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.


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.


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.



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:
‘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.




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.


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.


Sermon for Self-Purification

Since election night, I’ve been waiting for my leadership–any leadership: in my workplace, in my church, in my political party–to say something.  They haven’t.  Not the something I’ve been waiting for.  I’ve heard many calls for unity, for “moving toward one another,” even for action.  Many leaders have implored us to enact love and respect, to begin the process of reconciliation we’ll need to recover from the divisiveness of the election.

The problem with that message, for me, and for many others, I think, is simple psychology: trauma.  This election is different from other ones, and many of my friends feel trauma more than disappointment or anger.  We can see this difference playing out in the number of people seeking therapists, calling in sick, and in our schools where our children imitate us in a sick micro-performance as detailed in yesterday’s Sunday Times.  My husband and I work in schools, and without risking my job or my husband’s job, I can say parts of the Sunday article ring true–our ugliness has passed on to our children who do not necessarily have the tools to regroup. People are traumatized, especially the losers. Some children of the winners are behaving really badly, mostly because–I suspect–they’re skeptical now of their own beauty and worth. To ask these traumatized people to spend time with the other side is to ask them to jeopardize their health and well-being, at least in the immediate aftermath.  There are ways to “spend time” with the other side that are safer for them right now.  They can dedicate their prayers to someone they don’t understand, practice contemplative prayer, journal, etc.  But many of us cannot stay in the room with the other side yet. And many of us feel the burden of “unity” falls on us.  After all, one political party’s campaign slogan was “Stronger Together” and the other’s was “Make America [Enter Any Derogatory Adjective Here] Again.”

Too many of our schools and churches are asking us to enact radical love by skipping the vital step of self-care and self-preparation and without providing us spaces for that care. The best sermon or speech–one I haven’t heard yet–would be one on the process of grief and on the great instances in the Bible and other mythology of heroes (I’m using Joseph Campbell’s understanding of “hero” here) of people retreating into silence and isolation first before they enter the atonement phase: Moses on Mt. Sinai, Odysseus on Calypso’s island, Luke Skywalker on Skellig Michael.  Christianity’s Luke tells us in Ch. 5 that Jesus often “withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Or in The Gospel of Matthew, after John the Baptist is beheaded, he withdraws “privately to a desolate place.”  Again and again he does that–before and after performing miracles, in times of grief, in preparation for his ultimate act of love.

I can’t help but think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s four requirements for nonviolent resistance: collection of facts, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. Last year, I participated in a  study group where we reread  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and then met in the back offices of the Menil Collection–how beautiful, in the belly of the art house!– to discuss it.  We focused for part of the discussion on a section I had overlooked before, although I’ve read the letter and taught it many times.   Dr. King speaks directly in the letter to the need for self-purification: an internal process of introspection, experiential learning, community building; in short, the mental and emotional work of metabolizing trauma in order to prepare to practice radical love. He did not allow anyone to join the boycotts or sit-ins or talk to government leaders until they’d gone through the self-purification process, alone and in communion with other African-Americans.  “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and rest,” Jesus says to his disciples in Mark. By yourselves.

Those of us who saw clearly what the President-elect and his supporters are–people willing to bargain for their interests with racism, xenophobia, and sexism even if they don’t believe themselves to be racist and sexist–need time for self-purification, and many of the protests are exactly that, a crying out in community so that we can go back into our families and communities lovingly.  Or, as my philosopher friend, Eric, put it: “Protest is the aesthetic performance of solidarity, a cathartic sharing.  Protest is one way in which we activate empathy and transform tragedy into beauty.”  It’s a necessary first step toward love.  We’ve experienced a beheading of sorts, and rites of passage first separate the participant from the rest of society and remove them from ordinary time.

Our various leaders are right that if we spend time with one another in the daily human rituals of our lives we would learn and heal. And, ultimately, we must love our enemies. But this week, because of Thanksgiving break, I’m just so, so relieved to not have to be near certain people. I need time to retreat into a holy solitude.  For one thing, I’m reading a string of mystery novels with female protagonists who nab the bad guy.  On a more serious note, yesterday, Trip and I were confirmed and received, respectively, into the Episcopalian church, and I’m spending the week with people I love and trust and avoiding anyone who voted for the President-elect.  I’m purifying myself so I can–hopefully–reach toward the love I believe in so much and to which I’m called. It’s hard, thankless work.  Harder for some of us than others, and that difference in the degree of sacrifice and vulnerability needs to be acknowledged.

I cannot transform my house, my classroom, my neighborhood, or my nation into a beloved community–and I must–until I have a quiet place to rest.

I hope this week we all take time to rest and restore, without apology and with whomever we choose.




Sermon for Grace

Someone grabbed my pussy once. Grabbed it and forced their fingers inside it. I was 14 years old. Broad daylight; adults present. I was in a neighborhood swimming pool, a pool all the other new girls of the 70-member high school dance team and I had just danced around in our padded bikinis while the football team watched and cheered. Not only did adults witness this initiation, they planned it. Coaches and directors and parents. It was Texas, 1993. Donald Trump would have been 47 years old then.

I’ve written about this sexual assault in more lyric, nuanced, and complex ways and published my writing in a respected literary magazine. I’ve read the essay aloud to a live audience. I’ve won an award for it. But more people will read this blog post than said literary magazine, which might hint at one small problem with our electorate and is one reason I’m winching it up like a dead body from the dark pond of history now.

Trump has excused his words as “locker room talk.” I don’t know if the football player who grabbed my pussy talked about it in the locker room beforehand or not. I don’t even know who he is, although later a high school Assistant Principal and a football coach would try to convince me it was a black player I’d never met. Like I said, Texas. I don’t know if it was him—there were so many hands all over my body in that pool, so many bodies. I never named him because my perpetrator was nameless. A whole team. A whole school. A whole culture. It took me almost 10 years to name what happened to me, to say the words, “sexual assault.”   I thought it was normal, because it was. If a team of players assaulted me, a team of players has assaulted us too. The Republican Party might as well wear numbered uniforms and face masks.

In the last two days many, many women writers have published pieces in response to Trump and his Republican party, most recently and powerfully the Guardian’s Lindy West in a New York Times editorial where she states, “Every woman knows a version of Donald Trump.” Other women have left social media altogether, acts of self-protection against the bullets of a relentless trigger. Before I started writing this I thought, who needs more of this? Except I think we do—not more of the politicized commentary and sensationalism (is anyone surprised by that video?), but more of women’s voices saying in whatever language they speak: men grab women’s pussies everyday. This is not a hypothetical, not a joke. When men make those “jokes,” they have the force and veracity of history behind them.

Tonight my husband—a former Texas high school football player—drove our son to my in-laws’ house, and I used the precious alone time to walk along the bayou that curls through the city. As I walked and the drowsy sun leaked pink and purple across the skyline, I wept. I also realized, twenty some years after that day in the pool, what bothers me most about Trump’s language. It’s not “pussy” like you’d think. It’s the word “grab.” To seize roughly. To steal. To arouse attention. Isn’t that what Trump has been doing all along? Stealing things, our attention perhaps most of all.

Real power doesn’t grab. It invites and inspires and encourages, the way the women at Smith College loved me into saying the words “sexual assault,” the way the biggest loves of my life—beautiful, gentle men—loved my Texas back into a place of lonesome blue hills, wide skies, and guttural vowels like big, bear hugs around my ears. Real power moves gracefully; indeed, grace often arrives so softly and so subtlety….The two senior boys I teach critical theory, football players, whose personal essays that I graded today revealed  hearts as vast as republics.  The man I watched this morning at the restaurant as he fed his 1-year old daughter bites of pancake while shaking his head at the Texans.  The threads of women’s voices weaving  a burial shroud across our news feeds and papers.  A sunset and a season shift.  Grace amasses with so much smallness and humility that we’ve been living in it for years before we know its name.







Sermon for Something Beautiful: A Weather Report


If there’s anything you can count on Newfoundlanders for it’s a love of children and a concern for the weather.

Some sweet is he, a Newfie says as we pass each other on the down curve of Rolling Cove Road. He points at Graham busy tugging at my arm and clenching a gray and brown speckled pebble in his other hand. A handsome lad, eh?

If I’m walking alone, it’s Good morning, lovey. Nice day. Rain’s coming, though.

Is it now? I ask, attempting to mimic the local lilt and dialect.   The sky is a lavender blue, cloudless, and the bay glistens and shines like a polished indigo stone.

This afternoon it’ll come.

It’s hard to imagine, but he’s right. Two hours later the rain begins to drop in coin-size chunks, and, counter intuitively, it falls from the sunlight and the clouds appear later, grimy on the horizon.

Every evening we drive to the cape, a journey that could get boring if the weather and view ever stayed the same, but they don’t. On an island peninsula in the North Atlantic, you might experience three seasons in one day. Distant landmasses might appear and disappear on the water. That’s what happened to us yesterday.

My husband and I drove with Graham up to Landfall National Park, near the cape, where a statue of John Cabot—discoverer of the New World!—watches over the ocean he crossed in 1497, and where we discovered days ago a pond hidden in the rocky hills in which the seagulls congregate. Graham loves the seagulls. Bird! Bird! he says and flaps his elbows, more scarecrow than gull. He shrieks when they startle and take flight, enthralled by his power to propel their wings. We bring days old bread to lure them close. It’s 5 o’clock, sunny and the clouds stretch like white linen above us. But as we move upward toward the park, a fog blankets the water and us, the temperature dropping 20 degrees at least, and I have to struggle Graham’s sweatshirt over his bare arms. The rain begins so suddenly I can barely pull my hood over my head in time. No birds. We run for cover under the Dairy King’s awning where a waitress pops her head out of the walk-up window, Thunderstorm warning, she says. I hate that. We never have those.

How Newfies get such news remains a mystery to me. Thunderstorm? I think. My forearms still sting with the sunburn I earned just hours ago.

We drive home. As we drive we watch a small fishing boat race for shore, the wall of fog like an apocalypse chasing it. In minutes, it’s completely shrouded in clouds, and I imagine the disorientation its passengers feel from inside the blinding condensation. No shore in sight.

The storm’s over in less than 45 minutes, and the sun reappears. So does the boat, motoring its way toward the harbor as though it hadn’t just sailed through purgatory.

We try again. Back up to the park, to John Cabot’s steadfast posture on the rocks. My parents come along. We bring more bread since Graham has eaten most of our original stash.

A seagull perches on top of Cabot’s head.

“That must be some kind of omen,” my dad says. “Whatever it means, it’s certainly disrespectful.”

Just as we come over the hill to greet the pond, another fog envelops us. I can’t see Graham who I know is holding my mother’s hand maybe 15 feet in front of me. I also know there are cliffs past the pond, giant cliffs with steep drops and though I know my mother won’t take him that way, my chest thuds.

There’s nothing to do but wait it out. So we do.

As the fog lifts, we see a host of seagulls floating on the pond, white ornaments bobbing.   Past them, a sky like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life, so spectacular we all stop in our tracks, even Graham, and stare.

The water is flat, ribbons of purple-silver slowly bending like an inhaling and exhaling of breath. Pink rays of sun fan out from the sky into the water painting circles of light yellow onto its surface. The clouds are like snowy mountains sitting on the horizon, and their undersides burn the color of blood oranges or the red flare of rekindled cinders.

Oh. Wow, my father says.

God, I manage to reply, and I turn toward my husband to watch his face alight and my son test his balance by stepping from the spongy grass onto a spiky rock, my mother’s hand still holding his even as she stares seaward. The word that comes to mind is revelation: I feel like I’ve been shown something too big for me to understand in the moment of showing.

Our drive down toward home is unhurried, because cars stop and pull over so visitors can hang their cameras out the windows, each crook in the cape road offering up a new view. A black fox ventures out of the crag for cookies people toss out. Our Ford Focus can’t pick up radio stations so we’ve been listening to a Simon and Garfunkle CD on repeat for a week. Graham loves “Cecilia,” because we all belt out the lyrics and clap. Right now, it’s “The Only Living Boy in New York,” and we all sing under our breath, “I get all the news I need from the weather report.”

Newfoundland is a parenthesis in the paragraph of my summer.  In my normal life, back at home in Houston, where the weather is as predictable and muggy and gross as morning breath, I was and will be in a strange period of waiting. Waiting for various forms of news that might change my life in serious ways. I was also, like everyone, waking up daily to an unexpected storm: shootings by police officers and of police officers, foreign rampages, pseudo-coups, running mates and economic woe, a collective rage constantly fogging television screens and social networks. I walked around then and will walk around when we return inside an anxiety haze, every day taut as an anchor hitch.

Here in Bonavista, after we finally descend back home, my dad will walk up to the pub as he does every night to shoot the shit with locals and from where he will bring back predictions about the capelin’s arrival on shore and the humpback whales breeching and, yes, tomorrow’s weather, and my mom, my husband and I will sit around a circular table and play Yahtzee—through the monitor in the center of the table, we will be able to hear my soundless son sleeping through the white noise of a fake ocean on top of the crashing water of the real ocean outside his window. We will call each other wicked names after unlucky rolls of the dice and laugh and stop occasionally to glimpse the changing sky outside, the sun that sets slowly here, a night owl sun sleeping whenever it feels like it. Another fog forms far away on the water, a tall barricade of smoke and so foreboding. But it’s not here yet. And when it arrives, we’ll know to hold still in our raincoats. We’ll know to wait it out.

Something beautiful is coming.