Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Raising Kids Near Pain


On Monday a letter arrived bearing all the tell-tale signs: Jail Mail. My favorite. There was the nondescript legal-sized envelope, the blue lettering, the stamp across the front which always reads like a warning. This time, it wasn't addressed to Cory or I. It was addressed to Calvin.

Inside, a thin sheet of white, unlined paper folded into thirds with a full-color sketch of the solar system and a greeting written with a flimsy, nearly unusable jailhouse pen. Calvin beamed when he read it. I tear up just thinking about it.


Back when we first knew we would be selling our cozy farm house and moving to a disadvantaged neighborhood in a nearby city, we were pummeled with doubts, criticisms, and wary looks of skepticism. By far, the most common question was, "What about your kids?"

We swatted at the words as if they were flies, as if we could shoo them away without menace or attack. But they always circled back, buzzing in our ear, blending into a new soundtrack of worry and mystery. A few times, we were bit, but the pain was never enough to keep us down, and here we are. The skeptics have long given up. I'm guessing they see that we're all okay. It's clear that the threat of danger was only imagined and besides, we never listened anyway. Some have become more supportive over time. Others have realized it's more fun to chalk it up to foolishness and smirk from a distance.

Me? I wonder with increasing frequency how all of this will play out in the future lives of my kids, and even in me. That's what time will do for you. It'll strip away the sheen of adventure, that hard glint of adventure. The unfamiliar road map in your hands will eventually be ground into your heart as your feet hit the same earth, again and again.

Before long, you'll have trouble remembering the long gravel lane and the rusty mailbox at its end. Months will pass before you stop to consider the upstairs bedroom with the train wallpaper, the one you hadn't had time to fill. Back then, in that old life, there were entire rooms that sat stuffy and needless. There was always plenty, then. Always excess. There were vacations every year, trips to Old Navy for the heck of it, new lamps and lavish, futile gardens. There were rows of strawberries so thick you stopped trying to keep up. You wiped juice from your chin with your shirt sleeve with no concern for the stain. Why did we so rarely walked back to the row of pines? What did the kitchen smell like? How exactly did we spend our lives? The answers are long gone. You'll never know.

I used to imagine my kids growing up with calloused feet and tender hearts. I guess I was half right, but not for the reasons I assumed. I thought tenderness was the result of careful vigilance. Keeping my little buddies as protected from the world as possible was my goal. I day-dreamed in fences. I willed their brown eyes to stay pure, shining light to the darkness without absorbing the remnants. I was nervous about the start of Kindergarten in our highly ranked school, nervous about the big, bad school bus, nervous that if they ever saw someone sneaking a cigarette out behind the garage they'd take up the habit and never look back. (In the scheme of all I'd seen of life, which wasn't much, cigarettes remained one of my primal fears - a sure sign pointing to a life lived in the wrong direction.)

What I didn't realize is that enduring tenderness of heart, the kind kids can carry with them as they grow, the sort of tenderness that yields empathy, solidarity, and kinship comes from marinating in places where God's presence is vital and his power is sure.

This doesn't require a move to the city, a new job, a new school, or new neighbors fresh from jail. It demands attentiveness. Humility. Grit. We have a say in what our kids are exposed to, and how. We can choose to toughen-up our faith (and theirs) while the stakes are still low, giving them glimpses of God's kingdom here on earth, in all its busted-up beauty. The question is, do we want it badly enough? Do we believe the cross is worth it?

Two days ago, I ran a quick errand with my sick little Silas. We drove past the row of houses that were leveled earlier in the week, past the empty store-fronts and the sad looking homes that remained, sucked dry of color and life. "Why did God invent drugs" he asked.

I'm still surprisingly unprepared for these questions, but I drew in a breath and we did our best to hash it out. I offered the necessary back-story, about Adam and Eve and what God intended for the world. We talked about the sin we're all steeped in, and how Jesus is our only escape.

Those answers have always been easily within reach. They're true and necessary, the foundation of the thing. But the longer we're knotted up with broken, beating hearts around us, the more familiar we become with the rest of the story.

So we talked about that, too.

"Sin opened the door to sadness and loneliness. When we don't know the love of God and when we don't feel loved by the people nearest us, it makes our hearts and even our bodies hurt. And when we feel that kind of pain, when we believe we are not lovable, we reach for the wrong things to try to feel better."

He nodded along slowly.

"This is why it's so important to invite people over to our house for lunch. We want our friends to feel our love, because that's also how they can start to feel God's love. Then they won't feel so lonely..."

He finished my thought, "And then we won't be lonely, too."

{2014}

As our kids get older and more aware, I'm struck by the different kind of normal their childhood is providing them. What will they embrace? What will they reject? When they look back on all of this, will it feel like a massive rip-off? Would they cash it in for clothes that weren't bought second-hand or fancier vacations? More privacy? Less commotion? Will they grow weary of hearing about our squeaky budget and race to high-paying jobs and gated communities? Will they join the dominant culture in despising the poor? Will they climb the ladder, puffing up in superiority over those buckling under heavy loads? Will they forget their inborn smallness and believe what they have is theirs to keep? Will they take up smoking, or worse?

I hope not, but I don't know. If I'm learning anything here, it's that I wasn't charged with guaranteeing anyone's future or scrubbing clean their sins.

All I can offer is the best I know of life, the celebration of suffering along with the abiding hope of joy. We need not fear brokenness. We can choose to gravitate toward the unfamiliar, then stick around until it feels like home. We can leave our front door easy on its hinges and choose the comfort of a family forged of misfits. We can identify ourselves as the misfittiest among them.

Calvin is twelve now, in all of its glory.  He's not in my space quite like he used to be. He isn't as cuddly. He asks harder questions. His brown eyes still shine, but with complexity. It's uncomfortable to watch him navigate friendship, status, belief, privilege, and responsibility. I didn't know how much I would strain to steer his ship. I didn't know how wobbly my faith would be.

He showed Cory his birthday card as soon as he arrived home from work later that evening. Here's what I had forgotten: just as there is no natural light inside the jail, just as there is no fresh air (ever,) there is very little color. Beige uniforms, gray walls, gray floors, gray dinners on gray trays.

Crayons, markers, and colored pencils and inks are banned. So in order to make a full-color greeting card, an inmate has to launch an expensive and complicated process involving candy wrappers, overpriced jail deodorant, and hours of meticulous scraping and depositing. There is no room for error. And it will cost them.

Have I ever cared that much?

I grabbed the card again, held it closer, studied it with blurred vision. "Thank you for being our friend," it read. 

Sometimes, life plays to my basest worries. Aren't we all doing the best we can, sweeping all the pieces of life into one pile and calling it good? I cannot pretend to read the future, but I have been handed the gift of living very near the poor and overlooked, and I'm passing it onto my kids. The box is obviously recycled, the corners softened and worn. The bow is wonky. The paper is torn.

But open it up, sweet boy.
What you find inside will change you.


"We're often asked if our unconventional life puts our kids at risk. Do they suffer for it? Are they safe? At times, we settle for the easy answers. Yes, of course they're safe. They don't suffer. They're never at risk.

The longer truth is, risk swirls around us, sinister and unseen. Suffering tails us daily, not because we live in a particular neighborhood or welcome hard lives to our table, but because we are broken humans in a fallen world." - Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I Always Wanted (still just $1.99 on Kindle

~

My friend Emily P. Freeman wrote a beautiful piece on what it feels like when our kids grow up. "It feels like torn lace, like smoke, like wedding mints melting on your tongue." Read it here.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Weekending


It's been a weird couple of weeks.

All I know is, I had a really fun* visitor, then it was Cory's birthday, then Calvin's, then Silas got sick for a week and started saying things like, "Mama, sometimes when my body starts to get hot I feel really...angry." And, "Is there a tube inside our body for, like, food and water and stuff?" (Yes.) "Well, my main question is, is the tube made of plastic? Or glass?"

What I'm trying to say is, the weeks have been a blur of the best of everything. On Tuesday afternoon I deferred all responsibilities, watched Zootopia with Si, then we both took a nap. In the middle of the day. With lots of cuddling in between, no unnecessary hygiene, no constricting fabrics, and I can't even remember, but I'm guessing I found a way to not even cook dinner. (Sick days are kind of awesome when you're not even sick.)

I also did lots of reading. Want a teaser? You got it.

"We don't want to be part of something ordinary; we want to be part of something special. Being a part of God's kingdom just doesn't feel exciting and sexy enough. The day-to-day reality of being with God in our work, in our home life, and our community lacks the power, the transcendence, the specialness we crave. We long for the validation of our importance."

Or if you're in a hurry, "The Tower of Babel is in our hearts."
OUCHHHHHH.

I'm struck speechless by The Way of the Dragon or The Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus' Path of Power in a Church that has Abandoned It by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel. Cory read it first and couldn't stop yammering about it, so I got my own copy and it's a good thing, because I don't want to share this one.

Here are a few other things that grabbed me this week:

::  We need more honest words about mental health. Depression feels like, "...knowing a fire is burning but never feeling warm."

:: This post by Alia Joy took my breath away. Especially this, "food has no morality. It is not good or bad and the consumption of food does not make you good or bad.  It doesn’t make up the value of someone. It simply is."

:: Dream job!!

:: Silas keeps fighting me for this lotion (and I also love the soap.) **shannanmartin20 for 20% off through the end of March AND 10% of sales go to the Elkhart Co. Jail Ministry!**

:: Duran Duran + Joy Williams = GET IN MY EARS.

:: Consider these tacos queued the heck UP.

:: Is your church doing any short-term missions trips this spring or summer? Read this.

::  We need more words about things like choosing childlessness (and less churches with "family" in their name, but that's another post for another day.)

::  I watched this with Calvin.

::  And this with Calvin and Ruby. (We have massive feelings about the oppression of North Koreans around here.)

:: Okay, that got intense for a minute. But I promise you, this is such a sweet note to end on. (I should know, we got to see them live last weekend for Cory's birthday!)

And because I love you, and because I know you'll care, here's a pic of Siley's plate at our trip last weekend to Golden Corral (Calvin's bday pick.)


Happy weekend, homies.
Onion ring dreams (this was his second plate of onion rings, by the way) for all.

Yours,
Shannan

* "Fun" is defined by being super chill, enjoying thrift stores, eating enthusiastically, keeping an open mind about movies, staying up too late, and talking until you go half-hoarse. Go have some.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Weekending :: Letting in the Light


Guys, it's 10:31pm right now, which apparently in 40-year-old-woman time means 3:79 am. Time makes no sense to me anymore. I've lived my whole life as a raging night owl and now it's 10:31 on a Friday night and I'm panicking that I've already ruined tomorrow by not getting enough sleep.

I don't know myself.

It would be like if I randomly became grossed out by salsa.
Or if I suddenly realized gingham is not, in fact, a neutral.

It would be like if I started exercising for fun.
Or if I thought nicknames were lame.
Or if I quit writing to become a zoologist.

Who is Shannan Martin? What exactly is my identity at the point that 10:31 pm feels too late to bother?

Unrelated: Do spider bites cause exhaustion?
That was the first thought I had this morning at 6:45 am.

I Googled it, and Google is saying they do not. But the spider bites are saying something quite different and anyway, no one wants to talk about spider bites on a Saturday. Or ever.

Onward!

I rounded up a few fun reads for your weekend.
I'm scanning my foggy, 40-year old brain and I don't think any of them are too depressing....nope. Not too depressing. We're keeping it light today, sisters and friends.

It's what weekends are for, or at least this weekend.

::  This podcast is giving me life today OH MY WORD. (Emphasis on the "Oh".)

::  Cory and I have followed this with laser intensity, often cackling in bed (sometime before 10:31pm)

::  I have always felt like my introvertedness is a handicap when it comes to be a mom. The STRUGGLE!! This piece had me nodding along and feeling more like a human and less like a mistake.

:: Surprise! Falling Free: Rescued From the Life I Always Wanted is available on Kindle for just $1.99. Scoop it up! Save it for later! Tell a friend! If you've ever wondered about my backstory, it's all in there. My heart. My soul. And lots of Robert stories. ;)

::  This was beautiful and inspiring. We're all so complicated and art lives in each of us. Find a way to pry it out and share it with the world! (We're waiting.)

:: I'm currently re-reading this classic novel. (Swoon!) I had no clue it was written by a teenaged girl!

::  This one stops me in my tracks every time. Her pictures, her words, her soul.

::  This cracked me up in a very "smh" sort of way. Also, I could use some help adulting because I have problems locking myself out of various places, I'm usually 5 minutes late, and I couldn't remove a red wine stain if it bit me on the ankle. Like a spider. For example.

:: The grand finale! Please, if you never do another thing I tell you to do, watch this clip. I laugh-cried when I saw it this morning, and not just because it's all so very familiar. The work-from-home struggle isn't actually a struggle...until your baby rolls into the room while you're filming a life spot on the BBC then your wife crawls in to retrieve him with her pants half down.

Happy Weekending, Homies!

xo
Shannan

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Year 4.5 - the Look of Life


Sometimes my fight is against cynicism. Sometimes it's against apathy. It's always against the fleshiest part of me that wants what I want when I want it, the part that is never satisfied, always longing, always turning away.

Lately, my fight is against the urge to shut it all down and sleep for the better part of a week. It has been a tiring couple of months (yawn.)

So, yesterday, when I found a rare ten-minute window, I decided to spend it sitting on my front steps in peace. Just ordinary me, the birds, the bare Maple limbs and the familiar wail of the train. No people. No words.

Not thirty seconds later she passed by on the opposite sidewalk, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She walks by a few times a day, her face lined with hardship more than age, her skin closely matching the tan of her backpack. If I had to guess how old she is, I'm sure I'd overshoot it.

Warily, she said hello.
A minute more and she crossed over to my side of the street.

This neighbor cares for her disabled granddaughter. She writes letters to her daughter at the women's prison every week and wouldn't you know, her daughter just won a coveted spot in the Dog Program. (I assumed this was an acronym for something. Drugs? Daughters? Who knows. In fact, it's a program where inmates learn to train dogs.)

I asked about her grandkids who, like so many others, broke my heart when the hard-luck housing market swallowed them up and they were forced across town. "Oh, they're much better," she smiled. "I still can't believe it."

She railed against mistakes made, injustices dealt. There's the daughter serving time downstate on a meth charge when "so many damn people are out there doing so much worse." There's the school who tossed her grandson out when he was just a kid. He's better now, back in school. He found a new friend and they share a name, but they also share the weight of the world pressing down on them, daring them to survive. "He's a good friend, a true friend." She paused. "I don't have many of those, myself. I'm too honest, I guess."

Tell me the truth. Show me what is real. This is my ten minute window, but I'm willing to stretch it to twenty if you are.

I did little more than listen and nod along, watching the ash grow longer between her fingertips then fall to the ground. "This weather is really something, isn't it? They say global warming is a bunch of BS, but I don't know, this doesn't make much sense. It's weird." She trailed away, we said our goodbyes, for now.



I recently sat with a late cup of steaming tea and listened to a message from a new friend, hundreds of miles away. Through tears she processed her own journey from safety and comfort to one marked by the weird way of Jesus.

"I'm so confused... I feel so disconnected from my old life but I'm lonely here, too... My life used to be so much simpler... When will this start to get easier?"

Staring out my window at the street that keeps pummeling my pride along with my heart, tears streaked my face. I shook my head and wept. Then I messaged her back, "It will never get easier."

We are four and a half years in and here's what I can tell you: I know my place. It is no longer unfamiliar to me. I know the smells. I expect the shattered glass gleaming underfoot on our slow morning walks to school. I know the cars and the kids. The sounds have formed a particular sort of white noise; the hammer, the chainsaw, tires on wet pavement, the train. I am no stranger here. I'm not new anymore.

This life is exhausting, it's not going to change. But there's more to the story, and that's where words often fail me. 

The longer we stay, the more closely I'm drawn to these struggling, optimistic, frustrating, beautiful, hard-working humans. I am bound to them inextricably. I know their pain. I know there's no sense bearing witness to it unless I'm willing to bear it physically, to hoist part of it onto my shoulder then walk with them in the same direction.

I want their pain. And that's a tough one to explain.

The faces change. They move away. They are sent away. They're locked up, driven apart, uprooted. They are talked over, looked over, despised for their poverty and the way it shines on our own. But the trouble they know is ground into the asphalt lining my streets and yours. Nine year olds casually mention there's no food at their house between hands of Go Fish. Men and woman talk without emotion about abuse, about shame, about what it feels like to plunge a needle into a ropy vein and know peace for a moment. Here, there is simply no point in making small talk.

Meanwhile, we buy toilet paper. We brown onions with meat, unclog the drain, scratch down reading minutes with the dried up marker found underneath the table. We laugh every day, especially when it's all we can do. We live mostly paycheck to paycheck, hunted down by the fact that we still have far more than we need. We field requests, praying our love is enough. We battle our own entitlement and frustration with every "No" we speak, and our energy bleeds out between the cracks of this very good life. We erect barricades of paperback books and stream Dawes from the speaker hidden above the kitchen cabinets. We sing along. We eat with our neighbors every chance we get, knowing this is the "work" we've been called to, knowing it isn't work at all.

It is exhausting.
It is liberating.

It doesn't get easier.
It gets harder.

But I have wonderful news - we were not called to comfort. We weren't called to be unshakable portraits of courage or calm. We were not intended to self-soothe with warm messages of false pride and emotional placidity. We were not made to be happy. And we sure weren't made for small talk.

We were made for the mess, that ridiculous mixture of suffering and gladness, that disquieting blend of love and grit that stresses us out and raises us up. This is our birthright.

Four and a half years in, I have never been more sure that the only way to live is at the razor edge of myself, in full view of my rebel God who prefers low places.

Life stopped being simple long ago. I still fight the chaos. There are days I so desperately want to believe the common narrative, that I should come first. That I should say no. That God does not need my exhaustion, so I can go ahead and hang it up. From every side I'm told I am enough, even if I never answer the door again.

I suppose all of this is theologically sound, if you hold it in the right light. Thankfully, I'm a neighbor, not a theologian. I'm no Biblical scholar, just a woman who has learned through tears, scheduling nightmares, lost keys, and the occasional, well-timed triumph that as image-bearers of Christ inching toward the character of a Holy God, we are promised a life that will only be saved if it's lost.

It's hard to put all of this into words, so hard that I sort of gave up for a while. But the world is on fire and the church is burning to the ground. This cannot wait. I need the truth in my ears, in my retinas, floating on the page and lodged down in my throat. We were called to so much more than comfort, and the cost will be our reward. 

Come with me. Find your chaos. Call it good.