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)


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.


Friday, January 8, 2016


1. Over the river, through the woods
On Christmas night, I drove from my sister’s house in northern Jersey to my parents’ along the edge of Pennsylvania. My nephew Andrew begged to come along instead of waiting until the morning to drive with the rest of his family. The night was dark and damp. The first leg of the journey was a straight shot on highway, rain pouring onto us only occasionally. When we reached the end of New Jersey, we drove through a small town lit up by holiday lights, then turned onto a tiny bridge to cross the Delaware river.

The rest of the drive would take us on winding roads through Pennsylvania countryside until we arrived at my childhood home. Andrew sat so quiet and still behind me that I wondered if he was still awake. Night felt like a heavy blanket around us that Christmas lights and approaching cars poked tiny holes into. At one point, I saw a deer along the side of the road, so still and peaceful in its gaze that later I wondered if I’d imagined him.

A few days later, I would make the same drive back, only in daylight this time. I saw everything I hadn’t known was there by night. Small brick ranch houses with cars parked in their driveways, wide open fields that stretched into the distance, small silos on farms that stored what had grown over the summer. Trees that seemed to show their age in the midwinter, naked of leaves. It was everything I might have guessed was there. My childhood made me familiar with these surroundings. And yet, I was seeing it all new.

2. Glasses
I was the last to wake up that first morning at my parents house. I shuffled down the stairs in my baggy pants and hooded sweatshirt, hood up, covering my messy hair. I wore my glasses, as I usually do after I wake, waiting to put in my contacts until I cleaned myself up later. My mom and dad and Andrew watched tv and talked in the den while I brewed coffee. It trickled and spat slowly into the pot, and I tried to keep myself from cursing the old, neglected machine.

When I joined my family with my mug of coffee, my dad asked me about my glasses. “Do you wear those for show?” I had bought the new pair over the past year, since the last time I’d seen my dad. He seemed to be completely earnest.

I had to remind him that I’ve needed glasses since third grade. “I just normally have my contacts in,” I said, self-consciously pushing my glasses further up my nose.

It made me laugh to myself and, later, text a friend: “I think my dad thinks I’m a hipster.”

I wondered, as I so often do, how my dad sees me.

3. An exercise in seeing
Later that day, my sisters and their families arrived to celebrate Christmas. I had my family each pick the name of another out of a hat. A little while after, we sat in a haphazard circle, nearly outgrowing my parents’ den. Each held their slip of paper with a name on it. Kids exercised patience and stole glances at the gifts waiting for them under the tree. But first, we would each share one reason we’re grateful for the person named on our slip of paper. It was an exercise in seeing. My mom expressed how thankful she was to Tim for being such a good husband and father to her daughter and grandchildren. Tayte had picked his mom, whom he said he was glad to have read to him. Andrew announced to everyone that he likes me because I’m “fun, and full of happiness.” I told my dad how much it means to me that he wants to talk about my trips to Kenya and asks me lots of questions about my time there.

As each one shared, some with more words than others, I looked first at the person speaking, then at the person being spoken about. The words help me to pay attention. Living so far away, I sometimes forget to really see them.

Friday, January 1, 2016

some kind of grace

On my last night of visiting family for the holidays, I watched The Sandlot with my sister, niece and nephew. Andrew, my nephew and the baseball enthusiast of the group, was particularly excited.

“I used to watch this all the time with my best friend Heather,” I told him. “She thought one of the boys was cute.” He asked me which one, and I pointed him out.

Then I texted Heather: “We’re watching the sandlot :)”

She texted back: “you’re killing me Smalls!”

When we got to the part where the boys make s’mores together, I whispered the lines to myself just ahead of the actors saying them and wondered how many times Heather and I had re-wound that part and repeated the lines when we made the snack ourselves.

*   *   *

Heather is my best friend, and has been since her family moved two doors away from my family’s house thirty years ago. When we met, we were at the age when girls begin their friendships in earnest, and found in each other that mix of differences and similarities that makes a friend stick. We always laughed at the same random things, and it always felt as if we were speaking the same language, even when we felt like we weren’t making sense. It still feels that way.

Some kind of grace held us over the years. Our lives have taken us in seemingly opposite directions: her, to one year of college, then working and ministry and marriage at 23 and kids soon after and staying home with them while doing more ministry and now Ohio with a husband and family of six. Me, to college, then Los Angeles and full time work and different kinds of ministry and living as a single person, a family of one.

Just the other day, when we both stayed at our parents’ houses over the holidays, I rang her doorbell as I have thousands of times before. She opened the door and we hugged.

*   *   *

We drove to a diner we ate at during high school. As we drove, she told me about her aunt’s sheep farm in Maine. I interrupted her to ask if she’d seen Far From the Madding Crowd.

“I just got chills,” she said, then told me how she’d just finished reading the book and had reserved the movie at the library. We talked about Bathsheba and Gabriel (oh Gabriel…) and farm life and the dialect used in the book. "You have to read the book," she said, and I promised I would.

*   *   *

A few years ago, during a particularly dark season of my life, I had a dream. In it, I was pregnant. I came to the moment of labor, but when the baby was born, it was no longer living. In my dream, it wasn’t until the baby was born that I’d realized I’d never felt the baby move. And yet, I hadn’t thought to see a doctor. I cried for my lost baby, and for my own neglect.

A few weeks after, still in the thick of that darkness and wondering in secret at the meaning of my dream, Heather and I talked on the phone. Connecting outside of short emails and texts was rare for us. Time zones and work schedule (mine) and family life (hers) made it difficult. But this time felt urgent. We both had things to tell each other that only live voices could convey.

"I need you to pray for me," I told her. 

“I had a dream about you,” she told me.

She explained that in it, I was in labor, and she was a mid-wife, and I gave birth to a healthy baby. I told her about the dead baby in my dream, and about my dark season. We agreed we should pray. Afterwards, I felt the darkness around me had lifted every so slightly. I thought about the connection between us and how many ways we had helped each other birth things throughout our friendship.

*   *   *

Over breakfast at the diner, Heather told me about her husband’s new position as pastor of a long-established church. They had moved to the rural community four years ago to plant a church. The group they gathered had remained small, and yet God was touching lives, they believed. So they kept meeting and kept allowing a deep love for their community to grow in their hearts until one day it was apparent that it was time to move on. Her story wasn’t one of disappointment or confusion at the loss of the thing they thought they were to birth. She was amazed at the way things had unfolded quite apart from their own intentions.

Heather writes, too, when she has time. Her ideas come out in a stream of beautiful and rare images. I told her to keep writing about these ideas. We talked about how to give her experience a shape through story.

And we kept talking, about things like desire and connection and raising kids and how our parents are doing. Hours later, after returning to her parents' home to spend time with her family, I hugged them all goodbye. And just like so many times before, I left her house and let the screen door snap behind me as I went.