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?