How Strong is This Marriage?

10 years ago, I sold a guitar so I could pay my way to Cincinnati. I had no job and no savings; I had found an apartment only a few days prior. I was moving for a relationship, not for a city. In fact, Cincinnati was barely a blip on my radar and, as far as I could tell, the move was temporary.

10 years ago.

When I knew my ten year anniversary was around the bend, I considered doing something to celebrate. Throw a party. Release a new cd. Write a Top Ten list of my best Cincinnati memories. But as the days inched closer and closer, my heart grew more and more conflicted and I let the day pass last month without making much of a racket at all. Not publicly, at least. Privately, my mind and heart were wide awake and wild.

What the hell am I even doing here?

Oh, I know what I’m doing here. I’m living a pretty wonderful, charmed life. I am wife to a wonderful husband; I am mother to three beautiful, spirited children. I sometimes play music and sometimes plan community events and sometimes host parties and concerts and sometimes write articles and blogs and other assorted read-ables. Heck, I “do” a lot.

But how many of us really measure the wealth of our life by what we “do?”

I don’t.

I want to know “why” and “for what” and “to what end” am I here?
And, in that way, the “do” is rather inconsequential.
The “do” can come later.

When did I fall in love with Cincinnati?

From the moment I arrived, there have been wonderful people who have embraced me as their own and shared the best parts of Cincinnati with me. Many of those parts are hidden away in their favorite corners of the city, tucked into houses and storefronts and laughter and singing songs that no one other than those they call their own would care enough to notice. This city has become familiar to me in a way that I never expected. It welcomed me as its child and I fell in love with it, hidden piece by hidden piece.

But what does it mean to truly love a city? And how much of my love for Cincinnati is more about what it has given to me than about what I can give for it?

And, what does loving a city truly require?

Cities change.
Living in a growing, changing neighborhood has been a huge challenge for me because this neighborhood was a huge part of that first affection I felt for Cincinnati. And, with every small change, I’m losing a little bit more of what made this city feel like it was “mine” in the first place. And if I, being here only ten years, can feel such torn affections, imagine the heart and mind of someone whose entire history centers here.

There have been many times in the past few years when I was ready to cut and run.

The truth is: I. Want. Out.

But I’ve thought a lot about love and commitment and the concept of marriage recently. Not related, specifically, to my marital relationship but more related to my marriage to mission and work and my love of place. Wendell Berry talks about the idea a lot when he talks about farmers and their relationship to their land. It’s the idea of husbandry and it’s, sadly, a concept that has lost its gravity in its modern usage.

What would it mean to marry myself to this place?
What would it look like to make a covenant with this city?
How can I love this city and these people with the kind of love required in marriage?

Look, I’m not suggesting that a person’s relationship to their place holds nearly as much weight as an actual marriage. But I am suggesting that maybe we don’t really understand what we claim when we claim to “love our city” if we’re willing to just walk away when the affections wane or when the greener grass next door peeks our interest. Most people don’t think twice if a better opportunity, a bigger house, or a higher-paying job shows up.

But maybe, like a good marriage, loving our city means much more than the tickle in our belly or the ebb and flow of our affections.

I like the word “efficacious.” It’s a word I don’t use in conversation because it would make me sound obnoxious. But it’s a good word. And it’s one of the words I remind myself of most often when I consider whether or not I am acting in love toward another person. In the context of loving, efficacious love would be a love that is productive, effective, constructive, or beneficial. It is a love that is fruitful. One of the best ways I’ve heard it expressed is by St. Augustine when, in relationship to God, he wrote: Quia amasti me, fecisti me amabilem. (In loving me, you made me lovable.)

In loving me, you made me lovable. How awesome is that?

What would it look like to love this city in that way, in a way that made it better? Made it truly lovely?

Then, after committing to see that love through, what does it look like to love a city that doesn’t always love you back, at least not in the way you wish it would? What about when it no longer feels as welcoming or accepting? And what would it look like to truly love a city that grows up to be something other than the thing you always wished it would be?

How do you love a city that no longer resembles the city you first loved?

I’m sure most people don’t care too much about this stuff. They just move on when their affections shift. Find a more comfortable place to call “home.” But I can’t get the questions out of my head.

Wendell Berry writes about the responsibility to one’s place:

When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong.

What is my responsibility to this city– to this place that adopted me as its own, who gave me back my faith, gave me another chance at love, brought me my babies, and cradled me into adulthood?

The truth is that sometimes I just don’t have it in me to give back. Sometimes I feel like I’ve already given too much and that I’d like to take some time for myself. I want to find a wooded, wild, quiet place to raise my children without the fuss of loving a place and a people in return. (Because, in the city, it’s impossible to ignore the heart beating next door. You can hear it through the walls. And I’ve got enough damage to repair in my own heart and my own home, thankyouverymuch.) Why not find someplace more comfortable? A place that doesn’t require so much work?

So, I’ll ask it again: why am I here?

How deep is my love for this city?
How strong is this marriage?

I can’t honestly say whether or not Cincinnati will be my home in ten years’ time. This city doesn’t really need me. Not in the same way my family needs me. There may be another vision or mission around the bend.

For now, I’m thankful for this city. And reminiscent. A little melancholy. And pretty hopeful for its future.

This city has given me a lot in ten years’ time. I am praying I have something to offer in return, even if it’s not for forever.

Why Diversity Matters To A Conservative Mom Like Me

Diversity matters to me.

It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?

When imagining the lifestyle of a “conservative Christian housewife,” the mind isn’t usually drawn to pictures of diversity. Instead, we usually picture privacy fences, kids who “don’t talk to strangers,” and family conversations about Us vs. Them. But one of my deepest commitments in the way I parent and educate my children is to their early and intentional exposure to diversity.

This is one of the things I love most about our life in the city.

In the most basic terms, the defining characteristics of an urban environment are density and diversity. Conversely, sub-urban areas are characterized by sprawl and homogeneity. One of the most common misconceptions about sub-urban places is that they are better for families. And, more often than not, what people mean by “better for families” is that the social, economic, and ethnic homogeneity makes it easier for parents to navigate.

When most of your neighbors look like you, make about the same amount of money as you, and vote like you, their culture is familiar. There are fewer conversations with children about why the neighbor “looks like that” or “eats that kind of food.” And there are fewer difficult conversations about why that other neighbor does that thing that you absolutely do not do.

But, does that really make it “better?”
Better by what definition?

Do parents consider the long-term effects and implications of a childhood with little to no experience with anyone different than themselves?

Now, some sub-urban areas are more dense and diverse than others, especially as many suburbs are being retro-fitted with more characteristically “urban” developments. And every childhood is formed under the direction of parents, so every suburban child’s experience will be different. But, I suggest that parents–especially those who identify as Conservative–should consider the benefit of building a family life in which their children are regularly and positively exposed to diversity, regardless of where they live.

Let me offer two reasons why diversity matters to me.

First, early and intentional exposure to diversity could help release my children from bias and bigotry as they grow older. This is obviously not a guarantee. I believe that bias is a natural (fallen) reaction to cultural differences. But parents can direct a child toward experiences that help them navigate diversity with wisdom, not fear or misunderstanding.

I was a suburban kid. And most of the people I knew as a child came from families very much like mine. But, I went to a public high school that was about a million times more diverse than the neighborhood I was from. So, even if my early childhood was not characterized by diversity, my adolescence was a bit more. I didn’t understand the impact this diversity had on me until many years later when my husband took me to a high school football game in his hometown. It took me a few moments to realize why the crowd was so strange to me.

“Wait,” I asked him, “where are all the black people?”

My husband attended a high school where the student body was nearly 100% white. But I, though I lived in a predominately white suburban neighborhood, attended a high school that was remarkably diverse, both ethnically and economically. So, my early experiences with my minority peers–particularly African American and Middle Eastern–were as diverse as these cultures themselves are.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the homogeneity of my husband’s almamater. Public schools simply reflect the lines drawn by school districts. But I do believe there was an inherent strength to the diversity of my school.

It’s impossible to be completely bias-free, but I credit my diverse high school with helping me have a bit more realistic view of people who are different from me. You see, black people and Muslims and gay kids and poor kids and unwed mothers were not “those people” who lived in the other part of town or went to the other school. They were my classmates. They were football heroes, the student council President, and my co-star in the school play. They were people. Actual people. People with names and talents and fears and dreams–just like me.

The diversity that my children experience in the city on a day-to-day basis can be difficult at times. There are still questions that I haven’t figured out how to answer about the differences between our family and some of our neighbors. The questions we do answer, we sometimes only answer in part while our children are young and are satisfied with simply, honest answers. We are still different, after all. And our children get that, even if they don’t understand to what extent.

I can’t guarantee that my children won’t carry bias into their adulthood, but what I’ve tried to provide is a more broad experience in their childhood so that “those people”–the people who are different from us in any given way–are not strangers or numbers or ideas. They are people. Actual people. They own businesses and restaurants; they have ailing parents and they have rowdy children; some have good jobs and some ask for change; some are lazy and some work really, really hard.

They are our neighbors and friends.
They have names. And talents. And fears. And dreams.
Just like us.

I believe that our experiences with diversity as a child influence our interaction with diversity as an adult. When people who are different are kept at an arm’s length, they have no identity other than the thing that makes them different. They have no humanity. No dignity. And their complete other-ness makes them easily misunderstood. Teaching my children to acknowledge them as more than “different from us” teaches them to acknowledge their God-given dignity. And that is the foundation I would like to build for my children as they approach adulthood so that they don’t need to spend their young adult lives undo-ing the bias they were given as children. Instead, I want them to spend their young adult lives determining how they will engage with the world as adults.

And this relates to the second reason diversity matters to me:

I believe that the Christian faith lends itself to an active relationship with a diverse society, a relationship that is mutually efficacious.

Now, I would be foolish to claim that I am even near to perfecting this subtle dance between remaining apart from the world while establishing relationships and engaging those who are different from me. (Especially when my young children are involved.) But I know that this dance can’t be learned without first jumping in.

In the same way that Christians have to learn to human-ize people who are different from us, I want to help make Christians more human to those for whom we are “those people.” You see, when Christians disengage and remove ourselves from diverse populations, we become nothing more than a foreign idea. We appear irrelevant to the world. And we have no identity apart from our other-ness. But when we engage, when we make ourselves present in the lives of people are are different, they can begin to understand us as real, actual people. And that will, perhaps, give them a better understanding of what, exactly, this peculiar people who call themselves “Christians” are actually all about. And I believe that what Christians are actually (supposed to be) all about is good for the whole world.

We may be kind of weird to some of our neighbors. And they may not understand why we vote the way we vote or why we homeschool or why on earth we head to church every Sunday while they head down the street for waffles. But they will, hopefully, know us in other ways. They will know the names of our children and they will sit at our table or chat on our front stoop and they will (hopefully, someday, when I figure this all out) know that we love them.

I want my neighbors to know that we see them as more than “those people” who live in a different part of town.
Because they don’t live in a different part of town.
They live here.
With us.
And that actually makes a difference.