Uncontainable

 

Naked Peach. September, 2017

Every morning I begin my day with a cup of coffee, my glasses, my journal, and a pen. Whenever possible, I sit on my deck— even when, as it has been this past week, so cold I need to bundle up under a quilt. (I’ll come inside when the temperature gets below 50 degrees.) Every morning, in the peace of my tiny backyard, accompanied by birdsong and tag-playing squirrels, I make meaning of the day before.

I italicize make meaning to give those words the power they deserve because, yes, over the years, through this daily practice of reflection and prayer I have often found my way. (Or, at least, shined a flashlight in the direction of where I am being asked to go.) But what I am moved to write about this morning is this: given the unfathomable breadth of disaster and pain and horror of this past week, perhaps I should have written “make meaning.” Because how the hell do you “make meaning” of multiple, never-like-this-in-our-lifetime hurricanes and multiple, wide-spreading wildfires and millions of people displaced from their homes, both here and throughout the world, and the obscene cruelty of DACA being repealed and. . .

You don’t. We don’t. I don’t. This is what has come to me. (That realization feels like grace.) It is hubris to expect any human being to take in all of it. We were not made to hold all of it. We can’t. It’s uncontainable.

I surrender to the Uncontainable. Which doesn’t mean, I quickly add, to accept or to dismiss or to minimize or to deny—or to cease asking “What am I asked to do in this broken world?” It merely means I cease believing I can make meaning of today’s headlines. It means I bow my head. it means I recognize that I when I recall Brother West’s “I don’t know what will happen but I do know that If this is The End we will go down swinging,” (something like that)  I silently add together. 

 

 

Who’s Looking?

[Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, June, 2017]

Easily overwhelmed, I’ve learned the best way for me to experience an art exhibit is to slowly and reverently—yet randomly—stroll through a gallery and let everything on display silently surround my senses until That One Work hits me between the eyes. And on Sunday, at the Speed Art Museum’s “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art,” that’s exactly what happened. When I saw this one. This Carrie Mae Weems photograph that so slyly references Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” And yet, oh dear lord, declares so much more!

For here, literally in black and white, is witness! Showing up. Using one’s body to powerfully speak Truth. Here is a woman of color owning everything in that photograph. Everything. Those plantation columns; how those overhanging trees frame her body, every blade of grass, the soft, hot breeze, the curve made by her antebellum dress, how her hair is dressed, what aperture to use, the light; The Light. Hers. Carrie Mae Weems. All of it. Hers.

Yes.

 

 

What I’d Do Different Now

[Woolworth’s Sit In, Jackson, Mississippi, May, 1963]

Some years ago I began to wonder: Whatever happened to those two African-Americans who desegregated E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1962? So I found Dr. Lynda Woodruff and Reverend Owen Cardwell, Jr.—and wrote a book about what unfolded because I’d wondered.

These days? Now I am moved to wonder: What would happen if I found one of those despicable young men abusing the Jackson, MS sit-inners? (Surely some are still alive?) Could I possibly sit down with one of them; could I ever listen with an open heart? Face to face with a white supremacist, could I remember to seek “that of God” in the old man seated across from me? Not try to “fix” what I’d hear; offer neither advice nor comments but merely ask questions? (Why do you suppose X happened? How do you make meaning of that? Why do you think Y said that? How did you feel when Z happened? Tell me about how you learned about X? etc. ) And then write a book about what I heard? And learned? Could I?

Not lacking in (compelling, passionately engaged-in) writing projects, I am nevertheless tugged at, nudged to wonder: Where does hate come from? What, in all my studies, all my close attention to race and class and gender and education and all the other variables that make each of us who we are; what have I missed, what have I never understood? What do I need to know?

 

 

Lawn Ornament

[Pineapple Fence, New Orleans, January, 2017]

“It’s come to this,” I thought, putting up a “In this house we believe . . . ” sign in my front yard Saturday. “I’m living at a time and a place where I must declare that ‘Kindness is Everything’!” But then I remembered how Bathtub Madonnas once adorned the tiny front yards of this neighborhood. And thought, well, didn’t my former neighbors* feel moved to declare the same thing?

And then a way-more disturbing recollection came to mind: how slave-dealing New England ship captains would display a fresh pineapple on their front fence to signal that they were open for business—or that recent sales in the West Indies had gone well; Party Time! C’mon over! (Which is why we’ve come to believe that Pineapple = “Welcome!” Not quite.)

So, maybe affirming that Black Lives Matter or that Love is Love, as precious or as smug or self-righteous as that might seem, is a good idea!

* Italian or Portuguese, now deceased or condo-zed, i.e. forced to move because their building had been converted to condos—or, possibly, because they no longer could afford their rent.

“The Stranger Among You”

[Landscaping, Somerville, MA Style, 2016 ]

I live in Somerville, a sanctuary city, and my faith community is located in Cambridge, another sanctuary city. As the xenophobia in this country becomes ever more vicious, I’ve been been examining what this dual citizenship means. Not in terms of my sense of public safety* or, god forbid, to feel smug or politically correct or content; heck, no. But day to day, standing in line at the post office or hearing voices outside my window speak languages I can’t even name, what does it feel like to live into “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”? (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV**)

It’s a spiritual practice. It’s a moment by moment interaction with The Stranger(s) and to pay attention to what that interaction calls up for me. (Lately? Mostly? Incredible sadness.) To daily encounter brown-skinned people, ever more stressed and scared—living in a sanctuary city isn’t a stress-free guarantee—is to perpetually pray: what am I called to do? (Write this for starters!)

It’s to connect with that “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” bit. To know with certainty, with deep and abiding understanding, that The Stranger’s backstory is, in some fundamental way, my own backstory. And that if the folks walking past my house and I were to share our stories, we would find the same themes, the same plot lines, the same unifying beliefs.

But also, these daily encounters are moment-by-moment reminders that my experiences and how I see the world aren’t the whole. Aren’t reality. Aren’t The One and Only. Or, to paraphrase another biblical bit, they’re daily reminders to walk humbly—and lovingly—as I, as we seek to do justice.

*Lots of conflicting studies, lots of rhetoric, but the crime rate in sanctuary cities seems to be lower!

**Slightly amazed I’m quoting Leviticus, one book of the Bible I’ve never connected with!

“Preparing”

[Civil Disobedience Training, Cambridge Friends School gym, 2/4/17]

When I’d told an aging activist I was going to a CD training on Saturday he’d snorted: “What’s to learn? You go limp. End of training!”

But I don’t roll that way. If I’m considering something hard, something I’m scared of, I need to do exactly what I did: I need a class. I need to pay money. (Not a lot; $15.) I need to spend five or so hours with other people contemplating the same action. (There were about forty of us.) I need hand-outs. (9 pages, double-sided, no less!) I need lots of Q & A and roll-plays and earnest conversation at lunch. I need to take turns reading quotes about non-violence aloud. I need to contemplate Gene Sharp’s list of 198 methods of non-violent action. And to study a hand-written flow chart explaining what might happen at a civil disobedience event—and my choices at every step. I need to show up.

And now I need to do my homework, the same homework I always do. Which is to ask: What am I called to do? Is getting arrested—and all I now understand will happen to me should I decide to do so— what I am called to do? I’m not clear.

But I do know this. The day after that training, at my Quaker meeting, when asked to give a one-word description of how I was doing, my immediate answer was “Preparing.”