Sunday, November 16, 2014

Do You Have a Pack?

On my way into town, there is a call center.  It is a bleak, low building set deep in a parking lot, sandwiched between the Public Defender's office and a Dollar General.  The cars in the parking lot always huddle close to the building, so that the call center's sign stands alone, far out next to the road.
One morning as I was driving past, I saw a man standing, alone, next to the thick red supports of the sign.  He was smoking a cigarette.  His back was hunched against the morning chill, and he stood facing the sign's posts, almost embracing them.  I got the impression that he was blocking out both the call center on his left, and the traffic on his right.  Alone, in his little psychic bubble, baggy jeans pulled up under the round ball of his body.  A stretched out polo shirt spread across his belly.  Uncut, shaggy hair.

Every time I drove past the center after that, I looked for him.  And invariably, he was there.  Alone,  Smoking his cigarette.  Bracing himself to go in to work or bracing himself to go home.

And then.  One morning like all the rest I was driving into town, and I looked for him and I found him, but he was not alone!  Standing with him were two other men and a woman.  They were all smoking their cigarettes together.  Turned in towards each other around those bleak red posts, the four of them shut out work and the traffic and suddenly I felt it - the magic that comes when a few people gather and their connection creates a reality unique to just those few.

I was happy for the Lonely Man, and I was happy for his friends, too.  What struck me the most was how connectedness could create magic even in a bleak parking lot under an obnoxious sign, with traffic zooming by.

This is a connectedness, I think, that we all need.  It is a connectedness I know my heart craves.  It's what Zach Galifianakis' character is talking about in The Hangover, when he toasts the guys on the rooftop:

"You guys might not know this, but I consider myself a bit of a loner.  I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolf pack.  But when my sister brought Doug home, I knew he was one of my own.  And my wolf pack ... it grew by one.  So there ... there were two of us in the wolf pack ... I was alone first in the pack .. it grew by one.  So there ... there were two of us in the wolf pack ... I was alone first in the pack, and then Doug joined in later.  And six months ago, when Doug introduced me to you guys, I thought, "What a second, could it be?"  And now I know for sure, I just added two more guys to my wolf pack.  Four of us wolves, running around the desert together, in Las Vegas, looking for strippers and cocaine.  So tonight, I make a toast!"

So.  How about it?  Do you have a pack?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Leaving

When I was 14, I left Luaniua for good.  We were on our last village visit before furlough, a furlough after which my parents had already told Nathan he would have to stay in America and not come back to the Solomons when they returned.  He was 16.  For me, though, it was more open ended - they said that I could return to the island after furlough, or stay in the States with my brother.  Apparently I was in an 'in between' age where I wasn't 'too old' to be overseas anymore (something about identity being formative in the teenage years), but wasn't 'too young' to be left behind in America if that's the way it played out.

For the months leading up to our leaving the village, word was spread that Nathan wouldn't be coming back.  And that I might not be coming back.  It was too difficult, too painful, to tell the villagers the truth - that we were getting too old to be in the village and that we were beginning to identify too closely with them instead of with American culture.  It was too difficult, honestly, to even tell myself this.  Because underlying this was the assumption that American culture was the superior choice to Island culture, and that was a rejection of all that I loved and all that was real to my heart.  So I made up my own story.

"My aunts in America want me with them," I told everyone.  "My parents took me away from them for so long and now they want me to be with them, it's their turn to have me."  This was the only reason any child would leave their family in island culture.  Kids were often shuttled between extended family members, if someone had a baby and needed extra help, or a child showed potential and needed better schooling in the capital city, or simply just to acknowledge and strengthen the bond between the family members.  The reality, however, was that we had no idea who I would stay with if I ended up remaining behind in America while the rest of the family went back to the Solomons.  When the time came, there was an advertisement put in the church bulletin, and we found my foster family that way. But that's another story.

When the time came for my final night in the village, I found myself sitting, with my family, in the place of honor at a goodbye feast with the entire village spread in a circle around us. The ship was waiting like an ominous portent far out in the lagoon.  We were on mats right up under the overhang in front of the church.  Bright pressure lanterns cast artificial light and intense black shadows over the gathering.  I wanted to be back in the shadows, where I knew my friends were, flirting and joking and delighting in the thrill of being gathered for a purpose with the rest of the village.  Instead I was trapped at the very front.  With mounds of food in front of me that I couldn't get past the tightening of my throat.  I tried to eat some, since it was superbly rude not to, and also because I knew this was the last island food I'd eat.

Spread in a huge, rounding circle, at which we were the apex, was the entire assembled village, also on mats, also feasting.  Men kept coming up to the front and pontificating about our family on a megaphone.  My dad would bow his head and nod gratefully when each one came.  I kept my eyes on the mat and tried to memorize the weaving.

I don't really remember much after that, but there are fleeting flashes.  I remember when the time for dancing came, and my friends performed the dances they'd prepared for the occasion.  I remember the insistent drum beat and knowing I'd been excluded from the dance practices as the 'guest of honor'.  The leaving had started weeks ago, apparently, and I hadn't even known it.  For their last dance I got up off the mat and danced with my friends, in the back, in the dark shadows , surrounded by the warm brown bodies and swaying hips the feeling of unity as we all together created something beautiful.  The last dance of togetherness.

When the dancing was over, it was time for villagers to present gifts to us, and to say their goodbyes.  They lined up, brown bodies stretching back into the dark shadows beyond the reach of the pressure lanterns.  I had to sit there, as one by one they brought keepsakes for us - traditional leis, hardened coconut shell water holders, things woven from pandanas leaves.  They'd place each token on the mat, then embrace me island style.  Cheek to cheek, inhaling my essence with a loud snuff through the nose,  and then breathing out their essence into me.  Crying, my entire world reduced to the four corners of my own body, I sat dumb and uncomprehending as islander after islander grabbed my face between both her hands, brought cheek to wet cheek and mingled our breaths and our tears.

It went on forever.  I remember sitting stripped and flayed beneath the bright lights of the pressure lanterns.  I remember the smokey smell of turmeric and the yellow streaks of grief where the women's body paint rubbed off onto me.  I remember being trapped in the moment that was forever and yet was bound by the inevitable pulling of time, the ship angry and waiting in the lagoon.

This was my leaving.  Not my first or my last, but I think the one that fragmented the deepest parts of my self.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


About a year ago I lost my footing.  It felt like a slow accumulation of Things on my to-do list, but they eventually became so great, that I lost my balance and fell into them.  I have been drowning until about a month ago.  What happened, you ask?  Something about renovating an old house, moving into a new house, then jumping into a fast and furious reelection campaign.  After the campaign drew to a close in early June, I just lay and panted on the shore of my sanity for about two months. Which brings us here.  I'm looking around and suddenly realizing that I'm *not* struggling through the pounding surf anymore ... I've got my footing on sure ground and the sun is shining overhead.

A (no longer cold nor broken) Hallelujah.

One sure sign that things are coming right in my brain again is that I've got a deep drive to clean and organize the house.  That's what I did this week.  The two Bigs were off on their first week of school, and Manasseh (2) isn't too hard to distract while I get work done.  (Side note:  This is the first time I've been alone at home with one child since Sophie was a baby.  It is so.  Much.  Easier!  I don't know if my endurance has deepened, or if he's just an easier kid than she was.  Whatever the reason, I'm not complaining.)

My meandering cleaning brought me eventually to the living room bookshelves.  Collections of books from college (Buzzed:  The straight facts about the MOST USED and ABUSED DRUGS from alcohol to ecstacy), our slowly growing inventory of classics (David Copperfield, The Count of Monte Cristo), the requisite assortment of nerdly fodder (the complete Harry Potter, CS Lewis, Tolkien, George Orwell, George RR Martin), and my childhood collection of every book ever written by L. M. Montgomery.

Also on a shelf all of their own, my dad's collection of Hardy Boys books, gathered over a few obsessed, preadolescent years.  These were sent to me by my aunt, when she found them tucked away in a box, in the corner of a closet, in my grandfather's house.  I keep them out because they make me feel connected to a past I am too young to know.  A past where a young boy in the 50's escapes into the adventures of two young brothers.

When my dad and mom came to visit recently, I came upon my dad, alone in the living room.  He was perched on the arm of the sofa, squeezed back by the end table and wall of bookshelves.  He had half of the Hardy Boys books out on the end table, and as I came upon him, was holding one in his hand, his fingers cupping the spine in an old and familiar way.  I stopped for a minute, watching.  His face was one of a man deep within himself.  Something about the way he held the book, had the others stacked out, spoke of this being an act his hands remembered.  I saw for a minute through the years to a young boy's obsession.

Turning from past to present.  Manasseh had found, as I cleaned, a stack of his brother's pogs.  He picked them carefully out from the flotsam and jetsam of their room - the Legos, Playmobil characters, blocks, race cars, clothes and puzzle pieces.  He brought them as I was working to the living room, and had them all spread out on the cushion of an armchair.  Spread out in a grid.  Each had its place.

I watched him finish up his project with a satisfied, 'now my world is safe' look on his face.  And identified that same look as the one on his grandfather's face, in that same room, a few weeks ago... and, I would guess, on the same man's, then boy's, face, sixty years ago.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Tension Between Hope and Faith

The wind had picked up some time during the night.  All I knew is I was awake, now, to the thundering torrent of monsoon rains on the tin roof, just feet above my head.  It would come in rolling waves of sound, each gust throwing the drops with  unchecked fury against our little house.  The mat wall at the head of my bunk gave a thin illusion of shelter from the elements outside.  The wind was angry that night.  

It had hurtled over untold leagues of ocean, to our lagoon, where it beat the friendly water into an unfamiliar beast.  It strong armed the supple palms, who tossed their heads in defeat, letting loose their coconuts with emphatic thuds onto the saturated sand.  The village huts, low and hugging the ground, hunched their shaggy shoulders as the monsoon wind bullied up and over and through them.  

I lay scared and still in my bed up close to the sloping roof.  Our house wasn't a village hut.  It did have mat walls, but it was built on stilts, two yards up from the ground.  The metal posts were sunk several feet into the island's sandy ground, and were attached to our floor joists with flimsy L-brackets.  With every gust of wind that pushed against the house, it swayed like a drunk man on its feet.  And with every sway, my mind's eye saw it rising up off its stilts and twirling into the gale, Wizard of Oz style, out to the waiting sea.  

I had no hope in my heart, in that moment, that things would turn out well.  Everything was dark.  Everything was loud and wet and scary, and the wind was certainly too big for me and even for the house.  So clearly could I see the inevitable unmooring of the house from its stilts, that I planned what to do when it happened.  I would flatten myself out on my bed.  I would kick a hole in the mat wall.  I would jump from the house just before it landed into the ocean.  The disaster would happen, of this I was certain.  I just didn't know which roaring gust of wind would be the one.
I did not have hope that all would be well.  But, perversely, my heart trusted.  I was certain the house would fall, but I was also certain that God was there.  I could feel Him, in the dark, in the fear, sitting with me.  My heart could hear His love in the midst of the chaos.  I knew that He was there, and that He knew what would happen, and that He loved me.  


This is the paradox I've been mulling over lately.  It seems to me that often in my life, I have either no hope but lots of faith, or I have lots of hope and little faith.  

For example.   

When I was 10 weeks pregnant and started bleeding heavily ... I had little hope that the baby would live.  But I had lots of trust that God was there and He cared for me.  Conversely, when we were in the process of negotiating for our current home, I had a stubborn hopefulness that refused to go away, that it would be ours, but I had very little faith that God even cared where we lived.

If you graphed hope and faith along an axis, they would look like sine waves of inverted positive and negative polarity.  

Hope waxes and wanes along the axis of life, and so does faith.  Sometimes hope is rising while faith decreases.  Sometimes hope decreases while faith gets stronger.  Sometimes, they exactly coincide and these are the moments when everything is the safest.  It feels the safest and most comfortable when your hope for the future is bright, while at the same time your faith that God is for you and loves you and that you are hearing Him clearly, is strong.  

What's hard is when either your hope or your faith wane.  Because then, there is no surety.  Then, you're not holding onto the monkey bars with both hands, but with one.  And you cling desperately with the one hand - cling either to the hope that refuses to disappoint, or to the faith that's sure of the Unseen.  

But who knows.  Maybe, as you grow and mature in your journey, the hope and faith waves begin to flatten out until finally they are coinciding most of the time.  Maybe.  But maybe that's just me being hopeful.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Taming the Wind

One thing that continues to amaze me is how you can  meet a person, who you think you probably have nothing in common with, until you begin to talk with them.  And then you realize that they speak your soul's language.  I am honored to call Shade Ardent, over at the unspared rod one of these sorts of soul sisters.  We were talking this morning about the wind, and realized that we both have very similar memories about it.  So we decided to both write our experiences, and cross link to each other's posts.  I encourage my readers to go over and browse her blog - her voice is strong and poetic and hauntingly beautiful.

Here is her post on wind ...

And here is mine ...


It was monsoon season.  The rain had been coming for days, driven almost sideways across the island by a ferocious wind.  It pushed incessantly through the front mat wall of our house, and our veranda floor was constantly damp.

Everything was constantly damp, for that matter.  My clothes, hung on a line strung between the stilts under our house, never got quite dry.  Little black dots of mold had appeared on all my T-shirts weeks ago, and now they smelled faintly sweet and musty after a few minute's wearing.  Even my foam mattress and pillow had that not-quite-dry feeling.

And then one morning, the sun finally came out.  It shone hot, hard diamonds on the puddles and dripping leaves.  The wind blew joyously off the lagoon and we all celebrated with it.  Onto the beach we ran to meet the wind.  It had been a hard thing, needling the rain and shaking my house on its stilts.  But now with the sun it became a wild, boundless thing that called to us a challenge.  Will you tame me?  Will you catch me?  I couldn't help but respond.

On the white, wet sand I stood, my layered lava lavas clapping fiercely at my calves.  I felt it, pushing primal and free against all of me, impatient in its rush in to the defiant bush.  It set the palm trees bowing, lava lavas and t-shirts flapping horizontal on the lines, and snatched words from my mouth almost before I'd uttered the sounds, flinging the echo of my own voice mockingly past my ears.  The sun shone above with a blessing and a challenge.  Will you tame it?  Will you catch it?  

I unwrapped my outer lava lava, leaving the inner one still tucked around my waist.  Taking two corners of the fabric, I tied them together around my hips.  Now I had a rectangular train stretching behind me.  A little waterspout formed cheerfully out on the edge of the lagoon.  The wind pushed.  My hair pulled out in a frizzy replica of the swirling water.  The wind pushed.

I took the furthest corners of the lava lava, wrestling them to me against the flow of air.  Stretching my arms above my head, with one end of the lava lava tied around my waist and the other clenched in my upraised fists, the fabric gave a snap.  A pop.  And back it pushed, a sail holding the wind.

My body the mast, my lava lava the sail, I held the wind.  And then I ran.  Into the rush, into the flow, my sail full, I ran.  I ran, and I jumped, and for a minute the wind held me, held me up, defiant of gravity.  For a moment, I was weightless.

For a moment, I was free.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Boundaries, Violations, and Consent

I went to visit my aunt last month, in Houston.  She lives in a stately subdivision, filled with elegant two stories and wide, tree shrouded streets.  Two streets down is the bayou, ringed around with parks and a running trail.  

After dinner one night, I followed her out front to walk the dogs, and really, the scene before me almost seemed staged to my slightly-more-private, New Mexican eyes.  Everyone was out in the street.  Children rode bikes and scooters.  Neighbors met on the sidewalk and talked in little clusters.  A gaggle of junior high girls walked past with arms linked, exuding the self conscious air of new independence.  I literally saw one man watering his lawn with a hose, talking to another over the hedge.  It was a scene straight from Pleasantville.  

Flabbergasted by the connectedness and community I saw before me, I turned to my aunt.  "You guys have a very ... involved ... neighborhood, don't you?  Is it like this every night?"

She smiled happily.  "Yep.  It's a little bit of heaven."



I have been thinking lately, that personal boundaries are like this.  Each of us is a house, on a street, with a white picket fence (or bricks, stucco, barbed wire ... whatever your style is, really).  We meet people out on the street every day.  These are the folks we nod to in the check out line, the random person on the Internet forum, the server who brings us our food.  They are the people on the outer most fringes of our interactions.  

Then, there are some people we interact with who we invite into the yard to talk.  These are the acquaintances - people we chat with at church or social functions.  People we meet at bars, or at the playground when our kids are playing.  You might friend them on Facebook, but wouldn't really post on their wall nor would they post on yours.  

Eventually some relationships build to the point where they migrate into the living room or even kitchen of your house.  Things get a little more intimate.  Now you share experiences, hang out on a regular basis.  You know some of each other's stories.  

Very few make it into the inner room of your house.  These are the people you trust the most.  They know your fears.  They see your true self.  Sometimes they see your true self better than you can see yourself.  



This is all assuming we live in perfect world, where we establish and clearly communicate our boundaries, and everyone else both recognizes and respects them.  The problem is, more often than not, this is not the case.  

Some people come walking down the street, see your house, and push themselves in.  They demand admittance straight to the inner room.  They see your house as a place they have a natural right to be.  You have no say in the matter.  

What does this look like in the real world?  To lay aside the metaphor for just a moment, it is ... 

A refusal to acknowledge 'no' 

A demand to have their own opinion heard, without listening to yours

Assumption that you will do something, without asking

Speaking for you 

Expecting to be able to give 'correction' without first building trust

Dismissing or not acknowledging your experiences or feelings

Telling you how you *should* feel in a situation

Giving advice without first building trust or being asked

Treating your personhood with disrespect by talking down or condescending to you

Telling you that your voice is unimportant, less than, or silly

Violating your personal space 

Sexual assault


Some of these violations are a person tramping through your fence from the street and stomping on your yard.  Some of them are a pushing in through the front door, and pissing on your living room floor.  The very deepest violations are an abuser laying claim to your inner room, setting up a throne, and holding court in the inner sanctum of your soul.  



There is a lot of talk about consent circling around on the interwebs.  I want to add my two cents, but first, let me make it clear.  In the case of assault - an abuser will push themselves into your house by force, no matter how fortified your fence or strong your front door.  

What I want to address here, is the shame that comes along with a boundary violation.  Many of us are raised to think that we do not have a right to assert our boundaries.  We are being 'mean', or a 'bad person', or even 'un-Christlike' if we refuse a person access to our front yard, living room, or even inner room.  When a person comes off the street and demands access, we are unloving or stubborn or uncooperative if we say no.  

This internalized shame causes us to ignore our natural red flags that get thrown up, and in the effort to be good people, we raze the fences, take the front door of its hinges, and roll out a red carpet straight to the inner room of our hearts.  Our houses get muddied from all the dirt being tracked in, and it's a constant, 24/7 block party.  There is no peace.  There is no quiet.  There is no rest.  There is no trust or sanctuary for the soul.  

The good news is, it does not have to be like this.  Shame, once identified, can be harnessed and made to work for you.  That's what I am learning to do.  Once I saw it, I and named it and made it my bitch.  Now when it rears up, I tell myself, "This is shame.  Shame is not true.  I do not have to listen to this."  It is the canary in the mine telling me that somewhere a boundary has been threatened, and I need to firm it up.  

I've also clung to the idea of 'emotional consent'.  Physical consent, obviously, is what we give when we're letting someone into the inner room sexually.  Emotional consent is what we give when we let someone into the inner room emotionally and relationally.  Someone earns our trust, invests in relationship, and if and when we feel it is appropriate, we can open the door to the inner room of our hearts.  These are the people who can bring correction.  These are the people who share the loads.  These are the people who hold for us the emotion when it becomes too great to bear.

And why are they safe?

Because they love us.  Because we know they love us.  They have proven that they love us.  Because they have invested in us and waited and not pushed and respected each boundary as they came to it, waiting for emotional consent each and every time.  And as a result of this long process of slowly connecting and gaining trust, a love builds up.  

This love never gives up.  
This love cares more for you than for self.
This love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
This love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on you,
Isn't always "me first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of your sins,
Doesn't revel when you grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God for  you,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

This love never dies.  
(taken from The Message paraphrase)