Wednesday, February 22, 2017

On Frogs and Living


I have learned over the past several weeks that it’s possible to go into hiding without meaning to. It happens in the slow drip of fast days, the ones that leave you empty, the ones that split your seams. I’ve experienced both this February, I always do. I used to think being simultaneously spent and topped off was impossible, or maybe the symptom of a larger problem. 

Now, I can only draw one conclusion, and it feels more like a song than a statement: I am alive. (Can you hear the music?)

Part of this epic “being alive,” at least lately, has involved conversations about frogs. Isn't that just the sort of thing that keeps us interesting in living? Not the frogs, but the striking reality that every single piece of it, every slice, every sliver, every atom holds the potential to grip us? One day, we’re roaming room to room in our cluttered home, wondering why we don’t just go outside and shake off our blues. The next, we’re hearing affirmations from the clouds and storing up accidental wisdom like a squirrel with nut-packed cheeks. 

I re-learned the distinctions between toads and frogs while sitting for an entire day in the vinyl chair by Calvin’s hospital bed. (He’s fine.)  A few days later I stumbled on twin stone frog statues on a warp-speed trip to Arkansas. The night I returned home, Silas asked to read about Moses in the Storybook Bible. I’m guessing he wanted the comfort of baby Moses sailing downriver in his pitch-sealed basket, being rescued from the reeds. My guy feels kinship with these stories of being found. For every story of rescue, for every baby dealt a new hand, there first came loss. Without release there is no capture, and this is enough to break us both. 
But anyway, the frogs.

The Moses we found that night was bearded and tall, railing for the captives to be freed. The answer was yes, and then it was no. This happened on a loop, to the soundtrack of creative, maddening disruption. Assault by nature – the parts of it that seem like mistakes to our untrained eyes. Eventually, the frogs were called out of their cool-earth hiding and into holy action. 

Silas wondered why God made everyone suffer, and it’s a very valid question. I personally wondered what God had against the poor frogs. They were made for the mud. Minding their own business. I'm guessing they never imagined their services would be needed to set captives free.

Here’s what I’m holding onto: none of us was promised a life of comfort. We’ve been called to a faith that will cost us something – must cost us something. Often, what it costs us is our preference for engagement. It costs us our big ideas on what it would take to really fix the problems we’re faced with. If we pay up, we'll never be more sure of our inability to solve a single thing, and that is a death worth suffering. So, we might mourn. We might gnash our teeth as we bury the mantles we’ve carried to “win souls for Christ” or whatever we were taught to call it. But after that last shovel of dirt is heaved, we’ll feel the looseness in our shoulders and our souls. 

This is freedom.
We’ll do anything for more.

I don’t believe I’ve been called to the holy war of disruption or the righteous battle of driving someone mad. I’m not that kind of frog. But I think it’s time to dig out from under this blanket of mud. Bury the old, awaken the true. I’ll squint at the sun and my thin skin will surely cry for mercy. None of this means it’s a terrible idea. It just means I’m a frog. It means I’ll need help along the way.

The miracle is this abundant life, the one we say we want. Though the details change from person to person, the themes are all the same. It will break our hearts and send us to bed at 9 o’clock three nights running. It will weary us. Wreck us. 

It will give us a glimpse of God’s kingdom here on earth, and we’ll find ourselves willing to do whatever it takes to be a part of it. We'll find ourselves stone-cold stunned by the strange and ordinary work God has for us.

It's somehow both February and spring outside my window. The physical world is calling us to wake up, and it's calling us early.  

Dig your way toward the sun. 
Come up out of hiding. 
Listen for the music.


Friday, February 3, 2017

Shared in Common


I first met Amber last Spring at Rooted Chicago. I had known her name for a while from social media and admired her knack for always pulling the best quote out of an article she shares online - something I'm not particularly good at. Standing next to her in that darkened sanctuary, I was able to really see her.

As I have mentioned, I'm being very intentional about listening to the voices and stories around me which might be different than my own. I am tremendously weary of the prevailing echo chamber concept, where we're quick to huddle up with others who look, live, and believe just as we do. I'm desperate to learn from friends who experience life differently and I'm committed to sharing some of those voices here on my blog, just as I shared Jess's story several months back.

Amber is a beautiful writer with an important story to tell. I asked if she would be willing to talk with us about what it's like (and what it could be like) to be a single woman in the church. I'm beginning to see the way we cater to marriage issues, quietly implying that our single brothers and sisters are not yet whole people. I'm recognizing our tendency to idolize families, quietly implying that a single person doesn't *really* have one - yet. I've been guilty of this myself. These sinful biases are inflicting real damage throughout our churches and we are missing out when we push politely push people to the margins until we feel that they're ready to hang with us.

Just last night Calvin was being DJ on the way to get groceries at Aldi. Naturally, Lacrae ended up in the mix. In one of my favorite songs he raps, "Your money your singleness marriage talent your time They were loaned to you to show the world that Christ is Divine."

I'm grateful that Amber is stewarding her gift of singleness well, willing to share with us so that we might see more clearly just exactly who God is and how He loves every single one of us.


Shared in Common
by Amber Wackford

After I was fired at the beginning of last year, I went home to Maryland for a couple of weeks. I needed to hug my mom, pray with the ladies from my Bible study, and eat at my best friend’s table.

Years before, when I was in my last year of graduate school, finishing classes and interning, my best friend, Jesse, worried about me. I had mentioned offhandedly that my days were so busy I didn’t even have time to eat a sandwich, and she immediately bought protein bars for me to keep in my desk and insisted on making dinner Tuesday nights before we went to Bible study.  I didn’t have to do anything, she told me, I just had to show up and be okay eating whatever she was making.

Because of this invitation to simply come, their table became for me a place of sanctuary. It was a respite from the craziness of that busy season. I was allowed to come stressed. I was allowed to be tired. I was allowed to talk about work or school, or I was allowed to not talk about work and school. I had all permission in the world to just come; to not take care of anyone, and instead let my friends take care of me.

So, it didn’t come as a surprise to me in that season when my job was gone and I started to question everything about my cross-country move, all I needed to was to sit at my best friend’s table again.

We planned it on a Tuesday night, as we had done some many times before. Only this time, while I set out plates, napkins, and forks and she stirred a pot at the stove, Jesse said without prompting, “I love when you’re home and in my kitchen!”   

From the table where he was buckling their youngest into his high chair, her husband, Matt, piped up, “She’s not kidding.”

“I know,” I said. 

Matt must have heard the dismissing tone in my voice because he didn’t let it go. “No, you don’t. She pines for you.”

I busied myself filling water glasses, and let their words hang in the air. I realized in that moment that the sacredness that I had experienced sitting with them week after week, eating and sharing stories and praying, they had experienced too.

I realized that over the course of several hundred Tuesdays, God had made us family.

***********

I wonder sometimes when we think about Church if we’re too quick to forget stories like this. The ones where people are welcome to come however they are to eat, and pray, and not be alone.

If we’re not quick to forget it, then I think we’re quick to dismiss it.  We’re quick to neglect that the Church is built in ordinary moments, and often in ordinary ways. And that this was always God’s design. It was always meant to be built on shared meals, shared stories, and shared prayers. It was always meant to be about people who love Jesus sharing their lives with each other, becoming friends, becoming a family.

The Church was always meant to be built on what’s shared in common, and too often we focus instead on what makes us different.

Nowhere in my life is this clearer than in my friendship with Matt and Jesse. I am single, and my best friends are married. While I was busy with graduate school, they were busy building a home and starting a family. They have settled in our hometown with their boys, and I left our hometown a year ago to try my hand at a new job.  We are in different seasons, called to prioritize different things, now living in different places, and we remain as connected and smitten with each other as ever.   

Because love is the thing we always hold in common.

***********

When I graduated with my Master’s degree, my married friends sat outside in rain with my parents and witnessed my walk across the stage for my diploma. They threw a party so I could celebrate with my people the accomplishment that came after years of hard work. They rejoiced with me, and they were proud.

Two weeks later, Jesse found out she was pregnant with their first son, the now-nearly-five-year old who calls me Aunt Amber and tells people I’m his best pal. Throughout the months of Jesse’s pregnancy, I ran errands, vacuumed, and scrubbed their kitchen floors. I painted the nursery, and helped Jesse’s mom and sister throw a baby shower. I rejoiced with them, and I still am proud.

I’m proud of how they parent, and proud to be part of the family that’s helping them raise their sons.

Because the thing is when you’ve sat at the table together week after week, and you’ve had all permission in the world to be yourself, and you build these relationships that bleed friendship into family, and you all love Jesus well together, you’re being the Church.

You’re being the kind of Church that Jesus wanted us to be all along. The one that says no to nonsensical divisions and embraces the image of God we see in each other. The one that creates space for the tired, the lonely, and the broken. The one that lets you come as you are have a seat at the table.

So that the things that are seemingly insurmountable differences become the things that are holy and beautiful.

It all works because we hold Jesus in common. And that’s enough. That’s everything.



Follow Amber:

Friday, January 27, 2017

Dismantling White Supremacy Begins with Me


Supreme: su-preme (adjective) Highest in degree or quality, ultimate, first, foremost, predominant, highest-ranking. 

When I was in first grade, I had a classmate who had come to our village public school from somewhere in Asia. It was so long ago, but I remember him standing quietly in the background and I remember his name sounded like a food, not a person. We did what first graders in small-town, white America did - we giggled, not because we hated him, not because we thought of him as less-than, but because he existed so far beyond the scope of our worldview. We pulled the corners of our eyes back towards our ears then ran off with him for kickball or tag; he in crisp, cuffed jeans, us in our raggedy hand-me-downs. We liked him. If he'd stayed longer, we might have learned something from him, though our gain would likely have come at his detriment. Tell us everything. Spill your history so we can lap it up. Make us better people.

Kids came and went, passing through the red brick school. The most memorable were those who stood out, marked in some obvious way. We were part of something much larger than ourselves, far above our own blond heads, the drawing in and churning out of those who didn't "fit."

We were Christians. Everyone knew it. An entire town of honest, church-going folks with the gall to sing religious songs in high school choir, steeled by our assurance that no one would protest. We memorized Bible verses at Wednesday night Awana. We sucked barbecued chicken from the bone on Memorial day, following veterans, firemen, farmers, and the marching band from one end of town to the cemetery where we saluted the flag then bowed our heads and prayed.

We tanned our skin to look more like Oprah for a school project. We moon-walked with Michael Jackson, coveting the sequined fingerless glove on the right hand of our lone wealthy classmate. We took what we wanted and objectified the rest, though we didn't quite see it that way. We didn't quite know. Once, on a field trip to the city, I brushed aside the uneasy feeling in my stomach and threw my head back in laughter as a classmate made racist jokes about the city buses and the people riding them.

Later, in high school, one of my best friends was an adoptee from South Korea. I envied her thick hair, her perpetual tan, and the way it seemed she could be scooped up at a moment's notice, cared for and adored. She fit right in with the rest of us, but she certainly didn't blend. When she began cracking jokes about being Asian, we laughed along. In the winter, our basketball team played against the one school in our conference with a black player, and the tension crackled for days. He could dunk. He could play. Once, (we weren't quite sure how,) a game ended with many of our God-fearing fans spilling onto the court, throwing punches.

I wonder now, did that happen at all of his games, or was it just us?

These unspoken beliefs floated on our fresh, country air. We swore we weren't racist, discriminating people. Most of us knew at least one person of color, and our interactions were vastly positive. Yet in our everyday lives, we were simply conditioned to understand that Black was different and Asian was different and dirt-poor was just different enough from our unified, blue-color working class. Catholic was slightly suspect. Democrats could blend in if they tried. Mexicans (as we called them) picked strawberries and tomatoes in the migrant camp ten miles away where we drove, on occasion, to practice our Spanish. We entered what we mistakenly thought was their world, then flipped the frame, believing we were doing them a favor. A couple hours later, we'd drive off to munch on a Taco Supreme and a Nachos Supreme, grateful our morning charity hadn't taken too much of our day.

~

Last week I read several recountings of the White Supremacist who pulled up a chair in a community Bible study, sitting quietly through thirty minutes of reading and discussion. He was soft spoken. Gentle looking. And then he gunned them down, unloading over 70 shells into nine men and women, because of their race.

(Or was it his race that made him load the gun?)

At his core, he believed he was better than them, that he was entitled to their lives.
This is why we call him a white supremacist.

We don't hesitate, the two oily words dripping disdainfully from our tender lips. He is a white supremacist. He is the prototype. He is not us. No. We have never seen anything like him before.

~

I moved away from my hometown after college, though I return every chance I get. My community raised me well. I love it. I'm grateful. But with time and perspective I see the cracks that exist everywhere, if we're willing to search. If I'm inclined to offer the benefit of the doubt, it's that it did the best it could with what it had. It didn't know what it didn't know and maybe, hopefully, it knows much more, now.

But tell me, how could I not have believed my race was somehow "highest-ranking," "foremost," or "predominant"? How could I have seen whiteness as being equal with blackness, when the minimal information I received on other races was most often a biased caricature? Having been raised on a media diet of Small Wonder, Alf, Mork & Mindy, Star Trek and the Jetsons, I had a broader cultural context for robots and extra-terrestrials than People of Color. How could I possibly have known the scope of what I was missing?

We are, in many ways, indelibly shaped by our personal history. This doesn't mean change and growth are not available, but like a splatter of ink on a starched button-down, it will require some scrubbing.

There's no sense grabbing a stiff-bristled brush if we can't even see the stain.

~

Another week has passed, and I'm reaching the limits of hope for sweeping clarity to fall upon us. It's far too muddy. When I am expected to disavow her and endorse him, when I'm told I'm too quiet and too loud, when we are all both too political and not political enough, well, I get weary. And I know I'm not the only one.

So many of us are reaching out to grab thin air, trying with the best intentions to shift the momentum of humanity just a smidge. We're marching. Writing. Discussing. We're using our voices for worthy yeses and non-negotiable nos. We are praying. We are holding our children close. We're reading different books. We're shutting our mouths. Finally, we are ready to listen.

Still, I can't help feeling that beneath this passion is fear (of not falling into the "right" camp) and desire (to be seen, to lead, to fix.) There is a time to pray for justice and a time to fight for justice while we pray, but fear and selfishness are not compatible with justice.

I thought the fight was only against uncaring institutions and harmful, fear-mongering leaders. I have known the urgency for a holy war. My heart has sparked at the thought of lacing my boots on behalf of the pushed-aside and talked-over. I have wept for the church to care in meaningful, visible ways.

I'm an child of white, Middle America privilege, unaccustomed to seeing myself as the problem. Before I even pretend to approach these broad, systemic issues, I owe it to a world longing for equity to first recognize and dismantle my contributions to the pain.

It is easy to throw stones at "White Supremacists," to see them as racist beasts with white hats and dead eyes. Of course we are not them. But whether we can accept it or not, we have been quietly conditioned to see whiteness as the default, the Human Supreme.

I invite you to think on this. Peel back what you have been taught, what you simply lived. Mine your history for possible blind spots. Consider that "greatness" was never the reality, or even the goal. Should we acknowledge our real and equal human limitations, we run the grave risk of blending into obscurity and being seen as entirely ordinary. Scary, isn't it?

~


To learn of the Kingdom way is to stare long and hard at the ways we've misunderstood. Though we thought ourselves wise, we are fools. Though great, we are actually quite small. We are not the forest after all, but the seed. There is only one Supreme, one default. He is God, who splits heavens and parts seas and subverts common logic with the cry of a babe. This is very good news.

We were created to kiss the dirt, to exact beautiful change from low places. If we want God to be glorified through this mess we made, we've got to get busy with the right kinds of work.

First up: Repentance.
Second: A posture of quiet learning.
Third: Persistent prayer for fresh Kingdom eyes.
Fouth: Persistent prayer for Kingdom wisdom. (Note: this will reek of foolishness. We have been duly warned.)

From there, we commit to the taxing grind of advocating for life at the macro level, in the folds of our regular lives where our work will exist in hidden places and our deeds will not go public.

We commit to collecting stories of pain and disaster, holding them closely enough to feel their burn, allowing them to change us in ways that don't sacrifice their honor and dignity.

We will do this work for no reward.
We will do this work because it's right. It's our calling.

I don't want to diminish public protest (the language of the unheard), but if we are not honoring all life we have forgotten our place as image bearers of our Creator.

If we are chanting along with the President, "America First! America First!" we have forgotten our place as last and least. We have forgotten the weird way of Jesus.

If we cannot offer solace and refuge to our neighbor* who is terrified and out of options, we have forgotten our place as Christ incarnate.

If we cannot love our paranoid, Trump-supporting neighbor*, we have forgotten our place as agents of peace in these heartbreaking times.

If we believe our whiteness is the answer to anything at all, we have forgotten our place as seeds pushed into the vast garden of God's kingdom.


We are not great or special and we certainly aren't supreme.
It's time to stop pretending otherwise.

We are small, and we have work to do in these low and hidden places.


*Editor's note: These two examples are are specific examples from my actual life and neighborhood. As always, I write from my everyday ordinary life. Simply put - I am often preaching to myself, but anticipating there might be others who relate. I in no way meant that all Trump supporters are  paranoid. (Most of the people I love voted for Trump.) I apologize if this wasn't clear.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Curtains as a Happy Distraction

 
In the months leading up to our move to our home, I worked myself into a lather over a few "critical" things, the most embarrassing being outlet placement (don't ask) and the most memorable - curtains for our living room. I shudder to think of the number of hours I spent scrolling online sales for affordable, dramatic curtains to cover the supersized windows the builder had accidentally installed. This was particularly tricky since the quest fell during a time when our family was adjusting to a much lower income and I'd fallen into the habit of quantifying every unnecessary purchase in terms of how how many mouths it might feed or how many wells it might build.

As usual, this middle class tension rattled my cage for a while, then ended with a quick trip through PayPal. Push the button, move on. A girl's gotta have curtains.

I settled on the famed, bottom dollar "bed tapestries." (I still honestly don't know what this means, but I can tell you they arrived looking like a slightly thicker flat sheet.) A friend lined and hemmed them for me, and up they went. Cheery and unique, they made me happy, and I'm not just saying that because they evoked a certain Mexican restaurant vibe.

Everything was fine until December, which, if you're keeping track, was only two short months later. How on earth would my beloved curtains ever coexist with the Christmas tree? I took them down and ordered bamboo shades, trading Latin-esque for what I tried to tell myself was Scandanivian but what actually, looking back, amounted to barely trying mixed with a dash of festive gaudiness. We needed blinds anyway. (We did not. We did not need blinds. The blinds have been nothing but trouble.)

The following Christmas, a friend gifted me with a new set of curtains in a gorgeous buffalo check and I officially had a problem on my hands. But problems come in pairs, so it shouldn't surprise you to hear that the next year, our old rug lost its fight against humanity. Of course we ordered a new one, something quirky and different.

When we realized the rug clashed with the curtains, the only thing left to do was order different curtains. Again. I'd been feeling pigeon-holed for a while with the green and orange color scheme, not my favorite by a long shot. I took to Ikea, soothing my conscience with their budget pricing and goes-with-everything sensibilities.

I had officially become the seasonal curtain rotator I had quietly judged back when we packed up everything we owned, including our plans for the future, and hauled it to the city. Up and down they went, a chore I both dreaded and looked forward to. There I was, in my pared-down home, stockpiling curtains like they were thrift store mugs, loose socks, or extra Taco Bell hot sauce packets. 

Was it dumb luck when I spotted my dream curtains created by one of my favorite artists on yet another ill-advised "pretend shopping" rendezvous? Was it fate?

In any case, I took measurements and did the math with skittish hands. I had invented yet another fun curtain game, this one tiresomely called Will She or Won't She but Seriously Shannan, No One Actually Cares.  "I'm getting the curtains." "I changed my mind, it's too extravagant." "I'm buying them as a gift to myself for publishing my first book." "I deserve them!" "I don't deserve anything ever again." "Wait a minute, will they clash with the rug?"

This went on for weeks or even months.

Then I arrived home from a trip last November and was confused to see a mysterious package waiting on the dining table. The confusion grew when I read the card. The package was from my mom, an extra-special curtain gift to celebrate the birth of Falling Free (this was a belated celebration, as the curtains took 6 weeks to ship.)

Sidenote: The Garber family is not historically known as being a big "gift" family. My dad usually gifted us with things like jumper cables or cases of motor oil, although one year he did buy himself an expensive gift, wrap it up, unwrap it, and feign surprise while we all looked on in confusion. We err on the practical side and sometimes veer into forgetfulness. (Which reminds me of the time my mom wrapped our Christmas gifts using a code number system but forgot to record the key. My brother opened a pink, pinstriped denim purse. My sister opened a basketball.)

Sidenote two: My mom bought a set of beige thermal-lined "drapes" from the J.C. Penney catalog when I was in Kindergarten. When I was a newlywed, she replaced them with an identical set.

Sidenote three: My mom doesn't have a Smart Phone and remains confused and unmoved about many things, including the following: Instagram, decorating trends, and pattern mixing (or patterns at all, for that matter.)

So anyway, I felt tremendously loved. It was my 11th birthday all over again, but instead of a lavender 10-speed, I got bright, eye-catching, totally unnecessary and entirely dreamy curtains.

I keep meaning to tell you about them. I've thought about it a hundred times. What happened to the Shannan who would have casually styled the living room and taken photos on the first sunny day, posting them here the next? What happened to the "me" who would have spent time and money pulling the room together with the perfect ratio of casual and curated?

I waited for my mojo, and dangit, the punk never did show.

I has come to my attention that I've lost the fortitude to change out the art on the wall behind our couch. I slapped up my beloved Joshua 1:9 sign using an nail hole left-over from back when the couch was considerably taller and tan. In other words, three curtain styles ago.

The new curtains didn't get along with the pretty rug, just as I expected. I spent one half-hearted hour looking for a new one, something neutral again like this, then swapped it out for the two little rugs in the basement. Though it's true this combo doesn't exactly "work", our toes are loving the fluff and our visitors couldn't possibly care less about what's on our floors or our windows or even what's simmering for them on the stove.

Oh, hey there, Legos. Hey, basket of tangled charging cords and sundry Silas paraphernalia.You somehow make our everyday life both more and less pleasant, and I'm not asking questions. Who cares if you're pretty or not. You live here in our tiny living room. The end.


Raise your hand if you've bought a living plant since January 1, and bonus points if you got it at Aldi. (Raises hand.) I intended for this jade plant to replace the hanging plant that met an early demise, then I realized I liked this one better as a regular sitter.

Reindeer head still hanging from Christmas? What reindeer head la la la I can't hear you!!!!!

We have a legendary book situation on our hands. I blame myself.
But I also blame my kids because they're hoarders and stackers and sometimes, dare I say, slobs.

While I'm over here still feeling smug, I also blame Beverly Cleary, Rick Riordan, Dr. Seuss, and a lot of other people whose names I won't drag through the mud.

Next to the wall over the couch, my second favorite thing to decorate back when I decorated was the space above the TV cabinet. I've always thought of it as sort of like a mantel for the girl who has everything but a mantel.

For years it's been an ever-rotating display of seasonal color and swoony quirk. But then Silas built this structure and said, "I feel proud of myself!" with his upper lip curled all the way under and I couldn't take it down. I stare at it often and have resisted evening-out its legs, though I have one leg longer than the other, so I should really know better.

Howard has started biting the ankles of our company under the dinner table.
Discuss.

Hey! Cory had the genius idea of repurpose these printed-off Instagram photos used to decorate our tree this year by taping them down the length of this wee support wall. I love it like red beets and tulips and naps.

(Sorry, but I forgot to ever show you a single one of the Christmas decor photos I took and edited. Christmas in July??)




Fine. Christmas in January.

In other news, my war against Legos continues to gain steam. I have stopped bending down to spare them from the vacuum unless they are a "guy", an accessory, or large enough to be grabbed by my toes.

We gave our mini van to the neighbor guy because it wasn't worth paying to have it towed and scrapped. He put eighty magical dollars into it, and she's purring like a kitten. Next, he bought a vanity plate which says "Grandpa's Toy", something I find both funny and cute, but when he had the gall to put hubcaps on it, I'll be honest, it made me a bit covetous. #whatmighthavebeen

The curtains are too long.
Oh well.
 
The gray situation has reached its limits.
Oh well.

The Christmas cactus is blooming!!!

 
I've forgotten to dust for the last 3.5 years.
Oh well.

So, here you have it. This is the room where we do the most living. There was a time I loved sprucing it up and showing it off, but these days, I mostly just love sitting in it along with my people - the ones I live with and the ones who rotate in and out each week.

You are welcome to wear your shoes in.
You are welcome to eat on the sofa.

You are welcome to put your feet up, though I will warn you, they'll probably fall asleep since the table is a few inches too high.

One of these days, I'm sure I'll get my head fully back in the game.
Until then (and even after,) come on in.

Stay a while.


Monday, January 16, 2017

First Name Basis


"Something that makes Martin famous is when he said one day 'I'm going to turn this world upside down.' He did do what he said."

This is the opening line of Ruby's biography about Martin Luther King, Jr., one crafted last year over months of intense learning about his life and legacy. From her telling, he used to play pranks on people when he was a child. He took piano lessons. He became "a good speaker". He was kind. A pastor. "He worked for peace."

"So, how did Martin help inspire others? Well, he inspired a lot of people. He inspired his church and his family. He even inspired white people."

Even.

He even inspired people like me, people like the young author's mom and dad.

When a third-grader finds the word "even" necessary, we have found ourselves staring at a gaping wound. We have found ourselves with bloody hands.

~

Sometimes I'm asked how we came to adopt our four children and I laugh. "We didn't know we had to choose a country!" I say of our first adoption. "We didn't care where our child came from."

This is true, and I'm not sure whether or not I should be embarrassed. Thirteen years ago, I was a  different person, alive and well under the protection of my uniform, tidy bubble. I had a few Asian friends, a few black friends, one friend who told me as we folded jeans into crisp thirds for the denim wall, "When I was adopted, my parents didn't know if I was Hispanic or Native American, so they gave me a name for both."

Ill-prepared as we were, our babies found their way to us, scarred by loss, tender and tough. They were wiser than I. Braver than I. We loved them immediately, protected them fiercely. But we didn't yet know about 2014. We didn't know the ways it would rock us, or how each successive year would only get more difficult. We believed our love was enough, but how could it be? Is it really love when it's veiled in willful ignorance? Is it really love when it only costs us small things, like laying old dreams to rest and thirty thousand dollars cash?
 
~

Men started dying.
Boys started dying.

They reminded me of the young man fused to the inside wall of my heart, the one who had lived in my basement and called me "mom" from a crackling landline, then at Subway on his first day home, then a thousand times since. He was the one who made it impossible to wave away the true state of things, all muscle and height banging around in my kitchen, wrecking up my pans, ruining my soul for the way things used to be.



He was the one who whispered that one brutal night, "I honestly don't know how I let this happen." He wasn't referring to his time spent in jail, but to his dad and I sitting there by his bed with wet cheeks and weary hearts. What lapse in judgment had caused him to make room for us? His adoption had cost him things. He'd had to let some old dreams die, this I know. But he'd also had to open himself up to a new direction of growth. Nothing feels more impossible than real love, it seems, not when the cheap stuff sits there in its pretty bottle, sanitized and safe.

~

One of my favorite high school teachers used to say, "Perception is real to the perceiver." I scribbled it into my notebook, but I didn't claim to understand. To me, there existed no line between reality and perception. I had been indoctrinated to "truth", both intentionally and by the sheer inertia of the life which chose me.

Then, the world only existed within the frame of my experience. Everything else was peripheral. I defined the issues. I derided immigrants who did not know "our" language. I was taught one narrative, force-fed a casserole of political conservatism and boot-straps theology with just enough cheese to make it difficult to distinguish one from another. I was taught there were good guys and bad guys, and I was good. I was right. Only today did I learn that the revered President Reagan himself  actively opposed the work of MLK and resisted voting for a national holiday in his name. How could I have known, after generations of status quo? Who would have dared confront the complexity of this fact?

I didn't even have to be color blind.
Being just plain blind worked fine.

~

Of course, the men and the boys, they had always been dying.
But we can't know what we don't see.

I'm not proud that I didn't reach a solid awareness of the trouble continually dealt to people of color until I had a front row seat. This is far too great a burden for any child to bear, never mind that the "child" is legally a man, never mind that he's a willing teacher.

The thing about waking up is that our eyes were conditioned for dimly lit places. It will be uncomfortable, maybe forever. It will be unpopular, maybe forever. But it will move inside, this awakening, at the speed of biology. Cells dividing, truth conquering lies, taking up space, overcoming what must die in its place.

~

We spent hours driving soggy, foggy highways today. I know better than to read while the van is moving, yet I couldn't look away.

I have come to understand that my views don't necessarily fit well within the puzzle of my place. It's impossible to ignore.

Sometime last year, I made the conscious decision to begin listening to and learning from People of Color and others pushed out of the white, privileged, mostly-evangelical bubble where I spent most of life and where, in many ways, I remain. Twitter makes this particularly easy, and I urge you to start following folks who espouse views which stretch you. Today, as most days, my feed was wholly woke. I read about action and protest. I read tweet after tweet of MLK's quotes. I considered again the difference between praying for justice and fighting for it.

Facebook was an entirely different situation. There, folks were largely interested in, well, everything else. Food, work, television, exercise, bullet journaling, kids, rants, pets. Typical Facebook fare. I get it. Life is still life, and even I started my day by publicly musing on the weather.

This certainly doesn't indicate racism.

But it might indicate a lack of awareness.
It might be a flashing sign that we have not widened our circle enough. As we begin to look hard at hard things, as we begin to know new perspectives, it becomes impossible not to care.

I felt, perhaps for the first time, that if people don't care about today, then they don't care about my family. Admittedly, this isn't fair. It would be dangerous to conflate our social media commentary with the full contents of our heart. I care about many things on which I don't publicly comment. More importantly, I care about people affected by a wide variety of things of which I am not and never will be personally affected.

But I am just barely tasting the difficulty of raising children to value all of humanity in a world that, for example, does not see the point in celebrating a man who helped shaped the narrative of two of my kids, three of my nephews, all of my grandkids, and countless friends and neighbors. It's hard to hear that this is not reason enough to miss school, that the parade was canceled this year, and oh, what a drag that the mail isn't running. What an impossible inconvenience. 

It's hard to not to feel frustrated.

It's doubly hard to acknowledge that this is not a single lick about me. I cannot be the reason I or you care. There are millions of other reasons, we simply need to know them, and then to love them.

Here I am, at the tail-end of this dripping wet holiday, just barely beginning to consider the ripples of Dr. King from my safely removed vantage point. Meanwhile, my daughter is on a first name basis with this man whose tide she was swept into at the tender age of nine.

The wonderful news is, it is not too late to make some noise. We can choose, as Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, to root out injustice by "a strong, persistent and determined action."  Unpopular as it may be, you can be the one to apply some pressure to your apathetic school system or your ranting Uncle Phil. You can task yourself with learning more, teaching your kids more, in the hopes that next year, you'll feel this day a bit differently.

(Can you feel those cells quietly dividing even now?)

Scrolling through my social media accounts today left me with a pang in my gut, not because I'm mad at everyone, not because I think myself any better, but because it's impossible not to wonder how much undue damage I inflicted over the years with the weight of my own silence.

I have so much to repent of and so much to learn.

But if I know one tiny little thing, it's that I have a voice, and though it's wobbly and uncertain, it wields real power. I can only pray that at the end of my long life here on earth, I'm hoarse from shouting on behalf of whomever is found at the short of of power and dignity.

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice..." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

"So now you know how Martin helped our country today. So now you can tell someone else how Martin helped our country." - Ruby River Martin (age 9), The Life of Martin

//

If you're looking for a great place to start, listen to this podcast. It's long, but so very worth it. (I don't listen to many podcasts, but I've listened to this one twice already. It's meaty.)

:: A few additional resources on racial justice off the top of my head:
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

:: On my stack to read next:
Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew G. I. Hart
The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Right Can Be Made Wrong by Lisa Sharon Harper


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Slightly Wavy

Ruby has been begging me to straighten her hair for the past nine days.

I've done what I can to hold her off, given her all the logical reasons, plied her for a while with stretching it out using row upon row of hair elastics, pulling her curls just a bit further down each day.

Yesterday, my stall tactics finally ran dry.

It doesn't matter how often I admire her curls. I've learned the hard way that it's counter-intuitive to tell her I wish I had them for myself. She likes them just fine. Sometimes, she just wants to try something new.

So we sat down after dinner last evening with our supplies and I cranked the heat level on my straightener as high as it would go. "Better go clean up the kitchen, boys. We're busy over here." I stretched like a cat, cracked my knuckles one by one, and got to work.

Section. Detangle. Moisturize.

The heat wiped her curls out flat, at least half-way down. The ends were another story. They wanted to hold on. They put up a fight. When it was said and done, they knew who they were. And here we are, a full head of slightly wavy hair.

But it's change enough. It'll do.

~

I've done the normal amount of thinking about the new year in recent weeks. Like clockwork, I've decided to redecorate my house, give away all of our unused/unnecessary junk, buy new make-up and wrinkle cream, try a capsule wardrobe, reduce my sugar intake, and spend more time moving and/or reading. One or the other. Depends on the day.

I've gone so far as to pull up the living room rug with no after-plan in place.

It's 2017, and with every dawning of every new age, I crave blank surfaces and white space and I decide the best way to achieve both is by redesigning my heart and soul. It works on paper but less so in practice. All I'm really doing is transforming physical clutter into mental and emotional static. Wouldn't I be happier if my house was more organized? Wouldn't it be inspiring to revamp...something?

And at the end of the day, I already know the truth. Inspiration is only meaningful if it's enduring. Happiness can really only be felt in the presence of  a bucket or two of sadness and longing. Without the contrast, happiness becomes one more layer of white noise. Its very own shade of gray.

~

I spoke with my editor for almost an hour recently. We kicked the can back and forth across state lines and cell signals. What do I want to say next? I think she's grown used to my wild ideas and the neurotic way I insist on sharing all of them, even and especially when they're still misshapen and scattered. They're spring-loaded snakes in a can, and just knowing they're in there makes me anxious to tear off the lid. Let's get this over with. Go ahead and scream.

Conversation was light and laced with enough honesty to keep me trusting and engaged. Toward the end, my voice cracked just shy of actual blubbering. "No matter what I write next, I just want it to be necessary. Not to everyone, but to someone."

This has come to matter deeply to me, particularly over the past year.
But "necessary" takes different shapes, because I take different shapes. And you do, too.

It feels less and less necessary to boss you or myself around, (though I guess I still reserve the right and am not making promises.) I'm equally less and more sure about the stuff that keeps me up at night. I've almost cleanly lost the ability to believe I have any power over change here at all. At the the same time, I'm more committed than ever to risk being wrong.

I'm not as inclined to detail the lives burning bright and burning to the ground around me. More often, as you know, I end up talking about the way my heart and eyes and skin have blistered from my nearness. It's all sort of normal now, this low and beautiful place where we have slowly settled in. But I wonder, do I say enough about the good stuff happening? Do I see it clearly enough? Am I still letting it change me by the day?

Two Sundays ago we straggled down the alley to church, faces freezing, feet dodging slushy puddles and broken glass.  I've come to learn over the past two years that there is always something waiting for me there, something unexpected, something I need. I think this thing is called hope, and I believe it grows from the seed of endurance.

Nearing the end of the service, our pastor blessed the communion. She called on the ushers to begin releasing us row by row, but before she was even done speaking, one of Cory's friends from jail broke protocol, rushing front to be the first in line. I whispered to Cory, giggling, "Gage isn't playing." Then my eyes filled with tears.

Heading into a fresh year, I suppose Gage is my mentor. He's showing me the way, and I'm honored to follow.

Lead me to the cup. The cross. Lead me to more of Christ. Less of me.

I want to be made new.


Along the way I've come up with a few other things I'd like to tweak. I can't help myself.

* I'm not buying more books until I shorten the stack growing precariously atop my cabinet. It's a safety hazard at this point, and there's plenty of good stuff waiting. I won't buy more. I won't buy more. (Unless it's an emergency.) ;)

* Last spring I recognized my tendency to do certain things just so I could say I did them. I was keeping score with myself, sweating blood trying to win an invisible game where I was my only opponent. This is nothing new. Nor is it a surprise to me that I reacted by swinging wide in the opposite direction. One thing lost in the process was the list of books I read. I needed one less thing to track. But I regret this now. I miss having an account of the friends I spent time with when the house was quiet. I'm keeping track again, but in my personal journal (something I added into my life exactly one year ago). I'm sure I'll keep sharing these "friends" along the way, but I'll be reading because it's life to me, not because I'm trying to best last year's score.

* I'm going analog whenever possible, and this includes, of course, cooking from my beloved, cumbersome recipe binders whenever possible.

*I'm making (another) concerted effort to not speak sarcastically to my kids. THIS IS VERY HARD. Here's why. Me: "Cory, Keisha and Hans-David will be here today around 2."  Calvin: (directly in ear-shot) "Mom, are Keisha and Hans-David coming today?" I can't. I CAN'T. I field this line of questioning no less than 38 times a day, and bear in mind that my kids are all in school from 8-3. They know things, but pretend they don't. They cannot wrap their pliable brains around the idea of commenting on something rather than pretending they are in the dark. But where I usually get extra irritable and say something like, "What did I just say, Calvin?" I'm trying to simply say, "Yes." In the scheme of things, along with being much nicer and a better model for my kids, it's actually easier.

Meanwhile, I'm still just Shannan, currently obsessed with a morning cup of black tea and a slice of sourdough bread, toasted, lightly buttered, and with a skimming of Aldi's Premium Fruit Spread (raspberry).

I would still pick a sad movie over one that makes me laugh.

I still prefer late nights to mornings.

I still spend too much time in my head.

But maybe I'll be just a bit softer, just a bit more present, just a bit more at peace. I pray I'm the one running toward communion and community, and I also hope I manage to straighten up my messy closet and get to bed earlier.

I don't need to become Shannan two-point-oh, but maybe Shannan 1.1.
Shannan, slightly wavy.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Expecting

Somewhere around 1991 my mom loaded a K-Mart shopping cart with Christmas gifts for me, my brother, and my sister. She wasn't a shopper and Amazon was just a rain forest, so it strikes me now what a sacrifice it was for her to do that each December. I don't know what was in the cart, because I wasn't there. But I remember hearing her tell my dad how embarrassed she'd been when she had to walk away from the cart and leave the store empty-handed. Maybe she forgot her check book. Or maybe the total was higher than what she thought it would be. Whatever the reason, she fixed it. She went back the next day and retraced her steps, filling the dang cart for the second time.

I couldn't guess at what she hoped for when it came to being the mom at Christmas, but her expectations were somehow always exceeded. There weren't lists of meaningful family traditions, but I remember feeling like I was lit from within at Christmastime. I felt extra tucked-in. Safe. Warm. It was the best of everything.


It's 10:13 pm and I'm blogging at night, as if it's 2009 and my three babies are tucked into their single-occupancy rooms in the creaky upstairs of our farmhouse. The train wails and a fiddle weeps from the speaker hidden above our kitchen cabinets. I'm right here, in 2016, where not even an hour ago, I sat at the kitchen table trying to jam mismatched puzzle pieces together while worrying I'd already ruined Christmas.

I want my kids to somehow experience that intangible feeling that something special is underway. I'm desperate for it and I hate it. I fight the shine even as I fork over money for new books, a tulle skirt, a telescope, a complicated electrical outlet system with its own remote control.

I tell myself we'll lounge around and eat like kings, or maybe like the judges on Master Chef. I categorize a three-columned grocery list and burn a three-wick candle. I bake things. I buy a new puzzle. I play Yahtzee with an eight-year old and pretend it's not frustrating at all.

Last night I dreamed (again, again, again) that I was back in college and had nonchalantly skipped the entire semester, only to come to my senses as finals week approached. Was it too late to drop every class? And would I still have to pay for the credits? I woke up sweating bullets. All week long, I've known what I was up to with my big ideas and my faux-pine scented air. I'm no stranger to the calamity of Shannan Martin, who busies herself crafting unrealistic expectations in an attempt to combat the sinking feeling that most days she's pretty unremarkable.

~

Earlier tonight we did our third Advent reading of the season. It was about the name of Jesus, and what it means. We tried talking about Emmanuel, but apparently it was a bit too soon after three rounds of Mad Libs because Ruby and Silas couldn't stop laughing about moldy bears clapping their belly buttons together.

We all know it's important that God came as Jesus to be with us, but I honestly wish I had just been with my kids in all their inconvenient exuberance. I noticed Ruby's cheeks swallowing up her full moon eyes, her mouth wide, like a child who doesn't know unnecessary pain. But this was a serious moment we were trying to have, and I forced myself not to let go.

Now I'm left wondering if Jesus wouldn't have felt most near if we had just closed the book and giggled together until our vision blurred.

As I sit here, Cory is downtown in the dark with his camera, trying to nail a shot of something having to do with Christmas lights and rain puddles. Before he walked out he asked me what I was going to write about. "I don't know, meth, depression, and white supremacy?" I joked.

These have been hot topics in our house this week as I wrap gifts and daydream about whisking heavy cream into flour for cranberry scones.

People I love are burning alive, and my cheeks are on fire.

But I am with them in this dirt. They are with me.
This life is a gift I'll never deserve.
And sometimes rain at Christmas is a relief.


Tomorrow morning (Christmas Eve) we'll open a few gifts. We'll turn off our phones and thank God for the surprises he dealt us, especially each other. Calvin bought Ruby a whole bag of oranges just for herself and Cory's gifts both came from Goodwill. There's sausage thawing for gravy and a pineapple ready for slicing. Dinner will be homemade Korean food, in honor of our oldest Korean who will be playing his violin at the Christmas Eve service.

We will grab our fresh start with glad hearts and both hands. At some point, we'll drag it face-first through the crumbs beneath the table. We will need the Savior who came for us and doesn't stop.

Emmanuel.

God is with us, even when we run.
God is with us, even when we fight.
God is with us, even when we are tired.
God is with us, even when we are sad.
God is with us, even when we can't get a grip.

God is with us, even when our streets swallow us whole.
God is with us, even when people say we don't matter.

God is with us, even when we are sort of sad for the family we lost along the way.
God is with us, even when we sit in seg at the county jail.
God is with us, even when we are strung out and picking at our skin.
God is with us, even when it seems too quiet to believe.

God is with us, even when the house is a wreck.
God is with us, even when the marriage is a wreck.

God pierced the earth with purity and humility and now, we don't have to keep clawing for something better. We don't have to do anything alone. We stretch out our arms, reaching for fistfuls of grace while wearing shoes caked with mud.

We are here, but he is here, too.

God is with us.

I can't wait for tomorrow.