20Jan
Orion Nebula

A Sense of Somebodiness

I didn’t move for a long time this morning after listening to the Letter From A Birmingham Jail.

I’d read it before, but this was the first time I’d plugged in my ear buds and let the words roll in one by one, slowly enough to saturate and pool beneath my ribs. This is the first year that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has felt to me more like a movement than a memorial.

I have struggled with, and ultimately abandoned, many versions of this post over the last six months. The truth is that I’m a white girl from the South, and if I can speak about racial inequality from experience, it’s only because I know what it is to be on the pedestal. I was born onto it, as many were (and many more were not). I grew up so accustomed to its perimeter that I didn’t see it as anything out of the natural order of creation until somewhere much closer to adulthood than not.

After Ferguson, I listened like it was my job. I heard the chorus singing Look! Listen! This is real!, and I felt like I’d suffocate from the enormity of the truth I was hearing if I didn’t push it back out into the world with my own voice. Others were suffocating in real life though, and the last thing I wanted to do was to make #icantbreathe about myself. I couldn’t find a way to advocate that didn’t feel like trying to reclaim my pedestal.

Silence hasn’t sat well with me either though. The Letter From A Birmingham Jail was written to white moderates who were sympathetic to social justice issues but ultimately more concerned with not ruffling feathers. Meanwhile, the group being discriminated against by society were “so drained of self respect and a sense of ‘somebodiness’ that they [had] adjusted to segregation.” How a human soul can disintegrate in the silence of those with good intentions.

I know what it is to grow up on the pedestal, to be told that nothing stands between myself and the stars. Somebodiness is woven into the bedtime stories we tell our children. It’s as much a part of our vernacular as are confidence and constitutional rights. When I hear that kids are growing up absent of it or feeling their sense of personal relevance leeched from their bones by the same society that supported me, I want to push a refresh button until it all starts making sense. How can there still be inequality in 2015? How can “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” still be considered more important than putting wrongs to right?

It all swirled in the air around me after I finished listening to Dr. King’s words this morning, a complicated and deeply sobering nebula of past and present truths. I had no influence over the circumstances of my birth—the DNA braided into the pigment of my skin, the culture poised to catch me. Even now, it’s easy to think that I’m just a product of my environment, just a white girl with white privilege guilt who is no more capable of changing the world than she is of bustin’ a rhyme.

I know what a sense of somebodiness looks like though, and if Buechner is right about God calling us “to the place where [our] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” then maybe this is where I can be the change—noticing where the lie of “nobodiness” has latched on in the environment around me and starting there, staying small, being willing to ruffle feathers at my own expense, giving up the comfort of silence if it means gaining even a millimeter toward a more just world. It’s not much, but it’s a start toward one of the truest portraits of heaven-on-earth I’ve ever heard:

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. (from the end of his Letter From a Birmingham Jail)

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15Jan
Book Stories - The Original

Book Stories: The Original

On the recommendation of about half my social media feed, I finally checked out the novel Lila a few weeks ago. (A digital library account is an expat girl’s best friend.) In case you haven’t heard of it, the book centers on a woman who grew up as a family-less migrant worker during the Dust Bowl years, and at first, I was sure the story was going to end as gritty and bleak as its historical setting. In fact, I put it down about a third of the way through and had to talk myself into picking it back up a week later. I was so wary of letting myself be dragged into a fictional despair.

By the end of the book though, I understood how Marilynne Robinson had won a Pulitzer for Lila’s prequel. Her writing transported me simultaneously out of my life and into a deeper plane of it. The final chapters were so stunning, so honest and tender and hope-spun, that I just sat with the finished book for a while keeping company with my own experience of it.

And these were my first two thoughts, in order of appearance:

  1. That book was so inspiring. I can’t wait to crack open my laptop tomorrow morning and work on fleshing out some storylines of my own.
  2. That book was so intimidating. How can I possibly write another word of my own knowing that artists like Marilynne Robinson exist?

This is the black hole into which creative types have been tripping since that first cave man thought to contrast his stick-mastodon with that of his neighbor. Comparison is a void from which not even light can escape. I know that. We all know that. And yet…

It’s so easy to let someone else’s work mean something about my own, especially when that work induces some kind of emotional reaction in me. “I love that book” turns almost automatically into “I could never hope to write something like that;” “I hate that book” blurs immediately into “I could do so much better.” And all the while, my creative, original soul shrinks further into the background, forgotten. You know exactly what I’m talking about, yes? If it’s not about art, it’s about fashion sense or professional accomplishment or interior design choices or parenting styles. We compare as if those artificial pedestals were the ground holding us up.

I’ve been in the process of figuring out where to allot my time and energy this year, and there’s a phrase I keep returning to. It’s from the Bible, actually, though you wouldn’t think it. (That’s why I love the Message version; it always surprises me.) At some point, I’m going to frame these six words in some clever Pinteresty way and paste them above my desk so that I can’t help seeing them each time I glance up:

“Each of us is an original.”

This is the bedrock under the pedestals, the antidote to the endless game of measurements. And it’s what I’ve been returning to each time I’ve lingered on the genius of Lila. It allows the book to be beautiful without it reflecting a single blessed thing on me. The relief of that cannot be overstated. It’s like unstrapping a pair of ten-pound ankle weights, or like plucking a capacity for inspiration out of thin air. The freedom to be original is Lila’s gift to me at the outset of this year. Or more accurately, it’s the gift I’m giving myself through her.

Book Stories - Lila

In this series, I’m foregoing traditional book reviews and instead sharing Book Stories—why certain books have impacted me, how they’ve entwined themselves through my life, and what the long-term effects are. After all, what better way to talk about stories than through the medium of story?

(If you have your own close encounter of the literary kind you’d like to share here, just send it on over to hello{at}bethanybassett{dot}com.) 

9Jan
Winter in Umbria 2

Move It (Metaphorically Speaking)

Last weekend, we drove to an outlet mall a little ways out of town. I’d intended to use the opportunity for a nap, still feeling every bit a shadow wraith after our 4 a.m. New Year’s Eve, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenery. Winter in Umbria is an unconventional beauty. They call this the Green Heart of Italy because of its evergreens—spruces nodding their tufted heads in time with junipers, cypresses straight-backed and regal—but I’m captivated by the deciduous trees as well, their line-drawn latticework against the blue, each birds’ nest the silhouette of a secret. White-tipped mountains smudge the horizon. In the foreground, tilled fields and olive groves follow the eccentric lilt of the landscape. Each town has a way of looking like it was grown here, stone towers and archways hugging the hilltops and the low winter sun fanning through. The general effect is that of a Van Gogh painting.

“Why don’t we go out exploring more often?” Dan asked me.

“Because we never have it on our schedule.”

As I answered, I thought about how easily a schedule can function as blinders, the parameters of my day confined to whatever I’ve planned out beforehand. I appreciate having a schedule, just as I appreciate lists and goal outlines and brainstorming diagrams and all manner of ISTJ-happy organizational strategies. I actually put “Apply makeup” on my to-do list for this morning, if that gives you an idea of how much satisfaction I find in mapping out every last moment. (Yes, I have problems.)

It’s easy to get stuck in a perpetual state of planning though. My focus can be so narrow and unaccepting of deviation that waking up in the morning can feel like staring down a ski chute. Did you see the “Best Ski Line of 2014” video going around a few weeks ago? Like that. The precision of it all has a way of paralyzing me, and it’s easier to keep refining my plan, adding more items to the list, and maybe going back to my brainstorming pages than it is to kick off.

Not getting things done, of course, leads to profound dissatisfaction at the end of a day, and not having space to maneuver beyond my schedule—going out with my family to explore the winter landscape, for instance—crushes. As I’ve been thinking this week about how to beat both the paralysis and the inflexibility in this new year, two words have come to mind: “Move it.” It’s a mantra, a motto, a ridiculously catchy children’s song, and a reminder. “Move it” means taking action, doing the things that I’m liable to keep putting off forever. It also means shaking a little, shimmying a lot, cultivating the art of wiggle room in my life.

I hadn’t really planned on coming up with a word (or, uh, a phrase) for 2015, but it seems like one found me all the same, my direction for the year now pirouetting like Van Gogh hills toward the horizon.

Winter in Umbria 4

P.S. – Have you picked a word or a phrase for the new year? I’d love to hear it!

5Jan
Moonrise

Resolution for the Un-Invincible

In college, I used to stay up all night so often that four a.m. almost lost its filter of delirium. Sometimes I’d put my favorite Ben Folds Five album on repeat while I caught up on work. Other times I stayed up for the pleasure of ambling down lamplit paths with a friend in the deep Texas hush. In retrospect, I can’t figure out if I’m glad that I befriended the night back when my only real responsibility was keeping up my grade point average or if I want to shake some sense into that college girl who didn’t recognize her perpetual exhaustion for what it was.

I still have to remind myself that the skinned-knee tenderness at the front of my emotions in the week following New Year’s Eve is fatigue, not inadequacy. It’s so easy to underestimate my need for rest. I see it clearly in my daughters, the link between sleep-deprival and total personal fragmentation, but my perspective blurs when I look at myself. Even all these years into adulthood, a part of me still insists on believing that grown-ups are superheroes.

If I were to adopt any one resolution this January, it would be this: to approach bedtime with mindfulness and gratitude instead of careless disregard.

This isn’t an easy one (though what resolution ever is?). There’s something prowling and nocturnal in my makeup, and the thinner the hours stretch, the easier it is for me to believe myself invincible. Time loses its price tag. I see the dark and the quiet as valuables that someone has left out on the curb, and I have to fight every thrifty, curious instinct in me to leave them be, to declare the day sufficient unto itself.

Right now, though, I’ve cleared enough of the post-holiday fatigue to remember just how smoothly the gears of life slip into place when I’ve gotten enough rest. This seems too basic and obvious a point to bother writing out until I consider how often I neglect it. Sometimes the simple truths of our biology are the hardest to approach with reverence or even acceptance. Thus the resolution: to end my days with gentle determination, to respect my own need to recharge, and to treasure sleep as if it were my greatest asset in 2015.

Because, in some ways, it is.


How about you? Any self-care strategies you’re focusing on in the new year?

31Dec
Snowflake on a bud

New Year’s in 2D

Traditionally, New Year’s Eve is personified as an old man with a pocket watch, but this day strikes me more as a teenager, awkward in orange vest and bowtie, manning a bin of disposable 3D glasses. There are plenty of pairs to go around and the promise of a year in review once we put them on. Inevitably, though, the red and blue cellophane lenses are wrinkled and the paper frames keep sliding down our noses and our visions have trouble adjusting to the depth and scope of what we’re seeing. Or is it just me?

I’m struggling to hold the entirety of 2014 in my gaze right now. As much as I treasure perspective and closure, I can’t seem to zoom out enough to get the shape of the year—all its triumphs and frustrations and the few big changes uncapping like matryoshka dolls to reveal an infinity of smaller ones. This is how it is every New Year’s Eve. My mind is still licking red and green sugar off its fingers and trying to remember what I used to do with myself before Christmas came to town.

I used to write. I know this much. I used to wake up in the morning with a thousand ideas straining against the confines of whatever responsible, grown-uppish tasks were scheduled for the day. I recently asked a friend looking into graduate programs (hi, K!) what kind of writing she was hoping to do, and she answered, “all of it.” I know exactly how she feels. The desire to make art out of inklings only gets stronger with time.

There’s the desire for community as well—to cultivate it always more, to live in our neighborhood and our church and our city as people invested in the outcomes. I did better at this in October and November, but I also ended up flat in bed with my breath clenched tight around a runaway heartbeat. I need to learn to do smaller more deeply.

There are so many other bits of myself, past, present, and future, bobbing around my periphery, indistinguishable from one another in 3D. Trying to pin down the nuances of this past year keeps pulling me straight into the next on the same threads of hope, and I wonder if that’s all New Year’s Eve should be after all—a surge of forward momentum, a hello.

Real live snowflakes are waltzing around my window right now (a once-every-two-years kind of sight here in central Italy), and tenderloin is roasting for a low-key evening with friends. The girls are in the next room chatting in the vein of sisters who will never, ever run out of things to say to each other. Dan is cooking lunch; glory be. My fingers are typing out the rust, and a whole new year is waiting in the wings, and it’s enough. My year doesn’t have to be processed in reverse to be complete. Sometime in the future I’ll look back and see the perimeter of 2014 backlit clearly by hindsight, but it doesn’t need to happen today, whatever the kid with the bin of disposable glasses says.

Here’s to the hope-threads stretching ahead, to every bright possibility we’ll be toasting at midnight. Welcome, 2015!

Merry Christmas 2014(And however you celebrate, happiest of holidays from the four of us!)

8Dec
06 - Luggage

7 Years a Gentile

Come the first of December each year, our family calendar changes from a responsible and somewhat sickly matron into a party animal. There are get-togethers and game nights and recitals and celebrations, and we love winding down (up?) the year in the company of our friends and neighbors. Plus, holiday food here makes the herald angels sing. 

The holidays can be a mixed bag of emotions though (as everyone everywhere in the world knows from experience), and one particular source of mixed emotion for me is the fact that I’m so far from my own relatives and culture during a season devoted to both. December doesn’t so much pull me out of my element as remind me that I’ve been living out of it the past seven and a half years.

And I’m glad it does. The experience I have had and continue to have as a foreigner has changed me for the better, shifting my field of vision and even teaching me to read the Bible like a proper Gentile (that basically means Muggle in ancient Jewish context). More about this, including a vocabulary tip you can use to scandalize your Italian friends, over at A Deeper Story today:

~~~

I suspect that the only difference between an expat and an immigrant is the amount of money a person brings with her into her adopted country… and I’m not entirely sure which one this makes me.

In 2007, my husband and I moved to Italy for work, but not for lack of opportunities back in the US. Admittedly, my English degree is in far greater demand overseas, but Dan turned down several good engineering jobs so that we could follow the invisible strings tugging our hearts across the Atlantic. This is where folks tend to look at us with envy (if they’re American) or with incredulity (if they’re Italian). Everyone, regardless of nationality, thinks we’re at least 65% nuts. Invisible strings? Riiiiight…

The truth is that Dan and I are weird hybrids of travel enthusiast and missionary, and if you’ll pardon a quick detour into Christianese, we feel called to this life. We find ourselves rooted to Italian soil by something so strong and so inclusive of who we are that it covers a multitude of bureaucratic headaches. Daily life is daily life pretty much anywhere on the planet, but when we stop to absorb what we’re doing on a deeper level, we’re overcome by gratitude that we get to raise our girls in the culture that brought us both the Sistine Chapel and the double espresso. We love this place we’ve chosen to call home.

Italian soccer game 2

That said, these last seven years here have stretched us. (That’s missionary code for “This shizzle is HARD.”) The fascist dictator Mussolini is quoted as having said, “Governing Italians is not impossible, merely useless,” and I’m convinced that he must have said that after going to his local DMV and seeing what passed for a line. Those bureaucratic headaches I mentioned earlier are no joke, not only because the odds of receiving the correct documents in a timely fashion are slightly worse than those of winning the Powerball but because “standing” in “line” is a contact sport here. My Type A soul needs a solid week to recover from each institutional errand.

And then there’s the language.

{Continue reading over at A Deeper Story}

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5Dec
Eric Garner Protest

Chains Shall He Break

No hymn has ever gotten to me the way O Holy Night does. In fact, I tend to get itchy around hymns in general, but something about this one strums a resonant chord straight into my solar plexus and out the other side. If I were a good evangelical, I’d call it powerful. (And if I were a sufficiently ironic hipster, I’d call it trippy.) Admittedly, gaping-chest-wound is not the feel one usually looks for in Christmas songs, but there are some years when it’s a deep comfort, when getting busted open by lyrics about social justice and hope helps to make sense of all the other things busting our world apart.

This is one of those years.

You know what I’m talking about, I expect. Michael Brown’s and Tamir Rice’s and Eric Garner’s faces have been on the news here in Italy too, and I glance at the TV over my treadmill and feel another crack splintering across the surface of my heart. This ache has no borders.

I’ve been reading some of the stories and avoiding some, and each has its price. When I wade into the details of tragedy, I feel as though they’ll suffocate me. When I choose not to read though, to give myself a break from all the heartache, I’m distancing myself from a reality that dear friends of mine don’t have the option of escaping. My inability to breathe is only figurative. Not a real possibility. Not the script of realest loss.

I’m doing my best to listen to those who have the most to teach me right now, and what they’re saying is that racism and systematic oppression are not confined to the past. That Christianity is still very much a platform for prejudice. That people whose skin color makes them look threatening actually have far more reason to feel threatened by mine. That whatever pain I might feel over the injustice I see in the world, it can’t compare with the pain of those actually experiencing it. That my voice right now matters more than I realized.

O Holy Night is cycling through my headphones again, and the words press up against the raw of this week:

“Truly he taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease”

My mind can’t fathom what it would be like for all oppression to cease, but my soul has an inkling, and it feels like no coincidence that the first candle of Advent stands for hope—that “thing with feathers” which fills the dark with music and helps us believe against all reason and experience that one day we will recognize each other as kin.

None of us, I imagine, was hoping to spend these holiday weeks busted open and aching. This is about as far from tinsel as a soul can get. That doesn’t mean we’ve derailed from the season though. I especially appreciate Christena Cleveland’s recent thoughts on Advent:

“It was into this ‘worst world’ that the Light-in-which-We-See-Light was born, liberating the people from the terror of darkness. So it is in the midst of our worst world that we, too, can most clearly see the Light, for light shines more brightly against a backdrop of true darkness.”

Or, as Sarah Bessey puts it, “Advent is for the ones who know longing.”

This December, the weariness of our world is real to me as it never has been before. Not to say that violence or oppression are new arrivals, but I’m listening more closely this year. I’m willing my eyes to follow the threads of inequality woven deep, deep into the fabric of society and throughout my own thinking as well. I’m absorbing the stories of people (including friends) who have been harassed for being #alivewhileblack. I’m doing my best to engage with the discomfort instead of ignoring or rationalizing it away. I’m grieving, not with the same weight of experience but nonetheless with those who are grieving right now.

And it’s this year more than any other that Emmanuel, God-with-us, feels like a lifeline to this whole spinning, busted-open planet. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. Good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. A thrill of hope that one day, the first light of morning will spill over a humanity-sized heap of broken chains.

The weary world rejoices.


(If you can get past the organ music and the videography, this performance might just punch a hole through your solar plexus too.)

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