Widen the Road

I’ve been thinking about abundance, and generosity, and about our modernized skewing of both. About how often our culture preaches self control, self examination, self care – misguided attempts at mastering the art of simple living. (Guilty.)

Mostly, I’ve been thinking about 4-lane highways.

Have you ever been to Ojai? It’s been called the happiest town on earth; the most blissed out place to visit (then move to, then stay forever). Prophets and bike rides, mud spas and chili fries, black jeeps and indie bookstores – something for everyone, everything for someone. And then there’s the long-lauded “pink moment” where the evening sky becomes airbrushed with the colors we donned in gym class in ’94. It is life-changing, they say. Completely dumbfounding.

Last week, I stumbled upon this essay where Ojai’s mayor spoke of her love for the town, for the people, for the healing energy and peaceful lifestyle the area’s known for. She spoke of dreams and development in a town where, purposefully, not much has changed. She spoke of fighting the 4-lane highway, of making sure the town can support the traffic. And then she says this:

“If you want to save your town, don’t widen the road.”

Save your town.
Don’t widen the road.

When I first read this, I thought it wise. Yes, that’s it. Don’t widen the road. Don’t overcommit. Keep it small and simple. Tidy. Surely that’s the secret to a happy life? To consider the cost; be smart about what you can handle? Luke 14:28?

But then, Luke everything else.

I was raised with a fairly conservative world view (this is not about politics). I was taught that resources are limited, that we must choose wisely. Our days are numbered, as is our bank account, as are our talents/schedules/bodies/towns.

This view served me well. Thinking conservatively taught me to never live beyond my means, to never bite off more than I can chew. It’s one way I’ve learned to reject more for the sake of more; that our job here is not to amass things in need of dusting. It’s one way I have managed a wholly debt-free life, creating a work schedule dictated less by need and more by want.

I say one way on purpose.

The other ways were the other ways: Luck. Chance. Community. Owning a nice blazer for a job interview. Being born in the United States, raised by able-bodied, hard-working parents who never once forgot my birthday. Pop Tarts in the pantry, bike helmets in the garage. How much can I attribute the life I lead to my own hard work, and how much exists as a doled-out blessing at random or stacked on the back of someone else?

If you want to save the town, don’t widen the road.
But what if it’s not our town that needs saving?

What if it’s not about our town, our family, our comfort/security/Pop Tarts? What if it’s about access to opportunity, about those locked outside the town, ignored and refused, walking through wrong-way traffic to witness one small sliver of the airbrushed sunsets we bask under daily?

Are they undeserving of the happy valley, born on the wrong side of the highway?

I find that I’m growing weary of preserving. Of amassing, of protecting, of thinking in terms of our town and not, of our highway and not, of our pink moment and not. Of shutting the gates, locking the doors, free and clear of outsiders in the name of traffic, of all things.

It’s everyone’s sky, after all.
It’s no one’s sky, after all.

We call the saving of our town wise, of course. We call it being responsible, smart. Planning ahead! Setting boundaries! Showing restraint, holding back, saving the town!

Some might even call it a fruit of the spirit; this practicing of self control.

And yet: when you’re making decisions for other people – whether under your own roof or your corner cubicle or the blissed out town of Ojai – what to make of the consequences?

Where does our version of self control bleed into others control? When does our own willpower become a power to wield? When does our own restraint strain someone else?

How does one protect what’s inside without keeping away what’s outside? When does our margin become someone’s hedge? What’s the difference between a boundary and a fence?

Is there one?

Don’t widen the road, we say.
It’s not sustainable,
we say.
Save the town, we say.

And no, this isn’t about politics at all.

It’s about a mind in the midst of being changed. It’s about me, padding out to the dining room at 2am to sit down and write something that I remembered to be important, only to find that it’s important for an entirely opposite reason.

It’s about realizing how many times I’ve put myself in the center of the story and tipped the plot toward a place it wasn’t intended.

I remember the moment I began to identify with the experience of being an adult, rather than a kid. I was watching reruns of My So-Called Life with a newborn, a nursing Bee on my chest, two dogs at my feet, the open bag of pecans on an end table. It was the episode where Angela’s mother Patty is feeling lonely and unsure in her marriage so she cuts her hair off and everyone’s reaction is terrible. And Angela makes that stinging, self-absorbed comment: “Mom, just because I changed my hair doesn’t mean you should.”

And all I could think about was Patty – not Angela’s almost-kiss from Jordan that day, not flannel shirts or algebra homework, but Patty and the shears and the hope and the red dress and the sadness. And I couldn’t bring myself to watch the show anymore, to sit down and wrap myself up in the comfortable angst of a teenager without wondering how all of it might negatively affect her mother.

That’s what this feels like. It feels like I’ve been listening to the heartbroken Angelas in the center of our town – and slowly, surely, my ears are turning toward the unheard Pattys on the edge of the highway.

Of note, there are a few voices that have been helpful in this turning:
Shane Claiborne. Shannan Martin. Nicola Menzie. Eugene Cho. Carlos Rodriguez.

I suppose what I’m learning is what I’ve already learned: that life must be held with a shaking, loose grip.

And I thought I understood. I thought I’d already mastered the need to release control and surrender to the unknown. I married a man with a brain tumor, after all. Letting go was something I offered on the regular.

And yet: there is always something we cling to. Our kids, our time. Our goals, our own small visions. Our future. Our “security.” Our wants and needs.

Our own personal Ojais.

Save the town!

My justifications are many, of course: I’m an introvert! I have small children! I need to maintain my energy; to offer my family my best!

(There it is again. My family. My best. Our town.)

Don’t widen the road!

I’m trying to be less selfish, is all. I’m holding my calendar loosely – saying Yes more than No. I’m opening the screen door to my neighbor’s granddaughter, sending her home with an armful of watermelon. Visiting neighbors, delivering muffins. Staying up late to help Ken with his project, waking up early to work on my own.

I’m sleeping less, but better.

I am realizing that I have spent years successfully whittling down my life in the name of simplicity that I had forgotten to add back in a few essentials: the element of surprise, sweat on your brow, a good old-fashioned inconvenience for the sake of another.

And now, slowly, with much debris – the road is beginning to widen.

Turns out, there was room all along.

  • I think “saving towns” is all well and good but when it’s a town like Harlem or Brooklyn or Oakland and there are all of those well meaning gentrifiers with their cupcake shops and craft breweries and serving food out of shovels and mason jars, then what? Their “roads are being widened” too. I believe that not everything and every place is for everybody and that some things can be held with a tight grip (culture, sacred land, community, etc). Oh well.

    • Oh man, YES. I hear you, sister. Gentrification is a layered thing, and one I’m still learning so much about. I’d meant for Ojai to be used as a metaphor for my own life, and how I’m learning to care less about “saving myself/family” in search of a greater good. But I’m so interested in your thoughts!

  • My husband and I have been talking about this idea recently. As Christ’s followers, we are not called to lives of comfort, security, or solitude. After all, he had none. His earliest followers for centuries had none. It’s difficult to reconcile being a middle-class American and living for Christ. We store up money for retirement when it could be used to help someone today. We attend church in the better part of town, because our security outweighs the needs of the poorer communities. We turn down service opportunities because “family time” or “sports time” or “me time.” Margin and simple living are good intentions, but there are things greater. And I am still working out the answers to these things, knowing they won’t be easy answers, but also knowing that “take up your cross and follow me” is THE answer.

  • Oh boy! I have been thinking so much about this. And I love so many of your thoughts. I want to say the more the merrier! And I want to include everyone and say yes! BUT, and this is a big but, how? How do I not let myself get overwhelmed? How do I make sure I have what I need too? I’m trying so hard to not sound selfish, but it’s hard. I need rest and quiet and space. I’m an introvert and lean toward limits and routines and I so wish I could just be more open. I want to just trust that I’ll get what I need if I just try to not control life. But every time I do, it ends badly. And so I protect myself and my family and my time and my space. And then I try again and it all ends badly again. I don’t think the answer is balance or more rules or boundaries or just saying no. I think it’s more complicated, but thank you for this post. Hopefully someday we’ll figure it out!

    • How, how, how indeed. I’m right there with you – introvert, limits, routines. I’ve found that, truly, each time I try (and fail), I’m being stretched in ways I didn’t realize. So, yes, with every attempt to be more open (and every burnout after), I spend a bit of time recovering to find that the openness is still there – but with a bit more perspective. Does that make sense? There are good days and bad, and there are days I test my limits and it backfires and then I start yelling about bananas or lost library books or all manner of nonsense. :) But. The apologies are swift and the forgiveness is, too, and I’m left with a new day to start again. I’m 100% still learning, and good gracious is it a valuable lesson. :)

  • Luke everything else indeed. I often think of what the flight attendant says about putting the mask over our own faces before helping our children, and I get that–we can’t have NO boundaries or we can’t breathe and t are of no use to anybody. But when I dove into this life of grateful service, raised my hand when they asked, “Whom shall we send?” I didn’t stipulate that I would only go where there are clean parks and Nordstrom. I bet Jesus was completely spent by the time His day of rest came around each week.

    All this to say, this is a beautiful essay, Erin. As always, keenly on message–on the right message for now. Plus written with such care, intention and lovely spare words. Bravo. You surely have many more books in you!

    • Ah, you are such an encourager, Jennifer – thank you! And this line got me good:
      But when I dove into this life of grateful service, raised my hand when they asked, “Whom shall we send?” I didn’t stipulate that I would only go where there are clean parks and Nordstrom.

      Amen, amen.

  • This post is beautiful. I’ve had much the same thoughts lately. In our attempt to protect what is ours, how often we seem to shut out the real needs. Thank you for this reminder.

  • Oh, Erin, yes. YES. Yes. I mean. Can I keep saying yes?

    And it’s so hard in the moment. It’s hard to see where we have more to give, to do, to be. So, I think too, that sometimes it’s okay for us to preserve our own “towns” because if we’re completely burnt-out, there’s nothing left.

    I also think the shift is one towards purpose and meaning. Liiiiike is self-care an industry now because we’re all burnt out and need help regaining our energy to continue to work towards SOMEONE ELSE’S fabricated purpose that we’re also supposed to buy into? I think yes. So, instead, what could happen if we all embraced our own sense of purpose and meaning. Would we need recovery from *that* life?

    • Oh, yes yes yes. You are such a wise sage, sweet Tiffany. Thank you for your sweet perspective, always!

  • have we become selfish in the name of simple living? well the way i see it you cant become something you have always been. we are all selfish write down to our core. you cant be selfless. selflessness dose not exist. it has been eating at me for about a year now,and no matter how hard i try i cant find a way around it. please will someone prove me wrong.

    • Hi Josh:

      Oh, I hear you. My faith teaches me that we all fall short of perfection, but we can (and must) strive for excellence here. I’ve got a long way to go toward putting others first and am looking forward to learning (and praying/repenting!!!) along the way!

  • This was a beautifully written message. There is so much freedom that comes in opening up to the outside. Learning to do this myself, one crack at a time, by the grace of God.

  • Yes to this Erin. I get so focused on simplifiying my life or just preserving my sanity that I forget that it isn’t all about me. Thank you for widening your roads and thus widening our perspectives. Hugs.

  • Hi Erin, I was thinking of this passage from 2 Cor 6:3-13 Msg Translation. The title of the chapter is “Staying at our Post.” People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly….in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honoured; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumoured to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all. Dear, dear Corinthians, I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!”

    This passage changed a lot for me. Along with Matthew 11:28-30 MSG (Get away with me and you’ll recover your life). Also Practice Resurrection by Eugene Peterson is worth a read. Big Hugs, Ginny

    • GOOD GRACIOUS, Ginny – you brought such encouragement this morning! Off to add Practice Resurrection to my library cart – and thank you so much for sharing such beauty and truth with me.

    • This is SO GOOD! Thank you for sharing this! I am making this in my Bible right now and I just love everything about it! “Open up your lives! Live openly and expansively!” I gotta put that on a letter board or something. Just love it. And thank you Erin for all of this. Been following Shannan for forever and have been trying to widen my circle, as she says, and its amazing what happens and what your life slowly begins to look like when you do. Completely different than I expected but truly everything I want it to be. Not without whining and crying and selfishly wanting me time along the way. But I wouldn’t trade what is on the other side of this widening and stretching and growing for any amount of me time you could give me. Love your sweet heart (and always your hair!)

      • Oh I love this so much, Kristen – thank you for such an encouraging comment! :) (And the hair compliment – ha!)

  • Erin,
    Wow, this hits many checkboxes for me lately, I thought I was less self absorbed and so it is true, I am less self absorbed however, I am still struggling with being absorbed with my people, my sphere, my small piece in this world, my family, and yet I know I am called to more.
    Thank you for this perspective, for opening the eyes a bit wider, the call to action.

  • Beautiful musings on the most important things…our sense of place, belonging, community, and non-attachment to all of it. Thank you. I live in Ojai. I grew up here. I left when I turned 18 and moved back at 38 to raise my kids here. I wanted to move back for many years but the logistics of it were just out of our reach. I was full of a heart-wrenching longing to return to “my” neroli scented pink moments, surrounded by mountains. I was grasping. I was trying to fill an emptiness. When we moved my husband said to me: “Now we can live anywhere. Now you are free.” Meaning that I’m free of my grasping and my own private Ojai. Now I can live anywhere and be happy because I’ve done the Ojai chapter. But I’ll probably never leave because this is home. And, yeah, it’s all that. Ojai belongs to me and belongs to everyone. And, it belongs to no one.

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