Dwellings: Los Angeles

My heart sank when I saw our apartment in Los Angeles for the first time. "This was it?" I thought. I'm not sure what it was that hit me first: the industrial carpet, the peeling vinyl flooring, the 800 square feet? Or maybe it was the awful golden oak cabinets and pink countertops in the kitchen? I don't know.

I took a deep breath and walked in. This was it.

University Village. UCLA Graduate Student Family Housing.

I know I'm an aesthetician, and I can be picky about what I surround myself with. I was trying to put all of that aside so I could roll up my sleeves and get to work making it a home. But the truth was, I hated it.

I learned to be okay with some things: I had maintenance remove the vertical blinds in the bedrooms. A year after we moved in, we got new vinyl flooring. And we seriously had the best view of any other apartment in the complex - the lit buildings of Century City at night, and the San Gabriel Mountains during the day; some apartments faced the 405 freeway. At least we weren't in one of those apartments - industrial carpet AND a view of the 405 - it could have been worse. In lots and lots of ways.

I was looking through pictures today, and I was struck by the fact that so much life happened every single day in a dwelling that never quite grew on me. I wanted to share those photos here today - to honor the place that sheltered our family for three years, the life that happened there, as well as the moments I captured, but didn't always see.

Alice's Favorite Spot

Sunset hitting the storm clouds over East LA

 Birthday Parties 
(Cora always insists on having her party at home)

Girls' Room

Reading Nook

Dollhouse Day

Teacher/Student Learning to Read

Dining Table/Art Space/Game Center

Jenga. And then some.

Practicing Sewing Skills

"Is that water?" 
"Yes."
"Jesus could walk on it."

New Skater Falls in Kitchen.

Budding Yogini [dressed as Elsa] Flies in Living Room.

Practicing.

So Much Practice in this Space.

Jake's Hair, Jake, and Alice.

Playing.

Reading.

 
Watching.

Blessing.
(She played Priest, blessing and passing communion to her family)

Despite the ugly kitchen, I still made pretty food sometimes.

Spaces.

The orchid I travelled to The Los Angeles Flower Market to find.

PhD Studies.
(AKA, Jake's side of the bed)

Discovering I could turn myself into a shadow giant with my reading light.

Seriously hours of fun.

[Every] Morning When I Rise.
(Tree House)

Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.

I finished reading Brené Brown's Braving the Wilderness this evening. This and Daring Greatly are my favorites of hers. I wanted to jot down a few general ideas coming fresh off this read. Her most recent book deals with belonging, and she defines true belonging as this:
True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn't require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.
 
I've been thinking a lot about belonging in many different aspects of my life, certainly in a more concentrated way since Grammy died. While the struggle with belonging as it relates to Grammy is relatively new, some of the other struggles with belonging are things I've been feeling my way through for several years. Brown arrives at her ideas of belonging after wrestling with and then coming to understand the following Maya Angelou quote:
You are only free when you realize you belong no place - you belong every place - no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.
After an experience that led her to revisit the quote, she found it in its full context in the transcript of a conversation between Bill Moyers and Maya Angelou:
Moyers: Do you belong anywhere?
Angelou: I haven't yet.
Moyers: Do you belong to anyone?
Angelou: More and more. I mean, I belong to myself. I'm very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much. I like the humor and courage very much. And when I find myself acting in a way that isn't . . . that doesn't please me - then I have to deal with that.
In the last chapter, "Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.," Brown relays an experience that Jen Hatmaker shared with her. Well, not so much the experience itself, but the aftermath of an experience.

I won't sugarcoat this: Standing on the precipice of the wilderness is bone-chilling. Because belonging is so primal, so necessary, the threat of losing your tribe or going alone feels so terrifying as to keep most of us distanced from the wilderness our whole lives. Human approval is one of the most treasured idols, and the offering we much lay at its hungry feet is keeping others comfortable. I'm convinced that discomfort is the great deterrent of our generation. Protecting the status quo against our internal convictions is obviously a luxury of the privileged, because the underdogs and outliers and the marginalized have no choice but to experience the daily wilderness. But choosing the wily outpost over the security of the city gates takes a true act of courage. That first step will take your breath away. Speaking against power structures that keep some inside and others outside has a cost, and the currency most often drafted from my account is belonging. Consequently, the wilderness sometimes feels very lonely and punishing, which is a powerful disincentive. But I've discovered something beautiful; the loneliest steps are the ones between the city walls and the heart of the wilderness, where safety is in the rearview mirror, new territory remains to be seen, and the path out to the unknown seems empty. But put one foot in front of the other enough times, stay the course long enough to actually tunnel into the wilderness, and you'll be shocked how many people already live out there - thriving, dancing, creating, celebrating, belonging. It is not a barren wasteland. It is not unprotected territory. It is not void of human flourishing. The wilderness is where all the creatives and prophets and system-buckers and risk-takers have always lived, and it is stunningly vibrant. The walk out there is hard, but the authenticity out there is life.  I suspect the wilderness is a permanent home for me, which is both happy and hard. A dear friend sent me a text during those harsh first steps out, having broken party lines irreversibly after publicly wrestling through a fragile doctrinal interpretation. There is this wonderful and strange story in Genesis 32 about Jacob physically wrestling with God all night in the literal wilderness, and upon realizing that Jacob was positively not giving up and in fact hollered, "I will not let you go unless you bless me!" he touched Jacob's hip and wrenched it out of socket, a permanent reminder of the struggle of a determined, stubborn, dogged man with God; an absurd and ballsy move, as outrageous as it was impressive. My friend texted me: "You are like Jacob. You refused to let go of God until he blessed you in this space. And He will. You will indeed find new land. But you'll always walk with a limp." So I've chosen the wilderness, because it is where I can tell the truth and lead with the most courage and gather with my fellow outsiders, but this limp will remind me of the cost, what lies behind me, what will always feel a little sad and a little bruised. Was it worth it? Unquestionably. And I hope the limp shows my fellow wilderness dwellers that I am acquainted with pain and didn't make it out here unscathed either.  
 
It's certainly true that Hatmaker's experience shares common threads with my journey in Mormonism, but also with many other aspects of my overall life journey. It's wild to find oneself on the outside of a faith community - a community in which I was comfortable because of its familiarity. But, as Brown points out in much of her work, fitting in and belonging are two very different things. Familiarity is great, but it can also breed complacency. In anything. Familiarity in relationships, in careers, in communities. At any rate, the talk of belonging and finding oneself in the wilderness really resonated with me. Keeping a wild heart resonated with me.
The mark of a wild heart is living out the paradox of love in our lives. It's the ability to be tough and tender, excited and scared, brave and afraid - all in the same moment. It's showing up in our vulnerability and our courage, being both fierce and kind. A wild heart can also straddle the tension of staying awake to the struggle in the world and fighting for justice and peace, while also cultivating its own moments of joy. A wild heart is awake to the pain in the world, but does not diminish its own pain. A wild heart can beat with gratitude and lean in to pure joy without denying the struggle of the world. It's not always easy or comfortable - sometimes we struggle with the weight of the pull - but what makes it possible is a front made of love and a back built of courage.     
And finally, a daily practice:
Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don't belong. You will always find it because you've made that your mission. Stop scouring people's faces for evidence that you're not enough. You will always find it because you've made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don't negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you. 



A Dream. Perhaps about Belonging.

Last night I had a dream that left me unsettled. It was the dream I woke from this morning with no resolution.

The Dream:
I was 17 and 32 at the same time. My mom dropped me off at what I can only describe as a group home, and as she was leaving, she told the person she left me with that she would send the paperwork tomorrow. I spent a few days there, completely isolated from everyone and everything. It wasn't a good place.

When I was able to go outside for the first time, I was in the middle of a parking lot in a strip mall. My Volvo was sitting in the lot; I ran to it, opened the backdoor, and I found my phone. I picked it up to call my mom, but there were no contacts in it. I panicked because I don't have any phone numbers memorized anymore. I sat for a minute trying to recall my mom's phone number, and I finally did. I called her, she answered, and I asked her if she had relinquished her parental rights. She said she had. I burst into tears and begged her to figure out how to change it so she could come and get me. She said she wasn't sure she could because she had already submitted everything.

I hung up the phone and thought of all of the people I could call. I thought of my grandpa, a few friends, and then I knew that I was going to call my biological father, Lance. I went to dial, but I realized my phone screen was broken and covered in shards of glass. [My screen cracked in real life last night on the kitchen floor at Jake's grandparents.] I found something to go over the phone so I could use it without cutting my fingers. The phone was dialing, and my heart sank when I remembered that his name wasn't on my birth certificate - the space marked "father" on my birth certificate is blank, so I wasn't sure if he would actually have any legal clout to come and get me.

He answered the phone, and I couldn't speak. I was just crying. And I sat there in my car with my broken phone and no other numbers in my mind weeping until I woke up.

The Aftermath:
When I told Jake about it this morning, he thought it was connected to anxiety I might feel about who I belong to now that Grammy is dead. I think he's right.

I don't talk about it much, and it's certainly something I'm still in the middle of unpacking, but I have always struggled with a sense of belonging. And it's true that I've never questioned whether I belonged to Grammy because I've always just known that I was hers and she was mine. This life without her feels a bit bewildering. After she died, I kept my hand on her arm, and I slowly moved it up to her shoulder and neck, following her warmth before it left her completely. I needed to soak it all in. In the midst of all of my questions of belonging, I remind myself that my girls are mine, and I am theirs. That always makes me feel better in some ways. But there are still so many questions of belonging. Where do I belong in Oklahoma? Belonging in specific, close relationships. Belonging outside of Mormonism. Belonging when some of my Dearest Ones are so far away from me because I keep leaving them. Belonging is comfort, and I'm missing that right now.

Lessons from Grammy, Part II: Her Voice

My Grammy is dying in front of my eyes. I'm on the night shift, laying across three chairs I put together for a makeshift bed. My aunt and mom are sharing a twin bed in the room. I'm laying parallel to a body that is making noises I've never heard it make before, and I've spent many, many nights next to Grammy. 

She's to the stage where air is passing across her vocal cords in the midst of deep shallow coughs and that death rattle that is so very real. There are extended periods of time where she isn't breathing at all. 15 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds. Earlier today (well, yesterday now), she went almost two minutes before taking a full breath. When that happened, we were watching for the vein in her neck that shows her pulse so well. It kept on. Her heart just keeps keeping on. She has a McInnes heart; they don't give up.

I'm trying to decide if I would recognize her if I didn't know this body before me housed the woman I love so deeply. I recognize features. That nose, the square jawline, the crooked pinkies that match my own, that top lip, well, lack of top lip - also a McInnes thing, though certainly more of a Maxwell or Brown trait if you trace the genetic makeup.

So many parts of this are so hard. This. Is. Hard. But she is mine, and there is nowhere I would rather be than right here seeing her through this transition. 

Even though so much is unfamiliar, so much new territory for our relationship; it feels good to be seeing her through. I don't know how much longer this part will last - this part that will fade away into the next phase where I will practice speaking between worlds to hear her.

And in the midst of all of these unknowns we are walking through, there is something comforting. I know she's not trying to speak, but the little glimpses of her voice that come through every now and again, that combination of air moving across vocal cords that are uniquely hers - I will never hear that sound again. Not in realtime. (I do have a pretty ridiculous amount of voice messages from her saved on my phone.) No, not words, nor phrases, or even thoughts are coming through, but I'm translating those sounds into words I've heard so often:

"I love you"
"Treasure of my heart"
"Blessing" 
"Mama and Daddy"
"Irl"
"Gospel"
"Home"
"Breezy"

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