Refilling the Wells

A few weeks back, I spent a long weekend visiting my best friend. We’d planned to spend most of our time working on our respective writing projects, but by the time I arrived it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. At least, not on my end.

Remember when I thanked Carrie Fisher for giving my desire to publish back to me? Well, it hasn’t been that easy. And the desire hasn’t remained constant. And I’ve still done very little of that work. So I felt a strong need to get over this block and to work like Kayla and I had planned. But I was coming off a very busy past few days at a work conference. I was physically tired, spiritually overwrought, socially drained, and creatively empty. My gracious bestie recognized this and refused to let me feel guilty over it. Instead, she encouraged me to spend the weekend refilling my wells. Here are some ways I like to do that.

Nap. Not kidding. I’m always an advocate for naps, and more and better sleep in general. And I know this isn’t easy for a lot of people. Kids and work and schedules prevent you, or you can’t turn your brain off long enough. But even just trying, even just laying there with your eyes closed can help you breath deeper. Giving yourself permission to take these five minutes or half an hour or two hours gives your overworked brain a chance to slow down a step or two. And if you make it to that space between sleep and awake, something like dreaming while dozing, that’s creative gold.

Read. No agenda, no timeline, just read something you enjoy. It can be a book you’ve read a dozen times before (Lately, Fire by Kristin Cashore or The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh) or something totally new (Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher or Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia). And while you’re at it…

Change the genre. In whatever you’re consuming—TV, movies, writing, the Bible—whatever you’ve been doing, switch it up. Start reading cozy mysteries. Start watching documentaries. Try your hand at poetry. Flip over to the Psalms or Isaiah. This change of pace and topic let’s your brain stretch and play a little. If you need to keep your routine but want to add a dash of newness, this can be a great way to accomplish both.

Color. I’ve been a proponent of coloring as a means of stress relief long before adult coloring books started dominating grocery store shelves and Christmas stockings. Coloring lets your brain focus on something small, manageable, and with clear evidence of progress. But you can also tear it up. You can throw it out. It’s just paper. Other forms of visual creativity, like crocheting or painting by numbers or cross-stitching or flower arranging, can help in similar ways. A college friend could create amazing art pieces on his tablet while watching the Super Bowl and carrying on multiple conversations. Engaging in visual creativity uses parts of your brain that words don’t, so go highlight something! Rearrange your bookshelves or closet until you’ve made a rainbow. Find a Star Wars coloring book, buy yourself a new box of colored pencils, and let yourself color.

Do a repetitive task. I find repetition comforting, which is how I ended up cleaning my hairbrush for half an hour last night. Vacuuming and scrubbing the stovetop involve repeated motions, leaving brain power free, but only if you want to use it. You can whittle your conscious thoughts down to nothing but the whirr of the bristle brush, or you can let your arm keep scrubbing while your mind works on whatever problems and preoccupations have been dominating your headspace. Jumping jacks or a hoola hoop would work, too.

Change your environment. Go for a hike Saturday morning or get out of town for the weekend if you can. Just pick a different coffee shop. Take yourself to your favorite restaurant and don’t be ashamed if all you can afford is an appetizer or dessert. Sit in your car with the windows down for a few minutes. Don’t be here, with all your thoughts running down all the usual pathways leading you to all your usual conclusions and anxieties. And you know what?

Go outside. Even if you only have time for a short walk. Even if it’s midnight and you only have a 3′ by 3′ porch. Even if you just stand in the doorway and let the sunlight hit your face and arms. ​When I lived in England, I walked or took public transit most places, so just getting from point A to point B meant I was outside a lot more than I am now. But being outside was not always pleasant. It could be sweltering hot or biting cold. Once, in October, we didn’t see the sun for five days straight. So what happened the moment the clouds parted at 2:10 that Tuesday? Everyone stopped. Drivers slowed and rolled down their windows to stick an elbow out. Pedestrians took off their gloves and stood to the side. Shoppers and shopkeepers stepped onto the sidewalk. Into the sunlight. Like wildflowers, our faces turned up to the sun. Like we were praying. Those three minutes of embracing the light helped us get through the rest of the day, the rest of the week until the storms passed.

G​ood luck, friends!​

Because Abram Lied to Pharaoh

This week on “Things Katie Learned from the Bible”: The whole child-by-proxy/Ishmael thing was only possible because Abram had lied to Pharaoh.

Background. Abram (later renamed Abraham) was married to his half-sister Sarai (later, Sarah) [Gen 20:12]. They lived in Canaan and, at one point, a local famine became so bad that they fled to Egypt (Gen 12:10). If this sounds familiar, but not with these names, that’s because something similar happens to Joseph’s family later in Genesis (chapter 43).

Sarai’s really beautiful. And because of her beauty and of how terrible men can be, Abram’s afraid the Egyptians will kill him so they can rape Sarai. So, Abram instructs her to lie and say that she is his sister, not his wife. (12:11-13)

Egyptians do notice Sarai’s beauty, officials tell Pharaoh all about her beauty (not her, mind you), and then Pharaoh wants her in his harem. So, he gives a bunch of stuff and animals—and also male and female slaves—to Abram, and generally treats him well, in exchange for his alleged sister Sarai. (12:15-16)

Now God gets ticked and sends plagues upon Pharaoh’s household (12:17). Apparently God’s the only one (other than Sarai) who doesn’t want her to be raped. When disasters befall you, you naturally wonder why, and somehow Pharaoh figures out that these plagues are because he’s been lied to and then took a married woman into his harem.

So now Pharaoh is ticked and calls Abram before him. Basically, he shouts, “What the hell, man?” (12:18-19). If Abram explains, it doesn’t hold any more weight with Pharaoh as it does with me. Then Pharaoh, the most powerful person in the region—if not the world at that time—an absolute ruler with power to take anything he wants at a mere word…let’s them go. Technically, he tells Abram to take his wife and get out (12:19). That seems rather generous, but Pharaoh’s priority was stopping whatever illnesses and suffering had come upon his household, and he wasn’t interested in risking further suffering by harming Abram for being such a callous, yellow-bellied, faithless liar. And although Pharaoh is framed as a victim here, let’s not lose track of Sarai, the real victim.

Abram does as Pharaoh commanded, leaving with Sarai and “all that he had” (12:20). Although it’s not said outright, it’s very likely that the Egyptian slave Hagar was one of those given to Abram. After all, Abram came to Egypt poor and is now leaving well off, if not rich. And there’s no mention I’ve seen of them returning to Egypt at any point, though we know from Joseph’s story two generations later that slave traders traveled between Canaan and Egypt (Gen 37).

Some years later—before pulling this mess all over again in Gen 20 with King Abimelech—God promises Abram and Sarai that they’ll have a baby (Gen 15:5; 18:10). There’s some laughter along the way, some disbelief, but they’re excited. And, by the way, I’d eavesdrop on my husband’s in-tent meetings if he once traded me to another man. (Gen 18)

After a while of continued infertility, Sarai gets impatient. Presumably Abram is, too, because he agrees when Sarai tells Abram to have children with her Egyptian slave Hagar. Sarai is planning to claim those children as her own. (Gen 16:1-2)

Sarai has probably been working out for a while how she can be infertile and past menopause, but going to have a child. This Egyptian woman is not past menopause, and we know from Jacob/Israel’s many children by his two wives and their various slaves that having a child-by-proxy was a practice of the times.

But once Hagar is pregnant, after Ishmael is born, and even after Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac is also born, Sarah is incredibly jealous of Hagar. Hagar doesn’t act perfectly either. But on top of instructing her husband to repeatedly rape Hagar, Sarah mistreats Hagar so badly that she runs away once and is sent away once. Hagar could have died both times, but apparently God is the only one who cares that Abram raped her and Sarah orchestrated it. God saves her and promises to bless her son (16:1-12; 17:20). Hagar names God, “The God Who Sees Me” (16:13).

Now, you may be a bit edgy, even outright upset, because I have twice stated that women were raped in these stories, one by a patriarch, and the Bible’s usual language for this [“laid with her by force” (Gen 34:2; Deut 22:25, emphasis mine); or “violated” (2 Sam 13:14)] is absent. So let’s have a little refresher on consent.

Consent means that both parties in any sort of exchange, but especially a sexual one, verbally agree to the proceedings and the way in which they will happen. If I’m exchanging money for vegetables at the grocery store, the grocery store and I both agree on the amount I’ll give, the number and kinds of carrots I’ll take, when possession will shift, that I’ll use modern and legal US currency. We also agree that I can return the uneaten, undamaged carrots and receive the same amount of money back, but I cannot return half-eaten carrots for the money. Neither can the store compel me to return the carrots once I have bought them. Both parties have power and rights and the ability to make choices about the exchange and terms. I have the power to refuse to pay the price the store demands and so to not buy the carrots. I have the right to return the carrots. The store has the right to refuse to take damaged carrots back.

In a sexual relationship, power is extremely important. “By force” is aptly used in the Bible to convey that the physical power between the people was not equal and was not used equally for a consensual exchange. However, that is not the only kind of power at play. And let’s remember that rape is sexual intercourse with a person when that person refuses or is incapable of giving consent. Someone incapable of giving consent might be unconscious, for example. A slave is incapable of giving consent to a master or other member of the oppressive group because a slave has no social power. Neither does a slave have the legal right to refuse anything that their master demands.

Remember Joseph? Potipher’s wife tried to compel him to have sex with her, and Joseph had the physical power to flee. However, he had no social power and no rights, so his word was not believed when she accused him of rape and he was jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. (Gen 39)

Therefore, a slave of any kind cannot consent to a sexual relationship with their master. Or to anyone the master “gives” them to. This includes Abram giving Sarai to Pharaoh and Sarai giving Hagar to Abram. There cannot be consent because neither Sarai nor Hagar had any social power to refuse. As a concubine, Sarai had no rights in Pharaoh’s haram. As a slave, Hagar had no rights in Sarai’s (really, Abram’s) household.

How else does this concept apply?

Well, let’s look at Esther. Yes, she became the queen and saved the Jewish people. But she did not have equal power with her husband. She did not have equal power with any Persian, particularly when the edict against Jews was written (Esther 3:12-15). Remember how afraid she was to go before her husband? Especially because she hadn’t been summoned in a month (4:11). Remember how long she prays and fasts before doing so, stating “If I perish, I perish?” (4:14; 16). She has some social power in the court, but her power is still no where equal to her husband’s. This is especially true when she first had her one night with the king (Esther 2). She’d been taken from her home and family by force (2:8). She had no rights and would never be allowed to leave, even if the king did not want her. Because she did not have equal rights and power to the man who eventually married her, she could not consent to a sexual relationship. Even when married they did not have equal power. Therefore, she was raped.

Let’s come forward in history a bit. Sally Hemings was not Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. She was his slave. She could not consent. She was, therefore, repeatedly raped and forced to have and raise his children. When Jefferson was made ambassador to France during the Revolution, he took Sally with him to France, where slavery was illegal. She had no rights or power to refuse to go to France, and still had no social power once she got there. To conform to the letter of the French law outlawing slavery, Jefferson paid Sally a wage so small she wouldn’t have even been able to afford a trinket sold on the street.

When Jefferson was returning to Virginia at the end of the war, he gave Sally, and perhaps other slaves, the opportunity to stay in France as a free person. However, Sally chose to return to Monticello. Why? She was a pregnant 16-year-old in a country she did not know and in which she could not speak the language. She had no friends or opportunities, no means of supporting herself or her child, and Jefferson still owned her entire family. He could do anything to them in retribution for her staying in France. And even if he didn’t, she would never have seen them again if she’d stayed in France. She likely wouldn’t have survived in France. If she’d lived long enough to see the French Revolution, her life may well have looking a lot like Fantine’s in Les Miserables. So no, Sally was not Jefferson’s mistress. Theirs was not a love story. And neither was Hagar and Abram’s or Sarai and Pharaoh’s.

In another vein, have you read any books, or heard about any advertised, in which a Jew falls in love with a Nazi during WWII? There are a few. I know of one that won a major Christian romance award. The two main characters do not have equal power or rights, so true consent is not possible. I call shenanigans: this is not love, it’s rape. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Jews and many, many members of various marginalized groups spoke strongly against the book and against it winning awards. This book is romanticizing the rape of Jewish people who did—and did not—survive WWII. It’s winning awards at the expense of today’s very real, very alive Jewish community.

To return to my original point, the whole garbage fire of a situation in Genesis 20 is only possible because Abram lied to Pharaoh and risked his wife being raped, which he did because he was scared for himself.

Jesus the Killjoy

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” —Mark 13:1-2

Sometimes I get to a point in Scripture when I just want to laugh. This poor disciple! I can see him leaving a fantastic worship experience and being so overjoyed by God’s greatness that he sees it reflected in the structures around them. He wants to share it with someone, and surely Jesus will understand! Big mistake.

“Jesus, look how big and magnificent everything is! Isn’t it wonderful? I love Jerusalem.”

To which Jesus answers, “All these buildings? They’ll be torn down soon, stone by stone.” Which, to me, sounds a lot like Solomon shouting “All is vanity” every two seconds or a cartoon character intoning “Doomed, doomed, doomed!”

I imagine the disciple getting frustrated and answering, “Dang it, Jesus! Can’t you just enjoy this with me for like five seconds?” Or buddying up to James and saying, “Should have known better than to try to point something nice out to Jesus.” Maybe he follows it up with, “Christ is such a killjoy.” After which he grabs Peter by the shirt and mutters, “Forget I said that. Don’t go blabbing this to that John Mark kid who’s always writing stuff down.” And then there’s a tussle. James walks faster to get beside John, who is definitely staying out of it. Jesus is rolling his eyes. Andrew ends up being the one to break it up.

Jesus is right, though. Even if we assume the best of this disciple, that he isn’t impressed by the size of the walls and the buildings and doesn’t see them as representative of Israel’s greatness or humanity’s ingenuity or anything to do with the worldly at all. Even if we pretend that this disciple definitely saw the temple and its surroundings as a reflection of God’s greatness, provision, protection, and presence on Earth (as the temple was generally viewed in Scripture prior to this event) the disciple does miss the point: “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7:48).

Jesus 1, Disciple 0.

But yeah, sometimes Jesus can really sound like a killjoy.

In Silent Depths

A couple of worship services have combined in me over the past week, beginning with this question from last Tuesday’s Summer Gathering:

What obstacles do I need to revisit so I can build a monument to encourage others?

I didn’t have an answer then. But over the past week I’ve gotten frustrated multiple times, usually because I wasn’t communicating something to Tyler that I wanted him to know.

I wasn’t communicating for a lot of reasons, macro reasons like I have been conditioned not to interrupt men, micro reasons like I saw he was trying to do something sweet or I knew he’d had a long day, and no reasons at all. More than once, I repeated the words I wanted to say over and over in my mind but never said them.

Because I am spiritually gifted in service and it’s my love language, and because I have an introverted supine personality, I naturally prioritize others over myself. I even put others’ wants over my needs, and yes I know that doesn’t make sense and isn’t healthy. I’m fighting both nature and nurture just to say that I need to go to the bathroom, would rather eat at Wendy’s, would like to just lay down for a while. I got to the point where I even felt frustrated over what we were watching on TV, not because I didn’t have a say or was overruled, but because I wasn’t sharing my opinions and preferences when he asked. I let him choose, even forced him to choose, over and over, and then felt so frustrated by the results of my own silence.

I’m an introverted supine creative. I have a vivid, deep, complex inner life. It’s extremely difficult for me to share any of that inner life, even with people I trust. I can share seemingly intimate and important stories, but that doesn’t mean I’m being vulnerable. In true supine fashion, I fear rejection and don’t want to bore or burden. If it’s like this with my family, best friends, and boyfriend, you can imagine how it is with strangers, new acquaintances, and friends.

Aware of this and in light of last week’s frustrations, I have been trying to share more of my inner world, and more of my opinions, with Tyler. I’ve struggling to decide what I might ask him to experience with me—This book? That show? Which trail? A musical? But which one?—and to know how much is healthy and reasonable for us both. A struggle.

This brings me back to last week’s question: which obstacles do I need to revisit so I can encourage others? I’ve thought of dozens of instances when I didn’t say what I wanted, when I felt so impeded by my own personality and conflicting desires and fears that I wrote page after page in the backs of my class notebooks. Times when I felt so frustrated that I could almost hear myself scream in my own head, when I immersed myself in yet another book, when I pushed away from impatient or busy people I thought might reject me. It’s been isolating. I don’t want to set myself up for more loneliness.

Then came the second song during Sunday’s contemporary service, “Uncontainable Love” by Elevation Worship. As I stood beside Tyler, one of the worship leaders sang, “Your love is deep enough to reach the deepest part of me.”

And I relaxed.

I pictured the trenches at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, so dark and so cold, inhabited by otherworldly creatures requiring unique adaptations to survive. Piercing this darkness is a single, broad sunbeam, golden and strong, fluctuating with life, penetrating all those fathoms to reach the ocean floor. God alone can do that. God alone knows. Even when I struggle to illuminate a few meters to another person, God is a sun more powerful than our solar system’s, piercing right through. Nothing is hidden from God.

That comforts me. It takes some pressure off. The deepest part of me is a place no one else has seen. It’s a place I’ve even worked to keep hidden. No one will ever know all that is within me, including me. I certainly will never be able to communicate all that I know is inside me. But God knows. God sees. God created. God loves. I don’t have to get it all right. Even in the coldest depths of me, I am not alone.

And maybe my saying so can be a monument to encourage someone else.

On the Eve of Great Change

Last week, Ingleside’s young adult ministry launched The Summer Gathering, a mid-week worship service for young adults. It’s more liturgical than the church’s usual services, and even seemed more reflective. Or more contemplative. Anyway, it was for me.

Blake’s sermon focused on God visiting Jacob at the river Jabbok in Genesis 32, the wrestling match that ensued and lasted all night. The gist is that this restless, sleepless night came on the eve of great change. Jacob knew that when he went to bed. He’d see his brother the next day, his brother who might want to kill Jacob for his past trickery and theft. He knew his life was about to change, and he was so afraid, and though he began to wrestle with God wanting to win, when he finally learned that he was hopelessly outmatched, Jacob just wanted to hold on long enough to convince or compel God to bless him. In reality, God changed Jacob’s name and very nature, and Jacob because Israel, father of a nation.

As I sat in this cozy space, warmly lit with sandy carpet and translucent curtains, I remembered one of the longest, most restless nights I’ve ever experienced.

I was camping in the desert in Egypt. It was the white desert, so named for the chalk imbued with shells and shark teeth and littered by fragments of petrified wood—evidence of the long-ago sea in this area—that has been carved by the wind-driven sand into sculptures. It was the final night of a two-week trip, led by my favorite professor, to study the country’s politics and role in that area of the world. We’d had class in a Nile garden, visited the military museum, climbed inside a queen’s pyramid at Giza, attended a mosque during a service, and been followed by secret police. We’d visited a legal group, rested at a Coptic monastery, and been ordered not to photograph the facade of a Jewish synagogue. We’d also had plenty of internal strife, acting either too much or nothing at all like the siblings we pretended to be, fissuring viciously as a few of us tried to hold hands across the seams.

It was the last night. It was January. The evening had been pleasant by the fire and within an open-air room of carpets, eating roasted chicken and listening to our drivers and guides speaking Arabic across the table from us. But now we were in sleeping bags, weighed down by blankets so heavy I could barely roll over. I was in a very small tent with Kristen—my friend, ally, and fellow Christian—that was barely wide enough to hold us both and not quite long enough to also hold our suitcases. Exhausted, cold, after dinner we nestled down until the sleeping bags were over our heads and fell asleep.

It was horrible. The wind whistled and rippled the canvas. The temperature continued to drop. And nightmares plagued me, waking me too frequently to count, sometimes still paralyzed, and exhaustion always pulled me back under. Amongst other things, in the very late and very quiet, I dreamed someone had come into the tent and drugged us, then kidnapped Kristen. I woke, but the environment and sigh of the wind were exactly the same as they had been in the dream. I tried to roll over but couldn’t, the thick blanket too heavy. I tried to twist my head around enough to see her, but I couldn’t see anything the mound of my own shoulder.

I was starting to panic, not sure if the dream had been a dream, so I said into the air, feeling small and alone, “Kristen?”

Immediately, she answered, “It’s okay, I’m still here.”

Relieved, I lay my head back down and went back to sleep.

In the morning, one of our leaders woke us so we could watch the sun rise, something we’d been excited about the night before. Now I wanted to cry because the night was finally over. We dragged on coats and trudged into the sand, not speaking. Our group found private places, away from each another but staying in sight. At any time, I could count us, just as I, the oldest student and pretend big sister, had been doing all trip. The only reasonable one among us worked to restart the fire. Silent, facing east, we waited. And when the entirety of the sun had crested the sands, spilling intense golden light on our faces and pinkening the sky, we climbed down from our chalk mountains and bunched together around the fire.

We had all had nightmares. Every American, which concerned our translator and guide, Ahmed. Most of us had had more than one, had woken frequently or laid awake for what we assumed was hours. We’d suffering from our dreams, all of which had involved each other. Car crashes and murders. Returning to Cairo to find the airport burning. Kristen had dreamed that something vague but terrible had happened to me, but she’d been facing me when the nightmare woke her and could see that I was okay. She didn’t remember reassuring me. She didn’t know why she said what she did. When I told her about the dream that had prompted me to say her name, she shivered at how eerily her own words had matched my fear.

As we broke camp, it rained. In the desert. None of our guides or drivers had ever seen that before. Ahmed didn’t even know the Arabic word for rainbow when we saw one arch from horizon to horizon on our way back to Cairo. Later that day, Tunisia ousted its president. The first protests in Egypt, organized by members of that legal group we’d visited, were held in Tahrir Square that day. Sitting at our gate that night, waiting to board our flight to Istanbul, we watched the Egyptians watch the news, their faces opening with wonder and possibility. That day was the beginning of the Arab Spring, which saw the fall of Egyptian President Mubarak and the police state we’d spent 2 weeks studying from within. Footage in the coming months showed clashes on the same streets we’d walked and in the same squares we’d bought shawarma. Coptic monks were gunned down outside their monastery, and I’m still not sure if it was the one we visited or the monks who’d hosted us.

Even now, when I hear of a bombing at an Egyptian church, I remember the little girl who prompted us to take off our shoes before entering the prayer chapel in the Coptic church, I pray that she and her parents and baby brother are safe. I think of the Last Supper and picture the stone table in the dining hall at the monastery, at which the bishop sits with the oldest monk on his left and the youngest on his right. I remember the reedy spot by a high wall where tradition says Moses was found as a baby. I picture the sign on the interstate pointing to the wealthy suburb where Joseph’s wife came from. When a rainbow comes into my sky, I wonder if another one has come into Ahmed’s sky in the past 6 years. All those wonderful people. All those English phrases offered on the streets, “Welcome.” “Hello.” “Come please.” “Welcome to Egypt.”

My night before great change was long, restless, thick with cold and nightmares. Jacob walked the rest of his life with a limp as a result of his long, restless night, but he discovered that his brother no longer hated him and even embraced him. And his life by no means became easy, but he was blessed, and he did move through the world differently. In a small way, so have I.

Late-night Drives

When was the last time you were out at 1 a.m.? Or 11 p.m.? Or 3 a.m.? Whatever really late is to you.

A couple weeks ago, Tyler and I were coming back from a musical at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta and it was late. We got back to his apartment, I packed up my things—the bags and shoes I had littered across his apartment in the 5-minute whirlwind I’d created getting ready after work. And I sat down on the couch for, like, 2 seconds. And when I woke up it was even later.

Driving home, I was surprised by how many people were on the roads and the interstate. I wondered how many miles that truck driven in the last 24 hours. How far the people in that car have been today and how far they will have to go before they sleep. Did they go to a concert or baseball game and live farther away than I do? Did they get a late-night call from a friend, for injury or illness, and are on their way to them?

I wondered about the car at the stop light and why that truck is coming out of my neighborhood. A parent headed to the store for their sick child? Or maybe just someone who can’t sleep and wants to drive around for a while. Maybe they are people like me, who stayed too long or fell asleep or watched a really long movie and are now going home to somewhere close by.

But the later it gets, the more dire I think those stories probably are. And I wonder especially about people on the interstate. What happened today, and in these last hours, to put them on the highway this late at night?

Everyone who has had a very late, very terrible night driving, I hope there was someone praying for you as you went by. And I hope you found a hug when you got where you were going.

A Moment at Ellis Island

I’m not totally sure what I’m trying to accomplish here. Maybe I just want to share a moment with you.

I was on the 2nd floor of the main building and museum at Ellis Island, and had paused to look at the open diary of a woman who had worked on the island. The diary entry for that day detailed being summoned to escort a teenaged girl into Ellis Island for deportation proceedings. All individual women had to be escorted by female employees (and single women were not allowed to proceed off the island without escort by a male relative). The teenager had an unspecified mental illness and had become violent in the mid-Western town where she’d settled.

As I bent over the pages, puzzling out the carefully looping, neat script, a young man with fair skin and hair, who looked to probably be in college, came to stand a little beside and behind me. I shifted over in case he wanted to see. Instead, he asked in a light accent of strong consonants, “Can you read it?”

“Yeah,” I answered, straightening to face him. “It’s not easy, but I can.”

“Would you tell me what it says?”

I began to explain, pointing to how far I’d gotten, only about halfway down the first page of the spread.

I read on, and the young man stood still, waiting. After another couple of paragraphs, I told him that the judge and other male officials overseeing her hearing asked the employee writing the journal if she was afraid. She wasn’t. She told them she would just lay down on the girl if she became violent so she wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone or herself.

My fellow Ellis Island visitor grinned at this and looked back at the page. A couple friends came up to him, paused as I kept reading, then moved out of the room. I expected him to go, too, but he didn’t. He wanted to know all those pages shared. And he waited—patient, pleasant, non-threatening, interested—for me to learn myself so I could impart it to him.

When I reached the first description of the girl, I caught him up and read out the traits: brunette, fair skin, seventeen, German.

“German?” he asked, beaming. “I’m German!”

“That’s amazing,” I told him. It wasn’t, in a strict sense. No more than me being born in the US is amazing. But I recognized that his connection to this woman, nameless at least on these two pages, was profound even before he learned of her country of origin. Now, it was amazing.

I read the rest aloud, no longer worried about bungling a word at first or misreading an unfamiliar phrase. He stepped forward, almost beside me, looking at my finger on the clear case as I traced my way to the end of the page.

“She was German,” he said again, when I’d finished. His face almost glowed from delight and awe. “I can’t believe it.”

A little circle of other museum patrons had formed behind us, listening to me read, and were now side-stepping and breaking apart.

“Yeah,” I said. “I wish we knew her name.”

“Yeah,” he answered, looking at the pages again. Then, “Thank you for reading it to me.”

“You’re so welcome! I’m glad I could share it with someone.”

I left the room first, he lingering by the case. I wondered all sorts of things about him, but despite that feeling of connection we’d shared, I didn’t feel close enough to ask a lot of questions of him. “Why are you here, at Ellis Island? Where in Germany are you from? What did your friends say to you when they left you here, waiting for me to read more of the journal and interpret it to you? Where are you going now? What are you hoping for in life?” So I kept going, and even though I tend to take museums at a near glacial pace, I didn’t see him in any of the subsequent rooms. But I keep thinking about him, his rich, full life, and the five minutes we bent over a long-dead woman’s journal and read her words detailing a ten-minute span of a single day in her rich, full life.

Things I Miss about Manchester

I’ve lived in Manchester twice, the first time in the neighborhood of Withington for 4 months and the second time in City Centre for 6 weeks. The flat I lived in the second time was about 10 minutes, walking, from the Manchester Arena where this week’s suicide bombing targeted young concert-goers and their parents. I would have been one of those people offering, at 2am, a cup of tea, a chance to recharge phones, even a spare bed.

To honor this city I adore and greatly miss, I’m making a list:

1. The people. Individual people, absolutely. The first I knew something had happened in Manchester was when I started getting Facebook notifications that friends had checked in as safe. But I also just miss the spirit of Mancunians. This is a former industry town, red-bricked and soot-stained with old canals and some gleaming new facades. First-rate public transit. Prams (strollers) in parks. Excellent museums and art galleries. Where there are more students than you can reasonably hope to count. Where I once saw a person in a rabbit costume walk sedately up the street. Where the Queen once attended a couple’s wedding in city hall. Where I could look up from my kitchen table and into the faces of passengers on the top level of a red double-decker. Where a statue stands of Abraham Lincoln, commemorating that though the American Civil War decimated Manchester’s economy, the ending of slavery in the US was worth it. They are extraordinary people.

2. Piccadilly Gardens. From hot chocolate at an outdoor table to watching children play in the fountain, from whirring over the city in a carnival swing to the Primark at the corner (good grief, I miss that Primark). I miss just walking through on my way to Arndale’s food court for lunch with a friend or to Printworks then a pub. (Both Arndale and Printworks are mere blocks from the arena.) I miss the ridiculous two Starbucks locations on opposite sides of the square, and a Cafe Nero, and another Cafe Nero around the corner. I miss getting desperate enough for a single Krispy Kreme donut that I pay that price and queuing for the bus in the freezing cold. I also miss running to the first stop up Portland Street when I arrived too late and my bus had already shut its doors to depart.

3. Food. MCR loves curry. And American restaurants. And Chinese food. Mostly curry, which is as it should be. And Chinatown is fantastic (I have a favorite place). Krispy Fried Chicken, Kansas Fried Chicken, and various other establishments (including KFC) can be avoided quite well, thank you. (The meat is hallal, there’s no such thing as extra crispy, they fry in olive oil, and it’s the greasiest food you can manage to find in all the Isles.) A friend begged me to go with him to the Arndale mall food court when Taco Bell opened. I know someone who threatened to move when the American-style burger place in the Northern District burned. But oh, goodness. The curry!

4. Parks. This is very much an English thing, but Manchester’s parks are amazing. I already talked about Piccadilly Gardens. Then there’s the one nearest my flat in Withington with double duck ponds and willows that look ready to whomp. The one where the Salford and Quays meet. The one where my friend took her boys to play every day, even in the rain, and where I also took them when I babysat them. The one we’d cut through visiting friends in Fallowfield. The one where I saw a 5-actor production of “Pride & Prejudice”. The ones attached to homes in the National Trust, great sweeping grounds of manor houses like Dunham Massey, Tatton Park, and Lyme Park (the house used as Pemberley in the classic “Pride & Prejudice” miniseries). There are even a couple more I can’t place. But parks are well kept and well valued by Mancunians.

5. City Katie. I’ve written about her before. She was her best self in Manchester. And she got really good at applying eye liner, mascara, lipstick, and blush on the train. Less so on the bus.

I long to hear the Mancunian accent. I long to queue! Every Christmas I miss the markets with an almost physical pain. I find myself wistful for a particular yarn shop, wishing I could get my watch battery changed at a certain hardware shop. I yearn for a specific Italian restaurant and please, please give me Nando’s! Did I mention Primark? I miss Primark. The Piccadilly Gardens one.

Manchester is truly English (much more so than London), truly British (see halal meat and curry), truly in love with sports (Man City over United any day), truly lovely in just about every sense of the word. And I am so, so sorry for them. I am also immensely honored to have called Manchester home those short, pivotal times in my life.

Things I Already Miss about NYC

I spent last week in the city of lights, specifically in Brooklyn and I was immediately a bit of a snob about it. I miss the narrow, tall house, the smooth wooden banisters, the orange and red tulips on my dresser. I miss the wonderful friends who hosted me. And here are some other things I miss.

Delivery on everything. We didn’t even order in groceries or pillows or bagels or postcards. But I could have. And I’ve missed that freedom.

Interesting food. Also bagels. And pizza. And macarons. And cart pretzels (even though I didn’t have one, they were always nearby). The restaurants themselves were fascinating: long farm tables so you can share a workspace, round tables stacked with silver plates of pastries, a narrow counter at an open window, a tiny square table in a former church.

Walking culture. I almost never say, “Let’s walk there,” in my life in Macon, GA. It’s still rarer for everyone in a group to assume we’ll walk. Even at church I take the shuttle to and from the back lot where I park. But in NYC, of course we walked the 1.2 miles to the book store. Of course we walked the 8 blocks from the restaurant to the theater. And I’m happier doing so. And I discover so much more along the way. And the Brooklyn Promenade my first night in town irrevocably captured my heart.

Trains. I love them so much a friend called me Sheldon. Mostly, I love that I can travel hundreds of miles without long waits and baggage hassles (as in airports) and while free to read, write, crochet, work, or any number of other things not possible when driving. Trains are soothing, scenic, inspiring, and the least stressful way for me to travel.

Good public transit. Set me down anywhere in a city like New York, ask me to get anywhere else, and I can do it. I don’t need a car or bulky bags—I can’t take anything too heavy with me—I just take myself where I’m going. I get to people watch. I get to share the space and experience with strangers. I’m also, as on trains, free to use my time because I’m not busy driving.

Connections. I had no idea how far the Chrysler building is from the Empire State building. I had no concept of how close Brooklyn Bridge is to Freedom Tower. I saw movies and read books about New York, so every place in New York was a shot framed under a lamppost, a pan of the skyline, every location disjointed and without context. I couldn’t see how the pieces fit together, relate to one another, and continually marveled at how near things were, even more than how big. Plus, I love recognizing a place I’m seeing in front of me from a favorite TV show or a well-loved movie (“You’ve Got Mail” came up a lot).

History. Yes, I love history. Give me a good museum and I’ll be happy all day. But NYC is, in so many ways, sacred ground. Every inch I walked and every train car and every seat in every restaurant has been vital in a person’s life. More than one person. In an old city, my heart beats in the echoes of all the heartbeats around me and before me. For centuries. Including people I admire and people I ought to admire but don’t know.

Art culture. Sculpture installations, galleries, musicals, plays, schools, book stores, and every other form or product of art. NYC is a place for art. When you visit the city, you’re expected to see at least one Broadway musical. The names of galleries and museums can be rattled off by people who have never been been to the Big Apple: The Met, MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Natural History Museum. And I do love art in Macon as well, and in Atlanta, but there isn’t a culture surrounding art in the same way.

Parks. City folks love—and need—parks. And NYC’s parks are unique, like The Highline: a former above-ground rail line full of trees and grasses and flowers weaving through the West Side along the river. Sitting on a bench in Cadman Plaza, I watched children race their scooters and nannies change diapers while a tiny soccer practice was underway. I live near a wonderful park that I use often, but NYC’s walking culture combines with the unique flavors of neighborhoods for delightful beautiful in high contrast to the surrounding miles of concrete. Not that NYC lacks green beyond it’s parks. I was delighted to find tulips growing at bases of nearly every tree on the sidewalks of Brooklyn.

City Katie. I love who I am in a city. I move through the world confidently. I’m comfortable. I’m so happy. Even when something goes wrong (or many things), I have options and I solve problems. Some days the city wins, but I win far more frequently. I’m flexible, patient, amused and amusing. I do so much in a day. I buy things that bring me joy and that I don’t mind carrying for the rest of the day. (It’s a good litmus test, really: am I going to regret buying this after carrying and keeping up with it for four hours?) I have access to almost any experience I desire. I’m creative. I’m so tired by the time I flop into bed at night. I’m on a constant adventure. I love being this creative, curious, confident, capable person. Driving to work in an ill mood this morning, I missed her the most.

7 Ways to Care for the Grieving

I’ve alluded to this before, but I’ll say it point blank: from January 2014 to June 2015, 9 people in my life passed away. They died of heart failure, blood clots, burns, young and old age. Plus the murderers of a childhood friend were sentenced. And a tree died. Some of my dreams died. My roommate’s dog started to die but we didn’t know it yet. It was kind of a lot.

Over that year and a half, I got pretty good at telling people why I’d be out of town again, at hiding that I was still grieving (or grieving again), at visitation small talk, at selecting photos for slide shows, at giving warm hugs without sobbing, and at thanking strangers for coming.

Lately, I’ve watched various people in my life experience intense loss. So here are 7 ways to care for a grieving person, learned from being the one grieving.

Say something. More to the point, don’t say nothing. Avoid platitudes, but a platitude is better than nothing. Say you’re sorry. Ask me about a favorite memory of the person. Don’t ignore it because you’re nervous or uncomfortable. That’s horribly selfish. Don’t be afraid to bring up my loved one or say their name. Even if it just happened. Even if it was two weeks ago and you just found out. Even if it’s been months.

Listen. Listen to what I say. Listen to what I don’t say. Let me guide the tone and topic for a week or so, especially when the funeral or death comes up. And if you conveyed your sympathy, I thanked you, then I started talking about work or asking about you, don’t keep dragging our conversation back to my grief. Maybe I really don’t want to delve those depths right now.

Don’t harp. I’m not the only person who has lost someone and neither are you. Mention that a family member died but don’t tell me the whole saga of your grandmother’s slow demise unless I ask multiple questions. Your harping makes me feel like I should be comforting you. Your grief is no less legitimate than mine, but mine is also quite new. Please don’t make my pain about you.

Do something tangible. What you’ll do will depend on how well you know me. My roommate would vacuum and tidy up while I was gone and be available when I got home in case I wanted company or a distraction. When I did want to talk, she asked how my family was doing, if the service went okay, if everyone behaved well. (That could be it’s own tip: don’t cause drama. Pity it ever needs saying.) The day we had to put the dog to sleep, a friend texted and said he wanted to bring us KFC for lunch.

Take initiative. Saying, “Can I bring dinner by tomorrow? I’ll leave it on your porch” is way better than “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” A dozen other people have said the same thing to me, and I don’t know that they all meant it. Assuming you did mean it, no matter what I need or how much I need it, I don’t want to inconvenience you. But if you take the initiative, I can either say “Thank you” or “Would you mind waiting until next week?” or “I really appreciate that, but I’d rather get coffee with you and talk. Could we do that instead?”

Pain is pain. My friend told me this nine years ago. Her fiance had just called off their wedding and she couldn’t understand why a lady in her church, who had recently suffered a miscarriage, had reached out to her to offer encouragement. “Your loss is so much greater than mine,” my friend had said to the woman. And the woman had answered, “Pain is pain.” All pain is not the same, and maybe you don’t understand why I’m grieving so much over the death of my roommate’s dog or the falling of that tree. Just know it was important to me, and so the loss is painful.

Don’t tell me I’m grieving wrong. You aren’t helping by criticizing how much or little you saw me cry. Maybe I’m much better at acting okay than you think. Maybe this is my third funeral in two weeks and I’m a bit numb. Maybe I wanted the woman in the casket to hold my babies and I just saw how much yours have grown. I’m working through this is my own way. You don’t have to understand to respect it.