an announcement

Two years ago I launched ExpandYourUs with the unwavering support of my family and the massive technical support of my sister. Since then I have written essays every week. Always prompted by the goings on in the world around us, sometimes they are thoughts on how we might better think about the way we live, or how we treat each other. Sometimes they are filled with outrage at how mean we can be to vulnerable others. Sometimes they attempt to contextualize our current moment with a retelling of histories often erased. Sometimes they are a lament, and other times they celebrate the good.

I have learned that each of you readers can surprise and delight me when you engage with this work. I have learned that it IS work to write and revise on a weekly deadline. I have learned that reading someone else’s thoughts every week can feel impossible, like getting through the New Yorker before the next one arrives! I have also learned that I am not invincible, and that sometimes I need to rest.

Therefore! On this two year anniversary of sorts, I’ve decided to publish an essay every other week, slowing my production significantly. I hope this will both improve the clarity and effectiveness of the writing, and that it will incentivize you to pause and read more often! I’m also working on a way to post an audio file each week, so you can listen to a ten minute reading of the essay as you go about your day. (Let me know if you are a tech wizard and have ideas!).

Since this feels like a juncture of sorts for me, I’ll also say that I’m so very grateful for the curiosity you have shown me as you allow me to help us think about the way we think about each other. I remain convinced that each of us are capable of living in ways that improves the lives of those around us. Indeed, each of us sacrifices for others all the time in beautiful ways. My hope is that we will simply expand our circles so that we care about more people, seeing them as our brothers and sisters. As I’ve grown fond of praying, “Expand my capacity to care about all of it. Help me never see a living soul and utter, ‘Not my problem.’ Everything matters. Amen.”

on practicing beauty (as an act of resistance)

Here at the end of June, nearly halfway through summer holiday for many kids, I’d like to offer some ideas on how to slow down and see beauty. These are indulgent activities (They might not require finances, but they do take time, and it will be necessary to plan find time alone or with one or two others). In my experience, learning how to be in a space, present with yourself, aware of your senses and open to the beauty in the world around you, takes practice.

 The last few years have been so ugly and evil that at times I lost sight of the beautiful. I experienced great personal pain through the slow death of a child I love, students and close friends have struggled to survive through mental illness and addictions, the norms of public speech have devolved so that hate, blame and bigotry are accepted with no challenge, violence is uttered and practiced on the bodies of so many vulnerable people, and those committed most to their own comfort seem protected, unaware of how the systems that protect their position also prevent others from living with enough. Living in grief, and acknowledging my deep dissatisfaction with the inequity and injustice I see around me has left me feeling profoundly alienated.

There are many ways to elevate the sense of connectedness and belonging that abides underneath all this alienation, but here I will offer the two that have sustained me in my weary waking hours: First, to remember my origins, and let them lead me back to my Creator. I have been frustrated at my understanding of God and furious at many people who claim to love God for their utter lack of sacrificial and compassionate action on behalf of hurting others. However, when I remember that I was created by God and that I bear God’s image, and when I read Holy Scriptures, I see that lamenting—confessing to God wrong I have done and wrong done by others, and acknowledging how much it all hurts, and how impossible it all feels outside of a radical, cosmic, redemption—leads me to abiding in God. Lamenting leads to hope, and hope is an act of resistance in this damaged world.

 The second lesson I have learned in how to find the points of connection when alienation or grief threaten to swallow me whole is rather simple: seek beauty. The ugly is surely there if you look for it, but the wonderful truth about our planet and the people on it is that beauty exists. Always. Train your eyes to look for it, train your body to respond to it, train your hands to create it. Elevating beauty in the midst of pain and suffering is a bold act of resistance in this dark world.

So, with that, here are indulgent suggestions on how to spend time elevating the beauty around you, reminding yourself that you belong to a world that is both ugly and beautiful, and that each of us must learn to accept and respond to all of it.

1)   Plan to be outside from dusk to dark. Like an observant Jewish family prepares to rest on Sabbath, plan ahead so that food, music, and seating are ready. Lights hush our spirits, so find a way to see the stars and the moon, or string some twinkly lights, or build a small fire. Watch the world go dark.

2)   Create something. Search your childhood, school days, or even a dream you used to have, and go try it again. If you are embarrassed then do it alone. Paint a canvas, or even a piece of paper (paint the whole thing first just to get over the blank page). Pick up a guitar (even at a store) and try to play a chord. Sing a song out loud with no accompaniment. Get some clay (or play dough!) and make a snail. Build a recycling bin or a table. Write a song, or a memory. Enjoy the process, if not the product.

3)   Find a patch of green, a bench, or a walking trail in a part of your town you normally do not visit, and go be there. Sit or walk and just see the people, noticing that you share a county with lots of people you never encounter, and they have a normal that works in their space just like you do in yours. Wonder at the wide variety of living we all do.

4)   Garden. If you have green space then weed it and plant something that makes you smile. If you don’t then buy a few pots and then fill them with soil and living things. Go to a berry patch or orchard and pick fruit. Allow yourself to notice that the rhythm of our world is to die and then to live again, to be still and then productive.

5)   Sit in one chair, pour yourself something you can sip slowly, and listen to an entire album. I suggest jazz (even if you’ve never listened to jazz). Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Just be with the music, observe your wondering mind and see what it does for you.

6)   Find a state park (usually free) and go on a long hike. Work hard and go fast for 30 minutes, sweating and breathing heavy. Then forcibly slow yourself, looking around and soaking it all in for 10 minutes. Repeat for as long as you can, noticing that our bodies are made to work hard, but that in doing so we often miss the world around us. Make room for both in your daily rhythm.

7)   Begin a daily practice of Examen. There are many ways to do this, but I suggest simply setting aside time every day to reflect on two questions.  As you do, your answers will begin to reveal for you certain habits, tensions or areas of gratitude that are dominant themes in your life.  As you ask yourself two sides of the same question, day after day, do not over analyze your answers; rather, make a note and take in the data you collect.  You might be most impacted after a week or two when you begin to notice patterns—not of situations, but of your responses to and feelings about such moments.

            Possible questions include:

            For what moment am I most grateful today?  For what moment am I least grateful?

            When did I give/receive the most love today?  When did I give/receive the least?

            What was the most life-giving moment today?  What was the most life-thwarting?

            When did I feel most connected to God, others, self? When was I unconnected?

            When did I experience “consolation”? When did I experience “desolation”?

 

We have this one, beautiful ugly life, and the task before us is to show up for all of it. Remember your origins, and seek beauty, and you will find that we can resist the darkness one practice at a time.

what Han Solo understood

I wrote the following 10 months ago, after we celebrated Judah’s 10th birthday in Memphis while he was at St. Jude. He died just over three weeks ago, and I sometimes forget he is gone. We miss him so. He fought so bravely, and lived so well, and his family surrounded him and loved each other through all of it. We are each learning to carry Judah’s life with us through stories and memories. In these weeks of brokenheartedness I find strange comfort through remembering not just Judah, but also how we all helped each other through. None of us is alone, even when we feel swallowed up by despair. Here is an attempt to capture that idea:

I recently watched A New Hope, the film that introduced my generation to Star Wars. Our family gathered to view it for my nephew’s 10th birthday, projected on a big expansive wall, with bags of popcorn and candy in abundance. It was such a beautiful night, not just because that movie is nearly perfect in the way it threads early friendship, captures the angst of longing to outgrow one’s childhood, describes good and evil, explains the sacrifice necessary for resistance, and demonstrates the way we mechanize the serving class, reducing them to machines even as we delight in their simple mindedness (It really is a fabulous film).

It was also a beautiful night because my nephew has a brain tumor, and we don’t know if he will have another birthday. The pain of carrying this knowledge is excruciating. The weight overwhelms when added to any simple task. It is always present, and always terrible.

It is especially awful in the way it disorients us in relation to time. When a young person you love might not live long, you feel regret and longing for the time before, when you did not know. You feel the present in your bones: the frantic, fleeting, precious present, and you want to grab all of it. The future looms, though. You fear it, hating what it brings. It is easy to forget that you are at war with the future on a hard day though, and you might accidentally long for it to end. Then you’ve betrayed yourself, because you vowed to avoid the future, to never ask it to come. Part of the weight of grief is the way it makes you betray yourself. 

Judah Finn, my nephew, has been in Memphis since July, when his mom and dad arrived with their family for a 2-day appointment. They haven’t driven east since, but are suspended, like time, on the western edge of the state. Judah is being treated at St. Jude, a magical place that celebrates the dance of past, present and future in remarkable ways.

When you enter St. Jude, you are accosted by pictures of bald children. These aren’t fat little babies, but kids of various ages, kids whose hair should be pulled back in a ponytail so a cartwheel can be perfected. Kids who should be experimenting with hair gel and the wondrous spikes it can create. The shock of their sunken eyes and round heads exposed by chemotherapy makes you want to look away. But then you realize each of these faces is a portrait being held by even bigger pictures of adults. The kids smile in the midst of pain, but the adults are beaming. They smile the smile of gratitude. They are survivors, holding pictures of themselves from their pasts. The images of the adults, with long lives behind them, are juxtaposed with the kids they once were, living through a nightmare. Their futures came, with wonder, so their pasts could be gladly left behind, rather than gripped with longing. Suddenly you realize that these pictures don’t mean to accost; they invite you to believe.

 The thing about faith is that it is elusive. It can be hard to find, hard to trust, hard to know. I used to hear people describe how they walked through hard places, carried by their strong faith. Now I am more likely to hear people say the Universe feels really dark right now. People say this not to explore some vague sense of spirituality; they are simply people whose life experiences leave them wondering if they can trust the world as they previously thought it to be. When life is devastating, when it feels as if all the things we once trusted are no longer safe, where do we turn?

As a person of faith, I turn to God, to a Messiah who moved toward hurting people in time and space to redeem them, to bind up their broken hearts and to comfort those who mourned. Still, this turning to God thing can feel foolish, or perhaps insufficient, when the life I experience is wrong. It is wrong for my sister and her husband to cling to the life of their son as a tumor tries to take him away. It is wrong for their family to be suspended in Memphis, for their sense of time to be disorienting. It is wrong for them to want the future to come so Judah’s siblings will remember him. It is wrong for a God who heals and comforts to see God’s people broken and grieving.

And yet, I turn to God and find comfort there, even when I’m angry and not sure I want to believe anymore.

In a remarkable story told by one of his close friends, Jesus tells a man whose child is ill that he must believe, for believing leads to hope and hope leads to love and love sustains us. The broken man, responding, says to the Giver of all life, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” This is a story I cherish, for it captures well my dance with faith. It is everything to me, and it is fickle, not to be trusted.

Still, even in all the pain, faith and hope are what I long for. They are elusive and difficult, but they are also the marrow, the lifeblood that help us survive. St. Jude knows this. This is why they display photos of beaming adult survivors holding pictures of themselves on their worst day. Because sometimes the worst day is the worst…but sometimes it isn’t.

In A New Hope, Han Solo is arrogant: a self-starting egomaniac who depends on no one but himself and his furry, moaning companion, Chewbacca. Solo has no use for the force or for good and evil; he only cares about what benefits him. As Luke faces his most important mission—destroying the Death Star—Solo chooses to save himself, abandoning his friends (temporarily, of course). The loyal friend buried within Solo persists even in the midst of his betrayal, and he wants to comfort Luke, to say something that will help him. Like many of us, Solo’s strategies for avoiding risk and protecting himself fall away when he realizes the people he loves are in danger. He wants to help and to hope. As Luke turns to board his X-wing fighter, Solo calls his name, and then says, with something more like wondering than conviction, “The Force be with you…?” You hear it, right? He says it like a question, as if uttering for the first time: Could this thing be real? Could it help? Do you believe?

I’ve never noticed it before, but earlier this month, as my nephew turned 10 and the whole world felt sad and beautiful and ugly as we battled to live only in the exact moment we embodied, Han Solo seemed to speak for all of us. I looked over at my brother, with whom I share a soul and every important instinct, and saw the tears in his eyes through my own. Our eyes wondered, together, “The Force be with you…?”

I think Solo knows what faith is like…it can be a statement, but sometimes it is a longed-for question, and it is no less powerful for being so. Only a few things remain, but faith, hope and love are among them.