Saturday, October 27, 2012

How to travel back in time

1. Consider the reasons for your pilgrimage. 

Some of the earliest games I remember playing involved going back in time. In first and second grade, I would arrange my dolls and myself into "Victorian" family photos. A little later, my friend Elissa and I undertook countless treks across the yard as 19th-century pioneers. In fifth grade, I tried to build a time machine to take me to the 1940s.

As a teenager and adult, I have loved history for its exotic ways and values, but most of all because in history I find so many alternatives to the hurried, harried, heretical ways many people live their lives in the twenty-first century. I know that no time in history is without fault, but I treasure history as the source of meaningful traditions -- that is, creatively sustained ways of thinking, loving, doing, eating, building, and living.

More recently, I have continued to study history for the sake of empathy. If can feel the life of a woman from 1384--however briefly--I am better prepared to understand and love my neighbor in 2012.

2.  Assemble an outfit. You'll do better in the days of yore if you look more or less like you belong there. Do you research, but remember that you just might have everything you need for a 600-year-old ensemble waiting in your own drawers and cupboards. 

Here I am in my homemade medieval dress or "kirtle." The kirtle itself is fairly authentic in its construction, though the material and accessories are not. However, I only spent $5 on this outfit -- the price of the shoes I found at Goodwill to complete the outfit.

3. Take a road to its utter end. If possible, take several roads until you can take them no further.  

When I was very small, too young to go beyond the sidewalk of our city block by myself, I would sit on the street corners and strain my eyes, wondering where South 9th Street or Grant Avenue ended. I was convinced that wonderful things must happen when roads End. Last Saturday, I took I-65 south to Exit 0, then drove further south on Alabama 293 until it ended, and finally, I drove on Dauphin Island's Bienville Blvd until I reached the end not only of the road, but of the island itself.

The end of the road.

4. Travel in good company. Find friends who know they way back, or who are willing to explore with you. 

5. Savor all that is obsolete, strange, and lost. 

I spent this weekend camping at an event called Gatalop, sponsored by the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism. We spent the weekend at Ft. Gaines on Dauphin Island, Alabama. Amid the tournaments, meals, music, revelry, and markets, I spent most of my time trying to see, smell, hear, and feel as a medieval woman might.

I attended to the creak and slap of wooden shutters in the wind; to the crisp snap of canvas tent flaps; to the sound of drums in the night; to the sight of a piper standing atop the fortified walls; to the  warm shadows of firelight as I drifted to sleep; to the snug tension of a rope bed; to the precious weight of wool on a cold day.

6. Bring the past back with you. 

On an ordinary day, I might lead one group of students through a 14th-century text, discuss a 3000-year-old epic with another, then come home to knead bread according to a nineteenth-century recipe and knit a sweater from a 1940s pattern. It is difficult to feel lonely when so much history comes to rest in my small rooms.

Do you ever travel back in time through books, movies, music, or perhaps even reenacting? What sort of presence does the past have in your daily life? 

Friday, October 26, 2012

A letter to one I wronged

Dear M.V.,

I never wanted to be your friend. During lunch hour in the schoolyard, I would notice you following me from a distance, waiting for a break in the circle I had formed with Ashley, Audrina, and Kirsten. Eventually you would stand just next to me, and we let you in kindly enough, shifting our conversation from girlhood gossip to the small-talk of sixth grade: Mr. B's homework, the opacity of pre-algebra, the agony of mandatory orange gym shirts. I knew, proper little Christian that I was, that I must be nice to you, talk to you, but in the evenings I would complain to my mother, "We can't talk about anything important while she's there! You can't just make someone be your friend!" I was more than content with a very small number of people I deemed worthy of friendship.  I still ranked these friends, with all the seriousness of childhood, into degrees and ranks. Only the year before, Elissa and I had, after two years of being "second-best friends," promoted one another to the status of "best friend." By sidling up to me day after day, you violated my rigid laws of affection and loyalty.

But Elissa was in China with her family that year, and I might have cast aside my petty rules if I had liked you. But I didn't like you. I didn't like you because you made me sad.

I was odd and awkward in my own ways at 12 years old, but I was clever enough and pretty enough to be liked in spite of my eccentricity. You wore sweat pants to school each day, you smelled strange, and your conversation moved in timid, fluttering circles. I remember you telling me again and again about your brother, and how you were going to give him new pajama pants for Christmas because he always had holes in the seat of his.  Your brother, I knew, was nearly 20, and for some reason the state of his pajamas struck me as a sign of sickness or dysfunction. I worried about your home--a home where no one was making sure people dressed properly, or washed regularly or taught you about things like bras and deodorant and schoolwork.

I remember a day when, in our English class, we picked texts for our book reports. I knew you loved the Little House on the Prairie, but someone claimed that book before you could. When it was your turn to choose, you sat blankly, biting your lip. I felt sick and cried for you as I walked home, but I never told you how sorry I was.
Your isolation hurt me, but I always kept a distance, never allowing kindness to grow into something that would connect me to your slattern life. Instead, I channeled my anxiety into trying to fix you.  What you needed, my friends and I decided, was Help. When you would join our circle, we would begin discussing, for example, how many times a week we washed our hair--never asking you directly, but hoping that you might think, "Ah! So one must wash the hair! How foolish of me to neglect this!"

When these subtle methods proved ineffectual, I addressed the problem more directly. I wrote you a note, as kindly (I thought) as possible, detailing a few of things you could to improve yourself.
The anger of your response shocked me. You wrote a note on grubby paper and addressed me throughout as "MISS BEAR," as though capital letters and formal language could assert your insulted dignity. You told me to mind my own business and to leave you alone.

I was wickedly relieved. I felt I had done my duty and, based on your response, I guessed that I would no longer have to make room for you in time, attention, or conversation.
This relief did not last long, and that was my own fault. Around seventh grade, I began praying that God would teach me what love meant. I felt myself growing sarcastic and self-satisfied; I began to worry that I "had not love," and I was right. God answered this prayer, as he often answers dangerous prayers, with tears. Soon my prim desire to improve those less fortunate gave way to something far more frightening and beautiful.

Unfortunately, by the time this transformation moved from my heart to my hands--about the time I entered high school-- you had vanished. Did you move? Drop out? Not even Facebook can tell me.
For years I have carried your face in my mind--your school picture from that sixth-grade year. You were wearing a new sweatshirt, one with the Lion King on the front, and you were smiling--a strange, confident smile I never saw on your everyday face.

Every autumn, when I remember Indiana and grade school, that image moves slowly forward, just as timidly and hopefully as you once walked up to me. And whenever it does, I say, "I am so sorry."
I am so sorry, M.V., for seeing you as a project instead of a person. I am sorry for offering superficial kindness instead of love. I am sorry for avoiding you at lunch, for never trusting you with one of my silly schoolgirl secrets. I am sorry for never asking why you loved Little House on the Prairie, for not inviting you to come to my house after school.
I am so sorry. Will you please forgive me?


Friday, October 19, 2012

A letter to all those who told me to "toughen up"

Dear Sirs and Madams,

I know you meant well. I recognize that many of you probably felt a moral obligation to prepare me for the harsh "real worlds" beyond your care: first grade, college, academia, interstate traffic. Moreover, I realize that my tenderness must have seemed tiresome to you. A kindergartener must stop crying under the table if she is to learn her alphabet, and trembling does make steering a car rather difficult.

From the vantage of adulthood, I understand why you made the refrain of my childhood, adolescence, and even grad school, "Bethany really needs to toughen up." However, I am writing to object, on record, to the terms of your admonitions.

When I cried over a B+ in 9th grade biology, hearing my teacher mutter, "Some people need to suck it up" really didn't help. My classmates showed much more compassion and wisdom in the notes they passed, reminding me that I had no reason to be ashamed of the grade, and that I could bring my average up with just a little extra work.

When anxiety followed me to every driving lesson, asking, "How many times do you have to make the same mistake before you learn from it?" was poor pedagogy on your part. I survived your bullying and gained my license, but not until my gentle college friends taught me to love mountain roads did I begin to drive without tears and terrors.

I could tell more tales, but I think you can see the theme.

I was so ashamed by your constant call to toughen up. I collected your comments as evidence that I was simply not meant to live in this world, and as early as first grade I began to daydream about a special box that would allow me to go to school without having to speak to anyone. (Anti-social tendencies aside, it was a pretty cool, almost TARDIS-like box. It had a periscope and a magic door that led to my own private garden world). As a teenager, these fantasies had evolved into visions of a hermitage I would build on the side of a remote mountain, far away from the world with its frightening roads and people.

Lacking the resources to build a magic box or a hermitage, my attempts at toughness involved shutting down. I would leave the room when a movie made my parents cry, I avoided praying aloud at meals, and I rarely spoke at school, knowing that whenever I did, it would be clear to all that I was "sheltered" and not capable of withstanding the world's rough winds.

However, I could not sustain such coldness for long, and by the time I graduated from high school, my resignation had grown into something like defiance. I began to ask myself, "What things in this world are 'tough'?" Stale bread. Overcooked meat. Callouses. Stones. Steel. I couldn't come up with a single thing known for "toughness" that I wanted to be anything like. This realization was important. It replaced shame with a kind of contentment. At the same time, I still believed that my meekness was vulnerability, and that while it might be superior in a spiritual sense, it was a disadvantage for living in the world. Withdrawal and seclusion still seemed like the best option.

Happily, other voices soon drowned out your misguided advice. Mark taught me to look people in the eye. Rachel convinced me to join her in a weight-training class. Keith gave calm advice about driving. Mary encouraged me to speak up in class. Perhaps the most precious words came from Lennon, who has known me since sixth grade, and who lived with my family for a season during high school. "You look so fragile, we all worry you might break," he said to me a few years ago, "but you're so much stronger than anybody--including you--realizes." He could say this because he knew something you never seemed to understand--that while thick skin gives the illusion of security, there is a far more lasting strength in faith, and faith often looks like a broken heart.

I confess that some days I agree more with you than with Lennon--especially on the nights when I am overcome by the sheer weight of so much feeling--so much joy, sorrow, confusion, possibility, anxiety, and hope in the lives of the people around me. But then I think of my brilliant, brave friends. Not a single one of them has ever said, "I love how inflexible you are," or "You're really being too compassionate," or "It's nerdy of you to care so much." I think of the words that guide my life. Nowhere does the good book say, "They shall know you by your toughness," or "Verily, I say unto you, feel not, for your God is a God of stone."

Why didn't you urge me to be of good cheer, or to be supple and strong? Why didn't you tell me that "courage" literally means what comes from the heart? Why was it always about "toughness"?

The tough may get ahead, beat the crowd, and gain a prize or two, but they're not the ones who inherit the earth.



Even when I try to look tough, I can't really pull it off.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Flight to the Wedding Feast

Costa Rica, October 13, 2012 Photo by Larissa Smith 

I've been to at least 100 weddings in my 28 years. When I was a three-year-old flower girl, I was very excited about my basket of flowers, but I was not happy about all the people looking at me, and a bridesmaid had to carry me down the aisle. As an older child, I was most excited about eating cake and throwing rice.

As a teenager, all the weddings I attended were for college students I loved and admired. I celebrated these weddings with awe. I knew that in those solemn hours I was witnessing the culmination of countless cautious flirtations, late-night conversations, hard questions, daring adventures, and growing trust. I was curious but shy about the joy of these events. Once, when I refused to come up for the bouquet toss, pleading shyness, the bride commanded the groom to literally carry me from my chair to the dance floor. Their joy in that day was so great that they would suffer no excuses from bashful guests.

More recently, I have reveled in the weddings of many dear friends. Each and every one has had beautiful moments: praying with Mark before he took his place at the altar to await his bride; listening to Lindsay sing for her new husband's mother-son dance; watching Martin and Mary shine like a king and queen during their wedding mass.

The Bible says that one of the purposes of marriage is to give us a glimpse of the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5.31-32), and Jesus uses images of wedding feasts again and again in his parables about the Kingdom of God.

Last week I flew to Costa Rica for the wedding of some of my dearest friends, and ever since, I've been thinking about what my five-score weddings have taught me about the way the world should be. I spent most of yesterday's Sabbath flying back to the US, and as I travelled, I used these pictures to pray for the world's redemption.

Costa Rica, October 12, 2012 

The Costa Rica wedding is still too recent for me to write about it in full -- it is too dear, too precious to become public just yet. But I will say that it has given me even better pictures of the way this world can and will be changed by love:

...And then the bride and her bridegroom will make a home for those they love in a strange and beautiful land. They will give them rooms that perch on the hillsides, with windows that look to the ocean. Together--bride and groom and guests--they will venture into the mountains, will feel the heat of volcanoes, will fly from tree to tree. They will feast for days, and when the wedding night comes, even those who are shy and sore and heavy-hearted will dance. They will send lanterns into the night sky like fledgling stars. Save your coins for this, save your days and lift up your heart. Make your best dress ready and find shoes for climbing. Don't miss your flight to the wedding feast. 

Costa Rica, October 13, 2012 Photo by Larissa Smith

Monday, October 8, 2012

Being Here

I had just finished grading an essay when my friend Dr. M. appeared at my door. "Dr. Bear, do you know what you're doing this afternoon?"

Depending on the day, the appropriate answer to this question might be, "studying Kant for Faculty Reading Club" or "figuring midterm grades" or "reading poetry outside with Thursday Club." This particular Friday, however, I knew Dr. M. expected a different answer.

"I'm going kayaking," I smiled. Dr. M. had promised (or warned) me some weeks earlier than one day he would bring his kayak to campus and set me adrift along one of the inlets of the Chickasabogue that runs through our 700+ acre campus. I wasn't sure if this was some sort of new faculty rite of passage, or simply one more example of the kind of hale whimsy that seems so common here. He showed me the path down to the creek and told me to have fun. I was to make my journey, then bring the kayak back to the trail for him to retrieve that evening.

I savored the first half hour of my trip, soaking up more silence than I've known in months. I tried to name and notice: water like melted amber, sunlight warm but not heavy.

As I floated steadily forward, I began to worry about the current that had brought me so gently into this silence. Sure enough, as soon as I turned around I realized that I was going to have to fight my way back. I felt like Odysseus -- either I would ricochet from bank to bank, or I would get caught in eddies that turned me in relentless circles. It seemed to take me ages to progress even a few yards. To move past a particularly swift section of water, I had to use the overhanging trees to pull the kayak forward, bit by bit.

It had been a very, very long time since I had done anything so purely physical. I exercise nearly every day, but I rarely push myself hard enough to roar in frustration, as I did several times during my voyage on the Chickasabogue. Soon the kayak and I were covered in pine needles, bark, and wet sand. I willed all my strength into my arms, concentrating only on the hope of forward motion.

After half an hour of agonizingly slow progress, the current slackened, and soon I heard Dr. A (another friend and colleague) shouting, "I found her!" A few more stern strokes and I was around the final bend. Dr. A, her daughter, and two of Dr. M's students were playing in the shallows.

Exhausted but strangely happy after my battle, I was no longer thinking about all the reading I needed to do that evening, nor the papers I still needed to grade. Instead of hurrying home, I lingered on the bank for a while. Dr. A's daughter jumped like a bird from sand to water, water to sand, while the students swam to the opposite bank and brought back black-eyed susans for us to put in our hair. Dr. A says that when the black-eyed susans bloom, you know the summer heat has finally broken.   As the sun was sinking below the trees, I finally took the trail back up toward my office. I went home, took a shower, and then fell asleep for twelve hours.

When I woke the next morning, my first instinct was to make a parable of the whole thing: an illustration for the virtues of persistence, or nonconformity, or eating oatmeal. The adventure had been both beautiful and maddening; I was determined to make it useful, as well.

Nothing I came up with seemed quite right, and consequently, I didn't write about my experience on Saturday, as I had originally planned. "What am I supposed to do with my adventure?" I kept asking myself.

Not until Sunday did I realize that I don't need to "do" anything with my odyssey up the Chickasabogue. While there was nothing very restful about paddling upstream, there was something deeply restful in the way that journey demanded my utter and complete presence. For the past decade, I have intentionally been trying to learn to be present in conversations, locations, work, moments, but I'm still terrible at it: I put away dishes during the 30-second breaks in my weight-training routine; I make grocery lists during sermons; I drift during phone conversations; I knit during dates. Without constant effort, my mind turns to plans, deadlines, and projects which, however good in themselves, remove me from what I am supposedly experiencing.

When I meditate on the Sabbath, it seems that an important aspect of resting is presence--being fully here, without regard for the future, with attention undivided on the good things of the day. As I continue to learn to keep the Sabbath holy, I  treasure experiences that teach me to be joyfully, impossibly, irreducibly present. The list of such experiences is short but rich: Christmas, face-to-face conversations, teaching. And, apparently, kayaking upstream.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Silent Prayer (A Sonnet)

They tell us that the spirit prays

with groans more rich than words,

while tongues of fire, dove-winged birds

could shatter heaven any day,

and we are quickened by that grace,

and strive to trace the inward

wind that shatters chaos into chords

and sculpts earth’s dust into a face.

Yet you still wait in stony care—

no morning breaks upon your eyes;

you guard a grave, no peace atones

for all the nights you have watched here:

waiting for the dead to rise

to the shouts of interceding stone.
If you'd like to see the picture that inspired this poem, click here.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Fruitful Home

Creativity begins at home.

Lately I've been reading a book called Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. The author, Shannon Hayes, provides compelling arguments and case studies that present homemaking as a subversive, liberating, beautiful way to oppose much of what ails the industrial (or post-industrial) world.

Many of Hayes's arguments are similar to those put forward by Doris Janzen Longacre in Living More With Less, a life-shaping book I blogged about last summer (read that entry here). Unlike Longacre, Hayes does not write from a theological perspective, and at times her arguments seem to suffer from a kind of domestic-feminist utopianism.  Nevertheless, I am enjoying Radical Homemakers, and I find many of its ideas inspiring.

For example, Hayes argues throughout the book that we should think of our homes primarily as centers of production rather than as units of consumption. She articulates something I have stumbled around in many of my meditations on home: that home is a place where we have resources and make the things we need in community with others (here is one version of that meditation). She indicts economic rubrics that measure the wealth of a home in terms of how much it can or does buy per year, rather than its more complex resources, such as time and relationships.

One of the exciting things about this season of life is that I know I am laying down the habits and ideals that will guide the rest of my adult life. I pray for a robust vision of how that life can flourish.  Thus, I have been thinking and praying about ways my home can be a center of production and not merely a unit of consumption.

Furthermore, I hope that anything I produce in my home would have both material and spiritual value.

What does my home currently produce? 

bread/shared meals 
clothing/ security and comfort
yarn/warmth and hope
letters/friendship and wisdom 
naps/rest and havenhood 

Almost all of my dreams for the future involve deepening the ways in which my home is productive, bearing fruit in many ways.  One day, I hope my home will cultivate

fairy tales  
hospitality to international students
communal prayer 

In Texas I had friends with similar visions, and we worked together to produce all kinds of things in our homes: gardens, hummus, looms, sing-a-longs, Thanksgiving dinners, and much more. Here, too, I have friends who demonstrate what it means to tend a fruitful home. For example, each month my friend and fellow professor Steve hosts, along with his wife Grace, a "fun day" for students and faculty.  This past Saturday was typical: we enjoyed a long and rich breakfast of homemade waffles (with real maple syrup!), fresh fruit, tea, and coffee. We talked, laughed, held children on our laps, told stories. One student mentioned that he would like to memorize some Old English poetry and recite it at a local art walk. Conversation soon turned to the Anglo-Saxon lyres that were used to accompany such poetry, and within minutes everyone was gathered around Steve's work bench, plotting musical instruments and receiving an impromptu lesson in woodworking.

I pray that my home will be such a place --not that I can offer lessons in lyre-making or spoon-carving, but that my home will be a place where ideas take shape in wood or wool, a place where we loath wastefulness because we made, picked, cooked with our own hands.

I pray that my home will be a place where people can be free from systems they do not trust--systems that measure success in dollars, systems that exploit labor for the sake of profit, systems that mass-produce mediocrity, systems that encourage obsolescence and gluttony.

This prayer begins with the 600-square feet I physically inhabit, but it does not end here. I want all my homes--Apartment 218, the University of Mobile, Alabama, my church, my friendships, my family--to be fruitful and free. I can't help but smile to think of it. I'm still so young, with so many ideas, and so much wealth to plant and invest in lasting things, things that will grow.

"But we urge you, brothers, to [love one another] more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one."
(1 Thessalonians 4:10-12 ESV)

Do you agree that the home should be considered a site for production rather than a unit of consumption? What are some things you produce in your home? What would you like to begin producing? 

Monday, October 1, 2012

In Defense of Millennials

They are "digital natives," sending thousands of text messages each month. They don't value marriage highly. They are postponing the responsibilities of adulthood. They are narcissistic.

Who are "they"? If you were in worship with me yesterday, you would know the answer is "Millennials" or members of "Generation Y" -- the rising generation of men and women from the ages of 12-32.

Yesterday, the church I have been visiting took a break from our recent study of Colossians for a special presentation on the need to reach Millennials with the Gospel.

I have done little more than skim the abundant research on Generation Y (this article from The Atlantic provides a nice survey), but, being the narcissistic Millennial that I am, I am always interested to see how the established generations perceive those of us who are just reaching the threshold of our thirties.

The presentation was rather doom-and-gloom, featuring the typical sound bytes about my generation's dissociation from institutional religion, our ridiculously inflated sense of self-esteem, and our skepticism about marriage.

I'm not denying that those are some of the excesses and faults of my generation. I can only speak anecdotally, but I have railed against many of these traits in my own students, who are (at the youngest) still within ten years of my own age. For example, when they say in the same breath, "Yes, there are absolute truths," and "Opinions can't be wrong,"  I am tempted to bemoan the future of a world entrusted to such cheerful and unthinking relativists.

Nevertheless, yesterday's presentation dismayed me because it only presented aspects of my generation that seem to pose a threat to the spread of the Gospel.  After church I spoke at length about this topic with my mother, who has spent the past thirty years laboring to proclaim the Gospel and to build God's Kingdom among college students. She pointed out that while many Millennials are uninvolved in church, they are also more open to the idea of a spiritual life than many of the hard-line materialists of the previous generations. Similarly, while it is true that many young adults are moving home or moving from job to job, it is also true that we, unlike our parents, do not define our success primarily by our monetary wealth.

This conversation with my mother emphasized a point that yesterday's speaker only mentioned at the end of his talk, namely, that if churches want to reach Millennials, they cannot do it by demanding that Millennials learn the "cultural norms" of church-going Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and elders. Instead, he said, we must offer them the norms of the Gospel.

There is so much hope and power in that statement. Instead of creating a false sense of urgency about Millennials "postponing adult responsibilities," I wish he would have focused his presentation on the differences between the norms of, for example, the Baby Boomers, and the norms of the Gospel.

We want a better vision of adulthood than the mirage that lures so many men and women into lonely marriages, fruitless careers, and destructive communities. To ease my discontent with this Sunday's presentation, I tried to imagine what it such a sermon would have sounded like at Calvary, my church home in Texas. Imagination soon turned to memory: in January of this year I heard another sermon about young adults, but one with so much more precision and hope. If you'd like to listen, visit this link and listen to Jonathan Tran's sermon from 1/22/12. To hear the sermon, jump to minute 37:50).

Please don't misunderstand me: my generation needs the Gospel just as urgently as every generation since Adam and Eve stumbled out of Eden. We need good news and discipleship and communion. However, before you rail against us, make sure that it is the Gospel you are living, and not simply the norms of your own generation.

What are the differences between inviting people into "the norms of our [older] generations" and "the norms of the Gospel"? How can churches reach Generation Y?