Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Kingdom of the Sick

My friend Geoff Kronik recently sent me an essay, “Being Ill, Living Well” by the English philsopher Ian James Kidd. (You can read the whole essay here, published in Aeon magazine.) “Health,” writes Kidd, “is linked to ideas of agency, capability, freedom and possibility – standard entries in the roll-call of human flourishing.

My first chemo treatment, Spring 2014.
“Illness, by contrast, comes with constraint, fragility, loss, and restriction, the darker dimensions of what Susan Sontag called ‘the night-side of life.’”

Perusing the essay today, it was hard for me not to read a metaphor in it for the current state of affairs in the U.S. Many of us U.S. citizens, as we contemplate the D.T.[i] administration, will feel a resonance with this description of illness and how illness affects our sense of self. For hasn’t our nation fallen ill – badly ill? Are we not now experiencing “the night-side of life” in the U.S. body politic?

We are staring down the dark 4-year-long tunnel of an administration whose policies include the dismantling of our healthcare and education systems, a complete disregard for the treaty rights of indigenous people at Standing Rock, the banning of refugees fleeing genocide, the forcing of taxpayers to pay a border wall, and reinstating and greatly expanding the global gag rule. To name only a few ways in which the D.T. administration seems dead set on curtailing basic human rights for both U.S. and global citizens.

“‘Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick,’” Kidd reminds us, quoting from Sontag’s book, Illness as Metaphor. “‘Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.’”

If you’ve been through a life-threatening illness you may remember a time shortly after your diagnosis when the world you’d been living in felt suddenly alien to you. It’s as if you’ve stepped through a mirror and now see that familiar old world in reverse. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2014, the first several days were the worst. Returning from the first consultation with my oncologist, I walked back into Dave’s and my Chicago apartment and felt it no longer belonged to me – or that I no longer belonged there. There were my books; there was my computer on my writing desk where I’d left it. There were the plants I’d watered just a few days before – before the phone call confirming that my recent biopsy showed I had cancer, before my old reality fell apart.

A bell jar -- in case you've
ever wondered!
And yet I seemed to be seeing it all through a screen or a fog. It was the closest I’ve come to understanding what the heroine of Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, feels like when her depression descends upon her, like a bell jar – a sound-deadening, air-stopping jar that closed her off from the rest of the world. “To the person in the bell jar,” Plath writes, “the world itself is a bad dream.”

I have cancer. I have cancer. I have cancer. For the first day or two after my diagnosis, it was the only real thought I had. It colored – or, I should say, sucked the color right out of – everything and everyone in my environs.

I had stepped, as it were, into the Kingdom of the Sick. Though I soon learned how to live in that world – though I lived there for half a year -- there were times, periodically, when I’d stop and look at someone nearby me, someone enjoying the evident fullness of health, and be deeply jealous of them. That used to me, I would think. Would I ever feel like that again? Would I ever be able to trade in my current sad passport and re-enter the Kingdom of the Well?

Living with cancer, or with any life-threatening illness, brings a new undercurrent of fear and anxiety into your daily existence. It’s only natural. Of course it does. But for some of us, Kidd suggests, it might be possible within a period of illness to find “aspects of the experience that promise to yield moral growth.” For some people, illness “can be edifying – conducive to the cultivation and exercise of various virtues.”

Getting ready for a later chemo treatment, Spring 2014.
My friend Geoff shared this essay with me because we’ve both faced a serious illness in our recent lives and have since reflected on the surprising, strange gifts that, for us, came out of those experiences. Yes: strange gifts. I do mean that.

It’s not to say that I’d wish a catastrophic illness on anyone – no more than I’d wish this current U.S. presidency on my least favorite dog. Echoing James Ian Kidd, I don’t want to paint too universally rosy a picture of illness. I don’t want to be guilty of “bright-siding” illness, to use Barbara Ehrenreich’s term for people who try to turn every story of sickness into a story of triumph. With every disease, as with the D.T. administration, there are and there will be dark repercussions, no matter what good we do pluck from the disaster.
My friend Janet and I, before one of my chemo treatments,
Spring 2014.

But for me, my experience of cancer was also an experience of the depth and breadth of the community I had around me. I became aware and appreciative of that support system in a way I might not have before. Before cancer, I always worried, What if bad things happen and I’m far away from my family – from my community of origin? But bad things did happen, and the people around me here were amazing. From my yoga teachers in Chicago who did meditations for me, to my sisters and sister-in-law who flew from the East Coast to spend time with me, to my friend Janet aka D.J. Thielke who accompanied me to chemo sessions, to the hundreds of people who sent me cards and prayers, I was surrounded by kindness. And I have not even mentioned my husband, Dave, who was a strong steady, unwaveringly kind partner through it all. Yes, I had cancer. But goodness came at me from everywhere.[ii]
After 4 months of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy in August 2014, I received a new word from my doctors: I was free of cancer. Once I’d moved through my first reaction – to weep with gratitude and joy – I came to grips with a new understanding. My life had just been snatched from my hands and then given back to me whole. (Or almost whole. I was minus two boobs. But, you know, close enough.) My life, my dear mortal life: It was more precious than I ever knew.

Dave and I, Summer 2014.
My experience of illness rang a bell in my head, the reverberations of which still beat through me daily: You are mortal. This time is short. What do you want to be doing?
The answer was: I wanted more. As Prior Walter says at the end of Angels in America, “I want more life. I can't help myself. I do. . . . So we live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that's it, that's the best I can do. It's so much not enough. It's so inadequate. But still bless me anyway. I want more life."

For me, this meant trying new things: seeing and hearing and tasting and smelling and living in more of this world. It meant asking: what else that is good in the human experience could I bring into my life? I wanted to go to new places, meet new people, and have experiences unlike any I'd had before.

I think it freed Dave, my husband, up too. One morning soon after I received my good health news, he and I were getting ready for the jobs to which we'd been going, with faint enthusiasm, for almost a decade by then. Dave said to me, out of the blue, “Do you want to move to a different country?”

I turned right around and said “Yes!”

It couldn’t have been quite that simple – how Dave and I got from there, our Chicago apartment on an October morning in 2014, to our new lives here in the U.K. Yet, in retrospect, it does feel almost that straightforward. We were ready for change, for adventure, in a way we might not have been previously, before both our worlds had been rocked.

For the next several months, we applied to every international job we could find, and when the job opening appeared at Durham University in England, Dave said to me, “Should I try?”

Palace Green, Durham. I'm not lying:
Dave's office is in the building next to the Durham Cathedral.
The postal address to which he would send his application was “Palace Green.” I’ll never forget that. It seemed like a fairytale, really.

“Do it,” I said. “You never know.”

And here we are, more than 2 years later, happy as peas in a pod.

All right, it’s a rose-tinted story. But it really did happen that way. And Lord knows we need to hear rosy stories.  

What of the new U.S. presidency, though? If it is a national illness – which I firmly believe that is – then we are talking a 4-year-long illness. A 4-year illness may require a different mindset, different strategies, than a “mere” 6-month-long bout. As Mirah Curzer writes in her essay, “How to #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind,” “This is not going to be an easy 4 years."

"We’re going to be subjected," writes Curzer, "to constant gas-lighting by [D.T.] and his administration. We’ll be dealing with a ferocious, multi-front attack on the entire progressive agenda, without exception, and a lot of it is going to succeed. We’re going to helplessly watch institutions we care about and depend upon destroyed. The D.T. years are going to be emotionally exhausting and deeply traumatic for all of us, but particularly to those dedicated to protecting the vulnerable and preserving democracy."

Curzer lists 4 basic strategies for “sticking it out in the picket lines for the duration of the D.T. presidency” – strategies which will prevent us from “burn[ing] out in the first 6 months”:

My baby niece, Asha, at the Women's March
in Charlotte, NC.

  1. Don’t Get Used to DT — Get Away From Him
  2. Focus Your Energy on One or Two Issues
  3. Make Activism Fun
  4. Take Care of the Basics

By “taking care of the basics,” Kurzer means, take care of yourself thoughtfully, deliberately, daily. Included in this self-care are: getting enough sleep, eating well, seeing your friends, getting regular exercise.

For those of us who pray, I’ll add my sister Linda King Van Benschoten’s recent idea: Last night she and some friends were trying to help each other stay sane through the most recent bout of D.T.-related news. “We are so enraged by D.T. and sick on our stomachs,” Linda wrote to me yesterday. “Trying to find some peace.” Her friend Natalie suggested that they pray a common prayer together, at a specific time every day. “We will be on our knees,” Linda writes, “because nothing else seems appropriate.”

I think I know what she means. It’s not that there aren’t other actions we can and should take in resistance to the evil streaming out of the White House. For example, the Women’s March last week was a moment of encouragement and euphoria for the many of us who want to resist. It was, however, one single day – and most of us cannot engage in outward actions of this dimension every day or even weekly. What can we do, then, on a daily basis? What can we do that is not only sustainable over the long haul, but which gives us new energy, new life, as we do it?

The answer will differ from person to person, but I like what Linda’s friend Carol Schierlmann did last night. Inspired by their plan to pray daily together, Carol wrote a prayer of her own.  I think it’s beautiful and, since Carol has encouraged its sharing, I’ll pass it on for those of you who’d like to pray along, too:

Let there be a wall around my own heart to prevent
it from turning this fear and this grief into hate.
Strengthen that wall each day, Lord,
because the world will keep on eroding it.
Open me when I start to close my mind.
Shut me down, Lord, when I need your respite.
Guide me, I pray,
for I am too lost in sorrow to guide myself.
Help me to lift up, to give hope,
to speak your truth to both power and to weakness.
Give me words when I lack them, courage when I am drained,
sleep when I am weary, and love that is ever replenished.

The Women's March in Barcelona, Spain.
(Photo courtesy of The Guardian.)
A major illness -- illness of the body, illness of a nation -- can turn the world upside-down. Sometimes, it also affords a new way of seeing, of being, of moving. What does this current disaster clarify for you? How does it perhaps push you out of the pattern, or even the rut, that you may have been in before?


[i] Part of my own self-care, throughout the current U.S. administration, will be to avoid ever writing or saying the name of the man in the White House. I think I’ll refer to him, in polite company, as D.T.

[ii]  I’m indebted to Adam Grossi (speaking of my Chicago yoga teachers!), who in May 2015 interviewed me about living through cancer and the healing properties of yoga. I’ve taken most of this paragraph from Adam’s interview.

[iii] I’d experienced a similarly clarifying and life-changing moments about 10 years before, as I came to the end of my 30s and Dave and I were living in Guatemala. (Perhaps such moments are features of entering and moving through middle age.) I’ve written elsewhere about the first pivotal moment; in short, a brush with death in Guatemala caused me, for the first time since childhood, to return to fiction writing.


Thursday, 19 January 2017

“Farther Up and Farther In”: A Meditation for My Sister’s Wedding

To write about marriage on the day before the U.S. inaugurates its least qualified president in history may seem wantonly apolitical. Even as I write this, many of my friends and acquaintances in the U.S. are organizing protests in their hometowns or are on their way to march in D.C., to stand against the blatant racism, misogyny, and general ineptitude of the new president-elect. Were in North America now, I would join them.

Instead, this week, I’m thinking about counter-narratives, a concept my friend and former colleague Sohinee Roy reminded me of recently. Counter-narratives: stories that stand against the current dominant story. Stories that provide a different angle or voice than the one our mainstream culture presents.

Sandy and Steve, on Lake Hickory
in North Carolina (complete with
motorboat wake!)
So today I share this meditation that I gave at my sister Sandy King’s wedding, to Steve Witmer, almost 12 years ago. It is, I hope, a reminder of some of the qualities and attitudes that help us to be our best selves. While reflecting deeply on who we love, and why, is not political action, it might be a resource that we can draw from—a well of strength and clarity for us—as we determine how to take outward action. Revisiting this meditation this week, for me, has been a way of remembering some of the values I stand for, with I can push back against the current dominant narrative in the U.S.

Here it is, from July 2005:
A Meditation for My Sister’s Wedding:

It is a privilege to speak at the wedding of my youngest sister—a sister I have known and loved all her life, a sister I have come to know in her adulthood as my peer and one of my dearest friends. It’s a particular honor to speak to you like this, Sandy, in light of your own gift for speaking. I want to say that I am very proud of the woman you have become, and I’m as pleased as punch that you are marrying Steve.

In our family, Sandy I share a reputation for speaking our minds, for occasionally being rather surprising. And so perhaps it is fitting that I begin this reflection by saying that there is nothing intrinsically better about being married rather than being single.

If you are not happy with yourself before you get married, there is nothing about marriage that will necessarily make you happier. If you are not satisfied with your partner before you marry him, there is nothing about marriage that will suddenly guarantee your contentment with him. And so I want to say again that there is nothing intrinsically better about being married.

Sandy and Steve's rehearsal dinner--and square dance--at
Sim's Country Barbecue
This is not a common sentiment to express at a wedding. Yet both of you, Sandy and Steve, are strong people; both of you are individuals; and this is something to celebrate, along with your marriage itself. This is part of what will make your marriage happy and healthy. Exciting as a wedding is—beautiful and thoughtful as this wedding is—it will not in itself guarantee your lasting joy. Rather, it’s the selves that each of you bring to this marriage, the selves you have been creating all of your lives.

I want to say very clearly that you will probably find marriage to be one of the best things that ever happens to you. But it is not the act of marriage per se that ensures this. Instead, it is the fact of who you already are, Sandy, as you marry Steve; and the fact of who you already are, Steve, as you marry Sandy. It is the sense of self and individual purpose that each of you brings to your marriage. These are the qualities that will help you to respect and believe in yourselves through thick and thin, and also to respect and believe in each other to the same degree.

Anne Michaels
Your marriage tonight, Sandy and Steve, seems in many ways like an obvious beginning. But it is also what the novelist and poet Anne Michaels calls the “gradual moment”—an event that appears to have happened suddenly and dramatically, but which has actually been long building, with years and sometimes decades of other smaller actions—other smaller decisions—behind it. Michaels likens the “gradual moment” to the eruption of a volcano; but it may also be the outbreak of war, or the conversion to a new faith, or two people falling in love and yes, deciding to marry.[i] Thus, if we are living deliberate lives, we are also constantly training ourselves for moments of great decision-making by the thousands of smaller, sometimes barely noticeable choices that we make every day.

When Steve and Sandy stumbled into each other’s lives during an apparently routine day of helping friends to move, one winter afternoon two and a half years ago, how much of Sandy’s readiness to meet Steve was the result of the life she had led so far? The result of many long walks and talks with sisters and friends, of former relationships or efforts toward them, of much journaling and praying especially during that hard but clarifying year in Mexico. How much of Steve’s readiness to meet Sandy came from a lifetime of learning to develop his own stance, to choose a career path rather different from his family’s, to venture into unknown parts of the world, to embrace his love of language and theatre and communications? I think this marriage today is due in part to Sandy’s lifelong fearlessness about being her own person. It is also due partly to Steve’s having become a man at ease with himself—which we see reflected in his warm and obvious ease with almost everyone he encounters.
At the rehearsal -- practicing
giving my meditation 

Speaking about your marriage today has made me think of my own, and also about some of the preconceptions I formulated about marriage on my own journey towards it. Because I am a lover of literature, many of these preconceptions—a few of which were completely wrongheaded—came from what I read. I want to tell you about one particular poem and the particular misconception about married life that I gleaned from it. This is a poem that I used to read at weddings, whenever anyone asked me to do a wedding reading—which, for a while there, happened quite often.

Then I want to tell you about that poem’s counterpart, a related but quite different text that I overlooked and in truth sort of disdained, throughout those many years of being single and reading love poems at other people’s weddings. I think the contrast between these two poems is telling, and maybe even revelatory.

Both of these poems are from Kahlil Gibran’s odd, mystical little book The Prophet.[ii] In The Prophet, the central character is—guess what—a prophet. One day he stands before a great crowd of people, who ask him to speak on various weighty subjects. The first two subjects that the prophet addresses are, in fact, Love and Marriage. It is Gibran’s poem “On Love” that I, in the years before I married, read again and again at other people’s weddings.

This is a poem that begins seductively:

            When love beckons to you, follow him,
            Though his ways are hard and steep.
            And when his wings enfold you, yield to him . . .

Then the poem builds to a veritable explosion of passion:

            For even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you. . .
            Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
            So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. . .
            To know the pain of too much tenderness!
            To be wounded by your own understanding of love,
            And to bleed willingly and joyfully!

Shazam! This is a poem just bursting with physicality, with fervent commands to give yourself into the fires of love, to let love thresh and grind you lie corn. All that violent, wrenching imagery: you can fairly hear the sex in it. And yes, friends, this is the idea of love that I wanted to project, throughout the many years when I was not married but was attending many marriages. This is Gibran’s poem “On Love.”

But Gibran’s poem “On Marriage,” the other text I’d like to mention, was a poem I stayed well away from. I gave it a wide berth. As with so many other representations of relationships after you’ve fallen I love, I found it disappointing, even a little dreary. Gibran follows up his lusty, thrilling poem, “On Love,” with his seemingly drier, calmer poem, “On Marriage.” Here, Gibran says to couples about to marry: Stand on your own. In fact, stand far apart from each other, as the pillars of a great house must stand. Give each other wine; make sure that the other person has bread to eat; but do not share from the same cup. And each of you, hang on to your own loaf of bread. It always seemed like such a letdown, after all that glorious wrath and merging of the “Love” poem.

We humans tend to glorify the fall into love—the arrival at the altar—but then pretend that that’s the end of the road. The North American publishing industry puts out a dozen magazines every month dealing exclusively with weddings and wedding planning. But try to remember if you’ve seen any that explore the entity of marriage itself—what it’s like to live day to day with one other person to whom you’ve committed yourself “till death do you part.” You’ll come up with a big blank.

Many of our culture’s novels and films also tend to make weddings the end of the story. And unfortunately, those few writers who do try to show what happens after their characters walk off into the sunset often end up depressing the shit out of us. Remember Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairie books? They give us pictures of familial love and light right up till the second-to-last book, which ends, of course, with Laura kissing Almanzo in the buggy and finally marrying him. Then there’s this last book in the series, The First Four Years—about, yes, the first four years of Laura and Almanzo’s marriage. They get attacked by locusts; they go through years of drought; their crops fail; they catch scarlet fever; they lose all their money; and their house burns down. I grew up wishing that Laura Ingalls Wilder never had written this book.  

In our culture, it seems that once the lights have gone out at the end of the wedding festivities, we are left with far fewer positive or exciting images of the institution of marriage itself—of all those months and years and decades that come after the cake and the long white dress. (Or the long white wedding suit! [iii]) And so this was my beef, during my 20s and early 30s, with Gibran’s poem “On Marriage.” Where, I used to wonder, was the magic, the glory, the passion and pain in this notion of standing quietly side by side, holding up the roof of your house? Where was the being torn asunder in the name of love and heat and excitement that we heard about in his poem “On Love”?

July 2005, in my parents' back yard
But now when I re-read Gibran’s poem “On Love,” I find myself asking different questions. So, what is the rest of the story? Do you fall down into love only to lie there, spent and exhausted, recovering from your hard plummet, for the rest of eternity? Or do you dust off your knees and saunter on again calmly? No. The answer is actually far more compelling. The initial fall into love—that precipitous tumble that our novelists and filmmakers idolize, that Gibran himself wrote about so wondrously—is only the first step into the deep. It’s the first leg of a journey that leads you to profounder and ever profounder degrees of knowing your beloved, and consequently of knowing yourself, and even the rest of the world, better. Perhaps the initial fall into love is associated with pain—glorious pain, as the poets would have it, and indeed as many of us who have made the fall would agree—because it is simply that: the first leap or plunge. The great launching off into something new.

Both of you, Sandy and Steve, have spent a significant time living in another country, and so you know already what the first stage of life in a new culture is like: pierced with agonizing moments, punctuated by tremendous highs and lows. Those first weeks or months mean saying goodbye to the place we were before and traversing a frontier that we’ve only read or dreamed about, previously. Indeed, it’s those beginning steps through the borderlands that most unhinge us, that we often remember most sharply, because they are also most heavily laden with new and disorienting feelings to match our new and disorienting circumstances. Falling in love is something like this first stage of culture shock.

Once you’ve grown into the patterns of your journey, though—once you’ve inhabited the new country for awhile—that shock wears off. You are no longer falling. Emotions do not run so high, nor do they need to. What happens now is the longer, slower, ultimately more interesting process of becoming a resident of this new country. You will learn the nuances of a language once strange to you, and begin to understand jokes that formerly made no sense. You develop new tastes and grow accustomed to new sights, new behaviors.

But as anyone who has lived overseas for a length of time knows, becoming acclimated to a new country doesn’t mean that you shuck off your old identity, that you lose your old self entirely. It means, rather, that you gain new and complex layers to your old ways of seeing; that your vision of the world and of your place in it becomes richer, filled with colors you never dreamed of before. While there is nothing intrinsically superior about the state of being married, if you know who you are as you go into it, marriage can add a precious new dimension to your life, like a new culture or country that you get to know and love in addition to the one to which you were born.

Aslan and Lucy, from The Lion,
the Witch, and the Wardrobe
When I picture this new country for you—this new country of marriage that you enter today—an old line from a book I loved as a child comes back to me. “Farther up and farther in.” This is the name of a chapter in The Last Battle, the final book in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. It is also the rallying cry of the lion Aslan, the hero of the Narnia stories, as he leads the other characters into the beautiful country that gets better and better as you go “farther up and farther in.” For Lewis, this increasingly luminous country is a metaphor for heaven, a place that Peter and Susan and Lucy and Edmund, and Eustace and Jill and all the rest, are able to enter when one world ends and a new one begins—as one door closes and they come in through a new one.

I’m not implying, of course, that marriage is heaven, but I love that call to go “farther up and farther in.” I love the idea of digging deeper into this new country that you’ve entered and finding that it only gets more wonderful, the more deeply you travel, and that you can see it more and more vividly, the longer you live in it. In C.S. Lewis’s stories, Narnia was a hard place to reach; getting there, for Earth’s children, always involved strange and frightening entrances. But it is this “farther up and farther in” that is the real adventure—this coming into a land where the colors are brighter and the light is clearer and you feel even more like your best or fullest self than you have before.

As the two of you venture “farther up and farther in” to this new country, take courage in the knowledge that your marriage is one of life’s great “gradual moments”—the fruit of many past decisions, which have made each of you who you are and, when the time came, helped you to recognize each other. Your marriage is your own creation; the cumulative gifts and learnings of both of your lives are in it.

Steve with his and Sandy's baby,
Tavi, Gray, in December 2016
Take courage also in that Kahlil Gibran pretty much knew what he was talking about in that poem, “On Marriage.” Yes, you are in some ways one now, but you will also go on being two, and the unit of your marriage is only as strong as each one of you as an individual is strong. So I hope you will keep celebrating, too, all that which makes each of you unique—your own person within this marriage.

At the same time, though, despite what Gibran says about maintain your own separate loaves of bread, sometimes it’s sharing the loaf—or taking bites together out of the same big tamale—that’s really the most fun thing to do.

Steve and Sandy, God bless both of you and your lives together.





[i]  The “gradual moment” is a motif throughout Michaels’ gorgeous novel, Fugitive Pieces.
[ii]  A line I crossed out in my original draft:  “(If you’ve been to your share of hippie Mennonite weddings in recent years, you’ve surely heard something from The Prophet before.)”
[iii] I am delighted to say that my brother-in-law Steve wore a white, Asian-style wedding suit to walk down the aisle with my sister.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Speaking of Kindness

This is the story of how I met Dave, my husband.

A “how we met” story may not at first glance fit the theme of my blog, which is, loosely, cross cultural living. Then again, what else is a marriage—or a partnership, or a close friendship that’s lasted for years—but an endeavor in bridging two cultures? 

Dave and I in September 2001
Dave and I met in Terminal C of the Cincinnati International Airport. (A cross-cultural theme emerges already!) Meeting the love of your life in an airport is fairly unusual, but in our case was not quite as huge a coincidence as it sounds. We were both on our way to a conference—a conference specifically for new faculty at Mennonite colleges in the U.S., to be held in the middle of Kansas. Dave was flying to this conference from Ohio, and I, from Virginia; we’d just arrived in Cincinnati to catch our connecting flight to the Plains—to the campus of Hesston College, to be precise. There, we’d spend the next two days with other new Mennonite college faculty, and some of our respective provosts and deans, thinking together about higher education from a Mennonite perspective.

I wanted to frame this story by making some fun—gentle fun!—of Mennonite higher education. This morning, I told Dave some of the jokey anecdotes I planned to relate in this story, based on memories I have of that conference. (Here’s one: What are some titles of panels you’ll hear at a conference on Mennonite colleges? "Re-imagining / Re-imaging our Symbols of Church Community on the College Campus." "Radical Professors, Conservative Students: The New Generation Gap." "Academic Freedom or Anything Goes? Being Faithful to the Church while Creating Forums for Open Discussion.") While he laughed with me, Dave also said, “It’s easy for us to make fun of Mennonite education, because we grew up immersed in that culture.”

We did. We both went to Mennonite colleges ourselves—he in Canada, I in the U.S.—and each taught at Mennonite colleges for a few years: Dave at Bluffton College from 2000 to 2002; I at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) from 2000 to 2003.

“Still, we probably shouldn’t make fun of Mennonite education,” Dave said this morning. “You know, at least they weren’t trying to tell us that Donald Trump sits at the right hand of God.” (Or, I suppose— looking for a roughly equivalent political scenario from the summer of 2000—that George W. Bush sat there.)

Dave’s right, of course: Mennonite colleges have a lot going for them, and one of the aspects I most like and respect about them is that the majority of the faculty and administration are thoughtfully left of center. But yes, it’s also easy (or just tempting) for me to pick on Mennonite institutions, for the very reason Dave identified.

Hesston College, in Kansas
Of that Mennos-in-academia conference, I’ll just say we were greeted not by a buffet of canap├ęs and cold shrimp—nor, God forbid, anything alcoholic—but were each given, instead, upon registration, a Zip-Lock plastic bag containing exactly five Hershey kisses and one ham and cheese sandwich on Wonder Bread. Instead of staying at the local Marriott or Hilton, we bunked two people to a cement-floored dorm  room, with one big bathroom per hall. I’ll just say that, during the plenary session, we may or may not have played games—games in which we broke into teams and raced other teams to fill out a questionnaire about . . . Mennonites! (Which state has more Mennonites, Indiana or Pennsylvania?)

And yet this conference—these two days in Hesston, Kansas, where Main Street literally dead ends into a grain elevator—changed my life. When I walked up to my departure gate in the Cincinnati airport, Dave was the first person I saw. That he and I actually were headed to the very same place, for the next several days, was a thrilling fact I’d learn minutes later. But my first impression had nothing to do with this knowledge. There he was, with wire-rim glasses and messed-up brown hair. In that room teeming with people, my eyes went straight to his face. There he was. And already he was looking at me.

Dave and I at my Ph.D. graduation, May 2001.
It’s the closest I ever came to love at first sight—which, I think now, is a not quite truthful or accurate expression. More truthful or accurate is lust at first sight. That, I am willing to bet, most of us have experienced on more than one occasion. But you need hindsight or retrospect—a little, at least—to tell if the initial attraction, that frisson you felt upon your first meeting, actually did lead you to love.

I still remember that day in the airport—and the two days that followed—quite clearly. I still can see Dave as he was when I walked into our mutual gate of departure. He was wearing black Fluevog boots and jeans, and a black T shirt with an unbuttoned flannel shirt over it. I liked, and still like, that he’d attend an academic conference dressed in such laidback style.  

He didn’t talk to me much, those two days. I had to keep approaching him, sitting down near him, firing up the conversation. Anyone who knows Dave at all will not find this surprising. But he did seem to listen to me when I talked. And once, when I asked to see the tattoo peeking out from his T shirt sleeve--I may even have pushed that sleeve up, just a little--he made a joke. The tattoo, in Hebrew, read I am what I am. “A combination of Pop Eye and God,” Dave said, and when I laughed at this, I saw him smile for the first time.

During this conversation, we were standing inside a doorway, leaning opposite door jambs. Just outside of this doorway, in a courtyard with a circle of chairs, a group of our fellow conference-goers were telling stories. I have no idea what they were talking about. All I retain from this episode is that Dave and I could have moved on from that doorway, but we didn’t. For the next five or ten minutes, we stood in that doorway with our shoulders angled toward one another.

I was sharing my Hesston dorm room with my dean at EMU, Marie Morris. “That David Janzen is pretty interesting, don’t you think?” she said that night, as we lay in twin beds across the small room from each other. She thought she’d detected some spark. I agreed that Dave was interesting. Then I said, “He’s pretty full of himself.”

Earlier that day, having flown in from Cincinnati, a dozen of us Mennonite academics had gotten stuck inside a big revolving door at the Wichita airport. We were half inside it, squeezed tight together, when the door stopped revolving. All ten or twelve of us—plus our luggage—were trapped inside this stuck door. Uproar and chaos ensued. We pounded and pushed on the glass; we hollered and laughed and, for a good minute or two, didn’t move.  

A crevice of space was still open behind us. No one saw it but Dave. He turned around and slipped quietly out. Through the glass walls, over the heads of the other Mennonite academics ensnared with me in the giant revolving door, I saw Dave leave the building by another exit and walk down the sidewalk, alone. He got into the van that had come for us and was sitting on the back seat, calmly waiting, when the rest of us finally broke free.    

But who was I kidding? I loved this. Later on, I called it Dave’s “I’m Too Sexy for This Conference” vibe. It seemed to communicate to me something of Dave’s essential self: his quirkiness and his confidence; the way he instinctively follows his own lights, without worrying about what everyone else is doing. A week after that conference ended, I sent him a short, jokey email. He sent one back, equally jokey. He asked me a question. I answered. We were living a 9 ½ hours' drive apart, but before long we were writing each other daily, and our emails seemed to shorten that gap. When I very casually asked if he had a hankering to meet in New York and go on a pub crawl, sometime, Dave wrote back: “I’ll meet you whenever you want!”

Walking into our wedding -- May 2002
That’s pretty much all it took. We met in New York on New Year’s Eve, 2000—this time intentionally. By the time that date was over, we’d been hanging out for 4 ½ days, nonstop, and I was already in love. We got married 16 months later.

In preparation for telling this story today, I went back through some old letters and journal entries that I wrote about meeting Dave, not long after it happened. What most surprised me, reading those old reports, were my flippant tone and my focus on what I’d perceived to be Dave’s loftiness. Writing about him, back when we were first starting to date, I focused on how, at that conference, Dave rarely had given me the time of day—while I had to keep coming at him: stirring the pot, as it were. I described how, in Kansas, Dave had held back and watched me, the way you watch a child or pet you might find amusing. And once, when I asked Dave if he studied theology—this must have happened: I recorded it several times—he’d said with a lifted brow, “I don’t sully my hands with such matters.”

Okay, I still think that’s pretty funny. But why, in our first months of dating, did I fixate on this incident? What was I about—with my self-disparaging tone, with my little jokes about Dave’s haughtiness—in these early versions of our meeting story?

At one level, I think I was working out my own anxiety. Were Dave and I too different, maybe? Did we have enough in common? Did my way of being in the world—outwardly focused, high energy, loud—have a prayer of ever fitting with Dave’s?

But I no longer want to poke fun—not even gently—at this perceived difference between us. It no longer seems so important to me: how reticent, detached, and self-sufficient Dave seemed to me then, when I was just getting to know him.

I’d rather dwell on how Dave tells the story—how he’s always told it, right from the start—about our meeting at that long-ago conference: “All I remember is that I flew to Kansas, and you pushed up the sleeve of my shirt, and then I flew back again.”

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Dave is fundamentally a nicer person than I am. Not everyone knows this because he’s so quiet, comparatively, and in North America, we have a tendency to equate exuberance with real kindness. But one of the reasons I fell in love with Dave is that I could see right away: Here is someone who wants me to be my best self. Here is someone who, just by being himself, will help me to be a better person.

He did it again, just this morning, reminding me of the gratitude, rather than disparagement, that I owe the Mennonite Church. Or, at least, he tried. (As you may have noticed, I did still tell some of my jokes.)

Speaking of kindness. Speaking of trying to be our best selves. Here’s where I make a transition.

I’m deeply aware—how could I not be?—of the changing of the guard that will happen in the White House, later this month. I see this change, the result of the recent U.S. elections, as a real failure of kindness. I see the man who will enter the White House as the very antithesis of trying to be one’s best self.

Is the story of the recent U.S. elections a story of breakdown—political, ethical, moral?  I believe that it is. It’s a story about how we forgot, for a time, what it means to be truthful and decent and compassionate.

But I refuse to let this story define me. It does not represent who I am. Nor does it represent the U.S., my home country, in any unified or authoritative way.

I want to set my own story against it. To push back. We all have our own stories to set against the current national story. Stories with which we can push back. Stories of other, happier, more hopeful beginnings than this. Stories that remind us of our better selves, of who we want, and aim, to be. 

What are your stories? Remember them. Tell them. Hold onto them. Listen to one another's. Stand for a while in the doorway and see what you notice. Or, if you get stuck there, turn around and find another way out.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful

Weather—particularly bad weather—is a reliable source of conversation in the UK. Here in Durham, I’ve been on walks in which perfect strangers have said as we passed, “Rubbish weather, isn’t it?” My first winter here, new acquaintances often asked how much I hated their weather. And just yesterday, reading that classic novel of Northern England, A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines[1], I laughed out loud when one of the characters greets another by saying, in reference to the weather, “Not very promising again.”

But what, exactly, are these people talking about? What is really so bad?

Dave and I in Grant Park, Chicago, during the Groundhog's Day Blizzard of 2011.
To my mind, the weather in England is generally mild and unchanging. This perspective has much to do with the ten winters Dave and I spent in Chicago, just before moving to Durham. While this recent ranking suggests that Chicago’s winters are not the absolute worst in the U.S., it’s nonetheless a city known to get three feet of snow in a 24-hour period, and where winter temperatures fall, not uncommonly, below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Walking out of the house into a -30 degree wind chill, I’d feel tears leap to my eyes; they froze instantaneously on my eyelashes.

In northern England, meanwhile, I walk out of the house all winter long with my coat unbuttoned and no hat. Average winter temperatures range from above freezing (3 C) at night to the mid 40s F (around 7 C) during the day. The first daffodils raise their heads in late January; you can watch them multiply, slowly at first but then exploding into copses of yellow, until the middle of April. And meanwhile the daily temperatures tick up slowly, too, reaching an average high around 68 F (20 C) and average low of 55 (13 C) during the height of the summer.  

Is it raining on you, Mr. Holmes?
It does rain year round in the UK, as any Yankee who watches BBC or majored in English could readily tell you, but it’s the sort of rain that local people walk freely around in without ever opening an umbrella. The expectation is that the rain will stop soon, or it’s so light they won’t get very wet. And it rarely snows.

In short, I don’t think it’s the weather that the English really are critical of—if by weather we mean temperature and precipitation. No: what they have in mind when they get grumpy about winter here is really, I think, the lack of light.

Before I moved to England, I never really thought about the role that light plays in weather. I’d thought about it only in terms of what changing light can do to a landscape. (Monet’s haystacks, for example.) Once I traveled around the U.S. Southwest with a guy who took photographs for nature magazines. He was obsessed with the golden hour, that hour just after sunrise and just before sunset when the slant of the light is less direct and thus less harsh—more “golden.” That guy would have loved northern England, as we have nothing here all winter long but low, indirect sunlight. We have the golden hour all day long.

That day is actually not long, however. In deep winter, the sun crawls up over the hilltops around 8:30 AM, slips around the southern quarter of our horizon, and disappears again by 3:45 PM.

The north of England is actually pretty far north, y’all. We’re at 55 degrees latitude north—the same latitude as the south of Denmark or Sweden. What this means, of course, is that the very short days of winter are counterbalanced by the very long days of summer. From mid May to early August, we gets stretches of “nautical twilight” and “civil” twilight,” when the sun is just a few degrees below the horizon, but for no hour between sunset and sunrise in Durham is the sky dark enough to be called, technically, “night.”While Dave and I have blackout-strength blinds on our bedroom windows—and make grateful use of them, during the summer—the rest of the house is not so well-equipped, and our visitors in June and July will always receive the suggestion that they bring eye masks with them for sleeping.

Yes, weather and light are just a question of what you are used to. For my own part, I find these wild swings from darkness to lightness quite thrilling—even exotic. I see already that I’ll mark the passing of seasons in England not by the changes in weather—incremental, as they seem to me—but rather by the changes in light.

Durham Cathedral, on a winter afternoon.
Seen from our upstairs window.
But for some people—even many who’ve lived in England all of their lives—the darkness of winter can be a real downer. The British National Health Service publishes an extensive web page on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), otherwise known as the winter blues. I’ve never been affected, for which I am thankful, but I wonder more than ever, here in the north: How do we make a sustainable life for ourselves in a place where the weather may seem so intractably hostile? How do we live through long periods of darkness without succumbing to the winter blues? In this year of all years—when many of us from the U.S. or in the U.K. feel alienated from our own countries, for political and cultural reasons—this question takes on a dual meaning. It’s been part of my thinking this winter about the Danish concept of hygge.

If you’re from the UK, you probably don’t need a definition or pronunciation guide, since hygge is now entrenched in the British zeitgeist—to the point where there’s been an actual hygge backlash. (More on that in a moment.) For my fellow North Americans, however, I’ll say that it’s pronounced HOO-gah (somewhat like an old bicycle horn) and means, generally, a way of being cozy, calm, and peaceful—particularly in the darkest times of the year.

Dozens of books about hygge have hit the UK market. One that I’ve read and liked is The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way toLive Well, by Meik Wiking, who is also the head researcher at The Happiness Institute, based in Copenhagen. In his book, Wiking makes much of the fact that Danes—despite their “horrific weather” and “some of the highest tax rates” (9)—routinely rank among the happiest people in the world.[2] Weik attributes this national happiness, in large part, to the Danish obsession with hygge.

As I understand it, hygge is an everyday quality. It is the creation of a comforting, peaceful atmosphere—in the home, in the work place, in restaurants or bars or other places where people gather—that can be sustained every day. Light is perhaps the most important component of the hygge atmosphere. Hygge light—comforting, cozy light—does not come from a big, glaring overhead fixture but rather from small scattered lamps. Lit candles are even better. Hygge, in short, is about simple pleasures—often associated with being in good company, in a warm, well-lit place during the ravages of winter. Hygge is sharing hot drinks with friends or a loved one; socks and sweaters in front of the fireplace. Presence with others. Gratitude in the moment.

What could be bad about that?

But there is a hygge backlash of sorts forming in England. The criticism, as you might have guessed, is that hygge can lead to insularity, to too much looking inward. The dark side of hygge—for those who agree that such a thing does exist—is that it becomes an excuse to hibernate. To bar the door and shutter the windows indefinitely, to hunker down with your inner circle and forget the rest of the world.

I am biased, of course , but I think the people in my new town have found a way to do hygge one better. In mid November—the time of year when you start reckoning with just how short the days have become, knowing they will only get shorter for the next month—Durham hosts a light festival, called Lumiere. Artists from across the UK and beyond build huge light instillations all over the city, often making use of local architecture. A light display, set to music, is projected onto the massive outer walls of Durham Cathedral, and onto the castle as well. Walking around downtown Durham at night, you see one light installation after another. The best way to get a sense of the magic is to watch this video. Or you can visit Durham during the four nights of Lumiere; you can stroll the streets and the riverbank and Palace Green with many other light-happy people, everyone talking and drinking and eating—and marveling at the strange nighttime beauty of our town, transformed by these painters in light.  

Durham Cathedral, during Lumiere
Lumiere is hygge-like in its focus on a cheery atmosphere, on light in darkness, and on being together—but in a much more communal way. You have to put on your coat and your shoes and walk out into the city—you have to join with thousands of others—to experience Lumiere in its fullness. It’s hygge and not quite hygge: hygge with a more outward-looking, external focus. Or hygge, improved, I think.

Earlier this winter, when I first read about hygge, I had a vivid hygge memory of my own. It came from a time in mid 20s, when I lived in Guatemala and worked with Witness for Peace, during the last years of the Guatemalan civil war. Two friends on the Witness for Peace team and I had been visiting refugee camps in Chiapas, Mexico all day. We’d been walking through rough terrain in hot sunlight for many miles, carrying backpacks; we had sat around talking Spanish with organizers in various of these small scattered refugee camps for several hours. But at last our long day was done; we’d had supper; we were bone tired. One of our hosts in the last camp we came to that night led us to our sleeping quarters—a galera, a building with a thatch or tin roof and partial walls and a dirt floor.

Many galeras in the refugee camps were large enough to hold a small village apiece, with bed sheets or tarps strung between beds to cordon off room-like spaces. That year, when I went out to the camps, I’d learned that sleeping quarters often meant a plastic sheet on the dirt ground, on which you unrolled your sleeping bag. It often meant, too, that you’d share the space with dozens of other sleepers.

Another hygge moment from my Witness for Peace experience:
in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala, 1993.
But the galera our host led us to was surprisingly cozy and small—reserved for the three of us only. We each had a wooden platform raised off the earth on which to spread our sleeping bags, and we had several big tallow candles. We lit the candles and set them around the ledges of our galera, just as it started to rain. Outside, water ran off our eaves; it streamed from trees all around us. It made the most beautiful music. And our candles burned brightly; our bellies were full. I felt that deep tender ache in my muscles that meant I’d sleep well that night. Under the rain’s clatter on our tin roof, we lay side by side in our sleeping bags and told stories. We were dry and warm and together.

I remember who was with me that night—Laurie and Chad—but I don’t remember what we talked about. I just know they were there, and that we were friends, and it was a comforting moment. Outside was more rough terrain we would cross, and a war zone not far away. In our working lives, across the next days and months, we’d have much to do with that war and its victims. That night, however, we were looking at it from a short, sweet-feeling distance. We had not removed ourselves from that reality; instead, we took a small rest from it.

This, in part, is what I hope for in 2017: that I’ll remain aware of the world’s darkness rather than trying to hide or to save myself from it, somehow. At the same time, in the midst of that darkness, I’ll have some friends, and a candle.  



[1] No, fellow North Americans, I never heard of this novel, either, till now. But apparently it’s to the North of England what To Kill a Mockingbird is to the U.S. (To Kill a Mockingbird combined with Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, perhaps.)
[2] This link takes you to The World Happiness Report, 2016. Scroll down to page 22 for the rankings by country.