Day 10: Friendship: The Need to Hear “Me, Too” (Part 2) {31 Days of #WOKE}

I used to bond with other women by talking about men. Many a friendship was forged over confessing a crush or finding we despised the same type of man. But the deepest friendships came out of the times when I dared to remove my mask and admit my greatest fears: that I was unattractive, too independent or ultimately unlovable. It was then that I could hear the words upon which every friendship must be built, “Me, too.”

In the places I’ve lived and cultures I’ve worked among (including my own), I’ve discovered that connection happens at the level of our deepest fears and greatest longings.

When we connect at the  point of our tender wounds–like two little girls willingly piercing their palms and co-mingling their blood in a pact of friendship–we can form friendships even in the most unlikely places.

***

The churches in my area have a fantastic program for the homeless. A large church and a smaller church partner together to house and feed homeless families for a two week period four times a year. Last night was the first time I volunteered to help others from my church cook a meal for these families. The plan was to eat together afterward. Stirring the German Potato Salad beforehand, I wondered what we would talk about.

What if I say the wrong thing? Will we find anything in common?

Scanning the room, I sat down next to a twenty-something Hispanic woman and her children. “How old are your children?” I asked as we picked up our forks to begin eating. “One and two, she said … eleven months apart.”

Exhaling and thinking of my six month old at home, not even fathoming being pregnant right now, I blurted out, “Did you cry when you found out?”

She laughed, “OOOH, yes.”

In an instant, over the horror of having a two month old and finding you are pregnant, we clicked.

She is a single mom, while I have a husband at home to help with our three children. She transports her kids around by bicycle and trailer while I drive a minivan. She is homeless, while just yesterday my husband and I looked at a four bedroom home as we continued our search for a home to buy.

And yet I understood her fierce love for her children. I inherently knew the determination she has to protect them. I respected her for doing what it takes to feed and clothe them. In that moment, we connected not because I know what it is like to be homeless, but because I know what it is like to be a mother.

***

A few years ago, when I was eight months pregnant with my first child, our church in Chicago did an all day outreach offering various social services on site at church for disadvantaged people in the neighborhood. One of the African American women I helped walk around to the different rooms had recently had a baby. I was surprised to find she had given birth in the same hospital I planned to go to and she mentioned she didn’t have an epidural. “That’s what I’m hoping to do, too.” I said. “So how was it?” I asked.

“It hurt like hell,” she laughed, “but you can do it.” I asked her more questions as I helped her and her mother gather their bags for the bus. I sent them on their way and reflected on that conversation. Though I was technically on the helping end and she was on the receiving end, she was the one who had gifted me.

But in that interaction, I also confronted an inner demon—something I’m ashamed to even admit in a public space. I found that part of me was shocked that deep down we were the same. Same hospital, same hope for a natural birth, same anxieties and fears about childbirth and same dreams for our future children. This feeling of surprise served as evidence of a latent belief that we weren’t the same. It cast light on prejudice crouching in the dark corner of my subconscious. And I want to drag that prejudice into the open where it can shrivel and die.

***

Every new friendship is a risk. This is especially true when we don’t know the rules of relationship with that particular culture or socioeconomic group. But when we offer up our insecurities as a gift and step out onto the universal bridge of fear, pain or longing that is at the essence of being human, we earn just enough trust to begin a friendship.

Friendship happens when we are vulnerable, shed culture’s heavy cloak and stand at the level of our bare humanity.

We are hope, anxiety, desire, talent, fear and doubt. We are blood, flesh, hair, bones, muscles, organs and sinews. We are soul, gender, spirit and mind.

As daughters of God, we are image-bearers, torch carriers, hope seekers and justice lovers. We are human, but more than that, we are children. We are cherished by the same Daddy who knit us together in our mother’s womb. Though we are different, the same blood shoots through our veins.

The challenge to myself and to you as I think about the relationships I want to have with those of different races, social classes, languages, educational levels, ages, political beliefs and cultures is this:

Stop being guarded. Put yourself in the position to be hurt, misunderstood or snubbed. Admit your weakness, fear, pain, doubt and anxiety to another.

Vulnerability is the midwife of trust.

Give away love like it was never yours to keep. And start believing that we are more alike than we are different. There are only gains in adding another gem to your friend collection.

 

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

In the places I’ve lived and cultures I’ve worked among (including my own), I’ve discovered that connection happens at the level of our deepest fears and greatest longings.

 

Day 9: Uncomfortable Friendships (Part 1) {31 Days of #WOKE}

It is easy to be friends with people who are like us. At one time, I realized I could have traded clothes with three of my best friends—we were all runners and had similar body types, ate the same things, went to the same church, believed essentially the same things and shared a common worldview. Friendship on these terms was easy.

But my most transformational friendships have come at the cost of my comfort.

The best and worst part about living in China was visiting my students in their homes in rural areas of northwest China. They had a different way of showing hospitality to guests. Unlike the west, with our “make yourself at home” mentality, their goal was to make their visitors feel like special guests.

“Go have a rest in the living room,” they’d say, leaving me alone in a cold room on a hard couch next to the coffee table (“tea table” in China). I’d pick at oranges, dried dates and sunflower seeds as I waited. I longed to be with them in the kitchen, where laughter and delighted chatter floated from the doorway.

They would eventually emerge with plates of stir-fried spicy cabbage and lamb and steaming potatoes or with at least a hundred hand-made dumplings filled with beef and carrots. I’d eat until I was stuffed and they’d look offended when I stopped.

As a guest, I was expected to eat until I was sick. More than once, as it was nearly time for bed, my student’s mother would enter the living room with even more food and never allowed me the satisfaction of an empty bowl. I wanted to cry.

These experiences visiting small villages in China birthed many stories. But they also transported me out of the zone of my comfort into the reality of my students’ lives away from school.

Those trips obliterated my assumptions and granted me the gift of forced proximity to poverty and another way of life. I ate their food, played their card games, froze by their coal stoves, slept in their beds, met their grannies, held their nieces and nephews and borrowed their clothes.

It may sound adventurous, but I often felt so uncomfortable that I was counting the minutes until we boarded our train or bus home. I longed for my own bed, my heated apartment and the time when I could curl up under my plush throw blanket and binge-watch Alias.

But it wasn’t just physical discomfort that toppled my walls of pride and wrong assumptions. It was the discomfort of cultural confusion. I didn’t belong and constantly questioned whether or not I was acting the right way.

Operating in another culture is like having all the rules of a familiar game suddenly change, then being scolded when you make a wrong move. And yet I sensed God nudging me to choose to look stupid for the sake of relationship.

Each visit to another student’s home shattered another brick in my too-pristine wall of self-preservation and pride. It forced me to be dependent on another human being who looked, spoke, dressed and ate differently than I did.

***

The discipline of discomfort allows us to deeply know and be known by the “other.”

It is only as we are willing to deconstruct our walls and enter into the world of someone else that we will ever find friends who are different from us. And it is only then that we can begin to break down the barriers of racism, prejudice and oppression.

When we have slept in someone’s bed, we cannot accuse them of being a terrorist. When we have eaten someone’s homemade food, held their babies and joked with their grandpas, we cannot assume the worst of them.

It was easy to exercise the discipline of discomfort in China. But here in the U.S.? As we go from home to garage to car to work, grocery store, day care, school or library, then back home again, we flirt with the idea of diversity without ever entering the messy work of relationship.

Why would we choose to be uncomfortable with an unknown (and risk looking like an idiot) when we can be comfortable with someone just like us?

***

Check back tomorrow for part 2 on friendships.

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Barn Dancing, the Inauguration and the International Women’s Club

I usually try not to use the internet to glamorize my life. The internet can be the high school yearbook view of life: perfect pictures, inspiring quotes and exciting events that include the highlights without the low-lights of life. The truth is that life is more often lived in the shadows. But yesterday was full of shadows for some in our country, so today I’d like to cast some light.

My son howled after I popped the balloon he had been beating his sister on the head with yesterday morning while I was trying to get us out the door. I eventually cajoled him and the other two into their car seats, checked directions on my phone, turned on public radio and eased our minivan out of the driveway. Thank God we have a date night planned tonight, I thought.

On the radio, a woman prayed for our country. A man spoke. A chorale sang sweet subversive words.

“Once we were strangers, we were welcomed, now we belong and believe in this land,” seemed a passive-aggressive jab at the new administration. With the final line, I exhaled, feeling tension fall away:

“Keep faith, guard mind, take heart, guard spirit, take courage, keep watch, feed longing, feed love.”

Take courage. Feed love.

My children stared quietly out the window as we drove from our small town to the larger college town, passing golden fields that stretched to low hills, with snowy mountains lurking behind.

“Why are those people clapping?” my two-year-old asked.

“Because we have a new president,” I answered dully. He had begun his first speech as the President of the United States.

Driving in circles, I switched off the radio mid-speech to focus on finding my destination. An Asian woman pointed to an empty parking space as I passed the resale shop we were meeting at. Strapping on the baby and reminding the other two to hold my hand, we found the rest of the group inside. Two Korean women browsed the women’s clothing, a Costa Rican high schooler smiled shyly at us and the leader—a Romanian woman—introduced herself and said we’d go next door for brunch in a few minutes.

At the restaurant, I settled my two kids with French toast and pushed back all the plates so my four-month-old couldn’t grab them. I looked up at the friendly new faces and we introduced ourselves. I told them I had lived in China and miss interacting with people from other countries and they each told me a small part of their story.

We didn’t talk about what was happening at that moment in Washington as we sat in the basement of an old home-turned café. We didn’t talk about marches, protests, inequality or misogyny. Instead, we communicated with the smiles that transcend language barriers, sharing simple facts about ourselves that help others build a picture of who we are in the shortest amount of time.

Afterwards, I beamed as my husband asked me how it was. This sort of thing feeds my soul. Goodbye Friday morning MOPS with your crafts and small talk, hello Friday morning International Women’s Club.

***

We got a babysitter in the evening and skipped like freed foals back to the college town. Looking for parking, cheery light burst through the windows of the music building as people mingled around and shifted into lines. Holding hands, we rushed inside and found a hundred people or more listening to instructions from the caller. Part hipster, part outdoorsman, young and fit with a beard, ironed plaid shirt and camouflage ball cap, the man leading the barn dance seemed to epitomize Colorado. A blue-grass band sat with instruments poised, ready to accompany the room of expectant men, women, and even some children of every age and class.

Soon, people were shedding outer layers and downing tiny plastic cups of water. We do-se-doed, allamanded left and right and promenaded with our partner after weaving hands with three new couples in our square. By the end of the night, my feet ached and my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. We laughed at the missteps, bumbles and wrong turns and clapped like children when we all got it right.

It made me wish church were more like this—like strangers from every walk of life forced to dance together–stepping on toes, turning the wrong direction and not taking life so seriously.

Yesterday was a heavy day for some and this day after the inauguration is full of history-making events like women’s marches, speeches and protests. I, too, have big feelings. But at the micro-level, life is still being lived.

Whether government dictates it or not, we continue the work of taking courage, keeping watch, feeding longing and feeding love. We intentionally enter uncomfortable situations as we experiment and escape our hum-drum life for a couple hours to make fools of ourselves and bounce around a room with strangers.  We learn how to belong by welcoming–and being–the stranger.