Where Is Home?


So, where are you from?

One of my favorite things about teaching is getting to meet new students. One of the first questions I ask them is, where are you from? I have been pondering that same question for myself. It is more complicated than I thought. What is home? Where you were born and raised? Where you were educated? Your nation of origin? Where you currently live?

I was born in Idaho and lived there until I was 19. However, I often felt I didn’t fit in. We lived in a tight knit Mormon community with an economy that was largely agricultural. My family was divorced or “broken,” (a term often used then). We did not fit the Mormon family mold. I had no interest in farming, hunting, fishing, football or anything that mattered to so many of the people I grew up around. Being different did not give me a sense of confidence, independence or uniqueness. I felt odd, out of place, and like a misfit. I never wondered what was wrong about everyone else, I figured something was wrong with me.

I left home for a two-year church mission to Canada at age 19. I often tell people I was born and raised in Idaho but I grew up in Canada. This is where my confidence first came. I realized I was at home and at peace with my belief in God. I found success and fulfillment with the work I was doing. For the first time in my life, I realized I liked who I was and what I was doing. It also helped that others saw my abilities and found value in them. Looking back, it’s no surprise I chose religious education as a career.

My college life, early career, marriage and children also came while in Idaho. So, it would be easy to call that place home. Yet, I always felt an odd tension with my political beliefs and the deep conservatism of Idaho. I often felt I had to explain myself to others.

Shortly after finishing my PhD, we moved to Indiana for my work. I loved Indianapolis! I found a love of sports I didn’t know I had. Also, living in the middle of the country, it was easy to make trips and see parts of the nation we hadn’t seen. During our Indiana time, we visited all the continental United States together as a family. I learned to love travel and seeing new things I had never appreciated before.

Three years ago, we moved to Massachusetts. I have fallen in love with New England! I have loved living in the city! I love the diversity of perspectives and experiences people have–the exposure to art, language and culture. It has been thrilling. Many people in Massachusetts share my political beliefs but don’t share my religious convictions. Part of me feels like I never fit anywhere, but long to be everywhere.

Of course, to me, home is where my family is and that’s now complex. I have children and family in multiple times zones–traveling to see them is time consuming and expensive. Being all together is far too infrequent. I can honestly say I have loved everywhere I have lived. I have grown and learned something from everywhere I have been. So, I guess I know where I have been, and where I am now. What that means going forward I’m not sure yet but I’m pretty sure I will like it.

“Mind The Gap.”

Most everybody has seen the sign or heard the phrase “Mind the Gap,” it’s used in the London underground to remind passengers to be careful of the gap between the platform and the train. Whenever I think of that phrase now, I instead think of this powerful short message from famed producer and storyteller Ira Glass. His basic assertion is this: after time and exposure to a particular type of art you become more discerning, you develop great taste. Your ability to understand the complexity of the art is now helping you develop a mature sense of the art. Once that happens, you might find yourself with a desire to produce art. That’s when the trouble starts. You produce something and now that you have discerning taste, you begin to recognize the immaturity of your own production! You begin to recognize the gap!
Once we produce art and see that it comes up short, many of us stop producing art. We simply quit. Mr. Glass suggests instead of quitting, we need to close the gap. The best way to close the gap is to produce more work–to force yourself to create more and more until you have narrowed and closed the gap. I love this idea! I find it liberating. Instead of being defeated because your work isn’t great take comfort in the fact that you understand it isn’t great! You now have the good taste to recognize the gap; to quit now only leaves you discouraged and vulnerable.
Here are some things that helped me have the courage to work on closing the gap:

1. Don’t buy the hype about being financially rewarded. Why have a monetary expectation for what you produce? I get it, we all need money to make the world go around. But surely there can be satisfaction from work you produce that goes beyond monetary reward. We don’t play league softball or sing in the church choir hoping to get discovered or have those interests become incomes. We do it because we love it! Let that be the same with your art! Especially the the gap work.

2. Force yourself to work at it. Take a community education class, enter your painting into the county fair, audition for the your local theater’s production of King Lear (if your local theater is doing King Lear you may need to move) take a risk, share your gift, make yourself do it! I guarantee you if you pay $100 for a Community Ed class you’ll do it. Set deadlines, have an accountability partner, make yourself produce a body of work.

3. Don’t compare yourself, complete yourself. Of course you will evaluate your work compared to others, evaluating art is what helped you develop great taste in the first place! However, allow yourself to have the gap. Embrace it! Remind yourself you are working to improve your art, to improve who you, are to be a richer, fuller person!

4. Be patient and persistent. Give it some time, give it some space, but don’t give yourself an out. Make yourself produce work! Just don’t beat yourself up when you see the gap.

The older I get the more I admire those who produce things. My own appreciation for art is growing–with that comes a sense of inadequacy and fear as I am more keenly aware of the gap that exists in my own work. When I find myself tempted to quit, I just remember to “Mind the Gap.”

This is going to require more than orange juice.

img_2733The other day I was walking into the convenience store next to my apartment building. There was a man sitting on the bench outside shaking. He looked at me and asked if I would buy him an orange juice. I get approached by panhandlers multiple times every day. I typically look away or say, “I’m sorry I don’t have any cash.” Sometimes I do have a dollar so I will give, more often than not, I do not give. His question to me that morning was both casual and earnest. He asked as if I was his longtime friend with an ease that implied of course I would be willing to help a brother out, like I might ask an old friend after golfing to spot me the two bucks for a Gatorade. Yet there was an earnestness about it too, a kind of humble pleading, made more sympathetic by his uncontrollable shaking. It touched me then, as does reflecting on it now. There was no way I was not going to buy him an orange juice. I’m embarrassed to say that’s all I did for him. I gave him the orange juice and said, “Have a great day.” I don’t think he has had many great days. I’m not certain what more I could have or should have done, but in the week since it happened, it has caused me to reflect.

I believe it is incumbent upon all of us, regardless of faith or political affiliation, to work together to help the poor. Taking care of the poor is our spiritual and civic duty. All of the major world religions teach the need to care for the poor and most non-religious people keep it as a moral creed. We are our brother’s keeper. No doubt part of the solution will be our continued commitment to capitalism and free markets, these have been the greatest emancipators of the poor in the history of mankind. They have and do liberate the world’s poor in ways never imagined. However, left unchecked by democratic reforms, capitalism and free markets become oppressive overlords that “grind the face of the poor” Isaiah 3:15, and “devour the widow and orphan,” Malachi 3:15. No one wants to return to the days of kids in coal mines or the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

Our wealth inequality here and abroad should be a cause of concern and alarm. Here in the United States, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, there is not one state where minimum wage is enough to rent a two bedroom apartment!

How we care for the poor is complex. It will require families, communities and churches to work in concert. It will, and should be, a matter of constant dialogue and debate. If this proverb is true, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of the least among them,” and I believe it is, we will all need to do more than blame the poor, ignore them, or hand out an orange juice to appease our guilt.

Thank you, Mr. Trump. Your example of moral leadership has blessed my life.

I am trying every day to be a better person, and Mr. Trump is helping me do that. I was convinced during the campaign he would never receive the nomination. I remember saying with some certitude the Republicans would never let him obtain the nomination. As is often the case, I was wrong. With almost equal certitude, I was convinced the American public would not vote for Mr. Trump. Once again, I was wrong. 

His election and his time in office have caused me deep reflection and more than a little anxiety. Like many, I’ve gone through a range of emotions: anger, fear and frustration. Here are just two of the lessons I have learned from Mr. Trump that are helping me become more of the person I want to be: 

1. Kindness begins with me. 

2. The truth matters.

First, kindness begins with me. 

Watching Mr. Trump’s poor behavior made me reflect on my own personal conduct. When do I attack people for my own gain? Do I say things in private I wouldn’t want to be heard publicly? Do I view people as a means to an end? His campaign and election have caused me reflection on my own interactions with others. I’ve tried hard to be kind on social media, to listen to other peoples’ perspectives, to resist name-calling, and bullying. I, of course, am not perfect, but I am working on it. I cannot control how the president treats other people, but I can control the way I treat other people. 

The Trump campaign was punctuated by heated rhetoric, character attacks, personal insults, dismissiveness, bullying, and a host of other sad and inappropriate behavior. Here is a brief summary of how he has used twitter to attack and bully.  

Second, the truth matters.

From the day Mr. Trump announced his intention to run for president, his campaign, and now administration, have consistently and repeatedly engaged in falsehoods. Here is a list of false hoods. 
Watching this day-in-and-day-out is frustrating to say the least. Yet, regardless of how many pithy, late-night talk show clips, or snarky memes I share on social media, that will not change his behavior or persuade those who are supportive of Mr. Trump to acknowledge his dishonesty. What I can do is reflect on my own conduct and behavior. This reflection has been painful. I have found areas in my own life where I stretch the truth to serve my own ends. It’s hypocrisy on my part to cry foul on the President’s ubiquitous dishonesty and not reflect on my own shortcomings with the truth. 

Complaining and criticizing isn’t helping. I do not want to just “pace the rage” or tune out altogether because it is too complex or too frustrating. As I’ve written about before I want to change the world by changing me first.  So, in reality, Mr. Trump, you are helping me be a better person. I am reflecting more on my own life and values and trying to make necessary changes. Of course, I still think it is important to engage in the political process, to denounce the wildly inappropriate behavior we see coming from the White House, and work together in positive ways to build “a more perfect union.” So, Mr. Trump, thank you. I am more interested now than I have ever been in building bridges of common understanding. I am more engaged in the political process than I have been in nearly 20 years. Your example of moral character has awakened something in me to do more, learn more, engage more, and to be more than I am now.