On moving and moving on

A couple of months ago Mark and I had a falling out with our third housemate, and decided to look for a two bedroom apartment. For those of you who don’t know, Mark is my good friend and long-time housemate. We lived in an intentional Christian community together for several years, and four years ago moved into a three-bedroom apartment and have been renting out the third bedroom. It was a good plan, I think. We needed to leave the community, and our incomes are both on the low side, and this way we’ve been able to rent out the larger bedroom and pay a little bit less.

I was in the Christian community for seven years, and it was a hard seven years. In many ways it was a toxic environment for me, though despite that (and maybe a little bit because of it) those were years of a lot of inner growth. But it was a community, a family, and hard as it was I was scared to leave, to go off on my own. I was so scared I kept putting it off, year after year, crisis after crisis, until the time came when the decision was taken out of my hands and I had to leave. Mark and I started looking for three bedrooms. We trekked around Boston with realtor after realtor and saw some awful places. Tiny apartments, filthy apartments, bizarrely shaped apartments. It was extremely demoralizing, and the days until we had to move were ticking down. Then we found this place.

This house, where we’ve been for the past four years — it’s gorgeous. It’s spacious and sunny, up on a hill on a tree-lined street, with two porches, a great view, and rabbits living in the back yard for crying out loud. The third bedroom is actually two rooms spanning the whole third floor, so we were able to rent that out at a higher rate than we paid for our bedrooms. I have no idea how it was in our price range, or how we were the only viable applicants. Just to add to the drama and the miraculousness of it all, the landlords didn’t accept our application at first but decided to have another open house — and no one showed up! So at the eleventh hour, just days before we had to leave the community, we signed a lease for Primrose Street.

This house has been such a place of healing for me. After years of struggling in the community and being afraid to leave I found myself spending glorious solitary hours sitting on my porch watching the sun set over the hills as the birds sang in the trees all around me. I rolled out my yoga mat in the large, wood-paneled living room, in front of the working fireplace, and felt my body healing as I stretched. In the winter I chopped garlic and onions, potatoes and carrots in the kitchen and filled the house with the smell of hearty soups. I bought viney plants and watched them slowly take over mantles and bookshelves. I chatted with Mark in the evening, grateful to have a friend to talk to and grateful when we went to our separate corners of the house, introverts respectful of each other’s need for solitude. I’d been so scared to leave, and look where I’d landed. My heart rose up with the words of the Psalms:

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
    you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I felt God’s message to me in my very bones: “Don’t be afraid.” As Frederick Buechner has so beautifully expressed it in his definition of grace: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

But almost as soon as we’d moved in here I knew there would come a time when we’d have to leave, and I knew it would be really hard. I thought that time would be when our landlords decided to move into the house themselves, since that was their long term plan for the place. But after this last experience of disagreements and miscommunication with the third housemate, Mark and I both agree that we don’t want to have to keep finding and coping with a third person. For even as the house has been such a wonderful place of quiet and healing, there have been conflicts and struggles with our various third housemates. Beautiful and terrible things seem to always come together, don’t they?

It was a hard decision, but I know it is the right one. And I don’t want to be afraid of moving on to the next thing. I was afraid for so long before, and then when I wouldn’t take the leap of faith myself I was pushed, and landed somewhere wonderful. I don’t want to be afraid again. I want to trust that the same Spirit that led me here will lead me to the next place.

And now, right now as I type, we are in the eleventh hour again. We’ve given notice here for June 30th and we haven’t found a new place yet. We thought we found something but it fell through yesterday afternoon. Today is June 16th, officially less than half a month till we have to be out of here. Two weeks, if you prefer things in tidy sets of seven. Mark is in Connecticut helping with his grandmother’s funeral preparations. Right when things got crazy here with our housemate Mark’s mom broke her arm and his grandmother started failing, so he’s been down there for three months now while I try to handle things up here. We’re both struggling with health issues both chronic and acute. Everything seems to be happening at once.

Last night, in the midst of all of this, some good friends from my days in the community came to visit. They are a family of five and one of the things that made it so hard to leave the community, and I’ve greatly missed popping next door to hang out in their kitchen, or Shima stopping by for some of the iced coffee I always had on hand, or the kids knocking on my bedroom door to tell me about their adventures. They sat in my kitchen last night, amidst the moving boxes, and we caught up. They had just bought a house in Atlanta, and Steven shared with me how impossible everything had seemed. He’d applied for a promotion with a pay raise that he wasn’t sure he’d get, they’d been living in a rented house far too small for them, and buying a house seemed out of the question.

“All these pieces had to come together and it seemed impossible,” Steven said, “And I prayed and said, ‘God, you’ve got to make this happen, because it’s not something I can do. It’s all in your hands.'” And they did come together, all of them.

“Yeah!” I said. “That’s how it is for us, now. But you know, it’s better this way, because we see the reality of the situation. Everything is in God’s hands, but the people with all the money and resources don’t realize it. They think they’re in control, but that’s just an illusion.”

“Right,” said Steven, “Exactly.”

I’d been stressed out when they said they’d texted to say they were coming by last night, because everything was happening at once: We’d gotten word of that one apartment falling through just as I was loading the toddler I nanny into the car to pick up his sister from kindergarten, and Mark and I were trying to communicate about maybe appealing the decision and next steps if that didn’t happen. But what a blessing to spend time with old friends from the community I’d been so scared to leave, to hear how God had provided for them, and to exchange words of encouragement and hope. Shima said she’d pray for me, and I felt confident that God would hear her.

And how wonderful to have evidence of God’s redemption in the flesh, old friends who had been through the hard times with me, who have had hard times themselves, to embrace each other with forgiveness and love. Turns out I hadn’t left community behind — it came with me, and it will come with me on this move, too. I will set my viney plants on other mantles, roll my yoga mat out on other floors, and other birds will sing on other trees outside of other windows. There will be beauty, and there will be pain, because life always has both mixed together. I don’t want to be afraid.

***

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Consider the birds of the air

Thirteen robins

Thirteen robins

It’s February 16th and the record breaking snow and frigid temperatures continue in Boston. I took this picture (on my cheap camera phone, sorry) as the 3 yr old and I sat in the car waiting to pick up his big sister from school. You can’t really see unless you make it bigger (ctrl +) but there are eleven robins in that little tree above the snow bank, and three right at the bottom of the snow bank. There were berries in the tree and on the ground that they were nibbling on. But the wind was biting, and they were all puffed up to more than twice their usual size. When the wind blew they would turn towards it so it blew with the grain of their feathers; when the wind caught them facing the wrong direction it pushed their feathers out painfully and blew them across the snow till they reoriented themselves. It was a strange and pathetic sight, and both sad and ironic to me to see those little emblems of spring struggling moment to moment through this harsh winter.

That evening I left the kids with their parents and tramped down to take the subway then a bus home. I usually drive to that job, but there were no parking spaces on their narrow, one way street that weren’t being desperately saved by the residents. The previous week I’d taken the T (short for Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, for those who aren’t from around here) to their house and they’d called an Uber for me to get home, but this week, when they asked me to come in earlier because the 3 yr old was home, sick, from school, I offered to reverse it and have them Uber me there so I could get there sooner. But that meant that I had to wait for the train and bus outside, after dark, on one of the coldest nights of the year.

I made the first leg okay, but then I stood outside waiting for the 51 bus for 45 minutes, and it never came. Three should have come during that time, according to the schedule, but the T, like most of the rest of us Bostonians, isn’t dealing that well with all the snow. When I couldn’t feel my face or toes anymore I limped the two blocks to Harvest Market and warmed up for a few minutes, then went out to wait for another bus which came more often but didn’t take me as close to home. Ten more minutes in the freezing cold and the bus finally came. I climbed on but couldn’t even get past the yellow line because of the crowd. This bus would take me a mile in the right direction, and then I’d have to walk the rest of the way.

At the next stop I had to quickly step back into the cold to make room for the people getting out. An elderly woman with a small child got on. And I thought, as I have often this winter, of the people who have it so much worse than I do. I’ve had a couple of snow days, when my employers didn’t have work so I didn’t either, but I got paid for them. Most hourly workers don’t, and have missed work through no fault of their own, and will have to pay just as many bills this month, but with a smaller paycheck. I’ve also been able to drive to work, most days — my other employers have a driveway I can use. But many Bostonians, even those with money, have no choice but to use the T, and delays have been severe. It took me two hours to get home that night — a 3.5 mile drive. Many people have had two hour commutes both ways for days. And some people have to get their kids to daycare by public transportation, get themselves to work, and then repeat the process on the way home.

I looked at the woman and child on the bus and I thought again how the knowledge that some people have it a lot worse than I do wasn’t helpful to me. “It could be a lot worse,” the thought meant to cheer me up, to make me grateful for what I have, instead makes me despair even more. Now I feel the weight not only of my own trials and suffering, but of numberless others as well. And I wish even more that I were stronger, more well off, so that I had extra energy and money to actually help some of those others. I limp along (literally now, since I pulled a muscle yesterday shoveling), getting my own stuff done, shoveling my own sidewalk and car, and making it to my own jobs. It’s been hard, and I feel overwhelmed, but I am doing okay so far. But how I would love to be able to do more than okay, and to offer a hand to others as well: To dig an elderly neighbor out of the snow, to offer rides to some of those struggling to get to and from work.

The people haunt me; the fourteen little robins haunt me. The robins, of course, make me think of Jesus’ assurances in the Sermon on the Mount–

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

Last Monday my two housemates were both away for the storm, and I struggled out that evening to clear a path through our driveway to my car. I was feeling really badly — anxious and depressed and tired — and I didn’t know if I could do what needed to be done. But when I started shoveling I realized that there was something other than the snow weighing on me. I’d been reading The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle, and it was much more of a devotional book than the autobiography I’d expected it to me. The first few chapters were her thoughts about God, in essays and poems. And it was hard for me to read, for the same reason the Bible is hard for me to read lately: Those thoughts, words, and emotions that used to mean so much to me, that used to lift my heart and my spirit, now were empty. And the deep meaning they used to have for me was like a mockery of the emptiness I now felt. John of the Cross called this the Dark Night of the Soul, and it is something that I have struggled with for several years now.

This is the path I was shoveling through our driveway.

This is the path I was shoveling through our driveway.

So I’d been reading The Irrational Season while the snow fell and the afternoon deepened into evening, and then I went out to shovel while there was still some daylight left. And as I began to plow my way through the drifts, almost weeping with how much had to be done, I prayed. I didn’t pray about the snow and the shoveling. I called out to Jesus and begged, again, for him to be in my life and my heart; for him to be the center and purpose of my life, as he once had been. Just saying the prayer made me feel a tiny bit stronger, and I tried to focus on moving each shovelful, on the very small, specific task that lay in front of me: Not the whole driveway but that one shovelful of snow. Each one. And then the next. Still, it was freezing out, and still snowing, and the wind whipped the snow painfully into my cheeks.

I made it about 2/3 of the way down the driveway that way, one shovelful at a time, but my shoulder and wrists were really starting to hurt. Then our neighbor James came riding up on a white horse (I may be embellishing that part) and offered to do the rest of the driveway with his snow blower. I can’t describe how grateful I felt. I think I would have been crying except that the muscles in my face were too frozen. James plowed through the rest of the driveway in minutes, and I moved on to my car. After a few minutes of lugging the heavy snow that the plows had wedged against my car James came by again and said, “Let me do that for you.” While he was working on my car I starting in on the sidewalks, and James came along and waved me off and did those, too.

I made a joke on my Facebook page about marrying James: “’It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good snow blower, must be in want of a wife.’ ~Jane Austen, had she lived in Boston in January/February 2015″ But the humor was covering up profound feelings of gratitude and my continuing struggle to re-find faith. Later that night, as I was getting ready for bed, more of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount came to me: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Well, I thought. So. I had begun the work by seeking the kingdom, seeking God, and the other thing — help with shoveling — that I had not prayed for and had not expected, that had been given to me as well.

Here is the full passage, to which the New International Version gives the bold, encouraging header: Do Not Worry.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

My heavenly Father knows what I need. He knows the needs of the robins, too, and of the old lady and the child on the bus. And even though the words still sting as much as they heal, I will continue to turn back to them. Even though I thought I found the kingdom, and now feel like it is lost, still, I will continue to seek.

 

 

 

Of Monsters and Men

MonsterWell,my attempts to change my inner self talk to positive statements are failing laughably. How are yours going? For every, “I’m strong!” and “I can do this!” several dozen, “I can’t take it”s and “It’s too much”es creep in.

We had a book when I was five or six called The Monster at the end of this book. On the first pages, Grover reads the title of the book and gets scared. He doesn’t want to see the monster! So he comes up with the plan that we — he and the reader — just won’t turn the pages. If we don’t turn them, we’ll never get to the monster, and we’ll be safe. Of course you, the reader, keep turning the pages, and Grover gets more and more frustrated with you, and more and more panicky as you get closer to the end. It’s hilarious.

When my mom started to read it to me, *I* got scared. I was firmly in Grover’s camp. DON’T TURN THE PAGES MOMMY! I remember crying hysterically until she hid the book safely away in the top of a closet. It wasn’t until we moved when I was almost eight that we remembered the book was there, and found out that *SPOILER ALERT* — GROVER was the monster at the end of the book all along! “I, loveable, furry old Grover am the monster at the end of the book. And you were so SCARED.” Well, yes, Grover, I was.

Back to the almost present, three days ago, when the snow piles and consequent traffic was so ridiculous that I decided to take the bus to work instead of drive. The bus was right on time, I thought, till a fellow passenger told me that it was actually the one that was supposed to come an hour ago — she knew because she’d been waiting that long. Once I got on the heated bus I shed my hat and gloves and unknowingly dropped my sunglasses on the floor. A kind, middle-aged, black gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and handed them to me, sparking a train of thought about the goodness of most people and how we still help each other out even when we are stressed. Then the same man suddenly yelled out the window, “F**K YOU, MONSTER STORM!!” before lapsing back into a meditative silence. The rest of the passengers looked over in brief surprise, and then went back to their own thoughts and lives.

I am so scared of monsters

Yesterday I drove again because I had to take the little girl I nanny to school. The roads were — are — still awful. Many two-way streets are reduced to one narrow lane with walls of snow on either side. Tempers are running short all around. The three mile drive to the girl’s school took almost half an hour. I thought I was handling the stress pretty well, but looked down after a particularly stressful incident involving a taxi that refused to back up to let me and another driver pass, so that we had to back up into a busy intersection, and saw that I had chewed my thumbnail down till my finger bled. Then, amidst all the honking and close calls, a woman tried to merge in front of a man behind me and he got angry. He jumped out of his car, leaving it sitting empty on a busy, four lane street, and started yelling and swearing at the woman — and then pulling on her door handle! It was terrifying. I opened my door to try to help — talk him down, or call the police, or take a picture of his license plate or something — but realized I couldn’t leave the little girl alone. I had my phone out to call the police, but before I could the man jumped back in his car and drove off.

 

Page from TheMonster at the end of this Book, by Jon Stone

There has been more snow in the past two weeks than Boston’s average for the entire winter. And another foot or more is coming this weekend. I feel like shouting, like Grover, “STOP TURNING THE PAGES!” Or something similar to the exclamation of the gentleman on the bus. If we could stop turning the pages, maybe we could stop the snow from falling, and maybe that would stop the monster from coming. But, in the end, if it turns out that the monster was only ourselves all along, would that be any better? I already bit my own hand — what damage will I do if the snow keeps coming? And the man who leaped, roaring, out of his car — what will his monster do if we get to the end of the book? I am scared to find out.

 

Self-talk

Sisyphus by Titian

Sisyphus by Titian, and how I feel about this winter

Snow, snow, and more snow. I am about to head out to my nanny job and it is 8 degrees out, -16 with the wind. For the past week I have had a refrain running through my head, almost subconsciously: “I can’t handle this, it’s too much, it’s too much.” This winter is hitting me hard all of a sudden.

But while it’s true that I feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the winter and all it entails (see my last post, Boston in January), I want to be aware of that inner dialogue and take control of it. That *is* how I feel, but it’s not helpful to let it become my narrative. So I am trying, every time I notice myself thinking, “I can’t take it,” to replace it with a truth that strengthens rather than weakens.

“I am strong.” “I have made it through worse than this.” “I can’t handle the whole winter, but I can handle the work right in front of me today, and that is all I have to do right now.” Those are the inner truths that strengthen me, and what it’s helpful to focus on.

And, also, these: “We are closer to April than November.” “Sunset tonight is 5:01 pm,” (after two months of 4-something sunsets) “The average historical temperature in Boston is one degree warmer than it was two weeks ago.” “Spring is coming, it really is.” “Hang in there.”

Do you have “negative self-talk” swirling through your mind? What is it? What are some truths you can replace it with today?