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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Statio, Even Here

“Saul said, ‘Let us go down after the Philistines by night and plunder them until the morning light; let us not leave a man of them.’ And they said, ‘Do whatever seems good to you.’ But the priest said, ‘Let us draw near to God here.'” – 1 Samuel 14:36

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Here. Not after. Not if, then. But here. 

A beautiful part of my life consists in observing and learning from people who are grappling with the priest’s suggestion.

I know and participate in the battles before them and around them. Some of the Philistines of today’s world–the pursuit and loss of personal dreams, the mindless endless urgent busyness, the politics and causes that can exhaust and infuriate. I hear the question “How will this be fixed?” with the vulnerable background of “God, if I or he or she is not convinced of your love and care, does it matter if You do?” I feel the pain of time passing and being caught up in a salty, teary wave of uncontrollable circumstances and innumerable wars to wage.

In all of this, I am craving the discipline – or the art – of statio. Always reminding me of the word “stay,” it is a culturally unnatural, humanly vital practice of pause. Call it margin, call it transition, it is waiting and learning. It is opening and wondering instead of solving and fighting. It is gestation and contractions.

In one of my favorite books, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily, Joan Chittister describes statio as making us “conscious of what we are about to do and… present to the God that is present to us. Statio is the desire to do consciously what I might otherwise do mechanically. Statio is the virtue of the Presence.”

One of my expectant friends is carefully exploring who she is apart from the typical identity scaffolding of career, ideology, family and even habits which being pregnant has separated her from. After all, the scaffolding is temporary. What a beautiful picture of statio. How better to prepare for raising a soul than attending to your own, peering into who you are as a child of God and nothing else, repositioning yourself before bearing down in labor. To be bare and comfortable before yourself and your God and, in time, your child. An amazing gift she holds and offers to her son. Something that many people go into unconsciously.

Others of my friends have been thoughtfully considering marriage and relationships–fear of, desire for, anger about, differentiation from. It reminds me of statio work that I did not do at the ideal times (before role changes versus after, especially before entering a covenant with Ryan). By His grace, I have been able to sort out some of my self even beside him, my sons, before Him, in the milieu of multiple hats but the rush of many things happening at once when I was 21 did not afford me this foreign notion of statio. Now, I watch with held breath my dear sisters who are facing battles of huge proportions as they name Goliath disappointments and David solutions. In the shadow of absent men, whether their relationship is a thief or they feel robbed of one at all, there are wars to wage. And plenty of people say, “Do whatever seems good to you.” But refraining from snatching those battles, listening to the priest, and staying, drawing near to the Lord here, here in the dust and ashes — that is their victory and that is why I am honored to be in their company. Statio gives meaning to here. It delays the war and heeds an invitation.

Women have to be so resilient. Such a clear, long sequence of events is laid before young girls in our society, without full disclosure of how those events conflict and compete and do not comply with our timeframes and effort and linear thinking. The Philistines are giant but slippery. As an achiever, an aggressor, I can be Saul. Ready to fight on through the night, make something happen, charge through resistance. I am a machine of agenda and now and Try. I know many women who are also reformers and conquerers. We are good at it and have been rewarded for it for so much of our lives. Success in school is a friend to the machines of agenda and now. I am not proud that in college people called me “the legend,” and as you might guess, it was not because I was a good example of pause. 

I am slow to see that the real fight, the first war, is not with the elusive Philistines. The wars women face at every turn have no clear start or end date, like the ones we learned in World History. They are wars of the heart, mind and soul. Of who we are and what gives us meaning and how do we contribute and how do we gain significance and is there a way to land on answers to these questions no matter where we are. They are wars that can be drawn out by the aging of our bodies, battles that become sharper when our experiences in this life differ and rub. These battlefields precede the perceived enemies and we know it at our heart. If we hurry, if we only have friends who say “do whatever seems good to you,” we miss it. We don’t accept our location. And stones are left unturned, redemption is left undiscovered and there is bloodshed.

After this verse, Saul did not battle the Philistines. He listened to the priest and a secret in the camp was revealed. His son Jonathan was ransomed, defended, and saved by his people and Saul was saved from a severe vow he had foolishly made earlier.  All that happened “here.” Before there. Now.

Earlier in the story named after him, Samuel addressed the people and reminded them of who God was–their Author, their Liberator, their King. And he says, “Now therefore, stand still that I may plead with you before the Lord…” (12:7). What a remarkable phrase. Stand still! Do statio! And it wasn’t just a command–at every step, Samuel was beside others. He was pleading with them. The priest said “Let us.” Statio is achieved through internal war and external help. Community that insists on consciously being here before there. I love that. Here can seem lonely. Here can be no where if you are with no one and who wouldn’t want to charge into a fight if here was scary and void.

Sisters, you have helped me find statio and see how ripe and how good here can be. Let’s stay. Let’s be in company together and redeem these surroundings, whatever they are, to know ourselves and know Him. Let’s pause with the Shepherd and find freedom in the openness of Here.