In Memoriam

Last week, I wrote an essay that I never wanted to write – some words which were spoken at my grandmother’s funeral. I’m putting this on the internet now, simply because I want as many people as possible to know what a phenomenal person she was, and what she has meant to me. 

For the past couple of years, on my birthday, I’d get a text from my Mom-Mom saying something along these lines: “Happy Birthday Alyssa! I still remember the day you were born, it was one of the happiest days of my life.” There’s no doubt in my mind that she’d say something similar about all of her grandkids’ birthdays, but I suspect that mine was particularly special. Being the oldest grandchild, the day I was born was the day that Claire Mullan became a grandmother. Anyone who has interacted with her for even a few moments in the past 24 years knows that this role was perhaps especially designed for her. Continue reading →

Advertisements

6 Thoughts While Reading the Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Unlike the hundreds of Philadelphians who took to the streets protesting yesterday, I didn’t do anything particularly special to commemorate MLK day. I did, however, conclude my three day weekend by re-reading Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I hadn’t read this essay in its entirety since high school. Since then, I’ve read some more stuff, thought a little bit about things like justice, and generally spent more time being alive – thus, my perspective on this text is a little bit different than it was five years ago (though that’s the beauty/point of re-reading great texts, isn’t it?). Here’s what stood out to me this time around:

He’s writing to pastors. I didn’t realize this before today, or at least, it didn’t stand out to me as notable before. But that’s jarring – one of the single most important documents in recent history is a polite yet fierce argument about why white Christian leaders should care about things like justice and human dignity. This gem particularly stood out to me: “In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” Here’s hoping that the church as a whole has made steps in the right direction on this one. Continue reading →

Fear of the Other

When Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, this blog didn’t exist. Even so, I wrote the following post in my head, with the horrible feeling that someday what I’m about to say might be relevant again. Alas, that time has come.

There’s this trend in America that just won’t quit, where unarmed black people are shot and killed by other people who are trying to protect themselves – I read somewhere that this happens every 28 hours, which is disgusting. We’ve blamed this on lenient gun laws, “stand your ground” policies, and of course, racism, classism, and ethnocentrism. I don’t doubt that any of these things play a significant part in this horrific trend.

That said, I’d like to suggest another, more complex, more overarching reason. Continue reading →

On Belonging in the Kitchen

Someone recently told me that I belong in the kitchen.

This saying – “you belong in the kitchen” – is now used in one of two ways:

1. Seriously: Women are lesser than men, and thus they “belong in the kitchen.”
2. Jokingly: LOL. Women and men are obviously equal, so neither “belong in the kitchen” but it’s kind of funny to mock misogyny.

(I was jokingly told that I “belong in the kitchen”).

Even when women come out on top/equal, this saying doesn’t regard kitchens very highly. So now I’m wondering why it is demeaning to tell someone that they “belong in the kitchen.” What’s so bad about kitchens?

For the vast majority of human history, people have been extremely occupied with their food, spending hours gathering, preserving, and preparing it. Cultures (a term derived from “agriculture”) began to develop only after humans figured out how to plant and irrigate food, and societies were built around rich soil. We measure history by looking at old dishware and mark human achievements around food-related technologies. But at some point very recently, it became really easy to procure, store, and prepare food. I guess when that happened, our society started to think of the activities related to food as simple and even demeaning. It was work given to people who couldn’t be responsible for stuff outside of the home and kitchen (minorities, mostly, but that’s another issue altogether). That’s probably when “belonging in the kitchen” became a derogatory concept.

But before there was Wall Street or the White House, there were kitchens. And in order for there to be a Wall Street or a White House, people need to eat.

In his massive text A Pattern Language, architect Christopher Alexander calls for a more dignified view of cooking and the kitchen, and suggests an architectural model that reflects this. He says that

The isolated kitchen, separate from the family and considered as an efficient but unpleasant factory for food is a hangover from the days of servants; and from the more recent days when women willingly took over the servants’ role…(but historically) even when cooking was entirely in the hands of women, the work of cooking was still thought of as a primal, communal function; and the “hearth,” the place where food was made and eaten, was the heart of family life. (662)

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 5.23.20 PM

Christopher Alexander’s blueprint for the ideal kitchen, which includes “a comfortable old chair in the corner where someone could sleep.”

He goes on to suggest that architects use not the contemporary open-floor plan, which opens the kitchen to the living space, but the old-school farmhouse floor plan, where the kitchen is the living space. (He even includes a little hand drawn diagram of what this looks like).

The point of this design and the mentality behind it is to acknowledge that cooking is as exceptionally human as eating, and as such it should be incorporated into the rhythm of daily life. Even if we can’t redesign our kitchens, we can change our attitudes toward them, first and foremost by banishing all use of the degrading or jokingly degrading phrase “you belong in the kitchen.”

Our society is starting to think more about our food – where it comes from and what it’s made of. This is a really good thing because hopefully it means that we’ll start having fewer heart attacks. It’s also good because even though it’s still really easy to obtain food, we’re becoming more conscious of the process that leads up to it entering our bellies. At some point, I suspect that we’ll subconsciously begin to see the kitchen not as a chamber for the least of these, but as the essential part of the household and society that it always has been. Someday, I hope an old person jokingly tells my future child that she belongs in the kitchen, and I hope that she’s extremely confused by the saying.

And by the way, I do belong in the kitchen. Two or three times a day. I am a woman and a productive member of society, and in order for me to be both of these things (or anything else), I need to eat.

Eastern, I’m Sorry

Eastern University, my alma mater, has found itself in some hot water. For those of you who don’t follow Eastern’s affairs, the current scandal is the result of the president, Dr. Bob Duffett, signing a letter to the other president, Barack Obama, asking for Eastern and other religious institutions to be exempt from a piece of legislation that bans hiring discrimination against LGBT people. Put simply: Eastern has never hired gay people who are sexually active, and they would like to keep it that way.

You can see why, in Pennsylvania, in 2014, this has a whole bunch of people pretty pissed off.

But I’m not really going to comment on Dr. Duffett’s move, or whether or not I think it’s right or wrong. A lot of alum have taken to the internet to voice their thoughts on the matter, and I don’t have much to contribute to this conversation. Here, I’m mostly interested in talking about why I feel bad for Eastern.

One of my favorite things about my time at Eastern was that, for the first (and maybe last) time in my life, I got to share a classroom, dining hall, and residence with a whole bunch of people who came together from pretty different paradigms. Different parts of the country. Different socioeconomic backgrounds. Different political affiliations. Different theological positions. Sometimes, different races or sexual orientations. Some of these different people were my professors. Some were my friends. And we all peacefully shared classrooms and dinner tables, together raising big questions and entertaining answers. I think my favorite thing about Eastern University is that it attracts so many different kinds of Christians, and I’m a better person because of this.

But, practically speaking, this can be pretty problematic for an institution that runs almost exclusively on student tuition and private donations. The target audience that Eastern needs to reach falls all over the political and theological spectrum. In some parts of the country, there are parents and pastors that would never let their kids consider Eastern, because it teaches evolution and cares about “social justice.” Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, there are prospective students who would never consider Eastern because it is far too conservative – they won’t even hire LGBT people!

Should there ever be a day when Eastern begins to hire LGBT faculty, the university will have a lot of support from many alum and faculty. But, it will also alienate a lot of donors and prospective students, which would be a huge financial blow.

This is not to suggest that Dr. Duffett’s letter signing was the right thing to do. Honestly, I think because Eastern attracts so many different kinds of people, it’s screwed either way. Whoops.

Also – I’m sure a lot of the alum that are so riled up about this have been LGBT allies for a long time, even before coming to Eastern. However, I can’t help but suspect that some of them are allies largely because of their Eastern education. As in, they wouldn’t be so upset with Eastern right now if they hadn’t gone to Eastern. Whoops again.

In addition to expressing pity for my alma mater, I’d also like to ask my fellow alum to keep in mind that, despite its best intentions and our strong desires, Eastern University is not just a pure academic bastion where people come together to read, write, and discuss. It is also a business, at least insofar those classrooms need to keep standing and those professors need to get paid. In this fallen, broken world, money often beats out ideology. I doubt that Dr. Duffett is merely a fundamentalist bigot. Instead, I suspect that he’s simply trying to financially preserve a struggling institution – perhaps in vain, perhaps all the wrong ways, and certainly, at no small cost.

Leftovers

I really liked the Weekly Writing Challenge that WordPress put out there this week. Along with many other folks, this week I’ll be reflecting on something that I just can’t seem to throw away. 

There are two copies of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding on my bookshelf. They are identical, and each contains an equal amount of underlines and margin-scribbles in my handwriting. I don’t know how or why I have two copies of this text, and they look pretty stupid sitting next to each other in the middle of my shelf. But I can’t seem to get rid of the extra (which one is the extra anyway? How am I supposed to decide which one is worth keeping?). So, they sit there redundantly.

I don’t consider myself to be a packrat. I move pretty frequently, which gives me regular opportunities to purge and organize my belongings. Nor am I super sentimental. I like to live in the present and not hold on to things simply because of what they mean to my memory. My books are the exception here. Each time I move, they get strategically boxed up and lugged to their new home, and reshelved with great thought and care.

A little over half of my books, circa the last time I moved.

A little over half of my books, circa the last time I moved.

But I haven’t picked up most (any?) of them since they were most recently unpacked. I’ve read most of them once, but probably won’t read them again. Some were gifts or assignments I ignored, and I won’t be reading them at all. Some are duplicates – Locke’s Essay is joined by a few other classics in my roster of books that should probably be donated, which also includes Shakespeare’s complete works (I have two copies of the largest book in the English language — why…). If I were more logical, I would part with all but a few of my books, especially when it comes time to once again pack them up.

That’s not going to happen though. Some people collect photographs or sentimental trinkets, but somewhere along the line I subconsciously decided to collect something much heavier and harder to move. In addition to being wildly inconvenient, my books are basically useless, especially if I never really read them. But I’m sitting here looking at their spines, and each one is a part of my story (plot twist!/double pun/sorry). Each one was purchased for a reason, and most are associated with a professor, or classmate, or question, or idea that has formed me in some way simply because it was there and it happened. Some of them make me smile, but not necessarily because of their content. All contain ideas that I’m not ready to dispose of yet, and I’m not sure I ever will or ever should be.

Maybe I am sentimental after all.

Rest(lessness)

D0W423

This used to be my front yard. Ugh.

I recently spent the evening with some old friends, watching videos and reminiscing on the four months that we spent in Italy during our junior year of college. We laughed a lot as we watched ourselves on the screen, seeing and doing things for the first time all over again – things which are now videos and memories. And with those memories came a flood of emotion. As I watched my past-self, I felt once again how she felt in that time and place.

Nostalgia can kind of be like a drug, but I don’t think that’s entirely what was going on that night. As I watched myself, I remembered how much more content I was. During those months, I wanted the days and weeks to drag on – I never wanted to leave. Our lives in Italy consisted of cooking, drinking, dancing, adventuring, reading, and occasionally going to class. We had no real obligations or responsibilities. In the years since, I haven’t been so carefree.

Experiencing some of those feelings again that night, I wanted to go back. And at some point it occurred to me: I can. There’s nothing significant keeping me here. I could quit my job, drain my bank account, and head back to Europe for a season. I could spend my days writing and adventuring, not worrying about my household or career. It would be the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever done, but it – and I – would be so interesting.

I have significant theological objections to transience, so I don’t entertain these ideas on a whim, nor do I take them lightly. Still, the temptation is there.

Driving home that night, I tried to digest these feelings a little bit and move on. My city’s skyline came into view, and I felt that familiar rush of pride. (I’ve seen so many beautiful things, yet I’m such a sucker for Philly’s skyline). The radio played in the background: “we’re far, far from home and we’re so happy,” and the juxtaposition of sight and sound was striking. I just kept driving. What else was I to do?

That was two months ago. I’m still here.

St. Augustine begins his Confessions beautifully: “For Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until the rest in Thee.” I remind myself of this often, because restlessness is easy and popular, but also unavoidable, and inescapable. We will never be fully content, fully happy, in Philly or Europe, as a barista or a CEO. Outside of the Kingdom, our hearts are restless. All we can do is wait until we rest in Thee.

Home & Identity

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 7.04.22 PM

Photo courtesy of Philly.com.

Last week, the iconic diner in my hometown burned down. This was one of those places that is central to small town life, where people of all ages would gather day and night to linger over mediocre food and coffee. The Crystal Lake Diner sat perched on a hill overlooking one of Haddon Township’s main throughways. Driving in from Philly, it was one of the first things to greet you, no matter what time you got home. For many people, this was a place loaded with memories and meaning – the public reaction to its untimely demise reflected this. For me, the days following the news of this loss were met with a distant but lurking sadness, much like that which would accompany the news of the sudden passing of a childhood acquaintance.

I’ve been thinking about my hometown and what it means to me since before I left it over five years ago. When I was graduating high school, I thought that I would get over it. But I haven’t. Being away from it – on the Main Line, in Italy, back on the Main Line, and now in South Philly – and experiencing this big world, reading the great books, asking existential questions, has only made me appreciate it more deeply.

A couple of months ago, I returned home to Haddon Township for something random. It was an ordinary trip. At the time, I was experiencing a season of millennial angst, unsure about myself and what I was doing with my life. Full of questions and an ironic desire for instability, I found myself in Haddon Township. And for the few hours that I was there, I felt exceptionally safe, and sure, and okay with myself. This will sound strange, but I think that some of that comfort comes from physically navigating the town. I know Haddon Township so well – the buildings, stop signs, curves in the road – that when I’m driving around it I have no doubts. The act of moving about my neighborhood is second nature. These familiar places are a part of who I am, in a very bodily way.

Haddon Township has always been a part of my identity. I’ve understood this for a while now, but I’m beginning to realize just how important that is. Who I am is rooted in a tangible place – a place that has meant something to a lot of people for hundreds of years. It’s not going anywhere. It will continue to be home to many people no matter what I do. A significant part of my identity is entirely external to me, my job, my relationships, my achievements. For an angsty, unstable, and introspective millennial, this is so comforting.

I suspect that I am not alone in this. Many people never leave Haddon Township, and those who do often return, bringing with them their families, education, and experiences. There’s a reason for this. There’s nothing particularly exceptional about this mundane little suburb, but for those that live there, being “from Haddon Township” tends to be much more than a piece of personal trivia.

And this is why, when a tangible symbol of our town and its community suddenly perishes, it genuinely hurts. That mediocre diner, like the town itself, was a part of many lives and identities. It ought to be mourned it like a childhood acquaintance.

Nine Things I Learned from Working in a Restaurant

During college, many of my classmates spent their summers doing internships, research, and other resume-building things. I spent mine waitressing – on purpose. This was in part because the restaurant I worked at was a block from the beach, however, a few weeks into my time there I realized that that experience could potentially be just as vital to my formation as all of the classes I took, books I read, papers I wrote, and sermons I listened to. Here are just a handful of the things I learned from working in a restaurant:

How to use a restaurant. There are plenty of ranty articles and blog posts out there about this topic, so I needn’t add much more. But: restaurant staff are people too – and they have normal lives, needs, desires, etc. Restaurant customers should treat them that way. Banter with your waiter, thank the hostess on your way out, and if something goes wrong, give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt. And don’t be condescending. The world would be a better place if we always treated strangers this way.

How to have normal human interactions. The environment of the place I worked at is pretty far removed from the ivory towers of cushy academia. While I could have really stuck out, but I don’t think I did. I came to really respect my co-workers, boss, and the other members of the community. Furthermore, I was able to laugh with them, rant with them, celebrate with them, and work my butt off with them. This was extremely helpful in helping me transition from my small conservative college to the rest of the world.

Work ethic. I try to live with the philosophy that everything worth doing is worth doing well, and it’s definitely easier when the people I’m working alongside are also super hardworking. During one of my first shifts at the restaurant, it was really slow, and the girl I was working with kept finding things to clean, because instead of standing around, she wanted to actually earn her wage. With that precedent, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to slack off at this job. Restaurant work can be grimy and mundane, and sometimes the hours are a little insane, but all work is worth doing well.

Team work. In academia, your work is largely your own. While you might be learning in a community, your papers and your grades belong exclusively to you (unless you’ve plagiarized, but that’s different). But workplaces almost never function like this. This is especially noticeable in a restaurant. During a rush, everyone has the same goal: to seat as many people as possible and turn over tables quickly, as to increase revenue for everyone. In our most hectic moments, anyone with even a few seconds to spare would ask everyone else if they needed help, and pitch in where needed. We all ended up doing stuff outside of our job descriptions, including many things that wouldn’t directly benefit us. Why? Because it sucks to see your colleagues fail, and when we succeed, we succeed together. It might be easy to forget this in a classroom or office, but when there are people waiting to be seated at your restaurant, you don’t think twice about it.

Work and life are not mutually exclusive. In my experience, restaurant staff don’t care too much about stiff professionalism. This meant that the line between one’s personal life and work life was often blurred. I now know that that’s how a lot of workplaces (even offices) are, and I’ve come to appreciate it. A lot of people stress out about finding a “work-life balance,” and I think that one of the reasons that this is so stressful is that this line is never distinct, and maybe not even necessary.

Loyalty and stability. A lot of families who vacation at the Jersey shore have been doing so for generations. On more than one occasion, I served customers who had been coming to the restaurant and ordering the same meal since before I was born. Likewise, most of the people I worked with had been working there for years, some of them following in the footsteps of older siblings or cousins (or in my case, parents). In our flighty and transient culture, this kind of loyalty to a place and a routine is refreshing.

Justice. My freshman year, I took a class called “Justice and the Common Good,” where we studied what the term “justice” has meant to philosophers throughout the ages, and what it should mean for us now. The definition of justice that I walked away with was this: justice is doing your work well and giving people what they deserve. (That’s adapted from Plato and Aquinas, who phrase it more eloquently). It wasn’t until I started working at the restaurant that I really began to understand what this notion justice means, practically. The basic economic transactions that happen in restaurants (and stores, bars, etc.) is justice in its simplest form, and it’s vital to our society and the common good.

Piety. One of the first things that we read in my Great Books education was the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro. This is when I learned the phrase “filial piety,” which is the practice of being dutiful toward those whom we owe our duty. This generally means parents, but also elders, superiors, etc. In its most basic and practical form, filial piety is respecting your boss, even when what he tells you to do doesn’t make sense. It’s understanding that the most experienced waitress is going to be assigned the best section. It’s fulfilling the ridiculous requests of your most loyal customers (even if they don’t tip very well). It’s doing your duties without question, and I think people in service jobs are some of the best examples of it.

The Good Life. One of my college professors once said (jokingly, I think) that the Good Life is “beer and fireworks.” In the program that I graduated from, we spent a lot of time talking about the “Good Life,” and speculating what it entailed as to go forth and live it. We developed a fairly specific notion of what it means to live a “Good Life,” so during the summers, it was a little confusing for me to spend time with people who were hard working, good, and happy, but not asking big questions or reading old books. Over the course of several years, I came to the conclusion that sometimes, for some people, the good life might just be hard work followed by beer and fireworks – and that’s okay.

The Bubble

A few days after graduating college, some friends and I sat down with some guys from the American Bible Society and had an extended conversation about Christianity and culture. The conversation kept coming back to one central theme – “the bubble” – or, the idea that we were living and working in a particular realm of society, namely, Christian academia (in the Main Line suburbs, specifically), and that this particularity gives us a unique but limited relationship with our culture. There was a general sense that while this bubble itself was fine and good, the somewhat alienating nature of being a part of a sheltered subculture was problematic. (If anyone who participated in that conversation is reading this and would like to elaborate, disagree, etc., please do). It was a helpful and meaningful thing to reflect on, because most of us were preparing to leave this bubble, or at least shift our placement within it.

About a week later, I did just that – I left this bubble that had cared for me so well for four years. I moved to South Philly and started working at a growing church in Center City. For a little while, I stumbled around in this new life. During those first few months, things would regularly happen to me that heightened my awareness of how out of place I was. Mostly humorous stuff. But alas, that’s what life is like outside of the bubble.

Except it’s not. I never actually left a bubble, but simply transitioned into a new bubble, or perhaps, set of bubbles. I realized this after chatting with neighbors and becoming acclimated to my new neighborhood – South Philly is vibrant, nuanced, culturally robust, and, a surprisingly insular city-within-a-city, a subculture of its own. Church world (which I consider quite distinct from Christian academia) is also its own strange and unique subculture, one that’s trying very hard to engage with the society around it, which is just another interesting aspect of this bubble. So, I left one bubble for another, and it’s tempting to think of this as a failure of sorts.

But I’m going to suggest otherwise, and not just for the sake of my own pride given my life decisions. People in our generation and culture are really compelled by the concept of leaving one’s “bubble” or “comfort zone.” Intolerance and ignorance are considered deeply offensive, but even innocent sheltered-ness is widely frowned upon. The respectable, cosmopolitan person has experienced and is knowledgeable about communities other than their own, and is uncomfortable with the idea of settling into one particular niche. To me, this is an ironically limited understanding of the good life.

On one hand, I think the desire for a cosmopolitan and bubble-free life is futile. If we settle anywhere, even just temporarily, we’re settling into a particular niche. It could even be argued that unsettled cosmopolitanism – whatever that looks like – is its own bubble, a community with shared practices, ideals, and ends.

More importantly, I’m not convinced that it is possible to flourish outside of a bubble. Political theorist Mark Mitchell argues this as well. In his recently published essay, “Making Places: The Cosmopolitan Temptation,” Mitchell argues that psychologically, we simply aren’t capable of growing or loving outside of a particular realm of society:

A particular language, a particular cuisine, a particular geography, climate, manners, stories, songs, metaphors – these all serve to make me who and how I am. While I can imagine my abstracted self as a global citizen or as a brother to all humanity, such an extension requires significant effort and is as unlivable as it is unnatural. The limits of my belonging are determined by the limit of my love – and love, not an abstracted feeling of goodwill, has limits.

He goes on to claim that we need these limits and long-term commitments in order to flourish, and that “a life given to assiduously keeping one’s options open will, in the process of avoiding commitments, miss out on the very best kinds of human goods that are found in the wake of commitment.”

This isn’t an argument in favor of ignorance or intolerance, but simply a call to recognize that it’s okay to be comfortable in a particular place and/or subculture, and to prefer one’s own bubble to all others. This doesn’t mean hating all other (sub)cultures or anything, but simply loving one’s own more thoroughly.

There’s a sense that it’s good and challenging to leave one’s comfort zone, and we admire people who do this – who go abroad, spend time with people who look or speak different. This notion of leaving one’s comfort zone has always struck me as compelling, but not particularly challenging. It’s easy to leave, but it’s much harder to stay, to accept limits, make deep commitments, and invest selflessly in a particular people and place. I’m not always good at this, but I’m definitely trying to get better.

And I’ll start by admitting that I am in a bubble, a comfort zone. I’m proud of this, and I’m here to stay.