Joshua Grey

Everything is different with a second child. For one thing, I wrote out Amos’ birth story within a month of his arrival. Yet here I am, six months after our second son and only just now writing his story—and I had to come all the way to Seattle to do so. I hope my memory stirs and I can recollect the pieces and put them back together in a way that mostly resembles what really happened.

With Amos, Beth and I spent a month expecting him any day. This time, we were surprised. It was a Sunday (again) and I had been working like crazy the week prior installing a hardwood floor for some friends. Beth spent that Sunday nesting at what turned out to be the eleventh hour. She put together the nursery save for hanging a fox painting made by our friend, Kristin. As we were going to bed, Beth was telling me how she couldn’t get comfortable in bed. She had slipped in the kitchen the day before and landed on her tail bone so we chalked it up to that and went to sleep.

Then she woke me up at two am.

‘Michael, I think my water just broke.’

This urgent news stumbled across my sleeping body like someone searching a heavy fog with a pen light and set about trying to rouse it. I lay in a two am stupor for a moment and said something like, ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes,’ Beth said, with a look as sleepy as mine and yet much more alarmed.

She was four days shy of her due date and we had been convinced that Amos arriving late meant certainly this baby would come with a like timing. We hadn’t even packed a hospital bag. Given that we were equally convinced this baby would follow his brother’s haste in delivery, this lent the present situation some urgency.

Beth set to gathering a few essentials (a task made easier by experience for we knew how little we would actually need for this trip, so the packing was light) and making up a little bed on the couch while I grabbed my phone and started phoning the friends on our on-call list to come be with Amos when he woke.

Tonight, when I go to bed, I am going to put my phone on silent so that I can’t be woken up. I have that kind of control over this device. Do you know what does not allow you that kind of control? A land line. That old-fangled thing is very insistent. In a fit of technological irony, the cellphones that have us all so constantly reachable left me recording voicemails in which I tried not to sound panicked, but the wake-the-dead ring of a telephone did the trick and I calmly asked (a somewhat groggy) Grandma Polly if she wouldn’t mind popping by for a bit while Beth and I went to the hospital.

‘Polly, it’s Michael. Beth’s water broke and we are getting ready to go to the hospital.’

Then we waited. Polly had a cross-town drive to make. Meanwhile, Beth’s contractions had started, as they do, four or five minutes apart. We didn’t have the same confusion we had fought through with Amos’ birth, wondering if labor had really begun, but that was replaced with the suspense of wondering how quickly this baby would come and whether our friend would make it to our house in time for us to then make it to the hospital and for me to avoid midwifery duties. Without the freedom to just leave as we pleased, we had to accept the God-given limitation of a sleeping boy upstairs (mercifully sleeping through our mid-night flurry of preparation) with a measure of faith in our community to be there for us and in God to make this baby be born just slowly enough.

Beth perched on the edge of a yellow chair in our living room and focused on riding out each contraction. I tried to hold in my manic energy both so I wouldn’t climb the walls and stress Beth and so I would allow Polly enough time to reach our house without blowing up her phone. I think I did pace the floor a bit and I definitely kept looking out the kitchen window for her. And right when Beth and I were starting to feel fear creep in, Polly arrived and we met her on the front steps with deep, breathless thanks as we dashed to the car (as much as a pregnant woman in labor can dash).

I am thankful that we lived minutes from the hospital. I am also thankful that the month was August because I have chilly memories of driving to the hospital in the cold of January with the windows down, shivering as Beth tried to cool off. I drove to the hospital only breaking a handful of traffic laws in mild ways and scored a fantastic three am parking space right by the door.

Beth was in much more walkable shape this time around, or maybe there was a wheelchair right inside the door which I commandeered. I honestly can’t remember. Can you dear? We somehow made our way to the second floor and through the heavy double doors leading to labor and delivery where we were shown to a room. I think it was room five. We settled in, at which point I noticed our nurse.

She and I looked at one another, caught mutually trying to remember something with that simultaneously engaged and yet lost in though expression on our faces.

Slowly, I ventured, ‘I think you might have been our nurse the last time we were here.’

And surely it was true. Once again, in the middle of a Sunday night or Monday morning, in the same hospital, this was the same nurse who had so wonderfully and compassionately attended to Beth when Amos was born.

‘You know, I think you’re right.’

What a delightfully calming gift to us, on the verge of hardship, to know we were in good hands. Nurse Katie had given birth to twins since we had seen her last and we were so thankful to see her again.

Beth never dilly dallies when it comes to having babies, so the doctor was soon and quickly summoned. Who should she be but, inevitably, Dr. Margarita Terassa, Amos’ delivery doctor. Three and a half years later and on a much warmer Sunday night, we were living the same story, all new. Not everything changes. In our city life with so many strangers and through the vagueries of hospital shifts and on-call schedules, we had that old-fashioned privilege of both our boys being brought into this world by the same good people. We received this as a gift.

Beth was much more clear-headed during this delivery. I think experience kept her more grounded, less overloaded. Things seemed to go smoothly. Her contractions crescendoed, she began to push, and, before long, our baby boy was born.
He was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, bruised blue in his face. Beth and I have mourned the loss of a baby we never had the chance to meet, and this birth seemed to have been right on the edge of heartbreak. I don’t know what to make of when God gives life and when he gives sorrow, but here was his new life, preserved through danger, and I am thankful.

I remember going through many of the same motions as with Amos. The nurses cleaning the baby, cutting the umbilical cord. His weighing and vital checks seemed to take longer, but not by much. He was a healthy boy with a bruised face and the crooked nose of a boxer (it has since straightened out). This time, though, one thing was different. Beth was trembling as an after-effect of the pitocin administered after the birth, and after she held her boy for a few minutes, asked me to take him for fear that her shaking hands would lose hold of him. So I held the boy and tried to soothe his crying. He definitely cried more than Amos, so I sat with him in the hospital rocking chair and rocked him to sleep. We sat quiet like that almost until Nurse Katie came to convey us to the postpartum wing.

As Beth and I were headed down the hall, we heard another woman somewhere howling high-pitched, warbling screams. The sound was truly stunning and such a contrast to Beth’s almost repose during birth. I admire my wife.

So goes the story of how our second son was born into my and Beth’s life, but there’s still some more to tell: how he was born into his big brother, Amos’ life. This is an important part because it’s how the boy got his name. Aside from the cast of characters, one other thing was the same with the second child: we had no name for him. Like Amos Hiler, we had decided on a middle name: Grey. But unlike Amos, for whom we had two favorite names to give which ever one fit, we had no idea what to call this baby. No favorite had ever surfaced and so the list was always changing. Joseph? Calvin? Nathaniel? Lucas? Nothing stuck.

The next morning, or I should say a little later that day, Grandma Polly brought Amos to the hospital. I met the pair in the lobby and I could tell Amos was excited, though he was kind of reserved about it having woken up to a very unexpected scene at home. I took him to the hospital gift shop to buy his baby brother a balloon and a card and then we headed up the elevator to the maternity ward.

At the end of the hall we came to our room and entered. The baby was in his plastic bassinet and I think I lifted Amos up to see him. Of course, this did not satisfy Amos, who immediately asked, ‘Can I hold him?’

From the start, our oldest knew babies were meant to be loved on, not just looked at. So we situated him in a chair and Beth laid his sleeping brother across his lap.

How do you describe the pride and love you feel when your rough and tumble boy receives a newborn baby with a quietness and a gentleness that seem almost alien in him? There’s a special way Amos held his hands when he held his brother back then, with his fingers pressed together save for the pinky and making a convex curve with the back of his hand so as to only touch him with the ball of his palm. It’s Amos’ utmost sign of delicacy (a delicacy that has most certainly waned as his brother has grown and one I’m sure will disappear altogether once the two are big enough to wrestle each other). Those careful hands are maybe the most precious thing I can remember about that first meeting.

After sitting in this way for a few minutes, Amos said, ‘I think we should call him Joshua, mama.’ It stuck. Joshua Grey Morgan. Born into our family by his mama and given a name by her and his big brother, one apiece.

After that, there was nothing to do but buy a birthday cake, receive friends and family to celebrate, and finally take Joshua home. Oh, and hang that fox painting in the nursery. I think Beth got to that after a month or so. It’s hard to find time with two around.

‘Shake It Off’ In the Dark City

‘Shake It Off’ In the Dark City

With her ubiquity that may be second only to the omnipresence of God, Taylor Swift finally cornered me with her song ‘Shake It Off’. I really kind of liked it. I have no way to place this in the overall cannon of Swift tunes, but it is catchy as can be. And striking in a way I wouldn’t have expected.

Verse one introduces the disembodied voices swirling around Swift, murmuring gossip and vitriol. In the chorus, she, well, shakes them off. In verse two Swift paints herself like Muhammad Ali in the ring: always moving, improvising. The haters even dream of beating her and they better wake up and apologize. She’s untouchable. The song is a massive hit and as such it has earned a Grammy nomination. Why does this ideal of the untouchable individual resonate with us?

The release of Swift’s new album came alongside her exhaustively publicized move from Nashville to New York City. The country girl is now a bona fide city woman, or so the narrative goes. This move microcosms Swift’s life, exchanging a small world wherein she knew most everyone who knew her, for a global world, where she is on constant display before people who don’t know her personally, that is, as a person. I think if we look at this song through the lens of our own country to city/small to global transition, we can get our minds around why ‘Shake It Off’ strikes a nerve as it does.

Over the past hundred years, the global population has undertaken a mammoth—and accelerating— migration from countryside to city. This has had a profound impact on our lives and relationships.

Tim Keller has said that cities have the highest concentration of the image of God per square inch anywhere in the world. The city, given its dense collection of humanity, has vast potential for purpose and goodness if its people live out what’s best and most true about the human creature. If cities are the largest concentration of God’s image bearers, though, they are also the largest collection of people trying to cope with the searing rupture between them and God. Such collective cosmic pain must shape the city because it cannot help but shape the residents of the city.

Jacques Ellul, a brilliant 20th century French sociologist and lay theologian, said, “Just as Jesus Christ is God’s greatest work, so we can say, with all the consequences of such a statement, that the city is man’s greatest work.” In The Meaning of the City, He argues that Cain, having murdered his brother, was cursed by God to wander the earth, detached from secure roots. Reeling with insecurity, Cain responded by building security in his own image, apart from God, and this is the first, prototypical city. The wanderer settled down in defiance. Wendell Berry, I think, would say that the city manifests the victory of mankind’s desire to exploit over his ability to nurture.

We thus have to take the city for what it is: a place both strikingly beautiful for what it contains, and darkly sinister in its foundation. The city is a place of insecurity, felt at a tectonic level, filled with people striving for the most efficient path to feelings of financial, physical, and relational security. Nothing has yet silenced these appetites. Rather cruelly, they actually seem to grow more pointed when fed. This introduces a compounding thirst for novelty to the calculus of the city. And so we cluster together and scrape up against one another in an urban environment obedient to the commandments of scarcity and competition. Hungry and growing hungrier. Cities need salt and light because they are, by nature, decomposing and dark places.

This darkness disturbs the city in many ways: with crime, with poverty, but also with the shadow of urban anonymity. Dedicated urbanites prize their independence, enjoying the privacy of the crowd. We think it nice to be buffered from busybodies who can rather effectively aggravate our insecurity because they know us by name—inescapable in the kind of small communities we find in rural America—but in escaping those busybodies, we have severely strained the bonds of accountability found in a small, named community, where people know and are known to one another and therefore cannot escape the joy or grief of one another. Absent such interconnectedness, acknowledged by the simple act of addressing someone by name, strange things happen.

The devil who has always weighted our shoulder and plied us with lies about being our own god and deserving a taste of whatever forbidden fruit du jour whispers that we must look after ourselves, we must get ours, we must compete with these people. Our insecure flesh drinks this in and its appetites growl. We begin to see the humans around us not as a community to be nurtured, but as capital to be exploited, and this is made easy because we no longer know anyone personally. Aren’t cities built with human capital? Any reduction in personal knowledge, even namelessness, paves the way for exploitation.

How do we exploit each other? Not as cartoon villains do, but as regular people navigating a crowded supermarket or a rush-hour freeway. We curse the other driver, we leer at the other shopper, all bodies to which we cannot give a name. This may seem harmless, the presence or absence of external aggression is a shallow measure of harm. In the Sermon on the Mount, anger is not just closely tied to but equated to murder. How can this be? It all hinges on what happens to us in our anger, not what happens to the person at whom our anger is directed. Even hidden, our anger harms its objects because it strangles our desire to admit them into the circle of our care.

The other driver, the other grocery shopper, crosses our path on the cutting edge of their long life, as complex and full of grief and joy as our own. Yet the minute they impede us, all of that long life vanishes from our sight (if it even ever was there). We no longer see a person but an object in the way and this is the assassination of their humanity in our heart, an unspeakable reduction. We have severed the ties of mutual life between us and them by denying their full life our consideration and therefore our patience, to say nothing of compassion or love. And for what? For a feeling of superiority to compensate for a moment’s inconvenience. We have used them to lift ourselves up. We have exploited them. In a city on a busy day, we can do this dozens and hundreds of times until the urban landscape becomes a bloodless genocide. One which we all survive only by blind biological measure.

When we do not see the person in front of us as a human being in full flesh, as we inevitably do in the crowd of the city and as we often choose to do in our anger or even mere annoyance, we deny ourselves the chance to give regard that we owe, regard that we ought to get rid of because to store it up in ourselves is to poison our own mind and soul. And so we do not truly survive the bloodless genocide, not as a whole unit of body and spirit. Anonymity, augmented with anger, must kill our own sense of the value of someone before it can drive us to physical murder, and even if it never ends in real bloodshed, grievous harm has already been done.

There is no sliding scale of acceptability when it comes to making people objects. When we attempt to reduce what should be irreducible, we lose something essential to being human together. Yet it seems the city demands this kind of reduction of us in a unique way. Perhaps it’s just a function of human limit; we have a relational limit that the city far exceeds so we have to imagine people as objects in order to comprehend the sheer number. This cannot but entail a co-reduction in their value, their complexity. The city may present us with more people than we have the spiritual capacity to pay attention, but that doesn’t absolve us of being a community in which each member matters and is deserving of their full human dignity. I mean dignity in an old sense of an intrinsic value that no one may diminish because it isn’t given from man to man but rather given to all men by their Creator.

Of course, these impulses to anger, to thinking others less so that we might feel like more come out in small, named communities. But in those places where you look known people in the face, it is difficult to keep them hidden. So they tend to emerge, as feuds and gossip. The invisibility of anonymous anger makes it a cancer more peculiar to the city, which hides the known person from us in a crowd. So the shape the city has taken is closely tied to what Ellul argues was the original impetus for the city, that is to murder and its ramifications for our human spirit. In our desire to feel happy, we can accept, even willfully ignore, of gross poverty. Our panicky clinging to our stuff leads us to expect of crime and therefore suspect The Other. Our hunger to secure promotion and pay increase spurs sometimes treacherous competition in the marketplace. All of these insecurities are profoundly abetted by our ability to reduce our imagination of others into disposable quantities. This reduction in imagination owes a great debt to the vast relational pool of the city, to how such a sea of faces gives us permission not to know our neighbor well.

In the past 15 years, things have taken a turn for the truly surreal. The enormity of the city has entered the echo chamber of the Internet and suddenly the world is simultaneously more vast than even the greatest city and yet more claustrophobic and inescapable than the smallest town. Our animosity towards one another—which tends to dehumanize unless kept in check by the unavoidable humanity found in personal relationships—found in the city an anonymous place to go to work on fraying our communal bonds. But we couldn’t, or at least often wouldn’t, act out our anger face to face because we’d have to witness its true effect. Now, though, we have our global digital city. Like the city, it is an unprecedented collection of human creatures, of the image of God, and so its implications are both wonderful and fearful to behold. The digitopolis has a dark underbelly, an open platform from which our inner troll has the power to strike at anyone and the choice to remain anonymous. As we broadcast our lives into this digital uncivil-ization, we make ourselves vulnerable to tabloid insult and paparazzi voyeurism; in short, we put ourselves in a position to feel how Taylor Swift felt when she wrote ‘Shake It Off’.

So why does ‘Shake It Off’ allure us? Well, what could be more alluring in this modern world than an emotional suit of armor? Taylor Swift’s brilliance is her insight into one of our chief collective anxieties: being on the receiving end of abuse from which we have no expectation of refuge or release (because it’s just the way things are in the wired world). To this kind of world, Swift presents herself as the invulnerable ideal. ‘Shake It Off’ is an anthem of empowerment against haters and heart breakers. And it has a nice beat. And you can dance to it. No wonder she’s a queen of pop culture. But, is ‘Shake It Off’ good medicine for our time?

For everything there is a season, even shaking it off. Swift has leaned into the modern world and, having endured its full effect, must shake things off in order to survive. Perhaps not in such high volume, so must we to the extent that we navigate the nameless crowd. The dark parts of the city—digital or analog—would bleed us dry us if we didn’t have thick skin. This is doubly true if we try to bring some light into dark corners. The city loves freedom of thought, but hates advice. A life that subverts the darkness in the city will suffer its own portion of slings and arrows. Speak or live a message that protests the animating forces of consumerism and self-centeredness, a message that encourages reunion with God and therefore with neighbor—often at the expense of so-called personal liberty and satisfaction—and you are likely to meet a round rebuke. People are liable to kick at something they see in the light that pricks their cosmic rupture. In that time, why shouldn’t we think of ourselves as lighting on our feet? In the Christian faith, which, when well-lived, should run counter to much of the city as I’ve described it, Jesus punctuates his beatitudes, his own sublimely subversive anthem of empowerment, by telling his followers that they are blessed when others revile them and speak all kinds of false evil against them on his behalf (on behalf of his message of light shining in darkness). He tells them to rejoice and be glad—shake it off!—for great is their reward in heaven, in that place which dwarfs the city. Taylor Swift may not have had such an interpretation in view when she wrote the song, but there it is all the same.

Yet, there is a time for everything under heaven, even not shaking it off. Criticism isn’t always unfounded and ignorable, and it’s fatal to the soul to presume so. Sometimes we need to let a punch land. Sometimes we need a wound to save us from total self-destruction. We cannot find that kind of wound in the din and mayhem of the city, though. For those times, we must seek out that vulnerable community of people who know one another by being mutually given for one another’s well-being. There we can take off our city armor, decide together to lay down our instinct to exploit relationships for personal gain, and instead realize our ability to nurture one another, even if by pruning. If Taylor Swift has a song about that, I’d love to know about it. I think she has the insight and emotional touch to write a good one. I’d cue it up alongside ‘Shake It Off’ on and have a cosmic dance party.