Sermon Against Striving

When I finished my MFA program in Creative Writing at the age of 30, I began to fret.  I had no book deal.  I had no money.  I had no boyfriend or husband or child.  I had no job.  What had I been working so hard toward?  I walked around in a perpetual state of anxiety mostly thinking, “I should have gone to law school.”

One day I expressed my anxiety to my father the way I normally express it: through comparison.  Such-and-such friend got accepted to Breadloaf or got an agent for his novel, I’d say.  And such and such friend is pregnant.  So and so from high school has a retirement plan.  I’ll never forget his response.  He told me, “Casey.  Just because you went to graduate school, doesn’t mean you have to be a writer.  It is a gift for anyone to have three years to spend learning a craft.  Even if you never get a book deal, your time honing your craft will not have been for nothing.  It will have enriched your life.”

Another mentor–a poet whose young daughter I cared for–told me something similar.  She said, “Don’t apply to writing conferences.  Don’t look outward like so many young authors for validation.  Just write something good.” 

In both cases I was released briefly from my constant state of striving.  Their words worked in direct counterpoint to the aims of an English professor I had in college who was so rigid and joyless in her expectations for essays and class discussion and intellectual achievement that I still hate Romantic poetry and prose.  This martinet of a teacher–her grey perm looked like an armored helmet–almost kept me soured me on literature classes and writing for the rest of my life.  It took me 6 years, 2 degrees, and 3 jobs to return to writing after her stupid class.

I teach students who live in a constant state of striving–work harder, get better grades, run faster, do more, achieve, achieve, achieve.   I feel exhausted just listening to them talk.  I also empathize.  But, mostly, I want to scream at them to stop striving.  I want to slap them across their faces like I’m Cher in Moonstruck, and say, “Snap out of it.”

Because….what are we striving for?

I’m not making an argument against rigor or discipline here–those practices serve us well, but they work best when they arise from calm and a sense of perspective rather than from desperate urgency or unchecked, egoistic desire.  Or, at least they do for me.  I tried to explain this once to an ex-boyfriend, another writer.  

I said, “I write better when I imagine that I can affect a small audience.  I’d be happy with a column or a book read by smart people.  I’m better when I’m unshackled from achievement.  I don’t necessarily think I’m good enough to win the Pulitzer, and that’s okay with me.”

He said, “Really?  I wouldn’t be able to keep writing if I DIDN’T believe I was good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize.”

I should have broken up with him right then and there, but I would have “failed” at keeping the relationship going and I was a hardcore striver, you see, so failure was not an option. (P.S. Surprise, surprise, we failed anyway, and thank God for that).

Yesterday I sat through a yoga teacher training about spinal anatomy.  During the session I learned that the pelvic bones do not fully fuse in humans until the late teen years, for males sometimes as late as 21 years of age.  The point?  That asking teenagers to perform repetitive movements that cause strain (weight-lifting, for example) can warp the bones before fusion, causing all kinds of lifelong posture and mobility problems.  Children are meant to play, not perform or achieve.  This, of course, doesn’t mean they won’t achieve or have successes or learn or grow, but the constant striving toward achievement can damage them.  And if science shows the possibility for damage in their physical bodies from too much striving, what about their emotional and intellectual beings?

And speaking of science, neuroscientist David Eagleman spoke to teachers and students at my school today about the unconscious brain.  One thing he said resonated with me: the unconscious mind can do all kinds of things that the conscious mind interferes with.   What is a constant state of striving for achievement if not the conscious mind placing demands on the often unconscious work of art-making or idea-generation? Eagleman also reiterated again and again the importance of emotional salience in work and learning.  Students (and humans in general) perform better–achieve more–when the tasks required of them engage them emotionally.  

What are the ramifications of all this on writing and the teaching of writing?  For me, the following:

1. The more I “strive” to be a better teacher, if said striving means constant anxiety about adhering to and successfully completing a tight list of objectives limited to the scope of academia, the more I’m going to exhaust myself and do a disservice to my students.  

2. We adults can set the expectations for young people.  We can say with our actions, words, and demeanor and with our own life choices that intellectual play, intellectual integrity, and intellectual risk matter more than intellectual achievement.  We can keep their intellectual “bones” healthy so that when they finally fuse they function correctly and facilitate rather than hinder movement. 

3. I can ask my students to love reading and writing at an unconscious, emotional and visceral level first before I then direct their conscious, striving minds to interfere. For a great manifesto on this, read Dean Bakopoulos’ “Straight Through the Heart.”

4. In my own life, I can wake up everyday and know that I am enough.  I am enough.  My life is enough and always was.  And then I can work hard.  But my decision to work hard must stem from a real awareness of my internal worth, from the core of my soul, rather than from a list of elusive, ever bigger accomplishments. 

5. We must all play.  We must all rest.  These actions are not wastes of time.  They are vital, nourishing, and preeminent.  Maintaining respect for play and rest is quite different from settling for mediocrity.

6. We should all get a “B” at least once in our lives, in school and in life.  It builds our characters and teaches us resilience.  Sometimes getting a “B” or “C” is also a nice way to say “Screw you” to things and people that don’t really matter.

I don’t think any teacher can make all her students amazing writers, and striving to do so might kill her.  Aiming for the Pulitzer Prize might kill me too.  But I think each student and each piece of writing I put into the world matters, because I believe in stories—their power to make sense of fact, their power to create meaning and hope for people.  Stories offer us solace, because they give us characters into whose shoes we can safely step for a while.  Novels, stories and poems speak to our whole person.  They open up the rusty doorways that lead to empathy and communion, an opening that is critical for adolescents who are trying to navigate the newly complex world around them.  Learning to read and write well offers us a way of thinking that is invaluable, regardless of whether it makes us any money or gets us into the Ivy League.  My father said this to me in his words.  Rainier Maria Rilke also speaks to the value of every person learning a craft in his Letters to a Young Poet when he writes, “But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet…Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching that I ask of you will not have been for nothing.”

And, you might just achieve something along the way.  

 

Amen. 

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Sermon for a Girl in Steubenville, Ohio

Lord, have mercy.

I’ve been following the rape trial of a girl in Steubenville, Ohio who has accused two football players of  “digital penetration.”  In Ohio, as in some other states, the legal definition of rape includes penetration with fingers, or other foreign objects.  Yesterday, this 16 year old girl testified for two hours about what she doesn’t remember from that night and the social media shit-storm (a video the boys posted to YouTube of her naked in a basement, etc.) that she used to piece together what happened to her.  

I was struck by two things:

1. We all have to piece together our trauma, refracted as it is by the mishappen glass of our memories. 

2. The New York Times writes: “Mr. Mays and Mr. Richmond were rising stars in the football program, and some Steubenville residents have complained about a culture that protects the team. Others say the girl, her supporters and the news media have blown the episode out of proportion.” Have blown the episode out of proportion.  My heart feels its fault lines move.  

I have been this girl.  I am this girl.  

Instead of completing this post, I want to include an memoir piece I wrote years ago, first published in the literary journal, Fourth Genre, in the spring of 2007.  It’s much longer than a blog post, but if you’d like to read it, I’ll embed the text here for you.  Please keep in mind that I subscribe to Tim O’Brien’s idea: I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.  

These things happened to me.  But I love my friends and family, so some of the characters are composites, some things omitted, some things blurred.  

I offer this to her, that girl in Steubenville.  Brave girl. 


Amen.

 

Take Me With You

 

by Casey Fleming

 

If I could tell this story as my former self I would. If I could tell it in your words. But I can’t. I hardly know you anymore. I hardly know the place you come from, the place you live, the place I loved once. If I could tell the truth, I would do that too.This is my truth—not yours.You would have kicked and screamed at some of the things I will say about you and your native home, about your parents. No, you were not a screamer.You would have grieved quietly, and alone, as usual.You might have—maybe—written an enigmatic sentence or two in your journal and then laid your head down for a restless sleep.

What haunt me are the things you will never know.You will never know that the woman I am now wants to tell you, it’s okay, you’re okay. I need you to believe me. 

**

Houston. September, 1992. The football boys were already lined up around the edge of the pool, their feet dangling in the water, splashes shattering into the air like fireworks. They were a happy bunch. Rachel hissed into your ear, Oh, GOD, this is going to be embarrassing. Look, look. Mike is right in front of the diving board! Rachel let out a squeal that annoyed you. It seemed childish, and on this day you wanted to be anything but a child.

Your new bathing suit had padded lining, so your boobs, at least at first glance, appeared to stick out further than your rib cage. You tugged at the elastic edges, already self-conscious about having a significantly larger back- side than other 15-year-old girls. Only three weeks earlier Joe Kleinfelder told you that you looked like a pear—little on top and big on the bottom. You wanted to be mad, but deep down knew he was right. It’s okay, he said, the black guys will like you. Your biggest fear that day, besides being a child, was being too much of a woman. You couldn’t imagine anything much worse than your ass hanging out the back of your bikini for the whole free world to see.

You and her friends had planned for this day—you all knew it was com- ing. Drill team initiation. No one could dance during football season, unless they went through this process. The current members of the team prepared you: you learned a special dance, a song to sing, and a certain way to swing your hips, the perfect form to use when jumping, in full straddle, from the high diving board. Each girl was to dance, by herself, around the deep end of the pool where the players eagerly anticipated the show, climb up the ladder to the high dive, and sing the required song before jumping. The players formed a fence around the deep end and stared toward the div- ing board, awaiting this performance; the sweat of their muscled shoulders gleamed; their lower legs disappeared into the water. We all went through it, the elder girls assured the freshman, it’s supposed to be embarrassingYou’ll sur- vive, said Allison Cauldwell. Allison was your “big sister,” a sophomore, so she had already been initiated last year. Like you, Allison had a crush on Mike McCormick, but she also put hand-decorated picture frames and a gold-and-black teddy bear in your welcome basket that morning, so you didn’t confide in her that Mike walked you to your locker every day after sixth period, and that sometimes his hand slid across your lower back when he left you.

When you first arrived Coach Ryan greeted you. Howdy, little one. Where’s your mama? You told him she was at a swim meet with your brother. Coach Ryan was friends with your mother, who taught down the hall from him in the science wing of your high school.

Rachel giggled again. Amy Howard complained to her mother, a chap- erone, that she didn’t want to do it. That she couldn’t do it. Her voice cracked, but her mother pushed her into line behind Rachel and said, Oh, Amy. You felt sorry for her— Amy never wore shirts that didn’t cover her stomach, or shorts that ended above her knees, and she limited her makeup to mascara. Today she was the only girl wearing a one-piece swimsuit.

You scanned the crowd of players for a familiar face. Mike McCormick caught your eye briefly and smiled—a gentle smile and then a quick wave. For a second, you felt safe because you remembered what Mike’s hand felt like on your thigh the other day in Spanish class, when he asked you for a pen. It felt warm, and strong, and seeped through your jeans like hot water.

Hallie Spencer was the first girl to go. The rest of you coerced her into being the guinea pig because you knew she’d get more applause than anyone else. She had a killer body. Her voice was unnaturally soft, almost broken, when she stood at the edge of the board and sang: I’m a gopher girl and I always gopher guys, and when they don’t gopher me, I always wonder why. Then she crossed her hands over her chest when she jumped, and so couldn’t touch her toes on the straddle jump like she was supposed to. The football players booed and cracked up. Hallie slowly emerged and broke the surface of the water, her painstakingly hair-sprayed bangs slapped tight to her forehead.

**

I ran into one of those football players not too long ago. I saw him at some shady night club I was coerced into visiting by some of my old high school friends. Marcus— a black football player, also voted Best Looking Male of your graduating class.

I expected him to be as you described him to me: arrogant, dismissive, cocky. But instead he too seemed uninterested in the club patrons, the neon disco globes, the bad DJ. He pulled me into a corner booth and asked a lot about my life. He remembered you fondly. I told him about the East Coast, and he filled me in on the West Coast. He’d been living in L.A. the past three or four years.

You’ll see me, he said, on the next season of The Bachelorette.

Get out! I said. So, it’s already been filmed. Can’t you tell me what happens?

No. I’m under contract.

I bet you make it to the final round. Obviously, you don’t win, because you’re not married, I said.

He winked.

A few months later I sat all my closest friends down in my apartment living room to watch The Bachelorette, a silly show about a young woman who picks a hus- band from a group of bachelors the TV station has chosen for her. Marcus only made it to round two. I was surprised, but Avé, my most honest friend, said,

“Yeah, right. They always get rid of the black guy on the second episode. They don’t want to appear racist by cutting him the first round, so they wait until the second. But they sure as hell don’t want to bring a black guy home to mama, let alone the national viewing public.”

**

You can’t remember much of your turn, except for the bile threatening its way up your throat and the heart’s endless hammering. You were, however, keenly aware of the way your bathing suit rode up in the back as your hips popped from side to side. You climbed the diving board. You had to go slowly because your legs shook. You walked to the end and sang your song. You sent up a quick prayer that when you straddled the air your pubic hair didn’t hangout. Somehow you hadn’t anticipated anything after the jump—that blessed freefall. Under water, all you could see were the players’ swollen calves and feet in all directions, so you swam toward the shallow end of the pool to avoid them, and watched from there while Rachel, and Maria, and poor Amy Howard, and Gabriela, and Latisha, and everyone else took their turn. Each of their tender bodies glowed briefly against the blank, hot sky and you wanted to remember them that way: frozen in time above the diving board.

**

When I went North for college, I entered the first-year class of Smith College the same year that fellow Texan Ruth Simmons took office there as the first black pres- ident of an Ivy League school. The Houston Chronicle headline read: Making History.The newspaper explained:

When she is installed as president of Smith College on September 30, Ruth Simmons, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of Texas sharecroppers, will become the first black woman to head a top- ranked college in the United States.

I told some women there your story. I joined a group called Rape Awareness and was promptly assured that your story did not qualify, and more importantly, that everyone knows what kind of girls become cheerleaders. A young woman with a shaved head and thrift store clothing and a house on Martha’s Vineyard told me I could support survivors but not be one, as though I was trying to join a sorority. I tried to explain the difference between a cheerleader and a drill team colonel, but at the end of the day, they both have pompoms.

Ruth Simmons and I went North together, experienced the heaviest snowfall of the century that first fall semester. I did not even own a scarf.

My senior year, after someone had drawn a stick figure hanging from a noose on the marker board outside a black student’s dorm room, the Black Students Alliance organized a rally. I attended. So did Ruth. None of us expected her. If I could explain to you the composure and grace and quiet strength this woman exuded every day, you might understand why we all adored her so much. How many student bod- ies do you know that erupt into applause every time their college president enters a room? If I could explain to you the example of success and refinement she offered us, you might understand the vast silence, and the quickening pulse of the crowd when she began, unabashedly, to cry, as she said into the microphone: I moved away from Houston a long time ago, and I had hoped that I would never see anything like this outside of the South. I believed this place was different.

** 

After everyone took their turn jumping off the diving board, the players and elder drill team members joined you all to play in the shallow end of the pool. All you recall is a number of baritone voices and tanned bodies all around, and being pushed toward the center of the group. They’ll throw you in the air, someone yelled to you—you think maybe Hallie. It’s fun. Then you were there with all their big hands everywhere, sliding across your skin, slithering, preparing you to be launched. You balled yourself up to be shot into the air like a cannonball. It was only a split second, but your skin crawled and you realized your bikini bottom was creeping up and you felt something like a tampon, but harder, alive, moving—a finger, then sev- eral fingers, then somebody else’s fingers—and then a moment of nothing but bright blue before you hit the water again. For a brief second, you expected to see a brownish cloud appear in the water between your legs, and then you thanked God you weren’t hurt bad enough to bleed.

At the other end of the pool you coughed up water and then told Rachel. Someone stuck their fingers, you whispered. She threw you a wild- eyed look, but she also touched your arm. Someone stuck their fingers inside meAnd moved them around. Thighs clamped shut—hers and yours—and then there was the commotion.

Allison Cauldwell was crying on the side of the pool, her wet blonde hair turned a slimy shade of green, and directors’ and coaches’ mouths moved in a mad frenzy. The football players shook their heads and threw their hands up like we don’t know what you’re talking about.

Please stop crying Allison, you thought, you’re making a scene. Rachel whis- pered, do you think they did it to her too? And then it did became a scene: mothers hastily plucking their daughters out of the water, Ms. Bates—the drill team director—screaming at Coach Ryan about protecting her“girls,” a few angry football players pointing fingers or standing quietly in the background with their eyes nailed to their feet.

**

In college I took a class that reminded me of you. Gender in the African American Community.To this day, I swear that it was my best college course, even though it wasn’t at Smith Collegeit was during the fall semester of my year at the University of Texas. I also swear that Professor Anderson, with his brown skin and sea-green eyes, was the best teacher I ever knew and the first in a long string of pro- fessor-crushes I would have in my adulthood. He drew a triangle on the blackboard and at each of three points wrote the words in scrawling letters: race, class, gender. Then he asked the men in the class, mostly athletes and black, if they thought racism or sexism a worse crime.They laughed.

One Tuesday I raised my hand to point out that the Black Panthers treated their female members like slaves. I felt mean when I said it, but my voice did not quiver. I actually used the word slaves.When the men began to argue with me—vehe- mently—Professor Anderson raised his right hand high into the air to silence them. I think she has a good point, he said in his calm, velveteen voice.

I thought of you then. I couldn’t help it.That tiny scar I have somewhere inside me pulsed and grew pink—it ached as though it could sense a heavy storm on the horizon.

** 

Monday morning at school gossip whirled through the halls in hurricane fashion, turning heads, slamming lockers, and raising voices. Allison is leav- ing school, she’s switching schools, someone told you. Rachel passed you a note in biology: Allison’s parents came into the building this morning, all hell is about to break loose. Her face barely contained her excitement when she slid the note over your desk. And then Corey Locklin, a cheerleader, told several girls at your lunch table that DeAndre Lewis did it, and Allison’s parents wanted him expelled and maybe charged.

DeAndre Lewis. His name did not ring a bell. But you envied Allison her memory. In your mind, those fingers inside you had many faces—all those hands, how could you have connected them to one specific face? Your perpetrator looked like a team, not a person.

During sixth period you wondered if Mike would meet you outside class, whether he would pretend to have passed by with friends as usual, and whether he might hold your hand this time. Sometime between Great Expectations and semicolons, a student aide popped her head into your English classroom—excuse me, she said, Ms. Jackson wants to see Casey Fleming in her office.

The walk to Ms. Jackson’s office was long, and abnormally quiet, so quiet you could hear each footstep as it rattled the lockers and echoed. Ms. Jackson was an assistant principal and in all your years of schooling you had never been called to a principal’s office for any reason. And she was not just any assistant principal—other students warned of her potential for mean- ness. She had pale skin and her hair was huge and curly; most people referred to her by her student-given nickname: the Fro Ho. Although it seemed unlikely, you couldn’t help but feel as though you were in trouble, so you pulled hard on your lower lip and your bladder tightened.

Four people stood in Ms. Jackson’s office when you arrived: Coach Ryan, an assistant football coach whose name you never knew but who had deep acne scars pocked into his cheeks and forehead, Ms. Jackson, and Corey Locklin.

Casey, come on in and sit down.This is about the Drill Team Initiation this past Saturday.

Ms. Jackson looked up briefly at Coach Ryan as if they shared some secret. Her enormous hair cast shadows on the wall behind her. Coach Ryan nodded.

Something unfortunate happened, I understand, and I don’t want to pressure you, but Corey here informed us that you may have been involved as well?

The only thing you knew about Corey Locklin was that she had a huge forehead, went to fake tanning beds, and had an alcoholic mother who wore gaudy, jewel-heavy rings on her fingers. She was not your friend.

Corey, Coach Ryan interjected, thank you for being so honest with us and concerned about your friend.You can go now. Go on. Git.

Corey left and as she closed the door her hair swung over her shoulder—it reminded you of a hand-painted fan your grandmother brought back from China, black and very thick.

Casey.We need you to tell us exactly what happened to you.Allison’s parents are very upset.

You told them what you could.

Thank you. I understand this is hard, but we need you to tell us exactly where he touched you. Don’t be embarrassed to use the word.

The voice you used then—vagina?—sounded like a stranger’s voice and your insides cringed to hear it.

Okay, now. Coach Ryan here is prepared to kick DeAndre off the team and speak to his parents. Does that sound okay to you?

I don’t know. Coach Ryan’s smile scared you. I don’t—I can’t be sure it was him. Just him, I mean. I couldn’t tell.There were so many people.

But was it a black boy? With a gold tooth?
I don’t—probably.
DeAndre? We need at least two witnesses to take any action.
I don’t know.
The air-conditioner’s whirring rubbed up against the silence. The leather chair squeaked against your jeans. Everyone waited for you to say something more, but you didn’t.

** 

The things you confessed to me years later: There were more black players than white on the football team.You never knew many of their names.There were only 3 black girls on the entire 70-member drill team, and no black cheerleaders. After that day, you never dated Mike McCormick.You wanted it to be DeAndre.You wanted to blame him too. It would have made everything easier.You had a night- mare that night that would reoccur throughout your adulthood. In it, you drive a car up the Sam Houston Tollway, where it climbs up and up before splitting off into I-10 East and I-10 West.Your brakes give out, you can’t turn right or left.You crash through the barrier and go flying off the end of the highway into a sheet of clouds.

**

After you returned to class, and the bell rang, you saw Mike standing against the wall, alone, staring right at you. He did not even pretend to be passing by with friends. The two of you walked in silence. You walked all the way down the stairs and out the front entrance of the building together. In contrast to the cold inside of the school, the daylight shimmered, the warm wind raced, and you could hear the flags—Texas and the U.S.—clap in counterpoint against the flag pole. This sound comforted you until Mike finally whispered, Corey Locklin says that you told everyone it happened to you too, but that you just wanted attention. Casey, tell me the truth—his blue eyes burned red, which made your stomach ache and you wanted so badly to kiss him then—did that nigger hurt you too?

**

That same year I had my crush on Professor Anderson, I started to date Al Samson, an old friend from middle school, from before drill team. He was beautiful, a base- ball player, and had loved me since we were ten years old. His skin was so black, so very black, that the tiny wrinkles around his eyes shimmered and moved, spider webs or rivers. If I were a fish, or a dragonfly, I could have crawled right inside them and disappeared.

I want to tell you this. Sometimes it makes me angry with you. A bottomless, raging angry.When Al held my hand, or touched my body, the skin on his palms felt rough, foreign, like sandpaper. He never knew but it scared me, his skin. If he woke me in the night, when I least expected it, and pressed a coarse hand to my back, my body trembled and, I swear to you, I could not tell if it was love or fear.

My friend would tell me years later that I exoticized Al, and maybe she’s right, and maybe that’s the real source of my anger. Because when I was 12 he was Al who passed me notes in Spanish, and Al who sat with me on the school bus, and Al who laughed way down deep in his throat, and I have no memory at all of what his skin felt like next to mine. I only remember that it made me happy.

** 

You went home that night shaken. When you arrived you walked down the skinny front hallway lined with family photos and then took your shoes off and placed them toe to toe next to your father’s, mother’s, and brother’s shoes, already abandoned there by the side table. Yours were by far the smallest. Your father sat in his usual spot, on the right side of the couch, TV remote control in hand, glasses perfectly perched on his nose.

How was school, Sister Girl? your father asked. He meant it. He was that kind of parent, not the kind who asked because they were supposed to. He really wanted to know.

Fine, you said in a small voice.

This is the important part of your story. Because you told him then, about the pool, about the principal’s office. And your mother appeared from behind the kitchen counter to listen. But you must not have said it clearly, or loudly enough, because neither of them got sad. Neither of them got angry. Neither of them pulled you to them in a rush of parental empa- thy. You got no ice cream, no chicken fingers and French fries (your favorite meal), no nothing. Your father looked at you perhaps a little longer than usual—in that way he did when he was studying something. But that was it.

You didn’t cry. Maybe that’s why they didn’t know to react, since you were the kind of girl who cried easily and often. Maybe if you had shed a tear an alarm would have gone off—a high-pitched, steely one and your father would have asked you to sit next to him on the couch and your mother would have ripped someone at the school a new asshole for not bringing her into the principal’s office from her classroom down the hall, for daring to interview her daughter without her mother there to protect her.

But you didn’t cry. You thought maybe what happened wasn’t so bad. Maybe what happened was part of growing up and you, a perfect A stu- dent, couldn’t bear to fail at that. You thought maybe you did something wrong too.

Your parents laughed out loud together at a sitcom on television, and everything fit neatly into its place. The fan above your heads hummed at its usual rhythm and the sun fell in squares from the French doors onto the car- pet. So you went to your bedroom, closed the door, and fell into the bed.

Lying there, you remembered all their faces—Corey Locklin’s proud eyes and black, black hair, Coach Ryan’s patient and encouraging but stiff smile, and Ms. Jackson’s expectant, hopeful prodding. And you remem- bered walking out of the office and the heavy door taking its time to close behind you, and the way you stood outside it looking down the tunnel of endless orange lockers, and how you felt then such a darkness.

 **

At one of Al’s baseball games in college I tried to tell your mother again what hap- pened to you.This time she did cry; so did I. She didn’t believe that you ever told her—she swore she would remember that. I ended up consoling her, because her response to sadness is always anger first and she yelled at me. She accused you of having an exaggerated adolescent sense of drama; she doubted your recount of events. Luckily, we were separated from the other spectators, sitting on our own splintery wooden bleachers along the first base line.Al stood in the outfield, his dark skin shiny in the humid, thick-as-syrup mid-evening heat. From his vantage point, we were nothing more than pale outlines that stood every once in a while to cheer for a great throw or catch, then sat, then stood and sat again.We could sense when we were sup- posed to do this without paying any attention at all.

He could not have seen our blotchy faces, all shades of red and pink, mine lined in mascara, my mother’s streaked only with salt.You would have felt betrayed by her outbursts and denials, but I understood her heart was breaking. I could see by the way she gripped the bleacher, her knuckles impossibly white.

I believed her when she said that she would have done something had she heard you the first time. She is the kind of mother that acts, and reacts, relentlessly, and pushes her children to be as relentless. Like that time you got stung by a bee while waiting on deck for your swimming relay when you were eight years old.Your mother, who also happened to be the swim team coach, said, “You’re okay,” quickly made you the first swimmer of the relay instead of the fourth, threw you onto the block, swatted your butt when the start gun went off (your bee sting pinched and ached, still unattended to), and said, Go, Casey. Swim. Fast.And you did, your right leg full of sting the whole lap. And your relay won first place, and she was there at the other end of the pool to pull you out, all slippery and wet as a seal, and she tenderly pressed tobacco into your sting, which made it sting less, and then she brought you ice for the swelling. See, she said. You’re okay.

And she acted then too, at the baseball game.When Al trotted in from the field and filed with the other players out of the dugout, and said, Hi, Mrs. Fleming. Thanks for coming, she kissed him hard on the cheek, took his hand and then took mine and said with utmost cheer, Let’s get some Frito Pie.

** 

 At the pep rally the next day at school, the gymnasium roared with stu- dents. From down the hall you heard the approaching thump of a giant drum as the band marched into the gym. Because you passed initiation with flying colors, you sat for the first time in full uniform: the bodice newly dry-cleaned so the sleeves popped out of the black and gold cum- merbund a bright, pure white, your hair pulled back and held in place by a bright gold bow, your black skirt barely covering your ass and from beneath it your panty-hosed legs locked together in perfect position. Lipstick gathered in the corners of your mouth.

The first game of the season was that night. You could feel the anticipa- tion slide off the football players’ and cheerleaders’ backs and into the sweaty air, filling your lungs too. Banners and streamers in all shades of gold and black swung from the rafters, and a podium stood center court, await- ing Coach Ryan’s address to the student population.

After he spoke, you would dance the first dance of your drill team career before the entire student body. Your stomach hollowed at the thought of it. You tried to ignore what felt like a giant bruise between your legs that stung each time you peed since last weekend’s initiation pool party.

Coach Ryan stepped up to the podium then and the crowd hushed. The cheerleaders’ pompoms shivered against the basketball court floor. You noticed that Coach Ryan’s gut kept him from standing too close to the microphone.

I’ll tell you what, he said. These young men behind me are ready for a great season.

The students cheered.

Yes, sirree.These boys are strong as iron ore.

Rachel giggled next to you, and poked you in the ribs. When Coach Ryan talked in his thick Texas accent “iron ore” came out sounding like “aaarn ore,” at least four syllables long, and it struck you both as hilarious.

This team is like aaarn ore, I swear to you.Ya’ll are gonna get quite a show tonight.These boys have a lot of Po-tential. I’m proud to work with ’em every day and ya’ll should be proud to watch ’em. Aaarn ore, I tell you. Aaarn ore.

** 

Today I look through your memory box, your scrapbooks from high school. I find three letters from your father. He started leaving them for you the summer after you were hurt in the pool. Maybe a famous quote, or passage from a book, sometimes just his own thoughts. He’d fold the piece of paper in two and hang it over your steering wheel so that you’d sit in the platinum heat of the driver’s seat and read them before heading for school each morning. It was his way of saying things fathers have a hard time saying to daughters, his way of educating you.The notes I found:

A message to Casey Fleming from her father—
The soliloquy of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz: What makes a king out of slave? Courage!
What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage!
What makes the elephant charge his tusk
In the misty mist or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage!
What makes the Sphinx the Seventh Wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the ape in apricot?
What have they got that I ain’t got? Courage!

Courage! Dad

And then another:

A message to Casey Fleming from her father— “I know moon-rise, I know star-rise,
I lay this body down.
I walk in the moon-light; I walk in the star-light To lay this body down.

I walk in the graveyard, I walk through the graveyard To lay this body down.
I lie in the grave and stretch out my arms,
To lay this body down.”

—One of the 10 Master Spiritual Songs of the African slaves in America

Love, Dad

 

And then another:

A message to Casey Fleming from her father—
You’re way cool and doing as good as you can when you’re only 16.

**

When Coach Ryan finished his speech, Corey Locklin led the cheerlead- ers out onto the court, and they made fists with their hands and jumped in the air, curls bouncing everywhere. Players and students whistled. The cheerleaders chanted: We got spirit, yes we do, we got spirit, how ’bout you.

Then it came time for the drill team to dance. You stood. You all marched, hands on hips, head high, in single file onto the gymnasium floor and waited for the music to start.

When song finally filled the gym, you danced with all your might that day, and smiled so hard your cheeks throbbed and your jaw ached. The stands became a giant smudge of faces. You hit every pose, every beat, exactly right. When the song ended, and applause broke out, your heart banged loudly against its cage and your lungs heaved in and out the dense, spectacular air of perfection. Then you watched Mike McCormick stand up from the hordes of players in front of you. He looked right at you, through you, then turned his head away and blew Allison Cauldwell a kiss, and you heard her delighted squeal in your ears for a long time afterwards.

**

I find something else tucked away between ribbons and senior photos, messages hastily scrawled from friends that say things like “Stay sweet!” or “It was fun know- ing you.” I find a photo of you on the football field.

You must have just finished a performance, because you are marching off the field in a line of girls and all of you head back into the stands. Behind you, football play- ers and band members and cheerleaders (there is the briefest side angle of Corey Locklin’s enormous forehead in the crowded background) file out of the stadium too; one injured player receives help from an assistant coach. A ripe green turf stretches beneath your feet.You are smiling into the stands—a wide, effervescent smile that rises between your clownishly rouged cheeks—most likely at your mother’s camera. This photo was taken only weeks after the incident, and what strikes me most is that you are happy, blissfully so. It takes my breath away.

I look at you smiling up at your parents and know that you stored up that smile especially for them. Because they prepared you to be the kind of person who dares to stand on a dangerous strip of land and dance.They prepared you to do that even without them.

I look at the players behind you, and I cannot tell the color of their faces, which of them will be a good man and which will not. I look at this photo and realize it was never their faces that scared you, but their masks.

I look at you smiling and I remember the wind rushing into my face, the exhil- aration of a 100-yard stage, a stadium full of rapt observers, my nimble body, the rat- tat-tat of a drum roll. I remember kicking my leg high into the night sky, my toes disappearing into the stars, the persistent feeling of hope, hope, hope in each choreo- graphed step.

I pretend it is me in the stands, and your smile is telling me something too.That smile says, like my mother and father before it, you’re okay. I’m okay. And I believe you.

Sermon as Triptych

Some weeks, the world provides you clues.  This week, I experienced a triptych of elbow nudges from the world, telling me to think seriously about a few things.  This trifecta took the form of a guest speaker at my school, an essay I accidentally read in American Scholar at my teacher’s desk, and an essay from a collection given to me on my birthday by a dear friend.  

I. Left Panel

 

“Drape”, Joseph Havel

Every year the students at my school receive the rare gift of a visiting fellow, someone who has made a name for herself, say, in the arts, sciences, or other academic field.  This year, we invited Joseph Havel, sculptor and director of the Glassel School of Art here in Houston.

Often the fellows speak over the students’ heads–not on purpose, but most 15 years olds cannot see why certain things should matter to them.  Teenagers are like solar flares, burning, on fire, propelled, whose light others can see from miles away, but they have not yet learned the dimming that comes with age or distance; they have not learned to turn around; they haven’t yet realized that they, themselves, are not in fact the sun but only small pieces of it.  

I also think they resisted some of Havel’s lecture: given the task of answering how art relates to ethics, he told us that the artist’s job is not to create meaning for the audience, no clear message for us to consume.  Sending clear messages, he said, is the job of advertisers, not artists.  The artists’ job is not to commodify people’s desires and hopes and fears, but rather to translate a moment of the physical, emotional, and mental life into form and then set it free for an audience to encounter and give meaning.  That process, he said, is essentially an ethical position.  Some students didn’t care to imagine such an ethical position since it requires something from us as readers of art–we cannot simply consume or pay for an explanation or walk away undisturbed.  

I was rapt with attention, thinking Havel’s explanation of art and ethics as a way to also understand the best impulses of religion.

Havel then offered the students instruction on how to view art in a museum.  Don’t read the information card tacked next to the painting, he said, like so many visitors (Alain de Botton has a great argument for why museums should toss out informational placards altogether).  Instead, let yourself experience the work of art.  Then you can go back, he said, and read the information about the piece and approach it again with a critical awareness.  But if you skip that first step, you miss the ethical imperative of art.  You are trying to go for clear meaning and missing the encounter.  

But when I returned to my classroom, my teenagers remained unconvinced.  I don’t want to be confused, they said.  When I read or see something I want to understand what it means.  Don’t make me work.  

My students complaints and Havel’s instructions reminded me of theologian Marcus Borg‘s advise about how one should approach the Bible, a model I use to teach my students how to read other literature as well.  According to Borg, religious men and women should go through three major stages:

1) naivete 

2) critical thinking

3) post-critical naivete

Or, as I conceptualize it:

1) blind faith

2) critical doubt

3) doubtful faith

II. Middle Panel

 

“Untitled”, Lee Bontecou

I must clean my desk.  I must clean my desk.  I must clean my desk, I repeated to myself Tuesday after school.  I began to rashly throw old vocabulary quizzes into the recycling bin, shove pencils and pens into the far nooks of my desk drawer and straighten stacks of unexcused tardy sheets and extra handouts about dangling participles or how to visualize Shakespeare plots as Venn diagrams.  Among those stacks I discovered a recent issue of American Scholar, a journal I love.  I was loathe to throw it out before skimming the contents and I landed on an essay by Christian Wiman, poet and long-time editor of Poetry magazine who is, as we speak, dying of bone cancer.  

I thought I’d read a few sections, but I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting, weeping over my laptop, forgetting briefly that I needed to get home and let my dog out to pee.  As if to explain Borg and Havel’s theories about post-critical naivete, he wrote this:

It is as if joy were the default setting of human emotion, not the furtive, fugitive glimpses it becomes in lives compromised by necessity, familiarity, “maturity,” suffering. You must become as little children, Jesus said, a statement that is often used to justify anti-intellectualism and the renunciation of reason, but which I take actually to mean that we must recover this sense of wonder, this excess of spirit brimming out of the body.

And then, as if to illustrate Havel’s point to the kiddos that art, which certainly the story of Jesus qualifies as, must be encountered rather than consumed, Wiman wrote this beautiful statement of faith:

I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious), and not simply because it was the religion in which I was raised (this has been a high barrier). I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem when being tortured? The words aren’t the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.) I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. 

Wiman returned to the faith of his childhood toward the end of his young life, passing through the often adolescent or post-adolescent critical stage that so many intellectuals get stuck in, especially, I’ve found, young writers, more especially young male writers.


III. Right Panel

Immanuel Kant

 

My friend gifted me Robert Hass‘ new collection of essays “What Light Can Do” for my birthday last month.  How well he knows me.  It was the best present I got.   I have only read one so far, “Study of War: Violence, Literature, and Immanuel Kant.  

Hass attempts to break down and revive a lesser known Kant essay called “Perpetual Peace.”   In “Perpetual Peace”, as Hass understands it, Kant acknowledged in his Kantian way that violence is the natural condition of man, and that the state of peace “is unnatural and must be struggled toward.  Its nobility is its rebellion toward innocence and against the brutality of things-as-they-are.”  Hass then tries to explain how literature and art can serve the purpose of struggling toward peace.  He imagines in his own way Joseph Havel’s argument for the ethical position of art.   

Haas remembers the term “perpetual peace” from his childhood as a Catholic, particularly from the Mass for the Dead “may the perpetual light shine upon them.”  He remembers that as a boy he thought the idea of perpetual peace a naive idea, an ideal only reachable with death and an undesirable ideal at that.  He was in his critical thinking stage.  

But then, he says, so many writers remind us otherwise.  He calls particular attention to Czeslaw Milosz, who returned to a sometimes-tortured Catholic faith in his old age, and Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau stood firmly in the last stage of faith and art: post-critical naivete.  An idea expressed in his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” according to Hass, is that the concept of perpetual peace or heaven, “is deficient as a description of a realizable place on earth, but is not deficient as a description of a place held close the heart.”  

Art scoots us right up against that place held close to our hearts, that place we believe in the way children believe, even if we can’t get in from here.  All three artists, Joseph Havel, Christian Wiman, and Robert Hass implore us to use wonder and thought to navigate art, to use the heart and mind to allow the world “to stream through you rather than reaching out to always take a hold of it.”  Have doubt, they say, and have faith.  All three men urge against the question, “But what does it mean?”   

That our priests and pastors may be artists and may be so wise and so bold as to ask their audiences to approach with wonder the Story and leave the easy, definitive answers to such a childish question to the advertisers.  

 

Amen.

Sermons Against Memes and Guns

All this talk about guns is getting to me.

We’ve all, I’m sure, been bombarded in our news feeds and Twitter worlds with memes that hastily point out the bad logic of NRA reps or the naivete of liberals.  I got this one in my news feed this morning:

 

The meme is a response to a comment made by a Colorado Representative, Democrat Joe Salazar, about recent gun control measures passed in his state that include a law making college campuses gun-free zones.  He argued that the possibility of rape should not justify a woman’s right to carry a handgun in her purse.  He added, “It’s why we have call boxes; it’s why we have safe zones; it’s why we have whistles.”

I guess the creator of the meme is making an argument that whistles don’t prevent rape as well as guns. It’s an argument about as emotionally mature as an Aerosmith song.  Still, I found myself unable to ignore it or tsk-tsk my way out of thinking about the implications of such a meme and people’s willingness to pass it around as a solid argument.

Let me use a real rhetorical device here (as opposed to a meme) and appeal to my own authority.

I am a woman.

I am not naive.

I am a woman who feels endangered.   I am a survivor of sexual assault.  If I go through a list in my head of my 10 closest female friends, at least 6 of them have survived rape or sexual abuse, in some cases severe abuse. Those numbers match up with national statistics.

I am a woman who also feels rage more often that I care to admit.   Last week I even had a dream that I shot someone.  A pregnant woman.  In her stomach.  When I woke up I didn’t feel guilty or horrified.  I felt relieved.  Then I went about my day, a day that included me writing a joyful letter to a pregnant friend expressing my sincere, genuine happiness about her new baby.

I am a woman who understands the all-too-human instinct toward violence, revenge, anger.  My psyche  is capable of violence too.

I am a woman who knows the difference between dreams and reality.

I do not want to carry a gun in my purse.  I do not want guns anywhere near my home, my school, my family, or my person.

Let me say that again: I do not want to carry a gun in my purse.  Or mace.  Or a whistle.

I want to live in a world where women are safe.

I want to live in a world where my option isn’t whistle or gun, victim or perpetrator, passive resistor or co-conspirator to a culture that accepts violence as its modus operandi.

I want to live in a world where people have the intelligence to recognize that rape and gun violence stem from the same sickness, and that arming women against male violence doesn’t solve male violence so much as quietly assent to its existence.

I don’t want to see your stupid memes, because they are violent too.  Memes are a huge part of the problem here.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the occasional purely humorous meme, those aimed at nobody.   But politicized memes are a bastardized form of rhetoric and logic, only persuasive in the basest sense, and they lend themselves to all kinds of fallacious reasoning.  Politics or activism on the cheap, memes oversimplify and are the psychosocial equivalent of poking someone in the ribs again and again and again or flexing ones own muscles in the mirror.  Posting a meme onto your Facebook page is a passive, pathetic attempt at real dialogue, a convenient way to avoid dealing with complexity and gray area, a great way to feel safe inside your own smugness.  Never mind other people’s safety.

I want to live in a world where we arm women and men with the weapons of love, gentleness, and respect.

As Galatians 5:22 reminds us, ” The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.”

Or, wait.  Let me get a woman here.  Bell Hooks says it best:

“It is not easy for males, young or old, to reject the codes of patriarchal masculinity. Men who choose against violence are simultaneously choosing against patriarchy, wherther they can articulate that choice or not….

Ultimately, the men who choose agaisnt violence, against death, do so because they want to live fully and well, because they want to know love. These men who are true heroes.”

Amen. 

Sermon for the Letter “O”

Before I knew poetry, I loved its power.

I can’t remember now when I first memorized the Nicene Creed–perhaps for First Communion, perhaps for Confirmation.  I do not recall anyone teaching it to me by lesson the way my grandmother made my learning of the Our Father and Hail Mary her active duty.

My mind did not learn the creed.  My body learned it: ear, rhythm, voice.  I had, and still have, two favorite parts of the creed:

God from God.

Light from light.

True God from True God.

Begotten and not made.

Notice I’ve instinctively added line breaks where I’m not sure they exist.

I also really loved this:

We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

As a child, I was not making a profession of faith–how could I have done so?  As an adult, I know that one can only profess a faith once she has the capacity for abstract thought.  Abstract thought, and doubt: the front porch that welcomes us before we step into the old home of devotion.

No, I didn’t know what I was saying.  But I loved it.  I loved the sound of it.  All that assonance:

God from God.

Light from light.

True God from True God.

Begotten and not made.

I liked those “o” sounds packed so tightly into the same breath.  The hardness of the “g, an aspiration, and then the “o” forcing the mouth open even wider, the exhale extended.

But that “o” is not the “o” that really got me.  No, I like the long “o” in words like home, lonesome, atone, soul, poem.  That kind of “o” holds oceans and oceans of the unsayable inside its orbit; a black hole of sound, sob or sigh, prodigious little letter.

holy, catholic, apostolic

It would never have mattered to me then what the words meant.  They bewitched me.  I’m not sure it matters to me even now.

People seeking the divine are often sent in search of vastness.  Go to the mountains, we say.  Go to the desert or caves or sea or sky.  Go to that which is bigger and more beautiful than you.

But language, born of the body, is a landscape too.

I say go to the vowels and consonants.  Let them hold you.  Go to the phonemes if you want to go home.

 

Amen. 

Sermon on Reciprocal Inhibition

So often our bodies are the best teachers.

For the past three weeks, I’ve endured the moans and groans of teenagers who expected to lay around chanting when they signed up for my yoga class.  They staged pouty mutinies every time I asked them to perform a leg lift or plank.  And then, because they’re lovely creatures, they stepped up to each challenge, albeit with giggles and sighs.

I wasn’t trying to torture them or play the tough coach.  On the contrary, I care about their young bodies, already so beaten and bruised by 15 pound backpacks and hours spent in front of screens and windows: iPhones, computers, televisions, windshields, and blackboards.  I also teach over-achieving, and therefore, high-anxiety kiddos.  Plus, they’re teenagers and body conscious as a rule.  The last thing they feel comfortable wearing is their own skin.  Getting them to just close their eyes and breath deeply requires me to have the patience of Job.

What poses do you want to do today? I’d ask.

The inevitable chorus of voices: Savasana!!!  (for those of you not familiar with yoga, that’s the pose where you lay on the ground and do nothing)

But in my yoga teacher training, one of the first things I learned was the concept of reciprocal inhibition.  Reciprocal inhibition describes the relaxation of muscles to accommodate the contraction of opposing muscles.  Our bodies understand this yin and yang already, but we can help them along as well.  For example, if you want to get your tight hamstrings to loosen up, you don’t stretch them as common knowledge would say.  Instead, you strengthen and contract the opposing muscles–your quadriceps–and your motor neurons will send some quick text messages to your hamstrings telling them to CFD (Calm the F-ck Down).   Flexibility requires strength.   Strength requires flexibility.

So before I sent them into savasana, I asked my students to fatigue their muscles in various ways.  And it worked: tighter muscles began to ease open their rusty gates.

In anatomy the flexed muscle is referred to as the agonist, and the “opposing muscle” is referred to as the antagonist, which pleases me to no end as a writer and teacher of English.  The antagonist.  The adversary.  The foe.  The nemesis.  My impossibly wound muscle fibers have a face–The Joker, the orc, the mean girl.

There’s a bigger wisdom here past the warrior and pigeon poses, a lesson literature teaches as well.  Our bodies instruct us: if we want to have more flexibility in our own views, we must strengthen our understanding of the opposing views.  Likewise, if we want our opponents to relax their positions, we will need to strengthen our own arguments.

The concept of reciprocal inhibition might serve us in so many important ways off the yoga mat.

If I want my students to experience more ease with vocabulary or grammar, maybe I need to strengthen my expectations and lessons.

If I want to have a calm and relaxed space in my life to write more, maybe I need to tighten my discipline at other tasks that require time from me, become firmer in saying no to requests for my time by other people.

If I want my husband to speak his feelings to me more freely, maybe I might contract my own voice a little.

If I want my friends to confide in me, maybe I should build up my listening skills.

If I want to stop thinking about my ex-boyfriend, maybe I should find a hobby and dedicate myself to it.

If I want to stop hating that pretty, popular girl in the front row in my Algebra class, maybe I should hang out with her.  Or, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man.  I must get to know him better.”

If I want my child to stop throwing fits, maybe I should become more grounded and dependable.

If I want Congress to pass my proposed bill, maybe–ahem, Mr. President–I should not compromise it so much as firm up its merits.

And as all of us tighten up, maybe we will lose our inhibitions, release our grip on our antagonists, all those small and big enemies we face down everyday.  Maybe we can breath easy and let them go, confident in our strength, and set ourselves free in the process.

The light in me recognizes and honors the light in all of you.


Amen.

Sermon on the Eve of Inauguration

Last semester, a group of 15 year olds sat around a seminar table and talked to me about their reactions to Peter Singer’s “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” a summary of his utilitarian philosophy about sharing the wealth.   His basic thesis: no one needs more than $30,000 a year to live on; everything else should go to other people in the form of charity.  This seminar discussion is without fail always one of my most heated and impassioned every fall semester.

One girl, visibly upset, turned to me and said, “I mean, I think he’s right, I guess.  I feel bad.  But he’s so rude about it.  And I mean, what am I supposed to do to help?”

She felt moved but defensive, the way many people feel when they have their privilege pointed out to them by another person.

For those of you readers who do not already know or suspect, I teach at a prestigious college preparatory school.  Or, as so many of my friends say when I tell them where I teach, “Oh, the rich kids.”

They raise an eyebrow into a tight check mark on their brow that translates as one of two things: good luck with those brats or you’re not a REAL teacher, out of the trenches like that.

Both conclusions bother me.  Sure, I have some guilt about my luck given other schools I’ve taught in with needier, more damaged kids.  I often repeat the story of my first teaching job at 22 years old.  I lasted only one semester–it wasn’t the parole officers or 14 year old girls with their own babies that got me in the end, but the young student who had a dead cockroach stuck in his ear that, as he told me, “The doctor won’t get out, cuz we don’t got insurance.”  His English teacher–a 23 year old Teach for America volunteer–and I used our off periods to find a free clinic that would remove the cockroach from his infected ear.  I was completely unprepared for that job.  I was under the impression the students needed me to teach them Spanish.  They didn’t.  They needed a case worker.  It took me 11 years to return to teaching at the high school level.

My husband and I often worry whether our talents might be better spent in other places.  I have my days: I walk through the hallways aghast at casual conversations between teenagers that include throwaway comments about cruises through the Greek isles, $4,000 jeans, and box seats at Texans games with such-and-such CEOs or so-and-so politicians.

The longer I teach these “rich kids”, though, the more I realize the universe put me exactly where it needed me.  Turns out it’s easier to feel empathy for disadvantaged kids that it is to feel empathy for privileged kids.  But they need our empathy.  And this country needs us to have empathy for them.

Bear with me a second.

The first term of Obama’s presidency saw Occupation Wall Street, a movement that didn’t even reach the outer edges of my students’ little radars.  Obama’s biggest cage match wasn’t against bin Laden or any other foreign enemy.  The championship fight went to John Boehner and company.  The fight is about class, and the we’re still in the late rounds–no one has TKO’ed yet.  The major obstacles to bipartisanship in our country right now are obstacles of privilege: male privilege and economic privilege.

Privilege is tricky–people who have it often can’t see it.  Some never see it.  That’s one of the basic postcolonial arguments: those on the margins have a wider lens than those in the center of power.  My students didn’t ask to be born wealthy any more than a poor child asks to be born into destitution.  They didn’t have a choice, and most don’t have any real grasp on just how high they sit on the economic totem pole. But so often when they’re confronted with the reality of their privilege they feel shamed for something they didn’t do and can’t yet control.  And those that have managed to grasp their socioeconomic position often feel enormous amounts of pressure to live up to their parents’ standards of wealth and status.

As a class, we tried to work out why Peter Singer’s article bothered my students so much.  We finally agreed it was a matter of tone (they weren’t quite ready to talk about the possible limitations of utilitarian philosophy in general).  I used this realization on their part as a teaching moment.   The art of persuasion, I told them, is not only about appeals–ethos, pathos, logos–but about the tone that dresses those appeals, an awareness of audience and situation.  Singer, for all his intelligence, was tone deaf in that article if he meant to persuade rich people.  He shamed them and they reacted they way all of us react to shame.    “Shame,” as Brene Brown tells us, “corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”  When shamed, people resist change and dig in their heels.  They start to feel like people are out to get them, a fear I’ve seen in many rich people, one that makes even the most well-intentioned of them behave badly.  Witness a large part of the leadership of the Republican Party.  If we want privileged people–especially young people–to change, we better move away from shame and toward empowerment, away from bitterness and toward love.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s horribly unfair that we must ask the world’s disadvantaged people to resist anger and try empathy instead, to take the moral high ground.  Just. Not. Fair.   Also, there is a time and a place for anger.

Still, most of my students, those “rich kids”, are kind-hearted human beings.  They need mentors to help them look privilege square in the eye, recognize it, and then do something useful with it.   To this end, I have great admiration for a nonprofit called Resource Generation that aims to empower wealthy young adults to leverage their assets and create social change.

The best feminists have figured out that to transform our ideas about gender, we will need to empower men as much as women.  The same follows for economic injustice.  We will need to empower rich people as well as poor people if we want lasting change, and that empowerment requires us to check our tone.

I want to pull that student aside and tell her she doesn’t have to feel shame about her wealth.  I want to tell her: you’re beautiful, talented, intelligent, very, very lucky, and you have so much worth that isn’t born of and goes way beyond your pocketbook, because if I tell her that maybe–just maybe–she’ll see worth in other people too and she won’t begin to hoard her wealth, cast suspicious glances in all directions, because she believes without money she is nothing.

And in honor of the holiday and inauguration tomorrow, I want to offer a rationale for why I’ve come to accept and even love my job in that school of rich kids.  In the words of the tonally-gifted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

That’s it. There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it…

And oh this morning, as I think of the fact that our world is in transition now. Our whole world is facing a revolution. Our nation is facing a revolution, our nation. One of the things that concerns me most is that in the midst of the revolution of the world and the midst of the revolution of this nation, that we will discover the meaning of Jesus’ words…

As we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better.

 

Amen.

Sermon for Hope

I’m so not with child.  So not knocked up.  So do not have a bun in the oven.  Etc.

But I am pregnant.

The word pregnant has several meanings aside from the most commonly used.  Pregnant also means expectantfraughtweightycreative.

I am expectant in the sense that I expect to get pregnant even though I have not yet.

My days are fraught with expectation and desire.

My fraught expectations are weighty too.  I carry them like one might carry a baby.  They are sometimes hard to carry through a day, an hour, the three minutes required of the little pee stick.  I often think of what writer Pablo Neruda said at fellow poet, Cesar Vallejo’s funeral: For him, carrying a day was like carrying a mountain, and Vallejo, presumably, never endured the two week wait.

And I am creative.  I create all the time.  I create expectations for myself that are fraught with desire and weigh too much.  I create symptoms too.  I implant my creations into soft beds and will them to grow.

So, ironically, some days I’d like to be less pregnant, less filled to the brim with want.

The Dalai Lama tells us that having few desires is vital for contentment, but that we must desire in order to live.  Translation: be a little bit pregnant.

Romans 12:12 tells us to “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”  Translation: Be very pregnant, but be pregnant with hope.

I am not the only one among us who finds it difficult at times to remain pregnant–not with desire–but with hope when the world is so consistently unfair.  I am thinking in particular of Claudia Rankine here, this lyric from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely:

Too many of us fill ourselves up with expectation, desire, and blind optimism instead of hope.  Hope is hard.  Hope is hard because hope, born of the soul, is different from desire or blind optimism, hope as the great poet Czelaw Milosz wrote “is when you believe the earth is not a dream, but living flesh.”

May we all be pregnant, even those of us suffering from desire in the face of difficulty.

May we all be heavy, heavy with hope.

Amen.

Christmas Sermon with Plumeria

On the island of Kauai, near the town of Kapa’a, at the head of Opaekaa Falls, lives an 86 year old man named Fred.

If a visiting couple–on their honeymoon, say–were to pass by on a cloudy Christmas day and happen to catch Fred in his yard, he might call out to them.

He might say, “Hey!  Are you visiting us?”

“Yes,” they might call back and stop, mid-stride, relieved for the break from a non-committal jog they embarked on mostly out of a rain-induced malaise and holiday nostalgia.

Fred might wave them over, and they might watch him cross his yard, bend with a surprising amount of dexterity toward the freshly mown grass, and pick up a perfectly five-pointed, pink plumeria, yellow pooling from its core.

“Here,” he might say to them and hold his hand out.  “This one is pretty.  And this one too.”

He might lean over then to inspect another flower.

“Thank you,” one of the honeymooners will say, the bride probably, and hold the pink plumeria up to her sweaty ear.

“People use them to make leis,” Fred will say.  Despite his spryness, Fred might not notice that he has stopped the couple in the middle of a workout.  That, or he thinks workouts less serious business than plumerias.

“You have nice teeth,” he might say to her then, suddenly, causing her first real laugh of the day.  “Take care of them,” he says.

He will tell the couple about crossing the continental mainland of America five times in his youth.  He’ll  make them guess his age.  Seventy, they might say to flatter him, but they will still feel shock when he says no, eighty-six, and shows a whole set of teeth with his grin.

One of the honeymooners will finally explain that they have no way to carry the two plumerias, because they’re headed two more miles down to the sea.

“You’re going ALL the way down?” he might gasp.  “Oh, to be young again.”

“Listen,” he’ll say.  “I’m going to place these flowers in a paper bag and put that bag right there between the mail boxes, so you can pick them up on your way back.”

On their way back up the mountain and into the inland jungle of Wailua, the couple might cross the street from left to right, noticing the Danger signs that mark the ledge near the waterfall.  They will feel curious and skeptical about the bag of flowers.

But there it is.  A brown paper bag between two mail boxes, folded pristinely at the top into two hems.

They might open the bag them, expected one pink plumeria and a slightly wilted white plumeria.  Instead, they might find twenty flowers–red, pink, white, and yellow–stuffed to the brim of that bag.

In their rental cottage far removed from seaside resorts and condos, they’ll steep the flowers in a small glass bowl filled with water and set the bowl, blooming, by their bed.

In her sleep, the bride will dream she has grown old.  In her dream, she will wear a long dress that billows at her feet.  At her feet, a yard sewn from soft petals.  She might wake late that Christmas noel to remember the story of Bethlehem: the manger, the inns with no more vacancies.  The simplicity of the divine and our call to welcome the stranger.

She might think, of course, this is the best any of us can do, especially in the second halves of our lives.  Her Christmas gift, a lesson that says: Let us gather the flowers from our yards before they wither and brown, let us offer them in plump bundles to strangers, passersby and young people, that they might wear the flowers like tiny sunbursts in their hair as they walk to the shores and stare out over the wide horizons of their new lives.

Amen.

Sermon for a Honeymoon

The alarm tolls at 3:45am.  We groan our way out of bed, shuffle to the bathroom, brush our teeth, and jam deodorant, facial moisturizer, Sensodyne, and sample lotions into our see-through travel bags.  This is an ungodly hour; we prove incapable of smiling at each other even though this, this journey, this honeymoon, marks the beginning our marriage.

The cab driver is chatty.  I grimace; my husband squeezes his eyes shut and open and shut.  She is new at the job, so it takes her a few seconds to start the meter.

“Everyone’s allowed to make mistakes when they’re learning,” she tells us.

Based on her skin tone and thin accent, I start guessing in my head: Eritrean?  Somali?

“I’m from Ethiopia,” she says, and then proceeds to tell us her entire life story.  Her sister has just given birth to a baby girl.  When she delivered, the doctors inadvertently found a tumor in her brain, so this woman, our driver, has moved from Sacramento to San Francisco to care for her sister during chemotherapy and, God willing, surgery.  She hates the cold and all the people crammed onto the steep streets here.

“What brought her to California from Ethiopia?” I ask, hoping to keep her talking so I won’t have to.  I dig some sleep crust from my eye.  The city still sleeps, the hills heavy and dark, a few dim lights blinking at every horizon.

“She was escaping an arranged marriage,” she says.  “She ran away. To Oakland. Me?  My parents arranged for me to marry at 14 to a man who beat me.  I have two sons.”

My husband sits up taller.

“I’m happily divorced now,” she beams.  We exhale slowly, in unison.  We all three laugh.

“Flying home for Christmas?” she asks.

“No,” I say.  “We’re going on our honeymoon.”

On the quick flight to L.A., where we’ll catch a connection to Kauai, I feel a dull pulling between my collar bones and my stomach rumbles.  Something isn’t sitting right with me.

Yesterday we walked a mile in a steady downpour, tucked under the same umbrella, to City Lights Bookstore, where my husband perused the philosophy section and I grazed among the literary magazines, flipping through the tables of contents and making a note of all my friends and contemporaries in the writing world who have published this month.  There are many of them—in one journal, I find five: two authors I graduated with and three others I’ve invited as readers for a series I help organize back home.  When my husband meets me at the register he has Anne Carsen’s translation of Euripedes.  I have The Virginia Quarterly.

“You okay?” he asks.

I nod.

“I should be writing more,” I say.  I nod again.  “I’m okay.”

Am I okay?  I’m married.  I’m a wife.  Does that make me okay?  It’s funny—I have a friend who told me it never felt weird for her to use the term “husband” once she married.  She had much more trouble, she found, hearing herself referred to as a “wife.”   I have had the same experience.  I wanted my husband.  But I’m not sure I ever wanted to be a wife.  The titles “mother” and “woman” and “author” our titles I have long coveted.  But wife?

It’s not polite to say what I’m about to say.  In our culture, we do not allow much room for grief. A blushing bride has no right to grief or worry.   But every major life change requires grieving time.  For every thing we gain as we grow, we also leave something behind.  So I’ll say the impolite thing.  Standing in the bookstore and listening to our early morning taxi driver, I found myself grieving, confronted by the conundrum of many ladies of my cohort.  I know that “wifedom” isn’t always great for women (especially women from certain cultures and of certain less traditional persuasions); it’s one way to become tied to the “particular” as Aristotle and Socrates first referred to the domestic sphere where women supposedly reign, and which they used as a rationalization for keeping women out of the universal, the vita activa or active life.  Generally, I loathe domesticity—I like to travel, I moved 12 times in my twenties, I let dishes stack up in the sink, I avoid buying clothing that requires an iron or a hangar, I balk at routine, preferring improvisation even when it means disorganization.  I do love to cook, my one concession.  Statistically, marriage improves men’s lives more than women’s.  In a recent study on longevity, researchers found that, contrary to findings in earlier studies, single women live longest, beating out the runner’s up, married men.  Single men have the shortest lives.

Alas.  There’s this little bugaboo: I fell in love with a man who tugs me toward the domestic, in a good way, and at an age where some semblance of settling down makes sense.

But on the airplane I wonder about honeymoons.  Traditionally, they mark a period of celebration before the hard stuff, the inevitable messiness of living with another person. Another friend recently told me “marriage is harder than having children.  It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”  But I think she didn’t mean that living with another person is the hardest thing so much as living with one’s self in the presence of another self in another kind of life that might, even unwittingly, subjugate you.

I love my husband.  I expect our partnership to be one of the less painful variety, even at its most difficult.  I will not have to escape to Oakland.  I will be treated with respect and decency.  But for me this honeymoon is not so much a prelude to marriage with a man as it is a prelude to the greatest challenge of my life, a prelude to the Sisyphean task of living as both autonomous “woman” and committed “wife.”  And I must be able to live as both.  I must.  Motherhood and wifehood are honorable, respectable, important roles, and I want them, but I must be a citizen in the world of women and the world of wives, and this dual citizenship–a straddling–is not always so stable a stance as my feminist foremothers evangelized.

In the plane, I hold my husband’s hand as I stare out the window.  The backlit clouds hover low over the coastline, cloaking the land.  They divide earth and sky with a fat veil.  As we descend, my husband says, “I hate this part.”

“What part?” I ask.

“The part where you leave the open sky for the ground, but you’re stuck in the clouds.  That’s where the turbulence always is.”

And then we enter the clouds.  For a few moments we hang there, suspended in a thick fog that from afar looked impenetrable, but in fact holds our weight with ease.  The aircraft barely stumbles.

“I don’t mind it so much,” I tell him.

This, after all, is where I will live.

Amen.