Sunday, April 27, 2008


It's a cloudy day, and as per usual, my mind is just as cloudy... not fit, perhaps, for inflicting my thoughts on others. My apologies in advance to those 2 or 3 fantastic, angelic folks who read my blog and after whom in gratitude I may well name my first child (or next cat, more likely). However, I just finished another Wendell Berry book, Remembering. I'm on vacation, and have a stack of books that I want to continue on in RIGHT NOW, but I can't until I write about this book.

When I first started reading Remembering, I was a little taken aback. It's dark. It's about Andy Catlett, the main narrator of A World Lost and a member of Berry's Port William community that is the topic of so much of his fiction (maybe all of it... I haven't read it all yet... yet :^) ). Andy has suffered a horrifying personal loss, and he is not handling it well. The reader is stuck in the middle of Andy's mental anguish, witnessing his struggles with the everyday as he lays in a motel room in San Francisco and thinks back over the events of the preceding day --when he cussed out a room full of progressive agriculturalists at a conference where he'd been invited to speak-- and of the preceeding months since he's suffered his loss.

This is not the gentle world of Jayber Crow, or even the traumatized world of A World Lost, painted in Impressionist fuzziness through the lens of a boy who experiences that particular trauma more as a metaphor for family loss and distance than anything else. The pain here is very personal, very close, and the reader is spared none of it. Berry shows here that his laser-sharp descriptive skills can be used not only to place you in a blissfully beautiful agrarian paradise, but also to place you inside the head of a person who is bearing many layers of pain and loss. The effect is just as precise, but not nearly as pleasant.

Then Andy gets out of bed and wanders the streets of San Francisco in the 4am pre-dawn... and as I've often found true for myself, so much gets cleared up by his just going for a walk. As in A World Lost, Berry moves back and forth in time through the memory of Andy Catlett, however Andy not only remembers the details of his life, but vividly remembers the details of the lives of his forefathers. This is as mystical as anything I've read so far by Berry, and the effect is really powerful. He returns us to the agrarian world, the world of Port William, by means of the relationships that have formed Andy, have made him what he is. As Andy "remembers" these snapshots of those who came before him, and of his own life at the crucial turning points who have made him what he is, he moves past his present grief and remembers his place in history... remembers who he is, and the basic goodness of that.

One of the more beautiful passages, at the beginning of the 4th chapter, sums this up:

"On the verge of his journey, he is thinking about choice and chance, about the disappearance of chance into choice, though the choice be as blind as chance. That he is who he is and no one else is the result of a long choosing, chosen and chosen again. He thinks of the long dance of men and women behind him, most of whom he never knew, some he knew, two he yet knows, who, choosing one another, chose him. He thinks of the choices, too, by which he chose himself as he now is. How many choices, how much chance, how much error, how much hope have made that place and people that, in turn, made him? He does not know. He knows that some who might have left chose to stay, and that some who did leave chose to return, and he is one of them."

The book ends with Andy dreaming/experiencing/envisioning a Port William Redeemed, as it would be one day in the new heavens and the new earth, and he understands that he is seeing what is the really real, his place in a community that someday will be redeemed in the presence of the Almighty. It is so so beautiful.

As with everything else that I've read by him so far, his writing pricks at something in me and right now I'm defining this as the struggle for Home. I mentioned a couple of entries back that I have a fair bit of confusion and angst about my right place in this world. Some of this is just drama --and maybe sometimes pms-- but some of it does have a place in reality. I don't remember where I heard the quote that a man's instability as a person increases in direct proportion to his distance from his homeland, but it has stuck with me. I'm not all that far from where I was born, but I'm still far... far from the way I was raised. My Personal South is the Blue Ridge Mountains... that's what I miss, that's what I remember. I don't really get Flannery O'Connor's South, or the South of many writers I've read, but I get Berry's South. It's about the people, but the people are all about the land. He's besotted with green rolling hills and the smell of earth, of feeling connected to what is pure, made by God and not by man... that which is unarguably only tended by man as God's caretaker of His creation. He's also quite fond of those who are respectful in their caretaking, mindful that what they tend isn't theirs and that they will pass it on in times to come.

This is not a world I know firsthand. I grew up in a quiet suburb of a small-ish Southern town. However, Roanoke is the biggest town for a ways around, and people come from as far away as Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina to shop there and hang out there. It's kind of the Big City that way. You don't have to drive far to get into The Country, and we used to go on rides out there a lot when I was a kid. So I don't know that way of life, but I used to long for it, because it was all around us and it looked so beautiful. I used to feel like our little suburb was way more urban than I ever wanted to be. I wanted to be out in The Country, and to learn that way of life that no one in my family had a clue about, the way of life close to nature.

Obviously my choices didn't lead me there, but my longing for a simpler way of life, closer to nature, has never gone away. I've made a difficult (because expensive) decision to move upstairs in my building to a one bedroom apartment. Yesterday, I got the key, and went and sat in the empty apartment, trying to picture where things would go, trying to feel it as Home. I couldn't. I closed my eyes and pictured a place where I'd much rather spend $1,175/month to live... a house in The Country, with a little land around it, trees, birds, a place to put a nice garden, a big yard where a dog or two could run and play to their hearts' content.

and I thought "why the HELL am I STILL here"?

The answers come quickly enough... I've practiced running through them so many times. Community, job, music, culture, access to education, money. Community is definitely the big one... single, childless, bookish, vaguely artistic women are still an oddity in The Country. The longing doesn't go away though, the longing for Home, an idealized place where I can be surrounded by God's good green things and His birds and beasts, at peace as I really am and be surrounded by those whom I love and who love me.

Guess I'm just longing for Heaven like everybody else.

Monday, April 21, 2008

God Grew Tired of Us

I watched God Grew Tired Of Us tonight. It had been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks now, holding up my Netflix queue. I'd picked it because I thought it looked inspiring, but I found that once it got here, I didn't want to watch it... so it just sat there, and I began to appreciate the success of the Netflix business model. They get their 9 bucks a month whether I watch movies or not, you know? Not rocket science, but of course I thought it was a deal at the time I signed up...

To be honest, I have studied about the Sudan, and I expected to find it depressing. Sudan is a cause celebre of the Christian world and of celebrities. The idealist in me thinks this is a good thing. The student of conflict analysis in me thinks it is a neutral thing and can be very negative. The government of Sudan doesn't appreciate Western intrusion, and the framing of the conflict as Muslim/Arab North feeding on Christian/African south has led critics to see this as just another expression of American anti-Muslim sentiment and the colonial impulse. and of course, people are dying there now just like they were dying before George Clooney and his Dad paid Darfur a visit. I hope and pray that all the press results in a real end to what is going on in Sudan, and I hope that all the intervention has kept this from being as bad as it could have been... but there's no way to know.

All my pessimism aside, this movie is really wonderful. I mean, it's a movie, and it has an agenda. It doesn't show all it could show, but it does give a fuller picture of the lives of the Lost Boys than you can get from any book, and I learned quite a bit. When you see a documentary like this, you remember how important film really is, and how powerful. Even though I understand that the mere presence of a camera changes people's behavior and creates a world that isn't quite the real one, there is still something really compelling about seeing the stock footage of Sudanese orphans arriving skeletal at the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, and realizing that the men whose stories the film tells went through a living hell before they even hit puberty, and that as children, they knew physical hunger and thirst deeper than most people can even conceive of, going days without any food or water, eating mud and drinking each other's urine to survive.

The film follows several young men who leave a refugee camp in Kenya --where they have lived for 10 years as orphans-- to begin life in the U.S. They fled Sudan when the Sudanese government announced in the mid 1980s that all young boys in the South were to be exterminated, wiped out. So they left their families, sometimes having seen those families killed by northern soldiers, and wandered literally hundreds of miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia, and then hundreds more miles to Kenya when Ethiopia's government collapsed in the early 90s. They have become permanent residents of the refugee camp and permanent wards of the U.N. The situation in the camp is desperate, with no real hope for any future, so the ones selected to go to the U.S. jump at the chance even though it is terrifying for them to leave the only family they know... each other.

The movie manages to show them learning about electricity, toilets, grocery stores, etc. without portraying them as buffoons, children or savages. I think that's when I realized I really liked the film, that it was going to show these guys as intelligent, brave, strong... because they are. I know you can't generalize about an entire continent, but it has been my experience with most Africans that I've met (that were raised in Africa) that they are much, much stronger than most Americans, much more dignified, and that their intelligence runs deep... but they don't parade it. I know that for some of them, particularly when they've lived here a while, that their strong ties to family and clan feel like straitjackets... the constant pleas for money become so tiring. But the culture they carry with them, the sense of being from somewhere, is something I envy tremendously.

The character that the viewer is most drawn to is John Bul Dau. He is so unbelievably articulate and wise and dignified and seems to have such tremendous character... even before he leaves the camp it is apparent that he is a leader and is set apart from the others. It's late and it's hard from my tired brain to find the words to describe him, but suffice to say that his story is the one that leaves me the hungriest to help... if I only knew how, really. There is something in the world that demands that such giftedness and dignity be honored. It's how I feel about V., the girl from Togo. She is like a queen, even as she deals with her troubling situation, and there is something wrong in the universe that someone like that should have to suffer like she does.

I'll be mailing the film back to Netflix tomorrow, so I strongly suggest you put it in your queue if you haven't seen it already. :^) You can also check out if you want more (or more articulate) information.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

This I Believe

Andres asked me a while ago to write a "This I Believe" essay. "This I Believe" is a project by sponsored by NPR, based on a 1950s series where ordinary Americans were asked to give short statements of their core beliefs. It's been going on for a while and they've published a book (cover pictured on the right). (You can find more about it at Andres wrote one of them himself and it was really beautiful. I told him I was having trouble thinking of things to write about and he gave me this as an assignment.

I remember a conversation back in 2002 with Corrie and Matt and Andrew at the Indonesian restaurant in Silver Spring where I said I'd figured I'd better come up with a creed, because a) I was becoming quite a theological mutt with all my wanderings from church to church and b) because there was a reason I was moving from church to church and I needed to get the belief system that was leading me to keep searching down on paper.

I finally started today. I'm not finished, nowhere close... what I've written wouldn't really qualify for the NPR project... I don't tell a story and it's too preachy and not focused... but I'm putting it here because it's a start.

This I Believe

I believe that life is a gift.

I believe in God.

I believe that my whole faith is summed up in “Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” and that it will take my whole life to get anywhere close to understanding what that really means.

I believe that anything truly good takes time and patience to achieve, and that there will be as many or more moments of doubting as there are of certainty that you are doing the right thing. That’s just how life is.

I believe that God guides us through our love, shapes and defines us through it. When we choose not to love, we choose to be deformed, to be shaped by our hatred. In my own life, every time that I’ve chosen to forgive, the issued that caused offense tended to fade and I moved forward, and I was more blessed by the forgiveness that the person I forgave was. When I’ve chosen not to forgive, my anger grows like a cancer inside of me, and the incident that causes offense grows greater and greater and greater, until it dwarfs both of us… myself and the offender. I see myself grow bent underneath the weight of my unforgiveness, but that doesn’t make it easier to get rid of it and move on. Better just to forgive in the first place and move on.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in cheap and easy solutions to big problems and I don’t believe in being a doormat. I haven’t really learned how to simultaneously protect myself from further abuse and forgive the perpetrator. I also suspect that I occasionally play the victim. More often than not my bitterness --when I choose to hold onto it-- is a shield, but it’s a very bad one, because it means that that person’s offenses continue to hurt me long after they actually commit them, and hurt me more than they would have otherwise. There are people whom I’ve intentionally distanced myself from and often I think I did the right thing, but if I continue to feel intense anger when I think of them, then they are still hurting me and my distancing doesn’t help at all.

I believe that forgiveness is one of the most powerful things we can ever do. I believe that I HAVE to forgive because I want to be forgiven for what I do, too, and because it is better for my own mental, spiritual, and even physical health to forgive than to continue to be angry. I believe that forgiveness is what makes it possible to continue to love --or maybe even to love in the first place-- and lack of forgiveness is how hate always starts. In situations where I have forgiven and been able to move on, most of the time I’ve found those relationships to be the most lasting. Something about moving past hurt with someone, particularly if they make some effort to try to redeem themselves, gives depth and strength to relationships.

All that being said, one of the things that makes me saddest is thinking of those relationships where I’ve been hurt, or hurt someone, so much that we really can’t move on. I’m a person of silence, mostly, and when I’m angry I create silences so deep and oppressive that everyone around just gets the hell out of the way as soon as they can. They’re straitjackets, these silences. I can’t get free of them any more than the other person. Honestly, I’m more afraid of my anger than anyone I’ve been angry at… it’s this huge, dark thing. I don’t know if other people feel exactly as I do when they get angry. Maybe everyone does, and just doesn’t talk about it, because everyone is as afraid of their anger as I am of mine.

I don’t want to give myself up to it, though. I don’t want to be shaped by my anger and my hatred. I want to be shaped by my forgiveness and my love.

I believe that forgiveness is the most troubling, difficult, necessary and powerful thing I’ll ever struggle with… my ability or inability to do it shapes everything.

People who forgive are also easier for others to forgive. I know I say and do things all the time that require others to forgive me, and those who do are like fresh spring breezes in my life. I almost never get angry at these people, or if I do it just blows away after a very short time. I think this is what makes a friend, this constant day-to-day forgiveness for all the little selfish asshole things we do every day, all the little snarky looks we give each other when we think the other isn’t looking, all the times we pretend to listen and don’t, the strained smiles and sarcastic responses, all the little indignities we subject each other to all day, every day, because we’re selfish and tired and distressed and sometimes just mean.

....and that's as far as I got with the essay. So basically it's an essay about how important the choice is to be shaped by your love and not by your hate, and that the biggest part of love is forgiveness. Maybe forgiveness IS love, because our enchantments with one another always fade once we realize that underneath we're all battling the little 3 year old inside us screaming "MINE!!" and yanking the toy from the other kid and "NO!!!" everytime we're told to not to do something that would hurt us or to do something that would help us but would require some effort and sacrifice.

Some of us have to battle that little kid more than others, and some of us aren't terribly successful much of the time.

(My train of thought has been completely derailed by this stunning Thom Yorke bootleg I bought from this dude who sells CDs at GMU. If you've never heard the song "Like Spinning Plates" [as they perform it live, not the version from "Amnesiac"], you should. For all of his atheism, the man has a gift from God.)

I'm sure all my high and mighty thoughts on forgiveness will get bashed against the rocks this week as I deal with the countless storms-in-a-teacup that are my daily work life. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by the absurdity of what people will get upset about, until I realize that I'm upset, too... and also that I'm being a condescending ass. lalala just another week clinging by my nails to the grace of God... and amazing grace it is.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Wherever you go, there you are

I have had a really rough last few days... and it has been, as it so often is, mostly a product of my internal state. My interaction with J.C. on Friday ripped a scab off a really deep wound, and exposed my underlying confusion about the purpose of my life.

Yeah, I'm a little dramatic sometimes.

Here's the gist: I have fought --and fought hard-- to find contentment in my life. I wasn't raised to be happy with the way things are, and I've always been drawn to people who were either beat up by the world or determined to save it, sometimes both. My folks were fairly dramatic people, and always trying to figure out why they were here, and subject to big highs and deep lows. So that's me, too... but I've been working hard for years to be ok with my life as it is, and the times when it's worked have been really rewarding and brought me a lot of peace... even though I still struggle with my sense that I should be doing something, y'know, BIG. Cuz y'know, I'm special and all that.

Well, as I've been attesting to on my blog, the whole contentment thing has been workin' for me lately. I mean, I'm still ME, and I complain a lot, particularly about work, but basically I've been walking around with a little song in my soul. That changed Friday... maybe it had already been changing, maybe it's going to be a fight every day of my life. J.C. is this Larger Than Life Washington, DC type... a defender of liberty in Latin America, political analyst, crusader... people call him from media outlets to ask his opinion on current affairs. He has a tattoo of the word "liberty" in ancient Sumerian on his back. I mean, dude is HARDCORE. He's travelled a lot, too. Almost been arrested for his political activities in some far-off places.

Being around him, I felt myself drawn to him with what I can only describe as the familarity of addiction. There's hardly anything that seems to satisfy me in some sort of morbid way than being around really interesting people and beating myself up for being so f'ing boring and cowardly by comparison. I'd given my testimony at Convergence about exactly this... trying to be healed of the compulsion to "save the world", since no one, NO ONE on this earth has the capacity to effect such massive change on their own, and the best work that is done to this end is done in the real sacrifices of everyday. I really believe this, but there is something deep inside of me that I haven't answered, that is still pointing me at me and saying "coward", "fake".

Maybe it's just the Old Accuser, doing what he does best, trying to knock us over --and knock us over hard-- at just the point when God is starting to do His best and most holy work in us.

As a way of pushing J.C. and my nagging feelings of worthlessness out of my head this weekend, I plowed ahead with the intention of finishing Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, and I am almost at the end of it now. If you've never read Jayber before, then a quick summary is that it's the story of a man's love affair with the place of his birth, and his chronicle of the goings on of that tiny township near the Mississippi (I think) River. It's a really beautiful book, for all the usual reasons that Wendell Berry's books are beautiful... his attention to the tiniest of details, the ring of truth and authenticity to all of his descriptions of places, people, and events.

It's the people in the book I've found the most compelling, though... the people, committed quietly to their shared lives and to one another, bearing with each other through trials, boredom, death, illness, and all manner of minor irritations and pettiness. Their love for and dependence on one another rings true. It's what so many long for, and lack, in Northern Virginia and DC... at least from where I sit, and I'm certainly not the first to note it. Sitting at Convergence on Sunday with a table of other Southern Virginia expatriates, most of whom are quite a bit older than me, I felt it most particularly. I've known these folks for just a short amount of time, but they feel so familiar. They tell their stories and I listen and I tell my stories and they listen and we all pay attention to the details of each other's lives, because we are all aware of the blessing of the other, of the immense value of simply being with one another. Listening, really listening, is a form of caring for someone... sometimes the only form we can really manage for whatever reason.

The juxtaposition of the two men --J.C. and Jayber Crow (who have the same initials, come to think of it... and of course they share these with Jesus Christ, but I won't try and read into that too deeply) -- and the struggle they represent within me has pulled and pulled at my attention over the last couple of days as I've read. I am deeply committed to being where I'm at, because it just doesn't make sense to live somewhere else. However, part of being where I'm at is being surrounded by people like J.C., who poke and prod at my peace with the seeming hugeness of their lives and their intellect. I am by no means an unintelligent person, nor am I without a sense of my responsibility to the world and to make the best of what God has given me, and people like J.C. really make me feel guilty. The question, of course, is what is truly the "best" usage of my gifts.

My Dad --who has driven an 18 wheeler into all lower 48 states, Canada and Mexico-- has this great phrase: "Wherever you go, there you are." It's one of those great, obvious Southern phrases, meaning no matter where you go, you will still be you, dealing with your own faults and failings and struggles. You will still be merely human, and you will still bring your own particular brilliance and your own particular bullshit to whatever situation you inhabit. I've found this phrase comforting for a long time. I can't NOT be me, and to be me includes to embody my values. When I stop embodying my values, my soul gets sick, and I begin to act inauthentic. I begin to die a little.

Somehow, I have to figure a way to embody my values, all of them. MY values, not someone else's. J.C., for all his adventurousness, lives a life that would be contrary to my values. I care about individuals, and I believe in the power of committing to a community and to a line of work that serves others. J.C. sees himself as serving a cause that is above all others. He has his vocation, and it has its downsides as well as its moments of glory. So do I.

I'm not Jayber Crow, either. I don't live in Southern Virginia and I likely will not return. I love the South, but I am not fully at home there, not fully satisfied to be a biggish fish in the small pond. I am, rather, just me, doing my best, here, now, where I'm at... and this has to be enough. The present is God's gift to me, and I want to be able to see it that way.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The song sums it up for today

This is a beautiful and odd day, with last night and J.C. hanging over me like a big dark cloud... todo es oscuro... but this song is helping to clear my mind a bit and I'm hanging on to it like a big piece of driftwood in this weird black lake I'm suddenly floating in.

If you've never heard it before, it's "Beauty of Uncertainty" by K.T. Tunstall.