Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Recommended reading after a hard week

*side note: pretty flowers throughout, because sometimes we just need a little beauty wherever we can find it. 
Jayci has always been a fairly anxious child. From an early age, we tried to help her memorize some verses to repeat to herself when she feels scared, particularly in bed. This was the first one we taught her:  There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. – 1 John 4:18

Granted, the only part she remembered (still) is "perfect love drives out fear." These days, we have taken her memorization a step further to help curb her anxiety. Together, we sit quiet and take deep breaths. Breathe in perfect love, I whisper. Breathe out fear, she whispers back. Our bodies relax and we repeat it until we believe it.

Maybe we all need to practice breathing in perfect love and breathing out fear, because the world feels pretty scary right now.
That said, I have lots of swirly-messy thoughts about the past couple weeks in our nation, and in my own home. But for now, I'm taking the posture of a learner. And I hope you will too. Together, let's listen to the voices of those who are speaking from their own experience, the ones who don't look like me or think like me, necessarily. Remember, breathe out fear. Because listening to someone we don't agree with is not actually dangerous, and we can (should) allow our hearts and minds to be stretched and challenged.

If you only read one thing this week, make it this from my dear dear friend, co-laborer, and actual neighbor:
The Moment I Watched Alton Sterling Die

And if you only watch (or listen) to one thing this week, I suggest this message:
Racial Reconciliation with Damian Boyd

I also wanted to share some more good reads and/or watches for you this week especially. Because sometimes listening is more important than speaking. I also recognize, however, that there are at least one million different voices and "angles" jockeying for your attention. Which is why I wanted to share a few things I found from trusted friends and sources.

No Love No Freedom - Life Reconsidered
Ask Stupid White People Questions - from my new friend Lindsy at Light Breaks Forth
Chaos or Community - Austin Channing

If you're anything like most people (myself included), sometimes you just want to know what you can actually DO: Campaign Zero

And finally (perhaps most importantly, right?): 17 Poems to Read When the World is Too Much 

Want to read more? 70+ Race Resources for White People

Oh and if you want to be encouraged by people helping and loving, check my friend Lori's blog (What it Looks Like to be Loved) to see her brand new backyard, so she can love her neighborhood well. That said, we wouldn't turn down a ballin' (literally) basketball court like hers.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Camp and Hope

I am trying to enjoy some of the “rest” we were promised during our week at KAA (Kids Across America) by reading my YA novel in the warm sunshine, dangling my feet in the pool to keep from sweating too badly. Somewhat unsurprisingly based on the week thus far, I am almost immediately called from my poolside oasis to deal with one of our 49 kids causing some major discipline issues. I roll my eyes at another kaleo(KAA speak for ministry leaders) and joke, of course we have another one in trouble. I wonder if she hears the weariness hidden beneath my tone, deliberately light-hearted. I alternate between faux despair over our ridiculous number of children in trouble, and a plastered smile, like it doesn’t even bother me: oh sure, add another one to our fire-zone collection, I laugh with a shrug. Technically, the "fire zone" marks the last straw. The place kids end up when they can no longer be considered campers, and thus become the responsibility of their kaleos. They eat PB sandwiches (no jelly!) for every meal, drag their luggage around with them, and sleep on the open-air gym floor (along with their poor, unlucky kaleo). Unfortunately, one of our kiddos reaches said status before even making it 24 hours into camp. Throughout the week, a grand total of nine of our kiddos make it to the fire zone, but only two actually sleep in the gym and never work their way back into the good graces of camp.
Nearly twenty percent of the fifty kids we brought to camp are currently homeless as the result of eviction. One would think a week of guaranteed meals and a warm bed would be a welcome respite for them; instead, the chaos of their home life spills straight over into their time at camp, and almost all of them find themselves in trouble at some point throughout the week. I watch other ministry leaders take their kids to buy things at the camp store: $35 for a sweatshirt, $15 for a hat, $3 for a bracelet. I can’t help but think about the three kids we let come last minute, who each hurriedly pack a plastic walmart bag and hand it to me: ms becca, I brought all my clothes, the youngest reports proudly.

We tell ourselves our kids are the ones getting in trouble because they come from the roughest circumstances. Because spiritual warfare. Because of so much hurt. My sneaking suspicion, nevertheless, is that the problem may actually be us. Adam and I both lean hard towards grace, and somehow always neglect to teach them high standards of behavior. We don’t command respect, they certainly don’t fear us, and possibly don’t even like us. I feel embarrassed, the same way I do when my kids throw epic temper tantrums mid-Target run. I want our kiddos to be themselves, of course, but only an acceptably polished version. I’d like to feel accomplished and proud, like good parents and ministry leaders. I secretly wonder if the other leaders roll their eyes at our incompetence.

My complicated inner monologue (as written out here) is not a cry for help, or a fishing for compliments and reassurance. Truly, it’s not. Because if I learned anything while we accumulated kids in the fire zone, it’s this: the things they carry are heavy. And so we sit with the ones who get in trouble, and just listen.

One of our fourteen year olds confesses he has been sleeping on park benches. One tells us about going hungry for days at a time. One girl tells us about sitting in a car at age ten, and shielding her younger brother while they watched their mother get shot and killed. Another watches her older bother’s kids full-time, she is fourteen and they are three kids under the age of three. One tells us her dad is in jail for robbing a bank. Another was raped by a neighbor when she was twelve. One’s mom died when she was four, her dad followed earlier this year, and she lives with her disabled grandmother. One screams guttural and anguished for twenty minutes about ending his life: he doesn’t want to get on the bus to go home.
I sit quiet beside them, mostly because I have no good answers. I’m not sure what to say, how to take away the massive weights they bear in their small bodies. So instead I do the only thing I know to do: I take their hand and carry some of their weight for them. I give it to Jesus, of course, because I could never bear it alone. But even still, their burdens sit heavy on my shoulders and heart, and in the knots of tension all down my back. We breathe deep, and hold gently and with awe the heaviness of the stories they offer up like prayers. I hug them close, recognizing the holy ground we stand on in the heartbreak and pain. The thin places where heaven and the Kingdom draws ever-nearer. Together, we look up at the sky strewn with stars and try to remember that God is good and his promises are true. That He numbers those stars, and that He knows each of their names. We cannot, truly, fathom the depths of the gift we have been given by being entrusted with the lives and stories of these remarkable little ones, beloved by their Father.
On the last day of camp, I joke with all the counselors and leaders that they must be glad to see us go. After the evening awards ceremony, I am nearly ready to breathe a sigh of relief as we herd our children towards the bus. We walk through the woods and across the field under a black sky littered with stars, I feel my nerves stretch taut and my patience worn thin. I snap at a boy who calls me fat, asking if I’m pregnant, and think this might embarrassingly be the thing that breaks me clear through. As we walk up to the buses, I feel tension crackle in the air and notice huddled groups of leaders. Bewildered, I crowd my group of kids onto the bus, only to learn that our older boys got into a fist fight with another group just moments earlier. Of course they did, I sigh. One of the KAA leadership gets on the bus and informs us (sternly, to say the least), that we won’t be leaving until whoever stole another kids’ shoes coughs them up; in fact, he will call the Missouri police to search the entire bus if we don’t hand over the shoes in five minutes. Adam and I (along with our other two Kaleos) are so-far-past-finished, completely wrung out and desperate to be home. We beg and plead with the boys seated in the back of the bus to just give up the shoes for-the-love-of-everything. They insist with wide-eyed innocence that they didn’t take them; one of our boy’s elbows bleeds, and another asks if I can wrap his hand, which he thinks he broke punching several boys in the face. I toss the first aid kit at them and add their names to the list of those we won’t bring back. We search under every seat, in every overhead bin, and make all the kids stand up to check underneath them. Finally, we stand up for our boys and insist they don’t have the shoes, only to have one of them trot off the bus with a grin and hand them over. I am livid, past angry nearly to the point of tears. And we still have a thirteen hour bus ride ahead of us. I duck under my blanket, and pray they all just sleep.

I wake up hours later, surprised to find that we have, in fact, all slept. That the sun rises quietly over Memphis, the sky steeping in reverse: from dark ink to brilliant pink and orange, finally settling into blue. Some of the other kids at KAA this week were from Memphis, and I think about them as everyone else snores and snuggles under blankets, oblivious to the brilliant show-stopping sunrise outside their windows. They are home already, I think enviously. While we still have so far to go.
I wrote this post earlier this week, and couldn’t figure out how to end it. I asked Adam to read it for me, and then to tell me what to say for the ending. He reads it, and then tells me he doesn’t know; in fact, he says, it might be too soon for him to even revisit that week, it caused flashbacks.

So I sit beside the ocean and pray; hoping God will show me how to tie a nice big bow around it all. Hoping for reassurance that the things we sow and the work we do will, in fact, eventually reap a great harvest. But I only hear silence, besides the ocean roaring and our children giggling. The tide comes in and out, and Isaiah falls asleep in the shade under the umbrella. The sun beats relentless, and the sand burns my toes until I burrow them down deeper. I have no answers, which seems to be my constant refrain. Instead, I try to rest in the only thing I do hear: to end with hope. That the story is not finished, and He will one day take all that is wrong and make it right. Come Lord Jesus, come.


Those of you who get my email newsletter have also read a more specific story from camp and our family and what’s going on currently. I know this sounds quite cryptic, it’s just that the story was too tender and painful for me to feel comfortable sharing publicly. All that to say, if you didn’t receive our email newsletters and would like to, please shoot me an email (rebecca at blueprint58.org) and let me know, I’ll be happy to pass it along. Thank you all so much for your prayers and encouragement.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Mothering in the Age of the Comment Section

In case you are new around here, a few months ago, we filmed a video interview for Gerber (the baby formula, not life insurance). Some friends had pitched our family story to Gerber, and after we were selected, they showed up with a full camera crew, which was very exciting and quite the curiosity to our neighbors. Holding my cute three month old Isaiah, I spoke for just a few minutes about our lives, about mothering, and about feeding formula to our son Caden, who is four now, but had open heart surgery when he was born.

Last week, Adam told me not to look at them. But of course, that only piqued my previously mild curiosity. So I hopped over to the Gerber facebook page to see our video, which now has over 1.2 million views. First, I notice all the mad faces, 56 of them (never mind that there are 1.9k likes). Then I scroll through the comments, aghast at the anger and vitriol aimed mostly at Gerber, but also at me and my family. Breast is best, they chant. Followed by cries of emotional manipulation and exploitation. And queries into why in the world I wouldnt have breast-fed Isaiah, since after-all he wasn’t the one who had open-heart surgery. Strangers defend me, and then get attacked, because they are obviously formula-feeders. Also, I clearly just wanted to get that check.

I scroll and scroll, occasionally liking the (rare) kind comment.

My fingers itch to defend myself. I want to explain how I painstakingly pumped every three hours for 4 months straight for Caden, so he could get breast milk through his feeding tube (and yes, also formula for extra calories). And how I breast-fed him for four more months, even though doctors thought I probably couldn’t. I want to explain how I DID, in fact, breastfeed Isaiah for almost eight months. I just also gave him formula sometimes. To announce that my check was actually quite small, that we didn’t even get a life-time supply of Gerber. To ask commenters to please re-watch the video because I carefully stated that the #formulaforhappiness is different for everyone. Because every baby, every momma, every family, is different. With different needs, capabilities, and limitations.

But even if I did defend myself, responding to every comment with thoughtful and gentle rebuttals, I’m not sure that would change anything or anyone. Because what I hear most clearly in the seemingly never-ending string of comments is a whole lot of pain. And isolation. And mommas who hope they are doing the right thing, but aren’t entirely sure and so turn to the Gerber facebook page (of all places) for confirmation and validation. Sometimes putting someone else down makes you feel better, or that’s what my mom always told me when I was getting bullied in school.
The funny thing about this whole Gerber-video-drama, is that I thought quite intently about what I should say when interviewed. The message impressed into my heart was the very same one I need right now, sitting here feeling slightly cyber-bullied and sad. A gentle reminder that every story leans different, and mothering is hard because it’s hard, and also because we never feel quite sure we are doing the right thing. That it ultimately comes down to loving our kids and helping them know they are loved (no matter how they’re fed), so they can love others out of that belovedness.

Honestly, I doubt my parenting at least once every single day. I am exasperated and respond the ways I wish I wouldn’t, or lay in bed at night bemoaning all the ways I failed to connect with my kids, who grow up faster than I would have thought possible. So the last thing I need, or any of us needs, is more people reminding me of how I’m doing it all wrong.

What I DO actually need is a village, friends and family and neighbors that support and help and carry one another through the hard and holy role of mothering. As more and more women find their village online, how can we support each other? How can we make the internet, and even the comment sections, a more gentle place where we celebrate and learn and grow together? Disagreeing on things, of course, but nevertheless loving and celebrating all the different ways we live our lives and care for our kids.

Or maybe Adam was right, and I should just stay far away from comment sections. Maybe instead, I should sit on the front porch, call my friends, or text my sister. I should stop defending my choices and start living them with the understanding that I am doing the very best I can as a perfectly imperfect mommy.

Monday, May 23, 2016

On the Other Side of the Camera

I'm a photographer. And a writer. I don't declare either of those things often enough to believe them, but I suppose they are true. Nevertheless, I tend not to get nearly enough pictures of myself with the kids. Or of our whole family. I have more than enough pictures of the cutest baby ever, along with his big brother and sister. There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of pictures of my kids in various states of candid and posed. But since I don't tend to let myself venture to the other side of the camera very often, I really treasure these sweet shots my amazingly talented friends Carrie and Megan took at my little sister's wedding last weekend.

 
Try not to freak out about how cute my kids are, or how talented my friends are. It's fine, but seriously.
Also, I am sharing these here mostly because I am currently completely at a loss for the best place to share and way to print/store/etc my family photos and such. I mean, I can only have so many pictures on the wall before I run out of space. And none of y'all want to see ALL the pictures I take, that would be absurd. But what, oh what, should I do?! Any suggestions are welcome. 


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

When my baby sister gets married

This weekend, we celebrated the wedding of my baby sister (Emma) and her husband, my now-brother Sean. Not only was I able to celebrate with extended family who flew in from all corners of the country, but I was privileged to read something I wrote at the ceremony, and take a few pictures of the beautiful couple after their vows.

Here is what I said, only a snippet of all the words I could have penned (typed?) to capture their love and talent and adventure and beauty:
Emma and Sean’s love is ordinary, I suppose. More beer and pizza than champagne and caviar. And this, of course, is what makes it so extraordinary. In a world prone to shouting ever-louder and always clamoring for more, there is beauty in the small quiet life lived hand-in-hand. In the not-small brave act of moving all the way across the country alone, together.

Emma and Sean are beautiful people, both of them, particularly the way they live out their giftings into precisely how they have been shaped. They spill that beauty and life onto all those who are lucky enough to cross their paths. They make each other better, reflecting beauty back and forth in dazzling arrays. The lines worn in the kitchen tell of their dance, of the myriad twinings of their lives. They have lived enough life together by now to know all the ways that wisdom and love can be most often found in sharing food across the table, breaking bread together, sharing bites of heaven.  

Emma and Sean: my prayer for your lives and your marriage is that when the world flattens you (and it will, it always does), you will know all the ways the pounding and kneading makes you stronger, lighter, and even, daresay, more delicious. That when you struggle under the weight of becoming, you will always let forgiveness and light do their mysterious work of rising. That you will know all the ways the world is full of Great Suffering and Great Love, not either/or but both/and. That your hearts will bind tighter together with every heartache and each joy.

May you know the holy gift of simple presence. Of sitting quiet together or eating pizza and drinking beer together, through all the deepest pains and greatest triumphs that life brings your way. May your family circle grow ever-wider, and the paths you blaze bring you ever-closer to home, wherever that may be. May you always bring out the best in each other, and even when you dont, may you love each other just as fiercely for it.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Must-Reads/Listens

What it comes down to here is a general overwhelm with all of life. On mother's day, I saw lots of husbands and such who posted "she makes it look easy" about their wives taking care of all their children. And I realized a fundamental truth about me and my mothering, no one will ever say I make it look easy. In fact, it's quite possible that I make the whole thing look more difficult than it should be. Its all a part of my plan though (obviously), so I can always tell the teenagers hanging around: this is why you shouldn't have kids yet. 
This sense of overwhelm is why I haven't written much (ok anything) lately, and why at writing group tonight I will have nothing to share. Sigh. I did, however send out an email newsletter because there are some stories that don't seem like a good fit for public forum. I've had a few people tell me they didn't know I had an email newsletter (communication is not my strong suit), so if you'd like to go ahead and sign up to hear the stories we hold closest and most honestly, you can do that right here. I'll resend this month's newsletter in a couple days to any new subscribers. 

If you want a little peek at the story, and what our newsletter is about, here's the opening paragraph: 
The yellow porch swing creaks, dingy with grime and pollen; and the once-bright pillows fade in sun and rain. I swing slow and cup my favorite mug close, trying to pretend I like drinking coffee without flavored creamer. English Ivy spills over onto our front porch; once charming, now ominous as it crests the top of the wall. Like a too-big wave breaking deadly onto the shore. Like snakes slithering up the side of our house en masse. I shake the imagery, setting down my coffee to clip a single bloom from the peony bush Adam planted two years ago. Last season, I missed blossoms completely; this year I walk around the house every day to check their progress. Finally, one bursts into deep fuchsia bloom and I breathe in its perfume before reluctantly heading back inside where five children under the age of seven sleep right on the edge of waking, two of them tucked in a twin bed under the arms of their twenty year old momma, whom we have known for nearly ten years now.
Since I've done such a terrible job keeping y'all updated on our lives, here are (as an apology?) some of the things I've read and listened to lately that I would highly recommend you also reading/listening to. Oh and also many pictures. Many many pictures.

I've already recommended two of these podcasts, but since my recommendation there has been episodes I love love love and think you should all listen to (also, one other podcast that I'm newly obsessed with).
On Being: with Michelle Alexander
Nomad Podcast with Wayne Jacobsen - What Kind of Church is Jesus Building?
There Goes the Neighborhood (9-part series on gentrification in Brooklyn. So fascinating and well-done).

Also, we had our football championship and I couldn't love the cookout in the park anymore. Seriously, love. 
And a few must-read articles from around the web the last couple weeks. 
*An NPR series that asks the question: Can more money fix America's schools? So interesting, I've only read the first two installments so far - but sharing here has reminded me to go see if there are any more!
*In Defense of Clutter - Christianity Today
*Death by Blackness - Shane Claiborne.
I think we can all agree that this wouldn't be a post without a link to things you should read if I didn't point you to at least one thing my friend Shannan has written lately. This time it's this one on Going Home (don't miss the very last line! Love). At this point, y'all should just go ahead and read everything she writes. 
This article by Addie Zierman asks the questions about the role of introverts in Shane Claiborne's Irresistible Revolution. And it struck a cord with me, because I have been feeling the need for much more quiet lately, quiet that feels nearly impossible to achieve in living my life on the margins and in community.
 


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bearing Witness

Raphael was just shot and killed.
I get the text message from Adam as I pull out my phone to switch on airplane mode, squished between two strangers on a nearly-empty flight to Chicago.

I text questions furiously with few answers, before dutifully switching off my phone as the plane taxis to the runway. Finally, trying to distract myself, I read Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. She writes poetry-prose about her husband’s death:

It’s a fact: black people in this country die more easily, at all ages, across genders. Look at how young black men die, and how middle aged black men drop dead, and how black women are ravaged by HIV/AIDS. The numbers graft to poverty but they also graph to stresses known and invisible. . . And so the black artist in some way, spoken or not, contends with death, races against it, writes amongst it . . . Survivors stand startled in the glaring light of loss, but bear witness.
We realize this flight is quite empty, the stewardess announces over the intercom, but please don’t switch seats until after take-off. Weight balance is most important during take-off, especially on such a light flight.

During takeoff, however, my seat mates fall asleep and I don’t want to wake them to move, so I try to type quietly and without jostling my arms, my laptop partially closed to fit on the small table folded down from the seat in front of me. We bounce over clouds, and my stomach drops again and again.

I sit here in this tiny airplane seat (seriously, have they gotten smaller?), helpless against this loss. And so all I know to do is bear witness. This witness-bearing to his life is not quite my job; nor even should it necessarily be my privilege, considering how little we knew Raphael. But I am desperate for the world to know the ways he made life bright. For my friends to understand all the boys in our neighborhood, to know the ways they carry light and life, along with the weight they shoulder and the ways they are shaped by the landscape they walk as a young black male in this country.

Though we have lived in our neighborhood five years now, we strangely only just met Raphael this past basketball season. His younger brother has played on our football team for years, even before he was technically old enough. He is the smallest one on the team those first years, but athletic and fast, and his mom tells us the football games in the park are the first time she has ever watched him play. This season he is one of the largest players on the team, and I cajole him back onto the team when he quits every time we lose.

I am bouncing Isaiah when Raphael first knocks on our door. I swing Isaiah to my hip, and answer without checking the peephole, surprised when I don’t know the young man standing on the other side.

Good morning ma’am, he says, is Mr. Adam home? I smile and tell him Adam’s at the office, asking what we can do. I would like to play basketball please, he says politely.

Oh we would love to have you I exclaim, always overly eager when meeting new neighbors. I direct him to Adam’s office, pointing him the back stairway visible from our front porch. Thank you ma’am, he says. I am surprised to hear my mother’s voice coming from me as I scold him for calling me ma’am: I’m not that old, I tease. Yes ma’am, he responds, then laughs when he realizes what he’s said.

Raphael shows up that season for every game except one. Every week, he’s a few minutes early and turns down my offers of food, sitting on the green lost-and-found box by the front door (yes, we have a lost-and-found box at our house, mostly full of smelly t-shirts and shoes discarded before or after sporting events, which I wash and stack in the large box, hoping they will find their way back to their rightful owners).

What school do you go to? I ask Raphael one week. Oh I dropped out ma’am, he tells me (his use of ma’am a habit we haven’t quite been able to kick), but I’ve received my GED and now I’m working, he continues: Oh and I’m sorry I missed last week’s game, I had to work.

We never quite dive below polite answers, and now we will never get the chance.

Adam and I have forewarned each other, just a few months ago: its only a matter of time before one of these funerals is for one of our boys. I am frustrated at this inevitability, at my inability to help, at the inadequacy of words. I want to somehow do justice to who Raphael was, to who he was becoming, before he fades to the background as another statistic, another life lost to bullets strewn across pavement and lives.
I return to my book, looking for light even as my seat-mate lowers the shade against the brilliance of sun reflected on white clouds, scattered over patchwork brown laying beneath us like a quilt:

Art replaces the light that is lost when the day fades, the moment passes, the evanescent extraordinary makes it quicksilver. Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us, as we move in and out of each other’s lives, as we all must eventually leave this earth. Great artists know that shadow, always against the dying light, but always knowing that the day brings new light and that the ocean which washes away all traces on the sand leaves us a new canvas with each wave.

I write as revolt against his death. I write to find the light, to acknowledge the loss, and to carry gently the weight and honor of encountering the life of Raphael. Even without knowing the details surrounding his final moments, carried through bluest skies on silver wings, I settle deep in the knowledge of the Father's tender mercies through every unspeakable tragedy. I stubbornly believe in the grace and beauty of holding close to the brokenhearted, of breaking my heart alongside theirs. Because I don't have answers as often as I allow myself to widen in pain that mysteriously births new life, new mercies that rise on the gentle and fierce tides of life and death and every sacred moment between. 

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