what the library is teaching me about proximity

I hate our house. And I hate the privilege it requires to be able to hate something so many do not have and desperately seek. We are in their midst, but our proximity has not prevented me from feeling embittered about our living situation.

Topping my many dislikes is the lack of windows or doors facing the street. You could be inside our house and be anywhere in the country and you’d never know the difference. It does not feel like we are living in the neighborhood we moved 1,100 miles to live in.

Our family is in a season of – words fail me here – huddling up? Resetting? Healing? All or none of those things, I am not quite sure. Maybe once the season ends I will be able to name it, to put words to the pain and purpose and purging taking place. But for now I cannot. I can only tell you we have been here before and we have survived. If there’s anything I know about the six people I share this damn house with it is that they are strong and fierce, and if there’s anything I can tell you about our God it’s that he has not left us. He is here, in this not forsaken house, despite my feelings about it.

Since moving six months ago it has been harder for me particularly – and by extension the kids – to be as present in our community as we would like and had grown accustomed to being. The park/pool/library once at the end of our block is now four humid, sweaty, whiny blocks away. “We’ll just have to be more intentional” I asserted when asked about the location of the new house, not yet aware of the storm summer would bring. I didn’t know intentional neighboring would fly out the same window that faces our minuscule gravel “yard.”

Hurricane Irma flooded our city and was the beginning of a drowning inside my own family, my own anxiety, my own expectations and ideals. The streets filled with water and my mind filled with questions I could not answer. How do you love your neighbor as yourself when the chasm between is so wide? What does incarnational living look like when your own soul is worn thin? How do you get the rest you desperately need when the days are long and the needs never end?

Post-Irma our neighborhood library was closed for several days; maybe even a week or two. Since books are a huge part of our schooling, going without the inter-loan library service was not an option. I began having our books shipped to another library, one only a couple miles – but a world away – from our home.

This library, by all measures, is better. First it’s bigger. The children’s section alone is larger than the entire library in our neighborhood. Not to mention its beauty and charm. The glass walls and gorgeous stone. The pillars and exorbitantly high ceilings. It is exaclty what you are imagining and more.

We’ll just come until our library re-opens, I told myself in September. On our first trip I explained to the librarian we were just visiting from our neighborhood and expressed some disappointment with the staff and security guards there. She shrugged and welcomed us warmly while my five year old made normal five year old noises without being scolded. I exhaled a sigh of relief.

By our third or fourth visit the librarian jokingly asked if they had won us over. I frowned and said something about feeling bad for abandoning our neighborhood library. My five year old ran around the lobby, likely licking something or pushing the automatic door button several times while my head was turned, and the friendly librarian responded, “Well, you gotta do what you gotta do.” I could only muster a faint smile.

But you don’t understand, I thought. I don’t get to do what I wanna do. I’m not here to live for myself, in a house with no windows facing the street or at a library where it’s easy to be. I’m supposed to be here for the common good, most especially my neighbors, who I cannot even see from the inside of my cave of a house. I am not supposed to desert them and go to the next closest and better library. I’m supposed to advocate for the betterment of the library my neighbors and friends are forced to visit.

I didn’t speak any of those words aloud of course, I just grabbed my towering stack of books and walked out the beautiful wooden doors.

what the library is teaching me about proximity

I have been thinking a lot about proximity lately. It’s become a hot term and I have mixed feelings about this. While I believe rubbing shoulders with people who are not like us is a good place to start, I think it falls woefully short of what Jesus calls us to in the sermon on the mount and all throughout scripture. The book of John does not say the Word became flesh and blood and came in close proximity to the neighborhood. It says he MOVED into it. And while this is an unpopular thought, I believe that until the stinging darts aimed at the most marginalized among us begin to pierce our own flesh, we are not fulfilling the greatest commandment.

Proximity allows us to have what we imagine to be the best of both worlds; pictures of soup kitchens and inner-city kids for Instagram and the life of comfort we’ve been taught to pursue. (Never mind our lives of comfort  do not remotely resemble the Kingdom of God where the first are last and the last are first.)

I should confess to you, I am writing from the better library. I sit in a comfy, olive green chair picturesquely placed before a floor to ceiling window, watching a palm tree blow in the wind as rain drops fall on the tropical flowers below. It is quiet and there is no tension in the air from security guards and overzealous librarians shushing children who likely had hot fries and fanta for breakfast. I am not torn between my role as their neighbor and a mother figure. I do not have to stop typing to have small talk about gentrification and the duplexes around the corner that were recently demolished. I can sit with my own narcissistic, privileged thoughts in peace. It feels both unfair and necessary and I do not know how to, or even if I can, untangle these feelings.

I am starting to believe the biggest danger for those of us who have relocated, who have moved beyond proximity and are instead seeking solidarity, or what Father G calls kinship, is to seek refuge in things other than the God who was present in our neighborhoods long before we were. Maybe, when it comes to proximity and solidarity, it is not the marginalized I should be seeking, but the God who put on flesh and chose to enter time and space on the margins. Maybe being in close proximity to those who have no housing is a good place to start, but being in close proximity to the One who made himself at home among them is the even better location. The place where Jesus put on flesh to communicate incarnation to us all.

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And all God's people said: