On being all there

I can smell the woodpile outside our house burning. The accumulation of dried brush, old leaves, and a tree felled a few months ago. The bonfire crackles in the smoky, damp evening, and suddenly, my stomach lurches, and I’m flung back across the ocean, across time, to Indiana cornfields. To pumpkins and to leaves so flaming bright it turns everyone giddy, as they decorate themselves in scarves and their front porches in scarecrows and ghosts and jack-o-lanterns. There are no real autumn colors here in South Africa, where I live. There is a difference in the air, though, come fall. It turns crisp; there’s twinkling frost some mornings, and the beginning of bright, blinding blue sky days. And just like that, I’m lurched back to the present, to the bonfire and my two children running back and forth to toss new twigs onto the blaze.

This happens to me often, having grown up between two countries in two different hemispheres. Christmas memories of snow and jingle bells. Christmas memories of sprinklers and watermelon. Christmas memories of laying in swimming pools while dreaming of ice skating and snowmen. It all reminds me of Christmas. 

And because it was my childhood, it’s mine. I’ve always had the blessing of experiencing both realities, and always had the accompanying ache for whichever world I’d left. Laughing at a Thanksgiving full of friends and roast chicken in South Africa one minute, then pausing at the hitch in my throat, thinking about real turkeys and all my scattered extended family gathered in the U.S. without me. Feeling nostalgic at Easter for the three-day long isiZulu services full of music that were my childhood, while also feeling relieved that our American church services only last an hour before the egg hunts for Reese’s peanut butter cups. 

I remember a saying, growing up: “Wherever you are, be all there,” attributed to Jim Eliot, Patron Saint of Intense Missionaries. It was said to the new arrivals, as a way to help them accept their reality. Build new relationships. Practice gratitude. Cut the never-ending, whiny comparisons. And there was a bit of self-righteous holiness to it, as well. The good missionaries sacrificially adapt, giving up the familiar world for the new one. Pack your clothes in your coffin. Burn the bridge between your world and this one.

Turns out, I am not a good missionary. I am just a missionary’s kid. Growing up in the 90’s in South Africa, we had pen-pals, expensive international phone calls, and even more expensive screeching dial-up internet. I left for the States right as video calls began, and by the time I returned to South Africa with my Minnesota husband four years later, we all had smartphones. The internet in our pockets, the promise of a permanent bridge between the worlds.

This bridge holds so much potential to connect us. But over time, we’ve found that it also divides. My grandmother knows how to Skype, so my kids know who she is. But my husband’s grandmother, Renee (Nay Nay), wasn’t as capable with technology, so she remained a photo in a photo book. When interacting with screens, my kids still prefer Youtube videos of trucks and pressing the shiny, red “hang-up” button more than they enjoy talking with their overseas family. 

And then: a global pandemic. Suddenly, the bridge between the worlds looked different. My parents who live four minutes down the road were now locked-down and on a screen just like Minnesota Grandma. My son baked cookies each week with his cousin and Gran: one was in Indiana, the other right down the street. In lockdown, technology tethered us together, and suddenly it didn’t matter how many kilometers apart we were. Churches closed, and my scattered family could all stream the same service. At pandemic Thanksgiving, instead of gathered relatives passing our virtual faces on the phone right alongside the turkey, we each ate alone then had a massive group call with everyone’s virtual faces. We enjoyed this new level of connection, and yet we all thought it wasn’t enough. It didn’t replace a real touch, or the actual smell of Grandmom’s pecan pie, or the inside jokes and sarcasm that repeat themselves over a weekend spent together. This ache is familiar for me, but now I find myself with millions of other people all across the world, who have been shoved into dislocated pandemic bubbles, socially distant from the ones they love, all longing to hold, or taste, or gather. We’re all clutching this disembodied rope called the internet, homesick for something real. 

One night in early January, I was putting the kids to bed when my sister-in-law, Ann, called my husband in tears. With sobs catching in her throat, Ann told my husband that she had just watched their grandmother Nay Nay pass away over a video call. Nay Nay hadn’t seen the family except through the window of her nursing home since March. She was weeks away from receiving her second dose of the vaccine, and getting a real hug. The nurses had called my mother-in-law down to the hospital, but she didn’t get there in time. 

Ann had started a video call when the nurse told her things were looking bad. She had been sent to the ER for a complicated infection, not related to COVID. Reassuringly, the nurse thought she saw Nay Nay respond when Ann and her son started singing hymns and playing instruments, but minutes later she passed away peacefully. 

My husband, 8900 miles away, was the first one Ann called once she was certain her mother and aunts had heard the news. We continued singing hymns while waiting for my husband’s mom to arrive at the hospital, and then kept singing as we waited for different family members to join the call, the normally off-putting asynchronous zoom singing comforting everyone. My husband played guitar while we waited for the funeral home staff to arrive. Whether minutes away from each other in Minnesota, or time zones away on the other side of the world, the whole family was equally isolated and equally together due to the pandemic. It was an odd, precious gift, getting to be as present as everyone else, even though we were so far away. 

But it was not enough. 

I used to think that this feeling of homesickness I constantly carried could be conquered, silenced by being perfectly present in one place and shutting out the other. It doesn’t work that way. I used to think this feeling was unique. But now I know it’s not. Whether or not we live in a pandemic, in our own culture or as a guest in someone else’s, we all feel it, even when things are most perfect. 

The taste of Grandma’s sugar cookies welcoming me after stepping off a 23-hour plane ride, the joy of splashing in their backyard fire-hydrant as a child, the complicated secret language we created with our cousins, the baptisms, the weddings, the hugs, the road-trips with my siblings, catching glorious sunsets and armfuls of memories at the same time –shimmering just on the other side of these moments of deep connection is the spectre of grief. Time runs out, death still comes, reminding us  these things are “only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” as CS Lewis said. 

We’re all lurching back and forth between worlds. We are all homesick and unsatisfied, clinging to technology to cable us together, while longing for something permanent, something real: true communion, unending joy and connection. 

It’s never enough. It never will be. Not until every last one is gathered around a table as long as the outstretched arms of Christ, our bridge between the worlds.

Eastertide: The way is made by walking

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It was on Maundy Thursday that my husband and I began our pilgrimage in the south of France. Our walk on El Camino –the way. It was night, we were in an old stone church, hearing the readings about the children of Israel walking out of Egypt, and slavery, and starting their long walk to freedom.  Continue reading “Eastertide: The way is made by walking”

Tackling a vortex of despair: my 3 step decluttering recipe (in a tiny house with kids!)

First, some things I believe: Everything in your home is speaking to you. It’s telling you “take care of me!” or “tidy me!’ or “put me away!” So when you have less stuff, you have more mental calm. (Minimalist Mom on youtube has a *great* video on this topic).

AND YET even though we live in a tiny house and I believe this firmly, I also have two children under the age of four, and the random junk just accumulates. For us, our cubby system under the stairs works well for some things that have specific spots. But some bins, like the boys… craft? game? random junk they don’t want to throw away? bin has become a vortex of despair. I literally throw anything in there I don’t know what to do with. And then it’s so hideous I just throw more stuff in there + hope it sorts itself out. I was feeling very productive yesterday + decided to tackle it. I started trying to sift through what was rubbish + what was to keep, and found myself aimlessly shuffling papers around completely overwhelmed and I realised: WHO AM I? WHAT AM I DOING? I was applying none of my tiny home philosophy to the way I was tackling this project. So I stopped, got ahold of myself, and did it right 😄 And the system worked. Applying the same philosophy we take with our whole house to even a small task like tidying the junk drawer went from overwhelm to purpose and productivity.

So, here’s my recipe:

STEP 1: What do you want? 

This is kind of a basic question, but everything you do next hinges on it. Another way of saying this is: “What do you value?” 

In general, I value creativity and free play. I value my kids being able to make messes and be creative on their own without tons of help from me. I also value an orderly home. 

In the case of the vortex of despair, I think it started out because I wanted a place for the kids to get craft items, which then turned into a holder for games (now that they are older) and random recycled junk, and precious treasures they don’t want to throw away. 

So I decided that I want: a place for random craft/recycling supplies so the kids can be creative, and some games. 

(Please note, my first response to this question was, “For there not to be junk everywhere!!” but that is not a good enough answer! 🙂 Dig deep, people!

STEP 2:  Start with a clear slate 

Picture Mary Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” just swiping rolls of wrapping paper and junk onto the floor to make way for the collection can at their Christmas party. (If you haven’t seen this movie- what have you been doing every Christmas until now??)

Just take EVERYTHING out. My mistake was randomly sifting through things and trying to pull out what I knew I didn’t want. When you do that, you end up just rearranging your stuff, and not actually dealing with it. 

So I emptied everything out of the crate and imagined the crate AS I WANTED IT: an easily accessible space for the kids to store their games and crafts. 

STEP 3: Only put back what is useful and beautiful (in line with what you want). 

There were certain things that I immediately put back: the games, the paint brush jar. Then, there were other things that were a bit iffy. 

One million toilet paper rolls? My kids can’t create if they can’t find the toilet rolls buried under the recycling paper. So I put in some and canned the rest, because, frankly, we can EASILY get more toilet paper rolls!  

Recycled paper … I want to obsessively save every piece of paper that only has writing on one side, but actually, too much of that (or too wrinkled) isn’t going to be used by the kids. If the crate is packed too full, they can’t actually get out what they want. So I recycled a lot of scrap paper.  20 sheets of drawing paper that can be accessed by little hands is better to me than 100 pages they will need mom’s help with! 

Former art projects: Some of these actually were quite sweet. But for *THIS SPACE* I wanted a spot where the boys could easily play and create, and they couldn’t do that if their old projects were also crammed in there.  These were beautiful, but they weren’t in line with what I said I wanted. So I put them in a different pile to either hang up, or put in the mail to family members. 

So, there’s the recipe! 🙂 Decide what you want for the space, clear your slate, and only put back what is useful and beautiful. 

Let me know if you use this recipe to tackle any vortexes of despair in your own home!

The counter when I finally emptied the crate!
And, the crate afterwards — easily slides in, with the kids able to get what they need

A Psalm of Petition (a poem)

What I’m asking, the thing I seek,

Is that you’d pitch a tent in my wilderness, please.

Not the solid, brooding stone of Elijah’s cave.

Not the haunting bird calls and thundering waterfalls

Of David’s wild places.

A space, a pause,

Just a tent.

And not the wilderness of solitude and temptation,

But the one in the midst of the brood of children

Demanding water and quail and peanut butter sandwiches.

That wilderness.

A fragile, fabric flap, which lets in the sounds

Of laughter and tears and questions

But is somehow strong enough to shield the peace.

Not high up, on some mighty, manly temple mount,

But here in my kitchen, or possibly the laundry room.

I want to know if you will make a table for me in the presence of–

If not my enemies, then at least my own children–

If my prayers for parking places, snotty noses

lost toys, lost patience

Are still precious.

If you will still meet me,

still make my face glow.

I want to know

If the apron flung over my head

Can become a tabernacle.

Quiet is not quitting

I see the word “quiet” and laying on the page, it kind of looks like “quit”. 

If I stop, if I get quiet, what will happen? 

Will the algorithm spit me out and scrap me back to zero? 

Will I still be a writer, if I’m not producing 800 words a day? 

It’s hard, in our performance-driven, consumer society not to place my worth in my words, in my work, in what I can produce. But once you start the “produce+perform” drug, it’s really, really hard to stop. 

And when you’re up against an algorithm that’s built to keep you scrolling, keep you distracted, keep you feeling “busy”, keep you with the appearance of work, without actually doing the work of thinking, creating, digging deep…it’s even harder. 

As someone whose brain ping-pongs all over the place any given day, excited for MORE information, and MORE ideas, and MORE thoughts, I realize that I need some strict boundaries when it comes to social media to help me be a good person, a good parent, and a better creative. My instinct for more information is a great strength, I think. It helps me make new connections. But sometimes our greatest weaknesses happen when we overplay our strengths.

I know I need to digest things, that my best work comes when I’ve thought, and revised, and re-imagined. But I have to force myself to slow down. 

Creativity flourishes when you feel safe. Being creative means taking risks, exploring, imagining, trying new things. And social media is not exactly an incredibly safe space. It keeps you in a scarcity mindset, thinking you never have enough — enough likes, enough words, enough value. 

Social media is a tool, a good tool, a tool that can connect us to others, build community, and share beautiful things. But the tools we use shape us.

 Elisabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott… they all wrote their novels by hand. Their brains were disciplined enough to think through a complete sentence. The “backspace” on a computer and the ease of editing means that I can’t think through a complete phrase let alone a whole sentence without pausing to edit myself. I’ve just started reading the 700 page biography ‘A Promised Land’ by Barak Obama. He also chose to write it out by hand on legal paper, as a way to discipline his mind and thoughts. (Of course, he has a massive team that can transcribe it all before editing. I will accept my word processor, thank you). 

Consumerism and the pressure to produce can distort the image of God in us, the extravagant, generous God who created the world, and put this instinct in us as well. 

 In my sociology classes with first year students, we would talk about the process of alienation: losing a sense of meaning, becoming a stranger to yourself because what you’re doing every day becomes so disconnected from the end goal. In societies that are driven by production, output and money, it’s very easy to become alienated from your work. It’s easy to feel like a cog in a machine, whether you’re falling into the drudgery of changing a nappy, or cleaning the toilet, or tending to a child in the night yet again, or you are posting another image on social media, liking the relevant people, and networking. 

We are not production machines. We’re writers, yes, but we’re also bakers, gardeners, homework helpers, readers, clothes-washers, thinkers, lovers, mothers, fathers — and ultimately, we’re just children.

The funny thing is, when we’re children, when we’re secure in our child-of-God-ness, we’re freer. We can use the tools around us, without letting them completely use us. 

But I have to teach myself this.

So I’ve decided to attempt a seasonal approach to social media. I’ll post and comment and join in the conversation for three weeks, and then take a week break. Give myself a little Wintering Session, to borrow an idea from Katherine May. A pause. A chance to work more on my book proposal, yes, but maybe also a chance to do all those other things that make me myself. 

Paint my toenails perhaps. Watch Little Women for the fortieth time. Catch up with friends. Read real books that don’t relate to my “topic”. 

Make space for creativity to grow within some quiet. 

Juneteenth & Youth Day

It’s been a strange few weeks, and there are many better equipped people to be talking about this! If you don’t have much time or mental space, just stop reading this and go become a Patreon member at First Name Basis or follow Equal Justice Initiative and read their stuff! But writing has always been how I put things together, and maybe it will help someone.

 

My family is from Texas, my mom actually grew up near Galveston, and I have vague recollections of being told about Juneteenth and why it is important. But living in South Africa, we never celebrated it (although we did celebrate Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July with our American friends).

These past few weeks, we’ve seen statues of confederate generals coming down, and calls to include Juneteenth as a national holiday at the same time that people have also been advocating for an end to police violence and full scale criminal justice reform. The Equal Justice Initiative has been advocating for an American version of Truth and Reconciliation Commission to talk about the history of terror that has been visited on black people in America from enslavement to lynching to incarceration. Meanwhile there is a push towards discussion of reparations at the national governmental level.

On the one hand, taking down statues and making public holidays seems kind of like “window dressing” when compared to abolishing the police or ending mass incarceration. Like, are we going to take down some statues, declare some national holidays and call it all good? Hopefully, hopefully not. If I’m honest, though, there is also a part of me that feels uncomfortable about Juneteenth as a white person.  Yes, it’s celebrating the end of enslavement for so many people, but it also highlights the fact that there were enslavers. Explaining to my white three year old why we are having strawberry lemonade and red velvet cake feels way more complicated than explaining why we are having sugar covered sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving (of course, it’s shouldn’t be, but that’s another post).

But then I remind myself, that I’m already doing this. In South Africa, we just celebrated Youth Day. It’s a public holiday- no work, no school. We remember the youth of South Africa in 1976 who protested against the apartheid government for the right to education. They took to the streets, and children were injured. Children were killed. Police violence at its height. It made headlines. It “woke” some people. It was still many years until our first democratic election in 1994. It is in no ways a “happy” day to remember. It wasn’t a memory of a victory. But it was a memory of resistance, and a memory that needed to be mourned.

And so, when our first democratic government had power, one of their tasks, along with the constitution, was to come up with a way to have a shared history for our country. The Truth And Reconciliation commission gets a LOT of flak in South Africa these days for being ineffective. It was ineffective at reparations and convictions of crime. Almost thirty years on, we still have massive economic inequality on racial lines and many feel the TRC was just to make white people feel they had “done something” so they didn’t need to take the next step to restitution.

 
But, for all its flaws, I think it was pretty effective at helping us come up with a shared narrative for our history. Most of us agree what happened. Eight years after the TRC, I was taught from the South African national syllabus a very robust condemnation of apartheid. I was taught about the human rights violations, about the massacres and deaths, about forced removals and the Bantu Education Act, which denied black people access to quality education. People might argue and complain about the details, or where we go from here, but at least we have a basic agreement on the essentials of what happened. The conversation is in the same universe.

 

Our government also had the task of taking moments from history that had previously been celebrated, and reworking them into a new narrative.

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Nelson Mandela statue at the Union Buildings in Pretoria

They erected new statues next to the old colonial ones. Sometimes they removed the old ones, sometimes they just built much, much bigger ones of newer heroes to dwarf the old ones. They built new museums. They created a new national anthem. They re-named streets to be for apartheid activists, rather than colonial or apartheid heroes.

And they gave us new public holidays. Now, as a nation, we remember the women who marched to parliament to protest pass laws on Women’s Day. We remember the youth who marched for education and died on Youth Day. We remember the Sharpville Massacre every year on Human Rights Day. And sure, for some it’s just a day off. But even then, even if I have no traditions, I have to answer the “Why?” question.

 
“Mommy, why doesn’t Daddy have to work today?”
“It’s Youth Day.”
“What’s Youth Day?”
“Uhh, so remember we were talking about melanin and how some people have more and their skin is more brown? Well, youth day is a day that …. hmm…grown ups with skin like ours were being bad and saying that people with brown skin were not allowed to learn and have books they could read. Is that right?”
“NO!”
“Who made us?”
“God made us.”
“Yes, so that’s why it was very bad the white people were trying to stop people from learning. So the kids had to tell the grown ups they were doing something bad and to stop it. So its’ a day we remember the brave kids who said, “Stop doing those bad things!”

 

Yes. It is extremely awkward. Someone please tell me a better way to talk about this!!
It’s awkward telling your three year old, “White people oppressed people, and we’re white.” On the other hand — because of the bravery and sacrifice of those youth, my life is much richer and freer. There are heroes in this history that I want my son to learn from. I want him to be the kind of person who stands up to injustice. How’s he going to learn that unless I talk about it? Heck, I even wrote a blog post once about how I wanted more white people in my life to talk about this stuff. Why is it so much harder when it’s my own kid? And why is it easier for me to do with South African history than American history?

For me, I think a tiny part is that I didn’t learn this as a child. I learned about apartheid as a child- it was a fact of life. There were no “good old days” for me. Whereas my American history came through nostalgic children’s books and museums on visits to the States, which did not address a lot of these stories, or treated them as a “special interest group” part of history. American history is the history of AMERICANS. All of us. It’s white supremacy says that Juneteenth is a sideline celebration for some of us- not an integral part of our history. I need to reject that that lie. So when Jasmine from First Name Basis podcast shared ways to celebrate Juneteenth with your family, and why you should, I realized: this has to be for us, too. If we’re going to celebrate July 4th all the way over here in South Africa, we can celebrate Juneteenth!

 

We can make some red velvet cupcakes and talk about the resilience of enslaved people, their joy at their freedom, and the evils of slavery. We can talk about the resistors, black and white. And we can join with those who are asking all of America to do the same.

WAYS TO CELEBRATE:

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