I love Facebook. It’s a great way for an introvert like me to communicate–I can pick the time, the place, the degree to which I choose to engage. And I can retreat whenever I want. Plus, I’ve reconnected with people from all over the country, with people who span more than 50 years of life.
Saturday night I pulled out a very old book, a book I’ve owned since I was eight years old, when I was working on another blog post. Tucked inside the book was a postcard from a long-ago friend named June. June and her husband Wes were friends when I lived in Nebraska in the late ’70s. They were older then than I am now. If June is still alive, she is well over 100 years old.
On the postcard–which cost 13 cents to mail–June gave me a status update on their lives. Wes was currently at a peace vigil on the Honduran/Nicaraguan border; Wes and June were Quakers and very active. Then she pointed me to two pages in the poetry book from my childhood, poems she wanted to share. We had discovered, as we were becoming friends in Nebraska, that we both owned and loved the same book.
It’s been more than 30 years since I tucked that postcard into that book. And many, many years since I last thought of Wes and June. Yet every time I pull out that book, I get the added sweet surprise of finding that postcard and remembering my lovely, sweet-spirited Quaker friends. I can look up the poems she wanted to share with me and get a glimpse back into her heart.
Recently, a dear friend had a milestone birthday and his family asked friends to write him letters about a special memory. Those letters were presented to him around a fire pit at the end of a day of celebrating his life. He read them all and they brought tears to his eyes. Writing my letter brought tears to my eyes, too, because it reminded me why he is such a dear friend. Writing the letter reconnected me with our little bit of shared history and what’s important in this life. And I’m betting that one day he’ll pull out all those letters and read them again and remember all the people who touched his life and his heart.
I do love Facebook. But I’m wondering if anybody’s really going to stumble across my cyber-trail 30 years from now and remember how our lives connected.
I’ve seen and read a lot of loveliness online–passages from Frederick Buechner, prayers from friends, a blog post from my pastor, this moving video clip of Mr. Rogers about “looking for the helpers” in times of crisis. Even videos taken seconds after the attack, which revealed people running toward the explosion to help victims, gave me something to focus on besides the horror.
All of these words and images reminded me that sometimes our best selves are born, or show themselves, in the worst of circumstances.
Interspersed with the loveliness have been spews of hatred, born, I know, out of pain, fear, despair, anger. The people spewing hate need our prayers, our healing energy, whatever positive thoughts we can send them. Because, as a friend reminds me, fighting back with our own words of hate or anger means hate wins.
Which brings me to the awareness that, as we are praying for everyone affected by this latest tragedy, we might also pray for the perpetrators. We might pray for them to be transformed. We might pray for them to travel from their extreme brokenness to healing. When compassion comes alongside justice, a healing can happen that goes beyond anything we can imagine.
Our world seems to be in a perpetual cycle of shock, grief and recovery. We place each other in the crosshairs of our fear and our rage. We take aim at the Other, as if that will eliminate or alleviate what hurts or frightens us, when the truth is that taking aim only dials up the pain, the fear, the anger.
There is only one antidote, and that is love. But humankind can’t seem to grant love its true place at the center of our lives. We will do anything, it sometimes seems, except love. Love, apparently, is the scariest thing of all.
Not just the how-to, but also the why-to.
Everybody assumes the church has our backs when it comes to prayer. But let’s face it: church attendance is down and continues to drop. Some people under 40 rarely set foot in a church except for a young friend’s wedding or an old relative’s send-off.
As for the 50-plus generation, we all know it was Boomers who started the big exodus from church. Between toking up and shacking up and generally screwing up, who had the time or the inclination for church? So even if that generation had a hunger for prayer, it’s unlikely they would’ve recognized it for what it was or had a clue where to turn for guidance.
And the generation that raised the Boomers? What they knew about prayer started and seldom strayed from the Sunday morning pulpit. The preacher prayed and their part was to say “amen” in unison.
Even now, the how-to is still modeled most in churches, using a certain kind of language that may seem too formal to feel authentic when we’re wandering through the rest of our lives.
And the why-to? Who knows? Prayer has become a “should” and we all know how likely we are to fall in love with the things we should.
Falling in love. That’s really the why-to of prayer. Prayer is a falling in love with the Divine Source that made us and the God Man who saved us from the junk heap and the Holy Spirit that lives and breathes in us whether we notice it or not. Prayer is falling in love with the grace and mercy and glory found in our messy, broken lives.
Prayer is falling in love.
And we all know there’s no how-to manual for falling in love. We just keep showing up for coffee or dancing or holding hands or breaking bread and one day we wake up to the realization that we have fallen in love.
I’ll try to keep this brief, because if I don’t, I’ll end up preaching.
I have a Facebook page called Wide Open Prayer. I started it because I wanted to create a place where people could share about all the many aspects of prayer without getting into religious pissing contests.
I know, I know…
Yesterday I posted a quote with a photo of rosary beads. Someone commented about agreeing with the quote, as long as we remembered not to pray to saints.
Here’s what I believe: God does not close the door on us if we’re praying “wrong.” I haven’t yet encountered a “wrong” way to pray. If I’m talking to God using a song or a Bible verse or drumming or incense or a mantra–heck, if I’m yelling at God in the kitchen because life isn’t going the way I want it to–I believe God listens with an open heart. In my own years in the spiritual desert, God didn’t hang out a sign saying, “Come back when you get it right.” God said, “Come on in. Let’s talk.”
My church says it this way: God invites. We welcome. All.
Who am I to close the door when God flings it open?
“There is a devil creeps into men when their hands are strengthened.”
Gertrude Stein wrote those words in the libretto of an opera about Susan B. Anthony. She wrote them as the ashes cooled following World War II, which she and Alice B. Toklas had lived out in the kind embrace of the French countryside. This was their second world war in their adopted French homeland. Obviously, Stein had power and the way men use it very much on her mind.
As I read her lines, in the aftermath of a nasty national election and the gamesmanship of the fiscal cliff debacle, the ugly ways of power were fresh in my mind, too.
Of course, in Stein’s day most power did rest in the hands of men. That is less true today. And I’m sure a devil creeps into women, as well, when their hands are strengthened. Maybe that was more the case when women first began to demand and own their power. We’ve all heard horror stories about women bosses. Sometimes the devil creeps in and sometimes the devil does wear Prada.
My experience today is different.
In my experience today, women wear their power well.
The women of power I know most often use their power to empower other women. They have learned that power, like love, grows stronger when it’s spread around, when it’s shared, when it’s used to lift up rather than hold down.
I know more powerful women than I have ever known in my life. They are leaders in business and leaders in life and leaders in public service. They give and they collaborate and they connect and by all rights they should be running the world.
A few men I know are learning to manage their power differently. They’re smart. Because once a devil creeps in, the strength in the hand begins to weaken. When power is shared, on the other hand, something remarkably like love creeps in. And love, like a woman, is way stronger than it gets credit for being.
I haven’t missed my third-floor perch until today.
At mid-afternoon, when the rain had stopped and the sun had made its brief appearance, then fled, I saw glimpses of the brooding sky between bare tree limbs. I longed to see that winter sky from my third-floor condo, which had 16 feet of windows looking out onto a continuously changing sky. Then, just at sundown, I saw splashes of deep vermilion sweeping toward the horizon and I knew I was missing a magnificent sunset.
I have a sky fetish; have had since I was a kid and believed somehow that sunsets were God showing his face in a world where no other sign could be seen.
So for a moment today I felt an ache, that greedy little human need to possess today’s gloomy sky and the delirious sunset that followed it.
But, really, I did better than see those faces of the sky. I felt them both in my bones and in my spirit, maybe more strongly than if I could have dropped in whenever I felt the urge between stretches at my desk. From this vantage point, at ground level surrounded by towering trees, I only get glimpses if I’m fully present in those moments when something magnificent shows its face.
Her name was Rosie. She came several days a week to clean house and take care of my sister and me. She told me if I ate sugar right out of the sugar bowl that worms would grow in my tummy, which I did not believe but still fretted over most of my childhood. She liked my sister better than she liked me, but then, who wouldn’t?
She was, in the language of the day, “the colored help.”
My family was not wealthy. We were barely middle class, living in one of those plain boxes with a chain-link fence on a block of identical plain boxes that went up all over the country in the post-World War II boom. If we were barely middle class, I can only imagine where Rosie fit in the socio-economic hierarchy of the middle 1950s.
A half-dozen years later, Rosie no longer came. Instead, once a week we got in the station wagon about 6 p.m. and took my father’s clean work shirts, rolled into damp, tight balls, to a woman who did the ironing for my mother. She lived in a dingy house at the top of a flight of rickety stairs in a neighborhood we called, using the language of the day, “colored town.” That was polite language, a step up from the language my father used.
Around that time across the South, all hell broke loose. Police used fire hoses to beat back people on the streets of my hometown, people who wanted something called “civil rights.” Little girls died in a church bombing. My friends and I couldn’t ride the bus into downtown for a movie and a fountain soda at the five-and-dime on a summer afternoon any more because of something called “sit-ins.” My father sneered over other language, like “freedom riders” and “outside agitators.”
I was a witness, if a young and confused witness. I know what happened and I was part of it, if reading the news and moving from confusion to outrage can count as some small part of the change that was at long last happening. I tell it now because the blood of racists runs in my veins and because I know what turmoil had to take place to get us to this still imperfect place where we are today.
This afternoon, I read a column by civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams in which she said, “When we speak, if only in a whisper, momentous things can happen.” I would add that when we don’t speak, as loudly and as clearly as we dare, momentous things can be lost.
Maybe it isn’t enough for people to tell the stories of courage and righteousness. Maybe those of us who remember the small minds of injustice and cowardice and hate need to speak, too.
This is part of the legacy I bear: The blood of racists runs in my veins.
Illustration by DigitalArt via www.freedigitalphotos.net
Who is our prophet today?
Who is leading us out of this wilderness in which we find ourselves today? Who is pointing the way to a promised land that seems at least as far away today as it was 40 years ago?
When I was growing into young adulthood in the 1960s, the world was a frightening and dangerous place. A place of war and violence in the streets and hatred based on fear of the unknown and the different. In other words, it was a lot like today. The biggest difference may have been that we had prophets who were pointing the way out of the wilderness.
We had Bob Dylan, who sang to us about a different way to live in that dangerous world. We had Bobby Kennedy, who vowed to help us build a different kind of world.
And, of course, we had Martin Luther King, Jr., who reminded us that God had a different plan from the plan we were living out.
On this day of celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., I scroll down my Facebook news feed, read the messages King left us and I teeter between hope and despair. Hope because he spoke with the authority and the authenticity of one who had inded been to the mountaintop, had seen the promised land. And if it was true then, if there was a promised land then, surely there must still be one today.
And despair, because in these 40-plus years since his death, so much of the progress we had made seems to be eroding. It is eroding at least in part, I believe, because the voices that dominate today’s conversation are the voices of self-interest and antagonism and sarcasm.
Where are the voices of hope and reconciliation? Where are the voices that lift us out of our small lives and onto the mountaintop? Who is urging us to act with courage, to live from that place inside us where we are kinder and braver and more compassionate than our fear or complacency or pettiness? In 50 years, who will we remember as the voice we followed out of this wilderness?
Are we without prophets today? Or do we choose not to listen when they speak?
Tomorrow afternoon, about 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the diminuendo begins. One by one, cars head for home. A parking space empties. Then another and another. A storefront goes dark, a mall, a grocery store. Red kettles are spirited away. A dwindling stream of headlights melt into the dark.
No matter how many gifts I wrap, no matter how many cookies I bake, no matter how burnt out I get listening to Jingle Bell Rock, that moment comes when nothing is left but the hush of the silent night.
That is the moment I wait for, my favorite moment of the season, when I can believe that for this one night, all is truly calm and bright.
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
The theme song for the 1980s TV series Cheers pops into my head a lot. It was a show about a neighborhood bar, the kind of place where regulars walk in and their usual drink shows up at their favorite barstool before they can even get seated.
Bars like that are still out there, I’m sure. It’s the kind of place my parents hung out when I was a kid. I spent a lot of Saturday nights playing dominoes while they drank beer and I really don’t much care to be a regular there any more.
In fact, I’ve spent a good bit of my adult life resisting being a regular anywhere.
But there I was, this morning, sitting in my regular spot in a most unlikely place, surrounded by a lot of most unlikely people, many of whom do, in fact, know my name.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
A year ago today, I had never set foot in the place. But a week before Christmas, I slipped in at the last possible minute, grabbed an end seat in the back, easy for a quick getaway. After the small gospel choir with the big sound got everyone’s heart pumping — even mine — someone up front asked first and second time visitors to stand and give their names so they could be properly greeted. I did not stand up.
The details that got me from that moment in time to this don’t matter much. What does matter is that this morning, one year later, there I sat in my regular spot. Even before the small gospel choir marched its big sound down the aisle, I had talked with at least a dozen people about our lives and all the ways and places our humanity intersects.
What does matter is that something in the spirit of the people who gather in that place made it impossible for me to stay away. It’s a spirit that welcomes all of us, with our baggage and our doubts and our differences and our ways that haven’t always been a natural fit with stained glass and hymnals.
You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
Here in the South, some folks call churches the poor man’s country club. Still, comparing mine to a neighborhood bar may seem a little extreme. But I believe a lot of folks at Caldwell Presbyterian would like the idea that somebody thinks their church is the kind of place where people might just shout “Cheers!” when you come in the door.
Right after they call you by name, of course.
The ways we relate to this holiday are anything but holy. It is a retail orgy. It is precious videos and music over-exposed into meaninglessness and a distinct lack of comfort or joy.
As for the birth that launched us into this Celebration Gone Wild, we are separated from it not only by centuries, but by beliefs so tattered and divisive that those of us who claim to remember the reason for the season face off. We are the battleground and the birth itself has become the victim of the stiff-necked certainty that divides us.
So what is there left to say about this holy day that we have stripped of meaning and left at the entrance to the mall, battered and unrecognizable?
Last year, I attended The Birth, a play based on the writings of theologian Frederick Buechner, one of the deepest and most profound writers on Christianity from the last half-century. Buechner likes to challenge us to shift perspective, to step into the story of our tired old beliefs and imagine being touched by the workings of a God too mysterious and magnificent for us to fully comprehend. A God who sends his message of hope and love in the form of a baby – a helpless baby born poor and homeless, already rejected by people just like us.
Sitting in the darkened theater that was as Spartan as any manger, I fell into the mystery and the mysticism of that birth, that simple birth whose echo should have long since faded. And somehow, has not.
Being grateful for what I have is easy. Pecan pie and Miss Bailey and sunshine out the windows and my favorite shoes that are not only comfortable but look good, too.
What can be hard is being grateful for what I don’t have. Not the stuff I don’t have like sickness and hunger and homelessness – it’s pretty to be grateful that I’m missing those things.
What’s hard is being grateful for what I don’t have when I think it’s something I should have, something I think I need to make life perfect, something I expected would come my way.
I spoke with a friend yesterday who had surgery about a month ago. She worried, before surgery, about how she would cope. She wouldn’t be able to go up and down the stairs to her bedroom. She wouldn’t be able to get her own breakfast or dress herself. And this was all going to happen over Thanksgiving, which would mean she wouldn’t be with her daughters in other states or her granddaughter or her brother.
What she has had, in the midst of this ocean of need, is the humility to accept the help of dozens of friends, the kind of friends who are willing to help you when you’re helpless. What she has had is an awareness of how much she is loved and what really matters and that each person who has helped her has been the hands of God, providing everything she needs in life. What she has been given is a hard circumstance that became not something to endure, but a time of spiritual growth.
So on this day of giving thanks, and every single day if I am paying attention to the way God works, I will be grateful for what I don’t have and think I want. Because I can be sure that there are more gifts in my lack than I will ever find in my abundance.
I saw this posted on Facebook. Its original source was a fan page that posts a lot of stick-it-to-the-liberals funny stuff. So I presume from its source — and from the 1000-plus responses — that this is intended to be a humorous put-down of Democrats.
I’m not going to get into the politics of this because at this moment in time I have very little respect for politicians of any stripe and next to no confidence in the folks we’ve elected to run our country, whether they’re red or blue.
What I want to talk about is a world in which we ridicule the idea of saying, “Share your candy.”
I know, I know. I understand the political ideology behind this. But, hey, there are so many ways to make liberals look foolish that I am astounded conservatives would pounce on this particular idea. They might just as well ridicule the notion, “Feed the hungry. Clothe the poor.”
My inclination was to add, “Love your neighbor. Bhahahah!” But I think the point is made.
The next time someone irritates the very devil out of you, pause for a moment and look for the ways that person is like you instead of focusing on all those differences that make you want to scream.
The next time someone looks like the root of all your problems — or society’s problems, because goodness knows society has a lot of problems and we sure do want to pin the blame somewhere — imagine for a moment that this person feels the same fear or anger or uncertainty you feel, just packaged differently.
The next time you want to look down on someone who clearly oughta know better or do better or be better, just for a moment remember your own worst moment, a moment you wish you could take back, a time when you should’ve known better or done better or been better. Maybe there’ll be an instant when it’s like looking in the mirror.
Just try it. Once today. Then once more tomorrow. Try it because it sounds sappy and simplistic but it is surprisingly hard and we all need to stretch ourselves at least once a day. Then try it once more. Who knows? Maybe it gets easier.
Changing how I think about other people may not sound like much, but it is the beginning of change. A change in my perceptions. A change in my own level of frustration with daily life. A change in how I interact with that one irritating-as-hell person. Sometimes, one thing changes everything.
Humor me. Just try it. Promise?
Photo courtesy of Mantos Ruzveltas
A few years ago I was going through one of those troubled times when I couldn’t decide who to blame for my misery but knew damn well somebody was to blame and somebody should pay. I was chock full of self-pity and self-loathing and lots of other self-defeating beliefs and behaviors.
One afternoon, mid-summer, I had one of those brief, shining moments that I like to call a God Shot — for no discernable reason, I was filled with joy. In that instant, I understood that I was free to choose joy. I also understood that I would forget joy was always there for the choosing but that, in odd moments here and there, joy would choose me and I would remember.
I decided to make the most of that moment. It will not surprise you to know that “making the most of it” for me involved ice cream. But not just scoop-it-into-a-bowl, eat-it-with-a-spoon ice cream. I would go in search of those little cones we used to have when I was a child. I would cram one of those cones full of ice cream and let it run down my fingers and stick to my nose. It’s hard not to be joyful with ice cream on your nose.
I went to the grocery store and picked out mint chocolate chip ice cream because nothing says summer like mint chocolate chip. I’d never bought cones before, but I thought I’d seen them there before, at the end of the freezer case beside Hershey’s syrup and caramel sauce. I turned the corner and sure enough, there they were, boxes of old-fashioned cones. The brand name, it big, kid-attracting letters: JOY.
Tonight is the final night of August, surely the perfect night to celebrate the end of summer. In the kitchen, I have an old-fashioned cone and a single-serving container of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Some of which will stick to my nose.
That’s what Webster’s says about compromise. Here’s what I say: Once the compromise has been reached, the goal should be to support the compromise and to work together to create success from that compromise. To do anything less is childish and petty and self-serving to the extreme.
Nobody is happy about the economy. Nobody likes everything about the debt ceiling deal that was reached in recent days. The only way one person or group or party gets all of what it wants is in a dictatorship. We the people have not granted 100 percent control to any one person or party. So we compromise. Sometimes the people who do the compromising even do so in the spirit of finding the best solution from among a smorgasbord of conflicting ideas.
Here’s what needs to come after the compromise: unity in the service of success.
Not continued bickering or bellyaching. Not fingerpointing or namecalling, which belong on the playground. And not, even in this era when news coverage has been replaced by yammerers, ceaseless rehash.
Unity and hard work to make it work.
I can’t make that happen in Washington or at Fox or at CNN or in the vitriolic comments added to blogs all over the internet. All I can do is support the spirit of compromise by refusing to be part of the attack mentality that has replaced rational discussion. I’d like the work of our political leaders to be successful in restoring our economy and our good name around the globe, even if I don’t agree 100% with how they get there? Wouldn’t you?
A compromise has been reached. It’s time to set aside differences and pull the plow together.
(Caution: This is a rant.)
I love music. All kinds of music. I love bluegrass and classical and the blues. I love Dylan and Willie and Frank and Hank. I love Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline and Eva Cassidy. I don’t love all music, but my tastes run across a broad spectrum.
But I’m tired of other people deciding what I listen to and how loud it’s going to be, then forcing it on me everywhere I go.
Once upon a time, piped-in music was only in elevators. So mostly I could avoid it and I was only exposed to it in small doses. It’s hard to overdose on a ride from the lower level parking deck to the fourth floor.
Now, music is everywhere and most of it is too loud. It’s at the mall when I walk, sometimes with competing music coming from inside the stores as I pass their open doors. It’s at grocery stores and at restaurants when I’m trying to eat and enjoy conversation. I’ve even heard it blasted into parking lots before I walk into the stores. It’s at home improvement stores, discount stores, the auto repair waiting room, doctor’s offices…everywhere.
Am I really the only person left who likes to talk to the person I’m walking with, shopping with, dining with? I especially like doing so without having to raise my voice. And when I’m alone, I enjoy the silence. I don’t even mind being alone with my own thoughts.
And that, I think, is the problem. Too many of us are terrified of being alone with our own thoughts.
The irony is that I’m possibly the only person left in the universe without earbuds and an electronic device loaded with a personal soundtrack. Maybe I’m the only one still listening to all this unavoidable racket. So, please, could we just turn off the music?
(Illustration by Danilo Rizzuti.)
A new friend visited my condo for the first time last week and I, of course, gave her an extensive tour of the entire 960 square feet. In the bedroom, she saw a Cathedral Window quilt and said, “That looks like an heirloom.”
Actually, I have four generations of family-made quilts stashed around the place. The one she commented on is the only one I made, and the last one I would have considered an heirloom.
I started making the quilt in 1976, right before Doug and I got married, jumped into a Ford Econoline van and hit the road for a year. In all 48 continental states plus Mexico and Canada, I worked on that quilt. Scraps of fabric from shirts, pajamas, skirts, robes, even a purse – all sewn by my mother, my sister and me — made their way into the quilt.
The quilt was supposed to become a bedspread. But around 1980, the project stalled and the quilt officially became a wall hanging. Quite a comedown from the noble purpose of bedspread.
Shortly after Doug took a position at The Charlotte Observer, the paper announced its annual arts and crafts show for employees and family. On a whim, I entered the quilt. Afterward, I started second-guessing myself. I kept imagining how pathetic that unfinished quilt would look beside all the really cool stuff made by other, talented people. The day they were hanging the show in the lobby, I drove downtown to the Observer to pull it from the show so I wouldn’t embarrass myself.
When I arrived in the Observer lobby, I was too late. The quilt had already been hung. Hanging beside it was the Best of Show ribbon.
I’m not often speechless. In those days I was rarely teary-eyed. That day, I was both.
Decades later, I moved into a townhome. My incredibly talented artist friend Elizabeth Bradford saw the quilt and suggested that I hang it over the 70-year-old four-poster bed that had been my grandmother’s. When I moved again, two years ago, the quilt went into a plastic storage tub and under a new bed with a cheap brushed metal headboard that I liked for its sleek, modern look.
This spring I was away for a week and left my condo in the capable hands of an artist of another type, Christina Lewis with The Redesign Company. When I returned home and made my way through the condo, I was stunned to find that Christina and her crew had draped the well-traveled Cathedral Window quilt over the metal headboard. Once again, the quilt had been give a place of honor.
In the 20 years since the quilt won its award, I’ve become a sentimental sap. Once again, I had tears in my eyes.
No great message here. Just scraps of moments pieced together into a sweet little story about a quilt that I keep trying to dismiss and others keep telling me is more than I imagine.
I was born without the kindness gene. Ask anyone who knew me before I turned 40.
Kindness has been on my mind since reading Nancy Kraft’s recent blog on the congenital kindness of Southerners as reflected in what I will call Southern speak. Nancy deals with the full range of Southern speak. It’s a great read and you should check it out now to provide context for this blog, but promise me you’ll come back for my random thoughts on the kindness of Southerners.
Nancy — being Not Southern, bless her heart — says straight out that those of us who grew up in these parts have learned to value kindness over honesty. I think that’s insightful, no matter how much we might bristle over having our honesty called into question.
Let’s assume for the moment that she’s right. Being taught congenital kindness from the cradle, with all the graciousness and gentility that may come with it, also might have introduced us to the art of the little white lie. Maybe for some of us gbeing dishonest — and please understand, I’m using that term in a purely hypothetical way — has become preferable to being bluntly honest because we find it easier to deal with a guilty conscience than to deal with conflict.
Maybe dishonesty got entangled with Southern speak when we heard our momma’s say, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” Rather than learning to keep quiet, we learned to say something nice even if it was a stretch.
From a more positive perspective, maybe learning the ”if you can’t say something nice…” thing taught us to zero in on the things that are nice. We don’t necessarily want to tell someone that we loathe her green bean casserole and wish we could ban her for life from ever again bringing it to a single family/church/neighborhood gathering. Instead, we nibble at it and tell her how much her green bean casserole reminds us of the one Aunt Alma used to make and takes us right back to our childhood. If there’s a degree of truth in it, does it really hurt to tell her that instead of answering straight out when she asks if she should bring her casserole again this year?
So maybe Southern speak has led us down the path of little white lies. Or maybe in looking for ways to say it in complimentary terms instead of speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we’re trying to find a small measure of truth and grace. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, although I can certainly see how it disrupts intimacy and, perhaps worst of all, leaves us eating a lot of green bean casserole.
My Aunt Arlene buried two husbands. In her mid-40s, she found number three.
Let me be honest: From the beginning, none of us liked John.
John might have been one of the most irritating men on God’s green earth — family members who were far more gracious than I am would tell you the same thing. John was ingratiating in a way that grates. He was self-righteous. He used heavy doses of false humility to get the continuous ego strokes he needed. He was unemployed and closing in on 60 and some of us had a strong suspicion that the idea of a financially comfortable widow appealed to him.
But there was Arlene, determined to marry him anyway and God knows she’d seen her share of sorrow and if John made her happy, well, we cared more about her happiness than John’s irritating ways.
So they married and we all set about learning how to love Uncle John.
Although Arlene was more than a decade younger than Uncle John, she was the one who lived in seriously failing health for more than a decade. A diabetic, she lost one leg, then another. She had a heart attack. She had breast cancer. She became an invalid and she needed taking care of and John was the most patient and faithful caregiver I’ve ever been privileged to witness. His most consistent prayer was that God would let him live long enough and have the strength to take care of Arlene until she died.
That’s exactly what happened.
John was closing in on 90, and had his own heart condition, when a stroke finally took Arlene 30-plus years after they married. In all that time, Uncle John had never wavered in his loyalty and devotion to Arlene. He never failed her and he stretched himself to his physical and emotional limits to make her life comfortable long past the point at which a lesser man might have given up and said, “I’m too old for this.”
Arlene was my second mother, so I guess that made John my second father. And in spite of all the traits I judged him for in the beginning, Uncle John proved that a man doesn’t have to be perfect to have the emotional backbone to be a strong, reliable protector.
Osama bin Laden scripted his own violent death. That seems clear to me.
Our soldiers courageously did what they were charged with doing. That much is also clear to me.
But the spiritual leader I try to follow would not take to the streets, cheering for the death of any human being, even an enemy.
And yet, there we were, waving our flags and rejoicing in a way that I cannot reconcile with the teachings or the actions of my spiritual leader.
I remember 9-11. I remember where I was and what I was doing and the horror of realizing that we were watching intentional acts of hatred. I also remember being just contrarian enough to think: What if we refused to hate the terrorists? What if, instead of offering hatred and revenge, we offered prayers? What if we pray as mightily as we are prepared to fight? What if we believed in the power of prayer more than we believe in the power of force and vengeance?
Of course, I acknowledge that many of us might’ve ended up dying for that belief. It’s happened before.
Today, with Osama bin Laden dead, I can live with the fact that Iam not sorry he is dead. I accept the fact that, as a nation, we feel strongly about the need to seek justice. But justice does not equal hate. And patriotic pride is not the same as gloating.
I know without a doubt that I don’t have the courage to live the way I’m called to live in the face of all the world’s hatred and brutality. I feel uncomfortable saying what I’m saying here because I know that people I love and admire may disagree strongly. But this one thing I believe with all confidence: The spiritual leader I try to follow would not take to the streets, cheering for the death of any human being. That much I can do, also.
Over the last year, I’ve been reading biographies of writers, people like D.H. Lawrence and e.e. cummings and others. I am struck by their misery, and how well they spread that misery around.
Writers, it appears, are an unhappy breed. We are depressed, we are alcoholic, we are in spiritual torment, we are angry, we are sexually conflicted, we are self-absorbed. We are forever aliens in a world we experience intensely. Even our writing rarely makes us content and often keeps us poor.
Not long ago, I read a review of a new memoir by the daughter of novelist William Styron (Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner). In Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron apparently examines life growing up with her angry, alcoholic and depressed father. The question at the heart of her reflections, according to reviewer Keith Staskiewicz: Is his art enough of an excuse?
Maybe this is the right question. But, having lived in the skin of a writer for more than 50 years, the true point, I believe, is this: The writer’s art is not the excuse for bad behavior. The writer’s art is the result of the bad behavior, or, more to the point, the misery that is behind the bad behavior.
A writer writes to make sense of acutely felt pain — not just the writer’s, but the world’s. Writers and other artists — musicians, painters, photographers — give expression to the emotions and experiences that make up our humanity. But first they must feel it, and feel it acutely.
Talent is not the writer’s excuse for creating misery. Misery — felt and inflicted — is their excuse for writing. Writers turn misery into a gift. Without them, too many of us might think we were alone in our misery.
I brought in Homestead verbena, already a sprawl of outrageous purple flowers. Miss Huff lantana, a smallish perennial with a deceptively Old South name that will put out hot orange and golden flowers, sometimes with a hint of blush, eventually filling up the landscape even in the hottest of summers, as deceptively demur Southern belles will sometimes do. For spice, fluorescent pink ice plant, which folds its gaudy flowers every night and flings them open again every morning.
And out of sheer recklessness, a nice-sized lilac bush whose fragrance will leap to compete with a nearby magnolia, which has more than a dozen fat buds lush with promise.
After they were all in the ground, I set right the leggy rose bushes that had bent double in a recent storm. To show their appreciation, a dozen buds opened this morning, watercolor red.
The verbena was barely in the ground when the bumblebees gathered ’round. By late morning, the butterflies had come – one very chic in black with iridescent blue trim, a shy one in white, others in orange and yellow to show solidarity with Miss Huff. Coming in with authority, a plump chickadee in formal-wear perched high in the five-gallon maple that has already leafed out in rich green.
Sometimes when I garden, I understand why God went on for days. Who would want to stop? Let there be this…let there be that…and watch the magic that follows.