Monday, January 24, 2011

Aren't You Glad to Be Back? and Other Sticky Questions

"Are you glad to be back in Indiana?"  If I had a nickel for every time I've been asked that in the past six months, I'd have a buck, at least.

Sure I am. Back in our storied Victorian, back home again in Indiana, back with same car technicians who cut us many a fair deal before we left for seminary. Back to regular dine-in's at our favorite authentic Mexican restaurant. Let's face it, NE - PA's may be multi-ethnic but there is an tragic lack of good Mexican salsa.  We're back with insurance reps and tax accountants whose services we've trusted and used even from a couple states away.  Back to a dishwasher that doesn't load my square white Big Lots plates. Back to walls that need painted and power fluctuations in the 220 Amp wiring updated- yeah, right, depending on which light or part of the house.  Back home to one of the colder winters in a while, to dry heat and constant sinus infections.

Have you noticed I err on the pessimistic side?

I swear it's comforting to be home. In the last months at seminary, we had hints that we should consider applying for missions with OCMC, or candidating at several churches in the Midwest. If we had let the possibilities flood us, we might have explored myriad exotic places to go. I confess that a Hoosier girl without much travel experience loves the notion of exotic. On my wall is a blond headcarving from some Sierra Leonian tree, which my great-grandmother, Edna brought home from Freetown. She was "Ya Ya Bilbrey" for a mission school there. I treasure it as much for her influence on my faith and her prayers as for a secret longing to trample the ends of the earth.

But back home, imperfect as I make it sound, is a blessed joy. It's snuggling under the the comforter that smells of my favorite soap, clean but slept in. It is worn enough to feel silky between my calves. I am sheepish about admitting that I'm really happy, really grateful to savor this, since many Seminarian peers have struggled, held their breaths, and moved several times in the first years after ordination. I hold my breath waiting for my fairy tale to end.  I want to make this sound harder than it is, just because I feel so lucky.

And, because I harbor that sinful secret hope to go far away sometime. It's still there, that restless discontent.  In our book discussion last Friday night, our moderator Billy couldn't lead the discussion about Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter because we were too full on themes of place, membership, contentment, education, hindsight.  I gulped up Berry's novel and I'm afraid to listen to Diane Rehm's recent discussion on it, for fear, it shakes the magic dust off of my initial crush. 

Indiana is place. Returning to our home parish is membership and now, as parent of a high schooler, I'm confronted with questions of "plan for scholarships and graduating with honors" versus nurturing my daughter's contentment to be here. She's present in this place and resistant to conjuring superfluous ambition. With my own longing for family, now migrated out East, I find kindredness in Hannah's loss of children and distance.

In the midst of the book club, I named for the first time, why that question, "Aren't you glad to be back?" is so hard to answer. It's a spiritual issue. It's about two dispositions fighting within me: the paradox of dis/contentment, and the weight of gratefulness vs. false humility.  How do I answer that this whole move back would feel enchanted, if I didn't live in the old 'Granville House'? In Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life," the Granville house was the fixer upper that George cursed and Mary restored. He saved the town and she the home. It's a lovely comparison for coming back to minister here. My husband prays for the community and serves and I shore up the home, as breadwinner and mother.

My home wasn't as broken physically; it was a spiritual disaster. My home is haunted with the spirits of this town- made convenient with three 24-hour groceries. Again, no store in our little Pennsylvania town opened before 8am. Because of a near century of swingshift manufacturing here, RR Donnelley and Sons has protected a town where others disappeared. The same company has been faulted for the effect its policies have had on annual marriage dissolution rates. They exceed the marriage rate many times over the decades. My house is evidence. In nearly each deed change on its registry, divorce and liquidation of joint assets is listed among reasons for sale-- How does that even get on those registries?  I secretly wonder, how many house blessings before we shake those ghosts?  Now, as a small Indiana manufacturing and agricultural center, this place is demonized by meth, and pot, and alcoholism, and spice, and adolescent pregnancy. Even my most beloved friends fight spiritual demons that frighten me for them.

It would be so easy to apologize for coming back to this place. It is safe in its familiarity. It's also ramshackle. Outsiders see it. Perhaps we only came back because we hold ourselves back. Isn't that the persistent logosmoi, or tempting thought, I have? I realize that these are angels and demons of contentment and discontentment battling within me. Why do I feel I should give honorable mention the accolades and accomplishments that my husband, my children and I have earned? Why can't I embrace the lovely joy of being present here. Being here, without ever retelling any accomplishment that makes me seem to be the answer to this place's brokenness. This is my spiritual endeavor. It blesses me more than I can honor it anyway.

I want to be a member here. I'm weary of brokenness and distance. I am keeping a distance relationship with my father confessor, so I can grow and preserve, plant and foster. I dream of renewing and rebuilding trusts I broke because I longed for something more. I am learning not to defend my return with a litany of justifications.  I am seeking to answer for the sins in my head that betray this place and poison its environment spiritually.

When asked, how are things with the house, now that you are back? I should answer "Thank God." They are a bit simpler but not easier than our juxtaposition across state lines. Thank God denotes hope. This reminds me of the poem that Berry wrote for Leavings:
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, this
place that you belong to though it is not yours,
for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.   [91]
  As the wife supporting a community minister, we are in this together. Asked for hope of the Gospel, we can live it in hope of our place and our membership. By our love and cultivating of this place, rather than its spiritual or emotional ruin, we preach the gospel at all times. When we come to belong here again,-- I suspect that will be realized when I can answer "Are you glad to be back?" with "Yes, I'm glad to be home" -- then we will know we love freely. I will not justify why two accomplished people came home. Why we don't need to push our children out of here and why they are free to nurture contentment here. This place never will be ours. We will belong to it, not it to us. Then the spectors in the house will have no power, because we do not  believe ourselves to be owners of anything, nor owned by anything, other than Christ.

Elder Porphyrios warns that we should not wish just desserts upon any person, nor should we cast internal dispersions upon those whose poor choices poison themselves or those around them. In my town, there is plenty of lust of that sentiment. They deserve what's coming to them. In Wounded By Love, the Elder suggests we do spiritual violence with such thoughts. The human psyche is perceptive and sensitive to judgments, even unspoken. Even Confucius acknowledges how easy our messages carry: "Be careful what you say to the wind, lest a little birdy hear it and repeat it."

How I mutter or muster answers to the little questions has an environmental effect. Spiritually environment. Tones and words. So to those other awkward questions:

Is it great to see your old friends again? Sigh. I haven't connected with them all, as I hoped. I have not learned enough to be worthy of their membership yet, I think.

How is it to be back in your old house? Was it well-cared for? Thank God. (Okay, actually for the last renters, YES, resoundingly, and we owe them!)

Isn't it great to be back home with family? Glory to God in All Things. I'm far from mine, but close to his and love them both equally. This year, I'm so glad we are here, since Father Joel's mother feels more soreness in her knees and hips with time. This year, his sister and children were made them the widow, and the fatherless, and homeless literally. Have I served them as I should? Oh, please please please Lord Jesus Christ, Have Mercy on me a sinner.

This old house was slave-property. It housed the hardness of many hearts; It could be a metaphor of my own. In it this old house, I am unable to give my want fast enough, to be content even with leaks and money pit fears

Some day I will kiss the broken moldings and race up with petals in my pocket and spell frankincense with great abandon in celebration. "Isn't it great? I'm going to jail." Slave to God and to bondservant to Him.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Haunted by the longing to be ... "Not Tired, Not Afraid"

When Reva Williams first sang to me-- not to me alone, there four or five of us sipping Turkish coffee in Abba Moses Coffee House on 16th Street-- she vocalized like she was gulping and swallowing sweet tears through the lyrics.

"Show me the picture.. Show me the letter, the one..." sang Reva. She sang like Sam Beam. Before her set, she turned down refreshment, one of Mary and Theophan's superior sprout sandwiches. Food ruined her pipes, she said. So she sang famished, I suspect. I had just run the other two members of her band to Au Bon Pain after a non-stop eight hour stint on the road. Reva sang famished and the hunger cloyed out of her quiet crooning.  It stuck to me and still cloys on these cold winter days.

She sang of looking back, to look forward.  The song has been my winter jingle for years now.

"Some days don’t go down easy
They stick in the throat
Its not ok that we settle and we seize on
A few shallow breaths before we choke
There’s got to be better"

Usually Indiana is a sloppy mess or grey verboten-land -- forsaken, in January. It's rarely this sparkly with snow and rarely this cold. I should be grateful that it is lovely, but it's betrayed my expectations. I was so anticipating this winter. For a few years, I was trapped at the top of the 'mountain' in Northeastern PA. I worked from home and gazed at the prison bars of silky flakes that hushed my cell. They tumbled and snarled my sneakers and my snow tires. I waited to escaped them. Last year, I looked forward to run run running my way through the first winter after a move. Mat. Rozanne Rucker said the first year after moving is like regressing. I hoped it wouldn't be, but it feels it has. I keep looking backwards, hoping to find the days that look brighter.

The whole family is feeling it. My fourteen-year old is inhaling books, like I am. She sits on one side of her room with a book propped in one fist, bouncing a rubber ball in cadence against the opposite wall.  Her brother beats out books on tape and books around the house and swords and nerf guns and attacks her door. He was so brutal last week that the door is off its hinges.  Another honey-do for my honey to redo.

A few tiny cockroaches flirt with this property in the upstairs bathroom, where sinks drip drip drip.  Downstairs, the gable repaired before our move has betrayed us and two golf ball sized holes permit melting snow to fall like Chinese water torture while we use the lavatory downstairs. Cold wet salivating licks of winter pushing through to scalp and getting at our brains.

It's a quotidian tick tock of the winter blues.  Time to read about St. Anthony the Great, who reportedly battled great demons in the hollows of his cave, weaving out his baskets and mats.  Aha, the Holy Spirit uses the Church in wisdom again, to teach me.

From his Discourse on Demons:
" Let this especially be the common aim of all, neither to give way having once begun, nor to faint in trouble, nor to say: We have lived in the discipline a long time: but rather as though making a beginning daily let us increase our earnestness. For the whole life of man is very short, measured by the ages to come, wherefore all our time is nothing compared with eternal life. And in the world everything is sold at its price, and a man exchanges one equivalent for another; but the promise of eternal life is bought for a trifle. For it is written, "The days of our life in them are threescore years and ten, but if they are in strength, fourscore years, and what is more than these is labour and sorrow ."