This Here Place

I am trying to be written.

I am draft after draft, words and whole lines scratched out, and sometimes I am my own arguing in the margins, hasty question marks writ large, ink trailing. I am trying to be told.

What is my life? What am I for? Everything I have done to this point was supposed to answer these questions. Degrees, and articulating a call to ministry ad nauseum, and reflection after reflection, and re-telling my story of life with God – these were supposed to solve everything. But no.

Instead, I wake too early and lie in the dark, listening to the metro trains at the corner of Scott and Elgin, and occasional voices carrying across the still and humid silence before dawn.

What is my life for here? What am I for here? 

The existential questions nag me like a dog begging to be petted. A nudge, a poke, a paw on my knee. Look at me, look at me. Touch me. Tell me I’m good. I shove them off, and they come back, insistent.

Every few days, I check the crime reports for our neighborhood. Every time I casually bring up my findings, Tommy eyes me like I’m crazy and says “You gotta get off that website. Just stop.” He’s right. On the one hand he’s right.

On the other hand, it’s a symptom of my still-confusion about where I am, my reaching and grasping to know this place, not only what I can see and smell and hear in the light, but also what happens under the cover of night. I don’t want a surface knowing of this place. I don’t want to be naive and sentimental, to paper it over with untruths than rob it of its integrity.

I want to be here and to know where I am.

I want to know that the beauty I think I see here is actual beauty, and not just my foggy eyes incapable of making out the particulate details of something far more nuanced. I want beauty, and not kitsch. I want to be broken open by the pain. I want to see.

I came for what I thought would be a year. And since coming, I have seriously thought about leaving now at least a half dozen times. I have put in ordination papers elsewhere. I have applied for jobs in other states. I have in my crazier moments entertained the idea of packing everything I can fit in my car, and driving till we are out of gas, and living wherever we land. I have talked with others about moving “home” – to various homes. I have been too nomadic to even know what place deserves that name.

Every time, I am stopped. Every time, I know I would be trying to find a heaven somewhere away from here, and as the time has gone on, I have begun to think that I don’t want any heaven that has no room for this place here. Whatever heaven there is, it must include this place.

My descriptions of this place are incomplete. They will do it a deep injustice. I will say things about this place which will upset others who know it better than I do. In the beginning, saying anything felt like a problem. But having a history of staying now a half-dozen times I thought this was “surely the time I’d go” means I’m building up a store of affection for here and a practice of returning, even if just in my imagination.

I know that when I offend others, it’s because they love here. I hope my growing affection will safe-guard me from future mistakes of speech, though more and more I think this is unlikely. I am not native to here – everything I say will likely always have a “shitty first draft” quality to it. I try to make peace with this and say anyway.

Slowly, here is becoming a place I want to be, instead of a place I do not want to be.

That this is so feels like evidence of divine grace at work.

All of this is painfully slow, of course.

In the beginning, something of this place felt like a kind of hell. At moments, it still has this quality. The landscape is marked by injustice and by desperation, and great suffering. Violence is common place, sometimes a means of survival. Scarcity is pervasive.

But in time, I have begun to catch glimpses of heaven, even if at first it only came with the knowledge of neighbors’ grief and outrage at homes torn down to be replaced with high-rise condos.

I learned that even this, “the bottoms” of Third Ward, could be a place that is stolen – that losing this place would be great heartbreak for those around me. That what the gentrifiers would see as improvement would be (and is) in reality devastation through the lenses of the displaced.

And this fact alone made me pause to ask why.

This fact alone has made me know that this place, here, has the quality of home – that love has been here and is, that the memories of here live on in bodies, that the stories of here matter, that the violence is real violence and the poverty real poverty and all along beauty has been here too.

I still cannot see with clarity. That I don’t always feel the losses yet in a gut-wrenching way is an alienating experience, one marked by longing and grief. I wait for the day I am wrecked by what wrecks others here.

At moments, I am struck by my own powerlessness in this place, and my own poverty of soul, let alone resources to stop any of the suffering I see. At times, it feels like all I can do right now is see – watch, witness, be present. I am not yet here enough to move in this place in ways that are not just further contributions to injustice disguised as progress. I don’t belong enough for me to trust myself yet.

And so I watch, because it’s all I can do. It is, in a real way, the work I have been given to do in this season. I lie in the dark pre-dawn waiting for the morning.

Yesterday, I lie in the dark pre-dawn waiting for the morning, drifting in and out of sleep before finally surrendering to the waking too early. I come out to the kitchen in the dark and make a pour-over cup of coffee by stove-light, then pull out my pen and notebook to write and empty my head before the others stir for morning prayer.

Forty minutes later, Tommy comes out of his room and gets his own paper and pencil, sits it across the table from me, and then starts a pot of coffee. Soon he brings two mugs to the table, one he knows I love, and pours cream in both. I realize he’s about to pour me a second cup of coffee – my old and half-cold one sits a little to my right.

But I don’t tell him I already have coffee. I just let him pour me a new cup. He hands it to me, I say my thanks, and he sits across the table, the two of us writing in silence.

It’s such a simple gesture, a mundane kindness, pouring me a cup of coffee from the shared pot.

But on a morning that felt lonely, a morning the questions were breaking me, and the wrestling felt singular and I was all wrapped up in myself, it was a glimpse of heaven, an unexpected taste of communion.

In my neurotic over-thinking, my mapping of crimes, my coming at God a little sideways in my prayers which are mostly cries for help because I no longer make sense to myself, I need this sign of hope and reminder that I am not alone in any of this. I have a community to do this together with.


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