community first! village, Uncategorized

soap-making & surrender

“Entrepreneur” is not a word I’ve ever used to described myself. I admire the term’s association with energy, independence, dedication, and creativity. But people who call themselves “entrepreneurs” also seem to have a fascination with the new: starting a new business after selling their first successful start-up; seeking out new markets, exploring new avenues for profit.

This desire for “the next thing” drives much good in the world, but it makes me nervous. By nature I’m conservative, consistent, a refiner and reviser rather than an innovator. I’d much rather spend thirty years perfecting a craft than an hour worrying about how to monetize or market the goods I make. On the other hand, I’m always eager to read a new Victorian fairy tale or to try a new sewing technique, because these actions sustain interests I’ve cultivated since childhood. When I took my university teaching post at the age of twenty-eight, I expected–with joy–to be doing exactly the same kind of work for the next forty years or more.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself, at thirty-one, starting a soap-making business when I knew nothing about either soap or, for that matter, business.

I agreed to take on soap-making because someone needed to (we have goats at the Village, but no dairy to enable us to make any food products with their milk), and because, months before my marriage and move, I was dimly aware of the crisis of vocation that would come as I left academia, moved to Texas, and tried to discern a joint ministry with my new husband. In other words, I needed something to do.

For my first few months of marriage, soap-making was a gateway to belonging. While scores volunteers and staff bustled across the property, collecting herbs for made me feel a part of the work of this place. Making soap in my tiny RV kitchen gave me something I could share with volunteers and future neighbors. And having sample bars of honeysuckle-scented soap to give helped me vault over my shyness. I didn’t know if anyone here valued the poetry I had spent years studying, but I knew they could hold a bar of soap and call it good.

These virtues notwithstanding, I quickly I realized that I don’t like making soap at all. I enjoy formulating recipes and learning about different oils, herbs, and additives. I relish the pride of completing a batch. But I don’t much care for the process: having to wear gloves and goggles, the mess and equipment, the dangers of the lye, the washing of so many dishes afterward. I can understand why some people love it, but I simply don’t.

I thought my dislike was simply my insecurity, and I imagined that months and years of practice would “normalize” the tedious parts of the process. I tried to focus more and more on the elements I enjoyed (learning about herbs, for example.), but even so, the idea of a future full of soap did not thrill me. Furthermore, after a few months I was working (as a volunteer) full-time alongside my husband, helping get the Village’s on-site Community Inn up and running. By summertime I received the green light to pilot a program very near to both my own and my husband’s heart: a missional apprenticeship program called the Community Corps. Suddenly soap no longer felt like my only gateway to belonging here; it became a burden on my already-full and stressful weeks. When I was officially hired in August, I was told that I could drop soap-making whenever I needed to.

The problem, however, was that my little soap business turned out to be really successful. A fairly simple product with a good profit margin, our soap began to sell incredibly well when the Village’s Community Market opened, and I soon realized that it could produce a steady income for several of my formerly homeless neighbors. To simply drop it would mean withholding a valuable opportunity for meaningful, dignified work.

To a true entrepreneur, the solution to this problem is obvious: find someone else to manage the actual soap making event, or even to lead the program entirely. My husband, as well as my many wise colleagues, advised this throughout the summer. Pray for God to bring someone to take soap, they said.

These admonitions brought me little comfort. After a difficult year, I felt trapped in a world of scarce resources, and I was having trouble believing in God’s abundance. But I prayed, haltingly and angrily, believing that God could but not convinced that he would relieve my harried hours.

I prayed, God, bring someone to do this work with joy. Bring someone to do it instead of me!

The change came more quickly than I expected — not in the form of a person, but of a renewed spirit. With some changes to our weekly scheduling, the event moved from the end of a long day to a quiet afternoon — more restful already. As the soap make I had been training grew more confident, I realized I could let him work independently while I research recipes or techniques. I found my curiosity returning, and then she came.

An eager, capable woman. Someone who had dreamed of making soap for years, but hadn’t had the resources. Someone whose heart was committed to the work happening at the Village.

Just like that, I was “free,” baffled and blessed by God’s abundance and His timing.

In this freedom, I realized that making soap was teaching me a hard truth: for months, soap felt like a burden because I assumed that I was doing it for myself — that my own delight or pleasure was somehow the fundamental justification for doing a thing. When I first agreed to learn soap-making, it never occurred to me that I might be cultivating a skill or building a program in order to give it away.

Getting soap in your eyes stings, and it hurt to see myself so dragonish, unwilling to steward a treasure that was not mine to hoard.

***

Over one of our long Christmas drives, my husband played a podcast that offered a helpful alternative to my understanding of entrepreneurship: entrepreneurs, the speaker said, are those who find ways to add value wherever they are.

I didn’t want to own soap-making, and I cheated myself out of months of joy by thinking I was supposed to. Little did I know that my true commission was simply to steward it for a season, enriching, strengthening, stabilizing it, and then to hand it to its rightful master.

As a new year begins, I’m thankful that the time and energy soap-making has demanded are returning to me, providing more time for my reading, my writing, and my needlework. Nevertheless, I’m thankful for what soap has taught me about calling and ownership: that sometimes our call is not to follow our own passions, but to surrender them, pouring our treasures into something that was never ours to keep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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community first! village, faith, Uncategorized

being Bethlehem

“You have the sweetest voice. I’m going to call you Bethlehem.”

My neighbor, Miss H, announced this resolution in the middle of  a soap-making workshop.

I laughed and thanked her. I almost asked what a sweet voice and Bethlehem have to do with another, but I was distracted by the potion of lye and goat’s-milk in front of me. Besides, I’ve learned to let the wisdom of my neighbors percolate for a while before offering comment or question. Most of them are my elders by several decades, and all have endured more life–both joyful and painful–than I can imagine. So I try to listen well before speaking my mind.

This was in the spring time, approaching Easter, and I was finally beginning to feel my roots break through this clay-thick, east-Austin soil. It was (and remains) a painful rooting: I have lamented my quiet academic life with tears and terrors; I have missed my students and Chickasaw neighbors fiercely; and, despite coming here to live in community I have been so lonely in this frantic city, a beautiful Babylon where everyone is friendly, but it is hard to make a friend. And yet, for all that, I could feel the roots growing, ancient instincts inching toward water.

And so, in my weariness and hope, I received Miss H’s nickname as a benediction: Bethlehem, town of Christ’s birth. Let it be so for me, I prayed, Let Christ be born in me. A few weeks later, on the Thursday before Easter, I learned I was pregnant. I think babies must always be a kind of joyful terror, not to mention an interruption in practical affairs (e.g. My first thought was, “We live in an RV — which cupboard is big enough to hold the baby?”), but we had wanted a child, prayed for this child, and so we were glad in our trembling.

On Easter Sunday we had a dessert potluck for friends and neighbors. Afterward, I went for a walk, noting all the blossoms on the fruit trees (our farmers have planted over 100 on the property), laughing to think of all the peaches, mulberries, persimmons, and satsumas the year would bring.  Perhaps this is why God has called me to die to so much, I thought: to my career, my students, my parents’ hopes. Perhaps it was so something new could be born in me, in us. 

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Easter Sunday, 2016

But the day after Easter I began to shiver, and by Tuesday I was delirious with fever, a virulent strain of flu. On Thursday, I began bleeding, and that was the end of it. To feel, however briefly, so full of life, and then to crash back into the reality of death was agonizing.

For most of the past nine months, I haven’t thought directly about the loss of the baby. It was so early–mercifully early–that we had no time to make plans or set expectations in any particular way. We had picked no names, planned no showers, imagined no futures. And yet, the grief has infected almost everything. Feeling betrayed by the future, I have longed for the past more than ever, resenting the work at hand, resenting my husband, who thrives on dreams and future plans.

But the baby would have come right about now, sometime during Advent. I usually observe this watchful season with a careful and quiet gladness: lighting candles each morning, decorating the house little by little, sending letters and gifts to friends. I’ve done none of that this year. But I have pondered what it means to long for a savior, to cry out a God for deliverance, to demand, like Martha, why my Lord has not come sooner to raise the dead.

I have remembered Simeon’s words to Mary, that a sword would pierce her heart. I’ve remembered Rachel weeping for her children, for they are no more. I’ve recalled the Magi, bringing incense for burial to a fresh-faced child.

As I walked tonight I had a strange fancy that one day, when we come to table in God’s kingdom, we’ll feast on all the food we thought was lost — bread from wheat we saw scorched in the field, fruit from the tree that fell in the frost. And the little ones gathered at the table? Only God knows. We can believe, if He will help our unbelief.

Heavenly Father, if there is a life here for my books and quiet ways, if there is water for my roots, then send your Son to pitch his tent (or trailer!) right here among us. Put honey on my tongue and make room in my heart: let me be Bethlehem, even if there is no baby in my arms. 

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Uncategorized

On (not) hating home

“I hate living in this RV.”

I am ashamed of how many times I’ve said those words in the last six months. Once, I was the girl who cultivated contentment in any circumstances, who cheerfully made a place for herself wherever she was. And when I felt unhappy or deprived, at least I kept my complaints to myself.

Throughout my engagement, I had plenty of time to prepare for life in a smaller space, but I didn’t trouble myself much about it: after all, I’d lived in tiny dorm rooms, garage apartments, guest bedrooms, and little apartments for most of my twenties. An RV couldn’t be so very different, I thought.

Perhaps if I’d gone straight from one of those tiny garrets to the RV, I wouldn’t have minded so much. Instead, I came from a house that I loved, and my grief for that beautiful building poisoned my efforts to set up housekeeping here. Hardwood floors, nearly a century old, high windows and ancient trees — this was my “Beth-Haven” cottage, and I cherished it.

Three years ago, I was just days away from making a bid on that house, and in preparation for that enormous choice, I made a list of my “dreams of home.” These dreams included prayers of blessing, dancing, keeping Sabbaths with others, a thriving garden, practicing traditional skills and crafts with others, and celebrating holidays. God answered those prayers for Beth-Haven through the wonderful friends, neighbors, and students he brought me there.

Rather than renewing grief, reading through the list convicted me for my attitude toward our little home-on-wheels. All those dreams have been true here, too — in fact, being married to a loving, silly, wise farmer-man, I’ve done a great deal more dancing and gardening than I ever did in Alabama.

God gave me the home I prayed for three years ago. In truth, he’s enlarged it, first by giving me a husband, and then by settling us here at the Community First! Village. However, I let our RV become an emblem for all that frightened me in this new life: my fears of instability, my anxiety about the future of my vocation, about my family’s judgement of my decision, about the ability of Steven and me to live into a common work and calling, and even the inevitable loneliness and bewilderment of coming to a new city.

That sour symbolism has made me blind to so much that is good and beautiful, not just at the Village, but within our very walls. I’ve missed what a light-filled place it is, full of windows, with high, bright ceiling to give a sense of space and rest. I’ve ignored the happy rug, the snug armchair, and the many household gifts we received for our wedding. I’ve missed the ingenious cupboards and clever nooks, the open floor plan that makes it possible to cook and talk with guests at the same time. I’ve failed to give thanks for the screen door and the ash juniper that fills our western windows, for the pretty floors and the amazing bed — so deep and soft I sleep well every night.

This RV is my home: in it I’ve spent the first months of my marriage; I’ve celebrated Saint Nicholas Day with friends and neighbors; I’ve had friends come to tea; I’ve sewn church vestments and woven kitchen towels; I’ve written stories and read holy words; I’ve prayed in the morning and danced in the afternoon. I’ve cooked so many meals with food from our garden, meat from nearby farms. I’ve sung along to Johnny Cash’s hymns, looked up to see my husband grinning at me and singing along. From this place, I’ve walked to worship and work with the others God has called here. In these rooms, I’ve dreamed of herbs and flowers,  of children, and students, and building a long, fruitful life.

As it so often happens, love, and patience, and beauty are teaching me to repent. I have said that I hate living in this RV, but I was lying to myself and slandering what God has provided. For He has given, as he always does, a home.

 

 

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Taking hold of hope

 

Advent is a girl in a purple skirt, her face homelike and strange. I knew her once, you think. Maybe she’s the kid who used the live around the corner? Or what about the girl you almost asked to dance that night long ago?

Advent is a girl who never grins or giggles, but her eyes are bright. Nails clipped short, those hands say she works hard, while the line of her mouth–so nearly a smile–makes you want to ask, like a child, that she tell you a story.

You’ve seen her sisters, too: up north they clear snow-blocked sidewalks by night, and sneak into homes where the furnace has gone out, kindling fires to warm the sleepers. Here in Texas, Advent keeps a candle in her pocket, matches ready. Lit, it smells of southernwood and orange rind.

When Advent comes to visit, she will be stern to see your house in disarray, so much dust on the floor. Ashamed, you’ll fumble for the broom, only to see she has it in hand already. Humming, she drives the dirt from your rooms and helps you put the house aright.

After the work, you’ll sit together and she’ll tell tales you haven’t heard in years. If you fret over all that must still be done, she’ll take your hand and say, “Enough,” and call you back with a cup of spiced wine. (Did you even notice, as you cleaned, that she had set it to simmer on your stove?)

You invite her to the Christmas party, and she agrees, but only out of courtesy. The fête is glamorous, tinseled and triumphant, but you lose sight of the girl in the merry bustle. Someone says they saw her outside, candle lit, watching the sunset.

And so you run. Run to the door — can you catch a glimpse of her light? Forget the gaudy gladness inside: run and find that girl, whose name you now recall. Run, along the roads she’s cleared for you, run with a heart made warm by her wine. She’s gone on ahead, but she wants you to come. Run after Advent, take hold of her hand. Take hold of Hope.

 

 

 

 

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community first! village, Uncategorized

This week at the Community First! Village

Our RV moved to its permanent home! Now that the pad sites and utilities are connected in the RV “neighborhood” of the Village, we’ve taken our place here in a little bend in the road. Cedar-green and sunlight streaming through my windows.

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In small ways, we’re celebrating Advent and pondering what it means to wait and hope, watch and keep the faith. Left, tea lights in colored holders form my #rvliving version of an Advent wreath. Right, a few hundred stitches I offered to Church of the Cross, the new Anglican church plant my husband and I attend.

More residents move onto the Village each week, and guests come from around the world. This week my friend Hiram and I taught soap-making with a group of Fulbright scholars from South Korea, China, and Romania.

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Garlic (and strawberries and chamomile and radishes and ALL THE GREENS) flourish in the garden. Goodness grows all winter here.

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And finally, decking the halls is serious business around here. Have you ever seen so many men help decorate a tree? The grand tree lighting will be tomorrow — a celebration for residents, staff, volunteers, and friends of the Village.

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That’s the dispatch from our home — what about yours? What are your emblems and images of these watchful winter days?

 

 

 

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faith, Uncategorized

Waiting on the Word

 

I have not been silent these last few weeks, though I have not written much. My words have been spent through early hours and late, with old friends, new loves, with my husband and my kin, my neighbors and my God.

…in the kitchen, I’ve rolled out countless pie crusts to the rhythm of our tears and tales, pondering together the joyful agony of new covenants: marriages, adoptions, vocations

…in the car, we’ve covered icy miles with hopes and fears for the future, our words blades that makes us strangers again, and  threads that bind and restore

…under the setting sun, I’ve recited the old, best stories of homemaking and creation, learning to believe again as my feet learn the contours of this new, broken ground

…in the morning, we’ve prayed and sang, “O Come, O Come…”

Today, I have no succinct morsel to offer, no pithy conclusion about life or work or the other questions of the hour. Instead, I share with you, today, my poverty: I have spent all my words, and I cannot know what good or harm they have done. I have spent them, and wait to be filled with the full and shattering hope of Advent. I am waiting to write, waiting to speak. I am waiting on the Word.

 

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Alabama, beloved

According to the calendar, you were my briefest home. Three years, June to June. When people asked, “Will you stay,” I made no vows, but I planted orange trees. I made no promises, but I set my table and said, “Come, rest” to the ones I loved. Trace the sun’s course across my heart, and see that my time with you was deep, though it was not long: you were the first place I thought I would stay for good.

For good. I could have stayed for the good of my students, generation after generation of kids from small churches, surprising poets and powerful singers, men and women with gentle spirits and strong loves. I could have stayed for the good my friends, my dear and laughing people, wise parents and clear-eyed neighbors. I could have stayed for the good of my parents, who are tired, and deserve the haven they would have had in that azalea city, on that backward and beautiful little street.

***

In the story of my life, I do not yet know what to call you: were you my rightful rest after noble labor? were you another future God would have honored? Or were you my isle of the lotos-eaters, my surprising testing ground?

How many rain showers did I enjoy and endure along your temperate coast? Perhaps that’s why I cried so much on the long road from there to here: a tear for each summer shower, each February deluge, each late-spring wash, each autumn tempest.

Oh, Alabama, beloved, I will miss your men in seersucker suits, your deep-south drawls, your thundering Baptist preachers and grand archbishops. I will miss walking to church on Sunday mornings, hearing the Methodist bells play hymns each afternoon.

I will miss a city of ancient trees and old money, where the talk after Christmas turns to society balls and parades. I will miss a city where some new flower — shocking winter camellias, shy violets and snowdrops, brief-but-bold azaleas and wisteria, honeysuckle and magnolias — blooms with each new moon.

I will miss little girls from down the street knocking on my kitchen door, hands full of gardenia blossoms they picked just for me. I will miss little boys and old men stopping me to say, “That’s a good clean hound you got there.” I will miss neighbors who presume and interfere and protect.

I will miss your bayous and bays, your legends of pirate treasure and your sad history of slaver ships. I will miss a history so dark and bright that it cannot be summarized, reconciled, explained away. Perhaps most of all, I will miss feeling myself at the end of all roads. I will mourn the peace of tracing highways, streets, and footpaths to the sea, where the tide washes them away with all other pretensions.

Neither my road nor my history ended with you, despite my Satsuma trees, despite those long and hopeful suppers. Joy has carried me away, but I will miss you, my sweet home.

Farewell, Alabama, beloved.

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