Why We Don’t “Do” Disney

Before you had kids, did you have any idea that taking a position on how to best parent would be so divisive? It starts with disagreements with friends over birth control and pregnancy and then childbirth and sleep training and continues well into your child’s adolescence.

Trust me. I have a lot of strong opinions. And I’m not afraid to share them. But I try not to be one of those “holier than thou” elitists about stuff like this because it’s not my job to parent your children. It’s my job to parent mine.

For example, we get questions a lot about why my almost-four year-old daughter still has not seen the movie Frozen. As if it’s a crime. As if she’s missing out on a life-defining childhood experience. So, in a brief diversion from current affairs, let me offer a quick peek into our family life and why we, generally, don’t consume a lot of popular kids’ media.

First of all, my kids are not sheltered. And no, don’t worry, we don’t throw away gifts given by friends and family. My daughter has a Disney princess book (which she loves) and an Elsa doll. My kids play with lightsabers and make references to Batman. They know that the worlds of Disney and superheros and Star Wars exist. They know the stories and characters and have read many of the books.

Kids like “kid stuff.”
No big deal.

But, because exposure to popular media is almost a given these days, we are intentional about exposing our kids to more of what we think is “good” media and entertainment. It’s similar (in my mind) to a family that says to their children, “No juice before bed,” or “No dessert before dinner” regardless of what their friends’ parents allow.

And although I’m speaking most specifically here about Disney princess movies, this post could have just as easily been titled “Why I Don’t Buy My Son Star Wars Action Figures” or “Why We Watch 10+ Year-old Movies On Family Movie Night” or “Why I Hate That My Kids Love Paw Patrol.

Let me quickly clarify that, yes, I know that not all kids’ media is equal and that I’m probably being too hard on Disney. There are many, many intelligent, funny, enlightening kids’ movies, television shows, and books in existence, produced by Disney and others. We’ve seen some of them. We have really liked some of them.

Also, I’m sure you can argue a “Yeah, but, have you seen….. ?” for everyone one of my arguments. Feel free to make recommendations, but I still consider them the exception to the rule. And we shouldn’t set standards based on exceptions.

And, no, you don’t have to worry that I’m going to be weird about my kids coming to your house and seeing your kid’s Superman bedroom or that we’ll balk at your big-screen tv. That’s not the point of this. Please don’t take this personally. I’m just trying to explain the decision we’ve made with our kids because it does seem so strange to some people–especially to other people’s kids. And I understand that there are probably things we do allow our children to consume that confuse other people just as much as what we don’t allow. (I’ll keep an eye out for someone to write a post about “Why We Don’t Let Our Kids Listen to David Bowie Like The McEwans Do.”)

I know some of my ideas are unpopular or might make people uncomfortable. I think it’s worth sharing this kind of stuff anyway because, in the world of parenting, there are a lot of things that we take for granted about what is “good” or “best” for our kids just because it’s popular or recommended or it seems to work for everyone else. I’m simply suggesting some reasons why we should question these assumptions and consider that maybe, just maybe, popular kids’ media is feeding us all too much “dessert” and not enough “dinner.”

So, here you have it.
Seven reasons why we don’t “do” Disney.

Every new popular movie is just another fad. Fads are created by multi-million (billion?) dollar marketing schemes that specifically target impressionable young children and parents who are willing to give into their child’s desires. I don’t want my kids to get into the habit of latching onto what’s new just because it’s new. The best of the best of the new shows and movies will have staying power and will be just as good when they are 10 years old as they were when they were brand new. That’s why our kids will eventually see all these popular movies–but it will probably be in a few years, once the fad has passed.

The ubiquitous marketing by companies like Disney is overwhelming and confusing for a child. (For more on the manipulative nature of marking to youth, read this book.) What a child wants is not always what a child needs and what a child needs is not always desirable at first glance. When a young child walks through a store and everything in their sight, from snacks to water bottles to t-shirts and pull-ups is branded with a Disney character, the difference between want/need is blurred. They are manipulated into believing that the items branded with Frozen‘s Elsa are the better ones. They don’t learn a thing about quality, only desirability. This is a dangerous lesson to teach children. It will not prepare them to be wise consumers as they age. Yes, sometimes “want” and “need” can be found in the same item, but not always. We need to teach our kids to put first things first.

The meta-narrative of most popular media is weak and confusing. What exactly is your average Disney princess movie about? Ask three people and they’ll tell you something different. Is it about “true love?” Is it about “finding yourself?” Is it about “breaking free from restraints?” Who the heck knows. Case in point: I recently heard two different people discuss the story from the movie Frozen in two different church sermons. One thought it was a positive and liberating story; one thought it was completely godless and worldly. Does it really matter if it’s not super obvious what these stories are about? Maybe. Maybe not. In the end, we are the ones who help our children interpret these stories. I’d simply rather choose better stories.

(As an aside: I’ve never understood how many Christian families boycotted Harry Potter but take their preschool children to see Disney movies. Although Harry Potter is admittedly “dark,” the series has so much more depth and rich truths to the story than any Disney princess movie ever did. And no, my kids have not seen/read Harry Potter, either.)

– Disney stories cannot stand apart from their visual presentation. In other words, without the screen, a Disney princess story is crap. Have you ever tried to read a storybook adaptation of a Disney movie? They are horrendous. That doesn’t mean the movie itself isn’t a good movie, only that its value is completely dependent on visual stimulation. There are some exceptions to this rule–movies like The Lion King and Frozen that have a good soundtrack, for example. But in general, I’d say it’s true. Why is this a bad thing? Well, because children don’t belong couched in front of a screen for hours upon end. Every once and a while? Sure. As “dessert” after a healthy “dinner” of profitable consumption? Sure. At Grandma’s house or on vacation or while passing time during a 10-hour car ride? Sure, pull out that DVD player. But on a regular, daily, or multiple times daily basis? No way. And since there are no decent, non-movie versions of Disney stories, we’d rather skip the stories entirely and find something better.

– I’m a Conservative. And I know that this doesn’t make me super popular, but I believe in inherent differences between men and women. And, often times, the gender distinctives in popular media are one-dimensional and the characters are inaccessible to the opposite sex. I don’t want my kids consuming media that only presents their differences in one-dimensional characters whose entire identity is predicated on their being “girly” or “manly.” And when I say these characters are inaccessible, I mean that they are so shallowly presented that the characters themselves have no lessons to teach children of the opposite sex. The heroine is beautiful and naive; the villain is masculine and conniving. This obviously exists on a continuum (Anyone remember Mulan? I loved her.), but if I read one more princess story that starts with the phrase, “the princess was the most beautiful baby in the world,” I might puke. They write it because it sells. But it only sells because we’re buying. How this manifests itself: Merida, the female protagonist in Disney’s Brave, was physically altered in post-production to look prettier. Apparently, the strong, brave, spunky young woman of the popular movie was not good enough to be sold as a doll.

– The love stories are full of lies. “He fell in love with her the moment he saw her” is garbage. Do I want my daughter to place a high value on love and commitment and sacrifice? Absolutely. Is a fairy tale the best way to communicate the nature of “true love” to my young, impressionable daughter? Probably not. At least not the grossly exaggerated, manufactured, feel-good Disney-ification of a fairy tale. You may believe the lady-in-waiting, “Prince Charming is just around the corner” messages are harmless and all in good fun and that “all little girls dream of being a princess.” But I would argue that lies about love and devotion and Prince Charming have gotten my generation into a big mess of broken relationships, fear of commitment, confused sexuality, and disappointment in marriage. Children will listen, as another fairy-tale tells us. Be careful what you tell them when they are young and listen to you most.

Many animated movies are simply immature. You see, it’s not necessarily the stories that I find objectionable, but the dumbing-down of decent, edifying stories. Many Disney movies are based on wonderful, historically significant folk tales and fairy tales. In their original form and their cultural adaptations, they are complex and subtle and engaging for both adults and children. But in trying to make them “kid-friendly” and easy to swallow, we strip these grand stories of their strength and meaning. We reduce them to two hours of poop jokes for the kids and innuendos for the parents who are forced to watch. Children don’t need their stories dumbed-down; let’s give our children more credit than that.

The world is full of beautiful stories for children, stories of princes and princesses, heroes and adventure, love and loss, goblins and witches and giants and pirates. We should be offering the best of what is available, not what is easiest and most accessible at any given time on our nearest electronic device. It may take a little bit more work at times for parents, but the payoff is worth the effort.

In closing, let me leave you with a quote by author Madeline L’Engle:

“‘Why do you write for children?’ My immediate response to this question is, ‘I don’t.’ … If it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children. If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended, and I am dishonoring books. And words.

“Sometimes I answer that if I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children. This is usually good for a slightly startled laugh, but it’s perfectly true. Children still haven’t closed themselves off with fear of the unknown, fear of revolution, or the scramble for security. They are still familiar with the inborn vocabulary of myth. It was adults who thought that children would be afraid of the Dark Thing in Wrinkle, not children, who understand the need to see thingness, non-ness, and to fight it”

– Madeline L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

*Ironically, Disney is set to make an adaptation of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, one of my favorite books. This is both a little heartbreaking and a little exciting. Disney did a pretty good job with CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and several other live-action films based on children’s literature, so I’m hoping for the best.

But Where Do You Park Your Car?

The three most frequent questions I’m asked by people (parents, specifically) who are curious about living downtown are:

“Where do you buy groceries?”

“Where do your kids attend school?”

“Where do you park your car?”

Of these three, the first two are easily reconcilable. I have good answers for both. But the third question kills the conversation pretty quickly as soon as I answer, “Well, I can usually find a spot within a few blocks.”

The parking situation in my neighborhood has become more and more of a headache in the past two years as A) new businesses have opened and non-residents have decided that OTR is the “place to be” and B) as the City instated new parking restrictions including more metered spaces, higher parking rates, extended hours of enforcement, and started actually enforcing current laws. Together, these have all have forced residents to compete for the few free spaces available. Whereas, five years ago, I could find a parking space on my own street just about any time of the day (except Final Friday), I now sometimes circle for 20 minutes if I want a nearby space and often park 3-4 blocks away. (More on why that’s a problem in a minute.)

Today, we are on the brink of a City Council decision about the fate of parking in OTR and the (likely) institution of a permit parking program that–in my opinion–is too little, too late.

But, back to the issue at hand.
For the average family, the parking issue is one of the main factors in deciding whether or not a place is truly livable, meaning a place that goes from pie-in-the-sky, “I’d love to live there someday, in another life” to an actual, potential place they can thrive as a family. 

I’ve heard many Cincinnati residents (including the Mayor himself, City Council members, and other OTR residents) write-off the parking issue with a naive and condescending “If you don’t want to pay for parking, just get rid of your car. You’re the one who chose to live downtown.” And, sure, in a perfect world or in a world-class city, it would be that easy. Heck, even in Cincinnati, it is possible for many people. But we are still a long way from having an infrastructure that supports a completely car-free life. Especially for families (those of us with more than just ourselves and our own stuff to transport around town).

So, let me explain a few reasons why inconvenient parking kills the urban living dream for the average family.

The distance between your parking space and your front door seems quite a bit more significant when you’re responsible for unloading after a family-sized grocery trip or now have to carry the sleeping babies that fell asleep while you circled the block for twenty minutes.

You cannot leave things in your car when you live in the city. Or, at least you should not. This includes that stroller you’d rather not bring in and out of the house twice a day and the groceries you’d rather just leave for a few hours while you get the kids inside the house for their nap. There is no garage to keep your car/things safe. Leave it and you take the chance of coming back to a broken window and a lost stroller.

Good luck getting friends and family to come visit you at your downtown home when there is no place to park. Other families with kids don’t want to walk six blocks from the nearest parking garage just to visit you. And Grandma doesn’t want to, either. Before too long, Uncle Elmer out in the suburbs will start hosting Easter again because it is just so much easier for everyone. And what about your babysitters? You’ll have to pay them an extra $2 an hour just to pay for their parking.

– There are definitely some housing units available with off-street or designated parking spaces, but these are at a premium and the added cost of the parking space is prohibitive for many families. Most young families I know are sacrificing at least part of an income (if not a complete income) to care for their young children. Many of them live on a strict budget. The difference between a $150k and $350k home to them is like the distance between Earth and Jupiter.

– The cost of paying for a garage space is the same way. An extra $60-95 a month might not be a huge deal to a couple with two full-time jobs and no one to feed other than themselves and a pet cat, but it’s just another unnecessary expense that a working- or middle-class family doesn’t want to deal with.

Have you ever driven an SUV down a tiny cobblestone alleyway? In homes with off-street parking, a family-sized vehicle simply cannot fit. Take us for example: we have the potential for a parking pad in our backyard. But, with three kids and a mother in-law who doesn’t drive, we need a 6+ passenger vehicle. Big cars and small alleys aren’t exactly a good match. For us, parking in the backyard would be a headache every single time.

– With young children in the house, you cannot “just leave the house for a second” to walk down the street and feed the meter. This is why I’d rather circle the block for twenty minutes than park at a metered spot (and why extended meter hours stink). This goes for babysitters, too. If my babysitter arrives in the morning and has to park at a meter, she’ll need to leave my house every few hours to feed the meter and avoid a ticket. With older kids, this is not a big deal. They can be left alone for a few moments. But what do you do when there is a sleeping baby upstairs and the parking meeting around the corner is about to expire? Or when there are three kids who you have to pack up in jackets and shoes to take with you around the corner to pay that meter? It’s obviously not impossible. But it’s obnoxious.

“Just get rid of your car” doesn’t work when there are large grocery trips and grandparents to visit. It doesn’t help when you have a sick child and need to be able to speed to the doctor at any moment. It doesn’t do the job when you have two or three kids who need to be at two different places clear across town within moments of each other. Now, sure, this could be argued as a matter of lifestyle choices. The in-laws could move within walking distance. You could do all of your shopping in small trips around the neighborhood. You could buy a $3000 cargo bike to replace your car. But, like I said, above, our city is just not at a place yet where being completely car-free is a practical decision for most families. Until it is, let’s stop pulling the “Just get rid of your car” card on people who really would like to find a way to make it work for their family.

Okay, now let me be frank for a second. 

My husband and I knew what we were getting into when we moved here. We knew that parking could be difficult. And for the past seven years, we’ve dealt with it as one of a few nuisances among the many benefits of city living. We have also adapted our lifestyle to make it easier on ourselves and, at this point, can go quite a few days without actually needing to use our family vehicle. But I’ll admit that there are times when I’ve been so angry with how hard it is to find a decent parking space that I take those laps around the block red-faced and cursing under my breath so my kids can’t hear.

I don’t consider us your “average family.” Your average family may have never moved here in the first place. And they most certainly are not going to move to place that almost requires playing the parking game we have these days in OTR.

So why does it matter? Do we really want a bunch of average families moving to the urban core of our city. 

Yes, absolutely.

And if you want a city that the average family actually considers livable, you have to build your city with them in mind. Amenities like grocery stores and affordable restaurants are key; healthy and thriving schools are an absolute necessity. Add the availability of family-sized housing that is affordable and offers off-street or near (affordable) parking, and they’ll be moving in droves. Trust me.

For now and for our city, I’m feeling a little helpless at the moment. Not about the neighborhood, in general, but about its livability for families like mine. High-cost developments and inflated market-rate housing costs have already priced-out most of my peers. Neighborhood schools don’t seem to be improving. And this ridiculous parking situation may, quite honestly, be the nail in the proverbial coffin for most working- and middle-class families.

I know that, from an economic standpoint, parking in busy urban districts can seem to be the quickest way to make a buck. Sure: raise the rates, increase the hours, charge visitors a pretty penny to visit our booming downtown. But we need to remember that it’s a city’s residents and business owners, not its visitors, that keep it alive. What our Mayor and City Council are saying to us right now is, basically, they care far more about making some extra cash than they do about ensuring that the urban core remains a livable community.

And that’s an awful shame.

Doing the Hard Things

One of the constant struggles of adulthood is reconciling what we thought our lives would be with how they actually turn out. I’ve not been so disappointed with the specifics of my adult life–where I am, who I’m with, what I’m doing–as much as I’ve been surprised by how hard things have been, in general.

A recurrent theme in my journey has been the feeling that I was not prepared for how hard this would be. Big, broad things like caring for my community, balancing communal with personal needs, maintaining healthy relationships, establishing boundaries, and then small, specific things like managing money, taking care of myself, and figuring out what’s for dinner tomorrow.

I suppose I though that, by the time I settled into my 30’s, more of this stuff would come naturally.

Because, you see, I didn’t go looking for trouble and I haven’t made a bunch of bad decisions. So I guess I should be thankful that I was not naive enough to expect that good decisions would always reward me with ease. Sure, sometimes they do. But sometimes they don’t. And if I was in the habit of making decisions based on my desire for the quickest, pain-free route through life, I’d be disappointed in deeper ways than I am now.

With some of the hard stuff of life, there are tricks we can learn for making these things easier: we can become more efficient in our work; we can seek council about navigating difficult relationships. But, no matter how many short cuts we learn in life, sometimes there is not a simple way. Sometimes the best way happens to also be a hard way. And my guess is that most of us ask these same questions. Specifically, why don’t good things come easy?

In Biblical language, the life of a Believer is often equated with struggle and hard work. Three of the most prominent Biblical metaphors for the Christian are a farmer, a soldier, and an athlete. Those three images don’t exactly paint a picture of a life of comfort and ease. So those of us who make decisions based on our faith should never be surprised if, in making life decisions, we welcome a certain level of difficulty both internally and externally.

For those unfamiliar or disinterested in Biblical language, the other answer is a few years’ worth of anecdotal evidence (from my own experience) that the inherent value in good things transcends the difficultly of attaining and maintaining them. More simply put: good things are always worth the work. I may still question this belief while “in the thick of it,” but I’ve learned to depend on it as I walk forward. It’s the reason I don’t shy away from the hard things.

What good, hard things are you struggling through in your life? These will be different from mine, depending on your season of life.

Maybe your hard work is learning to forgive someone who has really hurt you or learning to love someone who is unlovable. Maybe your hard work is physical: training for a marathon, losing weight, rehabilitating after an accident. Maybe your hard work is internal, academic, or psychological like finishing school, going back to school, or writing that one final paper. Maybe you’re working on finally paying off a debt. Or maybe you’re just trying to stay sober or stay alive.

Things like these are hard. Very hard. They require more than positive thinking or prayer as therapy–they require work. And if we’re afraid of hard work, we miss out on the fruits of this labor: a healthier body, a better job, a loving relationship, sobriety, etc.

While doing school work one morning with my son, I asked him what subject he’d like to tackle first. His response to me was impressive: Let’s do the hardest thing first. (Sidenote: He did not learn this from me; I hate doing the hardest thing first. It was my husband who taught our son to not be afraid of the hard things.)

For my six year-old son, the hardest thing right now is learning to read. It stretches him and challenges him and takes far more work than he wants to do. But I keep reminding him that the payoff for this hard work is HUGE. It seems hard now, but it will change everything for him.

And I think the same thing is true about a lot of my hard things.

In this season of my life–my early 30’s, married with three young children–my hard things may be different than yours. For example:

I’m taking responsibility for myself. I’m taking ownership of my brokenness, my mistakes, and my failures. I’m working to correct my bad habits and my relational deficiencies. And I’m working to understand the part that I’ve played in the problems I see around me, in both a broad and a personal sense.

I’m working on being married because marriage is hard and I’m really bad at it.

I’m learning to embrace motherhood as hard work. I’ve always acknowledged my job as “mom” as important work, but I’ve never allowed myself to embrace its inherent difficulties as a sign of its significance rather than my weakness. Motherhood is good for me, in many ways. And having a physically present, emotionally invested, intentional mother is good for my kids. So, it’s worth the work it takes to do it well. I won’t belittle its difficultly anymore.

(I also freely admit that I parent my children differently than most and that some of the difficult decisions I’ve made–having a big family, homeschooling, a tv-free home, urban living, etc.–were made with full knowledge that it would be harder at times. The difficulty doesn’t necessary legitimize my decisions, but it shouldn’t surprise me either. We choose what we believe are the best things, not the easiest things for our family.)

I’m staying put. This is a really, really hard one for me. But part of the hard work of this season of my life is learning to plant and cultivate a life in a particular place with particular people. It is important for my emotional and spiritual stability to learn to be consistent and loyal in relationships and in a community. Someday, it may be time to do the hard work of uprooting and moving on. For now, the hard thing is staying put.

I’m learning to keep my mouth shut. It’s sort of ironic that I’d mention this on a public blog where I do the very opposite of keep my mouth shut, right? But one of the hardest things for me has always been fighting my need to be heard. To voice my opinion. To be represented. To be seen. And, so, much of the internal work I’ve done over the past few years has been understanding this need and learning the difference between speaking in wisdom as a contribution and speaking in desperation or for validation. (I wrote about this a little bit last spring.) I think this will be a life-long struggle for me, but the pay-off is big. I am learning to pay closer attention to the people around me; I hear them better. I avoid unnecessary conflict at inappropriate times and in inappropriate places. And (I hope!) it has been making my relationships stronger.

I don’t choose hard work because it’s hard. I choose it because (and if) it’s best. And the difficulty refines me in more ways than just the fruit of the work itself. (Just like training for a marathon is profitable for more than just the length of the race.) I may never master these things. Or I may. There are things that other people seem to have mastered that they have been working at for years and years, struggling in ways that I could never imagine.

What good, hard things have you overcome?
What good, hard things have you mastered?

What good, hard things are you struggling through in your life?
What good, hard things are on the horizon for you?

(Mostly) Unrelated Thoughts

I haven’t said much recently. But our first “real snow” fell yesterday in Cincinnati and I figured I’d use the quiet and calm of the snowy days to finally put a few thoughts together.

The past few months have been rough. I don’t want to go into the specifics here because it’s already been processed and the funk is (hopefully) moving on its way soon enough. But the difficult days have led to a lot of reflecting and self-assessment and big questions about identity and calling.

For as long as I’ve been self-aware enough to realize it, my biggest identity “trap” has always been the question of achievement. This appears in the form of questioning my contribution to the world, how my achievements measure up to those of my peers, and what my career/art/lifestyle resume would say. The big questions come back to me every few months, it seems, and I’ve (mostly) learned to talk them down. I’ve learned the error in valuing myself based on these things alone. And I’ve learned to recognize the way it negatively affects my relationship with the people around me.

But I still want to know that I am “making a difference.” That my contribution matters.

My oldest child turned six last month. I am crazy about my son and I am really enjoying these years of devotion to him and his sisters. But when those questions of personal achievement creep up on me, it’s hard to quantify the value of these years.

My kids are healthy, happy, and thriving.
But are a few decent kids really enough of a contribution?
Will I let it be enough?

I’ve also been thinking a lot about public expression, about social media, about the things we say and do and show online and why we do it. Why do we take so many photographs of ourselves? Of our children? Of the hip clothes we wore today or our newest home gadget or the awesome meal we just made? Why do I feel the need to make an “official statement” about every news story and viral conversation? Does the world really need to know what I think about women wearing yoga pants? (The answer: no.)

This has all underscored, to me, how desperately disconnected we all are. The world of online validation does not make me feel better about myself, how well I executed our last meal, and how well I dress my children. It just makes me feel lonely. Because, you see, I don’t want to show you a picture of last night’s meal or a picture of my kids. I want you to share that meal with me at our table. To talk with me, in real time, about the news and the world and what I think about women wearing yoga pants. And I want you to know my kids. I want you to hear my son’s jokes and my daughters’ songs.

I want to learn how to experience life with other people–not just show them my life online. But I’ve noticed that digital prowess does not translate into social capital. And it doesn’t breed true community. I am not a better wife, mother, or friend thanks to my online persona. In fact, I am sometimes worse because of it. I actually find it harder to connect in real life.

Six years ago, I was staring a new baby in the eyes, amazed by how much I could love someone I didn’t even know. I’m learning that it doesn’t matter if the world of Instagram thinks I love him. It doesn’t matter how many pictures I take of him or memories I keep tucked in a box under the stairs. Time is short and things move fast. He needs to know that I love him now.

It’s the same with all relationships–my husband, my family, my friends, my neighborhood, and my city.

(Somewhat) related: I have a few friends who are trying to navigate the world of dating in their 30’s. And dating today is, apparently, quite a bit different from dating even twenty years ago. Men don’t call. Everyone texts. Relationships begin online and don’t transition well into real life and real conversations.

My heart breaks for my friends who are single and want a partner, but can’t seem to connect with anyone. And, yet, here I am. Married to a wonderful man. And I choose to disengage for the sake of self-preservation and emotional independence. It seems silly, doesn’t it? Silly and sad.

We are so blessed and we don’t even know it.

Have you been to Over-the-Rhine lately?
This neighborhood is alive, so alive that I sometimes feel like a kid watching the merry-go-round at the playground, not sure I move quickly enough to jump on.

I wonder if this neighborhood is leaving me behind. I wonder if there is a role for me to play, if there is anything left for me to contribute. For ten years I’ve loved and worked in this neighborhood. And for seven years I’ve lived here. And if I feel this way after living here only 7 years, how do longer-term residents feel about all the changes?

Do all relationships get the seven-year-itch?
Even our relationships to a place?
How can you love a city through its changes?

The past year has forced my husband and I to reflect a lot on our calling, specifically to this place. Did I ever tell you that we moved here to plant a church? Ask me sometime and I’ll tell you the whole story. (In person.)

So now we ask: is our call to a specific mission, or to a place, or to a people? Again, how can you love a city through its changes? Through the seasons? Through its growth and the ebb and flow of development and the insecurities born from watching the thing that you love walk on without you?

This city doesn’t need me. And that’s a good thing. Because, like I said above, I need to get over myself and my compulsive need to make a contribution. I need to love this city for what it is, not for what I want to make it. This has been an important lesson to learn.

In case it’s not clear, the past year has been full of questions for me.

How can I be a better wife? A better mother? A better friend, daughter, and sister? A better neighbor?

What if I never write another blog? Or another song? Or another smartass Facebook update? Will I feel like a lesser version of myself? Why?

Can I learn to appreciate the small influence I have, where I am, with the people that need me most?

Can I embrace the relationships I’ve been given, rather than the ones I wish I had?

Can I exercise my voice in small circles, with people who are actually listening and learning and teaching me, as well?

Can I balance my responsibility to the most important people in my life with my desire for a contribution to the world outside my door?

I know these things might seem (mostly) unrelated, but they add up to something significant. Namely: where do we go from here? How much of this story is still left to be played-out?

This year marks my tenth anniversary in Cincinnati. I’m hoping that it brings a renewed love for this place, stronger bonds with the people I love, and a little clarity about how I can contribute to making it all better.

Making all of it better, including myself.

“Not For Happiness…”

A few weeks ago, I stayed up until nearly sunrise writing about the concept of vocation and what it means to be “married” to your life’s work. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for much of the past few months, as I struggle through understanding the value of this season of my life and the next phase in our family life.

The post I wrote that night was somehow deleted as it was being saved at the end. I lost a lot of mental energy on that post, but ended that night reading through similar thoughts by one of my favorite authors.

So, if you’re interested, I’ll just let Frederick Buechner speak for me.

Like “duty,” “law,” and “religion,” the word “vocation” has a dull ring to it, but in terms of what it means, it is really not dull at all. Vocare, to call, of course, and a man’s vocation is a man’s calling. It is the work that he is called to in this world, the thing that he is summoned to spend his life doing. We can speak of a man’s choosing his vocation, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of a vocation’s choosing the man, of a call’s being given and a man’s hearing it, or not hearing it. And maybe that is the place to start: the business of listening and hearing. A man’s life is full of all sorts of voices calling him in all sorts of directions. Some of them are voices from inside and some of them are voices from outside. The more alive and alert we are, the more clamorous our lives are. Which do we listen to? What kind of voice do we listen for?

When you are young, I think, your hearing is in some ways better than it is ever going to be again. You hear better than most people the voices that call to you out of your own life to give yourself to this work or that work. When you are young, before you accumulate responsibilities, you are freer than most people to choose among all the voices and to answer the one that speaks most powerfully to who you are and to what you really want to do with your life. But the danger is that there are so many voices, and they all in their ways sound so promising. The danger is that you will not listen to the voice that speaks to you through the seagull mounting the gray wind, say, or the vision in the temple, that you do not listen to the voice inside you or to the voice that speaks from outside but specifically to you out of the specific events of your life, but that instead you listen to the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us all by blasting forth that the only thing that really matters about your work is how much it will get you in the way of salary and status, and that if it is gladness you are after, you can save that for weekends. In fact one of the grimmer notions that we seem to inherit from our Puritan forebears is that work is not even supposed to be glad but, rather, a kind of penance, a way of working off the guilt that you accumulate during the hours when you are not working.

The world is full of people who seem to have listened to the wrong voice and are now engaged in life-work in which they find no pleasure or purpose and who run the risk of suddenly realizing someday that they have spent the only years that they are ever going to get in this world doing something which could not matter less to themselves or to anyone else. This does not mean, of course, people who are doing work that from the outside looks unglamorous and humdrum, because obviously such work as that may be a crucial form of service and deeply creative. But it means people who are doing work that seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.

In John Marquand’s novel Point of No Return, for instance, after years of apple-polishing and bucking for promotion and dedicating all his energies to a single goal, Charlie Gray finally gets to be vice-president of the fancy little New York bank where he works; and then the terrible moment comes when he realizes that it is really not what he wanted after all, when the prize that he has spent his life trying to win suddenly turns to ashes in his hands. His promotion assures him and his family of all the security and standing that he has always sought, but Marquand leaves you with the feeling that maybe the best way Charlie Gray could have supported his family would have been by giving his life to the kind of work where he could have expressed himself and fulfilled himself in such a way as to become in himself, as a person, the kind of support they really needed.

There is also the moment in the Gospels where Jesus is portrayed as going into the wilderness for forty days and nights and being tempted there by the devil. And one of the ways that the devil tempts him is to wait until Jesus is very hungry from fasting and then to suggest that he simply turn the stones into bread and eat. Jesus answers, “Man shall not live by bread alone,” and this just happens to be, among other things, true, and very close to the same truth that Charlie Gray comes to when he realizes too late that he was not made to live on status and salary alone but that something crucially important was missing from his life even though he was not sure what it was any more than, perhaps, Marquand himself was sure what it was.

There is nothing moralistic or sentimental about this truth. It means for us simply that we must be careful with our lives, for Christ’s sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously. Everybody knows that. We need no one to tell it to us. Yet in another way perhaps we do always need to be told, because there is always the temptation to believe that we have all the time in the world, whereas the truth of it is that we do not. We have only a life, and the choice of how we are going to live it must be our own choice, not one that we let the world make for us. Because surely Marquand was right that for each of us there comes a point of no return, a point beyond which we no longer have life enough left to go back and start all over again.

To Isaiah, the voice said, “Go,” and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which one will we obey with our lives, which of the voices that call is to be the one that we answer. No one can say, of course, except each for himself, but I believe that it is possible to say at least this in general to all of us: we should go with our lives where we most need to go and where we are most needed. Where we most need to go. Maybe that means that the voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness. What can we do that makes us gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace, which is much of what gladness is? Is it making things with our hands out of wood or stone or paint on canvas? Or is it making something we hope like truth out of words? Or is it making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses their spirit? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.

And also, where we are most needed. In a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain, our gladness in our work is as much needed as we ourselves need to be glad…

Thou, Who art the God no less of those who know thee not than of those who love thee well, be present with us at the times of choosing when time stands still and all that lies behind and all that lies ahead are caught up in the mystery of a moment.

Be present especially with the young who must choose between many voices. Help them to know how much an old world needs their youth and gladness. Help them to know that there are words of truth and healing that will never be spoken unless they speak them, and deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless they do them. Help them never to mistake success for victory or failure for defeat.

Grant that they may never be entirely content with whatever bounty the world may bestow upon them, but that they may know at last that they were created not for happiness but for joy, and that joy is to him alone who, sometimes with tears in his eyes, commits himself in love to Thee and to his brothers.

Lead them and all thy world ever deeper into the knowledge that finally all men are one and that there can never really be joy for any until there is joy for all. In Christ’s name we ask it and for his sake. Amen.

 

Excerpt from The Hungering Dark by Frederick Buechner.

(Mr. Buechner, many apologies for the gross overuse of quoted text. There was so little I was willing to toss out.)

How Your Church Can “Strengthen The Hand” of the Poor

Have you ever been in a room full of educated, middle-class American Christians talking amongst themselves about the “issue of poverty?” They know there is a problem. They know that they have the power and responsibility to address the problem. But, all the passion and commitment in the world cannot force them out of their seats and into action. They have no real, tangible ideas of how to address poverty in their community or around the world.

I am not an expert on poverty. I have never been poor. Sure, I’ve been financially stressed. But I’ve never been truly poor–left with no resources, no safety net, no way to pull myself out, and no one to call for help.

And I’m not an expert on ministering to the poor. Yes, I’ve worked for and among the poor, both in ministry and in my occupation. Sure, I’ve lived within steps of the poor and have had the poor living (quite literally at moments) on my back steps. But, I am still young and naive and don’t have but an ounce of wisdom in how to address the complexities of cultural and institutional poverty.

But, if any of my Christian friends want to know what their churches can do to address the issue of poverty right now, I have a few suggestions.

First, address poverty at its root. Poverty is not as simple as a lack of money or consistent employment. And it is not always (or not only) a result of personal error. It is a complex cultural paradigm and often generations in the making. Solving the the problem of poverty means tackling it at its root, in the systematic injustices and personal failures that perpetuate it. If you really want to pull someone out of a cycle of poverty, you have to get strategic and address a few key issues. Find an issue that you can (or your church can) personally address and commit to it. You may not be able to address it all, but you can certainly do something.

– Educate. During my two-year stint in AmeriCorps, I worked with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Catholic order of Sisters whose mission is to share the goodness of God through education among the poor and marginalized. We could learn a thing or two from these and others who are committed–vocationally–to the issue of education among the poor. Without a proper education (at least through high school), the opportunities available to young men and women are limited. Something as simple as after-school tutoring could be a place to start, but perhaps you are capable of more. Other ideas: Start a community school or a co-op; become a teacher at a struggling school system; sit on the School Board; become a high school academic counselor; create a college scholarship program.

– Promote Strong Family Systems. There is a strong relationship between the stability of a family structure and poverty. In 2013, of the 11% of the American population living in poverty, 31% of them were households with a single mother. And, according to the statistics that same year, a married couple is much more likely to avoid poverty in the first place. Seeing as we are now entering an era in which almost half of the babies born are born into unmarried households, this might be an issue that the Church can address. Not by shaming unwed mothers. Not by ousting unmarried families. Not by coercing marriage. But by strengthening existing couples and encouraging healthy relationships, teaching basic conflict management skills, marital counseling, and by encouraging young women to abstain from sex (crazy, I know) to avoid becoming another “poor, unwed mother” statistic. For women (and men) currently parenting alone, churches can provide training in parenting skills and support in the way of daycare and counseling. And, for children who have already become victims of broken families, foster and short-term respite care, as well as adoption (open or closed, through public or private agencies) are great opportunities.

Improve the Quality of Life and Housing Opportunities. Have you considered the environmental and lifestyle issues that make it difficult for people to move out of a cycle of poverty? The availability of healthy food, access to public transportation options, clean, safe, and well-maintained neighborhoods–they all matter. What if your church started a housing ministry that rented or sold decent homes to low-income families without the mess of government subsidies? Or started a community housing co-op that enabled lower-income members to build equity in shared property? What if you started a community garden that provided fresh produce to local families in need or organized a block watch to promote community-led policing? You can plant trees for increased safety and air quality; you could provide free medical care or health education.

Teach Job Skills and Provide Employment. What would you do if you wanted to find a job that would provide for your family, but had a minimum education, few employable skills, or possibly even a felony on your record that (in an employer’s eyes) disqualified you from hundreds of available jobs? You or your church can help teach important skills that help secure employment for the otherwise unemployable: computer and technical skills; handyman, carpentry, or maintenance skills; cooking or cleaning. You could also take it one step further and start a business that employs those who have a difficult time finding employment or hire an under-employed person in your community to do odd jobs (at your church or your home) for extra cash to help make ends meet.

Give Financial Guidance. There are financial skills that some wealthier people take for granted–things they learned from their parents or peers about how to manage their money, how to save money and stay out of debt, or how to make smart investments. Don’t take for granted that other people know these things. Things as simple as how to open a bank account, balance a check book, or pay a bill online might be a mystery to some folks. Without basic financial knowledge and wisdom about managing wealth, a sudden increase in income that comes with new employment can destroy a family’s financial future. Your church can provide something as simple as free financial counseling or as complex as interest-free personal or business loans.

Fight Institutional Injustice. Sure, plenty of people living in poverty are victims of their own bad decisions. But, many are not. And, regardless of how they got into the mess they are in, there are mountains upon mountains of institutional injustices that can make it feel impossible for them to climb out. Christians should be in the business of pleading the case of victims. Either find a way to advocate for those who are in danger of being further victimized and left with no resources and no support, or use your skills and influence to work within the system to bring justice on an institutional level. The judicial system, banking, legislation, urban planning and community development, immigration–take your pick. Globally, nationally, or locally.

Soothe the symptoms of poverty. Emergency assistance will not stop the cycles of poverty, but it can soothe the symptoms. And Christians should not be afraid to meet a need where an obvious need exists. Educate yourself about what resources exist in your community, but also consider how you can step in with a more personal touch. I know that a lot of us are afraid of being taken advantage of or being made fools, but churches should be places of hospitality and generosity. You can be wise about the help you offer while still being generous and merciful. Keep healthy boundaries, but keep your doors open–physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Pray that God refines your discernment to know where the real needs are.

 

And, there is the key element here that I haven’t mentioned:
Helping the poor–I mean, really helping the poor–requires knowing not only the “issue of poverty” in a theoretical sense, but actually knowing the poor in a personal sense.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to sell everything and move to a characteristically impoverished area, though I think many are called there. And I’m not suggesting that you go out and make friends with poor people out of pity or a savior complex or mere duty. But if you (or your church) realize you are ignorant of the needs surrounding you, then you need to readjust your vision. Walk outside and take a look around. There are hungry, hurting, poor people everywhere. (Yes, even in places where everyone else looks just like you.) And I would venture to say that if you literally cannot find people in need among you, in your church community, or if you think you have to drive across the country or fly across the world to “minister to the poor,” you may be doing something very wrong.

 

Let me leave you with some wise words from a man who worked for 40 years in my neighborhood to “strengthen the hand of the poor” before he sold us his house and moved away to live nearer to his family. As thankful as I am for this home, I think a little more time spent learning from him could have done me some good.

 

“Why was Sodom destroyed? Ezekiel tells us in chapter 16, verse 49: ‘This was the sin of your sister, Sodom: Pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness. Neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.’

“That’s also why Jerusalem was destroyed.

“And now, with greed as our national virtue, what hope is there for the United States of America? We are afflicted by imperialistic pride, obesity, and entertainment addiction, and we are all called to do our part to ‘strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.’

‘Strengthen the hand’ is the King James wording. Modern translations say ‘help the poor and needy.’ And there’s a world of difference between the two. Helping the poor = as little as throwing some cash in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas time. That’s charity. It’s doing for, not doing with.

“My Grandmother was right about charity. On a below-zero day, she went out on the back porch with a skillet to throw hot grease on the back-yard snow. She shivered as she re-entered the kitchen and said, ‘Wooooh, colder than charity.’

Strengthening the hand is much different. We get personally involved with another person who needs help, and we work with her or him to get the needed help. That’s risky. You’re vulnerable. It takes prayer, time and patience. You need knowledge and wisdom from the LORD. There are great rewards, however. You get a brother or sister.

“Strengthening the hand is great work for our churches — which we ignore far more often than we perform. Why? Because we’re afflicted with the American curse of individualism. Christians are to be a tribe — a tribe that takes care of each other. In Galatians 6:16, Paul calls us “the Israel of God” — the new 13th tribe.

Jesus said, ‘The poor you shall always have with you.’ He didn’t mean that as a curse — the notion that the poor are an inevitable nuisance and expense, to be hidden in the slums. Rather, He was saying, ‘You shall always be among the poor.’

“When you strengthen hands, you fulfill Deuteronomy 15:4-5: ‘However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God . . .’ It’s a glorious responsibility and promise.

“And how do prosperous Americans fulfill that promise? Generally, by making sure they have no contact with people who are poor — and we have been that way from our beginnings in the 17th century. Early villages in Massachusetts solved the problem by out-lawing poor people. Today, we deal with the same problem by confining the poor in urban reservations, our slums.

“As the Supreme Court Bailiff says at the beginning of each session, ‘God save the United States of America…’ “- Jack Towe, “God’s Wrath.”

 

Some of you may have noticed that I didn’t list “Provide Spiritual Guidance” on my list above. I have two reasons for omitting it:

1. I take for granted that Christian people–especially incorporated church communities–already understand that they have a responsibility to preach the Gospel to all people whether poor or wealthy. Spiritual poverty knows no economic boundaries, so providing spiritual guidance should be a given, at all times, to all people. “Strengthening the hand of the poor,” however, is a particular command given to the Church in relationship to a particular group of people and can be discussed with spiritual realities presupposed.

2. I believe, like folks such as Tony Campolo, that it’s hard for people to hear the message of Jesus over the grumble of an empty belly. Perhaps there is a reason Jesus did so much of his teaching while sharing a meal. Perhaps we should learn to do the same.

Read This: The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs

I was very happy to discover this today, as I searched for a few links to include on my letter to Cincinnati’s City Council regarding proposed parking changes in my neighborhood. I might post that letter a bit later but, for now…

An excerpt:

“…cities desperately need conservatives. These are places that have been abandoned to the left for decades. Many urban dwellers are hungry for better government. They want a more responsive bureaucracy. They favor unwinding many of the stifling regulations and perverse subsidies that have built up over the years. They are angry with the political patronage systems run by a governing class that has been unchallenged for decades. Why would conservatives cede this ground so easily?

Read it here: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/urbs/the-conservative-case-against-the-suburbs/

Welcome to the Neighborhood

I’ve mentioned before that a lot of people give me the ol’ “Oh, I’d love to move downtown, but…”

“… but we love our kids’ school.”
“… but my husband/wife would never do it.”
“… but we don’t want to leave our perfect house.”

Etc.

So, then, what drives a family to actually pick up and move to the urban core? More than that: what motivates them to not just rent for a year to “test the waters,” but jump in head first and invest in a longterm residency by purchasing a property and then launching an entrepreneurial project to boot?

Let’s find out.

Meet the Bethunes.

When I met Levi Bethune, it was a brief “Hey, a friend told me I needed to meet you!” kind of moment. We had a few mutual friends who knew that, among other mutual interests, we both a) had a few kids and b) were into living downtown. Heather (his wife) wasn’t around at the time and I wasn’t sure when we’d run into each other again. But over the course of the next few months, I connected with Heather online and we started spending time together. It’s been a pleasure to know them through this exciting time for their family.

The short version of their OTR story is this:

Man lands a job in Cincinnati.
Man and wife sell their house and move to Cincinnati, with children in tow.
Man falls in love with OTR.
Wife begins to, as well.
The property hunt begins with strict parameters and, therefore, little hope.
Craigslist yields a magical buyer-seller relationship.
Rehab loan.
Permits, permits, more permits.
Hold-ups.
Construction begins.
And here we (well, they) are now:

Simple Space. Have you heard of it yet?

SS-Bethunes-Emily

The Bethunes (with friend/Simple Space partner Emily) via impulcity.

 

You see, what started as a small “what if we moved downtown?” inkling has grown into a full-on family business endeavor. And what could have been a simple rental unit or renovated single-family home is set to become an exciting community resource–a space for entrepreneurs, artists, party hosts, etc. to stretch their legs in a prime location but with a low-stress, short-term commitment.

You can read more about Simple Space itself at the above link. I’d rather focus for a second on what it’s like to be a woman/wife/mother who takes the leap from renting in the first-ring suburbs to committing long-term to the urban core.

What would drive a woman to move her family into OTR?

Well, I asked Heather a few questions to find out.

Whose idea what is to move to Over-the-Rhine?

“Initially, it was Levi. He had the pleasure of riding his bike around and through downtown on a near-daily basis to get from Northern Kentucky (where we currently rent) to his office at Longworth Hall. He was “romanced” by Cincinnati in this way… getting to experience all the alley ways and historic architecture up close and personal, interacting with people enough to start to recognize faces & names… it did something for him. He’s always loved cities, and Cincinnati has such a wealth of history, feels established and yet… isn’t overwhelming. Instead of being intimidating as big cities often are- Levi felt welcomed and in turn wanted to be a part of what’s happening in the heart of the city. Once he realized how he felt about it, and why, we started being more intentional as a family about spending more time downtown and in OTR. We wanted to see how our kids would respond to the urban atmosphere and also, of course, if I would love it as much as Levi did. And I did. Though my experience and perspective isn’t identical to his, I truly love Cincinnati and sense that I will only grow to love it more. I am drawn to cities for their intricacies and smart uses of small spaces. I love the creativity that cities can draw out of it’s inhabitants. I can’t wait to be one.”

Can you remember a moment when you realized “Yes, I want to live here?”

“I think I had several of those moments walking down a street with Levi and the kids on a beautiful day. That (alone) will do it.I am also completely in love with the architecture of OTR. I remember the first time I started to really look at the spaces above the store fronts and realize, “People live there! What must that be like to be able to just walk out your front door and go to ____ (wherever we had just come from)?” I know that’s a bit of a romaticized view but I think that’s okay. As with anywhere you live, you have to be a bit dreamy-eyed about some of it to balance out the challenges it poses (for instance, living in suburbia and having to load all your kids in a gas-guzzler to drive to ANY place you want to go because there is nothing but a mailbox within walking distance of your front door).”

What are you most looking forward to about living/working in OTR?

“Walking to as much of our everyday living as possible. Off the top of my head: parks, library and little shops like the shoe repair or hardware store. I’m also excited to be near the hub of public transit – especially the streetcar. Once that’s in it will definitely expand our borders and make it very easy to shop at Findlay Market and enjoy the riverfront more. I’m also really excited to own again. We bought our first house in Virginia only a year before moving here, and since selling, we’ve rented. We’ve never owned a building and commercial space before, so I know we’ve got a lot to learn. But I’m excited to do that and to be a part of the story of Over the Rhine.”

Would you like to know more about the Bethune Family and their new creative child, Simple Space? “Like” them on Facebook and, if you’re so inclined, you can contribute to their Indie GoGo campaign. (Don’t worry. Donations go specifically to the commercial event/retail space, not to outfitting their private residence.)

Welcome to the neighborhood, Levi and Heather!