Sunday, August 29, 2021

On throwing away love letters

thewheel42/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
 

Last month, engaged in a cleaning frenzy as I awaited the arrival of baby #2, I rediscovered two packets of love letters hidden in my old elementary-school Lands' End backpack. Rediscovered because I had put them there myself a few years earlier; hidden because I did not want my husband to see them.

One packet was from a high school boyfriend, though 'boyfriend' feels like a strong term for what was a single summer of dating, then a year of email correspondence via his university account and my dad's Hotmail one. (Yes, dear reader, I printed all his missives.) The other packet, all handwritten, was from my college boyfriend, though in this case 'boyfriend' doesn't feel strong enough for who was essentially my first love. The first was innocent and sweet; the second, more passionate and raw.

The letters—and the experiences—have been with me for twenty years, through multiple storage containers in multiple residences, yet I had never reread them. Sitting then on my grown-up couch, heavily pregnant, in a home I have made with my spouse of five years, I chose to finally leaf through them. And what I felt was ... aggravated.

Aggravated because the letters were woefully one-sided. I possessed only what these young men wrote to me, not my half of the communication. Thus my perspective—really, my essence—was refracted through their responses. So how meaningful was this correspondence without my voice enclosed? 

Moreover, two decades had passed since they were written. As I scanned the mentions of people and events, I could barely recall the context, much less the details. And beyond that, the letters' version of myself—again, interpreted through another person's lens—no longer existed in the same form (if that version ever did exist in the first place). So why must I maintain an incomplete and inaccurate record of someone who kept evolving?

And the final aggravating knock: If even I, the person directly involved in the correspondence, couldn't draw meaning from them, who in future generations would care to read them or be trusted to interpret them? What might they think of me, rightly or wrongly? And regardless, why should these young men's voices survive over mine?

At this point I'm sure you're wondering exactly why I held onto these for so long in the first place. Three reasons:

1) For much of my 20s, I feared I would never find lasting love, so in the event that life passed me by without a great romance, I kept these letters as evidence that I at least had something sort of once upon a time—a fear now rendered moot by my joyful marriage and growing family.

2) I remembered the letters as being more interesting and illuminating than they really were. For proof of my skewing self-absorption, check out what I wrote about general handwritten correspondence in 2011:

I find an irrepressible power in pulling out these letters and opening the envelopes anew. I daydream about passing them down through the generations. I wonder if one day I’ll become famous, and then my biographers will thank their lucky stars they have all this extant correspondence to shed light into what I hoped for and believed.

Wow, was I offbase. Nothing I hoped for or believed in at the time is captured in these letters, penned by young men who had specific visions of—and desires for—who I was to them. So not only would they be useless in that regard to future biographers, they actively betray who I am and who I will continue to become. You want my voice, dear descendants and future chroniclers? Turn to my journals where I speak in all my warty glory, honest and unfiltered and wholly myself, page after page, year after year, as I grow in real time.

3) This one I'm abashed to admit: More than remembering, I want to be remembered. Holding onto letters is my puny bid at immortality. But no amount of preserved paper is going to keep me from dying one day, and considering the impermanence of both medium and recipient is tough, humbling, and ... freeing.

Accepting that my time is fleeting—and my storage capacity limited—frees me of the desire to possess objects, people, and past versions of myself. It frees up space to accumulate self-knowledge and wisdom rather than basement clutter. And it frees me from the obligation to remember. Ultimately consigning the love letters to the recycling bin gave me permission to forget, for we are not meant to relive every detail of our life while we are still living it.

And really, I haven't forgotten the most important lessons from these relationships and their documentation—that I deserve love, am worthy of love, and have ample love to give. May embodying this wisdom become my true legacy, the one that ends up papered on others' hearts.


Prayer #369: Negative Space

Negative space: an area of a painting, sculpture, etc., containing no contrasting shapes, figures, or colors itself, but framed by solid or positive forms, esp. one that constitutes a particularly powerful or significant part of the whole composition; also in extended use. (OED)

Help me grow more comfortable with holes in the narrative, gaps in the picture, rests in the melody ... all holy silences that appear blank but, upon closer inspection, unfurl and brim with movement. These mark my moments of change, where I exceeded once-snug frames, illuminated new scenes, and struck fresh chords. 

And like any outstanding work of art that draws its power from the ephemeral pop of transformation, help me examine my life up close and at a distance—close not with smothering attention but with loving discernment, and distant not with cool detachment but with the rich benefit of space, time, and wisdom.

Amen.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The stoppage of time

Disassembled watch components spread out on flat surface.
col_adamson/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
 

At the beginning of pandemic, my watch battery died.

No, I am not making up that coincidence; within two weeks of going into lockdown, my already slowing battery ground to a halt, and I wasn't about to risk contracting a frightening virus by venturing out to replace it.

The watch stayed lifeless for 16 months, gathering dust on top of my dresser next to my wedding and engagement rings, all relics of a not-too-distant yet now-inconceivable routine where I'd put them on each morning before catching a train and heading into the office. In the before times, the only occasion where I'd leave my watch off for an extended period was whenever I found myself on a beach vacation; in such a setting, I found that unmooring myself from the knowledge of passing hours enhanced my relaxation. Now, however, I left it untouched because time had unmoored itself from me, and I did not wish to remind myself hour by hour, minute by minute, of that discomfiting shift.

In her book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, author Katherine May writes:

There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into somewhere else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somewhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world. Somewhere Else exists at a delay, so that you can’t quite keep pace. Perhaps I was already teetering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards. I was surprised to find that I felt at home there. Winter had begun.

The prolonged pandemic isolation was for me a personal winter, as it was for so many people, and as the months dragged on, my watchless wrist came to symbolize my Somewhere Else. My daily routines slowly evolved to incorporate more toddler time, less commute time, different chore schedules. I had more time to cook but took less enjoyment in it. Outside of my work day, I rarely checked the time because I had no one to meet and nowhere to be. Instead I watched the daylight hours wax and wane according to the season; I felt my energy ebb and flow in response to pregnancy; and I never bothered putting "fix watch" on my to-do list because truly, there was no point.

That is, I didn't bother until two weeks ago, when the reality of the new baby's looming due date spurred me to address many lingering, pandemic-delayed tasks in a burst of productivity that I hadn't experienced since March 2020. The process took a quick trip to a jeweler and cost $25, and there it was ticking back to life, my trusty silver watch, my constant companion until it wasn't.

I haven't started wearing it again, though. I first chalked up my avoidance to uncomfortable swelling from summer heat and pregnancy, but that's not entirely true. The fact is, I don't know that I'm ready to reenter a time-keeping world, and I'm coming up with other excuses for delaying what I don't want to be inevitable but increasingly feel will be.

Here's May again from Wintering: "It’s a kind of sympathetic magic to handle something so pointless with such reverence: I am tending to the dead, gently laying to rest a set of values for which I no longer have any use." My watch is ticking again, but what about my relationship to time? What values about marking, measuring, and using this finite resource have I discarded—or assumed—since entering my Somewhere Else? And once I identify those values, what if anything do I intend to do about them?

Thanks to my upcoming maternity leave (another flavor of Somewhere Else), I have plenty more unmoored days, hours, and minutes ahead of me to contemplate where I've landed in this mysterious plane. New routines will emerge; new commitments will surface; old obligations might falter. My task right now is not to watch the seconds tick by, but to let the river of time carry me toward surprise—and if I'm fortunate, toward revelation.


Prayer #368: No Longer of the Essence

I have signed no contract. Added no clause. Agreed to nothing that I ever understood as binding. My time is essential to me and me alone, and only I must be satisfied with the terms under which I spend it.

God of cosmic scale, help me not keep time but release it, to loosen my grip on the hour glass and instead experience the soft flow of sand between my fingers, soothing in its silkiness, comforting in its constant movement, freeing in its uncountability.

Amen.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

FOMO? No more.

lilongd/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Consider the following: I'm a COVID-19-vaccinated adult within a circle of equally vaccinated family and friends. I live in the United States where the vaccine rate is plugging along and restrictions are loosening. Summer, my beloved season of youthful freedom, is here, inviting me to play and frolic with renewed vigor.

And yet: I am pregnant, less than a month away from giving birth to an unvaccinated infant who will join my household's unvaccinated toddler, continuing to limit our options in the reopening world. I know firsthand that even the calmest, most healthy, least stressful maternity leave is still an exhausting and isolating time. And summer, the aforementioned favorite season, is also hot as balls, which can lead to air-conditioned cabin fever.

The result: a confusing, paralyzing mix of FOMO (fear of missing out), JOMO (joy of missing out), and YOLO (you only live once) where I find myself hopeful, disappointed, and anxious in equal measure about making "real" plans, whatever "real" means right now amid the shifting sands of concrete medical guidance and personal comfort levels.

Indeed, as this liminal season unfolds, I feel I'm embodying a cage match between physical, emotional, and psychological health when I prefer there be no competition at all. Why? Because I've learned that life in the "before times" wasn't as sustainable as I once believed it to be, and I don't want to resume that previous life (or a refraction of it) without considering what alternative paths I might follow.

In this respect, my upcoming maternity leave is well timed because it will be everything but business as usual. Even without pandemic (somewhat) in the rear view mirror, I would be stepping away from the hamster wheel for a spell and recalibrating life as I know it. And with pandemic, my mindset has already shifted to more reliably asking, "What do I need most right now? What do I want? Where do the answers intersect?"

At first blush I feel selfish asking these questions. But at their root lies a newly ignited desire not only to maintain the presence I've discovered during pandemic, but to practice incorporating it into my present life. Not my college-bound teen life, mind you, or my young professional 20s, or my newly married early 30s, but this life as a late-30-something parent of two in the midst of a personal and societal paradigm shift.

A life where safely attending church again as a family of four sounds more restorative than schlepping downtown for a 9 p.m. improv show.

A life where where working remotely/not commuting most of the week seems like a humane way to reclaim precious weekend hours from mundane chores and instead use them to play, nap, and enjoy rather than resent my small children. 

A life where I permit some time to be unscheduled and purposeless—perhaps for Type A me the most radical and terrifying change of all.

So how can I do this without guilt, without fear of judgement (from others or myself), and without starving or losing some essential part of who I am? In this instance, presence is both the goal and the yardstick. It's about asking myself seriously and answering honestly:

  • What will [insert activity/action] deliver unto me right now?
  • Will it create joy, rest, catharsis, and/or growth?
  • Will it help me feel most like me?
  • Will it keep me physically safe and healthy?
  • Will it ground me in this moment in time?

Ultimately, I have to trust that using presence as my guide will lead to fruitful surprise, because to exit this profound period of transition unchanged would be to waste the unique opportunity it presents for reinvention. Let me then claim my alternate path as NOMO. No more knee-jerk yeses. No more hasty commitments. No more over-extension of limited time and energy. No more unconsidered habits or patterns.

I will "miss out" in order to identify what's missing in the here and now. Wish me luck.


Prayer #367: The Assurance of Leaves

I have taken to perceiving inspiration as fresh leaves drifting by in a stream, some lazily, some rapidly, all transient. And every time one crosses my field of vision, I wonder: Should I stare at it? Scoop it? Lunge after it in a wild, frantic splash?

I only wonder, though. I don't act on any of these options because I'm too weary to flounder and too heavy to float. Sure, I'd love a good jolt from the bracing water, the thrill of fascination, but re-encountering once-routine actions is jolt enough right now, and I prefer not to drown.

One day, I'm certain, these sensations will stabilize and I'll engage again. What will my perception and participation look like then? Perhaps I will regard the floating leaf, enjoy its buoyant possibility, and release it (in gaze or palm) without remorse because I have finally grown to trust the river's steady movement, the currents' reliability, and my own tested faith, borne of the assurance that leaves will always fall. Drift. Appear.

Amen.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The awe (and terror) of reemergence

Cicada spotting. May 2021.


You know how it is if you've had long to wait.
When that thing finally happens, isn't it great?
If you've been in a dark hole, nothing is duller.
Imagine emerging, surrounded by color!

Cecily Cicada, by Kita Helmetag Murdock and Patsy Helmetag


The most anticipated arrival in our household this year, second only to the birth of our second child? The Brood X cicada emergence.

Nature Boy has been awaiting this moment for literal decades. The brood's appearance two cycles ago when he was a child first inspired his love of science and nature, and now he is getting to experience it with his child and wife. Since the start of spring, he has tracked the signs in the backyard, inspected local parks, followed cicadaphile chatter online. Now finally, after weeks of breathless impatience, his beloved cicadas are here.

Meanwhile, I have impatiently awaited my own emergence: that of a post-vaccine, slow re-entry into society. Last week I took public transit for the first time since pandemic began. I expected to encounter an alien landscape, so apocalyptic was my vision. Instead, I encountered the normal Metro routine, just with people wearing masks. And it felt ... fine.

The humdrum regularity of the train ride sent me through an odd wormhole of time and space. Following my familiar commute made it feel like a weekend had passed between rides rather than 14 months. Is this how cicadas feel after 17 years? I wondered. Bereft of baking, knitting, and Netflix binging, does their underground existence assume the same steady, stultifying sameness I have felt this past year as the mile markers for the passage of time shimmered, wavered, and disappeared?

By now I'm sure you've seen the memes circulating about cicadas reemerging strictly to eat, procreate, and scream—a primal, cathartic wishlist that resonates in a country whose vaccine rollout and loosening public health mandates are restoring a feeling of cautious optimism, a sense that, yes, the soil temperature has finally warmed and we're free to burrow up into the glorious embrace of a hedonistic summer. I too feel this subconscious tug, albeit with a persistent low level of terror that a predator expects my complacency and thus my vulnerability. I crave the awe of stepping into unfiltered sunlight; I shrink from the real possibility that any freedom I rush toward will be short-lived, so best not to invite the joy at all.

You see how quickly I can collapse under the weight of this metaphor, given how much uncertainty we've endured and how much remains. And as I'd prefer not to be a nymph instantly caught in a lawnmower, I'm choosing instead to consider the fruits of hibernation—the inherent benefits of time spent alone in the dark.

For example, I have (inadvertently) learned how to be more present. I have practiced not only permitting myself rest, but also creating space for it. Further, I have reframed my rest as a vital opportunity to recharge, which helps me resist my own ingrained habit of labeling such time as indulgent, wasteful, or—heaven forbid—unproductive.

Because if cicadas can take 17 years to prepare for a couple weeks of adulthood, then I can take whatever amount of time I require to prepare for whatever new stage awaits me. And in the same breath, I am allowed to feel apprehensive, terrified, anxious, grief-stricken, ambivalent, blase, delighted, overjoyed, etc. about that transition from preparation to actualization. From past state to present. From dark to light.

Over the last two weeks, I have watched my child catch his father's contagious enthusiasm and transform from skeptical viewer to curious observer to avid participant, grabbing, holding, caressing, and launching every cicada that crosses his path. While the insects themselves probably don't appreciate this transformation, I do, because it reminds me of my own enduring capacity for change. Year by year, month by month, day by day, the soil warms. The moment approaches. We emerge.


Prayer #368: Cicada Song

Your love song reverberates throughout the lush trees, a dynamic rise and fall seeking to sweep me off my feet.

A mature faith has the courage not only to stop and listen, but to relax into the swoon. May I tune into the thrumming music and honor its Creator with my willingness to hear.

Amen.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

We are always practicing

Depiction of potty training's emotional state. Jari Schroderus/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 "Where do you pee?"

"In the potty."

"Where do you poop?"

"In the potty."

"Let's sit on the potty now."

"Ok."

"Time to get up."

"Ok."

"You can go play again!"

"Ok!"

::20 seconds later, usually on or near the rug::

"Uh oh."

So went my household's Easter weekend. Over and over and over again. For three straight days. At a time when it's not advisable for me to guzzle gin.

We'd chosen to take advantage of the three-day holiday weekend to kick off potty training, thinking our 2.5 year old was capable and up to the task. My visions of instant success, however, were dashed faster than Google could return search results for "how to clean urine from upholstery."

No matter how often we asked my son to sit, no matter how much we enticed him with videos and books, invariably he would bounce up after each non-productive potty interval, neatly pull up his pants, return to his play, and without so much as a flicker of recognition about his own bodily processes, pee on yet another spot on the first floor.

God bless hardwood, is all I'm saying.

In an effort not to scar or shame him—my eternal fear as a parent—my husband and I relied on a steady refrain after each accident: It's ok. We're practicing. We're learning how to do it. Sometime our tone was chipper, sometimes mechanical, sometimes flattened by gritted teeth. Still, we said it every single time, ever hopeful that if our son absorbed no other takeaway from the weekend, that he at least would have this affirming, encouraging echo bouncing around his burgeoning psyche.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it—this potty training attempt was one of the most tiring and maddening weekends of our parenting journey thus far. Everyone in our household had at least one major meltdown, many tears were shed, many linens were laundered, and at the end of the three days we had zero progress to show for our efforts. All of us were disheartened, exhausted, and pee-soaked ... a terrible combo.

But as I move further from what we now consider "the lost weekend," hindsight reveals that my husband and I would have benefited from repeating our refrain to each other as well: It's ok. We're practicing. We're learning how to do it. Just as our toddler was wrapping his mind around a brand-new behavior, so too were we striving to figure out how to lead him safely along the path—and feeling experiencing all the same confusion, frustration, and discomfort that productive growth generates.

The facilitation program I'm in right now introduced me to the acronym "FAIL = first attempt in learning." Potty training was the perfect scenario to apply this framing, for kid and adults alike. Because really, what have I ever done in my life where I "nailed it" on the first go? Considering this personal history comforted me, gave me perspective, and kept my looming sense of parental inability and inadequacy (mostly) at bay.

Moreover, the compassion inherent in a growth mindset makes our potty training refrain more of a life mantra: We are all practicing. We are always practicing. Through this lens, I am practicing writing. I am practicing activism. I am practicing parenting. Just as every person I encounter is practicing different behaviors, new skills, re-imagined ways of moving through their one life.

Once our daycare provider confirmed that our toddler was indeed not ready to potty train right now (a diagnosis my husband and I received with equal parts embarrassment, relief, and glee), our little family fell mostly back into our old rhythms. I say mostly, because the lost weekend stretched us to new capacities as individuals and as a unit. Mostly, because we know we will try again and we know we will eventually succeed. Mostly, because we are always learning, always growing, always practicing.


Prayer #367: The Unfired Clay

You make/remake me, shape/reshape me, mold/remold me, patient hands softening a stubborn, earthen clay hell-bent on hardening.

As I experience Your gentle pressure, as each day leaves Your fresh fingerprints along my lumpy sides, may I relinquish my desire to be superlative and instead welcome the opportunity to be mediocre, curious, and loved.

I need not enshrine my attempts; celebrating that I attempted will suffice. In the name of the One who applauds iteration—

Amen.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The baby will come with the tomatoes

James Laing/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Back in the beginning of the North American pandemic shutdown, author and historian Kate Bowler used the occasion of Easter to reflect on the subject of "setting horizons while dealing with precarity." Basically, the pandemic's indefinite nature was threatening our human capacity to understand and work within limits; all of a sudden, we were operating without bounds. Bowler counseled at the time, "If the world can't set a horizon for you, then we need to set it for ourselves ... because there's so many choices we have to make, especially when we're fragile."

I have thought of her insight and of my own horizons every month, every week, every day since, but especially in the past few days as we passed the one-year anniversary (and god willing the only-year anniversary) of living strictly within the confines of our homes and immediate households. This time last year I was unmoored—balancing remote work and safe childcare and all our newly overturned routines, foregoing in-person church services during the holiest Christian liturgical season, and grasping for any available horizon. First came Easter. Then Pentecost. Then my first COVID-era in-person visit with my parents. Return to daycare. End of summer. End of autumn. End of 2020. Vaccination. And yet the horizon continues to extend and blur.

What I have now that I didn't have 12 months ago, however, is literal hope growing inside me. I am pregnant with my second child, halfway to my summer due date, and my horizon is the sharpest it's been in quite some time. Incredible how the awesomeness of new life helps me put everything else in perspective. Where before my mind, spirit, and body were yanked in different directions, now they have united in common purpose to bring this human safely into the world and keep me healthy and whole, too.

On Ash Wednesday last month, my pastor turned the usual "lament-repent-remember you'll die" message on its ear (probably because everyone's been stuck in a mortality-reminding Lenten world for the past 52 weeks, but I digress). Instead, he spoke of Lent as "full of possibilities, if only we choose to see it that way."

The minute he said that, my weary heart leapt and said, "I choose it! I choose to see it that way!" For how I can not see possibility when I imagine all the shapes, traits, and paths of a new child? How can I not see possibility when daylight lengthens again without my doing anything? How can I not see possibility when I tell my son that when the tomatoes are ready in the garden, so will his little sibling be ready in Mommy's body, and in speaking these words of life I feel the summer heat again, smell the vine-green scent on my fingertips, and taste dribbling juice on my tongue?

This path toward the new horizon is not only full of possibilities but also full of wonder, and here I experience the tension between the two concepts. I need the horizon for definition and certitude; I need the wonder for hope and awe. The first requires me to process and conclude, while the second asks me to dream and stay tender. Both states are necessary right now, and the gift of my pregnancy places me squarely at their intersection.

When I shared the news about my previous pregnancy, I was agog at the miracle of it all. Every experience was fresh, a first. I had all the time and room in the world to contemplate our family's future and our connection to the divine mystery. Three years later and older, as a working parent of a chatty toddler during a global pandemic, I look back with wry laughter at the luxury of that space, and I place my hands on my basketball belly and think, "Poor kid. Already such a second child."

But this child will benefit from a reality their brother did not immediately face: heightened stakes. They will arrive in an exhausted, frightened, and grieving world, yet they will seek exactly what every baby before them has sought—warmth, safety, food, love. The past year has driven home for me how interconnected and interdependent our planet is, how essential and shared our humanity, and here comes an adorably tangible, loudly vocal reminder of that cohesion, straight to the bassinet in my bedroom.

How full of possibilities are the next four months. How full of possibilities is this new small person. How full of possibilities is our world beyond this cataclysm. May we see and hold them all.


Prayer #366: Stretch Marks

Horizons extend, and I stretch with them.

Possibilities abound, and I stretch toward them.

I am sore some days from the effort. The steady trudge taxes my ankles. My back groans with the weight of the undertaking. But my soul remains energetic and eager; delight in discovery gives it wings.

Lead me—lead us—toward the destination my soul so easily recognizes, even when my body protests and my mind cannot comprehend. For in the end we shall have each other to hold, and we will rest, beloved, with You.

Amen.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Reading for change (in myself, then the world)

Let's walk the stony path. Justin Kern/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Back in June 2020, when a spate of racially motivated killings and police violence compelled many of us to reexamine white supremacy and its insidious tentacles throughout American history and society, I read this scathing Washington Post essay by Tre Johnson titled "When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs."

This passage jumped out at me:

"... when things get real — really murderous, really tragic, really violent or aggressive — my white, liberal, educated friends already know what to do. What they do is read. And talk about their reading. What they do is listen. And talk about how they listened.

What they do is never enough. This isn’t the time to circle up with other white people and discuss black pain in the abstract; it’s the time to acknowledge and examine the pain they’ve personally caused."
Well, crap. Because the first item in my own list of anti-racist commitments was to "read at least one book connected to anti-racism every 4-6 weeks," cementing my undeniable status as a white, liberal, educated woman. (At least I didn't join a book club?)

The thing is, I am a lifelong reader and writer. When I seek to understand other people's experiences and learn complex topics, I ingest, digest, and process words. Turning to reading was not (I hope) a knee-jerk virtue signal, but rather my most direct path to getting my arms around a reality I knew I had not yet absorbed.

So, with a audience of fellow white people in mind, I'd like to take the occasion of Black History Month 2021 to share the materials, mostly books, that in recent years have educated me about race in America, challenged me with cries for justice, and enriched me with gorgeous reflections of Black joy, creativity, and artistry, in the hopes that you will join me in transforming our lament into action.

I've opened each section with a general statement on a theme and then listed the materials alphabetically by title. You can learn more about each book from your local library or local independent bookstore. Bonus points if the bookstore is Black-owned, because if I've walked away with one lesson from my ongoing education, it's to put my energy and money where my mouth is when it comes to advocating for change in our systems and practices.

Nonfiction: Racism/Anti-Racism Focus

Because you can't address what you don't understand. These books cover the definition, manifestations, and effects of racism, and several delve into practical methods for recognizing racism in yourself and evolving to be more actively anti-racist.

  • "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity, Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson
  • How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi
  • Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor, Layla Saad
  • So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
  • Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You, Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
  • White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo

Nonfiction: Black History & Memoir

Because joy as well as struggle reflects the humanity we share. Reading deeply personal accounts alongside often-overlooked history painted for me a more complete and ultimately more profound picture of our collective past, present, and future.

  • Becoming, Michelle Obama
  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Born a Crime, Trevor Noah
  • Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
  • Hidden Figures, Margo Lee Shetterly
  • How to Be Black, Baratunde Thurston
  • Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson
  • March (Books 1-3), John Lewis
  • Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward
  • Negroland, Margo Jefferson
  • Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
  • Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson

Fiction

Because imagination is a proven route to empathy. The main thing these novels, stories, and verses share is a Black author. Otherwise, they all reflect and refract universal experiences through humor, drama, tragedy, history, sci-fi, magic, and many other creative lenses. 

  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
  • Homegoing, Yaa Gyaasi
  • How to Sit, Tyrese Coleman
  • Jubilee, Margaret Walker
  • Kindred, Octavia Butler
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • The Hate You Give, Angie Thomas
  • The Revisioners, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
  • The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Turner House, Angela Flournoy
  • The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
  • The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyaasi
  • White Teeth, Zadie Smith

Spirituality 

Because envisioning God beyond "Old White Man in Sky" opens my heart to more manifestations of the divine. Here's where I move beyond books (though two are listed) and include some of the writers, ministers, and theologians I follow regularly on social media. Through their religious and spiritual rumination, they challenge me to revisit and expand my more-ingrained-than-I-realized concept of Church.

* Asterisk denotes those who also offer formal training and coaching to promote racial justice and healing.

Let's close with Tre Johnson again:

"The right acknowledgment of black justice, humanity, freedom and happiness won’t be found in your book clubs, protest signs, chalk talks or organizational statements. It will be found in your earnest willingness to dismantle systems that stand in our way—be they at your job, in your social network, your neighborhood associations, your family or your home. It’s not just about amplifying our voices, it’s about investing in them and in our businesses, education, political representation, power, housing and art."

I am earnestly willing to dismantle these systems. May I act on this desire in a constant spirit of humility, empathy, and openness, so that all children of God may rise.

Prayer #365: Right Acknowledgement

Ahmaud Arbery has been dead for one year, and I—how have I been alive? Alive to fear. Alive to danger. Alive to suffering. Alive to injustice. In a true accounting of my actions, what have I done to nudge a recalcitrant world toward the array of better angels so eager to welcome us?

I must stop framing my tiny role in the long pursuit toward racial justice as "Is it enough?" and instead consider it as "Am I moving myself and my community in the right direction?" In scaling my place appropriately, I won't shorten the journey, but I will better notice the mile markers, and I will be more alive to my companions on the road—those who lead me, guide me, and inspire me to continue walking.

Amen.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Move to what shall be

The sun always rises. Geoff Livingston/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
 

How bizarre to see the Capitol building draped with bunting, festooned with flags, sumptuously arranged for dignitaries and celebrities alike, when exactly two weeks ago its windows were shattered and offices were infiltrated as a mob stormed its walls in an insurrection attempt encouraged by our 45th president. How bizarre, these two weeks later, to watch the customary pageantry play out despite formidable logistical odds, in another installment of the expected peaceful transfer of power that former president Ronald Reagan described as "commonplace and miraculous."

 

... We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice. 
    —Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate, from her inaugural poem The Hill We Climb

 

How we choose to interpret the compelling image of the Capitol dome cleaned and decorated after a violent attack might be seen as a ideological Rorschach test. On one hand, we could view it as a powerful symbol of America's resilience and fortitude, and the endurance of lofty democratic ideals, which have shaped and continue to shape America. On the other hand, we could see it as a powerful symbol of our country's harmful habits of saying "This is not who we are" in times of immoral crisis and electing to reframe ourselves through a myopic, rose-colored lens, papering over the very real, destructive, and present forces that have shaped and continue to shape America.

I'd argue, however, that the answer lies in the middle, or rather, in the tension of both interpretations being true. As Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) said in his remarks during the Inauguration swearing-in ceremony, "We are more than we have been and less than we can be." President Biden echoed this sentiment in his inaugural address, saying, "We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build. And much to gain."

 

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: that even as we grieved, we grew, even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried, that we’ll forever be tied together victorious, not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division. 
—Gorman, The Hill We Climb

All these states of being are valid. They are, well, true. Yet some people will hear in these truths an indictment or a threat. They will not hear the call to humility, the plea for compassion, or the spirit of possibility and potential. Such interpretation—inevitable given the fractured nature of discourse in our country—aggrieves me because it lacks not only empathy, but imagination.

We need to move toward policies, dialogue, and shared values that, yes, restore the strength and validity of facts, but that also embrace truths (plural)—the messy, complicated, nuanced realities that every American, each community, and our entire nation live out every day. And here's the key that not all of us has grasped yet: It's not really up to our elected officials. It's up to us as citizens and fellow humans to share our truths and seek to understand those of others.

Important note: I am not speaking of 'unity.' This buzzword is teetering on the threshold of dog whistle for those in our country who wish to maintain the systems of white supremacy and thus their power. As poet Amanda Gorman put it, "We will not march back to what was but move to what shall be." So what shall be? And how shall we discover the answer if we are putting first only our own interests?

Catholic priest Fr. Leo J. O'Donovan said in his invocation prayer, "There is a power in each and every one of us that lives by turning to every other one of us, a thrust of the spirit to cherish and care and stand by others, and above all those most in need. It is called love, and its path is to give ever more of itself."

Love. Love! A word I have not heard or seen exhibited from our nation's highest office in four years. What might a nation re-grounded in love achieve? Not perfection; that's unattainable. But in striving for perfection? We just might stumble upon what shall be, and we just might find it soul-opening.


...The new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it. 
—Gorman, The Hill We Climb

Prayer #364: "A Thrust of the Spirit"

No peaceful dove here, no cool tongue of fire. Tired of being ignored, the Holy Spirit is jostling through the faceless, aimless crowds that surround me, using her elbows as weapons, until all at once she is pressed against my side.

She seems out of breath after her exertions. I expect her to yell, maybe shake my shoulders, but instead she rests her hands on her knees and inhales, exhales, until her breath is even. Only then does she rise to look me dead in the eye. Only then does she place her hand over my heart, now quickening under her light touch.

"Love," she sighs. "It's always and only ever been Love."

Suddenly my chest sears. I yelp in pain and jump backwards beyond her reach. She doesn't even flinch. Just points to my smoldering shirt and says, "There's more where that came from, if you do it right. Get creative. I'll tell you this, though: The wound is Love; its cure, the same."

I peek at my skin for burns, but see only a slight indent in the shape of her fingertips. When I look up, she has gone. Now it is my turn to leave the crowd—my turn to set my heart aflame.

Amen.