A Review of “The Space Between”

Cover of the The Space Between by Eric JacobsenIt’s funny…or perhaps sad….how the academic sorts of reading that I pushed through in grad school is now attractive to me as reading in my spare time. I suppose that, by the time I was reaching the end of my master’s program, I was sort of just realizing my true passions. Around that time is when I became fascinated by theological examinations of culture. I’ve also always been attracted to more urban lifestyles, so a theological examination of urbanism….or, more precisely, new urbanism…was bound to pique my interest.

The Space Between, while a dense read and obviously an academic text, is engaging from every angle. Jacobsen begins with detailed examinations and explanations of the disciplines of city planning, urbanism, and new urbanism, taking the reader into an exploration of how sidewalks fall into the design of a city, how sight-lines should terminate on an urban horizon (particularly fascinating if you have any background in theatre), and other minutiae of the process of laying out an urban environment that will bring enjoyment to most readers simply by exposing them to the knowledge of a field of which most of us know nothing. Then, with a firm understanding in place, we dive into the theological examination of urban spaces.

A foundational premise of Jacobsen’s work is that public spaces are intended for use, but are activated by use. He is intentional about defining his subject as the “built environment,” separate from the natural environment but existing alongside. This is the environment with which we engage and that is more than just buildings and streets and shops, but includes the in-between places…alleyways, the spaces between buildings, and parking lots…all of which have an effect on our lives. Interestingly, as I read this, I remembered several foundational events in my life that took place against the backdrop of parking lots.

Another of the author’s primary assertions is that the industrialized transition from a pedestrian society to an automobile society de-humanized our interactions. Streets no longer accounted for walking after the industrial revolution, but were built to accommodate automobiles, instead. This pushed our interactions out, away from homes that we previously could walk by as we traversed our environment and potentially interact with neighbors, yet now we are all walled off in our vehicles, not only limited in our interactions with one another, but tending to view each other as less than human as we are encased by steel.

Zoning laws (something that the author is firmly against) then moved homes and businesses apart, disadvantaging many because a vehicle is now required to do even the most mundane of tasks in many places in our country. Public transit is generally not a priority. A by-product of this, the author describes, is the “safe haven” philosophy, a relatively recent evolution in Western thought. In this philosophy, we view our homes as safe havens within which we can isolate ourselves from interaction with the world. The practical upshot of this is that Christian influence in our communities and the public sphere (or, at least, meaningful Christian influence) has diminished. We no longer have to engage with our neighborhoods, and often don’t. Our children don’t learn how to do so as a result.

The way to effect change in the polis, Jacobsen argues, is to engage the neighborhoods in which we live. When problems arise, engaging with other and working them out, instead of immediately calling the police, for example. I can’t help but think, as well, that this reduces the need for excessive law enforcement in our communities, and just may, were it to become a common practice, divert us away from our march toward a police state, as well.

Jacobsen goes on to describe a church liturgical interface with the built environment, which I won’t outline here as it is lengthy, but it is compelling.

For all of the author’s excellent points, he is absolutist in his framing of his theological engagement from the standpoint that human dignity is only affirmed and protected when in a well-functioning urban environment. I find this to be strikingly short-sighted, as it ignores a large portion of our country that lives in rural environments. In these rural environments, not having an automobile (a state in which Jacobsen implies is closer to Godliness….I don’t entirely disagree, but…) is not an option. There is a sense that the author views rural environments as somehow lesser, which, for all of his thought-provoking points, is a perception that we can scarcely afford given today’s culture wars.

Still, The Space Between will change the way you view your engagement with your neighborhoods, working space, and others around you for the better. If your academic interests lean at all in this direction, or if this sounds at all interesting to you, then this is certainly a worthwhile read.

That Little Tree

Small ceramic Christmas treeThat little tree.

I remember it in my childhood bedroom. It carried the soft glow of Christmas from the rest of the house into where I slept. My mother had crafted it carefully and lovingly, intending it to be a gift to me, in a ceramics class that was her creative release. Though not inherently worth any money, it’s a fragile little tree, and I’ve always handled it with the utmost care. The memories that it carries with it, the intention with which it was created, endow it with a value far beyond any monetary appraisal.

I have carried that little tree with me everywhere I have lived since. I pack it away with special care at the end of each season, and I unpack it again when the temperature begins to fall. Perhaps because it always had a special place in my bedroom all of those decades ago when I lived in my parents’ home, it has always lived in my bedroom since.

I remember every detail of the Christmas decorations in our home. There were flickering lights, music almost constantly, and gold garland hung with artificial apples that framed our living room. I particularly remember one circular, flickering Santa that somehow gave the softest presence to a room when it hung in the window, overlooking a snow-covered lawn. The decorations mattered less than the feeling of a solid foundation to which they contributed. My family always loved Christmas, because of the central part that it represents in the history of our faith, as well as the generosity to which it gives occasion. Of all the holidays of the year, this was the one to which we gave the most energy, and so the close of each year was a special, peaceful, even holy time. I’ve carried that into my adulthood, not only as a nostalgic recollection, but as a practice.

Or, at least I have tried.

I wonder how these same sorts of memories are being formed for our daughters, what will stand in the fronts of their minds about Christmas when they are my age. At least during the Christmases of my youth, the opportunities, it seems, for the formation of important memories were carefully crafted. I’m not sure that we accomplish that. With the number of times that we have moved over the past few years, the pace of life that is at times unmanageable despite or best efforts, I fear that this intentionality slips from our grasp, however good our intentions.

Perhaps, though, I’m mistaken. Perhaps those opportunities for memories as I grew up were not crafted at all, but are the sorts of experiences that create wonderful memories on their own, however unplanned, facilitated only by the fact that I am fortunate enough to have a stable nuclear family. Should that be the case, then the opportunities for these foundational memories are simply present for our children, and I can only hope to make them as positive as I can.

When our oldest daughter, now six, was three years old, she gazed with fascination and a certain degree of longing at that little tree. I promised her that, when she was grown, she would inherit the tree. She spoke often of that promise for a while, though she doesn’t really mention it of late. I wonder what that tree will mean when I pass it on to her?

I wonder if I can influence that meaning at all.

I’m the Guy who Ruined Christmas

Christmas tree standing in my favorite apartment from years agoYes, it was me. Through a series of unfortunate events, it was ultimately my fault that Christmas occurred only as a cobbled-together quasi-event this year instead of that magical time with family for which we all hope.

Why, yes, it does sound like there’s a story behind that, doesn’t it? And it goes a little something like this.

While I managed to stay mostly involved in traditional Christmas activities such as tree-trimming and…well, mostly tree-trimming…I found myself so busy with work and the demands of a myriad of health concerns this year that I missed most of the gift-buying. Karen sort of filled me in on what we were getting the children and family members this year, and I managed to squeak out enough time to find what I wanted to buy her on Amazon and keep an Advent-reading plan. When I realized that Christmas was only a week away, and that we had, as always, plans to travel for the week to see my side of the family, I hadn’t even booked our travel yet. My to-do list exploded. I was every stereotypical over-worked American. My head was spinning with this really cool post that I had wanted to write here on the first Sunday of Advent (obviously that never materialized), and somehow time had become stagnant around that moment that never happened. I still thought I had three weeks when I had only days.

While I haven’t written about it here, this is has been far from a banner year for my health. I fought through pneumonia in April, an event which left me with two other medical conditions that are possibly long-lasting and took most of the year to diagnose at a considerable expense. Add to that the random cold, and not one but two broken bones (I’m not even making this up), and I was hoping that, as I victoriously crossed off my final item of prep to take our trip three days before leaving, that the misfortunes were at an end and I would be healthy to keep our plans.

I really should have known that wouldn’t be the case.

The cold that the girls carried home turned into bronchitis for me. Still, I thought, we can push through. Then we had to move our travel plans one day due to unpredictable New England weather. I made the calls, changed reservations, took some medicine and kept going. The morning that we were scheduled to leave, the rental car was in the driveway and bags were (mostly) packed.

And I could barely move.

Instead of traveling to see family, I spent Christmas Eve at an urgent care. By Christmas day, we were placed under house arrest by another storm. Even though we had opened our Christmas gifts early in anticipation of leaving, we awoke (me fever-stricken) on Christmas morning right here, in our apartment, having kept only the stockings that “Father Christmas” packed for our daughters as the only surprise. Instead of spending Christmas with their grandparents in person, the girls spent Christmas with them over video. At this point, we considered leaving the next day. Surely I would have been well enough by then (I wasn’t, incidentally), but that plan, too, had to be abandoned as a shifting forecast on the other end of the week would have placed us in the likely scenario of being at our destination for only one day before needing to turn homeward.

We returned the rental car, cancelled the hotel reservations, and called it a loss.

Now, obviously none of this could have been helped. Even if I had managed to somehow have kept myself healthy (given the year I’ve had, I would say that my best efforts would have fallen flat), any modality of travel that we had chosen would have been halted by the weather we experienced. Still, my parents haven’t seen their grandchildren in person in over a year now, and the level of guilt that I’m carrying for being the cause of that this year is a weighty burden. This says nothing of the fact that I really wanted to have some conversations about specific things with my father in person, and to just enjoy spending holiday time with family. While my condition (or at least the one that prevented us from traveling) has mostly resolved as I write this, I have spent every day this week (whenever I wasn’t running the snow-blower, that is) thinking wistfully of the laughter and warmth that we would have had with family had things gone according to plan.

In doing so, I’m reminded of exactly how blessed I am that there was family waiting, even though that waiting went unrequited this year. Many cannot say that. The loneliness that many face in this season I cannot fathom, and I attempt to assuage my conscience for having no time to confront this by giving to charities and church outreaches.

Still, after our power came back on from the first storm, I spontaneously ran around the room with my soon-to-be two-year-old on my back, as she bounced and giggled in my ear, and I realized that, despite the inevitable outcome of our best-laid plans, the most important things were here, easily within reach, if just a bit messier than I would have liked. The Incarnation that we celebrate over these next days has breathed life into our moments in the most common, and most miraculous, of ways.

I hope that your Christmas was peaceful.

Frenetic Pace

I’m writing this at the end of a long weekend, the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the U.S. We’ve returned from a dinner marking the first Sunday of Advent. It was the first social event that I’ve gone out for since Thanksgiving day.

I’ve worked really hard to avoid busyness (yes, I know that’s only sort-of a word) since I finished grad school. Were I to go back through my posts from that time in my life, I’m sure that I complained about it way too often (if you were reading then and find yourself in vigorous agreement, I beg your forgiveness for putting up with that). I always thought that my time would be better spent writing than going back out after I was in for the evening. I felt that the hectic social calendars of many of my friends were a sort of sound and fury signifying nothing.

For the last few weeks, though, my evenings and weekends were filled. Having friends over for dinner, with all of the associated hustle and bustle involved, activities at our faith community, getting ready for Thanksgiving…all of these things made me feel alive in a way, as though I was getting to experience something that I normally avoided with such determination that the avoidance had become a habit of sorts.

Which was actually exactly what I had been doing.

Yet, in the midst of all of that, one evening I was getting our youngest ready for bed and was digging in her closet for pajamas, when I saw a backpack hanging there. Not just any backpack, mind you. This was what Karen and I affectionately referred to as “the essentials bag.” I remembered the Saturday afternoon in Raleigh when Karen and I picked it out.

You see, with both girls, we had one of these bags. It’s a specially outfitted backpack for outings with a baby. It’s neatly compartmentalized to carry changing gear, bottles, changes of clothes, etc. All of the essentials of which you will find yourself in need during any given excursion. The bag we had for our oldest fell apart from use, and we purchased a new one for the second baby years later. In retrospect, this was really more for me than for Karen. Somehow, having the requisite equipment helped me feel that I might be able to do the job of parenting, a job for which I have always found myself lacking in aptitude.

I remember each detail about that period in our oldest’s life. I remember the feeding and diaper routines, the morning rituals, the favorite toys. I remember as she progressed through the levels of her Pack N’ Play until she was too big for it altogether, when we had to buy her “big girl bed.” I remember reading the bed-time stories, checking out favorite books from the library over and over again until we eventually purchased copies because they were so beloved.

I don’t remember these details about our youngest. They’ve gone by so quickly. I was too busy to notice.

I’ll never be able to get that back.

So, as alive as this busy season has made me feel, or as thrilling as it was to be self-employed and successful in a new vocation, I need to find some sort of balance.

Then it occurs to me, however, that there are different types of busyness.

Because, as Karen and I were discussing the night that I write this about how much cooking and fun has been had over the last few days, I have felt it to be a slowing down. I found a rhythm outside of checking emails and consulting calendars. Cleaning up from holiday cooking, taking out the recycling…there’s something healing in the simplicity of these activities. Something relaxing. Something holy. Somehow, with all of those activities, the time multiplied, and I was still able to give piggy-back rides through the living room, read bed-time stories, and make breakfast.

Somehow.

And, as the weekend draws to a close, I approach the screen again with wariness.

Observing the Change of Seasons

Fall Leaves in New EnglandThere’s something comforting about the change of seasons. As we progress from one stage of the year to another, there’s a innate sense that this part of our journey, a few steps that we’ve measured in linear time, is coming to a close. There’s a feeling of completeness. I imagine that God designed it this way for a reason.

Summer vacations are a wonderful respite from the insane pace that marks our professional lives, but removing the air conditioning units from the windows is sort of a seasonal rite of passage in New England. Homes are rarely built with central air here because it’s only needed for about six weeks out of the year, so window units go in at the end of spring and come out at the end of the summer.

As we arrive at the end of fall, I clean the grill for the season as the evenings become too cool to cook out. By the end of October I’ve cleared our deck and stored the outside furniture away from the inches of snow that will eventually cover where it once sat. I also did this in when we lived in the South, although I often wondered if there was any point. In the South, everything is continuous, climate controlled. The months blend together, lose their variety. A blandness is pervasive as weeks and months and seasons pass seamlessly into one another with little noticeable difference. In New England, even during the dreaded winters that sometimes seem to last forever and threaten to extinguish the lives of those of us crazy enough to live here, there is a sense that things are as they should be. Air conditioners and deck furniture have given way to snow-blowers. Each season has it’s tool.

As I write this, dusk is falling earlier, and the trees surround us with shades of gold and red. Leaves are painting designs on the pavement, and the nights (and now days, as well) are crisp. Pumpkins adorn stoops. It is time for apple crisp and cider.

And, despite the senselessness, and occasionally the tragedy, of the world around us, seeing this somehow means that all is well.