Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Storytime: The Snow Queen, Part 3

Happy second day of Christmas, everyone! Tonight, I give you Part 3 of "The Snow Queen." Once again, I didn't practice this reading before I recorded it, so please forgive the lapses, especially regarding the tone of the snowdrops' story.
What do you think of the story so far? What do you think has happened to Kay?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Storytime: The Snow Queen, Parts 1 and 2

It has been a few years since I read many of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, but I enjoyed “The Little Match Girl” so much that I thought I would share another Andersen story tonight.  “The Snow Queen” is a rather long fairy tale, consisting of seven smaller stories, so this reading includes the first and second stories. Please forgive my pigtails and pajamas; Mama and I were cleaning out the basement all day, and after un-grubbifying myself, it didn’t seem worthwhile to put on normal clothes just for friends and fairy tales. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Storytime 3.1: "The Little Match Girl"

For my entire life, home has been a place where stories are read, invented, and shared.  When I was a child, my parents read or told stories to me nearly every night. In college, as I began to write my honors thesis on literary fairy tales, my friends said, “Well, if you’re going to be reading fairy tales all year, you should read them to us.” I agreed, and for most of my senior year, an assortment of friends would gather in my room, and I would read to them from Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia, and much more.  In graduate school, my academic and professional study of stories proceeded with greater rigor than ever, but I missed having people to sit in a room with me and share stories.  During my Christmas vacation two years ago, I recorded a few of my favorite Christmas stories for friends who were far away. I continued these recordings last year, and this year I am very happy to introduce Christmas Storytime Volume 3 on my blog this year.  The reading is unpracticed, and I can boast of no video editing skills, but I hope the “homespun” quality of this video makes you feel  as though you have joined me in my parents’ living room for a story before bedtime. Tonight’s story is “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen. Enjoy, and watch for more installments in the coming weeks.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Making it Home: Christmas Letters

Between submitting final grades, working on my prospectus, and hurrying through a mess of other end-of-semester-and-I-am-leaving-town errands, I managed to sustain one of my favorite Christmas traditions: sending Christmas cards.  My powers of verbal formulation are dwindling fast (it is nearly 5 AM and still have things to do before boarding my train home for Christmas in a few hours), but both as a follow up to my recent post on letter-writing and as an introduction to an upcoming series of Christmas posts, I wanted to share a few of my past Christmas letters. You can click the images to make them large enough to read. I hope you enjoy. 
Christmas 2006

Christmas 2007

Christmas 2009
(I’m not sure what happened to 2008. Maybe I’ll find the file when I’m not so sleepy). I'll post this year's letter in a few weeks, once I'm sure all the snail-mail recipients have received their copies. Be of good cheer during this last week of Advent. Christmas is coming!

Do you send Christmas cards and/or a Christmas letter? What do you include in your Christmas letters? What kinds of Christmas letters do you most enjoy reading? 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Life Undivided: Home Is Where The Cat Poop Is

For Christmas this year, I am very tempted to give my mother a needlework sampler proclaiming,  in sweetly-stitched letters, “Home Is Where the Cat Poop Is.”  More than a nod to my generation’s fascination with wryly ironic kitsch, this idea is really my mother’s fault. Shortly after beginning this blog, I asked  for a list of things that characterize “home” for her. She said, “Home is the place where, if the cat poops, I have to clean it up.” To be fair, she also offered a number of more cheerful things, but this comment caught my attention, especially since her phone calls have begun to include frequent accounts of feline incontinence.  Our elderly cat, Amelia, has been in our family since I was in the fourth grade, making her a venerable seventeen.  She can still kill mice, chase yarn, bolt across the house, and purr well enough to put any spry kitten to shame, but she has begun to lose her litterbox training. 
When I visited my parents this summer, a considerable amount of my intellectual and emotional energy went toward finding creative solutions to Amelia’s inability (or crochety unwillingness) to use her litterbox. If you are thinking that this is too much information, then you are sharing my own initial response to the cat-poop situation.  When I came back to Indiana, I had just finished a series of harrowing PhD preliminary exams, and I longed for a deep summer’s rest in my childhood home.  I had no interest in playing chambermaid to a cat.
I was quickly reminded, however, that “home” is not the same thing as “escape.”  In fact, ever since finishing high school, homecomings have been complicated. During college, returning to my parents’ home was difficult because I was beginning to build a life for myself elsewhere, and my parents and I had to negotiate the changes my increasing independence entailed.  Coming home as an adult out of college has been unsettling for other reasons.  The cat poop is emblematic of one of the difficult realities of learning what it means to be “at home” with other people: it means surrendering to the needs of others, and recognizing that I have a responsibility to the well-being of the entire household.  As a child, my parents judiciously chose to tell me some things and to refrain from telling me other things. They protected (or tried to protect) me from their worries about finances, jobs, and other grown-up concerns.  Though I had some chores (none of which, I am sorry to say, I performed with much enthusiasm), for the most part I understood home as a place where I could play, study, and rest in peace. As an adult, my role in a home is very different. While I still savor the comforts of the house I grew up, I can no longer avoid hearing about difficult questions or unpleasant jobs. Nor do I wish to.  Much as I hate cleaning up cat poop, I know that when I do, I am at home in that house in ways I could never be if it were only a place to bask and be comforted.  
 It is easy to become sentimental about the idea of home, especially when we feel ourselves displaced from any kind of haven,  but once we are at really at home--whether that means settled in the city where you live, or rooted in a friendship or a church--we begin to realize that there is work to be done--maybe unpleasant, difficult work--and we are the ones who must do it. 
Only love challenges the sentimentality and the disgust that might prevent us from accepting the duties that come with having a home. Love compels us to remain faithful when a friend seems to have given up on a friendship. Love keeps us at the table when the one next to us is grieving, his pain making us wretched and shy. Love binds us to a local church even when it has failed us. Love puts us on committees, keeps us up awake all night tending those who are sick, and helps us give up our time cheerfully.  Love helps me laugh as I help my mother scrub the living room rug. 
Home is where the cat poop is.  Maybe what this means is that home is the place I must pray for an increase of love: love so strong and certain that I no longer hesitate to do the difficult work to make my house clean, secure, beautiful, and welcoming. 
Love teaches me that home does not exist for my sake only. If our apartments, our friendships, our marriages, and our churches exist as outposts of God’s kingdom, they must exist for the sake of that kingdom: in other words, for the sake of delighting in the One who establishes all homes, for the sake of showing love to one another, and for the sake of drawing in those who haven’t yet found their way back.   
 What are some of the hard things you have to do when you are at home in a place, relationship, or church? 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Making it Home: The Letter-Writing Challenge

The day before my grandmother’s funeral, I found a postcard in her purse.  It was a card I had sent her some months earlier, and next to my return address, Grandma had scrawled, “KEEP - Write to her” in shaky letters. At first, I was tearfully amused; my grandmother’s memory had been deteriorating for years, and all around her house were various notes she had written to herself, such as “Billie - watch Sit and Be Fit at 1 PM!”  Knowing her habit of posting these reminders, I was nevertheless surprised to realize she had been carrying that postcard in her purse for months before she died. During college, I had tried to send her a postcard or letter every week, and while she rarely had the wherewithal to write and post anything in reply, I now saw that she had read, kept, and even annotated the little notes I sent.  
I offer this story as a preface to a challenge I am issuing to all of my readers: I want each of you to write a letter to someone today.  
If I think about what “home” means in very practical terms, writing and receiving mail comes near the top of my list.  For most of my life I have been shy, old-fashioned, and separated from many of my friends, so letter-writing has remained a more relevant medium for me than (I suspect) for most other twenty-somethings. However, one need not be a bookworm with Luddite proclivities to enjoy letter-writing. I am challenging each of you to write a letter to someone (anyone!) because I believe there is something wonderfully peculiar in the way letters help us build and sustain our homes. 
I love letters for many reasons. Unlike email (or blog posts), letters are tangible, offering tokens or fragments of the writer's presence.  The shape and color of the envelope, the handwriting, the postage stamp, even the smell of a letter varies from person to person. I have an old suitcase stuffed full of letters from friends and family, and I can recognize the sender of one of those epistles with just a glance at the paper or script.  When the people who make a place home are far away, having something to hold is comforting. 
Additionally, letters, can help us live in the tension between home and journey (or exile). This tension marks most of our lives, and perhaps young adulthood especially. When I write letters from Texas, I am trying to draw the reader into my life here, and when I receive letters, the writer is, mysteriously, present with me. However, as I described in my first post, letters also emphasize distance, and prompt me to consider how to sustain relationships when my friends, my family, or my church may be physically distant. 
Most letters I send from home, whether that means physically at home or emotionally settled, but I also write letters when I am most aware of distance, travel, and transition. Stamps stay in my wallet, so that when I travel I can send postcards from airports, letter boxes, and hotels. I scribble these cards when everything around me is strange, marvelous, or unsettling. Writing about my journey enriches the adventure, while sending a card reminds that home is still out there somewhere, even if scattered across fifteen addresses. 
Of course, I also love letters because they are such an easy way to make other people happy, and to help them feel at home. Even the most internet-savvy people are usually glad to receive real letters, and writing to them is a way you can very easily show love. Finding that postcard in my grandmother's purse reminded me how powerful a physical token of love can be. The message on the back was hardly three sentences, but she knew that the postcard was about much more than the hasty note I had scribbled. 
I realize, however, that few people, especially of my generation, have much experience writing letters. Therefore, the rest of this post contains a few specific tips and ideas for writing a letter (and hopefully, establishing letter-writing as a habit).  
First, consider a few examples. Letters can be meaningful in many different ways. If I survey the letters I have received in the last month, I find a number of approaches to writing a letter: 
* My mother likes to write brief little updates with brightly-inked pens. She writes a note about a good deal she found at Goodwill, or includes clippings from the newspaper. (I particularly enjoy the sarcastic comments she makes about the notices posted in the “Church Briefs” section of the paper.) 
* My father often meanders into ruminations about his reading, his garden, his canoe, or the work he and my mother do with college students. At other times, I receive an envelope with no message other than a bunch of pressed morning glories.
 * My dear friend Natalie always finds cute and clever cards to brighten my day.
* Emily, my favorite librarian, always sends me wonderful lists--most often lists of books, music, movies, or ideas, and usually on purple paper. 
* My surrogate Grandma, Jackie, reports the hometown news and warns me regularly not to study too hard. A WWII war-bride, Jackie sometimes reverts to her French spelling instincts, and I am always delighted to find a letter addressed to “Bethanie” in my mailbox. 
I hope these examples show that letters need not be ten-page expositions of profound thoughts (although those are lovely). Sometimes I write chatty accounts of my day, while other letters consist entirely of compelling or lovely passages from better writers. I have even written prayer-letters, in which the letter is  transcription of the prayer I have offered for the person who will receive it. Today, I would write about the two beavers I saw swimming in the river just after sunset. My college boyfriend (one of the best letter-writers of our generation) and I used to exchange individually-wrapped bags of tea, and yesterday I mailed an envelope containing a short note, a cartoon, and a paper snowflake. 
Here are some other ideas:
* Write to a friend who lives far away. Remind him or her of a happy memory the two of you share, and then write about the most interesting or beautiful thing you saw today. 
* Write to a homebound member of your church. 
* Write to a child you know. Send a coloring sheet, stickers, or paper dolls. You can print lots of fun, mailable paper toys here
* Write to your mother.  
* Give a note to someone who lives with or near you. Not only will you save money on the postage, you can enjoy sneaking across the hall to slip an envelope under your roommate’s door. 
* Write to a stranger.  In college, I would walk through the neighborhoods around campus for hours, and occasionally I would write a letter to the inhabitants of a house I thought looked pretty or interesting.  Without fail, I received a reply, and once the reply even included an invitation to come over for tea.   
* Send Christmas cards this year. Indulge in something with glitter. 
* Visit the Bureau of Communication. This whimsical website offers a number of “official” forms you can use to declare romantic interest, express gratitude, and more.  
* Encourage an imprisoned Christian.  Prisoner Alert, run by Voice of the Martyrs, provides profiles, addresses, and free translation services for men and women who have been imprisoned for their faith.
* Refresh your knowledge of Victorian letter-writing (here, for example), and see if you can write a letter that meets the standards of 1890s “ethics and etiquette.”
* Write government leaders about an issue that concerns you. Amnesty International and Bread for the World are good places to start. 
* Write thank-you notes to the men and women on your church staff. 
* Write me! I promise to write back. Use the "A Letter for You" tab at the top of the page to send me your mailing address, and I promise a handwritten missive in return.
Do you write or receive letters or postcards regularly? Do you accept my challenge? If so, whom will you write today? 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Life Undivided: A Place We Are Carried

How would you interpret this picture? A snapshot of isolation? A glimpse of alienation, abandonment, or some other form of homelessness? 
Though I appear to be a poster child for neglect in this photo, it is actually one of my favorite pictures from college, not only because it is absurdly unlike my actual experience there, but because the story behind it provides a little parable about home. 
Here’s the story: my senior year of college, I attended a retreat organized by my good friend Dave.  About halfway through the weekend, Dave led us all to a hill and explained that we would be playing a game.  The goal was for all participants to reach the top of the hill. Since we were hardly ascending a treacherous peak, this seemed easy enough. However, Dave quickly complicated this quest: we would all be forced to keep our eyes shut throughout the game, and, after being scattered across the hill by Dave and his helpers, we must find our way to the top “blind.” We dutifully squinched our eyes shut and let ourselves be led some distance from the top of the hill.  Before Dave gave the signal to begin our search, however, he walked around, quietly inflicting additional disabilities on some of us.  Some were told they could not hear, and must not respond to anyone who might call for them; a few were made mute; others were told they could not walk, and must beg others to carry them up the hill.  I was privileged to receive all these impairments, and so after Dave’s signal, I could only sit in silence as the others wandered upward more and less quickly.  Soon all the able-bodied players had reached the summit, and they began sending parties out to retrieve the crippled ones who were calling out, as well as a few of  a few of the mute ones, who had not been able to ask others for guidance up the hill. 
This photo was taken as I waited--deaf, dumb, legless-- wondering how in the world I was supposed to take charge of my ascent, and whether I could drag myself up the hill without ruining my skirt was grass stains. I had little hope that anyone would find me: after all, everyone still had their eyes closed, and we had not bothered to count ourselves before beginning the game.  I felt guilty, thinking that soon everyone would open their eyes, and Dave would announce that we had fallen short, failing to reach the top all together. 
Looking at this picture five years later, I imagine my plight is similar to the way many young adults feel about home.  We inherit visions of a certain version of domestic bliss, receive promises of finding a home in friendships or romances, or listen to prophecies about a Church that is proven by its love--but even if we believe, or want to believe, these promises, we find ourselves wandering in the dark, unable even to articulate our need for something better than what we have. Maybe we drag ourselves, inch by inch, in the direction that seems best to us. Maybe we resign ourselves to life on the side of the hill.  Maybe we even convince ourselves that it is better to sit on the solid ground than to dream of standing on a summit we have no hope of reaching. 
If my meditation ended there, this picture would be too painful to share. However, had the photographer snapped this picture just a few minutes later, you would see  two of my “blind” friends hauling me rather awkwardly up the hill. 
To my surprise, someone eventually realized I was the only one not gathered at the top of the hill.  Soon, several pairs of searchers, still constrained by their own blindness, came down to seek me. I could not respond to their calls, but eventually one pair found me and managed to carry me to the top of the hill. Only when we were altogether at the top were we allowed to see, to talk, and (in my case), to stand. 
Years later, the memory of this game still comforts and challenges me. It prompts me to give thanks for all the times I have been carried home, literally and spiritually: thanks for my parents, who carried their newborn daughter home so many years ago; thanks for the ways God’s people gathered me in when I blinded with depression and anxiety; thanks for the friends who carry one another--playfully, patiently, prayerfully--whenever there is need. 
So many days, home is a place we are carried. 
More often, I feel myself  capable of climbing, however blindly, in the right direction up the hill. On really beautiful days, I know I am already enjoying some of the fresh air and good company at the summit. On those days, my duty is not to celebrate an easy ascent, but to call and listen for those who haven’t made it. As a person with a wealth of economic, personal, and educational resources, I should be looking for ways to use these strengths to help carry others. As the Church, we should be looking for those who are missing, and sending out others to find those who need our arms, our legs, and our voices. 

Can you think of someone who has brought you home when you could not bring yourself? Who are the mute and crippled ones in your life and community who may need you to carry them?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Making it Home: Better than a Registry, or How a Single Girl Got Matching Dishes

Children come up with all kinds of reasons not to wear certain clothes: maybe the color is yucky, or the collar scratchy, or the sleeves too short.  My favorite reason, however, is one I gave to my mother when I was a preschooler: I refused to wear a jacket because it had no story to go along with it. 

To understand this protest, you must know that all my clothes were second-hand when I was a child. (I remember having a pair of new jeans for the first time when I was in middle school, and I think my first brand-new dress came when I was fifteen).  When helping me dress for church or play, my parents would tell me about the person who handed down that article to me. Thus, when my mother somehow obtained a new jacket for me, I naturally asked her who used to wear it.  “No one,” she said. “This is new.”  New?  I would have none of it.  

Growing up in this culture of hand-me-downs and storied things has saved me from a good deal of discontent in my life, most recently regarding wedding registries.

Really and truly, I love seeing what people put on their wedding registries.  Especially for friends I have seen live in Spartan bachelor pads or serve dinner parties on mismatched collections Corelle ware, these registries help me imagine the look of their “grown-up” households and, in turn, the new lives they will be building with their spouses. 

Sometimes, I must confess, I have been jealous of these registries.  It isn’t just that I find it unfair that some people manage to get lifelong commitment and matching dishes all at the same time: of course it is unfair, but it is also very, very good. At its root, my concern has been one of validation: I love registries most because I know that for the rest of their lives, my friends will know that much of their everyday, essential household equipage came from people who know and love them.  Not only that, these gifts confirm that these young adults are setting up a household--a tiny economy of love and work, patience and grace. 

What then, is a single girl (or, more to the point: young woman) to do?  She could buy herself matching dishes and all that, but that’s not satisfying in quite the same way. Though no longer a little girl, I still want things to have stories.  I want to look at my cups and saucers and think, “Oh, so-and-so gave that to me.” 

With these ideas in mind, I walked through my apartment earlier this week, trying to note all the things that have been given to me.  As I made the list (below), I was quickly convicted that any yearning for a registry is greedy and ungrateful.  Little by little over the years, my family and friends have equipped me with all the good things--all and much, much more--I need to make a home for myself and others. 

These things are precious to me, so much so that, to be honest, I would be reluctant to replace most of them.  When I look at my home, I realize I have been given something far better than a registry. To some extent, people feel compelled to bring gifts to a wedding. It is expected.  In contrast, my friends and family have filled my house in quiet, unlooked-for ways. Even the soap in my shower and the toothpaste on my vanity, I realized, were given to me. What follows is not a complete list--I have catalogued only the things I use or notice nearly every day--and I have not allowed myself to tell the story behind each thing, limiting myself to the names of the givers.

These are the things they have brought me: 

In my bedroom: 

- quilt made by my great-grandmother
- yoga mat from Kareem
- hair-dryer from Mary
- curtains (and at least 1/3 of my skirts) made by my mother
- CDs from Julianna and Nathaniel
- jewelry from Hunter, Jenn, Mandy, and Rachel
- a sewing machine, given to my mother when she graduated from high school, then handed down to me
- framed, illuminated manuscript of Jeremiah 29.11 from Mr. and Mrs. Harrison
- knitting needles from Lennon 
- staple gun Mark and Keith gave me
- computer printer from Emily

In my living room:

-  the set of The Chronicles of Narnia my parents read to me, crumbling dust jackets and all
- countless beautiful books from Will, Hunter, Dave, and others
- an eccentric DVD collection, supplied mostly by my great-aunt Martha
- a television from Martin 
- tools for my spinning wheel from Margaret, Hunter, and my father

In my kitchen
- circra 1970 Oster stand mixer from Mary (and her mother before her)
- that lovely oak-lef mug from Mark 
- cookbooks Rachel and Jenn
- one teapot from Lennon, and another from my mother (I drink a lot of tea)
- tea from Eric, Nathaniel, Shannon, Martin, Rachel
- spices from Jenn and Grant
- wind chimes from my mother and aunt Lanette 
- handmade ceramic bowl and mug made by Mari 
- spatula from Eric
- my grandmother's cast-iron skillet
- my great-grandmother's bread board 
- an enormous bottle of Mexican vanilla from Jon and Steph 
- pear butter from Amy
Finally, if you open my cabinets, you will find a set of matching dishes (an amazing yard-sale find, in exactly the pattern I wanted) from my mother.

I could make this list much longer, but I hope it is already clear that I have many reasons to be grateful, and not one good reason to covet anyone’s registry.  

I wish I could give you all friends as attentive and generous as my own. I hope that I am half as generous as they. However, I can encourage myself and you to be such friends.  Watch, listen, look for something small and essential you can give a friend.  Be old-fashioned. Pray over it. Don't make them wait for a wedding registry. 

What everyday things do you have that have been gifts or hand-me-downs? For those who are married, what were the most meaningful/useful gifts you received? 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Life Undivided: How to Kill Community

Sick of church? Tired of spending all your energy sustaining your friendships? Eager for mischief of a diabolical kind? If so, this post is for you.
Based on nearly twenty-seven years of experience, I bring to you an authoritative (albeit abridged) guide to killing a church,  community, or friendship.  If you follow these instructions carefully, you might manage all three at once. 
In case you are beginning to wonder if grad school has finally broken my sanity, perhaps I should explain myself. A few weeks ago, I wrote about my church lifegroup, and how important that group was to me.  However, in the draft of that post, there was a paragraph which I cut from the final version.  That paragraph began, “Eventually, however, my lifegroup died.”  I excised this section because its narrative of a more or less quiet dissolution interfered with the tone (love! victory! Jesus!) of that post. However, after talking with a friend, I realized it would be dishonest not to address the fact that even my precious lifegroup failed in many ways to be a home for all its members, and, eventually, failed to sustain itself as a group at all.
I am not, however, going to tell the story of my lifegroup’s failures here. It would serve no good purpose, and could veer toward finger-pointing and gossip.  If you have ever been part of a church or relationship, you could probably imagine a version that is fairly close to the truth.  
Instead, I have made a list of ways to kill community. Not all of these things happened in my lifegroup, but some of them did, and I’ve witnessed all of them in various gatherings and kinships. At the same time, bitterness is unbecoming, and my point is not to air grievances, but to look honestly at these failures so that we can learn to confront and avoid them. Through this blog I want to learn--with you--how we can form communities in which we help one another become fully human: at home with God, one another, and ourselves. Today, because I am feeling rather contrary, I am approaching this quest through the back door. As you read, please know that at one time or another, I have been guilty of everything on this list. I ask you to read it as a confession, not a rant. 

1. Don’t pray. Prayer is old-fashioned, you’re not sure if it works, and it makes others uncomfortable.
2. Assume that people know you appreciate them. Don’t call to tell them, and never send thank-you notes for the work they do for your church or group.
3. Worship the Bible as the Word of God. Interpret it strictly, literally, and rigidly, OR dismiss the Bible as an unreliable set of semi-historical documents, ethically problematic and historically suspect.
4. Mistake yourself for God OR mistake your pastor/leader/friend for God. 
5. Judge others OR never venture to challenge others on the things they say and do. 
6. Make decisions regarding this church/group/friendship by asking “What is best/most satisfying/healthiest for me?”
7. Be passive aggressive. This can be fun. Look for little ways to undermine the ideas, plans, or programs of others: roll your eyes, sigh, and post pseudo-cryptic status updates on facebook. In all things, be smug. 
8. Look down on people who doubt. If you’d rather, you can also look down on people who never “question their faith.”
9. Don’t laugh. Ever. 
10. Don’t talk openly about hard things, like tithing. 
11. Don’t eat together. 
12. Don’t do any hands-on ministry together. 
13. Don’t ask each other questions. 
14. Don’t sing. If you forget and do begin to sing, make sure to argue about the style of songs afterward. 
15. Fade away quietly. Don’t return calls, and come up with excuses not to come. 
16. Decide you can do this whole “Christian” thing, and probably this whole “life” thing, on your own. 

What would you add to this list? 

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Making it Home: A Place We Bless

In Garden State, one of the characters say, regarding the idea of home, “Maybe that’s all family really is: a group of people that miss the same imaginary place.”  The name of that “imaginary place,” it seemed, was “home.” When I was twenty, this line resonated with me, and for a time I considered “home” an impossible concept, a site of perpetual deferment, the place I wanted-to-be-but-was-not. At twenty-six, I have far less patience for that kind of angst.  
Of course I still experience disorientation, longing, dissatisfaction, anger, and all the feelings associated with my twenty-year-old confusion. In fact, in many ways my life is far lonelier than it was at twenty, and my idea of “home” is certainly more complicated. At the same time, cynicism has lost its adolescent charm, and I am increasingly determined to fight against disillusionment.  
Are our ideas of home imaginary?  In many ways, yes, though “imagined,” or “imaginative” would please me better. Regardless, I have no shame about committing myself to an imaginary place. In fact, I’ve been inhabiting imaginary worlds my whole life. As a child, I knew my Narnian geography quite well, but couldn’t tell you which street in my hometown led to the grocery store. As a teenager, I decided the world was ugly, and that I preferred to dwell among less trodden ways: poetry, novels, and daydreams. But those were childish ways, and I began to put them aside when I realized a funny thing about being human: we have a habit of imagining things, and then making them real in the material world. We see through a glass darkly, but for all our dim-sightedness, we have strong hands.  
When we are children, our parents, teachers, and others are usually responsible for creating the places and relationships in which we feel “at home.” As adults, not only do many of us leave home (physically and relationally) , we discover that we are now largely responsible for creating our homes. 
I think that it is in the recognition of this responsibility (or the failure to recognize it) that much of the disorientation of young adulthood arrives. 
Especially during my first year of living on my own, the fact that I had complete control over my living space and time was exciting, but it also contributed to my sense of homelessness.  Home was no longer a place with familiar dishes in the cupboard or familiar faces around the table; now it was a place with a certain smell or a set of household customs.  
Once I realized that I was building a home for myself, this freedom became more joyful.  I began making daily resolutions about how my home would operate--everything from how often I would bake bread to how I would spend my money.  One day, when a friend visited my apartment for the first time, she said, “I forgot your apartment number, but then I saw that only one place had the windows open, and I knew that had to be yours.”  At that moment, I realized that I had, indeed, made this particular place home--so much so that even outsiders recognized it as mine. 
In these “Making it Home” posts, I want to discuss the particular, practical ways we can build and sustain our homes. Each post will attempt to demonstrate something about home. Today’s theme, for example, is that home is a place we bless. 
One of the oldest meanings of “to bless” is to consecrate, to set apart, to hallow.  This setting apart is, I think, foundational to establishing a sense of home in a place or season. My apartment, for example, is different from my office or classroom.  Even though I do much of my work from my kitchen table, that kitchen is fundamentally different from my office. It is a place where I act, speak, and dress differently. A place where I cultivate different kinds of relationships, for example, than in my classroom.  It is a place I can both work and rest. 
In the same way, this city is now my home in a way that most other cities are not. I have set Waco apart, consecrating it as the place where I work, live, vote, invest time and energy, and look for ways to be involved in God’s kingdom. 
I did not wait until Waco felt like home before I began to bless it.  I cannot say that deciding that I would set Waco apart as my home immediately banished homesickness. It still took the better part of two years before I really felt at ease here. However, by deciding that I would intentionally cultivate my life here--rather than simply enduring it for the time my degree program lasted--hastened the feeling of being at home.  
So how do we bless something?  Although I treasure the tradition of extempore, sincere and individual prayers of my Baptist upbringing, I often find deep veins of wisdom in the blessings and prayers others have written to set aside certain places as “home.” 
When I was in seventh or eighth grade, my mother gave me a little book called Praying with the Celts, selected by G.R.D. McLean (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).  I was fascinated by these prayers, which very specifically offered blessings for houses, beds, fires, and kinships. One, entitled “House Blessing,” prays
“God bless the house from ground to stay,
From beam to wall and all the way,
From head to post, from ridge to clay,
From balk to roof-tree let it lay,
From found to top and every day
God bless both fore and aft, I pray,
Nor from the house God’s blessing stray,
From top to toe the blessing go. (105)
I could imagine a young family standing in front of their new cottage, running their hands over the beams and walls as they offered this blessing. I could imagine, in that moment, the structure becoming home for them. 
The Celts seem to be particularly good at blessings of this sort, and I was delighted last year to discover a much larger collection, published in 1900 by Alexander Carmichael, entitled Carmina Gadelica.  This collection offered even more specific blessings, often tailored to the specific kinds of activities happening within the home: setting up a loom to weave cloth , bathing children, sleeping, starting a fire, and many more.  
The example of these marvelously particular Celts has inspired me to be more intentional in the ways I bless my home and the work I do in the places I call home.  For example, I try to begin all my academic work with this  rich prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas.  I pray for bread as I am kneading, collard greens as I am planting them, tea as I am drinking it. Maybe that’s silly, but those prayers remind me that I home is not a place I can wait for someone else to build for me. Other people are important. Community is crucial. Church--in good and bad ways--complicates all of this. But it is both my responsibility and privilege to create a home for myself (and, I hope, for others) by consecrating places and days.  
I think that realizing one’s own role in home-making actually heightens the creativity and courage needed to help others feel at home in their own lives.  I have already discussed the ways in which churches both succeed and fail in their duty to celebrate the important seasons in the lives of young adults, including those outside the traditional categories of celebration (marriage, parenthood, and ordination/commissioning). The same day I posted the second of those notes, I learned that The Simple Way community, in cooperation with many other faithful, creative people, will soon release a book that attempts to guide the church into some of these needed blessings. Shane Claiborne, a founding member of The Simple Way, was the first person I ever heard speak against “the loneliness of our culture’s vision of adulthood.”  From what I've seen, this book promises to continue their fight against that lonely vision.  Entitled Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals,  the book is available for pre-order here, but until it is realeased, you can read the Introduction and several of the prayers here. In addition to prayers for certain days or seasons, this collection has a number of prayers that reveal a deep and thoughtful commitment to blessing all kinds of places and seasons, including the bedroom of a single adult, an adoption, and even the furnace of a house. 
Home is a place we bless. The places and times we bless become home.  
 What time or place in your life would you like to bless? Do you have a certain prayer or blessing you use to consecrate your home(s)?  If you use or create a prayer, please post it here! 
What are the implications of these questions for the idea of “church”? Is the church also an imaginary place?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Making it Home: Musical Edition

As George MacDonald says, “ […] home, as you may or may not know, is the only place where you can go out and in” (Lilith, Ch 1). As my other posts and your comments have already suggested,  “home” can mean a particular place, a season of life, a relationship, a church, and often all those things at once. The journeys into and away from those places, times, relationships can be both joyful and disorienting.  With those meanings of home--and the journeys associated with them--in mind, I started a playlist several years ago entitled “For the Journey Home.” It is filled with songs that speak in some way to the experiences related to home--feeling away from home (or journeying toward home), being at home, and leaving home. 
I have much more to say about home in the coming weeks and months, but for now, I’d rather listen. I hope you’ll listen with me. 

* Feeling away from Home / Journeying toward Home

"Homeward Bound" by Simon and Garfunkel

"Heimweh" (Homesickness) by Edvard Grieg

"Much Farther to Go" by Rosie Thomas

* Feeling at Home

"This is Home" by Switchfoot (one of the few good things to come from the film version of Prince Caspian!)

"The Lakes of Canada" by The Innocence Mission

* Leaving Home

"The Trees of the Field" (This is the song my church sang for me on my last Sunday before leaving for college)

"The Trees of the Field" by Sufjan Stevens (Inspired by the same passage, Isaiah 55, as the song above).

Question: What are your favorite songs about being away from home, enjoying home, or leaving home? Post a link or description below!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Life Undivided: Frigidaires and Failures of the Imagination, Part II

In my last post, I argued that many churches fail to celebrate occasions that aren’t “fridge-worthy”: marriage, parenthood, missionary service, and other traditional events in the lives of adults.  Many of your comments anticipated this more cheerful conclusion to the tour of the fridge.  Today I hope to complete my inventory, suggesting along the way that many churches, men, and women are stretching their attention and imagination to include other milestones in the lives of men and women, young and old, single, married, widowed, and all in between.
Alongside the wedding invitations and birth announcements, one of my favorite fridge-adornments is a picture of my lifegroup, the small church group I participated in during my first three years of graduate school. As my wise friend Lindsay noted in her comment on Part I, small groups tend to be much better at recognizing and celebrating the sorts of events don’t make the big-church headlines. My experience in a lifegroup certainly confirmed Lindsay’s observation. In addition to our weekly studies, conversations, and prayers together, in addition to our committment to walk alongside one another through trying times as well as easy days, we celebrated the important passages in one another’s lives. Sometimes that meant a baby shower. At other times, it meant a special time of prayer and blessing for a young woman leaving for graduate school.  Once, a group of my lifegroup friends even helped me christen a spinning wheel I had just purchased. (Yes, that’s right: a spinning wheel. I’ll write more on the importance of this eccentric hobby in a future post, but for now, you might want to check out the poem I mentioned in my last post.)  This celebration, complete with prayer and pink champagne, was, in its merry little way, an affirmation of the values I was attempting to establish as the foundation of my life and work. 
More important that the affirmation I received from my lifegroup, however, was the way it challenged my understanding of what qualified as an “important” life event. I began to realize that when we celebrate weddings and babies  and ordination, we not only acknowledge a holy choice someone has made, we also recognize that a person’s fundamental relationships have changed. A man and woman who have had a baby are changed. They have new names--”Mama,” “Daddy”--and the birth of those new identities is part of the celebration. 
My time in a lifegroup taught me that my fundamental relationships can change even without a dramatic choice or event.  As I watched my friends seek ways to support one another, I realized that this group was more than a study group, or even a prayer circle: it was a gathering that modeled relationships unlike any I had seen before. We became friends, to be sure, but not casual friends, not friends linked by common interests or background.  We were, in a sense, like a family, but with freedom--many members came and went over those three years-- and an ever-fresh (sometimes painful) awareness of our kinships with one another.   

There was no ready word to describe the kind of bond I experienced in that group. Instead, I found honesty, kindness, wisdom, sorrow, and laughter enough to push my imagination beyond words and into love.  

I wish that group could have thrived for my entire season in graduate school, but even in its quiet dissolution, my lifegroup taught me that if I only think in terms of “romance,” “blood relation,” or “formal ministry,” I cheat myself out of countless, yet-unnamed bonds of love. 
And so the picture remains on the fridge. It reminds me of my first night with that group--the night I walked into a room of strangers, and found they had saved a chair for me. The memory of that night is as precious to me as the memory of my baptism, and nothing--no wedding feast, no baby, no ordination--could ever mean “You are home” in quite the same way.

The next important token on my fridge is a picture of Nelson, the boy I sponsor through Compassion International. Like the grins of my lifegroup, Nelson’s shy smile reminds me that a holy imagination can create strange but beautiful bonds of love.  I am new to sponsorship, and so I am still marveling that I now have a relationship with a little boy on the other side of the world. I may never see him face to face, but I know he wants to be a policeman when he grows up. I know his mother--just a year older than I am--has four children, and was abandoned by their father several years ago.  I know he receives the letters I send. I know that each time an envelope with the Compassion logo arrives, I feel like it is my birthday. I know I love Nelson, but, again, not with a love that has a name in the world’s hasty, narrow vocabulary.

Sponsor a Child


Finally, my fridge boasts a blessing from one of my favorites, Julianna.  When I moved into my current apartment, she penned a blessing for my new “lighthouse” perched on the Brazos river.  This dear friend believed that setting up household in a new place was worth a blessing, and because she believed, I did too. Her words are not from any known ceremony or liturgy (“May you have warmth enough for bare feet and chill enough for baked goods…”), but when I read them aloud in my kitchen, the place felt a little more like home. 

Can you share a time when someone celebrated an event, decision, or relationship which was important to you, but which was not a traditional cause for celebration? Have there been times in your life when the ordinary labels (e.g. daughter, sister, friend) have been insufficient to describe the relationship you have with a person or group?