Memphis Time: On Slowing Down (A picture book)

I took a walk on the Mississippi River and saw a fisherman in his boat.  I watched him circling around the river, directing his floating chariot, unaware of passersby or stalkers like me, content to float downstream.

Memphis, Tennessee
I thought of the fisherman in Myanmar fishing, alone for hours. The water might not be as blue here, but I suppose fishing in Myanmar has the same basic objective as fishing in Memphis: to catch a fish. 
I sat by the Mississippi, letting the wind kiss my face and creep up my shirt. It took me back to boating on the Inle Lake and the wind ripping through our hair. We spent hours on that boat, getting sunburned, watching the chorus of fisherman dance their way downstream, casting nets with the grace of ballerinas.  
Inle, Myanmar
The scenery is certainly different in Memphis; it’s very flat. But the company is more consistent. Maybe because of that, life feels tangibly slower. It’s definitely more predictable, which I always thought I would hate, but I’m starting to see the wisdom in a slower way of living. It’s not nearly as stressful because you know what to expect. You get a lot of time to snuggle with these:

It’s difficult to stop planning my next move. But who knows, it may come sooner than I expect. 

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.

On Being Home, Awake

One of the biggest life lessons I keep coming back to from all of my travels is that life hits you in the face when you least expect it, and it hits you in a very big, very real way. Life is uncomfortable. Travelling is uncomfortable. It’s new and different. It can be very strange.

People have always been afraid of what is different. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s a “chicken and egg” conversation: which came first, the fear or the stereotypes?

I’m living in Memphis now. But I’m not living in the same Memphis I grew up in, and sometimes, I feel really ashamed that I never knew my current Memphis when I was young. My Memphis is Black; 60 percent African American to be precise. But that’s not the Memphis I knew growing up, which evidences the other reality of my current Memphis. My Memphis is segregated as hell.

Why didn’t I see it before? On some level I think I knew, but I never thought deeply about it, nor cared enough to do so. My school was white, my family was white, we were all middle class, we were all the same. So what did I have to be afraid of?

Injustice hit me like a brick to the face the first time I saw the terrible cement wall separating Israel from the West Bank. That’s injustice, I thought. A cement wall. Well, we don’t have one cement wall in Memphis, but we have a lot of little walls. They’re called neighborhoods. They’re called schools. They’re called 201 Poplar.

It’s not fair that I got to go to a great school and get in to college, when the average ACT score for this city is 17 and the percentage of those in poverty is almost 30 percent, with 45 percent of all children in Memphis living in poverty. Memphis’ poverty statistics are shocking. Why didn’t I learn this in school? Maybe I did. I just wasn’t paying attention.

What do we do about it? What did I do in Israel? What did I do in Thailand? What do I do here?

Of course there is injustice everywhere. But knowing that, accepting that, and letting that pass unaffected is only perpetuating that injustice. Compassion necessitates action.

Why am I struggling so much with this right now? I think because suddenly I feel responsible. I know I’m not personally responsible for the systemic racism in this city, but I feel a sense of responsibility towards my city and everyone in it. It’s easy, when you’re living abroad, to pick and choose what injustices to invest your time in, because there is so much that is unfamiliar. You can use that barrier as an excuse to hide away. And as I’m learning, there is still so much that is unfamiliar to me about this city, this city I grew up in and so arrogantly thought I had figured out. I don’t. I don’t. I can’t.

But I can try. I can get outside my comfort zone, like I’ve done before in other places. I can keep going outside of my own yard to see new things, experience knew events, meet new people from different backgrounds. Isn’t that life, anyway?

My goals for my time in Memphis (however long that may be) are these: first, to learn more about the social injustices in the city and to get involved in active solutions. My current job is a great place to start, but that’s only a little of myself. We can always go deeper. We just can’t ever give up. Second, I want to explore. Build a bike, ride the MATA bus, and get out and about. There is a lot of beauty in this city.

Just because I’m back in the same place doesn’t mean I’m the same person I was when I was last here. I’m not. I hope I’m not. I’m still only one person with no answers and irritating questions, but I’m still going. I hope you’ll help me along.

Post-Grad: Making the Best of The Time You Have

A cliche title, but this is how I feel right now…

And once again, boxes are packed and suitcases are standing in my bedroom. Where I am going this time? It’s tempting to say “nowhere,” but that isn’t true. I’m moving back home.

Such a short sentence carries with it so much weight and societal pressure, doesn’t it?

I’ve been blessed to spend some time with my wonderful college friends this weekend in New Jersey, where I’ve been for the past week, packing boxes, visiting family and tying up loose ends before I move back to Memphis. One of the things we talked a lot about is how odd it is not to have that structure of school looming over us. This time of year is when students move back to campus, start planning their courses and their extra-curriculars, and begin that carousel dance of “what ifs” and wishes for their still mostly ethereal futures.

Only this time, and for the first time (since I graduated college and then went straight to teaching at a university), there is no class schedule to pick! No courses to look forward to, no projects to plan, no books to check out or social events to make. I try and tell myself that I’ll still be as studious, reading for pleasure and edification and cross referencing everything I see on paper. But the truth is, even in the month and a half since I’ve been jobless in America, it’s been really difficult to create any sort of routine that challenges me.

All of my caring older adult friends and family will smile and shrug and say encouraging things like “you don’t need to know what you’re doing forever; you just need to know what you’re doing next.” And this is true, and I’m very grateful for their understanding and support. Yet I’m wondering if this is the part of life, that dreaded post-college part, that people don’t really explain in detail because it’s different for everyone, and maybe uncomfortable as well.

And so I’ve been spending this last week living a bit in nostalgia-land, which I believe every person is entitled to at some points in life. I visited my old college and church, had lots of lunches and coffees and lots of talks, and started going through my old belongings, at which point I realized that I’m a book hoarder. I also discovered this insert from my old environmental biology book, which explains a lot:

A fold out map I found under my bed today.

I also found some old travel pieces from The Inquirer, old essays I wrote for school and lots of notes about random ideas in life. My brain, it seems, has always been running overtime.

One article I had saved was a piece by Rick Steves on the relative simplicity of backpacking in the age of technology, with which I wholeheartedly agree. His last bit of advice was to always keep a travel journal. He observes:

One of my favorite discoveries is that the journal entries I wrote as a scruffy 20-year-old in 1975 still resonate with the…20-year-old American exploring Europe in the 21st century.

I find this encouraging and inspiring. There’s something so liberating and magical about being your own Robinson Crusoe or Sherlock Holmes in a foreign land, even if you can now follow that land on twitter. There’s nothing like being there in person.

And this is why, as a newly jobless post-grad, joining the ranks of the wandering millennials, I feel hopeful about my future. Yes, it is so much more challenging to make things happen now. In college, everything is arranged neatly for you; you have endless options from which to choose. You see your friends all the time. You have access to databases, free Zumba classes, trips to the beach, and all the ice cream you can eat. Those things still exist in life (maybe not the free Zumba); you just have to find them for yourself now.

Look at the map. Look at Rick Steves. We have a whole world still to explore, and even in our own backyard or old college town, we can find uncharted territory. Everything and everyone has a story, and since human beings are naturally curious, it is only fitting that we seek to uncover those stories, no matter where we are physically. If you’re looking for a place to start, try your old journals, essays, or random scraps of paper stuffed under your bed.

🙂

Note:
Rick Steves, “It’s Easier to be a Backpacker,” for the Inquirer, Sunday July 28, 2013. Inquirer.com