Throw Open the Doors

When I consider how many Christmases have painted themselves as bright sugary memories in my mind, I really have had a charmed life. But not all Christmases sparkle. One of the ugliest is an angry green sea, with orange limbs and black heads gasping for life while I crumple thirty bucks in the first I’ve shoved in a coat pocket. It’s the day after Christmas, Dec 26, 2004. I’m standing at the front door of my brother’s home, stepping out into winter, wondering what right I have to spend it on myself. The giver intended for me to spend it as I’d intended, on a the embossed, leather-looking box set of The Two Towers.

Fifteen minutes before while I was pulling on my boots, preparing to wade through waves of dissatisfied people returning their Christmas gifts, when I caught the news. In the living room, my brother, father, husband and other men in my family reclined with their eyes glued to laptops. “Did you hear?” I asked. They confirmed the tsunami that struck Indonesia and beyond had 10,000 reported casualties. 10,000 people washed into walls of the sea, grasping for their children and their lovers.

white and brown boat on black sand during daytime
Photo credit: Unsplash, NOAA

Two and half times the casualties of 9/11. 

I clutched the bills and felt as I had when I was young, watching the destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars. Somewhere far away in the universe there was a disturbance. A world obliterated. Thousands of lives silenced in seconds.

Fifteen minutes later, the walk in Walmart felt surreal. The crowd noise silenced everything. I recall listening for my own heartbeat and feeling the radical injustice of fate or nature or God or whatever. I felt a kind of disgust at myself that I would carry on with my purchase of entertainment while a whole world of Rachels were weeping in great mourning. Weeping for the children, their mothers and fathers. Because they were no more.

If we watched The Two Towers that night, I didn’t pay attention. I checked the news. The body count climbed over the weekend, over 100,000 by that night. Over 227,000 in total. My life was preserved because I was born in the United States.

“There are some years that ask questions,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston. “There are some years that answer.”

Photo credit: Maria Weir

This year, my life is fragile, because I was born in the United States. The richest country in the world, the country that published Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” I teach that story to high school students every year in American Literature. They love the vivid imagery and the macabre Red Death infiltrating a medieval soiree.

In 2014, when Ebola swept six of Africa’s fifty-four nations, I drew parallels between Ebola and the Bubonic Plague for students. That year, an acquaintance in Atlanta expressed outrage that the CDC brought Ebola infected doctors to Emory University. Surely they’d risked American lives, the social media post intimated. Surely noble doctors could risk their lives on some other soil, but how dare we risk American lives to find a cure at the best facility in the US?

This year of our Lord 2020 Poe’s story is as beloved as ever. This year I asked my students about the symbolism of Prince Prospero’s moniker and why he chose his wealthy friends to hole up in one of his “crenellated abbeys.” Do the wealthy think they can escape death? I asked

Not that our wealthy all holed up literally, but our presidential leadership team used access to any and every possible treatment at all costs to prove that Americans can buy their way out of death.

While millions in poverty struggled to work, feed, and shelter themselves, while vulnerable populations died in disproportionate numbers, while those with addiction overdosed in desperation, while kids and parents struggled to find an equilibrium of connection, emotional health, work and education, while doctors and nurses nursed themselves to precipice of exhaustion, while some churches risked the connection/community that makes them strong by going on-line, while some businesses policed personal behavior, while some demonstrators distanced but showed up, others made the decision that this pestilence would devastate only if we believed it would.

This year, the pestilence became most fatal and hideous when individual liberties, collectively practiced, created chaos. It seems that wealthy nations maddened themselves on free markets and free will. They proved that a crenellated abbey cannot keep out even Quiet Death. For this plague is no virus that makes eyes weep blood and pustules seep life. This virus is subtler.

This virus seizes the respiratory system, veins and arteries, and it squeezes the life out of them as stealthily as the flu. 

green leaf plant near brown concrete wall
Photo Credit: Anne Nygard, Unsplash

In The Masque of the Red Death, the plague or something is evil. Sorry to bring up the “e-word,” a word that umbrellas such varied applications that it’s bound to sound judgey or existential or hyperbolic, if one doesn’t subscribe to it. 

This virus, to be clear is not the “e-word.” The e-word is evil. Evil doesn’t generally look evil. While we are screaming about “evil” over there, the evil that threatens has cloaked itself, infiltrated, and run amok. It’s the threat we think we can control. It’s a force we both believe in and remain skeptical of. What do we call evil with some certainty? We call Hitler, his syncophants, and the Holocaust evil. We call Pol Pot and Khymer Rouge’s murder of Cambodians evil. Stalin’s own 14-20 million dead, that’s evil. Mosquitoes: evil. Psychopaths: evil. Serial rapists: evil. Known evils.

After that, we have lesser evils about which we disagree. This year’s pandemic demonstrated that our lesser evils are individualized and polarized.

One person’s evil is another person’s freedom. I don’t wear a mask, freedom. You don’t wear a mask, evil. I travel for mental health and can’t give up a year or I’ll regret it: freedom. You travel: evil.

I’m going to say, this pandemic polarized further what was already divided. I have relationships so strained in my life, I’m not sure they’ll ever recover. They will work, seize up, work, seize, then one of us will die. Not unlike how the virus wreaks havoc in some.

I’m not here to say whose side is freedom or whose is evil. Some of the things labeled evil no longer seem so evil to me.  Another Christian might kick me out of the abbey for that view.

Some years ask questions.

After 2004’s tsunami, my questions included: Is God the ultimate maestro? Is there a god? Or do I have to resign myself to unknowns? Can I live that way?

In 2020, my questions include, Do humans know how to make wisdom out of knowledge? Could we ever be selfless enough to save the race? Is there such a thing as good humanism? Are we really progressing? 

Some years answer. 

I don’t remember what answers I walked away with in 2004, except: I have a life long battle to live less for myself alone. I choose to believe in God and God chose to believe in humans even if we really ‘eff it up.

In 2020, the answers are as thin. I don’t think we’re progressing. I think the same global problems start within individuals. Until we work on our own salvations, we cannot can’t save the race entire. There is a God. It’s a wonder that God goes on loving bodies and souls in this condition. Not the condition of dying or being ugly or imperfect. The condition of being unable to love others as we love ourselves. 2020 may be the year we realize the narcissism within. Then again, we are pretty terrible at saving ourselves.

In Ireland, there’s a tradition at midnight to open all the doors and windows to let the old year out and the new year in. I’m part Irish. My heritage shows up in my grandmother’s nose, which I inherited. My husband is mostly Scotch-Irish. His nose is short and flat too. Our year had its griefs and blessings. He weathered COVID and contentions. We postponed a sabbatical, then a mini sabbatical. We celebrated a milestone anniversary and birthdays without much fanfare. What happened to us sickened me less than what has been happening to those people we work with in our vocations. 

Yet the doors and windows have started to open. I’m ready to throw up the sashes and bang the pots and wait. Good fortune, like salvation, is a work of patience.

A bit rundown here at the moment

I started an essay, forthcoming, on War On Drug’s song “Eyes to the Wind.” My faith is weary, not of Christ, but by fellow Christians. I’m a bit rundown here at the moment. At every turn, many fellow Christians have made a fight out of being kind to each other by masking and social distancing or of taking care of beat up fellow citizens who are BIPOC or LGBTQ.

I don’t why some Christians aren’t masking.
I don’t know why some Christians have attacked critical race theory and have a beef with wanting to care for Black lives.
I don’t understand the fear that drives some Christians to carry weapons (especially to church) but not masks. Or what makes them pledge a de facto allegiance to state capitalism while decrying socialist economics (both of these economic systems co-exist somewhere with democracy). I am flummoxed that their fear of being persecuted leads them to persecute.

I’m either falling into healthy spiritual silence or I am numb-frozen as to how to speak the truth in love. I think I’m in a state that fluctuates back and forth between the two. The former looks like the following:

A few years back, during college, my daughter had the words of Bishop Kallistos of Xelon inked on her. “Do not resent. Do not react. Keep inner stillness.”
Seems a good word to always keep before your eyes.
Speaking of ink and what to keep before your eyes.
Before the lockdown, I had the words of St. Anthony put on my left shoulder.

Always keep your eyes on God. My right shoulder has the Theotokos and Christ with “Still she persisted.”

Owner of wORKINGaRTs

This year I’ve been reading the works of Francois Fenelon. As I struggle with other Christians’ practices, I came across this:

“I am very sorry for the imperfections you find in human beings, but you must learn to expect but little from them; this is the only security against disappointment. We must receive from them what they are able to give us, as from trees the fruits that they yield. God bears with imperfect beings even when they resist His goodness. We ought to imitate this merciful patience and endurance. It is only imperfection that complains of what is imperfect. The more perfect we are, the more gentle and quiet we become toward the defects of others.”

Francois Fenelon

These are my spiritual thumb presses, think rock climbing.

Be still and know
that I am God. My peace
I leave with you. Not as the world gives…


On a funnier note, I keep thinking of the line in Princess Bride when Westley says, “Everyone will be wearing them (masks) in the future. They’re so terribly comfortable.” Actually, masks are my beard right now. So warm. Also, a nice place to hide my RBF from strangers.

Things that are not weapons

Had a long talk with a student yesterday about why we think “white privilege” is a weapon. It’s a tool, akin to a wrench. You can either use the tool to fix a (flat?) or you can throw it at a human being. Or, if you are a skinny white girl in a tight corduroy skirt with loose lugnuts in the back of a tofu factory in an alley in Philadelphia, you can trust a person, hand over the tire iron that he gestures to take from you without getting within four feet, let him tighten your lugnuts and literally save your life. And you can’t even say thank you because he doesn’t speak English. But you now owe your life to him. Wherever he is, thank him. Our examination of privilege is just a tool. If you think someone is threatening you because they use it like a tool, as I pointed out to the student, that’s not because it’s a weapon. It’s because you felt exposed and vulnerable. It’s healthy to bear a little of that.

All Hallow’s Eve

Dear sister, I love you. I miss you.

This is for NRRB.

Ruth of the Bardo

Bardo: (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

In which Ruth speculates why converting to atheism has not spared her from limbo.

Or in which Ruth narrates her afterlife, or part of it, exploring what is unresolved.

Someone should have broken my finger, just to make sure I was dead before you nailed this box closed. 

Just kidding. I am dead. You know that. I know you know that.  It’s just darker in here than I expected. It’s night, but lucid. It’s a waking dream. I’m not nailed in here, so to speak, but I am tethered in a sense. It surprised me because the final hours of my life felt like I was flowing into nothingness. I couldn’t see. The light didn’t hurt any longer, even through my thin lids. Touches on my hand didn’t hurt. A caress up my arm did make me shiver as if someone ran a cold knife blade up my arm but didn’t cut me. A firm clasp on my hand barely registered. My nose worked only to feel an occasional prickle of very cold breeze wafting through. Sound was the last of the senses to go. When loud, dying muted the anguish caused by its  upper thresholds. When one person whispered, I could hear her clear as day. Every ebbing sensation confirmed my new belief that the only life I get was that one. 

So when my body slowed breaths to two a minute, something felt stronger than fainting. You know the whir in the ears, the thudding of the heart, the tunnel vision, blurriness and blackness of sight. All signs of fainting are like dying, but not. Dying is louder, firmer, more insistent.

Then my body quit. Nothing pushed me to suck draughts of air. My chest no longer thudded. Blood stopped doom-saying in my ears. I sensed you around me, but couldn’t channel your anguish. For the time being I rested. Breath free. Hilarious. As if. I couldn’t no longer hear my father hold his breath. I couldn’t feel the hands on my ankles and shoulders, as if a laying on of hands would anoint me for resurrection. Then I saw you all. I saw you as if I woke back up in the ether throughout the room. I had a period of multi-vision, seeing myself on the bed, seeing between your bodies as you clung to each other. I could put my fingers on your tears, but they didn’t feel wet. I put my fingers on my tongue. They lacked saltiness. I lay back down on the bed. So tired already. Welcome to eternal rest. I never expected all of that to transform into this: an afterlife. 

How did I get here? I’d given up my faith, God, Jesus, the Bible, and as we said while growing up, “You know, stuff like that.” I’d expected nothing. I wanted nothing. I’d traded the hope of nothing for streets of gold. I’d spent countless days in the dark, a fan running to block sound, trying not to smell because every sense hurt. This was effortless, painless, soul-sucking.  

Immediately, after my awareness returned, I noticed its transformation. A new consciousness. I remembered what I couldn’t put into complete thoughts about those final moments. Why didn’t hospice tell someone to rub a damp washcloth on my lips, not enough liquid to choke me but enough so my lips didn’t hurt? My lips hurt real bad. Thanks Napoleon. I guess I still have my sense of humor. I wonder if it is as dark as this crypt. I did not have that sense while I was dying. I felt like an onion. Yo, insights from the other side: It’s the dehydration, more than the hunger, that hurts. No wonder the lord thought vinegar and water from a sponge was a mercy. Plus, the gut. Slightly alcoholic vinegarized wine must have punctured the bilious gas in his gut. That sensation was a beast.  I’d have rather had a sword pierce my side too. At least my stoma burped a little, though not often enough. 

Doom and laughter competed in those last hours. Thanks for not leaving me alone. 

I heard one of you say, I hear that the last sense to go is hearing. I heard you laughing. I heard parts of Stranger Things. I heard my kids speaking much more loudly though usually not to me. I read once that each child leaves cells in his or her mother’s body. They leave bits of their stardust in mothers and younger siblings, cells that free-float. I’m second to youngest. Five of you left parts of yourself that died with me. The youngest got most of my consciousness. Is that the trade-off? We were closest spiritual kin and I left my bomb in her? Or is it like sands of the earth that float around?  That the sand in which I buried my kids on Myrtle Beach has a bit of Australia and the Sahara in it. I read that some years  the sand kicks up high and intercepts storms in the Atlantic, slowing storm systems. Amazing. 

I swear I felt my husband Brody when I could barely feel the touch of my sisters Moriah, Rebecca, Priscilla, Joanna, James, Hannah, or my friends who were all there. I sensed psyches, but Brody and my children? I felt and saw in the last remaining facility of touch and color and sound. Imagine going blind and deaf and being amputated all at once. Your body will not let you forget what mattered most acutely. Brody. King Fischer. Sparrow Mae.

This is how the body detaches. First, I was partially aware. I could still talk, still half-hear the TV. Someone laid blankets on my lap. I remembered some of the stumbling to and from the bathroom. Then I was laying in wet warm pools. Then it was cold while people lifted me gently, removed anything below my waist. Pulled up and down items that felt wet and warm, wet then cold, dry and nothing. I wanted to apologize. I was too tired to be humiliated. I wish I hadn’t put them to that trouble, but then again, they loved me, didn’t they? I felt love. It came out of them like energies. I lost all care for that thing called…. called… the word starts with a d. Darn? Damnation? Dove chocolate? Dignified.

The nicest compliment I could pay to dying is this: my children could clamor across my knees, the lights could be bright, all those siblings could gather into the room to sing, laugh and exclaim. Just a few weeks before, I’d needed blackout curtains, white noise, no pungent smells. Just pudding for every sense. 

I just want you to know, I was transformed, but not transfigured. I still am not convinced of heaven. I met a man here who says this is the bardo. What no one told me about the bardo is this: it exists. One doesn’t detangle from the body right off. It’s like being co-mingled, then handcuffed, then an uncomfortable lingering with people you don’t know at a party in your favor. If you’re fortunate, you get a few days near the corporeal self that defined your “life.” I did. I got to sleep in the same home. At night, the family left the windows open. I felt a kind of cold that had nothing to do with fingers, toes or shivering. It was just what my sister called “dispassion.” Songs trembled in me. Crying awakened desire for something unnamed. I couldn’t feel sad any longer. Laughing also created longing, but one that felt more … me. What is “me?”

What are words? 

The veil that separated us is what my Scottish brother-in-law called a “thin place.” I heard utterances. Syllables that once made sense: “L-uh-v yooo,” “goodness,” “mercy,” “shadow,” “soul,” and “sorry.” I’d sit up or wriggle a bit. After I died, for the first time in weeks you left me in natural quiet, so turbulent. I felt presences coming in and out, feeling hands on the old blanket of my body, smoothing it. Water baptizing my itchy scalp. The smell of clean. The smell of my body now that cancer could no longer rot it actively. The smell of fruit and trees, like my sister’s soap. 

“Daddy, how do you spell frankincense?” My mind kept asking for some reason. It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s spelled H-i-p-p-y-s-t-a-n-k. The word god also came to mind. 

But, you aren’t here, god. I think I was right. I haven’t crossed the river. No bedazzled Saint Pete awaits me. 

Sorry, dad. I know you were named for him. Not God. We aren’t Hispanic or that would mean you were named Hey-soos. 

Also other songs. Empty chairs and empty tables. 

Julia, sleeping sand, silent cloud, touch me/ So I sing a song of love, Julia/Hum, hum, hum, calls me.

I found when I sang to myself, I could scooch out of my lifeless body, like I’d posted bond. Oh how I set myself free from its claustrophobic confines. That might be counted as transcendent. Transform: to change forms. Transfigure: to cross into the spiritual figure of one’s material self. Imagine that spiritual otherness as a way of being, not a way of believing. But I speak of what I do not know, what I cannot understand. 

What I know is this. I heard many confessions in the next forty-eight hours. Loud and clear, I heard this of you confessing, crying, and creeping away. I willed some of you into my wake room, but you couldn’t hear. 

I am here now, tethered to my coffin, and need to ask the odd souls I sometimes see putzing around this place. Is this heaven or hell?

“Tis the bardo, sweetums,” said a raggedy man. I took courage and woohoo-ed at his emaciated form gimping about the lawn. I did not follow up.

What is the bardo? I know that the sound of nails in a wooden coffin is the closest sound to hell as anything.

There were so many pounding nails. The wood resonated and echoed. Some of the hits shook little and were quiet, but still, so annoying. Like children. Then adults joined in. I saw the sun through the slats. The nailing seems to lock me in my body for a bit, as if to remind me of my fate. Skilled hits. Straight, swift, four hits or less before moving on. And unpracticed hits, six or ten, and very light taps. 

Those nails felt cold and hard but the sounds felt uncertain, regretful, uncertain. Can sounds vibrate on an emotional level, transfigured from a material form? It was so cold outside of the nailers. Cold. Hot. Confusing, as if. As if… What did I not understand about the afterlife? What is the bardo?

A Beast In Need Of An Enlargened Heart

I’m kicking myself right now for not stopping the audio book I just finished and writing a point I took from it: to write well you have to trust the consciousness behind a text (or its agenda, at least). It’s empathy’s version of a “willing suspension of disbelief.” For most readers, not the elite or jaded type, it’s pulling from our personhood to accept a gift from the writer. If I’m to trust like that, the consciousness behind the text might extend the same, make the writing a gift.

When I read poetry, I want poems I can take home to the kids. I’ve had to unlearn how I wrote verse, full of cryptic allusions and imagery, and free it a self aggrandizing cynical persona who resorts to cheap debauchery. I have to work on wisdom and the conscience of the persona speaking.

Now that I’ve begun writing more narrative works, I’ve come to sense that I write from that same cynical point of view. I’m looking at my stories and realizing that there isn’t a heart there. I’m writing like I’m the Grinch.

I’m writing like the Grinch, because I am the Grinch. I need an enlargened heart. For instance, consider the following:

I’m coming up on my 45th birthday. The same day is the 3rd anniversary of my sister’s death. In the middle of COVID. After four years of amplifying chaos, after four years watching the explosion of chaos, niggardly ideals against poor and marginalized people — they just want a life like mine and are working for it– as well as a cult around a personality. The adoration of strongmen,. White radicalization. A subtle pushing of women back into a smallness where they can be controlled. That is my cynicism in a snapshot.

My father-confessor reminded me recently that we “champion people, not causes.”

What if I wrote that same paragraph this way?

I don’t mind turning 45. I don’t even mind that I now share a birthday with my sister’s death day. I find the sorrow achingly beautiful. I’m more able to be real and vulnerable with the people I serve. I mind that my sister’s death day utterly changed my family. I am grieving the loss of some intimacies. I value new ones built though. It’s true that death will forever change some relationships) I hate the anger that found a habitat to grow then. I hate the contempt that bloomed since, especially because we cannot see each other face to face, so we aren’t treating each other as whole humans. I grieve that the social climate had conditioned us all to be on a hair trigger. I react against the people who adore the personality that has spent the past four years feeding this divisiveness. I resent that some people justify it. I mourn that we were raised in a culture that likes strong men, that thinks cowboy-culture is noble. I’m trying to stay meek and sad, not brittle and vitriolic, but it’s hard not to self-protect. I’ve seen the best of us lose conviction and give in to worst in humanity- full of passionate intensity without conviction.


Goethe wrote “In every work of genius we recognize our rejected thoughts.”

Why do I reject my thoughts and then love them a second time when the writer shows them to me with sunlight on them. My seed, dormant in the cold cynicism, finds warmth ,and my heart enlargens. I read for this. I want to write stories for this reason. A well-written character does more for my character and spirituality than a thousand sermons. (Apologies to my dear husband, my spiritual father, and many clergy I know.)

If I’m to write well, I have to crack the glass and melt the metal around my heart. To write a good character, I have to develop a good character. For me, I have to deal with the anger that energizes me. I have to transform the anger, aim it towards my own proclivities, and not be blinded by them.

I read in a book just now that anger, resentfulness, and vengefulness may be dealt with by praying that prayers of the ones who offend me will be the prayers by which I am saved. (St. Dorotheas).

If I chase this idea down the most difficult, honest path, I have to ask for Trump supporters who pray to pray for my soul and imagine I will be saved because of them. I’m over here holding up my hands like “is that possible?” But then again, Flannery O’Conner (who really complicated violence, grace, and race) instructs me that, “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.” If the violence of making a cult of that sort of man (Trump) also presents hope for all of our salvation, theirs and mine, I suppose I will have to trust being prayed for by Trump supporters is a cross I must carry. I must die on it, if I hope to live.

I’m not jazzed by this angle on the work I need to do on my character. I feel a bit like the beast slouching towards Bethlehem.

Works Alluded To

Zadie Smith critiqued David Foster Wallace with some love and grace in this book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

Vernon Re-d’s lyrics in “Cult of Personality” (Living Color)

Right now I can’t stop reciting lines of Yeat’s “The Second Coming”

Mother Katherine Weston’s book Illumining Shame Anger and Forgiveness is a short, invaluable read.

Flannery O’Connor’s essay on “The Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable” is go-to on craft and the Cross

Heart Hoarder

We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed.

I have not lived with enough of my life on the line.

My name is Maria and I’m a hoarder. I hoard all my creature comforts.–My closet is overstuffed with clothes that belong to the poor. My pantry with food that belongs to poor. My book shelves, my nightly sleep, the soft full flesh of my body bespeaks what I hoard for myself.

I am not living simply. I’m not living as one who has no place to lay her head, as one who draws children with an open heart, as one draws to herself in the night to pray, as one who shows up for the outsiders. The lectionary always challenges me. Today’s was I Cor. 6:1-10. Particularly verses 3-6.

When have I born stripes? I’ve not walked in the risky demonstrations. When have I been accused of too much patience? Certainly my own parenting and my heart reveals to me that I am mostly angry, impatient, and over eager for things to turn out my way.

When have I really faced great need? One or two weeks of life with no food is nothing compared to what my friends have faced. I’ve never taken all my young children, my bills and bank statements to give an account that I need SNAP benefits. I’ve not sat, like fellow seminarian lives or the families who came to eat with us at my childhood church or at Raise and Restore, with impatient children who cannot understand why they must sit under glaring bulbs in rooms with old toys and magazines.

While stress has marked itself in my life, it’s always been bearable, not so costly that I have chemo every few weeks, have painful injections, have siblings with crippling mental illnesses.

I’ve never been imprisoned for doing the right thing. I’ve never been shot at with canisters of pepper spray or rubber bullets or endured a sound cannon.

I keep making excuses about why I’ve given up on the idea of night prayer. That must change.

I’ve been lax on my fasting because already my health demands such restricted options. Yet, I’m not starving. I look like a traditionally build American woman. (I have curves.)

I must go deeper into my faith and yet, like the good examples of saints living and dead, I must do so without giving offense.

In this day and age, when everything is outrage. Especially cheap speech, which this post may be. Aren’t many of my blog posts? There’s only one path clear to me. Write stories. Write how I’m working on living repentance when I encounter the words of the Bible like this. I must live the gospel like Dorothy Day, Saint Maria of Paris, Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr, Saint Alexander (Schmorrell), Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Fr. Moses Berry, and dozens more, both living and dying.

How are you living for resurrection? Who provides a sound example? Let’s converse? Email me your stories, so I can go deeper. What principles do you live by to go deeper and yet bring as much peace, as little offense, without compromise?

Wanton Endangerment

When you listen to the sounds of a 911 call, what sensations shoot through your body? Here’s what happens to me. The skin on my skull seems to retract.

I feel the skin across the entire top of my head begin to tingle. It feels like a spirit grabs my hair and yanks on it. Not painfully but shockingly. 

 I felt this when I listened to the 911 call from Breonna Taylor’s apartment. When I saw the white men standing with their rifles waiting for Ahmaud Arbury to run around their car. As a fellow runner, I think about what I would have done. One day I would have  bossed that situation. On another day, I run a wide swath away from them. I’d avoid. It depends on what my gut told me would allow me to survive. I’m a woman. Ask me about running up to white boys in drug deals at dawn in my local park or bears or unleashed dogs or that one strange male or that white woman in her huge pickup who really guns it in front of me to order her McDonalds.

I feel this when I see the bullets popping into Jacob Blake’s back. I feel the shivers cross my head, flood down my spine, and meet the flutters in my chest.

When I laid flat on the grass for nine minutes during a demonstration listening to the recordings while George Floyd was dying, when I watched Eric Garner choked to death and remembered how it felt to be tossed around while my van flipped and spun and I thought of Freddie Gray being tossed around in the back of the police van, I felt my whole head retract as if some deity grabbed me by my hair and screamed me into fear. ‘Wake up, girl.”

A few weeks ago, we were up late. A drunk white woman invaded the house of a neighbor, who was an immigrant, as suggested by his language levels. It was past midnight. We were already on watch because we’d heard the police bang on the door of the house next door. They politely helped the white kid who’d been dealing drugs on the street for a decade into their car. But when they sent a squad car for the immigrant father and his kids? Not so much. They seemed more brusque. We sat in the dark on the grass keeping vigil for him. Meanwhile, I felt an other worldly sensation. The world reeled. I felt heat in my chest climbing my spine like when I heard Philandro Castile disclosing calmly to the police that he had a legal weapon, only to hear his girlfriend call out as the police acted out of context and shot him.

Listen. I don’t hate blue. I have friends on the blue line, cousins, men I respect. It hurts that now they say things like “We don’t see things the same.” Somewhere, they started believing I hate them. Why? I haven’t posted against them. I sought out their side in relevant cases.

I am left to guess. Is it because when they carry and have a precedent that exonerates them on the fifteen seconds before they flick the finger, pull the trigger, but the person dead or injured on the other side is judged for any or all things done (or what others did around them). When this happens, we know we are not talking about justice or protection by the people for the people. They know something isn’t square. We know too. The middle men (politicians and pundits) pull together against the rest of us. The rich and powerful are like the Mad Men.

Graham V Connor

Stand your ground.

Sundown Towns.

The New Jim Crow-The old Jim Crow

The KKK-Lynchings- Slavery

We poor-poor. We don’t have any sway. How did we get to a place where corporations can donate to the politicians like people and that somehow we think the market will have moral correctness (but it’s a blind system created by people just like the algorithms of social medias which are now dividing and conquering our family systems)?

I keep thinking of the people who have seen the failure of the “believers” who are now done with the idea of the divine. The good Samaritans are the pagans, the not religious, the done with God. They stop everything to advocate, to march, to pick up what is broken, to pay from their pittance to try to save a life. I want to hold them close. I admire how they enter the suffering of the world. They are the Simons who picked up a stranger’s cross. They picked up a foreigner’s body. Like the story of the Good Samaritan, they were the immigrant who picked up the victim on the side of the road.

I have this to say:

Hey. All you poor and powerless. Please let me stand with you. I have nothing to give. I’ve had it better. But here I am. I will stand with you. My kin may reject me, but I think this is where my God-made-human would have been. To paraphrase my sister, if that’s not God, then that’s not a god I worship.

I’m strident about this. The God I serve risked everything for the prostitute. The cripple. The immigrant. The Samaritans. The menstruating woman. The lepers. The kids who were told to be seen and not heard. The poor.

He didn’t hate the others, the rich and powerful. But… they had it all.

In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man had it all in life. Lazarus had nothing in his life. In the parable, Lazarus makes it to heaven, not on anything he confessed or did but on sheer love from his Creator. The rich man who had every chance in life went to…. well… to the bad place.

God honored the poor, as the Scriptures promised.

Tonight, Sept 23rd, when the Grand Jury did not charge any of the three officers present at the death of Breonna Taylor, tonight this nation’s powerful tried to alleviate their consciences over the likes of Breonna Taylor. They knew this would come. Weeks ago, they paid for another Black body with 12 million dollars but not justice.

Tonight, we’ve been accused again by our own broken system that favors the powerful. May Breonna see heaven. May we on earth work for the salvation of the powerful by holding them to restorative justice when they have used power for the powerful.

A bland, white post against the lesser of two evils

I hear lots of people say, “Don’t vote for the lesser of two evils.”

I won’t.

I don’t believe “The Lesser of Two Evils” fits this election.
I’m not talking about political parties. I’m talking about candidates.
One speaks calmly into chaos. One builds coalitions with those who are unlike him or don’t like him.
He does democracy. He negotiates this for that, making changes within a system where there as many “right” opinions and ways as citizens.

He doesn’t name call.

His personal values inform him, his policy, and his actions. He doesn’t beat, berate, belittle, or starve out anyone who disagrees. He doesn’t make policy or appeals based only those who like him.

I don’t agree with many parts of his party’s platform. I haven’t for years, but I live in a democracy. I have to do the work too. I must write, call, and meet with leaders to show them the changes I want. I can support financially or with other volunteering, which I do minimally because I’m not sold on our parties and their platforms. I have supported third parties that I prefer more, but the two dominant parties have a choke hold, at least here in Indiana where a Democrat and Republican have to sit next to each other while checking in voters, while voters submit their ballots, and if they need help with a machine. No other parties have to be represented. It is what it is. It seems to me that I have to work for the change inside the system of two for now. For this election, I am focused on the candidates.

I will choose the noble one.
It’s evil versus noble.
I know because I experience and hear my students say that family and friends now land like vultures on each other’s stated values.

Here’s a cherry-picked list of my own.
When I say “taking care of the poor,” they say (again) “The poor don’t work hard enough.”
When I say we have housing/income/educational/legal system-wide inequities among races in this country, they say the stories are dubious, the data misconstrued.

When I say I’m caring for the alien and the stranger (biblical language for immigrants and refugees), they say they came illegally to take what’s ours. When I support women’s rights to get an education, stop being objectified, and to get equal pay for equal work, they say women should be in the home and dress more modestly.

When I teach to provide a quality education for all kids, they say “the schools are full of secular thinkers trying to indoctrinate our children and create a nanny state.”

When I say our LGBTQ friends deserve equal dignity and rights, they say I’m contributing to the disorder of society. (They are implying a far worse, Old Testament punitive system.)

I cherry-picked. I won’t go on with the she said/ she heard that’s been with me since my childhood here in the Rust Belt. Here fine religious folk believe that sparing the rod (not spanking) spoils children. In other words, a spanking makes for good character and conviction.

Only, it doesn’t. Too many I know were “scourged” out of love for not being unquestioningly obedient, even if the obedience was superfluous. They were rebuked for being children. I heard “children ought to be silent” all the time while I grew up, usually at one of my grandparent’s homes. For some reason, fine Christian folk think harsh punitive measures can fix problems. They long for the old authoritarian means to get what they think is needful. Right now, I’m witnessing memes from such folk about getting out on the streets and giving people a good beating.

They want a tough, patriarchal, authoritarian boss. But they don’t want to be controlled. Control others. But you aren’t the boss of me. Now that I’ve been in a healthy marriage with a non-controlling partner for a quarter of a century, and around his very strong but non-controlling family, I think of my paternal grandfather, who just didn’t try to control me while I lived with him. He showed me love. When he disapproved, I knew it. He did so with love, not shame. I saw in my husband what I adored in my grandfather.
And I think it’s taught me there’s a better way to build family, then community, then nation. Systems don’t have to be authoritarian. That’s what I appreciate about democracy. If it’s healthy, it requires that we work with each other, in spite of our differences.
I think one of the candidates doesn’t just work for himself.
The same one is not nepotistic.
One accepts the slow, messy, good work of compromise.

It’s not a matter of the lesser of two evils.

I call for a culture of perseverance. Let’s work patiently towards a healthy, safe, equitable country for all our residents. Let’s recognize nations are just another system in a world of systems. This or that one does not manifest the will of God.

There are hierarchies of who does what. The more we condense the distance from the bottom to the top, the least to the greatest, the more we get to making a place reflective of the kind of loving parent, or leader we’d all prefer. Let’s go for leadership that opens its arms to the prodigal and the prickly, do-gooder.

I think one candidate has decades of proving it can be done.

We’re living in a pandemic while refugees flee their chaotic authoritarian governments, populations try to get better educations, jobs or housing, and others just want to live in a place where it’s safe.

I think one candidate will speak calm into the chaos.
I think it’s a question of goodness in the face of chaos.

But chaos is manic. It can be sexy. It trains the brain into high highs and low lows. It’s juiced.
Goodness is often too bland to taste. Especially when our sense are re-jiggered for all the screaming artificial flavors, smells, salt, and fat.

Grant, Oh Lord, A Life of Repentance

Photo Credit Unsplash* Tamas Tuzes-Katai

Happy Hunting

A few weeks into the pandemic, our school leaders popped a release valve on the teacher stress. They let us take the last hour on Friday for a “mental health hour.” Nothing was ever so needful. For the first time in years, I slowed down.

My husband and I often walked six or eight miles before heading home to cook dinner together. We couldn’t go to breweries or go out. We often joined the older couples poking about in old leaves and near rotting trees, hunting for morels. I held out hopes that I’d find my first one. I’d hoped for years to master the ultimate art of scavenging.

Morels hide. Their seasons are usually short in Central Indiana, often over by mid or early April. Yet cool, damp weather lingered into late May, and the old men poking at the ground and stooping for a side view, had bags with morels swinging from their wrists. I hesitated to ask their tricks, since the mushrooms fetch up to twenty dollars a pound, unless one takes the time to appreciate the treat by frying them then savoring their earthiness promptly. 

A morel was the first mushroom I ever liked. I ate it to please my soon-to-be in-laws. I ate it as an act of grace. No thank you hadn’t worked. Neither had, “I’m not really a fan of mushrooms.” The hot butter fried morel I nibbled a bit from tasted like… a revelation. I do like green eggs and ham, I joked. I downed that one morel and longed for a second, but there were only a handful and someone told me it had taken the whole afternoon to find those. No one told me how expensive morels were but I’d scavenged and gardened most of my life. I could remember the whine of mosquitos, the brambles and mud, the mental boredom. I knew to hold the taste of that one on my palate for as long it would linger, the way one doesn’t pop a mint after that certain wine.

My husband and I didn’t look hard enough or slow down long enough to find a morel. The older couples’ slow pace favored them. Besides we felt like interlopers, scampering ahead of them by yards, hoping they’d not cleared an area already. Finally, we’d give up and carry along with our deep talks, trying to get back by six to roll sushi together and enjoy beers.

Having the Talk (Again and Again)

One of the early hikes, we returned to a talk we’ve had since the first time we traveled away from our baby daughter for a night. What were our end of life directives? Our daughter is a mother now, so we don’t seal envelopes with letters for the grandparents telling them who has agreed to take custody of our children in an unforeseen event. We talk now of slower death, the kinds that usually come to those hitting middle age. The ones that require decisions. 

On the East Coast, COVID was killing people our age, not just the elderly, like my mother-in-law who lives with us. Having lost my thirty-three year old sister to cancer in recent years, we knew that we’d need to have medical decisions makers. Rarely does dying fit neatly into a package where one can initiate a DNR that fits all circumstances. COVID required too many young people to be intubated. Many recovered. Many died. 

After my sister’s diagnosis, she considered who to appoint to help her husband make the fraught decision, when to stop treatments and start palliative or hospice care should she become incapacitated. She didn’t want someone to demand all measures to save her life. Just because medicine can, doesn’t mean medicine should. We talked about how everyone will die. How could she and her husband make a wise decision that enough was good? That was the objective. 

Because of her diagnosis, I switched my master’s thesis from writing about monastic women to end of life issues. Coincidentally, our parish was planning a cemetery with another parish, wherein we could be buried naturally, which we learned was more financially sound, environmentally responsible, and religiously traditional. Nevertheless, it was culturally bizarre. What living congregation wanted to train to prepare a community member’s body, which includes everything but the pseudo-medical process of embalming (draining blood, filling veins with temporary preservatives, and using a trocar to puncture organs so they don’t pop from bacterial growth.)  My sister and I talked often over the four years she survived. We revisited her end of life directives and what it would mean to have a quality of life. She worried about the half life that cancer would bring. I wanted her to live until she died, not worry about the moments of indignity that dying wrecks upon us.

Neither my sister nor I approved of the fanatical pro-lifer-ism of Terry Schiavo’s parents or other cases where a family insisted upon prolonged measures to keep a heart pumping, lungs breathing or organs stable while holding out for a miracle, or a cure.

Both of us struggled with crushing depression and talked about our ideations. She’d never ideated until cancer. Hers came in year two, when she’d dehydrate because her reconstructed sphincter proved a poor plan compared to nature’s. Also, she faced a daily existential threat on her life. Mine lacked any of that acute or excusable reasoning. It began in high school, but my sensitivity seemed to be a thing I’d been born to, like the sparks flying upward. Every broken relationship, each failure, amplified by a suicide attempt by a beloved person re-ignited my ideations. Then, while I was learning to mother and to teach I overloaded my system with anxiety. I felt scar tissue sticking to my insides, stiffening rather than expanding my heart. I’d curl into the cold tub, weeping for hours, trying to get my lungs to relax and take in a whole breath of air or expel the last breath. I commonly believed that I would enact such extensive damage on the tender souls of my children or the psyches of my students that it would be better for me to expire than to try. 

The Shame of Acting

When I was twelve or so, someone made me a lead in the church Christmas play. I played an angel, and they made me wear huge wings. I lacked acting skills, so the director constantly told me to be more “over the top” and stop worrying about what felt natural. By dress rehearsals, I gesticulated and shouted as directed. I can’t recall how many performances we did- between two or three, I think. At the end of the first performance, my cousin told me that I’d whacked my wings in his and other’s faces constantly. I never realized. I’d thought I nailed all my stage directions. Instead, I learned that I’d hurt kids and flubbed up. Maybe the reason people had laughed so much had more to do with the wing-slapping than my well-delivered, campy lines. 

Sure, I could follow directions, but even then I just hurt people without trying or knowing it. I wanted to quit the play, but my parents said I had to finish. I did it without the bang-a-rang joy. I acted with stones in my heart. The emotional memory imprinted well into adulthood. Though I improved over performances as the angel, I never perfected my performance. Analogous to the play, I learned to parent and teach. I could cook nutritiously, clean, read, teach them to read, teach them to debate, to write, to know grammar, but I kept myself on a regime, controlled, cold, and authoritarian aiming for perfection. A perfectionist cannot help others relax into themselves, to discover their own limits and realize their own goodness.

In her book The Guardians, Sarah Manguso talks about what it took for suicide to become unattainable for her. She writes heart-breaking tales of an estranged friend who died by suicide after surviving for so long a similar mental illness as hers. She’d let life drift between them. Then he died. She reviewed their friendship, her life, their similar treatments and medications, their relationships with others and in the end, what made him feel so alone that he thought the world would improve without him. The turns in her life, and his death, made suicide unavailable to her, she said. I clung to those words. I go through long stretches where I believe that suicide has become unavailable to me. I am able to regiment life, keep away from too many emotional mudslides, and I have just enough to enjoy that I can push off the constant stream of criticism in my head. When I don’t feel much like a fuckup wreaking havoc on my loved ones, I imagine living till I get hit by a car on a run, or get cancer, or something. I never imagine myself living to a ripe old age.

End of Life Directives

“I hope I live long enough to repent,” said my husband, a priest. I bookmarked a phrase repeatedly used in our prayers “Grant, Oh Lord, a long life of peace and repentance.” It sounds Ortho-Christian-speak to me. When we’d reviewed what we expected of each other, should one of us get COVID bad enough to be hospitalized, I told him I wanted to know what he meant by “live long enough to repent.”

I hope I confess and die. What did he mean by needing to live long enough to repent? He spoke of the beautiful weeks of life review he’d spent with his father. Dean died of pancreatic cancer just after our tenth anniversary. My husband spent most evenings after work with his dad. He played music, prayed, read Psalms and listened to his dad review his life. He stayed while all manner of visitors dropped in- men at his church, neighbors, friends, previous employees, even Dean’s kids friends came. He cleared up what conflicts remained in his life. 

When Dean died, hundreds of people came to his funeral and visitation. He’d only ever been a factory worker, a janitor, and gone to a small church. The line of visitors suggested he ran for public office, was someone’s beloved teacher or a minister. So that is a life of repentance, I thought. Dean was a good man, not perfect. In family lore, he was the dad hollered at his kids’ coach. He made some barbed comments at times. He hung a sign in the vestibule one year that read “If this place were an airport, squirrels would fly.” He admitted how annoyed he felt when he had to replace a cord on a vacuum because an employee never learned to wind it up right, or when his grandson opened the sun roof on the new leather-interior Camry and it rained all night.

We joke about how much Dean we see in his progeny. When my husband, his brother or sister get wound up over something that others shrug off or when they’re over protective of their kids, we joke, “Okay, Dean.” They laugh at their mistakes and move on, whereas I tend to curl into a ball, sign up for confession, and hope that this time, a car hits me right after. Dear God, let me die in a state of grace.

Conditions to Make Suicide Unavailable

I was thinking about this again this week because I’ve had a long stretch here, almost a year, when things have been pretty okay. Having a grandkid has been good medicine. But being isolated from people, where I couldn’t hurt them also helped. Now I’m about to launch the book that could be well-received or explosive. And, there’s a relationship-bittering political-social sickness that I sense permeating every interaction. We are necessarily distant so much that old safe friendships have broken into us-them. It feels like it’s no longer Christian to do works of kindness. For instance, it’s divisive to put on a mask. It’s political to advocate for the alien and the stranger. It’s a false gospel – social justice or political- to talk about race or rights for LGBTQA folks. We unintentionally sin in picking fights. Or, we quietly opt-out of family, friendship, church, even marriage. I’ve had people who once swore we were siblings in the Church now talk about civil war against other Christians who are just too __________. (Okay, liberal. Liberals don’t seem to talk about war but I’m not sure cancel-culture is any less violent. It’s psychological warfare. It’s ghosting.) I’ve become so weary that I have given into polarization. What do I do when I sense a loss of goodwill with someone for the simplest acts of kindness? I sense that I’m whacking someone in the face somewhere without even knowing it. It’s too much, or not enough. I’m not built for this world. I’ve spent years trying not to cancel myself, trying to figure out those dispositions like my husband’s and his dad’s. They were peacemakers. They live, make mistakes, repent. Repeat. Die when one dies. 

With my anti-suicide training this year, I learned about the early Christians who went to confession then found a way to “martyr” themselves. (Just now making an odd observation that I declared I wanted to be martyred when I was something like eight years old. Hmmm.) This level of perfectionism lacks grace for myself let alone others. What I haven’t learned is how to check the voices in my head that grant me resilience for my own disposition, let alone this fraught moment in history.

My therapist keeps asking me to check the negative voice in my head. I can remember it as far back as my memories go. I have closets and chests full of mistakes that I try to remember, so I don’t make them again. I’m not sure who I am, if I’m not fueled by shame or discipline. I swing in extremes. I try not to slow down too much, because that’s when my brain begins to entertain the shame voice. So I run, read, learn, cook, eat, drink. I waterboard my negative voice with intense “healthy” activities. Then I write. I slow down, and like prayer, I center on the heaviness within me. I speak it out. It’s not repentance strictly speaking, but it’s not NOT repentance. I write a lot of intimate and embarrassing stuff. In my writing I learn to bear a little more shame. That makes it more possible to live a healthy, repentant life.

None of us knows when we will die. What does it mean to live a life of repentance, a life in the present, self-less, unself-conscious, not punishing one’s self or others, and not self-serving? Truth be told, I have no idea. I’d prefer to burn out trying to be harder on myself than others, but too often, hard on one’s self reduces kindness to others. So also some self-care and self-love talk doesn’t develop awareness of others. 

The point of this all is to confess. I want to live balanced in the world but I have no idea what it means to be balanced. A life of repentance for me will be living all the mistakes and getting used to imperfection. I’ll probably bear shame until some ripe old age. (Fate likes to push me to extremes like that: moderate imperfection being one.) God grant me the grace to bear fate. 

On Race: Where I’m Spending My Energy and Why

A pseudo-manifesto

I’m writing this because many people who know me have bid for me to read and educate myself about why anti-racism is dangerous and wrong. Here is why I’m not spending my energy on listening to the contrarian voices coming out of White academia and cultural thought.

Photo by Karl Janisse on Unsplash

 I’m saving my energy to read, understand and listen to voices on race that don’t promise to affirm ideas I grew up with. I am suspending exploration of texts that assert that racism is overblown, that America is better (since?) or that the current scholarship and rhetoric about being antiracist is harmful. I’m spending more of my energy on books, podcasts, movies, shows, and music that help me get to know my friends, students, and neighbors who are also People of Color. 

Why? A little Context

To a small degree, I’ve been at this, off and on, since I married my husband twenty five years ago. In 1995, he found it supremely uncool that I thought rap and hip hop were tasteless and had little idea about Black history aside from Harriet Tubman, Dr. King and “that lady who refused to sit on the back of the bus.” So he steeped me in Public Enemy. He pressed me to read Malcolm X and Dr. King. He challenged me to watch Boyz N the Hood and Spike Lee movies. He made it clear that admiring Dr King and liking one song by In Living Color did not count. 

We took it slow, but intentional. In the grunge era, he took African-American studies classes after which we made a pact to buy our kids toys that represented all skin tones and to teach them to use crayons creatively to represent all skin tones. We chose art from all manner of artists, so our house looks like a hodgepodge of what’s beautiful in many cultures. We talked about race (and gender) with our kids. By ten, they’d both seen Spike Lee’s version of Malcolm X and knew Lauren Hill by heart. 

I prided myself on this intentionality. But I kept my kids in communities where it was hard to befriend Black people. I tried to make up for it by setting an example as a teacher. I interrogated the literature I taught and ensured that more that half of it be written by and about other ethnicities and races. “There is no frigate like a book,” wrote Emily Dickinson, and since I couldn’t sail out of my small Hoosier town with its majority White schools, White neighborhoods and White churches, I was going to have to make up for my life with books. I used them to take up the spaces for the friendships I should have been nurturing. 

In the Space Where It Started

All the while, I turned over a memory from my school days when I thought I had been pretty good friends with the one Black girl in our church. We’d been friends since elementary school. Between our childhood games and high school, I increasingly fixated on the fact that she was the only one of the girls in our church school who was different. I’d wanted to understand if and how that mattered but she generally seemed to like most of what I liked. I figured I was making up stuff that wasn’t there. She copied all her New Kids on the Block tapes for me, since I wasn’t allowed “secular” music. When I went to her house, we ogled Donny and Jordan and debated which one of those NKOTB poster boys was hottest. I paid little attention to all the other posters and magazines she had. Our friendship proceeded apace through early high school. In our junior year, it broke. My boyfriend used the N-word in front of her one night. At that moment,I cut my breath sharply. Seconds later, she slammed out of the car. I chastised him, but he shrugged it off saying, he’d forgotten she was Black, that he didn’t think of her that way, and that she’d forgive him because he’d known her all his life. I abandoned him at the entrance to the pizza joint where we were meeting up with other friends. I chased her into the bathroom and apologized for him. Another of our friends, a white girl, shooed me out. I didn’t understand why one White girl could stay to comfort her and I couldn’t.  What I didn’t see is that I had made a choice. I prioritized my relationship with my boyfriend. I nurtured that. I wasn’t able to hear or understand why his N-word usage had reduced her to tears.

I’ve turned this event over in my mind for thirty years. I’ve always wanted to understand why that happened. In some ways, it echoes with my friendships. Not the N-word part, but sense that I can never be close with my Black friends. Also, I can’t build the same rapport and trust that with my Black students that I can to help my White students. 

I suspect I need to listen to a plural of accounts over a long, long time to understand the accumulation of experiences that have ground down my Black friends and students.

Yup, Proof that I’m Still Not There

The events around George Floyd are a prime example of why I still have work to do.

Last Saturday I listened to all eight minutes and forty-six seconds of the recording of George Floyd’s death. I’d seen parts of the recording, like when he calls for his mother, but I’m not interested in traumatizing myself with violence to prove that these deaths are bad enough. I’d seen enough to find it undignifying to watch George Floyd suffer and die. I didn’t look at the officers but I’ve heard reports describing how casual he seems as he suffocates to another human being. 

I keep hearing Black men and their mothers say something like: “When he called out for his momma that broke me. That’s when he knew he was going to die.” I’ve listened to march organizers shudder as they describe it and talk of their own bi-racial  children. I’ve heard Black mommas talk about it on podcasts. I heard it again this morning on a weeks’ old Code Switch episode that I’ve been storing in my queue while I tear through all the books on race.

Until this morning, I didn’t hear, really hear, what was going on in my head compared to what those mothers were saying. This time, I interrogated myself. Why hadn’t I assumed that he’d known he was going to die? Because of my other assumptions.

 I assumed that Floyd had called out for his momma because he wanted to humanize himself to those officers. He was calculating that they’d let up if he could seem like them, a person with a mother, a mother who might not see him again. Even though I’d heard his mother was dead, I still interpreted that moment as a moment of calculation, instead of fear and dying hope. Literally dying hope. I also realized that I would have made that calculation and called out for my mother or father in the belief that no person could be so unfeeling that they’d actually kill me. I would say, I thought, so that at least they’d stop torturing me. 

It hit me that I was projecting my experience on George Floyd. I projected that he was calculating instead of reacting instinctively as a man dying. I started thinking through interactions I’ve had with students and parents. How many times had I contacted parents or a student outside of class to discuss plummeting grades and asked questions like, “What is happening at home or in your life that is affecting how much time and energy you are spending on school?” I’d be met with silence. I felt stone-walled. Or excuses. I felt lied to. A student might give a litany of health issues, deaths in the family, past bullying, parental job losses, always different excuses over different conversations. I’d call a mother and meet a momma bear who defended and excused her student. I’d always figured these were calculations. 

All the while I ignored what I’ve learned about race, poverty, trauma and stress. I’ve read  enough to know that stressors are multiplied in Black and low-income households. Still I projected that these people intended to manipulate me, to shut me, out or take advantage of my discretionary privilege as the teacher. It’s weird to realize how little I assumed I might do the same thing if roles were reversed. I assume my intentions are moral and good, but theirs? Why don’t I assume that they are doing the best they can in the circumstances? Or that their pain is just pain, not manipulation?

Sitting with this, after having spent years trying to read, to teach, to pay attention, taught me that I still have not spent enough time seeking to understand. I have Black friends, but not close ones, even though I really admire those friends. I wonder if we can get close if I don’t seem to understand their full selves. I don’t understand them because I’m not spending the time listening instead of projecting. Also, I still nurture my native, comfortable culture more. How on earth is someone supposed to trust me with their authentic self if I am steeped in the ideas and aesthetic that has always made me comfortable? That old saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes? I’m not sure a mile is enough if I had to hear the same observation five times in three weeks to realize I was thinking very differently about George Floyd.

Why Be Partisan?

I hear often that we live in one of the most polarized periods since the Civil War. While that’s hard to prove, I will say that recently I’ve damaged a lot of relationships because I’m doing this. I don’t like to be unliked or to enrage others. If I didn’t see how other families are also cracking, but new friendships and new possibilities are forming, I would not be telling myself, “You gotta keep at it, probaby for years, and their issues with race affect you, but they are not your fault.”

The cost of change is real, but I have to pursue change. For too long, I’ve suffocated the voices of those who’ve begged to be heard. I need to understand them because I operate in some institutions that still wound children and souls. I’m a teacher puzzling how to educate those kids who previously were not admitted into high ability classes. Some of my students struggle throughout the year because the stressors overwhelm them. In the past, I would have said they are not fit for this course. But they are. They have the ability, just not the support system (from me at least). I teach alt ed courses as well. In the past, I’d have said that such-and-such student needed suspension or expulsion, which spirals into greater stressors and barriers for that student. Now I’m trying to figure out how to educate each of the kids. Each can achieve more, if I’m patient, and I don’t project failure onto them.

 I’m also a priest’s wife in the Orthodox Church. While my neighborhood has finally begun to feel more diverse- I have lots of LatinX and some Black neighbors mixed in with working class White folks- my church has almost none of those people visit, let alone return. Our congregation is mostly well-educated and White. What would happen if we started inviting my neighbors to church? I don’t know because it would make our parish a very different culture. When “different” people have come in the past, they’ve been held to standards that often result in them leaving after a few months. It’s easy to say they are just too different and self-selected out of our culture. We haven’t asked if our culture is healthy and welcoming to all God’s people.

Standards I’m Measuring Myself For

I represent two institutions that have work to do. It’s not just about people dying or the police. It’s about institutions that need the people who operate in them to shift their entire perspective. I will know if I’m “being the change” if I fulfill or help bring about the following standards: (I set these goals for myself after much reading).

  1. I have many relationships in my neighborhood.
  2. I remain a resident in a diverse neighborhood.
  3. I nurture lots of friendships to deeper levels among people who didn’t grow up like I did (low income, working class White) or who are not like me now (White, cause that isn’t changeable and my middle class, educatedness).
  4. More POC and low-income people will feel welcome to visit and return to my church. I will befriend these people.
  5. My parish family will also befriend and welcome these people.
  6. More of my school’s students of color will be placed in high ability courses.
  7. We will reduce our suspensions and expulsions across the board but pay close attention to how many of those are students of color and examine ourselves in regular, sustained discussions about why that’s happening.
  8. I will stop projecting on families and students what I think their motivation or situation is.
  9. I will listen carefully and ask lots of questions, even of my White peers, to understand why White peers resist or fear. (Yes, fear. In recent weeks, Orthodox friends expressed negative reactions to our presence at demonstrations because they believed that Black people want to force White people to bow to them or that Black people mean to oppress White people. Just saying what happened.)
  10. This is only the beginning of the list. I will need to add more. Proficiency is one thing. Excellence is another.