Tuesday, January 14, 2014

This Is Your Life, Part 2

Yesterday I shared the news that my grandmother had died, my mixed feelings about that, and one of the things I've come up with in thinking about my reaction to her death: be today the person you want to be remembered as when you're gone.

Today's post is going to be longer, but I hope you bear with me. The other things I've learned from my grandmother's life are things that have been on my mind for a while. In my last semester of seminary I had to write part of a sermon series, and I chose to write on hospitality. The sermon from that series that I actually wrote was on hospitality when it's difficult, and it heavily featured my grandmother's relationship with me and my family. Here are the two sections about her:

Today we’re going to get down to the potentially ugly business of offering hospitality to the people who make it difficult, to the people we don’t like, to the people we know but we kind of wish we didn’t.

My mom’s mom is one of these people for me. She is a difficult guest, to put it lightly. She has always lived close to my family, and back when she was still driving, she would invite herself over to our house unexpectedly and then criticize my mother for not cleaning for her arrival. If we did happen to invite her over, she was even more harsh. My grandmother’s visits have always been punctuated with rude remarks, barking demands, and sharp criticism.

For example, this past Thanksgiving Jeff and I went to pick her up for the family celebration at my cousin’s house, as she no longer drives. My grandmother and my cousin live at opposite corners of a large rectangle formed by four freeways, each of which runs very nearly perfectly north-south or east-west, making the distance the same either way. Yet, as Jeff and I drove her to my cousin’s house—doing her a favor!—she spent the entire ride complaining about how long it was taking and criticizing Jeff for not taking the other way, her preferred way. We spent the evening in what was largely a beautiful celebration with the majority of my family as well as Jeff’s immediate family. Yet, it was punctuated every few minutes by her yelling demands for attention or service, as though none of the other twenty people in the house were busy, were themselves trying to eat dinner and enjoy themselves, or were a three year old and a three month old who frankly needed the attention more than her. She told me, yet again, that I was getting pudgy and if I wasn’t careful about eating so much I’d end up like my mother. Then, on the way home, as we took “her way,” she spent the entire time not saying how nice it had been to see everyone, what good hosts my cousins had been, how good my mother’s and mother in law’s and aunt’s cooking had been, how cute her great-grandchildren were, or how nice it was for Jeff and I to go out of our way to take her home, but saying, “See, isn’t this so much faster? I don’t know why you didn’t take this way the first time. Nobody ever listens to me.” (For the record, I timed it. It wasn’t faster.)


Sometimes, the person to whom it is most difficult to offer hospitality is related to you, and you really can’t get out of it.

And you know what?

Whether that person is your grandmother or your annoying neighbor, your sometimes-friend or your kid’s awkward best friend, they are probably the ones who need your hospitality the most. They are probably the ones who hear least often that they are appreciated, that they are valued, that they are loved.

My grandmother has had a difficult life, and unfortunately she has reacted to it by becoming someone who is difficult to be around; yet, because she is difficult to be around, her fears of abandonment are confirmed and her feelings of loneliness are amplified, making her still more bitter and spiteful. She never says so because I think she may have forgotten how, but I think she feels best when she sees us, even if she is still finding something else to complain about, because we are reminding her that she is not alone.

This Christmas when our youth sold items made for us by congregation members, I bought my grandmother a simple length of knitted red yarn held together with a big gold safety pin that Jody had made. It was an afterthought; it hadn’t sold by the end of the sale, and it just struck me that it was my grandmother’s favorite color. Plus, she’s complained all my life about how cold her neck is. So I paid the few dollars we’d priced it at to bump up our sales a bit more, stuck it in an envelope, and sent it down to Texas. It has been years since I have heard my grandmother as happy and as truly grateful for something as she was when she called me to thank me for that little neck warmer. There was no anger, no guilt, no rudeness in that phone call; just gratitude for an act of kindness that seemed to me so small and insignificant, for having been remembered.

So there are two things here that my grandmother's life taught me. 

First, to always think about why a person might act the way they do. Without excusing the abuse my grandmother put us through, I can acknowledge and understand that the way she treated us was the result of a lifetime of being treated poorly herself. It doesn't make what she did ok, but it makes her easier to forgive- easier to love anyway.

Second, to remember that the way you treat others- even in interactions that seem insignificant to you- can drastically impact their life. I saw this both ways with my grandmother. The way that she treated me has left indelible marks on my life, both in scars and in my lifelong resolution to be as little like her as possible. On the other hand, I saw from time to time how even small kindnesses that I could show her made her, for a while, a kinder person again. As someone who struggles with depression myself, I've come to think of the good things that I do and that others do for and with me as things that hold back the darkness; I know that my grandmother also struggled with depression, and I like to think that times when she called me and I put on my calmest, kindest voice for her were times that held back her darkness for a while. 

Moments of connection are what keep us human, and some people just don't get enough of those moments. I think in the end that may have actually been what killed my grandmother. I used to say she was living on pure bitterness at this point, but as she cut people off I think she, in a not insignificant way, died of loneliness. She wasn't alone when she died, but she was still lonely. She just gave up. No one should die that way, and it's one of the saddest things about all of this. I may not exactly mourn my grandmother's life, but I mourn the life she could have had.

So, one more time. This is your life. Are you who you want to be?

Monday, January 13, 2014

This Is Your Life, Part 1

Tonight something happened that was worth resurrecting my blog- my grandmother died. Some of you know of her as the crazy grandma or the evil grandma. As you can imagine, I'm kind of ambivalent about the whole thing.

My grandmother- my mom's mom- was bitter, racist, manipulative, and abusive. She caused me and my family untold pain and left each of us with mental and emotional scars that can't be denied. So honestly, I'm not sad that she's dead.

I am sad, though. I'm sad for the lifetime she wasted, the relationships she ruined, the energy that she put into holding onto all the wrongs that had ever been done to her and taking them out on everyone around her. I'm sad for the kind person that she occasionally was, and for the way that that person was consumed by the bitter, lonely woman she was when she died.

Lately my motto for getting myself to a healthier place physically, mentally, and emotionally has been "become today the person you want to be tomorrow." I think tonight I'd like to amend that: "be today the person you want to be remembered as when you're gone." Or, as Switchfoot put it 10 years ago, "This is your life- are you who you want to be?"

Monday, March 4, 2013

Two Sets of Three Important Things

Okay, friends. Truth-telling time. Because I, like a woman I like to pretend is my friend, believe that telling the truth heals both me for telling it and you for hearing it. And, like her, I think telling the truth means using the words that I really used, so I apologize if my occasional cursing offends someone. It's the truth.

Last night, like many nights in the past few months, I found myself curled up on my couch, desperately unhappy for no good reason. I didn't want to do any of the things I love to do or see any of the people I love to see, and the fact that I couldn't bring myself to move from my spot on the couch just drove the unhappiness home further. I found myself thinking back over the past couple of years, and thinking about all of the days like that one. Days when I just didn't feel like me, because the me I know wouldn't say or do the things I said and did. Days when I just didn't want to do things that I love to do anymore. Days when I felt totally helpless against the stupid, unreasonable unhappiness that kept bubbling up. Days that had been coming more and more frequently.

Because the human brain has the extraordinary capacity to observe itself, and because I'm training to be a counselor, the observing part of my brain finally looked back at the rest of its sad self and thought, "Heather, I think maybe you're depressed."

I considered this.

I said it out loud. "Jeff, what if I'm depressed?"

"That would make sense."


And then I wanted to tell that observing part of my brain to shut the hell up because it cheerfully started rattling off things I should do about my depression- things that already help me hold back the darkness, like cleaning and working out and checking things off my to-do list, and things that I keep failing to do because I don't want to make time for them, like seeing a counselor instead of just reading my own counseling books. And the thought of doing all that felt exhausting and made me want all the more to just spend the rest of my life curled up on my couch, with no one expecting anything of me, preferably with an unending bowl of macaroni and cheese in my lap to eat and cry into.

Because the best thinking happens in bed, safe in the darkness and under the covers, I dragged myself there. And I thought, "So what? On days that I don't do the things that help me, I'm sad. That's got to be normal. Everyone feels like that. But then... if that's all it is, then that means that all anyone ever does is spend their life running from the dark." And that supremely cynical thought was also so not me.

So I asked Jeff, "What do you think makes people happy? Not just not-sad, but happy. Content. Good."

And he said the first set of three important things.

"People who love them."   Check.

"Something fulfilling to do with their life."   Check, check, check.

"Reasonable expectations."    Shit. 

I had a flashback to my recent site visit at my internship. My supervisor and friend, Chett, said that my growing edge was that I tend to have unreasonably high expectations, both of myself and of others, and that it hits me hard when those expectations aren't met.

"Is that all my problem is?!"

No, I don't think it is. I still really ought to see a counselor. It's not like the past two years of my life- the past any years of my life, for that matter- have been stress-free. When I was in high school I had to have my stomach scoped because I was having terrible, inexplicable stomachaches, and what they saw instead of normal smooth, pink stomach lining were long, red, angry streaks like someone had been literally been clawing the inside of my stomach. The only thing they could come up with was stress, and the only thing I could say was, "But I don't feel stressed!" So either my brain is really bad at recognizing stress, or I've been so perpetually stressed for my whole life that I literally don't know otherwise. Considering both my life and how much my body fails in other ways, either is really possible. The point is, I don't think changing expectations will make everything better for me or for anyone else who's feeling depressed. Sometimes things get messed up and it's not our fault, and we need all the help we can get to make things good again.

Nevertheless, I lay there thinking about what Jeff and Chett had said and I came up with the second set of three important things. Three things that I've thought at different times in my life, but I think have to be held all together for me to really be able to love myself and love everyone else like I and they deserve.

People are good.   I have had arguments with friends for the past two years about whether people are really good or not, and I really do think they are. I think that, at their core, people are good. But that by itself doesn't work.

People are broken.   This is how I grew up thinking- people are inherently messed up. And while I think that people make mistakes and are truly messed up sometimes, I don't think that's the whole story. We have to start with the fact that we are good, and then acknowledge the undeniable fact that we are also broken. But, no matter what,

People are worth loving.   People are beautiful, wonderful, broken messes. I am, and you are, and both of us deserve to be loved neither because of or in spite of that fact. People deserve to be loved because they are people. I think God must hold all three of these together when She looks at us, too.

Painting that and writing this was my therapy this morning. It's not perfect or even very good at all, but I'm making myself keep it this way because I'm not perfect either, and that's the point. So while I don't expect the sad days to go away completely, I hope that looking at that every morning helps me to remember who I am and who you are, and to take it a little easier on both of us. I hope you can do the same.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Year-ish Worth of Work Finally Pays Off

Remember that one time when I started this blog and said it would include things like recipes and crafty things that I was working on? And then I only ended up writing about what was happening in my life, and eventually only writing about theology because that's 80% of what happens in my life now?

For that matter, remember that one time when I wrote things?

I won't make any promises about keeping things up-- that always seems to end in embarrassment as I utterly fail to do so-- but this seemed worth resurrecting my blog for at least a day.


I have been making this, rather, over the course of the past year. And by that I mean I started at the end of last summer, stopped for the entirety of the school year and most of this summer, and finally finished it this week.

It's a jewelry tree, if you're unfamiliar with the idea. I had been wanting one for a long time but all of the ones in the stores seemed way too expensive and way too small, so I decided to just make one myself. Wanna see how?

Here it is, in 20 easy steps. With lots of pictures!

Step one: Fold a thick gauge wire into the shapes of branches, with little loops for leaves.

Congratulations! This was the easiest step.

Step two: Start wrapping the branches in thin wire for support and prettiness, but without wrapping the leaves.

Step three: Accidentally get the thin wire horribly, irrevocably tangled. Cry.

Step four: Have your husband or some other kind soul untangle the wire for you.

Step five: Finish wrapping the branches, but leave the bottom four or five inches (the bent part) unwrapped to make "roots" later.

Step six: Buy the fabric, thread, and needles to make the leaves where earrings will hang.

Step seven: Get scared at the prospect of sewing anything by hand, even something so simple as this.

Step eight: Give up for almost a year.

Step nine: House sit for a friend who is both wonderfully supportive and a fantastic seamstress. Decide that the residual skill and encouragement lingering in the house is enough that maybe you can actually do this, and finally sew the first leaf on.

Step ten: Finish all the leaves in a few days because they were actually really simple.

Step eleven: Starting with the tallest branches and working your way down in batches, start using the thin wire to wrap again, this time wrapping several branches together to build the branches into a trunk.

Step twelve: Because it's been a year since you used it last, forget how ornery the thin wire is. Make a huge tangle again, but decide that this time you're going to fix it yourself, dammit.

Step thirteen: Create a wire octopus on your living room floor as you try to untangle the stupid wire, using decks of cards to hold the wire down without bending it.

Step fourteen: Wonder why in the world you have so many decks of cards. Be grateful that you've collected them anyway.

Step fifteen: Get the wire untangled and slowly add more branches until they have all been included. Wrap as far down as you'd like your tree to stand up, still leaving a few inches of the "roots" on the ends of the thick wire to make your base. (see first picture)

Step sixteen: Mold a pack of air-drying modeling clay into a mound and "plant" your tree in it, pushing the roots down into the clay until they're covered. Leave little bits of the roots showing through the clay if your artistic heart desires it.

Step seventeen: Force yourself to wait the 24 hours while your clay dries. Try to resist the urge to continue poking at the clay.

Step eighteen: Finally put your jewelry on the jewelry tree you made all by yourself.

Step nineteen: Stick the whole thing on a lazy susan so you can actually get to all of your jewelry.

Step twenty: Admire!

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Today I am hungry.

We haven't run out of food; we're not that poor, and even if we were my congregation would never let us starve. I'm hungry because I've committed to fasting one day each week during lent, from sunset to sunset, and to give what I would have spent on food to those who go without on a daily basis.

Maybe it's because of that second commitment that when I fast my mind isn't necessarily on God the whole time.

For me being hungry is out of the norm, and being hungry makes me think about God, for sure. It makes me grateful for how incredibly blessed I am and it reminds me of God's desire that all might live. God wants me to have what I need.

But that always brings my thoughts around to the fact that there are 925 million other people in the world who are hungry today, and they didn't choose it as a lenten discipline.  God wants them to have what they need, too.

Meanwhile, I probably have way more than I need. I'm choosing to abstain from it today, but it's there, waiting for me.

Coincidentally, in my postcolonial voices class today we read and discussed 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, where Paul writes about the abuses of the Lord's Supper. Some people in Corinth were overindulging on food and drink while others were leaving the table hungry. This is also the passage that I've heard as a warning to never take Communion without confessing my sins first, because Paul says that whoever eats and drinks (takes Communion) without discerning the body eats and drinks to their own judgment. Today it was offered as possibility that Paul is actually referring to the Body of Christ, which he describes so famously in the next chapter. In some early copies of this text it actually says "without discerning the body of the Lord."

What if this warning is actually to the Church that lives in abundance while so much of the world goes without? What if, by our tacit acceptance of our own abundance in the face of so much need, we are opening ourselves to judgment? Isn't the continued suffering and want in the world the very indictment that so many lay against our claims to seek the good of all creation? We eat and drink to excess while one seventh of the world is hungry. My congregation would never let me starve, but we let 5,000,000 children starve every year.

Our Communion table, our place where all are made equal and made one in the Lord, judges us.

God wants everyone to have what they need, and God wants us to be a part of that. I don't know whether you decided to give something up or to take something on for this lenten season, or if you even observe lent at all. But as Christians, as human beings, I ask you to start to think for these next 38 days (and beyond) about what you can live without so that others might live.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Not Their Prophet

A couple of weeks ago I shared a little bit of my own struggles with a desire to serve the last and the least (I cannot say that phrase without Relient K in my head, by the way. They have a song for everything I'm thinking.) that is always balanced by my recognition that I come from a position of power and  don't want to just make things worse.

Then, last Wednesday and Thursday, I had an idea.

Which I promptly forgot to write about. To be fair, it was because I got to spend all weekend in Austin!

I was there for the MFSA board meeting but I also got to go to some of my favorite restaurants and see some of my favorite people.

I actually did write a blog post while I was there, it just wasn't for my blog. If you're interested, you can read it here.

But back to the point.

Wednesday night was the weekly chapel service that I help to plan and Thursday morning was my class called Postcolonial Voices, which is both difficult and amazing. Postcolonial studies is a bit much to explain here, but one of the main ideas is that you can't ignore any point of view or restrain any voice. That's part of what makes it hard to define.

Wednesday night I was one of the readers, and the passage was Deuteronomy 18:15-20.

"The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.’"

This has always been one of my favorite passages (yes, even before I admitted to myself that just maaaaaaybe I was feeling a call to ministry) because, in some small way, I do see myself as a prophet. There are times when I do feel like there's a message that I've been called to share, and I guess that's part of what this blog has become.

But did you catch the end, about speaking words that haven't been commanded to you? Harsh. I've gotta say that this is one part of the Bible that makes me uncomfortable, that makes me wonder about who wrote it and when and why, though that isn't what I've been thinking about this week.

This week I've been thinking about how the end of that passage actually brings me back to the beginning of the passage, which brings me to the "Aha!" moment I had in class Thursday morning as we talked about listening to each voice.

The passage starts with "God will raise up for you a prophet...from among your own people."

Well we've already established that, in most ways, the people I am afraid of doing harm to with my desire to help are not really my people. I can't claim that history. I am a white, Christian, educated American with more or less enough to get by, even if I am a poor grad student.

I am not the prophet called out from the wounded and oppressed people of the world. I cannot speak on their behalf. I cannot share their stories- the stories are theirs to share or not. Those words have not been commanded to me to speak.

What I can be is the prophet called out of my own privileged, powerful people, and call them to better lives.

I can call my own people to share their power, to use it wisely, to honor the value of those that we have made outsiders.

To borrow some of God's words from Micah's mouth, I can call us- because Lord knows there are days when I need reminding- to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. To love God and love neighbor.

That is a message I can share.

That, if nothing else, is what I can do to make the world a little bit better, a little bit brighter, a little bit more like the kin-dom of God.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Why do Americans have such nice backpacks?"

The internet is pretty stinkin' awesome.

We have a finite amount of time and energy, which means that- whether consciously or not- every day we have to decide in what and, more importantly, in whom we are going to invest that time and energy. Realistically, statistically, we can only have so many friends. But with the magic of the internet, now we can actually keep tabs on all those people with whom we never had the time or inclination to invest in an actual relationship but that we really did like or find interesting. Or just attractive, whatever. No judgment here.

The point is, while my parents' generation would've had to work really hard to keep up with everyone they knew in college, I can find almost anyone I've ever known in a matter of minutes. Sometimes I read their blogs. That's what brought on this post.

See, there was this guy who was kind of peripheral to one of my two core groups of friends in college (the one I had in common with my husband); he'd hang out with us sometimes, but I hardly ever saw him, much less had deep conversations with him. He did, however, have a reputation for being a great writer, so I was all over it when I happened to notice several months ago that he was entering the Peace Corps in Cameroon and keeping a blog. I've loved reading it even though I hardly know him because he's a fantastic writer and is living something that I can only dream of doing. His most recent entry, though, left me a little disappointed.

Quick disclaimer: Barrett, I can't imagine you'll ever read this. If you do, no offense intended. You just made me think. Thanks!

K. Onward. I swear I'll make my point soon.

While he's there he's teaching a technology class. One day one of his students raised his hand to ask a question- a rare thing- but his question had nothing to do with the subject of the class. Instead of asking how to make his document double-spaced or how to spell a word in English, his student asked, "Why do Americans have such nice backpacks?"

Talk about a sucker punch.

Now, as I was reading this I thought, "Yes! I'd love to read what he has to say about a question like that." But no. One of the three Americans the student mentioned by name is a new girl in his town, and the post transitioned smoothly into talking about her and then into talking about teaching there in general. I felt like he'd put in this great hook for his post and then completely ignored it.

So I guess this is what I wish he'd talked about. Why do Americans have such nice backpacks?

One of the things I've been thinking about lately is how we- we, anyone from the predominantly white, richer-than-most-of-the-world, colonial super power that is the United States- can ever hope to go anywhere or serve anyone without coming off as completely paternalistic. How do we name our own power and privilege and still express our honest and heartfelt desire to press our palms against the wounded places of the world, as Don Miller so beautifully puts it? How can we ever look someone in the eye without immediately hanging our heads in shame? How do we say, "I know that this is my fault, but I want to help you make it better?"

How do we try to share an education that could change the course of someone's life for the better when the backpack we carry to class probably cost us more than our students will see in a year?

When I posed these questions to my good friend at Wesley his response was simply, "We can't."

Ugh. I'm too optimistic for that. And maybe in this case that's unreasonable, but it still grates on me.

Maybe he's right. Maybe I do have to just suck it up, accept the awkwardness, apologize, and if they want to accept me, wonderful; if not, the thousands of years of colonialism that make up my ancestry don't give me the right to beat them over the head with my helping hand.

But something in me says no. There has to be more than that apology, critical as it is. There has to be a way for me to meet the people who are so distinctly "other" on ground that is level nevertheless. And I think that means two things- it means humbling myself and seeing the other with love and respect. Really, it means one thing. It means a relationship, one where each of us sees the other as nothing more or less than a human being, a child of God, a creature of unimaginable beauty and complexity.

And really, that's all I've got. I don't know what steps to take to make that happen. Maybe it's too much for me to ask after all. I'm hoping that it'll be something I'll learn when I go on my immersion through Wesley next winter break. But I suspect that, as it always seems to be, it's about respect and love. That's what keeps us human.

(As always, but especially today- please, share your thoughts!)