Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spare Oom

In C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, the marvelous, soul-shaping adventures of the Pevensie children begin when the youngest of them, Lucy, enters the spare room of a large country house. The only item in the room is a large wardrobe, and it is through this wardrobe that Lucy finds her way into Narnia. As she explains this to her first friend in Narnia, Mr. Tumnus, he mistakenly thinks she is from a country called "Spare Oom."

When I was a little child, first hearing these stories, our house had no spare room, and I suspected that my inability to find Narnia had to do with this lack. When I was twelve, my father turned our unfinished attic into a precious garret-bedroom for me, a second bathroom, and a spare room. It had considerably more furniture in it than the room Lewis made famous, but it was a spare room nonetheless. 

I never found a portal to a magic world, but once we had our own Spare Oom, curious things began to happen. Once, an Kenyan student who arrived at the university and found she had no housing stayed with us for a week, filling our house with her warm, cadenced laughter and insisting on braiding my long hair into a network of intricate braids. Then Lennon moved in. We had been friends since we were twelve, but in the months he inhabited Spare Oom, I learned what it meant to have a brother. When we made a space that was open to the needs of others, we found ourselves tumbling into stories we would not have imagined for ourselves. 

When my friends Grant and Jenn bought their house in Texas, they sought a house big enough to share -- a house with rooms to spare for whomever God would bring them. I was the first person to benefit from that beautiful generosity, and during our year together I experienced what it meant to live in common and in accord. Many in my generation will talk about the idea of Christian community, but they made physical space for a radical way of living, and that year bore fruit in ways I am only beginning to understand. 

And so, with Narnia and Waco in mind, I have kept one room of my house empty, spare of furniture, wares, or sundries. I have vowed to keep it free from things so that it will be ready when the Lord calls for it. I will not let it become a place to store excess clothes or books or boxes. I have room enough for my wealth in the other rooms of the house, and I tithe my money, so why not my house as well? 

One day, I think this room will be full, but I don't think I will be the one to fill it. Sometimes I pray pictures of how this might be: wayfarers stopping along their road to Elsewhere; a friend fallen on hard times; a young prophet painting banners for God's revolution; someone who wants to plant a garden with me.

Most days, however, I simply rest in the knowledge of this room. On days when my desk is piled with bills to pay, papers to grade, tickets to book, lessons to prepare, meals to cook--in the midst of so much tending, Spare Oom stands apart. Uncluttered. Unhurried. Demanding nothing from me (nothing to dust, nothing to buy, nothing to do). Waiting. Simply knowing that it is in my home, open and waiting, settles me. 

My Spare Oom holds none of the things that make a place recognizably "mine," but in a sense, it is the heart of this house--a reminder that even if the property is in my name, the home belongs to the Lord, and I fill, tend, cook, welcome, work, and rest here at His good pleasure. My Spare Oom has no wardrobe, but my prayer is that in this room, we will build doors to other worlds: the realm of the redeemed, the new heaven and new earth, home. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Listening and hospitality

"Listening," says servant-scholar Henri Nouwen, "is a form of spiritual hospitality."* Listening has never been one of my strengths. I spent much of my childhood alone, amusing myself during my parents' many meetings and events, or sitting in classrooms where I mastered a concept long before the teacher had finished explaining it. Consequently, I learned to read, to ponder, to make lists, to doodle, and to work ahead, but not to attend closely to the words around me. 

More problematically, I have a wicked instinct for turning a everything to myself. I leave many conversations angry with myself for telling one of my own stories when I should have asked a question, annoyed that I missed a chance to listen to someone I want to know better.  Sometimes a story is the beautiful and best way to talk with someone, but too often I speak only because I want to make a good impression or draw out laughter or remind everyone, "This is me. I am here. You should care." 

For Lent several years ago, I fasted from sharing my own stories, opinions, or feelings unless someone directly asked me about them. I committed to asking questions, rather than telling, in my conversations with others. 

This fast changed not merely my language, but my attitudes and postures toward others. When telling my own story was not a possibility, I grew more careful and patient, no longer simply waiting for a gap into which I could insert my own tale. I found myself studying the faces of my friends, pondering how much untold joy, sorrow, hope, and uncertainty could lie behind the most familiar eyes. 

Lent has given way to Easter, yet moving into my new house has renewed my desire to listen well. At home, I know who I am. At home, I choose the pictures on the wall and I shape the bread on the table, so I have no need to prove myself. I am present and secure, and that security allows me to forget myself. To ask you questions. To smile in silence and notice the color of your eyes. To listen. 

If you come to my house and I spend our time talking only about myself, then I have not welcomed you. I have put myself on display, perhaps, but I have not invited you to make this place your home. When you speak and stay, however, you take ownership of this house with me -- if only for an hour, you belong in that chair by the window or at this place at the table. 

Since Friday alone, I have had nearly twenty different friends and students come here for a meal or a moment, and I have tried very hard to listen to them. Now when I walk through my dining room, my kitchen, or my yard, I hear their voices. Reminding me to listen, they are well come. 

Do you listen well? What circumstances or practices help you become a better listener? How do you know when someone is listening to you?
* from Bread for the Journey

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Walking is good for the soul

Today I must finish responding to a student's 50-page thesis draft; plan two medieval dances to teach a group of honors students; research hotels in Venice and catacomb tours for Rome; reckon my tax returns, read Book 8 of Middlemarch, and prepare lessons on Paradise Lost. 

Some Saturdays, this ambitious list would have me burrowing into my pillow for an extra hour, reluctant to begin a non-stop day, especially after a month of Saturdays filled with moving plans, preparation, and labor. This morning, however, I did far better thing: I went for a walk.

After sleeping, walking is one of my Favorite Things. For my first nine years of school, I walked between home and school nearly every day, and and we almost always walked to church, as well. In college, when I did not own a car, I walked not only to class, but to church, for errands, and for recreation. I would spend hours wandering the neighborhoods around campus, or making wide circuits on the walking and biking trail by the railroad tracks. During grad school, I took advantage of a beautiful riverside walking trail that ran behind Baylor's Law School and athletic facilities. I paced that trail while chewing on thesis statements, praying, laughing with friends, wondering if I could be in love, listening to new music, dreaming of life after the dissertation.

Here in Alabama, our campus is beautiful for walking, but my apartment, dear in so many ways, did not encourage wandering. Venture beyond the fence of the complex itself, and you stumble onto a very busy road. My new neighborhood, however, invites walks, strolls, strides, and many other forms of perambulation. In fact, the older parts of the city were actually designed to be pedestrian communities, so the architectural front of my house faces a sidewalk, not a drive-able street.

From my house (my house!) I can easily walk to several general stores, to the library, the park, to Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Catholic churches. I can walk to the homes of several friends. Today, I walked to a community yard sale. Here are some of the reasons I believe walking is so good for the soul:

* Walking changes my sense of time. I become eager for the hopeful twilight of morning hours, so I will rise early in order to walk. I expect walking to take time, much more time than a car, and so I set aside all hurrying instincts. If someone invites me to step inside for a few minutes, I am much more likely to say 'yes' if I have walked there.

* Walking encourages me to pray. Without the distractions of work or internet at hand, my mind settles into a rhythm of watchfulness. If I pray at home in the mornings, I nearly always fall asleep or find my mind wandering. With my body occupied by walking, my mind regains its simplicity, and if I notice something--a child's swing, a house needing repair, a church--my attention carries it into prayer as if it were part of my breathing. Prayer-walking is a spiritual discipline I have loved since my teens, and after so many years, walking nearly always feels like a form of listening, thanksgiving, confession, or intercession.

* Walking keeps me aware of and wise for my body. Too much sitting produces half-formed appetites and unwise cravings. Fresh air, light, and movement make me deeply and properly hungry for good food.

* Walking enriches both solitude and community. I never mind going for a walk by myself. Indeed, when living in community, walks often become my best recourse for much-needed solitude. At the same time, some of the best conversations I have had with friends have come while walking. Today, I walked to the yard sale, met my friend Grace and one of her daughters, and then walked back home with Grace to help her carry the fabric she had purchased. Had we been in cars, we would have bid one another farewell and parted ways, but instead we chatted about sewing plans, about the university, about the children, the students. Little Alathea sang us a song about polka dots.

* Walking teaches me to love a place. For my first two years in Texas, I walked to church nearly every Sunday. I meditated on those walks in one of my first blog entries (read it here), realizing that without them, I would not have come to love Waco nearly so deeply or so well. May the same be true for Alabama.

This week, I challenge you to walk somewhere you would normally drive--the grocery store, school, a friend's home. Come back and share what you notice! 

Setting out for a morning walk along Grant Street

Through the park.....

...and across the bridge.

Yard sale! 

Headed home from Grace's house. This is the "street" my house is on. 

I notice more when walking. 

Learning to love the way home.