24 July 2015

My Whiteness

Over a month ago, I left the Facebook arena of social media.  After the Mother Emmanuel Massacre social media had much to say.  I couldn't find words.  The confederate flag issue brought out more voices, "Heritage not Hate" rolled across my screen too regularly.  I still don't really know what that means - a cliche never much impresses me.  The truth is I don't want to know about a heritage from the losing side of a battle 150 years ago that waged war on itself in the name of owning human beings.  I don't want to know about the hate that grew in 1961 causing wealthy white leadership to hang a flag in defiance of integration. The fact is: that this Heritage is Hate. The day I decided to leave the social arena, I made a list of friends and former students who posted ignorance which often breeds hatred.  I stopped eating, an anger fast.  Sadness trumped all my emotions.  Our relationships are so tenuous.

Disturbed and shaken,  I walked away from the noise.  But the uneasiness wouldn't leave me.  I wrote lists about history that we were all ignoring.  I tried to draw parallels in my writing and conclusions.  I wanted to clarify for the world that ignorance was the problem.  That if we could be educated and know stories beyond our own, then we could own the truth and truly heal.  But I still don't have the words.  I am not nearly educated enough to write that treatise.

So like the rest of well meaning people, I tried to ignore.  Hmmm, the origins of ignorance. I immersed myself in reading and preparation for the coming school year.  And then it happened...

First I stumbled on this talk: The Danger of a Single Story by Cimanmanda Ngozi Adichie on Ted.com.

This was the beginning of my turn back to my troubled heart.  Watch it.  18 minutes of eye opening clarity about our narrow perspectives.  Thank you Ms. Adichie.  I don't have the words, but she does.

Later I was listening to NPR and I heard the voice of Ta-Nehisi Coates saying what I didn't know, what I needed to know.  The juxtaposition of his existence and mine were my struggle and he expressed his narrative with poetry, power, pain, truth and beauty.  I immediately bought and read his book, and then I wept.

Listen to him read an excerpt of Between the World and Me.

I wept for Coates's truth, which is my truth, and your truth whether we like it or not.  I wept for ignorance again.  How can my life be dedicated to educating young people, helping them reconcile what they claim to believe with the actions of their lives, when ignorance and lies shape their foundation? Am I Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the mountain every day, to watch it roll back down, to only repeat it over and again? Am I delusional in thinking it will be different tomorrow? 

This Slate review very accurately summarizes Coates premise in Between the World and Me: a father writing to his son about his place in the world.  The book is about humanity, even as Coates writes about being black in America. At one point he explores the idea that black people are held to a higher standard of morality, a higher Christian and American standard, and if they step out of line they become what white America already thinks they are - less than.  I couldn't help but think of the Mother Emmanuel response, how the world was mesmerized by the grace and forgiveness of these families, how Charleston showed the world what it looks like to be Christian.  These black Christians were doubly moral. And I wept.  This too seemed a juxtaposition I could not reconcile.

I ponder this thought:
If a black man would have walked into any number of white churches here in the Holy City and shot 9 people during their bible study, what would our response have been?  Certainly it would have cemented the fact that black people in general were savage - and they deserved the highest punishment, vigilante or law, exactly what we had always thought.  Would we have gone to court and expressed forgiveness?  Would we have begun flying our Confederate Flags higher in protest?  Perhaps we would have seceded because likely it would have been the President's fault, he is indeed black you know.

I am grateful that the AME church and its parishioners responded with Christian grace.  I am grateful that the community responded with an outpouring of wealth. It was something to see, a spectacle for sure.  But more than money and words with short memories, we need a change of perspective.  We cannot just see the narrative of a massacre and a city healing.  We must learn the narrative of the other, whomever he may be, our black neighbor, the Muslim in the airport, the Hispanic at the soccer field, the white teacher, the police officer, and the children who will live and believe whatever story we tell them. We share a narrative, we are writing the future together, and we must start telling it more truthfully.  We must stop exploiting the others for gain.  We must start owning who we are as a collective people ~ and I hate the word "owning" here because we don't really own anything (least of all our past actions.)  We take, we trade, we borrow, we buy, we possess... but ownership is a lie we tell ourselves for false security, for God's sake we owned people!  We are transient and in our desire to own we make grave mistakes.

Read the book.  You will be smarter for it.  It hurts.  It's true.  And it's a good place to start.

04 May 2015

Sweet 16, sweet sweet baby girl

George and I used to sit around and wonder what we did before Abbey.

I measure my life in her smiles.

She came into this world gently with a sparkling joy.

She holds on through the darkness, clinging less tightly now.

She has special gifts, intuition, empathy, maybe magic.

She's got jokes.

Once a coach told her to stop smiling; she told me she would rather quit playing.

She looks for happiness and where there is none she creates it.

She tests me, and tells me what I don't know.  She makes me listen until I do.  She makes me want to be better.  "Good kid, m.A.A.d City."

The first time I realized she was separate from me she was 4 years old and Jake was a baby.  She nurtured him when he woke up from his nap and talked to him, maybe she was actually waking him.
She pushed him in the swing and in the stroller.  They were never far out of ear shot from me.

But one day, distracted with laundry, I walked by Jake’s room to hear Abbey telling him a story.  She made up tales of princesses and great adventures.  And if he giggled or made a sound she encouraged him to join in on the telling.

I stopped by the door to listen, and at that moment,  this necessary thought occurred to me for the first time: she isn’t mine.   

She’s speaks an entire world into existence that I know nothing about.   

I will only know what she shows me, what I’m careful to observe.  

And I paused, thanking God for trusting me with her.

a model of Simon Armitage "Not the Furniture Game"

Hold tight, loosen the grip

Her hair is a goose down blanket in a cool spring evening
Her eyes are the night sky over the edge of the reeds and
again in the morning, the sun peeking through the marsh clouds
Her nose is a puppy sniffing territory
Her ears are the echoes of Aristotle, Thoreau, Rumi, Christ
Her cheeks are cupcakes
and her lips are a chocolate mustache.
Her smile, the freedom of every prisoner, the saving of every repressed woman, the birth of every child, the return of every refugee to his homeland.
Her freckles are the Andromeda Galaxy
Her intellect is dandelion pollen
Her heart is a broken string on the guitar that can still play G
Her fear is the pavement as the cars roll over it
Her arms are streamers
Her fingers are Lennox bud vases
Her torso is ivy
Her trust is a space shuttle on its final flight
and her shoulders, cobblestone walls
her legs are bamboo
and her knees are conch shells
Her feet are helium balloons
Her strength is a James Patterson novel on the sofa
and her toes are Crayolas

She walks in the opposite direction and
my empty hands that
held sand before the glass, laugh

Maybe she gauges her life in my smiles.

14 February 2015

A Love Letter From My Valentine

Love's Philosophy
Percy Bysshe Shelley

The fountains mingle with the river 
   And the rivers with the ocean, 
The winds of heaven mix for ever 
   With a sweet emotion; 
Nothing in the world is single; 
   All things by a law divine 
In one spirit meet and mingle. 
   Why not I with thine?— 

See the mountains kiss high heaven 
   And the waves clasp one another; 
No sister-flower would be forgiven 
   If it disdained its brother; 
And the sunlight clasps the earth 
   And the moonbeams kiss the sea: 
What is all this sweet work worth 
   If thou kiss not me? 

27 January 2015

At the intersection of life and death

Lately Jake has expressed an interest in attending church more regularly.  I honor his request.  I'm not sure there is anything more beautiful than a child's desire to Love God.

I particularly like this church because we can walk to it. The members are long time residents of our eclectic little island, beautiful sinners, a small aging, but hopeful bunch, and the Pastor speaks a plain truth from the gospels.  The walls of this white Folly church shake when the organist leads our traditional hymns: "I Love to Tell the Story," "Pass it On," and "Where He Leads Me."

This Sunday was not unlike many, but Jake had a concern weighing on his heart.  After church, as we were walking home, my sweet boy said, "Did you hear what the pastor said about social media?"  I hadn't.  Really, I wasn't entirely sure Jake was listening to the same sermon I was.

I asked him to explain and he said, "It was like God was speaking directly to me.  I can't let social media or the people on it define me."
I maybe heard the pastor mention it briefly I guess, but I wasn't sure.  I validated that God always speaks to us, and to hear him we must listen.

Under the bright sun and the brisk air, we walked back home.  I had a busy day lined up, so after getting everyone settled into their Sunday afternoon, I rushed out to the grocery store, just a mile up the road.  My plan was to get something in the crock pot and rush downtown to a poetry event at the College of Charleston where a student of mine was performing.

As I crossed the second bridge, I noticed between two big orange construction barrels a car pulled off the side of the road, broken down maybe?  As I passed I saw a man, with the driver's door of his Saturn open, sitting sideways facing the road, his head in his hands, hunched over.  That's strange, I thought... but I kept driving.  Too strange maybe.

Then, I remembered what I heard the Pastor say about being too busy, rushing to and from our events that we forget to do God's work, we don't make time for worship and fellowship.  I paused.  And at Bowen's Island, I turned around.

I've never stopped to help a man on the side of the road before.  I was reluctant and cautious as I approached the barrels near his car. I parked sideways, hoping to draw attention to the scene from other passers by.  I slowly stepped out of my car and said from a distance, "Do you need some help?"

In a fragile voice he responded, "I think so... I might be having a heart attack."  With my phone in hand I approached much more quickly, dialing 911.

About that time, another car approached, a young man and woman. "Do you need help?"

"Yes, please call 911, a possible heart attack." I replied.

I knelt on the ground by the hunched over man.  He wore a white beanie cap on his head and black pants.

I said, "Sir, I'm sorry.  I don't know what to do, but we've called for help.  You are not alone.  It's going to be okay."

He replied, "I hope so." Continuing, "I've tried to call my wife.  I hope she's on the way."

I kept repeating, "I'm here with you.  You're not alone."

My heart was racing, his was struggling.  Much of the next few minutes has a shroud of gray fog covering it.

So helpless and fearful, I said, "Can I pray with you?"

He glanced up at me, for the first time, and said, "yes, please."

I called God in the way he taught us to pray, "Our Father who art in heaven..."

While asking for God to bring us strength and courage and comfort I stopped, and I said to my friend, "I'm sorry, I don't know your name."

He said, "Richard."

And so, as if God didn't already know, I prayed with Richard, and for Richard, by name.

He asked me to take him to the EMS.  He feared he wouldn't make it if we waited.
The young man and woman that stopped offered to help get him in my car.
The three of us weren't able to move him.  Richard sat on the ground between my car and his.
Two women pulled up and asked if we needed help.

Yes, we definitely did.  I stepped back as the nurses took over.  The nurses asked him questions, he replied, "The pain is in my stomach. I can't breathe."

From only a few feet away, I had a better glimpse of him.  It was then I realized, I was looking at the organist from my church.  I called to him, "Richard?  Richard Rewis?  Are you Richard Rewis?"  He affirmed that he was.  I knew him. 

I didn't actually know him.  Prior to this roadside encounter, I had never spoken to him.  I had however been blessed by the power of his worship; from his fingers to his shoulders and with a sway of his head, he danced on the keys of that organ. 

I called home and instructed Abbey to get the number for the pastor off the church bulletin and text it to me.

Standing on the side of the road, with two strangers who wanted to help, praying for Richard, waiting for a text, watching two nurses,  I paused in reverence at the intersection of lives.

The ambulance was near, I could see the lights in the distance.

Richard, hang on buddy, the ambulance is almost here.  I'm calling the church Richard.  I'm going to get in touch with your wife.

The EMS team took over.  Richard was in the ambulance.  Police were directing traffic.
I gave his keys to the police as I spoke with the pastor's wife on the phone.
I told her what I knew and asked if she would please phone Richard's wife, and if it wasn't a burden would she please call me later to tell me Richard was okay.

I continued to pray.  There was nothing more I could do.

On to the grocery store because that's what you do after a man on the side of the road has a heart attack.  I had to get pork chops for the crock pot.

But I couldn't let it go.  That's the way it is with me.  I can't let it go.
I pondered throughout the entire day, What is it all about?  Why?  Surely there is something to this?  But what?

During the poetry event, I heard the voices of young orators reveal the oddities of life, and I prayed for Richard. After the performance, I listened to my messages.  The pastor's wife said that Richard was at Roper, in intensive care.  It wasn't a heart attack, a torn aortic valve.  He needed emergency surgery.

I decided to go to the hospital.  It was across the street from the college.

When I arrived, he was in surgery.  I wasn't family.  No one else was there.  And the nurses due to privacy couldn't tell me anything.

I don't know why I sat there. Maybe his wife would come in and I could sit with her.
Still helpless, I prayed.  I stayed for an hour or more. And then I left.

The rest of the evening was a Sunday evening like any other, except not at all.  We ate pork chops from the crock pot, with green beans, rice and applesauce.  And I prayed some more.

Monday morning I felt hopeful.  Between my first and second classes, I received a call from the pastor.

He told me that the surgery Richard had was routine and all went well.  However, when removing the machines in post op, Richard's heart quit.  Richard had passed.

My heart stopped.  It's a strange thing the way lives intersect.

Richard's wife called me last night.  I'm going to meet her Thursday.  Two widows grieving.

With a heavy heart I still feel helpless, so I write, and I pray.

The gift of knowing

Distracted on Pinterest, uninspired by the same pumpkin desserts, literary quotes, and Lotus Flower shaped lockets I’ve told cyber space I care about, I said to Abbey, “this world’s a funny place.”
She said, “Elaborate.”
“Funny...” I said, “so many choices and directions, so many people and ideas trying to shape us. We’re being inundated with arrows pointing us in one direction or another.  Even worse, we don’t pay any attention to what we believe when we choose the direction.  We follow smells, and lights, and sounds and...”
She chuckled.  “It’s not that hard, mom.  There’s only two choices: good and bad.”
“Not everyone agrees about what is good and bad,” I said.
“Is murder good or bad,” she asked. 
“Bad, of course.” I say, with a “but…” hanging on my tongue.
She interrupts.  “Is helping the homeless good or bad?”
“Well, not everyone thinks helping the homeless is good.” I start.
She interrupts.  “Is helping the homeless good or bad Mom? There’s only one answer!”
“Well, not every…”
She raises her voice.  “Well then those people are idiots.  It’s that simple.”