My South

Southern states – and most especially Southern state legislatures – are rightly getting a lot of negative attention these days because of a series of regressive moves. Those stories feed the caricature that serves as the popular image of our region. The reality  is more complex, as realities always are. The South belongs to the rest of us too – and we belong to it. So I add this portrait of my South in this moment to the mix.

My South has –

  • dogwoods in bloom outside my window as I write this.
  • people fighting to protect Medicaid for our most vulnerable low income residents.
  • awesome Mexican/Vietnamese/Southern/Chinese/haute cuisine/chain restaurant/meat & 3/Waffle House food. We have boiled peanuts and grits and barbecue and farmers markets with watermelon and tomatoes and sweet corn.
  • excellent art museums and public gardens and small & community theaters and opera and dance  and poets and essayists and novelists – all a part of an artistic community with incredible vision and unparalleled talent.
  • one hell of an ugly history of racial oppression – and it’s not just history, it’s now – systemic and individual-level racism are horrifically real.
  • black and brown and white people doing our damndest to rid the world of racial oppression – (and yes, even when we are really trying, we white folks still get it wrong, time and again, because we are so soaked in this from the time we are born. But some of us are determined to get beyond that and will keep at the work of addressing systemic racism at its white source until we either succeed or breathe our last breath).
  • gay bars and LGBTQ+ community centers and Pride fests and passionate, powerful QTPOC (queer & trans people of color) who might yet succeed in teaching us all how to live without crushing the souls of others.
  • plenty of money for prisons, but never enough for teaching children or ensuring access to healthcare or making sure that no one goes hungry.
  • churches – tons of churches – a church home for you no matter what you believe or how high church or Spirit-breathing you’re looking for – (and a whole bunch of sincere, God-loving LGBTQ+ Christians – we are faithful people too).
  • not just churches – we have mosques and synagogues and temples and meditation centers – there are people practicing their faith in myriad ways and Sunday brunch and picnics in the park for the humanists, agnostics, and atheists among us. In my South, we practice live and let live and we learn and work together.
  • no frickin’ public transit to speak of – it’s a shame.
  • music in all forms and venues – songs worth singing and musicians worth listening to – music that moves the soul and the body.
  • undocumented people in indefinite detention in harsh conditions and a general climate of suspicion toward people for whom English is not their first language – and committed, multi-ethnic coalitions of activists working to change that.
  • the most incredible ecodiversity and stunning beauty – these ecosystem treasures that we often don’t even realize are there until after we’ve destroyed them.
  • people who will come get you in the middle of the night when you’re stuck on the side of the road – even if you disagree with them on about absolutely everything.
  • coffeehouses and craft beer and public libraries and parks and bookstores and cafes.
  • far too many people who do not understand the conditions of their own oppression and who thus consistently speak, act, and vote against their own interests.
  • Alabama football – Roll Tide!
  • activists staring at the evils of environmental racism and organizing to overcome it.
  • some of the most assbackward corrupt politicians on the face of the planet, looking after their own power and profit rather than the true public good.
  • my people – blood kin and family of choice and (some of) the friends I’ve made across a lifetime – and an incredible community that cares about all of the above.

This my South.

On Awkward Grief

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July 9, 1978 – March for the Equal Rights Amendment, Washington, DC
That’s me in the yellow shorts, just shy of my 9th birthday. Beth stands to my right in the white shirt and blue skirt.

Last week a longtime friend of my first stepmother, Beth, called to tell me that Beth had died after a long period of poor health and a short acute illness.

The news left me surprised and sad and casting about for what to do with what I’ve termed awkward grief.

Born in a small town in the mountains of East Tennessee, Beth became the most cultured person I knew. I lived among smart people, but she was a true intellectual. She modeled feminism, the creative impulse, and dry wit, none of which was everyday currency in other parts of my 1970s childhood.

She and my father were together from the time I was 3 until I was 13. Their marriage crumbled in acrimony, which I was there to witness. She never remarried and had no other children, but we stayed in touch. I would stop by her Tennessee home and spend a few days at least once a year. She sent packages with art, clothes, and books. She was delighted when my daughter was born and doted on her during early visits.

But when I came out as a lesbian and my ex-husband and I split, somehow he got Beth in the divorce. In some ways that was okay. I had more supportive people around me than he did – and in spite of the contentiousness of our own parting, I genuinely wished him well. Beth was a steady and gracious soul, a good person to have in one’s life and I was glad of that for him.

On another level it was a peculiar rejection, particularly from someone who spent her later life in the close companionship of women. She was just gone from my life and it was both sudden and unexplained.

At her memorial service yesterday, she was remembered as caring and compassionate, conscientious, giving, and dependable. It was noted that she had lived a life of service through a career in non-profit work and that she was always “concerned with excellence in living.” All of these accolades captured Beth’s presence. Except with me. She disappeared from my life for reasons I can only guess at and that seem inconsistent with the generous and caring spirit she brought to the rest of her living.

Thus the awkward grief.

We don’t deal very well with grief in general in our society. And we certainly don’t know what to do with grief that doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. I share this story and these reflections here because I know I’m not the only person who has experienced such emotions.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far –

I’m helped by having already done a part of the necessary grieving. I started it years ago when I realized that Beth was effectively gone from my life. I mourned the relationship we had, which was never perfect, but was important to both of us. I mourned the relationship we might have had.

I had thus made some peace long before her death. I had forgiven her in large part, even while I wondered (and still do) if she needed to forgive me. While reconciliation is now beyond this realm, I find comfort in the active work of loving forgiveness that I’ve been engaged in for years.

Grace and forgiveness are important tools for this work.

There will always be people in our lives with whom we have fractured relationships. They have been important to us and we to them. We loved them. They have shaped us. But something crucial is broken in our connection. Though it can take many forms, the essential fact is that they are here and one day they are not. Or perhaps they are still in our lives, but not in the way we would want for them and for ourselves.

The task given to us is to acknowledge the gift of their presence, the fact of their absence, and the meaning of their significance. And then we must let go. No good comes of refusing to acknowledge the realities of a given situation or relationship. We can wish something was different, that something had been different. But our own healing can only begin when we cease to cling tightly to our vision of how things should/could/would be.

That is simple, but not easy.

I will mourn Beth’s loss to the world – and I will continue the work of grieving her loss in my life. I will acknowledge that this grief will always feel awkward. I will pay tribute to what I learned from her. I will wonder at what I might have done differently. I will accept that things are not always made right. And I will let go – and let go again – and let go again.

 

 

Gentry of the Bowery

A true story. Consider it prose with a dose of poetry –

Walking up the Bowery this chilly November afternoon,
we passed a group at the edge of the sidewalk,
seated in old office chairs with wheels and one old wheelchair.

Notable for their laughter and evident pleasure in one another’s company.

Some in this gentrifying area might have called them shabby.

But who dares fault shabby sidewalk joy in the cold sun as shadows grow long?

Halfway up the block, a large ebony-skinned, grey-bearded man in an
old olive Army coat,
separated momentarily from the group by some errand,
turned to face us and stretched his arms wide.

“Hey ladies,” he said with a broad smile.

We received it with a smile of our own as I,
expecting the question to follow,
tried to recall if I had given all my singles to
street musicians along the way.

So busy thinking I almost missed the blessing.

“Ladies, you look courageous,” he said, stretching the words into a
sharp
genuine
mysterious
compliment.

“God bless you,” he added.

I thank the grace of that God for helping me

miss only one beat as I answered “And you too,”
my own smile widening,

miss the shame that left me as soon as it came
because this man meant me joy not shame

not miss the gift
not miss the lesson

of give and take.

As we turned the corner, I asked my daughter if
she felt courageous.

“I do now,” she said.

Where We Find God: A Thought on the Trinity

I’ve had the good fortune to be outside amid all sorts of grandeur lately – the broad expanses and shimmering blues of the Great Lakes, steep forest trails that lead to great green vistas, massive, looming colorful sections of ancient rock. I’ve seen clouds of all shapes and sizes, storms that shake the earth, and both cool, foggy Canadian days and warm, humid southern nights.

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From these and other past experiences, I have no trouble understanding how people claim that they experience God’s presence in nature. I get that sense myself. The wilderness – even the relatively tame woods close to home – inspires awe and respect. A sense of something greater, something transcendent weaves its way through wild places. The act of divine creation feels close at hand.

In reflecting on this sense of the presence of God in the grandeur, however, I realized that accounts – for me – for only one aspect of the Trinity. As a Christian, I’ve been taught the concept of the Trinity – God as the Creator, God as the divinely human Jesus, God as the Holy Spirit – from my earliest days in Sunday School. Nonetheless, it remains a complex vision in its enactment. Christians and non-Christians alike try to puzzle through the seeming paradox of the Trinity.

My recent travels have shed a different light for me on my experience of the Trinitarian God. I’ve long understood the Holy Spirit as that of God that dwells within each of us – the internal manifestation of God. And God the Creator can be witnessed among the intricate, stunning beauty of earth and its ecosystems.

But where does that leave Jesus, the Word made flesh? My epiphany was coming to understand not only that I experience Jesus in my encounters with other people, but that those encounters are in fact – for me – the essential means of everyday engagement with Jesus. I’ve long believed Jesus was all around us. Jesus himself gives us this teaching in Matthew 25 in his admonition to see him among the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned. The call, however, is even greater – and that is to see the face of Jesus in everyone we meet. That is how we know Jesus in everyday life.

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The act of putting those pieces together – the Creator I experience while hiking through the woods or paddling down a river, the Holy Spirit I recognize internally, and the face of Jesus I see at the gas station or at the grocery store or next to me in the pew on Sunday morning – gives me a fuller sense of the Trinitarian God than I had before grasped or embraced.

I offer that vision here in case it resonates for anyone else.

Everyday Blessings: Or an Orthodontist, a Request, and a Cue from Grandmama

During our recent travels, my daughter ran out of the rubber bands that attach to her braces to correct her bite. It was a simple miscalculation. Problem is, we get those from her orthodontist, 1000-odd miles away from where we were staying. You can’t just walk into Rite Aid or Walgreens and pick up a few packs.

“Maybe we can get some from another orthodontist,” I said. “We can offer to pay for them. Surely they’ll go for that.” I picked the closest orthodontist office and off we went, just before we were due to leave town for our next stop up the road.

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We entered the office to find two women in scrubs seated behind a long reception desk. A man in a tie and jacket stood between them, discussing paperwork. Each of them adopted a serious face as I explained our quest and our willingness to purchase these rubber bands.

The two women glanced to the man, whom I correctly surmised to be the senior orthodontist. He was not seeing patients that day, but he stared at us for a moment and then said, “We don’t sell those.”

I prepared to plead.

He paused, looked at us, and continued, “You know what? I can give them to you. Ours are a little different, but if you hand me those (empty) packs, I’ll see what we’ve got that’s close.”  The orthodontist disappeared into the back of the office and reemerged after several minutes with 2 packs of rubber bands similar to those my daughter uses. He handed them to her and told her, rather gravely, “These ought to help until you get home.”

I wanted to thank him. He’d already refused money. The office was a rather understated set-up, into which effusive offerings of words would likely strike a dissonant note.  We all stood there for a quiet half-second.

And then it hit me.

When my grandmama requested and received a favor from someone, she would invariably tell them, “Ask me to do something for you next time.” Though she died five years ago, I can still hear those words in her voice. She meant them – and because she offered them with sincerity and grace, they evoked a resonant power.

Our situation, however, did not lend itself to such mutuality of engagement. Within minutes we would be leaving the state.

I repeated our thanks – and then it came to me. Echoing from the memory of my grandmother, I heard these words from my lips:

“May someone do something kind for you.”

The man’s face softened as he acknowledged our thanks and our blessing.

I walked away thinking about how this and similar small blessings might be repeated, either audibly or silently, throughout our days. Having simple rituals could enable us to reach out to those around us, to engage with them in a new spirit. How might the world and our own lives be better if we came to know and rely on a reflexive blessing or two?

I can think of any number of situations where our (ahem, my) reflex is the opposite – when I crack my elbow against a doorframe or encounter a car whose driver stubbornly refuses to let me merge on the expressway; when I hear the voice of an antagonistic politician or a the words of a neighbor proclaiming some old racist or homophobic fallacy. I can jump to a reflexive curse pretty quickly. And as southerner, I know that “bless your heart” often signifies a problem rather than a sincere wish.

But what if I had on hand simple words and rituals that speak of and to that which is good? Could I make kindness and connection come more easily to me? Could I make it my automatic response to recognize and honor that part of God that dwells within each person?

I’m sure plenty of people already do so, including those in faith traditions other than my own. But mainline Christianity as I’ve known it has not given me much experience in this area. I don’t have the words waiting for me. I may be prepared to fuss or cuss, but I’m not ready to bless.

I want to change that.

“May someone do something kind for you” is thus becoming one of my regular refrains, a small blessing I aim to offer throughout the day when I encounter manifest kindness.

(and if people use or create other everyday blessings, I’d love to hear the words that work for them).

I acknowledge that these are small and simple words in a big, complicated, and often bleak world. I’m not suggesting that such everyday blessings are a revolutionary means of righting wrongs and upending injustices. Instead, they serve as one way of deliberately connecting ourselves to other human beings. We cultivate an awareness of our interdependence and of our mutual need for deep kindness. It’s a step away from the dehumanization that infects our culture. It points toward transformation – in the image of God – of ourselves and our relationships to one another.

May someone do something kind for you.

On the Opposite of Blight

When I first wrote about the question of blight (here) , I said I’d offer some follow-up thoughts. I have’t yet circled back around to the topic yet, but a morning walk with one of the dogs left me thinking about the opposite of “blight” — vibrant urban communities.

During our travels, we’ve stayed in busy city neighborhoods in the Bronx, New York and Jamaica Plain, Boston. This block of Centre Street offers a pretty good example of my basic point today.

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It has a spiffy little restaurant. In fact, it has several of them.

But it also has a dentist, a lawyer, a barber, a pet supplies shop, a travel agent, and a general goods store. Within a couple of blocks, you can find a grocery market, a bike shop, several more down-to-earth eateries, a beauty shop, a physical therapist, a co-op bookstore, a tailor, and a small park.

(though maybe not a parking space – but that’s okay because it’s possible to get around on foot and public transit here)

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Also critical – this neighborhood, known as Hyde Square, has housing options that support an economically diverse, multi-ethnic community. All of these components add up to a desirable, livable area for a range of people.

“Blight” as a term gets applied to dilapidated housing or commercial building stock. Blight, however, really ought to refer to communities barren of cultural vibrancy and relational vitality.

When we talk about revitalizing areas, too often we see a focus on creating playgrounds for the affluent – rows of upscale restaurants, renovated apartments with high-end countertops and appliances, and boutique-y shops that cater to suburban browsers. We fail to focus on the web of everyday interactions and transactions that make living possible and desirable.

Hyde Square has a rich variety of public space and private space, a necessary (although not sufficient condition – we’ll keep looking at that) condition for avoiding “blight.”

All Other Points West: 1553 to Dallas

In Atlanta, the ramp leads us down to the street as
buckets of water dump from the sky.
As one we pull up our hoods and
step beyond a waiting bus to the next, meant for us,
1553 to Dallas.

I trail a small boy, as black as I am white, tugging an enormous red suitcase
whose tag reads San Francisco.
A glance ahead suggests the likely mom,
pulling another bag and another brother.
Then another traveler, a thief of space, mistakes me for weak,
tries to gain a place in our long wet line.
I know this game and
checkmate her with a
single
polite
decisive
step.

Upon the bus, I scan the seats.
There sits the boy, three rows back,
across the aisle from bro and mom.
A safe seat mate.
“Hey, little man. Anybody sitting in that seat besides your backpack?”
Quick glance at mom, who nods.
He tucks the bag to his feet.
I take the window.
Soldiers with duffles,
small women with big purses, and
young lean men of every color slip past us down the aisle.

My seatmate compliments my blue pen,
likes it because it writes so fine.
He’s ten years old,
in the 5th grade.
The name is mumbled once, twice and
then I give up on getting it for now.
He eyes his brother
who has custody of mom’s phone and its games.
“Next time he crashes, it’s mine, Mom. Mom. Mom.”
It’s a word of many syllables.
Soon though not peacefully the phone changes hands.

We trade information.
“I’m going to San Francisco,” he says.
“That’s a long way,” I reply.
“That’s what everybody says.”

Four rows back a couple speaks loudly of sex
before subsiding as the driver works the aisle for tickets.
“We got tickets to San Francisco,” says my seatmate.
The driver smiles. “That’s where you’re going?”
My turn: “Don’t tell him that’s a long way.
That’s what everybody says.”

“Nice watch,” my boy tells the driver.
To me “I bet that cost a lot of money.”
“Well, he does work hard.”
He notes my Timex turned under on my wrist.
“Yeah. Hey, you wear yours likes that, upside down?”
“My granddaddy wore his like that and it became my habit.”
“Oh, okay. You want a mint?”
He’s generous and also offers gum. Grateful, I decline.

We wait
for another bus and its people.
Outside a man argues over luggage gone awry.
Or possibly going awry at this very moment.
He’s not getting far.
The driver paces the wet pavement, then turns
as the sister bus releases another line to join our crew.
These people look tired.
And quickly they are wet.
We silently assess their stuff.
Pillows, dripping coats, bags of boxes of cereal clutched close.

Then the rumble,
both sky and engine.
Darkness suspended briefly as we pull away.
The driver introduces himself as Roger, “our motorcoach operator,”
ticking off rules and destinations.
“This bus will go to downtown Dallas, Texas but
I will only go as far as Jackson, Mississippi,” he explains.

“We go through Mississippi?” asks my little man.
“You do. I’m stopping in Alabama.”
“We go through Alabama?”
“Yep, that’ll be our next stop.”

We turn back to the voice: “If any of you have been listening to the weather,
we probably are going to experience
some very bad inclement weather.”
I’ve been watching the screens as we waited inside.
The worst is past.

Still a thick grey of stormy night descends.
The slick streets give themselves to us
as we roll past sleeping shells of brick,
crumbles of commerce,
shadows of stone human beings.
A row ahead the angry man still fusses
and cusses on his phone about his luggage.
It will be a long story.

Back in our seat, my friend plays his game,
basketball,
on mom’s phone.
I pack my failing electronics away and
speak of reading.
“You read? You mean books?”
“Yeah, I like to read. You?”
“Yeah, I like to read. I learned in 3rd grade. No, 2nd grade. No, 3rd grade.”
His words are deep urban west coast.
My own speech a stew of south and mid-atlantic edu-speak.
We both must work at hearing them,
but tacitly decide it’s worth the effort.

My eyes close as we take the highway.
I hear him surrender the phone,
almost gracefully since it didn’t go to the brother.
Atlanta, Austell, Lithia Springs, Douglasville, Villa Rica blur by.
Familiar exits creep into my dozing brain.
A baby cries for days.
Okay, not really.

The quiet voice: “You mind if I turn on the light?”
“No man, it’s fine. I’m just resting.”
“Okay. Which button is it?”
The slender outstretched arm does not reach.
Not yet.
I help him out and then turn to look.
He’s got a book.
I blink at the paperback with snow and a sleigh on its cover.
A Candlelight Romance with very small print and a heroine named Calista.
“That’s your book, huh?”
“It’s my mom’s. She’s got a bunch of them. But I’m going to read it too.”
“That’s good.”

He begins to read softly, aloud,
each word a swirl of unfamiliar sounds pulled from the page.
“I read this book the whole thing once,” he says,
unfazed as my eyebrows raise.
“I sound out the words. Put them in chunks.”
Mom leans across, tells him to read to himself, quiet-like.

The book lasts until it’s time to drain
a huge bottle of Orange Crush of its final swig.
He offers me Doritos.
We talk in expert tones of Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese.
And then I explain Central Time,
the difference between Mexico and New Mexico
and between city and state.
Topics we will revisit.

“Alabama, it’s nice too,” he says. They have all those tomatoes.”
I’m still deciding what to say to this, when moments later:
“Wow! That’s Alabama?!?”
He points into the dark at acres of bright lights,
a huge, shiny RV dealer.
“‘Yes, this is Alabama.”

First stop is Anniston,
where the bus station is a gas station.
People disperse in search of food, cigarettes, and bathrooms.
I’m stuck to my notebook, with my blue pen.
I like this boy and want to keep the words he gives me,
this journey’s unexpected small treasure.

We resume.
The man in front continues to berate his phone about his luggage,
more loudly now that his seatmate’s wisely moved on.
I’ve been hearing his story for more than 100 miles and
still can’t make sense of it.
“Do you cuss?” my boy asks me.
“Not around kids.”
“What do you say?”
“I’m not going to say them in front of you. Not in front of kids, right?”
“I’m allowed to say the s-word. Because it comes from donkeys.”
“Uh huh.”

Leftovers of a Mexican lunch provide me dinner.
We share chips and talk of favorite foods.
He likes Chinese.
I have citrus to spare for him and bro,
clementines bought by morning for my daughter.
I accept some sour Skittles in return.
Orange, red, and then he adds a yellow.
“These are the best,” he says,
as he takes the yellow one and places it in my palm.

“Are you racist?”
“Ummm . . “
Aren’t we all?
but some of us choose to try to recover from it.
But I can’t say that, so I’m still thinking.
“I mean, do you like black people?”
“What do you think? Do I like black people? I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
“I like all kinds of people. If they are nice.”
“I’m with you on that one. It gets boring if everybody’s just like me.”

We watch the dark go by,
pass a bus-sized truck whose driver sips coffee,
then the sign for Chula Vista.
He says
“I asked my dad how he was doing. He said he was good.
I said ‘Good’ back to him. And then I told him ‘But man, you’ve got to put more details in it.’”

They’ve come from Charlotte,
a month-long visit so mom,
I hear her explain,
could “take care of some business.”
She offers me her phone charger
to juice my tablet,
but I tell her I don’t have far to go and
have enough juice for that.

And enough to show her boy a map.
He nods.
“I like maps. And globes. You know globes? My teacher has one.”
We touch the screen and trace his likely path across the states.
I tear a scrap of paper and write them down for him to keep.

North Carolina
South Carolina
Georgia
Alabama
Mississippi
Louisiana
Texas
New Mexico
Arizona
California.
At least I think.
I tell him I don’t know how they’ll go from Texas,
but maybe like that.

We review the Mexico-New Mexico difference again.
Then the talk turns to dinosaurs and what they eat
and then to iron and what we eat.
“That’s my TV, the window,” he says. “Are there any black people in Texas?”
“Why, yes there are. I do know that.”
“I mean like a lot of black people?”
“I guess that depends on how you look at it.”

“Look at those lights,”
I tell him as we glide into town.
“I’ve got to call my friend so I can get home.”

You’re a nice lady.”
“Thank you. I think you are nice too. I enjoyed talking with you.”
“Not everyone is nice.”
“No, not everyone is nice. You do have to be careful about that.”

We shake hands.
I finally get his name.
Elisha.
I tell him my own again.
Repeat it.

I give mom my card, tell her to have him e-mail me someday
when he learns how.
She says to him: “you made a friend.”

I hand her the last four clementines.
She has me give them to Elisha.
I remind him: “Now, they’re for you AND your brother.”
“I know.”
“Good.”

And then I go
away,
home.
And they go
away.

I sit this morning in the sunlight,
with my coffee and my dogs and my blue pen.
Elisha should be in Texas by now,
Dallas soon.
Then another bus will take him west,
so he can find his own way
home.