Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Memento Mori

John Donne posing for a portrait in a burial shroud. 

There really is no good way to introduce this thought, so here it goes: I firmly believe that you can't live your life fully without coming to terms with your own death, and the death of those you love. I'm convinced that living well is a pre-requisite for dying well, and that dying well is the capstone of a life fully lived. Dying is part of living, and preparing for our death, owning it as ours uniquely, is the only way we can come to terms with the gravity of every day living. Life is finite, and what we do with it, every single livelong day, matters. When we remember that we will die, we are simultaneously reminded that now is the time to live.

I bring this up because of last week's This American Life episode, "Death and Taxes." The first part of the program, produced by Nancy Updike, was a deeply moving, semi-autobiographical story about just how hard it is to talk about death, and how unprepared we are to face it. The segment is about forty minutes long, but well worth your precious, precious time. 

Monday, April 28, 2014


Linden Place NE - April 25, 2014 

Late Friday afternoon, I skimmed the surface of the holy while walking to my car. You can call me crazy if you like, but it was sublime -- one of those moments when your senses are so completely overwhelmed they get scrambled.  Somehow, the air itself was shining, the light smelled fresh and clean, the rain felt like grace, and whatever lies beneath all of this was shimmering through to the barely perceptible.

I just stood there in the rain shower, umbrella open but at my side, soaking it all in, until I was honked at because someone wanted my parking spot. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Interrupted by Joy

Late night texts or calls always fill me with dread. Anytime the phone dings after 11:00pm, I'm immediately worried that something terrible or undoable has happened, and I'm being called to be informed with the news. 

I'm not sure why I always think this, because really, I haven't had that many late night disasters in my life. The few that were, were enough, I guess. My new life as priest to a parish of people that I'm starting to love in a way that I can't even begin to articulate, some of whom I worry about regularly, doesn't help my phone anxiety, either. So despite that most of my post-midnight calls are drunk dials, an insomniac friend who knows that I'm usually up reading because I can't sleep either, or my bank telling me my checking account is emptier than it should be, I have to will myself to see who or what it is. Despite the statistical probabilities for everything being just fine, I still reach for the phone with a quickened pulse and a knot in my stomach. 

On Wednesday at midnight, I got a late night text from a friend. "Can you call me? I need to talk to you." I said my favorite prayer (it has two words and it goes like this: "Fuck! Help!") and called her back immediately, fearing the worst. 

But instead of being ambushed by the catastrophe that I was certain was on the other line, my life was interrupted by joy. Yes, of course, I would love it more than anything I know to come to an ultrasound with you in the morning. 

And in the morning, I woke up early, dropped Husband off at work, and I went with her to see her joy. With fingers, and toes, and a heartbeat, and a nose, a beautiful, perfect little nose. And we laughed for delight and amazement, and for all of the goodness that we saw God working in her, and we even cried a little bit. That morning was bliss and blessing. Bliss and blessing I might have missed if I hadn't picked up the phone. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Heal H Street

Last night, I stood around with a gaggle of neighbors, friends, coworkers, and curious strangers on the corner of G&9th to watch the premiere of Heal H Street, a documentary short by H Street local Craig Corl. Because the permits hadn't been worked out with the Sherwood Rec Center, the film ended up being projected onto the side of a neighbor's house, lending a bit of novelty to the atmosphere.

G & 9th NE, April 22, 2014

The film covered the recent history of the neighborhood, beginning shortly before MLK's assassination through the aftermath of the riots and neighborhood neglect, to the start of gentrification and the ensuing cultural shifts.  The film also traces the filmmaker's personal growth as someone who was born a few years before the riots in an entirely different world, and who struggled to come to terms with his existence as a gentrifier on H Street. While perhaps the process of gentrification and H Street investors are portrayed as probably more deliberately hostile than they are, as I'm more inclined to see the small-stepped micro-decisions and individually-made logical decisions that make up a wave of neighborhood change, the documentary rings true about the relationships that need to be forged among new and old residents in whatever H Street is becoming, and the need to remember the past. 

Heal H Street is now available online for anyone who would like to view it -- and I would certainly recommend it. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Spring is finally, finally here, despite the cold weather for the next few days. I'm ridiculously grateful, and spent last weekend sprucing up our very limited outside spaces: our balcony, and the little front lot.

And the front lot was disgusting. I wish I had remembered to take a "before" picture, but imagine a scraggly bunch of mostly dead ivy spilling out a foot onto the sidewalk. When I cut away the ivy, I had to scoop years worth of dead and decaying leaves which had turned into soil, and when I started digging up the dead roots, I found a beer bottle, a crushed aluminum can (for malt liquor), a small collection of plastic number stickers that used to adorn the front of our house, a little girl's hair barrette, some wire, and innumerable shards of window glass. I felt like a very short-term archaeologist, discovering pieces of the recent past.

After the ground was cleared, I mixed in some fertilizer, dug a few holes and put some pansies in, knowing that they're a hardy bunch and could probably handle whatever comes their way this summer, despite the damaged soil. The last step was mulching around them. Mulching is always really satisfying, not only because mulch keeps the moisture in when the weather gets hot, but because it always makes what you do look way more professional than it actually is, as in, look how much better these crappy pansies I bought for four dollars look now. (By the way, the garden center on West Virginia and New York is way cheaper than the Home Depot.)

The Vicar's "front yard" April 12, 2014
The difference between what was once there, a scraggly, smelly mess, and what is now there, something that helps the neighborhood look and be better than what it was, is not in money (it cost less than $15 for the materials) or in time (it really only took two hours) or in talent (clearly, my flower bed design is lacking in genius). The difference is intentionality. Intentionality is greeting your neighbor when you see her in the street -- it doesn't cost money, and it doesn't take that much time. Intentionality is paying attention to how your actions affect those around you. Intentionality is seeing, with new eyes, the potential of what's in a person, not what's presenting on the surface, and interacting with that person based on their potential, not their ugliness. In the end, intentionality is the difference between a group of people who live in the same geographic area, and a community.

We'll see how this little flower bed grows. Maybe the frost, or the heat, or my dog, or something else will kill off the pansies. That would be too bad, but if they don't make it, that's okay. I'll just plant something else.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bones and Bodies

"Bone to bone. Sinew on the bone. Flesh on the sinew, skin on the flesh, breath in the body. God made our bodies to begin with, and someday, God will put them back together again. God takes bodies seriously, and so should we."

My friends over at The Daily Cake have posted a piece of mine, a reflection on the Hebrew Scripture reading from this Sunday, Ezekiel 37:1-14. The Daily Cake is an Episcopal online community focused on twenty-and-thirty-somethings, so it's a little more overtly religious than what usually gets posted on this blog, not that it should deter you.

You can find the whole piece here. I hope you check it, and The Daily Cake, out.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Twenty Years

Twenty years ago, yesterday, was the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. I was eight when it happened; I knew Africa existed, but only in a lion, zebra and elephant sort of way. Bill Clinton was the president. But this week, I just can't stop thinking about what happened twenty years ago.

You might not think that this has a lot to do with H Street, but it does. It does because the waves of suffering that systemic violence cause radiate to every corner of the world, and sets off ricochets of suffering for decades, perhaps centuries. So, even though I was an eight year old, blithely living my life when those atrocities happened, as an adult, I've seen the ricochets of the genocide slash through lives here in Washington. And while they are a pale shadow of the immediate violence, they weren't pretty.

After college I worked at an anti-torture non-profit which had two basic tasks: advocate against the use of political torture by the US government, and offer immediate help to survivors of torture. Often, people would just show up at our door with their every possession in a plastic shopping bag. It was a miracle they found us at all, tucked away in a hard to reach spot in NE DC, but they did. TASSC was and still is a small operation, but we did our best to help them find proper psychological care, pro bono lawyers, and a safe place to stay. Petitioning for political asylum is its own sort of hell, as it can take years, and involves telling your story over and over again -- the very story you are trying to move past. Not to mention the difficulties inherent in coming to a new country with nothing. All of a sudden you can't speak the language, the culture makes no sense, and you find yourself impoverished and disempowered, unable to work for fear of being deported back to the country that tortured you.

And so the survivors came, from all around the world. The old-timers who stopped by to check in from time to time were mostly Latin Americans, but we would get new survivors every week, often from different countries in Africa or the Middle East. Most plentiful were those from the horn of Africa, Ethiopians and Eritreans, well connected in DC, and often sent to us by their clergy. There were others from Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, the Congo, the Sudan, speaking of TASSC by word of mouth, each connecting to one another when they somehow made it to DC. 

Every survivors has his or her own story, but each country's violence had its own distinctive stamp on the survivors. Those who shared the same language, who grew up in the same culture, and who endured similar treatment had a bond that went beyond even the deepest trust issues. Again and again I was amazed by the compassion and courage of survivors, especially as they worked to help each other out, listening to each other, offering space in their already crowded apartments. Despite the ugly reason that survivors found themselves at TASSC, the human spirit and grace was palpable. 

The exception to this rule were the Rwandans. Not that they didn't also evince spirit and grace in their own way, but because the violence came from within their own communities, and not from an outside force in the shape of a autocratic government, the devastation of the soul was far more complete. Instead of finding hope and solidarity, these survivors feared other people who shared their culture, who shared their language, who shared their identity. Not only did they have to deal with the "normal" issues survivors face, but they had to deal with that, too. The Rwandans broke my heart. At least to me -- and what do I know?-- it always seemed as though that the genocide survivors were the ones we were least able to help. And these people, and the children of these people, continue to live with the fallout of what happened twenty years ago. Because DC is a city of the world, they live here,  too, among us who never knew such trauma, bearing the scars on their hearts, living with the ricochets of the violence. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

G Street Bike Lanes

The mini stop signs have been up for months, but now they finally make sense. As of this week, the bike lanes have been painted on G Street.

G&13 St. NE, April 3, 2014

Drivers: Remember to watch out for cyclists.
Cyclists: Remember to watch out for drivers.

Be safe, everyone!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Stories Matter

In a few weeks, I'm going to start a new feature on the blog: a yet-to-be-named weekly oral history of someone who lives or works on H Street. 

I'm starting this because of something I've noticed after six months of living here-- while H Street NE and its surroundings is a vibrant community, I'm noticing that H Street NE is actually the locality of vibrant communities, plural. These communities, while they add up to make H Street what it is as a whole, don't really overlap all that much. 

For me, the symbol of the community disjunction is how H Street itself changes from morning until evening. There only ever seems to be one type of person out on the street at any one time; I know this is a broad-sweeping generalization, but once I noticed this, I couldn't unsee it. And then it started to bother me. Maybe I'm wrong, but there's an alienation here that's unsettling, and can't be healthy for the community at large. If we don't know each other, we can't be good neighbors to each other. 

So, I'd like to gather the perspectives of all types of people who live or work here, and make these stories available for those who want to know more about their neighbors. Who are they? How did they get here? What does this community mean to them? What do they wish H Street could become?

If you'd like to volunteer to sit down for a 45 minute interview, or nominate someone who you think has a story that needs to be heard, contact me at I would love to hear your story.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Today is the day - Vote!

If you are a DC resident, here's a friendly reminder to participate in the democratic process today. If you're not sure where you can vote, you can find that information at DC's polling place locator. I'm headed over to the community center on G shortly to run the gauntlet of campaign signs. Hopefully, after today, the campaign signs, like the last bit of deicer left on the sidewalk, can be put to rest for a while.

G & 10 St. NE, April 1, 2014

G&10th St. NE, April 1, 2014