Sunday, June 25, 2017

Montreat Memoirs, 1

It has taken a full week to begin writing -
not for lack of want, but focus.
There has been time, but I chose other things.

Love and loss fill my mind.
Yearning for things untouchable, unwinnable.
Yearning for those things that are not yours to grasp,
but yet the yearning persists.

What will replace that yearning?
What is strong enough -
persistent, primitive enough -
to steal that primal desire from your heart?

I stare at the mountain,
losing my center in its hugeness,
forgetting who I am to myself,
wondering if I could exist within its enfolding grasp.

Would I lose myself entirely?
Who would I find, then, within its embrace?
Who is there with me, waiting to break free?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

My chat with my father

This morning I wanted to talk to my dad about all the church burnings of the past week.  I wanted to be soothed, but I also wanted some perspective.  My father is a "retired" A.M.E minister who grew up in the Deep South.  I thought the events of the last few weeks would be familiar territory for him.  When I called he didn't pick up, so I decided to check in with my brother instead.  

I just stared at his response.  What could that possibly mean???  I never got an answer.  My brother is a roofer, and he was probably straddling someone's roof at the time.  The more I pondered, the more I thought of the recent police shootings, and I wondered if those events scared this particular brother of mine, who could easily be described as a "big, scary, black guy."  Tall, very muscular, and VERY dark after a summer of roofing homes and businesses.  Even I'd be afraid of him if I met him in a dark alley - that is, if I didn't know I could scare him away by brandishing a bare foot in his face.  He hates feet, for whatever reason.  My other brother barely looks black at all - he's very light skinned, almost as light as my mother was.  But I wouldn't want to meet him in an alley, either - he is small, but muscular, with a temper.

So, this was a prelude to the conversation I had with my father.  I was feeling greatly disturbed after reading about the fire at Mt. Zion A.M.E Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina - ironically, the same name of the church where we grew up.  At this moment, the authorities believe that lightning probably struck the church, as heavy storms had rolled through and at least 4 lightning strikes were noted in the vicinity.  But last night we didn't know this, and what a coincidence for yet another church to be burning!  

I finally got a hold of my dad, and the first thing I asked was, "So, what do you think about these church fires?"  His answer was simple. "It's nothing new."  I wasn't sure what kind of answer I was expecting, but I admit to being a little surprised by his somewhat matter-of-fact, non-emotional response.  "This is what it was like back then.  We've seen all this before."    I was kind of amazed by his rational calmness.  He didn't scream and shake his fists at the heavens.  He just calmly stated what is, what was, and what may be inevitable and accepted it as a possible reality.  I envied that calm.  Perhaps it comes with age and experience.  

Next question:  "Do you think this is the beginning of something?"  His answer - "Yes."

Oh.  Well, there's a little jump in the stomach.  He continued to say that if white people continue to speak out against this, it won't become something bigger - translate: if there is not widespread support for injustice, things will get bad.  He said "it used to be" in the south that if you did something people didn't like, you would just disappear.  And maybe a little later they would find you hanging in a tree, or they wouldn't find you at all.  "I don't think that's going to happen again," he said, "but if it does we're going to have a big problem because people aren't going to stand for it. If white people continue to speak out, then we'll be okay. This is nothing new. This is what it was like back then. I'm not scared, I'm just cautious."  Again, that calm, rational tone.  I quietly wondered what it felt like like when the "whites" weren't speaking out.  He went on to say that some people still aren't willing to accept that things have changed and are continuing to change.  

The destruction of churches and places of faith for political reasons or to scare a group of people is not a new phenomenon. History books are ripe with these stories - it's old news. This is just one story in a long line of stories about humanity repeating a sordid, sad story.  Sadly, this makes me feel better. This is not about me, my family, my community or the color of my skin.  It's about fear, which can lead to hate.  Fear of what?  Fear of change, destabilization, loss of power/influence, fear of the unknown, and more.  As human beings, when we fear the loss of the things we hold most dear - no matter what they are - a primal response takes over.  What we do next, of course, is what defines us as people.  Hate or love.  Help or hurt.  Change or... or what?  

Next question:  "Should we be scared?"  My father said, "No, just be cautious.  Ben, too."  That's The Hubby.  Most of you know he's a white guy.  It's sad to say that "mixed" couples are still frowned upon by some.  I told my dad that I really don't run into any "problems", and that most of the dirty looks and flack I've ever received was from other black people.  He wasn't surprised.  I asked, "If we've been through so much, why do we treat each other like that?"   We talked a little about some issues some younger family members have had.  He said, "A lot of these young kids haven't been taught anything about the civil rights movement.  They don't understand what's going on. They haven't been through this. They look at white people and think they're the enemy."  

We went on for a little while longer before I let him go.  I had called because I wanted to be soothed - not today!  But I am left with a lot to think about, and a lot to admire about my father and his generation.  In much of the news coverage I have seen over the past few weeks, I've noticed a great sea of calm, wisdom, and experience from those aged 60 and over.  Many see the signs, and they know what could follow.  Many look into the flames of burning buildings, get up the next day, and put on their Sunday best and begin the hard work of forgiveness and rebuilding.  Many stare into the faces of people who hate their very existence and don't even flinch.  Where does this type of courage and strength come from?  I know for many, including my father, it comes from their faith.  In conversations about death, I've heard him say on many occasions, "I'm ready" - not because he wants to die, but because he has no fear of it and is confident about what lies ahead.  I envy that strength and confidence.  And, quite frankly, the vision of watching a group of 60 and 70 year olds stare down the KKK (who is becoming more openly active again) is pretty badass and inspriational, in my opinion.

I ended the conversation to let him get ready for a bible study he was leading - so much for being retired.  He holds these in his living room, and I joked with him and said that maybe he should pat everyone down when they came in the door.  He laughed hard.  I wasn't really kidding all that much, honestly. 

What did I learn?  We cannot live in fear. We just can't. We have to be ready to face whatever may be in front of us, and be wise enough to learn from the past.  And we all have to be willing to change - whether it means learning to love your neighbor, or learning to forgive.

Friday, June 26, 2015

They Came to Dinner, and They're Not Leaving

Like many people, I've had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about the horrific murders in Charleston last week.  We've talked of the shock and the senselessness of it, and how, in the end, nothing of any substance will be done in reaction to it.  In a conversation with a friend yesterday, we shared our disappointment in the reaction of much of the greater church - prayers are ascending for sure, but we both asked the question:  What is the greater church going to change about itself in response to this loss of life?

I asked myself the same question last week.  We happened to be on vacation when I read about the shootings.  I felt a particular closeness to this event, as my father is a retired A.M.E pastor that still leads Bible study on a weekly basis.  In the living room of his house...disturbing images came to my mind.  I grew up in an A.M.E. church and imagined what it would have been like and how it would have changed all of our lives if a stranger had come in and shot up the place.  I imagined what it would have been like sitting in those chairs at Bible study, after welcoming the young stranger into our midst, to see him pull out a gun and point it in my direction.  I imagined the disbelief and the shock, and I truly can only imagine the devastation of the community that is left behind as they grieve this event that has forever changed their lives.

This evening I watched "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" with Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Sydney Poitier.  If you haven't watched it, you should.  It's good stuff.  Dr. John Prentice, played by Poitier (black guy, if you didn't know) fell in love with and is planning to marry a young woman named Joey Drayton (white girl).  The movie tells the story of how they spring the news on their parents just a short time before they are all to meet for the first time at dinner at the Drayton home.  This may not seem like a big deal to most of you but considering this was premiered in 1967, you can bet your boots it was controversial.

I was struck by the scene with Tillie, the maid (who you may recognize as Louise Jefferson from The Jeffersons - black woman), and John Prentice.  She had previously shown her displeasure to her employers in waiting on the young, black doctor and gives him a hard time - a very hard time - using very harsh words with respect to the young lady she worked hard to help raise.  The gist of her argument - he'd better not do anything to mess with that.  And if a black man wanted to marry a white woman in 1967, something good was being messed with.

The scene reminded me of a similar situation in the movie "Django Unchained", which is set in the Old West and Antebellum South.  Django, played by Jamie Foxx (black guy) is trying to rescue his wife from the clutches of a horrible plantation owner, played by Leonardo DiCaprio (white guy).  I found the movie brutal and extremely offensive.  The scene that gave me pause, however, was when the "butler" of the plantation, played by Samuel L. Jackson (black guy), refuses to wait on Django, who is a guest in disguise at the plantation.  Jackson's character calls Django out for being uppity and stepping out of his place.  He refuses to wait on someone who is no better than himself, no matter how fancy his dress.  In both movies, I found myself asking the same question:

Why do we treat each other this way?

Are we jealous of those who look like us who seem to have made out better in life?  Do we resent the uneducated black person because they may reflect poorly on us to others?  Do we frown upon the light-skinned person - the "high yellow heifer", as I was called as a child - because they fraternize so easily with whites?  Do we dismiss the dark-skinned person as a non-person because they will never "blend in" with the rest of society?  The answer is yes to all of these things, and to many more

What does this have to do with Charleston?  For me, everything.  I think we are often hardest on those closest to us, and this is true for myself.  I have been hard on and judgmental of black culture for many reasons, and some of these reasons have a lot of validity.

This has to change.

I have said, as many others have, that if you put yourself in bad situations - like committing crimes and running from the police - you run a greater risk of losing everything, including your life.  I was appalled by the horrible police shootings of the past year (there are so many to pick from) when unarmed black men (mostly) were shot by negligent police officers.  But there was always a small part of me that said, "But I'm not surprised."

This has to change.

Like many others, my shock and horror at these events faded after a few weeks, and I went on with my life.  Until I saw the video of those kids at that pool party in Texas.  Until I read about those people losing their life because they decided to go to Bible study last week.

I have to change.  I don't know what that change will look like.  But I do know that I am a part of the problem with humanity I complain about.  And that has to change.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The tide always wins

It started with one word.


Nothing else, just that one word.  A man walked around the word, dragging his stick in the sand. Deepening, clarifying, until there was no mistaking it. 


We watched while we sipped our morning coffee, which eventually turned into breakfast, which eventually turned into afternoon coffee with cards. 

And he was still there.  But now there were more words.


People strolled by as he continued to tinker, to perfect.  Dogs ran after thrown objects, children squealed with glee as the cold water washed over their feet.  

Soon, there was another letter.


What was next?  We couldn't help walking out to the balcony to take occasional glances.  Was he going to spell Jesus?  Well, that would be kind of obvious.  A quick glance said no - you could clearly see the beginning of a U forming in the sand.  Hmm. 

Hours passed and cards continued.  Snacks were eaten.  Little boys quarrelled.  Some adults smacked hands in victory, while others threw their cards down in disgust.  The sun warmed the air, and the sound of the ocean was a constant comfort in the not-too-distant background.  

And there were more words.


The thought was finished.  Passersby stopped to consider his words as the tide began to come in.  The man attempted to reform the words as the water washed them away.  He was diligent, this stranger, and patient.  No movement was rushed or panicked - just deliberate.  We commented on it as we played, and continued with our fun.

Between hands, we'd stretch and find another snack or rest our butts from the hard chairs.  There was always time for a quick check of our strange friend's progress outside.


The tide wins, as it always does.  The water washes the words away, much as life often does.  The ocean remind us that blessings don't last forever.  That stranger reminded us that even though change is inevitable, we keep working and looking for blessings, even if they wash away right before our eyes.  

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Longing for home

This year I was all jazzed about writing weekly reflections for Advent - pairing them with O Antiphons, even.  But, of course, this did not happen, as life intervened yet again and the days and the hours slipped silently away.  I was, however, invited to write a reflection on a piece of music for Advent for a site called - you can read it here.  This will be the extent of my spiritual musings for the season.  Off into another direction we go...

I learned a new word this week - hiraeth.  It's a Welsh word that is somewhat difficult to translate, but according to the Facebook Oracle (which is gospel truth), it means, "a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past."  I read this and was suddenly flooded with images in my head - images and feelings and pieces of hopes and dreams that seemed forever broken and lost and impossible to recapture.  Here was the place where those disturbing middle-of-the-night dreams originate.  Here were those nagging thoughts in my brain to which I could never put a name or a face or an idea.  


The definition itself has a bizarre, vague clarity to it, describing something that is tangible but only because you can never really put your hands on it.  It's that moment of clarity that lasts for 5 seconds in your head, and then disappears.  It's the swirling, wisps of morning fog that dissipate the moment you walk through them.  It's that elusive lightning bug that always carried the possibility of holding a fragile, wondrous glow in the palm of your hand before it disappears and leaves you with a rather gross-looking bug.


What is this home?  Is it a place?  Is it a people?  Is it a state of mind?  Maybe it's that little girl who, years ago, was full of dreams and fantasies about what the future would look like.  Maybe it's that not-so-little girl who, no-so-many years (weeks?) ago accepted that the dreams of that little girl really were fantasies, and that life sometimes is exactly what it looks like.  And sometimes that really isn't very interesting or inspiring at all, but feels gray, dull, and death-like.  Or maybe, just maybe, the home we are really yearning for does not and cannot exist.  It is utopia, complete in its double meaning:  the "not" place, and the "perfect" place.  And that makes us want it even more.


It haunts.  And yet, is also inspires a dream of something even more fantastical.  Maybe this home will be filled with the warmth of the people we want to have in our lives, but cannot.  And maybe those people will only haunt its rooms for eternity, in their trail the pleasures and pains of nostalgia.  Whatever this "this" is, it leaves us incomplete, and our homesickness is a disease that, seemingly, will never heal.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Morning Time

Mozart - a great way to start any morning...

I have never been a morning person. In fact, my mother used to call me “Evil-ina” as a child when I reluctantly descended the stairs.  For me, morning was always the time to shrink back underneath the covers and pretend that just a few more minutes of closing your eyes in the darkness would do the trick.  These days, mornings are my favorite – especially days like today when I don’t have to be anywhere. I rather enjoy stumbling around the house in my bathrobe searching for that first, elusive cup of coffee, strains of “The Golden Girls” on the tv in other room as I stare blankly out the window, ignoring the lawn that needs to be cut, reveling in all the changing colors, but not the neighbors leaves on the grass…ah, fall.  

I work from home most Wednesday, although things seem to get scheduled on these days with annoying frequency.  In theory, Wednesdays – at least the mornings – are supposed to be all about me.  It’s not selfish.  It’s survival. 

At this morning’s brain feeding at the time-sucking trough of Ye Facebook Oracle, I came across 2 articles – this one here  about understanding and living with the things we feel like we’ve lost (even though, perhaps, we haven’t lost them yet), and this one here about Millennials and high church.  These articles seemingly have nothing do with each other, but the combination of the two unleashed some powerful stuff.

I had an immediate, irrepressible urge to write.  For me, writing is much like music and the need to get on the instrument - gotta have it, gotta have it now, when the heart says it’s time.  Screw the world and its schedule.  It’s not a need, it’s a NEED.  I opened up my blog interface, was assaulted by that dark page with the red candles on it, and I just couldn't do it.  I clicked the “x” and moved on to Word.

Under the Cassock.  A cassock that has been a suffocating, torturous presence – a reminder of hurt and loss, of unanswered prayers.  A hurt that is deep, because it is mixed with joy and success and music and life changing opportunities.  I can’t integrate these things together in my mind.  These feelings can’t possibly coexist.  I don’t want this cassock anymore.  I don’t believe in it

Or do I?

I have struggled mightily with my beliefs and with my faith.  Do I believe in God?  Yes.  Probably.  Most of the time.  Probably all of the time, but sometimes I don’t want to – not always because of God, but because of all the ‘stuff” that comes with God, even though it really has no place there. “They” – you know, those people - say that “God’s presence is with us through the people around us.”  Really?  Even when those you love and to whom you are closest disappoint you and fail you in massively destructive ways?  What a cruel joke.  Some other “they” will probably say, “Well, Nicole, if your faith was stronger you would accept that this is God’s path for you, and would just bow your head lower and pray for Jesus to take all your pain away.” 

I think “they” are full of it. 

God doesn't promise that to take all our pain away – not in this lifetime.  God promises to be a presence in our lives through EVERY time, difficult and joyful.  And guess what – his presence mostly comes through those people up there who, at times, fail and disappoint us.  See?  Here I am making arguments for God in the midst of doubting him.  Perhaps I was just well indoctrinated as a child.  Or, perhaps faith is a living, breathing, organic being that can never tolerate being static.  <Sigh>  Sometimes the truth is annoying. 

Do I believe in The Church?  No.  Absolutely not.  It’s a dream that will never become a reality.  Too many people posturing, hurting, hiding, making it all about themselves instead of about God.  “But, Nicole,” you may say, “don’t you ‘work’ in a church?  Doesn't your ‘work’ require you to fill a pastoral and educational role that, if you really don’t believe in The Church, would make you a hypocrite?” 

Why yes, yes it does.  Well, in a way.  I work in that little community because I love those people.  Some of us have been through quite a bit together, and some of us are making new, awesome memories as we speak. And throughout all these things, we come and worship together every week, even when we don’t want to be there.  There are times when I cannot wrap my mind around these things coexisting together; times when all that hurt, loss and unanswered prayer seems insurmountable, and the best thing to do is turn your back on it and walk slowly and deliberately towards something else.  But then those NEW things come bouncing along and for just a few minutes, I can forget about the hurt.  And the hurt drifts farther, and farther away.  Don’t get me wrong – it's still there.  Just in a fuzzy, indiscernible shape on the horizon.  Some wise person might say, “Well, duh, Nicole, that is The Church.”  Wish I could see it.

I used to have a lot of interesting conversation with friends and colleagues about faith and church.  I used to enjoy them.  Now they just make my head hurt.  I learned a lot about God as a child – hard to avoid it as a Preacher's Kid, but we tried our best.  I also heard a lot of people talk about their relationships with God.  Most of this talk happened on Sundays mornings in some liturgical or teaching context.  What I never really learned is that doubt is ok.  Doubt about anything, really.  How else can we really learn what is truth to us if we don’t explore every side of that truth?  That would have been a nice little nugget to pack away as a child – ignored at first, like every other seemingly unimportant parental teaching, but then discovered later on like your favorite piece of candy in your pocket when lunch is still an hour away and you skipped breakfast.

I suppose the beauty in all this is that different people see different things, and THAT is the beauty of life, the very life of what is beauty.  I can love it, you can hate it, and yet “it” is still there for someone else to interpret and breathe in.  I think, perhaps, there is a wee bit of The Church in that thought.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A New Year

Counterpoint: The technique of combining two or more melodic lines in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality; Use of contrasting elements in a work of art; To set in contrast.

New Year’s is such a metaphor for new life – for change and all that comes with.  It almost seems built into our DNA to think about what we will change in the new year, and how we wish to change ourselves.  How can we make life new?  How can we make ourselves new?  Many of us spend time making lists and promises to ourselves and others about how things will be different or in some cases, promises to keep putting energy into the things that are currently working well.  Maybe it’s the group mentality of it, like the secret pinky promises between the bestest friends of our youth, that make this particular ritual so powerful. 

I wish I could say I’ve been pondering the power of new life, but I’ve actually been thinking a lot about death lately, and find myself being confronted with my own fear of dying alone and not knowing what comes next.  (I am tempted to say, “who knows why,” but we all have our demons and I know mine well.)  But I was lucky this New Year’s Eve to spend the early afternoon with a group of people in their 60’s and older – all vibrant in their own way, but dealing with their own late life issues.  What struck me most that afternoon was the anecdotal stories about friends and acquaintances who were 100 and older and of more than sound mind, if not of whole body.  Now, for the most part, my family is fairly long-lived – especially the women – but I’ve never really thought about living until I was 100.  That’s another 62 years on this earth.  Dude, that’s a long time.  And if centenarians are out there looking forward to their next days with a sense of adventure, it seems silly for 38 year old me to be so concerned with the next 5-10 years, especially since I have absolutely no control over many of the things that weigh on my mind.

The older I get, the more I understand myself.  One would think this would make life a little easier, but it doesn’t.  It only makes me feel older and more alone.  I actually kind of miss the blind recklessness of youthful decisions – going on instinct and just doing things because they feel right or seem like the right thing to do without the weight or knowledge of experience poking its opinion into things.  And many times, those decisions are right.  And when we make mistakes, we chalk it up to youth and inexperience.  Next time we will know better, and hopefully, we move on to make smarter decisions. 

But as I look into the new year, I don’t think it’s that simple.  I don’t know if there are “right” and “wrong” decisions.  There are simply decisions, and they all come with their own set of consequences that have the potential of affecting our lives in a myriad of different ways.  Just because we choose to “do the right thing” does not mean that everything that follows is golden.  There is no path that is true north.  Everything goes crooked every once in a while, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  There can be some interesting things growing on those crooked pathways – things that lead us to a better understand of ourselves, the ones we long, and the world around us. 

So what do I resolve to do this year?  Not sure about that.  There’s nothing more soul crushing than making promises to yourself that you can’t/don’t/won’t keep.  I know better than to wish for health and prosperity – sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just get what you get.  But I think this year it’s worth making an EFFORT – not a PROMISE, because promises just seem too absolute to me anymore – to ponder LIFE and all its forked and crooked pathways.  To ponder the possible adventures ahead – maybe 62 more years of them – and to be hopeful and thankful for the wise souls that we cross on those crooked paths that help us keep our perspective on the scary stuff in our minds that go unspoken.