Halloween cake

The city is still orange from the Giants’ win Wednesday night. At least at night it is, or right now, 6:37 am. In an hour, the sun will come up and you won’t be able to see the several buildings on the skyline whose lights have changed to the Giants’ colors, orange against the black sky. It makes the whole city look celebratory, like a Halloween cake.

Today is Halloween, and the scariest thing I have to do all day is get two cavities filled. I’ve never had cavities before, although not for a lack of trying. I have a sweet tooth. As a kid, I could have eaten all my Halloween candy in one night if it was allowed; if we didn’t have to put our plastic orange pumpkin candy baskets on top of the refrigerator. Our mom, we knew, would sneak candy from them after we went to bed. I didn’t mind much, because she only took things like Tootsie Rolls that I didn’t much like. She never touched the Reeses.

And it wasn't even Halloween!

And it wasn’t even Halloween!

My mom loves scary movies. Most moms didn’t show their kids Psycho when they were 9, 7, and 5–that much I’ve learned by comparing Mom notes. She brought it home from Blockbuster and told us it was a Looney Tunes video (she loves to lie about inconsequential things almost as much as she loves scary movies). The shower scene was bad, but I still think the power of that movie is in the second murder, when Norman Bates kills Detective Arbogast on the stairs. I shook in bed all night after watching it, keeping one eye on the window above my bed. The next day, I watched it again. Psycho is one of my favorite movies. My brother drew Norman Bates in the “My Hero” section of his first-grade class the next year.

The first year we lived in Illinois, it snowed on Halloween. Our mom woke us up, and my brother and sister and I padded downstairs to watch the flurries. You could follow one snowflake from its appearance in the backyard floodlight all the way to the ground, where it would instantly disappear into the concrete patio. It wasn’t sticking. We sat with our faces pressed to the glass door, where a year or so later, Johnny would accidentally step on a box that Mallory and her friend Nicole had used to house a small injured bird named Chuckles. Chuckles died.

Halloween isn’t a holiday for nostalgia, unless you’re like me and every day is an occasion for nostalgia. I don’t remember when I stopped trick-or-treating, but I do remember that my favorite costume was a blue princess dress, recycled from a wedding when I was a flower girl. I was probably five, which in retrospect seems a little old for a flower girl?

Tonight we won’t have any trick-or-treaters, although there is a block party nearby that we will walk down to. The sky is dark here still, and I’ll get my cavities filled and go to work and get a haircut, and we will have friends over. One set of those friends have a baby girl, the cutest, most round-headed baby ever to live, and she will be dressed as a bumblebee, and then in a few years she will walk from house to house collecting candy in her plastic pumpkin basket. See? I can turn anything into nostalgia. I’m like Rumpelstiltskin. But tonight, we’ll walk in the dark street with the lights, and the city will be celebratory. Like a Halloween cake.

 

Why, specifically, I hate Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

patcIt’s hard not to compare Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to Walden; harder still not to compare the voice of the book’s narrator to Thoreau: ever-observant, curious, at times droning, and always alone. The aloneness of the narrator is part of what makes Pilgrim such a singular book, but it also creates a challenge for the reader. It is difficult to connect with a narrator who is entirely alone and whose mind rarely interacts with anyone else’s except to relate this anecdote or that. In some ways, the natural world operates as another character to some success, and is a foil to the narrator’s aloneness.

But for the most part, the success of Pilgrim wavers where the narrator lives in this sort of solipsism. We come to know her (if, indeed, the narrator is a woman—we don’t get any clues as to this particular slice of her humanity) primarily through her interaction with the natural world:

What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind (139).

There is no doubt that Dillard has a masterful grip of the English language. She can turn a phrase beautifully; her syntax is something to behold. It is important to note this because I suspect that part of Dillard is at the core of the traits she shares with the narrator of Pilgrim. But without really knowing the narrator, I had a hard time receiving whatever wisdom she was dispensing. The narrator rarely offers anything of herself, and the result is a book of beautiful observations about God and nature and the disorderliness of life about which I care very little because I do not know much about the narrator.

The reader can appreciate that the narrator aims “to keep myself open” to the meanings of all the created order that exist in the valley. The narrator is exceedingly self-aware, and the book would be an entire failure without that trait. But she is so cerebral in her pursuit of true sight that the narrator’s pilgrimage never veers from her own mind. That limits what she is able to accomplish with the book because, ironically, she constricts her own sight.

She does reveal herself in some ways—earlier on page 34, for example, she realizes that “I can’t go out and try to see this way. I’ll fail, I’ll go mad.” Later in the book, she says “Boo!” to a grasshopper. This is charming, and the insight helps the reader to feel a sense of connection. The narrator tells the reader about how she interacts with plants and creeks and books and foxes, but I can’t recall a single instance of the narrator actually interacting with another human being. This may arise out of the narrator’s desire to understand the world without interference or mediation, to see by noticing only what is actually there rather than to see the represented simulacrum of things.

Yet even in the sentences above, where the narrator uses the first person, we still learn very little about her, or what we learn is not sufficient to create even a sketch of a whole person. Where Rachel Cusk included loads of extraneous detail in Aftermath, Dillard includes almost no revealing personal information. Where Thomas Lynch followed a thought from inception to conclusion in the pages of The Undertaking, Dillard introduces thoughts but barely connects them back to the way they might interact with the world in which we live, the world of people and streets as well as foxes and giant water beetles. That aloneness of the narrator and her unwillingness to take what she has learned outside of Tinker Creek makes me less likely to trust or want to read more of her, because she seems to exist primarily in her own mind, never testing or exchanging her ideas against others.

October Third

Early engraving of the death of Captain Cook

Early engraving of the death of Captain Cook

On this day in 1778, Captain Cook and the crew of the HMS Resolution made landfall at Unalaska, a town on the Aleutian island of Unalaska, which has been populated for thousands of years by the Unangan people. Cook and his crew had left Plymouth, in Devon, over two years earlier in hopes of discovering a Northwest Passage that would allow them (and future commerce) to bypass lengthy travel around South America by sailing straight through North America and on to China or India beyond. They Resolution and its sister ship, the Discovery, stopped in South Africa, in French Polynesia, and in Hawaii before charting much of the northwest coast of what is now the United States and heading up to Alaska. Frustrated by his inability to locate a Northwest Passage and thwarted from further travel by encroaching ice, Cook directed the two ships to Unalaska for minor repairs before sailing on to Hawaii.

When they arrived in Hawaii, a native tried to steal one of their smaller boats. Cook decided to take the King of Hawaii hostage until the boat was returned, which proved to be a fatal error. Cook and his men retreated, but not before they could get knocked on the head. The people with whom they had lived peaceably for a month killed Cook.

 

On this day in 2009, Zack and I were married. No one died. Like Cook, we didn’t discover anything new, unless you count each other. We said words to each other that are as old in sentiment as anything I’ve ever said, words with histories further-reaching than anything I had committed myself to before that day. One kind of life ended, and another kind of life began. It wasn’t really that different, it turned out, and that’s not all bad when you’ve been dating five years before you get married. But a lot changed.

IMG_3536We have lived in three different places since that day. We’ve gotten a dog. We’ve weathered fights and played umpteen games of cribbage at the Latin American Club over strong margaritas. The day we got married, a friend told me that we would have to do it again next year. I was confused. “The date,” he said, and pointed to our program. The date printed was October 3, 2010–a year later. We only got married once, but in the way that you do, we chose to be married every day. And maybe an anniversary is a celebration of the discoveries you’ve made and haven’t made, the choices that have allowed you to stay despite what you feel, the slow living into the aspirational vows that you and so many other people have given each other.

 

It’s a good day. Captain Cook got his ship repaired in Alaska. People were born. People died. Empires came and went. We said “I do,” and our friends danced. We still do, although in the blink of an eye it will be over. October 3, 1778, was a very real day to James Cook and the rest of the men aboard those ships. They ate and grew tired and couldn’t get enough sleep and talked about who they missed and what they wanted to do and how cold it was. They felt the sun on their skin or the wind where they weren’t covered. I hear the bus braking outside our house right now. I have had too much coffee and my fingers clack on the keyboard. It’s a day, just like any other day.

 

The Road to Hana

You don’t expect to have to go to the clinic on your honeymoon. You don’t expect to have to call your sister and ask her to overnight your backup anxiety prescription to the Hana Health Clinic, which you had bicycled past the day before with your new husband. You don’t expect to exist in a constant state of panic in paradise.

The view (Photo by Clark Weber via Flickr http://bit.ly/1vBat4f)

The view (Photo by Clark Weber via Flickr http://bit.ly/1vBat4f)

There was a brunch the morning after our wedding, then the flight, the rental car pickup, the drive to Hana. Ten days in Hana, a rural slice of heaven on the eastern tip of Maui. The hotel was owned in part by a family friend, which is how we ended up staying there. We never could have afforded it otherwise. We had a bungalow with views of the green fields that tumbled down to black rocks and the blue Pacific. We had a bed with white linens, a mini-fridge, a free bottle of Champagne, a sunken tub, a patio. We had ten days stretching out before us with nothing to do.

That’s what worried me most.

He was wonderful. I loved him, I knew that. It wasn’t doubt about the decision we had made, it was persistent underlying fear about the future, fear that coalesced around significant life changes, fear that stuck in my veins even while I lay on a hammock reading Divisadero. The book had been in the library, the one room in the hotel with a computer. I checked emails, checked Facebook, wrote notes to myself on the big keyboard about how anxious I felt and then didn’t send them. I asked him to drive us to Lahaina, twice, just to be around other people because I felt less anxious in a crowd. He obliged. We drove past waterfalls and around sheer cliffs and next to black-sand beaches. We ate at Cheeseburger in Paradise and I bought a T-shirt at Kimo’s and we rented surfboards. Culinary, retail, physical: there was no type of therapy I wouldn’t try.

The backup anxiety medication is called Klonipin. People use it to get high; you might remember its cultural zenith from the OK Go song A Million Ways to Be Cruel: “Play that song again, another couple Klonipin, a nod, a glance, a halfhearted bow.” The song praises the grace and beauty of the one taking Klonipin, because that’s what it gives you. I am ashamed to admit taking it, to admit needing a boost in grace and beauty. I don’t take it much anymore, but I keep it around just in case. Anxiety spins lies about the future, and when grace is the farthest thing from my mind, I need help.

I needed help. I was afraid of life, afraid of what this change meant, afraid of all the things I hadn’t done and wouldn’t do and had done and would do. It was all on the table. We drove to the Hana Health Clinic and waited for the physician’s assistant. I should have gotten the prescription filled earlier, I told Zack and myself and the air and the PA. She asked me a few questions, then gave me the bottle and a cup of water.

The road to Hana is staggering.

The loss of the dress

It will be five years on Saturday. Five years since I got my hair done in a style I didn’t love, put on Manolo Blahniks I thought I had gotten a great deal for online not knowing they were fake, walked down the aisle to the suite from Forest Gump and recessed back up the aisle to a string quartet playing Back in Black. A lot happened in between songs–a lot happened the rest of the day, too, and the days before, but that’s another story for another day. This is a story about my wedding dress. I had visions about it being the first one I tried on, and telling people who asked, “It was the first dress I tried on! Can you believe it?” I don’t remember now what the first one was, but it was at a tiny store in Burlingame and not worth the space in my brain it would take to recall. I didn’t have a particular style in mind, although I knew what I didn’t want–no poofy skirts, not too white, easy to dance in. Elegant was the word, although I realize that doesn’t exactly make me unique among brides.

The traditional cupping of the ass

The traditional cupping of the ass

My mom and sister came with me, and we wound up at a store called the Bridal Galleria (“Galleria” sounding much more fancy than “store”). I tried on four or five dresses that were fine, and then one that I really loved. They called the dress “champagne,” and it was strapless with ruching across the front and an A-line skirt. It was about twice my budget, but if we cut back on the flowers and had our friends DJ, we could make it work. The next dress was different. It was nothing I had ever imagined wearing–a long silk skirt, a halter top made of some fabric like very fine mesh or tulle, and a billowy back. There were two long sashes that tied at the small of my back, and three tiny velvet roses that fastened at the nape of my neck. I pulled my hair up and stood on my tiptoes. The skirt was tighter than anything I had thought I would wear on my wedding day, and more Old Hollywood than bridal. “You’re going to get the strapless one, I just know it,” my sister said. “It’s beautiful, it’s just kind of …boring.” Mallory has a tendency to make these kinds of strongly-worded pronouncements before the fact. When our parents were looking to buy a house in northern California, there were three or four contenders. “One of them is just really strange,” Dad told us. “It’s in a U-shape, but the woman who owned it has lived there for decades, and it’s covered in old shrubs and the rooms are dark. It would take a lot of work to get it where we want it to be.” “You’re going to buy the weird one, I just know it.” Mallory said it like it had already happened, like she was already angry about it. My mom protested, but in the end, guess which house they got? So we were in the dressing room, and between the budget and Mallory’s maddening belief that she could predict the future, I decided to buy the weird dress. It was beautiful, too, just in a very different way. It was slinky. I put down the deposit, and visited the dress occasionally–the Bridal Galleria, it turned out, was right across the street from the publishing house where I worked. It was like an arranged marriage, the kind that ages well and in which two people fall more in love after their mutual fates have been combined in a process not entirely of their own choosing.

IMG_3537

Walkin’

I was twenty-three when I bought the dress, twenty-four when I got married in it. I walked down the aisle with my father on my right arm, and left it with my husband. My parents married us; my uncle stood up and pretended to object; my brother-in-law brought the rings in attached to small mewing kittens he had borrowed from an adoption fair down the street. We ate ahi sandwiches in the perfectly-appointed backyard of a family friend, and I still hear from people that the dancing at our reception was the most fun they’ve ever had at a wedding. (The key? a small dance floor and attractive friends. The number of hookups that night crossed into the double digits.) Zack and I flew to Hawaii for our honeymoon, where I spent an anxious ten days alternating between being so glad of having him there and begging him to drive us to Lahaina, the biggest town on the island, to be around more people so my head wouldn’t explode. Mallory had the dress, and would drop it at the cleaners and then pick it up for me, leaving it in a box in our parents’ laundry room, next to the box where my mom’s wedding dress was. My mom had pulled her dress out just before I got married; it had been in the same box for twenty-five years. “I don’t know if it’s even my dress, for sure. They could have mixed it up years ago! Maybe it’s Princess Di’s wedding dress!” I pointed out that that was a highly unlikely scenario, but until she pulled her dress out, you couldn’t have convinced her otherwise. It fit her perfectly, still, and she took it to a tailor to have a square cut out for me, a handkerchief that would be my something old. It’s in a marble box in my dresser now. A couple of years passed. Zack and I settled into our new house, then moved into a smaller apartment a year later. We unpacked and packed and celebrated two anniversaries and got a dog. We spent Sunday nights, often, at my parent’s house, the U-shaped bungalow with a pool in the backyard that had cleaned up quite nicely. One night, while we were there, I thought about my wedding , dress. I went into the laundry room to grab the box–we could take it home, put it on a high shelf in our closet, and forget about it again. I scanned the laundry room–there was mom’s dress box, there were the old beach towels, there was the china that never came out of its container. “Mallory!” I yelled from the laundry room, as loud as I could. We both love to annoy our parents in their home, still. “Where is my wedding dress?” She didn’t reply, or maybe she made a noise indicating she wasn’t going to come to where I was, so I went to find her. “Where’s my wedding dress?” I asked. “What?” “My wedding dress. You know, the box they gave you when you picked it up from the cleaners. I just assumed you had put it in the laundry room, but it wasn’t there.” “Oh, I didn’t pick it up from the cleaners.” A beat. “What?” “I didn’t–you were supposed to pick it up from the cleaners when you got back. I didn’t get it.” Shit. 

Image by Gabriel Ryan

Image by Gabriel Ryan

I don’t remember a lot of this, still–don’t remember what happened next, exactly, or how we resolved the issue except that it was a total and complete miscommunication, an assumption on my part and hers, but the burden was on me. It had been my dress, not hers. I called the cleaners as I got in my car to drive over there, but it was a Sunday night and they had been closed all day. I went as soon as they opened the next morning, but nothing. They didn’t have the dress. After a year, the woman who worked there told me, all of our unclaimed clothes get sold or donated. Could she tell me where? No, she couldn’t. She either didn’t know or couldn’t say–I don’t remember anymore. I thought about visiting every consignment store, every resale wedding boutique, every engaged woman in a fifty-mile radius. I thought about that dress, the silk skirt, the tulle top, the velvet roses. I had never loved that dress more than I did in that moment. It was gone. It is gone. That’s the end of the story. The dry cleaners should have called me, or Mallory, or whatever phone number was on the receipt. The receipt was long gone, too, though, and they didn’t, and what was I going to do? It was a dress I would only wear once, as much as I loved it. I won’t be able to put it on for my daughter when she gets married, but I’ll survive. Maybe I’ll put on my mother’s wedding dress and sway around in it like a goofy Miss Havisham. Her tailor took the square for the handkerchief out of the front of the dress, a big square just gone. Mom had wanted it taken from the lining inside. These things don’t always work out. Sometimes I think of being back in that dressing room, and Mallory saying what she said about the dress, and how much my mom loved it, and how I took some convincing. I hope that someone else wore the dress recently, someone who needed no convincing at all, someone who saw it and loved it. I’ll never know, but I hope. I hope my marriage to Zack will be long and fruitful and kind. I hope I will love the days we have. I hope. I lost the dress.

No Cause: On Lear, Cordelia, and forgiveness

Cordelia's Farewell, Edwin Austin Abbey, 1897

Cordelia’s Farewell, Edwin Austin Abbey, 1897

King Lear wasn’t a great father to Cordelia. I’ve always loved the play—it’s a sort of Prodigal Son story in reverse, in which the wandering father returns to the daughter whose steadfast love was always deeper than words. But the reason for their split in the first place was that Lear was caught up in hearing pleasant lies about how much his daughters loved him.

Lear was the ruler of Britain, a good enough place to rule if you weren’t too worried about enemies who wanted to chop your head off. He was getting old, though, so he was ready to give up the ghost of his kingship and spend the rest of his life in relaxed retirement. He would visit his three daughters, who would all marry rich men – but first, they had to give him a sweet sendoff. “Tell me how much you love me,” Lear told them. “I’ll give the most land to the one who loves me best.”

The daughters speak. Goneril goes first, then Regan. They blather. They are breathless, practically tripping over themselves to praise the old man. Goneril talks about all manner of love, and liberty, and freedom, and concludes by saying she loves Lear more than anyone has ever loved anything, basically. Regan, sycophantic toad that she is, says that Goneril didn’t go far enough in her declaration of love. “I don’t find joy in anything other than you; nothing else in the entire world makes me happy.”

Cordelia says nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true—she does not say what her father wants to hear. There is nothing obsequious about her. She tells Lear that she loves him the way a daughter should love her father; no more, no less. But Lear is not satisfied with truth or plain speech, so he disinherits Cordelia on the spot.

They are like no one so much as the women who bring the baby to Solomon, these sisters. Goneril and Regan are so impressed by their own voices, so assured of their reward, that they are willing to separate themselves from the truth—they think their father a fool; they do not love him—in order to get what they want. Cordelia, quiet and resolute in her love, is not fixated on the most lucrative outcome. She is committed more to speaking what is true, in the same way the child’s true mother told Solomon not to cleave the baby in half but to give it, whole and alive, to give him to this other woman just so his life will not end.

Lear and Cordelia, Ford Madox Brown, 1848

Lear and Cordelia, Ford Madox Brown, 1848

When they meet again, Lear is the one without power. Abandoned by both Regan and Goneril, he was cast aside for a fool and made to wander the moors. King David, Solomon’s father, did some wandering of his own before he made his way back to sanity. Confronted with his earlier cruelty to Cordelia, Lear is rightly (and tenderly) embarrassed to be seen by her.

Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.

If you have poison for me, I will drink it.

I know you do not love me, for your sisters

Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.

You have some cause; they have not.

She has some cause. Some cause, indeed. Her despot of a dad took away her inheritance, divided it among her wicked sisters who never really loved him, and there he was in front of her again. He is almost completely mad, and assured of only one thing: that this daughter, who could not give him the praise he so desperately sought, must hate him even more than the two who puffed his ego in exchange for their own riches. He is a broken man, returned in shame to the one person who actually does love him most truly. It is impossible not to hear echoes of the Prodigal Son returning to his father:

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“If you have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me…You have some cause.”

And then, two of the loveliest words in literature and in life. “No cause, no cause.”

The first time I read those words, I was in Reynolds Hall, an old, creaky wooden house that housed the English department at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. I was a freshman, taking what would turn out to be the only English class I ever took. I was drawn away from the life of words and into the life of the world I found in political science. But that mid-morning class and those moments with Cordelia have been stamped on my mind ever since that day. I walked up the long hill toward my dorm room that day, alternating footsteps repeating the phrase. “No,” left. “Cause,” right. “No, cause, no, cause, no, cause,” all the way back up to my dorm.

There are a few ways to understand the leniency with which Cordelia responds to the father who has wronged her. On the one hand, isn’t she just being stupid, or naive? Does she really believe there is nothing to forgive, after all? She is so quick to release her father from guilt that she must not live in the real world.

Or is she, once again, playing the role of the good and dutiful daughter? Is she now attempting to salve the wounds of the ego she inflicted on her father at the beginning of the play? Maybe this is a signal that Cordelia is unbothered by anything, unworthy of our time or attention; a boring, strange, dismissive character. Maybe this is forgiveness simply to diminish the issue at hand.

Or maybe—and I’ll show my cards here; this is what I see—maybe Cordelia is giving one of the greatest gifts one human being can ever bestow upon another. Maybe, ever aware of the complexities and dangers that have assailed her father from the beginning, cognizant of his betrayal by her sisters, seeing him so near to madness, to being beside himself, she chooses the truest kindness available to her when she says “no cause.” Her forgiveness is born out of pain, not dismissive of it. Cordelia, aware of how her own diffidence may have contributed to her father’s woundedness, is shown to be gracious far beyond what is expected of her. She has cause for resentment, cause not to forgive. But rather than choose to hold this over her father, in her love and wisdom she relinquishes her right to anger. “No cause, no cause.”

“Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him,” says the father of the Prodigal Son on his return, “put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

The center is falling apart

I had a dream last night that I was at a wedding with the dean of Student Life from my alma mater. I can’t remember who was getting married, or where, but scores of people sat outside at round tables drinking wine and talking. Jane didn’t say much during the course of the dinner, and at one point I realized the person sitting next to me was her sister. (I don’t know whether she had a sister, in real life. This was the kind of dream person who exists wholly in your conscious unconsciousness.) The sister turned to me and said, “My sister Jane is going to stay up all night. She knows she is going to die soon, and she doesn’t want to miss a minute of the rest of her life.”

One of my dearest friends flew home this weekend from the east coast, to be with her family in the midst of one of the most awful situations I can imagine. Death was settling in her neighborhood, too.

I’ve been thinking lately about the word “center.” Not the verb, so much, which I’ve never liked anyway–there have to be better ways of saying “locate X in the middle”–but the noun, the actual thing that is in the middle and in which everything meets. Where everything holds together.

In the epistle to the Colossians, Paul (or, perhaps, an early follower) opens with a long conversation about the reconciling work Jesus has done. God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” In the next verse, the author describes Jesus as “the firstborn of the dead.”

So if it is true that in God we “live and move and have our being,” it is somehow also true that in God we die. In God we have everything, and in God we have nothing, and life consists in living both extremes in the blink of an eye, and over long decades.

Then, on the other hand, we have this:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The world has always been falling apart. Yeats saw that after World War I, and he wasn’t the first. The center cannot hold. The center is falling apart under all the weight it has to bear. The center was not made to hold the death of children, Lou Gehrig’s disease, suicide, accidents, the despair of millions.

All the intensity the center was holding in for all of us gets loosed upon the world. Pandora’s box is opened and the lid blown off. There can be no putting things right for awhile, not now.

It is something to say that Jesus is the center, something true. It is also true to say the center cannot hold. The center did not hold. And maybe it is truest of all to say that we have no idea what it means to hold.

He was a miracle

It’s August in San Francisco, which means long days of fog and high temperatures in the mid-60s. I’ve woken up every morning this week with the defiant expectation of someone who’s not from around here. “Is there any sun?” I’ll ask Zack as he pulls up the shade. There never is, but a girl can hope.

So it was with a sense of resignation that I pulled up a recipe for turkey chili tonight to make dinner. Chili in August just seems wrong, but then again, so does winter weather in August. I had the turkey out, the onion, the beer that would deglaze the pot and simmer the meat. The windows were cracked open and Zack was on the phone and the smell of garlic quickly filled the small kitchen. Once everything was in the pot–the turkey, the spinach, the tomatoes, the kidney beans–I checked my email and took the small sip of beer I had left in the bottle. I had gotten an email from a friend who I’ve been in touch with a lot this week, writing back and forth about what’s been going on in Ferguson. “Graphic Video Shows St. Louis Police Shoot and Kill Kajieme Powell Near Ferguson,” the subject line read. I knew something about this–Powell had stolen two energy drinks and a donut from a convenience store in St. Louis City and had brandished a knife at the cops who came to question him and they had killed them. I knew that much, but that was all, so I read the article.

Kajieme Powell

Kajieme Powell

Ten minutes later, the chili was steaming. I was standing in front of the computer, still, like if I kept looking I could peer deeper into what I had just seen; I could change something about it all. I had watched the video (“graphic” doesn’t even begin to describe it–a man dies) and in doing so got the very real feeling that the world just doesn’t make any sense.

This isn’t anything new, of course, and I don’t mean to suggest that my feeling was anything other than my own recognition of a longstanding reality. It’s been a heavy couple of weeks in the news–Robin Williams’ suicide, military engagement with ISIS, Michael Brown’s murder and the resulting outrage and unrest in Ferguson. It’s been a heavy couple of weeks for me, too–no, heavy isn’t the right word. Exhausting. But okay. I’m fine, and it’s nothing a few good nights sleeps won’t fix.

But this…I don’t even know what to say about this. The video opens with narration from the guy behind the camera as he approaches Powell, and Powell is pacing on the sidewalk in front of these two energy drinks on the sidewalk. It sounds like they all know the cops are coming to talk to Powell. He’s there in the video, wearing khaki pants and a dark jacket, zipped up halfway, and a white t-shirt. He’s there, walking, so alive, so completely, painfully alive. He’s right there, a living, breathing human person! His diaphragm is contracting! His lungs are taking in oxygen and nitrogen! Air moved from his throat to his trachea to his bronchi, then bronchioles, then alveoli! He was a walking ninth-grade science class, right there in front of us, a fucking miracle on two feet!

It was over in about fifteen seconds. The cops came, of course. They are white. He, as you know, was black. He walked toward the cops when they came, then away from them, he yelled, he walked closer, they shot, he died. He was 25 years old. People who knew him say his mental state was in constant flux–he wasn’t a man with his wits about him. Who is, really. Who can’t understand the kind of anger that builds up and bubbles over in a community in which a teenager is murdered and his murderer is hidden away and protected? That sends a very clear message.

Another thing that sent a clear message is this: at about two minutes and 40 seconds into the video, or one minute after Powell has been shot, the police put handcuffs on him. They reported that Powell was charging at them with a knife, and that he came within 3-4 feet of the officers, although the video doesn’t show evidence of charging or that proximity, and they could have used tasers, and Powell appeared to be twitching on the same concrete he had paced one minute before, but never mind all that: The police put handcuffs on a dying and dead man’s body. They gathered his hands behind his back, his blood spilling out onto the sidewalk, his brain shutting down, and closed metal around his wrists.

Kajieme Powell was alive, but now he isn’t. Michael Brown was alive, but now he is dead. The punishment for petty theft in this country isn’t death, but it would seem that it is the punishment for being the wrong color and mentally ill and mouthing off to police officers.

I didn’t mean to get like this. It doesn’t matter what I think or feel, and I was going to write about the strangeness of moving from the video of Powell being killed to the Food Network recipe for 30-minute turkey chili. That’s what I was going to say.

The chili was good. The weather is cold. A girl can hope, but there’s no sun.

Tyler Perry: Imagination and Leadership

Tyler Perry at GLS14.

Tyler Perry at GLS14.

His background is remarkable, and his empire now is sizable. But Tyler Perry’s gifts lie in both leadership and creativity, and Bill Hybels asked him about that.

“I had a lot of trauma, and I had to use my imagination a lot [as a child]. I escaped into it,” Perry said, and he also recounted understanding his ambition at a young age, ambition that outpaced his father’s job building houses to want to be the one who owned the house. The leadership and the creativity go hand-in-hand, from his childhood on. When it comes to nurturing the creative side, one of the best things he can do is dedicate a specific amount of time to his artistic side–split his time, essentially–and then do what he needs to do for his business the other days of the week.

Bill: When you go to write, what do you do to push your creativity to new levels?

The first thing I want to do, and it’s the same in my prayer life as it is in my business life, is to clear the noise. I need to be able not to just write a story that will entertain, Perry said, but to leave people with a message they can understand and take home and be helped.

Bill: I was blown away by the size of your campus when I went to visit. The guy who showed me around said he had worked for you for six years, and then told me he wished he could work for you for the rest of his life. How do you inspire people to that degree?

You know, ever since I was young I’ve been told I would never make it–you’re black, you’re poor, the system is designed to be against you. So when I created that world in Atlanta, I wanted a place where all underdogs could come in and know they are welcomed. And sometimes I will pass up hiring a more-qualified person with the wrong attitude and hire the less-qualified person with the better attitude. I think you can feel that there.

Bill: You said, “It takes an enormous amount of energy to get through abuse or violence. But it takes the same amount of energy to forgive the wrongdoer. You don’t just flip a switch.”

Exactly. The amount of energy it took to go through that betrayal, abuse, hurt–that is the amount it will take for you to forgive the person who hurt you. The anger at that person–in my case, his father–is the fuel that moves you along in your life. Forgiveness is scary because you give up the hope of your past ever being any different. But it is the most freeing thing you can ever do for yourself. The person you have not forgiven is going about your life, most of the time, and not thinking about you. They do not deserve to have that kind of power over you.

Bill: We’re meeting together today while there’s an ongoing set of racial tensions in our country. What’s your take on that?

You know, I hope that every generation will get a little better than the one before. My mom had certain neighborhoods I wasn’t allowed to be in when I was growing up in New Orleans, and when I moved, I saw how much bigger the world was than I had realized. I wish that people would start to realize that all our struggles and difficulties are the same, and in time I’m hoping things will be totally different.

Bill: How do you deal with your critics? Does it still have a sting for you?

You know, there was a show I did in Los Angeles where I saw two critics in the audience, their faces all screwed up, writing their notes. One of them said it was one of the worst shows they’d ever seen; the other one said it was one of the best shows. It was then that I realized that it’s always going to be about them–not about me–and what I try to remember is that there are people I hear from who have had great experiences with and because of my work. The Bible talks about God preparing a table in the presence of our enemies. I don’t expect them to say a lot of nice things about me, but they are there. Watch me eat.

Bill: You came from not much money and now you’re awash in it. You have a heart for philanthropy now, clearly–you give a lot. What drives that?

I am my mother’s son. She gave a lot. She didn’t have a lot of money to give, but she got people into our house who didn’t have a place to stay. My first year of making money, I had so much guilt about making money I gave it all away. Then, I realized money wasn’t guilt-inducing, but could do a lot of good for a lot of people. I started to want to focus more on the people I could help and take care of, so that’s what I do now.

Bill: You’ve said that you have a tough time participating in a local church. Tell us more about that.

Well, when Forbes prints how much you make, there’s a level of expectation around how much you are going to give. When you feel like a number rather than a soul that needs work, that makes it hard to be there. Plenty of people put little notes in my hand–”God told me you’re my husband,” things like that. And I’m not going to be rude to people when I am with them, so sometimes it’s easier to stay home and watch online. It makes me sad to forsake the assembly, and I wish that in this age of social media we could give people some privacy and let them come and lay down and lay hands on us and be just like another member of the church.

Bill: So when you think about thirty years from now, what do you want your legacy to be?

I think Maya Angelou said it best – just knowing that I made people feel good was a blessing.

Three perspectives: What does faith do for leadership?

Bill’s introduction began with the confession that “I’ve dreamed of this session for a decade.” These are three leaders who have come to the Summit to talk about the integration of faith and work: Pastor Wilfredo de Jesús, Ugandan Comissioner General Allen Catherine Kagina, and businessperson Don Flow.

Their presentations differed greatly in ways that were really helpful for the different kinds of people watching–people in businesses, people concerned with their families, people involved in international work, and church workers.

Don Flow, Chairman and CEO, Flow Inc.

Don Flow, GLS14

Don Flow, GLS14

1. How does your faith affect every aspect of your business? 

Work is a place that Christ has called me to, to exercise faith, live love, and bring hope. The first way I do this is the act of exercising faith and trusting that God is at work in our midst every day. It cannot be just theory–it means I deeply believe and trust that when I go to work, God is there.

Love is what should animate Christian leaders–it means serving alongside people, not just exercising authority over them. There is a direct correlation between intimacy with Christ and my ability to love in my daily life. I’m called to be a person of truth; to be trustworthy and full of grace. Plenty of leaders are graceful, but not truthful–or truthful, but not graceful. Christ showed us that we can do both, and as Flow said, “my company will never be more truthful or graceful than I am.”

The culture of the organization is a powerful current. It can be toxic, or it can be life-enhancing. Flow’s company has committed to things like a company emergency fund that any employee can apply for. They take on projects in their community to serve the people around them–there’s some project going on every month at every location, and employees are paid for volunteering at local non-profits. The hope is that this will help re-weave the frayed fabric of the tapestry of this world into what it was meant to be.

2. What should business look like in the fullest sense?

Going back to the story of Genesis, we think of a world where all creativity would have enhanced life. Where every person’s gift would have been utilized, transactions would have left all parties satisfied, and wealth would have spilled out to benefit everybody. The world may not be what it was in the Garden, but the renewal of the world began in Christ and we get to participate in that. We need to be people who seek the restoration of good and plenty in every place it confronts us in the world.

3. How would you describe the metric you use to evaluate employees?

We use an acronym called SERVE:

Show respect. Respect is a given right, not an earned favor. There are no little people, and there is no insignificant work.

Earn trust. Demonstrate a commitment to the flourishing of the person. Tell the truth. Commit to the success of each person.

Reach for perfection. We have the capacity to imagine the future, and it’s our responsibility to continually challenge what the organizational future looks like. Challenge without confidence creates fear, and confidence without challenge creates complacency. And we have to be people of second chances, since we will never achieve perfection.

Value input. Engage everyone in the process and listen to different/differing opinions.

Energize others. Purpose, significance, and community energize organizations. Leaders and companies need goals, meaning, and a deep sense of belonging.

 

Catherine Allen Kagina, Commissioner General, Uganda Revenue Authority

Allen Catherine Kagina

Allen Catherine Kagina

It is predicted that most countries in Africa will reach Middle Class status–$1,000 per person per year–by 2025. It is portrayed poorly by the media, and is the best place for investment in the world right now–the ROI is through the roof. But Africa is still listed as the poorest inhabited continent on the planet. Why is a place that is doing so well still so poor?

In 2004, Kagina took the job that she now holds. “I was naive enough to believe that God could change anything,” she said, “including this organization that had been known as a den of thieves.” There wasn’t enough money to fund government programs that are so important for Ugandan children, and Kagina’s background was in psychology and administration, not business. But, as she said, “Once you bring God into the marketplace, he doesn’t know the division between church and politics. We are the ones who build these walls.”

She started out with a determination for competence and integrity in the URA, which started by asking everyone in the URA to re-apply for their jobs. They did six months of interviews and let go of five hundred people–a quarter of their workforce–and became a much “cleaner, more competent organization…things like this have to be done if you want to get rid of corruption.”

They then went to the taxpayers and asked some of them what they wanted from the URA. “We want to serve you. Up to this point, all you’ve known is corruption. What can we do to serve you?” As a response to those answers, the URA now offers services online. They offer tax education to people who had been unsure of what they needed to do. Their teams also went out to schools in the community to serve them. “God has invaded the tax authority,” Kagina said, and revenue has grown by 317% in the last ten years. “I am convinced we are not a poor nation,” she said. The URA is now sending people out from its ranks to head businesses, to work for the World Bank, to do things they never would have been able to do when their primary reputation was corruption. “If we will invite the kingdom of God into public areas, into business, into some churches…I believe that God will take over and we’ll begin to see better societies.”

Wilfredo de Jesús, Senior Pastor, New Life Covenant Church

Wilfredo de Jesús, GLS14

Wilfredo de Jesús, GLS14

“We cannot allow prayer to be a crutch not to do anything.” After being approached by the Chicago police chief over what to do about the city’s human trafficking problems, de Jesús looked for months for a place that these women could come to live after they had been taken out of their earlier situations. “Once the moral conviction of your community has been confused to you, you must move to action.”

There are gaps, he reminds us, all over our country, and they are wider and more destructive today than they have been in the past. To work on filling them in, you have to engage your entire community as your church. Jesus sat with the lost, ate with them, talked with them, and that’s what the gospel is about. We have to go towards the people who our sinful nature sometimes makes us want to avoid. Nehemiah asked about Jerusalem, and when he found out they weren’t doing so well, he was moved to responsibility. Revelation, after all, leads to responsibility. So what did Nehemiah do?

  • He prayed. He saw the gap and he prayed for the gaps to be closed. Prayer is good, but it has to move us.
  • He planned. What many of us like is the final product, but we don’t like the process.
  • He proceeded to go. This part is the road of sacrifice. Once you have seen a problem, you must act to fill that gap for the glory of God.
  • He persuaded. The moment you decide to stand in the gap, there will always be opposition. Nehemiah wasn’t a priest or a prophet or a king, he was a layperson. The question that Nehemiah asked is relevant today: “How is Jerusalem?” Nehemiah asked. How is Los Angeles? How is Chicago? How is Missouri?

The way that we work and labor has everything to do with who we are as people of faith. Human beings are imbued with a kind of dignity that springs from the image of God; we’re God’s workmanship. God made us as people to work, people with gifts to give to the rest of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Erica Ariel Fox on negotiation with the hardest person: Yourself

Erica Ariel Fox, GLS14

Erica Ariel Fox, GLS14

Fox is an expert negotiator. A Harvard-trained lawyer, she lectures at Harvard now and advises Fortune 500 companies. But her toughest clients are often the smallest ones. Little kids are some of the most difficult negotiators on earth–they want to get up too early; want too much from you; need you to take care of everything for them. And learning from her young stepson has helped Fox to see not only how to negotiate with the unruly 5 year-olds in her life, but also how to understand negotiating successfully with herself.

“What does it mean as a great leader to take seriously that one of my key roles is knowing how to negotiate well with myself?” It starts simply enough: We make plans to do something or not do something, we are clear and committed, and in the actual moment of execution, we do something entirely different. We say yes when we want to say no. We want to take risks and we play it safe. We want to play it cool and end up defensive.

There is a gap–the performance gap–that is the distance between what you want to do at your best and what you actually do in real life, in practice. One way to develop yourself as a leader is to identify your performance gaps and consistently and ruthlessly work to close them.

Ways to think about closing the performance gap…

1. Try looking at yourself in a new way. We can think of ourselves as singular, but in many ways, “I” am plural. This is like Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero with a thousand faces.”When we look at scans of human brains, each one of you is more like an orchestra than a soloist,” said science writer Steven Johnson. If you’re only playing one or two instruments, think of the potential now that is untapped. Different parts of ourselves prioritize differently, so we can look at ourselves–our inner negotiators–in much the same way as we look at different people. There are what Fox calls the Big Four:

1. The Dreamer – your inner CEO

2. The Thinker – your inner CFO

3. The Lover – your inner VP of HR

4. The Warrior – your inner COO

So, a question: Are there one or two of these parts of me I use very well, and maybe a lot, but other parts of me I leave behind? How can we develop our capacity in each of the Big Four?

The Dreamer - Creates possibilities; sets strategic vision; senses a path forward; gives direction. But sometimes what the dreamer needs to do is look at the dream beneath the dream. Fox talked about her lifelong desire to have her own children, but at her age she may never have that. So what is the dream beneath the dream? Is it a dream for a family, for unconditional love? Are there other ways she can attend to that dream even if the specific way she wanted it isn’t going to happen?

The Thinker - Clarifies perspectives; analyzes data; manages risk; considers consequences. Make a business argument to thinkers in order to move them. You want data and a compelling case to influence the thinker. You don’t want to approach them with emotion, but with numbers and facts and figures–they need to see how something will play out in reality, not make guesses.

The Lover - Cares about people; feels emotions; manages relationships; collaborates with others. The lover is the part of us designed to love. Love is one of the most fundamental, innate, inborn human strengths, and people want to know that you care about them. It can feel strange to tune into this at work, but it will cost you a lot of money if you don’t pay attention to the lover. You will miss out on developing relationships that could stick around for the long term if people don’t feel that you care for them.

The Warrior - Catalyzes performance; takes action; reaches goals; speaks hard truth. Sometimes, the warrior gets a bad rap–but it’s a crucial member of your top team. Fox told a story about a friend of hers who was turned down three times for partner at his firm, a point at which he would be asked to leave the company. He sat down with a friend of his who worked at the firm and asked the friend, “After my first time getting turned down, did you know that I wouldn’t get partner?”

The friend sheepishly said yes.

“So why didn’t you tell me?” the man asked.

“I didn’t want to hurt your feelings,” his friend replied.

This is where the Warrior is vitally important. You need to develop the ability to tell the truth and tell it lovingly. To work on your Warrior, find some places in your life where you are saying “yes” today, and start saying “Thanks, but no.” Sometimes the most healthy action is to say no to protect your own resources. You might also choose to challenge yourself to have a tough conversation you’ve been avoiding.

Who we are becoming has to do with the challenge to dig deep in our potential and encounter all of these parts in you. You many not have all of them developed now, but it’s not a “no”–just a “not yet.”

Joseph Grenny: Mastering the art of crucial conversations

 

Joseph Grenny at GLS14

Joseph Grenny at GLS14

“The power of a group is the function of the purity of its motives.”

Are there a few moments of disproportionate influence? Moments that matter more than any others? Grenny started his talk with a story about a boy named Patrick he got to know when Patrick was in Boy Scouts and Grenny was a leader. Patrick dropped out, started doing drugs, and eventually, when they reconnected, ending up stealing from Grenny’s family.

In his research, Grenny has found that there are three dimensions that influence moments more than any others:

  1. The issue is high-stakes to you
  2. You expect someone else to disagree with you
  3. These are moments of strong emotions

The effect of how you behave in these moments carry on long past the moment itself has passed. And how we approach those conversations has everything to do with whether we prepare for and anticipate them.

The Principle of Crucial Conversations

Any time you find yourself stuck, stop and ask: What crucial conversation are we not holding or not holding well? When conversations turn from casual to crucial, we tend to do our worst. We can feel threatened or scared, and our fear affects our behavior. So part of what we need to do is realize that these conversations aren’t things to be avoided. For the most part, we don’t talk it out. We act it out–we betray our thoughts in our actions without ever having the hard conversations that need to be had.

We start to believe at a very young age that we have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend. How do you create an environment where the truth isn’t off the table? Crucial conversations held well can become an acceleration to intimacy, and the Bible is full of crucial conversations that accelerates the growth of human beings. 

Let’s look at three crucial moments in churches:

1. Performance problems with volunteers or staff

2. Members who are struggling in sin or disconnecting from the church

3. Concerns with pastors

A commitment to crucial conversations is at the core of any organization, team, relationship, church, and so on. As a leader, your job is to identify the two or three areas where crucial conversations need to be had, to have them, and to focus on allowing those conversations to move you forward rather than get you stuck. Your individual influence is primarily a function of how well you are able to have crucial conversations.

One of the most important skills you can develop in order to have crucial conversations well is to identify what needs to be said first. You have two tasks in the “hazardous half-minute,” the first 30 seconds of a crucial conversations. If you do them, there is a great chance (97%, per Grenny’s research) that you will be heard. Not agreed with, but heard. They are:

  1. Help the other party/person know that you care about their interests and goals, almost as much as they do. This creates the condition of mutual purpose. (This won’t work, obviously, if you don’t actually care.)
  2. Create mutual respect–let them know that you care about them. How do you create mutual respect when someone is behaving poorly? Remember that people never get defensive about what you’re saying; they become defensive because of why they think you’re saying it. So take some time to purify your intent beforehand, and remember that your half of the conversation is only about you.

So, back to Patrick. Grenny saw him and ended up talking to him. He told Patrick that he loved him, and looked him in the eyes when he said so. Grenny also said he was going to need to go to the police with the evidence he had of Patrick stealing from them. Patrick knew what needed to happen; knew he needed to go to jail. “But,” he asked Grenny, “Will you be there for me when I get out?” And a friendship was restored.

“I believe there’s a God-ordained purpose to crucial conversations,” Grenny said. Amen.

Pat Lencioni: A leader’s most dangerous mistakes

Patrick Lencioni at the 2014 GLS

Patrick Lencioni at the 2014 GLS

He’s difficult to categorize, you know? It’s his nine hundredth Leadership Summit, and every time it’s totally different, which takes a lot to pull off. Lencioni’s background is in consulting, and you’d think he would be far more boring than most people, but he’s actually one of the most exciting speakers ever to grace the stage here–and one of the most humble. For example? He’s talking today about the three worst mistakes that leaders makes, and is quick to say that he has made every one of them. And they are…

1. Becoming a leader for the wrong reason.Why do we become a leader in the first place? For a lot of us, we’re motivated by greed, money, fame, success–we recast these things as virtues. People should become leaders because they want to sacrifice themselves for the good of others even when they aren’t guaranteed any return on investment.

Why is it so dangerous when people become leaders for the wrong reasons? Because they eventually lose the good they came into pursue. They stop caring about the people they came into lead. They get defensive. Leaders should not go into it because they think it’s going to be good for them–they should do it because they’re really interested in the benefits of it. The only real payoff for leadership is eternal.

2. Failing to embrace vulnerability. Pat talked about a CEO who had gotten negative review on a feedback survey and questioned all of his staff together about whether the issues were accurate. “No,” they all said, “We didn’t write that.” To a one, they denied giving him the feedback–but they were the only ones who had taken the survey. Pat had to intervene, and some of the staff owned up to their comments, but the damage was done. The CEO had already modeled that he would not be vulnerable, so his staff followed suit. When we do that, we destroy trust with the people we lead.

3. Making leadership too important. Our identity can get wrapped up in being a leader, and it crowds out other identities. We can get too consumed by our work identity and abandon our core constituencies.

The combination of the three always, always, always ends up in pride. Jesus introduced humility as a virtue, and in doing that he also perfected leadership. What I have to ask myself is if I think that my success as a leader will come down to me doing something well. What it comes down to is humility.

Susan Cain and the power of Quiet

Susan Cain at the 2014 GLS

Susan Cain at the 2014 GLS

“I did my best impression of a bold, gregarious extrovert.”

Susan Cain’s bestselling book Quiet is one of the best things I’ve read in the last year. I’m not an introvert, but I’m married to a man who (thinks he) is. One-third to one-half of the population, Cain says, is introverted–which may sound surprising, but a lot of these people are cultured to act in extroverted ways.

It’s not that introverts don’t want to work for the good of the group, but that introverts would rather work on their own discrete piece of the puzzle and then put the puzzle together at the end.

Introverts and extroverts have different neurobiologies. Introverts feel their most alive and switched on in quiet environments, and extroverts feel bored in those places. These differences can be mapped really early on in life, which psychologists have tested: Baby introverts did better on tests when background music was soft; extroverts did better when the music was turned up. The lesson? There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all environment.

When psychologists look at who have been the most creative people across a variety of fields, they’re usually people who are a mix of introvert and extrovert. They have to have the ability to share ideas and the capacity for solitude. It is helpful to understand why solitude is such an important resource for our organizations…”We are such social creatures,” Cain says “that we end up being inadvertent conformists.” She then showed a video of the 1960s Asch experiment to prove her point:

So, what to do? How do we reclaim solitude in our organizations?

- STOP THE MADNESS of group work. Stop meetings periodically to let people think, write, and process their ideas. Go around the room and hear from everyone, not just the most assertive people in the room.

- FORGET NETWORKING. Focus on service. Look at how you can serve people where it is needed rather than exchange cards and email addresses.

- RESTORE QUIET IN OUR CULTURE. Cain talked to many introverted church members in the research for Quiet. Many of them said they started out in church thinking they were very connected to God, but saw the way the extroverted culture emphasized being social or expressive in ways they weren’t. Elijah found God not in the loud things, but in the small, still voice. We need to make space to listen to that voice.

We can easily think that to be a natural leader means to be an extrovert. But as Jim Collins found it in studying a handful of Fortune 500 companies, there are many great leaders who are also described by their employees as “shy, softspoken, low-key, and quiet.” Many introverts don’t seek leadership for its own sake, but if they are truly passionate about something, that passion goes deep. These people often inspire trust and community, and are put in positions of leadership.

SO…what to do with this knowledge?

- Groom an unlikely leader, following their own natural light and talents.

- Find your complement. “I don’t care if you’re an introvert or an extrovert, a polka dot or a stripe…you don’t do everything perfectly.”

- Find a role model.

Cain’s grandfather was a very shy and modest person, but was a pastor–for 64 years he preached at the same church in Brooklyn, and even toward the end he had trouble making eye contact with people in his congregation. But when he died, the police had to close off the street in front of the apartment where he lived because so many people were congregated outside. That’s a way that an introvert has a faithful presence in a community of people. “I’m here because I really believe that we can transform our churches and families and companies in a way that invites in that still, small voice.”

 

Jeff Immelt: In my career, I try to be a good friend

Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, and Bill Hybels at the 2014 GLS

Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, and Bill Hybels at the 2014 GLS

“Throughout my career, there’s never been one moment when any job in the company is beneath me.” Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE, is a surprisingly casual person. I mean that both in sense of his tone on stage and his dress–although he’s wearing a suit, his shirt is unbuttoned just enough to see a little bit of chest hair. I don’t know, he strikes me as the kind of CEO that would also be fun to party with.

But GE isn’t exactly a casual company. They’ve got 300,000 employees, and it would be easy to be sort of a caricature of a CEO–all stiff and full of platitudes. Immelt isn’t, though, at least as much as I can surmise from this brief interview. “I love work, and I try in my career to be a good friend.”  I love that.

He talked, too, about the importance of crisis for a leader: “We can’t tell a lot about you when the sun’s up. But when there is a crisis, we see who you are. All of our leaders, including me, learned how to change a compressor” during his time at GE. Immelt became CEO and Chairman of GE on Friday, September 7th, 2011, and four days later, when 9/11 happened, the country and the company took a difficult hit. But a lot was going on at the same time–it was the end of a relatively stable time for everyone. People aren’t going to be given the luxury of going backwards in time. The best leaders know they have to go forward.

GE has a leadership institute at Crotonville, New York, that has been around for fifty years. Nowadays they spend a billion dollars a year on leadership development. A BILLION. They study different companies and bring lessons back, and Immelt goes to teach there twice a month. “It takes away all the leaders,” he said. “We look at leadership as a strategic comparative for the company, but also one of the things that can drive the culture of the company.”

Immelt mentioned the willingness to stand apart as one of the best qualities an employee can have. “You want somebody who understands the tapestry of the organization but also questions authority and drives change.” On the other hand, excuses turn everybody off. We aren’t expecting perfect careers, he said, but we expect people to get better.

Bill: “How do you go about fostering the celebration of diversity that you have talked about so much?”

JI: “If you believe in talent and meritocracy, you must believe in diversity. You must believe that someone can do any job, no matter where they come from…If someone walks in your office and doesn’t see diversity, they won’t want to stay. It’s not just white men having the good ideas.”  (Amen, although I hope we’re not all just realizing that.)

 

 

Carly Fiorina on the gift of potential

Carly Fiorina at the 2014 GLS.

Carly Fiorina at the 2014 GLS.

My parents talked to me often about my gifts, Carly said. But she didn’t always internalize it, or feel like a gifted person. It wasn’t until a couple of her bosses told her they saw business acumen in her that she fully began to understand the gifts that she had, that she could bring to the workplace. There were years of hardship to follow – cancer, the loss of her daughter, gaining and losing jobs.

“What you are is God’s gift to you; what you make of yourself is your gift to God.” It can be a very cheesy, Sunday-School phrase–indeed, that’s where she first saw it–but the sentiment remains. Human potential is the only limitless resource we have in this world; but it is truly limitless, and it is amazing what happens when human potential is unlocked.

Why do people fail to realize their potential?

- People are afraid, sometimes. Sometimes they never have the chance, because of subjugation or deprivation. Sometimes they have the chance but not the tools, education, or training. Sometimes people lose faith.

- Bureaucracy in any setting crushes potential. Bureaucracies always turn in on themselves and forget who they are there to serve.

Leadership unlocks potential. Its highest calling is to unlock the potential of others. Leadership is not management — management is the production of acceptable results within known constraints and conditions. Leadership is about changing the order of things. Plenty of people call themselves leaders, but they do not lead .

A good speech is not leadership, and the most important acts of leaderships are not words. There is a leadership framework that can help us understand what good leadership does:

  • Vision/strategy/goals – The more specific the idea about where we are going, the better. Where are we now? Where do we want to be? 
  • Organization/structure/process - How are we going to get things done? This category–the structures and processes–must match the goal and be driven by goals. Structure should always follow strategy–you have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
  • Metrics/results – How are we going to measure progress and reward success? What counts? People see what is measured and they discern, from that, what is important. How success is defined has a lot to do with whether or not success is achieved.
  • Culture. Culture just means, “What is it like to work around here?” People will listen to the talk, but then they will watch the walk.

When people embark on a leadership journey, there’s a 20/20 rule of thumb that comes in handy. 20% of your people are change warriors–you want to identify them, harness them, and develop them. They’re people who thrive on forward momentum and change. The other 20% are the “Hell no, I won’t go” people. They’re done learning, they’re tired, they don’t believe the vision. They need to be identified, too, and they are often in the meantime the source of resistance. The remaining 60% are skeptics. They’re waiting to see what happens, and change never happens unless they are engaged.

A love of God makes leadership easier. Faith gives us the gift of humility, and true leadership requires us to understand that it is not about us. A true leader approaches their task with a servant’s heart. Faith gives us the gift of empathy, so we all know we could be living in someone else’s shoes. Faith gives us the gift of optimism, so we have faith that people will rise to the occasion. And ultimately, like faith, leadership is a choice.

 

 

 

Leadership is the same no matter what the context is.

Bill begins: It all rises and falls on leadership

Bill Hybels at the 2014 Leadership Summit

Bill Hybels at the 2014 Leadership Summit

20 years ago, the Leadership Summit began. “I had come to the conclusion that pretty much everything that matters in this world rises and falls on leadership,” Bill Hybels said as he kicked off today’s Summit. “Two decades later, I stand before you with an even deeper conviction of the role of leadership…world peace rises and falls on leadership, and how our world needs peace today.”  And on that note…

Hard-Fought Leadership Lessons

  • All leadership is intensely spiritual. Not necessarily religious, but the decisions you make have a direct effect on the emotions, the psyche, and the spirit of those you lead. If we’re not careful, the condition of our team falls to secondary import as leaders become obsessed with the thrill of achieving the vision. Oftentimes, leaders with the highest level of vision and passion have the lowest level of awareness of the spirit of their team. This is rarely discussed openly, but everybody on the team starts to sense what’s going on even when the leader is unaware. During a workplace survey, Bill talked about reading a comment from someone on staff who loved the church but felt like a grunt working there. The last seven years have been a painful process of transforming the culture at Willow. There were 5 key commitments Willow made in the process:

1) Using an outside group to assess culture to ensure objectivity;

2) For the entire executive team to own the turnaround rather than delegate it to the HR department (“Your culture will only ever be as healthy as your senior leader wants it to be”);

3) Get serious about training everyone on your staff who manages people (“People leave managers, not causes”);

4) Raise the level of candor in your reviews. Every worker wants to know how they are doing, and to not answer those questions is unfair. (“The kindest form of management is the truth” – Jack Welch) Be specific in your feedback;

5) Commit to reconciliation in times of conflict, rather than avoidance.

  • Great leadership is, by definition, relentlessly developmental. This is an easy statement to agree with, but the difficulty comes in the how–the cost, the strategy, the difficult conversations. It’s the kind of thing that presents obstacles people don’t always get over. Among the best ways to develop leaders are to 1) Put them in high-challenge roles; 2) Put them on a short-term task force; 3) Give them real-time feedback; 4) Offer them coaching and mentoring; 5) Classroom courses and seminars. When it comes to the second option – a short-term task force – it is vital to remember that this must be a real opportunity, where success or failure are possible, in which the outcomes are evaluated by senior leaders. Resourcefulness is one of the key qualities you want to look for and develop in emerging leaders. How are you ever going to find out who your best emerging leaders are if you don’t give them the chance to lead?
  • Find and develop leaders with a legacy mindset. In John 10, Jesus talks about two shepherds: Hireling types, who don’t care so much for your sheep and have no intentions of staying long-term or protecting your sheep from predators. Owner types do care about the sheep, and they take a long-term view that involves risking their own safety for the sheep. Today in church work, it is increasingly common to see people with short-term mindsets in the workforce–but prevailing churches, effective NGOs, and quality businesses can’t be built on the shoulders of hirelings with short-term mindsets. Legacy leaders are the only ones who will live out rough patches, and all organizations have rough patches.
  • Leaders have to develop endurance strategies to keep them in the game over the long haul. “Blessed are those who persevere through trials, for afterwards they will receive the crown of life.” – James 1:12. The general rule about this is the grander the vision, the greater the price tag. Grand visions get complicated and costly, and one of the best things you can do to ensure this is to schedule regular solitude breaks. It’s hard to hear God at Mach 2. It is good to admit when a rough patch is going to require assistance, and we have a transcendently powerful God whose greatest joy is to make a way for His will to happen. But you’ve got to ask. “God is near to the broken hearted, and rescues those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18

You can live and lead small; live and lead safe; live and lead selfishly. Or you can choose to pursue a higher vision that God calls you to, with a legacy mindset and leave something beautiful behind. It’s something you must decide, and a leader doesn’t drift into becoming a legacy leader.

 

From Jackson to Santa Fe to here

When you land at SFO, you hover impossibly over the water for a moment before the thrum of the landing gear hitting the ground becomes the only thing you hear. You think, for a few seconds, that you might just touch down on the Bay. You might float as soft as a dream and the 747 might have been a seaplane all along and you might glide until the pilot drops you off at home, in front of your apartment building’s wrought iron gate, your suitcase trailing behind you as you bounce down the inflatable slide that was lowered just for you. You might.

You might also be thinking about this because you are exhausted; because you haven’t slept more than 6 hours a night for the last two weeks and you are returning home from having been far away, because you are crossing time zones like you are crossing worlds.

I’m not sure which one it was for me on Sunday, but it doesn’t really matter much.

I am nostalgic and highly sentimental; two things you’re not supposed to be as a writer. When things end, I mourn them with all the grief reserves in my little heart. I think everything was better then, and things will never be the same as they were, and I act like some Victorian woman with consumption by taking to bed or putting on sweatpants at 3pm. (Not that they had sweatpants in the Victorian era, but I’m sure consumptive ladies would have been more comfortable in men’s XL sweatpants than cotton nightdresses.)

And it’s not true. Life was good, is good, will be good. I am alive and well and healthy and never have to worry about having enough of almost anything: food, money, clothing. There is always enough.

But there is this deep sadness, too.

 

Two years ago, I landed at the airport in Albuquerque and boarded a shuttle with a girl named Chrysta. We were new, and we were on the shuttle with a woman who would graduate that same residency. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” she told us, and we were skeptical. I thought, for sure, that the program would leave me with a degree and a handful of acquaintances. Writers are strange people, I thought, not like me. And I certainly didn’t consider my writing art or feel the need to debate whether Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was greater. I didn’t like Jonathan Franzen; I hadn’t read Cormac McCarthy; I never cared to spend an evening alone in my room when there was a party to be had.

I still don’t like Jonathan Franzen. I’ve read McCarthy several times over now, thanks to the program, and it turns out that writers are often weird in just the right way, which is to say in the same way that I am weird, which is to say that more than writers we are just people who share a deep interest in the same thing. In the fifty nights I’ve spent with these people, not a single one of them has been spent in a room alone–although I’ve had more than my share of rough mornings to make up for it. We’ve argued over books, to be sure, but more than that we’ve made enough dirty jokes to fill dozens more. We’ve learned about the family members we will never meet. We’ve played kickball in the unflinching New Mexico sun and made snowmen in the surprise Seattle snow. We’ve been like kids again, at camp, the words rolling off our tongues in delighted shock: You, too?

Graduation was a short affair – 45 minutes at most, as it should be. We sang a few hymns and I made Rachel look at Adie’s super hot dress to keep us from crying anymore. We laughed at each other, at ourselves, at the strangeness of life for giving us this little community for two years and then taking it away. We took too many pictures. Too many, too much–we were good at that. And then we went home. To Minnesota and Chicago and Colorado and Virginia, to Alabama and San Francisco and Mississippi.

 

 

My mom taught me how to hop into a Millimeter Wave Detection machine. (There’s got to be a better name for that, right? They’re those things at the airport we use now instead of metal detectors.) She is not an anxious person, nor morose, nor ever really inclined toward sadness. So at the airport, she does a little shuffle hop before she gets into the machine, before she holds her hand in the diamond shape and the people behind a computer somewhere make sure she isn’t harboring anything dangerous. It’s a weird sight, but she’s a weird person.

I do this at the Albuquerque airport. It’s Sunday afternoon after Saturday’s graduation, and I am exhausted. I am weary, really, a word that captures the accurate combination of tired and sad that take up my mind. Mallory, Zack and I have spent the day together–first watching Ice Lake Rebels in their hotel room, or actually, Mallory watching while I sleep and Zack sends work emails. Then driving Route 14 from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, through the town of Madrid with its train car coffee shops, the last town Rachel and Adie and I drove through in our road trip from Jackson. Then going to every possible Breaking Bad site we could cram in–”We’ll only go to one!” Zack promised, since Mallory was hungry and I was tired and then, since he was driving, he took us to four. He sweet-talked the owner of Walter White’s house into letting him take a picture–if she’s there, she normally doesn’t allow it. He had read all about her beforehand. “Are you Fran?” he asked with a grin. She looked surprised. “I am!” We ate lunch at the building Walter blew up; Tuco’s headquarters. It’s a coffee shop.

The rental car return people were wearing outfits you’d associate with Lawrence of Arabia–long-sleeved lightweight coats, billowing pants, hats with long wings on either side to protect their faces. We waited in the shade for the shuttle to the airport, waited in tired silence on the shuttle, waited in line to get through security. I thought of the last two weeks–my flight to Jackson; meeting Rachel at the airport; seeing Adie’s apartment; driving though Texas in one day; arriving on campus in a rainstorm, unable to pull up blasting “Fancy” and make an impression on the new kids; meeting the new kids; cool nights smoking; Santa Fe Pale Ale; dorm rooms; being known and knowing.

I stepped ahead into the security line. I had my degree, but it weighed less then the memories. I remembered mom. I shuffle-hopped ahead, into the machine, into the future which is only really ever the present.

At home, for real comfort

In the summertime, San Francisco mornings are foggy and cold. The fog is present enough in the city that it has a name–Karl–a Twitter handle, an Instagram following. The top of the Golden Gate bridge is shrouded in it just as often as not, and the view from our second-floor apartment stops at the rooftop across the street from us. A whole city hidden from sight in the middle of July.

I miss true summer. When we decided to move to San Francisco, I knew it was one of the things I would be giving up–summer comes, when it does come to San Francisco, it the form of sunny days in the low 70s in September and October. We never blow the pilot light out in our heater because I need it on days like today, drizzly midsummer mornings when the thought of Popsicles and swimming pools seems as far away as the sun behind Karl.

There is a lot to love about living in San Francisco. There is a lot to love about our small apartment–my desk, eighty dollars from Craigslist and painted peacock blue. Our view, on non-foggy days, stretches out to the San Francisco Bay and beyond to the cranes at the port of Oakland that, so the story goes, were the inspiration for George Lucas in creating the long-legged at-at’s in Star Wars. Our bedroom is small and almost all bed, but it’s the perfect bed for reading the paper on a Saturday morning while we listen to families walking to the farmers’ market a few blocks away. And that’s just the apartment; the city itself is intoxicating, strange, and European, by which I mostly mean you can feel a sense of history here, and that there are great bakeries.

I am not, by nature, a city person. I like the order of the suburbs, the friendliness of small towns, the quiet of a seldom-used street. Add to that the fact of fog and chill in July, and San Francisco begins to feel more like a nemesis than a soft landing place. Our apartment starts to take on the feeling of a fortress or treehouse from which I can watch the time go by, and in my anxiety I can begin to understand the pull of the desire to stay at home all the time for fear or displeasure at the rest of the world.

Agoraphobia isn’t exactly the fear of leaving home, but its more ominous cousin: fear of being out in open spaces (from the Greek, “agora”) because of the perceived threat of panic attacks, crowdedness, or openness. The sufferer (from the Latin “sufferre,” to bear or labor under) of this fear does not want to lose control of her environment, her order, her comfort, and so she will travel only to places she knows very well, places she likes, or travel not at all, instead staying at home where the order of things is known.
Cities, without companionship, are easy places to be homebound. And I don’t mean isolated or friendless or smitten with your iPad. I’ve passed plenty of mornings at home feeling like I’m participating in the world when I’m really just listening to the cars driving by and the people walking to the bus stop. I am not agoraphobic, but I often bind myself to comfort above all else, tricking myself into believing that comfort is the cure for anxiety. It is not.

Homes were not always designed for comfort. As I write this, I am sitting on a gray velvet chair with a slightly curved back and plenty of padding underneath where I sit. But comfort is a modern conceit, an invention primarily of French designers and architects in the late 17th and early 18th centuries when chairs stopped being straight-backed and wooden and started being made with domed cushions and armrests. Prior to that time, furniture was functional–not aesthetically pleasing, and certainly not cozy. But once we started sitting on plush chaises and sleeping on springy mattresses, we were hooked. French or not, the comforts of home became de riguer, at least for the upper classes. Even the definition of “comfort” evolved, from meaning strength or support to the word we know today, a sense of physical ease.

“Ah! There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort,” Jane Austen wrote in EMMA. Or, as Cher Horowitz puts it in the updated version: “Isn’t my house classic? The columns date all the way back to 1972.” All of this is to say, I suppose, that we make home wherever we can and however we can, even if the place we live isn’t the place we would have chosen. When Zack and I moved to San Francisco almost two years ago, we gave up hot summers and sunny July mornings, and I don’t particularly love doing without them. In return, though, we have a neighborhood grocer who gives our dog a slice of turkey whenever we walk in and weather that sometimes matches my anxious mood. There is an odd kind of comfort in that, as there is in the gray velvet chair.

The sky is still overcast, and closing in more every second.

 

I am trying to break your heart: Music and feelings

yhfThe soundtrack to my growing-up years was, until I came into my own purchasing power, limited to five or six records that spun in a silver machine at the bottom of our television hutch. They were replaced during a move by the newer technology of compact discs, but the idea of buying and playing new albums somehow never quite made its way to my parents. We ate versions of the same meals, played at the same libraries and beaches, begged our dad to re-tell the same stories he had told a thousand times. Why would our music be any different?

If I hear, for example, the opening strains to the soundtrack of Out of Africa, I can think only of my mother whose ardent love for the movie and the accompanying string music could never tire of just one more play. If I hear Jim Brickman’s Picture This album, I think of my piano-playing father sitting in the kitchen early in the morning with a cup of coffee, black, and how every once in a while I would wake up after him but before everyone else and feel like I got to be part of a secret ritual when I sat with him. If I hear Billy Joel singing “Uptown Girl,” I think of my sister bopping around the living room of our house in Chino Hills, mouth shaped like an O, while I tried to figure out exactly where “uptown” was. If I hear “Blackbird,” I think of my brother coaxing notes and chords from his guitar like it was something magical while we all sang along.

Someone once said to me that music was the soundtrack to our lives, which I thought was an incredibly stupid thing to say because what else would the soundtrack to our lives be? But then I think of each place I have lived, and how the soundtrack has varied incredibly—crickets outside one window, garbage trucks chugging up the hills outside another, the silence of a garden, the creaky noise of roommates coming home late at night. Soundtracks aren’t just music, but music relates to memory and emotion in a unique way among the senses. Smell can trigger a distinct memory, and quickly you are back at a perfume stand in the mall at age twelve or at the ocean with your friends from college. But music, in my experience, brings back a scene in motion, like three minutes from a movie or a slow morning with your father. More than a moment in time, music triggers a feeling over time.

We love music because we impose order on it. Music, like anything that makes a noise, like the fan that is on behind me, creates certain kinds of waves and those waves reach and resonate in our eardrums and sometimes our hearts. Music theorists sometimes disagree about whether music can be the source of emotion by its rises and falls, its sudden surprises, or if it can only be a vehicle by which we identify the emotions we were already experiencing. Can sound waves produce emotions in us? Or do they do nothing but add to confirmation bias, giving us backup to what we already knew to be true? Would everyone who listens to “Blackbird” understand the wistful conjuring it does to my heart, or could some remain entirely unaffected?

Back in Black! You may also admire my dress.

Back in Black! You may also admire my dress.

When Zack and I got married, we had lots of music. One of the things I am the most proud of about that day, aside from marrying such a wonderful person, is that our dance floor remains the talk of our friends nearly five years out. The night got cold, the reception was outdoors, and I wouldn’t have blamed anyone for leaving early to snuggle in at their hotel and watch a movie and order room service dessert. But everyone stayed, packed onto a small concrete patio, while two of our good friends played song after song that kept friends young and old alike on the dance floor. That was the kind of music that breeds or meets with exuberance. A few hours earlier, I had walked down the aisle to a string quartet playing the suite from Forest Gump, my husband’s favorite movie. We walked out of the church together to the string version of “Back in Black.” We danced to Damien Rice’s “The Blower’s Daughter,” and the first song our DJs played was The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” which had just come out earlier that year. It was a day that ran the gamut of human emotions, and the music reflected and engendered that.

One of my best friends in college loved music, and I was the beneficiary of a lot of her good taste. She introduced me to Wilco, who quickly became my favorite contemporary band. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has been a constant companion, almost personal in its presence in my life. The friendship didn’t last, but the music did.

Some music works its way so deep into your bones that to hear it is automatically to feel something, who cares whether the feeling or the sound came first. Some silences are necessary, and some are best filled by the car radio. The soundtrack to our lives is more than the music played in the background, but the music is more than background noise.

 

Staying put is hard to do

The living room

The living room

It started, I think, in March with a trip to Chicago. Then Whidbey Island, near Seattle, for grad school. Then back to Chicago, and Michigan, and Sonoma for a friend’s wedding, Nashville, Tahoe, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara. The last few months have been a really good whirlwind of travel and work and school and this morning I woke up in a panic so tense it felt like I would never get out of bed.

I’m here, now. Home. I love home, that slippery place where self and comfort and belonging all meet, but for me home can also bring with it so much fear. And it isn’t because of anything particularly bad that happens at home at all, but because being at home means being in one place and being in one place is like looking in a mirror for a really long time and seeing everything you love and everything you don’t.

This isn’t all bad. There’s a goodness in travel and seeing the world and having friends to celebrate with in different cities. The world is such an interesting place at every turn, and I do figure it’s God fault for making it that way. I want to see it all and live in the magic of whales spouting in Big Sur and Portillo’s hot dogs and my grandmother’s arthritic hands shuffling a deck of cards. I want to be taken out of my home to know that I can be at home anywhere in the world.

But the part of me that is anxious–the deep part of my sometimes-scared soul–wants to keep going, keep moving, shark-like, because if I stop I’ll have to face the fear that runs like a machine in my stomach. What if who I am isn’t good enough? What if I never write the things I hope to write, never become the person I want to be? What if I’m a huge disappointment, needy and aloof at the same time? What if God and the rest of you only love me when I’m shiny and on, tap-dancing my way through life long enough to make you smile? It’s an exhausting routine, but sometimes it feels like the only one I know.

Part of being a person who experiences anxiety is learning to listen to what the anxiety is trying to tell you. I am often beholden to fear about never amounting to much, and my best response cannot always be to get up and leave town to experience something new. Sometimes, that will be just what I need. But more often than not, what is called for is probably something a lot more boring–a long obedience in the same direction. Staying put, writing regularly, working at my church, volunteering or serving other people, and listening to God in the quiet and noisy spaces of home.

Home may not be a place where I’m free from anxiety, or where I’m always happy. Home, right now, is 500 square feet in San Francisco with beautiful views of the city and a couch that’s too old and a husband who loves me so dearly. But home is also this thing in me, this thing I carry with me wherever I go, and sometimes, in order to develop that home, the thing I need to do is the thing I least want to do. Stay put.

 

A special place

 

Fallen Leaf at dusk | Photo by aftab via Flickr (http://bit.ly/1snyw4f)

Fallen Leaf at dusk | Photo by aftab via Flickr (http://bit.ly/1snyw4f)

The sky was bluest far behind us, and bluer and blue, and then peach, which isn’t really a color if that’s what we’re going for because peaches are orange and pink and red and orangey-pinky-red. The lake, one mile wide by three miles long, was shades of black and blue. Cathedral Mountain stood in front of us, as it had for hundreds of thousands of years, and its lines were indistinguishable from the darkening sky except where three trees grew at strange angles. Small bats the size of sparrows scooped down and skimmed the water. A fish jumped once, and I hoped out loud that it caught a bug.

“Haven’t you ever seen a fish jump before?” Zack asked.

“Just never here,” I said, and then I said I’d like to go inside, and he asked me to stay, and he asked me what I wanted to remember about that night.

“That the sky was blue and peach. That there were bats. That you could hear happy people in the background.”

His parent’s dogs came to the dock, towing his parents behind. “We ran into Flipper!” Their friend, Flipper Moore, had been driving by when they pulled into the parking spot in front of the cabin. They didn’t know who the teenage girls were in the backseat, and the consensus was that Flipper’s father was still alive, although no one could remember for sure. I leaned back on Zack’s knees and looked at the peach tones settling in north of the lake, past even Tahoe which was a few miles away, past where the Washoe Indians had lived and died, past where Nathan Gilmore and Lucky Baldwin and William Price had built their homes.

I thought of a song.

God of wonders beyond our galaxy

You are holy, holy

The universe declares your majesty

You are holy, holy

Lord of heaven and earth

It was sometime in high school that I first heard the song and sang it with a thousand other students. The song expressed everything about God I felt when I was in California, say, or Hawaii; and although it was a sentiment I rarely felt in suburban Illinois, where I lived during high school, I would close my eyes in that spiritual crowd and picture the Santa Monica shoreline and then I could sing it honestly. The universe declares your majesty.

Fallen Leaf Lake is a small lake southwest of Tahoe, its huge and much more famous cousin. It was settled—colonized, really—by European Americans in the late 19th century, after the Gold Rush had failed to make some men rich but the men, captivated by the area’s beauty or unable to return home or some combination, needed housing and food and livelihoods. There was a Lodge built on the lake. (John Steinbeck worked at the Lodge in 1923 and contributed manual labor to other efforts in the area for the next few years. It was ((allegedly)) where he got the ideas for Cup of Gold and The Moon is Down.) The Lodge lasted for a while, until it didn’t, and private houses went up around the lake and south of the lake at Glen Alpine Falls. It was at the Falls that my husband’s father proposed to Sue, my husband’s mother, and sealed Zack’s fate and mine and it is because of that moment that I am here, typing in a wood-paneled bedroom in a decades-old cabin while my husband and his parents sit in the now-darkness of the dock with the dogs. It is, in other words, a special place.

If I were Joan Didion I would write long sentences about the history of the Washoe Indians and the things that drove the Gold Rush Men to Tahoe. If I were John Muir I would write ecstatic sentences about nature and the solitude of Lily Lake and the way the birch leaves shine when they turn around themselves. If I were John McPhee, the sentences would be about the plates underneath the Tahoe Basin; Cheryl Strayed about the area’s many trails; Janet Fitch about the poisonous plants that dot the landscape. If I were a different version of myself, I would write about backpacking in Desolation Wilderness. As it is, I am sitting on a double bed in a comfortable cabin writing about the color that the sky is not and the dogs on the dock and wondering what anyone’s life can amount to in the face of a place like this. There is some silence, there are some books, there are some people I love who do not need me to impress them. There is some of that holiness I sang about so many years ago, although it is harder for me to feel now than it was then. There is more fear now, because I know what it is I could become. There is the creaking and settling of the old cabin: a shower drip, a heavy creak, faraway voices.

There are stars now that the sky is no longer blue. The universe declares your majesty. The stars, I know, are burning balls of gas and other things and they are impossibly far away, and we can draw lines between them to create constellations or give them names or charge them with poetic significance, but they are still impassive. It’s just that there are so many more of them above the sky here that I can’t help but be a little bit grateful.

What I believe about Hobby Lobby

Here are a few things I’m not:

- An attorney

- A Supreme Court expert

- A scientist

- Hungry. (You should never write a blog post hungry!)

I am a woman, a Christian, a regular church attender. I waited until I was married to have sex, for reasons to do with my religion, and I wouldn’t change that decision. And every morning, between 7 and 7:30 am, I punch a small pill through its aluminum backing and wash it down. I pick up my birth control prescription once a month, for free, thanks to great health insurance. And there are a few things I believe that go along with this decision, and that relate to today’s Supreme Court decision.

 

I believe corporations are wildly different from people. I believe this has implications for campaign finance and contraceptive coverage.

I believe that if you’re going to make money by manufacturing your products in a country with an absolutely abysmal human rights record, you can’t call your company “Christian.” (You can’t call a company “Christian” in the first place, but if you’re going to do so, you better make absolutely sure your company only does good for everyone involved, from manufacturer to shipper to consumer.)

I believe that calling a corporation “Christian” is like putting a Jesus fish on the back of a car. It invites scrutiny.

I believe that any Supreme Court ruling decision in which the 5 majority justices are all male ought to be very carefully considered.

I believe that craft stores should all be turned into Anthropologies or Boston Markets. I’m not a crafty person.

I believe that women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or other hormone-related syndromes shouldn’t have to go outside their own medical insurance to get coverage for their treatments.

I believe that religious freedom is deeply important, and I also agree with Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she writes “[T]he exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities.”

I believe the scientific evidence that says Plan B, Ella, and the IUDs in question do not cause abortion.

I believe that if you’re going to operate as a for-profit business in the United States, your medical coverage should follow, not dictate, the law of the land unless that law is unjust.

I believe that both sides believe ardently in their own rightness, and don’t expect minds to be changed. I know and love people who think very differently about this than I do.

That’s it. There are a million more and better-written thinkpieces out there, so get to it. I’ve got to shave my legs for the first time in two months. Wish me luck.

 

 

A Beautiful Disaster

A Beautiful Disaster, courtesy Brazos Press

A Beautiful Disaster, courtesy Brazos Press

There is a kind of person whose childlikeness belies a deep internal fountain of wisdom; whose easy spirit was forged not in easy times but in valleys of all sorts. Marlena Proper-Graves is that kind of person.

Her first book, A Beautiful Disaster, will be released this Tuesday, June 17th. It’s a gorgeous book, full of thoughts about the God of the desert, which is a place we will all find ourselves throughout our lives. Marlena is a good guide, a keen observer, and driven by a deep love of God, God’s word, and God’s people. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

I got to co-write the book’s foreword, and thought I’d share a little bit of that here.

 

It is hard to imagine a more trustworthy guide in the wilderness than the author of the book you now have in your hands. Marlena Graves has been a friend of mine (Laura) for several years now, and the gentle wisdom I see in her is borne of the same long and painful winds that shape the hollow canyons of desert stone. This book is the kind of book the church needs at the time the church needs it. Living in an age of easy distractions and constant comparison can result in a sort of nice numbness, a feeling that I’m all right and everything else is all right. Our worlds, able to expand with the click of a mouse, have never been smaller or more centered around ourselves. We are separated not only from other people, but from God and from ourselves. This separation—this loss of integrity and wholeness—is a source of great grief in our lives…

The wilderness can take many different forms. Inspired by Jesus’ command in Matthew 19:21 to “sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor,” the Desert Fathers and Mothers moved to the Egyptian desert to live alone or in small groups. Their lives were austere, but the wilderness was the place of their choosing. My own (Laura) wilderness experiences have been mostly of the unchosen variety, time spent paralyzed by anxiety and fear of the future, uncertainty and powerlessness looming like a Scylla and Charybdis from which I could never be free. Others have been brought to the wilderness in deep despair and have hoped the sands and the time would act as smoothing agents, hewing the rough edges of pain. Some people spend their lives in the desert; some people are rarely there. The things that take us to the desert are varied. We may be there for a week or for years; we may be devastated or full of boredom; we may be alone or in great company. But here’s what we’ve come to learn: Time in the desert prepares us for more time in the desert. Whether we remain there is beside the point; the point is the person we become when we are there.

 

Making God at home

In Psalm 132, David talks about not resting until he has found a home for God. Surely God doesn’t need our help finding a home? But then I think of the ark of the covenant and the temple and the Word of God dwelling among us, and I wonder if we’ve been missing something all along in our conversation about home. I wonder if we’re not seeing that we have to invite God in somehow. It’s not that easy, I’m sure—invite God in and all of a sudden everything falls into place, home-wise. But I wonder why it is important for God to have a home on this earth. There’s something to it:

I will not enter my house
or get into my bed;
I will not give sleep to my eyes
or slumber to my eyelids,
until I find a place for the Lord,
a dwelling-place for the Mighty One of Jacob.

This is strange, this thought that God might need a home. I mean, the son of man has no place to lay his head, and all that. God was a pillar of fire and a cloud and a still, small, voice, a burning bush. Why did God need David to find him a place? Where would God be most comfortable? Did he need three bedrooms, for his eventual expansion? Or would he have been at home in a trailer park, a studio, a cave dwelling? What place is fit to be God’s home? And what does it mean for a place to be God’s home? Is it the same as a person being God’s home, like when we ask God into our hearts? I was four when I prayed that prayer, and I got a pink Bible and a feeling that I was very special. But I don’t think that’s what David is talking about here.

Rise up, O LORD, and go to your resting-place,

you and the ark of your might.

Another way to say this is, “Go home, God.” Or, “God, it is good that you should be at home.”  And I suppose it’s not so strange to think that this is the case, as much as I’ve poked fun at it. God was homed, after all, in the ark of the covenant. Jesus tabernacled among us, as John 1 tells us. He made his home here.

 

Sister

via Yelp

Maybe having a sister is like this: a duplex. There are a lot of duplexes in our San Francisco neighborhood; turn-of-the-century houses divided in two to accommodate the city’s swelling population. They are usually side-by-side, standing next to each other, sharing an internal wall but possessing their own ecosystems, their own boundaries. They cannot be disconnected, but years can go by without the occupants of House A having to interact with the occupants of House B. Or they can see each other every day. They can talk about a lot of things, but in the end, what they talk about is undergirded by what they share. In the case of a duplex, they share a wall. And in the case of sisters, a past.

You don’t get to pick your neighbor, which is where having a sister differs from having a friend or a spouse. Your connection is horizontal rather than vertical, although if you are an older sister you might sometimes get this confused. You move into your half of the duplex and the neighbor is already there, and you never get to change it. And for some people, this is one of life’s hardest assignations. I have a friend who has had to cut her sister out of her life entirely, and learned only weeks after the fact that her sister had died of a drug overdose in a homeless shelter downtown Chicago. I know people without sisters who refer to their friends as their sisters. I never got to be part of a sorority, but once in, you inherit a league of new sisters. Sister wives, sisters-in-law, religious orders of sisters, the sisterhood of the traveling pants. Sister, Sister was one of our favorite TV shows growing up, about twin sisters who were separated at birth and reunited as teenagers. “Sister, sister,” went the theme song. “Never knew how much I missed her.”

We grew up side by side, sometimes facing the same direction, sometimes facing each other, sometimes walking far distances apart. Our parents will tell you, as a way of illustrating our differences, how when we went to the beach as children I tiptoed around the sand and she ate it by the fistful. When I was older, I grew convinced with every minute our parents were late getting home that they had abandoned us. It wasn’t rational, but that’s where my monkey mind took me. She patted my back and told me it would be okay. It always was.

Maybe being one half a duplex also means you are always learning things from your other half, by some kind of home osmosis. Knowledge flows in to fill a vacuum from one side to the other. She has taught me so much, which I think is a function of time and commitment. Spend enough time with anyone and you will learn things about them; if they are committed to what they know, they will teach you what is important to them. I’ve lost track of how many books we’ve lent each other, how many articles we’ve sent and opinions we’ve solicited. Anyhow, that’s where we are. Next to each other, connected, but not the same. The lights are on.

Me and Mrs. Dunne

copyright Julian Wasser via andrewmcclain.tumblr.com

copyright Julian Wasser via andrewmcclain.tumblr.com

There is a picture of Joan Didion I have always loved. She was a small, physically unimposing woman, and most of her pictures capture that fragility: Here on her deck in Malibu with her husband, John Gregory Dunne and her daughter, Quintana Roo. Here perfectly still in a t-shirt and printed skirt, shoulder-length hair and enormous sunglasses, arms folded behind her back. Here impossibly old and skinny, hair clipped back on one side, those sunglasses still on, large hands clasped together just next to her chin, wooly sweater pushed up to her elbows.

In a 2011 interview, Didion talked about how her size was, for a time, an advantage:
“[P]eople just simply didn’t take me seriously because I was so small. So if they weren’t taking me seriously, they weren’t threatened in any way by me. So they would tend to loosen up, you know, in ways that they might not have loosened up if I’d been a really big person.” Joanie (in my mind, we have the kind of relationship where I call her “Joanie”) was always looking for a revolution, but no one would have ever pegged her for the type. She was a really ruthless writer, but she looked like she belonged at a tea on the Upper East Side. She could fit in there, but she was more at home asking quiet questions of the people who ran the world.

Her physical frailty is especially ironic in light of the fact that she has survived both her husband and her daughter. The narrative arc of her life was, much like her writing, startling and unexpected. Someone with Didion’s small bones wasn’t meant to bear the weight of being left alone in the world, but the world deals the hand that it deals and the grief and fear have burrowed themselves into her marrow now.

Didion’s physical fragility, though, belies the kind of writerly strength that has placed her in the American literary canon. You don’t get to be a great reporter, credited with being a founding member of New Journalism, if you’re a sentimental oaf. But her indirectness as a writer–her sentences frequently trail off or twist into new concepts, the Jamesian influence at work–is also one of her greatest strengths as an observer: “I like to sit around and watch people do what they do.”

So, the photo. I love it because Didion is absolutely, unabashedly its center. There is no sense that we are waiting with her for the shutter to close so we can move on to more important things. Joan is there, with her car–a 1969 yellow Sting Ray Corvette–wherever there is. Her home? But no, the captions say the pictures were taken in Hollywood, and she never lived in Hollywood. The picture, part of a series taken by Julian Wasser for Time Magazine, could have been taken outside of southern California. When Wasser did the shoot back in 1972, Didion was not yet synonymous with California, in a way she’ll never be synonymous with New York City, even though that’s where she now makes her home. But in retrospect, the pictures had to be there. Didion without California is a very different Didion. Same thing goes for California without Didion.

Anyways, the picture. It’s black and white, so you can’t tell the Corvette is yellow. The front left wheel well is the largest thing in the picture, as if the car is about to drive off on its own. Behind the car is a two-car garage, perhaps abandoned, with medium-sized oak trees on either side. As your eye moves down the car, from the wheel, you see the word “Stingray” spelled out in an elegant silver cursive on its side. There are four gill-like indentations on the car underneath the “Stingray,” but the fourth one is blocked by the right leg of a woman. The woman is Joan Didion. She wears a dress–a long, clingy dress made of T-shirt material, long-skirted and long-sleeved. These sleeves are pushed up, too, to just underneath her elbows, but her arms do not fold behind her or hang at her sides. This is active Joanie. Her left hand, raised to elbow height, is curled and still. Her right hand, slightly higher, looks to be shaking a bit, as if putting out the match she just used to light her cigarette. A puff of smoke obscures the bottom half of her face, and her eyes, already narrow, are almost completely shut. The lines of the car continue behind her–T-top, dip in the door–but you can hardly pay attention to anything else once you’ve gotten to the woman. She looks anything but small. She looks like an old movie star, glamorous and self-assured, barely aware of the camera. In almost all of her other photographs at that age–just under 40–she looked bored. Here, she looks alive.

It’s not wanting to be like Joanie that drives me to admire her, although I wouldn’t mind learning some of her tricks. It’s the thing itself, the thing of her, the writing and trying and living as a woman in a world dominated by men, the strict routines and discipline, the moment of glamour in a life otherwise marked by its slightness. It’s her need not to say “Look at me!” but, “Here is the world, and here is what you should know, and here is my part in it as I understand it.”

Tethered

There is an impulse toward homemaking that people have shared for millennia. People cut flowers or buy them in plastic wrap at the grocery store; we put coasters under our drinks to protect our tables; we cook dinner for friends and for ourselves; we paint walls gray and lilac and collect furniture we like from consignment stores. We make houses homes in this symbiotic relationship: we put some of ourselves into our homes and we take some of our identity away from our homes. In Home, Witold Rybczynski suggests that “home” can be considered in concentric circles. The innermost is your address, the place you fall asleep every night and make coffee in the morning, the bathroom you have to clean, your windows and your refrigerator and your couch. Next is your city, then your county or state, and so on. He doesn’t take it much further than that, and although I suspect there are some people who feel most truly at home as citizens of the world, most of us would stop at our home city or state. “Where are you from?” someone asks, and I say, “San Francisco,” or “California,” never “The U.S.”

The homemaking impulse may overlap with the place you’re from, though. For example, there is something about bougainvillea—a vine with bright, floral leaves that only grows in Mediterranean climates—that will always signal home to me. I prefer the Pacific to any other ocean even though there are plenty of places you couldn’t tell the difference between it and any other sea. I love the Missions of California even though I am neither Catholic nor Spanish. But a lifetime of collecting the possessions of any concentric circle of home triggers feelings and memories that aren’t easily explained away. This is why, in part, making a home is like making a self. We hold onto the things that beckon us even when we don’t understand why and we create, out of scraps picked up here and there, something whole.

This is also why, when we move, we may feel like more than four walls and a roof are being lost. If making a home is a relationship between a person and a place, a move takes half of the relationship out of the equation. Every move has felt like a loss to me, and every new place at first a threat to whatever sense of safety I had built up before. This is why the word “tether” is so interesting to me. When I was a kid—second and third grade, mostly—I would play a game called tetherball at Oak Ridge Elementary School during recess. Our playground had a blacktop and then a long expanse of grass that looked out onto Mount Baldy, the tallest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains just outside of Los Angeles. Every day I would leave for school with my younger sister in tow—two blocks from the bedroom we shared at home to the school’s front door—and every day our mom would remind us to look at Mount Baldy during recess and wave to it. When recess came, I looked but never waved. None of the other kids waved to mountains.

Tetherball has three components: a tall, steel pole; a long rope, and a ball about the size and feel of a volleyball. The rope attaches to the top of the pole at one end and the ball at another, so that the ball hangs at about the height of a third-grader’s torso. You wait in line for the game to end and then you play the winner, who holds court until he can be beat, and you hit the ball either with your open hand (ouch) or the side of your closed fist (a little softer) until the string coils all the way around the pole and the ball is stopped. You catch Mount Baldy out of your peripheral vision in a moment of celebration and give a grateful little exhale.

People are tethered to places just like the ball is tethered to the pole, just like, when you are in the game, you are tethered to the ground and to your opponent and to Mount Baldy in the distance. “Tether” is a Scandinavian word—Old Swedish has it as tiuther—meaning “rope for fastening an animal.” Its use as both a noun (the rope) and a verb (“to fasten”) makes it right at home in the conversation about place. I make a home somewhere; my home is the rope that binds me to a place. It is the thing and the action.

 

Dinner, II

Our dinners growing up were, like our music, largely a rotation of familiar selections: Beef Stroganoff Hamburger Helper. Boneless skinless chicken breasts with Chris & Pitt’s BBQ sauce and a side of broccoli. Hamburgers, when dad cooked. When my sister got a bit older and discovered she was good at cooking, we would be her subjects for experiments of Cornish game hens and baked macaroni and cheese. But until then, these were our meals, the things that appeared on our plates once a week or so. When we went out to dinner, it was In & Out or Mimi’s in California; Boston Market or Portillo’s in Illinois. There is a corner booth at the Portillo’s on Golf Road in Schaumburg that can still take me back to high school in an instant.

Now we eat dinner separately. Mallory still cooks beautiful, impromptu meals. Johnny eats a lot of homemade quesadillas. My parents raid the fridge for leftovers on nights they are home; when nothing resolves itself into a meal, they order from Lulu’s Mexican Restaurant up the street. Zack and I cook at home some nights and some nights we never open the refrigerator door. He has a work dinner tonight, and I had leftover Indian food followed by Trader Joe’s peanut butter cups.

Earlier this week, I drove for a moment next to a dead body. The casket sat two-thirds of the way back in the hearse, which was painted a pearlescent white that reminded me of the MTV show “Pimp My Ride.” Only this ride wasn’t being tricked out, it was stopping in front of a Korean church on South Van Ness to take the body inside so that people could see it, cry over it, breathe near it. Then the body would be taken out, put back in the hearse, and cremated or buried.

In every dinner, there is a little bit of the Last Supper. It’s a little late in the year to be talking about this, with Easter having passed and all, but it’s on my mind all the same. Jesus sat that night with his disciples, eating some food, drinking some wine, giving his body in some bizarre way as the bread and wine that would sustain. When I think about this as an actual event, it gives me the shivers. “This is my body, which is given for you,” he said. “Do this in remembrance of me.”

And, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

 

There are long, pink clouds ending the blue sky right now. San Francisco has had a heat wave, if you haven’t heard. The microwaved lamb biryani was almost too hot for dinner tonight, so I poured a glass of rosé–not that I ever need an excuse for a glass of rosé–to cool off. I don’t know why I’m thinking about the Last Supper, or about the dead person in the car next to me yesterday as I drove to work. But part of belief is thinking, and the thinking comes unbidden sometimes, or bidden only by pink clouds or a funny conversation or nothing at all. I am thinking about the family and friends of the dead person. I am thinking about resurrection. I am thinking about my next sip of rosé. I am thinking about food.

Easter

You could have gone to California Pizza Kitchen, he told you. It’s been a long day of driving and packing and flying–from Nashville to LAX and now, in the smallest terminal of the airport, you’re waiting for your flight to San Francisco. Your layover is long enough that our gate is boarding a flight to Denver now, over an hour before you’ll line up to head north, up the coast, home. You ate dinner at Camacho’s Cafe, a spectacularly decent Mexican restaurant with a bar in the seating area. Enchiladas and a margarita for you; tacos and a Pacifico for him. The bare bones of tortillas and styrofoam plates reminded you why you celebrate a day like today, because what was dead and useless becomes, in a miracle, the most lively and useful thing on earth.

But there’s a California Pizza Kitchen if you walk almost all the way to the baggage claim exit; the place with the red sign that says “Once you pass this point there is no re-entry.” If you stop just short of that sign, you can order a glass of Pinot Grigio and a barbeque chicken pizza and sit in a booth in the same chain you went to with your family when you were younger. And that seems fitting you to. You aren’t with your family today, Easter Sunday, but you are liminally in the city where you grew up. It would be right to eat at CPK. But you didn’t remember that it was there in time, so you ate at Camacho’s with your husband, and you drank a strong margarita and you dipped your enchilada in a side of guacamole that cost $3.50.

Easter is an easy enough holiday: Jesus was crucified, he died, he laid in the tomb, and then he rose again on the third day. All day long, people have been posting the same phrase to Facebook and Twitter: “He is risen!” And he is, and that is so good. But you don’t post that to Facebook or Twitter; instead, you post some words from Yeats’s poem “Easter 1916,” which is really about the Easter Rising in Ireland that year and which you have absolutely nothing to do with, no connection to.

____

We sat high up in the bleachers at the Grand Ole Opry last night. They weren’t actually bleachers so much as pews, but the point of the nosebleed seats remain. It was more fun than either of us thought it would be, mostly because I love sitting down during concerts and Zack loves country music of all stripes. Several times throughout the evening, different performers brought up the fact that it was the night before Easter. Several times throughout the evening, the audience responded with an ovation, clapping for the resurrection like Jesus was another rock star about to take the stage. Where we live, in San Francisco, people are far more likely to mark the fact that it is 4/20 than to consider that it is Easter Sunday. I didn’t know what to do with the cheering.

___

You’re ready to go home. In the last month, you’ve been in Seattle, Sebastopol, Chicago, Grand Rapids, and Nashville. You’ve been sick recently, vomiting, wondering if you might be pregnant. You’re not, of course — you took a pregnancy test at the Turnip Truck, a gourmet grocery store in a yuppy part of Nashville, and the plain strong line developed across the plastic device, and you thought how grateful you were because you don’t want new life right now. You do want it someday; but right now it’s not part of your plan. The nausea has mostly subsided, and you’re ready to be headed home for now, for ten full days and nights of sleeping in your own bed.

The sun is setting.  Gate 12 is blocking your view, but the sunlight diffuses around the walkway and casts the world in an orange glow. You’re ready to go home because you know what makes you at home in the world. It’s Easter Sunday. It’s time to go.

 

 

 

 

Dinner

My husband’s out of town on business. He’s in Seattle, where I just flew in from on Sunday. Today is Wednesday, and he’s gone, and our friends who were in town from Boston left at 2 this afternoon to go camping in the redwood trees north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I had my night all planned out, planner that I am: Call Papalote, the Mexican place two blocks east and order my usual, pick it up, take it home, eat, shower, read, watch a documentary in bed and fall asleep on the crest in the middle of the mattress, the place where neither Zack nor I sleep, the place that has not been worn down.

But I took the dog for a walk around 5 and it was so pleasant to be outside, around people, and I had spent the last three hours working on my computer alone at home. So I decided to take myself to dinner instead of taking dinner to myself. I dropped the dog off at home, did some more work on my computer, and then left the house for dinner with myself. I was wearing the jeans I wear when I feel a little too much to fit into my normal jeans, a gray T shirt, a gray sweatshirt from Target, and a black Patagonia vest. My hair was back in a bun, which, despite magazine imperatives to the contrary, will never look “smooth!” or “frizz-free!” because I have thin hair prone to fly away from my skull right around the hairline. The thought of showering and then going to dinner crossed my mind, but it seemed like too much work.

The two blocks down to Papalote are downhill from our house. Sometimes, I wonder if I could lay down on the ground, horizontal, like a sausage, and have someone push me and then I might just roll, roll, down 24th Street, until I neared my destination and put my hands out and picked myself off the ground. This was on my mind as I walked past couples, past schoolgirls out of volleyball practice, past one loud homeless man yelling “THANK YOU!” It took about five minutes to walk to Paplote; I imagine it would take two minutes at most to roll. I may never know.

They’re known for their burritos, but my usual order is chicken molé tacos (2), with avocado. Not super style, which includes guacamole, sour cream, and something else—maybe pico? I just add avocado, and I roll my eyes every time my husband makes his burrito super. How much more do you need to add onto a burrito that already weighs a pound? But he wasn’t there tonight, so that question was off the table.

The table was in the back corner of the restaurant, and I took my plastic number “66” to sit with me. The table had three chairs, and I was only one person, but it wasn’t so crowded that I felt bad about sitting there instead of one of the communal tables in the middle. I had ordered a Negra Modelo, which was a stupid decision when there were Modelo Especials in the same fridge, but that thought came too late. I had gotten two books in the mail the day before—Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and Witold Rybczynski’s Home: A Short History of an Idea. I brought Jamison with me to dinner, cracked it open, dipped a chip into creamy salsa, sipped from the aluminum-necked bottle. “My job title is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour.” I underlined the second sentence. I checked Facebook on my phone.

The molé tacos are out of this world. I tried to make them once at home, but they were not as delicious by half, so I haven’t tried again. The chicken is so tender, and it is hidden by a small mountain of lettuce and fresh tomatoes and, in my case, avocado. This mountain is so big that I always wonder whether someone forgot to actually put chicken on the tacos, whether, in fact, this is just a mound of fruits and vegetable on two flour tortillas, but the chicken is always there. The salsa is creamy, famous—it’s sold at our neighborhood Whole Foods and other San Francisco stores that sell wares made by local restaurants. I don’t put the salsa on the tacos, but I alternate bites of chips with bites of chicken. The avocado always goes faster than I mean for it to. I can’t help it; I’m greedy with avocado, even when it comes to myself. My present self cheats my future self out of more. When you order the tacos for pickup, they come side-by-side wrapped in foil, and I put them on a plate at home and eat them with a fork and knife. I eat them with fork and knife at the restaurant, too, but this time they come with a bunch of jicama at the top, which I think is strange. Jicama reminds me of high school, of my friend Steve’s mom, the only person I can ever remember saying “jicama” in our small corridor of suburban Illinois. I said “shit” in front of Steve’s mom once, when I burned my hand on a pan of brownies, and she never really liked me after that.

I eat the tacos and try not to eavesdrop too much on the conversation next to me, the man telling another man he’s sorry to be late and also he’s sure he has an idea for the next big startup and also don’t you think Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole? I don’t have an opinion about Mark, but it’s easier to listen distractedly than to read distractedly. I’ll pick up the book at home, I tell myself, and drain the Modelo. I’ve eaten the molé tacos; everything except for the actual taco. Subtracting the carbs from the tortilla gives me room for the carbs from the chips. It’s just good math. The dark blue ceramic plate still holds its full share of jicama, and now the detritus of my tacoless tacos.

Next door, at the convenience store, I take $100 out of the ATM, plus a $2.25 fee. I need $85 to pay the cleaning lady tomorrow morning, and I don’t have five dollars, so I go inside the store and buy one bottle of Racer 5 IPA. The top of the bottle says it’s 229 cents, but when I get rung up the man quotes me two dollars and twenty-five cents. I’m buying a beer to make change for my cleaning lady, I think to myself, and get angry with myself for being such a San Francisco stereotype, for being a woman who employs another woman to clean my house when I could really do it if I wanted to, for not being Leslie Jamison and writing award-winning novels when I’m 26, which was two years ago.

On my walk home, I follow a couple walking a dog. The dog looks like a small goat—black, coarse hair, agile legs. It is not a goat, but for a moment I convince myself that it is, and I want to call my husband and say, Zack! I am walking home behind a goat and I am not a great writer but I am trying! I am not sure who I am, but I am walking behind a goat and isn’t that funny! But it’s just a dog.

 

 

Because I do not hope: Ash Wednesday

ashBecause I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face

– TS Eliot, lines from “Ash Wednesday”

 

Ash Wednesday is a strange day. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that marked Ash Wednesday or Lent; I mostly thought of Lent as the time my Catholic friends gave up sweets for forty days. I knew it had something vaguely to do with Jesus having been in the wilderness for that same amount of time, with Jesus on the cusp of becoming what Christians call their Savior, on the cusp of his ministry and death and resurrection. But he was taken to the desert by the devil and tempted. “Turn this stone to bread,” Satan said, “and I will believe you are the Son of God. Throw yourself off the temple, and then you will convince me. Worship me, fall down and worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” And Jesus said no, and no, and no again, and we all know the rest of the story.

And the rest of the story ends in death. It ends in our death — mine, and yours, and my siblings and parents and the babies who are being born right now, right this second. Ours are the ashes. Ours are the million reasons not to hope, not to seek, not to turn again. And if ever there is a day not to hope, this is that day. This day was made to remind us of the death of hope, of the life of “what is actual is actual only for one time / And only for one place.” We can rejoice in the lilac and the blue rocks and the yew-tree, but for what is next there is no reason to rejoice. We wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing, as Eliot reminds us.

Hope itself can become an idol. We hope for things to change from ash to gold, from dust to glitter, and the ash and the dust build up around us and wet our eyes until we cannot see things as they are. Too much hope is hope for the wrong thing; hope that denies our wretchedness and shortness is no hope at all. We hope she will change, he will apologize, I will be made new. And maybe, and no, and yes, to all. We name our daughters Hope, give them the heavy mantle of expectation to bear, and they walk the slender tightrope with the feet of gorillas, a world on their shoulders they were not meant to carry.

Even Jesus had some hope. “Take this cup from me,” he asked on that last night. We all know how that turned out.

His body never was turned to ashes. We turn to ashes a thousand times every day; so it may be that when our turn comes, we don’t know that we have ended. If we have died already, we may not know we have died again. But we know today that we are dead; today, on the day of death, we do not hope.

“Where shall the word be found, where will the word

Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence

The right time and the right place are not here”

 

 

 

2014 Oscars: Fashion Roundup

There was no Cher, Bob Mackie-clad and half-naked, to galvanize America’s sartorial hatred. There was Lady Gaga, sure, looking weirdly pink and human, or Kim Novak, whose surgically-enhanced face launched a thousand tweets, but overall, the fashion at last night’s Oscars was fairly impressive. Or impressively fair, if fair here means middling and inoffensive. In a lot of ways, last night was a night that women wore dresses that somehow embodied their personalities or philosophies really well. There was not a lot to gasp over, but those who brought it really brought it–I’m thinking of Lupita Nyong’o and Kate Hudson in particular.

JB

Photo from eonline.com

More on them later, of course, but let’s get started with a dress that I feel like perfectly represent the blah theme of the night: Jessica Biel. She is a beautiful woman, in (sorry, but it’s true) the girl-next-door sort of way. She’s someone we all could have ostensibly gone to high school with or played soccer against. Pretty, but not regularly transcendent (with some exceptions, like this Versace stunner from a few years ago). Which is why, I guess, I feel like her dresses could always stand to be more daring, more risky, and less, well, beige. It was a sort of metallic, fluid column, reminiscent of Anne Hathaway’s dress from 2009, about which my response was similarly “meh.” Biel can wear anything and still look really pretty, and she did that last night. But especially when she is presenting alongside Jamie “Mr. Conviviality” Foxx, she would be way better off choosing something with personality. Sparkly and neutral are so popular at the Oscars because they’re so safe. But, as CS Lewis once said, “Is fashion safe? ‘Course it isn’t safe. But it’s good.”

 

See what I mean about the top? Photo from justjared.com

See what I mean about the top? Photo from justjared.com

I liked Julia Roberts’ dress a lot at first, but the more I saw of it, the less I liked it. On the plus side, her hair was the perfect shade of dark honey blonde to carry off a lacy black dress. And the top was super cute–even the peplum was made a little edgier with the undone lace. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think this is the last awards season at which we will regularly be seeing peplum, and I’m okay with that.) But the skirt was so terrifically boring that it made me rethink the whole thing. I feel like I’ve seen that skirt one million times, on girls wearing their first homecoming dresses or Texas moms wearing knockoff St. John. It’s not bad, it’s just not beautiful. And the Oscars aren’t the night to settle for “not bad.”

LUPITA. Photo from latimes.com

LUPITA. Photo from latimes.com

We could wax rhapsodic about Lupita’s entire triumphant awards season, both in terms of the number of wins she has notched and the stunning gowns she has worn. This has been her awards season, and for so many reasons that is a really exciting thing. Her red dress at the Golden Globes earlier this year was one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, and she has a really impeccable sense of what works on her, both in terms of fit and color. But when I caught a glimpse of her dress (just from the back!) last night, I gasped. First of all, there are not many women on earth who could pull off that color–the blue that she said “reminded her of Nairobi.” It was a sort of sky blue, and the long pleats draped down the skirt for a really dramatic bottom in a look that was still, somehow, light and elegant. The bottom of the skirt was lined with vertical silver sparkles, but they were SO subtle, I was in awe. As a woman with less, uh, shelf than most, I appreciated that Lupita pulled off a really low-cut dress. I mean, Matthew McConaughey’s mom gave us a keyhole to remember, but those of us with smaller chests can get away with showing more of it, and I think the dress embodied the particular kind of feminine strength for which Lupita has become so beloved.

The disco dress. Photo from popsugar.com

The disco dress. Photo from popsugar.com

I feel like we are going to get only one look from here on out with Anne Hathaway, and we have seen it a million times. It is more or less a column shape, like the pink Prada number she wore last year or the blue Saint Laurent she wore to the Vanity Fair afterparty. And it’s a lovely look, particularly on her, because she embodies what it means to be gamine, and gamine women do not wear princess dresses or mermaid cuts or anything too flowy. But I curse whatever Deliliah cut her hair; not because it doesn’t look great on her (it does!), but because it has given her the gamine mantle and I’m just a little tired of it. Maybe when she grows her hair out we’ll start to see more like the long-sleeved sparkly Armani she wore to the 2011 Golden Globes, or even a return to that year’s red gown with garbage bags attached to the ass. At least it was interesting. For a woman who wears red like nobody’s business, the boring, colorless columns HAVE TO GO. As it stood, last night, she looked like one-quarter of a disco ball with nothing else to commend the dress.

 

Perfect in red. Photo from usweekly.com

Perfect in red. Photo from usweekly.com

The hair is just...so...bad. Photo by fashiongonerogue.com

The hair is just…so…bad. Photo by fashiongonerogue.com

Two trends we saw a lot of last night: the halfhearted peplum (Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence) and the diaphonous pink column dress with lots of excess draping (Camilla Alves, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Penelope Cruz, who I assume all called each other up beforehand to play an elaborate joke on us all). Adams and Lawrence both looked lovely, as usual, although Lawrence’s favorite Oscar red carpet of mine will always be her mega-babe Baywatch look of 2010. (Also, Amy Adams’ hair was not great and looked like she had just come back from my grandmother’s hairdresser, which, no offense to my grandmother, but her everday life includes playing tennis and going to Bible Study and weeding the lawn, not walking the red carpet at the Oscars.) ANYWAYS, all this is to say that I hope that this year’s peplum will be like the vestigial tail of peplums, that evolutionary step in between what once was and what never will be again. Peplum has, in my well-considered opinion, had its day.

See? The HAIR! So good. Photo from justjared.com

See? The HAIR! So good. Photo from justjared.com

Kerry Washington can, and did, wear a potato sack last night and look gorgeous. The eggplant-taupe (what’s a better word for that color??) thing floated all around her, but had a great slit, lovely ruching at the top, and somehow looked sexy even it its shapelessness. Her bedroom hair might have done that trick.

Photo from usatoday.com

Photo from usatoday.com

Olivia Wilde, always polished, looked stunning in Valentino (if not as much to my taste as her emerald green Golden Globes dress). She really looks like a cat to me, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Like a sexy, human cat. If we can have Jessica Rabbit, we can have this. Anyways–the ’70s vibe to her whole look was excellent, and I really don’t mind the (almost) all-black look on her because she wears color so well and so often most of the time. Plus, with her hair and those earrings–it was chic and mod. For two.

Funereal, by Sally Hawkins. Photo from vogue.com

Funereal, by Sally Hawkins. Photo from vogue.com

Sally Hawkins looked uncomfortable. To be fair, Ryan Seacrest’s giant grin makes me a little uncomfortable, too, but she looked like she was trying really hard to will her hair to grow over her face and down to her feet so she could scamper away unnoticed and never have to make eye contact with another human being. And in a display of how wildly different two dresses from the same designer can be, she was also wearing Valentino (same as Olivia Wilde), but this one looked like it came from a terrible accident at the funeral drape factory place. I love a good long-sleeve gown, but to start, she’s kind of petite, so it was already overwhelming. Then you keep the print/swirly business going on over the whole entire dress and it just looks like she’s dying to find some wallpaper to blend into, you know? Cap sleeves would have made the look better; as would a really simple, ivory silk skirt. Hawkins shockingly never called for my opinion, though, so we’ll have to live with this.

Photo from lifeandstylemag.com

Photo from lifeandstylemag.com

 

Cate Blanchett looked pretty with sparkly sparkles attached to a nude mesh across her upper chest, meeting at the top in an odd sort of mock turtleneck. I’m not a huge fan of nude tones on blondes and redheads, who have license to wear a lot of bold color, but I did like this one on her. I appreciate the risks she consistently takes on the red carpet, and I think the dress was really pretty–feminine, lightweight with some heavier pieces, and interesting. Not my favorite, but not bad.

 

 

Perfection. Photo from gofugyourself.com

Perfection. Photo from gofugyourself.com

But my very favorite, the ne plus ultra of Oscar dresses last night and possibly of the last few years, was Kate Hudson’s. Unfortunately she only got like three seconds of stage time to show it off–America needed more of this dress. When our country is going through a time of national crisis, we can look back on Kate’s dress and remember that on that day, for one shining moment, we got it right. I just think this is exactly what an Oscar dress is meant to be. It’s shimmery, ivory-colored and also silvery, with a deep neckline (okay, a stomach-line is more accurate) and knotted fabric just under the, ah, bosom. The top is luminescent, with some kind of shimmery thread woven in, and gives way to a really simple, off-white silk skirt.The way the fabric comes together with in the center and moves outward is architectural, as is the slouchy cape that made it a more Hollywood version of Gwyneth’s 2012 Tom Ford dress. She looked like a bombshell–like Jean Harlow, most of all–and wed Old and New Hollywood together with this ensemble. Whatever that means.

So, pals, this is the end of the road. For this year, at least, the awards shows are done and I am left both bereft and glad for the millions of hours I get back. In the meantime, if anyone wants to send me this J. Mendel dress and a ticket for next year, you’ll have my forever gratitude. And, um, a million dollars.

Honorable Men’s Mention (aren’t you glad I didn’t say “Honorable MENtion?”): Kevin Spacey, Chris Hemsworth, Bill Murray and his green bow tie, Jared Leto and his flowing mane.

Honorable Mention for the Ladies: Sandra Bullock has grown on me. Charlize’s Maleficent-eared dress. Idina Menzel.

Meh: Anna Kendrick, both dresses.

Drowning in five acts

Via Wikimedia Commons

Millais’s Ophelia, via Wikimedia Commons

If death by drowning be inevitable, as in a shipwreck, the easiest way to die would be to suck water into the lungs by a powerful inspiration, as soon as one went beneath the surface. A person who had the courage to do this would probably become almost immediately unconscious, and never rise to the surface. As soon as the fluid filled his lungs, all feelings of chilliness and pain would cease, the indescribable semi-delirium that accompanies anæsthesia would come on, with ringing in the ears and delightful visions of color and light, while he would seem to himself to be gently sinking to rest on the softest of beds and with the most delightful of dreams.[1]

Act One: Surprise

This is how you drown.

You drive your red Jeep downtown Chicago instead of class at the junior college. You park near the Adler Planetarium, a few feet away from Lake Michigan. It is March, and the lake is 33 degrees. Still icy.

You have these things in your car: your wallet, your cell phone with no calls yet unanswered, your Chicago Cubs hat, an eight-page note in an envelope, duct tape.

You have anticipated that your body would betray you, which is what the duct tape is for. Your legs and arms won’t keep themselves still at the shock of the near-freezing water.

Where did you tape yourself up? Did you sit at the water’s edge and look across Lake Michigan, to the curve of the horizon? Did you imagine you were at the ocean, endless and blue, instead of in the middle of the city you had tethered yourself to after coming home from your missionary year in Mexico? Did you cross yourself with silvery, thick duct tape at your car and hop to the edge, hop to your death?

You get in the water. The surprise of being in freezing water would be enough to give anyone second thoughts, but you are determined. You gasp when you feel the bone-crushing cold of the water, not out of surprise (nothing could surprise you now) but because your body is locked in a war with your mind. Your bodily reflex is a constriction of every muscle in the torso, forcing air out of your lungs and into a visible puff before your mouth.

Your skin is next. It turns cold and loses color. The blood vessels nearer the surface of your skin go into crisis mode, constricting like an eye exposed to sudden light to conserve heat for your vital organs. You’re okay. You could walk out of the water now and be wet, cold, alive.

Your blood pressure increases.  Your heart is in distress. You need blood, warm blood, you need heat. You need help. Your muscles tense up. Another word for “tense up” is “freeze.” You shiver uncontrollably, which helps your body create some heat but makes you lose any physical control you may have had.

 

If we could go back in time from that day in March, four years back, we could see two girls sitting together at DiBenedetto’s Trattoria, sharing a cannoli across a table draped in white linen. It was an unusually fancy choice, but we were recently possessed of drivers’ licenses and the whole world seemed a little more grown-up in that light. We talked in the dim candlelight, on a “date” with each other, just like we might have had a “date” with Jesus or with our journals. You sat on the far side of the table, away from the door, tucking and re-tucking your long, straight hair behind your ears. You talked about your boyfriend, Brian. You weren’t “dating,” you said, but courting—which meant that your families were always around when you saw each other, that you were intending to marry one day, that you hadn’t yet kissed and probably wouldn’t until you were at the altar.

We met years earlier, at church. We were part of the same youth group, although I went to a public high school and you were homeschooled until your junior year, when you went to a different public school. Your parents had gotten divorced when you were very young, and then your mom got remarried and you had a stepsister, Kristen, who was your best friend, and then your dad died when you were fourteen, and now you were the star of Student Impact. Naturally beautiful, athletic—you played ultimate Frisbee every week with the guys—and so sure of yourself and your faith in Christ that you deferred your acceptance to a Christian college in Los Angeles and went instead to work with a missions organization in Querétaro, Mexico. You were not my best friend, but you were my close friend. You signed notes—and you wrote a lot of them—with the same symbol every time; a heart, your name, and next to the heart, the words “1 Peter 3:15.”

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”

I don’t wonder if I could have stopped you. But I do still wonder if I could have consoled you. If I could have opened my brain and spilled its anxious contents on the kitchen table to make you see you were not alone in feeling odd, in feeling sad, in feeling isolated. I wish I could have held my heart out to you in my hands for you to see, not that our sadness was the same, but that it was shared nonetheless. We were both the product of the same kind of evangelical church, evangelical family, evangelical world. But sometime after Mexico, your worldview took a turn. You never did end up going to California. You broke up with Brian, who had followed you to Mexico that year. You got a job at Starbucks, stopped going to church, took classes at the community college. You got engaged to Scott, who we all knew wasn’t a Christian, and we didn’t reach out to you as much as we should have. We didn’t know what to say to you, since our tight-knit group of friends was bound by the assumption that Jesus was Lord. We all went away to college, so the drifting was natural. My family moved to California, so I didn’t even come “home” during Christmas or summer breaks. I hadn’t talked to you in almost a year when you died.

Lots of our friends have drifted now, too, only now we make sure to hold on tight. Because we lost you, we religiously reinforce the ties that bind, which now have more to do with history than anything. We know the depths that despair can plumb.

 

Act Two: Involuntary Breath Holding

When you lose your physical control, you have to rely on your mind and your earlier preparations. You are taped together at the ankles and the wrists, glued together while you are coming apart. Your heart will be burning now from a lack of fresh oxygen, because your lungs can only recycle the same old poison. Have you swallowed any water yet? No? You can hold your breath for a minute, maybe two, just getting colder and telling yourself to stay in the cold water. Your brain gets fuzzy as the cold sets in. No new oxygen means misfiring synapses, confusion, slowness. Your skin is cold to the touch, although who’s touching it now? The water won’t know the difference.

You breathe now. You can’t help it; your inspiratory drive is urgent. You inhale the grimy shore-water of the lake, the water we rollerbladed along all those summer days ago in high school. The water passes your open larynx, settles into your lungs, and you cough—you can’t help it, your diaphragm is trying to clear your lungs, your atavistic instincts have kicked in. But a gasp will follow the cough, and you will inhale more water, and that water will circulate through your veins like poison. It is poison, in fact, of a sort. You remember osmosis, from freshman biology. Were you still homeschooled then? The water molecules go to where there are more water molecules, passing through the membranes of intact red blood cells and causing the red blood cells to explode. Hemolysis, the explosion is called, from the Greek: Hemo, meaning blood, and lysis, meaning release. You might as well have slit your wrists.

 

Was that cruel of me to say? What is the etiquette where suicide is concerned? Were you proud of yourself for thinking of this way, for doing it this way? Pills would have been a fool’s errand, and where would you have gotten a gun? Did you know, in your planning, that only 1.1% of people who kill themselves do it with water?[3] Were you trying to avoid pain? Making a mess? Did you know how bloated your body would be when they pulled it out of the water a day later? Did you know how you would not look like yourself in death? Did you see yourself, Narcissus-like, reflected in the waters before you were submerged?

The hemolysis continues, and now the salt in your red blood cells mingles with the water in your veins, since the salt inside your cells wants the water to be salty, too. Your sodium levels are dangerously low, but since your kidneys have stopped working, they can’t remove the exploded potassium from your bloodstream. The surge in potassium messes up the electrical activity of your heart, and you go into ventricular fibrillation. An irregular, excited heartbeat.

 

Act Three: Unconsciousness

You are still alive, although by now you have lost consciousness. Your death by drowning is now all but inevitable. You are motionless. For you, there is nothing happening.

 

Intermission: A Brief History of Perspectives on Suicide

The scholar Eusebius wrote about a woman whose daughters, afraid of being raped by the soldiers who arrested them for their Christianity, “cast themselves into a river which was flowing by. Thus they destroyed themselves.”[5] The mother, a Christian who taught her daughters it was better to die than “surrender their souls to the slavery of demons,”[6] was praised as a paragon of Christian virtue by Eusebius; her actions were commended. So it is that at this point—around the year 300 AD—that suicide was still seen through that ancient lens, and was acceptable even for good Christian people if it meant, among other things, avoiding shame.

Some, like Aquinas and Augustine, have argued that Jesus’ death was a suicide. “His soul did not leave his body constrained, but because he would and where he would and how he would,” Augustine wrote. Yet Augustine was no proponent of suicide. Writing about Lucretia, whose rape brought shame to her family, he said, “She is among those Who guiltless sent themselves to doom, And for all loathing of the day, In madness threw their lives away.”[7] This marked a turning point in the popular conception of suicide as something reasonable (and even good, in certain circumstances). In the Council of Arles of 452, church bishops wrote an injunction against suicide into canon law.[8] Suicide came to be seen not as a way of preserving one’s honor or identifying with Christ on the cross, but a sin, stealing from God what God had created. Centuries later, Aquinas built a three-pronged argument against suicide on Augustine’s foundation: Suicide injures community, it is contrary to self-love, and it violates our duty to God who, since he gave us life, should be the only one to end it. [9] That last tenet grew roots within Christianity, so that since then, the notion that Christians ought to bear our burdens, no matter how painful, has become an important part of our current theology. Judaism and Islam, which was born in between Augustine and Aquinas, also roundly condemned suicide as an offense against the God of life.

Because the individual experience was emphasized above the collective during the time of the Protestant Reformation, suicide was seen less as a way of responding to a community in crisis and more as one person’s response to his individual circumstances. The Renaissance revival of interest in ancient stories led to multiple versions of Lucretia’s story being retold through painting—Botticelli, Titian, Dürer, and Rembrandt all contributed their interpretations. The story of Lucretia, which in ancient Rome had been mostly a footnote to the creation of the Republic, was now in the spotlight. This fascination with suicide—especially the suicide of a woman, to preserve the honor of her household—belied a thick anti-suicide attitude that ran through Renaissance times, mostly because the notion of killing oneself for honor was fading into the dark annals of history. Shakespeare’s long poem The Rape of Lucrece calls her suicide a “mistake” when the narrator speaks to Lucretia’s husband, Collatine:

 

Why, Collatine, is woe the cure for woe?
Do wounds help wounds, or grief help grievous deeds?
Is it revenge to give thyself a blow
For his foul act by whom thy fair wife bleeds?
Such childish humour from weak minds proceeds:
Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so,
To slay herself, that should have slain her foe.[10]

 

Not so long after writing this poem, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, the play that would come to be revered for, among other things, its staggeringly beautiful soliloquy about “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/and by opposing end them?”[11] The prince himself, of course, does not die at his own hand. It is his love, Ophelia, who famously takes her own life by falling into a river and drowning. We never see Ophelia die. We only hear her death told by Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and it sounds like the most peaceful thing—she sings to herself, looking like a mermaid (someone whose natural habitat is the water, after all), as her clothes spread out and pull her down to the river’s muddy bottom. Yet Shakespeare’s other plays are peppered with characters whose considered suicides never happen—Hamlet, for one, Gloucester, and Imogen—or those whose suicides are the stuff of tragedy—Romeo, Juliet, and Cleopatra. So we are left to wonder: does Shakespeare think suicide is peaceful, entry into a world of dreams? Or is it a distortion of reality and the will of God?

Possibly, for Shakespeare, it is both. The importance of a good literary device cannot be overstated, and suicide is one of the most dramatic of them all. But Ophelia’s suicide, off-stage and set in the water, is less violent in its portrayal than Romeo’s or Cleopatra’s. She was mad—“incapable of her own distress”[12]—singing to herself and wearing flowers. It seems that, for the Bard, this suicide, though tragic, could be beautiful because of its inevitability. Suicide driven by madness couldn’t be avoided; all other kinds of suicides should be avoided. In the worlds of Foucault, “the sacrilege of suicide was annexed to the neutral domain of insanity.”[13]

 

Act Four: Hypoxic Convulsions

Your brain has been deprived of oxygen for several minutes now, and you enter cerebral hypoxia. Another Greek word, of no consequence now. You would be severely brain damaged if you lived, perhaps unable to speak, perhaps unable to recover. You start a series of hypoxic convulsions. They are mini-seizures, caused by abnormal brain activity brought on by lack of oxygen. You may foam at the mouth or bite your tongue. Your skin is turning blue, especially your lips and nail beds.[17]  Your body is still fighting, taking blood from where it is not needed to send it to where it is most desperately needed. But the blood has no fresh oxygen in it, and your vital organs begin to shut themselves down.

Your body is rigid, stiff. Your heart is fibrillating wildly, but your lungs have stopped expecting breath. Ironically, one of the treatments for cerebral hypoxia is the cooling of the body’s temperature. This has the effect of slowing down the action of the brain cells, which makes them need less oxygen than normal. Did you know this? Did you know that your death would be prolonged because you had put yourself in the freezing water, had given yourself to the hospital of the icy lake? It didn’t help you, of course—you were too far gone, too unreachable. Your phone rang in your car. How far were you then? How deep in the water?

People say that suicide is selfish. I might have said so, too, before you did it. But you weren’t a selfish person. I have to wonder if something irrational can accurately be said to be selfish. Your brain—that selfsame brain that, lacking oxygen, shot tremors through your whole body—was thoroughly kind when it was well. You were quick to give. A year younger than you, I was the grateful recipient of your offers to drive me home, your castoff clothing, your notes of encouragement. You weren’t selfish in life, and I can’t say you were in death. Your judgment was clouded, or perhaps it was crystal clear. You took something that others valued immensely when you killed yourself, and that wasn’t the most decent thing to do. I wish you hadn’t done it. But it wasn’t selfish.

Act Five: Clinical Death

Even though your skin is blue, you are not at risk for hypothermia. You are not alive long enough for it to set in.

Now you are not cold anymore. Your heart stops pumping blood, your watery attempts at breathing cease, your brain shuts down. You, who were so beautiful in life, you are dead. You are outside the reach of CPR or defibrillation. You are gone.

This is how you drown.

 

I avoid looking at your casket during your wake. The line snaked around the church basement; someone said there were a thousand people there that afternoon. We had all suspected kidnapping at first, when we heard you were missing. No one could believe that you, of all people, would kill yourself. Sure, we hadn’t talked to you in a while. It had been a while, we all said. Too long.

 

Postmortem

When I think of you now, I think of John Everett Millais’s painting of Ophelia. I saw it in London, when I was visiting my younger sister a few years after you died. It is terribly romantic; apart from her slightly open mouth, Ophelia might be caught in a moment of whimsy, floating downriver in gown of gold and white. She lies on her back, eyes half-shut, torso folded into the water, legs and head above. Her pale face still has a rosy glow and her hands, bent at the wrists, are out of the air and angled so that she might be holding some invisible sign or book. Her hair isn’t blond, like yours, but red—almost exactly the color of my own.

It is cliché to say the flowers are strewn around her, but there isn’t any other word, they really are strewn. They are crimson and pale blue and butter yellow and pink and trail from her right hand down to her feet, sloughing off her dress as her body floats. She wears a strand of violets around her neck and above her head is a weeping willow tree, which is the kind of tree Gertrude reported Ophelia to have been sitting on before a branch cracked and she drowned. There is green all around Ophelia’s lifeless body, but she is surrounded by black water. It is a study in contrasts.

You were like Ophelia, but not this Ophelia. You were like Icarus inverted, flying down toward the deep, knowing that the burn would come and your wings would not hold. You taped your wings down tight so you could not fly.

 

 

 

 



[1] Internet Archive of Popular Science Monthly. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_13/May_1878/The_Question_of_Pain_in_Drowning (accessed November 2, 2013).

[3] Suicide.org. http://suicide.org/suicide-statistics.html (accessed October 31, 2013).

[5] Eusebius Pamphilius, The History of the Church, trans. Valesius (Cambridge: John Hayes, Printer to the University, 1683), 146– 47.  Quoted in Hecht, location 652.

[6] Ibid

[7] Augustine, City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2009), 29. Quoted in Hecht, location 652.

[8] Hecht, location 728.

[9] Hecht, location 788.

[10] The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/Poetry/RapeOfLucrece.html (accessed October 31, 2013).

[11] William Shakespeare, Hamlet (New York: Thomson Learning, 1982), 285.

[12] Shakespeare, 406.

[13] Michel Foucalt, Madness and Civilization (New York: Random House, 1965). Quoted in John Weaver and David Wright, eds., Histories of Suicide: International Perspectives on Self-Destruction in the Modern World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 92.

[17] Poseidon: The Lifeguard’s Third Eye. http://www.poseidon-tech.com/us/patho.html (accessed November 2, 2013).

Don’t be an asshole

All things considered, it’s not a bad rule to live your life by. Whatever your religious beliefs or lack thereof, “Don’t be an asshole” is a pretty handy aphorism. Sure, sometimes you need to say things that are pointed or sharp or generally not nice. But being an asshole–defined for our purposes as someone who is characterized by meanness–is not a great way to live. The Bible doesn’t commend anyone to assholery; neither, as far as I know, do the Talmud, the Bhagavad Gita, the principle texts of humanism, or the Quran. There is no religion that aspires to meanness; no philosophy that extols the virtue of snark or sarcasm just to make a point.

But it is everywhere. And where I see it most of all these days is online. Everywhere online. And the most frustrating thing about Internet Assholery is that it is most common in the world in which I live among Christians. As a person who writes regularly for Christian outlets and some non-religious outlets, I can say that by far the worst, most personal, mean-spirited comment sections I have ever read have comprised Christians. You know, the people whose lives are supposed to be marked by gentleness, self-control, etc.

It’s not that we are imperfect and need to continue to cultivate our fruits of the spirit–that will always be the case. It’s that there are some Christian people who get a kick out of being guardians of the faith, drawing doctrinal lines in the sand that leave them square in the middle of ecclesial correctness and exclude everyone else. And it may come from a sense of duty, from a love of getting a rise out of other people, or from a really sincere heart about the importance of orthodoxy–but it is doing immense damage. Use words like “feminism,” and you’ll get attacked for being a whore and a murderer. (I am not exaggerating.) Talk about your love of scary stories, and you’ll be accused of playing in the Devil’s toybox–whatever that means. Suggest that we ought to think seriously about the ways we portray God in our imagery, and someone will tell you that your writing will drive people away from Christianity. Someone, I’m sure, will take issue with the fact that I am using the word “asshole” in the title of this post and suggest my “coarse” language is just a slippery slope toward Episcopalianism or some other such evangelical crime. The rabidness with which some people insist on policing who is in or out of the church is overwhelming.

Lately, there has been a lot of Internet Assholery around a law in Arizona that would allow businesses to refuse their services to same-sex couples who are getting married due to the religious beliefs of the business owners. People fall all over the spectrum on this one. If you’ve read much that I’ve written, it’s probably not too hard for you to guess where I land–but that’s not the issue here. The issue here is how we deal with disagreement.

Here’s the thing: Christians have been disagreeing about all kinds of shit since day one. And they have been mean. I’m of Paul, some would say. I’m of Apollos, others say. Oh, yeah? I’m of Christ, still others say. You can almost hear the Corinthians sticking their tongues out at one another. Some of the responses to this Arizona law have been along the lines of, sure Jesus ate with sinners, but he also told them to go and sin no more. That’s what we should be doing.

No. It’s not. Because you know what? We aren’t Jesus. We don’t get to take his mantle of judgment or call to perfection on ourselves to cast on any other person. That’s not on us. We don’t get to call people to go and sin no more. We can introduce them to a new way of living, to a life with Jesus. We can talk about the call to sin no more. But our job is not Jesus’s job, and being mean to someone on Twitter isn’t going to make Jesus more beautiful or more attractive or more accurately represented to anyone. In fact, it’s only going to do us harm.

But here’s the other, greater thing: I am not anyone’s Holy Spirit. I must–we must–trust that the real Holy Spirit is doing the work only the spirit can do; convicting, loving, freeing, rebuking, changing, releasing chains. Let the Spirit work! Stop indulging your own need to call others to right belief! There is freedom on the other side of that. All that energy you would use to insult someone else, to say they’ve got it wrong? Let that loose on yourself!

Let me be clear what I do not mean with this article, because I can already anticipate some of the twisting of my words that may occur: I do not mean that everyone needs to agree and believe the same way, nor do I mean that I am right all the time and everyone who criticizes me is wrong. This has nothing to do with who is right. (I hate using bold in blog posts, but that’s how important this is.) I don’t do this correctly at all time, and this reminder is as much for me as anyone else. Sometimes I am arrogant and uncaring. Sometimes I am convinced that being right matters far more than being loving, or that the loving thing to do is to insist on my own rightness.

So really, for God’s sake, please. Can we just agree on this one thing? We will disagree, we will drift, we will go to our Protestant and Catholic and nondenominational churches on Sunday mornings and Saturday evenings and Ash Wednesdays. And can we please, please, just stop being assholes?

Auden, anxiety, and the music on the way

W.H. Auden wrote a long poem—book-length, really—called The Age of Anxiety about a man’s search for meaning in an increasingly disconnected world. The poem itself is “frightfully long,” as Auden himself admitted in a letter to his friend Alan Ansen. But there are some brilliant, burning passages that match both the content of the modern epidemic of anxiety and the internal dialogue of anxiety sufferers:

We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

More than the poem, though, I am interested in a piece of music the poem inspired. It is a symphony by Leonard Bernstein, also called “My Age of Anxiety,” and it follows the poem’s structure: two Parts, each divided into three sections, adding up to the six sections of Auden’s poem. There are four lonely people in a bar, each aware of each other but most alive to their own minds, are represented by a pair of clarinets ascending and descending scales, plaintive and melancholy. A piano replaces the clarinets, and its slow movements give way to Hitchcockian drives of screeching violins and low octaves, heightening this sense of imminent danger that dances its way throughout the composition. The end of the first half is frenetic, odd, an atonal clash of percussion, horn, and xylophone, meant to represent the total confusion and lack of hope that comes from being at the end of one’s wits. The striving ends in abrupt silence.

I am not typically interested in the orchestra. I have sat through two symphony performances, and although I love music, I came as close to falling asleep in public as I ever have in a performance of Mozart in Venice. I am a person of words, so in a world that made sense, I would be exploring Auden’s poem with Bernstein in the background, a secondary player to the primary task of the written word. And it is not even that Bernstein’s musical adaptation particularly moves me—I have never cried while listening to it and cannot, in fact, imagine anyone doing so. It is a strange piece of music; at times like walking in a carnival, at times like hearing children banging pots and pans, at times eerie, at times stunningly beautiful. But what I most love about it, I suppose, is that it reminds me of home.

The first time I heard the song, I had been doing some research about anxiety on our basement computer. It was not long after my first meeting a therapist, and although there was no Wikipedia or WebMD, I managed to find a few websites that talked about the condition of anxiety—a different thing than the normal emotion of anxiety, which is a response to an actual threat or difficult circumstances. Anxiety was fear in the face of no discernible threat, or fear disproportionate to that threat. That made sense to me, and it gave a name to something woven throughout my whole life and my whole body.

Somehow, in that researching, I found Bernstein’s symphony. As this was before the days of widespread iTunes use, I had to download it illegally, one movement at a time, on a program called Kazaa. I turned the knob on the speakers on either side of the computer monitor, and the basement smelled slightly of mildew like it always did in the summer, and I sat in my chair and new that the world was about to change. There were no basements in California, for instance. There were no people who knew how my anxiety was undoing me, threatening to make me a prisoner of my own mind, living in deep fear about every possible change. I listened to the clanging drums and angry piano and quiet clarinets and thought, finally. Someone else knows what it’s like to be locked in this mind. It was my sending-away song, my launch song, my leaving-the-dock song. Not pretty or sweet, but it was true. The angry piano was sometimes quiet, the dulcet tones of the clarinet sometimes lively and sharp—the rhythm, such as it could appear to someone so unmusical, was unpredictable. Just like anxiety.

In his elegy for Henry James, Auden wrote this:

That catastrophic situation which neither

Victory nor defeat can annul; to be

Deaf yet determined to sing,

To be lame and blind yet burning for the Great Good Place,

To be radically corrupt yet mournfully attracted

By the Real Distinguished Thing.

 

I will always be burning for the Great Good Place, wherever and whenever that is. I know my mind will be addled as I get there, but there are some good companions for the journey that make it the joy that it is. For that, I am eternally grateful.

The importance of a good nemesis: a letter to Vince from Blockbuster

His name was Vince. He worked at the Blockbuster nearest my parent’s house–middle-aged and round all over, he was one of the store managers, along with a really tall man whose name I can’t recall. I didn’t need to remember anyone else’s name. Vince, you see, was my nemesis.

Let me be clear: Vince never knew, necessarily, that he was my nemesis. (I think he must have sensed it somehow, that words were gratuitous and our rivalry was timeless, but the fact remains that we never talked about it.) But Vince had an intensity behind the cash register that underscored his vocation: he loved movies. In line behind someone renting Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, I would watch Vince roll his eyes and tell the person that if they really wanted a love story, they should check out the Ingmar Bergman film, It Rains On Our Love. 

“We don’t have much Bergman here, of course” he scoffed. Blockbuster was beneath him; we both knew it. He should have been at an independent video store in San Francisco, the kind that served espresso and had a whole wall devoted to employee favorites. Instead, he was stuck at a Blockbuster in Menlo Park, just a few miles away from Netflix headquarters–the place that would make his workplace obsolete in short order.

I remember going to Blockbuster one night to pick out a movie for my sister and I to watch. This was, mind you, maybe six or seven years ago. I was a woman in her twenties at the time, not a teenager, and should have been able to rent Wet Hot American Summer without explaining my choice to anyone. But I couldn’t bring myself to face Vince with just this schlocky comedy in my hands. So I ambled over to the drama section, picked up a copy of Scarface, and made my way to the checkout counter.

Vince narrowed his eyes at my selection, but didn’t say anything. He never spoke first–he forced your hand, like a good nemesis. In his presence, I found myself with sweaty palms and a compulsion toward blurting things out.

“It’s my sister’s favorite movie,” I offered apologetically. Nothing. “She loves Paul Rudd, and Bradley Cooper is in it! It’s funny.”

I was in full panic mode, and things I would normally never say were coming out of my mouth in the hopes that something, anything, would catch Vince and impress him. For some reason, I needed him to think well of me, to recognize my film savvy. I said something about Sundance, I think, and he nodded when he picked up Scarface. His approval was palpable. My stomach churned.

“Your first time?” he asked, holding the plastic case right-side-up, so it looked like Al Pacino was staring into my eyes. Even the DVD cover was artfully done. I looked at Wet Hot American Summer, characters stuffed clown-like into a truck on the front. I had never seen Scarface. But Vince didn’t have to know that.

“No, no. I love this movie. It’s one of my favorites.” I kicked myself for lying, but I didn’t stop. “I’ve seen it a bunch of times.”

He looked at me. There was something behind his eyes, something mysterious and all-knowing. The Oracle of Blockbuster. He could tell I was lying, I was sure of it. But he didn’t give me up. He slid the DVD case across the counter, receipt on top. “Due back next Wednesday by midnight.”

I was breathing heavily when I left. Vince had won the battle–he kept his cool, and I blathered on about Paul Rudd like a teenager. I would make sure to correct that the next time around.

We had years of this back-and-forth. Only one time did Vince ever start the conversation to compliment me on my film choice, for Scent of a Woman. The man loved Al Pacino.

A few years ago, before Blockbuster began closing down its franchises left and right, I made a series of visits to Vince’s store only to find no Vince. The tall guy was there, as was a new, younger woman, about my age. Both were reasonably pleasant, both started chatting with me while I checked out Clueless or Chariots of Fire. I stopped adding to my pile, because there was no one to impress.

Not long after Vince left, Blockbuster imploded. I don’t mean the chain, I mean the store. It literally imploded. (Okay, no it didn’t, but it felt like that to me. It actually became a physical therapy spot called BAK.) I’ve since enjoyed a long and unchallenged run of ordering movies on iTunes or Netflix. And while I certainly enjoy the convenience of being able to get exactly what I want at home, I’m also off my game. Vince kept me sharp.  So Vince, wherever you are, thank you. I never liked you, but I admired you. You were a true nemesis.

Wait

photo-1I ate leftover pizza on the deck. Three and a half pieces, but I told myself it was okay because they were small and, plus, I had had a salad for lunch. The small glass of rosé was hard-won—I had visited three stores before finding it, but the unseasonably hot January weather called for it. I was alone in Santa Barbara, quite possibly the best place in the world a person can be alone, or simply be. My mom had gone in the late afternoon, after a long walk along the ocean; it would be another twenty-four hours before some of my best friends would arrive for the real reason I was here in the first place, Rachel’s bachelorette party.

The sky was purpling. Blush-colored above the ocean, the swaths of clouds above the Channel Islands were almost the same shade as the lantana that bloomed in the hills. I took deep breaths, willed my anxious mind to slow down, told myself I should be so captivated by this moment that my head would have no room for anything but wonder.

The last couple of weeks have been hard for me. I am not good at change, which includes things as predictable as changing from one year to the next. When one thing ends, like 2013 did, I feel nostalgic and sad. When something new begins, I feel the measure of the burden of knowing I will not be who I want to be, will fall short, will fail. That being a foregone conclusion, in the dark recesses of a mind cluttered with fear, my anxiety kicks into gear. And, like clockwork, January has rolled around in a dark cloud again.

There are no dark clouds in Santa Barbara, not now. It was 80 degrees here today and the only clouds were the ones gathered twenty miles out to sea over the islands. Mom and I scanned the horizon for dolphins or seals, common sights in this area. We didn’t see anything in the ocean other than pelicans dive-bombing unsuspecting fish, but the low tide revealed a small, dead black porpoise washed up earlier in the day. Its skin was still mostly intact except for two long, shallow wounds looking like nothing so much as plum flesh torn away from its innards. Mom and I got close—I could see its rows of tiny teeth. She took a picture to send to my brother, a surfer whose interest in things Pacific is unbounded. We turned around and put the porpoise behind us, walking past dogs and teenagers in the slanting sunlight.

She drove away just before 5, back up the coast, and I was hungrier than I realized. The Santa Barbara House, as we call it, was built sometime in the 1940s and sits on a hill overlooking first the city, red-roofed and expansive, then the strip of beach stretching east to Point Concepción and west to Carpinteria (Santa Barbara is a south-facing town), then the pier, then the Pacific Ocean, then the oil rigs that sit sentry-like 10 miles out to see, and finally, the Channel Islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel. It is where my parents will retire, but not yet. It is being remodeled, perpetually halfway done. It is in the college town where I met and fell in love with my husband, the place where I am eternally nineteen. It is a liminal place.

So I took my pizza and my rosé and the local newspaper out to that view, to the wicker table, and said a prayer and tried to muster up the right amount of gratitude, which is almost always more than I have. The gratitude came in waves but left nothing in its wake for me to hold onto, and then the words popped into my head:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing

They’re words from one of my favorite poems, T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker,” and they’re words Mom read at our wedding, along with the words that follow:

…wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

I looked up after I read these words for the umpteenth time, this time on my phone’s glowing screen, and saw a plane cutting a straight line for Orion’s right hand. It blinked in the encroaching darkness, star over star, movement over firmament. The night was quiet except for the noise of a pair of hummingbirds in the oak tree, and I thumbed back up on the screen to re-read this part of the poem:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre, 

The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed

The darkness of God. The hiddenness of God, which God promises in Exodus 33: “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

The darkness that comes before the scene can change, the darkness that will be the light. In my heart-poundingest moments of anxiety, all I want is a scene change. Waiting is the tunnel I don’t want to go through to get where I want to go. Waiting is what feels sometimes like it will undo me.

“Be still before the Lord, and wait for him,” David wrote in Psalm 37. And I don’t want to wait one more second, but if I must, I will. And I don’t want to waste the waiting, so I will take my pizza and rosé and look into the sky and give thanks, even when I only mean it halfway. Middlingly. The waiting waits, too, and I in it.

 

 

2014 Golden Globes: The good, the bad, and the Julia Roberts

In between the red carpet and the actual show, we had a Defcon One-level television disaster: NBC wasn’t coming in on our TV. (I assume Defcon One is from Star Trek, but I don’t know for certain. Anyways, the idea holds.) The picture, when it was there, was super grainy, like a bad YouTube video. We could hear Tina Fey wisecracking every thirty seconds or so, but there was no picture and the audio was stilted. So, my genius husband found some sort of Canadian workaround online and I was in, albeit about a minute behind the live broadcast.

The red carpet segment on E! had given me most of the information I needed, but the show itself was a strange mix of things this year. Jacqueline Bisset’s boozy acceptance speech in which, among other things, she quoted her mother saying “go to hell, and don’t come back.”Tina Fey’s weirdly racist “Blacklist” joke (which I wrote about here). Emma Thompson’s moment of utter triumph. Amy Poehler’s celebratory make-out session with Bono. It was one of the more entertaining awards shows we’ve seen in recent years, and I think we have Poehler and Fey (mostly) to thank for that.

But the real stars of the night, as usual, were the outfits. So I’ll get down to it, while reminding you that we are 48 days from the Oscars. Ladies, start your engines.

Lupita-Nyongo-Golden-Globes-2014

 

The real knockout of the night had, in my mind, no competition whatsoever. Lupita Nyong’o, who has an excellent spate of red-carpet victories to recommend her, stunned in a floor-length, cherry-red Ralph Lauren column. WITH A CAPE. (Remember Gwyneth’s Oscars dress last year? It was lovely, I’ll admit, but this topped even that Tom Ford confection.) Nyong’o could have worn pajamas and her bone structure and elegance would have carried her up the best-dressed ranks, but this dress is one for the ages.

 

zoe-saldana-globen-globes-2014-red-carpet

 

In a category by herself, as usual, was Zoe Saldana. She took a risk; that’s for sure. But not all risks can pay off, and this one looked like a couture quilt. I do appreciate that she always gives us something to talk about, but in this case, she just looked like a drunk girl playing dress-up. You could have told me she and Helena Bonham-Carter argued over who got to wear that dress and Zoe won only by ripping off the organza hem and I would believe you in the blink of an eye. The sleeves were kind of cute and princess-y.

 

kerry-washington-olivia-wilde-2014-golden-globes-1I imagine it’s not easy to dress a baby bump. Drew Barrymore did it very Drew Barrymore-ly, which is to say she looked like a giant flower. The dress was atrocious, but whatever. It worked for her. Kerry Washington was, as usual, perfectly styled and perfectly beautiful. I wasn’t a huge fan of the bib-like top, but the lines of the dress itself were lovely. Olivia Wilde, however…that is one sexy mother-to-be. She has a feline look to her, which might sound weird to say, but there’s something to the way she carries herself and moves that is catlike. So the slinky, sequined, emerald green Gucci dress worked perfectly. I confess my bias here: I will always love a woman in a long-sleeved, body-hugging, sparkly silhouette. It’s pretty universally flattering–Adele and Carrie Underwood both pulled it off beautifully at the 2012 Grammys. Olivia Wilde is now part of that same stratosphere. Try it someday; maybe you’ll like it, too.

Cate-Blanchett-in-Armani-Prive-BellaNaija-Style-January-2014-BellaNaija-600x477

 

From the number of best-dressed lists she’s appeared on, it would seem to be a controversial decision to name Cate Blanchett one of the night’s worst dressed. She is a darling of high fashion, and while occasionally puzzling, she does usually make choices in favor of avant-garde designers, which makes her (sartorially, at least) very like Tilda Swinton. But the funeral number she wore to the Globes couldn’t possibly pass muster on any but the most stringent, depressing runways–and she was at a Hollywood awards party! The skirt part of the dress was beautiful, and I wish she had Armani cut the top off and worn a t-shirt with it. Honestly, that would have been eight hundred times better. The back of the dress was risqué and fun, but like I wrote that night, the back was writing checks the front couldn’t catch.

julia-roberts-golden-globes-2014-red-carpet

 

Speaking of women who wore t-shirts to awards parties…I don’t know what Julia Roberts was thinking. All I can come up with is that she spent too much time with Meryl filming August: Osage County, a happy family movie about a warm summer in Missouri. (I haven’t seen it yet.) Otherwise, what is the possible reasoning for the collared top underneath the totally passable, if plain, Dolce & Gabbana dress? Perhaps she was channeling Sharon Stone’s famous ’98 Oscars look, but the key there was that Stone wore the shirt AS A SHIRT, not some weird dickey. HuffPo Canada applauded Roberts for dressing appropriately for a “WOMAN OF HER AGE!” but unless that age is dead or over 100, you don’t need to do this.

Julianna-Margulies-Golden-Globes-2014

If I had been invited to the Globe (this is what, the twenty-eighth year they snubbed me? RUDE) I would have worn Julianna Margulies’s dress in a hot second. I love the combination of gold and black done well, and the slim bodice and full skirt of the dress reminded me of the best fashion in Gone With the Wind, but in an even better way. The neckline was just low enough to keep it from being dowdy, and the coral shape of the gold pattern was elegant. I loved it. Plus, I feel like it had pockets? A dress with a skirt that big has to have pockets.

 

Elisabeth Moss

 

Elisabeth Moss was a surprise frontrunner, in my opinion. She’s not someone I think of as super interested in fashion, and she’s made some interesting red-carpet choices in the past. But this J. Mendel dress worked so well on her. The color, a deep cranberry, was a shade darker than the popular orange-reds that dotted the show (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Taylor Swift, Amy Adams), which made it instantly the goth alternative to the rest of the sweethearts. The shape of the dress was flattering, and even though it did sort of look like a tablecloth, it looked like a really great tablecloth that should have been turned into a dress in the first place.

 

Honorable Mentions: Reese Witherspoon in turquoise Calvin Klein (very California beach babe, one of my favorite looks and done to perfection by Jennifer Lawrence at the 2011 Oscars); Margot Robbie in Gucci with a slit up to there; Amy Adams in American Hustle-character Valentino; Naomi Watts in metallic Tom Ford.

Dishonorable Mentions: Sandra Bullock in a Prabal Gurung wetsuit; Zooey Deschanel in a beautiful skirt ruined by a weird junior-high crop top; Emma Stone‘s smock-like skirt paired with a sequined top; Lena Dunham in a pretty but ill-fitting Zac Posen dress she couldn’t stop tugging at. Jennifer Lawrence, who I’m not even going to talk about.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed and grateful. See you in 48 days.

Anxiety; mine and theirs

Yesterday, for whatever reason, was a hard day for me. It’s that way with anxiety: lots of days are fine and easy, and you go to work and come home and make chicken with broccoli for dinner and feel great. But yesterday was like some of the harder days, which is to say it was also full of anxiety, and when a meeting got cancelled I bought a pair of shoes and tried to read a book but my eyes couldn’t settle on the page for more than five seconds at a time. I felt a sense of dread settle into the pit of my stomach: you will never amount to much, this year will not be what you want it to be, your career is a joke, no one particularly cares for you.

I know these things aren’t true, and my anxiety is a strange companion to my normally healthy level of self-esteem. But this voice, once it roots itself in my neurons and my gut, won’t be silenced by reason. It won’t be silenced by much of anything, in fact; I’ve tried.

So, this is part of why I’m so looking forward to two books that will be out soon, both on the topic of anxiety. Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety has been on my radar for at least a month now, and it publishes January 7th. Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic, and wrote (excerpted?) this recent piece about anxiety (his own and a history of the disorder).

Amy Simpson, a colleague of mine at Christianity Todaywrote a fantastic book last year called Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. It will surprise exactly no one that many churches and Christians are the worst offenders when it comes to dealing harshly with people dealing with mental illness. Her new book, Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry doesn’t publish until October, but is already at the top of my list to read this year. It will deal with the idea that worry is something that can be overcome with just enough willpower (which makes me curious about the word “choosing” in the subtitle) and the notion that worry is a sin and deserves to be taken seriously as such.

I’ve come to think of my anxiety as a small, often unwanted, companion that will accompany me wherever I go. To me, this is much more helpful than trying to get rid of it, to walk it out the door or pray it away. It is part of me, just as everyone has their things that are part of them. But I’m glad to have people–and books–to share the journey.

 

In the desert, darling

Richard Rodriguez, “Darling”

I’ve just finished reading Darling, Richard Rodriguez’s “Spiritual Autobiography,” which is less autobiography than meditations on a theme. The theme–the obsession, really–is what Rodriguez calls the “desert religions” of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Rodriguez visits Jerusalem to visit the holy sites of these three religions, a desert pilgrimage of unknown destination.

“All three desert religions claim Abraham as father. A recurrent question in my mind concerns the desert: Did Abraham happen upon God or did God happen upon Abraham? The same question: Which is the desert, or who? I came upon a passage in 2 Maccabees. The passage pertains to the holiness of Jerusalem: The Lord, however, had not chosen the people for the sake of the Place, but the Place for the sake of the people. So, God happened upon Abraham. Abraham is the desert.”

Right now, it is 42 degrees in San Francisco. For a city in a state with some of the country’s hottest temperatures, that’s awfully cold. We are all complaining, remarking on the weather constantly. I grew up in Chicago, where the obsession with other people’s good weather was worn like a badge of honor: The Chicagoans are laughing at the Californians right now.

But we are a desert people in California. We made our homes in a land inhospitable to housing human beings. We are, on one side, all water, but that water can’t be used to grow our crops or slake our thirst. So we take water from hundreds of miles away to make the desert bloom, funneling the Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco and Gibraltar to Santa Barbara, to say nothing of Los Angeles, which has already been said in Chinatown and Cadillac Desert.

“The Christian calendar has two ‘deserts’ – Advent and Lent – two penitential preludes to the great feasts of Christmas and Easter,” Rodriguez writes. “Though Christianity has sojourned so long in Europe that the penitential seasons are now imagined as seasons of gaunt – winters of the soul, rather than deserts.” We are in Advent now; the first year I’ve been part of a church that follows the liturgical calendar. The drapings are purple now, the prayers changed to reflect the longings of this season, the celebration not quite begun. There are candles to be lit, there is darkness to be withstood and embraced.

I wouldn’t say I’m in a winter of the soul. I believe; my unbelief needs little help. Except it may be that kind of false thinking about my own security in belief that constitutes a winter of the soul. In the spring, everything dependent on water blossoms. Everything that knows it needs the water is brought back to life. A plant too proud to accept the nourishment of life will never live.

In the book, “darling” is shorthand for an outdated and overly sentimental way of relating to people as props. Tallulah Bankhead did it first; Cary Grant did it and Americans have loved to imitate Brits doing it ever since. “Darling” is a itself prop, but it is also how Rodriguez refers to the woman who loved him, the friend who he loved dearly. “I am thinking of your two-hour theorem, Darling. It is the most fortifying advice I have ever received. You said: I find I can stand anything for two hours.”

Even the desert. Darling.

Feminist?

Last night,  my husband pointed me to this great talk from Joss Whedon about the baggage surrounding the word “feminism” (at a linguistic level) and the need to find a word that expresses moral disapproval when someone has violated the social contract of equality. It’s a great video, worth your time to watch, but it also reminded me of this post I wrote in 2011. It doesn’t make me cringe as much as some of the stuff I used to write, and in my experience still has something to offer to all us weirdos. 

I read an interesting article yesterday – “7 Reasons There Are No Women Speaking at Your Conference.” The author, Rachel Held Evans, talks in it about getting yet another announcement about a keynote lineup at a Christian conference. It was being headlined by six white men. No one is surprised by this, but she offers an articulate series of thoughts about why this is the case – women have their own separate Christian subculture, hold fewer pastoral positions and seminary degrees, and they’re expected to be submissive.

It’s a really interesting and thoughtful post, but I was a little bit (really, just a little) bothered by the opening paragraph. Specifically, the sentence in which Evans says:

“not because I’m a raging feminist . . . ”

In the Christian world, ‘feminist’ is (still) usually thought of as a four-letter word. It cuts quickly and deeply to the heart of our deep-seated and funky gender dynamic. A ‘feminist’ is someone who thinks that women and men are equal. It’s pretty simple. And everyone, but especially Christians, should be proud to identify themselves as such.

Instead, it’s become a label that Christians are quick to dissociate themselves from. I’ve heard so many variations of “I’m not a feminist, but I do believe that men and women are created equal.”

Guess what? You’re a feminist! Congratulations! You can keep right on wearing pink and getting pedicures and shopping, or wearing black and kickboxing, or wearing neutrals and going to yoga. Women have been historically and systematically oppressed — and no, it isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be and yes, we have many more opportunities than our forbears. But women still get paid less than men for doing the same work. They still hold far fewer executive positions across the board than men do. And they are under more pressure than ever to look and act Just Right, some ludicrous combination of sexy and confident and demure and skinny and intelligent and not too intelligent and nonthreatening and a little bit helpless and on and on. We have a long ways to go.

So let’s go there. Together. In all our messy and nonconformist ways. And let’s give credence to what – and who – we are along the way.

Q Women + Calling Conference, and Autumn in New York

 

Three of the Holiday Inn four. Notice Katelyn's dress, please.

Three of the Holiday Inn four. Notice Katelyn’s dress, please.

There were four of us crammed in a room at the Holiday Inn Express on 29th Street; 2 per full-sized bed. We ordered a pizza at midnight on Friday TO OUR HOTEL ROOM. It was in the high 50s and low 60s the whole time we were there, sunny and brisk enough to make me hum “Autumn in New York” the whole time I was there, which was less than 48 hours. I got to meet some friends I had only known online, take the subway up and down Manhattan, and eat a pot of lobster mac and cheese for lunch. I’m glad I live in San Francisco, but every time I visit New York, I make a pact with myself to return, and soon, because there is always so much to see and never enough time.

The real reason for the trip was the Q Conference on women and calling. Q has put on a number of fantastic conferences, known in the Christian world for bringing lots of different topics under one roof. It’s very Kuyperian in focus or, more appropriately, lack of specific focus. Past conferences have dealt with issues of contemporary art, international trade, mental health, immigration reform, and (my favorite) surfing. But this one-day conference was developed more intentionally along the lines of this one topic, and lots of different speakers talked about the notion of calling from lots of different angles.

Kate Harris opened the morning, talking about “A New Understanding of Vocation.” Rather than understanding calling as always related to career, our potential, and our gifts, Harris suggested that calling is comprehensive, concerned with the present moment, and rooted in our grief. It was that last idea that stuck with me and still has me thinking. My friend Sharon wrote about it well: “For many, hardship and tragedy are not distractions from calling, but the very soil from which it springs.” This was interesting to me, too, for the way it seems to fall along gender lines. I wondered how often someone would say a man’s calling is borne from his pain or grief or sense of injustice, rather than a sense of ambition or particular drive. I know that much of what I love to write and talk about is deeply connected with my own sense of hurt or injustice–my own anxiety, my frustration with churches and denominations that refuse to let women teach and lead, my sadness that so many people are treated so badly by the church. Harris’s words resonated with me deeply, and left me thinking about the gendered ways in which we talk about calling.

Rachel Held Evans gave a great talk about Biblical Womanhood, which was mostly familiar to anyone who has read her book. Rachel talked about how many women in the Bible didn’t fit into nice molds of cultural femininity, including Ruth who, as a single, poor, initiative-taking woman bucked a lot of stereotypes women in the Ancient Near East were supposed to fulfill. Her calling wasn’t primarily about her gender; it was about who God had made her to be.

Shauna Niequist was next, with a talk about what her mother taught her. You can read it here, and if you haven’t already, I recommend that you do. Shauna’s mom, at 62, is kicking ass. She’s an expert in peace studies and conflict reconciliation; she travels frequently to the Middle East and the Congo to work for peace-based initiatives; she’s a grandmother to Shauna’s sons; she’s an artist and a writer and a friend. But it took a while for Lynne, Shauna’s mom, to get there. It took, in her words, “decades of depression and exhaustion” before Lynne was able, with the encouragement of others, to discern and pursue becoming the person she was called to be. Because of that becoming, Shauna is able to do the things in her life that she is great at and loves doing without guilt or shame or question. As someone with a mom who has mentored both Shauna and me in this area, I can’t imagine that life of decades of depression and exhaustion. Lynne’s wisdom is hard-earned, and I’m so grateful Shauna passed it on.

There were so many other fantastic talks that day. Kathy Khang spoke “In Defense of Ambition,” and why we need not to think of ambition as either “masculine” or a zero-sum game. Women in many cases have been acculturated to believe we don’t deserve power, so we aren’t sure what to do with it. But much like what Andy Crouch writes about in Playing God, power is a gift to be stewarded, not a bad word to run from.

The inimitable Katelyn Beaty, managing editor of Christianity Today, talked about singleness in the church and as a woman with a calling. If women fall prey to the myth that life begins with marriage, they miss so much of their chance to have meaningful, rich careers and friendships and communities where they are. There is a notion that the work that single women are doing now is not their “real” calling–that the highest calling is for marriage and children. And although she didn’t use the word, that idea is basically eleven kinds of bullshit. The church needs to work against that by celebrating and supporting the work of single women, and not making them feel incidental to ecclesial life.

Lauren Winner talked about life and calling when it all falls apart, which was the topic of Still–and if you haven’t read that, stop reading this and go! “These seasons [of despair] are not aberrations from the faithful Christian path,” she said. “They are not to be escaped. They are to be endured, and ultimately, embraced.” From someone else, this could sound trite. But Lauren has been through it, and remained faithful, and has this whole wonderful notion of our spiritual journey as playing hide-and-seek with God that has been ringing in my ears ever since. More on that, perhaps, at a later date.

Nicole Baker Fulgham gave one of the most powerful talks of the day, and one that tied the whole day together for me. We had heard so much about what we could listen to or discern for our calling, but not much about how our callings were tied to those of people who could not afford to be at a conference room in New York City on a Friday, who could not afford even to think too much of calling because they are too consumed with thinking of paying rent and putting food on the table. She laid out a framework of support for girls and young women that was practical and helpful. Her book, Educating All God’s Children, spells out that framework in more detail as a response to the often-abysmal state of public school education for low-income kids. She was fantastic, and I’m looking forward to reading her book.

The one talk that felt a little off to me was Kathy Keller’s, in the afternoon. She had some good things to say about our calling being rooted in our gender, and I agree that gender is not incidental to calling. But she and I would interpret that phrase in very different ways. The difference is fine by me, but she talked a couple of times about there being an arrogance or rejecting of God’s gift when we don’t accept complementary gender roles. (She didn’t use the word “complementary,” but that’s an accurate definition of what she was describing.) The accusations of arrogance was frustrating to me–I don’t agree with complementarianism, but I don’t think it’s a willful arrogance that lands people in that camp. Keller also didn’t seem to enjoy speaking, if that makes any sense–it felt to me like she needed to make a point, made it, and then wanted to be done speaking as soon as possible.

The real draw of the day, of course, was the breathless anticipation of what everyone would be wearing. Well, not everyone–mostly everyone was dressed super cute, because it’s a room full of women and we all dress for each other. If you think differently, you’re probably a man. But Katelyn Beaty won the day’s best-dressed award in a super cute colorblocked dress. I don’t remember what Shauna wore except probably it was from J.Crew, and she had on a great statement necklace. Lauren Winner, whose outfit “wasn’t even an outfit” (from the horse’s mouth), had on like seventeen different accessories, including chunky yellow fingerless gloves and her signature cat-eye glasses. Rebekah Lyons wore a really pretty kelly green blouse, and I wore jeans I had tried to “distress” last year with a resultant hole in the back butt pocket, so I kept pulling my sweater down so no one could see through to my hot pink underwear.

That was that. The rest of the weekend was a blur of delicious meals, exploring Bryant Park and Chelsea, Brooklyn bars and Thai food, and great conversation. The conference was a gift to get to be part of, and even more than that, the friends I got to spend time with reminded me of the goodness of a near God who cares deeply about who we become. But I am glad to be at home, in my own bed.

 

 

 

 

Cold Water

Cold Water | Photographersgallery.com

Cold Water | Photographersgallery.com

Write about a time you went into cold water—a lake, pool, shower, or rain. Write about how your body reacted. Was it delicious relief from the heat, or a shock that caused goose bumps and made your lips turn blue? Or write about the cold water as a metaphor.

Ever since Laurie, I can’t write about cold water as a metaphor. I can’t write about it is anything but what it actually is, what it actually did. The cruelest way to die.

I hate being cold. I would never intentionally go into cold water. I like warm baths and ocean water the temperature of bathwater—in Belize, say, or on Maui, on a 90-degree day, I’ll run into the water and splash and sit on the sand waist-deep in it. But that’s as far as I’ll go. Right now, for instance, the mornings are getting colder in San Francisco. Our house is in the 50s when we wake up, and it takes a mountain of willpower for me to throw the covers off and get out of bed. I reflexively reach for an ugly black robe and fuzzy slippers (“Foot Duvets,” the store called them) to go from comfort to comfort, from warmth to warmth, to avoid the cold.

Every summer until I was thirteen, my family went to a camp near Big Bear, in the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California. Since it was a family camp, we all stayed together in one big cabin—Smith Cabin, with a fireplace and a big porch out front. During the day, when the adults were listening to my dad preach, the kids would go up to the lake. We would pedal the paddleboats around the lake’s circumference, send each other flying off the Blob, squirt each other with giant water guns until we were dizzy and sandy. And one day of each summer week, there would be a Polar Bear Plunge.

Last winter’s snow turned into icy streams rushing down from the mountaintops, even though we were in southern California in the summer. The bravest among us would jump right in, their feet clad in the water socks their parents had remembered to bring, slipping over moss-covered rocks and holding their breath for ten seconds in the freezing runoff. Some of the rest of the group took convincing, and camp counselors were more than happy to give pep talks to draw them in: “C’mon, you can do it!” yelled tall, tanned young men and women with nicknames like Cooter (seriously) and Captain. “Just ten seconds! You can do anything for ten seconds!”

Even at thirteen, I knew this was patently untrue. I couldn’t go naked into space for ten seconds, for example, or be shot in the heart for ten seconds. I couldn’t stand in ten seconds worth of fire and emerge unscathed. Their platitudes were not for me.

I stood in my South Barrington Swim Team bathing suit on the hot rocks outside the water every year, and every year I was the only person not to go in. “You’ll wish you had!” Cooter meant well. “It can’t hurt!” I shook my head for the umpteenth time, wishing I had brought sunscreen. I was red-haired, pale, and gangly, another set of things that set me apart from this tanned, blond, athletic group of kids. “I don’t like being cold,” I told him, and he shook his head back at me. “Your loss!” His lithe body disappeared under the water as the campers shouted, “ONE! TWO! THREE!…”

We lost Laurie in the water. She had lost herself long before that cold March day, but with all the ways to do it, I will never understand why she chose the water. They found duct tape in her car, or so I heard, for her mouth. So that when her body betrayed her, when her lungs burned for a gulp of air, she would retain control. Her will would be done.

March in Chicago is a terrible month to be alive. Everything should be sunny and blossoming, but nature in the Midwest rarely cooperates and instead it is a month of gray, of disappointingly bitter temperatures and unexpected snowstorms and slushy ice piled up against the curbs. To be outside, in the air, in a warm jacket and boots, is already a cold endeavor in Chicago in March.

To be in the water? To jump from the frosted grass outside the Adler Planetarium into Lake Michigan’s murky waters, in a month when the lake’s average temperature is 37 degrees? I want to find Cooter now, whatever his real name is, wherever he is, and point to her and tell him, “She did it. She did it better than you ever did, and look where it got her.” I want him to look away from me in shame for all the times he tried to get me to take the Plunge, because the Plunge has never done anyone any good and it has done my friend a world-ending bad.

It’s not fair, of course. It was seven years after we stopped going to the camp that Laurie killed herself, and as far as I can remember, she and I never talked about cold water. But I can’t think about cold water now without thinking of her, and I can’t write about cold water as a metaphor for anything because it was the weapon that killed her.

Bonnie Raitt and what music does to us

I love leaving concerts early.

That’s kind of a weird admission to start out with, but it’s true. I’m not a night owl by nature, and while I enjoy going to concerts, I feel like I’m getting away with something fantastically wrong when I duck out to the tunes of the first song of the encore. No crush of people to wend my way through on the way out, no traffic to sit in, no wondering if my applause will elicit a second–or third–encore.

But last night, as much as I wanted to get on the road to drive the hour home, I couldn’t bring myself to take my eyes off the stage. Zack and I saw Bonnie Raitt, and she was mesmerizing.

Now, I don’t write music reviews. I like good music, and go to shows often enough. My favorite band–the only band I won’t leave early, no matter how long they go–is Wilco, which puts me in a middling position regarding age in the room. Last night, we were by far the youngest people at the Saratoga Mountain Winery, a gorgeous venue set down atop a hill overlooking the entire Bay Area. I’m not sure what words a music reviewer uses or doesn’t use, and I’m not even sure what words I want to use. But seeing Bonnie Raitt there was among the best concerts of my life.

imgresAs my sister has written, growing up in our family we had about six CDs on rotation at any given time. The ones she named–Dan Fogelberg, the soundtrack to The Mission, and a few others–were played mostly in the house. But when we got in Mom’s car, a green Ford Windstar, there was a period of time when all you would hear was Bonnie’s Luck of the Draw. It must have been a tape, although I don’t remember the item itself. I just remember Mom singing Something to Talk About with her cheeks sucked in and her head bobbing from side to side, hands dangerously far from the steering wheel as she flicked her wrists in time to the music. The plucky bass of that album drove all of us to move in our seats a bit, at least until I Can’t Make You Love Me came on and we grew somber and melancholy. That was the song that introduced me to heartache. I was nine.

So for me, Bonnie the performer and Bonnie in my mom’s car can’t be separated. They are one and the same, and I’m not embarrassed to say there were a few times last night when I closed my eyes and could feel the scratchy upholstery under my fingers and see Mom bobbing along.

But there was something that held me rapt, something other than nostalgia. I was trying to put it into words for Zack as we drove home in the dark, and the best I could think of were two words that don’t always go together–Bonnie was confident and humble. When she walked onstage, it was plain as her white-streaked hair that she was a woman comfortable in her own skin, comfortable on stage, more than comfortable wailing on a guitar. Early in the set, someone yelled out, “You look great, Bonnie!” (Someday I will do a post about how much I hate it when people yell specific things to the performers at concerts. I had to settle for stink-eye in the dark.) Bonnie smiled, walked up to the mic and said, “Well, thanks! I feel great!” I can’t tell you how many times, as a woman, I have heard a compliment refuted, stomped on, tossed aside. “You look great!” someone might say. “Oh, thanks, but I feel like shit. I’m tired and just got this new makeup and it makes my skin look bad and…” on and on and on. This is a woman who looks great, and can hear that and take it in stride. That’s a lesson.

photoShe was also incredibly quick to point out the members of her band and praise them for their talents. Her blues pianist, Mike Finnigan, got a whole four minutes to play his own (incredible) song while Bonnie and the band backed him up. She even thanked the guy who was tuning her guitars, and he joined her onstage for a song. She played a couple of Dylan covers from “Slipstream,” her latest album, and “Dimming of the Day,” by Richard Thompson, and was not tight-lipped in her praise of either songwriter. She had played at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free music festival in San Francisco, and talked about seeing Patty Griffin and Loudon Wainwright and how she just wished there was more time to see everyone because they were all so talented. She is a woman who loves music, and there was not a trace of ego in her. But there was the well-earned confidence that comes with practice, time, and being great at what you do.

Bonnie Raitt is a soulful musician, and I mean that in the best sense of the word–pained and whole, world-weary and clear-eyed, sharp and sure. We left, finally, to the strains of I Can’t Make You Love Me, and I turned around to see her on the stage, eyes closed, somber and melancholy. I was simultaneously there and back in the van on Algonquin Road in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. I was present and transported. And if that’s not what music is supposed to do, I don’t know what it is.

On Being Married for Four Years

Staring into our bright future

Staring into our bright future

Today marks four years since Zack and I got married. Four isn’t an especially momentous number, of course–unless you count horsemen of the apocalypse or number of Beatles or something. No one talks about good things coming in fours, or going on a cruise for your fourth anniversary. No one’s lucky number is four. It’s a quiet number, and ordinary, and it’s well-lived-in enough in a marriage so that you know what you’ve signed up for but early enough that, in most cases, you’ve got the vast majority of life together before you.

There are enough blog posts about marriage that I’m reticent to write this one, and I don’t know if I have anything terribly new to say. But so much of the discussion around marriage (that I’ve read, at least) gathers around the extremes–marriage is wonderful, a fairy-tale, the ultimate expression of romance that mirrors Christ and the church; or, marriage is difficult, strained, full of conflict and compromise and tiptoeing around the other person. Both of these camps would have you believe the other one is selling you a bill of goods, that marriage either should be easy or should be full of conflict, that a healthy marriage looks this way or that way. And there is a thread of truth in what these folks have to say, but there is more truth in what remains unsaid.

 

Marriage is hard, to be sure. At least, it is for us, especially in the first year. I’ve written here about how I deal with anxiety–I have ever since I can remember–and getting married, even to someone as wonderful as Zack, did not do me any favors in the anxiety department. There were so many significant changes that went along with getting married, and change of any kind is not my favorite thing.

Marriage is also remarkably fun. It is crazy to me that we don’t have to say goodbye at the end of the day, that we can watch “Breaking Bad” in bed until midnight and no one is going to tell us not to. We can go out to dinner together, get drinks and play cribbage at a bar on a Thursday, drive out to the ocean, sit at home and read…We make each other laugh in our weirdness, which I think is one of the secrets of marriage: find someone who is weird in the same way you are weird.

Singleness and marriage, especially in the Christian world and with the church, are not easy things to talk about well. The temptation is often to ignore one and concentrate on the other, to extol the virtues of marriage and families while not quite sure what to say about being single. And I guess what I want to say is that they are not so different from one another, being married and being single, when it comes to the kind of person you are. Marriage, after the wedding is over and your relatives go home, is remarkably normal. If you were impatient and funny and pale before you got married, you’ll be impatient and funny and pale after you say “I do.” You’ll just have someone else around to be the target of your impatience, to laugh at your jokes, to hug you or hear you complain about the seven hundredth sunburn you’ve gotten. Marriage isn’t a catalyst for change in your life any more than a new job is–it might call for new habits or routines, but actual inner change has always been work between a person and God. Marriage doesn’t change that.

To be authentic about marriage doesn’t mean painting a bleak picture, nor does it mean making it out to be some magic happiness pill. It’s a simple faithfulness in good and bad. It is a source of endless joy and delight, and difficulty and change. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, but only because I met Zack–a person unlike me in so many ways, in the best ways, and the person who challenges me most in the world. It isn’t perfect, and it isn’t terrible, and it is that normalcy that makes marriage what it is. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

 

Two good books on the topic, by the way:

Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage

Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed

Church Story, Part VI: Friendship and Vulnerability

The Supper of the Lamb

The Supper of the Lamb

“Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers? Why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become.”

–Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb

It seemed to fitting to begin this final post in the series with a quote from Capon, who passed away today. The Supper of the Lamb was one among several of his books I have re-read, which I don’t do very often. Capon had a vision of the heavenly banquet that has inspired my own understanding of heaven and earth more than most other authors. An Episcopal priest, his novels were exquisitely populated with the faithful in all their mess. Pick something of his up today, if you haven’t already.

So, today, I am going to wrap up this series I’ve been writing about growing up evangelical and being glad for it. I have loved writing this, and it has all been very sloppy and unedited, so I think you for sticking with me through all of that. One of the questions I have heard over and over again from friends recently has had to do with the question of friendship. “Sure, your family was thoughtful and intelligent,” they’ve said, “and you went to a church that allowed you freedom of thought and doubt. But what about the pressure to be someone you aren’t? What about the need to put on a smile and make people think you have everything together?

I have experienced this pressure, so one of the threads I have had to spend my life unraveling is exactly where that pressure comes from. And over the last decade or so, I’ve come to understand that the pressure to look good and act right and garner admiration comes much, MUCH more from within than from anything external. Much of this has to do with being a 3 on the Enneagram  (Check that shit out if you haven’t already), and my own personality and bent toward wanting to look well put-together. But it was rare that I experienced people in the church putting expectations on me of being good or perfect. And when, on certain occasions, those expectations did arise, I learned to develop boundaries. In church or not, there will always be people foisting their expectations on you. Developing a thick skin and a strong sense of self was one of the best things I could do.

 

Most of the wonderful people at my wedding. All about Bowman, as usual.

Most of the wonderful people at my wedding. All about Bowman, as usual.

The other best thing I did wasn’t something I did at all. It was something that happened to me, and I could write a book about this. The best thing that kept me from becoming a vacuous lemming of a person was enter into this group of friends who would never have let me stay that way. (Not that I was in much danger of becoming a vacuous lemming, but because they offered a corrective to the thoughtlessness of faith that typifies evangelicalism for so many people.)

There were 15-20 of us at any given time, although the core of friends who still remain sits at a number closer to 10. We dated each other and had unrequited crushes, dealt with depression and anxiety, too-strict parents and parents whose marriages were on the rocks, friends who left to be missionaries in Mexico, a friend who came back from Mexico to a host of demons and ended her life on a cold March day in Lake Michigan. We understood and we didn’t understand. We took communion in a basement on worn couches. We had little (if any) understanding of things like the church calendar or how to handle the sacraments, but we revered these things nonetheless because we suspected they contained a special mystery.

A few of the boys

A few of the boys

We spent every Sunday evening together throughout high school, and many other weekends beside. They became my family and I theirs, and there wasn’t any topic or doubt off-limits in our conversations. Some of it, in retrospect, sounds very evangelical-teen-cliché; for instance, many of the guys in our group of friends created a group called SPAM. It was couched in secrecy and meetings took them to a table far from ours in the church atrium. After a year or so, we finally figured out the acronym: Stop Pornography and Masturbation. Now, I could write volumes about evangelical sexuality and how it can be both harmful and helpful, but for now, I will say this: These guys were actually talking about this shit and how to honor God with their bodies. They surely experienced undue guilt around sexual desires, and I wish I could go back and take that away. But they also had really intelligent, honest, scary conversations about a sexual ethic. And with one exception, I can’t remember them ever telling us that we needed to dress modestly in order to honor our brothers in Christ. That rhetoric existed, but it was not a loud voice and the onus of lust was assumed to fall on the one who was lusting, not the object of it.

This wasn’t perfect, but it was a sort of Camelot time of youth and friendship. Some of it was totally wrapped up in any suburban teenage experience–sitting on the roof of my parent’s house on warm summer nights, driving aimlessly once we all turned 16, taking road trips to concerts at University of Illinois, long nights in basements. But the feeling of belonging and inclusion that I experienced made me feel remarkably safe.

My questions about God–call them doubts, call them uncertainties–always revolved around whether God was close. I have never had any problem believing that God exists or believing God to be good, but when it comes to questions of proximity, I am often concerned that God enjoys existing far away from me. And these people, more than any book or sermon, helped me to see that God was close and that God’s nearness had almost zero to do with my emotional response to God. We had long discussions about stuff like predestination and the salvific power of baptism, and we also bared our hearts about our deepest fears and the real pain of high school and anxiety and how we weren’t sure if we could ever be good enough.

___________

Steve and me, our friendship tenuous post cigar lesson

Steve and me, our friendship tenuous post cigar lesson

Anecdotally, I accidentally crashed a guys’ night one evening when my friend Josiah and I ended up at Steve’s house. There was a bonfire and cigars and nary a teenage girl in sight. After a brief powwow, the guys decided to let me stay, and I picked up a cigar and put my feet on the fire pit. Puffing on the cigar, I noticed my friend Steve looking at me in puzzlement.

“Are you…inhaling?” asked  Steve.

I panicked. Was that not okay? I remembered my sister teaching me to smoke a cigarette. “Suck in, hold it, breathe deep. Now talk: ‘Hi, my name is Mallory,’ just say something. There shouldn’t be any smoke. Okay, now exhale.” It was a strange miracle, the holding and releasing, the invasion of my body by something burning inside me. But I could tell from the way Steve asked that I wasn’t supposed to be inhaling.

I've gotten a lot better.

I’ve gotten a lot better.

“No!” I said, as an enormous cloud of smoke escaped my lips. I smiled sheepishly while  Steve dissolved into a fit of laughter. I laughed, too, and then thrilled when he took the cigar from my hand. The back of his hand brushed mine and lingered for a moment, and then he took the cigar and demonstrated the proper way to smoke.

“Puff on it,” he said, “like this.” His mouth formed a perfect O as he took quick exhales against the cigar’s flaky skin. I took the cigar and puffed, my spine tingling while he watched me. Look sexy, I thought to myself, and competent. Look like a guy.

Why would anyone do this, I thought next. This tastes terrible. I smoked it to the nub.

___________

These were my proving grounds, and not so dissimilar from any teenager in the suburbs. But it was singular, too, because in between the cigars and the basement communion there was something else that bound us. The glue that had bound us was clear and straightforward—it was God or, if it was not God, it was at least our church. It was the T-shirts and the songs we knew by heart and the way we loved being with each other.

The best.

The best.

Now, loving each other is the thing we all have left. We have mostly all remained Christians and in the church, but some of us have not. What matters to my faith now, though, is that it would not be what it is without them. Growing up evangelical is, to me, inseparable from growing up with Steve and Nick, Kaitlin and Randi and Emily, Josiah and Jo and Bowman. Who I am, in my best moments of vulnerability and truth-telling and praise, does not exist apart from who they are. They were the glimpsed city then; they are who I long to be with now. They have believed and prayed for me when I could not believe and pray myself. We have stood up to sing a thousand songs, sat down to pray a thousand prayers, spoken softly and candidly around a hundred tables. Apart from them, I do not exist as I am. Apart from the people who know me and still love me, I don’t know the church. But through them, I know the best that the church has to do in this world. Finally.

 

Church Story, Part V: Judging and Thinking

Today’s post, like some others, meanders a bit. Stick with me if you will–I want to talk today about growing up evangelical and judgmentalism, the life of the mind, and my own experience with anxiety in the church. I can’t quite extricate each of these things from the other for my own purposes, so I’m hopeful the connections will make as much sense to you as they do to me.

(If they don’t, well, sue me.)

Bill Clinton being interviewed by Bill Hybels

Bill Clinton being interviewed by Bill Hybels

I was fifteen when I first saw graphic posters of aborted fetuses. Small, curled-up bodies still bloodied on giant signs at the entry to our church. It was 2000 and then-president Bill Clinton was speaking at our church’s annual Leadership Summit. The Summit is a remarkable event, meant for leaders the world over to get together to learn about leading well. Most attendees are Christians, but not all speakers are–or, at least, they are not all known for their devout faith. And this is one of the things I loved about growing up at Willow; this inherently Augustinian idea that “truth belongs to [the] Lord, wherever it is found.”

Some people pretty clearly disagreed with that. They weren’t members of Willow Creek, but of other churches in the area, and took it upon themselves to stand at the entrances to the church with their signs, outraged that the church would allow Clinton, who had twice vetoed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, through our doors. It was so odd to me–we were attending a church whose leaders, including Bill Hybels, had spoken out against abortion. Yet Hybels and others had the humility to recognize that we could learn from people with whom we disagreed–that, in the paraphrased words of Augustine, all truth is God’s truth. That seemed to me a much more worthwhile pursuit than the folks whose “righteous anger” translated into exclusivity and condemnation on the small islands where they stood.

Disagreement, in my evangelical upbringing, was never grounds for dismissal.

My parents and I talked about politics with some frequency–I would go on to major in political science in college–and we grew up in a moderately liberal household. In my group of friends at church, I was one of the more outspoken for liberal causes–I

Graduating with that poli sci degree!

Graduating with that poli sci degree!

remember having a long debate about illegal immigrants in a friend’s basement one night–but I wasn’t the only one. The Christians around me were deeply concerned with issues of compassion and justice, which we heard about time and again from the pulpit. Willow had (and still has) a CARS ministry that fixed up old donated cars and made them serviceable for single moms in our area. There was PADS, a network of shelters in Cook County (of which Willow was one) that provided places to stay for homeless folks, along with food and showers and haircuts from, you guessed it, the Hair Ministry. (A church of Willow’s size yields a lot of people with diverse gifts and passions.) It was incredible to see these high-skill hairstylists in the church’s basement on Thursday nights, cleaning and cutting hair that hadn’t been touched in months. People at Willow (and many other churches in the area) took issues of justice and care very seriously. Where they could make a systemic difference, there were efforts made. Where relief or triage was needed, it was available. My evangelical upbringing was the space in which I began to understand why justice mattered so deeply, why I needed to participate in it, and why my “help” did not make me any more superior than the people I was meeting.

Our high school group, which I’ve mentioned before, was a remarkable place when it came to talking about issues of compassion and justice. It was also a deeply vulnerable place, which went a long way in developing a thoughtful approach to faith and warding off judgmentalism. I will never forget the year when one of our worship leaders walked onto the stage by himself, in front of a thousand or so high school students, and talked about the end of his marriage. It was not an accountability thing–no one was policing him, although I’m sure he’d had many conversations with the staff–but it was one of the most acute examples of vulnerability I can call to mind to this day. He had been on a road trip, he said, driving through the desert, hit by the difficult reality of what he was going through. And he had written a song in response to those moments in the car, a song asking for mountains to be moved and miracles done and a chorus that goes:

But if not, I’ll still call You Father
I’ll still call You Lord
And I’ll still sing Your praise forever
No matter what life brings

It wasn’t a facile praise song; it was hard-earned and painful in its surrender. But his honesty that night showed me that I could, with thought and intelligence and all of my rational capacities employed, let pain direct me back to God rather than drive me from God. The question of why bad things happen didn’t have to be the end of my exploring but could send me deeper into the mystery of the Lord I purported to worship.

"You may add that in the hive...we see fully realised the two things that some of us most dread for our own species – the dominance of the female and the dominance of the collective."

“You may add that in the hive…we see fully realised the two things that some of us most dread for our own species – the dominance of the female and the dominance of the collective.”

We read a lot of books together in those years; studied the Bible, went through C.S. Lewis (heatedly debating his misogynistic passages in Surprised by Joy), G.K. Chesterton, Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Henri Nouwen. A male-heavy reading list, to be sure, but a reading list nonetheless that helped me to organize my worldview around what I really knew. My classes on literature and government and history always came back to God–a God who delighted in words and order and justice. The life of the mind–loving God with all our mind–was always part and parcel of the spiritual life.

A friend recently asked me about judging–did I judge people who didn’t go to church, people who had grown up in different denominations or religions or with no religion at all? And it is a totally pertinent question, since Christians are often perceived to be both highly judgmental and somewhat hypocritical, but that was never something I learned to do in church. I have judged, to be sure, far more than I have ever had cause, but rarely in regard to religious affiliation. We were always reminded in church that everyone has a story and a background more deeply seated than we could ever know. Are non-Christians going to hell? Are Catholics also Christians? Do all paths really lead to God? There were no easy answers, no “us” and “them,” and no sense that we were ever in positions to judge other people because we were made deeply aware that we would not come out smelling like roses if we were the ones being judged. Do I believe that Jesus is who he said he was? Yes, absolutely. Do I believe he is the truth himself? I do. Do I believe that he chooses some people to burn in hell and others to float on clouds with harps? Not even a little bit. I think he is much bigger and more mysterious than I can even imagine–and, like Dallas Willard said, that he will let everyone into heaven who can possibly stand it.

That’s that for today, pals! Tomorrow, I will wrap up the series with some thoughts on community and hardship. And some more great pictures.

 

Church Story, Part IV: Chicks

“Nowhere does the Scripture command us to develop our sex role awareness as males or females. It calls us–both men and women–to acquire the mind of Christ and to be transformed in his image…Genuine Christian spirituality is located beyond the entrapments of gender roles.” –Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles

 

The girls who grew up to be women doing wonderful things.

The girls who grew up to be women doing wonderful things.

These were the kinds of words I grew up hearing in my large evangelical church. Gilbert–Dr. B, as he was affectionately known–was a charter member and elder at Willow Creek, and it was from Dr. B and Bill and dozens of others that I heard, over and over again, that a woman with gifts of teaching and leadership had every bit as much claim on these roles within the church as a man. In fact, it wasn’t until I left for (a Christian) college that I really began to understand how widespread the notion was that women were prohibited from “positions of authority” in the church, a vague and indefensible term if I’ve ever heard one.

But let’s back up a bit. Like I mentioned in Parts I, II, and III, this series is about growing up evangelical–and how I’m really glad I did. One of the primary objections leveled against the evangelical church (and it isn’t restricted to evangelicalism) is the restriction against women in leadership roles. When I was in college, I experienced this firsthand at a woman’s Bible study in which the pastor’s wife (again, teaching only to women–teaching to men would have been verboten) said to the women: “You know you want to wear the pants in your relationship. And that is sinful. Sometimes, you’ve got to take off the pants and put on a skirt.”

I walked out.

There are so many things I could talk about–the way cultural mores of the 1950s have come to replace “Biblical” gender roles; the way the notion of “Biblical” gender roles is pretty radical and nuanced (cf. A Year of Biblical Womanhood for more on that); the way that Jesus elevated the position of women over and over again in his lifetime. And I’ve talked about that before and will again, I’m sure, but I’m not quite done talking about my story.

Mom back in the Willow Creek days. She will kill me if she sees this.


Mom back in the Willow Creek days. She will kill me if she sees this.

Growing up evangelical made me a feminist. (I’ve been reading Jesus Feministby the way, and can’t recommend it highly enough–especially since Sarah Bessey’s experience of egalitarianism in the church echoes my own.) From the outset at Willow Creek, there was nothing being done anywhere in the church that could not or was not being done by a woman. Every Sunday morning I took the thick gray brochure with green embossing and read five names under the “teaching pastor” positions: three men, and two women. One of those women happened to be my mother, which deserves its own separate post–she’s remarkable in ways I cannot even name–but the reality of the situation remained that I was reminded every single week that women were called to follow their gifts, too, and that their gifts weren’t relegated to the domestic sphere and that gifts of leadership and teaching did not require an all-female audience. I never once got the message that women were weaker, more emotional, less able, or needed caring for. I was part of the largest evangelical church in the country, and my dreams for the future were never limited by my gender.

(I will say, though, I was NOT so much a fan of this the evening my mom gave the sex talk to a group of high school students in our youth group. Not that I would have preferred my dad do it; I wouldn’t have wanted either of them there at all. I mostly tried to tune her out while my friends ribbed me throughout.)

In high school, we had women teach and lead music and men pray and prepare food. From that young age, when so much of my worldview was being shaped, I was aware that women could do whatever it was we were called to do in the church. Had that not been the case, I cannot imagine what repercussions that would have had on my faith life. Rather, I can imagine–I’ve seen it play out dozens of times in disillusioned friends who have left the church because they did not see any place for them to fit. But the legacy of all my friends from Willow–wherever they are in their faith right now–is that there is a deeply engrained respect

Speaking at a Westmont event. Would never have known I loved to do this without my time at Willow.

Speaking at a Westmont event. Would never have known I loved to do this without my time at Willow.

for the giftedness of men and women alike. And my own gift of teaching was cultivated at Willow by some people who took a great deal of interest in my growth. This wasn’t some radical, liberal, fringe-y place. This was evangelicalism.

The issue has always been framed, in my experience, in terms of giftedness. If there is a man who is gifted in the areas of hospitality and care, we shouldn’t put him in a preaching position simply because he’s a man. And if there is a woman who is gifted in areas of leading and teaching, then she ought to be leading and she ought to be teaching. Not to do so would to be unfaithful to our Lord.

Sometimes, I wonder if we have all bought into a kind of theology that tells us that women are still essentially fallen, and men are fully redeemed. Not overtly, of course. But there’s the danger–when we start to operate from the assumption that our culture defines our theology, we forget the radical message of Jesus that includes everyone as part of God’s redemptive plan. When we think and live this way, we forget that the message in Galatians 3:28 was the first egalitarian statement ever made. As Dr. B wrote, “[People] still remain male or female, but such distinctions become immaterial to their equal participation in the life of the church” (Beyond Sex Roles, p. 95).

 

When I say there is nothing that remains unspeakable for me at the intersection of my gender and my faith, I don’t mean to say that the church has completely resolved this issue and that we need to put it behind us. Not at all. I’m speaking for myself from my history, my family, my sense of self. We have a long way to go—that much is clear.

But I do mean that one of the arguments against evangelicalism can also be flipped on its head–has been flipped on its head–in the work of this church and so many others that are faithfully calling and preparing and encouraging women and men for all roles within the church. If the body of Christ requires all of us to participate in order to be whole, then the person of Jesus as God is the one to whom we must be faithful–not some idea of masculinity or femininity constructed decades ago. And that is happening already across the world, and that is a really, really good thing.

Church Story, Part III

Willow Creek in one of the three months it doesn't snow in Illinois.

Willow Creek in one of the three months it doesn’t snow in Illinois.

I started the conversation yesterday talking about my family; today I want to talk about a place.

Just like I can’t tell you about my growing-up years without telling you about my siblings and my parents, I can’t tell the story without telling you about Willow Creek. It is a big, wonderful place that has drawn a lot of coverage from media, both good and bad. And it is full of good and bad, just like any other church in any other part of the world, no matter how big or small. The good folks of Willow have gotten things wrong and have done things imperfectly, to be sure. But they have also done so much right, so much good, and so much that shaped my mind to think critically and honestly about God. So, that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

My strongest memories at Willow were during high school. Our youth group was called Student Impact because all youth groups have to have cool names about influence or otherworldliness; mostly we all called it “Impact.” This time of life is when I met some of the people who have been most significant to my spiritual growth–Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell, Shauna Niequist, and others. Shane, who had worked on computers at Willow for a bit before going to found The Simple Way in Philadelphia, came to speak in Axis, the ministry for 20-somethings. He stayed long after the services were over to talk to a group of high school students, and we were all of us shoeless because of his response to a question at the end about what The Simple Way needed. They needed shoes, he said, and if you wanted to, you were welcomed to leave your shoes at the back of the gym. There were rhinestone-studded cowboy boots next to flip flops and tennis shoes and I don’t think one person left that day with shoes on. Now, I want to acknowledge the nuance here–giving shoes one time will not solve systemic problems of injustice or poverty. But it is something, and we got to do it together, and that is powerful.

____________

On Senior Night at Impact

On Senior Night at Impact

Impact met on Sunday nights in the auditorium. The band appropriated ’90s pop music and wrote their own worship songs and some students stood up and reached their hands toward God and some stayed in their seats and prayed and some (me) stood there and looked around and read the words on the screen. There wasn’t much pressure to be a certain kind of Christian there, especially the way I’ve heard so many evangelicals talk about their youths, about the need to do and say the right things and never give voice to their doubts and keep their sexuality so locked up that they lived in a constant state of shame. (More on that in a minute.) We met in small groups divided up by the high school we went to–there were a bunch of schools represented by the thousand or so students who attended Impact–and I talked so often with my friends in different groups about it that I think it’s fair to say we almost all had the experience of being given a lot of space to ask questions about faith, to wrestle and doubt and share our fears.

On the flip side, there are some memories that make me cringe. There was a camp in the summer at Wheaton College called SEMP that students could attend, a boot camp of sorts for young Christians, the culmination of which was a form of street preaching in downtown Chicago and other places. (This wasn’t the youth group’s summer camp, but it was an option and staff members attended.) There was a song at Sandblast–this was our summer camp, in Wisconsin–called “The Four M’s.” It was hilariously done by Bob Sportsmonsfrager, a referee-gone-wrong who put lyrics to all kinds of odd themes. (Another day, I will tell you all about the STD song that was sung both during a series on sex and, later, at Parent’s Night.) The Four M’s were Meals, Meetings, Modesty and Macking. The first two were required, the latter mostly frowned upon, but modesty was pretty fuzzy. In reality, I think it just meant that girls were supposed to wear one-piece bathing suits. It wasn’t a shaming message and it is not worth any outrage, but it was definitely a gendered message and had no implications, as I remember, for any of the boys at camp.

Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer

Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer

 

There are a number of writers whose books on evangelicalism I would recommend at this point. Wade Clark Roof’s Spiritual Marketplace is a great look at choice in popular religion; George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism is about both the founding of Fuller Seminary and of a new evangelicalism in America at the time Billy Graham was becoming known; Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God is fascinating on a number of levels. These books all do their part to identify the cracks in the movement, the people who were out for power rather than transformation, the rigid enforcement of orthodoxy that has led to an embarrassing number of schisms and Synods in the last few decades. I will leave it to more able voices than my own to explain evangelicalism’s pitfalls, of which there are many. But I want to continue to talk about what evangelicalism–which cannot be separated from the people and institutions I knew and know–has done right. I owe a great debt to these people and institutions, after all, and I confess to being a bit tired of the stories of evangelicalism being tried and found wanting.

____________

Willow Creek was squarely in the center of the evangelical movement in America. Still is, really. And one of my absolute favorite things about it is, from the time we moved to Chicago in 1994, I never saw a job being done anywhere in the church that a woman could not do or was not already doing. Board of elders, teaching pastor, ministry leader, food service, sports ministry, you name it–I even worked on the church maintenance team for a summer, and you can bet your ass no chivalrous guy tried to stop me from lifting heavy objects because it wasn’t a feminine activity. It was at Willow that I learned what it means to be a woman, which is exactly the same thing as what it means to be a human being. I was vaguely aware that there were other churches with stained-glass ceilings (though Willow, seeker-friendly as it was, had no stained glass of which to speak). It wasn’t perfect. There were always more men than women on stage, more men teaching and leading worship and heading up ministries. But there were amazing women, incredibly gifted leaders (not least of whom was my own mother), who were doing remarkable things in the church–and the men on the stages learned from and celebrated the women, and vice versa. (Several years after my family left, the church’s senior pastor read Divided by Faith and committed the church to a new vision of racial reconciliation, something that has been neat to see.)

When I was fifteen, I gave a talk at a weekend service about being a young woman and a Christian. I talked about the Galatians passage in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus,” and even though we messed it up sometimes, I really grew up feeling like we were all one. Church unity remains one of the fires burning deepest in my heart, and that has everything to do with my evangelical upbringing.

These knuckleheads mean the world to me. Turnabout 2003 (?)

These knuckleheads mean the world to me. Turnabout 2003 (?)

The group of friends I made in high school–and I’ll talk more about them next week–have as much to do with my being a Christian as anyone. Because we were encouraged to think deeply about our faith and our world, we spent endless hours talking and arguing about the best interpretations of Scripture. We doubted and believed and didn’t believe, we took communion in basements with grape juice and sliced bread, we went on mission trips and drank our mom’s cooking wine in an attempt to be cool.

Evangelicals have long been painted with a broad brush: moralistic, right-wing, uneducated and reckless when it comes to appreciating the earth or beauty, fearful, and not a little bit strange. There are grains of truth here, to be sure, but they are just that–grains. That picture is not accurate or full, besides which I don’t know many people or movements that would stand up to it when all their worst characteristics were laid bare. Seeing past stereotypes takes work, but it is work that is worth doing.

 

Next week, I’ll talk more about two of the things that have driven evangelicals away from the church that were, in my experience, incredible strengths of the church: The role of women in the church and the importance of vulnerability in faith.

Church Story, Part II: Family

We take terrible (and infrequent) family photos. But this is us!

I cannot tell the story of growing up evangelical (and being so glad for it) without first telling the story of my family. So, in this section, you’ll meet them and I’ll talk a lot about how we were raised and how foundational that was to my faith experience. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the way I grew up as a woman in the church–and what a great experience that was.

(Also, a note: I don’t have lots of good growing-up pictures on my computer, but I wanted to add some family pics to this post. You’ll have to put up with the more recent Ortberg shots, though we are not nearly as cute now as we used to be.)

We did not listen to Christian music in our family growing up. This disclosure surprised a number of people later in life, but I remember resonating with Frank Scheffer in Crazy for God when he talked about his mother’s pursuit of beauty in art–music, visual arts, writing–and how that didn’t always land them on Christian expressions of art. Instead, he wrote, the idea was that all expressions of art were somehow Christian, because in art we seek for truth and in truth we find Christ. It wasn’t so explicitly put in our family, but the result was the same: the cassette player in the green minivan was a rotation of Dan Fogelberg and Peter, Paul, and Mary and, inexplicably (unless you know my mother), an album of satirical songs by Christine Lavin declaring her independence as a woman from the men who had wronged her. Savage Garden, Billy Joel, the Beatles, and the Carpenters shared play time on our CD player at home with the result that, to this day, I know every word and inflection of Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits and can’t hear “Truly Madly Deeply” without also seeing the wriggling dance Mom did from the driver’s seat in accompaniment.

My friends now who grew up listening to Newsboys and Audio Adrenaline and Steven Curtis Chapman have another kind of history to draw on, and I don’t want to suggest that it is a bad thing. But this is one small window into the way that I grew up aware of all the goodness and beauty in the world around me, knowing that it was by no means limited to what we called “Christian.” Nichole Nordeman’s album “This Mystery” was a notable exception–I listened to that CD for hours on end, hitting repeat once “Why” had reached its final note, and still am grateful for the richness and honesty of her wrestling with God through music. I hadn’t thought about this until now, but when I was eighteen and had the Hebrew word for “mystery” tattooed just beneath my right ankle, it couldn’t have been without some kind of mental reference to the significance of that music to me.

We prayed together regularly–every night before dinner, and also at moments when something came up. The prayers weren’t formal or overlong or meant to be impressive, and that helped me a great deal as I formed my understanding of prayer as an adult. Sometimes we would hold hands and close our eyes; often we would hold hands and keep our eyes open as Mom’s tumble of words or Dad’s slower gratitudes made their way around the table. Dad was fond of quoting Dallas Willard: “Whoever got the idea that we should close our eyes when we pray must have been a third-grade teacher trying to get control of her classroom.” I often pray with my eyes open now.

The siblings and one hairy smoosh.

There was never an expectation of perfection in our family. I have spoken with and heard from so many children of pastors (and both of my parents were pastors–more on pastor stuff tomorrow) whose downfall was the burden of expectations placed on them to be better than the other kids–more well-behaved, more knowledgeable, less outspoken. And for as long as I can remember, our parents operated from a completely different philosophy about how kids should be able to develop. We were all given so much space to be ourselves as we grew; there was almost no pressure at all to be a certain kind of person or kid because of what our parent’s did. My mom would regularly voice frustration with being called a “pastor’s wife;” by extension, we never had to think of ourselves as “pastor’s kids.” Our parents had great jobs that they loved–that was far more instructive to all of us than being told to dress properly, keep quiet, and respond with total politeness and all the right answers. As the decorous older sister, this embarrassed me at times–my brother would lay down on the floor at the airport while we waited for a flight and no one chastised him! Mom would (infamously) wear grey ankle-cuffed sweatpants and brown loafers to take us shopping at Kohl’s–wasn’t she aware we could run into someone we KNEW? I was the image-conscious kid who wanted us to look perfect, and I needed the freedom from pressure more than I even knew. Without that freedom, I could well have been another evangelical horror story.

One story perfectly captures this inclination towards freedom which, to my mom especially, meant following your giftedness rather than ideas of what we should or shouldn’t be doing. I was in the front seat of the car and Mallory, my younger sister, piped in from the back about the voice lessons she had just taken.

Mom and Moose and me in Maine. I still can’t sing.

“Mom,” I said. “I think I want to take voice lessons, too!”

It was quiet for a moment. Then, gently, Mom replied: “I just don’t think that’s your gift, sweetheart. But we can find you something else!”

I was crushed in the moment. Why could Mallory do this thing and I was denied it? But it didn’t take long for me to get over it, to remember that I can’t sing to save my life and no amount of lessons would change that. But there were other things I was good at, other things I could do and ways I could serve. So I did those things–and I’m so glad I did.

We spent several Thanksgivings at a homeless shelter on the South Side of Chicago, plopping ladles of mashed potatoes and green beans onto styrofoam plates. We saw our parents give money to people on the streets who asked, saw them talk with those folks in a way that showed us we weren’t so different from them. My dad would often walk away from those interactions a bit teary, saying something I often think about now: “They were someone’s baby once. They were born to parents and had a childhood. That was someone’s child.” He would squeeze us close and we would know that part of God’s cry for justice had just been expressed, and that we had a lot of work ahead of us to make that happen. Politics, when they were discussed, were talked about civilly, and there was no assumption that being Christian meant belonging to one party or another.

On the dance floor at my wedding – Dad and Moose and Me

Words were our currency and language; an Ortberg without a love of reading was as unthinkable as an Illinois winter with temperate weather. We all read different things and at different paces, but we all read. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my sister and I on either side of our dad, on his bed, while he read Cheaper by the Dozen and The Hobbit out loud, voices and all. Just two days ago he read from The Pilgrim’s Progress, which we are going through as a family. We loved and revered words because they could capture the fleeting beauty of the world that we had not yet seen or had not recognized or had not been able to speak of ourselves. It was not uncommon for Mom or Dad to read an especially lyrical passage from Pat Conroy or Fred Buechner as a prayer over dinner.

There is so much more here–my mom’s story of going to church with her grandmother growing up, the pressure toward perfectionism that my dad grew up with and had to unlearn in adulthood, the generations of faithful people who came before them and landed us where we all were. I wish I had the time and space here to tell those stories, although I suspect that someday I’ll get around to it. But for now, these things will serve to frame the story of growing up evangelical–the joy of family life, the freedom to be who we were and no one else, the love of beauty in all its forms and the belief that where beauty was, there was God and where God is, there is truth and freedom. That is what I walked into the church with, what was imprinted onto my soul far before any youth group made its mark on me.

 

 

Church Story, Part I

The author, age 9.

The author, age 9.

If you pay much attention to spiritual memoir–which I do–or if you don’t, but are interested in church life issues–which I am, also–you may have noticed a trend in the last ten or so years in which a person who was raised in an evangelical church grows up and out of their childish faith. Some of these writers were abused as children (cf. Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?), lived with no exposure to the world outside evangelical circles (cf. Crazy for God), or ended up shedding an emotional and legalistic faith for something in the high church tradition (cf. Strength for the Journey; A Door in the Ocean).

All of this is to say that there is a trend in memoirs and blogs and real people’s lives away from evangelicalism and toward some other expression of faith. The people who write their stories have often had terrible experiences growing up in the evangelical church, as those memoirs and others recount. And the last thing I want to do here is dismiss those stories of real pain and hardship.

What I do want to do, though, is tell some of my own story. I want to remember why I am who I am, why I grew up the way I did and am better for it. And I want to explain how it is possible to have grown up squarely in the middle of evangelicalism without trauma or harm, with a full and interested window into the world and no qualms whatsoever about the role of women in the church or at home.

I was nine when we moved to Chicago from LA. Most of my memories of church from LA have to do with singing “Pharaoh, Pharaoh,” and stopping at In N Out on the way home, drowsy and pajama-ed in the backseat of the car. But once we moved–and especially once I got into high school–I began noticing a lot more about the life of the church.

A lot of how I was raised, of course, has to do with my family and the lens through which they helped me see the church. I had a friend who grew up in the same church I did and whose strict parents didn’t do him any favors as he tried to explore faith and God on his own, as a teenager needing to learn things for himself. The limits they placed on him were constricting and he, more than most, required space for critical thinking. So my upbringing and my experience weren’t only about the church; they were also about my parents whose choice to give us freedom and time for thought and fun and intellectual pursuits could not have been more formative.

ANYWAYS. Over the next couple of days, I’ll be sharing a bit more of this story–growing up evangelical and being grateful for it, glad of it, and not growing embittered. There are a few specific stories I have in mind, and some more general stuff, so I’ll probably meander. But it’s a thread I’ve been wanting to unravel for a while, and I’m glad to get around to it now.

Home

The reading chair is on the left. And the bookshelves are organized now, sorry for their earlier anarchy.

The reading chair is on the left. And the bookshelves are organized now, sorry for their earlier anarchy.

Zack and I are settling back in after a summer of travels and time apart and entire weeks where we see each other for only a couple of days at a time, if that. It is good to be back, good to be sitting with a cup of coffee in my reading chair with a snoozing dog perched behind me and a chilly, foggy day outside my window. (It may be summer, but this is still San Francisco.)

 

I have been thinking a great deal about the idea of home lately. Coming home to San Francisco was nice and, in so many ways, was a return home. But in other ways, something is different here than it was in Palo Alto, and something there different from Santa Barbara, or from my parent’s house, or from the sense of home I am learning to cultivate in myself wherever I go. Carrying my home, turtle-like, so that I am at home wherever I find myself is one of the most appealing ideas to me, although I’m still figuring my way around how to make it real.

 

So, I’m planning on doing some writing around the idea of home for the next handful of months. I say “around,” because I really do mean to get somewhere by taking a circuitous route, circling the idea of “home” without addressing it so straightforwardly, at least for now. If you have thoughts about home–where you are most at home, if you have ever been truly at home, what a home must have for you to be comfortable–I’d love to hear about that.

 

I also will, I think, be doing a bit of writing over the next week about my experience growing up evangelical and how, on the whole, that was a really good (and not at all traumatic) thing for me. It has been traumatic, and understandably so, for many people, and often those voices narrate the public conversation about evangelicalism. I think it might be helpful to add my voice to that group for a slightly different experience, and want to respect those voices while I share my own experience. So, anyhow, I’ll let you know when that goes up.

 

One last sip of coffee before I must bundle up and away. Oh, this city. (And if you didn’t  see it, I wrote a piece about San Francisco for The Bold Italic. That was fun.)

 

 

Andy Stanley: Knowing what we know

Andy Stanley in a lovely blue shirt | vimeo.com

“It’s unfortunate that the word ‘church’ in its current form ended up in the Bible.”

The epicenter of every denomination, every splinter of the church that could go to war over the fringe issues, is the one thing that Jesus predicted that day that he told Peter that Peter was the rock and the gates of hell could not prevail against his church. The church–that is, the congregation of totally different people who gather together in God’s name–is centered on the promise that Jesus made about his divinity. That is the nucleus that holds us together, in spite of all the things we differ on. (And that list is extensive.) The word “church” makes us think of ourselves as precious and impenetrable; we need to know that we are stubborn and vulnerable. And we are more deeply connected in our vulnerability than in any of our strength.

“We have been in the majority for too long,” Stanley said. We have forgotten how to talk in the language we were originally given; the language of the outcast and the widow and the orphan. The central teaching of the church in the first century was not based on belief but on reality–it was based on what the church had seen and knew. (This reminds me of Dallas Willard’s work on moral knowledge, and if you’re interested in more, check out Knowing Christ Today.) The church acted as a movement because the knew.

Whether you participate or not, believe or not, our savior is building his church. We see this illustrated so clearly in Paul’s story, the story of the least likely guy becoming the most zealous church planter and advocate who has lived. And Paul’s ministry wasn’t based solely on belief, it was based on what he knew. He knew it through people like James, the brother of Jesus, and through all the other disciples he spent time with. And because he knew, he could stake his life on the truth. He wrote to churches all over the region and encouraged them to take the gospel of Christ as seriously as anything else they knew.

In the Roman Coliseum, there is a cross. It was put there in the 15th century by one of the Pope Benedicts, and it stands there as a reminder that nobody’s death will stop the building of the church; nobody’s life is more important than that life that was given; nobody’s agenda more urgent than the work that God is doing.

 

Henry Cloud: Reversing the Death Spiral of a Leader

Dr. Henry Cloud

“There is all this knowledge, but at the end of the day, you get out there and it’s you who has to do it.” – Henry Cloud

Not long ago, Zack and I got lunch with Henry after he spoke at my parent’s church. It was fun and interesting and lively and Zack, God love him, kept trying to volunteer information about our relationship to Henry. After we had dropped Henry off at the airport, I turned to Zack in the car.

“So…what was that?”

“He just seemed so smart! And approachable. I felt like I could tell him everything.”

And that’s Henry. He is so smart, which his southern accent belies. And maybe it’s that accent that makes him so approachable; although I would also add his easy demeanor to the list.

“The hardest thing a leader will ever be in charge of is himself.”

It’s a familiar phrase–my mom has always told us that the hardest person you ever lead is yourself. On the road from “here” to there,” when you hit a bump in the road, you will often be tempted to let your thoughts spiral out of control and believe that you cannot do what you set out to do.

And the results bear that out. The top factor, Henry mentioned, in accomplishing anything in the business world is whether you believe it can happen. It isn’t too big a stretch to extrapolate that out to the rest of our lives. (This has a lot to with what Liz Wiseman talked about yesterday in her distinction between pressure and stress.)

At some point on the road from “here” to “there,” there will be a point when you do not believe you are in control any longer. Your boss is stressing you out, the market conditions are bad, a capital campaign is going awry. And when this happens–when you hit that bump in the road and lose your control–your brain begins to change. The way your brain interprets the world around you starts to shift:

 

  1.  You start to interpret your situation as Personal. You see everything failing around you, and it’s all a result of your not being good enough. Nothing you do can get the result that you want–you’re out of control of the result, but you begin to feel that it’s all your fault.
  2. Then, the whole situation becomes Pervasive. Everything becomes bad, and it’s all your fault. It’s not just your job, it’s your personal life, your spiritual life, your family life, and you interpret every piece of data through this lens. And if you do this enough, your mind tells you that the situation is…
  3. Permanent. You convince yourself that this will never change. You are worthless, your job is awful, and everyone you know hates you. You cannot secure good results because you are a failure, were always a failure, and will always be a failure.

 

This, essentially, is what psychologists call “Learned Helplessness.” The things that you can do to change things, you just don’t do anymore–you believe your situation to be inescapable and unchangeable, as the linked article says.

 

So now what?

  1. Log and dispute your negative thoughts. Write down all the things you are concerned about. Find the themes and dispute them. There is a difference between your brain and your mind–”your brain is a physiological object that can be subject to goofy whims,” Cloud says. You can challenge your brain with your rational mind and with the truth.
  2. Work to get back into control. Create two columns: what you can control and what you can’t control. There will be a lot in that second category, and you can give yourself permission to worry about it–for five minutes. But the people who are thriving know what they can do and do it, however small those things are. “Your life is a movie, not a scene,” he said. It isn’t over in the blink of an eye; there is a lot behind you and a lot ahead of you.
  3. “The opposite of bad is not good. The opposite of bad is love.” We need to connect when we feel bad. Once we feel good in relationships, we forget about most of what has been bothering us and we are able to do good in our lives. Cloud cited a study of monkeys in a cage subject to all kinds of stressors-”back before PETA got ahold of the world,” he said-and his level of stress measured. The next step was to put another monkey-”a buddy”-in the cage with the monkey. On the second go-round, the monkey’s stress level, measured in cortisol and other chemical levels, was reduced by 50%. This connection was not only vitally important, it was a physical relief.

 

So with your belief in yourself, remember what you can do. I need this reminder as much as anyone–to remember is a difficult thing. So we can remember together.

 

 

Oscar Muriu and Generational Leadership

Oscar Muriu | WCA

Oscar Muriu,the senior pastor of Nairobi Chapel, strode onto stage with warmth and passion stronger than most anyone I’ve seen at any Summit in years. His voice is at turns lilting and loud, all the better for the dramatic readings he did out of Numbers. (Spoiler: Moses was kind of a baby.)

Muriu talked about the curse of living for your own generation–”you grow up with your own generation,” he said, “and you will die with your generation, and your vision will die with you. The only way to instill it is to leave it with those who will be there after you are gone.” He encouraged people to continue to work with people who are younger then they; people who are 20 years or more younger than them; people who populate the next generation. “The idea is to have,” he said,” a leadership engine.”

In Numbers 11, after Moses stopped complaining to God about how difficult it was to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, God told Moses to bring him 70 of his best, next-generation leaders. 70! And when Paul wrote to Timothy, he wrote to Timothy as his son, his dear friend. That’s the work of ministry, when it’s done right. These people identified the growing leaders in their areas–knew them, named them, befriended them. “Might I suggest to you that some of your best leaders are right under your nose, and you can’t even see them?”

Muriu ended by talking about the five loves that the Christian needs to know and internalize, all from Mark 12:28-31:

Character – Loving the Lord with all your heart

Conviction – Loving the Lord with all your soul

Comprehension – Loving the Lord with all your mind

Competence – Loving the Lord with all your strength

Compassion – Loving your neighbor as yourself

 

Muriu continually emphasized the importance of never doing ministry alone–when you go it alone, not only do you miss out on a vital support structure, you also miss the opportunity to mentor someone else, to bring someone else along. What a good reminder–and what a humble place to come from to do what he does.

 

 

 

 

Vijay Govindarajan on the Innovation Challenge

Vijay Govindarajan | ey.com

This guy is legit.

“Ongoing operations are at odds with innovations. In fact, they always in opposition. Strategy is not about celebrating the past, or even the present–it’s about the future. The world keeps changing in the future, so you must adapt to change.”

Think about your work in terms of three boxes:

  1. Managine the present. This has to do with efficiency
  2. Selectively forget the past. 
  3. Create the future.

Organizations over-focus on box 1, and they think they are focusing on strategy. Box 1 has nothing to do with strategy, but it must be attended to.

Govindarajan uses the example of the high jump to explain innovation. From the turn of the 20th century to now, there have been leaps and bounds (pun intended) of progress in the way that the high jump has been executed, allowing competitors to jump feet higher now than they were a century ago.

When you are outstanding in scissors, for example (an early high jump technique), dominant logic prevails. It is extremely useful in continuing execution of your scissors strategy. But it is extremely limiting if you want anything to change in the future.

Innovation is commercializing creativity. It is ideas plus execution, and the execution includes leaders, a team, and a plan. “Making innovation happen is not just the responsibility of one person, the leader,” although many leaders believe that’s their job. Innovation leaders have to be humble, have to work with the bureaucracy. The role of the leader is not to subvert, but to harness.

The team that innovation requires is a different kind of team than the one that started the company. The New York Times digital, for example, is not a newspaper on a digital platform; it is a digital product that happens to be a newspaper. There is content from the NYT that can be used on the web, so we must link the already-existing performance engine to the new dedicated team, but there will be conflict as the new logic interacts with the dominant logic.

Dominant logic isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it will not create the future. You have to protect your performance engine today, but at the same time you have to plant some seeds. The result might produce conflict, which can be a really healthy thing for an organization.

“Innovation is manageable chaos. Because ongoing operations are repeatable and predictable while innovations are new and uncertain, you have to talk about planning.” So, how do we plan?

Well, we have to go back to Box 1. In Box 1, I can plan, because it is in response to clear signals.

The job in Box 3 is to learn to resolve assumptions and unknowns. Here, we have to constantly test assumptions. This is an experiment, and we cannot evaluate it based on any short-term results. It is a bet for the future.

We thought innovation is about value for money. Innovation is actually about value for many, which forces us to do a lot more with a lot less for a lot of people. There is a hospital in Bangalore that does open-heart surgery for $2,000. In America, it’s upwards of $150,000–and the mortality rate 30 days after surgery is 1/2 a percentage point less at the Bangalore hospital than in the US. This isn’t a matter of quality costing more; it is a matter of dominant logic overrunning the health care industry in America.

The number one problem today is income inequality. The disparity, Govindajaran says, is enormous, and in this country we use great technology to produce products for the rich. Reducing income inequality would be the highest form of human achievement.

 

 

 

Crucial Conversations with Joseph Grenny

Not today, but check out that tie! | wobi.com

“Leadership is intentional influence.” — Joseph Grenny, from his most recent book, Influencers

Joseph Grenny opened his time at the Summit talking about Jane Ngari, a woman he met who lived in the Mathare Slum in Nairobi. Her father began raping her when she reached puberty, and she made the choice to leave her family behind. Her choices, though, were limited–the economics of her decision put boundaries up around her that left her selling sex services for 25 cents. That was Jane’s situation, as well as the situation of over 800,000 women in and around Nairobi.

 

Grenny and his team of social scientists ran an experiment where they gave money to a bunch of little kids. Best experiment ever, right? They got 40 bucks apiece, set a goal for their money, then had 10 minutes to shop. Grenny and his cohort set up a store where the goods were for sale for five to 10 times what they would normally cost–$10 for a candy bar; two dollars for one small hard candy; and so on. The kids spent and spent and took home, on average, $13. (Some of the kids even went into debt!)

When the kids were asked where their money went, they said the same thing over and over: “I don’t know!”

But Grenny does. He talked about how strong social influences are in our spending habits, showing a video of kids in the control group who whispered surreptitiously to their peers: “Dude, you should get as much candy as you want.” The kids were given a credit account and the room was decorated with pictures of kids enjoying candy. They were, as you might suspect by now, set up.

When the circumstances were changed–when the kids, for example, whispered to each other about saving their money instead of spending it–the results were entirely different. This time around, the kids left with $34 instead of $13–a 270% difference in spending.

 

Back to Jane.

If you amass a strategy that includes all six sources of influence, people change:

  • Personal Motivation — This is at the root of almost every problem in the world. The bad stuff feels good, and the good stuff feels bad. Behavior has emotions tied to it, but your job as an influencer is to help, as Grenny said, the good stuff feel good and the bad stuff feel bad. A social scientist did an experiment at Halloween that illustrates this beautifully. He left a bowl of candy on his porch and, next to it, a bowl of apples. Next to the apples, he hung a picture of Batman with an apple. The caption? “What would Batman eat?” Half of the kids took apples. The issue was totally re-framed–the kids saw the choice of an apple as something cool, something interesting, rather than something their parents told them to do. The frame matters–if you start a generic savings account, for instance, you won’t save as much as if you start a “new roof” account or a “new home” account.

 

  • Personal Ability  This is the influence of skill. The people who are the most influential usually start here–in the ability arena–rather than with motivation and inspiration. Skills are a substantial part of influence; the motivation can come later. We need to involve people in hands-on practice, especially in churches. Being in church does not resemble the real world. We need to help people practice in areas that do resemble the real world. Classes at Jamii Bora, a Microfinance Institution where Jane stays in Kenya, offers classes in areas like finance and home-building. She uses her money to learn in these classes, and succeeds based on her skill, not a bunch of posters with motivational phrases.

 

  • Social Motivation/Ability–The influence of other people through modeling, praise, helping, and enabling. What often happens here is that people get training or encouragement outside of their normal circumstances–you’re taken out of the office for a retreat, say, and then put back into your cubicle and expected to be different. But that change will not always translate so easily. Jamii Bora replaces

 

  • Structural Ability – Incentives show up here. At Jamii Bora, for example, there are incentives to save money, such as lower interest rates when your repayment is prompt.

 

  • Structural Motivation — In a crowded Las Vegas mall, Grenny’s organization placed a sign next to the staircase that stood between two escalators: “Burn 7 calories here!” It declared. Where two people had used the stairs in the hour before, tens more took the stairs with that small declaration. This is the influence of space, data, cues, tools, processes, and other environmental factors. The space we inhabit, Grenny said, affects our choices. 

 

“God can bless you from nothing to something,” a sign hanging in Jane’s house says. After her time at Jamii Bora, she and her children were able to move into a new home, a place with a bedroom for Jane and a separate bedroom for her children. She works in her village, has four employees, a studio in her home. The influence that Jamii Bora had on Jane’s life is born out of its commitment to each of these six components of influence. They worked them together to make change possible, likely, permanent. Permanent as a new stone house.

 

Mark Burnett wears a vest

Couldn’t find a photo of him in his vest; so here’s Mark Burnett in his TIME100 photo. NBD.

“You don’t have to be a pastor to make a difference.” – Bill Hybels, at the outset of his interview with Mark Burnett

It sounds simple and trite, I’m sure, but it bears repeating. So many people jump so quickly in their search for meaning from here to there that they forget what can be done with some forward momentum where they are.

Burnett, who produces shows like “The Voice” and the miniseries “The Bible,” recounted a meeting with Bill that took place, inexplicably, in a castle in Britain. The conversation that they had was a turning point for Burnett in the “Bible” series–where before he had been somewhat timid and ready to give into criticism, Bill’s exhortation not to be defensive with this work was pivotal. To work from a place of defensiveness is to choose to limit yourself–and why would you want to do that?

How much leadership, Bill asked, is involved in starting and running a major TV show? Mark mentioned working in Morocco, where a group of indigenous people take their families with them down across the Atlas Mountains in the Sahara every year. “Choose your companions before you choose your road,” they told him. And he has taken that to heart–you don’t want to work with people who are energy-suckers. Unresolved emotional conflicts, he said, will drain your energy consistently. It is important to try and raise people up on a team and then, if necessary, to be willing to let people go who do not add energy to the team. It’s an idea that’s similar in many ways to what Liz Wiseman talked about earlier today with the multiplier effect and vital to the health of a team and an organization.

And we leave with Bill reminding us today: “if you’re a banker, a business person, a construction person, if you’re in advertising…do it for God. Figure out a way you can leverage what you’re good at and lead where you are.”

 

So let’s do that. For tonight, at least. I’ll see you back here tomorrow.

Bob Goff – What Does Love Do?

Bob Goff | lovedoes.com

” I was in New York a couple of weeks ago and I’m a hugger and they’re not and I’m like, okay, whatever!” – Bob Goff

Up walked Bob Goff onto the stage, bear hugging Shauna Niequist after she gave him an introduction that made us all want to be his best friend. An attorney (recovering, in his own words) who has written a New York Times bestseller, Love Does, Goff goofily charmed his way into everyone’s hearts before asking the two questions every leader needs to know:

Who are you?

What do you want?

How does that translate into our relationships? Well, Goff points out in a story about the man who just married his daughter, we don’t want sons-in-law or employees. We want friends.

“Live a life worthy of the calling you’ve received,” Paul wrote in Ephesians. Don’t live someone else’s calling, which will come off like a bad Elvis impression. Take the time–the slow, developmental time–to find out who God has made you to be; why he has put you where he has. Goff took a photo of the audience with a Polaroid to remind us of the time that developing takes, especially in light of all the quicker alternatives we have at our disposal.

Goff talked about his wife, Maria, “the first thing I fell in love with.” She fell in love with him when he looked like “a happy Freddy Kruger with acne,” which is possibly the best description I’ve ever heard of an unfortunate youth. She could be in love with him because she could see who he was becoming and this, of course, is one of the most important tenets of leadership. We lead people both as they are and as they are becoming who they are becoming.

“If you want to lead strong in your communities, say yes,” Goff said. But then, every single Thursday, he quits something. It puts to mind the Queen’s adage from Through the Looking Glass: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Except with Goff, you get the feeling that not much is impossible. He’s simply electric. There isn’t much that he could say that I wouldn’t believe, and not because he’s so well-spoken or slick or poised. It’s because there is something about him that I can tell just gets it.

Especially when he ends on this note: “We will never, ever–like that Taylor Swift song–never, ever, be separated from the love of God.”

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Not that Chris Brown

 

I mean, can you look more like a youth pastor? | northridgechurch.com

Chris Brown walked on the stage with all the swagger of a college youth pastor who is comfortable with a crowd of ten or ten thousand, the arms-spread, voice-husky, joke-cracking guy who has always been cool. And, I have to admit, I was suspicious. The preoccupation with “cool” in the church is all too evident here at Christian conferences, where I have seen more Marcus Mumford look-alikes than I care to admit.

It’s tricky, too, to be the “pastor” at the Leadership Summit. We’ve heard from consultants and CEOs and a four-star general, so this slot can be strange and anticlimactic. The last thing we want at this point is style over substance.

But then told this story. And I was captivated. Clearly, Brown is confident and at home on stage–he is gifted. But in addition to that, he is quick to use his gift to share the most loving and humble heart of the most loving and humble God. “At the heart of leadership is this question of who is the greatest,” Brown said. This is the “ego” that Colin Powell mentioned earlier; that great red flag. In Luke 9, when Jesus was with the disciples, we hear that “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.”

And this from the disciples who were told over and over again that the last shall be first and the first, last. We don’t get it; we haven’t gotten it for millennia. We needed to hear this over and over again, and then some: “For even the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve.”

We know what leadership looks like, Brown reminds us. And this is a reminder that you need, that I need, and it is a reminder that I need to hear from someone like Chris. Someone who is quick to point out that we so zealously guard our titles and positions of power that we squeeze people out, we let people go, we miss their greatest gifts because we desire to be served more than to serve.

“We’re going to have to call sin sin,” Brown said. “The Bible says a lot about pride and ego, none of it very good.” As soon as we think we are in danger, as soon as we act to defend ourselves at the expense of other people, we are completely off track in our leadership and in our lives. We aren’t based on personality, but on team leadership.

I get the feeling, listening to him, that Brown is a fantastic mentor of and champion for younger leaders. One of the biggest obstacles in my career has been working with bosses who aren’t prepared or willing to take someone under their wing, to teach them and listen to them and take risks for them. And that, really, is what Brown is driving at–that we get the chance to take people into our offices, onto our teams, and create a culture and a person that is “upside down and backwards,” worlds different from any kind of typical hierarchy. “Not so with you,” Brown repeated. What we give is the legacy we will leave which is, ultimately, the only thing we’ll leave behind.

 

 

Liz Wiseman and the Multiplier effect

Liz Wiseman | scholastic.com

“When you lead like a multiplier, people around you get smarter because they are working with you.”

Multipliers, as Liz Wiseman’s book is called, use their intelligence to amplify and grow the intelligence of others. Wiseman is the president of The Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm that has identified the importance of the amplifying effect of leaders on their teams.

Wangari Maathai began working with a small group of women in her  village in Kenya. She saw the devastating effects of deforestation in her area and, starting with seven seedlings, founded the Green Belt Movement that has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya since 1970.

Someone said of KR Sridhar that he created a cultural environment with lots of pressure but no stress. To illustrate this distinction, Wiseman took an apple and placed it on the shiny head of a man in the audience, another man posing as an imaginary William Tell.

“Which one is feeling stress?” Wiseman asked.

Tell’s son. The apple-holder. He had no control. Tell was the one under pressure; the result of this experiment depended on his input. But he had some control–he could have an influence on the outcome. His son could not.

Pressure, Wiseman reminds us, is good. Pressure helps us get the job done. Stress renders us powerless.

Wiseman talks about people in the workplace as either diminishers or multipliers. The difference here is simply that multipliers believe that other people are smart and diminishers believe that nothing can be done without them. People who fall into the “diminisher” category micromanage, are controlling, did not listen or delegate, and were selfish. The “multipliers” had vision, communicated clearly, trusted and empowered their employees. And in the surveys done by Wiseman with folks from the Willow Creek Association, we saw that, when working with a diminisher, their employees got an average of 43% of a person’s capability. Multipliers? 91%.

The diminishers spend a lot of time running around trying to get buy-in for decisions they’ve already made. The multipliers ask people to weigh in, ask for counsel–and this builds in the process of buy-in very naturally.

What do you do when you believe people are smart and will figure things out? Multipliers invite people into the difficult and the challenging; they debate and work hard to figure things out, but they create owners, not hirelings. Working for diminishers, people said they were exhausted and frustrated. Working for multipliers, people said they were exhausted and exhilarated.

A lot of us fall into the realm of being “accidental diminishers.” We have a diminishing effect without knowing it, and even despite having good intentions. “Is it possible,” she asked, “that we do our greatest damage when we hold our most noble intentions?”

There are, Wiseman pointed out, several kinds of diminshers who tend to look pretty great to outsiders–The Optimist, the Idea Guy, the Always-On Leader, the Pace Setter, and so on. These people may not be aware at all of their diminishing effect, but they are not concerned with defining reality, they are concerned with saying the right things and achieving their goals and spreading their own, small, personal gospel.

So on a small scale, Wiseman took this lesson home. She was describing her kid’s bedtime routine to a colleague, and found herself frustrated by how much she was telling her kids what to do. “Well,” said her colleague, “what if you went home tonight and only spoke to them in the form of questions?” So, she did.

“Who’s ready for dinner tonight?” She asked.

“What do we do after dinner?”

“Put away our food!” the kids yelled.

“Who needs help putting on pajamas?”

The two year-old did. The other kids helped themselves.

“What do we do after we read our books?”

“We pray!”

And on and on until they were in bed and she had left them there without one directive. After three nights of this, Wiseman began to wonder if this wouldn’t be a helpful technique with her management team. Where she had been diminishing, she could now multiply.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lencioni, Part Dix

Making an emphatic point? Or backhanding the air? | www.thebuildnetwork.com

That’s “ten,” in French.

Patrick Lencioni came to stage, disarmingly charming as usual. He talks in rapid-fire sentences about his minute attention span and his Evangelical Catholicism (fascinating!) and entertained questions from the audience. Much of this talk comes from his fantastic book, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job

After college, Lencioni was recruited by a huge management consulting firm. It was, he admits now, miserable. He was ignored, out of the loop, and unable to assess where he stood.

People don’t leave jobs, on average, because they are tired or stressed. People leave their jobs because they’re miserable. Without further ado, the three signs of a miserable job:

1. Anonymity. On a client visit, Lencioni’s boss effectively quenched his enthusiasm for the job by telling him not to say anything to the client. “You carry my briefcase. You’re my monkey,” his boss told him. He talked about a friend of his who, on returning from maternity leave, was not asked a single question by her boss about her pregnancy or her child. When we lose our sense of efficacy and belonging, we lose the enthusiasm that carried us to this place in the beginning.

“Good people don’t leave jobs where they’re known.”

A colleague of Lencioni’s at the management consulting firm, at his exit interview, was asked, “What could we have done to keep you?”

“Anything,” his colleague replied.

Knowing the people around you is free and powerful and the most damaging thing not to do.

2. Irrelevance. “If you don’t think your job makes someone’s life better in some way, you cannot love your work.” If God gave us a desire to love others and if we spend most of our days working and if our work does not involve loving people, you will feel consistently disconnected from yourself and from God. To be relevant is to have a reason for doing what you do, and the job of a leader is to help employees find that reason.

3. Immeasurement. (This, as you probably know, is not an actual word.) We need to know how to measure our success, and it makes us happier to see it. An athlete needs to know their time or distance or speed; a waiter needs to know his hard work has been recognized in the form of a tip. The feedback may need to be daily, and it may not. It may be a metric, and it may not. 

Quantitative assessment can be helpful. It’s necessary to many industries and many jobs, to be sure, but so is qualitative measurement. We can end up measuring the wrong things. Lencioni talks about a guy who worked at a drive-through restaurant. His manager asked him what he could notice to measure his success.

“The number of people who drive through?”

“Well, do you have any control over that?”

“Oh, no. I guess not. Maybe how fast it takes the food to get here?”

“Well, that’s the kitchen.”

“Right. Um, okay. How about making people laugh?”

So that was his metric. The teenage guy at the drive through made people laugh, measured his days in laughter, succeeded in laughter. And he was glad for this.

We can’t be Christ-like servant leaders if we don’t help people connect the reason they work with how they work. Management, Lencioni reminds us, is also a ministry.

 

 

Colin Powell wears a tie and I praise Ronald Reagan

Colin Powell (not at the Summit, but still…) | www.theguardian.com

Colin Powell has had the most boring outfit of the day (navy blazer [or is it black?], slacks, diagonally striped tie), although, with four stars, I suppose he has other things to worry about. He started out with a few thoughts about education and his experience:

 

“I couldn’t get into West Point; I never tried. It wasn’t happening, man, it wasn’t happening!”

“In our day, an African-American couldn’t attend schools like VMI or Texas A&M.”

“I never forgot where I came from, so I tried to share my experience and help others who could have used the help I had when I was young.”

 

One of the themes that he talked about repeatedly was the importance of trust in leadership, the kind of trust that permeates all levels of an organization. He shared an anecdote about stopping to talk to the person who was cleaning the offices as he left for the day–he would ask that person about their kids, about their job, about their life. He knew that his success was bound up in hers. His office would only look as presentable as she worked to make it, and she worked hard.

Leadership, Powell says, is always about followership. In the military, it’s about soldiers who go up the hill after they get their orders. At the church, it’s about the people in the seats.

When we were younger, my mom told us a story about her early days as a nurse, when a well-known ER doctor asked his residents to get to know Carlos, the man who cleaned the rooms after the doctors were done with their patients. “Tell me something about him tomorrow that I don’t know,” the doctor said to his residents. And he knew Carlos well. The point wasn’t some sort of condescending knowledge-grab as a power play, although it could be used that way. It was at once both the importance of every person in the organization and the deep need all leaders have for humility.

Powell tells a great story about a moment with Ronald Reagan: He was in the Oval Office, explaining a problem to Reagan, when he noticed that the President was paying him very little attention. Finally, Reagan broke into a huge grin and said, “The squirrels just got the nuts that I put out in the rose garden!”

“I don’t want any of you to get the idea that President Reagan wasn’t all there,” Powell said. Phew. But what was happening was that Reagan was listening to Powell describe Powell’s problem. Reagan didn’t have to take the problem on himself because he had delegated–and trusted–Powell to take care of problems like the one he was describing. As a leader, he would listen to Powell all day long. But his responsibility was for only those problems he was absolutely vital for–otherwise, Reagan needed to empower the people he had already put his trust in. “Trust,” said Powell, “is the glue that will hold the organization together.”

 

The Best of Bill: The Courage that Leadership Requires

Hybels_Session01“If we say a few prayers now and then, or sing a few songs, we would simply ask you to find room in your hearts to allow us to do that…Everybody respects everybody, right?”

And with that, The Leadership Summit kicked off. Hybels welcomed everyone to the room, the satellite campus, the computer screen. One of the things I love about the Summit–the thing that Hybels was making a point of in the quote above–is that there must be an element of humility for Christians to learn from non-Christians and vice versa. In a church setting, this is rare. And it is a remarkable gift that we get to be in this place to learn, one from the other, from a place of humility.

And part of humility is courage. And part of vulnerability is courage. And part of leadership–the actual hard work of leadership–is courage.

Courage is integral to vision, which is a picture of the future that creates passion in people. Courage in action at Willow took on a unique tint when the Care Center was taken on; a building program that required lots of money in the middle of a deep global recession. The Care Center would bring together the ministries of medicine, food, transportation, and more, and the money was raised in full before the church broke ground on the building.

The point here, to be sure, isn’t that if you have enough courage you will always get what you want. The point is courage–the courage people exercised alongside the homeless community in the area, courage to help provide choices for people who are limited in what they can afford, the kind of courage that acts along with dignity.

“Every significant vision that God gives to you will test your courage,” Bill said. People will resist moving, resist change, will need to hear more. And to move people halfway without finishing the job is a nightmare.

Lots of leaders, when they get a vision from God, simply let it go. Fear will paralyze leaders and risk turn people away, so our courage is depleted. We get afraid–of what? Of failure, of success. Of more fear, of a too-high cost. Especially in the church, where failure is further discouraged as somehow representative of character or moral strength.

What we must keep coming back to are the words that God said to Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

“Visions are holy commodities,” Bill said.

On to MaxDePree, whose famous line “The first responsibility of the leader is to define reality,” reminds us that leaders are always leading in situations that require totally different approaches. Leaders must know (and be ruthlessly honest about) how and what their organization is doing. An organization that is thriving will need something different from its leaders than a church that is headed south. Defining reality takes remarkable courage, but without it, you are guaranteed to fail.

The courage to lead through disappointment, to lead with vision that becomes value, to lead through grief and fear, to lead from a deep connection with God…these are the things that we are reminded of when we hear Bill talk. The courage that is required to do our work well is not something we muster up on our own, not a gritted-teeth kind of strength. “And some of the most rewarding experiences of a leader’s marathon,” Bill says, “are reserved for later in the race.”

 

We also heard, several times, from Bill about the importance of women in leadership. It was a group of five women who lead all phases of the Care Center. Willow, as Bill reminded us, has been a church behind women in leadership from the very beginning. Like it or leave it, the transition from casting vision about women in leadership from actually holding it as a value has come to define Willow. So, I give you:

This has little to do with the actual session, but how could I not include it? | www.stevekmccoy.com

 

When Story isn’t enough

There are words and phrases that get well-worn in the Christian world; especially in this fast-paced, blogger-eat-blogger day we find ourselves in. I’ve been thinking lately about the word “story” and its place in this world. It has been cropping up all over the place, from a new series of life planning tools and conferences led by Donald Miller to the blog of Fuller NT professor (and friend) Daniel Kirk to A Deeper Story, a website run by some wonderful writers meant to tell tales at the intersection of Christ and culture. These are all, I want to be clear, really good places devoted to understanding and knowing a really good God. Stories let us see God outside of the confines of our narrow minds and narrow traditions. But the story movement is strong, and it is worth wondering what it means for our cultural moment of Christianity.

Beit Midrash | Jewish Theological Seminary

This emphasis on story isn’t totally particular to this cultural moment–The Jewish tradition, for example, is rich in stories (the Midrash uses stories to fill in the gaps left by the Tanakh). But there is a narrative that has developed in the last handful of years within certain circles of Christianity that has begun to prize “story” above any other form of communication or truth-telling.  In some places, “story” has become the ultimate currency.

The danger here is twofold. One, once a person’s story becomes their way of maneuvering around their faith, they will be easily manipulated and can easily manipulate others. Again, I want to be clear here–it isn’t that people who value stories are pulling some evil puppet strings behind the scenes. It’s that stories are inherently manipulative. That isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself. It is good that I should be moved when I read a wonderful book or blog post or hear from a friend. This is part of why I read and why I write–to be moved, to be changed, to be different at the end than I was at the beginning.

But if stories are all I ever take in, I will have a difficult time finding somewhere to land. Because a person’s story is, well, personal, I may be able to find myself in some of it–but I will never be able to stake my life on someone else’s story. The great gift of the gospel is that it is not only a story I can find myself in, it is a truth I can stake my life on.

Second, a story is one small subset of the truth and beauty of our faith. It is incredibly important, hear me on that. Our lives matter, our stories matter, and our ways of navigating the world matter. But the truth of the gospel, though it interacts with our stories, is not contingent upon them. Stories are not the only way of understanding each other, nor are they the only way of understanding the person of Jesus or the goodness of God. They are one form of entrée into the faith, but they can quickly be clouded by their own inherent subjectivity.

Stories are not just colored by personal experience, they are personal experience. If we approach our faith only through our stories, we will be forever held back by our own biases. When Saul went to Ananias after his conversion, “something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored” (Acts 9:18). If we live proclaiming the importance of story above truth, we will live with something like scales on our eyes and our sight obscured.

Dallas Willard used to say that pastors should never use stories in their sermons so that they could avoid manipulating congregants into an emotional experience of an unexamined faith. His friends joked that they were going to create the Dallas Willard Study Bible–a Bible with all stories completely excised, with only Leviticus and a few Proverbs left. God made us to tell stories, to hear them, to respond to them. He made us to live them. But more than that, he made us for him–a truth that takes longer to understand and goes beyond what any story could tell.

 

 

 

The exchange

treezI wear the trees like hats when I run underneath them. I do not know what kind of trees they are, except that they look like upside-down teacups and they smell sweet, like a mix between night-blooming jasmine and gardenias. I fit perfectly underneath each one, three in a row on Guerrero Street. I am not a fast runner, which is why my Yorkshire Terrier (name: R2D2; Artie for short) makes a perfect companion. I hold his leash in my right hand and we run as far as we can before he has to pee, which is at most one block at a time.

When we moved to San Francisco, I stopped running as much as I had before. I like to run in warm weather, through unpeopled streets, on flat ground, and San Francisco has very little of any of those things. I joined a storefront gym a few blocks away; I go to yoga; I do weights at home while watching House Hunters International. I run every few weeks now. That’s a lie. I run maybe once every five weeks now.

How we inhabit our bodies interests me. How we conceive of ourselves, our strange and limited capacities, in a way that allows us to go on each day in spite of, or because of, the fact that at some point in the not-so-distant future the whole system will stop working and the jig will be up. We exercise for all kinds of reasons, of course, not all of which are meant to extend our lifespans: to look better in a bathing suit, to beat a record, to combat anxiety or depression, to lose weight, to test ourselves. A flock of high school boys runs in short shorts every Saturday morning through Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; an older woman in fur boots does a slow session on the elliptical at 24 Hour Fitness on 24th Street; church employees ride their bikes to the office every morning and sneak them past the guard, upstairs to the fourth floor. Our hearts pump the blood to the farthest reaches of our bodies faster and faster and the sweat collects around our temples. We are our bodies.

That is the strange nature of religious belief. We both are and are not our bodies. “I cannot make the universe obey me,” Thomas Merton wrote. “I cannot make other people conform to my own whims and fancies. I cannot make even my own body obey me.” I am a body running down Guerrero Street in San Francisco. I am wearing unnamed trees for hats. I am slowly dying even while I am quickly living. The end is near. The end is always near.

I am slender, pale-skinned, maybe one inch or so taller than average. I am twenty-nine years old. My grandfather died of pancreatic cancer when he was 63. My remaining grandparents are all alive, all healthy. My parents are as fit as any almost-60 year-olds I know. My skin worries me, sometimes–I wonder if the several blistering sunburns I have gotten in my lifetime will add up to melanoma in the not-so-distant future. I wonder if the meals I skipped or overindulged in will harm me. My stomach is sensitive and my left knee sometimes hurts and someday, no matter how much I ran or did not run, I will die. I will not wear trees like hats, unless that is a thing that happens in heaven, where I very much hope to end up. I will not run any longer, or do pigeon pose in yoga class, or taste a Trader Joe’s peanut butter cup or a leaf of garlicky kale.

It’s not a bad exchange, all in all. The slow dying for the peanut butter cups. The finitude for the sunsets. The achy left knee for the rosé. I’ll take it.

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