D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield has written for McSweeneys, Image Journal, and Christianity Today, among other publications. Her book of essays is forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016. Follow her on Twitter @d_l_mayfield.

The Wounds of Belief

hoe met up before a show. He was wearing a bandana around his face while working on the ancient wheels of his ancient tour bus, adorned with hand-painted flowers and cracked windows. We shook hands, and his were covered in grease. My husband was star-struck, quivering in happiness and the particular fear of wanting to appear somewhat cool in front of your idol—the lead singer and lyricist of mewithoutYou, Aaron Weiss. He washed his hands and changed into a sunflower-covered sweater. In the Portland rain we plunged into a conversation about Palestine, struggling with religious fanaticism, and what to do with our stone-cold hearts.

He talked, I listened, my husband sat with us humming with joy. I wrote down quotes in my little notebook. I tried to act like an impartial journalist, just another person with questions for a rockstar. But really, all I wanted to do was put down my notebook. All I wanted to do was pour out my story to him, to tell him what his music had meant to me, to ask if it ever meant anything at all to him. But I was scared because I did not entirely trust Aaron Weiss due to the depths of our one-sided connection and because of what his answers might be.

Because people change…all the time. The lives we construct for ourselves get torn down and rebuilt, over and over and over again.

Aaron had recently taken a trip to Palestine and written about it on the band’s Facebook page in a series of travel journal essays. It had interested me, this spark of political conviction and belief in the midst of a long period of him delving into mysticism, poetry, and inscrutable lyrics. The evangelical in me was excited. Right beliefs, right actions! Let’s do something about the human rights abuses taking place in Palestine!

What did you think of all of the comments you got from your posts? I asked. There were more than a few disappointed fans, people who said farewell to the band, people talking about their own Zionist leanings. But it was the other comments that got to me, the nice yet insistent overtones I hear all the time when it comes to Palestine: It’s really complicated/don’t pick a side/be on the side of peace/we can’t have an opinion because we just don’t know everything.

Aaron read the comments, but did not feel the need to respond to many of them. “A lot of it was positive and encouraging. To me the critical posts were valuable.” For the few who commented and thanked him for his unbiased approach towards the conflict, he just laughed.

“Of course I am biased. I don’t believe in bias-free journalism, or value neutral terms. Why did I zero in on these particular religious fanatics—people who were extreme and determined in their God-given vision to take the land back? Why did I focus on them? Because their perspective and position is dangerous. And it’s one I resonate with as someone who has struggled with religious fanaticism.

Not picking a side is picking a side. Taking a neutral side is supporting the dominant oppression. That’s part of the reason why I allowed my pro-Palestinian bias to shine through in my posts. If I had tried to be more neutral I could have. But given the imbalance of power in that particular context, I felt it was fair to have a somewhat inverse balance of reporting. I was assuming the majority of my audience would be Zionist leaning, or that they didn’t care.

He was assuming that the majority of his audience is still composed of people who found the band while they were on the Christian label Tooth & Nail Records, when they played at religious festivals and circuits. The fans who screamed along to songs about Samson and longing to be filled up by God, people like myself who made it their life’s motto to pray the words from their song, C-Minor, “open up my doors, my Lord, to whatever makes me love You more.”

I have struggled with being deeply religious my entire life. In the beginning, I copied the desperate hearts for God I saw around me. As I grew older, the drive morphed into a passion to evangelize the world, to convert everyone to be just like me and mine. And in the ensuing years my certainty and faith have been deconstructed. The world itself knocked the wind out of me.

Weiss is familiar with this journey, the difference being that he undertook his movement from certainty to doubt publicly. Now, he says “I’m not catering to a singular ideology. I’m trying to incorporate the full spectrum of my religious familial history and personal journeys. and they are contradictory. There is not a single position that we are putting forth, so people who are looking for that have become disillusioned and disappointed.”

In “King Beetle on the Coconut Estate”,  Aaron sings of a beetle king and his court on their quest to figure out what is inside a great fire. Both a professor and a lieutenant try to explain or overpower the fire, and both come back with singed wings. In frustration, the beetle king cries “We sent for the Great Light and you bring us this? We didn’t ask what it seems like, we asked what it IS!” The king decides to fly straight into the flames while his court sings “Why not be utterly changed into fire?” inviting the listener to understand that some mysteries need to be experienced, and at great personal cost. The song is weird as hell and appeals to that part of me that always wanted to go up in flames for what was good and true and right, to see things clearly and not be caged by the dim mirror of our world. In my own life, this meant living with those who experience injustice and inequality in America, working within refugee and low-income communities, burning bright at the edges of the empire. But of course, after a few years of this, my flame dimmed, and I still had no clear picture of who or what I was actually serving. All I had were questions, piling up on one another.

So I asked Aaron the biggest one that has been burning in my heart for quite some time. What do we do after we have spent so much of our time deconstructing the certainty of our youth? How do we start to engage with the world again, to reconcile our doubts about ourselves enough to speak up for justice when it is plain there is none?

He answered slowly, thoughtfully, full of pauses. He is thinking about Palestine, of course, but I meant the question to apply to all of life, I am eager for his wisdom to inform me, like his songs have done.

“Do you need some degree of certainty to act against injustice? I certainly have felt some of that tension. There is some frustration with that feeling of uncertainty eating into a sense of action towards social justice. Especially when it’s not so clear what justice looks like or what ways we can go about bringing it. It can be paralyzing—doubting everything or thinking critically about your beliefs or your actions could result in utter withdrawal. In the case of writing about Palestine, I did wonder if I was doing more harm than good, especially in the case of social media, where anyone could stumble upon this information. Could this cause people to endorse violence against Israel? I posted because there was such an irresistibility about it; it was so palpable the feeling of the stories I was hearing and the heartache and the oppression and the suffering. Although the situation itself was complicated, the suffering was not complicated.

I have never been to Palestine, and I did not meet the people Aaron and his family encountered. But I have met my fair share of refugees, people fleeing from war and violence and corruption and human rights abuses. 

Even though he was only there for a few short weeks, I sensed that same wounding in Weiss, the same sensitivity that makes him such a glorious song-writer and inscrutable semi-public figure. He saw suffering on a scale that shocked him, and he decided to try and shock others around him. I asked him if there had been any lingering effects of the trip.

“It didn’t follow me as much as I thought it would. The day I left I flew to Europe and saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And very few people since have asked me about my trip to the Middle East. People have not been that interested. For the people of Palestine this was their life, and for me it was a kind of vacation. If I had more conviction maybe I would sell everything I have and leave my life of comfort and live life with the most oppressed. Why am I not doing more? It hasn’t changed my life very much. It’s another reminder of how little I allow my life to be changed. How little I allow my heart to break over the palpable injustice. Children being killed or people who don’t have clean water to drink. Or people who don’t have basic needs met. Why I choose to still buy expensive coffee when that’s happening—I can’t justify that. But that’s where I am at.

Monks, priests, poets, artists, desert fathers and mothers, saints, troubled people, fanatics are stubborn, idealistic, despondent, unstable, euphoric, crushed by never measuring up, swallowed into the sublime belonging for a moment. Us religious fanatics stretch and grow and hope that someday we will become contemplative, but instead settle for an uneasy dance between activism and acceptance. Always on the look-out for another wild-eyed seeker, I had found one in Aaron so many years ago. But even fanatics get tired after sometime.

In Palestine, Aaron went to the Aida refugee camp where the walls were painted with large murals of keys—signifying how quickly the Palestinians had to flee their homes, how they left the keys in their doors, trusting that one day they would be back, how they still cling to that dream. They are keys to their future, keys to having a place back in the world, keys to believing. Aaron wrote about this camp, and he told me the numbers that would not leave his mind:

“There were either 200 or 500 children killed in Gaza last year, for example. I don’t know how to carry that suffering with me. I don’t think I do carry that, maybe a tiny tiny fraction. The times I have felt the most alive and with the most integrity have been the times I have immersed myself in situations of those who are less fortunate and suffering, and not running away from it. Because it’s a trade-off. If you try and run from suffering your life will have a sort of hollowness to it, but if you embrace suffering or face it or try to stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized in any way—there is a difficulty in that but there is also a richness and meaning and a sense of goodness. So where am I? I can’t say. I’m not very far along the good path. But those kinds of trips are like taking a chisel to a stone heart, chipping away at it. I can’t forget those things. And Lord willing my wife and I will continue to surrender and grow in our willingness to surrender to face more of the difficult realities of the world.

I used to know all the right answers. I used to know how to follow God. I used to sing loudly and lustily along with my favorite bands. Now I feel quiet, cowed by a very complicated world. I used to be a religious fanatic, but in the way of those drawn to extremes. I now wish sometimes I could forget about the ways of the world.

I like Aaron, not only because he has a truly beautiful beard, but also because he still carries within him all the parts of himself. He is still, truth be told, struggling with religiosity. I see myself mirrored in him, how trying to follow God has wounded and healed us, how we know too much to be very happy with our life choices, that we are wondering how much of others suffering we are supposed to bear, and how much needs to be released back into the hands of someone bigger than ourselves.

I no longer read the Bible and scour it for prophecies about Israel, nor do I listen to the lyrics of a favorite band in order to validate my experience. I am slowly coming to the place where I see a thousand different sides to so many issues, where I no longer see the need to explain away violence as just a part of God’s plan for the world. I am picking up the pieces after the fires of life. I am searching for the keys to the new and beautiful kingdom where everyone has a home. But most of all I am learning to rebuild a faith, originally forged in being right, which now hinges on how willing I am to be wounded.

 

 

Photo by: Kyle Kenehan

The Book we Need

For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees.”— Isaiah 21:6

“Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no root.” —Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy.

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who has made it his life work to challenge the inherent bias in the American legal system against the poor and people of color. A few years back, Mr. Stevenson was working on the exceptionally grievous case of Walter McMillian, a black man falsely accused and tried for the murder of a young white girl. The facts of the case were obviously twisted, with dozens of people (including a police officer) witnesses to that fact that McMillian was at a church fundraiser at the time of the murder. The more Stevenson dug, the more he found: false confessions and bribes and the arrest and intimidation of witnesses were all revealed. Eventually, he found himself in Monroe County, Alabama, requesting that the D.A. consider the need for a new trial.

Monroe County and its courthouse is moderately famous now, the place where Harper Lee was from and based her novel To Kill A Mockingbird on. The town, Stevenson writes, is full of homages to the book. When he goes to the courthouse in order to find out why the state has arrested one of his witnesses, the receptionist chats with him about Mockingbird:

“Have you read the book? It’s a wonderful story. This is a famous place. They made the old courthouse a museum, and when they made the movie Gregory Peck came here. You should go over there and stand where Mr. Peck stood—I mean, where Atticus Finch stood.”

Mr. Stevenson is not pleased. He finally promises to go check out the museum, but thinks to himself: “I was too busy working on the case of an innocent black man the community was trying to execute after a racially-biased prosecution.”

Everywhere he looks, Mr. Stevenson finds a town so completely enamored with Atticus, so completely enamored with the sense that wrongs have been righted, so sure that the mockingbirds have been protected—all the while gross racial injustice continues to plague the town. He goes on to write:

“Today, dozens of legal organizations hand out awards in the fictional lawyer’s name to celebrate the model of advocacy described in Lee’s novel. What is often overlooked is that the black man falsely accused in the story was not successfully defended by Atticus. Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused black defendant, is found guilty. Later he dies when, full of despair, he makes a desperate attempt to escape from prison. He is shot seventeen times in the back by his captors, dying ingloriously but not unlawfully.

Mr. Stevenson wrote Just Mercy, an entire book about those similar to Tom Robinson, people who were tried and found guilty in the eyes of the law while God in heaven knew them to be innocent. It is 2015 and there are still Tom Robinson’s everywhere you look, still a Monroe (or Maycomb) county inside all of us. The town where Ms. Lee set her novel is plastered with posters for a stage adaption of the book that supposedly changed our nation’s conscience, which showed us that proud justice could and should be attained in the South. But it didn’t change us enough. I know, because when I read the words of Mr. Stevenson I was surprised. Tom Robinson died? I hadn’t remembered that part. All I had remembered were the parts that looked like me, the reflection I wished to see. I needed a watchman to tell me the truth. As it turns out, I needed to read To Kill A Mockingbird as it was originally meant to be written.

Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first. It has a quick and hasty feel to it, written in strong conviction and more than a little anger, and tied up a little too neatly. It is not a sequel. It is what she intended to tell us all along, but for quite a few years she had to give us what we could handle. Now she gives us this: Scout (now Jean Louise) all grown up and twenty-six years old, riding the train back to Maycomb county, discovering with shock and horror that the moral compass she has used as a guide is no longer any good.

I too was elated, then worried, then cautiously curious when I heard about Go Set a Watchman. Like everyone else I love to fixate on the talented who leave us at the party much too soon, hungry for more of their genius and wit, their insight into all of our most private lives. I came to read To Kill a Mockingbird a bit later in life, after high school, swallowing large chunks of the text in my Christian fervor, recognizing a book of minor prophecy when I saw one. But it has been years since I read it, and my mind is hazy with the somber black-and-white film making a mythology out of both Atticus and Ms. Lee. Of course, I side with the Finches and their friends—I am stubborn, like Scout; responsible, like Jem; imaginative, like Dill; and sure to do the right thing, like Atticus. It is a book that is finely written, a book which makes one feel proud, a book about being on the right side of history.

Go Set a Watchman quickly and cleanly upends everything I remember about To Kill A Mockingbird. Everyone in Maycomb county is a racist; at least, all the people that Jean Louise interacts with. Her auntie, the church ladies, her boyfriend, every white man in the county, her dad. It is that last one that supposedly will set all of our teeth ajar, will floor us like it does Scout. Go Set a Watchman will undo the saint and send him toppling to the ground, splintering into shards, will take away all of our hard-earned good feelings about ourselves and the state of race relations in our country. Indeed, to read Atticus Finch describe his philosophy of segregation in maddeningly calm monologues, is very hard to take. I sensed both the desperation and moral highness of Jean Louise, and I identified with her.

The flashbacks to the childhood of Scout, Jem, Dill, and Hank are exquisite in their detail and their penchant for fun. The religious words drifting through the pages evoke memories for those of us who grew up singing “blood-curdling hymns.” But most of all, for those that adored precocious little Scout, there are glimpses of her to be found in the grown-up Jean Louise. Her fierceness is on full display as she is confronted with the naked racism of her beloved Atticus (calling him a “double-dealing old ring-tailed son of a bitch”), and again as her world crumbles around her and as she starts to entertain the idea of building it up again, brick by brick. She is a character I relate to, because I too am white and privileged and angry and sad.

Like Jean Louise, I went off on my own into the big wide world and when I took the train back home I couldn’t understand what had happened to my community. I was shocked when Trayvon Martin was killed. I was horrified by the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. I can’t seem to ever stop being surprised these days, an age when black lives are gunned down or strangled or choked on a near daily basis on little to no evidence of misconduct. Racial reconciliation is not at hand, and the streets are loud with monologues which are barely different  from those on display in Go Set a Watchman. On Facebook, in the news, on talk radio, I hear the prejudice everywhere. We may not use the same terms as those in Maycomb County in the 1960s, but there is talk instead of  welfare queens and thugs rioting in the streets; latino drug lords and rapists and muslim terrorists. We are all very scared of our world changing, when it turns out it hasn’t changed very much at all.

Go Set a Watchman is by no means a perfect book. Uncle Jack, the supposed sage of the book, claims the Confederacy was not about segregation and slavery. Jean Louise, in a devastating encounter with her beloved childhood housekeeper Cal, is unable to recognize the pain of the black experience in the South, unwilling to tolerate any anger directed towards herself. But perhaps, more than anything, is the fact that the central conversation surrounding the book is in regard to the character of Atticus Finch. We are devastated, shocked, saddened and surprised that a beloved white icon of justice and mercy could be racist. This is the central tragedy of Go Set a Watchman. But the truth is, discovering racism and bias and prejudice in the people and communities we love is nothing compared to the tragedy of the black experience in America. The real tragedy, it turns out, is the continued presence in America of a white supremacy that is marked less by hooded klansmen than a blandly logical argument for individualism without acknowledging structural bias.

Did Harper Lee know, all those decades ago, that we would be stuck in the same miserable place? That we would continue to believe in the noble white savior, that we would just want to know that we are all him and he is us and that we no longer live in the black and white South but the vivid, colorful world where one is only judged by the content of their character, and their ability to pull up hard on those proverbial bootstraps? I don’t know how she knew, but I think she did. I think she waited on purpose, waited until we had built up the icon of white respectability and justice, until we had assuaged ourselves of any responsibility, until we forgot about Tom Robinson getting gunned down by the prison guards, and then she gave us the truth, the complicated individuals that we all are.

If there is one danger to be had in Go Set a Watchman, it is this: that we focus on Atticus Finch, Racist. That we turn him into an Other, that we distance ourself from him just as we did from the prosecution in To Kill A Mockingbird. That we take the moral high ground out of Maycomb county, that just like Jean Louise we seem to think we maybe missed that deadly disease of the heart and brain. When the truth is, we took Atticus and we turned him into a museum, a tourist destination, a book to read and feel good about. We  ignored the truth that many of the same fundamental inequalities and injustices remain in our country.

Bryan Stevenson, as he worked to free men and women from an unjust legal system here in America, has no more patience for those obsessed with To Kill A Mockingbird, because he cannot bear to read about fictionalized justice in a very unjust world. Which is why Go Set a Watchman is exactly the book we need right now. Near the end, Jean Louise tells Atticus “I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point. You love justice, all right. Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief—nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief.” The same could be said for all of us that read and adored and missed the horror lurking underneath To Kill a Mockingbird. We missed the point. We need this, a prejudiced book for prejudiced times. We need a voice crying out in the wilderness, tenderly pointing out all the blind spots we have accrued on the journey.

Carrie & Lowell & Me

I married into a dysfunctional family. My own tribe has their problems, naturally; but I was raised in a pack of females—strong, emotional, spiritual, and confident that our bonds and good hearts would carry us through the world. So when I met my new family, the ones who had somehow produced the world’s kindest, whimsical, resilient, bearded boy I had ever met, I was surprised. They were closed and guarded. I whirled into the family, confident that I would be anyone’s dream daughter-in-law. I let my heart roll out of my mouth with every sentence. And when I received, in turn, scorn and dismissal, I was shocked into silence.

And silence turned out to be the end game, as it is for so many families where abuse happens. Secrets abound even in the best-intentioned: this is what Christ promised to us, that there would always be darkness within. The only cure, of course, is the light—the continually dragging out into the open those things we almost unconsciously bury. The floorboards need to be pried up. The stink and decay of the rot inside of ourselves, the secrets we have hid, are bleached clean. We become like white bones before the Lord, and then, only then, can the flesh miraculously be restored. I knew this, even then. But for awhile, I was silent.

“Tuesday night at Bible Study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens.”

When I was young and in Bible college, right before I met my husband, I saw Sufjan Stevens perform for the first time on his Illinois tour. I sat, wide-eyed and rapt, while girls in cheerleader uniforms performed behind the quiet, brown-haired boy who knew that whispers were often more powerful than shouts. I strained to catch his meaning, but nothing stuck. I cried when I heard “Casimir Pulaski Day” because I, like the people in Sufjan’s songs, read my Bible every morning, and journaled dutifully my dull and eager-to-be-right thoughts. In the morning I tried to quiet myself, tried to get right with God. Instead it had become an exercise in proving myself, to repeat what I knew I was supposed to say, to earn points and collect sound theologies, to store up enough of God so I could go out and convince others to give him a try. I was only just starting to realize that this wasn’t what I wanted my life to be. I was growing weary of trying to decide who was right and who was wrong.

When I was around my husband’s family I felt constantly off-balance. I did not trust myself, my guts or my words. I was quiet, and therefore good, for many years. But the secrets grew and transformed and reached out to others. Abuse thrives in the dark and the damp and the suffocating allure of momentary peace. As an outsider grafted in, my place was never sure, so I allowed myself to be carried for far too long in the already established patterns. Eventually, for both my husband and I, it became clear we would need to swim away. We were the rats, fleeing a sinking ship; we were the ones ruining the mirage that we were all OK. And as we started to swim with all of our might, my silence turned into something more. It began to turn into anger.

Follow those created deaths/Fortune save me from his wrath/Spaceship out the house at night/Prophet speak what’s on your mind/You know you really gotta get right with the Lord

The second time I saw Sufjan, it was two months after both my daughter and I almost died in childbirth. It was the first time my husband and I left the house together since that momentous event, our first attempt at sticking a toe back into the normal world. It did not go well. It was the Age of Adz tour, and there was a packed amphitheater of pretty, healthy young people; there were video projections with people dancing in disjointed, jerky ways; there was a lot of neon. I couldn’t stand to look at Sufjan, his tattered costumes, the bedraggled duct-tape wings, the headdresses, the falseness I felt everywhere. I wanted to shake him: just tell me what it all means. 

I looked around and thought bitter thoughts. None of these people have ever gone what I had gone through. I almost died! My body had turned on me, had decided the baby inside was a threat, and shut down everything I needed to survive: my liver, my ventricles, my heart. So two months early, our daughter was born into a world which was much too big and advanced for her. I looked around the room at people caught up in the rapture of the bizarre songs, the reverence of the fringe, outsider artists, the mashing of spiritual and secular and the unwell of mind. I thought: sure, celebrate the outsider art all you want. But that is the kind of art which comes from one solitary place, deep within. The thread of commonality among so-called outsider artists is that they never progress. They never change. They just keep producing, until the day they die, the same kind of message. A compulsion without growth. We in the audience, and even those on the stage, all seemed a little confused. Are we celebrating revelation or madness? Do we want to be in love with our own sense of righteousness?

The ship continued to go down, but it went slower than I would have liked. We watched from afar, and I would have liked to see it wrecked upon the rocks of life; I would have liked to see it splinter and burn, the book of Revelation come to life. I would have liked a little justice. My husband, now a counselor, listens to other people as they talk about their horrific pasts. He listens to the sick and the sad and the oppressed of the world. He operates in an alternate America, where pains are named and laments are voiced, where the Christ we studied for so many years is living. We found Christ, we found him, and we cannot let him go. When we go back to the places we were told he would always be we find nothing but silence; after all, he said he never came for those who thought they were well.

“Lord come with fire/Lord come with fire/Everyone’s wasting their life/Storing up treasure in vain/Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth.

My daughter was three, safely tucked into bed with a babysitter, when we went to see the Christmas show. It was beautiful and chaotic, it was an absolute mess of the holy and commercialized. Sufjan’s dad was in the audience. He was older, gray-haired, and waved when Sufjan dedicated a song to him. My husband and I sang along to every word, every song. We sang of jingle bells and hymns older than our souls and it all felt like it meant something. Everyone around us was still young and beautiful and they all had drinks in their hand. But I did not judge them for it anymore. We celebrated everything, and underneath it all our hearts ached. The light had come into the world, and the darkness had not overcome it. But why does the darkness so outnumber the light?

… 

I waken in the middle of the night. God is talking to me. God asks me if I am ready to forgive. I tell him I am not, and roll over to go back to sleep. But a small part of me is pleased. Pleased that he would even ask.

Our Christmas with my husband’s family was spent at a discount Chinese restaurant, presents exchanged across a large round table filled with soy sauce and cheap wooden chopsticks. Conversation was stilted, hyperaware. My daughter opened her gifts and in her wide-open way flirted and chatted up these people who obviously wanted her to like them. A few blunt conversations were had; a thick, controlling silence was employed. We drove away from the restaurant and felt we could breathe again. It was all so depressing, but it was closer to the truth. It felt good, in that way.

Sometimes I still read my Bible in the mornings. The Scriptures no longer tell me how to live right, how to be right. They tell me how to be unwell. They tell me that my own lack of forgiveness is a sin, a dark animal clawing up my mind, producing the same art in my life day after day. Now I am old enough and broken enough to see it—but what comes next? In the middle of the night, I hear it. Are you ready to forgive? But I can’t, not yet, because to forgive would mean that the silence wins.

“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/And I long to be near you/But every road leads to an end/Yes, every road leads to an end.

I listen to Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan’s latest album, with tears in my eyes. Reckoning with forgiveness, it is laid bare before me. Everything has already happened; the unbearable weight of acknowledging is already here. The only thing left to do is give up on myself as high priest and high judge. Everyone who ever hurt us, shamed us, abused us, could be dead for thirty years and not know the sting of bitterness we still carry in our hearts. We forgive for ourselves. We face how unwell we have become, and we realize we might want to move on. There are other themes to explore in this life, other dimensions to add to our understanding of ourselves, our families, of God. Sufjan sings about his mother, he goes back to his guitar and his whispered voice makes us all lean in closer.

Maybe every time he plays he will get closer, closer to doing what Jesus asked of us, the most unimaginable thing of all. Maybe Sufjan will continue to feel forgiven as well, as his own fingers strum and pluck and eventually lose their grip on all the hurt that was done to him, his mother dead and buried, her sins still alive and well.

My Pride & Prejudice

I went to see a play a few weeks back, at a fancy-ass theater just a mile away from my apartment. For months I would jog or ride my bike past this theater, famous for its architecture, award-winning plays and gigantic images of playwrights plastered on the sides, never once stopping to step inside. I would shake my head and sigh, long-forgotten dreams of the stage echoing in my ears. But that life was behind me now—I was a cash-strapped adult who was very busy with the business of trying to live out Christian community in a low-income neighborhood.

So I would jog away from my apartment—the dumpsters swarming with flies, the neighbors who all looked different from me, the supposed ghetto of my new and beloved city—and I would run towards the theater, towards the river, towards the beautiful umbrellas lining the bars. It never took very long, because that is the way it is in America. The rich and poor, side by side, like two ends of a bridge. On one end you have people just trying to survive, and on the other side are the people who go to plays.

And then one day, compelled by the relentless curiosity in my brain, I stepped into the cool and metallic-gray corridor of a world-renowned theater. An adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was being produced in conjunction with the book’s 200th anniversary. This particular adaptation, by Simon Reade, happened to star Vincent Kartheiser (of Pete Campbell from Mad Men fame) as Mr. Darcy. I walked, shoulders slumped in response to the grandeur of my surroundings, to the box office. Quietly I inquired about discounts for poor people like myself, and was told there was such a program for people under 30, that I could get the rush price at any time. Would I like a seat for that evening’s show? There was only one left, and it was the best seat in the house.

Guilt creeping up my neck like an old friend, I looked to either side before declaring with an assertiveness that I neither felt nor believed in: “Sure. I’ll take it.”

//

Once you have lived in a diverse neighborhood for a while, it can be a shock to go into homogenous situations again. The reverse is true, of course, but perhaps a bit more expected. Now that I know people who are poor, who are refugees and immigrants and mentally ill and marginalized, when I know what goes on under the shadows of the skyscrapers downtown—well, it can be a shock to sit in a sea of crushed red velvet seats and perfectly coiffed gray hair, playbills clutched in mainly Caucasian hands. I settled down in my seat, pulled the scarf I bought at the Somali mall across my shoulders, hoping it classed up my pants and t-shirt just a bit. With a hint of bitterness and longing, I looked at the people around me, the kind of people who appreciate art and have the mental capacity to think about issues beyond what crisis will happen tomorrow. Do they know my neighborhood? I thought to myself, uneasy in my perceived isolation. Do they know what goes on in the apartments just a mile to the east? Have they ever experienced what I have, in my few short years on earth? Or do they prefer to cocoon themselves in the fantasy of this place, this theater, this pinnacle of escapism which is so very close to the real tragedies and hopes of life, being played out on the streets?

The lights dim, the curtains go up, and I am whisked away to an even more fantastical and seemingly far-fetched place, the world of Jane Austen. The costumes, Grecian pillars, oddly curled hairstyles and self-conscious prattle of the actors is soothing to my soul.

The play itself stuck tight to the book, rightfully fearful of angering the hordes of women known as “Austenites”—those poor souls looking for a spot of romance in a very modern world. The heroine, Lizzie Bennett, was portrayed adequately (albeit a bit strained) by Ashley Rose Montondo, an actress in her first major stage role. Vincent Kartheiser, resplendent in his trousers and mutton-chop sideburns, portrayed a perfect haughty-indifference-turned-sizzling-attraction towards Lizzie that was both believable and understated (Pete Campbell is crushing it as Mr. Darcy, I wrote in my playbill). Mr. Bennett, Lizzie’s father and normally one of my favorite characters, played up the “women be crazy” humor a bit too much in this adaptation. Similarly, the women of the play (besides Lizzie and her boringly demure sister Jane) were scripted to be rather insufferable creatures. Mrs. Bennett and her youngest daughters Kitty and Lydia were played with such hysteria, such trilling and screaming and giggling, as to be almost unbearable. Perhaps this was some precursor to the manic pixie dream girl tropes of our current time, Austen’s clever skewering of a culture that longs to make women one-dimensional, a collection of tropes and tics and hopes pinned on one successful matrimonial match.

As the play went on, as Lizzie rebuffs marriage proposals both from her creepy rector cousin and Mr. Darcy himself, my interest began to heighten. Watching Lizzie defend her actions to both her shrill mother and logical father (tropes again!), I was overwhelmed with a sense of what this type of behavior might really have meant for someone in Elizabeth Bennett’s situation. She was so brave, I thought, clutching my seat at the realization. Even though she must have been intimately aware of what poverty looked like, she wasn’t afraid of it. She would willingly embrace the consequences of not wanting to crush the truest parts of herself, of wanting to run away from artifice and respectability. Instead, she would run towards the terrifying lands of both personal freedom and economic entrapment. She was setting herself up for a life of downward mobility, of more work and less comforts and societal suspicion and condescension, and she was determined to relish the freedom it afforded her personally. She was prepared to be single, and poor.

But before I could fully idolize the neo-feminist Lizzie Bennett, escapades and ballroom dances and character-revealing episodes ensued which completely turned both Lizzie and the audience into rabid Darcy-lovers. By the end, when he is kneeling before her, asking her yet again to marry him, the entire auditorium is holding a collective breath. And of course she says yes, she always says yes, and then they are spinning around in an embrace together, kissing each other, just a few yards away from us, the people who paid to see this happen. A voice from the back of the theater, young and feminine, breaks the spell with a loud and exuberant “YAY!” and we all erupt in nervous laughter.

I giggle too, eyeing my seatmates to see if they noticed. As the actors bow (a thousand times, it seems like, my hands hurting from the incessant clapping), I feel just a tiny bit cheated. I wanted to be lost in the moment, to be wrapped up in the improbable romance, in the soothing world and words of Jane, but I somehow feel ashamed of it all.

But really, at that moment in the theater, when Lizzie and Darcy finally find each other, I wanted to shout my happiness to the roof. Instead, I left hurriedly and rode my bike home, berating myself with questions: Why did I go to the play? Why did I spend the money? Why were none of my neighbors there? And: Why did I love it so much?

//

It is at this very moment when I realize that I am not just a casual Jane Austen fan. As I critiqued and thrilled to the play, I noticed how intimately acquainted I was with the characters and story lines of Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s world, indeed, feels like a second home to me, because I have spent so many hours there—I have read every one of her published books, many times. I have watched every terrible miniseries, every full-length movie, every made-for-TV special that involves one of Jane Austen’s works, usually multiple times. But until this very moment, I have been unable to recognize this about myself: I am one of those girls. I am an Austenite, pretending not to be one. I keep quiet in fear of what the cool, austere literati would say. I keep quiet because these books are fantasies, utter escapement literature, only for those who aren’t fit to be fully present in the now. I keep quiet, because I don’t want to be labelled a hopeless romantic. There is a very real stigma against believing in true love, both human and divine, in our world today.

In the quiet of the night, in my own little bed, I began to uncrush some of the truest parts of myself. Emboldened by a fake girl in a costume on a stage, empowered by a nameless voice with the chutzpah to scream “yay,” I made a conscious decision to be brave. To choose to believe in a very good God and a very broken world. A God who sees the pain and inequality and suffering; a God who sees the beauty and the ecstasy the joy of a crisply turned phrase. A God who gives people the best seats in the house, even if they are determined not to enjoy them.

The Stories We Want To Hear

The past year, my toddler and I started attending a mommy-and-me class. We deliberately picked one that focused on a diverse group of people—indeed, we found ourselves to be the only native English speakers in our class, save for the teachers. As an ESL teacher, this was perfect—hanging out with a bunch of women from all over East Africa (the cohort we ended up in) was the only way I would have been motivated to get my two-year-old and me out the door every week. Interesting, hilarious, devastating—the stories and discussions we had in our little group had me glued to my chair, every time.

One day the head teacher pulled me aside and asked me how I thought the class was going. I told her truthfully that I loved it, especially since we always veered somewhat off-topic (we were an opinionated, non-linear bunch). She cocked her head and looked at me, trying to size me up. “You know,” she said, “our program gets a lot of heat for not being diverse enough.” I knew that we were a blip on the radar, one class out of hundreds full of people who all looked like me. “But after teaching these classes for over thirty years, let me tell you something—people always say they want to be in a diverse class. But what they really mean is that they would like to look around the room and see people who look different from them, but who act exactly like them.” She sighed, and shook her head. “They say it, but they don’t actually ever want it.” She patted my arm, and wandered off to stop Mohammed from flinging himself off the plastic slide. And as she said it, I knew she was right. She was talking about me.

I am someone who claims to love diversity. I love to read about large Irish-Catholic families, hyper self-aware East Coasters, and Hmong refugee communities (sometimes in the same day). Indeed, some of my favorite books are about people very different from me: the addicts, the fanatics, the lost and the old and the restless. I love arresting non-fiction from an assortment of genres, veering from the fact-happy journalist to the slippery, boozy memoirist.

But I am starting to realize that a diversity of subjects doesn’t always guarantee diversity in content. After re-reading some of my old favorites, I have come to this conclusion which may be something more of a confession: what I really love are characters that match up to my carefully cultivated preferences and prejudices. I couldn’t give a fig about real diversity. I simply don’t have the time or patience for it.

I don’t think I am alone in this. In many facets of literary non-fiction (hard-hitting journalistic pieces about marginalized communities, tell-all memoirs about the famous, the addicts, and the unusual), the writer, with little regard to the people underwriting the entire piece, is the star. This in effect allows for the author to tackle all manner of diverse subjects and gentrify them, simply by imposing his or her own worldview so magnificently on the readers. I have noticed this trend, especially in the writers I most admire—the kind that litter the airways of NPR or the blog posts of the Millions.

In the humorous literary essay, it’s a given that anyone who is different from the author—be they extraordinarily average, or odd, or religiously or culturally dissimilar—will be mocked, both with wit and often profound yearning. The end result is a strange kind of gentrification; the author alone reveals their truth, which inherently changes everyone else in the story. And the bigger the differences between the writer and subject, the more propensity for damage there is. And we, the readers, love it, revel in the current mantra of literary non-fiction which declares all one has to do is be truthful to yourself! “Yes, yes, that is right,” we murmur, calming down any impulse for charitable discussion and engagement. What we saw, what we noticed, how we felt and perceived others to feel is the most important. Because it is our truth, and that is the only truth we know.

I am a Christian, and I try and write about people. What at first seemed so easy —write glib observations about your hilarious low-income neighbors, showcase the heartbreaking saga of your refugee friends— started to feel hard! It started to feel cheap, disengenious, and rather unlike what Jesus had told me to do. He told me to love my neighbor as myself, not sell them off for a gimmicky essay.

But it is just so easy, and it gets you noticed. It panders to our ideas of the world outside our borders, adheres to how we like our lines neat and clean.

I am not immune to these pleasures. I love reading about neurotic New Yorkers feeling alienated in a MidWest sea of overweight, contented middle men (the “butter-eaters”, as David Rakoff so bitingly and longingly writes). I also love reading about dispatches about artists, religious fanatics, farmers, street kids, prostitutes, immigrants, cartoonists, and charlatans—but only if it holds up to my own preconceived ideas. A little bit of empathy is good—but too much is overkill, a dash of cold water on my own vivid imagination.

David Rakoff and David Sedaris, for all their wit and humour, both come off as the loneliest people in the world–and not just for shtick (Rakoff entitled his essay collection Fraud, and Sedaris recently talked about how unrelentingly cheerful he has to be in his essays). David Foster Wallace, who sucked me in with his engaging essays on diverse subjects like cruise ships and state fairs, now reads to me as someone who doesn’t have quite as much empathy as I would like; he too, creates artificial distances between himself and his subjects, adds to stereotypes with his lack of nuance, and in the end (like Sedaris) didn’t try very hard to stay factual. Cheryl Strayed was very careful about the way she portrayed her fellow hikers in Wild, but as Dear Sugar she wrote candidly about the low-income youth she served as a guidance counselor.

With all of these excellent writers, one thought kept cropping up: yes, but how would you feel to know that someone had written a piece about you? The interplay of writer and subject never seemed to be an issue, and in fact it was assumed as a given: art triumphs personal feelings any day. Or, as Anne Lamott puts it: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” For many of the works of literary non-fiction that I love to read, the attitude is similar. If you had wanted me to write with your perspective in mind, you should have behaved like me.

Nobody wants to tell you not to write. But perhaps there are some stories that are better left unsaid, if the author is unwilling to do the hard work of trying to exhaust every perspective. For the Christian, entering into the world of writing non-fiction is a minefield. The things we like to read and write best–the tell-alls, the snarky observational humor, the pinpointing of the human condition–are the parts that read the funniest, sharpest, and saddest. And they all, to a certain degree, entail the objectification of other people.

There are a few writers out there blazing the (hard) trail of writing with their subjects in mind. Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is one of my favorite examples. She spent 4 years living in a Mumbai slum in order to write her gorgeous, crushing book on the residents there. Boo talks about the “earned fact”, and how the author must put in the time and effort into truly knowing their subject in order to make their work credible. It takes painful work to be this kind of writer. Most of us are not up to the challenge, but writing with our neighbors in mind is the most loving way–loving them as much as we love the sound of our own voices. We hunger to easily categorize people. It makes for better copy; nuance tends to slow a piece down.

Writing my own truth will only carry me so far. My own sorry perspective leaves precious little room for the truth of others, especially those whom I might have the most trouble understanding. But I am at the point in my own writing life where the “best” stories must go unsaid, at least by me. Relationships, not readers, are what I am staking my life on. I live and work with people on the margins of society, and while the world is hungry to know different perspectives, it demands that they be accessible, easy, a cinch to repair, none of which life ever is.

 

photo by: Phil Roeder

Christmas Unicorn

Being a Christian in the midst of Christmas is hard. I have tried making presents by hand; I have tried not going to malls. I have tried abstaining from peppermint lattes; I have sat in midnight mass and prayed to feel sober and holy like I should. But time and time again my good intentions get crowded out in the collective search for a holiday that is my own invention. I am overwhelmed by the nostalgia of times with family, before people got sick or moved across the country, before we knew what things were really like around the world. I find myself longing to forget my troubles, my struggles, and instead find myself looking fondly at all the cultural displays—presents, Santa, spiked eggnog. I guess everything does look better under twinkly lights.

Sufjan Stevens, with his penchant for nostalgia and world-weary sighs, just might be the perfect troubadour of this current holiday mood. His new 58-song Christmas box set titled Silver & Gold (a throwback to the song from Rudolph that most of us grew up watching) both celebrates Christmas kitsch and despairs of it. This tension is seen most poignantly in a video for the title track (also called “Justice Delivers Its Death”), set on an isolated beach. In the background, we hear:

Silver and Gold, Silver and Gold.
How have I wasted my life?
Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth.
Lord, come with fire. Lord, come with fire. Everyone’s wasting their time
Storing up treasure in vain.
Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth.

In the video, a boy runs around the beach, playing with a kite. He is so unaware of the lures of the earth; I am forced to wonder how much longer he will stay like this, how long it will be until he grows up just like me. How did I learn how to be this way? When did I start to trust the pleasures of silver, of gold? I can’t even remember.

When I was 17, I found myself in India on Christmas Eve. I was there to save the world, on a two-month long mission trip with twelve other college-aged kids. As we drove through the city, dark and hot and full of the sounds of life being lived, we were silenced by an unexpected miracle. Paper stars were raised high on the tin roofs of several buildings, clustered throughout the city slums. They were lit from within, either by fire or electricity, and were scattered about our drive back to our little flat. Our driver told us that the stars signified a Christian home, a place for the infant Jesus to come and rest.

These were the only decorations we saw, the only tie we had to our own childhoods full of trees and carols and hot chocolate and church services; but we were all silent as we stared at the stars, sprinkled throughout the city.

What did they know about Christmas that we did not? Stripped of cultural celebrations, it seemed like they had everything they needed to be joyous. They had Jesus, dwelling with them, in the midst of the dark night. We were silent; looking back, it seems as if we were envious of their untainted holiday.

Sufjan’s latest Christmas album juxtaposes gorgeous, traditional-sounding hymns with other, less holy sounding music. But even his funny songs have a bit of an edge (I am Santa’s helper, you are Santa’s slave), and many of the spiritual songs are unrelentingly sincere. They almost catch you off guard, transport you to dark nights and shining stars all over again.

But Sufjan is also very clear-eyed about the nostalgia of Christmas past and what exactly we have done to the memory of that Holy Night. His thoughts are best summed up in the song “Christmas Unicorn,” a meandering, 12-minute long meditation on syncretism and consumerism. Some of my favorite lyrics include:

Oh I’m a Christian holiday
I’m a symbol of original sin
I’ve a pagan tree and magical wreath
And a bowtie on my chin

And

Oh I’m hysterically American
I’ve a credit card on my wrist
And I have no home nor field to roam
I will curse you with my kiss

It speaks to me because I am a little like Sufjan myself: I love the glitter of things too much in this world. And part of me despairs that I love it.

And this is where I connect with these songs. They are nostalgic, they are hopeful, they are full of Christmas past and present. They are also aware that this might not be the very best thing. For of course it is lovely to be a child, running along the beach, flying a kite high in the air; but those times were still fraught with small terrors and worries, family arguments at the dinner table. Do we really long to go back to a time when we were so oblivious? We who grew up, be it over the span of months or years or in a series of days, do we truly want to forget all we know, to carry on and wish everyone a Merry Christmas? I think what we really want has already been put down for us. We want peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. We want the heavenly kingdom to come, through little babies. We want to remember how Jesus came to give life to those walking around not really alive—consumed with a shadow, unaware of the glories to come.

But sometimes we forget this is what we really want. Or perhaps we are running away from it: drinking heavily, shopping manically, forcing magical camaraderie—these have all become a part of the American Christmas narrative. We don’t know how to recreate what the shepherds on the hill felt, stunned by the glory of the gospel. We don’t know how to worship in action, to align our lives with the Prince of Peace. We don’t know how to signal to everyone else in our world that Jesus is here, that he is with us. We don’t know how to celebrate Christmas anymore without abandoning our pasts.

The songs on this latest album make me realize that the holidays are the perfect time to stare these contradictions in the face—that beneath the glitter all is not truly gold. And it makes me realize just how much I love Mr. Stevens, and what a rare bird he is.

He’s the Christmas unicorn, for sure. But then again, so am I.