“To wonder is to stand in the towering shadow of God however frightened we are of our own smallness. Like Moses, let us pause at the buses that burn. Like Tomas, let us bend for a closer look at Christ—even if, paradoxically, it’s doubt that reaches to touch his side. Let us have certainty when it’s available; let us have humility when it’s not.” – Jen Pollock Michel, Surprised by Paradox
Everything about this view is comforting—familiar. I’ve marveled at the symmetrical beauty of the magnolia lane dozens of times. The glistening leaves of the towering Magnolia Grandiflora trees mark the old entrance to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. When you stand there, you feel minuscule, like you are a part of something grand that must have always existed this way. Like you could melt away and no one would notice you were ever there.
I imagine the changes to the world that these trees have witnessed during their stalwart watch over the monks who arrived on the old plantation grounds in 1944. Beyond that, I haven’t thought much about the trees before. Nestled on over 1,000 acres of Georgia woodlands, the monastery offers many other sights like the geese by the lake or the glorious stained glass windows.
I’ve always arrived with a purpose in mind. I always like to be here during the liminal space between two years, asking God to guide me as I enter the next season. I’ve come when discerning a big decision that I need to wisdom for. I’ve been on retreats to learn from a few of the 300 remaining Cistercian monks in the world about a specific topic like contemplative prayer or writing. I’ve always brought expectation as my companion to this place.
Today is different. I am on a solo retreat with no agenda. The church, cafe, and museum are all still closed due to the pandemic. I can’t converse with the brothers or join them for prayer today.
Yet, I need a weekend of silence and some time on what always feels like holy ground to me.
The world has been extra noisy lately. The voices shouting about elections and diseases, sides to take, and lines to draw—have become too much to take. I come to God with a million questions that I am not sure how to begin to ask.
I feel aimless at first. I open my Bible. I journal for a while. I sit in silent prayer. Then, I just start to wander the grounds.
I amble past the trees, at first looking up at the way they seem to touch the sky. That’s usually what I notice about them—their height and their shine, the way the leaves are never changing year-round when everything around them seems to whither.
Today my pace is slower so I stop to notice the sunlight that is much brighter at the base of trees that reach all the way to the ground, no trunk visible. They seem one with the earth, like there is no dividing line between the two.
I step closer and the vision changes. The branches touching the earth aren’t springing from below; they grow sharply downward from the middle of the trunk, jutting out at strange angles. They conceal a cavelike area between the branches and the trunk of the tree.
Shame was a language I learned early, right along with how to say “please” and “thank you.” There was an unspoken etiquette we learned growing up in the Southern United States. The tea should be sweet. You should address people older than you as “ma’am” and “sir.” I knew the taste of collard greens and banana pudding, as well as the proper use of the phrase, “bless her heart” to camouflage your disdain for someone in a prayer. We were known for our hospitality and kindness. We were always polite and proper—to people’s faces. Appearances mattered, often more than anything else.
I spent a good bit of my childhood being lulled into summer evening bliss by the rhythmic rocking of wooden chairs and the tinkle of the wind chimes hung on a long porch. My sister and I spent days down by the creek, running as fast as we could past our grandpa’s beehives. Our hands were stained from the red clay and black muscadine juice, calloused from shelling peas and stirring pots of beans.
But during those lazy afternoons on the porch, the stories flowed like molasses, sweet and sticky in the summer sun. Oh, that girl down the road the got married a little young. We all knew why. That neighbor had a liking for the bottle, everyone said. Shh, don’t say it too loud, someone might hear you. But wasn’t there a guy in school whose momma just got out of the hospital? You know, for taking too many pills?
If you stepped outside the cultural expectations, you would be the talk of the town. One thing I never learned was the language of grace. We were never taught to talk about all our failings or about the healing we can find when we say it out loud. We didn’t know what life could be like when we admitted our mistakes and asked for help. We just knew to sweep the dark corners of our lives under the rug, afraid someone would find out and whisper about us, too.
It was never said explicitly but the implications were clear. Don’t let people see your weaknesses. Manners matter more than transparency. And, for goodness sake, keep up appearances.
When I started attending church in my teens, I wrapped a new layer of right actions around me like a bullet-proof vest. I knew just what to say and do (and what and who to avoid) to appear like the best Christian. We talked all about a personal relationship with Christ, but what I really gained was another set of standards I needed to uphold.
Years later, after lapses that certainly made me the talk of all the good folks I knew in my church days, I longed for Jesus but I wasn’t so sure about his people. I knew I was a horrible mess and I was hungry for someone that could offer me more than appearances. I’ll never forget the kind people that poured into hurting students in the college ministry where I finally discovered a different dialect. They replaced the language of failure, shame, and secrecy with words like vulnerability, lament, mercy, and restoration...
I bristled when I received a message from an editor at a publishing house asking if I was working on any projects.
“I can’t write a book now,” I thought. “I’m still living in this messy space of transition between Asia and America, between old dreams dying and not yet discovering the new. Standing on this shifting ground, what advice can I offer a reader?”
As I debated my merits as a writer, I listened to a podcast in which poet Zach Savich taught about what he called “memoir from the middle of things,” writing about events that are still unfolding. He talked about living in moments that aren’t tied up neatly with a bow and writing from that place of unknowing.
I realized all I had been seeing was my own uncertain path as my husband and I struggle to know what starting over looks like. We moved around the world and back again and found ourselves unemployed, uncertain, and feeling terribly alone. But then I looked outwards and I saw it—unfinished stories, life lived from the middle, everywhere I looked...
“We are homeless wanderers. On this side of glory, we will never be entirely at home. Like the desire to cut and run, the disappointment that God has not yet made all things new…point us homeward.” - Ashley Hales
I moved from trailer park to split-level house, from dorm rooms to efficiency apartments. I’ve lived in a garage apartment on the edge of a bayou and a basement apartment in the home of my childhood best friend. I have made my home in flats in three of the largest cities in the world. I’ve rented, owned my own home, and lived off the kindness of family and friends when my family has been between places to call home. I know well the impact of home, the comfort and the baggage that come with longing to stay and longing to go.
I’ve loved Ashley Hales’ work since she was one of my first editors at The Mudroom and was excited to read her first book Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much. I don’t currently live in the American suburbs that I’ve called home for the longest chunks of my life, but the majority of my friends and family do. I thought this book would be for them. It is. But it is also for me.
I’ve been shaped by life in the suburbs and no matter how far I go from them; the hustle for the American dream and the work-harder attitude that is the hallmark of the suburbs remain part of who I am. It has shaped my spiritual life in ways I daily struggle to overcome and in ways that I am grateful for, too.
As I read Ashley Hales smart and honest book, I knew I needed to hear her words on contentment, gratitude, purpose, rest, and finding God wherever you are. Yes, her words are geared towards readers that have lived in the suburbs of America. But I also appreciated the way she likened the suburbs to our human tendency to isolate ourselves from our neighbors and to gather with those like us and her challenge to all of us to “offer our bodies, to see and to notice, and to move toward others in welcome.”
If you’re feeling a little itchy wherever you are (be it suburbs, city, America, or Asia) you’ll hear her words as an admonishment to find purpose where God has put you and find ways to live with hospitality and peacemaking with those around you. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with what you have compared to your neighbors, you’ll be offered gratitude instead. If you’re feeling too busy, worn out, or like you aren’t sure where God is in the hustle of life, Hales offers practical steps to help you slow down and listen:
“You can stop the worry and busyness, the shame and hiding. Belovedness doesn’t come from working harder to be more acceptable or more beautiful…In the suburbs, it is countercultural to live in the light of this deep-rooted belovedness because everything around us says we need a constant stream of more to belong…There is no house, home, suburb, city, or countryside that will finally offer us all that being God’s beloved can.”
As someone for whom the place I live has become one of the biggest definitions of my life for past few years, I heard Hales words loud and clear as a call to not be defined by my place but to live well in it. As I try to be content in a big city while missing my suburban home (but longed for the big city while living in my suburban home), I try to heed her words to “ be an offering day by day,” to “fight to stay present” when I want to flee.
So, wherever home happens to be for you at this point in your life, if you want to learn how to live more faithfully in it, I believe Ashley Hales book will be an encouragement and challenge to you.
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. -1 Corinthians 13:12, NLT
I don’t recognize her anymore. Her short hair swoops across her forehead and her smile looks easy. She appears certain about her place in the world, about what lies ahead.
In the photo taken a year ago, she blends into her family. Their matching black shirts and denim say they are a unit, one. She’s like a puzzle piece that has always fit in a certain place, next to them.
When I look in the mirror now I see a different picture. My short hair was too hard to manage in the South Asian humidity so it has been growing out, now twisted in a little bun at the base of my neck. A headband has become a permanent fixture over what is too unruly. My cheeks are less full, the more natural diet I eat these days and the miles I walk around this massive city erasing some of the pounds I put on in the past few years. Any clothes I brought with me in our move stay relegated to the early morning hours before anyone might visit our house. After that I wear local clothes, a scarf draped across my chest.
I stand alone with sad eyes, a piece without a puzzle. I’m only part of a picture that once existed. I’m not her anymore. I’ve been reborn as someone else in this place.
I don’t recognize her anymore. Her eyes were hard and her mind was closed. She saw the world in white. She didn’t know a world of diversity existed out there. She saw the world in black. There was the truth and everything else, and she was to convince others of the right way.
In the photo taken twenty years ago, she stood opposed to her family (and a lot of other people). Her heart was in the right place but her methods were all wrong. She wanted to love but she didn’t know how.
When I look in the mirror now I see a different picture....