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.

Amen.

 

 

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Sermon for my Grandfather: A Gun Story

In my family’s version, an unprovoked black boy (black is important, they always mention that part) murdered my grandfather in cold blood on the streets of New Orleans.

In the newspapers’ versions, my grandfather is a “tourist,” a “kind, business man,” definitely white.

In State v. Marshall,  Joseph Marshall, the 16 year old boy who shot and killed my grandfather, appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court to have his death penalty overturned.  The brief states that my grandfather was held up after he and two friends wandered into the Iberville housing project.  When Marshall demanded, at gunpoint, his wallet, my grandfather “refused to comply.”

Give me your wallet, says Marshall.

No, says my grandfather.

According to the Supreme Court appeal, Marshall pulls the trigger then but his weapon misfires.

Get out of here, says my grandfather, and throws a punch.  A swing and a miss. Maybe we wants to protect his friends.  Maybe he wants to get back to the saxophone and the étouffée.

Whack, says the second bullet as it rips through his chest. Snuff, goes the brief flicker of his life.

In the Pennsylvania Observer-Reporter, witnesses report that what my grandfather actually said was Come on kid, you’re apparently a good kid, and that’s a toy gun.  Leave it alone.  No punch.  No noncompliance.

On more sober days, I believe, not the newspapers, not my family, but the legal document. Which is to say, I believe the murderer.  First of all, recent history tells us that the chances of a white man believing the gun in a black boy’s hands is a toy gun are negligible even now. And if my family’s lore holds water, my grandfather never backed down from a confrontation in his life, not even at the dinner table. Not even with his own children.  A tall, burly barrel of a man, whip-smart, he inspired equal parts fear and adoration.

My grandfather’s killing and the “justice” that followed is a story about race, about class, about violence and injustice.  A wholly American story.  His murder helped catalyze a crackdown on crime among New Orleans’ poor, black population in the 1980s that ravished the city and coincided with Reagan’s War on Drugs.  It’s a crime story prime for the picking for a writer looking to pitch a hungry agent or editor.  I’ve never touched it, at least not until now, because I suspect an honest exploration into the details might unravel the “truth” less than it might unravel my relationship with my family.  The truth, of course, lies somewhere between all these versions of events.  My grandfather was not a tourist, for example, not exactly.  He was in New Orleans for a conference and to accept a business award.  And even if he “failed to comply” with a mugger’s demand for his money,  he didn’t deserve to die.  The teenage boy that killed him may have been an awful person, a lowlife, a sociopath.  But the truth is messy, too messy for the black-and-white logic of a gun.

I’m coming clean now for a different reason.  Tomorrow is National Gun Violence Awareness Day, and I’m making you aware.  When I speak about guns, my grandfather’s murder at the hands of a gun lends me some authority many other people don’t have when they mouth off about the Second Amendment.  I’m making you aware because in the last few weeks my city–a swampy stone’s throw from New Orleans–has been beset with stories of brave vigilantes who stood their ground against gun-wielding criminals.

I abhor guns.  There are people who would say that if my grandfather had had a gun on that fateful, muggy night, he’d still be alive.  They are the same people who laud a League City man who last month shot and killed a mugger who approached him and his young son at a McDonald’s.  He’s lucky.  Statistics say he’s more likely to have gotten his son killed. And just this week Fox News called an untrained, self-appointed warden of his neighbors a “Good Samaritan” for pulling his gun on an active shooter in West Houston.  The police shot the Samaritan, because they thought he was an active shooter too.  They were right, actually.  He was actively shooting.  He too had a young son at home, a young son who almost lost his father to an inflated ego, at worst, and a dopey, illogical hero complex, at best.

Tomorrow, like other concerned citizens, I won’t strap a gun to my hip or ankle or shove one into my purse or behind my driver’s seat or under my bed.  I’ll wear orange to honor Max A. Minnig, my grandfather.  His bigness and his belligerence.  His nine children, twenty-something grandchildren, his great-grandchildren, his great-great grandchildren, many of whom disagree with my position on guns.  I’ll wear orange especially for his daughter, my mother, a woman deserving of more love and time than she ever received from her parents and now won’t ever receive.  I’ll try to triage that hole with my love.

I wish my grandfather didn’t die that night in the underbelly of the French Quarter.  But listen to me when I tell you: I don’t wish he had a gun.

I wish no one had a gun.

I wish people didn’t live in housing projects.

I wish people weren’t so feeble of spirit or imagination.

I wish we understood more fully what one of my favorite writers, Andre Dubus, wrote when he finally gave up his guns to sit on “the frighteningly invisible palm of God.”

I wish we’d do something with the economic and eleemosynary resources we Americans have that so recommend us to solve the gun violence epidemic.

I wish that death could never be a punishment.  Life either.

I wish he’d handed that lost boy his wallet.

Amen.

 

Sermon for Bodies

Confession: for over 25 years I’ve hated my body.  Or, what I mean is, I’ve wanted my body to be different.  Or, what I mean is, even while proclaiming feminism from the hilltops, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t fret over food or let the word “fat” manspread all over the subway car of my skull or the last time I caught my own reflection in a mirror or thick-paned window and resisted the urge to perform a quick look-test.  I can’t remember the last time I passed that test.

I’m not anorexic or even abnormally obsessed.  I’m an American woman, and, therefore, a woman at war in and for her body.

I’m always thinking about bodies–coveting them, judging them, assessing them, admiring them, worrying about them–but lately I’ve been thinking about them more.  For one thing, writers I love are decrying the the decimation of the black body.  Just today, Claudia Rankine wrote in the New York Times Magazine about the magnificent Serena Williams:

“Imagine that you have to contend with critiques of your body that perpetuate racist notions that black women are hypermasculine and unattractive. Imagine being asked to comment at a news conference before a tournament because the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, has described you and your sister as ‘‘brothers’’ who are ‘‘scary’’ to look at. Imagine.”

And as Ta Nehesi Coates argues, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body,” a tradition so naturalized we rarely see the destruction except at its most pronounced.  Trayvon.  Sandra.  Serena.  I know these writers speak the truth, but as I’m not black, I must try to imagine, what does it mean to live inside a vulnerable body, a body that by simple virtue of its being might be a dangerous container?

We can’t, of course, imagine our way into a type of oppression we don’t experience.  We can, however, imagine our way close to it, and we must.  I don’t know, except in an intellectual way, what it is to live in a black woman’s body in this nation and I don’t see the police cruisers that roll through the neighborhood streets that map a black man’s psyche.  What I do understand–and what can bring me into at least an outer circle of understanding–is the experience of living in a compromised body, a body that won’t do or be what the world expects it to be, and a body that cannot fence out every gaze or break through every assumption.  What I do understand is that the world might deny certain people the shelter of their own skeleton and skin.

In a dangerous world, to love one’s body in the face of its threatened destruction is a radical act.  When I was struggling with infertility, I began to believe that my body was broken, that it lacked value since it could not make me what–the world tells us in various ways–a woman is meant to be.  Much in the way a black body might impede one’s ability to live inside a dignified, safe body in a society that assigns more value to whiteness, a body that cannot produce children might impede my body from basic dignity in a society that defines motherhood as a condition of real womanhood.  Infertility is nowhere near as widespread or brutal as racism, and blackness is not a medical condition–I don’t mean to imply that–but the various ways our bodies get coded have real implications for our lives.  Likewise, the female body in general, because it has for so long been assigned value only by what it offers to men, might leave me feeling…well…homeless.

But what really sent me down the body rabbit hole this week was the verdict in the Owen Labrie rape case. The St. Paul’s boarding school student was accused of raping a minor female student.  She gave the longest testimony.  In addition to her testimony, several of Labrie’s friends–boys–testified that he bragged about sex with her, and they read text messages aloud to the court in which Labrie used the language of conquest and violence to detail his encounter with the accuser.  Over her voice and theirs, the jury cited lack of evidence and acquitted him of the most serious charges.  After I read the verdict in the paper, I went to my Saturday morning yoga class, a class I try never to miss.  My teacher said to us, “The body changes the mind, the mind changes behavior, and behavior changes outcomes. We have to start in the body.”

I’ve been thinking about that nameless girl.  About how badly I want her to love her body, and about the lifelong battle such loving will likely cost her.  Once, my husband said to me, “Instead of thinking of your body as infertile, and, therefore, disabled, why don’t you think about what it did–how it was strong enough to handle all those shots, all those drugs, all those surgeries?”  Why don’t I think about how it peeled itself off the floor and put its fists up like even our endangered bodies do, claiming and carrying the heavy mantle, how it achieved the unlikely and unthinkable?

I want to say to that brave girl who used her voice in court, a voice which must rise up through the body’s valleys and deep gorges, “Look what your body did.  It survived.  It spoke too. What an amazing body it must be.  Imagine.”

Wendell Berry wrote, “There is no unsacred place.  Only sacred places, and desecrated places.”

I’m 38 years old and I’m tired of the desecration.  Of other bodies.  Of my own.  I’m tired of participating–wittingly or unwittingly–in that desecration when I was invited at birth inside the sacred.

All day long I pass windows and mirrors, and my own body stares back at me.  And the body of live oak trees, and old bungalows, and dogs, and redbirds, and strangers.  What I see there has to be enough.

Enough.

Amen. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon for the Border

I first crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 1996, at 19 years old.

I took an airplane.

No passport required then, I presented my Texas Driver’s License at customs in Mexico City as documentation of my American citizenship. My purpose: to help run a day camp for the summer through a YMCA exchange program called Mano a Mano Sin Fronteras. Each day, I walked a mile from my host family’s apartment in the city center to the metro station, rose out of the subway system 40 minutes later to catch a bus that dropped me another mile-walk away from the community center in Naucalpan, an outlying barrio of the federal district, where I spent my days with Kristy and Luis, my peer volunteers, building a program from scratch.

For weeks I fought off back-to-back cases of dysentery as well as a buzzing terror that lived in my ribcage—everyone spoke Spanish too quickly, stared at me on the subway cars, men clucked at me from the backs of sidewalks, and since cellphones were still a rare commodity, I couldn’t speak to my family often enough to remain rooted in my own world.   Kristy and I walked door to door in Naucalpan, using our high school Spanish to recruit day camp participants anywhere from age 4 to age 12, their mothers skeptical of her nose piercing and dark concert tees.   We designed art projects out of street litter, and planned basketball and volleyball games that the town children invariably rewrote into soccer matches. Each morning my host mother tried and failed to cook me an egg Sunnyside Up, the form she considered the most American, and which I didn’t have the heart to tell her I never ate at home.

A few days into day camp, two adolescent boys showed up in the morning. The skinnier one looked down at his feet and pulled his hands in and out of his shorts’ pockets. The taller, fuller boy—he already had the whispers of a moustache—grinned.

“You’re too old for camp,” Kristy said in broken Spanish.

The boys shrugged.

“Podemos ayudarles?” the bolder boy asked. May we help you?

“God, yes. We need the help,” she said.

Diego and Jose came everyday to help, often clarifying our fractured Spanish for the younger children and picking more fair teams for soccer hour. They were both 15 years old, more like brothers than friends, sometimes telling dirty jokes and then blushing on the occasions we understood them.   School out for the summer, and their parents working all day like all our campers’, they didn’t have much to do but wander the streets avoiding dangerous older boys who might pull them into the various temptations of boredom.   They loved camp.

One day towards the end of the summer, they invited Kristy and me to dinner.

“You’re going to cook?” Kristy asked and laughed.

“Si, si,” said Diego. “Hot dogs.”

Kristy was a vegetarian, and she slid her eyes in my direction.

“What do I do?” she asked me as we followed Juan and Diego down the dirt road toward Diego’s small apartment, dust popping off our flip-flops.

“You have to eat the hot dog,” I said and she nodded.

On a hot plate in the pink kitchen, the boys boiled water and ribbed each other about who should set the table and which cups to use of the six mismatched plastic mugs on the shelf.   Kristy and I suspected the boys wanted to impress us. They were nervous, but more than that—furtive and twitchy, and we also suspected they had not asked Diego’s mom for permission to prepare a makeshift meal for two, older gringas. Juan pulled a limp package of hot dogs from a plastic bag, the money for which I still have no idea how he scraped up, and plopped them into the pot. No buns, but the boys cut up mango to pair with our dogs.

At dusk, they walked us to the bus stop, and Kristy surprised me by kissing Diego full on the lips. Juan shoved his hands deeper into his pockets, and I smiled at him as Diego tried to go in for a second smooch and Kristy swatted his face.   From the bus we watched them punch each other’s shoulders and throw their heads back.

I never saw Diego or Juan again, nor did I ever send letters. Kristy returned to Cincinnati, and I back to Houston for the few days before my sophomore year began at Smith College. The summer was a mere, magical blip on the electrocardiogram of our privileged lives.

No plane carried me back over the border. Instead I crossed via a faded white YMCA van that rattled over potholed streets. I wore smudged overalls and an Aztec-patterned friendship bracelet some of my camp kiddos weaved for me, my heart bloated and throbbing. My host father refused to come with the rest of the family to see me off that last day, and when I asked why, my host mother told me, “Tequila. Pero mas, su corazon. Es demasiado roto, hija.” His heart is too broken, daughter.

Now it’s 2014 and children pour over the border in alarming numbers. Their battered bodies wash up on our shores from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador through Mexico, after horrific odysseys. They do not fly in airplanes or ride in camp vans. They crouch in dank corners of 18-wheelers or man rafts across the Rio Grande or hike over dry crevices in West Texas or tunnel underneath the border with the sewer rats. A large number of the children are 15-17 year old boys. Here, adult men and women use big words to argue about what to do with the children, whose responsibility it is to care for them, whether they should be here in the first place.   They use words like” “detain,” or “ fragile infrastructure,” or “invaders.”

I think about hot dogs.

I think about watching Juan and Diego’s silhouettes from the bus that night. I see the long shadows of the narrow street, the outline of their Nike shorts hung low and loose across their hips, the half-skip they used to carry their happy bodies home.

Amen.

 

Sermon for Sybrina Fulton

from Psalm 43

Do me justice, O God, and fight my fight

against a faithless people;

from the deceitful and impious man rescue me.

For you, O God, are my strength;

why do you keep me so far away?

Why must I go on mourning

with the enemy oppressing me?

Dear Sybrina,

You seem to me devout in your faith, but I’m not much of a church-going woman.  I wanted to tell you I attended services this morning with my husband. I didn’t know what else to do.

Because I spent last night weeping for your dead son.

No, not for Trayvon Martin, your boy I never knew, your boy who everybody now claims to know, your mythologized boy whose broken body you healed in his boyhood.  I cannot know or pretend to know your mother’s grief.

I spent last night weeping:

I wept out of shame, because our country disappointed me so badly that I wasn’t sure I could ever love it again.  Because our country owes you an apology.  Because our country should get on its bony knees and repent.

I wept for my students, especially my male students, because I know as only a teacher and parent of teenage boys knows such things that they are still learning how to become men. Seventeen year old boys can’t always tell when to play aggressive and when to play calm, when to push back at the world as they will inevitably have to do, when to puff their chests, and when to run.  They might choose poorly, and adults are meant to protect them by choosing wisely.

I wept because I had a poet’s words in my head the sadness lives in the recognition that a life can not matter.  Because I helped raise that poet’s daughter, a daughter with a black mother and a white father.  Because once, while she sat in the bathtub and I on the toilet holding her towel, she said, “I am dark like Mama and you are light like Papa.”  And I told her, “Yes.  But it doesn’t matter.”  Because I’m afraid I lied to her and that it does matter and that I knew I was lying and because maybe I was afraid to say it mattered because I didn’t want to “see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky.”

I wept because I am a woman, and therefore, I too know the world is a dangerous, unjust place.  Because I know the endangered can never explain to those people who have always been safe just how dangerous.  Because I am a woman and people might excuse violence against me because of the body I was born into, because of what clothes I might wear, or where I might walk at night, or because I might respond to a predator with something less than deference.

I wept because people have guns who do not need guns.  Because those people often think they’ll be better than their darkest anxieties and fears, their most deeply embedded biases. Because that’s the worst kind of arrogance: to assume we can see, name, and control the violence inside us.

I wept because Florida decided that a man can lynch another man and hide the word “lynch” from the world–and worse still from himself–inside legalese.

I wept because on Day 23 of the trial you tweeted You can break a woman down temporarily but a real woman will always pick up the pieces rebuild herself and come back stronger than ever. Because I hope you’re right, but I’m not sure.

I wept and I wept.

When I arose from all that weeping, like I said, I went to church.  The Gospel reading for today came from Luke, the tale of the Good Samaritan.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with your soul and with all your strength, and with all your heart; and your neighbor as yourself.

Your neighbor as yourself.  Your neighbor.  Your neighbor.

Amen.

Sermon for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

On Friday as I worked my freshman students through poetry revisions and my sophomore students through heavy symbolism in literature, I felt a steady thrum in the back of my head.  At each break, I scanned the headlines.  Boston was on lockdown and a 19 year old boy on the loose.

Call me crazy, but while everyone else fretted about the city being terrorized, I felt most worried about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  A picture was forming from the snippets of information reporters puzzled together about the two brothers, and to me it started to become clear that Tamerlan Tsarnaev–the older brother–would emerge as the mastermind and spearhead of the bombing plot.  I felt scared for Dzhokhar, 19 and alone after watching police drill his brother with bullets, probably wounded, the gravity and horror of what he’d done finally settling in and nobody to help and nowhere to run.  

Call me crazy, but I wanted to hug him.

Each year when I teach my students Homer’s Odyssey, we talk about types and anti-types.  In a lesson I stole from my father, we read about the D.C. Sniper–John Muhammed–and his “sidekick”, the much younger Lee Boyd Malvo who together in the fall of 2002 embarked on a weeks-long killing spree targeting random citizens standing at gas stations or in parking lots.  They killed 13 people.  I lived in Washington, D.C. that fall.  I remember walking across a parking lot in suburban Virginia where I had traveled to buy furniture for my new efficiency apartment on Thomas Circle.  I remember feeling exposed and vulnerable–every white van in the parking lot glared at me, every engine sparking to life or car door slamming shut a signal of my impending death.  

Lee Boyd Malvo was only 17 years old during the murder spree.  He was fatherless, in a kind of identity crisis and exile after moving illegally from Antigua to Miami to be with his mother.  Both Malvo and Una, his mom, were caught by Border Control in Bellingham, Washington.  Separated from his mother, Malvo turned to Muhammed who he knew from when the older man had courted his mother back in Antigua.   Here was a father-figure, here a man to guide him into adulthood, here perhaps some solace after too much disorientation and uprootedness.  How easily John Muhammed must have indoctrinated his young protegee. 

Just last year, Lee Boyd Malvo–now 28–admitted publicly that John Muhammed had sexually abused him for years. 

In class I ask my students, “What if Telemachus had turned to a suitor for mentorship instead of Mentes?”  The lesson: young men need good mentors in the absence of fathers, mentors who are, like the character in Homer’s epic, divine at their core.  

If Mentor is the type, John Muhammed and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are the anti-types. 

There are two ways to read the Odyssey: as a hero quest full of pomp and circumstance or as a cautionary tale about the ugly and long impact of war and exile.  It takes Odysseus ten years to get home to Ithaca after ten years at war in Troy.  He does not return a particularly kind or patient man.  He is a wounded soldier, a compromised and questionable leader skilled in the art of deception, and a man full of hubris and a desire for revenge, high-risk behavior his modus operandi.   But despite its title, the epic begins and ends with Telemachus–19 or so at the start of the poem and by the end, reunited with his father, Telemachus has gone from a pouty teenager, unsure of his name and lineage, to a man with a father to follow.  Called by his sense of kleos–patrilineal glory or renown–he follows Odysseus into brutality.   He slaughters hundreds of enemies, hangs handmaids by their braids and mutilates the body of a disrespectful goatherd.  The slaying of the suitors at the end of the epic is barbarous, unmerciful, and uncivil (my boy students love it, which frightens me), so horrific that Athena has to step in at the end of the story to ensure that civil war doesn’t ensue.  

We can’t draw too many parallels yet, but in Boston we have a 19 year old boy whose father is in Russia.  We have two sons born in Chechnya, into a place and time of war, uprooted from a country where war has been the norm for decades, where war dislocates and scatters family members who, unlike Odysseus, often never find their way to any real or even metaphorical homeland.  We know Tamerlan spent six months in Russia last year and returned to the U.S., perhaps, with the vengeful lust of Odysseus on the sea.  We know Dzhokhar idolized his older brother; we know that his brother was his only nearby relative, his only link to family and cultural identity.  

I’m not saying I don’t feel just sick about the the numerous people who lost limbs and loved ones last Monday.  I am saying that the trauma of war is residual and pandemic.  The effects last even decades after the war and persist especially in an age of rising jihadist sentiment and real exile from both healthy avenues toward manhood and identity and from our native countries.   

Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist known for his work with war veterans writes, “The fundamental theme of the Iliad and the Odyssey is the human side of war.  These are not classics because the professors say they’re classics, but because they are so good at revealing us to ourselves.”

And Simone Weil once called the Iliad the “purest and loveliest of mirrors.”

Literature has something to tell us if we’d only listen.  We cannot, any of us, believe that wars end when the white flag goes up.  They never end. 

I’m not saying Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an innocent victim anymore than Telemachus is innocent or Agamemnon is innocent or any combatant is innocent.   

I’m saying I wish Dzhokhar had someone other than his wounded, indoctrinated older brother.    I wish Lee Boyd Malvo had somebody other than John Muhammed.  I’m saying I wish these boys had a true Mentor.  I wish that for them, and for the world. 


Amen. 

 

 

 

Sermon for My Dear Fellow Clergymen

My Dear Fellow Clergymen, begins Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s exquisite Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

My Dear Fellow Clergymen.

When we’re studying persuasive rhetoric, I often ask my students to look at the first four words of Dr. King’s essay, written as the title implies as he was locked up in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in the the spring of 1963.  He wrote the letter as a response to one he received from a group of clergymen—pastors, priests, rabbis–urging him to wait for the democratic process to work on its own, to back off from his nonviolent protests of racial injustice, and to implore his followers and other activists to back off as well.

I tell my students his letter is the single most perfect example of persuasive writing in Western Literature, the culmination of all the author’s spiritual and intellectual experience, the clearest articulation of his vocation and soul work.  This is my opinion, granted, but I say it to them as fact.  I tell them to look at the first four words.  Inevitably, they look at the first words of the letter–While confined here in–and not the greeting above them.

No, I say, look again.  The FIRST four words.

My Dear Fellow Clergymen.

I tell my students Dr. King has already employed a strategy of rhetorical argument.    Why doesn’t he write, simply, Dear Clergymen?  Why does he include “My” and “Dear“?   Dr. King, from the get-go, establishes his authority.  In those first humble words he places himself at the table with his audience.  I am one of you, that greeting announces.  I am a man of God.  So are you.   We are equal.

It’s brilliant.  Aristotle must have smiled slyly from his grave.

My students and I read the letter.  They struggle–the letter, so sophisticated in its language and rhetorical dexterity, is too high-level for them as sophomores.  I know it.  But I want to point them toward something they will understand, the emotional lynchpin around which Dr. King spins his ethos and logos: Paragraph 14.

The most lyrical paragraph of the essay, paragraph 14 centers around one long sentence that uses alliteration, the repetition at the beginning of each syntactical phrase of the words, “When you have seen.”  I don’t think Dr. King’s slip into second person is accidental: he places his listener in the shoes of black people.   The paragraph reads:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

When I read Paragraph 14 aloud to my students, a silence bears down on the room.  I have trouble keeping my voice stable.  I have trouble keeping my breath as I attempt to recite the sentences with the same urgency and speed with which he has written them.  Every time, my heart breaks a little.

What does Paragraph 14 have to do with anything now?

Well, I have been reticent about addressing the most recent media storm about gay rights, catalyzed by the Supreme Court’s review of California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.  I am not hesitant because I do not know, definitively, where I stand, but because so many knee-jerk and sub-intellectual reactions already exist in the digital universe.

This week the New York Times editorial board published an editorial piece admonishing Ruth Ginsberg for her comments that the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion “moved too far, too fast.”   I was so relieved.  As a woman first, and then as a supporter of gay rights.  I understand what she meant; I understand what other constitutional lawyers have been arguing about gay rights: let the democratic process unfold naturally, it’s already leaning in favor of gay marriage, let the verdict fall state-by-state lest we spark a backlash.  Their position is a practical position, but, to me, it’s an immoral position too.

In all the back and forth I couldn’t help but think of Dr. King.  I know the details differ in these fights, as race differs from sexuality.  I know the powers need different truths spoken to them.  Still I couldn’t help but think of Paragraph 14.   I have my own version.  When you have seen your friends cast from their families; when you have seen an otherwise loving mother say to her daughter, “You may come to Easter, but you may not bring HER”; when you have seen your own conservative grandmother offer acceptance to her gay daughter; when you have heard the epithets and catcalls of your gender’s own persecution–bitch, pussy–spit at homosexuals on the street, when you have seen too and recognized what loves sees; when you have seen the singular beauty of the hanger hook line drawn up from a woman’s ribcage, between her breasts, and around the sharp edges of her clavicles; when you have felt the sting of a man so unable to publicly love another man that he carves through women’s hearts as though they wrote the Constitution; when you have seen, when you have seen, when you, when you, when you….

But Dr. King remains even in death a better writer than me.  And, unlike I pretend, he actually possessed a theological ordination.  He was a clergyman.

I hear his voice as I teach it.   This year, 50 years after he penned his masterpiece from behind cold metal bars in the city at the hot core of our country’s wounds, clergymen everywhere should listen to his voice.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.  

 

Amen.

 

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 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 Sandy Hook

I couldn’t write this sermon over the weekend.  I didn’t trust my own overwrought emotions in the wake of news from Newtown, Connecticut.  I wanted to write about that horrific event, but I also wanted to avoid overt anger, unchecked sadness, sentimentality, or a callow analysis of what went wrong–all things I’ve been guilty of in the last 72 hours as I attempt to get my head around children getting murdered.

Today, I write this with a no less heavy heart, but with what I hope resembles composure.  Also, what I want to write about has changed.

I wanted to write about what I believe contributed to the shootings, to write about any of the following:

1) our absurd justifications that, no matter how well articulated they may be by lawyers or NRA reps, still insist that our Second Amendment rights trump children’s lives*;

2) what my friend and colleague described to me as “the unspoken pain of the American experience”;

3) what progressive theologian Walter Wink called the “myth of redemptive violence” in our major religious and cultural stories;

4) the travesty that is our mental health care system; or

5) our gendered culture and how dangerous it is for how it alienates and abuses young men as much as young women

I could sermonize about any and all those things at the drop of a hat.  But then my topic came to me instead from Facebook.  One of my “friends” posted the following meme as a response to the tragedy on her Facebook wall:

 

So, today, in honor of Sandy Hook–its fallen students and teachers–I’d like to write about separation of Church and state, about prayer in schools,  because of all the ridiculously stupid things to blame for Friday’s tragedy the secular nature of our public school system strikes me as the lamest and, ironically, the most violent and dishonorable too.

We don’t need the prayers of any particular religion in schools because prayer already exists in school.  School is prayer.  A school is a kind of church, a sacred place where diligent, caring, inspired, and humble souls do God’s holiest of work.  I say this without the thinnest trace of self-aggrandizement or shame.  I am a teacher.  My husband is a teacher.   We both could have been lawyers, doctors, business people.  We did not “fall” into teaching.  We chose it.  We chose it because we have a brand of faith that lives right up against religious faith; no one could do our job without it.  Trust me.

Of the many names given to Jesus in the New Testament, one often used was “teacher”, from both the Greek didaskalos and the Aramaic robbouni, used by Mary Magdalene in John 20:16 and translated literally as “great teacher.”  And in Mark 13-16, Jesus said to his disciples:

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”

If there is any place in our secularized society that God lives, it must be in the schools.  Anyone who doesn’t know this already isn’t paying attention, and perhaps should look toward his own home, his neighborhood, his television if he suspects a lack of holiness in his child.

Like many teachers across the country, I walk into my school today with new eyes, my chest like a taut balloon filled to the popping point.  “Hi, Ms. Fleming,” some students call from their little territories in the library.  Some have commandeered the island near the magazines, others the cave under the stairwell, marking their spots in even this small world.  They smile widely, unaffected by three-day old news as children tend to be.  Most of them can’t see further back than breakfast.  “Hi,” I say back and try to look them directly in the eye.  With my eyes, I am trying to say I love you.  I am trying to say I’ll step in front of a gun for you.  I am trying to say thank you.   I am praying.

So are they, which is precisely what makes the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary so chilling for me.  Adam Lanza walked into–not a mere school–a temple with three guns and mountains of rage.

All day long I watch students send up tiny prayers, little feathers of devotion the wind catches and carries.  They are trying to find out.  They want to know.   Who am I?  Where do I come from?  Why am I here? They ask the questions religion asks under microscopes and scalpels, on canvases and musical instruments, on three-point lines and stages, in syntax and 10th grade vocabulary words like sanctimonious, sadistic, solace.

The boy in sweatpants furrowing his brow over an algebra formula on his final examination.

Lord hear our prayer.

The girl who asks the student in the corner, alone, to join her and her friends at Whataburger for lunch.

Lord hear our prayer.

The English teacher who writes “nice metaphor” in the blank margin of a C student’s essay.

Lord hear our prayer.

The cafeteria worker who has the Chinese symbol for “hope” tattooed behind her ear.

Lord hear our prayer. 

The 14 year old dyslexic boy who cracks open the spine of a dictionary to look up “mortality”.

Lord hear our prayer.

The baby children who like stickers on their quizzes and practice looping their g’s and q’s.

Lord hear our prayer.

The security guard who waves traffic-weary parents into a carpool line.

Lord hear our prayer.

The brown-haired beauty who starts her personal essay with the confession, “Sometimes I make myself throw up.”

Lord hear our prayer.

All of the students and teachers bent over books or lifting their chins toward a midday sun that rips through the classroom window, their silken heads tilted toward the great mysteries of life, of which there are so, so many.

Lord hear our prayer.

 

Amen.

 

 

*In all this talk of semi-automatic rifles and mental illness, people forget that ALL guns are designed to kill.  No one has remembered to mention in all the newspaper catalogues of recent gun tragedies Trayvon Martin, also a child, also murdered with a gun to which no one with the savior complex or xenophobia of George Zimmerman should ever have access.