Sermon for My Deliverance

When my baby cries, I want to run. The pitch of it—husky and wounded—sets off an alarm that scrapes through my body. His pain is something I am unprepared to bear.

He is my second child, but I did not deliver him; rather I sat appointment after appointment, sonogram after sonogram, with his birth mother during the last four months of her pregnancy.

I wasn’t her first choice. The adoption agency provided her a few family profiles, and she chose a single woman in Washington D.C., but another birth mother got her first. Terence, her boyfriend and Wendell’s birth father, sold her on us. They have a son already, he reasoned, so they’ll know what to do with a boy. They didn’t want the same-sex couple, so she agreed even if begrudgingly.

When I think of his delivery, I think of all the shoes. So many feet scurried around—a few, because it’s a teaching hospital, were covered in a light blue fabric. Terence’s pair of unlaced high tops next to the bed, the social workers’ fat feet squeezed into ballet flats, the top of them like small hills. Then, my grey and blue Chucks, low-top, laces pulled taut and double-knotted, the white of them peeking from behind the wide hem of old jeans I pulled out of a donation bag in my trunk when the doctor said, “We’re moving her to delivery.” In the far distance of the room, clear in the stark white light of the waiting infant crib, Trip’s still brown Clark’s lined up like two military vessels or rows of corn. So still. Thin laces, threadbare, and the soles worn from the inside. I don’t think he moved at all. And Lydia’s bare feet in the stirrups, her toes curled just like Wendell’s when he grips the bottle to suck his first sips of milk.

On the second night we had the baby at home, I couldn’t feed him or hold him. Instead, I slept in my toddler’s bed with him. Then the next night too. While I felt only love when the doctor lifted him onto my skin that first moment of his life, now I only felt panic. He’s not mine, he’s not mine, I heard in my head, in a voice that came from the deepest dark of me. Long story short: I was suffering the very early signs of postpartum depression, a condition I likely experienced after Graham—my oldest, and biological, son—was born too, but had reached a fever pitch with this second infant. I didn’t know adoptive mothers could experience postpartum depression, so I just thought I was an awful person. By the time Wendell hit five months old that awfulness manifested as crying fits, insomnia, tremors in my arms and hands, and locking myself in the bathroom where I cut my inner thighs with a razor blade. When I hit rock bottom, it required intervention from my parents, brother, and husband, and a tripartite healing process that includes medication, therapy, and regulated self-care. My therapist suspects I have been functioning, somewhat miraculously, at a clinical level of depression for almost three years, starting back during the infertility treatment that helped produce Graham.

That would all be fine and good—problem named, problem solved—except that something else is happening here too. Something above and around any postpartum depression, something to do with my being the white mother of a black child in our racialized America. Lexapro and yoga don’t address the condition of worrying about the safety of your black son’s psyche, the fragility of his baby-soft skin and fresh bones before handcuffs and side-glances like serrated knives and steel cylinders.

I say to my therapist, “Some part of me needs Lydia out of the picture so I can fully embrace this child as mine. But open adoption is better for everyone, right?”

She stifles a laugh. “Um, no. No,” she says, “It’s better for Lydia, for any birth mother. It’s better for both your children. But there’s nothing that says it’s better for you.”

What she means is that it would be easier to adopt a child and never know its birth mother, to receive the flood of comments from strangers. What a holy thing you’ve done. How honorable. What a saint you are to take a needy child. Then you wouldn’t have to wrestle with the ethical maelstrom that is the truth of transracial adoption, and neither would anyone else in your inner circle.

I am not a saint, and to claim so would make me a criminal. “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime,” James Baldwin writes in a letter to his nephew.

Lydia’s story isn’t mine to tell, so I’ll just provide a summary: as a child she moved from abusive home to foster home. Her senior year of high school she got pregnant with her first of three sons by three different fathers. Then she met Terence, who contrary to stereotype, loved those boys as his own. When Lydia got diagnosed with breast cancer and got pregnant with her and Terence’s daughter, they took the boys to voluntary, and what they thought was temporary, foster care. Given her own childhood, it broke Lydia’s heart. At that point, she was 24 years old. Because of chemo, she didn’t think she’d get pregnant again, but she did. With Wendell. But she still wanted the other boys back, and there was no way the foster care agency would return them to her with another baby on the way. Financially, they could never swing it. So, pro-life by raising and personal morality, she decided to get an abortion. She couldn’t afford it. She swallowed bleach. She, and Wendell, survived. She contacted an adoption agency. Even after finalizing a contract with me and my husband (we agreed to pay her and Terence’s and their daughter’s monthly living expenses at an extended stay hotel during and for a month following Wendell’s birth), the state required her to take breastfeeding classes to receive her food stamps. She took two different buses and walked thirty minutes to each class. In September, in Houston. Her story, while particular, is not rare or even spectacular.

Of course, that summary renders her simultaneously hypervisible and invisible, hangs her firmly “against a stark white background.” It denies the fullness of her specific humanity. For example, once in the high-risk obstetrics waiting room, she filled out a psychiatric screening survey for antepartum depression.

“I’m gonna check no on these stupid questions,” she said to me and the social worker. She wrote in-between bites of Flaming Hot Cheetos we bought in the drugstore on the first level of the hospital.

“This question says, ‘Do you ever feel depressed for no reason?’ Bitch, I have reasons,” she said into the room, which sent both me and the social worker into streams of laughter.

Lydia is funny, and her humor has both an edge and a sweetness to it. Everyone looked at our odd trio with raised eyebrows or bewildered amusement; we were ever the enigma in doctors’ offices, but Lydia single-handedly won over waiting rooms like nothing I’ve ever seen. She’d always leave with three new friends. She also lies often. She also maintains some rural Louisiana country in her speech; she pronounced “herbs,” for example, with a hard h sound. She always asked doctors what herbs might induce labor, and she has exquisitely smooth skin the color of wet mulch. On the day after Wendell’s birth, she asked to see him five times. I’d roll him down to her hospital room and leave him with her. Take your time, I’d say, so scared because, legally, a birth mother has 48 hours after birth to change her mind about adoption. Him so beautiful, she’d say. She always called me to come get him.

Here it is. Some part of me wanted to reject Wendell for fear of raising a black son, for fear of his humanity and its erasure. Am I so brand new? Did the black man not exist for me until Wendell then, not really? I have woken, as James Baldwin writes in that letter to his nephew, “to find the sun shivering and the stars aflame.” It’s an upheaval in the universe, sure, my universe, but like all white Americans, even compassionate or intelligent ones, I have only understood the universe as mine. For the first time I understand something of a black woman’s pain, for the first time, perhaps, I really see her, and yet, like so many of our ancestors I have used money as a way to write the worth of her body. The analogy builds speed, whips into me and breaks skin: I cannot till the field or pick the cotton; she can. I can afford the field and the cotton; she can’t. I cannot have the baby; she can. I can afford the baby; she can’t. Whether Lydia wanted him or not becomes peripheral. What is desire in shackles? What level of freedom unlocks our desires from the system that conditions them? Let me say it plain. I have to ask the black woman for a forgiveness I do not deserve because all of a sudden I need her. This is not white guilt. It’s white reckoning, the settlement of a debt I’ll never be able to fully pay and like all poverty-stricken people, I tremor to the marrow with fear and rage. I’m desperate enough to forsake my child.

I won’t forsake him. Ever. Because I love him, yes. But also because I’m situated such that I’ll never get so desperate, my income and education and access to anti-anxiety medication and lines of credit like so many bulletproof sleeves. My treatment has washed clean the haziness of two important facts: I have to parent an endangered child, and my black baby boy is just a boy like any other boy. Neither of those things should be news to me—indeed, I would have argued before he arrived that I already knew those facts—but we don’t really think of black children as our children, us white people, America. If we did, mothers of black children could live their lives with the ordinary fear motherhood gifts us. Fear is different from terror.

There is no child more imperiled, no child more beloved, than my Wendell. He spits up like torrential flooding and it’s annoying. He has eyes like rising rivers, they glimmer and dance, and his eyebrows curl like winged birds above them. Two different women will have journeyed into the ragged caverns of their souls to slay the monsters there so that he may live. That I should initially reject the responsibility of such a perilous love, that I should quake under the strain of its complication, makes me human. His pain is something I am unprepared to bear, and yet I’ll bear it. I too have reasons for my depression. But my suffering is also the debt I must pay for my deliverance. I hear the old words of the prayer differently now. Deliver us, Lord, from evil. I know the evil is inside me too.

Deliver me.

Amen.

 

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Sermon for Independence Day (On Feminine Grief and Political Action)

НОРО 7Since Trump’s election, I’ve been thinking about The Book of Esther often, and that makes sense: Esther is the Jewish concubine of an easily influenced and capricious king with dangerous advisors, particularly his vengeful and power-seeking prime minister, Haman. Because of her “in” with King Ahasuerus, Mordecai—her brother—and by proxy, the entire Jewish community, call on her to save them from annihilation, a genocide concocted by Haman after a small slight by Mordecai (sound familiar?). To do so, she must risk death. For one thing, it was against the rules for a concubine to seek out an audience with the king without his having summoned her, an offense punishable by death. For another, she’s easily expendable. Perhaps most importantly, she’s politically neutral up until Mordecai asks for her intervention. In the end, of course, she uses a series of banquets to persuade King Ahasuerus to call off his genocide, Haman gets what’s coming to him, and the Jews celebrate her success every year during Purim.

Scholars have labeled the story of Esther “apocalyptic literature,” “historical novella,” and “prophecy” among other genres. I’m most interested in the story as a study in political rhetoric and, in particular, a lesson on the relationship between feminine grief and political formation.

With regard to grief: Before Esther agrees to Mordecai’s request and risks death for her people, she asks for three days to pray, or—as I read them—three days of spiritual struggle with her God. The apocrypha includes more details about these prayers and describes Esther as covering herself in ash and rending her clothes, and tearing out her hair. She’s so wrecked with indecision and grief “she humbled her body greatly, and filled all the places of her joy with torn hair.”

I’ve been pulling out my eyebrows since I was twelve years old. Just a hair here and there, but mostly I touch them a lot. The technical term for such compulsive behavior is trichotillomania: from the Greek thrix (hair), tillein (pull) and mania (madness). Some trich-sters have bald spots on their head, scabs up and down their arms and faces. Mine is a mild, but tenacious case.

Stress feeds the pulling and prickles the roots. My husband will stand in our bedroom doorway as I lay in bed reading a murder-mystery. He’ll say, Baby, what’s wrong? and raise his own eyebrows a few times. I’ll realize I’ve been triching-out for the last half hour; an ache chugs through my wrist’s carpal tunnel, a common side effect. Tell me about it, he says, and shifts his slim weight across the doorframe.

When I was two, my father told me to spin in the living room and the dizziness that ensued sent me flying into the coffee table. He had to walk with me on his shoulders through an East Texas flood to the emergency room where I got a few stitches in my eyebrow. The scar is a slit through the arch of my eyebrow, and I color it in with makeup each morning before work. Around the scar, the most delicious hairs grow: stubby, thick things that I love to run underneath my fingers, that I love to remove most with my tweezers. The scientists call these “target hairs.” The feeling that blooms when I pry them from my face is something akin to peace.

I am not alone in my compulsion, or in its roots (no pun intended), since women have pulled their hair out for ages and ages. Still, science has only really started to consider hair pulling; trichotillomania wasn’t even included in the DSM until the late 80s, and was misunderstood as a form of OCD. Men suffer trichotillomania too, but at a much lower incidence that women (fewer than half as many), and more women suffer from “high sedentary contemplative” hair pulling which occurs as the afflicted is in a trance-like state while reading, watching television, talking on the phone. The behavior occurs at a slightly unconscious level to alleviate anxiety or sadness. While other forms of trichotillomania co-occur with a variety of other syndromes—bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, histrionic personality disorder—the contemplative types like me are comorbid with only one other major psychiatric problem: clinical depression.

We’re sad. Our sadness, while personal and particular and epigenetic, has its roots in ancient female sadness; the symptom as archetypal as the grief. Hippocrates wrote in his Epidemics III about Delearces, a grief-stricken patient who lost her son and “groped about, scratching and plucking out hair, and alternately wept and laughed.” Ancient Egyptian funerals included groups of women mourners who pulled out their hair. Achilles, when he hears of the death of Patroclus, tears out his hair. And Shakespeare has several characters pull out their hair too. Constance, in King John, insists that her grief is real and sane, saying “I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine.”

Hair pulling indicates sadness across history and time and, according to the great ancients and not-so-ancients, is a useful and universal externalization of internal suffering. Psychiatry has just caught up.

But back to Esther, and with regard to political formation: Esther is an unlikely hero. She certainly has some level of access to the Persian power center, but she’s apolitical and her position is lowly. Meanwhile all around her men of power behave rashly, their egos bruised by passing winds, their decisions reactionary rather than responsive. But when she’s pressed to act, she waits. Give me three days, she asks, and in those three days she grieves and grieves. Even when she meets with the King, she waits until a second banquet, another few days, before revealing her Jewish heritage and intervening for her people. Her timing is humble, impeccable, and pragmatic. It’s not coincidence that both white women in the Antebellum South and free black people of the North, positioned as they were both within an oppressed identity and within a more powerful group, invoked Esther, people like Mary Stewart and Sojourner Truth. And feminist theorist, Eve Sedgwick has used the book of Esther to consider the potential power in using the right timing to “come out.” Esther seems to offer a blueprint for those of us with some privilege that still identify with marginalized groups. How do we work with the little power we’ve got?

History offers this strange truth: female grief is often the impetus for pragmatic political response, our hair pulling a first step. Think of Maud Gonne, the Irish nationalist who mesmerized William Yeats, and whose political influence reached its apex after her son died of meningitis and she spent a few months studying the occult. Or, think of the madres de los desaparecidos in Argentina. Or the mothers of the gun reform movement in this country. Or the mothers of so many dead black boys. As scholar, Susan Zaeske writes, “Esther’s is a pragmatic rhetoric aimed at gaining power through ingratiation, despite and within an a debilitating context of oppression. It is worth nothing that by the end of the biblical tale, Esther speaks commandingly and without invitation.” She moves from grief-stricken, to quietly influential, to fully voiced and unafraid.

Some friends have noticed that I’ve become less overtly political—in conversations and on social media. It’s true. I’m overwhelmed, and I’ve been healing from some pretty serious sadness. In the small library in our home, my husband has hung a large drawing of a woman pulling out her hair that we bought at an auction to support creative writing in public schools. He never bids at auctions, but at that one, he said, “I think you need this piece of art.” A few months ago, our son Graham pointed at it and said, “Mama.” I was horrified: did he know that about me? That unfathomable well of sadness inside me, that slight mania writ large?

But I don’t know. When I talk to my therapist about sadness, the current political situation comes up often. I feel pressure to do something, but I also feel helpless. Both of my children, but especially my black child, may require I use what privilege I have. I am certainly in spiritual struggle, and I certainly have humbled my body and have filled the places of my joy with “torn hair.” Ultimately, it was my body that has forced me to say, “Give me three days.”

We live in a volatile realm, and our brothers may come to us to ask for our help. We’ll think we’re in no position to help; we’ll think we’re powerless. We’ll have to enter into private bed chambers and rend our hair, wrestle with our various Gods. We will want to stay safe–we aren’t safe–but our grief will cleanse us of ego and anger so that when we emerge, we’ll say as Esther did, “If I perish, I perish.” Then we’ll begin the long game of political persuasion and wait, our smiles sweet red herrings for our stealth, for the right moment to strike.

You won’t even see us coming.

Happy Independence Day, and Amen.

 

Sermon for Softness

We used to stand—arms linked—on yard lines, our hands criss-crossed over each other’s shoulders, right arms forward and left arms back, our fingers pressed together and palms resting over another girl’s deltoids, no gripping allowed. When we jumped, we jumped together and sent our legs flying on the even counts. One two three four. We pointed our toes, we lifted our chins, we spread our pink-painted lips into maniacal smiles.

That was in high school, during halftime dance performances. Now, it’s one o’clock in the morning and one of us grabs the others’ hands under the pool water and we bounce our bodies through the chlorine and giggle. Something like “Ring Around the Rosie,” but woozier and tinged with pathos. We’re not in high school anymore; instead, we’re twenty years out and living in different cities, but we’ve boarded planes and packed one-pieces and arrived here to a resort in Playa del Carmen to try to turn forty. We’ve arrived with various forms of the need and weakness that age brings: postpartum depression, trauma-fatigue, relationship distress, etc. Permiso, a hotel worker calls from out of the darkness around us, La piscina esta cerrada. We’ve been caught in a late-night escapade and we brim with an adolescent, transgressive delight.

When we checked in two days ago, the concierge convinced us to pay an additional fee for what he called “privilege,” and because our taxi driver stopped to buy us a case of Tecate Light on the way in from Cancun, we say, “Sure!” and whip out credit cards. They bejewel us with bracelets that actually say the word privilege on them in a simple cursive, and I, for one, can’t get enough of this joke. Does anyone else see the irony in this? I ask. We’re white women in Mexico, at a Disney-cruise like resort with shops chockfull of high-end sunglasses and overpriced maracas, and restaurants, and free salsa lessons from local teenage boys, and still they have to brand us as privileged. Well, no shit. At various points in the weekend, when we have questions about what’s appropriate to wear to dinner or whether we have to reserve a cabana at the beach, one of us will point to her bracelet. Privilege, she’ll say and we’ll all laugh, although not without some discomfort. We attended an inner-city high school where white students made up only one-fourth of the population. Our parents were cops, teachers, service-workers. Our boyfriends were Mexican, Filipino, Vietnamese. Now we’re vascular surgeons, highly specialized body healers, published writers, “Communications specialists.” We’ve always had privilege, of course, but this new adult type doesn’t sit well with us, which perhaps is why we make faster friends with Victor the Bell Hop than we do the other guests and why it takes us a day and a half to discover our privilege gives us access to a fancy, exclusive restaurant at the top of the resort with spectacular sunset views and wine from bottles with actual labels. We had been dining at the buffet with the less-privileged hotel guests, poor fools.

Sunset

At the beach we read novels and take turns slathering backs with SPF 55 sunscreen. Sometimes we allow nostalgia its undertow and confess who from our youth was a good kisser and who made us want to retch. We’re not embarrassed about how many of these boys more than one of us can assess with historical accuracy and we laugh that our assessments match: he was a horrible kisser, you’re right. Out in the foamy green ocean, we tread more lightly and ease into conversations about in-laws or marital strife or politics, although on the latter we’re in as much agreement as we are about kissing.

Our post-beach primping has the air of old choreography to it: we’re comfortable handing hair dryers and mascara back and forth in front of the mirror, or considering and reconsidering earrings and whether or not we need to wear bras. Hours and hours we’ve spend coordinating movements in mirrors and changing wardrobes in backrooms. We strip off bathing suits and towels with impunity, our naked bodies—now older and softer—exist without the modesty they might with other women. I am surprised and moved somehow by how much we still resemble ourselves or, more precisely, how we’ve come to inhabit the skeletal architecture of our true selves, which existed in high school, erected years ago by some architect for us to furnish and redecorate and fill from the inside out. Each morning one of us burns Palo Santo and waves it around our bodies for “better energy” and we indulge her because we’ve passed the point of poo-pooing any form of appeal to a deeper power. Our physicality together is mothering, both ancient and new: one of us tucks another’s tag back into her shirt, one of us wipes a flake of bread from another’s bottom lip. I should shave my bikini area again, one of us says. Another responds, Don’t bother. You could braid your pubic hair and I wouldn’t care. We’re crass in a way we weren’t always in our youth, because bullshit isn’t a thing we’ll abide much now. If we were interested in kissing random boys still, we could make that happen with or without proper grooming of our nether regions. Our concerns now are bigger; how to receive the sublime blue-black horizon as a teacher of humility, how to measure and catch the low thrum of tenderness in our lives, how to age.

Water

One night we step onto a dance floor and our dancing is glorious, free-form and warm. My dress has lost its elastic and the halter sags low onto my sun-licked shoulders. We’ve kicked off our shoes. We circle around a ten-year old boy who dances his heart out to cover songs from the 80s. This is no practiced routine, and yet it is precisely that, women circling a child, the innate rhythm of tribal love.

At the Privilege Restaurant, one of us says, “It’s perfect to travel together, because we’ve known each other so long that we’re safe and comfortable, but because we’ve lived apart so long too, there’s so much still to discover. There’s still mystery.”

We enter into the mystery the way we enter the ocean. First, the rocks bite into our soles so we learn to throw ourselves over them, full belly flop. Next the slow walk over sand that shifts and moves and knocks us over. And then the movement toward depth, a tidal pull that moves us into ever widening concentric circles and which we do not compel so much as relent to, the water rising to our ribcages, to our shoulder, to our necks, the bluing of the water beneath us, the watering of our eyes in response to stories, our stories. We’re swimming into our privilege, not anything like unlimited chilaquiles or Miami Vices, but still a bottomless thing, the privilege of this communion, of temporal relief and primordial recognition: Woman, I see you, I know you. I want to know you.

Our husbands and family members think we’ve gone on vacation. They say things like “girls’ trip” or “rejuvenate” or “how fun.”

But no. It’s not a vacation. The resort is, in fact, an unnecessary and slightly silly backdrop. Not a vacation, but call it a tiny homecoming, minus the high kicks and gawdy mums, so much less glitter. Our bodies have softened, as have our hearts and irritations. The softness we extend to one another is one we extend to ourselves, and a softness that reveals, paradoxically, our feminine strength. We travel because, as women, we must learn and relearn this strength and recognize its vast waters again and again and again as a privilege of the highest order.

Privilege

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sermon for the Struggle toward Death

“To be or not to be?” I asked my seniors last week. We were finishing Act 3 of Shakespeare’s most widely read play, Hamlet, where he gives his most famous soliloquy.

“To be!” they responded.

“But what,” I said, “if I framed the question this way? To live or to die?”

“To live!” they called in unison. Seniors in high school want nothing more than to live. Many suspect they may only feel fully alive for the first time when they escape the purview of their dear parents.

“What if I suggested to you that he should die?” I asked.

I was walking a tight rope there. If I had students with less intellectual maturity, I’d have worried that they might hear in my question a justification for suicide since, on the surface anyway, that seems the choice Hamlet considers as he soliloquizes.

“He shouldn’t kill himself, though,” one young woman worried aloud. She rarely speaks in class, but her anxiety on this point forced her voice up her throat and into her mouth.

“Perhaps he should,” I pushed.

Listen. I don’t believe in suicide—I’ve had one too many personal experiences with it to ever glamorize it—and I certainly never want any violent end to ever come to any of my students, many of whom I love as though I bore them and all of whom I am sworn by vocation to educate and protect. We had contextualized Hamlet’s speech within existential thought, reading alongside it Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” an essay that offers scorn as the better option over suicide. I try to convince and reassure them that existential scorn and faith are not mutually exclusive, that they may, in fact, rely on one another. I say, “Don’t the students who have a polite disdain for rules and schoolwork have the most faith in their future, in their learning?”  They’re skeptical.

Every year, like a bazillion high school teachers from the tiniest towns to the towering metropolises of this country, I teach Hamlet. Teaching the play makes me a cultural cliche, practically compelling me to buy horn-rimmed glasses. But it’s not every year that a student’s response to Hamlet offers me a spiritual balm.

My students spent a few moments quiet, fretting, at my suggestion of suicide. They knew I couldn’t mean it literally. Not me. Then, one girl spoke up, “Well, to be or not to be is binary thinking.”

“What?” I asked.

“What if he has to be and not be? Like, die and live?” she asked.

A few students giggled.

But one other student, a boy who loved The Cather in the Rye so much when he read it as a 9th grader that he read it twice, enlisted for her cause. “There is a part of him that needs to die,” he said. “The childish part. Binary thinking is immature.”

Ay, there’s the rub. (And yes, my students talk like that.)

Isaiah 50:4 reads “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain with words him who is weary: he wakens morning by morning, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.”

Sometimes I’m convinced the voice of God slips into the mouths of my students and wakens my ear. Our roles invert and they, impish and wobbly prophets, teach me.

Today is Palm Sunday, the day we read the Passion of the Christ, and watch what is, in my opinion, Jesus’ most profound miracle—not his resurrection, but his death. The crowd that persecutes him goads him: if you’re God, they say, then perform your miracle already. Call out to your father, and let him save you. Prove it to us.

Instead he calls out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And dies.

It is supreme surrender, exquisite in its humanity and in its example to us of complete trust. It is painful steadfastness in the midst of violent chaos. His death is not passive; on the contrary, to surrender to a higher love is the most difficult form of action.

Yesterday, I had the honor of attending the funeral of a colleague’s father. I never met him (I attended for her) but the service was a gift to me and made me wish I had known him. Each speaker—an old friend, a daughter, a niece, a brother, even his Jewish doctor—revealed his great dignity in the face of death. Like the Savior he devoutly loved, he too remained steadfast and true through unspeakable pain, and the narrative of his life implanted renewed life in each listener. I too wanted to sit at the rock bottom of the Grand Canyon and witness a lightning storm flash sacred truth through the sky and ricochet sound through the earth’s holes. His funeral spoke to me like a teacher.

And today before church, a priest wandered over to peek at a sleeping Wendell in my arms. She said, “What peace. I always think that infants’ ability to sleep through all our noise must be what Jesus meant about trusting God.”

To die—at the end of our lives and so many times during the course of them–is to trust in the invisible palm held out to cradle our fall.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is in turmoil: his beloved father has died, his mother has married the murderous uncle, and he makes a mistake in his child’s grief that costs him Ophelia, the only love of his young life. Faced with the horror of the world for perhaps the first time, he struggles to shed his innocent skin and rise up to live through it. He does not want to die, not really. He wants to live and can’t quite manage the death such life requires.

My students too must die and live. They must leave home, leave me, leave behind a mostly bejeweled youth and rise up to walk the potholed road that begins to appear before them, the “undiscovered country.” They take the news with good humor. You should retitle your class, they tell me. AP Critical Approaches to Literature: Ms. Fleming Invites You to Die.

It’s funny.

And yet, me too. Every day I have to learn to die, every time I feel forsaken and that’s more often than I care to admit. Every year as my students lift their brave faces into the darkness just past the bright pomp of graduation, they teach me. I must seek out the concrete signs of that invisible palm in our broken world. Sunlight through tree limbs, Graham’s voice asking Where my tool, Mama? Where it go?, or the gray blanket I fold  on my late night bedroom floor so that I might kneel:

My God, my god, my child hit me today and I wanted to hit him back.

Let me die.

My God, my god, wouldn’t Merlot be easier and faster?

Let me die.

My God, my god, chemical warfare.

Let me die.

My God, my god, the law’s delay.

Let me die.

My God, my god, the boulder of dirty laundry rolls so fast on its way back down that fucking hill.

Let me die.

My God, my god, my hungry infant’s cry goes high-pitched and hollow in the night like the howl of a hurt animal.

Let me die.

My God, my god, this sea of troubles.  This fear.

Let me die.

That I might live.

Amen.

Sermon for Discomfort (On the 5-Year Anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s Killing)

Trayvon Martin died five years ago today. I’ve written about him before on this blog, or more precisely, I’ve written about his mother, Sybrina Fulton, a woman I think about often.

That first blog post rose from inside me upon hearing the not-guilty verdict a Florida court handed down to Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. That such a man—a domestic abuser, a wannabe vigilante, a bully—might earn the descriptor “innocent” devastated me, and I thought how much can our country ask one mother to bear?

I could not have predicted at the time of Trayvon Martin’s death or Zimmerman’s acquittal, at the time I wrote that original response, that I might become a mother and moreover a mother to a black son too. Having a black son does not change my read of the story’s injustice, but it sinks the sadness and rage somewhere a few millimeters deeper into my chest cavity.

What new thing is there to say on the anniversary of an innocent boy’s murder? What I wouldn’t give for Obama’s measured devastation; I’d settle for a somber tweet. But no.

I’ve been thinking today about the relationship between Trayvon Martin’s murder and real estate. Between racism and the land. In many ways, the Martin-Zimmerman story is a story of disintegration: of a neighborhood, of an economy, of community itself. On the night of his death, Martin was staying with his father, Tracy, in the townhome subdivision of Twin Lakes that—like many townhome complexes in cities all over the country at the time—had transitioned from owners to renters in the housing market’s collapse. The demographics of the complex shifted, what was segregated became integrated, but not in any true sense. The transitional nature of renting contributed to skepticism and a lapse in neighborliness. Thus, the “neighborhood patrol” to which Zimmerman belonged and of which he imagined himself a badged lieutenant, and which also gave him the justification to carry a weapon. To Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin became every black boy that the complex’s gates and security codes had been designed to exclude. He was an interloper, a stranger.

Yesterday, a real estate agent walked my husband and I through a home in a transitional neighborhood nearer to downtown than ours. Right now, we live in a townhome in a coveted Houston neighborhood, a neighborhood with an acclaimed public elementary school, with restaurants and bars and bike shops and so many new moms and nannies, so much economic comfort, that one day while I walked my dog a construction worker commented from a rooftop renovation, “Man, people in this hood be strollin’.” The neighborhood was once so poor that a serial killer preyed on boys for years without the cops catching on: what was one missing boy in such a place? Or two? Or three? Or twenty? But now it’s a white neighborhood that grows paler skin by the minute.

We’d be crazy to leave, really. But I worry about my son—not the white one, who stumbles into neighbor’s yards already and runs sticks along people’s fences with his chubby hands. I worry about the black one, a beautiful infant that people coo over but who will eventually hit puberty and look something like Trayvon or Tamir.

As the real estate agent schmoozed with my husband, the baby slept in his car seat in the empty living room whose new hardwood floors still emitted a carpentry smell. Graham and I walked onto the porch and sat to eat an orange. Across the street, on the porches of rundown shotgun homes, two older black men chatted. I could hear them.

“They got one white baby and one black one.”

“Nah, they don’t.”

“They do. I saw him.”

I waved.

“How y’all doin’?” one of the asked.

“Good,” I said and Graham smiled. “And you?”

“Alright. Can’t complain.”

We would stick out like sore thumbs here, and a friend mentions that to me later. You’ll be hyper aware of your whiteness all the time, she said. And Graham too, at that elementary school. So either way, someone will feel racialized. Another friend says, I guess you’re lucky to teach at a private school—you could send him there. (I believe very strongly in sending our kids to neighborhood schools, because I believe in neighborhoods. If we move, my kids will attend the neighborhood school regardless of its racial makeup, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

She’s right about someone feeling their difference in either neighborhood, but the crux of it for me is this: If Graham feels conscious of his difference in a mostly brown neighborhood, he will not feel it at home where his parents resemble him. And he will have his parents for company in his awareness of his whiteness; he will not experience that potential other-ing alone. In our current neighborhood, should Wendell experience an other-ing, he will experience it by himself, without us to provide anything but verbal comfort. More importantly, his awareness of his blackness will have the force of violent history behind it, the threat of that concerned call to the police or the malicious curiosity of a neighborhood watchman. His black body will be at risk thrown, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “against a sharp white background.” The word “sharp” in that famous sentence has two denotative meanings, of course: both “stark” and “dangerous.” Racial consciousness can enlarge, complicate, and bolster a black or a white child’s sense of identity, but so much depends on how and where that consciousness gets formed. And let’s not forget that the original sin of American racism was about land: who owns it, who works it, who gets to stand barefoot in the lake’s edges and think home.

“You’re close to the rail line, close to your current neighborhood,” the agent says. “But you probably need an electric gate. Maybe a security system. There’s public housing down the block.”

On the way home, we weigh pros and cons. Make lists. Halloween, we think. What about Halloween? I don’t know what we’ll do.

I named Wendell, in part, after the writer Wendell Berry. Since I’m on maternity leave, while he sleeps, I have decided to reread Berry’s nonfiction book, The Hidden Wound, a meditation on the unconscious, unspoken pain that racism has planted in white Americans. When we return to our townhome, my husband joins Graham for a turn around the block. From the window, I watch Graham select a twig to carry and another for his father to carry. I swaddle Wendell and lay him in the bassinet and pick up reading where I left off the day before:

“No matter what laws or governments say, men can only come to know and come to care for one another by meeting face to face, arduously, and by the willing loss of comfort,” my son’s namesake writes.

Perhaps George Zimmerman’s most offensive and most perilous trait was his allegiance to comfort. Perhaps our gates and security codes make us feel safe, but because they keep us from arduous work—and arduous work is the only worthwhile kind, the kind that nurtures dignity—they might, in fact, endanger us further.

Might I owe it to Trayvon’s mother, to her son and mine and the woman who bore him, to do more than lobby for change? Might I owe them my discomfort? After all, discomfort is different from pain, and will never hurt me as much as the bullet that pierces my child’s heart.

 

 

Sermon for My Younger Self (A 40th Birthday Letter)

When you were a little girl, you loved most a quiet corner where you could sit with your knees drawn into your chest and rest a book atop them, preferably a long novel with settings and characters as simultaneously painstaking and hazy in their drawing as an Impressionist landscape.  A story into which you might dissolve from your world’s noise.

You loved the color blue, and in particular the blues nearest you: a plain sky, the chlorine blue of swimming pools, the flowers that bloomed bruise blue in Texas’ westward hills, and the blue inside music too.  The steel guitar.  The cello.  A good folk song.

While your family loved sport—and you did too, on occasion—you loved to dance instead, to use your physical body to position the blues inside you, the flesh and bone as storyteller and container.  And just the pure joy of it too.

You loved all the reenactments of God.  The rosary, the stained glass window, the wispy flesh of Bible pages and the white moons of communion wafers and the kneeling and standing and the great silence in song.

I turn 40 in a few days, and I’ve been thinking of you. There are some things I’d like to tell you—advice?—and by way of reaching my own ears, bigger now, as ears get with age though perhaps no less able to listen.

You will spend much of your youth in a battle with your body. You’ll try not to let your thighs spread on benches, you’ll hold your breath to keep your stomach in: a slow, torturous way to suffocate. You will believe the girl in your 12-year old ballet class who tells you you’re shaped like a pear, little on top and big on the bottom. You will swallow whole the word pretty like a single crystal of sugar every time someone speaks it to you.

Listen: pears are delicious.  Sugar is empty calories.  I’m speaking of the soul now, but that’s true for the body too.  Disarm yourself and defect from such wars.

As I approach 40, I forget to retreat to corners.  I think failure (no book deal, no notoriety, nothing extraordinary, the banality of loose skin under my chin) when I should think transformation.

The transitions, sweet girl, are the most beautiful things. Let me show you the two photographs I love best of you.  In the first, you are 12 again, braced teeth, braced too at the edge of dark water.  The requisite late 80s perm renders you ridiculous.  The metal grin, the double chin.  Oh, adolescence, that cruel beast. As a woman on the verge of another ocean—middle age—I am enamored of this image.  What a radiant little bug.

middle-school

In the second photograph, you are pregnant with your first son.  The morning light whispers blue on your skin.  No make up, two hearts plotting their steady sounds inside you. You are a woman once again on a shore.

In your 20s and 30s you’ll grow threadbare wings and come untethered.  A lover will read you Donald Hall’s poetry to his dead wife, “When she was forty/she came into her beauty/as into a fortune—eyes, cheekbones, nose, and thickwater hair.”

“That’s you,” he’ll say.  “You’ll come into your beauty at forty.”

“Am I not beautiful now?” you’ll ask, petulant.

“Of course.  But at forty you might finally know it.”

Know it.

He will be one in a line of lovers, more or less condescending.  Clear the land around your heart so that you can build it big enough to house more than one great love. A little torment is good for you.  Do not judge yourself too harshly for any recklessness.  Unlike many women, you will have the privilege of freedom in your early womanhood—freedom from doctrine and abuse and burden and threat.  Freedom to kiss and scream and walk naked into lakes. The paradox of independence is that free people are free to make mistakes.  Better that than servitude.

Try to speak more. Once in second grade, Mrs. Zuckero moved your “behavior card” from blue to yellow—a warning—because your girlfriend sneered a joke into your ear during multiplication tables and you giggled. The shame burned fiery inside you so that you confessed to your mother as soon as you arrived home.  You stood in your white Keds on the hot driveway, weeping.

“Your card did what?” she asked.  “What’s a behavior card?”

Admire your mother. The world is full of behavior cards meant to police women. Go yellow. Go red. Get sent to the principal’s office smiling. Learn before I have learned to tell it like it is and not worry about who likes you for it. Wear those colorful cards like fancy jewelry or badges that sparkle and announce you, so that the other sparkling women recognize you and so that women in dark storms might glimpse you in the distance. Sacred power exists in broken shards of light that pine for a rejoining.

Do not rely on external definitions of beauty.  Consider the cellulite on the backs of thighs like the rippled soil spotted by space crafts on other planets or the lunar curve of the soft underbelly. Consider the gray hair and the scar.  Always consider queso.

Make commitments.  They are acts of faith.  We do not marry, for example, because we love, but in order that we may learn how to love.  You don’t need marriage to happen to you; instead, choose it.  Then love the man who chooses you. Likewise, we do not have children because we are mothering, but in order that we might learn how to mother.  You will be forced by medical condition to choose children as well—they will never just happen to you—and that is a painful gift, but a gift still.

Maintain what Marcus Borg called “critical faith.”  But stop apologizing for faith; embarrassment about the Spirit is, in intellectual America, another form of good behavior that colludes with oppressive religion.

On this eve of your birthday, remember what you loved: quiet corners, good books, blue, dancing, ritual.  Recall them from your muscle memory and start again.  Remember the foggy early morning you ran from your car, doors flung agape, into a field and danced with teenage friends, shouting: I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more. Remember the clear blue of Zanzibar’s oceans against the bone-white sand and the hungover crossword puzzle you completed with your beloved brother in an East Village coffee hole, the way synonyms offer redemption.  Imagine the world one big, mirrored room in which you might stretch and choreograph a solo.  Build more bookshelves. Buy blue dresses and wear blue stones. Notice your babies’ hands as they fall asleep, how the fingers search for and then rest on some soft part of your body you used to reprimand; receive that grace. Honor your grandmother.

Octavio Paz was right: the past is not past, it is still passing by.

Come with me.  Come, beautiful girl, so that your youth might accompany me into our future.

today

Amen.

Guest Blog at Bourbon and Milk

For the inauguration, I had the honor of writing a short response to the question, “What narrative will you construct to talk to your children about the next four years?” for the blog, “Bourbon and Milk,” at American Short Fiction. I was joined by some other–very wonderful–writers.  You can read our thoughts here:

“Oh, My Dear. Where is that Country?” at American Short Fiction

Sermon for the Adoptive Father (A Christmas Sermon)

Advent season is always a study in the exquisite pain of waiting. We anticipate and prepare for the arrival of good news, a cosmic shift in our capacity for hope. We await the baby.

Never has advent felt more intensely personal a season for me than this year as my husband and I await the birth of a son we’re adopting. He’ll arrive within days or weeks—he’s only 32 weeks gestational age, but his birth mother has a history of preterm delivery, so each day we hold our breath and pray: stay in there little boy, keep cooking. Our eagerness is matched only by our trepidation. After all, such a tenuous border exists between advent and portent. Certain days I experience what the Greeks termed anamnesis, a deep remembering of things past, a kind of epic dejavu. In the church, the Lenten season services are designed as anamnetic tools for remembering, in a deep way, the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus. This advent season, I do more than reflect on the nativity story, I remember at a marrow and molecule level the uncertainty that must have accompanied Mary’s faith act in becoming Jesus’ mother. I have dreams where I encounter hazy angels; sometimes I think I can smell damp hay and manure in Graham’s nursery. I’m not crazy unless what we mistake for insanity is simply an awareness of one’s story as the same old story and a recognition of the “intersection of the banal and the numinous.”

Usually, I go to prenatal appointments with our son’s birth mother alone—not because my husband does not want to participate, but because sometimes the sacred femininity of our mother-to-mother experience needs protecting. He senses an archetypal experience that is not his. But last week, she asked for him and I too wanted him to hear his baby’s heartbeat, a heavenly sound that I had heard many times but he had not.

The clinic room was crowded: the birth mother, me, the social worker, the nurse, and Trip, a lone male in a gaggle of women. The nurse guided the sonogram across the global smoothness of the birth mother’s belly and searched.   Seconds and more second passed. Then, the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh quick-time of the fetal beat.

“He’s going to cry,” I said to the birth mother.

He smiled. And then, as I predicted, he began to cry.

She sat up on the bed. Something in her demeanor shifted. With me, she’s silly and sarcastic; ours is an intimacy built on mutual humor and exasperation with womanly life. We can name singers and actors that the other likes and each other’s favorite foods. I know, for example, that she often swallows her chewing gum. She knows that I despise grading my students’ papers. She and Trip barely know each other, so she seemed dumbstruck by his tears or, rather, snapped into a rare moment of earnestness. She said, “Let him hear it again.”

Adoptive fathers are an interesting case: not much literature exists about adoptive fathers, although lately studies and books have appeared about gay adoptive fathers. The heterosexual adoptive father is like some rarely spotted mythic creature—we all know one, but we don’t have a common narrative—true or false—about them the way we do birth mothers and birth fathers and women who want to adopt children. This has something to do with patriarchy, I think, with legitimacy and fatherhood as linked to rank and honor and ownership.

A few days after Trip heard our son’s heartbeat for the first time, we went to an advent mass. The reading was from chapter one of Matthew, the only Gospel to chronicle Joseph’s holy summons to father the baby Jesus. Matthew begins with a genealogy linking Joseph to the patrilineal line of King David in the Hebrew Bible, the inclusion of which fulfills Old Testament prophecy and legitimizes Jesus as one of the chosen people. To me, it has always felt like a patriarchal postscript to the birth narrative since no other gospel includes it.

Chapter 1 of Matthew reads:

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[i] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,  and they shall name him Emmanuel’,which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[j] and he named him Jesus.

As theses verses were read allowed in the cathedral, I rested my head on my husband’s tweedy shoulder because I heard them in a new way. The verses remind us that Joseph was law-abiding (a “righteous” man), and beholden to custom. However, he also knew that adultery was punishable by death (“public disgrace”) and so decided to dismiss Mary privately to save her and himself. Imagine what it would have taken for such a man to break the law and marry a woman carrying someone else’s child. Never mind that the real father might be a god, Joseph was being asked to become secondary to the story, to—for all intents and purposes—forsake fatherhood in its traditional sense and steward and love a child, not because that child was his but because it was holy in its own right. Indeed, Joseph mostly disappears from the Jesus narrative once Jesus leaves home. The universe calls Joseph to divorce his love from patrimonial law, to act out the role of patriarch in a patriarchal society while privately subverting its rules. The angel asks Joseph to become a vessel for Jesus much in the way Mary too is a vessel—Jesus will never become an extension of his human father nor a trophy to boost his ego.

Joseph has two jobs, it seems: to lend patriarchal lineage to the baby Jesus and to escort him and his young mother out of the dangerous state of Herodian politics. I don’t imagine my soon-to-be-born son as any holier than any other child; certainly he is no savior nor would I place such a burden on a child. And my husband and I aren’t holy either. But it’s hard not to feel the anamnetic pull of story here. By all accounts, Herod was a real estate genius—best known for the infrastructure he created by overseeing the construction of great buildings that even centuries later double as tourist attractions—and at the same time a tyrannical, despotic tetrarch, so much so that one scholar described him as “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.” He prohibited protests and hired spies to monitor the public’s feelings toward him. He ruined anyone he perceived as disloyal. That sounds too familiar to the current historical reality for my liking.

But in that oppressive kingdom, a teenage mother gave birth to new life with the help of an oft-overlooked man who sacrificed the epithet “son of Joseph” for “son of God” as well as any need to “spread his seed” in what we could read as radical opposition to patriarchy. If we are meant to understand sacred mythologies as compasses that redirect us, then perhaps today’s men should consider the example of fatherhood that Joseph illustrates, the suggestion in that great story that the lowliest of children may be their children too and that to decenter themselves from their children’s stories might be the greatest act of patrimonial love and masculine courage.

Meanwhile, we wait. Trip and I hang Christmas lights and take turns reading Dinosaurs Love Tacos to Graham at night, and our bodies tense every time the phone vibrates. We tell each other our dreams every morning, and make Graham repeat his baby brother’s name. He’s your baby too, we say. My baby, he says. I big boy. I think about Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary: “All my life I have loved the Sabbath…I loved the stillness of the morning, my husband and I speaking in whispers, going to my son’s bedroom to be with him, to hold his hand and hush him if he spoke too loudly, or if he forgot that this was not an ordinary day.” I think about what I’ve asked my husband to do by marrying a woman with infertility and a woman who grew mournful and impatient with him because I was so sure about adoption before he was. I think about our birth father too who, contrary to stereotype, is very much in the picture and has asked us to provide for and father the son that he created. I’m so moved by their manhood, its steadfastness and sedition, its relinquishment, and therefore, its abiding strength.

Amen and Merry Christmas.

Sermon for Service

When I was in seventh grade, a teacher assigned me a project. I don’t remember the details of the assignment, but I remember my subject was homelessness. Because of the nature of his work at the time, my father knew some about social issues in Houston, and he offered to drive me to several shelters where I could talk to homeless people about the reality of their lives.

Imagine me: 12 year old girl-woman, in my hot pink muscle shirt and requisite 90s leather wrist band. Black Keds and high ponytail, and my hips just growing soft around their wide bones but my long torso as flat as the streets of my city. My father took me first to Casa Juan Diego, a home that serves refugees, immigrants, and the poor and models itself after Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker. He introduced me to the director, Mark Zwick, a silver-haired man who never smiled but took the time to talk to me slowly and carefully. He answered my questions with a seriousness that lent me some dignity. He didn’t have to, and maybe he did it because he respected my father, but I remember that very starkly: being spoken to as an intelligent, trustworthy person. Zwick died a few weeks ago—my father attended the funeral. Sixteen priests, he told me afterward. I counted. Sixteen priests were on the alter, Sis. That’s how holy a layman he was. After Casa Juan Diego, we drove downtown where we pulled up to the curb along one block. Homeless men lined the sidewalk—talking to each other or sleeping. I opened my car door, but the car engine idled. My father sat with his seatbelt still fastened.

“Daddy?” I asked.

“I’m going to stay here,” he said. “I’ll watch you. I’ll be right here.”

“What do I do?”

“Introduce yourself. Ask them their name and whether they mind answering a few questions because you’re curious about their lives. Let them tell you their story. They’re people just like you.”

I was terrified. But before you think I had an irresponsible, reckless dad (indeed, my teacher raised an eyebrow when she saw the pictures I’d taken, and I told her I talked to homeless people) let me break the suspense. Nothing happened. Some people talked to me and some didn’t. My voice grew less shaky with each question. I probably didn’t venture much more than 30 feet from the car and my father watching, waiting for me. As we drove home, we talked. He listened to what I heard and then framed it for my young mind; he provided context and history to the stories. He helped me understand how and why someone might end up homeless. He encouraged curiosity and empathy rather than pity. I never heard pity in his voice, ever. And because I was sad and frightened, he spoke to me tenderly too.

I’ve been thinking about that day lately. A colleague and I are planning a service learning course for the Interim period at the school where I teach. We attended a conference together where we received training in the difference between “charity” as service and service learning, and then a second session on the leadership capabilities that children need to become global citizens and problem solvers. As we moved through the curriculum, I realized I’d already learned much of it. In practice and in theory, in the careers I had before teaching and in my life. I learned it mostly from witnessing my father and mother live their lives as active and engaged citizens working to create a more equitable world and extending to me respect in the form of talking to me about their work.

Service learning is an experiential education where learning occurs through action and reflection and students work with communities to achieve real objectives and gain skills and understanding for themselves. Its aim is to enhance learning while simultaneously contributing to the common good, and at its best, helping to promote social justice. That’s a lot of words.   The two major differences between community service or charity work and service learning, to me, are: reciprocity and integrated, formative experience.

As for reciprocity, many adults believe their children should “see” people different from themselves, but don’t let their children actually engage with people that might be dangerous or unknown. But to just “see” is not enough. The research reminds us that interaction without context or reflection can actually perpetuate a lack of understanding and empathy, and in worse case scenarios increase fear and distrust.  What students see is filtered through their often narrow experience and positioning.  For example, if students work with homeless people but do not receive any education as to the root causes of homelessness then they’ve merely learned that there are people more unfortunate than them, but they haven’t been empowered to imagine solutions or see the “other” in themselves. Service learning recognizes that impact goes both ways–the community served and the servers share potential for growth and enrichment–and challenges the assumption that privilege alone provides people with more to give.   To approach communities of need by acknowledging what they have to teach our students—and asking them to do so–affords those communities dignity, much in the same way Zwick afforded me dignity, and helps children move from sympathy toward empathy and, therefore, toward lasting engagement and future leadership.

And as for formation, John Dewey, the father of American education, said, “We don’t learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” For example, I’m learning as I write this. Likewise, unless we give social issues an intentional place in our curriculum, and unless we ask our children to reflect on what they see and experience in their lives—at school and in carpools and around the dinner table—we have divorced their “charity” or travel from their education instead of promoting service as a core educational tenet.  We will have turned community engagement into an addendum to their personal and educational story. We may raise children who tithe religiously or make philanthropic efforts (good things, both), but not children empowered to imagine solutions to systemic issues nor motivated to implement and advocate for those solutions. Service learning provides the possibility for moral and spiritual development, endangered characteristics in our various “leaders” of late. To make service an educational experience and to offer academic incentive for service does not diminish its moral value; it enhances it for all involved.

The shadows creep so close, but we adults are lucky, as Jeanette Winterson once wrote, “even the worst of us, because daylight comes.” Daylight comes in the form of babies—we’re in the season that reminds us most of this very basic truth. It’s children that unthread the sun from the horizon’s dark seam. Therefore, we are called to nurture the light they come by naturally. Our children are in danger of indoctrination into cynicism, narcissism, and opportunism from models at the highest level.  But we can innoculate them against such diseases. Dorothy Day herself said, “Together with the Works of Mercy, feeding, clothing, and sheltering our brothers, we must indoctrinate.”  She was using the word subversively; rather than impose Christian doctrine, she meant we must indoctrinate daily ourselves and those we serve into kindness and justice. And we must indoctrinate our children into kindness too. It’s not enough to provide them food and shelter if those things come easily enough to us. It’s not enough to bathe them and sing them to sleep and amass college funds and place presents under our shiny trees. We have to take them toward what may seem ugly and scary and incomprehensible and say, “I’m not going with you, but I’ll be right here.” And then trust their little lights to guide them.

Amen.

 

 

Sermon for Amor Fidelis (On the Death of Fidel Castro)

Fidel Castro is dead.  Which sounds like the name of a band that never rose past its B-sides, but instead is a simple fact of the news today: the man can die, like any other man.

I’ve written about Cuba before on this blog, a place I love more than any other place I’ve visited outside the U.S. I traveled to the island twice in my early 20s because of a job that provided me legal license to bypass the travel ban. I was a young leftist, and though I had studied Cuban history and understood the horrid realities of Castro’s dictatorship–or thought I did, having grown up too with the daughter of Cuban exiles and spent years in and out of love with the son of other Cuban exiles–I couldn’t help but be enamored by the island’s and its leaders defiance toward problematic truths I had recently discovered: imperialist history, the violation of unchecked capitalism, U.S. collusion in the mistreatment and repression of Latin America’s various citizens. And, of course, I was enamored by the island itself: those midday rainstorms and the salty steam rising from bare arms, mine and everyone else’s too, the swivel hips and thrum of drums.

When I arrived home after my first visit, I related a story to my father I’d heard about Fidel.  A bus driver told me that, once, upon stopping in to a neighborhood pool and hearing from residents about its inadequacy, he demanded immediately that the pool be restored for residents and their children, especially.  And it was.  What Fidel requested, he received.  The bus driver told the story with deep admiration, deep loyalty, and his face warmed to the color of creamed coffee.

“Isn’t that something?” I asked my dad.

“It’d be more of something,” he responded calmly, “if the community was empowered to restore the pool for themselves.”

Just like that, my father appropriately deflated the man and the myth for me, and reminded me of the benevolent side of free enterprise and decentralized power.

I’ve been thinking about that moment today, and about the Cuban leader’s name: Fidel, which comes from the Latin fidelis for faith, trust, belief. It’s also the root word for what I had admired in him, his defiance or challenge to faith.  A rich irony emerges from the etymology here.  What Fidel maintained fidelity to most of all perhaps, above communism, above any Platonic ideal of Cuba, –was defiance itself. He was always working against something, always embodied the antithesis and never the synthesis (imagine Hegel and Marx shaking their heads from their respective graves).  But he never defied himself. And that’s just it, right?  True fidelity–in marriage, in religion, in governance too–requires a defiance of the Self. In the end, he wasn’t revolutionary enough, and therefore, betrayed the confidence (also from the Latin root fidelis) of his people.

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Junot Diaz, the author of the novel, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a book as much about the dangers of dictatorships as any Sci-Fi nerd, said in an interview that “the real dictatorship is in the book itself.”  When asked to explain himself he said:

We all dream dreams of unity, of purity; we all dream that there’s an authoritative voice out there that will explain things, including ourselves. If it wasn’t for our longing for these things, I doubt the novel or the short story would exist in its current form. I’m not going to say much more on the topic. Just remember: In dictatorships, only one person is really allowed to speak. And when I write a book or a story, I too am the only one speaking, no matter how I hide behind my characters.

Fidel was a master storyteller and story-manipulator, and I fell for the story on that bus on the broken Havana streets. I have to admire that in him.  Because look at me, writing “sermons” without any real ordination, without the confidence of a congregation or citizenry.  We all have authoritarian instincts.  Ultimately, Fidel Castro’s failures have something to teach us about amor fidelis, the truth that faith and love ask us to work in defiance of these instincts, to dethrone the Self.

We’d be wise to take note of that fact, especially in our country, especially now.

Amen.