“Have a good Lent”

It’s been a very eventful week for me.

1: a bicycle accident

2: losing my dog…again

3: moving out of my apartment in Midtown

4: starting TEFL assignments

5: planning a Europe trip

6: oh yeah, the first week of Lent…clean week…the week that’s supposed to be all about God

How many times have I forgotten that?

I know there are lots of non-Lent people out there. The simplest way I can explain Lent is that it is an opportunity  for life to finally be not all about me. Because I am always acting in my own self-interest. Even when I make to-do lists and bucket lists and packing lists, those lists are serving my own self-interest. Lent comes at a time when life is starting over, trees begin to bloom again, and we force our bodies into social exile. Why? Because Christ did it first, for us. This is our opportunity to tune everything else out and tune in to Christ.

I wasn’t looking forward to Lent until recently. I’ve been on a roller coaster with my faith, I admit plainly, and so I was looking forward to Lent as a way to level the spiritual playing field, so to speak. But then I wiped out on my bicycle and landed in the hospital. This was Monday. Thank God I’m okay, and I do mean thank God. And my guardian angel. And helmets.

Today is Thursday. I walked outside for the first time since Monday afternoon, and I got so excited about it that I left the front door open and my dog snuck out. Here I was thinking things were getting easier but nah, that’s not real life. 

Fortunately my dog came back. But the lessons never cease. There will always be something going wrong…and that’s the thing I should devote my time to. I’ve been so preoccupied with upcoming plans and Peace Corps service that I’ve completely neglected my own body, mind, and soul. I’ve failed to be present. I wrung myself out to dry.  I got to the point where I became unknowingly careless. 

But Lent is all about forgiveness. I guess that starts with me. I need to forgive myself, recognize my brokenness (literally) and find beauty in the little things…like being able to enjoy the sunshine and walk on the concrete with both feet.

I guess I’m having a good Lent so far. 

The Savior Complex

“A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone it must seek the ether.” –Khalil Gibran

 

If I had my way, I would be a bird. I would fly from place to place and peep in on other people’s realities, never getting too attached or involved. I would skim the surface of life, laughing at my reflection in oceans and dancing on telephone wires. As a traveler, all I have truly ever wanted is to sit in tiny rooms with friends and drink in laughter between paper thin walls, sweet, steamy chai wafting through our noses and thick, melodious languages dripping from our tongues. But I’m not a bird, and I’m not a wallflower. I exist; people notice me.

I hate that people notice me. Sometimes I wish I could just keep the inspirational experiences in my heart and leave the embarrassing ones behind. I wish I could help people when I want to help rescue them and not when I feel obligated to do so. There comes a point when one can feel so emptied that we cannot seem to be filled. Perhaps this is because “help” has turned into “rescue.”

The world doesn’t give us a break. We can’t decide when people need our help, and we can’t really decide when we need another’s help. But not asking for help when we are drowning doesn’t make sense. Yet how do we move on from a rescue?

No man is an island. But for those of us who have grown up privileged, it’s easy to think that we have some God-given power to help others because of our circumstances, because we’ve been told to go out into the world and make it better. But change isn’t a power, it’s a responsibility, and a very precarious one. If you’re not aware of your own impact, you can do more harm then good.

Reflecting on my time in Thailand, I think I felt a lot of pressure to live up this image of a rescuer that, at the time, I was not aware I had. Being part of a faith community, learning about the plight of refugees, I became very involved with the idea of saving others. I didn’t see it as anything problematic, but I wasn’t just a witness. I was an actor and people noticed me and started assuming things about me that I wasn’t aware of because I was not fully present. I was in my own head. 

I grew up in my head. I dreamed away my reality with visions of waterfalls, open fields, and a sense of life with a purpose. I am learning how to live a life with purpose, but a lot of this has been painful. I think that’s the point. The hardest part about wanting to rescue someone is needing to save them from pain. Sometimes this is absolutely vital; sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know where that line is and I never want to make that decision but I know that I will. Life is tough like that. I have a tendency to remember only the good things and forget the times I failed. But at the same time, failure can be life’s greatest teacher, even if it means giving up and moving home. A friend of mine asked me, “What do you want to learn from this?” I think that’s a great start.

I’ve failed a lot in my life, which is how I know I’m not a savior. I believe there is only one Savior. But even if you don’t, as travelers, teachers, explorers, we have to start acknowledging our own impact. We are not wallflowers and we are not birds. We might be called on to rescue someone, but we need to examine our motivations as well as our plans. Does this person need help? If so, what does that need to look like?

Never stop asking questions.

67
Inle Lake, Myanmar: 2015

Are Christians resigned to wander?

“‘They straightway left their nets and followed Him’ (Mathew 4:20). The Apostles did not grudge leaving their nets for the Lord’s sake, although they were perhaps their only property…we, likewise, for the Lord’s sake, ought to leave everything that hinders our following Him…all the many and various nets in which the enemy entangles us in life.'”
St. John of Kronstadt

Are Christians bound to wander?

I heard this a lot growing up. “Christians are just…different. Being a Christian means you are different from the world.” I never really liked that feeling. I didn’t want to be different from anyone else at school, awkwardly saying prayers before lunch, skipping half days to go to Church on Great Feasts, not eating pepperoni pizza at a friend’s birthday party because it was a fast day. Perhaps that was too much for me, too many rules for a little wandering soul to understand and pray about.

Even though I fought the Church inside, and I warred with it for many years, I never stopped being different. Orthodox Christianity stopped being how I differentiated myself from others, but other things replaced that “label” or frame of mind: my love of theatre, my being “Mediterranean,” my being from Boston, et cetera, ad infinitum. It never stopped, because I never stopped intentionally separating myself from a group.

Thinking about it now, it actually seems like I looked for any excuse to drive a wedge between myself and others. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Maybe it was just me having unrealistically high expectations for my life.

But this isn’t what the Church actually teaches us. It teaches us to bind ourselves to Christ, and by so doing, loose ourselves of whatever else is standing in the way–tools of the enemy. But it doesn’t say to demonize those things or those people, because we can only “worry about the log in your own eye.”

Worrying about twigs up North.

Yet when I turn my gaze inward at the giant log in my eye, I feel the urge to run again. Not from God, but from everything around me that is casting me in a fishing net into the sea. I thought somehow that, by coming back to Memphis, by linking myself to one physical space, I would seamlessly melt into the fabric of this city, of Church life, of family and relationships. But that isn’t really happening. And I wonder if this has a little to do with the distinctions between Orthodoxy and other denominations of Christianity. Now please understand I am not a theologist or an apologist or any kind of “ist.” But it just seems to me that in the Orthodox Church there is a constant emphasis on the ephemerality of our current life, almost on a daily basis. The whole Church calendar goes from birth (Nativity) to death (Crucifixion) to eternal life (Resurrection and Ascension) and beyond in the course of one calendar year. And we celebrate those transitions every single year. So every single year, we are born, we die, and we come back into life with the Church feasts, the fasts and songs and celebrations. It’s so beautiful, but at the same time…it’s shaking. Because when you connect the fasts and feasts to the meaning behind them and the constant reminder that “there is a war for our souls” going on, it’s very, very easy to feel afraid and shaken.

I know in my head and a corner of my heart that those things are overcome, but still, life is a war for our soul,  a journey towards Heaven. And yet at the same time the world starts whispering little things about family and assets and job security. Now, those are wonderful blessings, which I pray that I might actually have one day if I live that long. But right now I feel slammed by voices that are telling me that I don’t belong, and I’m listening too much. Because, what am I trying to belong to? Christ, or the world? And does the former require me to stay in one physical space?

I wonder if any of my Orthodox Christian friends, whatever age or phase of life, feel that same shakiness and urge to run, because, in the end, that’s not what life is really about.

Or maybe I really am just that different.

Or, perhaps, we are made exactly as God intended us to be, unique and “quirky” and constantly asking too many questions.

Is Writing Selfish? Or Is It Service?

When trying to live a life of service to God and to others, what room is there for egotism? Where does egotism end and our God-given gifts begin?

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I’ve been state-side for one month now, with little to occupy my time other than my own thoughts and the warm comfort of friends and family. As I sit in my little, cluttered home, replete with dog hair and worn-down magazines, I think and pray a lot, maybe too much, about my own future.

I long to continue my education, which leads most well meaning folks to ask me, “what do you want to do as a career?” My usual response is “I don’t know,” which elicits sighs and confusion, mostly from myself.

The truth is, I think I do know, but I don’t feel like admitting it. I want to write. And read. And study. As a career. That seems like something that’s impossible to exhaust…study. One man can’t ever know everything so how much more can we use this life to learn? I think now of one of my favorite little memoirs, Twenty Years A Growin,’ where the narrator gleans this advice to me:

“What good are you unless you study and travel the world while you are in it?”

I take these words to heart and often feel that there’s so much to see and do and learn that I couldn’t ever possibly choose just one path and stick to it. But maybe this is just naivete.

As I contemplate the possible paths before me, I try to see into the future and imagine what would be required of me in a certain setting. How much of myself would I be required to give? How much of myself would I have to die to? In the Christian context, walking with Christ means dying to yourself, taking up your cross (your burdens–see Pilgrim’s Progress) and following Christ.

But how much of me is what I need to die to, and how much of me is given by God to fulfill?

If God gave me a talent for writing or speaking (not saying He did, but I’m certainly no accountant), then shouldn’t I use it for Him? But writing is a very personal activity, and these days I feel like I’m spending too much time alone, in my own head, instead of being present with others.

How much of me needs to die to be filled up instead with Christ?

It’s easy to discern external sins: avarice, greed, addiction, egotism, things that we all struggle with. Sometimes our failings manifest themselves externally in our relationships with others, our addictions to material things, or something else. But sometimes they sink deep inside our skin, and we don’t realize they are there until we try to break ourselves free and instead feel chained to our own sloth, our own internal egotism that sits quietly beneath our breath.

Is this my cross?

If it is, how can I follow Jesus on a path that would confront me with more of the same…the long, solitary afternoons, alone with my books and my thoughts? Our thoughts can sometimes betray us.

Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit. I’m not a hermit…not yet, anyway, and I do love the great outdoors. It’s just that sometimes I love my pajamas more.

Is writing an inherently selfish endeavor? A good writer writes with an audience in mind, with a story to tell, with an argument to posit. Sometimes I just write because I can’t sit still unless I do. Oh, the novelty.

I wonder what it would be like to follow a path of academia, of writing and thinking and listening and learning and trying to convince others I’m right when I secretly know I’m not. Or what if I know I am? Maybe that’s even worse. Or maybe academia, like any other path, is not about being right or wrong but about growing and discovering and being present with others as you walk the road together. Is that naivete again?

What do you think, sage bloggers or writers? How do you reconcile your time in your head with your time serving others? Is writing selfish, or is it a form of service?

Home

It’s that time of year again.

Yes, it’s spring time, and somewhere outside of Bangkok there are flowers blooming. But the time I’m referring to is decision time. Transition time.

I have always associated the months of March, April and May with stress, stress, stress. As a student, this is crunch time: exams, final projects, papers, recitals, formals, etc. etc. etc.

But on top of that, at the end of spring comes the highly anticipated yet simultaneously dreaded summer break, which we are taught must be for furthering our still kind of amorphous career aspirations. Get an internship! Volunteer! Go abroad! Then come with just enough time to kiss your family and head back to school.

Man, I’m glad that’s over…

Except, here it is again, nearing the end of March, and it’s my decision time again.

Do I stay in Bangkok?

Do I stay in Thailand?

Do I go home?

I admit that, as thoughts of summer time pools and hugging my dogs fill my mind, I get so overwhelmed that I want to pack my bags right now and hop on the first plane to Tennessee.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

I’m not exactly homesick, or even nostalgic. I’m just trying to find my place. Sometimes, I think home is my only place.

I thought about home, and what it means to different people. A line from the Hobbit [movie, unfortunately] popped into my head as a young Bilbo Baggins admits to his courageous friends “I do miss home. I miss my books. And my armchair.”

I feel ya, Bilbo.

Everyone around me is soaring off on grand adventures and making wild summer plans, and I just want to go home. Not because I’m lonely, or unhappy, or disappointed. I just love home.

Yet the word “home” also stirs up something else in my mind: a popular song by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, bearing the same name. When I studied abroad in Israel a few years ago, this song became our anthem; not only because we were young students half way around the world, but because home, in Israel, is a contested thing, not always permanent, and often transitory.

I struggled with homesickness a lot in Israel, and my close friend and counselor reminded me of the lyrics of this song:

Ahh, home
Let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you

He doesn’t say “home is a two story brick house in Mississippi with a front porch swing and a lot of dust bunnies.”

Anyone who’s moved a lot can tell you that a home is much, much more than the infrastructure; it’s the people.

And though my biological family isn’t in Bangkok, God has given me many satellite families. He has a way of bringing everything together in ways that are impossible by ourselves.

With men, this is impossible.
But with God, all things are possible.
Matthew 19:26

I’ve been blessed with many friends and new family members who, like me, have uprooted themselves and replanted in a crazy new country. A very wise friend  reminded me recently that “lemongrass and celery plants” can regrow in a new pot one they are uprooted and replanted.

Maybe this is us, she thinks. Uproot, replant, grow. This is the transition time, which comes from the decisions we make that we may never be completely confident in. But somehow, God keeps giving us soil, water, and sunlight. We just have to have faith.

Living Inside the Outside

What happens when you move into the outside of your comfort zone??

Having passed the six month bench mark of living in Thailand (actually, I’m going on month EIGHT already…amazing..), I recently found myself in a self-prescribed “funk.” After the country-hopping adventures of Christmas break, I was back into teaching, finding myself caught up in a routine of “get up, go to class, come home, eat, sleep, repeat.” I was reminded of the late David Foster Wallace’s college graduation speech given at Kenyon back in 2005 on the importance of remembering to look up from the steering wheel every once and a while to appreciate where you are.

Even though I am in a different country, I still fell victim to that nasty habit of taking everything for granted and becoming weary of the everyday, the “mundane;” the repetitiveness of work and the pressures of life got to me. I was “in a funk.”

So what do you do when you suddenly move into the outside of your comfort zone? What do you do when everything that was new and strange becomes normal, routine, and slightly predictable?

I struggled to answer this question. For a few weekends I hibernated, shut the world out, watched Youtube videos and ate bowls of noodles. And sometimes, a girl just needs a curry-noodle-Boy-Meets-World kind of weekend. I’m okay with that.

Me on a Friday afternoon.

But eventually, I had to emerge from my hole in the wall and breathe in the smelly air of Bangkok, because at a certain point I ceased to recharge, and I ended up hurting myself by isolating myself beyond what was necessary. This is something, I’m noticing after many years, I tend to do.

Fortunately, life has a way of meeting you where you are, grabbing your hand and pulling you along when you least expect it and most need it. And, by the Grace of God, I found amazing ways to cope. I reached out to friends who, it turned out, were experiencing similar feelings. Together we vowed to make the most of our time here, and a few weeks later, I can honestly say that things are picking up with amazing speed!

It was not an easy transition–but I wonder if any transition is easy. But, when you pick up your head long enough to realize “this is water,” you will be amazed at what you can discover. So, in my case, I decided to take a walk down a street I had never been down before, and guess what I discovered?

WATER!

Yes. I had been staying with a friend in a local area of the city, and last Friday night I found myself alone and on the cusp of another “funk.” So I left the apartment to go to 7-11 for some milk, but instead, I turned right instead of left and set out on a nice, long, solo walk.

I began to notice things I had never noticed before, like coffee shops and karaoke bars (no surprise there), apartment buildings and even a university–who knew?  Then, I came to a bustling, unpaved intersection with no hope of crossing it. So I watched the cars and semi-trucks whiz past me at break neck speed, and I thought to myself “this is so different from home.” And I was happy. I was happy to be looking at a traffic scene, witnessing a cross-section of local lives before which point I had never come into contact. And I felt different…calmer…more accepting of my current reality.

Finally, when the traffic ceased, I raced across the road and continued my journey. It did not last very long, because I came to a dead end. How strange, I thought, that this seemingly busy road suddenly dead-ends. Why would it do that? I could have just turned back and accepted this peculiarity, but I was not ready to go home. So I kept walking, and that’s when I discovered the pier.

There’s a PIER at the end of my street. A pier, where boats and water taxis come and go, where people get on and off and are swept away down the Chao Praya into other pockets of Bangkok, unbeknownst to little ole ignorant me. Of course none of these occurrences depended on me seeing them; they, like everything else God made, existed before and without me. Yet to me, this pier is  special, because I learned something very valuable that night.

I never have to accept things just as they are, or resign myself to the fact that “this is all there is,” because “this” is never all there is. Somewhere down the street, there is a boat dock waiting to float me down another river I never even knew existed.