“I am afraid,” I say. It’s a Monday evening late, and we’re tucked into seats at a small wooden table in the balcony of a place he knows in Midtown, huddled over our dwindling bottle of wine, which I think we’re downing together partly as an act of mercy, and partly as “honesty insurance.” I tip my glass, swirl, staring through the red at the table.
“I’m afraid – have always been afraid, I think – that at some point, I will fall in love with Houston. And I guess it’s the thing I’ve been resisting all along. Not that it’s so hard to resist – Most days, I hate it here. But I’m afraid I’ll change my mind, and what if I get stuck here forever?”
He smiles. He gets it, he says. And I know he does. I watched him wrestle through the decision to stay in this place he never would have chosen on his own.
“But then, if I do fall in love and stay, once I’m in love, will it even feel like stuckness, and will I even care that I never wanted to stay here?”
This is the talk we’ve needed to have for awhile, the one about my year commitment to live in this place in community. I’m in month seven. New jobs and new places take time to find, and I tell myself I’m doing the honest work of discernment, that I’m listening for the Spirit early, just in case I really am drawn elsewhere.
But in truth, I’m in a place I do not want to be, and with no compelling reasons to not want to be here, except climate and urban landscape and the fact that it’s hard to build new ties in a new place. My body is made of farmland and natural lakes, forests and mountains, snow, the frigid green waters of Lake Michigan and the warm salty air of the Atlantic. Ties in other places came so easily, as theology geeks naturally just unite in classes and shared work. I feel displaced here.
And beyond place, sometimes pulling together a household with four family systems at work, four people who see the world distinctly, with unique needs and wants, wounds and triumphs, in ways that honor each of us feels like so much jigsaw work. Add in the challenges of tri-parenting a teenager (or in his case, being tri-parented). Add in two crazy dogs, and a too tiny house, and so many art supplies and books.
I’ll say it again: what our household is doing together is hard – yet in completely mundane, non-heroic ways, loving-other-human-beings ways that are so utterly ordinary as to be completely unremarkable.
We sort through options. Some things are working, some aren’t. I’m homesick for everywhere but here. The details of shared everything are sticky. We take turns naming things we wish we had more control over, the small sacrifices that seem bigger.
Part way through, he suggests an alternative model to what we’re doing, trying out an idea, and suddenly I can’t breathe. My insides are churning, my eyes are welling, and I try to steel myself for the words I know I should say – namely, “Okay, that could work. We can think about it.”
But what comes out is closer to “I can’t,” my tongue tripping over the words.
And in that moment, I know that I’m just restless – that I don’t know how to not have ambitions or aspirations, how to live in a place without an expiration date on it.
I find out in that moment of being backed into a corner that I don’t want this to end or even to go another way. I want what we’re doing. This is the kind of hard and complicated I signed up for, a difficult thing that feels worth doing, despite how much commitment and communication and sacrifice and inconvenience it can be. And despite how mundane all of that turns out to be.
Because what astounds me are the mundane days that come to shimmer with exquisite glory, the kind of ordinary moments that are somehow transfigured into the transcendent, becoming the exact moments I find I’m living for.
And that’s what I can’t seem to get past – how intertwined — no, just straight up messy-entangled – the hard and the glory are. The wheat and tares grow together. To uproot the pain and the struggle is to uproot everything – and everyone.
A few days later, our house decides to do this indefinitely – to take off the expiration date, to say “this is where we live,” and decide together when it’s time for any or all of us to leave.
Indefinitely is not easy. Right now, with it all still so fresh, the small sacrifices seem most difficult. I find myself lamenting farmland a lot this week. A few days ago, I watched a Wendell Berry documentary which left me ugly crying for all rural places everywhere, before finally getting in the car for an aimless homesick three hour tour of the farm-to-market roads south of Houston in which my deepest hopes were simply to see cows.
And now suddenly, I’m so acutely aware that I still feel like I belong to nothing here and to nowhere here. While before I chalked it up to exile and took it as a reason to move on, I find I’m now mad about it. My anger at not belonging feels like beating down the door of a grace I can’t get myself into. Suddenly I’m envious of my housemates’ friendships, the ways they belong to this place after two and a half years here, their ties to the land and to our neighbors, how naturally they move through the urban landscape. I loathe my fear of the bottoms here in Third Ward, and how caged by it I feel, and ache to not be so afraid. Even walking the dog for a few blocks still feels like such an act of bravery; I simultaneously congratulate myself and am embarrassed that the fear still hangs on though I know better.
But indefinitely is also a “yes” to the Spirit, a way of giving permission for the work in me here to be slow if need be. It means I won’t truncate the work of God with my own impatience or insistence on how my life will be. It’s a surrender of some life plans in favor of whatever might come up here. After all, most hard choices are not between one good and one bad option, but rather two good ones. With indefinitely, if I leave, it’s because I’m led from here, and not because I ran. Indefinitely is vulnerability, a way of abandon in giving oneself over to people and to a place that doesn’t allow for just “grinning and bearing it,” muscling through it for a time, but instead walking headlong into conflict. Indefinitely means actual yielding of the self and an openness to learning how to see through lenses of transfiguration.
Most of all, it means taking up the practice of hope, one that reaches beyond my limited wants and whims of the moment to hoping for an entire place and the lives most intimate to my own. Indefinitely is the daily practice of showing up with willingness to be curious and a participant in the goings on of the daily.
I won’t lie. This all goes against all of my nature. But that’s perhaps exactly why it could be right.