taken a back seat in the world of things calling my attention. Their emotional languages couldn’t be more different and in a world of male privilege and emotional unintelligence, it’s so deeply important to me to raise these guys with some wherewithal when it comes to caring for others and knowing themselves. To me, emotions are not the bad guy. I’ve heard endless sermons and read enough that the modernist alienation of the heart and emotions is resilient and damaging, especially amongst Christians. I’ve told my kids, and my self, that feelings aren’t the boss. But they also aren’t the enemy.

When people experience personal grief for the first time, or are hurt in an abusive way, what does the message of alienating the heart and emotions do to us? It isolates and shames. It invalidates a real and true indicator light on the dash of our designed personhood. Some people have a great heart read on situations, and their memory is feeling-based AND accurate; some people are more oriented out of their heart and function best when there is no requirement for them to translate their wisdom into knowledge. Emotions aren’t the boss, but neither is rationality. Because while “being rational” seems like a trump card, it can be as laden with cultural blindspots and sinful motivations as any old heart. It is intertwined with a toxic masculinity that has hurt women and men. It’s not no nor or; it’s yes and both. In my beliefs and experience, Jesus shows concern for feelings and the heart; His redemption and example have as much to do with seeing and renewing our emotions as much as our minds. Western society likes to differentiate and categorize but I haven’t seen many lasting examples of that being for our good. Shalom is wholeness. Integrity is integration.

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In my line of work, it’s important to validate the heart. I know their assertiveness, intelligence and physical strength will be affirmed; I don’t know their sensitivity and emotional awareness will be valued.

When one of my kids mentions something he would like, for the next week, or the next year, he often says, “…but it’s okay if it doesn’t happen” in the same breath. He so rarely asserts a particular opinion, that when he does, he seems to at once try to bulwark against the disappointment of that opinion not being heard, or that hope not being fulfilled. While some part of this is a gift for gratefulness and adaptability, another part of this has alerted me to his disassociation with some of his feelings and need for emotional safety. He’s hardly ever said the words, “I feel…” so we have to hear them in other ways. And in a raucous household with a lot of needs, it’s easy to miss his particular feeling voice.

The other night he mentioned softly that he would like to dye his hair for Wacky Wednesday…followed of course by a quick forgiveness. We are run-of-the-mill people when it comes to these “holidays” that seem quite frequent to us old-fogies. It’s always about finding stuff around the house, making do, and celebrating that we even remembered the occasion. But that night it was different. We didn’t have anywhere we had to be. I asked him more about this hair dye, and he lit up talking about some ideas. I quick cleaned up dinner. And he and I stole away for a rare and special hunt for spray hair dye, just the two of us. At our second stop, we found the last can of red spray; he was elated. The specialness of going out and buying something was not lost on him. He said he’d share it with his brother. He couldn’t WAIT for tomorrow.

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It gives us such joy to see and respond to a child’s need or desire. This story is one of a silly wish that wasn’t formative to his emotional intelligence, but it sure meant something to him. It helped me too, to join his spontaneity, to say yes, your opinion is something we want to hear. I could’ve easily missed it.

This same kiddo mentions every couple of days a new piece of information surrounding the same subject: our dear next door neighbors are leaving town this month for a faraway state. He isn’t sharing feelings or emotional, but just mentioning, in the middle of homework or right before bed, “It will be before Easter,” or “It’s 20 more days after we do that.” I’m feeling this particular loss hard too, so it is helping me be more sensitive to his signals. I’m wrestling with how to help each of my kids on this countdown journey to saying goodbye to some lifetime friends. Sometimes it’s only in bed at night that I realize they’ve said something, or shown their grief. Each mention is an opening for a couple minutes before dancing to the next topic; each fact a window into the things on their young hearts and minds.

The double takes of our kids is a rhythm of parenting; these little creatures come coded and skinned in all sorts of maneuvers and languages and take on more because of us. It’s never too late to look again.

With each child, and each stage that goes by, the lesson of double-takes has been worthwhile and ever-evolving. It instructs me in grace towards other people’s kids, and other adults, and myself even. We all show these windows. And our reactions are interpretation. There’s more than what meets the eye, and what a gift to our hearts when someone looks again.

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A God Who Picks Up Legos

Church on Sunday was about the treasure. It seems like such a juvenile metaphor when I think about finding a treasure in a field, or the pearl. The whimsy, the luck, the certainty…all seem somewhat mythical. But our pastor encouraged … Continue reading

My Unbecoming

Women are unbecoming.

They are unbecoming the silenced one, the interrupt-able, the indirect object, the first apologizer, and the compromised.

This is not a scary thing if we believe that success and shalom for women are not inherently threatening to the success and shalom for men. And other women. And everyone. What if we did not assess humans competitively?

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I am only 33 but I am unbecoming. I’m unbecoming my childhood shame and guilt that made me nearly perfect, as I examine and re-examine the unkind behaviors of my child. I’m telling her she’ll be okay as we take the time to look at his heart, behind the cutting words and punishable arrows. Behind the performance and the pains.

I am unbecoming the self-righteous sensitivity that, like a clam shell, seemed to protect me, but then, turned out to isolate me instead. No pearl was forming, only imagined; all orthodoxy, no generosity. Like Beth Moore recently said, liking fewer people and calling it sanctification. No clarity maintained, eyes closed. In my fear of worldliness, I blocked human goodness; in my disdain for darkness, I blocked the light. I am unbecoming the closing.

I am unbecoming the reluctancy to say I was wronged, or hurt, or impacted. I am unbecoming a stoicism that the clam took well to and the patriarchy approved. I am undoing the dishonesty that other people’s comfort demanded; I am recovering from my own learned deafness to my needs, hurt, and worth. I am unlearning the lie that looking at something gives it infallible power.

I’m only 33 so I have only started to see the things God’s inviting me to unbecome. The undoing is not as a sweater unraveled, a heap of chaos and wonky, but as a first shoot from a bulb, headed up, having a taste for light. A mystery, a toil, to be sure, but a gift in this gift of time. Unbecoming into who I am better being.

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Also there is becoming. Women are also becoming. Definers. Decision-makers. Comfortable. Singular. Pervasive. Connected.

It can be hard to not trap the becoming, the new, in the unbecoming, or the old. It is hard to keep the two separate and moving, like siblings. For me, this includes the wildernesses of domesticity and being a woman in 2017 specifically. The ways to help, the gaps in our society, the cultural shifts, the breaking down of Christianity in our context, the new science, the recent poll. The conversations and opportunities that meet me each day, new pages, fresh print–not to be jammed in an old drawer and defined by an old construct.

It requires courage to not automatically reach for the old drawer, the last language. The becoming lessons are new to stay new–to start brand new hope, conviction, and relationship. Framing them in the past makes the lessons fade and compromises the work of unbecoming. We are brave when we look with curiosity. The situations my children face, that children before have never faced. Failures and successes that need to stand on their own two feet. The becoming is daunting in its own way because we don’t have the syllabus and the deadlines are moving; constantly, we are asked by this life to show movement, memory, and change–in this becoming, we are never finished.

Shalom, if we can dare speak of shalom within the world of only one person, is the overlap. When the lanes of the unbecoming and becoming merge. When the past isn’t too heavy but its substance is polished, and when the new isn’t hype or cheap but tailored…I suspect those moments when our gut, and mind, and lungs, and prayer, and worth are full, those are the times of most truth.

I pray for this work of unbecoming and becoming, a dotted line between the two in their youth. Traveling companions, but different journeys, each needing to stay in their lane for the most part. I pray for divine differentiation for healthy attachment; that the becoming would not have the lid of unbecoming, and that unbecoming would not go unnoticed in the fervor of becoming, and that both would help us be true, and full, and sources of shalom. I pray we would have people in our lives helping with each, pulling us to do whichever one comes least naturally, applauding the overlap, cheering for shalom.

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May you find the dotted line to occupy both spaces.

Undo, and new, ever human, going deep.

Unlearn, and discover, safer still, you and me.

 

 

God, Grief and Group Projects

There are times when it seems inconceivable to believe in a God and those are the same times I’ve found it impossible to breathe without faith. Each breath requires a prayer. Each prayer a resistance to turning stone cold.

The air tight apologetics I was raised in, that tried to make story irrelevant, emotions sap credibility, and choice an insult, are a vapor. It is only the story, only the feelings, only the choice to believe in these moments when we cannot get warm. And what good is faith if not for these moments? Where proofs and data were intended to bulwark (bully?) faith into being, the test of life, of exposure to suffering, of engagement with my internal world and the true external world–those pulled me into immersion in this faith river. Those were in fact the currents that keep me and hold me, when all else has failed, and me right along with.

I’ve been asking God, Parent and Creator, I Am that I Am, “Isn’t it too much?” The attacks, the weaponry, the assault, the epidemic of lies, on the airwaves and on my street–it just. never. stops. More so, isn’t it too much, what my friend has had to bear? And that friend, and this friend, and that family member, and that country, and that people? How, God–how are people supposed to pray, to give, when they are rampaged by suffering, betrayal or disappointment–by inconsolable grief to every cell of their being? How can you expect us to believe in You under the weight of this breaking?

Is there a way to find you God, to find Love, real, not through the threshold of pain?

Is there a way to edit Gethsemane and Golgotha and keep the empty grave?

Before I knew real pain and injustice, my sturdy and safe faith was clear and confident. It’s not to say lacking in value, nor deny it a piece of the puzzle, but it was as skinny as a pre-teen with an early growth spurt–all bones and corners and a little anemic.

It’s just not that straightforward anymore. And it’s also not such a lightweight.

In the moments of highest exposure, greatest pain, and deepest grief, we are naked before God. The garden story, to me, is not only about guilt and shame but perhaps more about grief and isolation. When tragedy falls hard, there is no where to hide and we want layers and holding and concealment. Oh to have the weight of something covering, of absorbing the racking sobs, of comforting the abandoned child within.

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Impossible is the new story, and the only way we make it into the next moment is thinking, hoping–believing?–that impossible is not the end of the story. Faith is setting our eyes outside of our raw chaos–daring to think that the people who we find next to us may be of some help–that the lineage we come from, the story we’ve been ingrafted into, will repeat. The story of suffering into love. Of grieving into wholeness.

I walk with tender and vulnerable people. I am a tender and vulnerable person. Not one person whom I really know is whole. I used to see people as whole; I used to expect people to have it together. To generally be doing well. I saw them as independently successful or overall autonomous. Now, the wholeness is only done in groups. When our broken pieces, our faith, and our love for each other melt into a whole, the sum greater than the parts–the impossible becoming possible, a minute at a time. When the holes of self become seen and embraced, when the grief is given over to, and we split the bill of life, when the victory is relief lighting all pairs of eyes–this is wholeness as it was meant. This is shalom that will stay.

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And somehow, tomorrow happens in this way. Somehow the crying takes pauses. The shameful parts don’t seem so paralyzing. The death doesn’t define the life. The suffering breaks into love. And our resources are multiplied. Our generosity renews itself. Our faith is linked and sacred anew. It turns out we were made for this. It turns out everyone is doing better when we’ve all shown we’re doing a hell of a lot worse.

This will only make sense to you who have carried your stomachs in your throats for days, who also soak your steering wheel with the occasional cry fest. You’re not alone, you who audaciously prayed despite the circumstances that merit calcification of the heart. If you are searching for covering, if the cries are muffled, I hope you will ask for help. Reach and grab someone before the mask is clad, before the thoughts take over and spiral you into isolation. Include another soul into your hole-ness, and find yourself more whole than you thought. Let someone be more of who they were made to be by including them in your grief. Pray a breath prayer as a radical ellipsis into the future. Give something out of the bankruptcy and find your own anxiety and impossible a little farther away. Be undone and in turn done in by the connection and comfort of others, God incarnate.

I don’t know if God is known resiliently without deep acquaintance with suffering, but I know for us it’s been the best introduction. Regrettably, and redemptively, so.

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Feels Like September

I have a half-written grant proposal collecting dust in my computer. It talks about the dream of sitting under someone much farther along, who is not emotionally invested in your identity and protection in the way that your mother, or even grandmother, is, and should be. But she is someone who still knows, and who, because of her completed steps, can guide or understand or cushion your own. The brewing idea is one of intergenerational community of sisterhood, that debunks the mommyblogs and echo chambers we fall into, because like tends to like, and our technological toys silo us as much as they can connect. She is the see-er. The voice missing in our confounding mental loads as women doing it all, fighting competition, pushing justice, weighing obligations and avoiding high fructose corn syrup.

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I have this idea of learning from older women, not in spurts but in rhythm, and making it more possible for others, because of the incredible women who are already a part of my life. But in practice, I’ve struggled to do this.

Because the ladies in the shallow end at swimming lessons have also recently given birth. The women in my grad classes were career-minded, seeking first mortgages, internships, and noble peace prizes. The ladies on my feed are in the trenches, reaching out in the nano seconds of alone time our thirties give us for a like, a laugh, a lunch break. And it’s hard to stop and visit with my senior neighbor when the whining pulls. It’s hard to interview and take long walks and listen to senior women when I am chasing, scrambling, and budgeting every minute and dollar.

There is another voice I have missed, in addition to the one far in front of me. It is my own. To a lesser degree, to a smaller detriment, but still. Interruption is my norm. Bending and adjusting is the plan. I forget things when I only have to think about myself at this point; I am more awkward and uncertain the fewer moods rely on my preparation. I have sought the help of professionals and brutal/beautiful friends to help remember me before us.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but women throughout history have traded their very lives for the idea that there is nothing more important than nurturing others. In some ways, I believe that. In other ways, I know that idea, unexamined, threatens my sanity and health.       –Courtney Martin

I promote solitude in theory, primarily as a mode through which we hear God’s heart, not just our own. Not to brag but I have exercised it in 90-120 minute parcels irregularly over the past 11 years of adulthood/marriage/motherhood. The last time I had solitude that was not measured in minutes, but days, in which I was not completely anxious, was probably when I was 20. I am soon turning 33. I tried taking an overnight solitude retreat a few years ago. An alarm kept going off and there were no curtains in the sweet cottage nestled in the woods. I was officially citified by that point and completely distracted and edgy. Barely slept. When I was 20, I had 48 hour of solitude on a rock face, with a clif bar, a journal and bible, a sleeping bag, a headlamp, a water pump and bottle, and some sunscreen. It was one of the best things of college.

Tomorrow I embark on both a time of sitting for extended times with a woman much farther along than me, and being alone with my self and God, for not a matter of hours, but days. And I have no idea what to expect. It is a completely different situation than the past, oh, all my years, and I’m so grateful and humbled in advance, but also have trepidation. What does a day look like without a deadline and nap schedule and bell system? What DO I want to eat for breakfast, that meal that always eludes me? What will God show me as I sit, awkwardly quiet and un-needed? How will my life of planning, devoting, working, fighting for causes, and connecting with friends leave me to be, or inform who I am, away?

This summer has left some scars and presented good gifts. The school year is in full swing now. I remember that feeling of September, up in Oregon when we’d start school after Labor Day. Excitement. Unknowns. Courage and nerves, holding hands. Tiredness from that summer still on our shoes. This kind of feels like all of that. September is about diving in, and stepping out, and back to school. This year, me too.

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