Sunday, August 27, 2017

office

It's been faculty orientation week at my university, so my colleagues and I are meeting up after a long summer of working in places other than our campus, and this conversation keeps happening:

pretty much every colleague: Hey, how are you?
me: !!! I have a new office !!!
pretty much every colleague: um, okay...that's nice

After the third or fourth time someone gave me the side eye, I realized my excitement about having a new office might be slightly over the top. Why is that?

It's a little bit relief. Last year, my first year as a postdoctoral teaching fellow, I was using the office of a colleague who was on sabbatical, and I was perpetually stressed out about being responsible for the musical instruments, digital camera equipment, and files stored there.

It's a little bit convenience. Things related to my work that have been taking up space in my apartment are now in my office, you know, the place where work happens.

Really, though, it's mostly feeling valued. I've been teaching since 2005, at a variety of universities with a variety of job titles, assigned to a variety of shared office spaces. Because these offices have been shared with other graduate or adjunct instructors, the indentured servants of higher ed in the American twenty-first century, they've usually been spaces that no one else wanted--windowless, basement, interior rooms--filled with furniture no one else wanted. Some have been only big enough for a single desk, shared by 4 or 6 or 10 people who had to work out a rota for use. Some have been big enough for lots of desks, shared by 2 or 3 people each, with no walls to help tune out distraction. These rooms becomes the departmental storage areas, too, for back issues of print journals that no one ever reads, for surplus textbooks that are out of date, for student papers that others leave behind when they move on to the next job. Most graduate and adjunct instructors leave very little in these spaces, carrying everything we need into and out of the building each day, like turtles with our offices on our backs, pausing briefly in our communal space.

These overcrowded spaces furnished with cast-offs and full of the detritus of the department are a reflection of the value universities have for the graduate teaching assistants and adjunct instructors who teach many of the courses on the schedule. Like the meager paychecks they get, it's a reminder that they are at the end of the line when it comes to resource allocation.

So, after twelve years of working in this field, after twelve years of making do with scratch-and-dent, after twelve years of negotiating shared space with near-strangers, after twelve years of carrying my office on my back,  I have a space that is mine. I've moved up slightly in the line. And it feels ridiculously good.

It's tiny, but it's a window. 

The rocking chair and coat tree are mine, other furniture came with. 

Check out that diploma on the wall. 


I mean, it would be nice if the university valued me enough to pay an actual living wage, but for now I'll take the office and celebrate it. Stop by for a cup of tea and celebrate with me.





Sunday, June 18, 2017

looking east in the evening


There's a particularly quality to the light in the eastern sky at sunset that I never appreciated before now. It's a hazy blue-and-pink-side-by-side kind of light. Sometimes, but not always, it blends into lavender and lilac.

Rambling Farmhouse was in a generous clearing, and we could watch the sun climb up through the trees to the east in the morning and sink down into the western treeline in the evening. It was frequently glorious. It was not unusual for me to walk outside just to see what the sky was doing. The first summer Adam owned the house, we kept a ladder next to the garage and spent many evenings on the roof watching the sky.

I don't remember ever looking away from the main spectacle to notice the other side of the sky.

Lovely Apartment is full of windows, but only facing east and north. Occasionally, I think about going up to the roof garden, just one flight of stairs above, to watch the sun set to the west, but I've come to enjoy the subtle beauty of sunset in the eastern sky.

Suffering and Joy

This sermon was presented at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church's 11:00 AM contemporary worship, the way (Arlington District, Virginia Conference) on Sunday, June 18, 2017. The revised common lectionary text for Year a, Proper 6 (Second Sunday after Pentecost) was Psalm 100 and Romans 5: 1-8. An audio recording is available on Mt. Olivet's website

Often in the American church in the twenty-first century, we focus on the call to praise, like the one we heard in Psalm 100 this morning. Many churches, many evangelists, many congregations spread the message that life in Christ is a happy life. That if you just believe with faith the size of a mustard seed, your life will be good. Have you seen this message? I have. And it annoys the crap out of me.
            Although we are called to praise, God does not promise us a good life. In fact, in the revised common lectionary Gospel lesson, which I did not ask our liturgist to read this moring, God promises the disciples hardship as they go out into the world. In Matthew chapter ten, Jesus tells them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves [....] Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” Not a happy clappy life in Christ. It’s an odd thing that the lectionary does here, putting the praise of Psalm 100 side by side with this warning about hardship to come in the ministry.
In the church, we don’t talk enough about the fact that suffering is part of life. It is the shadow side of our knowledge and our free will. In fact, the presence of suffering in human life is one of the few things that most world religions agree on. (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism). I admire that the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism put this idea first: “All life is suffering, pain.”
Our reality is that we live in a broken world, and this brokenness is visible at all levels. In our personal lives we experience the grief and loss, illness, and poverty. In our communities, we experience systemic racism and bigotry toward minority groups on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, faith, ability, and ethnicity. American politics have never been more divided, and this week, in our community, political disagreement became physical violence. If we look further afield, we can see large-scale, ongoing armed conlfict that destroys communities just like ours and turns people just like us into refugees. Indeed, the very planet under our feet is broken. Global climate change is disrupting the natural systems that life on this planet depends on. All of this brokenness fills our newscasts, and it we share it on social media. We see five people shot in Alexandria, and hundreds affected by the fire in London, and thousands in Syria or in Iraq wondering when the next air strikes will come. We see all this brokenness, and we are overwhelemed. 
We are not very good at dealing with suffering. And I think we get it wrong in two ways: Either we turn away entirely, refusing to acknowledge the suffering that is there in our own lives or in the lives of our communities; OR, we try to rush through the brokenness.
Let’s start with the way that we refuse to acknowledge suffering and brokenness. When you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store and the clerk says, “Hi, how are you?” What is the correct answer? “Good,” or “Fine.” This is a ritual that we each participate in dozens of times a day with coworkers, with bosses, with neighbors, with friends, with customer service personnel. Although the question in the ritual asks how we are, we’re actually not allowed to say anything other than “good” or “fine.” Don’t believe me? Break the rules this week. Tell someone you’re wonderful, or tired, or that you have a headache, or that you are overwhelmed by the brokennes of the environment. I will lay odds that the reaction you get is discomfort. Giving any answer other than the expected one in this ritual communication is just not done.
            Now sometimes, the people close to us actually do want to know how we’re doing. When the question goes beyond participation in the ritual to express actual concern, it sounds different, “how are you?” “how are you, really?” In this case, the person asking the question will make eye contact and lean toward you.
This “how are you ritual” might seem like a small thing, but I would argue that its ubiquity in American life, and the rigidity of the requirement that we respond to the question with a positive answer are evidence of the way we focus relentlessly on the positive. We publicly affirm that we are good and fine even when we are not, and when we get home, we distract ourselves with the many media available to us on our variety of devices, , with food and medication, with alcohol and drugs.
            The other way that we get it wrong is by rushing through suffering.  Romans 5:3-4 tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Passages like this one, lead us to platitudes like “every cloud has a silver lining” and “God has a reason” and “God does not give you more than you can bear.”
While I think that these platitudes point to an important truth—that living through tragedy changes us in profound ways—our eagerness to emphasize the reasons and the silver linings lead us to rush through the suffering in unhealthy ways. We need to slow down. We need to recognize that we are in the moment of suffering and let it be okay that we are not good. We need to take the time to actually feel our feelings.
In my experience, there will be a lot of feelings. Not only the sadness and pain of the event that caused our suffering, but also uncertainty, and fear about that uncertainty, and doubt and confusion. It is not easy to let ourselves feel these feeling. But you’ll notice that Romans doesn’t jump straight from suffering to hope. The intermediaries are endurance and character.  Sitting with our feelings long enough to recognize them and name them is an important step.
I have a couple of disclaimers. What I have said here is not a call to tolerate abuse or ongoing trauma. If you are in a relationship that is causing you ongoing harm, get help and get out safely. Reach out to the staff of Mt. Olivet, reach out to someone you trust. Reach. Out. This is also not a call to inflict pain upon ourselves in the ways that some in the history of Christianity have done. No self-flaggelation, no hair shirts, no beds of nails for us. We encounter sufficient suffering in our daily lives without seeking it out or inventing it.
Suffering is not a contest. We should not cry matyr to show that our own suffering is the worst, but neither should we minimize our own experience because someone else has greater suffering.
Each of us reacts to the suffering in our lives and in our world differently. And the process of moving from suffereing to endurance to character to hope is not a linear one. There are setbacks and delays and repetitions. It can take months or even years. In the mean time, though, life goes on. Even as we are learning to live with suffering, there will also be moments in our lives worthy of celebration.
And this, I think, is the greatest challenge: holding in tension the awareness that our broken world is full of suffering and the conviction that this same world is also beautiful and worthy of celebration. I’ve noticed this coming to a head lately in activist spaces on social media. One member of the community will say to another, “How can you care about new bike lanes when children are dying in the streets?” This question presumes that suffering and celebration are a zero-sum game, that we can only be engaged in one at a time. By this logic, if we are in a state of grief or trauma or brokenness, life can only be sad and dark and unhappy.
When I was widowed four years ago, I chose to wear black. That fast from color was a reminder to myself to slow down and make space for the pain and doubt and confusion. It was important to me at that time that my outward appearance reflect the dark wilderness that I felt like I was navigating, and I kept choosing black for about six months. In the early days especially,  I remember seeing shock, and sometimes judgement, on other people’s faces when they saw me laughing and smiling. As with the “how are you” ritual that expects only a positive answer, there was an expectiation that I as a widow wearing black would be perpetually sad and weepy.
Life is not just one way though, it never is. We can make space for the experience of suffering alongside our celebration. We can welcome it to the table as a ligitimate element of our experience of this earthly life.
I’m asking you today to pay more attention to the suffering in your own life, in the life of your community, and in the world, but I don’t want you to wallow in it or be incapacitated by its magnitude. Recognize that in our broken world, suffering exists alongside joy. And recognize that God is present with us equally in suffering and in joy.
When we are able to do this, when we recognize that suffering is a part of life that we should experience rather than one to escape, when we are able to be aware of both suffering and joy at the same time, it changes the way we relate to suffering in our own life  and in the lives of others. Often when we encounter suffering in the life of someone we are close to, we jump into fixing mode. We offer solutions, we reach for the platitudes and start naming the potential silver linings of the dark clouds. While I am a strong proponent of the idea that good things can come from bad things, I also know that this mental leap is one that the suffering person needs to make in their own time. As people giving moral support we need to be able to say, “This is awful. I am sorry you are going through this. I am here to listen.” And we need to stop there, before we start solutioneering.
It also changes the way we pray. Rather than praying, “Lord, make it stop,” we can pray, “God, be with us. God, help us see. God, give us strength.” Amen.

Friday, June 16, 2017

a glimpse of fruit

Had I stopped to think about it, I would have realized that of course strawberry plants have flowers. Everything that makes fruit has flowers. I'd never seen one before today, though.



Tuesday, June 6, 2017

rosewater and cardamom burgers

Like delicious collaboration beets, this recipe started with a conversation that juxtaposed unexpected ingredients. This time my frolleague Carl raised doubts about the prospect of cardamom and rosewater in burgers. I use cardamom for cooking with beef all the time, and I was intrigued by the idea of adding rosewater. I was a little concerned that the rosewater might be too sweet, but a quick taste reminded me that rosewater is not itself sweet, even though it's often used in desserts. Even Younger pronounced these a success. Here you have the process we followed tonight:

1 lb. grass-fed ground beef*
1 egg*
1/2 cup 4C seasoned breadcrumbs*
1/2 Tbsp cardamom, ground**
2/3 tsp cumin, ground**
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp rosewater

Mix all ingredients thoroughly. Heat cast iron skillet over med-high heat and coat with cooking oil of choice (olive oil in my kitchen).

Form a tiny, one-bite burger, cook, taste, and adjust seasoning as needed.

Divide burger mix into four or six even portions, form into burger shapes, and cook to desired doneness in skillet.

Serve with caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, sharp mustard, and feta. Today, I had pita from my neighborhood halal market, but I would eat these again with onion buns from the regular grocery.

________________________

* Grass-fed beef tends to be less fatty than standard beef in US grocery stores, and I made a lot of unsatisfactory burgers before I started including egg and breadcrumbs as binders. If you're using regular ground beef, you may not need the egg and breadcrumbs.
** Sorry, I grabbed the weird measuring spoons.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

bittersweet

My fridge is full of farm--broccoli rabe, rhubarb, whole chicken, ground beef, green eggs, cheese......

My fridge is full of farm, and it's bittersweet.

I stood at the CSA pickup today, and part of me was so happy to be in a relationship with local farmers again.



But then I stood there looking at the honey and the maple syrup, and it wasn't Rachel's honey and syrup. And I walked along choosing veggies that weren't Dale's veggies. And there were no flowers.

And I closed my eyes and saw Dale's smile on the back of my eyelids, and now I am sitting at the keyboard with tears spilling over.

I love my current life in the city. I love the fact that Elder, Younger, and I each rode our bicycles from different parts of town to meet at the CSA pickup after school today and then rode home together. I love that we also could have done this by bus or on foot.

I love the compactness of my current life.

Standing there in relationship with new farmers today, though, I realized that I have walked away from being enmeshed in agriculture, from being in relationship with farmers, twice now. Both times moving toward a more urban life. Both times moving to this metro area, actually.

My fridge is full of farm, and I am so sad-glad about it.

Maybe this will be the time that I learn to be both a city mouse and a country mouse at the same time.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

guessing wrong

Turning thirty-five felt like a major milestone. I had only just been widowed, and it felt like I had lived the events of an entire lifetime in but half of my threescore and ten. I felt like I had done everything, and I wasn't sure what was left.

And then I realized that I had the opportunity to make all the choices of adulthood anew. To begin again.

In some ways this has been incredibly frightening. When I made these decisions the first time, I had only myself to think about. Now, I am responsible for children and pets and debt and an estate. Now, I have lost my sense of invincibility.

The privilege of being the spouse who lived carries with it a burden to get things right, an irrational sense that choosing wrong dishonors the dead. (Reader, I can hear the platitude you're thinking. Just stop. Do not type it in the comments.) The irrationality does not make the burden any less real.

In a post in January Mike at Internet Monk meditated on a brief passage from Thomas Merton that has been rolling around in my head since then:
Our vocation is not a sphinx’s riddle, which we must solve in one guess or else perish. Some people find, in the end, that they have made many wrong guesses and that their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong. It takes them a long time to find out that they are happier that way.
As I make decisions for my second life, the roads not taken in my first life have loomed large. Should I have chosen them then? Are they still available to me? Should I choose them now? What if I choose wrong again?

And yet, the vaporizing of my old life that came with widowhood, the instantaneous disappearance of my marriage, the release of the moorings that held me at Rambling Farmhouse showed me that any decision I make can be unmade by circumstance. Even decisions that felt permanent when I made them have been undone, and that undoing did not ruin me.

As I make decisions now, I might guess wrong.

I might choose wrong, and that's okay.

Even decisions that are wrong, even decisions that are right and then are undone, are worthwhile.

I can go through life guessing wrong, and knowing that even permanent decisions are not actually, and still be happy.