Trying to love the mangroves

I am trying to love Houston. I want to. Sometimes I merely want to want to.

My cohort of the Artist Collective met a week or so ago to be in the space where our April show will be, and talk about the show itself. I had some ideas about what work I would do, but that evening, we were given a theme: “For the love of the city.”

Something in me balked, and I felt a deep sense of dread, even resistance. I didn’t want to do work that was for the sake of this city. Houston is a place I’m living, but not yet a place I love, and my wrestling about place has been so deep since my move here a year and a half ago.

I came thinking it was a place I could survive for a year, a place that in the wet, green March of 2017 seemed enchanting considering I visited for the first time expecting a desert and tumbleweeds. I came not realizing I wouldn’t be here just a year, or that my soul would begin to put down roots a little and miss this place when I was gone, or that my body would acclimate to the heat and humidity despite my protesting and begin to dread the cold of my Great Lakes native home while I loudly insist on loving winter.

The few times I’ve felt affection for this place have also felt like deep betrayal of so many of my sensibilities.

I’ve been running a few times a week since the beginning of the year, and the other morning, I needed something easy to run to (read: slow paced), so I was working through the worship playlist I was about to lead a congregation through Sunday morn.

The banks of the bayou were brilliant green and lush with clover, and there were pelicans and herons in the water, which seemed calm. The sky was blue-grey and bits of the city skylines were in the distance. Into my earbuds streamed Jon Foreman’s “House of God Forever.”

…he makes me rest/ in fields of green/ by quiet streams.

I looked around me and laughed a little at the seeming irony of a cityscape that somewhat mirrors that song. Could a bayou bank be a field of green, and the bayou a quiet stream?

…even though I’m walking through the valley/ of death and dying/ I will not fear, for you are with me/ always with me.

I can’t remember exactly which line it was that hit me. The “death and dying” part? The “with me”? Something hit me though, and by the time the song was back to the repeat, “fields of green and quiet streams,” I was coming undone, tears streaming and eyes blurred as I slowed to a walk.

I grew up in the country, in rural areas, fields and forests, deer in every backroad, and packs of coyotes calling and answering one another in the dark nights. I was raised by trilliums in April, by pears falling off the tree in late August, by the migrations of Canadian Geese, and milkweed in late fall. In the spring, snow drops come first, then crocuses, then later daffodils, and tulips. I know the names of the trees by heart, the difference between a red pine and a white pine, a red maple and a sugar maple, all the names of oaks. I can tell you what kind of bird is in the high branches merely by hearing the song. I live to hear the silence the snow makes. My people are farm people, families with livestock, folks who have known one another nearly their whole lives. Their lives are marked by a long slowness together, and there’s a humility to their ways of life. They rely on one another, share resources, spend time in one another’s fields and barns.  The agrarian parables of Jesus make intuitive sense to me

Other places I’ve lived, something has felt like home, or been an easy transition into love. But most everything about Houston has felt foreign to me. Even the roosters in Third Ward, which call out at sunrise across the neighborhood, have a strangeness to them alongside the blackbirds and pigeons. Feral chickens run in small flocks through the bottoms where I live, but they are skinny, tiny, nothing like the robust birds roaming my dad’s farmyard.

To think that God lead me here… It’s a hard stretch for me. It takes some convincing. I still don’t see it, or if I take it as granted, some part of me hopes God leads me somewhere else eventually. I don’t want to die here. I have often thought what a miracle it would be, if I could take the churches and people I love here, and just plunk all of Houston down in a different landscape, different place entirely.

Yesterday, I touched grass for the first time in months. Here in the summer, it is often infested with fire ants. I rarely go barefoot anymore, even to the mailbox. But I was running again on the bayou, and this time the clover was so green, and there was a blue heron I’d been quietly chasing (he thought) up the bayou. When the ding on my app told me my run was complete, I knelt down in the green, then laid down, stretching out before crawling to the cement edge to look down and see what I could see in the water.

Love is like this.

The places I’m attracted to living are the places I can imagine some better version of myself. The rural is the comfortable, the place of all my affections, because it doesn’t challenge me; it simply reinforces who I already am.

The beautiful places I dream of living someday promise to expand me into the dream version of me: Who will I be when I finally get to move back to east Tennessee, or live in Wyoming, or when my feet are on the ground in the Pacific Northwest? Who will I be in New England? These all sound romantic, like they will make me into who I’ve always wanted to be, like they will be some kind of arrival into my “best life now.”

These are the places it’s easy to have affection for. I cling to dreams and memories of them as part of the protest and resistance to loving what is here, in front of me, forming me now. Here I am not capable of curating the dream-version of my emplaced self, in which I am one with a certain kind of land and environment. Here, I am surrounded by asphalt, polluted air and ground and water, the oil industry, trash, people barely making it by, on and on…

To love Houston is hard work.

To change affections, expand attractions, give myself to a place which doesn’t touch my memories or my dreams is hard work. It’s not intuitive, and I haven’t found a handbook for it yet.

All of this pondering, of course, has coincided with the loss of Mary Oliver. She died in Florida, a place which must have seemed foreign after so many years in New England. In her interview with Krista Tippett, she says she’s “trying to love the mangroves.”

How I resonate.

That’s the work of here for me: trying to love what doesn’t come naturally for me to love, trying to see as beautiful what doesn’t feel like beauty, trying to get outside the stories I tell myself about being foreign to this place to find myself here – to find myself. Here. To find myself who is here, and not there.

And it’s not only about landscape and wildlife and trees, but also people, and way of life. I’m used to being good at things, and Houston is a thing I don’t feel like I’m good at.

As I walked the long way back to the Jeep yesterday, I began to study the trees a little, covered in their swamp grass lichens. I noticed a bird-house in the trees, maybe for wood ducks. And already a few things are beginning to bloom here and there. The bees are out, early pollinators getting a head start.

All around me the natural world is here, living and surviving the urban. And I wonder what they can teach me, if I can be a student of their roots and steadfastness for a little while – at least until God leads me beside other fields and quiet streams.




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