What Do You “Do”?

A couple of weeks ago, Zach and I met an older man at church, a retired pastor. He introduced himself and asked what Zach does (as most people ask us when we meet them). Zach told him he’s a PhD dissertator in literature. The man responded with the usual befuddled look and the joke, “So when you graduate, what coffee shop will you work at?”

Probably hoping for something more normal, he asked me the same question. I told him what I tell everyone these days: “I’m a poet, and I also spend a lot of time at home with Ramona.” Well, he didn’t even have a joke as a comeback for this response; a blank stare was all he could muster. When he introduced us to his wife, he told her our names and said Zach was a student. He said nothing about what I “do.”

How I choose to present myself to others may be a conversation killer, but I still feel like it’s really important. Because, while I feel called to my work as a parent, I don’t think it’s my motherhood alone that defines me. In fact, of all the labels I wear, the one I consider my primary occupation is poetry. It doesn’t make me any money, but it fulfills what I think of as my purpose.

It would be easier to just tell people I’m a stay-at-home mom, but I don’t think that tells the real story of who I am. I also believe that words have power, and if I mislabel myself for ease of conversation or to be accepted, I won’t just be changing others’ perception of who I am. I will change my own perception of who I am, and in doing so, I will be changing who I actually am.

The are a lot of ways that I can be true to who I am: what I wear, what I spend my time doing, who I choose to be associated with, what I do with my money…and also how I talk about myself to others–not omitting parts of who I am, not belittling what I do, not treating myself with disresepect, but being truthful, wholly, even if other people don’t see the value or beauty in that truth.

Putting it into Practice

I love to buy new stuff. I love wandering thrift store racks, searching for skirts with eclectic patterns, for vintage dresses, for name-brand purses. And I love to buy shoes on Zappos. I love waiting for packages from Amazon. It’s really the best, pulling from cardboard something bright and shiny, something that still smells of warehouse and factory.

But I don’t believe in buying new stuff. Buying another thing I don’t need–duplicative purses, more skirts than days of the month, shoes in every color–it’s not healthy for me. Because no matter how many purchases I make, the hunger for unboxing never abets. I am never sated.

When I spend my time and money on new stuff, I’m encouraging and living out of my discontent. I’m also exploiting underpaid workers and feeding a system that undervalues the humanity of the targeted consumer. I’m accepting the religion of upward mobility, of upper middle class-ism, of a hierarchy that values the rich and the privileged and, at best, ignores the needy and the oppressed. What about living out of contentedness, Christianity, love, and justice?

I have been pointed to the blog Un-Fancy by several people in my life, and most recently by this mom’s post. As I read, I thought to myself, You know, you need to start acting on what you believe. You need to simplify and you need to stop buying. So I was inspired to start by raiding my closet.

I didn’t do the capsule wardrobe. Instead, I decided I’d get rid of 3/4 of my clothes. And then I wouldn’t buy anything new until something I had wore out. (My old friends will remember I did something like this sophomore year of college! I made it most of the school year before buying some pants at Gap.)

Bagging up all those clothes, many of which I still liked a lot, didn’t feel good. And now sometimes I miss some of the things I got rid of, but I still think it was the right move for me. I want to feel good about the person that I am and the things I put my time into. Putting so much emphasis on presenting myself just so through an ever-growing wardrobe was not something I wanted to spend my time doing.

Really, emptying my closet was the easy part. The hard part is not filling it again–and not just shifting my focus from clothes to other purchases. After dropping off about six packed garbage bags of clothes at St. Vinny’s, I bought a new water bottle. And a week later, I ordered a new backpack online. No good.

It was hard for me to stop spending money. It’s such an enjoyable pastime! I knew I needed to resolve myself to more than just a small wardrobe. I had to commit to a small everything–to the idea that one of something is enough, to the mindset that I am a good seamstress and I can fix what I have to work well enough. To the belief that I don’t need new to be happy–that, in fact, new will not make me happy even if I indulge in every purchase I desire.

After all, the center of my existence is not my investment in capitalist America. It’s my belief in a Jesus who loves and accepts us (everyone!) along with our crazy, my faith in a God who has set in my heart passions for words and for the craft of my hands. The center of my existence should be spreading love and justice, writing poetry, creating beautiful things. (And here I think, Ah, if only money didn’t make the world go round….)

I want to start a new pattern, to recommit to truth and beauty and justice. To meditate on this Bible verse: “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” (Philippians 4:8-9, The Message)

A Feminist in Skirts

Over the last several years, my wardrobe has shifted from about half skirts to mainly skirts to, now, almost exclusively skirts. Sometimes this makes me feel a bit sheepish because I worry what people might think of me. After all, it’s not all that normal for a 21st century American woman to wear only skirts.

What if people think I’m that Christian–the one who feels called to wear only skirts as a religious practice, and who probably also feels called to cover her head at church and submit in all things to her husband? Well, if you follow this blog or know me personally, you know that’s not me (if this is you, let me say, I respect your decision and your convictions, especially as they require you to go against the grain of the culture, which takes strength and self-assurance).

It’s silly, really, that I should worry what acquaintances might think this of me. But at the same time, I do desire my outward appearance to reflect my inner beliefs. That’s part of why I choose not to shave my legs or armpits–it’s my physical rebellion against the rigid, arbitrary, and often hurtful restrictions that our male-centric culture puts on women’s bodies, as if the culture at large has some right to dictate what women do with their own bodies. I hate shaving, and I don’t think I should feel “required” to, so I don’t.

And I wear skirts for some of the same reasons–comfort and personal preference–though wearing skirts doesn’t pack the political punch that not shaving does. I find it ironic that trousers for women were originally part of the feminist movement in America as well as a practicality for working women in some professions, but now, so many of the trousers made for women are so uncomfortable and impractical. I mean, skinny jeans? Seriously, if I try to cross my legs in those, my leg falls asleep from the knee down. And I hate that thing where every time you bend over in low-rise jeans, your butt  half falls out of your pants and your underwear shows and when you stand back up, you have to tug on the back of your jeans to get re-situated. And wedgies. And tight waistbands that restrict movement and cause muffin tops, which I’m not against aesthetically, but it’s just not comfortable for me to have my fat pushed out and over my pants like that. I’m not willing to allow fashion to make me uncomfortable in my clothes, and I’m not one to choose sweatpants or leggings every day (if you are, more power to you!), so I choose skirts, which I find absolutely comfortable.

And you know what else? This is true for some men’s fashions, too, and though I think fashion-conscious men probably have more comfortable choices than women, I think that men should be able to wear skirts, too, if they want. I mean, I love the way skirts feel, and I bet if it were socially acceptable, some men would also choose skirts over trousers. So that’s part of my stance, too: skirts for all!

Considering the Move

Zach and I have lived in Madison for four and a half years now, and I am beginning to realize this season of our life is waning. I always knew we wouldn’t be here for all that long, but now that we only have one or two more years before we move, my perspective is shifting.

It’s fun for us to consider where we might end up, the exotic or mundane locations that could be our next home. But more than that, I think about the things I know I’m going to miss about Madison.

I’m going to miss our little apartment. I think it’s probably almost the fewest square feet a two-bedroom apartment can be, and it can feel constraining at times, but more often it feels cozy. I love having a space that forces me to keep my life simple, to keep the superfluous objects and excessive purchases to a minimum. I love how short the walk is from the bedroom to the bathroom, the kitchen to the living room, the front door to the far corner of Ramona’s room. Everything is close. Everything is always within reach.

I love the Willy Street Co-op, but I won’t miss it. I wish I had enough money to shop there, but as it is, it’s just torturing me.

I’m going to miss our garden. If we can’t find a place near a community garden when we move, it’s going to be very sad.

I’m going to miss being so close to my parents. My mom comes up many weeks to visit with me and Ramona for a day, and it’s easy for us to head down to their place for a Sunday afternoon.

I’m not going to miss the restaurants. I still miss the restaurants from St. Paul–especially Good Earth, Black Sea, Bascali’s Brick Oven, Mirror of Korea, Izzy’s Ice Cream (okay, Chocolate Shoppe here in Madison is good, too), Java Train, Pop! (gone now, so sad)…….of course, we could end up in some small college town that only has three pizza places and a McDonald’s, and then I might miss the Madison restaurants.

I’m going to miss the bike paths, especially the lakeshore path.

I’m going to miss the free 80 bus.

And if we move out of the Midwest, I know I’m going to miss the weather. I love winter, and also spring and fall and summer. I love having the shift in temperature, colors, and activities. I love layering and snuggling when it’s cold, and I love biking and playing outside with Ramona when it’s hot.

But probably whatever it is that I will really miss is a mystery to me now, and it’s probably something I completely take for granted.

Discoveries

As the weather warms, as the animals begin to wake up and the people begin to go out jogging, their neon pink and green shirts clashing with the brown landscape, my little girl is dazzled in wonder at so many things.

Daily, we look out the living room window at the turkeys, and she points and bounces; “tukee!!” she says. We go for afternoon walks, and she stomps through puddles of melted snow. She hears the crow’s caw-caw and she searches the sky for the “buh.” And there are exciting sidewalk meetings with “uffs” (dogs). She’s loving the attention of neighborhood children. The other day Ramona gleefully chased a seven-year-old girl with beautiful red hair up and down the sidewalk, through the apartment breezeways, both of them giggling with the fun and the warmth.

To discover the waking world for the first time, to find that each thing has a name, is beautiful. And what a precious gift for me to be able to see Ramona’s joy as the bleak, frozen earth transforms into a growing, dynamic playground.

The Mood on a Warmer Day, Before the Plunge Back into Winter

Winter endures, an old coat thrown over the shoulders of my city. Outdoors, everything is monochromatic. Nothing shines brightly: put on a red coat, and somehow it fades in the foggy light of late winter.

But spirits are rising, nonetheless, with these warmer, wet days. We wipe the fog from our glassy eyes and greet others on the park path or the neighborhood sidewalk. Children who have been cooped up countless days run to the yard, and we can hardly believe how they’ve grown this winter.

This is the blank slate before the dark banks of spring, before musty tang of volunteer tomatoes, before crocus and Dutchman’s breeches. All of that life is buried so deep we wonder if green earth is just a collective dream, and we hope to soon fall into that dream, after our long sleep in the cold.

Fear in an Online Age

Today was a day for errands. My toddler is recovering from a cold, and with her fussiness this morning, I knew she would benefit from some rest in the van and the distraction of being out of the house. As she napped in her car seat, I listened to a radio program about tech companies and American privacy. This is an issue I usually choose to ignore. I feel so powerless to control how my behavior is monitored online, and—the question that constantly nags me—what if, once upon a time, I clicked that little “accept” button? How do I take it back? Even if I’m able to track down every website that is collecting my data and “un-accept,” what about the information that’s already out there?

This email I received from Target has been on my mind constantly:
Dear Target Guest,
As you may have heard or read, Target learned in mid-December that criminals forced their way into our systems and took guest information, including debit and credit card data. Late last week, as part of our ongoing investigation, we learned that additional information, including name, mailing address, phone number or email address, was also taken. I am writing to make you aware that your name, mailing address, phone number or email address may have been taken during the intrusion.

…To guard against possible scams, always be cautious about sharing personal information, such as Social Security numbers, passwords, user IDs and financial account information. Here are some tips that will help protect you:
•    Never share information with anyone over the phone, email or text, even if they claim to be someone you know or do business with. Instead, ask for a call-back number.
•    Delete texts immediately from numbers or names you don’t recognize.
•    Be wary of emails that ask for money or send you to suspicious websites. Don’t click links within emails you don’t recognize.

Even if I follow all their “tips” (which I do, and more)—even if I stop using the internet altogether—the businesses where I shop take my data through my debit card. And it gets hacked! And I’m not safe!

Then on my way here, I listened to another radio program, this time on online female discrimination. Ugh. It’s enough to make a person go off the grid.

That’s what I dream about: abandoning this nation of gadgets and keypads and magnetic strips for some little cabin way up on the mountainside where I get solar power and grow my own food and keep a goat…and somehow keep my house off Google maps…. But I don’t have the guts. I don’t even have the guts to throw my laptop out of our second-story apartment window, though perhaps I’d be better off if I did.

And then I remember: there is no hiding from corruption. Even in my mountain home, I would not be freed from humanity’s sins because I’d still be human myself. Our tech age brings with it some new fears and new crimes, but there is nowhere and no time free from fear and crime.

There is no escape. But there is this:
In God, whose word I praise, 
    in the Lord, whose word I praise— 
in God I trust and am not afraid.
    What can man do to me?

Amen.