domestic arts, everyday parables, fiber crafts

The tension and the tedium

“I’ve tossed everything together.”

“I’ve woven everything together.”

What’s the difference between these two sentences? The first suggests haste, casualness, even indifference. The second sentence, on the other hand, connotes order and care, whether “everything” means ideas or paperwork or relationships.

While tossing has its place (salad, anyone?), we tend to use the verb “to weave” when describing things of great value: we speak of “weaving dreams,” or of a new husband and wife being “woven” together through love. Hardly trendspeak, these phrases have shaped language and thought for centuries: the ancient poet Homer, for example, uses weaving as a metaphor for human cunning and wisdom. So while most modern people have never seen anyone create real cloth on a “definite loom” (to borrow John Updike’s phrase), weaving has, for thousands of years, represented wise planning, careful arrangement, skillful execution. Even more, the products of weaving–cloths and fabrics of all kinds–can be emblems of the good things human culture can produce. Both literally and symbolically, then, “to weave” suggests a patterned beauty, a structured strength. It reveals a longing for care, intention, and integration.

When our ancestors first used weaving as a metaphor, they did so with deep knowledge of the processes and products involved. Unfortunately, with inherited language we are always in danger of letting our symbols grow ignorant and vague. Thus, while I can deploy the metaphor “to weave” with great confidence, I am only beginning to learn the wisdom of the literal craft.

Even as a novice weaver, I have already found so much buried in its most basic skills. At first, I was impatient for the exciting part — the shuttle moving from side to side, over and under, each pass building an intricate and beautiful pattern.  I quickly learned, however, that a lot of work must precede that swift and satisfying work. This preliminary process has the ominous name of warping, and it means to stretch a number of vertical threads, under very high tension, from one end of the loom to the other. Even on the simplest of looms, the warping process can be incredibly tedious: some threads must be remain stationary during weaving, while others must be free to go up and down, and these different groups must be attached to the loom differently, thread by thread. At the same time, the weaver must attend to the colors of the threads, and how the vertical hues will interact with the weft (horizontal threads) to create the final pattern. The more complex the loom and pattern, the more demanding this warping process becomes. Finally, once the threads have been arranged in the proper patterns and colors, the weaver must tighten the threads with considerable pressure. If these vertical warp threads are not taut, they will tangle with the weft, creating a slack mess rather than a clear, structured design. If the threads cannot withstand the stress of tensioning before weaving, they will inevitably break during the friction and movement of the weaving itself.

Because I am in a season of so much newness–new marriage, new place, new forms giving shape to my calling–even these elementary lessons in weaving have challenged and comforted me. Do I resent the paperwork involved with moving, changing my name, switching insurance companies, and turning my Alabama home into rental property? Does the anxiety of networking temper my enthusiasm for new enterprises here at the Village? Does the long work of revision feel laborious compared to the thrill of a published piece? To each of these questions, the answer can be yes. Even the most satisfying work has its tedious hours, its stressful encounters and accountability. These tasks can feel like intrusions upon the “real” work, the satisfying heart of our labor. And yet, they form the bones of our crafts, whether that means creating a home, writing a book, starting a business, or weaving a strong piece of cloth. Hurrying through the humble or frightening work now, creates waste and confusion in the long run.

As I look with satisfaction at the first pattern to come from my loom, I resolve not to resent the paperwork or preparation. Rather, I’m learning to give thanks for the time, ability, and courage to do the work behind the cloth. We live in a world of tangled philosophies, careless habits, and shoddy work. Attending to what is difficult or mundane bears witness to another, better form of life, preparing the way for the patterns of God’s hidden kingdom.

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domestic arts, education, life together, marriage

Coffee breaks and the kingdom of God

As a scholar, a teacher, neighbor, and friend, I know who I am. As a wife, I am newborn, and my husband with me. Though already in our thirties, with coherent values and ambitions as individuals, we have just begun to understand what it means to be wedded, married, espoused, yoked. We have been at home together for two weeks, and have already spent hours discussing what it means to be with and for one another in this new, shared life.

We know, however, that we both can too easily get lost in our heads, soaring through intuitions and ruminations that may or may not come to any embodied good. And so, even in these early days, we have tried to build habits that can train our desires to love what is good, not just for the sake of our marriage, but so that we might long for God’s kingdom with our tongue and gut as much as our intellect, emotions, or imagination.

One of my favorite rituals is our afternoon break for tea and coffee. Living here at the Village, Steven can walk twenty yards or so from his makeshift office to join me for lunch at middday. He comes back, around three o’clock, for a coffee break, and I, too, set aside my writing, reading, or planning for half an hour, before we both turn to the last few hours of our daily labor.

For someone who easily develops tunnel-vision when a project is before her, this practice promises to be a delight and a challenge. Since my teens, I have been consistently guilty of valuing my work above my people: skipping meals, postponing phone calls, and even actively hiding, for the sake of squeezing a bit more work out of the day. As Steven and I have agreed to break each day, we recognize that it makes us less “productive” according to our “to-do” lists. Perhaps we both have even felt a little silly, as if we might be indulging in newlywed fondness that will fade with time.

Certainly, there will be days when neither of us particularly wants to stop for coffee at three. We may feel a special urgency or interest in the work at hand. We may be annoyed with one another, reluctant to sit face to face. We may doubt that the other really wants to hear about what we’ve been doing. A thousand thoughts and moods may interfere, and this is precisely why making it a daily practice becomes so vital: because it is the practice itself that will train and strengthen our desire to be together and to participate in the other’s work and rest.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith argues that if we are to be people who love rightly — that is, loving God and our neighbor — we need cultural practices and habits that teach us to desire what is good. Smith challenges Christian educators, in particular, to consider how desires and habits, rather than disembodied ideas, ground a life rooted in ἀγάπη (agape, love). However, his claims have implications for Christian households, as well. Ideally, the practices we create to encourage love–love of God, of neighbor, and of one another–will attract others, who can then enter into them with us. Yesterday it was one of Steven’s friends, a craftsman doing work on the property. Today it was my friend Jenn, sipping iced chai with me while Steven savored his coffee. I have begun to save my best tea and favorite morsels for these meetings, so that my tongue will be wise enough to come to the table, even if my heart isn’t.

Too often we leave our bodies out of our spiritual ambitions, foolishly imagining that with just a little more mental or emotional  discipline, we could live up to our ideals. There is grace, however, in realizing that the habits of our bodies–even if they sometimes feel like merely “going through the motions,”–can bring us back to what is good. Today it was chai and raspberry jam that called me back to daily, difficult, glorious work of love. The recipe for the chai is below (and I’m pretty proud of it), and so my challenge to you is to make a pitcherfull, savor its sweetness, and imagine how you might let your tongue’s desire for something good draw your heart toward something even greater.

Summer-Spiced Chai

Makes approximately 2 quarts of concentrate

Ingredients

8 cups water

1 stick cinnamon

1-1.5 inches of fresh ginger, coarsely chopped (no need to peel it)

10-15 whole cloves

1/2 tsp freshly-ground nutmeg

10 tsp loose-leaf black tea  or 10 black tea bags

2/3 cups raw sugar

1 Tbs honey

1 Tbs vanilla (use the real thing! Artificial vanilla won’t give the same creamy flavor)

Instructions

Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add all the spices and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and add the tea. Let steep 15-20 minutes. If using loose tea, strain out tea and spices. (If using tea bags, remove bags and strain the rest only if desired. I actually prefer to leave in the whole spices because they continue to flavor the concentrate over several days). Add sugar and vanilla, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. Pour into a jar or pitcher and chill for at least two hours.

When ready to use, mix two parts cold whole milk to one part concentrate.

Once you’ve made the basic version, play with other spices. You might try adding a star anise pod, cardamon pods, or even black pepper (about 1/4 tsp would be plenty) for more complex flavors.

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faith, homelessness, life together, marriage

The work of the gods

“To organize a space is to repeat the paradigmatic work of the gods.”

I first read this somewhat obscure line when I was a freshman in college. It was comforting to a clever girl who liked things just so, who wanted the books on her shelves and the essays she wrote to be as ordered as the stars in the heavens. I would quote it blithely to my roommate, who never seemed to catch my enthusiasm for straightening up our dorm room. And yet, this insight–from Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane–is not some cant about tidiness being next to godliness. Rather, it means that the way we create and inhabit physical spaces tells a story about how we see the world: who is welcome and who isn’t, what is valuable and what rubbish, what secure and what dangerous. Architecture provides some of the best examples: a house dominated by its enormous garage, for example, tells a very different story from a house with a wrap-around porch.

As my husband and I unpack our tiny new home, I’ve been struggling to articulate what story we are living into in this corner of space and time. Eliade’s line has been a motto of mine for years, and with every apartment, classroom, and office I’ve inhabited, I have tried to organize–even to consecrate–spaces that bear witness to the image of God. In these first days after the honeymoon, however, I have often felt found my efforts to “repeat the work of the gods” frustrated at every step: not enough cabinets in the RV kitchen, disagreements about where the skillets should live, no way to put up curtains. I could no longer rely on muscle memory or habit to tell me where the trashcan was, where to find a dishtowel, much less how to drive to the post office or grocery store. Having to switch to a new cell phone felt like the final insult. “I can’t find the exclamation point on this stupid keyboard!” I sobbed to my bewildered spouse. “It feels like everything is broken!”

These frustrations, though trivial in themselves, have been emblematic of a much larger disorientation. I still feel myself bewildered on this new ground. From our little window each morning, I watch parades of workers roll into the village: construction crews laying cement, volunteers building tiny homes, future residents coming to tend the gardens, even my own husband walking and dreaming about the best way to make this place home. I watch, and I envy them. I envy their purpose and certainty, their knowledge of what to do now, and next.

To organize a space is to repeat the work of the gods.

But we are not gods, none of us. Our ability to order the world, creating that gives our lives meaning, is painfully, blessedly fragile. The job falls through. The long-awaited pregnancy surprises everyone. The house burns. We fall in love. We walk through days, each looking much the same — routine hours, tasks, and dreams. We might proceed for ten, twenty, thirty years, secure in our own vision of the world, until — something breaks.

This summer, instead of simply quoting Eliade, I have gone back to read the rest of his argument. In his spare, calm prose, he asserts something I had forgotten: that before a cosmos can grow into life and order, the old order must break. This break might be terrible or beautiful, climax or tragedy. Regardless, it interrupts our path, interferes with our clocks, leaves the well-ordered room in shambles. No longer can we claim that time and space are all one thing, predictable and uniform. Eliade argues that this break is what allows us to really see the world, to enter into a story bigger than ourselves, a story that does not leave us broken, but re-orients us according to the true center of the world. By shattering the old certainties, the experience of rupture “reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation.”

Of course, like all deep truths, I actually learned all of this long ago in Sunday School. It was there I first heard the thrilling injunction, “Your life should make no sense without the Gospel.” Christ has come to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and this Gospel is both εὐαγγέλιον — “good news,” and σκάνδαλον — a stumbling block. In our first month of marriage, I have felt my heart tearing and growing in this tension. Our house is an RV–it trembles under heavy footsteps, and looks–to my fretful eyes–terribly transient. And yet, it is a space we have organized, consecrated, for the sake of a mission that makes my heart rise up: to repeat–in our trembling, tiny way–the work of the God we worship, who “settles the solitary in a home,” and who created earth as a beautiful garden for mankind to cultivate and keep. We are living here because I fell in love with a man who proposed by saying, “Let’s be ministers of homemaking,” and we have set up our household on the broken, hopeful ground of a place called the Community First! Village. Here, side by side, among the chronically homeless and the people of Austin, we hope to set a table, provoke conversations, plant gardens, make books and babies, find and share good work in ways we never could elsewhere. This space–our home– has high windows and sunflowers on the table. From our door, we step out to join the countless men and women who arrive daily, giving their hearts and hands to help build a true community for those who are alone. It is a place where my husband can walk home for lunch, where friends and future neighbors have already stopped to sit, laugh, and walk with us. It is a space where I can write, and it is perched on beautiful ground: home already to trees and breezes, hares and goats, chickens and children of God. To the extent that I notice and name these things, it is a place where every morning, my envy gives way to hope.

The homes I organize will never again embody my private vision of what is lovely or good. They will be far more complicated, in turns deeper and more demanding. In marriage and in community life, my work will take place in communal, vibrant, maddening, inspiring place, grounded on the fear of the Lord and centered around the love of his living Word. I am terrified and thrilled, grieving and in love, timid and hopeful all at once. I cannot do the work of the gods, but I know how to tell a story. Believe me, friends: this is going to be a good one.

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faith, homelessness, life together

My Broken Saints

As 2015 begins, I am making my home with two broken saints.

The first was a housewarming gift from my mother. Buying Beth-Haven was one of the loveliest hours during a long season of triumph: completed PhD, wonderful job, and now, a perfect little cottage to call home.  St. Francis was to serve as a token of welcome, a sign of hope for all creatures great and small who might come to share the house with me.

Unfortunately, when we opened the box we found him broken. I had neither the skill nor materials to mend him, but I could not bear to toss him into the trash.  It hurt to look at him, knowing that my mother had wanted to give a perfect gift, and realizing that we had no way to repair him. Broken Francis stood between us, embodying the fractures in every human relationship, even the most loving. What do we do with such signs of pain? Cast them away? Order a newer model?

At first, the best I could do was to station Francis at the front door. He wasn’t pretty enough to set upon the mantle, but he seemed content in his humble place. Sometimes this is the best we can do with painful relationships: sometimes it takes all our strength to keep them in the house, to look at their broken faces each day, to acknowledge that we are still at home together.

A few weeks later, some of my friends’ children taught me an even better way. While the grown-ups talked, they went foraging for azalea blossoms, which cover south Alabama in the springtime. After everyone had gone home I found that they had found my broken saint. Rather than fear or pity him, they played with St. Frank, filling his hands with flowers. My timid fidelity has resigned Francis to a dusty corner, but they had more courage: if they could not mend what was broken, they could find other ways to make him beautiful.

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And so my first broken saint became, after all, a sign of hope, encouraging me not to give up on problems I could not solve, hearts I could not mend. Lesson learned, right? Apparently not.

I had nearly forgotten about my front-door saint when two of my college friends announced the birth of their second child, a daughter. I found a beautifully illustrated version of St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures,” and I decided to make a St. Francis softie to accompany the book. I loved the idea of a little girl growing up to cherish Francis’s reckless love for God’s kingdom and all its creatures.

I bought the fabric from a friend’s Etsy shop, embellished the saint with some simple embroidery, and then stitched and stuffed him. Before I could send him off to his new home, however, my hound-dog decided he must be a gift for her. I came home to find bits of his stuffing all over the dining room floor. The saint himself was missing an arm and he boasted enormous gashes across his face and halo. Distraught, I posted a picture of the carnage and appealed for sympathy. What’s the point of making something, I pouted, if perfect is impossible?

My friends, however, insisted that all was not lost. One of the most compelling comments came from the mother whose baby was to have the toy. “Scars and stretch marks tell a story,” she wrote “especially in the story of mothers and babies.” Several other friends pointed out that Francis himself, a patron to animals, would probably laugh to know that an exuberant hound had taken such joy at his expense.

And so, I scrubbed the dirt away, threaded my needle with gold, and began to stitch the holes. Mending is tedious work, and to fix a jagged tear requires both precision and creativity. As I stitched, I remembered one of the first disagreements my fiancé and I had. We argued about the once-popular praise song that croons, “Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for….” I have hated that song since I was a teenager. I suspect it fools many people into praying a prayer they don’t actually mean. Even knowing that God can use sorrow, I don’t ever yearn for pain. I want to be whole, healed, strong, resurrected. And didn’t Christ, on the night he was betrayed, pray that the cup of sorrow might pass from him?

Yes, and yet he also prayed, “Not my will, but yours, Father.” He didn’t accept pain for its own sake, but as the culmination of his purpose: to reveal God’s saving love to mankind. He was obedient even unto death, and when he rose from the grave, he still carried the scars of his crucifixion. Do the scars point to some limit on God’s mercy or power? Certainly not. God could have raised Christ with each and every cell made perfect.  So why leave the marks? I won’t presume to know the deepest answer to that question, but I can point to at least one of the ways Christ used those wounds: in John 20:24-29, he holds them out to his grieving friend, Thomas. The flesh tells a story, helping Thomas to believe that Christ taught about the new life and the kingdom that is coming.

And so, while I could have ordered a new Francis and scrapped the old one, I chose to mend. I chose to hope that  the baby–who will, no doubt, gnaw on Francis with as much glee as my hound–will grow to love the humble and the broken of the world. That she would learn to treasure God’s saints not only in their glory, but also when they bear the scars of love.

IMG_6998Perhaps I need to pray that prayer for myself. I share my house with two broken saints: one mended, one broken but with flowers in his hands. I am beginning to think that they are not only saints, but prophets. They teach me that our love for another fails daily, but also that, by the grace of God, we can sometimes help one another mend. They also teach me that some wounds are too deep for my hands to repair, but that we can bring flowers, time, casseroles until the wounded hands of Christ come and make all well.

In a few months I will make my home with another Francis. This one isn’t broken, but he is weather-beaten. He watches over a parcel of land that is already precious to me. First, it will soon house a revolutionary ministry to the homeless. (It’s called the Community First! Village, and you can learn more about it here). It will also be the ground where my marriage begins.

IMG_6917I am sure that when I take up this new chapter of my life, I will find myself overwhelmed by all that is broken in my own life, in my husband’s, and in the lives of men and women who have spent years on the streets. Surely, there will be days I want to escape. Already there are days I rail at God for not fixing everything and everyone at once. I still won’t sing “Brokennes is what I long for,” just as I still wish, deep down, that my dog hadn’t mauled St. Francis. However, I will pray and sing for God’s kingdom to come. If that means making my home among so many broken saints, then God give me grace to love them well. If that means being broken upon the altar, then Spirit give me the courage to be thankful for that suffering. Christ, teach me to fill their hands with flowers. Help us ask one another for the stories behind our scars. Use their broken hands to stitch my own wounds up with gold.

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