I’m over at Off the Pagetoday with the third installment of our Dear Addie column.
Today’s question was so interesting to me: it’s about two brothers and a baby dedication…but not really. Really it’s about how we navigate our relationships with others when we find that our faith is changing — and their isn’t.
Tiny Beautiful Things is a compilation of advice columns Strayed wrote during her time as “Sugar” at the literary website The Rumpus. While at The Rumpus, she vaulted the standard “advice column” into uncharted territory: instead of giving barebones advice, Strayed gave her stories. She gave empathy. She gave herself.
I sat next to a patch of sugarcane my kids were feeding to the penned-up goats, and I read and read and read. I read people’s most fragile, terrifying questions. I read Sugar’s answers, which were so often rooted in her own moments of pain, grief, and confusion.
To the one whose friends don’t like his girlfriend, Sugar wrote, “The complicated thing about friends is that sometimes they are totally wrong about us and sometimes they are totally right and it’s almost always only in retrospect that we know which is which.”
To the woman who’s worried about whether she’s attractive: “There is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round. Feed yourself. Literally. The sort of people worthy of your love will love you more for this, sweet pea.”
To the envious writer (who could be me most days of the week), Sugar said, “There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart. If you let it, your jealousy will devour you.”
People wrote their barest questions to Sugar, and she answered with the most wonderful cocktail of compassion and candidness. More often than not, she responded to the letter writer’s story with a story of her own—a memory, a confession, a distinctive vulnerability—and it was in that place where Sugar’s experience met her readers’ that radical empathy was born.
The advice she offered was not from above and beyond the problem, but from the complex middle of it. And because of that, it was searingly beautiful.
As I read the book, the thought that kept scrolling along the marquee of my mind was,
The first few months that we lived in China, I was hungry all the time.
I remember that hot August night in 2004 when we arrived, taking the school van an hour-and-a-half South from Shanghai to Pinghu. I remember crying all night in the unfamiliar flat where we’d spend the year, and then waking up puffy-eyed and jet-lagged to drag myself to a required lunch with the school president and his wife.
At the local restaurant, waitresses gathered around in their Mandarin-gown uniforms, watching us surreptitiously from the hostess stand. Dish after unrecognizable dish appeared on the Lazy Susan in the center of our table — things I’d never seen, things that smelled odd to my picky American sensibilities, things that made my still-jet-legging stomach turn. But when I tried to pass politely on a food item, the president, Mr. Zhang turned the table back toward me. “Try,” he said, and it wasn’t a question. His face was stern and inscrutable across the table as he gestured toward me with his chopstick. “You try.”
In those early days, I dreamt of cheese. I dreamt of pasta. Of soft, warm loaves of bread and homemade cookies straight from the oven. Our town was small and their varied attempts at “American” cuisine was probably about as dastardly as our attempt at Chinese food. (The pizza at one local place had peas on it.)
At our school’s teacher’s cafeteria, I picked at cold blocks of white rice and some sort of soupy celery concoction, and then, after I was done teaching classes, I went around the corner to the little shop next door and bought rolls of Oreos.
I gained ten pounds. Fifteen. Twenty.
I never found cheese or hot-dish or the familiar, comfort foods that I craved. And even as I binged on Pringles and M&Ms and Diet Coke, there was some deep abiding hunger that I couldn’t name but could feel all the time like a window draft. Like a deep, whistling hole.
A few months into our year in China, our group of teachers went on a trip to Beijing. While we were there, we met up with Andrew’s college Chinese language professor, who took us to her favorite restaurant and ordered things that tasted like home.
I don’t remember what it was that we ate, but I remember the gratitude I felt when I ate it. Did I cry at that outdoor cafe table in her Beijing neighborhood? Or did I just want to. Whatever I did, I must have confided my loneliness, my isolation, my hunger, because she took us to a local superstore, marched us straight over to the appliance aisle, and handed me a toaster oven. This, she said, matter-of-factly. You need this. And a hot-plate. Do you have one of those? When I shook my head no, she piled it onto the cart. It’s like a little electric stove top. There is nothing you can’t cook with these things.
In the checkout line, she spoke rapid Chinese, and the clerk boxed up my appliances for easy transport through Beijing and back home. Sometimes you just need something to get you through, she said to me as we rode the escalator back down to the street.
Hope in a box, she said, gesturing to the thing I was now carrying. Just a little hope in a box.
Look, you know I’m not one for the Inspirational Christian Story, the sappy anecdote, the overdone spiritual trope. I know that life is not a Christian romance novel, and if I’m going to err on one side, I usually choose cynical over sparkly.
But this is the time of year when the signs start going up — Donate! Give! Pack! Volunteer! So much need, so many attempts at filling it.
This is the time of year when we pick up the giant wicker basket from our church foyer and take it to the grocery store. This is the week I fill it up: stuffing mix, hearty soup, fancy cocoa, very good coffee. Things that say to me “comfort.” Things that say, “Be warm. Be filled.”
In about two seconds flat, my cynic-side can come up with half a dozen reasons that this is a waste of time and a waste of money. I’m cautious, prone criticize first, question later. I tend to self-shame, to second guess, to whisper to myself that this wicker basket full of cheap food is a poor substitute for true involvement and empathy for poverty and need. And maybe in some ways, that’s true.
But also, I think of that cheap toaster oven, that hot plate.
I think about that box, filled with metal and plastic and wiring…and who knew that hope could look like an appliance?
Who knew you could carry it with you down the escalators, through the subways, and back to your tiny flat, and that it could change everything?
That first Thanksgiving in China, I planned our feast.
By then, I wasn’t the only one with a hot plate and toaster oven. Every English teacher had one, and I had a Cooking Schedule. We’d use them all — every single one.
I made lists and spent hours on AllRecipes looking for substations and made one intense trip to the Shanghai International Market to buy extremely overpriced American staples. Cheese. Spices. Brown sugar.
From the various relatives of teachers who were making the trip over from the States, I requisitioned mini marshmallows, cans of cream of chicken soup, cranberry sauce, fried green beans.
Hope arrived in suitcases, in beat up packages at the Pinghu post office, in grocery sacks. I held it in grateful hands; it felt like a miracle.
On Thanksgiving morning, the Chinese cooks left a plucked, dead turkey draped over the kitchen counter (complete with head, wings, and feet), and we cooked it one tray at a time in toaster ovens along with the bread I’d made from scratch. We made stuffing. We made mashed potatoes. Someone wanted deviled eggs, so I figured those out for the first time ever with an Internet recipe and a $12 bottle of Dijon mustard from the International Market.
By the time we ate that evening, our flat was so coated in dirty dishes and spilled flour and the debris of feast-making that I could barely walk through it. I was so tired I could barely eat as I sat down at the table, plate full.
And I know this will sound like I’m romanticizing, exaggerating, simplifying things when I say this…but I’m not:
It was the best Thanksgiving ever.
Is there a moral to this story? A call to action?
All I know is that this is the time of year when I think of how hungry and empty and needy we all are. About all the unexpected ways that hope is handed to us — all the ways we receive it.
My fragile, imperfect prayer as I toss random things into my cart one at a time — stuffing mix and hearty soup and fancy hot cocoa and really good coffee — is that these will be small, unexpected bearers of hope. And when I write the card that goes with the gifts that we give, I tell the story of that teacher in Beijing who took us to the store.
After all, sometimes we all need someone to march us toward what we need, pick it up, and place it in our arms. And once upon a time, hope came to me in a box and looked for all the world like an off-brand toaster oven, a cheap, simple hot plate.
Who would have guessed? Who would ever have known?
I was reading about the Syrian refugee crisis in the news yesterday morning, and I had to keep referencing a world map. Though I’d looked it up before, back when the war started, I couldn’t quite remember — where was it again? And where are Jordan and Lebanon in relation to the Mediterranean Sea, and why are refugee boats collapsing in it as they flee, flee, flee an awful, confusing, devastating war?
I’m not sure whether high school history and geography failed me or if I just failed myself, but I’m thankful for the maps that Google spits forth in a matter of seconds, allowing me to zoom in and out on the faraway world as I try to put the puzzle pieces together.
“Why does the city of Damascus sound so familiar?” I had to ask Andrew while reading an article in The New Yorker about the war and the devestation and the problems arising in the world’s second-largest refuge camp in Jordan.
“Because of Paul. The road to Damascus is where he had his moment when he encountered God and went blind.”
“That’s right.” This is the ancient, familiar world of the Bible stories I have read a hundred thousand times. Of course there is still a Damascus. Of course life is still happening there. There are people there now just as there were then, and if I squinted my eyes in that direction, I might actually see them.
But I have never been very good at thinking about the larger world. It’s too much — too vast, too complicated, filled with names that I can’t pronounce and nuances I can’t make sense of, and so I shrink my focus down, down, down: this house, this city, this state.
The place that I live. The place that I understand. The place that is my home.
It’s been almost exactly six months since my World Vision trip to Armenia. This half-anniversary — paired with the fact that it’s my sponsored child, Aleksandr’s, sixth birthday is in a few weeks — has me thinking a bit more than usual about the other side of the world: the mountains of Amasia, the mothers, bustling around their stoves, the children, waiting for us in their best sweaters.
I went to Armenia because writing is a gift that World Vision asked me to give, and it was a gift I could say yes to. And, also, I went there because I needed to get out of my own small life — the place where I’m so often placated by schedules and task lists and planners into thinking that I have some measure of control.
I wanted to go out into the great, big complicated world. I wanted to see the Kingdom at work. And I did.
I wandered in with a small group of bloggers. I watched and wrote and talked and listened.
There was a Story going on in Armenia, and it was about about creativity and love and poverty and hope. And I was not the heroine. I wasn’t even on the stage, but off in the wing, pen in hand, small monthly donations winging electronically from our checking account toward our sponsored child with his mischievous eyes and his crooked grin.
Armenia was not my story. But I was the smallest, most invisible part of it. And that was one of the most beautiful, freeing things I’ve ever experienced.
There’s this whole thing in vogue in Christian circles these days about living a good story. I don’t know if it started with Donald Miller or if he just popularized the concept…and certainly there are really beautiful things about it.
It’s beautiful to be purposeful about your life, to choose bravery, to embrace who it is that God made you to be and to live abundantly in the freedom that Christ offers.
It’s a strong undercurrent of the women’s ministry that I’m part of at my little church — this idea of helping women tell a good story. And I love the way that it communicates that every person matters, that your life has dimension and importance and reach.
But also, there are so many fragmented moments when the small simple thing you’re doing is anything but a story — let alone a good one. You’re scrubbing the dishes. You’re writing a report. You’re sitting in rush hour traffic.
You’re sitting at the kitchen table while the kids fight over some TV show in the living room, and you’re reading about the Syrian refugees. And you know that you’re not going to move to Jordan and help out in the refugee camp. That would be a good story, but it’s not yours. You’re not even sure you have it in you to drive downtown once a week to teach English to the ones already here.
These are the moments I’m interested in — the moments when the story is not about you. Or when you fail to live up to the Story. When you’re just sitting there, at the edge of the whole thing — listening, watching — somewhere in the wings.
There is so little you can do, and it doesn’t feel like any kind of poetic victory to donate a little money or breathe a small prayer or write a letter. It doesn’t feel like a story at all.
And it’s this disembodied moment — the one that seems so beside the point — that I want to notice.
Google Maps tells me that it’s 493 miles from Syria to Armenia.
I routinely drive 411 from my home in Minnesota to my parents’ house in Chicago — not that much of a difference. And also, so much of a difference.
When I click the Donate Now box for World Vision’s Syrian Refugee fund and fill in a number, it seems like such a small, unimportant thing. What can my small donation do in the face of so much pain? It takes one minute, two at most.
I am not the hero here; I’m not even on the stage.
But somewhere, a story is unfolding, and these small, unexciting acts of love are a part of it.
And I like to think that someday, in a sun-drenched eternity when we are all telling each other stories, this small donation will have a bit part in one of them.
And, in the end, I don’t think it will matter what part we played — small or big — only that we were there. Only that we were obedient.
Only that we believed that nothing is too small for God. And nothing is too big. That in the face of a terrifying war and a complicated, vast world, God is telling a story that is big and beautiful. A story that includes us all.
A story that ends with the most beautiful kind of Redemption.
You can donate to World Vision’s Syrian Refugee fund here, and I can tell you, from experience, that they are careful and wise and good with that money.
Also, these two cuties from Armenia are still in need of sponsors. I met them — sat in their living room, listened in translation to their story while their father leaned on his cane. He has chronic back pain, and his wife regularly wakes to him crying in bed.
If you’re interested in playing a bit part in this family’s story, email me. I can get you set up with the links!