022. Wayfarer on Trial

EXHIBIT A: ABSENCE OF THERMOMETER

Last week, Sam and I were both sick with the flu, and I wanted to take our temperatures, but I couldn’t find my thermometer anywhere. It’s slim, blue-and-white with a digital read, and I swear it exists. I purchased it less than a year ago, and it should be somewhere… in one of my suitcases, or boxes, or Trader Joe’s bags filled with toiletries. Yes, part of my life is packed in Trader Joe’s bags. I’m a certified hobo.

My packing methods aren’t too freakish, once I explain the logic behind them. Most of my belongings fit into socially acceptable containers. I have several cardboard boxes for my books, which I fold flat when they’re empty and reconstruct when it’s time to move again. I have a duffel bag for my clothes, and a small hard-shell suitcase for my art supplies and other miscellany. During this last move, the grocery bag contained shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, nail-clippers, and hair-ties–all of the things you almost leave behind but remember to grab right before you head out the door. The Trader Joe’s bag was a last minute decision.

I still felt self-conscious with my toiletries stashed in a grocery bag on the passenger seat beside me–conspicuously homeless. I should just buy a canvas tote and get it over with.

But the thermometer would continue to be a mystery. I don’t own much, and I like to think that I know where everything is located, even amid all the transits and transitions. I like to think that the thermometer is exactly where I put it last. Each new move is a chance to once again take account of my possessions, to whittle them down to the non-negotiables and get rid of the dead weight. It sets my organizing mind at rest: packing everything into its allotted container.

Which is why the thermometer bothered me so much. It wasn’t misplaced or forgotten, but almost certainly removed from its place in the world by some other, larger, quieter force.

It was almost certainly taken from me.

It was almost certainly inhaled into an Instrument Black Hole in a parallel universe, along with a large, clattering wave of compasses and slide-rules and bathroom scales and sundials and litmus strips and plumb lines and barometers.

It almost certainly never existed: I bought the thermometer in a particularly clear fever dream last summer and only ever placed it under my dream-tongue to measure my dream-heat, never actually depositing it in a real-drawer in a real-bathroom to measure real-flus when they arose.

EXHIBIT B: NEW ADDRESS

I’ve been living in Silicon Valley for close to two years now, but I still don’t feel totally at home here. That’s partly my fault, partly to blame on the area’s culture of flux, and partly not a bad thing at all: just an un-weighted reality.

“At home.” The most casual of phrases.

Even I use the words casually, when my life has been obsessed with questions of home: what constitutes a home, how you lose one, how you find one, how you make one, how you leave one. How you live with the absence of home or with a surfeit of homes. How you make peace with the flexibility and ephemerality and multiplicity of home. How you form and are formed by home.

Part of my sense of un-belonging, even after two years in Silicon Valley, stems from the simple fact that I haven’t stayed in one building, one neighborhood, or one community. I lived in Campbell, Marin, San Mateo and Palo Alto; I worked in San Jose and San Francisco; I attended churches in all of those cities and have friends in countless more. I was stretched thin across the whole Bay Area until I started to wear out in important places.

I recently got a new address–my favorite one yet, though it’s still somewhat temporary. It’s the eighth address saved to my Amazon account. It’s five moves removed from the address on my driver’s license. And it’s the only address where my heart has come to rest, the only address where I’m not sniffing around the window-cracks and doorframes for an escape plan, for a quick way out. My sleep lately has been deep and unbroken, which is evidenced by the duration and intensity of my dreams, which are signs of maybe, finally, feeling at home with a capital H. I no longer wake in the night to sudden vacancies in my gut; I no longer wake shaking to cold frowns of moonlight arcing across the wall; I no longer wake defensive and afraid. Now I sleep through the night, and I think (and I hope) that I might finally be home.

EXHIBIT C: TEETH DREAM

Four nights ago, I dreamt that I lost two crucial teeth: my top, right-side canine tooth, and the molar directly beside it, which I’ve since learned is called the first bicuspid.

I’m told that losing your teeth is a common dream to have. Most people, in their dreams where their teeth are falling out, try to save the teeth, or shove them back into the gums hoping they take root again, or they hold the teeth carefully in a clenched fist for the remainder of the dream, banking on some elusive future oral restoration.

In my dream, I put my teeth in the pocket of my jeans, but I leave my hand in the pocket as assurance that the teeth will not disappear. In my dream, and against my will, I keep encountering friends and acquaintances from college, and each time I run into someone new, I am hesitant to smile or greet them lest they notice the gaping absence in my mouth. Many of them strike up conversations anyway. When it becomes too difficult to conceal the gap any longer, I blurt an awkward announcement to the person across from me: “I’M SO SORRY, BUT I’M MISSING TWO, QUITE VISIBLE FRONT TEETH. IT LOOKS TERRIBLE, BUT THEY JUST RECENTLY FELL OUT AND I’M GOING TO GET THEM FIXED SOON. PLEASE EXCUSE THE HOLE.” Then I resume the use of my lips in a normal, uncensored way, and the gummy black gap in my mouth flashes bold and horrible as we speak.

Teeth loss dreams can mean any number of things, but the general consensus among all the dream-decoding websites seems to be that you are undergoing seismic changes in your life, or are afraid of losing something important to you. Check and check, I guess.

VERDICT

Some days, when everything is fluctuating around you, a very natural and intuitive remedy is A Fixation: a tiny, often irrational obsession. You find a single object—or the absence of one—to house all of your unspecific, worried, homeless energy.

I was agitated about the thermometer for days. Sam watched me rifling through ghostly drawers and boxes in my mind, trying to locate the stupid little tool. The thermometer was just a stand-in though, one of the many things I can’t remember losing but have certainly lost, one of the many absences around which my life is constructed.

Some days, I feel I am only negative-spaces and non-matter, my neediness so immense it assumes its own gravity and yanks at anyone who comes close.

Some days, I think home is just the people who love you in your places of greatest lack.

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020. Where Liberation Lies

A few weeks ago, a writer and blogger I love tweeted this:

This is where liberation lies: recognizing the systemic nature of sin as that which feeds on injustice, not individual failings.

I can’t stop thinking about it: “The systemic nature of sin as that which feeds on injustice.” I think about all of the ways in which I’m either a bystander or an active contributor to cultures and power structures of injustice, all of the ways in which I’m ignoring or benefiting from those weaker or less advantaged than I am. Cultivating apathy, callousness, inaction; enjoying the easy dividends of injustice; my inhumane habits and stances. Those are what human dark sides look like–not our “sins” of crudeness or immodesty or anger or lust.

Jesus spoke often and passionately about loving the weak and the needy and the downtrodden. He actively and effectively loved the overlooked and the scorned and the pitiful and the annoying and the under-resourced–and he didn’t pay attention to what they were wearing or eating or watching.

I grew up in a deeply fundamentalist Christian culture that understood sin, or evil, as the latter: individual failings. And not just failures of kindness or empathy or integrity; I mean “failings” of a very specific and petty order. It was a culture that cultivated fear at all levels of living. Fear of crossing imaginary boundary lines: interpersonal, emotional, physical, mental.

What strikes me as especially strange about the classic fundamentalist take on sin is the reasoning behind it–the idea that God is supremely and perfectly just, and thus cannot tolerate injustice. So, our individual sin separates us from God, a separation that can only be reconciled through the perfect penance of Christ’s death. It’s clean, incontrovertible logic. But in this paradigm, God’s need for justice seems to taper out beyond those individualized arcs of reconciliation.

It doesn’t tell of a God who’s saddened by the enormous systemic injustices of the world, a God who’s concerned with the the way human nature has spawned a society so tilted that some kids skip three or four meals in a row while other kids glibly let entire refrigerators of food rot away. It doesn’t tell of a God who can’t stand a world in which dead babies are acceptable collateral in national pissing matches. Or of a God who hates when someone doesn’t get a job or a loan because of their skin color. Or of a God who cares about your part and place in that global calculus.

But the God I know is more supremely and perfectly just than I was ever taught; he’s more bent on redemption than I ever knew. And it doesn’t have anything to do with curing my lust/immodesty/anger–it has everything to do with love.

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I’ve generally avoided writing about my spiritual and theological formation as a teenager, but this seems like as good an entry point as any. It’s something I keep processing and circling back to again and again, from new angles and with new information, so I’ll certainly write about it again.

From eighth through twelfth grade, I attended an evangelical Christian boarding school in the Kenyan highlands, located about an hour outside of Nairobi. It was populated mostly by missionary kids (with a few children of business-people and expats sprinkled in), and was staffed by missionary teachers and administrators.

The school’s geographical isolation, coupled with its intensely fundamentalist ethos, created what I felt to be a suffocating and even harmful spiritual environment. Many people (insiders and outsiders alike) would have called the campus spiritually vibrant: kids attended chapel daily and went to voluntary worship sessions on the weekends; friends prayed together before meals and teachers worked God into the curriculum; and the administration was hyper-invested in the students’ moral wellbeing.

But enforced spirituality is no spirituality at all.

Fear-driven faith is no faith at all.

We were a young community kept in line by shame, or by fear of being shamed.

The culture that my school cultivated was one in which even the smallest actions were morally weighted. There was spiritual meaning to every tiny decision: how your body moved when you danced, your sartorial choices and music preferences, whether you missed a curfew, or questioned a teacher, or kissed your boyfriend, or cursed, or got into a fight. Everything could be “a sin” or a disappointment to God or a sign of horrific moral disintegration. Everything was punishable. Pretty hard to be a normal teenager in that context. Pretty hard to ask questions or try new things.

You know what was easy in that environment? Ignoring the world’s real and immediate wrongs. Looking inward, not outward. Carrying guilt around my neck. Forgetting entirely what freedom looked like.

For years during high school, I operated in a fog of fear and shame. I cowered at the prospect of being shamed. I was afraid of being exposed as a fraud, afraid to voice my doubts or my disappointment with God. It was paralyzing, like living in a metal cell where all the walls were humming with live electric currents, so you simply could not dance or jump or relax or fall asleep for fear of hitting one of the walls and electrocuting yourself. My actions were considered, measured, fearful.

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Attitudes like the ones fostered at my high school plague so much of evangelical Christianity. They quell freedom and foster shame. They deflect our energy and focus away from the real injustices of the world, and funnel all of our energy toward policing ourselves and each other.

Instead of trusting a good God whose heart breaks for the forgotten and hurt and oppressed, we remake a god in our own image–pettiness and prejudice included. I truly believe the promise in John 8:36, that “if the Son sets you free, you’ll be free indeed.” But what did freedom look like for Jesus? It looked like dismantling “that which feeds on injustice.” It looked like pulling out evil at its very roots. It looked a lot like the concept of ubuntu:

I am because we are.

Or, said differently, “I will be free when we’re all free.” Freedom–the way Jesus lived it out, and perfected in his death–is understanding yourself as your brother’s keeper, as someone whose freedom and wellbeing is deeply and intricately tied to the freedom and wellbeing of others. It leaves no room for fear or hesitation.

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005. Tsavo

A couple of weeks ago, my parents met me and a friend at Ocean Beach (San Francisco’s slowest borderland) and brought along our baby Great Dane, Tsavo. Tsavo is only four months old, but he’s already bigger than most of the other dogs on the beach. He’s tawny, uncoordinated, exuberant, and best of all, absolutely unprejudiced—having never been hurt or rebuffed in his life, he has no reason to expect hostility from the people and puppies he meets. He just delights and astounds me.

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If I lie on the living room floor, Tsavo comes up to me and stretches his body along the whole length of my body, wanting as much skin-to-skin contact as possible. He’s so needy that I think my heart might burst. He’s happiest when I doze off on his tummy, like he’s a breathing beanbag and we’re just two unworried loungers with synchronized sighs.

If we don’t monitor him, he sits on the sofa like a human—butt on the cushion, four feet on the ground. Or he arranges himself on guests’ laps without asking permission (he’s a little entitled). He’s strictly not allowed in the kitchen, but if we’re cooking in there, he comes right up to the edge of the tile and looks mournfully at us, woe-shot eyes trailing our every move—accusing, beseeching. A few weeks ago, I called dad and found him right in the middle of a Tsavo tussle. He sighed into the phone: “Yep, he’s a willful one. Got some Schaubroeck in him.”

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But I think I love him best on the beach, out in the open—no lines he can’t cross, no nooks he can’t stick his nose into. He’s just a little compact, burning, 60-pound bullet of life and energy, his ears turned inside-out in the wind, new discoveries to scare or electrify him every half-second: a yapping terrier, a thin wash of cold Pacific foam, an old man’s turkey sandwich dangling too close to the ground, a wayward frisbee, a skittering seagull, a sun-screened baby, a sinkhole in the sand. He’s alert to all of the clamoring details around him, his nose and ears burning with input, his little puppy-heart thrilling to creation.

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My biases in the great canine-cat divide are no secret, but I truly believe that dogs embody the best qualities of humans. If you started with an average, decent human dude and stripped away all of his ego, selfishness, pride, regret and anxieties, the leftover qualities might approximate the makeup of a dog. Dogs—if they’ve had a good puppy-hood with loving owners, and there are definitely exceptions—have a seemingly endless ability to receive love. It’s the main reason I’m so crazy about them. They are big, gaping, egoless love-holes, and somehow, my love always grows in proportion to the size of my puppy’s love vacuum.

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I think we (I’m talking humans, maybe with an emphasis on Americans) are not that adept at receiving love. American-ish self-sufficiency, a quality that at one point, many years ago, startled and repelled me, I now can’t help but consider to be (on some level) a moral imperative. We’re so slow to acknowledge these gaps in us, these recesses of need.

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Actually, there is some falseness in those lines. I’ll stop saying “we” and just say “I,” because that’s what I mean. I am not that great at receiving love. I can accept small, coded, tentative, half-hearted gestures of love—but extravagance? The big-hearted, fearless kind of love, or generosity brinking on foolishness—I can never accept that, can never believe it’s meant for me. It is not earned and it’s emphatically not deserved. If I receive it at all, it’s only as a mistake or a charity, as love meant for someone else and inappropriately descending all over me.

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Lately I’ve been feeling that maybe it’s not better to give than to receive. Under the absolute spread of God-who-is-love, maybe it’s infinitely better to give and receive, to keep all of your soul’s apertures wide open—his love barreling into you, his love flooding out. To let in all of the unfiltered beauty that’s been poured over us and around us, like Tsavo racing unleashed along the coastline with his eyes fluttering against the wind, his muscles stretching to extremity, his lungs tight with sea-air, free and filled. To become fierce imbibers, gulpers of this good life.

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God’s love all over me, God’s love all under me, more of it than I know what to do with, more of it than I know how to receive.

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