Archive for Lifestyle

The Melancholy Necessity of Autumn

Today I’m feeling a bit off. It’s November, which seems odd, and my body thinks it’s one hour later than my phone says it is due to the ridiculousness that is Daylight Saving. That means this week I’ll be hungry when I shouldn’t be and tired when I ought not be. Well, okay, to be fair I’m pretty much always tired (that’s the lot of an insomniac) so I can’t blame DST. Perhaps it’s more  a general sense of ennui after the busy pace of Halloween week. Too much work on the computer. Not enough reading. Or maybe it’s my cynical self doubting my district will flip, which will dishearten me yet again.

There is something a bit melancholy about this time of year that speaks to my soul. Perhaps that’s why Autumn is my favorite season, why Halloween speaks to me, why I feel most myself this time of year. Spring is beautiful, full of life and promise and hope in a way that is bound to disappoint. Then summer bleaches everything, and I melt in the too-bright sun. Winter where I live is all cold and no snow, little rain, just more cold, windy, sunny days. But Autumn – Autumn is crisp and cinnamon tea-scented, the time to dig fire logs out of the garage and boots out of the closet. It is a reminder that things can become the most beautiful in their last days, that the value of things can increase when we know they are short-lived.

Working with GriefShare this past year, and remembering the many losses of my life, has death on my mind these days. Not in a bad way, but in a “it’s going to happen to us all, to everyone we know and love” way. I am from a culture that does not handle death well. We don’t handle it at all, mostly, which does not work. For us, death is always a surprise, like we expect a different conclusion. We take care of our elderly until we can’t, then place them in homes where someone else handles death as it approaches. We have funerals as soon as possible, then expect the grieving to suck it up and move on quickly and quietly. We have little to no context for lament. We do not know the meaning of the word “keen” and we feel forever awkward with wailing.

Some cultures have assigned periods of time where the family wears all black, ceases work, where mourners weep over the open casket. Others have long parades alternating from joyous celebration of the lost one’s life to loud, communal sobbing. Some allow families to remember the lost ones once a year, every year, with photos, favorite mementos, food, and music. In some places, the entire town will show up at the local pub for the wake, telling stories for hours and hours, crying and laughing and drinking together.

But my culture is very orderly and clinical. People, if it can be helped at all, die in hospitals and care facilities. We have memorial services in churches with no casket present. We go back to work as soon as we are able because we can’t bear the free time, can’t be with our thoughts. There are no arm bands to mark the family so everyone knows. Black clothes are no longer required.

I think this is why I’ve always loved Halloween and have been fascinated by Dia de los Muertos since Ray Bradbury introduced it to me as a child. The thought that death is so close to life was somehow freeing, the idea that there can be days when we look death and darkness in the eyes and come out the other side alive and smiling.

I had a professor at university who taught about the human fascination with monsters that transcends cultures, and the psychology behind it. We must face death and darkness, evil and uncertainty, in stories so we can process these very real, very scary things behind the fictional ones from the safety of a book’s pages, which we can close, or a screen, which we can shut off.

G.K. Chesterton said “fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

In “Coraline,” Neil Gaiman puts it this way, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

For me, Autumn provides a kind of sacred space for this processing. Halloween pushes us up closer to death and darkness than the rest of the year. The beautiful, yet ephemeral, turning of the leaves from green to yellow and red before they fall, leaving branches bare and skeletal inevitably leads the mind to think on the passing of time and the temporary nature of all living things.

Autumn is a thoughtful season, well-suited for pondering over large cups of tea and quiet conversations by the fire. It is subtle, and if purposefully ignored, easy to pass through untouched. But, if we stop and take it all in, if we allow ourselves to dwell in the melancholy just for a short while, we will come out all the better for it.

Jane Austen highlighted the sensibilities that only this season of Autumn can bring, as she writes about Anne Elliot, our heroine of “Persuasion.” Anne, the single old maid (thought not at all old), has no beau to walk with. Austen tells us, “her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn–that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness–that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, some lines of feeling.”

So these are my lines of feeling, meant to draw attention to that influence Autumn has “on the mind of taste and tenderness.” These are my lines to encourage you to lean into the melancholy, just a little bit, just enough to be reminded that true beauty is worthy of appreciation, death will come to all, and that Christ is our St. George – he has slain the dragon for us, so we no longer need to fear death.

Selfishness vs. Self-Care for the Single

Because I am single and childless, people often assume I have an endless supply of free time. After all, I don’t go home to the usual husband and kids, so that must mean I’m blessed with a vast expanse of time and space. Time and space just waiting to be filled with ministry opportunities, social expectations, extra work duties, civic engagement and, of course, babysitting.

To be realistic, there have been times in my perpetual single state when I’ve probably had more free time than most married people, especially ones with kids. And even when I’m busy, I do have more time to myself merely by having a room of my own (it’s been awhile since I had a roommate and not just a flat or housemate).

Today, for instance, I’m writing the rough draft for this blog entry while sitting on a bench in the gardens of The Getty Museum, with the sound of the water fountain and the gorgeous gloom of an overcast sky as rays of sunshine  break through here and there. There are hundreds of people here today, but so far I’ve only noticed one or two other people entirely alone. For a second, I’ll notice one, and then their friend/family/date meets them to continue on together.

Throughout my life, I’ve been to many museums across the world completely on my own. There is a luxurious peace to it – no pressure to keep others entertained, no bargaining for which wings to visit, no debate over when museum fatigue hits. It is a special experience, both beautiful and lonely, a bit melancholic, but thoughtful and freeing.

This is not an opportunity I have very often these days. My weekends book up months in advance, and each weeknight seems to be spoken for. And, you know, I have a job (or two, or three) which keep my days solidly full.

Other than the almost four year period in which I lived alone in a crappy studio apartment when I first moved to Los Angeles, I’ve always lived with family or room/flatmates. The jobs I’ve held throughout my life often having me working with hundreds and hundreds of people each week, mostly children. At one point, I saw almost 1200 students every single week. They have been rather performative jobs, very public, requiring me to be “on” for hours on end.

(At this moment, I witness one solo young man strolling through the garden in front of me, peacefully and blissfully alone. He looks happy.)

The idea that singles have it good because we can do whatever we want with our time is both true and false. All humans have limitations, and have to answer to others for much of our time, whether to a boss or store hours, appointments or other’s schedules. Yes, I am often solely responsible for what to do with the rest of my time. And yes, that can be awesome. It’s also incredibly stressful and sometimes confusing. You see, one day I will stand before my creator and answer for how I used this gift of a life. And I will answer alone. If I had a husband and kids, the choice regarding time would indeed be much more limited, but also a bit more delineated. Priorities would be set. Responsibilities more spelled out.

Today, by choosing to spend 24 hours alone, I said “no” to being with family and friends, to that birthday party and that church women’s event, to my side job and being an involved aunt. I said “no” to running errands and helping others. It is easy to spiral into my head and feel guilty – to think I am being selfish.

The church tradition from which I come isn’t so hot on the idea of “self-care” and “rest” and “solitude.” It often translates all of these into “selfishness” and “isolation,” or perhaps just “an unwise use of time.” The thoughts that we need to be “intentional” and “wise,” we must be “productive” and “do all things with excellence,” that we must always be “serving one another” and “selfless” are pervasive. Not necessarily bad thoughts, just impossible ones for the long haul.

I needed today. I needed to say “no” to everything else, drive out of town, and remove myself from my day to day life. I needed to walk outside, smell flowers, stroll slowly and think. I needed to wander through vaulted rooms and narrow corridors filled with insightful depictions of the world, with beauty. I needed to be able to have one long, broken conversation in my head with my Lord.

Days like today help fuel me for all the other days; the endlessly busy days, filled with family and friends, students and their parents, counselees and ministry partners. I am better for days like today.

Lately, I’ve been feeling weighed down, exhausted. My heart has been heavy. The state of the world and the church’s role in it is breaking me, tiny piece by piece. In the same week in which Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, I spoke with two separate women regarding their own experiences with sexual assault, both of which happened in Christian spheres. Each week, I sit with 10-20 people in the midst of deep grief over loved ones who have died, some as recently as 2 weeks ago. I help over 350 children navigate learning to read and think well, and I deal with many of their parents on top of that.

I have to stop and remind myself that the busy, ever-filled pace of life so common to the Southern Californian Christian is not a biblically mandated one. There are entire cultures and churches which appreciate stopping. Ruminating. Resting. Being. Slowing down. A Sabbath is good and holy and necessary for all of us. Sometimes, the best rest is with others we love. But for singles who do not have a partner, sometimes time alone can also be helpful. And the example Christ himself set includes many moments of solitude.

This both goes against my nature and releases it at the same time.

So no, I don’t have tons of spare time because I work hard, and I choose to put effort into being part of the local church and my family. And yet, I do have tons of time – often at night when my brain is no longer functioning well and my body is tired.

On days like today, when I have the chance to carve out and protect time, my soul yearns for my beloved city. For refreshment. For time to talk to God one on one as I witness his creation and the creation of those made in his image. For slowing down from my usual quick pace to a stroll.

I’m learning the difference between selfishness and self-care. I’m learning that true self-care is not wrong. And I’m learning that, in order to preempt another physical breakdown and emotional burnout, self-care is not only a requirement, but a beautiful and good use of this one body and mind given me by God.

Scattered Thoughts for September

I’ve been feeling a bit scattered, which is normal for the first couple weeks of the school year. That’s my excuse for missing last week’s blog. And for this week’s disjointed list. I’ve been doing a bit too much.

I have been experiencing more joy and less cynicism these past two years since actively adjusting my priorities to this new phase of my life. Philippians 4:8-9 is endlessly helpful in this endeavor. In it, Paul tells the church, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

In keeping with this, today’s blog post will be dedicated to a few of the moments of joy experienced by The Awkward Spinster this month, as I pretend autumn is here:

(I actually prefer chai lattes.)

Spending an afternoon at The Original Farmers Market in LA with mum, as we have done my whole life. Eating BBQ pork sandwiches from Bryan’s Pit Barbecue, checking out the toys at Kip’s Toyland, and stocking up on fall things from World Market.

Meeting with 5 other women of God to pray for our broken world, our broken country, over tea and cake. Sick of summer, we turned up the AC slightly, got out scarves for everyone, lit autumnal candles, and switched from iced tea to our favorite hot tea.

Participating in many theological and political discussions with intelligent, godly, and compassionate family and friends as we try to sort through what the heck is going on in modern evangelicalism. Finding comfort in the fact that there are others who are not happy with the latest attack against social justice creating a false dichotomy with the gospel.

Completing a complete inventory of both the elementary and middle school libraries and realizing our migration to the new computer system went more smoothly than we’d hoped.

Swinging by the comic book store on new comic Wednesday to pick up the newest journey into Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Universe with “The Dreaming.”

Night swimming in a friend of a friend’s pool, all by myself, as I was house-sitting.

Wiping away the tears of a little boy who could not find a book he wanted to read that was at his level, when his friends were mostly in higher ranges. Seeing his face light up with glee as I handed him just the right book for both his range and tastes.

Eating adorable and delicious peach gummy candy shaped like hedgehog paw pads that my sis-in-law brought back from her trip to the Japanese market.

Starting up a new session of GriefShare as co-leader, with some old and new participants who are courageous enough to be vulnerable in the midst of their grief. Seeing God’s word pour out comfort and hope even after just a couple of weeks. Having these dear souls allow me to sit with them in the toughest of times.

Feasting on a delicious dinner with old friends and acquaintances becoming friends in West LA at Farmshop, where one of my besties is the brilliant pastry chef. Going from 103 temperatures to 68 degrees and foggy for the night made it finally feel like fall.

(Oops, wrong Foggy.)

Hearing the joyous cry of “Auntie Fawn!” as my little 5-year-old nephew came to visit me in my library. Helping his mom pick out two incredible children’s books to relish: Frederick by Leo Lionni and Chrysanthemum by Kevin Hankes.

Finally getting a Skype date with one of my Colorado cousins to talk about transitioning back to life stateside one year after her return from L’Abri, and two years after mine.

Twirling, my fall-colored kimono puffed out from the flurry of movement, as my 4-year-old niece danced circles around me in her slightly-too-small pink ballet slippers. My sister, her mother, watching us from the couch, laughing.

Helping my friend in Malawi apply for grad school in the States by toggling back and forth between Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and the school’s website on our respective smartphones across the world from each other. Getting to praise the Lord with him before he headed out to church and I drifted off to sleep.

Receiving photos of my Russian friend’s new baby daughter, also via WhatsApp.

Sleeping in on the weekend to recover from my insomniac self’s lack of sleep now that school has started up again. Looking down to the foot of my bed to see my little westie curled up there, keeping me company.

Teaching myself how to program Google Docs to automatically insert an em dash when I want it to—thank you, Interwebs!

(Respect, from one Dash to another.)

And that’s just September so far.

What moments have brought you joy so far this month?

Assumptions Make an Ass out of . . . Well . . . Me

As I sat down at the table with 4 other women at my new(ish) place of employment, all the socially awkward nerves fluttered in my belly, making my I’m-trying-to-leave-enough-for-everyone-else tiny scoops of salad and apparently-one-more-than-everyone-else tiny pieces of cheese bread no longer seem appetizing. They all seemed to know each other well, and quickly proceeded to dive into a conversation across the table about the various sports in which their children are involved. Neither having children nor interest in sports, I tried to look approachable and pleasant as I sat there with little to contribute. Until the moment one of the women turned to me, recognized my first name from elementary school (Fawn tends to stick in people’s minds), and proceeded to ask one of the more awkward questions I’ve gotten:

“Fawn . . . Fawn . . . hmmm . . . and what was your maiden name again?”

Flustered by a question I’ve literally never been asked before, I sputtered something along the lines of “um, Kemble? I mean, it’s the same. Kemble. I mean I don’t/didn’t have a maiden name?” And I may have vaguely pointed to the prominent work nametag I had on my shirt proudly proclaiming “Miss Kemble” in a room full of Mrs.

Returning to work at a school I attended as a child, in a city I’ve been away from for over a decade has been an interesting experience. And while I’ve been met with nothing but kindness, an adorable library to make my own, and excited students, I’ve also been met with an endless pit of awkward questions.

I get it. I’m vaguely recognizable to many people here. My mom taught here for a bit. My dad was beloved in one of the local churches, and a couple local businesses. And I attended church and school there until, well, until I didn’t. So the assumptions make sense. In this world where our city likes to pretend it’s a small town, and this protective local white evangelical bubble many never left, assumptions hold a certain logic.

“And what grade are your kids in?” Most of the people who work for this school have or once had children (plural, almost always plural) who go or went to this school. Makes sense. You get a discount if you’re on staff. So my “oh, I don’t have kids” often leads to looks of surprise and even confusion.

“What year did you graduate from here, again?” leads to my awkward grimace and the “um . . . well . . . I didn’t graduate from here. I graduated from one of the local public schools. I left here in the middle of my freshman year.” This one either entirely shuts down the conversation, or requires further explanation on my part which I usually answer partially, relying on my family’s poverty and inability to pay for private education once my mother no longer worked there. I don’t go into the rest of it, as I just met these people (or re-met them after 15+ year) and am pretty sure they wouldn’t like my full answer.

There are also the well-meaning yet slightly painful references to my parents, and how much they were loved back in the day, and by the way, how are they? Which requires my stuttered reply along the lines of, “ah, well, yes, um, my dad died? When I was 24? It’ll be 16 years ago this month. But mom’s good, she’s retired and loving being a grandma . . . “

There’s the “and what does your husband do?” question. And the surprised “you look a lot younger than you are!” when my reply to their “don’t worry, there’s still time to get married and have kids” is “I’m 40 and pretty sure it’s not going to happen, and am pretty content with that.”

And, since I’m now a librarian instead of a teacher, there’s the inevitable teacher-splaining from other educators who expect all non-teaching staff to be less educated/experienced and are therefore shocked when I say “when I was a classroom teacher for 8 years . . . “ or “when I was getting my Master’s degree . . . “ or “actually, the latest research in early childhood education says . . . “ And I know I shouldn’t do that, that I’ve got nothing to prove or whatever. But I kind of do have something to prove, don’t I? Prove that I’m worthy of the job I’ve been given. That I know what I’m talking about when it comes to their kids. Prove that there is thought and research and experience behind my decisions in the library.

That’s the thing about assumptions. When they’re made about me because I am in a conservative Christian environment in a “small” (not small at all) “town” (actually a city), I end up having to awkwardly defend myself for not aligning with them. I didn’t adore each and every moment as a student here, graduate from the high school, go on to Christian college, get married young, have babies, slap an NRA sticker on the back of my SUV or truck, vote republican, buy a MAGA hat, remodel my house from Hobby Lobby in the style of Chip and Joanna Gaines, and invest in a month’s supply of capri pants.

Okay, so I guess I have some assumptions about others to break through myself.

I guess we all have to deal with assumptions made about us by others. Married, or single, parents or childless, old or young, liberal or conservative, men or women, we are all viewed through other people’s expectations. I’m working on trying to remove the cultural lens through which I view people, and replace with the love and grace of Christ. For each person is Christ’s workmanship (Ephesians 2:10) and bears the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The only assumption I should make is that every person I come across is the beloved child of my heavenly father. Cheesy, yes, but wouldn’t that be an amazing way to see the world?

What are some of the assumptions you’ve had made about you, and how did you respond?

Here’s to the Picky Ones and the Sufferers of Unrequited Love

I have fallen in love at least once in my life, possibly more depending on your definition. And I’ve had many a crush. Yet here I am, still single. Always single. So what happened?

For most of you who are married or who have life partners, you once fell in love with someone and they happened to love you back at the same time in the same way. But there are a few of us out there who have loved those who never loved us back, not in the same way. And perhaps people have fallen for us who we just could not love back. That’s all it takes to be single.

Yes, I could have married someone I wasn’t in love with in the hopes love would grow (it happens) or a “good man” who’d make a good father and provider in order to have the traditional family. I’m not judging this. I know people who have done so and seem happy.

Since I don’t view marriage and parenthood as the main way to glorify God in life, as necessary for happiness, as a woman’s only role in the world, or as God’s will for each and every person I have the freedom to choose whether I want to marry or not.

Because I live in a country and time when a single woman is quite capable of providing for herself, when I do not need to rely upon a husband, brother, or father for safety, housing, and food, when I don’t need to bear children to farm my land, when I can vote and work and earn I do not NEED to marry.

My heart has yearned for marriage, and it has been broken more times than I would have liked. There was the beautiful boy in high school with his long hair, his all black wardrobe, his quiet demeanor. The lead guitarist of my favorite local band who was too old for me, but still wonderful. There was the man in college who had traveled farther than anyone I had met before, an adventurer who loved God and life, the one I know I fell in love with. There was my dear friend who changed so much, going from kind and sweet to harsh and lost, breaking my heart more than I thought was possible. The always laughing Scottish guy in Australia. The intellectual artist who flirted well but meant nothing by it. The funny guy with hidden depths who I was just getting to know better when he passed away suddenly, crushing all of our hearts. But you see, none of these men loved me back. Not as more than a friend, a sister.

And this is the way it goes for some of us. And it is fine. These men were not required to fall for me. In fact, some of them have since married beautiful, intelligent, kind, amazing women who I approve of endlessly. I’m glad they waited for someone they fell madly in love with.

There have been men who seemed to love me (not many, but a couple) but who I could not see myself living forever with. And I do not regret this decision. Even the proposal I turned down from my boyfriend in Australia (I must sheepishly admit he was NOT the Scottish guy mentioned above) because I didn’t trust him, didn’t think his faith was true, didn’t think his commitment would be real. And sure enough, his marriage to the woman he dated after me crumbled quickly due to his infidelity so my instincts were solid.

So yes, I am picky. I have been picky. But I think everyone should be picky in this regard. I know many Christians are told they have unrealistic expectations and should lower their standards if they want to get married. I know friends, women mostly, who have been told this by pastors, counselors, and professors, like they are sinning by holding out for a person they can love deeply. I disagree with this. I’m sure there are some naive people out there holding out for a knight in shining armor or a supermodel, but that has not been my experience with singleness.

Some of us are Charlotte Lucases, willing to be more pragmatic for a family and home and security, even if it means being married to a fool of a man like Mr. Collins.

And some of us are more like Elizabeth Bennett – only willing to marry for the deepest of love, and perfectly ready to be the spinster aunt if that never happens. Sadly, there isn’t a Mr. Darcy for all of us.

My father always said it was better to be single than married to the wrong person. This has steered me well so far, so I have no intention of living any other way any time soon.

So here’s to the picky ones, those who would rather be single forever than settle for a loveless marriage, an awkward partnership, or a spouse with lackluster faith. May our lives glorify God in the special way he has planned for us, and may we stand strong in our faith that this plan is best for us even if it doesn’t look traditional