Wednesday, February 10, 2016

favorite essays: it will look like a sunset

One afternoon, a hummingbird flew through the open door of the apartment to the window in the corner and beat at the glass. It was panicked, trying to turn glass into sky. I wrapped my hands around it, the hummingbird heart pulsing against my palms, then released it on the stoop.
From It Will Look Like a Sunset by Kelly Sundberg

:   :   :   :   :   

On a Saturday early in December, I went alone to a bookstore. All day I had been with friends doing fun things, and yet I'd been carrying around a sadness I couldn't shake, and which source I didn't entirely understand. It was the rare kind of sadness that sharpens senses instead of dulling them. That kind that feels like a fire in the heart.

I wandered around, admired book covers and titles. I opened a book of essays by various authors and my eyes settled on the title of the last one in the collection: "It Will Look Like a Sunset." I bought the book and took it home with me and skipped to the end to read it.

Before I started reading, I didn't even guess what the essay would be about, though the title made me think of summer nights, when sunsets come late and bring warm colors. Or, at this time of year, when the sun is setting over the freeway ahead of me as I drive home from work, and the clouds and sky seem to be showing off.

But sunsets are endings, slow ones that bring with them hours of night. In this particular essay, the ending comes to a relationship. There is love and commitment, and also abuse and apologies and false hope. Near the end, a doctor tells the author that her fresh injury will change color and heal over time. "It will look like a sunset," he says. Which you, as the reader, come to understand is also how leaving looks: bruised and final.

There are many things I love about this essay: the structure, the way she handles time, her images. I especially admire her ability to make the reader understand her love for her husband. Why she stayed. Domestic violence stories can be told with so little empathy for the abuser, and even for the abused. As if leaving should be an obvious, easy choice. You forget about the love. At close of the essay - after we know that she has indeed left - the author recounts simple memories of family-hood with her husband, and her mother's advice to try hard because living without him will be hard. You get it, why she tried like she did. Why she put up with all that hurt and fear.

It will look like a sunset, but then it will heal. During the night, as the earth makes its turn, the sun still burns. Eventually, you see it again.

(Oh, and that's what happened with that sadness I was carrying around, too...)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

blanketed

When I was getting ready to make the transition to living alone, I asked my mom to knit me a blanket, a keepsake to remember my first "own place" by. Deep purple with flecks of color, the blanket is thick and heavy. She made it just long and wide enough to cover my body. I use it now when I pray, laying it on my folded legs in the dark early mornings, steaming coffee and lit candle on the coffee table in front of me, heart expectant. I drape it over my legs and shoulders during weekend naps, allowing it to still me under its comfort and warmth. I think of the first story of love and separation, how God clothed his beloved to show them his merciful and steadfast heart toward them. I think of the instinct to cover and be covered, how in times of need - in sorrow, in sickness, in growth - to be blanketed is to know security and presence and compassion. It is to know love.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

literary, lately


A few links, if you're interested...

I love awards season. Though this year, the Golden Globes were underwhelming - the acceptance speeches too self satisfied, the nominees mostly ones I care little about. I'm afraid the Oscars won't be much better. BUT! We always have literary awards. Today, the Pen literary awards short list was announced.

Unofficial goal this year: read more fiction by African authors. Just added a few of these to my list.

And another reading list, this one from authors presenting at a writing conference I'll attend. Love this list of authors, some favorite and some new ones to explore.

Make this part of my writing mission statement - from Sarah Manguso in her piece on envy and what drives our writing
The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do these things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.

Lastly, I give you my favorite new instagram account: Hot Dudes Reading, Female readers, you're welcome. Male readers, take note.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

look, count, if you can

“Look up at the sky and count the stars…” – Gen 15:5

It was the middle of September. It was the beginning of leaves changing to rich, deep shades of fire and gold, colors that could fool you into believing life was now just beginning. But soon enough you would see leaves turn and fall and be swept away with the wind.

He was my first love. One night after nightfall, he parked the car at the edge of campus and we walked onto the empty golf course, far enough from street lights and buildings and cars that the darkness showed us a full night sky. I would have spread out the blanket that we laid on. Our backs were held by the ground beneath us, his hand reach behind his head, my head rested in the pocket it made. We looked up. We would have talked about his day meeting students on campus, my work at the after school program, the shapes of constellations in the night sky. Or we would have been silent, knowing each other by what is communicated in warmth, breath, heartbeat. The sky was a dome that curtained us, our very own tent of stars and promises.

Three months later, all that possibility slowly fell in on us. Once, as a child, I made a tent with my best friend out of blankets and chairs and pillows. It stretched to the size of her living room. We hid inside and made up stories. Light filtered through the bright colors of blankets. But then her cat came and pounced on the blankets, and our imaginary world was just a pile of soft, flimsy material. The sky didn’t hold.

But it was true that in that moment, looking at the stars, all things seemed possible. I remember that night as my favorite with him. I was searching for something that, that night at least, I thought I had found.

A few years later, I sat with a therapist every other week. Our last session together, she gave me a piece of paper and crayons and told me to draw. I fashioned firm ground and a rooted tree, and covered them with a limitless dark sky with stars. Our interpretation didn’t seem all that nuanced at the time: look at the stars. It’s something that gives you peace. After that, I sometimes drove toward the mountains above my city, away from the lights, to see what kind of view of the sky I could get. I searched the darkness, but I'm not sure I really knew what I was looking for.

Here is what is true about the night sky: it is not a dome but the universe, which is limitless, and expanding. You could try to count the stars, but their number is infinite. New ones are still being discovered. If you look long enough, they will appear to be moving, some across the sky, some around each other. There are things happening out there we will never be able to know.

When an old, childless man wondered aloud if he would have to settle for a servant as his heir instead of his own son, the answer given him was no. The proof was the sky, and all the stars. Look and count, he was told. If you can. Even the One making the deal considered the infinite nature of what he was giving, the seeming impossibility of the promise. Now, as I read this story, I'm challenged to think of stars and sky as more than just a metaphor for something big and good. Look. Count. Spend your lifetime comprehending how big the universe is and how many stars live up there. Drive up the mountain again and again if you need to. Keep your tally, if you can. Then you will know my intentions toward you, I hear the One saying.

The old man went out, looked, counted. I wonder how long he stood there, how he could grasp what was being said to him, what made him believe it to be true.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

all the paths







Good and upright is the Lord;
    therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
    and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
    for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

    -Psalm 25:8-10

Saturday, January 16, 2016

they will inherit the land (or, some rambling thoughts)

Speaking of black bodies: Fighting Environmental Racism in North Carolina

I clicked on this article because I was curious about the term environmental racism, and also because my sister lives in North Carolina. In my few short visits there (to only one part of the state - close to the area spoken about in this piece), what I've seen has made me curious about race, segregation, and how history has shaped what is now. This story provides a glimpse of a kind of modern-day racism that is more systemic and perhaps for that reason, more silent. It is yet another way we sacrifice black bodies for the comfort of the Dream. (See Between the World and Me for more...)

What I loved most is how the story ends. A local activist and son of the area's first black police chief, who was involved in the beginnings of this particular fight for justice, says, "I don't feel anybody should fight as long as we've been fighting for something that's God-given." He's speaking of the promises made to residents more than 40 years ago that are only now being fulfilled by local authorities, after years of trying to prove discrimination. Never mind that people had made promises - he recognizes that justice is of God's own heart and is given at his hand, even while it can be blocked by people with other (evil?) intentions. And he's right, it shouldn't take that long. But, as he says, "you fight until it's done."

The story brings new light to a psalm I've been meditating on, especially with the imagery of land:

Do not fret because of evildoers, 
    do not be envious of wrongdoers,
For they will soon fade like the grass 
    and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord, and do good, 
    dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.
...
For those blessed by the Lord 
    will inherit the land.
...
For the Lord loves justice; 
    he will not forsake his saints.
                                                                               - (Psalm 37)

Amen.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

open letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates after reading between the world and me

Dear Mr. Coates,

I read Between the World and Me in just a few sittings, over the course of a few days. Most of it I read last Saturday evening, alone in my apartment, my body stretched out on my couch, back supported by pillows and legs warmed by a heavy blanket my mother knit. My stomach was full, my pulse was resting, the only strain that of holding the book, turning its pages. I read fast, wanting more of your words and images. They made me want to text my sister, who is also reading your book, to say something to someone about what I was learning. But I knew her body would be lying in her soft bed under the peaceful blanket of night dreams.

Two days later, at work, I approached the subject of your book with my coworker. My black coworker, the one who has published books and spoken in front of audiences about her writing, the one is often the only black woman - the only black person - in the room, the one who was told that she is too pretty to be a writer, the one whose body has survived the violence of cancer and the chemical weapons used to fight it, which continue to tear apart her insides, the one who grew up in the L.A. Jungle and now drives a Benz, the one who tells us stories about her one daughter and paints herself as a fierce mama bear, the one who has worked here longer than me and bled on my papers to teach me much of what I know and who remained when I was promoted to supervise her, the one with whom I have talked about the complexities of this new arrangement but not the part about being black and white. When I brought up your book, she confirmed that yes, she's reading it too. "Slowly," she said. "It hurts." And I wondered how it hurt, what the pain feels like for her, where it touches her, how she carries it in her body. And I felt the slightest bit of shame in telling her I was nearly finished. I was reading fast. I have far less pain to deal with.

On some level, though, I do understand why she would need to read it slowly. Your language about the body is physical. One page I earmarked talks of "fruits secured through bashing children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn." When I read this, I feel some of the discomfort and violence conjured by these images. But my mind quickly takes over and observes with what skill you write, deconstructs the specificity of image, the choice of words. As a writer, I am changed, but what about as a human? I can't say.

But there is this: during college and for a number of years after, I spent time with kids living in cities. To some people I called them "at risk urban youth." To others, I called them my neighbors, because they were. They all had skin that was some shade of brown or black. The contexts in which I knew them were connected to my belief in Jesus and his exhortation that to truly love God, we must love those whom the world calls "poor." With these kids I led bible studies, formed mentoring groups, met in clubs in which we had fun and talked about God. I remember becoming acquainted with street culture through the stories they told me. I also remember my very noble-feeling ideas about how to change their ways of responding to the people around them. I thought about scriptures in which Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, wait for God to contend with those who contend with us. I still believe that these are not just sentiments or good life principles, but that they hold great power. And yet I knew I was missing something. There was something I didn't get.

You unapolagetically assert that "spirit and soul are body and brain." You don't believe in God, and you acknowledge this shapes how you understand the body to be destructable, the violence done against it to be destroying what is most holy about us. I appreciate that you admire others who do even while admitting your inability to make this faith your own. While my faith and the stories we tell gives me a different way of looking at these things, I needed to understand how brown and black bodies endure violence, have for generations, and the kind of fear this instills. Though I still believe scripture speaks into these wordless places, knowing what I understand just a measure more deeply now, after reading your book, I might respond to the kids I hung out with differently. Or maybe I wouldn't. I don't know. I wonder if anything I ever said to them stuck. I hope that something did. The gift of seeing something now that I was blinded to years ago - this is grace, and I wanted you to know that your book helped to bring this, to me and, I hope, to those kids who are adults now, some of them parents raising their own black or brown kids. I hope they knew, or know now, that I was still figuring things out alongside them. Even when my best intentions failed, I hope they felt loved, body and soul.

There is so much more I wanted to say, about bodies and Dreams and your writing. Part of me also wants to say "thank you," but those words feel trite. I don't think you are wanting thanks or praise, but a willingness to be uncomfortable, to struggle alongside you, to try to understand. I'd like to say I am trying.

-B.