Social Minimalism

Recently, I found myself wondering how my life ended up where it is. It’s not that my life is in shambles or anything of that sort. It’s just markedly different compared with nine months ago.

Slowly, and without realizing it at first, I began drawing away from relationships and environments that quietly tortured my soul. In the winter of 2018, I started disengaging from church. I no longer went to pre-service prayer or led it once a month. I was out of town for a number of Sundays during the spring, and noticing that my lack of attendance didn’t hinder my relationship with Jesus and that no one really seemed to notice that I was gone, I took additional Sundays off even though there wasn’t anywhere in I particular that I needed to be. I pulled myself out of another ministry I was involved in, and one day, I realized that I had withdrawn from serving at church entirely—even though that was not my initial plan.

One day, I realized that I wasn’t going at all. I was working about 60 hours a week, and Sunday was my only day off, so I stayed home. I quickly realized with some disappointment and sadness that I did not miss church or the nosiness, competitiveness, and meanness I encountered far more often than I thought I should. I felt happy and peaceful with the release but sad—ideally, church should be a place of refuge.

And with my work schedule, I was glad to have an excuse to tell friends that I couldn’t get together because I was working a lot and didn’t have the bandwidth to battle traffic and insane drivers to make it to a coffee shop or a restaurant after work or during the precious little time I had to relax on Sunday. I found myself at home painting, writing, reading, and sitting on the couch, and for the first time—I didn’t feel guilty for being selfish with my time.

So, in these concluding months of 2018, I have found myself living in a small house at the end of a dead end street where the only cars I don’t recognize are ones that have made a wrong turn, and where my regular visitors are a pair of cardinals who like to eat from the bird feeder I installed outside the house. Their names are Jasper and Emily. I go to work, take a pottery wheel class, and reach out to friends when I am ready. It’s a lovely existence.

My life is small, but I like it that way. It is clutter-free, and I can think more clearly than I have for some time.

During this time of seclusion, I have begun to pick up neglected thoughts about friendship that I have not considered in a while. I used think about how most people only have a handful of friends who they can claim as kindred spirits in a lifetime. There are different people in our lives during different seasons, and most times, those people come and go. But other than these good friendships that change as life changes, who are these other people we fill our lives with? Are they life-giving? Or, are they social capital and compensation for loneliness?

I prefer the life-giving ones because I have learned how to deal with loneliness, which is pretty much a side effect of living. We’ll all be lonely at some point in life. And as with most things in life, the importance of social capital fades and ebbs away with time—and becomes meaningless—but what is life-giving can reverberate throughout a lifetime, and often, beyond.


Returning to My God-Given Roots: Bye-Bye, Bangs! (But Then, They Came Back.)

When I started this natural hair journey, one of the first things to go was my bangs. We’d been kindred spirits since the third grade when Mrs. Botts was my teacher and I graduated from two pigtails to French braids. As mom and I discussed the new hairstyle, she said, “Your forehead is a little big. Let’s give you some bangs.” We were together ever since.

But when I decided to stop flat ironing my hair in Fall 2017, I realized I had a problem. I would have to get rid of my straight bangs and go commando or think of some alternative.

I was scared. I stared at my forehead in the bathroom mirror. “Are you too large?” I asked it. I conducted the finger measurement test. Four fingers.

“Is that too many fingers?” I asked my forehead.

“It doesn’t seem like too many,” I responded for it. But I was still nervous. I decided to wear wavy bangs with a side part, which I achieved by braiding my hair at an angle at night, unbraiding it in the morning, and using a hair waver to touch it up because I was still perfecting my braiding skills.

The wavy side bang that didn’t last.

After a while, I gave up.  Virginia’s early fall weather, which is far more humid than brisk, was winning, and I just felt frizzy all the time. I researched natural updos on YouTube, discovered a braid called the two-strand flat twist and decided to give it a whirl. I braided it from right to left, just like my side bangs used to sit. Then, I whipped up the rest of my hair into a bun.

I stared at myself in the mirror. “Is this weird?” I asked myself.

I questioned my forehead. “Do you feel exposed?” It did. Bangs, my forehead, and I had been friends for about two decades. We’d have to adjust.

Side braid
The two-strand flat twist (AKA the “substitute bang”) a few weeks before most of my hair went away.

About one week in, I decided that I liked the substitute bang. It framed my face nicely, and for the first time, I wasn’t concerned about the state of my bangs on the trek from my car to the office on humid mornings. I felt free. I could see my face. And I stopped worrying about whether my forehead was too large.

“We’re stuck with each other,” I told my forehead. “So, we might as well get used to it.”

About one-and-a-half weeks ago (post big chop), the bangs came back but in a new form. I started parting my hair on the side and creating two-strand twists in the direction I want my hair to fall. When I unraveled them, I achieved a bang-ish look that is rather edgy and funky, which I like. Most of all, the new bangs inspired me to unearth some fun earrings I bought on a trip to Mexico about 10 years ago. I hadn’t worn them in a long time, but now, they match my hair nicely.

Funky Bang
The funky bang with the fun earrings and my hair pinned on one side in a strange fashion.

I took this photo with the new bang and my old-new earrings on Saturday. My hair was rather wild (especially after I moved furniture in the heat), but I’m trying to embrace it. I sent a photo to mom, frizz and all.

“Cute!” she said.


I Chopped: Returning to My God-Given Roots

I choppedTo be accurate, I didn’t chop it; someone else did it for me. A few days before the big day, which was the last Sunday in June, I did attempt to fly solo by following the guidance of countless YouTube videos I’ve watched, but I soon discovered that I was in way over my head and needed the help of a professional. So, I scheduled an appointment with my friend’s stylist.

I wasn’t as nervous as thought I would be. I’d gotten to the point in which I was as ready as ready could be. About 11 months of Rachel hair was making the relaxed hair become really tangled, and washing my hair was frustrating. I could only get my hair truly de-tangled when it was drenched. The roots were extra puffy; the hair was hard to pull back in a bun; and the bun seemed to become smaller because my roots got puffier and the relaxed hair was breaking off. It was time.

After about two-and-a-half hours, I walked out of the salon with short hair, natural hair styled into finger twists. I didn’t really like it. I felt weird. I felt like the world was staring at me. “Woah, Rachel,” I crafted words out of a stranger’s expression. “What did you do?”

When I got home, my sister, who learned I was going to the salon to do the deed just a few minutes before I walked out the door said, “That’s cute.” I was shocked because Alana does not lie.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah.” She said with a look that matched her next statement. “You know I would tell you if you were walking around here looking crazy.”

I spent the next few hours wandering around the house, wondering about how my hair would look the next day and what people at work would say. I reminded myself, “It’s just hair. It grows.”

As time passed, the reality of my hair hit me. For the first time since the first or second grade there was nothing but Rachel hair on top of my head. Did I like it? I wasn’t sure yet, partly because I knew there was a lot of work ahead of me. I knew that my hair was a beast that needed to be tamed. But I also knew that this beast has a ton of potential once I train it to do what I want it to do.

I wore the finger twists for two days. On the eve of the Fourth of July, I tried a braid out while watching Downton Abbey with Alana. It was not my favorite, but Alana said it was fine. Wednesday night, I tried two-strand twists, and it was much better, but I discovered that I had to rebraid my hair the next night. I started to worry about the time commitment my hair required and prayed to the Lord that He would make it grow fast. I started taking a multivitamin that contains nutrients hair loves, and I started to massage my scalp. Sometimes, I would stroke a wave on my head, saying, “Be encouraged, little guy! Grow!”

On Friday, I spent most of the evening working on my hair. I had to wash it because products I used during the week reacted poorly and made white residue build up in my hair. It looked like Christmas in July. I used my new favorite brush (Denman) and the products I had stashed away for the big day. I started on my first set of two-strand twists. I decided to take my time, create small twists, and train my hair to fall and curl the way I wanted. Surprisingly, the experience was relaxing. Often, I am an anxious person, and for once, I did not nervously watch the clock, calculating how long the task was taking.

In fact, I enjoyed doing my hair. I prayed. I thought. I spent time getting to know my hair. The right side of my hair is the curliest, and as a result, it holds the two-strand twists the best. The crown has the softest hair. The back is the most textured, and the left side’s twists don’t match the right’s. They’re not as plump, and the ends are frizzy. However, I learned that if I brush individual sections of hair with the bristles pointing away from me, I can train the hair to turn downward.

Because I spent so much time on my hair, the twists looked pretty good. I wore them for a few days before I took them out this morning and styled my “twist-out,” as they call it. Today was the best hair day I’ve had in a week, and the photo above was the hairdo for the day. I admit that I snapped the best angle. Other perspectives made it look like I was sporting a mullet.

I am learning that natural hair is an organism of its own. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

The Laundromat on Colley Avenue

black-and-white-clean-housework-launderette.jpgI like laundromats because they are where normal people go.

A man wearing a short, black hat sits on the same bench as me. I sit on one end, and he sits on the other. The bench lines the long, tall widows that face the small parking lot attached to the laundromat. The parking lot has clear signage, “For Laundromat Customers Only.” I had snagged one of the last spots. I watch my car, which is behind my right shoulder, out of the corner of my eye.

The man has on purple, low-top converse with red shoelaces laced horizontally. The converse look clean, but I think he has had them for a little while because the heels are worn away. His socks are argyle, and the trapezoids that compose the pattern are happy colors: purple, turquoise, and orange. His jeans are dark wash, new, and neatly cuffed at the bottom, and he has on one of those textile hoodies that I’ve seen for sale in Mexico. The man is not young, but he has a style that works for him.

He opens a book with “positive thinking” in the title and reads through black glasses that have a thick frame.

A baby, no more than two, stumbles around with an enormous smile on her face. She has crazy hair that is a bit reddish. Her impatient daddy follows her, speaking words that are too harsh for someone so small. The happy baby reminds me of the times I went to the laundromat with my mom and crawled around looking for quarters. A woman, who is people watching like me, walks over to him, and begins to share her tales of motherhood. She said she is not yet thirty.

I feel at home here among these strangers because laundry is an equalizer—we all must do it. I brought a comforter and a quilt from home that are too large for my washing machine. Others brought comforters, too, and many brought items that go in the normal loads I wash at home.

The man in the purple converse paces to the row of dryers, returns to the bench, and flips through a few pages only to get up again. He does this several times. Someone else takes his seat when he relocates to pace outside. My new neighbor is not as restless and reads something on a tablet.

I get up to unload my washers, and the man with the happy daughter and the woman who said hello chat about random things like chewing tobacco and how relationships are supposed to work. The woman does most of the listening. She glances at her phone from time to time, and I wonder if she is annoyed.

You can tell a lot about a person by how he fold clothes. Everyone has a system. One man hangs shirts on the portable carts that the laundromat provides. He brought the hangers with him. Another man carefully folds sheets into tight squares. I think about my mom, who would be impressed. Another man, who is definitely using his wife’s laundry tote because it is cute and has black and white stripes, folds everything, not perfectly, but neatly enough. No one simply throws their clothes from the dryer into a basket and heads for the door. Everyone takes the time to organize.

I see people watching me—just like I watch them. I wonder if laundromats remind them that everyone is the same, and I wonder why they are here. Are their washers broken? Do they own one? Or, are they like me? Their washer is too small to handle the load.

One way or another, we are all here, overtly people watching and doing what we have to do: wash stuff.

They Bulldozed Killer Hill

Former Killer Hill
Solar panels sit where Killer Hill used to be. (Photo Credit: Nathaniel Smith)

They bulldozed Killer Hill. That’s what Nate said in a group text to Mom, Alana, and me. He visited Killer Hill because his job took him to Groton, which is where the Navy stationed my dad when we were kids. They tore down the homes, too, and solar panels sit where they used to be.

Killer Hill was infamous. It was the kid equivalent to a black diamond ski slope, and it was nestled into the large hill our neighborhood and several others sat on. Before it became a plain for solar panels, Killer Hill was situated behind a carport that was about halfway up the hill. A row of houses and a dangerous patch of rocks and brush rested at its base. When it snowed and we were out of school, we would grab our sleds and head from our home on the top of the hill to Killer Hill. Our first year in Groton, we had turquoise sleds with white handbrakes. I remember standing at the top of Killer Hill watching my new friends speed down, turning sharply at about two-thirds of the way to avoid plowing into the rocks and the house below. The horrifying and thrilling feeling that I got when I played with fire when Mom wasn’t looking came over me, and I got in line.

Kid rumor had it that someone ran into the house or the brush or the rocks, and died. I don’t know if that is true, but from personal experience, I could see how that could happen.

I am sad and surprised to learn that Killer Hill is gone. In typical fashion, humans tampered with the earth, and in the process, they erased memories from the geography, which cannot return to the way it once was. I was surprised, I think, because I assumed that only homes would be torn down. Our home there was leveled a number of years ago; Google Earth revealed a dirt patch where the house used to be. The house was old and had asbestos, so I expected that to happen eventually. But Killer Hill was a part of the earth, and I did not expect that to change.

I thought about Killer Hill and the memories my siblings and our friends created in that neighborhood, and I realized, suddenly, that this is what it must be like to get older. Year by year, I age, and as time passes, places and people begin to change. Killer Hill becomes flat, and the houses disappear, leaving no geographical evidence that a group of adventurous children once sledded there. The people in my life will eventually change, too. They will age, and in time, they will die, leaving few people who share memories with me. And although I may still be here to retell those stories, the images that appear in my mind’s eye are not shared by others. Then, in time, I, too, will not be here, and as the people who come after me age and die, the memory of me will fade, and the finite collection of thoughts, ideas, and experiences I had will disappear with me–just like our Groton home and Killer Hill faded into the earth.


How do we live in this world and maintain our faith in God?

cross-symbol-christian-faith-faith-161078.jpegDuring tough seasons of life, I have found that I adopt a hard shell to protect myself. Life conditioned me to expect the unexpected, and it is helpful to be prepared in advanced. When life shifts and I don’t really need the additional protection anymore, I don’t shed that shell. It hangs around long after the weather changes from winter to spring, seeds sprout, and new life arrives. And the longer it hangs around, the thicker and tougher it becomes, and I am desensitized to the good things that have emerged with the change in the weather.

The Christian life is peculiar in this way. The Lord purposes the trials of life to refine our character (James 1:2-4), but the same trials He uses to make us more like Him can also make us callused, bitter, cranky, depressed, mean, pessimistic, and delusional if we are not careful. Still, is difficult not to become any of these things. It is so hard to resist the evil in front of us and believe that God is always good and that people can be kind if they want to be.

It is normal and very understandable to develop a tough shell or any of these perspectives, but it is dangerous. We’re become desensitized to the Lord. We fail to recognize all of the good things He accomplishes during trails and the miraculous ways in which we change for the better. When more enjoyable seasons arrive, we don’t embrace them. Promises come to pass, and we do not perceive them. Rewards will come our way, and it takes a long time for us to realize that the Lord has given a good gift. Or, we know a blessing has been handed to us without any effort on our part, and we shrug our shoulders at it, unthankful and jaded by the past.

All three of these scenarios have happened to me more often than I would like to admit, but the most recent occurrence was a form of the latter. Less than two weeks ago, I was told that my office would relocate to another space in the same building. I’ve had a number of offices over the past few years, so I do not put much thought into moving anymore—I travel light and relocate. This time, I noticed that the office was the best one I’ve ever had. The window is bigger and gets an excellent bit of sunlight all day, and there are large, built-in bookshelves, two chairs, and a sofa. When I am in this space, I feel like my mind can breathe. Still, I did not consider this blessing, and accepted it only as my new station because, who knows, I might have to relocate soon. But the other day, I stopped, and I realized that I have been given a good gift. I gave thanks because this office is wonderful, and regardless of how long I do or do not stay in it, it has already been a blessing to me.

As I considered how long it took me to tell the Lord that I appreciate my new office, I felt ashamed, and I realized that the last few years have made me callused. Sometimes, what we have prayed for is staring us right in the face—we live in it and breathe in it and can touch it—yet our sight is inhibited by the residue the problems of this world, and we miss these manifestations of the Lord’s goodness. Sometimes, we intentionally reject the Lord’s blessing because we are callused and bitter. As a result, we shun the promises that are rightful ours and free for the taking.

How do we avoid this? How do we prevent bitterness after countless disappointments from people who know better than to do what they did—particularly when those people are Christians? How do we decide to use discernment to trust some people rather than not trust anyone at all? How do we see God’s goodness in all seasons rather than become so pessimistic that we focus on the long shadows that are cast even when the sun is high and the skies are clear? How do we remain compassionate? How do we live in this world and maintain our faith?

I think one of the only answers to this question is being determined to see God’s goodness even among the not good, and finding reasons and ways to give thanks at all times. I believe that it is consistent and ever present thanks that will open our eyes and reveal the unfathomable goodness of God so much that we will always see and experience countless evidences of His mercies. It is hard to maintain this mindset, but it is possible.

So, matter what happens to me in this life, I do not want to experience the world sheltered by a hard shell and with a permanent scowl on my brow. I do not want to reject what the Lord provides. And I don’t want to damage my testimony and cause the world to believe that there is no benefit to being a Christian because the only inheritance they observe is the frustration, anger, bad attitude, or insensitivity I exhibit. My God is too good to me for me to reflect the evil I have encountered in life rather than the light the Lord has shown me is real and so desperately wants to shine in times of darkness and in times of harvest.

Sickness and Seasons

DSC02168My body woke me up early today, and I surrendered hope of going back to sleep at about 6:00 am. I lay in my bed, thinking about the tasks and meetings waiting for me at work and the dental appointment scheduled at 8:00 am. But, I knew I wouldn’t be going to work or to the dentist today because I’ve been sick since Friday. When I speak, I sound like a dude, and my symptoms are not improving.

I knew I should email my boss that I would be taking a sick day, but I didn’t want to surrender. I hate the feeling of loosing autonomy because my body, which I cannot control in this case, was doing its own thing. I stalled and wrapped myself in a warm, 100-percent polyester blanket, reclined in bed, and read an email devotional that arrived this morning. It is about new seasons of life.

I believe that I am in a new season of life—one the Lord promised would come in 2015, though I forget exactly when I first sensed Him say this. For more than two years, I have watched and waited for signs of His arrival, for growth to spring forth from the seeds I planted a long time ago. Sometimes, I misinterpreted the signs. I thought spring had arrived early when it had not. I thought certain jobs and people were the ones the Lord had promised I would encounter, but they were not. Despite what I categorized as disappointments and setbacks, a new season was still unveiling before me; it just unveiled far more gradually than I expected. And now, standing on the other side of the shadows, I see how the Lord began to move little by little, replacing shadows and dry earth with sunshine and rain-nourished lands. And with each day that passes, I step further into the harvest, and I am so grateful for the release.

No season is perfect, and this time in my life has had challenges, such as this present sickness, but as I lay in bed, snuggled in my blanket, I realized that this illness, too, is a strange sort of blessing. It affords me additional time to give thanks and to reflect on all the Lord has brought me through and has led me into.