Guest Rooms

It’s been another too-long stretch since we headed back to our panhandle origins and I’m feeling the ache this April as the snow just keep seeping in whenever we think we are solidly into springtime.

While I was grateful to avoid the arduous trip down to Florida while pregnant or with a newborn, life doesn’t stop for morning sickness and aching backs, and I’ve got a whole crop of new babies to meet when we head down in a few weeks.

This will be our first time not staying at our childhood homes when we travel back, but I think with the birth of Elizabeth we’ve finally outgrown our parents’ houses. It’s a bittersweet point: we will have more privacy and better sleep when we aren’t sardined into the houses that saw our teenage years, but it’s tempting to feel a little exiled.Read More »

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Hurricane Thoughts

I’m a native Floridian. I’m also a professional worrier, so my mind last week was on Irma a lot, praying for friends and family in its path.

And coming after Hurricane Harvey, which probably elicited a Hail Mary or two from me, or the fires out West, which pretty much flew under my radar, I’m feeling some guilt about my completely arbitrary distribution of compassion.

I was talking about this with a friend recently, who at the time was fretting about what Hurricane Irma might do to her Outer Banks vacation, and of course feeling guilty about that, when so much greater suffering is occurring as a result. After all, while a hurricane might obligingly spin out to sea and leave everyone untouched, generally, if you’re praying for the safety of one set of people, you’re sort of sacrificing other sets who will end up in the storm’s path instead.

While we were talking, though, over breakfast in our church’s basement, she pointed to a poster with the photos of current seminarians in our diocese. She admitted that each year, as she comforted unruly babies during Mass, she’d pick, at random, one of the seminarians and pray for him over the course of the year. (I love this idea, don’t you?)

And suddenly, the arbitrary allotment of prayer didn’t seem so selfish. We are human; we are finite. (News fatigue is a thing, after all.) We form a connection, as deep as the third-generation Florida blood that runs in my veins or as serendipitous as a face chosen at random off a poster, and we devote our efforts deeply, if not broadly.

It’s the same reason, after all, that since returning from Uganda in 2009, J and I have devoted much of our (admittedly often limited) philanthropy and prayers to Uganda. We only spent six months there, almost ten years ago, but I have a bit of a better context to focus my prayers and guide my financial giving: I know the towns where the people we fund through Kiva live; I know bits of the Lhukonzo our Compassion International child speaks.

I can’t care as deeply for everyone affected by natural disaster as those living in the landscapes in which I’m mostly deeply rooted; I cannot grieve the losses of every child the way I pray for my Compassion child in the loss of his father. That’s not to say I can’t care more, pray more, give more — I have a very long way to go! It’s only to say that you have causes, and I have causes, and if each of us in the world take up a few causes of our own, dear to our hearts, and nourish them well, that might be a good starting place. Breaking the world into small, meaningful chunks and loving those around us as best we can — that seems like a plan we can just about manage.

 

The Lola Quartet and the Disintegration of Community

I picked up The Lola Quartet in a little bookstore’s closing sale in Montgomery, Alabama. I ached for the little business, blinking out of existence just as my brother-in-law and his wife moved within walking distance, but I couldn’t help but pick up a few half-priced impulse purchases. I loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and hoped I’d love this novel, one of her earlier books, just as much.

I bought The Lola Quartet in Montgomery, but read it in a blankly comfortable Knoxville hotel room as the kids slept, and finished it on the monotonous interstate of Tennessee and Virginia.

The book is literary noir but between the whodunit details breathe a rich setting and striking questions about identity, community, and loneliness. Mandel’s South Florida reminds me of nothing so much as the world of The Orchid Thieflush and quietly malevolent.

These days we are in the middle of buying our first ever house, and I grew uneasy as the protagonist Gavin takes a job with his sister, who sells foreclosed homes in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse. Gavin, long a New York apartment dweller, considers houses “[t]hese enormous anchors that people tied to their lives,” but his radical alienation is hardly the solution.

Mandel returns again and again to the sameness of everywhere — “Only the names of the towns varied, and the towns were like envelopes with all the contents the same.” Here is the stage where evil lurks behind closed doors, where abuse, neglect and addiction run rampant. It’s a hypnotically awful world, and it is, of course, our own, where every stop on the interstate offers the same fast food chains, where every suburban house is its own hermetically sealed mystery.

Gavin, like Binx Bolling in The Moviegoerseems more aware of this hollowness than those around him, and embarks on a quest that, for a time, brings meaning to his crumbling life. The people he encounters, in their late 20s and early 30s like me, are all frantically or else numbly lonely. They come from estranged or indifferent families and, despite their best efforts, are well on the way to repeating the pattern. Mandel doesn’t offer an anecdote, or much hope for this old high school quartet and its hangers-on, but her dark conclusion, perhaps, suggests what we must work against:

“On either side of the highway the suburbs continued uninterrupted, a continuous centreless glimmering of lights, shadows of palm trees on parking lots, malls shining like beacons and he was nowhere, this could be any suburb on the edge of any city but it seemed to him that none of the cities had edges anymore, just a long slow reach across landscapes.”

In our lives and in our new house, we must work against this insidious encroachment. We must respect the uniqueness of the landscape in which we find ourselves and support the businesses and culture that make it unique. We must resist the empty beacons of mindless consumption, never letting our house or our habits become a financial anchor around our necks. Most importantly, we must open our home to the wholesome air and light, and welcome in those who find themselves on the anonymous fringes.

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