Monday, January 9, 2017

How Do You File Memories?

These four walls, painted quiet green to invite calm, hold so many memories in drawers and on shelves, telling the story of a life through its contents. A much needed cleaning, purging and organization finally took place last week, drawing out forgotten moments and lessons.

 How do you file memories?

Home office and sometime guest room, exercise room, storage room, and sacred space. Keeper of my son’s memorabilia and pictures and adorable handwritten creative writing. Holder of a cartoon reminiscent of our oldest songwriter son. Host to so many of my books. Storer of financial documents, former teaching materials, research for writing projects, graduate school notes. Nearly 30 years of life including mortgage papers leaving a trail of all our homes, telling a wistful story of a young couple buying a handyman special house and then another, moving and moving and moving again until suddenly we found ourselves moving in the other direction, down-sizing in an emptynest.

Folders hold poetry written by others and some written by my awkward non-poet hand, like this one called “You Two” written for a former roommate after the death of her young husband, a dear man who influenced my husband’s decision to be an electrical engineer:

Who would’ve known that when you were young
and life was a rolling laugh
that it would end too soon?
Who would’ve known when I watched you two
swim in days of promise decades ago
that the promise would be short-lived?
But you would’ve said “yes” anyway,
wouldn’t you?
You would’ve said “yes” to limited years and brief days
so as not to miss the chance at love,
so as not to miss the chance to call
with your soft voices to
children listening for you two
from heaven and across the sea
“Come to me,” you summoned,
as they ran into your world and hearts
and home.
Who would’ve known?
Another folder holds poetry written for us by old church friends at a going away party before moving to Chicago from Virginia, like this adaption from Judith Viorst poem, “When Hannah Moved Away,” aptly changed to “Since the Mackillops Moved Away”:

The tires on my bike are flat.
The sky is grouchy grey.
At least it sure feels like that
Since the MacKillops moved away.

Chocolate ice cream tastes like prunes.
December’s come to stay.
They’ve taken back the Mays and Junes
Since the MacKillops moved away.

Flowers smell like halibut.
Velvet feels like hay.
Every handsome dog’s a mutt
Since the MacKillops moved away.

Nothing’s fun to laugh about.
Nothing’s fun to play.
They call, but I won’t come out
Since the MacKillops moved away.
How do you file goodbyes?
The folders also include the hard stuff. Paperwork from my grandfather’s estate when I served as the executrix 20 years ago tells a heart-wrenching story with its inclusion of a legal document signed by my troubled father saying he understood he was being cut of the will. My father’s signature offers memories of him in better days with its lovely and elegant curves. I hold the paperwork in my hand, wondering whether I keep the painful reminder, recycle it, or burn it in the fireplace. Reverently I return the folder to the drawer.
How do you file heartache?

The files tell a story of success and failure. Degrees earned. Writing rejections received. Relationships lost. Children and friendships celebrated. Sons departing for other states.
I begin most days in this room, fighting the persuasive call of Facebook and email in order to begin my day with silent prayer—for me, for others. I write at the computer, review manuscripts for work, or exercise with weights or an exercise ball. I live life in between these four walls in this small room.
Tossing out unneeded documents and ordering the files and books suddenly makes living here more calming for me, not only because I can find things in their neat folders and places on the shelves but because I’ve found articles and pieces of my life I want to remember forever. I need every person represented here, whether in my address books, pictures, letters, notes, journals. I need the writing samples to show me how I started awkwardly on this journey of honing a craft so that I continue down that road of editing, revising, listening, recording and telling stories until I take my last breath.  
I cleaned out the space to make room for new projects and more of life, to fit in all the future holds. But the space feels so full today I can hardly imagine forcing one more picture into the albums, stuffing one more note into a folder, sandwiching one more book between the others on the shelf without overcrowding these very full and sacred walls.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review of The Year of Small Things

The older I get, the more I find myself hungry for a simple, downwardly-mobile, radical lifestyle, one that honors and cares for the least of these and the hurting, and one that finds my husband and me living in strong community with other people of faith. I also secretly wish to be the person who sold everything and moved to the inner city like the people who are my heroes. But my husband's job is out here in a Chicago suburb. We're planted here.

Then along comes Sarah Arthur's and Erin Wasinger's book, The Year of Small Things, telling how they worked to apply these very principals - the principals of new monasticism - while living in the suburbs.
New monasticism focuses on America’s forgotten urban centers while forming intentional Christian communities, as defined by the authors. The Arthurs came from a background of intentional living in North Carolina where they attended grad school at Duke. They spent years showing hospitality to the marginalized and the stranger in the inner city while sharing their meals, possessions and living space with others. After a move to the suburbs to answer a call to pastor a church, Sarah and her husband Tom struggled to apply their former lifestyle to their new living situation in a homogenous suburban neighborhood where the folks all seem to be fine. When they met the Wasingers, the families discovered their common passion and life philosophies. They decided to meet weekly, sharing their lives with brutal accountability, and creating a covenant to apply one principal a month of radical Christian living and new monasticism to their lives in that place where they lived.

 The result included some successes and some challenges. The authors offer much grace and much confession about their own awkward fits and starts on their journey, giving readers the same grace and permission to work through a new, simple lifestyle marked by generosity to others and hospitality, and care for the earth, all while  living in an accountable community.
Underneath many of our lives lies a hunger for this kind of radical call to shake up the status quo. The Year of Small Things could be transformative in so many ways, to so many people, in so many places despite just offering “small things” to do. The book is a great read for individuals, couples, or small groups interested in a life resembling the early church.
“We’re pretty sure we’re not changing the world. But we’re letting God change us, which in turn points us toward the change already happening in our church and city. One small thing at a time.”


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Well-Acquainted with Grief

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop on the heart until, against our will, in our own despair, comes wisdom from the awful grace of God.”   ~ Aeschylus

I collect certain people. Pack them into life’s travel bag, looking them up at the first sign of hardship and pain. I speed dial them in search of the comfort brought by their voices and presence.
These are my friends who are well-acquainted with grief.
 Grief tumbles off the page when I look at the assaults on their lives. Suicide of a parent. The death of a brother to AIDS.  Brain tumor in a grandson. Painful marriages and divorces. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Tragic death of a child. Painful betrayal by trusted people. But they have taken pain captive, these strong ones, looked it straight in the eyes, and gifted others with hard won comfort because grief talks to grief.
I seek out members of this tribe during my own seasons of struggle.
They display strength in the worst moments of life while remaining gentle and empathetic enough to respond to the pain they see in the rest of us. The hard moments leave a mark, but that mark isn’t named bitterness, or self-pity, or cold-heartedness.
Not everyone manages this feat.
One friend opened her farmhouse to strangers over the past year. The family of a man suffering from a brain aneurysm needed a place to stay while he received treatment in a nearby hospital far from their home. My friend soothed this frightened and hurting family, hosting them for two weeks during their season of turmoil, introducing them to horses, goats, chickens, and a paddle boat on the pond. Wonderful distractions from the worry.  
The visit would not end well.
The young mom would find herself an unexpected widow, and her children would find themselves fatherless. My friend offered all she had – her kindness and prayers and her home situated away from the sterile hospital environment. They fed the animals, paddle-boated on the pond, romped through the fields.
It’s messy to step into someone else’s loss. Words fail us, coming slowly. We feel awkward, unsure. But a person well-acquainted with grief knows what the hurting long to hear.
 Nearly 50 years ago when Martin Luther King was assassinated, riots erupted throughout the country. But one man, well-acquainted with grief himself, calmed an Indianapolis crowd in a poor section of the city. The crowd waited to hear Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, but they hadn’t heard yet about King’s assassination. Kennedy shared the news with them, connecting to the crowd by referencing his own pain experienced after the death of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Then he recited one of his favorite poems:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,

against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God. 
~ Aeschylus
Many other American cities burned that night after King was killed. But calm descended on Indianapolis. Kennedy's grief spoke to their grief, helping to usher in calm.
Eventually we all experience loss and grief. No one gets out of this life without scars. Some lives just seem more battered than others. But I love these battered people with all their beautiful wounds and scars and wide-open hearts that have eyes to see and ears to hear the sometimes unspoken pain in others.

“A man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief.” My favorite description of the Incarnate God, unflinching in the face of hardship and death.  These folks emulate Him.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Broken Furnace Vs. Homelessness

Whine. Whine. Whine. My furnace went out this week. I woke up Monday, just as my husband’s car pulled away to take him to Southern California for five days, noticing the house was a bit chilly. And silent. The furnace wouldn’t come on.

No problem. I’d call our Heating and Air Conditioning service, and they’d have it fixed by lunchtime.

“I’m afraid this is going to be really expensive,” the repairman told me.

My roll-with-the-punches smile drooped. "Like how much?"

“Like, you might as well buy a new one, because I’ll charge you $1000.000 to fix this and it might break down again in February. It’s 15-years old. But if you want a new one, furnaces are on backorder. It might be a week.”
“A week!” The forecast predicted temps below zero for the next couple of days. So much for heat by lunchtime. “How do I keep my pipes from freezing?”
“Electric heaters.”
Fears of a house fire danced through my head. I told him to order the furnace after consulting with my hubby. The Heating service found a non-emergency customer willing to let me have their slot on Wednesday. I could manage without warmth for several days.
For three days, I moved space heaters from room to room, stoked the fire in living room, and slept with a pile of blankets over me. The bone cold air clung to my clothes even when I went into work for a few hours. I wondered how people lived this way centuries ago. Not only was my body cold, but the walls exuded cold. The dishes were freezing when I went to make a cup of coffee. The shower tiles were frozen even after a hot shower. The floors were unspeakably cold. 
I wore a down vest over my clothes with a scarf around my neck and my bathrobe topping off that lovely ensemble. To comfortably read in front of the fire, I wrapped blankets around all those layers and still felt chilled.
Forty-six degrees, the thermostat on the space heater read in the mornings.
In addition to the cold, I continued to worry about burning down the house. Did I know how to use the fire extinguisher? Would we die in our sleep? So much to lose if the space heater shorted. Those senior pictures of my sons framed and hanging on the walls. All their sweet notes written to me over 25-30 years. The oil painting of my father when he was a handsome teenager. His wallet and watch in my top dresser drawer – the only possessions I hold of his. A lifetime worth of letters and cards stashed in the trunk at the foot of my bed. Souvenirs from my lifetime.
And then I worried about the paperwork. A fire would destroy all the important papers on file, the list of passwords that keep us running efficiently, the computers with so much stored information and writing projects. Possessions and information and data complicated our lives. Their destruction would complicate it even more.
The birds of the air do it without sowing or reaping or gathering into barns. No accumulated belongings piling up, at risk of destruction by fire. They depend on their Creator who provides for all their needs.
By Wednesday afternoon, the house was warm again, despite 10 degree weather outside. I gladly wrote out a check, and invited my son to a celebratory dinner at a favorite Italian restaurant in the next town. I parked the warm and toasty car, grateful for a parking space close to the entrance, providing a quick run to get inside the warm building.
Then I noticed the bundle of possessions on the sidewalk outside an empty storefront. A roller suitcase. A pile of bags and some blankets. And then the blankets moved.
 “Is someone in there?” I asked Kenzie.
Someone was camped on that freezing cold cement for the night, backed up against the frozen storefront walls. We walked to the restaurant, and tears warmed my cold cheeks. We ordered our dinner, and I ordered an extra pizza to go.
 “With lots of meat. Meat might keep them warm.”
“Hope they’re not a vegetarian,” Kenzie said, as new customers walked to their seat carrying the freezing cold outdoor air thick on their clothing.
On our way to our warm car, which would take us to our warm house, I stopped and greeted the bundle of blankets, offering them a pizza. “And here’s some napkins on top,” I said.
Eyes peered at me through goggles worn for protection from the cold wind. And then the bundle spoke.
A woman.
She expressed exuberant thanksgiving, and we left for our car. I drove away, watching her bury her head in the pizza box, wondering about the birds of the air, sowing and reaping and eating.  


Friday, January 1, 2016

Beautiful Mourning

The wife, children, and brother-in-law sang. The funeral visitors sang. Everyone but the man they came to honor sang, at least not on earth. But with all the joyful and exuberant celebration, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him sit up in his coffin and sing, too. As a man who loved music and composed his own praise and worship songs, he would've loved the service.

We were at the funeral of a beloved coworker and friend who recently passed away after a two-year struggle with brain cancer. Pastor Calvin Egler came from a family of Gospel singers, and, oh, did they all sing him out that day. Despite their grief and the painful goodbye, their ability to sing spoke of their mighty faith.
Even Calvin’s mother-in-law sang. A mother-in-law who loved Calvin like her own son. After her grandson helped her to the stage, she began to speak: “I’ve had some good days. I’ve had some hills to climb….” And then the band kicked in, and she belted out an unforgettable gospel song with her sister.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer had the same stirring experience when he visited Black churches in Harlem during a stay in America while Hitler took power in Germany in the 1930s.  Eric Metaxas writes about the fervency of those churches in the biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The German pastor found a refreshing orthodoxy and passion in the Harlem church he attended, despite the wounds of racism evident in our country. And that power may have prepared Bonhoeffer for the rising struggles he would encounter when he returned to Germany. He watched church members face their struggles with strength, hope, and grace. Bonhoeffer would do the same when he was eventually arrested back in Europe and hung by the Nazis.
At the funeral, as Calvin’s children and wife (who leads the Wheaton College Gospel Choir) and family members and friends sang, I wept. Sitting in the back, moved by the music, I fondly remembered this humble and faithful man who exemplified what it meant to be a Christian.
Calvin worked part-time at the publishing house where I work, but not in the role of Associate Publisher or VP. Despite his degree from prestigious Wheaton College, he pastored a church and worked a very humble job with our company to supplement his income.
He emptied our trash in the evenings.
But as he walked from office to office collecting wastebaskets as people started to clear out for the day, he acted on his true calling. He would stop and inquire about people. No one was invisible to Calvin. If he found someone late in the evening crying after a bad day (which he did find), he would put aside his task to counsel and pray with that person, remembering his call to care for people.
And we remember him.
Pastor Calvin was faithful with the task given to him. And as his funeral demonstrated to the packed church of many hundreds of people, he had lived the most valuable of lives, putting people in a place of importance because he knew their importance to God. As his beautiful, articulate children expressed, they grew up with a father who daily made them feel loved and the source of his pride.
Watching others face their trials with singing transforms us all. I know I was transformed. I want my own time here to be marked with equal trust. This quiet, faithful man was a role model for many. And that’s his legacy.
Rest in peace, Pastor Calvin. Well done.
I've had some good days
I've had some hills to climb
I've had some weary days
I've had some sleepless nights
But when I look around
And I think things over
All of my good days
Outweigh my bad days

So I won't complain

~ Marvin Winans


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Non-Heated Discussion about Race and Violence

There we were, an interracial, intergenerational group of about twenty something people represented by Caucasian, Asian, African Americans and Hispanics, huddled in a large circle in the basement of a pub, having a rational discussion about the hot button topic of race and violence in America from a perspective of faith. We were attending part two of a discussion on this highly emotional topic, and likely there will be a part three, based on the way the conversation grew in vibrancy and ended too soon. 

We managed to keep emotions in check, but we also had to admit to the presence of an elephant in the middle of the room, with its large trunk and body nearly tipping over food plates and drinks, evidenced by the way the conversation began awkwardly, tentatively, with a palpable fear of offending someone else in the meeting.  
We touched on Affirmative Action, Christians appearing condescending when we want to help, the need for whites to give up their power, show mercy and build relationships rather than appear as the “white saviors.”
I left the talk with more questions than I arrived with, and I don’t consider myself someone unengaged from this issue. I searched for any hidden motives on my part for why I give, why I care, why I try and build bridges to be part of the solution rather than the problem. But this conversation turned in directions I didn’t anticipate.
Many years ago I read an article in ByFaith Magazine by a former New Orlean’s pastor, Mo Leverett, who spent decades in the poorest housing project in that city, investing in the lives of its residents. In the article, he challenged the church to “get their uniforms dirty” by serving the poor and under resourced. The analogy is based on his love of baseball as a child and how the greatest shame for him would be to walk off the field at the end of the day with a clean uniform. He wanted to slide into home plate, covering himself in dirt and feel proud that he had behaved like a warrior.
For years, I’ve held onto Mo’s article and returned to it again and again, feeling his words to be a call to the church.
At Pub Talk, we touched on the church coming into the city bearing gifts as opposed to just giving a check. Personally, I struggled with the idea of giving checks only and forgoing the relational aspect of ministry. But to quote Mo, “I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want to just write a check, I want to get my hands dirty.’ But it’s a good idea to start by writing checks.”
In the book, When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, the authors address the issue of the church (and the government) hurting the very people they are trying to help. We may have good intentions, but we bring naiveté to ministry and service which inflicts harm sometimes. Pub Talk was a brief forum for educating both sides and creating a dialogue among people committed to helping rather than hurting.
The Caucasians in the group were challenged to consider why we want diverse churches, why we want to go into the inner city and partner with minority churches. We were told Black and Hispanic churches don’t look around on Sunday mornings, wringing their hands, wondering why more white folks aren’t joining them.  This perspective felt unsettling to me, and I woke the next morning wondering why I felt so troubled. I had to do some soul searching, and came to the conclusion interracial services feel so powerful because they are the very representation of reconciliation, and not an example of lording power over someone else. They represent the whole Kingdom of God, which is not exclusively white.  
We need these discussions because minorities need to know many people care and want to live intentionally in their communities as friends and neighbors. Folks want to share in their experiences, seek justice, and show mercy in any way possible. And Caucasians need to know our help can be perceived as condescending. Despite the misunderstandings, we need more awkward, elephant-in-the-room conversations until we uncover the misconceptions and wounds.
Despite being an amicable group of people who came together over a common passion, some misunderstandings arose. And if a group of folks intentionally seeking racial reconciliation could feel a bit out of sorts, then how much more difficult would it be for people outside our circle to engage in productive conversation?
Talks are hard work. Listening is hard work. But both are oh so necessary. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Longings Never Cease

My son returned from three and a half years in the Peace Corps and has been living in our home as he searches for the new pieces needed to rebuild his life here. We are watching his roller coaster adjustment, and he’s filled with the emotions predicted by the Peace Corps before he ever left this country all those years ago.

“The return is rough,” he heard from numerous people.    
We’ve all expected his adjustment to be hard, so his father and I move in close, then slip into the background over and over, trying to delicately find the balanced dance that will allow him to heal and live here with a new, bilingual heart that now beats in both English and Macedonian.
And this mother’s heart wants to tell him the pain will subside, the longings will cease. He’ll move on, and all those people he fell in love with in those simple mountainous villages will drift into his memory along with the Call to Prayer he heard chiming throughout the day.
Kenzie with his good friend, Nikola.
But I’m too familiar with longing to know those words would be false.
I’ve never lived overseas, and the places I long for are accessible by a very long car drive, but I may never live there again. As a born and bred New Englander, I feel haunted by shadows of antique coastal towns with sea kissed breezes, but it’s likely I’ll only return for the occasional visit rather than the four-seasoned life. Not impossible, but unlikely.  
 Two men playing chess in the mountains
I miss the gentrified Virginia city of Richmond where we spent eleven years and where one of my sons has found and built a satisfying life. Some days, I drive imagined roads of the city and remember the rising curves and falls, so different than these Illinois flatlands. I remember the lilting sounds of Southern accents and the history so foreign to this Yankee girl.
But living in any place for an extended period of time seems to invite us to adopt the local history as our own, because who really owns history anyway?
And even more than places, I long for people who have passed. People who strongly shaped me and my memories, for better and for worse. Some days I’d love to tell them how it all turned out, how I healed, how life became okay. Instead of speaking, I dream of them, engaging in one-sided conversations from my imagination and wake in tears as I recount the dreams to my husband.
Kenzie's original host family. They remain close friends.
So my son will long for friends, for a gentle culture, for family-centered community that he experienced in Macedonia with many he now considers “brothers.” He engaged and connected with the unrest from their nation’s past and now carries their lives within as he makes his new way. 
His longings are invisible to most, but they’re living with a raw power beneath the surface. The most we can do is walk this painful road with him, enjoy the memories he chooses to share, encourage him to visit, and watch as he takes their history on as own.
But likely this longing will never cease.