The poetic, playful and prophetic musings of quintessential voices trying to keep up with life

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Living (with Grandma)

You know how sometimes when you go to bed, you think back on your day and what you've accomplished (and haven't accomplished) is radically different than what you were planning in your head that morning?

If you had asked me last August what I was going to do in the next year, I would have said find a great job in Minneapolis, live with a couple stellar roommates, bike all over the city, and drink delicious beer.

I don't have an eloquent synopsis of the last year of my life to offer you. My story doesn't come together like a pretty gift with a perfectly tied bow on top. But most of life isn't like that, anyway.

What happened instead is this: last August I got a call from my parents that my grandma, my dad's mom, was sick. They didn't know what kind of sick or how long she would be sick, but as I didn't have a job situation figured out in Minneapolis yet, I decided to to back to Iowa for a few weeks and live with Grandma.

I continued to apply and interview for jobs in Minneapolis, but after we found out that she, in fact, had cancer and that it was, in fact, terminal, I officially moved to Iowa, found a job in Iowa City, and started learning how to live with Grandma.

One of the first things I realized was that Grandma knew a lot of people in that town. She had a ridiculous amount of visitors. So I taped a sign to the door that went to the garage (we always left the garage open) that said "Come on in!" and we became quite used to people coming into and out of the house regularly. I've also come to decide that it's a great life motto.

Grandma also received tons of cards and phone calls. We couldn't leave the house without coming back to a voicemail on the answering machine.

I've always said that people learn a lot about each other when they move in together, and I found that to be true with Grandma. I made her go to bed at 10:00 (by telling her all the grandmas go to bed at 10) and every night she would tease me about why she shouldn't have to go. I learned that she liked her kitchen a certain way, and even though she was no longer cooking food, I would never be allowed to change it. I saw the way she moved her index finder when she was thinking hard about something, the way she always answered the phone so full of energy, even if she didn't have any, and her love of watching the news three times a day.

I lived with her during the week and my aunt stayed on weekends, so I got to see a lot of friends this past year. I was everywhere from Colorado to Vermont, and dozens of places in between. I also got a massive amount of family time, as my parents visited Grandma and I twice a week, my aunt and uncle lived in town, and my aunt came every weekend.

This summer, my girlfriend, Lisa, came to Iowa and lived with Grandma and I, and I loved to joke about Grandma and her lesbian roommates. But the arrangement was good for everyone. Lisa and I went to six weddings this summer, and a couple days after she moved to Iowa, she, Grandma, my parents, my aunt, and my cousin watched me run the Minneapolis Marathon.

I was asked by a lot of people in the last year why I made the decision to move in with Grandma. The truth is, it just always felt like the right choice. We didn't always get along, but we had a pretty good time together. We laughed a lot. We walked all over the neighborhood together. We got lots of bonding time.

Grandma passed away at the beginning of August and my family and Grandma's friends (and she had a lot of them) mourned the loss of a fantastic woman.

I don't know what I'd be doing right now if I had stayed in Minneapolis, but the detour never felt like the wrong decision. Two weeks after the funeral, Lisa and I moved to Michigan's Upper Peninsula where she'll finish her last year of school. And me? I'm excited for a new adventure.

It's been a year of life and of death. But mostly life.

Thanks for joining me,

Friday, August 16, 2013

Summertime Recap

Hello, loyal Her/Story readers!  It's been a while, hasn't it?  Sorry about that, but summer...ya know?  This post isn't going to be anything real intellectually or spiritually substantial (I gotta ease back into this), but I kind of wanted to tell you all a little about my summer and what shenanigans I managed to tangle myself in.

Me at the JFK Museum
I spent the whole month of June in Boston, and was super poor so I didn't do a whole lot.  What I did do, though, was pretty sweet.  I finished editing manuscript one of my trilogy (there may be a promotional blog post about this later...stay tuned).  This was significant because editing is my LEAST favorite part of the whole book-writing process.  I was able to explore the city, though, and that was great because I hadn't been able to do a ton of that kind of thing during the school year.  I marched in the Pride Parade, which was an experience I will never forget.  I visited museums (I highly recommend visiting the JFK memorial museum and library if you're ever in the area), and spent time with many of my friends, growing closer in my relationships since we were without the overshadowing presence of school stress.  I even went to Maine, which. Is. GORGEOUS.

Glorious Maine
Most of my summer, however, I spent in Iowa with my family.  Circumstances made it necessary for me to fly home for an extended period of time, but I wasn't really upset about it.  I love Boston, and I love all of my friends there.  But I never miss Boston like I miss Iowa (
and when do miss Boston, it's mostly because of my friends there).  When I miss Iowa, I get this dull ache in my chest, like my heart is desperate to be there.  A lot of that has to do with my family (save for a cousin in Texas, pretty much my entire family, immediate and extended, is in Iowa and Nebraska), but some of it really has to do with the state itself and what goes on there.  I love Iowa in the summer.  Near the middle of summer, it gets really beautiful when the fields are green for miles and meets a wide, pure blue sky.  When faced with that, I can't help be feel happy and content.

I loved being home.  I got to watch my little brother rock at varsity baseball (he's going to be a sophomore), and help my sister prepare for her next life  I got to spend time with my mom and my dad, joking, teasing, pranking, and fighting.  I was able to see much of my extended families, through reunions of various sorts.  I hung out with some of my closest friends, and even participated in one of their weddings.  I turned 24!  I also was able to find work, and received a much appreciated scholarship that's going to go a long ways to ease my financial burdens over these next few months. 

All-in-all, my time in Iowa was wonderful, and I'm sad to be leaving.  I'm not sad to be going back to Boston, though.  Like I said, I miss my friends there and am ready to get back into a routine with school.  I have one year left before I'm forced to face the real world, and though I would love to come back to Iowa (or nearby) right away, I'm leaving myself open to whatever opportunities may arise in the near future.  I'm happy with my life, and I'm happy with where I think it's headed.  But, as summer starts drawing to a close, it's a little bittersweet.  I know that I will never be able to repeat several of the experiences I had over these last few months, and that next summer will look very different that this one has.  That's okay,'s part of growing up (or so I've been told).  So, I hope you all had a great summer as well.  I also hope you stay with Her/Story, and continue to read and interact with us.  We love doing this, and as we enter our second year of blogging together, we hope to continue doing this for a while.  Until next time!

Erin B.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Praying for Re-imagined Prayers

Hey, there. It's been awhile since our last post on Her/Story. Don't worry, we didn't go anywhere. We were just taking a little summer break, as everyone should. But we are rejuvenated and ready to share stories.

I want to spend a little time reflecting on prayer. If you consider yourself a person of faith (or not) I'm hoping that you'll spend a few minutes with me as I pour out some of my thoughts and feelings about prayer. I remember having a friend ask me a few years ago to write a blog post about my "theology" of prayer. I was 19 at the time and didn't really give the post a whole lot of thought. My opinion was something to the affect of, "Yeah, prayer is good, but we needn't always rely so much on it/pray for dumb, unrealistic things." I've matured a lot since then, and now being in Divinity school and having to do a lot more praying to get me through the chaos that is the academy, coupled with other young adult troubles/worries, I want to revisit my thoughts on prayer.

I want to be clear from the start that I do believe in the power of prayer. Unexplainable and extraordinary things happen every day, which some folks credit to God answering their prayers. I'm not trying to take that spiritual comfort away from anyone. But I do think there is merit to probing our assumptions about prayer and why it's [supposedly] a key marker of what makes a "faithful" person. I also think that generally there's a lot of bad theology floating around out there and when our prayers don't get answered, people tend to get angry with God and take it out on the church. There are a lot of ways to pray, and many kinds of prayer, but I want to talk specifically about the kind that goes on in Christian churches/circles as it relates to assumptions about who God is and what God does. I'm not claiming to have an ultimate authority on the subject, but in my experience prayer isn't as simple as I once thought. So, let's unpack some things.

For me, prayer hasn't been a thing I could easily or actively engage in because I was thinking about it in ways that made me very uncomfortable. Any time I imagined praying, I felt rigid and fake because in my head (and probably in the heads of many other folks) prayer has been conceived a linear pattern of rituals, words or actions that aren't easily connectable. I say 'easily' here because I personally do find a lot of beauty, comfort and hope in the ancient prayers of the Christian church, but I know that not everyone is down for high-church, scripted prayers. But even when we Protestants or low-church folk talk of "praying what's on our hearts" there's enormous pressure to say the right things in the right way even if no one acknowledges that pressure. If you've ever been asked to pray over a meal or give a reading at someone's celebration/funeral, you might know what I'm talking about. As much as we might not want to admit, we hang onto those words and hope they fill the void(s) in our lives and hearts. Knowing all of that, I felt like a phony pray-er because I couldn't embody the words I was saying that were supposed to mean something.

As a post-evangelical-ish person, one of the things I could never stand about being in that kind of environment was having people constantly say to me, "I'll be praying for you" whenever I wasn't 100%. It wasn't that I didn't like that people were thinking about me...but it was the way they said it that made me feel ashamed or in need of pity. I'm not a person who likes to admit I need help very often, so the last thing I want is a bunch of folks feeling sorry for me, fasting, and begging God to help me. It also doesn't actually do anything practical to help...

If I'm being honest here, prayer has become a cliche. Or rather, the PERCEPTION of prayer is cliche. It's become a way of saying, "I'm really sorry for what's happening, but instead of doing something about it, I'll just think optimistically that it will get better." That may or may not be the sentiment that all folks have when they talk about praying, but it's certainly how it sounds in my ears about 80% of the time.

I'm a firm believer that there's no one way to pray, but what if we change the way we think about prayer and what it means to pray?

What if the image of prayer that came to mind is not one of asking and receiving? What if our understanding of prayer was not of being a "warrior" on the defense against evil or standing on the battle fields? What would happen if we stop asking so much of God, or any other higher power, so to not set ourselves up for failure when the outcome of our wishes is not what we thought it would be?

Recently I was driving by a church that had a sign out front that read: "If you pray, you need not worry. If still worried, then pray."

Is this what having faith means? What does this imply about prayer, praying, and how we live our lives? Has our relationship with divine-creator God been reduced to a spiritual transaction? Is prayer a commodity for feeding God's ego, or maybe our own?

I understand this ideology often comes from a particular reading of Matthew 6:25-34, and to an extent, yes, we should not be consumed with worry to the point that we cannot live a full life. But this theological view of prayer and what it means to be a "faithful" person is precisely what I find troubling as I look at the prospect of a future in ministry. -- If I pray a little harder I won't have to worry about paying rent? Or being a statistic of the 1 in 4 women who are sexually assaulted in their lifetime? Or whether there will be justice given to my neighbors experiencing oppression at the hands of the government and/or society? Or for the health and well-being of those I love? ... Does worry mean lack of faithfulness?

I sincerely hope not.

What this comes down to is a question of God's sovereignty versus human free will and agency over our own actions. This debate has captivated Christian thought for centuries. However, I'm not about to dive into that in this post. I'll save it for a constructive theology paper.

What I will say is that for a lot of people, being worried about things can be a motivator. It can also be a stressor that can be disastrous to our health, which is what I think the passage in Matthew is getting at. I don't think it means a person who worries lacks faith. Surely prayer is important. But maybe the act of praying can have an influence on the way in which we see our worry. Maybe acknowledging our worry can compel us to act.

This summer I was feeling bored at work and decided to browse Craigslist. I know what you might be thinking... But for a poor grad student, Craigslist is a treasure trove of things I wouldn't normally be able to afford brand new in a retail store. So whatevs. On this particular day, I decided I was going to buy a guitar. I don't really know why, but I've always wanted to learn to play. And since I'm living in Nashville, it seemed like a good enough idea. I found a barely used Fender acoustic guitar with a chord book, unopened pack of strings, picks, tuner, capo and soft gig bag for $75. Jackpot.

I've been teaching myself to play that guitar, and damnit, I love it. I'm getting better at switching between chords and things, and can sort of play a number of praise band songs of which I happen to have the tabs for. I was getting nostalgic for my days on the worship music scene; judge me.

But as I was strumming a very simple version of Amazing Grace one rainy afternoon, a very strong and powerful energy took hold of my body. I ignored all pain and numbness in my fingertips and simply sang and played while the candle light flickered against the foggy, rain-splashed window of my living room. I was crying. And I was praying.

At the time I was thinking about my future and my calling to serve in ministry. As I experienced this moment, I felt God saying to me that it's ok to be unsure. My questions about ordination in the United Methodist Church would be answered in time, and my heart would lead me to a place where my gifts could be utilized and graciously received. I felt calm. I felt less anxious about my upcoming year in seminary and that, in time, I would find my way.

I tell that story because after that moment, my perspective about prayer changed forever.

I'm convinced prayer isn't always about sitting in church, saying things in unison, hoping things will change. Nor is prayer only when we're talking to God before bed, or in the shower, or when you're in desperate need of something. Prayer is not a transaction. Prayer is a mindset that carries action and a way of embodying the Spirit.

We have the ability to pray with our bodies, minds and hearts in ways that don't have to look like the static, linear ways we've always known. It's when we are in full communion with God and with others that prayer can take on a whole new life of its own with dynamic meaning and powerful resonance. Prayer, coupled with faith and not a lack thereof, is what motivates us to respond in times of uncertainty. What I felt was a physiological and spiritual release during and post-prayer that I can only attribute to being in a certain state or consciousness, which I hardly experience when I'm asked to pray over a meal or during the 'joys and concerns' portion of a church service.

This doesn't mean I think prayer is only a meditative practice which lacks the ability to communicate struggles, fears, doubts, joys and praises. Quite the contrary. Prayer can do all of those things. What I disagree with is the notion that prayer fixes all our problems, and once we utter some words we no longer have control... Or that praying hard and often will be a cure-all for chaos. I think prayer is beautiful, liberating and hope-filled in so many ways...but not in the ways I normally hear prayer spoken of. The act of praying has the ability to comfort, heal and deliver, which allows us to see God's activity and presence in answering what's on our hearts and minds. (Note that I didn't say God is answering all prayers in the way we want... Nor do I think God is some meany-head who just chooses to ignore prayers.)

Since that afternoon, instead of just sitting around hoping my anxiety would go away on its own, I've been reaching out to people, talking, and listening hard. I'm confident that I will "find my way", but I've been seeking the guidance of the professors, friends and mentors to help me discern my future. Sitting, playing and praying that afternoon as energized and motivated me to make decisions and take initiative in a way I probably wouldn't have done if I was just going through the motions of school, work, sleep, repeat.

I think it's time we see how prayer, as an activity and not simply an action, can open new doors and possibilities of how to be in fuller presence and relationship with God and neighbor. I know so many people who think prayer is useless because the way it has been conceived is of talking to thin air, or in stuffy pews, or as a condescending remark on a pass-by. Prayer should be opening our eyes to God's presence and vision of justice. Prayer should be illuminating paths for community and relationship building. Prayer should be full of dynamic energy that inspires us to act, for ourselves and with (not on behalf of) others.

Prayer in and of itself is not a marker of what makes the most faithful person. Rather, prayer helps us envision what faith means lived in the world.

Thanks for listening,
Erin G.


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