Beyoncé & Great Art

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching Lemonade, Beyoncé’s latest visual album. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Since its release on April 23rd, it’s stirred up plenty of gossip, memes, articles, and mild controversy. What fun! I’ll try not to be more of the same here. By the way, if you haven’t already, definitely try to find the time to watch the album and read some of the media’s commentary.

Maybe a few minutes into Lemonade, I got that feeling that you have when you know that you’re about to witness something particularly profound. On one hand, this is an extremely well-executed work: the cinematography, lighting, settings, costumes, hair!, poetry, allusions to myth and folklore, tradition and politics. And of course, Beyoncé’s stellar voice and startling lyrics. It’s all very thoughtful and captivating. Art that entertains us, and that looks nice, and is technically impressive is good. There’s a place for that in our society and our lives. That’s the role that Beyoncé’s previous albums have filled, and that’s totally fine. But Lemonade is great. I suspect that this is a piece that could last, that our grandkids could hear about, see, and be moved by. Continue reading →

God is For Cities

My church is in the midst of an initiative that we’re calling For the City – an effort to pray and raise funds for the renovation of the historic building that we recently purchased. The name of this initiative is based on our motto “a church for the city,” and (bias aside) I love it. My interest in urbanism and place-making has been pretty clear on this blog. This is something that has developed in me over the past few years, which is why it’s important for me to be a part of a church that aims to be for its city. These interests of mine are in part just dorky and academic. But ultimately they are rooted in something much more substantial: God is for cities, so I (and the church) should be too.

This might be a strange concept for mainstream contemporary Christianity (especially evangelicalism). We know that God is for individual people and for churches. God is for the poor and for the broken. “God loves you, Alyssa.” “For God so loved the world…etc.” But growing up, I never really heard much about God being for cities or places. So let’s unpack this a little bit. Continue reading →

The SRC & Your Soul

In case you hadn’t heard, Philly’s public schools are kind of a mess right now. Around town, empty school buildings sit marked with “for sale” signs as if it’s normal. Children have literally died due to inadequate staffing. The latest plot point in the government-failing-a-generation saga unraveled on Monday morning when the School Reform Commission (the district’s governing body) unanimously – and secretly – voted to cancel the contracts of the 15,000 district employees.

The most significant implication of this move is that PSD faculty and staff will soon need to start contributing toward their healthcare. Of course, this isn’t at all unusual: almost all of PA’s teachers pay for part of their healthcare. But as many have counter-argued, Philly teachers make significantly less money (by 19%!) than their suburban counterparts, all while working in a much more stressful environment. Regardless of where anyone stands on the issue, this move is expected to save the cash-starved district around $44 million.

After reading a lot about this, here’s what I find most interesting: shortly after ending Monday’s secret meeting, SRC chair Bill Green pointed out that “Every single stakeholder has stepped up to help the district close its structural deficit — the principals, our blue-collar workers…It is time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to share in the sacrifice.” Continue reading →

Flourishing on Two Wheels

It’s almost fall, and I’m especially excited about that because the change in temperature should mean that I won’t break out in a disgusting sweat on my way to work everyday. Was that too much information? Whatever – it’s true. Biking to and from the office is a consistently pleasant experience – something I look forward to twice a day – but it’s taken a toll on my general appearance these past few months. So I’m excited to resume looking like a normal/clean person after my commute.

Now is a great time to be a biker in Philly. To be sure, it’s always been a pretty good time – Philly is naturally a bike-friendly city. It’s flat, compact, and since the downtown was laid out before cars were invented, many of the roads are too narrow for cars to go too fast. But it’s getting even better. Next spring, Philly will be joining the rest of the modern cities by getting its own bike share program (and it’s rumored to be a good one). Bike racks and lanes are always being added, and there’s even talk of car-free streets. Also, the city’s laws are pretty bike-friendly: bikes are recognized as legitimate vehicles, and are allowed to be ridden in the middle of the road. When Philly was recently named the 6th best biking city in America, I wasn’t too surprised. 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)

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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.

Petty Justice

As much as I love living in a city, I still can’t shake that heightened awareness of vulnerability that accompanies city-dwelling. Philly is my home, but I still feel safer when I’m in the suburbs or at the shore.

In the year since I moved here, I’ve had no less than three encounters with petty thievery: my car has been broken into twice, and my bike was stolen. These are not heinous crimes; I do not consider myself a victim. In these instances, I was hardly violated, and the only loss I suffered was a few hundred dollars and some hours of my time. Nothing lasting, nothing irreplaceable.

But still, I can’t quite get over my annoyance with petty crime like this, and the fact that in this place where I’m so comfortable, I still need to be much more careful with my belongings and person than I am elsewhere. I also wonder why, in middle class, relatively safe neighborhoods, useless crimes like these happen so regularly (people who’ve lived here long enough come to expect them). Perhaps it’s because in cities, unlike anywhere else, everyone’s stuff is out there in the open, all the time, for all to see, not tucked away in backyards and garages. And in cities, there is a much higher volume of people – broken, fundamentally skewed, people. The same kinds of people who live in suburbs (and everywhere else), but more of them.

And people hold incorrect attitudes. More serious crimes – murder, rape, etc. – are inspired by attitudes that we’re all capable of, but to a degree that most people never experience (thank God). The attitude behind petty theft, however, is much more simple, sneaky, and prevalent. I don’t know much about the people that have taken my various belongings over this past year, except this: they all believed that they had a right to something that simply was not theirs, that they did not work for, that they did not earn. I fundamentally disagree with this. But I fear (no, I know) that I also succumb to this temptation.

Justice – in its most basic, brutal form – is rendering each his due, and getting what you deserve. Stealing someone else’s bike, or helping yourself to the contents of their parked car is unjust. But so is squandering someone else’s resources, cutting off the car behind you, and being rude to strangers. In many ways, I hold and act upon the unjust attitudes that led to my things being taken, and I hate that. I am not a petty thief, but I’m not perfectly just either.

There is nothing I can do to undo the injustices that have been done to me – I realize and accept that. But I can try to change how I feel about the things I have, the things I don’t have yet, and the work I do to earn them. Hopefully this is one minuscule step toward making this city better for everyone.

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.

Sin is a Gray Area

This post started out as a four-years-to-late ode to my favorite television show, Lost. It was going to be about how what makes that story both so confusing and so compelling is its moral ambiguity. Perhaps someday I’ll revisit that post, but what I have here now is broader and more fitting for Lent.

I’m neither a neurologist nor ethicist, so take this paragraph with an extra grain of salt. Our brains really like to categorizing stuff. Bombarded with information from the second we’re born, we’re constantly interacting with and organizing data and concepts. I don’t know what it would be like to try to function without categories – if that’s even possible. Of course, two of the most helpful categories that we form early on (or maybe are born with – that’s a can of worms to open some other time) are good and not-good/bad/evil. It’s really nice when a person, thing, event, action, or idea falls into one of these categories, and a lot of times this is a fairly simple distinction. It’s good to help an old lady across the street; it’s bad to push her into traffic. Simple.

But sometimes these categories fail us, or at least, are just not sufficient enough. It’s convenient when a person, thing, event, action or idea is (metaphorically) black or white, but more often than not, we encounter a gray area.

Some of us like to take a situation, analyze it quickly, and form an opinion about it, but for many of this world’s most significant points of conflict, this is really tricky. When things go wrong, we want to blame people – usually one person or a group of people that is not like us (e.g. “the Tea Party” or “Russians”). This is in part because we need to point our anger somewhere, but also in part because we want to ensure that whatever bad thing has happened won’t happen again. We want to fix evil. However, when it comes to stuff like natural disasters, mental illness, or even crimes committed by someone dealing with extenuating circumstances, the scapegoat is unclear. Finding a solution to gray-area evils might be impossible, or at least, far more challenging than when dealing with evil that is more clear-cut.

The best example of how I’ve seen this manifested recently is a little strong, so bear with me. I was intrigued last year by our nation’s reaction to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Our society was appropriately horrified and angry. We needed to direct those feelings somewhere, and take steps to ensure that something like that would never happen again. But the shooter had a mental illness, so blaming him and his family was complicated, much more so than if he had been, say, a terrorist with an agenda. So a lot of people channeled their anger against gun-rights groups and petitioned for tighter regulations. Whether or not they were correct in doing that is neither here nor there. What intrigued – and on some level deeply saddened – me was that our large and powerful society was forced to collectively deal with the fact that this world is fallen and sometimes evil stuff just happens, without clear cause, explanation, or solution.

Moving away from this large-scale example, it’s kind of an understatement to say that sin is everywhere. The fall affects every element of our lives and every aspect of this world. While there is that which is clearly good and that which is clearly evil, a lot of conflict is somewhere in between. Good people will always do bad things. Our societies will always fail us. And evil stuff will, sometimes, just happen.

And that sucks. It’s so sad, and so frustrating, especially for a people obsessed with solutions, answers, and progress. But what can we do? Nothing – and that might be the point. We can’t do anything to fix this messy, fallen world, except hope that everything tarnished by sin will someday be restored by grace. That’s the promise of Easter, and sometimes it’s all we have.