Sunday, July 31, 2016

Saturday, July 30, 2016


A little over three years ago, people started telling me I was brave. For a long time, this label made me deeply uncomfortable. But people just. kept. saying it, and I got tired of debating my (lack of) bravery.

First I practiced not arguing with the people who told me I was brave. When I had mastered that, I practiced not physically recoiling from the word. And when I had finally mastered that, I started thinking about what they might see that I did not.

Because, really, from my perspective, I have not done anything brave or, for that matter, anything strong. First I did the next necessary things. Then I did the next logical things. Then I did the next possible things.

In a fit of nostalgia this evening, I was watching the 2001 romantic comedy Kate and Leopold, and Hugh Jackman's character told Meg Ryan's character that
The brave are simply those with the clearest vision of what is before them--glory and danger alike--and notwithstanding go out to meet it.
It's a beautiful definition, but it certainly doesn't apply to me. While I have continued to act despite fear, I wouldn't say that I've ever had a clear vision.

Recently accepting a postdoctoral teaching fellowship, a full-time contract position with salary and benefits, was such a joy. I was walking down the sidewalk that afternoon, grinning like a fool, and feeling validated, not only by the job offer but also by recent progress in academic publication.

A little over a year ago I was an unemployed graduate student whose life was in boxes, and now I'm a post-doctoral teaching fellow with one article forthcoming and another under review.

A little over a year ago I was an unemployed graduate student whose life was in boxes...and I moved my family halfway across the country? Without a job? What the fuck was I thinking?

This last year could have gone much, much differently. All along, I had had a vague sense that things might not work out, and I made sure that there was enough cash in my emergency fund to drag my life back to Kalamazoo if necessary, but I did not have a clear vision of the dangers until this moment in which I finally feel safe.

I only ever see my own audacity in hindsight.

Sunday, June 26, 2016


In general, I don't think that deathdays should be marked. I would rather celebrate my dearly departeds on their birthdays. Today, though, is demanding my attention.

There's something different about three. One felt light. I had a sense of relief at having gotten through an entire cycle of holidays and birthdays and seasons. Three feels heavy.

Maybe three feels heavy because my life is so different now. I've made a different set of choices for myself and the children than we had made as a married couple. To live in an apartment. To live in this city. To build a career.

I've been thinking about the final poem in Lorca's Lament this month "Alma Ausente."

4. Absent Soul

The bull does not know you, nor the fig tree, 
nor the horses, nor the ants in your own house.
The child and the afternoon do not know you
because you have died forever.

The back of the stone does not know you,
nor the black satin in which you crumble.
Your silent memory does not know you
because you have died forever. 

I could add a verse:

The cat does not know you, nor the rabbit
nor the plants bearing fruit on the balcony. 
The walls of this home do not know you
because you have died forever. 

The heaviest thing right now is the tension between my sadness and my happiness. I am profoundly sad. I am sad that Adam died in the prime of life. I am sad that the life we had planned is gone. I am sad that I am lonely without a partner. I carry these sadnesses in my bones. Yet, at the same time, I am  joyfully happy. I am happy to be wresting with my research and building a career. I am happy to be here, in the city, on the coast. I am happy with my sit-com life

Happy and sad at the same time is a jarring dissonance. I am not alone, though. In church this morning, Psalm 77 gave equal weight to lamentation and praise, and I was reminded of the early days three years ago when my prayer life contracted to the words: Help, Thanks, Wow. There were many nights when my cries for help were accompanied by exclamations of thanks and wonder.

Maybe three feels heavy because I don't know what comes next. The next three years could hold as much change as the last. I only know that I am happy, and I am sad.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

sit-com life

I spent this past Thursday, Friday, and Saturday smiling. My friends Taylor and Stuart, who currently live in Algiers, were staying with our friends Chris and Kendra whose house is across the street from Lovely Apartment. Chris, Taylor, and I were close in college thanks to the United Methodist campus ministry at our alma mater, and I've stayed close with each of them in the intervening years, but it's been more than a decade since I've hung out with both of them at the same time.

Thursday evening, Chris and I were cooking (mushroom pasta and peach crisp, respectively), Taylor was hanging out with us in the kitchen, Chris's kids and Taylor's daughter were playing on the patio, Kendra was at work, and Stuart had gone to his agency's DC headquarters.

Taylor: Kate! Where are the girls?
me: Well, Sofia went to a friend's house after school. We should see her soon. And I just ran into Anna on the sidewalk on my way back from the grocery store. She's taking the bus to ballet, and she'll take the bus home later.
Chris: Running into your kids randomly on the sidewalk is one of the coolest things about having you in the neighborhood.
me: I know, right? They love running into you guys, too. I love our pedestrian life. You know, this is the life I imagined all of you living when I was in Michigan and the rest of you were here, and I was sad when I learned that it didn't exist. I'm so happy to be a part of it now.
Taylor: You're living the sit-com life.
me: 0.o
Chris: o.0
Taylor: Friends close by, babysitting, shared meals. Someone just opens up the front door and walks in. It's like a sit-com.

Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory, all of these shows hold up the model of a friend group who don't all live together, but are together all the time anyway. Most of us, I think, experience that kind of living in each other's back pockets in our college dormitory years, if we're lucky, but it's more rare after graduation for a variety of reasons. There were, for example, friends who would open the kitchen door and walk into Rambling Farmhouse, but physical distance and the necessity of driving made those moments rare.

I'd never thought about my current life in these terms, but Taylor is right. Chris and Kendra's kitchen is like the main set of a sit-com where friends gather to live life, to celebrate, and to solve problems. I'm privileged to be a part of the cast in this moment.

There's one way we've surpassed the sitcoms: We've got a next generation. And they already love each other.
Here we come...walking down the street...
we get the funniest looks from...
everyone we meet...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Purple is Hard

This sermon was presented at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church's 11:00 AM contemporary worship, the way (Arlington District, Virginia Conference). The revised common lectionary text for Year C, Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 1, 2016 was Acts 16: 9-15. 

16:9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."
16:10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
16:11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,
16:12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.
16:13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.
16:14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.
16:15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

The passage we heard from Acts this morning opens with Paul feeling called to leave Turkey where he  had been traveleing to cross the Aegean Sea to Macedonia. The few times I’ve heard sermons on this passage, they’ve focused on Paul’s response to the call. The theme of those sermons is that Paul’s obedience to God’s call should be a model for the way we live our lives. Then we sing some “Go Where I Send Thee” and some “Here I Am, Lord.” It’s a great plan for worship!
That’s not the plan I’m following this morning.  I’m not preaching that sermon because Paul is not the only person named in this passage. I want to focus on the second half of this passage; I want to focus on Lydia.
Acts doesn’t give us a lot of information about Lydia, but the details provide three personal attributes, and three things that Lydia does.
            First, Lydia is a named woman in the Bible. You might be thinking, “well, that’s obvious,” and it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Most of the people we meet in the Bible are never named. They are labeled: the leper, the paralytic man, the Samaritan woman, even Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopts Moses, is not named. A personal name in the Bible is a signal that this person is important, and we should pay attention. Lydia is in good company: Biblical scripture is full of powerful, named women: Esther, Ruth, Mary the sister of Martha, Miriam the sister of Moses.
            The second attribute Acts gives us is that Lydia is not Macedonian. Verse 14 tells us that Lydia is from Thyatira, which is another city in Turkey, the place where Paul had been prior to coming to Macedonia. The beginning of this passage tells us that i
n his dream, Paul was called by a man from Macedonia, but when he arrives in the city of Phllipi, there is no synagogue because there is not a minyon, the group of ten Jewish men who constitute a quorum for formal worship. So, Paul has come all this way, following a call to this city, and although “they had been there for some days,” the events that occurred on those days are completely glossed over. The first meeting about which Acts gives any details is with another foreigner, a person who is from the place where Paul had just been.
            Okay, third attribute: Lydia is a worshipper of God. Verse 14 also tells us that Lydia is a worshipper of God, and that “The Lord opened her heart to to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” So, Lydia is already a religious person who has a relationship with God. Paul is not introducing her to faith generally, he is converting her from mainstream Judaism to following the way of Jesus.
So, that was three things that Lydia is: a named woman in the Bible, a foreigner in the land, and a worshipper of God. Now, for three things she does.
            First, Lydia speaks with her own voice. There’s a popular myth that women before the modern era were powerless chattel without voices. One of the things I’ve found in my academic research about medieval and early modern literary texts is that often women’s voices are present, but not in ways that we modern readers understand as powerful. We let our ignorance of the dynamics of power in other times and places blind us. We fail to recognize the differences between our context as readers and the context of the writers. If, however, we pay close attention to the details, we can see the dynamics of power that are present in the text. The last two verses of today’s passage tell us that Lydia listened, she chose baptism, and then “she urged [Paul and his companions], saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon [them].”  She does not apologize for speaking while female. She directly and clearly issues an invitation, which Paul accepts.
            Second, Lydia leads a household. Not only is Lydia herself baptised after her conversations with Paul, her household is baptised, too. Acts doesn’t tell us how big Lydia’s household is, but in mentiontioning a household at all, this text makes us aware that Lydia does not come to support Paul alone. Acts also doesn’t say that this is Lydia’s husband’s household or Lydia’s father’s household. It is her household.
             Not only does Lydia have a household, Lydia has a business. Lydia deals in purple cloth, which is arguably the most important thing she does. Cloth production is a laborious process. Lydia’s cloth was possibly wool, maybe sometimes silk, but most likely either linen or cotton. For argument’s sake, let’s say cotton. The process of creating cotton cloth starts with growing the plants, so Lydia needed someone to be good at gardening. Cotton is usually a low-growing bush, so someone has to bend over again and again to harvest the bolls from the plant. Only the soft fluffy part is good to use, so someone has to remove the stem and the seeds, which are tiny and like to hide.
Once the cotton had been harvested, Lydia needed someone, probably many someones, actually, to spin the cotton fibers into singles. They needed a tool for that, and spindles in the Mediterrannean during the first century probably looked something like this. Once the spindle was full and no more could be wound on, the singles needed to be plied together with one or more other singles, which requires another spindle. It's a lot of work.
 Once the thread had been spun, Lydia needed someone to weave it. Looms in the ancient world commonly consisted of a large frame with two parallel rows of wooden pegs laid out on the ground. The warp threads were carefully measured and stretched from one row of pegs to the other.  The weft threads, wound on a shuttle, were passed back and forth, over and under the warp threads. Changing the sequence of overs and unders changed the pattern of the finished cloth, and the possibilities ranged from simple and relatively quick to intricate and time consuming. Did anybody else have one of those pot holder looms as a child? The plastic square with teeth around the edges, and you stretched the fabric loops from one side to the other and then used the metal hook to pull other fabric loops through? These looms were kind of like that. How long did it take you to make a potholder? Now imagine weaving enough cloth from fine thread to cover your body.
So that takes care of how Lydia got her cotton cloth. But how did she get purple? In the world of natural dyes, the easiest colors to make are browns and yellows. Lots of plants make yellow, and lots of tree barks and nuts make brown. Red comes from the roots of the madder plant, blue from woad. A true, vibrant purple is hard. Mixing madder and woad doesn't really work. Archeologists tell us that the people of the ancient Mediterranean extracted purple dye from sea snails, like the murex family (Barber 113). In her book Women’s Work: The First Twenty-Thousand Years, Elizabeth Wayland Barber notes that “We have their shell heaps from the early second millennium on to prove it. Each little mollusk produces only a single drop of the splendid dye, so purple-dyers had to catch and slaughter hundreds [of snails] to tint a single piece of cloth” (113-4). This color was so precious that it became the royal purple that Roman emperors reserved for themselves. In the church, purple has become the liturgical color of our seasons of fast. During Lent and Advent, the textiles in the sanctuary, some pastors’ stoles, and, here at Mt. O, Pastor Kathleen’s shoes are purple. Purple time in the contemporary church associates the color with the introspection and discomfort of fasting and with the anticipation of Christmas at the end of Advent and Easter at the end of Lent.
It’s such a small phrase in the passage, “and a seller of purple cloth.” We almost read right over it, but Acts is really telling us more than we hear. I actually love the way that the King James translation renders this, calling Lydia a “seller of purple” because the cloth matters less than the color. As a dealer in purple, Lydia is a dealer in her society’s mark of prestige. She interacts with both the legion of (mostly) women textile workers who produce her purple cloth as well as the elite who consume it. Lydia is well-connected in her world, and her extension of hospitality to Paul and his companions brings them into her network. Note that the end of today’s passage doesn’t say that Paul accepted her invitation gratefully or that he was happy to have a place to lay his head. It says, that “she prevailed upon them.” The King James version is interesting here, too. It says, “she constrained us.”
Because of my own experience with textile production and my academic work on women who make their voices heard through textiles,  I am fascinated by Lydia because it is textiles that make her powerful. Her textile business produces sufficient wealth to support a household and to welcome a party of strangers into her home.
That’s not true of most textile workers in the twenty-first century. Synthetic dyes mean no color is inherently more expensive or prestigious than any other color. Mechanization of spinning, weaving, knitting, and sewing means that most clothes are mass produced in factories at a far faster pace than in Lydia’s day. Globalization means that these factories move around the world, chasing in search of the workers who will accept the lowest wages and the loosest regulations for personal health and safety.
Acts doesn’t tell us how Lydia treated the gardeners and the spinners and the weavers and the dyers in her production network, but it does tell us that she extended hospitality to the wanderers in her community. Even as she participated in and benefitted from the business world of her day, she opted out of participation in Roman religious rituals. Rather than worshipping with the powerful elites who purchased her cloth, she was by the river with the Jewish women, and she joined the fringe group of believers following Paul.
And I think that’s a powerful lesson for us. We have the choice to opt out.
The more that I’ve learned about textile production over the last ten years, the more carefully I’ve looked at the clothes my family wears. Where did the cloth come from? Where did the raw materials come from? What are the working conditions in the facotry where the clothes were assembled? The questions can be overwhelming, and the answers can be hard to find. These days we are purchasing fewer things and keeping them longer, we are looking for quality and durability more than trendiness or low cost. I’m still not sure we’ve changed our habits enough, though. I would like to clothe my family without exploiting my brothers and sisters in China and Bangladesh. My discomfort with the twenty-first century commercial textile production, has become my own ongoing purple time of discomfort.

Today is May Day. In many countries around the world, today is a national holiday that celebrates workers, like our labor day on the first Monday of September. I think it’s fitting that the lectionary gave us Lydia on May Day.

For more on textile production in the ancient world, see Elizabeth Wayland Barber's Women’s Work: The First Twenty-Thousand Years.
For more on the issues related to textile production in the twenty-first century, see The Ethical Fashion Forum.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

on the way

I haven't written to you in a while, and I've missed you.

It's not that I've had nothing to say. I have so much to say--too much, perhaps--and I've lost my voice.

That's not true. I know exactly where my voice is. It's stopped up in a jam of ideas right behind my sternum, and sometimes it aches. Sometimes I open my mouth to sing and there is no air. I've held my fingers over the keyboard in front of this blank screen countless times.

That's also not true. More often, I think about writing, and the picture of the blank screen in my mind's eye is so daunting that I don't even open this program. My fingers don't even get the chance.

I have an article to finish and a sermon to write from scratch by the end of the month, though. Something has to move. Something has to ease past the aching jam of ideas.

So, let me tell you about my commute.

Twice a week, I sit down on a train for a short ride into the District. Always, there is something in my hands--usually knitting, occasionally prayer beads. The metro in this city is not beautiful, and I don't need to pay attention in order to get where I'm going.

But between my start and my stop, the yellow line briefly emerges from below to cross the Potomac. Even though I know it is coming, the burst of light always grabs my attention. My fingers stop moving. I look up: trees...fence...bridges...river...monuments:

If, as Steven Prothero writes in The American Bible, the Declaration and the Constitution are, among other documents, the scripture of our civic religion, these monuments are our temple. These places where we go to remember our collective greatness and mourn our collective flaws help to maintain American community. 

And I get to visit them as often as I want. In fact, twice a day, two days a week, I see them as a matter of course. 

The view is always brief. If the train is packed, I may see only river, or only the heads and shoulders of other commuters. Nonetheless, that brief moment before the yellow line descends is a moment of wonder, a brief stillness in the mind while the body is in motion. 

There's something else to say, something about the river, but that idea remains stuck.

Let's hope that this idea has eased the jam, and I will write to you further anon.

Friday, February 5, 2016

"to make beautiful even the reckoning"

In a recent post about coping with a baby who doesn't sleep, Sarah Bessey wrote:
I think that when we are faced with something we cannot fix or control – however small or however big – it can break us wide open and we discover who we were underneath the comfort trappings of answers or affluence or health or even sleep or whatever it is that we’ve lost. And then when the underneath of us is out in the fresh air, I think it’s an opportunity to heal it, to strengthen it, to make beautiful even the reckoning.
And my heart wept. Bessey, even in her sleep-deprived state, eloquently expresses an idea that I have been circling around for months.

Tragedy and tribulations force us to ask whether we really believe what we say we believe, whether we have the courage to let our beliefs guide our actions. When ten schoolgirls were shot in 2006, the nation was shocked as the Amish community lived out the faith they profess, showing compassion to the family of the gunman. I admired them, but I thought it must be terribly difficult.

In 2013, I found myself in a similar situation. When a reckless teenager killed my husband, many of our friends wanted me to be angry, to exact punishment, to demand that she be tried as an adult. Beyond simply being too numb to be angry, I realized that I could not make those demands. I just could not, not if I believe that adolescence is psychologically and physiologically different from adulthood, not if I believe that the rehabilitative justice of the juvenile court is more effective than the retributive justice that dominates the American legal system, not if I believe that my faith calls me to compassion. That summer was, as Bessey describes, a moment in which I was broken wide open, and I had to discover who I was.

Right now, American society has been broken wide open. Domestic and international terrorism and the wars and military actions in which we participate strip away our collective sense of safety and security. We feel threatened, we feel vulnerable, and the world seems chaotic, but it is in our response to this loss of the sense of control that we discover who we are. If we respond to our broken-openness with fear, if we scramble to cover the underneath of us that has been exposed, we become not what we believe ourselves to be.

We Americans have long professed values of openness and inclusivity. Indeed, the symbol of our liberty invites to these shores the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. If we want to continue to profess these values, we must look to them to guide the decisions we make. Even if the poor and the tired do not look like us or worship like us or speak our language. Even when it is difficult. Even when welcoming immigrants and refugees may change us as much as being among us changes them.