Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Again, With Feeling

"She tried to escape the pain, but sometimes it's all that's real. There's no excuse for living pain-free. That's the deal." -  Trampled by Turtles, New Orleans

Yesterday marked one of the lamest attempts Cory and I have ever made at going on a date.
It was a catastrophic blend of miscommunication, false assumptions, unrealistic expectations, and Taco Bell.

Cory had texted me while I was in the kitchen sometime late in the morning, my hair hanging wet as I rolled out pie crust, chopped peppers for soup, and shredded zucchini for muffins. Our friends Jasmine and Jose just had their first baby and I had fretted over what to feed them. The longer I'm in this chapter of life, the more my palate changes. Things are just simpler here, or at least they should be.

"Do you want to grab lunch?" the text read.

We had spent a good part of the previous day scrutinizing our squeaky budget, making tweaks, and wondering all over again why there is always, always too much month at the end of our money. I assumed he knew something I didn't know. Maybe he'd found a mistake and corrected it. Maybe he'd been reimbursed for something at work. Maybe he just decided we needed an hour together and knew it wouldn't break us.

I was happy with any of the above, but mostly, I just really wanted a burrito.

I said yes.

Eating out was a luxury in my childhood, usually saved for Sundays. My Dad was a sucker for a good buffet. (I hold the word "good" loosely here.) I learned to navigate the Ponderosa hot bar like a medalist. I served up school cafeteria-grade "nachos" from the Rax buffet and called myself blessed.

Aside from a tiny pizza joint, our one-light town was dry in terms of booze and partially hydrogenated grease. But our church was twenty miles away in a larger city. We tasted the fruits of its industry when we were able. I doused crispy fish fillets in malt vinegar at Long John Silver's. We visited the food court at the mall. Once, we ventured into an actual "sit down and order from a menu" Mexican restaurant, I believe it was to celebrate a milestone as my mom struggled her way through nursing school with three young children, but before we had even ordered, spots drifted into her line of vision and we left in a rush. A migraine. I remember feeling guilty for being mad.

It's an irony now, to have a pantry with plenty and the skills and desire to make it into something beautiful, yet to feel so relieved at the thought of food "grown" in economy-sized tin cans.

Taco Bell, in my humble opinion, is better than a whole lot of things. It's certainly better than nothing. But when we arrived the lobby was full of folks waiting. They sat alone and in pairs, shaking paper cups of ice and caffeine, taking sips, tapping their nails on the tables, looking around in confusion. In a roomful of hungry people, there seemed to be no food.

We left.
We argued in the parking lot.
We went our separate ways.


Earlier this morning I filled out an online community survey asking me how I define "good health," and how I know when I'm not living it. I probably should've answered, "When a mismanaged taco joint breaks me."

I don't want to list out all the stresses presently hurtling our way right now. Too stressful. But I knew the situation was dire when I woke up yesterday still halfway inside a dream where two people I love were dying, the Simon and Garfunkel line, "Hello darkness, my old friend..." playing on a loop in the background.

Times are tough and my little corner of the world feels pretty wild these days.
People keep breaking my heart and I pass the hurt along, an empty platter.

I drove away from Taco Bell fuming. I was mad about money. Mad about marriage. Mad about a friend of ours, who despite having every possible resource for success at his disposal, despite being such a bright spot in our life for the past year, succumbed to his demons in a matter of weeks after his release from jail. "That sure didn't take long," I'd told Cory. "That's exactly what I said," he replied, our words mirror images of a safety net knit from cynicism.

Sometimes our bodies can't muster the empathy required. We can't drum up the appropriate expression of grief and lament. It's easier to be sarcastic and pretend to move on.

Addiction is the scariest thing I know, hands down. It's scarier than Calvin's illness or the medical bills. It's scarier than being wrong. It's scarier than vulnerability. It's scarier than the prophets and the terrifying truth they sling. It's far scarier than writing a book or baking a pie.

I don't understand addiction.

Or do I?

I crossed the street and pulled into the Wendy's drive-thru. "One Jr. Cheeseburger Deluxe, one Value french fry..." I wavered. What I really wanted was a Dr. Pepper. It had been so long. It might be poison, but I deserved it and a little wouldn't hurt. I could already feel it bubbling down my throat, an effervescent sugar rush seeping into my sore spots. A reward for enduring the discomfort of being human.

I drove aimlessly for a while, then parked. I stared out the window, my fingers salty and slick. I enjoyed that burger, saving the best bit for last. I took a few sips.

The air around me was restless, 94 degrees with leaves on the sidewalk.
Come September, we start praying for decay.

I listened to the sounds of the life that is mine. I noticed the contrast.
I drove home, finished a couple of projects, and welcomed Ruby and Silas at 3.

I baked peach dumplings.
I plunged my bare feet into a plastic sled filled with ice cold water, a makeshift spa created by Silas because he loves me. We sat there for an hour reading in the shade, glasses of ice water sweating on the patio table. It was bliss. Serenity. Comfort. (Why, then, did the urge to grab my phone keep pulling at me?)

What I have is exactly enough.
This is enough.
This is enough.

In this moment, whichever one it happens to be, there is feeling. There is truth. There is pain sometimes, yes, but hope is always waiting for us to reach out and grab it. Darkness won't swallow me if I don't lay down and die. It has never been my friend.

By 9pm, the house cleared and the kids were in bed.
I found a paper cup half-full of watery Dr. Pepper, walked it outside, and dumped it into one of the mums. Maybe it would take the edge off this Indian summer.

This is life. We fall. We hide behind humor. We give way to skepticism, fearing belief will find us a fraud. We want. We fill ourselves wrongly. We numb. We dodge. We deflect.

We get back up. We reach for help. We feel. We see. We know.

We believe.

Even when we thought we were done.


September is National Recovery Month. I wholeheartedly recommend Coming Clean by Seth Haines. It's a gripping, lyrical account of heartbreak, doubt, discovery, and healing. It's written for each of us caught in the cycle of facing disappointment and trying to trade our pain rather than just learning to hold it for as long as it takes.

This book is a hopeful brother in the trenches for many of our friends in jail and it lives on the stack by my nightstand. Seth has also created some audio readings to give you a glimpse. (You need to catch his drawl so you can read his book rightly.) Find them here

*Amazon affiliate link

Monday, September 25, 2017

Making it Home

Not long ago, I sat on my back patio eating sloppy joes and watermelon with Cory, our kids, and four adult friends. Two are currently incarcerated at the county work release center in our neighborhood. One has been "on the outs" for almost three years. And one had just been released from prison a few days earlier. It was the first time I'd met him, and he was the one who worried me most.

We drew in under whatever shade our one janky umbrella offered, chewing the fat while we chewed on seconds. All the while, the newbie, kept awkwardly thanking me. I'll call him Joe. To my untrained eye, his demeanor would have seemed almost suspicious or over-the-top. But what I know now is that he's just terrified of his freedom. He's scared to death that he doesn't deserve to be out, doesn't deserve the company of people eager to love him, doesn't deserve a plateful of homemade sloppy joes and damn well doesn't deserve seconds.

For years, he has been told he is worthless. Scum.
He's been told enough that it slipped beneath his skin, his pores inked with shame and stamped with a DOC number. You are less than human. You don't get to have a name. 

After I repeated myself for the third time, "Joe, we're so happy you're here. It's our pleasure. I love cooking for you guys and I'm so glad you joined us." He went in for another plate.

The minute he stepped away, I asked the others if he was okay.

"Prison's no joke," Bobby replied. Jason nodded along, adding, "Prison sucks, but the scariest time of anyone's life is getting out of prison."

In the weeks that followed, we tracked closely with Joe as he navigated life without options and tried not to lose himself in despair. I passed him almost every morning as I walked the kids to school, those early weeks when the air turned unseasonably cool. He gave daily updates on his living situation, his desperate search for things like a bed and food, and his quest for employment.

We loaded him up with frozen pizzas and granola bars. We bought him minutes for his cell phone because probation requires an active number where you can be reached at any time. One morning he told me he could start at a factory the next morning, but he needed steel-toed boots. He stood smiling in the morning light wearing a coat that hung loosely around his torso in nylon shreds. I added "coat" to the list.

He couldn't find a decent place to live without a job.
Finding a job was hard without transportation.

He settled, for a while, on renting a sketchy apartment from our local slumlord for $800 per month. One bedroom. Squalid. Questionable heat and utilities. Of course, he didn't have money to pay for this place, so he entered the realm of modern-day indentured servitude, working a sub-minimum wage "job" for the slumlord in exchange for a place to live. Finding cash for food would have to wait. We have seen this hundreds of times.

It didn't take long for us to realize the crisis situation men and women who have served their time face upon their re-entry to society.

They often emerge with their self-worth only ankle-high. They're overwhelmed with responsibilities yet typically don't have the resources to set about achieving them. After living in a precarious yet tightly-woven community setting, they're suddenly aware of just how alone they are.

Maybe they're also fending off addiction. Maybe they're trying to break free of past relationships and realizing how impossible that will be, since probation keeps them tied to the community of their offense, not readily allowing the fresh start of a new city. They ache to rebuild trust with family and children but as they look out at the light of the world, what bounces back at them is the prevailing sense that we're all waiting for them to prove their unworthiness. You aren't better. You didn't learn.

Jesus tells us that caring for those in prison is caring for him (Matthew 25:36), and I'm here to tell you, the shackles endure far beyond the cinder-block and razor wire. It takes time to truly break free. It takes close companionship, an enduring commitment to walk together for as long as it takes.

Three years ago, Cory and I began to wake up to the immediate need for clean, affordable housing. It was something we hadn't considered until we journeyed into this phase of our life. (I wrote about it here.) Like most everything we've learned and continue to learn, it shifts the landscape of our hearts. It cannot be un-learned. It changes everything.

A few months ago, after returning to this conversation again and again in search of solutions, the Jail Ministry of Elkhart County bought a little fixer-upper in our neighborhood.

Cory has spent almost every spare moment down the street, scraping and painting, returning home many nights drenched in sweat from this early-Fall heatwave after our kids have long been asleep.

In just one week, a family of three will move in and call this place home. They are some of our favorite people, in our home and around our table often. Soon, we will be actual neighbors again. I can't describe for you how elated they are. The house is humble, but to them, it's a palace.

They'll live there for the next couple of years as they heal from the trauma and set-back of incarceration. They'll continue working hard at their jobs. They'll continue to sit with us at church. They'll continue to join us often for lunch.

But now, sometimes, we'll join them at their table.

My friend Bri McKoy writes in Come and Eat, “The table breaks down the walls of social class and backgrounds and race. We are all one at the table, human beings receiving the necessary act of eating a meal. We are all citizens with one another. No other act of coming together so powerfully proclaims this.”

I have tasted the truth of her words.

I asked Bri if she would be willing to help put together a list of items a well-stocked kitchen should have and she jumped at the chance. We had so much fun brainstorming. This will be a surprise to the family. In the past, they, and so many like them, have slowly chipped away at finding what they need, searching thrift stores each weekend for some forks, then a skillet, then a toaster.

This time, they will enter a kitchen that begs to be cooked in. As I told Bri, though the list is quite basic, to them it will feel positively lavish. After years of "staying" here or there, now they'll get to live in a home.

If you would like to purchase something for the kitchen, you can do so by clicking on this Amazon affiliate link. The item will be shipped directly to us (be sure to click "Cory Martin's registry address") and all kitchen items will stay with the house. (Meaning, once this family moves on, the kitchen will remained stocked for the next family.)

Right now, Cory is one block away, sweaty and paint-splattered, doing everything he can to have the house ready. Tomorrow, he'll drive from place to place picking up donated furniture. There's so much that has already been done and plenty to do, but we are so excited.

Thank you for partnering with us in giving the gift of home. Please continue to pray for our friend Joe, for the family getting ready to move into the Jail Ministry House, and for so many others who are trying to find their way. Look for them. Pay attention to their needs. Do whatever you can to show them you are a trusted ally, fiercely with them as they saw through the chains.

Jail Ministry House Kitchen Wish List
(Update! In less than one hour after posting this blog, the list has been entirely fulfilled. YOU GUYS ARE AMAZING! I can't even begin to thank you enough. We are going to regroup later today and add some more to the list. Feel free to check back this evening!)

Thanks also to those who have donated their time and services, including:
Moyer Electric
Miller Brother Builders
Baldwin Paint and Decorating
Goshen Floor Mart

Come and Eat by Bri McKoy

** If you have trouble with shipping info once you're in Amazon (some have had trouble, others not) feel free to email me at shannandmartin @ and I'll give you the shipping address directly!

(*Because I'm using an affiliate link, I receive a very small commission from Amazon, which will go toward our Sunday Lunch fund.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Crisis Fatigue and the Bread We Have

Friday night my family drove to Indianapolis to visit Cory's brother and his family. We always stay up way too late when we're with them because there's so much to cram into so few hours. Somewhere around 9 pm, when we were just warming up, my sister-in-law Lori mentioned Charlottesville in conversation. For the next thirty seconds I sat, half-listening and half-peering into my brain in a mad scramble to fit the pieces together. I was completely confused, "Wait. What happened in Charlottesville?"

(I am well aware that my privilege is showing here. You might be aghast at what I just admitted. I'm just here to tell the truth.)

I knew the incident was recent. I knew it was horrific. I knew it was related to white supremacy and racism. I just couldn't, for half a minute, pin down the specific details in a sea of similar injustices. They had all sort of muddied together.

The next day, we drove from Indy to Ohio to visit my parents. My parents and several of my extended family have been plagued with serious medical emergencies recently. Surgery after surgery, hospital stay after hospital stay. Calvin, my own guy, is right there in the middle of it with his own health-related instability. All of it has weighed heavily on us, in the unique way things can be felt from such a distance. The journey from the mind to the heart can be a winding road. We can see the flames and appreciate their power, but unless we're within its reach, it's almost impossible to feel the heat.

We arrived late Saturday night and my mom began filling me in on the latest family health crisis, this time with my oldest nephew. My dad sat just through my line of vision, behind my mom in the next room. Listening to her but watching him I was overcome again by a strange, vague feeling, "Wait a minute, didn't he just have a scare? Isn't he the one we've been worried about?"

Twice in two days, the details of a significant event were momentarily out of reach. They filtered back fairly quickly, but the fact that it wasn't instantaneous freaked me out both times. I imagined vines of early-onset memory loss infiltrating my gray matter. I blamed myself for not being present enough, emotionally or physically. I decided I'm too selfish. I'm not a good listener. I'm not well-qualified at caring.

The truth is, I am a human. The onslaught of drama, crisis, sadness, and disaster is seemingly endless these days. We can care about something - deeply, even, but the very next day, fresh outrage takes center stage. It's a lot to hold and too much to carry.

I spent Sunday watching Irma's destruction from the sunny comfort of my childhood home. I took a nap in a hammock. I ate a steak from the grill.  I sat near an opened window and paged through three magazines. I played with the kids. I listened to the news and thought of friends running from Irma's wake and the multitudes stuck in shelters (or worse) because they don't have the means to leave.

I also spent part of the day worried about Texas, wondering how it feels to suffer such loss while most of the country has already turned its attention elsewhere.

The cognitive whiplash is real.

What's the answer?

That's what I keep asking myself. I've visited a few stores in the last week and most of them ask if I'd like to donate money to Harvey victims. Tomorrow, they'll probably change the script to Irma. Monday we remembered 9/11. Last week my neighbors braced themselves against more discouraging immigration news. This morning I drove a friend to court and waited with her on the cliff-edge of yet another technicality.

Filtering down into the cracks we have all our regular turmoil. The splits and breaks of everyday life. Illness, fractured relationships, financial burden, bullies at school, addiction, and a house that can't stay clean.

People talk about compassion fatigue and I'll be honest, it bugs me. We are not allowed to grow weary of helping. True compassion is conditioned to go the distance. But I understand that the world is throwing a lot at us. We are crisis fatigued, with good reason. We have to find a way to hold these continual opportunities to care for each other more meaningfully.

I'm discovering that for me, outrage or even empathy is not enough. Clicking and swiping online isn't, either. I have to have skin in the game. When trouble isn't close enough to see or smell or touch, when it's not possible to heave a portion of the burden onto my own shoulder, I have to find a different way to sacrifice. When "helping" doesn't cost me something, my commitment usually doesn't endure.

For the past week as I've thought and prayed and wrung my hands, God repeatedly brought one of my favorite Bible stories to mind.

In the book of John, Jesus is surrounded by hordes of hungry people. His disciples, with their inborn mentalities of scarcity and panic fully intact, start freaking out. "Do something!"

Jesus looks back and them and says, with what I imagine would be the sort of cool nonchalance that grates us when we're trying to communicate alarm, "How much bread do you have?"

He could have solved the problem in infinite ways. He could have invented Little Caesars $5 Hot 'n Ready on the spot. But he loved his disciples enough to encourage their investment. He knew if the miracle was going to stick, it had to cost them something.

God looked at me and asked the same. "How much bread do you have, Shannan?"

I was like, "Um...not much, if I'm being honest."

He asked again, "Look harder. Think outside the bank account. How much bread do you have?"

And that's when I remembered the plates.

Listen, I have not been able to stop buying plates for theoretical plate walls. I look for them constantly. I keep finding beautiful ones. I bring them home. It is but one of my ministries and the many stacks throughout my basement are the fruit it bears. I don't know what to do or how to stop. I've let myself think it's a problem, but last week, it started to seem like a solution.

Thursday, September 14 at 9pm Eastern time, I'm opening up an auction for plate collections over on my Facebook page. All proceeds (minus shipping costs) will go directly to Legacy Collective, an organization Cory and I wholeheartedly support each month. (The earnings from the auction will be in addition to our regular contribution.) They are doing everything they can to ease the burden of their Texan neighbors and have also opened up donations for those affected by Irma.

If you want to bid, you'll need to follow me here and check back this Thursday night. (Auctions will only be available to bidders within the continental US and you must have a PayPal account. I'm so sorry, International homies!)

This is a pretty small thing, but me + the post office = certain doom. Organization and the packaging of breakables is not squarely in my skill set. This will cost me a little something. But I believe in colorful, quirky plate walls for all. (Better Homes and Gardens and Country Living both just featured them. They are timelessly classic and look cool without even trying!)

Whether you join me or not, I'm calling all of us to take a look around every day, all the time. When we find pain, sorrow, or brokenness, let's make it our problem.

Let's inject beauty and hope and watch the world mend.

Your neighbor,
Shannan/FPFG ;)

::  Check out these fun plate wall images!