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”

Making Space

IMG_20210117_065831034_HDRPerhaps the strangest thing about motherhood, the part no one really told you, is how it takes up your space. How it hems you in.

How you used to start a day with endless choices and opportunities, and suddenly your options are limited by a tiny human who wants to eat at certain times, or needs you to get to sleep, or bring a cup of milk, or sing a song, or watch a duplo tower come crashing down and then wants help building it up again.

How you used to end the day with a soft collapse on your pillow, and now you tentatively lay down, shoulders still tense, ear cocked for a cry or a “MoooOOOOoooommmm!” How you wake up the next day with the same crick in your neck, to the same call.

There’s just not as much space. Continue reading “Making Space”

Moving On & Finding Home

AtHomeInTheWorld_CVR_500I’ve written before about this tension I always feel as a TCK between trying to be content where I am, and at the same time missing the place or the culture that I am without.

I read books about the spiritual discipline of rootedness, of staying in one place and getting connected even though it isn’t perfect (heck, I’ve even written about that!) … but it’s still always a struggle. I live in rented apartments and I get itchy and long to paint the wall, to pick out my own dishes, and not just use ones from Goodwill (because why invest?) I get tired of feeling like there’s no place that’s really mine. I want to build a nest. I want to borrow sugar from my neighbor.

But the other part of me wants to travel the world and live out of a backpack, and never settle anywhere. The thought of getting a mortgage makes me feel like I’m signing a death notice (even though I know you can always sell a house). As I accumulate stuff I am mentally thinking, “Will this fit in a suitcase?”

So I loved getting to read Tsh’s new book At Home in the World, where she wrestles with some of these same ideas. Tsh’s book is all about their family adventure of traveling around the world in a year. They go to China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Morocco, France, Italy, Croatia, Kosovo, Turkey, Germany and England…. all with three kids, all with one backpack each. Continue reading “Moving On & Finding Home”

A few parables

I’ve been reading the book of Luke lately. In Luke Jesus does lots of cool things, and  he tells these things called parables to the crowds who follow him. It made me want to write some of my own.  These stories are made up. Don’t take them too seriously.

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Part 1

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Daily Mail.co.uk

Jesus went with his disciples to the city, with a great crowd following him. A funeral procession was coming out as he approached the city gates. The boy, who had been shot and killed by a police officer, was the only son of a widow and many mourners from all over the city were with her. Continue reading “A few parables”

Reading Fiction as a form of Freedom Fighting

Author Julia Alvarez, who escaped the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and came to America when she was ten years old, has said:

“I would go as far as to say that by reading books, entering other realities, and then taking those adventures back into our own lives, we are freedom fighters. One of the first things that happens in a dictatorship is that books are confiscated, people are not permitted to congregate and share ideas and stories… I know because I lived that reality in a dictatorship. You know it because you have lived that reality in the novel I have written or in other novels you have read about similar situations.”

The English major in me likes this idea. I wrote an essay my senior year about impoverished imaginations being the root of conflict and injustice, and if we read more stories, we would be come more human- humane. I like the idea that even though I’ve never lived under a dictatorship by reading and listening, really listening, to her story, I can understand something about the world, and humanity, and injustice. Continue reading “Reading Fiction as a form of Freedom Fighting”

Easter Sunday (or,Ta-Nehisi Coates, Miroslav Volf & NT Wright have a conversation about bodies)

We are back again. This time it’s very early, and the sun is rising. And the kindly looking bishop takes the pulpit.

“Our scripture reading for today comes from the gospel according to John: “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”

Bodies matter. Disembodiment is evil. But we are people who believe in resurrection. Because Christ is raised from the dead, we believe that all will be raised. Resurrected to judgement or to eternal life. What I do in my body as a white person matters. And what happens to a black body matters. There will come a reckoning. Continue reading “Easter Sunday (or,Ta-Nehisi Coates, Miroslav Volf & NT Wright have a conversation about bodies)”

Holy Saturday, the day of waiting (or, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Miroslav Volf & NT Wright have a conversation about bodies)

Christ is dead in the tomb. Everything is suspended.The congregation is silent, sitting and mourning the death of Prince, a black youth murdered by a police officer (or all of us), and the death of Christ, murdered by jealous rivals (or all of us). Miroslav Volf steps to the front and speaks in a slightly European accent: 

“It’s painful. Death is horrible. I know that you are speaking about his life having a higher purpose in order to make meaning for yourselves. To cope. You’re weaving Prince’s story into the larger story of your Christian faith, and you’re saying that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. That’s in the Bible, it’s true.

But stop! Continue reading “Holy Saturday, the day of waiting (or, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Miroslav Volf & NT Wright have a conversation about bodies)”

Good Friday: The Day God Dies (or Ta-Nahesi Coates, Miroslav Volf & N.T. Wright have a conversation about bodies)

We are all gathered in a small chapel for our normal good Friday service, the candles are lit, the incense is ready, but then Ta-Nahesi Coates stands up in the middle of the service, faces the congregation, and begins to speak:

“When a black man dies, everyone wants to talk about forgiving the killer.They want to weave his death into some kind of higher meaning, some purpose. But I don’t believe in God. I believe in bodies. When I sat in the church Prince’s funeral, my black friend who was rich, well educated, whose mother had groomed him for Yale, when I sat there I couldn’t see a higher purpose in his death. Continue reading “Good Friday: The Day God Dies (or Ta-Nahesi Coates, Miroslav Volf & N.T. Wright have a conversation about bodies)”

Flight Behavior: On identity, climate change, and the evangelical tribe

Identity was the word of the year in 2015. Which I like, because I’m obsessed with thinking about how identity works in shaping our world. There’s people who think stuff happens in the social world primarily because people are rational and weighing the pros and cons and acting in their own self-interest. Then there’s people who still believe in altruism. And then there’s people who think people act not because of some rational thought, but because their actions line up with who they are. “I buy a Mac because I’m an Apple person.” “I’m a Twins fan because I’m a Minnesotan.” “I recycle because I’m a green millennial.” Continue reading “Flight Behavior: On identity, climate change, and the evangelical tribe”