Saturday, August 17, 2013

upon 2 years in Austin [a week late]

I wrote this on Sunday, August 11 and kept trying to find time to edit all week. Finally deciding to just go ahead and publish with my apologies for a teensy bit of naval-gazing.

House #1

Two years ago today, August 11, 2011, we drove the last stretch of a 1,650 mile trek from upstate New York to central Texas.  For three days our two-car caravan -- parents driving the front vehicle, sons driving the back vehicle -- zig-zagged west across the southern tier of New York state, south through the wildflowers and Bible-thumping billboards of Ohio.  After a leisurely lunch in the Over the Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati, we wheeled across the Ohio river into Kentucky, sleeping in Louisville one night and Memphis the next.  Our last day, August 11, we drove over the Mississippi River from Memphis into Arkansas.  Other than a few moments around Little Rock's skyline Arkansas was 500 miles of rice fields and trucks.  We almost missed the signs announcing we'd crossed over into Texas, our new home.

The several times we've driven this route, we've built up an unexplicable loathing for that bridge carting us from the streets of Memphis to the rice fields of Arkansas.  Today I wonder if that's because leaving the Tennessee border leaves behind the last vestiges of landscape that feel even mildly familiar to our northeast.  New York doesn't have blue grass, but it does have rolling green hills, doesn't have the Mississippi delta, but has the Hudson and the Susquehanna and the Chenango and the Delaware and the St. Lawrence.  New York doesn't have one single flat landscape.  Not one cactus, scorpion, longhorn steer or cloudless sky.  New York does not have brown grass and neighborhoods that burn down from drought-induced fire.  Cross the stark state line from Arkansas into Texarkana, Texas  could have been leaving planet earth for all our experience of 100+ degree temperatures, limestone and brown fields.  If it weren't for the ubiquitous McDonald's greeting us on I-30 nothing about that state crossing would have been recognizable to me as "home".

Even now, I feel silly saying so.  But in two years living in Austin, I know my best moments of my best days have been the ones I could close one eye and squint at a landscape and make it look familiar.  In the fall, it's the days I walk a sidewalk and find enough fallen brown leaves to crunch under my shoes.  I can close both eyes then and just hear home.  In winter it's the days my husband allows me to crank up the air conditioning so we can light a wood fire, close the blinds and pretend we're getting warm from some ghost of a howling wind.  Then I can close both eyes and feel home. Summer is unspeakable; we drive out of Texas like a mess of Austin's infamous Mexican free-tailed bats.  

field of April bluebonnets, Belton, TX

Ahhh, but spring.  Spring in Texas I wander around wide-eyed at the wonder of non-humid sunshine and squares of wildflowers quilting the entire sorry landscape with simple glad beauty.  Spring wins me over.  Spring keeps me here.  

Spring and the whims of an unpredictable God.  

When Brian finished his degree while I took care of four babies at home we predicted he'd get a teaching job in a school we'd stay in forever.  Looked forward to the years our children would pass through his history classes in middle school.  I picked out our first home in that small town of 5,000 neighbors and two stop lights almost entirely for the long staircase banister I could imagine our kids posing for their prom pictures.  At the time they were 4, 6, 8 and 10.  

Now we live in a city with 400 times more neighbors than our first house.  We took prom pictures of our son under the branches of a gnarly live oak tree.   New York state does not grow this tree.  New York's trees are intoxicated with rainwater and never need gnarl themselves around to suck up drops of water from arid soil.

spring flowers growing in limestone, Belton, TX

The first months we lived in Texas, Brian took to quoting Clark W. Griswold: "If I woke up tomorrow with my head stapled to the carpet I wouldn't be more surprised than I am right now." Two years in and this still sounds about right.

At a family gathering when our oldest son was  twelve, he prayed a prayer we've never forgotten:  "Thank you, God, that you are so unpredictable."  Yes, the God who surprises us led us through twenty years of marriage thinking we would be one sort of family and in the last three years has totally upended what we thought.

For starters, I said I'd never marry a pastor.  Now my husband spends every waking free hour completing a seminary degree and various requirements for ordination in the coming year, all while serving as Executive Pastor at Christ Church of Austin. Three words in his title alone surprise me as much as a staple to the head. There's the Pastor title and then there's Christ Church.  I grew up distrusting all denominations, flinging my non-denominational freedoms like some sort of suffragette.  Six months ago I was confirmed in the Anglican communion.  When my husband is ordained he will be an Anglican PRIEST!  Priest was almost a curse word where I grew up.

This is all so hilarious I keep forgetting to laugh.

Brian's confirmation, February 2013

So now we're Anglican and Brian's going to be a priest.  And we live in Austin. For years we lived with a community of people who loved us so well, we still can't believe they don't hang out with us on the weekends.  

Truth is they loved us well, but they could not name us in this calling. It's taken almost every single day of the last two years for me to accept this fact.  One of the men who loved us best laughed the last time I talked to him and asked why he'd never affirmed Brian as a pastor.  He still didn't see it  

Maybe for the same reason prophets get sent to caves to hear the still small voice, we got re-planted on the surface of the sun as a better option.  May our limbs grow gnarly sucking all the life-giving liquid out of this place.  And, in the process, adding to its beauty.

Quercus fusiformis : the live oak at the Alamo, San Antonio

I've struggled these two years feeling like we gave up too soon.  I'm pretty sure some of my closest friends in New York would agree with that statement. We were unemployed with four kids.  Maybe we should have stuck it out?  I'm pretty sure that community of friends and family would have supported us until Brian found some sort of income.  And, maybe Brian would have landed a teaching job -- even though half the degreed teachers we knew were underemployed or facing layoffs.  Maybe that shouldn't have mattered.  Maybe sticking with friends was the most important thing.  Maybe Brian shouldn't have offered up his ministry job on the layoff block when our church budget made a beeline for the red?  Maybe he should have rallied support, forced his way onto the payroll.  Maybe he should have thrown over a few tables like I often begged him to do during our sleepless, late night arguments.  

Maybe so.  Right this moment I'd be sitting in my favorite spot -- at the back of our sanctuary, pleading with God to make Himself known to us in our corporate worship. Maybe then I'd know that lunch would be predictable, our kids' weekend social life would be predictable.  I'd have a wealth of options to help me get them to all the places they needed to be during the coming week -- aunts, grandmothers, co-workers.  I'd be able to pick and choose my own set of unpredictable decisions.  Whose bonfire would we hang out at this weekend?  What cross-country social connection would I make through the amazing unseen world wide web?

Just that one decision. That one unpredictable connection opened the door for us to move to Austin.  I guess we're never completely free from the whims of our sovereign Lord.  No.  We did not give up too soon.  We would have had to slam the door in God's face to stay in New York.  This is the truth of it.  

While I write these words I'm sitting on the ninth floor of the same hotel we stayed in when we first landed here. I'm looking at a river green and brown and low.  This morning I walked alongside, straight under the bridge that houses for the summer those million and a half Mexican bats.  My head was down and I didn't realize I was walking underneath, reflecting on the two years we'd lived here and simultaneously trying to figure out why Austin in summer smells like bat guano. 

Kayakers and people standing on boards paddling themselves downstream make colorful slashes in the water.  Weird Austin people who behave like sunbathing in 106 degree weather is nothing.  I am not one of them yet.  Maybe never.  I mean who knows how long we'll actually live here?  Maybe our unpredictable Sender has plans for the other side of the world.  Or New Jersey.  This month He's sending one of my best friends and her family to Africa, via France.  I'm pretty sure she'll be surprised for a long, long time.  


The afternoon of our second anniversary in Austin a glorious, mundane Sunday afternoon. Our son and his girlfriend chauffeur us home, with a stop along the way at a local pancake house.  He's returning to Houston for year two of college, eager for new grace in a new year.  We pray blessing over the two of them, anoint their hopes with benediction and lemon poppyseed syrup.

We watch golf. Doze on the couch. Wait out the sweaty sun for our evening walk.  New friends moved into the neighborhood over a month ago and we want to welcome them.  I fill a paper sack with symbolic housewarming gifts:  bread (that no one be hungry), salt (that your lives be full of flavor) and wine (that your work and friendships prosper).  I add a bar of dark chocolate for good measure.  It's a tradition from Jews, Christians and fans of Frank Capra.

We walk the five neighborhood blocks to introduce ourselves, sit until dark on their front porch sipping the cheap wine we gave them, swatting mosquitoes and swapping our "moving to Austin" stories.  

"How long have you been here?"

"Two years.  Two years today, actually."

"And how'd you get here all the way from New York?"

We give the brief version because Brian's got an early morning flight and the mosquitoes are biting.  We include the painful layoff at our former church, the year Brian taught as a long-term substitute teacher knowing he was supposed to be a pastor, the weekend prayer retreat with good friends confirming we would not attempt to leave New York until all four of our children graduated from high school.  The time I just happened to listen to a sermon from my friend's church in Austin, the one where the rector just happened to mention the goal to hire an Executive Pastor.  The sending a resume on a whim.  The moving our entire family to Austin less than three months later. The three houses we've moved in two years.

House #3

Our short answer could have been, "The unpredictable God sent us here."

I couldn't have planned a better two-year celebration.  We hug good-bye, talk about our next get-together -- hopefully soon -- carry empty wine glasses into the kitchen.

And then Brian and I walk home.

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