Brave Enough?

Six months after Andrew and I got married, we quit our jobs, sub-let our apartment, packed our bags, and jumped on a plane to Cape Town, South Africa. It was a crazy thing to do. Ridiculous. But, we were young and in love and brave, confident that everything would fall back into place upon our return to the States. We also knew that taking such a trip – a four month excursion to South Africa (one month), Australia (two months) and New Zealand (one month) – was, at least for Americans, an unusual experience, and that nothing could possibly be better than spending the latter half of our newlywed year abroad.

In Cape Town, we lived with friends of friends whose house happened to have a spare wing, empty and in need of warming during the African winter (our summer). In Australia, on the outskirts of Sydney, we bunked in another friend’s spare room, a fifteen minute walk from the Turra Murra train station – gateway to the coolest city in the world. Except for a brief stay with new friends in Auckland, we did New Zealand on our own; it was a time to reflect on our experiences as guests while seeking out adventure alone.

Andrew and I learned volumes in the few months we spent abroad: we learned about accepting the generosity of others graciously without feeling the crushing need to give back; we learned about each other, how to travel well as tourists and in life; we learned how to extend the gift of hospitality, and we learned about the necessity of leisure, the gift of solitude and the adventure of not knowing what’s next.

Upon our return to the States, Andrew and I both fell into a mild depression. This depression stemmed not from having to return to work, but from the reminder that life here is so heavily weighted with expectations, expectations that are both ours and others’; expectations and assumptions that are far more debilitating to the spirit than finding oneself in a sea of gray paneled office cubicles day after day.

Our culture impresses upon us the importance of “success” in its myriad forms. Strangers begin conversations by asking us what we “do” as a means of finding out who we “are,” when the reality is that these two things might not be true reflections of one another at all.

Our reentry into life as we had once known it was difficult on a number of levels, although not in the ways we might have expected. New jobs – better even than the ones we’d left – fell into place, and, upon our return, our decision to leave was lauded more than it was questioned. But in order to cope with the challenges of coming back home, I found I needed a constant – something that would remind me of the carefree days crossing the Harbour Bridge, the astonishing sound of breaking waves in Tsitsikamma National Park, the celebration of New Zealand’s natural beauty, all physical representations of the freedom we’d come to embrace.

So, I became a tea addict.

Nearly five years have passed since our big trip and I still drink two cups of hot tea a day – one in the morning, one at night, just as we did on our trip. Tea keeps me grounded. It straightens my priorities and clears my head. Through its steamy, herby wonderfulness, I become whole again: if not hydrated, then somehow rested, internally warmed, connected to a sense of liberty that is both memory and the present time.

We have often referred to our excursion abroad as a once in a lifetime experience, but the temptation to step out of time is strong and unlikely to be sated by tea alone. Just last night we revisited the idea of taking true sabbaticals (once every seven years), a break away from it all with our little family in tow. We have two years to plan and consider our options, ask ourselves whether the limitations we perceive are real or just conditioned, insurmountable or simply in need of extra thought and care.

Even if we continue to live in a world that sizes us up by the business and busyness of our days, we want to be “about” more than that. More importantly, we want our children to know that we can do the unexpected together, lending malleability to a world full of surprises, good and bad.

I wonder: Will our leading example be that which we set as a young, unfettered newly married couple, or will we have courage enough to do the unlikely thing again, and again, and again? Until we have clear vision, hot tea will have to suffice.

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A Million Trees

Recently, a friend recommended that I pick up Frederick Buechner’s book of collected sermons, Secrets in the Dark. I am a fan of Buechner’s writing because of his communion with the mystery of God, the drama of that which is unknown, and for the enlivened, enlightening way he engages in the spiritual realm. His work, though never thought of as this, is creative nonfiction at its best.

In the introduction to Secrets in the Dark, Buechner expresses frustration and sadness about the general public’s boredom with the predictability of religion. He cites that it is not the work or act of faith that is boring, but, all too often, our culture – which promotes Christianity as feeble-minded and same-old-same-old. In response, Buechner’s sermons keep his readers and listeners on their toes, calling out oddities and inconsistencies in scripture commonly overlooked, rounding out flat characters, diving leagues and leagues below the surface before emerging again, out of breath, shouting joyfully about the discovery of some precious truth.

Buechner is also particularly wonderful because he honors and respects (rather than judges) disbelief, asking his non-believing brethren only to allow themselves to entertain the “if” – the possibilities inherent in any mystery.

But, on to the whole point of this blog posting – a million trees. This morning, I read one of Buechner’s Christmas sermons named “The Birth.” In it, he gives voice and background to the holiday story’s characters: the Innkeeper, a Wise Man, and a Shepherd.

At the very beginning of the sermon, the Innkeeper says, “…to run anything in this world … is like being lost in a forest of a million trees, and each tree is a thing to be done. Is there fresh linen on all the beds? Did the children put on their coats before they went out? Has the letter been written, the book read? … A million trees. A million things. Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet – just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window – just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle of them all. The whispering in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere – only the wind, the wind …”

In the past several weeks I have found myself wandering among the many trees (some planted, some wild) that have sprouted up and vie for my attention.

My days with Claire – so much the same that I could almost take her gummy grin, her delightful baby sounds for granted – are utterly consuming, segmented and mundane, exhausting and – yes – joyful in a way I did not know was possible. How tempting for motherhood and its tasks – the bathing, the changing, the feeding – to become a “thing” that must be done. And the same goes for my writing work, something that must be done for my spirit and my brain; the joy in that so easily extinguished by its necessity and the pressure I fix upon myself. There are other trees, some large, some small, some just sprouting new growth, and at times their presence feels overwhelming, offering not shade or sustenance, but looming shadow – a disorienting maze of obligation and responsibility.

Yet, in just a matter of a few sentences, I am reminded of the depth in each daily commitment, the importance of paying attention. The trees, though there are millions, serve more purpose than to be chopped down – ticked off our lists of things to do – but to give shelter. Each grove of trees, if planted carefully, can bring new meaning and possibility; fruit for the soul. I hope the forest through which you walk each day is filled with cool, mossy rocks and sturdy nooks between roots perfect for sitting, reflection, and quiet encouragement.

Oxford American Magazine – A Review

Be faithful to that which exists within yourself.
-Andre Gide

The quotation above appeared at the top of a freelance job posting email I received this morning. I found its presence there slightly ironic, because the sort of work that appears on this email list often begins with, “Do you want to write about cars?” and ends with, “Compensation: $10/story.” (I have found I may be keeping the subscription for the quotations alone.)

“That” which exists within me isn’t driven by compensation (if it were, I wouldn’t be writing at all), but since I’ve made more than ten dollars an hour working RETAIL – nevermind the Master’s degree – accepting ten dollars for a story (even if it is about cars) seems to be the most unfaithful thing I could possibly do with myself. As a writer of creative nonfiction, I might quite enjoy describing an electric blue T-top Camaro (in another life I dated a driver of one, after all …), but probably not for a publication that doesn’t appreciate the work it takes to put the reader in those vinyl bucket seats.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. If a select few magazines and/or online journals wanted my writing but could pay me nothing for it, I would consider it a gift – and might even write the editor a thank you note. The Oxford American (OA), a magazine for and about the South aimed at publishing solidly written narrative nonfiction, is one of those.

My mother, who could have made good money discovering big talent for literary agencies or record companies (she is always surprisingly ahead of the trends) gave me my first issue of the OA when I was in college. She thought the magazine’s music issue was neat, and that the writing was better than most – and it was. But not enough people knew about the mag, or maybe not enough people cared, and it foundered.

The magazine, recently resurrected as a registered nonprofit, is now housed by the good people at the University of Arkansas. I love the Oxford American not just for its excellent writing, but for its humor. The magazine embraces the South’s quirkiness, revealing and exploring personalities and cultural phenomena that usually defy the Southern stereotype. I rejoice in this defiance because it is done so cleverly and with such playful curiosity.

The Oxford American‘s writers take their readers by the hand and lead them through the South on old, forgotten trails, aimed not at shallow industry or fad or stereotype, but at getting to the everyday oddities that make us and our region so interesting.

In this way, the OA is a magazine both for those who are Southern and those who are not. In the current issue, I’ve read a story about Merian C. Cooper, the high-flying Southern renegade who created King Kong, as well as a more serious article about the esteemed historian John Hope Franklin – an African American man embittered and empowered by the Civil Rights movement to write the South’s unvarnished history. The Oxford American‘s identity as a magazine about the South is clear, but it is for everyone interested in back stories, quirky personality, and true-to-life narratives that read like fiction. To learn more, or to subscribe, www.oxfordamericanmag.com

A Lot of Eggs – Too Few Baskets

Today I learned I did not get the teaching job. I am thankful that the news was swift and so graciously delivered; the “deliverer,” a former pastor, could not have been more encouraging in the midst of telling me they’d chosen a more experienced candidate for the position.

Of course, I am disappointed, but when given the chance to consider my motives for wanting the job, I think it might be best that they passed me over; Someone Else may have Something Good in store that is out of my current comfort zone, and/or beyond my imagined good fortune. Already, the rejection has ignited within me a desire for Something More – and that can never be a bad thing.

Nevertheless, I do get bummed out when I think of all the eggs I’ve got – my passion for writing, my desire to continue to learn, this faint streak of excitement I feel when I think of teaching, my affection for reading and discussing great books with other interested people – and realize that there are very few baskets in this city where I could put them (one or all) given my life’s current parameters.

But since this is a Joyful blog (and because I continue to enjoy great popularity), the up side is my only option. Onward!

Her profession was words and she believed in them deeply. The articulation, interpretation, appreciation, and preservation of good words. Words could incite, soothe, destroy, exorcise, and redeem.
–from “The Odd Woman” by Gail Godwin