I walked over defiantly, having jumped off the smaller cliffs, now ready to jump off the bigger one that some others had just jumped from. I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with excitement, a smile, a pulsing heart running through … Continue reading
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Of Revelation: Guest Post From Casey Kilburn
Of Revelation Sinking in From this peculiar place I stand Like quicksand, It pulls me under without warning. Unforgiving, a silent killer. Wrapped in a canvas of sand and mud I ponder: If you love me so, why do I … Continue reading
The Night Gunshots Interrupted the Birds’ Song
It’s my favorite space in the house- the top story bathroom which has a small, rectangular window perfect for catching evening sunsets or for smiling at the moon while brushing your teeth. During the fall, I’ve spent hours taking sunset pictures, all the while my soul coming closer and closer to the present moment until I am in an entranced, gentle place filled with color, wonder, and no words.
Tonight I was having one of those yearnings as I looked outside the window. I opened it wide, feeling slightly warm March air press lightly against my face. I scanned the trees to find the birds, whose brown feathers matched the still bare trees, blending in, yet standing out because of that infectious song. Their lively chatters echoed my souls’ celebrations of this last week of winter, knowing not just by the dates on the calendar, but by their choirs that spring is indeed coming.
I grabbed my camera and began snapping some sunset shots. There were two birds singing shoulder to shoulder, true love birds perhaps. I wanted them to move just one branch over to get that perfect shot of the birds’ silhouettes against the backdrop of a cascading orange and red sky. Just move over. I begged internally. Come on, move a little to the left. Slightly annoyed at a missed opportunity for a “perfect” shot, a still small voice whispered in. “Just watch. Just enjoy this as it is. Stop trying to make everything so perfect. Embrace this as it is, not how you wish it would be.” With that I closed my eyes, to solely focus on the delight of the birds’ song. I lingered in this space for a good 20 minutes before wandering back to my room that connects to this bathroom. I left the window open to keep enjoying the birds while I worked out. The night darkness came over, chirps turning from a mellifluous sonnet to an evening lullaby.
And then I heard three loud bangs, a pause, and a few more bangs. Could that have been…? No. It wasn’t, I reasoned. I lived in an under-resourced area of Baltimore for a year, in which there were a couple shootings around the block that I was fortunate enough not to have been home for. All the bangs I did hear in that neighborhood ended up being kids playing with firecrackers, something that’s fun to do, apparently, even when it’s not July 4th. But there are few kids in my current neighborhood, and the ones I have seen are toddlers, plus the seldom one or two six-year-olds.
A swarm of police and an online crime alert confirmed my fear. Helicopters circled overhead. My roommates and I looked out the window to find several police cars a block and half up the street, in clear view from this top story window. We gave each other tight hugs, talked about our own privilege, talked about longings for peace and justice, talked about the neighborhood in which we live, met with its quirks and joys, marked by outsiders and many insiders as “up and coming,” a seemingly trite phrase that has some grain of truth if one considers “coming” to mean gentrification.
Within the next hour, the police cars became fewer in number. I can still hear the “bang, bang, bang,” noise sharply in my head. I look out the window one last time, wondering at what point the birds had stopped singing. I supposed they could have gone to sleep before the gun shots could disrupt their song. But even now as I type this, I can still hear an insomniac bird making noise, as if to have some company in his or her sleeplessness.
All of this feels so disparate. How did the view from the window go from lingering in the beauty to facing the reality of violence? It’s so hard to acknowledge that this same experience happened in one night. They seem so incongruous, the latter incident being one of disbelief- did all of that really just happen?
Yes, it did. We live in a world in which it is possible to hear the song of birds and cacophony of gun shots in a single night. We live in a world with incredible shades of red and pink and purple nearly every evening. And we live in a world in which damaging floods and hurricanes can come from that same sky. I live in a body with hands that long to hold another’s, limbs that long to wrap themselves around someone, a smile with an upper lip that shows a lot of gumline. And I live in a body that yelled, “Are you fucking kidding me?” to a driver yesterday who got too close to me while I was biking. A body with a brain that thought demeaning, judgmental thoughts towards someone today. A body that once accidentally drove through a red light and hit another human being, the “How could you!?” narrative reverberating not from outside sources, but internally.
So much darkness.
So much light.
So much life.
And so much of this life is that space between the darkness and light. Finding hope in despair, beauty in the presence of pain, something sacred in the midst of the banality. So much of life is seeing it and feeling it all, and still gazing your head upwards, feeling love for your Maker in the midst of walking away from a particular way of practicing this love.
Tonight as I lay my head, I’m grateful for this Maker that I’ve come to know as God. Grateful for the light, room in my hands to accept both of these incongruous experiences. Grateful that there is something beyond the darkness, a story whose ending pages read of love over hate, joy beyond suffering, of discovering there is room for all of us in this story, that no one is or will be left out or left behind.
And for now, I’m in that space between. The one that has the synonyms and antonyms in the same sentences, and tonight, even the same breaths, encouraged to “just hold on to the way it is tonight and learn to love through the darkness and the light.”
The Space Between Rootedness and Exploration
“Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.” -Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts
I never thought I would come to love this city so much. In fact, when I moved back here after backing out of my Peace Corps assignment, I felt ashamed. For four years, I lived In the Baltimore surburbs as an undergraduate. The world felt big and wondrous. I planned to spend two years in Africa with the Peace Corps and then two years in Colorado for grad school. Never was it in my plans to live near here again. But in 2010, after my mental health tanked and I needed to say “no” to my Peace Corps dream, I received a job at Johns Hopkins, living in Towson for another year before spending another three in different neighborhoods of Baltimore. In 2011, I moved to an underserved neighborhood with a friend and while I could never bring myself to say hate- I detested Baltimore. This neighborhood. My job. Didn’t see what this city had to offer, where its life was.
But then I moved to a quirky neighborhood, that, while not particularly racially diverse, is an eclectic source of artists, hipsters, cyclists, social advocates, a few old white men who never seem to leave the bar, and, of course, your standard Bawlmer Hon. I began going to a liberal Church that particularly focused on LGBT inclusion, learning much from my pastor who is a married lesbian. One meaningful connection led to another, as so often does, and pretty soon I began meeting these funky people in my neighborhood. We made videos on being people of faith who support marriage equality, paraded monthly through diverse neighborhoods of the city on bikes, gathered together for Tuesday night discussions on spirituality and social justice. I biked with triathletes through beautiful farmlands and open spaces. I became friends with a 60 year old Jewish woman I met in jury duty. I began going to holiday parties, meeting more and more friends who felt like “my” people in which I could both be accepted and challenged to become my best self in the community and the world. Sitting on the ledge of the front porch one night swinging my legs up and down, I looked up at the moon feeling so grateful for people and places of beauty and belonging. I don’t even recognize the me who once felt ashamed of living in this city with amity in my heart.
So in June 2014, when it was time for me to move to Washington DC, a mere 42 miles away, I sat back on the ledge of that front porch, feeling bittersweet about an exciting fellowship I’d soon be starting, and moving away from a city I began to love like a mother-nothing-can-stop-me-from-loving-you-do-you-hear-me kind of love. Sure, it would be easy for me to come back. But I reckoned it wouldn’t be the same.
And same it wasn’t, because life wasn’t created for sameness. But it has been good. And now, with a few months out in the horizon, I will be facing another transition. My fellowship in DC will end and I have no idea where I’ll live or what I’ll do. But in processing decisions I will soon have to make, I am struck by two orientations: rootedness vs exploration. Rootedness is what caused the latter half of my Baltimore experience to be so good. It’s those on-going deep conversations with people that only comes from meeting time and time again. Staying somewhere long enough to be able to laugh about an event with a group of friends that happened ten years ago… 10 years worth of stories, tears, ends and beginnings, a history so rich, you lost track of when you called these people “friends” instead of family.
I stopped looking for ways to leave this place, this “family,” given over instead to a desire to not just stay, but to connect with as many people, places, and activities that moved my heart. Some people call this “settling down,” a term I’m uncomfortable with. A phrase that brings to mind homogeneity- white fences in the suburbs with a spouse, dog and kids. A description that creates a binary- that you are somehow “unsettled” if you don’t take on this narrative; immature, wasting your life on the pleasures of the world instead of doing important adult things. Whatever you call it, though, it’s being able to say, “This is what I want. This is where I want to be. This is who I want to be with. This is what I want to be doing.”
But what about those parts inside that long for new experiences, to learn as much from the world as possible by setting foot in all of its pockets and contours. That discovers career opportunities in other parts of the world that would be stimulating, yet would require leaving. That longs to say I spent my twenties (thirties, years, decades, whathaveyou) catching sunsets from different latitudes and longitudes- beyond travel? That wants to explore everything? That’s had enough of the fast-paced productivity-driven culture of DC and remembers, well, then you can simply leave?
I know this isn’t black and white, but I somehow feel as though one has to choose between rich relationships spent in community versus discovery and excitement that comes from living in many new places-a year here, a couple there, etc.
But what I’m slowly discovering is that space between. Not a cliche you-can-have-it-all space, but a space that celebrates meaningful relationships while also celebrating freedom and exploration. That’s fearless to leave, not afraid of packing up and charting anew, that won’t stay somewhere because it’s safe and convenient, but because your heart can truly echo, “This is where I want to be right now.”
Rather than watching friends leave, a voice inside you wondering, “Gee, am I supposed to be leaving too?” Instead, knowing it’s perfectly acceptable to stay too. If I only ever lived within a 3 hour radius of my hometown, what does that say about me? Will I have missed out on some grand experience every young adult is supposed to have before marriage and family (if that’s even in their life plans)? Will it say I haven’t ventured out far enough?
Maybe, maybe not. But I won’t base the quality of these years on where I did or did not live. Maybe I’m never meant to officially move outside this 160 mile radius. Maybe the only time I will have wasted is time spent being somewhere, not fully there. That forgot to recognize this rootedness-exploration pendulum looks different for each person. Perhaps it looks like leaving before you can talk yourself out of it. Perhaps it’s staying engaged in a community and place you love, while feeding your heart’s longing for exploration through travel and diverse friendships, staying far from ritzy hotels and tourists traps and getting lost instead in people’s stories, culture, and off-beaten paths that await. Perhaps it looks like leaving and staying in touch. That setting aside money for a plane ticket back to the city and people you love once or twice a year is a worthy investment. Perhaps it’s simply the orientation that nothing is supposed to stay exactly the same.
I wrestle with this space, this space I know actually exists if your heart really wants to find it. I treasure this space. I celebrate this space.
Where are you going next? Where will your final resting place on Earth be? I can’t tell you that. Where will your friends go, your family, those you met on past travels? Will you ever be able to pinpoint on a map where “home” is anymore? Can’t tell you that either. I can only ask my soul, your soul, to open your hands wide enough to prepare for when that next step comes, that always-hard-at-first moment of transition. To look up at the sunset no matter what latitude or longitude you find yourself gazing from, and find it beautiful. To create community wherever you go, especially by vulnerably speaking your musings and experiences while listening to others as they do the same. Our hearts are big. But they’re also small when you compare it to our limbs and bones. The world is huge. But it’s small enough that there’s room enough in your big heart to hold the people who make it beautiful to you, and as your world expands, the people inside will squeeze in tighter, but in an sacred embrace they wouldn’t experience otherwise. Root. Unroot. Re-root. Transplant. Sprout. Or leave the ground altogether. And treasure that blessed space between.
I’ll see you between the water and the ledge.
I have been told this is my home.
It is true, it is where I was born.
But I must beg the question: do the lines of a nation trace the lines of my soul?
Gripping to an identity, the ink etched deeply in the tightly wound document I hold in my hands.
This, these pages give me freedom, yet give me cages
give me power, yet strip away the power to love;
to love unconditionally, without question, without motive
a place to run free, and yet no place to hide.
My skin, my eyes, my tongue; give a clue, speak to the generations that have come before
but is the place of my birth the place of my soul?
At times I long to live as the bird, ever flying high
catching glimpses of a world beautifully,
perfectly sewn together by mountains and oceans,
instead of laws and borders.
Circling, circling around
passing from one place to the next as delicately as a gentle breeze.
We originate, but where is our home?
Is the place of my birth the place of my soul?
“‘Origins’ was born out of born out of the honest questioning and searching for my place and belonging at this point in my life. Trying to discover my identity through where I am and where I have been, without making those things the identity itself but simply helping me grow. It was also questioning the sense that any one place is better or worse and simply because we were born or lived much of our life in a town or country, should we be expected to always be there? I think about immigration and the simple power of a sheet of paper to change someone’s life drastically for better or worse. Why this identity has to divide us instead of coming together as a collective people, not necessarily as collective nations. I don’t think I have ever fully felt a deep longing or patriotic connection to the States or any one country, and for me I am starting accept and believe that that is okay. My allegiance will go to my family, my neighbor, to the beautiful human beings I encounter each day; finding a home in the simple beauty that surrounds, wherever that may take me.” -Casey Kilburn
Casey was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina and over the past few years has had the deep privilege to learn and travel to some known, and lesser known, corners of the earth. Through her love of the beautiful game of futbol, traveling, and people, she has gained, and still learning everyday, about this difficult, wonderful, immensely diverse, and fascinating world. She hopes to convey some of these joys, questions, and her spirit through her writing.
Her original piece “Divided We Stand” as pictured above features “A dove that is carrying an olive branch. I envisioned that as the voices of immigrants and refugees, sending the message of peace to our country but the question is ‘Has this message actually reached America? Or has the message been lost in the journey, giving rise to the current rhetoric surrounding so much of the immigration discussion?”
Thoughts on Lent From a Non-Church Goer
It snuck up this year, as though I’d almost forgotten about it until I saw friends in another time zone posting Mardi Gras pictures. Mardi Gras is this week? I thought. That means Lent begins this week?! Maybe it’s because I don’t … Continue reading
Caroline Numuhire, Butare City, Rwanda
I founded a project called “Letters to Future Sisters” in which women from all over the world tell their stories of what life was like growing up in their part of the world while sharing dreams for future generations of women and girls. Here is my wise friend Caroline Numuhire’s letter on growing up in Kigali, Rwanda during the genocide, the innocence of her childhood, and her dreams for future generations of women and girls.
Letters to Future Sisters of the World
I grew up in Kigali but I was born in Butare, a University City in southern Rwanda. I grew up during a very challenging period because in my early childhood, Rwanda experienced one of the worst holocausts of our century. I grew up in a society torn by this division which engendered a profound mistrust among its children. But this doesn’t include the fact that I have known the insouciance and innocence of a childhood, children’s plays and oral stories told by the elders.
I grew up in a family of three girls and one boy. My father, though highly educated and very smart, was like the majority of African men who believe that women must play a secondary role in society. He was constantly recalling this. But my mother, a very emancipated woman, always whispered the contrary in our ears. At the same time, whenever something was…
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And Then I Remember. (Thoughts on Racing at Burnout’s Edge)
Late afternoon sunlight refracts off Lake Arrowhead, mountains hugging the park’s edges. I put my goggles on for a pre-race practice swim open to all athletes competing in tomorrow’s Olympic distance triathlon. My feet meet the squishy moss of the lake as … Continue reading
Why We Must Stop Being A Voice For the Voiceless: Thoughts on Privilege and The Single Story
Throughout my past eight years of engaging in social justice, I’ve been drawn to people who have uncanny ideas. Ideas that peace and unity can exist. Dreams that Heaven can indeed be experienced on this planet. People who are unafraid to raise hell and create peace in every single breath.
But often times, in these circles, a buzz phrase kept coming up: “Being a voice for the voiceless.” This phrase is used in many circles, from large Christian NGOs to CNN. It likely means something different to each person. When it comes from voices in the faith community, it’s often rooted in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Speak out on behalf of those who have no voice, and defend all those who have been passed over” -Proverbs 3:18.
While I never believed in being a voice for the voiceless, I’ve had my fair share of ethnocentrism. As I boarded a plane for South Africa in 2007 on a service learning trip, I asked the white woman sitting in front of me what she’d be doing in Africa, as though everyone on the plane was going for a visit like me. “I live there,” she replied, flatly. “Oh.” I nodded, suddenly aware that I was projecting my view of Africa as a place where black people lived, forgetting entirely the ugly history of colonialism and apartheid. Because I had what writer Chimamanda Adichie would call a “single story” view of Africa, with a dash of do-goodism naivete.
But behind our do-goodism and voice-for-the-voiceless-ism is a something much harder: checking the place of privilege we’ve come from to be in a position that we can speak for issues without having to experience these issues firsthand perhaps because of where we live, the education we’ve had, the safety we experience, the family we come from, the healthcare we receive.
When we accept speaking for people as a solution to complicated issues like poverty, health, and human rights, we avoid having to ask ourselves hard questions: “If some people’s voices aren’t being heard, WHY aren’t they being heard?” “I am being heard. WHY am I being heard while others are not?” These questions can lead us to uncomfortable things like understanding our power or privilege.
Everytime we label an entire demographic as voiceless, we strip such individuals of their dignity, robbing them of the privilege of being heard. We re-iterate a message of powerlessness, as though to say, “You are voiceless. No one can hear you. No one is listening to you. They might listen to me though. Let me talk instead.” We accept our tongue as an acceptable transaction. We accept our voice, intonation, and inflection as a more suitable microphone while viewing others’ voices as taken away, incapable of talking, much like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, not by poverty, but by power.
Power, as defined by Chimamanda Adichie, is “the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
She continues, “That is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them. I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
Instead of speaking for people, using our own words and interpretations of people’s struggles and joys, we can do something so much more beautiful. We can create platforms for more people to tell their stories. Or better yet, we can simply listen. Because sometimes we’ve done so much talking that it’s difficult to decipher what information has truly come from the people affected, or if we’re hearing someone else’s interpretation of others’ experiences. We can share the stories we’ve been given permission to share- not our story of someone else’s story that you may or may not have received permission to re-tell. We can share people’s photos- not our photos of “poor people” in branded catalogs with captions like “voiceless” and “poor.” Photos that some of us aren’t as familiar with—like the stories of forgiveness in Rwanda. We can offer people new ways to see themselves: not as poor, not as voiceless, not as victims, but as strong and tenacious, as victors, as having a voice. And with that voice we can teach each other how to use it for speaking up about love and equality and for building each other up until our hands meet the hands of all our brothers and sisters and know, deep in our core, that each person is being seen as a unique, loved individual, no more, but certainly no less.
To Fellows, With Love
(Preface: I’ve spent the past two weeks at the Global Health Corps Training Institute with 128 fellows from 22 counties between the ages of 22-30 who are spending one year in a global health fellowship in one of six placement countries. If you are interested in learning more about this program, please get in touch or check it out at: http://ghcorps.org/. I made this post public in case it might move you to shake and shape and create the world in which you wish to live).
…This year will be transformational.
I know, it’s a buzz-word that I was skeptical of in the beginning,
but now I have no other word for it.
This year will look like heart and passion.
This year will look like finally living the life I always wanted to live.
This is the year for trying.
Of doing it scared.
Of taking chances and seeking out opportunity-
and where opportunity doesn’t exist, creating it.
This year I will look at life experiences, social justice, and stories
from many perspectives other than my own.
Because my worldview has vastly expanded- I’m not sure where the end-line boundaries are anymore on this life map that I’ve thrown to the wind. Because this new space feels big and real and way more rich in love and wonder and exploration than ever before.
This is the year for asking questions. Lots of them.
Questions about people’s life experiences,
the things I don’t understand, the things that move my heart,
the deep questions that unfurl streams of inexplicable beauty.
This is the year to say what I really want to say,
no matter how vulnerable it feels,
and even if doing so might elicit tears… perhaps even more so.
Because I’ve tasted life in authentic community.
Because I’ve seen how much more enjoyable it is when
we collaborate instead of compete.
Because people I’ve known for just a couple weeks have generously and bravely shared parts of themselves with me… and I won’t take these conversations lightly as I hug these truths, these stories, these gems close in my heart.
Because I’ve been inspired.
As I lay here alone in my room tonight, it’s tempting to start to settle back into some of my old ways, but I come back to the realization that even if this fellowship year were to suddenly end tomorrow, it will have been nothing short of transformational.
But it’s not going to suddenly end. In fact, with just two weeks in,
it really, really is just beginning.
And when those final weeks close in, I know we’ll say, “Hellooooo fellows,”
gather ’round the table one last time in solidarity
and exchange stories we can only dream about now.
It will be amazing.
But until then, we have work to do.
And I’m so grateful to do it alongside folks amazing as you.
See you in Rwanda…
with a soccer ball.