Surviving the Siege, part two

I woke up this morning and it felt a little chilly outside of the covers. Since it was the coldest morning of the year, I figured that was why and dressed and headed down to the kitchen. I checked the thermostat on my way.

IMG_0685.jpg Yep. You read that right. It was a bracing 45 downstairs, a crisp 50 upstairs. At least there wasn’t a windchill.

The extent of my ability to diagnose or fix something is to check the fuse box or go on YouTube. No circuit flipped. Somehow, this seemed beyond YouTube.So I started up the space heaters, one up, one down, all smugness from yesterday’s post gone. I ate crow for breakfast. Perhaps to punish myself (and before coffee), I figured I would hunker even further down than I already had been the last few days and wait it out. Wait what out? I thought. Now is not the time to prove anything.

I called the heating company that had installed the furnace some 15 years ago and soon the service technician showed up. I met him at the door in a down coat, hat, and scarf.

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After a bit of this and a bit of that, he told me my filter was probably the culprit, even though I’d replaced it this fall. He put a new one in and left. The house temperature climbed into the high 40s, then dropped to 42. Another call, another technician. He spent a bit more time doing this and that, including a few loud bangs, then gave me the news.

I needed a new furnace. Yes, I could replace parts (which might have to get ordered and weren’t easy to come by) but if I intended to stay in the house for awhile, I should do it.

I ate chilled crow for lunch. Last fall my neighbor mentioned she was having their furnace cleaned and checked out before winter. I made a mental note to do the same, forgetting that mental notes don’t come with a guarantee.

Now another guy is on his way to tell me how much it’s going to cost. I’ll gulp and cancel travel plans for the year, but be the warmer for it.

Back to the jigsaw puzzle.

 

Surviving the Siege

When the usual tricks aren’t working

I thought getting through January was enough. I’d avoided making any resolutions I would not follow through on. I’d read and listened to several books, finished a podcast series on race, painted a room.

Then, the Siege.

Arctic air some of us haven’t experienced before or can’t recall, it’s been so long since temperatures here registered lower than Antarctica. (So cold that the previous sentence doesn’t have a verb.)

What to do when we are in virtual lockdown in our own homes?

The usual tricks weren’t working. I finished a book but couldn’t get out of my chair to fetch another. My office is begging to be decluttered but I can’t seem to see the piles all around. I dare not take a walk, not after listening to the dire warnings on MPR of exposure, frostbite, hypothermia, death. Frightful stories on the scale of news from Washington that were followed by a story of the Arrowhead 135, an annual endurance race of that number of miles across northern Minnesota that 146 people who need a challenge started yesterday.

“If you get a warm year,” one regular participant said, “it’s almost like you got cheated.”

Ha.

This morning I was at my desk, as usual, feeling just a little cheated that I wouldn’t be walking outdoors today, as is my habit. Even through the shades, the room had begun to brighten. It was time to open them, I decided, calculating that the overall effect of sun in (not to mention the lift it brings me) was greater than the draft that would come with it. This is what I saw:

 

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Maybe it’s a matter of perspective, this Siege.

I’d worry about my mental health if I was stuck indoors long-term, but for now, I’m embracing it. Last night I spent an hour in the basement, trowel in hand, planting canna and elephant ear bulbs. Today, a jigsaw puzzle. I won’t ever attempt the Arrowhead 135, but I can see why some people do. There’s something about not doing the usual.

Things could be a lot worse, I tell myself, still in my chair, staring out the frosted window. I could be married to Donald Trump.

What’s Your Story?

Finding the narrative that runs through your life

My first writing teacher was Marion Dane Bauer. After taking a class from her through The Loft Literary Center, I joined a workshop that met twice a month in her home. Here our small group took turns reading from our works-in-progress and getting feedback. Besides writing On My Honor, a Newbery Honor Book, and other works of fiction, she wrote What’s Your Story?, a practical guide for young writers who want to attempt fiction.

This past November, I spent three days in Chicago with my siblings. We live in different states and rarely have a chance to be altogether. What better place to have a reunion, we decided, than our home town. And what better activity than to go to museums, a practice our parents instilled in us as they stressed the importance of lifelong learning. In my search for things to do, I noticed that The American Writers Museum had opened on Michigan Avenue a year earlier. It was an easy sell as we’re all avid readers. One morning we spent a few hours making our way down a long hallway, reading panels on well over 200 writers. It was a lot of information–too much, we decided, to take in in a single visit.

At the end of the alley, on the back wall, was this quote from James Baldwin:

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Of all I took in that morning, this is the quote that I remember. This is the idea that won’t let me go. It was as if with his serious expression, Baldwin was challenging me to answer the question “What’s my story?” as I work on my memoir. Yet I quickly realized the “larger” and “reverberating” aspects to my individual story. His quote carried universal appeal, if not application. We don’t need to be writers to ask ourselves, “What is my story?” We don’t need to be writers to recognize that there is a fundamental theme or narrative that runs through our lives.

What’s your story?

In all the writing I’ve done—the young adult novels, the poetry, the journaling, this blog, and now the memoir—a single thread runs through it. My story is coming to terms with a sense of unworthiness and learning to accept (read love) myself for who I am.

In the preface of her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama explains how her parents helped her see the value in her story. “Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

What’s your story? How does it shape you? How does it limit you? How does it reflect who you really are and how does it perpetuate messages it may be time to delete? How does it shield you from suffering, and how does it ask you to risk everything?

Baldwin’s quote reminds me that answering the question “What’s your story?” is an ongoing process. We run, we fall, we pick ourselves up again and blunder on. It is the very act of living.

A Child Shall Lead Them

Seeking a new way of knowing

Anthony Basta, a 17-year-old from St. Paul, described himself in his high school yearbook as “Just a kid growing up!” Five months later, on April 26, 2000, he was the victim of a drive-by shooting—a senseless, random act by three “kids” out on a dare.

On Mississippi River Boulevard, between Jefferson and Randolph Avenues, sits a rock with a plaque at the site of the shooting. The plaque is inscribed with Tony’s words, dated 12/1/99. Had he lived, Tony would be 35 years old today.

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This past Saturday, I was walking south on River Boulevard, noticing the first flakes of what would be a short but powerful storm that socked the southern part of the state. I saw the plaque as I’ve seen it countless times during my regular walks, bike rides, and drives along this scenic road. The rock has become such a part of the landscape that I hardly acknowledge it anymore.

But this time, I noticed the date. December 1, 19 years ago to the day. December 1, the first day of Advent.

For the rest of the weekend, I thought about Tony Basta. I thought about him during Sunday’s sermon, when I heard the preacher say, “Each of us is dying a little every day.” I thought about Tony during the adult forum, where we discussed Jesus as avatar, God in human form.

I also thought about the devotions I receive each morning in my inbox from Richard Rohr. This particular one began, “In one way or another, almost all religions say that you must die before you die . . . Some form of death—psychological, spiritual, relational, or physical—is the only way we will loosen our ties to our small and separate false self. Only then does it return in a new shape, which we might call the Risen Christ, the soul, or the True Self . . . You move from religion as mere belief to religion as a new kind of knowing.” (November 22, 2018)

I have lived for 65 Advents. This year, I’ve asked myself what it is I’m waiting for. Is it a baby born in a manger? Is it an avatar that stands in for God?

I’m waiting for more than “mere belief,” I realize. I’m seeking nothing less than a re-imagined faith, or a faith that reflects a re-imagined self, one that can reconcile the sin I’m imprisoned by with a more life-giving emphasis on being created in God’s likeness. I want a faith that allows me to hold guilt and self-worth in the same sentence. I want my prayers to come from my heart, more honest and spontaneous. I want the faith I’ve lugged with me since childhood to make sense for me today.

Perhaps I’m like Tony, just a kid when it comes to my faith, growing up within the uncertainties of life, ever seeking to move from “no” to “yes.”

Rohr concludes his devotion: “Once you know that life and death are not two but are part of a whole, you will begin to view reality in a holistic, undivided way, and that will be the change that changes everything.”

Waiting doesn’t mean being passive. The change, the growing up, starts within. I must make myself vulnerable. I must be willing to be transformed, however that transformation comes.

Tony Basta, bless his sweet memory, has inspired me to follow him on his beloved silver BMX, down every road, into every question, through every challenge, even if it means “dying” along the way.

 

 

It’s Been A Week

Seeking a way to start again

As my pastor said today in his sermon, “It’s been a week.” He was referring, of course, to the many disturbing events that were in the forefront of the news.

  • Matthew Shepard was laid to rest 20 years after he was beaten and left to die because he was gay.
  • A caravan of people walking from Central America to our border, where 800 U.S. troops will prevent them from seeking asylum from the violence and poverty they are trying to leave behind.
  • A mentally unstable man and Trump supporter with a long rap sheet mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats.
  • Eleven people were gunned down inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
  • 400,000 children are at risk of dying from malnutrition in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia wages war by cutting off food supplies to civilians.

As a country, as a world, it has been a week. A week that reflects an ongoing intolerance of “the other.” Can the bar get any lower?

My pastor’s comment made me consider my week. Mine has been a week as well, but in a very different, hopeful way.

  • I began fostering an 18-month-old golden retriever rescued from neglect and abuse. After a few days of adjusting, she has shown that indomitable spirit of her breed.
  • A friend who was diagnosed with sarcoma this past summer and has been through chemo and two surgeries met with her oncologist, who gave her every reason to believe she is going to survive.
  • A dear aunt—the last of her generation in my family—passed away peacefully, surrounded by loved ones who were able to say their good-byes. While we will all miss her down-to-earth goodness, we will gather to celebrate her 94 years and acknowledge those other loved ones gone before her who are now welcoming her home.
  • I heard two wonderful authors speak. Min Jin Lee wrote Pachinko, a sweeping historical novel of Korean Japanese culture. Megan O’Gieblyn, a former teacher of mine, read from her collection of essays, Interior State, in which she explores being from the Midwest and her “deconversion” from an evangelical background.
  • Saturday I attended a class at The Loft, taught by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. Most of the participants are working on a full-length project and some are nearing completion. Elizabeth gave us a new lens for considering the power a finished manuscript continues to exert on us and the world, whether or not it’s published.

It has been a week. A week of feeling as if things are coming apart at the seams, and a week of sewing up, stitch by stitch, the torn places. Soon I will head to a nordic contemplative service, where the theme for these Sunday evening services is the chance to start again. Just what we all need.

Paid in Full

When a house becomes a home

Thirty-three years ago, Chris and I bought our house. We were to be married in July 1985 and spent that spring looking at houses in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood—about 100, as I recall. (Was it a coincidence that our realtor, ever gracious and helpful through to closing, retired shortly afterwards?)

Homes were going fast, often for over the asking price. We’d already been outbid on 2. So when the realtor called me at work to describe this house, which was to be listed the next day, I headed over immediately. Before I finished seeing the main floor, I called Chris. It didn’t take long for us to agree that this was the house. Within an hour we were writing up a purchase agreement.

We moved into our 1917 Craftsman-style house on June 1, arguably the hottest, most humid day of the summer. The A/C was welcome relief as my Aunt Bea and I organized the kitchen while Chris and Uncle Andy set up the beds.

Here was where Chris and I raised our children and had 3 dogs. We added a fireplace, a bathroom, and converted a porch into year-round living space—all without changing the house’s footprint. That had been our intention from the beginning, to preserve the integrity of a modest, well-built house.

A neighbor told us that there had been tires in the front at one time, and that the house itself had been neglected. The yard was a blank canvas. Over the years, Chris put in a patio, regraded the back yard, grew vegetables, and was a mostly willing partner when I wanted to add one more flower garden.

The only addition we made that likely won’t increase the value for the future owner was a growth chart on the door frame by the back entryway. In pencil, Chris marked our children’s height over the years. I forget it’s there, only to notice it on occasion, coming and going.

Doorframe

My heart fluttered recently when I logged on to my Wells Fargo account and saw those long-awaited words: “Paid in Full” next to the mortgage balance. The house was finally mine! I thought.

But hadn’t it always been ours? The moment we were given title to the property, this house became the epicenter of our lives. A child was born here, a husband died. Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries were celebrated indoors and out. We entertained friends and read books in front of a fire. We puttered at our hobbies. We teased each other. We discussed politics and our  nonprofit work. We planned vacations. We faced health challenges and celebrated new jobs.      We saw the kids off to elementary school, then high school, college, and the world.

Some days the house feels too big, the upkeep too much. Some days I’m ready to move. But the echoes in every room and the accumulation of memories far outweigh the effort that goes with owning a home. Besides, is a house an effort when it holds the history of a family, a history that is important to claim?

My house is paid for in full. Better, it has paid for itself countless times over as a home, a haven, a loving embrace.

 

If I Had a Song

The day our national narrative began to shift

The other day I surprised myself when I wrote this sentence:

“I long imagined myself to be a writer, a feminist, and an activist, only to realize that for many years I wasn’t really practicing any of these.”

Writer and feminist, I conceded, I could make a case for. What was living but a chance to accumulate material for writing? And hadn’t feminism long informed my values and actions? But activist? That was the word that gave me pause. It conjures someone marching in a crowd, waving a sign and shouting, or lying down in the street, waiting to be arrested. Definitely not me.

Then a message arrived in my in-box early this morning. It was a reminder from Liz, a musician, writer friend, and sometime DJ, who was hosting a radio program on KFAI on protest songs. Comforted to know I wasn’t the only person awake at 5:15 a.m., I responded immediately to tell her I planned to listen. As I made breakfast, I started humming.

Later, ear buds in place, I queued up her show while mowing, never enjoying cutting the grass quite so much. With the first chords of “If I had a hammer,” I teared up. My voice and heart swelled to the familiar lyrics. Many of the songs played were written decades ago, but the spirit behind them is timeless. There were songs from the labor movement like “Solidarity Forever” by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and “Joe Hill,” sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock. Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit and Judy Collins, “Bread and Roses.” (To hear the complete show, go to kfai.org, select “On Demand,” and choose “Stone Soup” for September 12.)

I grew up on this music. It shaped me. More than anything, it planted a seed in me. So what if the seed had been dormant for a long time?

Yesterday, my friend Claire and I showed up at the federal building near Ft. Snelling, where we have volunteered to sit in on immigration hearings for people who have been detained and whose futures are being determined: asylum, voluntary departure, detention, removal. Our role is to observe the judge, the attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, and the detainee’s legal counsel, if there is any, and note if any human rights are being violated. If a person doesn’t speak English, is a translator present? If the person doesn’t have legal representation, does the judge explain the purpose of the hearing and answer the person’s questions? We’ve been impressed by the judge and grateful when detainees have a lawyer sitting next to them. So far, we’ve seen no one’s rights being violated. But what we have seen are people shackled at the wrists and ankles, many from countries where human rights violations and violence are ongoing.

As we left the federal building, Claire noticed the flag at half-mast. 9-11. We paused, probably each remembering where we were when the Twin Towers collapsed. That was when I saw the straight line connecting that day and this one.

9-11 left our country reeling. We’d never been attacked like that before. Out of the shock of violation came a sprawling fear that lumped “everyone else” into one. It was on that day that our national narrative began to shift from red, white, and blue to black and white.

Maybe because of my “day in court,” certain lines from the songs I listened to lingered:

Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.

How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?

If I had a song, it would be a protest song. “I’d sing out danger, I’d sing out warning, I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”