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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Orthodoxy of Service

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 … Continue reading

Staying

It is no small and unholy thing to stay.

I don’t know about you but I sow my wild oats in the wee hours of my soul’s nights. I rebel from my heart, not my body. In my deviance, I move through my own life as a visitor, a reluctant tourist, as though my connecting flight was delayed and I flirt with fantasies of departure. Mentally, emotionally. I wish to be impenetrable. I think that it, that my presence, makes no difference.

In the morning, when dawn starts and I feel the relief of new mercy, I relearn that becoming absent is not the answer, but rather full presence is the promise. Compartmentalizing is not often our strength as nurturers; integration is. On the other side of my leave, I resolve that one of the most powerful and transcendent things I can offer my own health, my Lord, and my family community, is the posture of staying. I pray for the faith that suggests that God is for me here, with my longings and fears. I believe that God is for them—the children, the friends, the others—here, so we can all stay and I can be present to whatever this holds.

Professional chaplains finesse the art of this ministry of presence. Their work relies on the theology that the Diety indwells the humane and in one another’s company, we draw nearer to God. Whether visiting a person in a coma, or incarcerated, a premature infant in NICU, or a chatty outpatient, the chaplain offers their presence to the pain, and enters the space having been honest with their own condition and capacity that day. Their effectiveness is not often measurable; it must be undergirded with a sound theology of Immanuel. So too is ours.

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We do not wear badges, nor chart our visits, but mothers and wives and women are full time practitioners of the ministry of presence, the discipline of staying, and it is a powerful cadence in the milieu of constant updates, upgrades and uprooting.

As missional women, the fire in our spirits and the thrust in our activism can lead us to a restlessness that bankrupts our confidence. Because the rubric of the empire, which American Christianity has often adopted, involves fame and fortune, statistics and stages, we itch. We measure our success on a faulty scale and despair, when all the while, our steadfast presence, our dwelling here and with, is the salve to our want, and the world’s searching. It is resistance and it is confounding. It is growing up and it is an anchor to the tossing.

Sharing reflections from the transformative community of Benedictine life, Joan Chittister speaks straight to me in the middle of my sticky linoleum: There comes a time in life when everyone else’s family seems to have been better than my own. There comes a moment when having everything seems to be the only way to squeeze even a little out of life. There comes a day when this job, this home, this town, this family all seem irritating and deficient beyond the bearable. There comes a period in life when I regret every major decision I’ve ever made. That is precisely the time when the spirituality of stability offers its greatest gift. Stability enables me to outlast the dark, cold places of life until the thaw comes and I can see new life in this uninhabitable place again. But for that to happen, I must learn to wait through the winters of my life (Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, p. 151).

We know this irritation and this wait. And we also know, when by God’s grace we’ve approached Him with our misgivings, and sat with ourselves and each other, warding off both the guilt and the flight, that the ministry of presence is disarming in all the right ways. We know, for when we receive someone’s full attention or we feel the Lord’s pleasure after the full arc of a day alongside a child’s wonder, that the ministry of presence is healing. Renewing. Soothing.

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As a chaplain of communities such as the family, the church, the school, the neighborhood, the mother figure announces God’s goodness and steadfastness even as she relies on it herself. As a person vulnerable to other people, she demonstrates the invitation of the triune God. As a person rejecting the chains of perfection, consumerism, and control, she presents herself as an approachable companion to others. As she sits without judgment with an overwhelmed new mom, quietly occupies an overtired child in a hospital waiting room, or listens to a child’s unreasonable plans for a birthday for the tenth time, she suggests a Love and a Grace we only learn from one another. She resembles a weeping Savior, a cooking Messiah, present, stayed in the smallest and deepest of ways.

Even when it costs. Even when the night before she took a little trip through the weeds of want and the rushes of regret. She is present not because she does not have any other options or distractions or because it is easy; she is present because God is present to and in her, and this station is a conduit of the calling, not its culmination.

And so, my sisters, I see your choice to stay and I raise my glass. I applaud your outstanding grit to remain present over the years that you cannot speed nor slow, the surprise visits, the illnesses, the chores, that bleed into each other, that step on the heels of the next, and on the toes of your own securities. May the meaning of the moments neither pass us by nor overwhelm us to despair. We are here, together, injecting the daily with the divine. Thank you for staying.