Monday, February 24, 2014

What the Hell is Water?

"The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking."
- Albert Einstein

In a commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace told the new graduates, "There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?""

So it is with us.

"If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious."

It's about learning to think, to question, to seek. 

In our education system and our churches, we are told mostly what to think, not how to think. We are not taught how to properly question, because those who question are deemed heretics and communists, and our fear of what those in power and authority think of us is too great to lose. We are afraid of being vulnerable because we will be rejected. So we seek to convert everyone around us to our way of thinking, believing, and living. 

I recently finished reading The Giver for the third or fourth time. The story takes place in a Utopian futuristic society in which there is no pain, no color, no sun, no differences, where everyone is placed in a job that serves the community, where no one questions their role or how it's decided. Jonas, an 11 year old who sometimes sees things others don't, is given the role of Giver. There is only one Giver in their society, a person who contains all the memories from all of their history before they went to Sameness, before they gave up colors in order to be the same, before they gave up love in order to have stability, before they gave up choice in order to save people from their "wrong" choices. The current Giver hands Jonas his memories, filling Jonas with color, and pain, and joy beyond anything he's ever experienced, and he has no one to talk with about these new experiences. " could you describe a hill and snow to someone who had never felt height or wind or that feathery, magical cold? ...what words could you use which would give another the experience of sunshine?"

The Giver explains, "Our people made that choice, the choice to go to Sameness. Before my time, before the previous time, back and back and back. We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with difference. We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others."

There is a challenge in community of seeking unity, but not uniformity. In the intentional community I live in, each of us tries in different ways to conform the others to ourselves. We want the people around us to believe like we do, think like we do, act like we do, perform as we do. We want Sameness, because we think that is being united; we think that is what is meant by being of "one heart and mind." We want sameness because it makes us feel secure in our own beliefs and actions. 

I am often frustrated because that is an impossible expectation. 

The seven of us in the community differ on nearly everything: gay rights, how to wash the dishes, the Divinity of Jesus, the steps to salvation, what to cook for dinner, how to engage in dialogue when angry, how to grocery shop, how to engage with our homeless neighbors, how to communicate with the Divine, the truth of different religions and lifestyles, etc etc etc. 

We will NEVER agree. EVER. 

But we choose to live together. We choose to be aware our differences and we choose to stay and figure out how to embrace and love one another in those differences. 

We are learning how to reject sameness in the name of unity. Sameness is not unity. Sameness is conformity. And conformity has no room for real love. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Community Like an Ocean

Intentional community feels a little like being in the ocean. I didn't tip toe; I dove in. It was frigid and I immediately wondered what in the world I was doing. The water looked so inviting from a distance.

The waves came, one by one and sometimes two by two, pulling me under, drowning me. I blamed the waves for my exhausted limbs and lungs, but the waves were only doing what waves do. I chose to walk into this. I chose to try and swim in this.

Sometimes there was a lull. The wind slowed, the waves rested, and a calm fell over the water. I breathed deep, relishing the silence, the stillness, preparing myself to be better equipped for the next wave. I took deep breaths, increased my lung's capacity, and found new methods that would work better than before.

Sometimes I am above the waves, breathing deep. Sometimes I am rolling underneath in the riptide. Sometimes I am swimming fervently, energy bursting from my body and soul. Sometimes I rest, and wait.


This week was full of activity, as most usually are: the groundbreaking of the De Luxe Theatre, candle lit dinners on our balcony, the return of a neighbor who was in the hospital after a fall, my housemate Charlie's 23rd birthday, braiding the boys' hair, losing power in our apartment complex, and moments of beauty and rest in between.

There is usually a lot of activity in our house, which often annoys me. I enjoy my personal space, quiet time, and low-key daily moments.  I don't like things to be too sensational, too loud, or too messy. In fact, I don't like them to be loud or messy at all.

A few weeks ago as I was walking home from Wednesday night church with my housemate, Rediet, we got a text from a housemate (who was at home making dinner with another housemate) wondering if their friend, a semi-homeless man who was on and off again using hard drugs, who had come over to hang out could stay for dinner. My initial reaction was, "I've had a long day. I didn't want to go to church tonight. I want to just relax tonight with a book. I don't want to build relationships. I don't want to entertain."

And then I thought about what things would be like if I lived with a bunch of people like myself. I would never invite people over for dinner when I'm hungry, or tired, or frustrated. But thank God for my housemates who are not me, who invite people over for dinner, who want to build relationships with people I may not initially want to build relationships with.

In community, we make up for one another's weaknesses and inadequacies. Somehow God fills in the cracks, building us all up and tearing us all down, filling the valleys and making the mountains low. When I"m tired, someone else is awake. When I am angry, someone else is grateful. When I am rested, someone else is exhausted. Seven people feeling seven independent feelings can be hectic and trying, but it also almost always guarantees that we will eventually balance one another out, learning how to meet one another in the process.

And, for your enjoyment, here is a video of Charlie getting his face smashed in his birthday cake.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

God as People, God as Rocking Chair [guest post]

"I don’t know what to say. I don’t like praying out loud."

I don’t know what to do with Divine presence. As beautiful as I think my thoughts are about the Divine being as Liz Gilbert says, “in us, as us”, I don’t know what to do with that Divinity. I don’t know how to communicate with It anymore, did I ever?
Sometimes I think of that night. I had woken up at two in the morning to text messages about black hair dye. I was hurt because I felt abandoned, and now that a year has passed, I realize it wasn’t him that I felt abandoned by. I felt abandoned by myself.

What a tremendous loss.
What a death worth grieving.

I was up wailing until five that morning. I had had my own room for a few weeks by then. A 12 by 13 foot cold, concrete room. I soaked there in my self-inflicted isolation, spent silent eternities waiting for text messages, crying about my broken relationship with my mother, forgetting about the papers I needed to write. Thankful that there wasn’t a roommate there to worry about waking up. Thankful that I could be honest with my emotions.

I had already used an entire roll of toilet paper blowing my nose, when suddenly I felt rest. Suddenly I felt a rocking. Back and forth. Back and forth. Gently. Sweetly. My breathing slowed. My sobbing lessened. I was cradled. Sung to sleep by a silent Voice that whispered to me Love that is too valuable to tarnish with words.
I try to remember that night when I forget how to interact with Love.
I felt empowered. I looked around the train, my vision enhanced, more open. I saw God. I saw God with Her face forward, staring out at the passing city life. I saw God with His feet kicked up in the seat beside Him. He looked like He needed rest. I heard God say to me, “You look tired.” I smiled, “Probably a little bit”. God was carrying a large tarp filled with clothes and belongings. God was wrapped in cloth, scarves covering Her head, gloves warming Her hands. God was driving the train, God was entering and exiting.

I closed my eyes. I breathed God in, I released. I was in the presence of God. I am in the presence of God now. God is in Her office creating a Kickstarter account to fund raise for the stray dogs in our neighborhood. God is talking to His friends on Facebook. God is answering the phone.
Before turning out the light, God told me that She loved me and that She was there. I told Her thank you. We slept.

Check out other thoughts from Taylor at her blog by clicking the picture below.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pizza by Candlelight

Working my way through conflict resolution, modes of communication, and healthy boundary setting with six other people in intentional community can get messy. It is often very painful as I discover unhealthy aspects of my mind, heart, and soul, the wounds I've covered up, the pride I excuse as leadership, the unhealthy ways of operating I've made normal over the years.

And then there are nights like these: Nights of candle lit pizza parties in the living room, making silly child like forts under the table, singing Imogen Heap and Matisyahu together, enjoying each other's presence. My roommate Taylor told me later that night, "Ya know, this is what I thought community would be like all the time: beautiful, fun, candle light..." We weren't prepared for the mess of community. But knowing the mess, the pain, and the trials makes the beautiful moments so much sweeter.

Monday, February 17, 2014


The De Luxe was once a Lyons Avenue monument, a thriving African American cinema during the days of segregation.  Fifth Ward was well known for being a place of business, entertainment, and life. My neighbor "M", who hangs out at the corner all day, tells me stories of his childhood, of the main thoroughfare, Lyons Avenue, being the place to be. Men and women would dress up and walk the Avenue as they visited The Deluxe for a show, danced in the nightclubs, and dined at the restaurants at Jensen and Lyons Avenue.

As desegregation happened and African Americans left Fifth Ward, the economy shrank and businesses, including The De Luxe, went under. Crime, drug use, and violence rose as people and businesses fled. The De Luxe had a short lived revival as an art gallery in the 70s, but since then, The De Luxe has loomed over Lyons Avenue, a haunted house, gutted and overgrown, waiting for a renaissance.

The non-profit I work for, The Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation (FWCRC), has partnered with the City of Houston and several government and non-governmental agencies to restore Lyons Avenue to the brilliance it possessed in its heyday. They have been renovating and building houses, apartment complexes (including the apartment complex me and my teammates currently live in), and common spaces like parks in order to bring life and commerce back to the Fifth Ward. 

Today we participated in the groundbreaking of the De Luxe Theatre. The once-empty building will be transformed into a multi-purpose arts center for the neighborhood, creating space for performances, galleries, and meeting spaces, and maybe even a library. 

Setting up for the Mayor 

My housemate Caleb surveys the gutted De Luxe

My office buddy Krystal, housemate Charlie, and me
I volunteer for a pretty dynamic non-profit. It's easy to forget in the day to day computer work, grant writing, and office details that the organization I work for is helping transform this community, offering hope and sustainability to a neighborhood with a rich culture and beautiful people. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Salt and Light

"But Jesus is a homeless Cuban man we call Carlos. He’s got schizophrenia and a drinking problem, cast out in the cold by a shunning community and a family that can’t deal no more. And he may die of hypothermia tonight. Jesus is a black transwoman who is violently ostracized, threatened, and feared by a people that fail to grasp the mere fact of her humanity and beauty. Jesus has been diagnosed with learning disorders and behavioral problems since he first jumped out of his seat out of boredom, a Hot Cheetos diet, and way too much stress for a five year old. At three in the morning, Jesus rolls out of bed and unwraps five dozen corn husks for tamales she sells this morning and every morning on California Avenue. She hopes to sell them all today just in case her oldest son doesn’t find work today. Jesus is hoping no one will bother him from his spot under the Kennedy by-pass at Logan tonight. Jesus got beat up in high school to the point where he attempted suicide."

-from this blog

"We perhaps should not miss the fact that Jesus does not say “here are the conditions you must meet to be the salt of the Earth.” He does not say here are the standards of wholeness you must fulfill in order to be light for the world.  He looks out into the crowd of people in pain, people who have been broken open – those cracks that let in and let out the Light, who have the salt of sweat and tears on their broken bodies, and says you ARE salt. You. You are light. You have that of God within you the God whose light scatters the darkness. Your imperfect and beautiful bodies are made of chemicals with holiness shining in it…you are made of dust and the very breath of God."

- Nadia Bolz-Weber from her Salt and Light sermon found here.

A Sometimes Ache

Sometimes my heart aches to be in India.

Just sometimes. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Lasagna and Bus Serenades

Charlie made lasagna, but we had to meet Taylor downtown, so we packed up the lasagna, some paper plates, and some forks, and headed out on the bus with it. We showed up at one of our favorite coffee shops and settled in for an evening of open mic singing and poetry, expressing disgust over The Bachelor which was on a tv above our heads, and taking silly pictures. People would wander over throughout the night asking, "Did you guys actually bring lasagna?!" Then we'd offer them a piece and they would happily accept.

Then Caleb and Charlie gave us some entertainment while we waited for the bus. (Forgive the sideways video. I didn't realize I had to hold my phone sideways to get it to take a video that came out right ways up).

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Beautiful Illusion

It's easy to post photos and status updates to make my life in Houston seem beautiful and easy.  As if living intentionally with six strangers in an unknown neighborhood surrounded by alcoholism and lack of resources is a walk in the park.

I can create a beautiful illusion, much like the faces we put on Sunday morning to convince everyone else, and ourselves, that we're actually really ok.

I'm not ok, and neither are you. Isn't that the point of grace?

I want to see the underside of life, the depth of my questions, doubt, conflicting beliefs, and seeking. And I want to see the real beauty within it. I want to have hard conversations with my housemates that make me face my own darkness, arrogance, and judgmentalism (but really, in the moment, I hate those conversations and everything in me revolts against them). I want to be challenged in my assumptions about people and places. I want to understand myself, accept myself as I am without feeling like I have to be anyone else or feel intimidated by someone else's qualities. I want to learn how to be in loud, noisy community without being completely irritated by it. I want to appreciate all the quirks of my housemates without feeling like I have to conform them to some standard I have put upon myself. I want to value diversity.

The first step to achieving those things is to recognize I want them.

This is the process.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Her Old Hands

I sit next to Miss A every Sunday morning during church service at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church.

I greet her with a smile, a kiss on the cheek, and a hug. She squeezes me right back asking, "How are you, baby?" We sit mostly in silence during service, mainly because the music is so loud we can't hear one another over it. There is a moment during service where Pastor announces, "It's prayer time. Come to the altar." People will rise up from the pews and kneel on the marble steps of the altar, or sit with others to pray. Miss A holds open her soft, wrinkled hand to me, inviting me to pray with her. While the speaker prays out loud, Miss A whispers, "Thank you Jesus. Thank you, Lord," and I sit silently, holding her hand, immersed in love. I squeeze her hand, feeling the strength still left in her arthritis ridden body, and push beyond my own circumstances, my own restless thoughts, my own leftover bitterness, frustration, and disappointment to pray peace over Miss A, sending light and love to my parents, grandparents, aunts, friends and neighbors.

Miss A reminds me of the simpleness of love.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Come Into This

Anis Mojgani performs Come Closer at HEAVY AND LIGHT. from To Write Love on Her Arms. on Vimeo.

Come into this.
come closer.
you are quite the beauty.
if no one has ever told you that before know that now.
you are quite the beauty.
there is joy in how your mouth dances with
your teeth.

your mouth is a sign of how sacred your life
truly is. come into this.
true of heart come into this.
you are true of heart.
come closer.
come closer. 

-Anis Mojgani

"We are all one silence, and a diversity of voices...
Here I am. In me the world is present, and you are present. I am a link in the chain of light and of presence."

- Thomas Merton