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
Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

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.

mel cliff jump

Photo: MO 2010

 

 

This Beautiful Moment Brought To You By Sir Mix A Lot (Or, What I Learned From Dancing On A Street Corner With a Homeless Woman)

Nietzsche

When I first saw her walking down the street, I confess I wanted to ignore her. She was wailing, flailing her hands, and muttering jumbled words I couldn’t make out. On a cloudless 65 degree day, she was walking down the street in a long wool coat, baggy pants, and worn sneakers. The wailing grew louder, and I put on my helmet, fiddling with my bike lock, ready to leave the cafe I just got done dining in. My friends had all left, and my bike lock was stuck. Annoyed at the lock, then annoyed at myself for thinking my dad’s high school U-lock would still work in 2014, I finally got the lock undone and pulled my bike away from the street sign. The woman was walking down the street toward me, and I was coming toward her direction to go down the road that would take me home. I planned on smiling at her and looking her in the eye to say, “Hello,” expecting I might get asked for money. It’s happened plenty of times before, so my thought was not unfounded. But instead something else happened.

Our eyes stopped glancing toward each other, because our ears heard something. We both turned our eyes toward music we noticed coming from the cafe’s outdoor speakers.

Jump On It, Sir Mix A Lot’s 1996 hit, was coming from the speakers for all passers-by to hear. She began to laugh. I began to laugh. She started dancing, moving her hips then pausing them at the precise time when the “dun-na-na-na-nah-nah-nahs” came on, laughing with her whole mouth. I couldn’t help myself. I slid right next to her just in time for the part where you turn around, swinging your arm over your head as though you’re waving around a lasso. Her infectious joy caught onto me, and the two of us—she in her long winter coat, and me wearing a neon shirt and bike helmet— danced like two fools intoxicated by the music and the warm sunshine that sang of spring’s soon-to-be debut.

We kept dancing, and I was grateful they played the extended remix version instead of the regular, as to get every minute in with my new dancing partner. Alas the song drew to a close, and we finished facing the sun, arms extended, our smiles and laughs communicating to one another, as if to say, “Gee, that was fun!”

I asked her for her name. “Terryn,” she replied. “I’m Melissa,” I replied back. She began to walk the other way, and started laughing at a car driving in reverse. I guess she expected it to go forward in drive, and the sight of it going the other direction was enough to set her off laughing. As I turned the corner to head home, she went back to talking to herself. But I was so grateful we got to dance together, if only for those few moments, in lucid clarity.

A colleague I work with was recently telling me about a training she went to in which attendees were required to go out in the community wearing headphones that played a recording of voices talking in various tones to mimic what people with schizophrenia go through. Instructed not to take the headphones off and not to adjust the volume, she and her friends in the training had to complete tasks around the community— find the nearest bathroom, ask someone on the street for directions, etc. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she shared. “For the life of me, I couldn’t concentrate, and I felt crazy inside not being able to shut off the noises we were hearing. It gave me compassion. We really have no idea what it’s like,” she reflected.

I thought back to my colleague’s comment as this woman was walking down the street, back to talking to herself, and tried to put myself in her shoes. While I don’t know for sure that she had schizophrenia, I thought about what it would be like if it happened to me. How powerless or misunderstood I might feel. Maybe, I’d just want to love everybody I’d meet so fervently, but for the life of me, my words, thoughts, and behaviors wouldn’t be able to follow through. The woman I danced with, though, had a beautiful lucid moment, as though she was trying to love like that.

It reminds me of my favorite poem by Mark Nepo called “Life in the Tank.” In it, he describes an experience in which a child filled a bathtub for his fish to swim in while he cleaned their fish tank. Though the fish had the entire tub in which to play, they stayed huddled together in a corner, as though they never left the tank, when all surrounding them in every direction was fresh water to explore. Muses Nepo,

“Life in the tank made me think of how we are raised at home and in school. It made me think of being told that certain jobs were unacceptable and that certain jobs were out of reach, of being schooled to live a certain way, of being trained to think that only practical things are possible, of being warned over and over that life outside the tank of our values is risky and dangerous.”

I wonder if the same can be said for our interactions with people. How many of us were told what people were “safe,” what people to avoid, who to talk to, and who to not even make eye contact with? Many of us were cautiously told “don’t talk to strangers” by someone who loved us with the best of intentions.

But is that the best we can do out there, in the real world? What soul-to-soul conversations have we missed because we were following the “don’t-talk-to-strangers” framework? What divine spark have we missed out on; what song did we miss dancing to, what high five did we not exchange because of the “life in the tank” mentality?

Caution has its merit, and so does instinct and prudence. Our hearts can’t be given away to everyone and anyone. But I wonder if our hearts are more malleable than we think. I wonder if we are meant to escape from the constricting layers that tell us to “just keep walking,” as if to keep every part of ourselves intact, not risking the opportunity for community and connectedness?

All of these things I ponder as I bike home after my interaction with my dancing stranger friend. The news in most cities- Baltimore, no exception- often shout of violence and try to covertly scare citizens into never coming outside, or to go outside- if you must- but don’t you dare come out of your shell of self-protection. My heart breaks over stories of innocent people victimized by violence for no apparent reason, other than the cliche “they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But maybe it’s time we start daring ourselves just a little bit more to believe in the possibility that we might be “at a great place at a great time.” That now is the perfect time to start dancing to the music- the music that may or may not even be audible. To be a little foolish. To invite someone new into conversation with dignity and sincerity. Yes. I’ll bike through these streets with both circumspect acuity and a posture of openness- open and ready to sing, dance, or high-five when laughter is our gain and excessive guardedness our loss. 

Copyright: O'Doherty Photography

One of my favorite events that brings community members together is Baltimore Bike Party, as pictured above. 
Photo credit: O’Doherty Photography

A Semi-Charmed Kind of Snow

“I guess the winter makes you laugh a little slower,
Makes you talk a little lower.
I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell my myself to
hold on to these moments as they pass…” -Counting Crows

       

Baltimore is a place I hold tight to my heart anytime of year, and this winter is no different. Popularized as “Charm City,” it lives up to this famed moniker if you stick around long enough. Long enough to understand what the “Smalltimore effect” is. Long enough to know the names of each neighborhood (or, that is, most of them; Baltimore has over 225!) and what makes each one unique. Long enough to know what all the cool people do the last Friday night of the month.

I haven’t had a winter with this much happiness in a long time, mostly because I’m usually SAD. (To all my relatives in Florida, it’s not made up; I swear.) I caught a quick reprieve in 2012, (The Winter It Didn’t (Really) Snow) but sure enough, it came back with a vengeance in 2013, though a bit more bearable than I could ever remember before. And fastforward to this year, I’m on my 5th snow day off from work, and perhaps counting. But there’s a neighborly aura this winter that’s intoxicating.

So when I walked in the door to my house Wednesday evening, lighthearted in anticipation of another snow day, I declared to my roommate, “I’m treating tonight like it’s Friday.”

“Me too!” She called out, as we whooped and hollered jovially over the snowy forecast. Weather.com was a hoot this week, claiming everything from “BEWARE: CRIPPLING ICE STORM LIKELY THIS WEEK” —– an alarming adjective that wasn’t even PC twenty years ago—– to “Winter Storm Quintus to Undergo ‘Bombogenesis.'” [Bombogenesis: a mid-latitude cyclone that drops in surface barometric pressure by 24 or more millibars in a 24-hour period. Source: Nerdy meteorological websites]

Eagerly awaiting the snow, I leisurely biked to the gym, greeted by small pecks of icy snow falling from the sky. I stretched out in yoga class undistracted, child’s pose-ing and downward dog-ing to my heart’s content. Then I lifted weights wondering how many of my friends were in walking distance to Wyman Park to be able to go sledding tomorrow night. And finally, when I’d had enough exercise, I sank into the hot tub inside of the women’s locker room with no intent on hurrying home to make my lunch or lay out work clothes. As I biked home, I knew that even if we didn’t have a snow day tomorrow, there was one thing the snow already taught me: to be happy and present, no matter what day of the week it is. Because even if I had to slave away at my desk for a long work day tomorrow, my night was better because of my lack of fixation over it.

And sure enough, before I hit the sack Wednesday night, I celebrated the text message I received stating that work would be closed tomorrow. The 12+ inches that ensued afforded many beautiful moments that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.

chicken eyes closedI was able to spend a leisurely hour and a half up the street at Baltimore Free Farm feeding and snuggling with chickens.

I packed inside of friends’ living rooms watching the Olympics, then, re-created them at a local park where friends and I sledded, saucer-ed and snowtubed down a staircase-turned-snow ramp. The antics continued as we set out for steeper and steeper slopes, until a few of our crew decided to brave the steepest hill of them all. We chanted friends’ names as they braved a steep incline, a very bumpy bump halfway down the hill, and then finally, a three foot high wall before hitting the snow below with a loud “thud.” And sure enough, a couple not only were courageous enough to go down, but managed to stay affixed to their sled, and we fans gave them an enthusiastic perfect “10”.

I listened to the ambiance of light falling snow from inside an abandoned igloo our group stumbled upon, able to understand why Inuit populations would be satisfied with calling this a home.

I watched people come together when two MTA buses got stuck going uphill. Armed with shovels in hand, the spirited citizens took a pause from their rescue effort long enough to fill in my boyfriend and me, who were passers-by, on the scope. “You see the first bus over there?” one of the women pointed. “It’s inches away from that parked car to the right. But we called a tow truck; I’m hopeful they’ll be able to make it out here.” Snow. Bringing together bus drivers and neighbors, one fishtail collision at a time.

Time away from my usual 9-5 routine gave me time to listen to a podcast in which a friend was interviewed on a local radio station discussing social activism and racism after a flurry of Baltimore blog posts depicting frustrations about the city’s crime were published. The clip was invigorating, reminding me that we are a city of activists, and there’s beautiful people all around who are eagerly moving in their spheres of influence to spread love and kindness all over this diverse city.

The snowstorm allowed me to meet neighbors I wouldn’t have otherwise met, since I never seem to be home anymore. Two of them offered to help push Brian’s car up the hill when his tires were spinning over ice and snow. They cheered along with us when he finally got out of his parking spot. The other neighbor I just met this morning, as she was shoveling out her car. After some brief cordials, I found out she moved here from Illinois.

“So when did you move here to the block?” I asked.
“Oh just a few weeks ago,” she shared.
You’ll love it,” I shared, remembering my move-in day a year and a half ago.

I’ve had a year and a half of beautiful Baltimore memories, and an additional year prior of not-so-good B-more memories, mostly consisting of moving and growing pains before I found friends and freedom, two components, I’d soon learn, that are entirely quintessential to the journey. We learn from the past as pain recycles itself into unspeakable beauty, sewing together memories like powerlines and clothing lines, connecting neighbor to neighbor, neighborhood to neighborhood.

To let you in on a little secret, (since I feel like I’m cheating on my Baltimore love for doing this), I recently applied for a dream job in DC that includes free housing. If I were to get it, I’ll be moving to DC in July. And much like Counting Crows, I’m finding myself in awe of the myriad of treasured memories that I, too, long fervently to hold on to as they pass…

And if I’m lucky, this winter just might churn out one more snowstorm, and I’ll see you at the park, together laughing all the way into the night…

Photo credit: Dave Reichley

Photo credit: Dave Reichley

Thoughts on Grief ((Making Peace With Changing Friendships and Never Going to the Peace Corps))

I gave her several hugs this weekend and got choked up every time. Though we hadn’t been friends for long, I made friends with a gem for the past year and a half who’s now currently somewhere in the middle of the country driving back home to Texas. I didn’t think her departure would stir up so many emotions within me, but it did. And the biggest one was grief.

Grief is something I’d rather push through, fight, overlook, or ignore, immediately shifting my thoughts away from it as soon as I sense it coming. But I’m learning that doesn’t really help anything; in fact, it just makes it worse. Because in stuffing my feelings, I never get to experience God’s hand infiltrating those spots of hurt, loss, grief, and pain with his/her healing hand of hope, forgiveness, peace, and acceptance.

So I grieved this friend’s move and gave myself permission to start thinking about the other things in my life that I want to grieve but haven’t yet. I grieved the fact that I talked about going to Peace Corps incessantly throughout college, and then had plans in my head to move off to Colorado for grad school, thinking I’d have an adventurous, albeit challenging four years ahead of me after graduating college. This March, I’ll turn 26. And I’ll have done neither of those.

Funny how plans change. Circumstances change. How we can be so sure of something, only to discover that in the end, for a variety of inter-twined circumstances, you’re really not ready for this and there’s some rocks you need to take out of your shoes before you go on to do your next great thing?

So I cried. Right there in my room and there in my bed on Sunday night. It had been building up inside of me all day, like a sneeze, and after all those tears came out, I laid on my floor with my journal and candlelight, one again reminded of the definition of “a good cry.”

Because grief reminds me I’m human; I’m alive and have a pulse. If my goal was to go through life without experiencing pain, or grief, or loss, or tears, I’d be setting myself up for failure. It reminds me how much I need people around me, even though as an introvert, I don’t always actively seek out community. Throw that on top of a people-pleasing personality, and I have discovered what’s at the root of some of my lonely days and that it’s ok; we’re all uniquely made but we have to get outside of ourselves and experience the world through community. Relationships are messy; never clean cut. But that’s how we learn to forgive, where we learn all the ways that we’re annoying, but still accepted anyway; where we learn the definition of unconditional love, and that love can be hard sometimes, and maybe that’s why God talks over and over again about love, because S/He knew it would be hard for us. 

Grief reminds me that I have wonderful people in my life that are worth missing. And when you’re apart, it’s as though some fragment of you is still really with them, talking to them, doing handstands on a grassy open field with them. Because you’ve let this person into the parts of yourself that experience deep love and attachment. It reminds me to take some of what they taught me, some of the ways in which they showed me more of who God is, and turn it into something beautiful; a little bit of their imago dei rubbing up against your own.

Grief reminds me of the human tendency to run, run, run, trying to field off whatever painful experience or hurt we don’t really want to feel. But it always catches up to us in the end, anyway. And when I finally release those tears, I am in awe, experiencing all over again, so this is what freedom feels like... I’m in awe of what letting go does to my body physically- it releases, relaxes, and exhales, gripped fists now open palms.

Grief reminds me not to fear these feelings but instead reminds me that human beings are intricately wired in such a way that when a friendship dissipates, when someone dear moves away, or we see another senseless, violent tragedy impact a nation, we are each affected. A piece of our soul matches with another, and we perpetually realize in these soft moments our incessant need for each other and our God. If I didn’t experience these things, I wouldn’t be a human. Perhaps I might be a cold frog. But certainly not a human.

Grief reminds me that I have lived another day in this beautiful and broken world. It reminds me of my vision for life today (on Earth as it is in Heaven) and the acceptance to know that we won’t see it at its fullest fruition this side of Heaven. Grief helps me mourn losses in the many ways that I encounter it: loss of joy-filled friendship when I’ve settled in for people pleasing. Loss experienced through wasted opportunities spent discussing the ho-hum things of life instead of asking deep questions and learning one another’s insides. It helps me to experience peace with my family’s past and envision a more whole, intimate, and deeper future. Grief is every part as much of the human experience as eating and breathing and my choices are to either accept this with grace or to resist it with bitterness.

I will commit to choosing the former, but know I’ll need some help along the way. So as I sit here now, tears having been poured out; it’s as though there aren’t any more liquids inside for me to possibly cry with. I’m too tired to cry at this point, anyway. But my soul doesn’t feel empty. I think, if but for the moment, God has placed his hand print on my heart, healing the place that once contained nothing but grief. And grief is never a clean, one-and-done process. So maybe I’ll be back at it tomorrow. But I’m convinced now, more than ever, that this is a necessary emotion of life essential for our growth, healing, and ability to love and understand one another. Thank God we don’t have to do it alone. Thank God we have each other. I thank God for you.

bfranklin