Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Conversations about the south

I hope you know about The Bitter Southerner.  If you don't, please head over there right now.  It is great reading if you are a lover of the southern United States.  It is great education if you live somewhere else and you are not exactly sure why anyone would ever live down here.  The premise of the Bitter Southerner is that there is an interesting, uplifting, artistic, strange, and inspiring south that people miss when they pass us all off as backwards, toothless and under-educated.  We are not all Honey Boo Boo, for God's sake.  The Bitter Southerner is working to dispel that myth.  And while I do not always agree with their articles, I have enjoyed everyone of them.  I am always left with something to laugh about, be proud of or think on.  Good stuff.

This week's installment leaves me in the "think on" category.  Filmmaker Gary Leva writes about his experience gathering footage, interviews and information for a 30 minute documentary "Old South, New South" to introduce a re-mastered release of Gone with the Wind.  It is, like all things Bitter, a great read, with beautiful photos to boot.

But I want to have a conversation about this article with someone who is new-er to the urban south.  Like I said, this is my homeland.  I know I wear blinders and I also know that I know this place better than many folks.  But the "South will rise again" business is really foreign to me.  I am aware that it happens "out there" in  places where I don't live with people I don't spend time with but I've never really experienced it as other than a joke.

I don't experience the urban south as populated with people who really think that Gone with the Wind is an accurate depiction of the Civil War any more than The Tudors was an accurate depiction of sixteenth century England.  Frankly, my dear, we're smarter than that.

I am sad to hear that Mr. Leva left our fair area with the feeling that we are still backwards, that we still have a long way to go before we've left the "shackles of the old" south behind.  His flip treatment in the scant last paragraphs of "a glimpse of the possibilities the future holds" were (unintentionally, I hope), trite and demeaning.  the crayon-box, "blind to color" stuff has got to stop.  Seriously, we need to get beyond that.

I think Leva's article is limited.  It has to be.  He only had a certain amount of space, after all, and a certain amount of time. AND. There is more conversation to be had about where the south has been and where it is going.  There is a nationwide desire to blame the southern United States for the ills of society at large.  As if, because of our (truly horrendous, painful, embarrassing, sickening...) history with slavery, war and Civil Rights, we are still the root cause of much of the nation's ills.

Leva went looking for a particular view of the south and he found it in particular people.  In so many ways, looking critically at the Civil War and its environs, debunking it and its mythology, smirking at rich white southerners with a death's grip on their questionable heritage actually does little to nothing to help the southern United States rise above the "shackles" of this terrible history.

Leva is trying to appeal to a broad audience, though I daresay it is not a southern audience.  There are so many more of us here that are not proud of the history of our time but embrace it anyway, as a conversation partner, as a point of reference, as a piece of the rich and mottled history that does make us the weird and quirky people we are today.

The southerners I hang out with, the ones I am proud to call friends and colleagues, own who we are.  We name the embarrassment and then we move on.  Racism?  It is on the front page of our paper every damn day.  We live it and we work on it, overt and institutionalized.  It is something that we educated southerners have been fighting-- outwardly, honestly and with great birth pangs-- for two centuries.  I do not believe that the people Leva interviewed for this article, the ones that demurely defended the confederacy or couldn't come up with an appropriate answer for why we still have monuments to "our" dead soldiers or why we hate Sherman so much, are good representatives, white or black, of the intelligent and difficult work being done to counter racism in the modern day south.

I prickle when I am confronted with the idea that southerners are still backwards and bigoted because slavery was our fault and the Civil Rights movement had to happen.  I think often that the southern US gets to be the scapegoat for a country that struggles with racism all over.  We just do it more loudly and with more press.

Yes, racism is still a problem here.  A big, rotten, stinking, sickening problem.  No need to deny it, and we don't deny it.  Nor do we ignore it or politely pretend it doesn't exist.  We are working like dogs to combat it and may have extra work to do because white folks down here tried so hard to win that stupid war 150 years ago.  We made our bed and most of us lie in it.  Every. Single. Day.  It is a painful and heartbreaking reality.

But racism is alive and well all over our beautiful and broken country.  All over.

The history of race relations in our country is massively complicated.  The southern United States is an easy target, especially in the shadow of Gone with the Wind.  I wish Mr. Leva all the best in his endeavors.  I also hope that the next time he comes to the south he looks for real examples of the work many of us do to name our history for what it is: broken and bloody, a pit from which we climb and the base on which we are building something stronger than what was there before.  There is intense beauty in the struggle.  That is a documentary I'd like to see.              

Monday, December 2, 2013

I miss books

I was recently lamenting to a friend the fact that I've drifted away from "serious" reading.  It is hard to admit that.  But I have.

"Oh I remember those days," she said. "Life with small kids doesn't much allow for reading.  Quality literature was better than NyQuil in those days.  All I had to do was pick up a book and I was fast asleep."

Another friend with grown kids said she re-entered the reading world through New Yorker articles after a long hiatus filled with Goodnight Moon and The Berenstain Bears.

I know my intellectual life is suffering from lack of good input.  My brain, I'm afraid, is atrophying like a dying limb.  How does this happen?  Once upon a time, I would have described myself as an "avid reader" who read "everything I can get my hands on".  I would have listed reading among my hobbies.  And I read good stuff, too.  Theology and congregational theory, good novels with critical acclaim.  I thought about what I read.

Maybe more importantly than "how did this happen?" is HOW DO I GET MY READING MOJO BACK??

Like my friend, I'm working my way up to finishing a WHOLE New Yorker article without getting distracted, falling asleep or needing to tend to someone else's bodily needs.  Baby steps, I guess.  But it is honestly, something I miss about myself.  I like being an intellectual.  I like being able to have intelligent, informed conversations about something other than child-rearing.

Lately, like so much else in my life, my reading has been anchored in whatever present crisis (or blessing!) we find ourselves mired in.  I live very much in the NOW and my looking ahead doesn't really involve big dreams as much as it involves making sure that childcare is covered and that soccer practice doesn't overlap with church and that everyone is getting to bed on time.  My reading is the same: My last great read was The Other End of the Leash, about dog training.  Stimulating stuff.  And the dog is still a jerk on the leash.  I read to solve immediate problems, not to grow my brain.  Just like these days I cook to make sure we eat, not to experience the wonderful flavors and savor the meal.  

To be clear:  this does not mean I have no time for myself.  It simply means that I am whining about the fact that I've only been given 24 hours in each day.  And I'm making choices.  I get up early to run instead of read-- choice.  I painted the bedroom this weekend instead of tackling the dusty, neglected stack beside my bed-- choice.  I'm spending half and  hour writing about not reading instead of... well, you know-- choice.

I look forward to flipping that switch back on, figuring out how to get my brain back to a place where I crave that magic that only good books can bring.  I will get back there.  For now, it feels like one more chore, one more thing I'm failing to accomplish (that is a VERY long list).  The New Yorker will have to do for now.       

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pretty vs Beautiful

One of the wonderful nuggets I borrowed from my mother-in-law before she died is the quirk of describing bad behavior as "ugly".  As in, "do not throw your toast on the floor, that is ugly!" It has saved me from calling behavior (or the perp) "bad" or "stupid", both words I try not to use in my parenting.

But it has opened up another great conversation for me with my kids about looks vs. actions.  My daughter, age 4, often asks me if what she is wearing is "beautiful".  My standard response is "your behavior makes you beautiful, sweetheart, but that dress is pretty on you."  This works for now, in these confidence-infused preschool years.  She still believes me and doesn't really question the difference between "pretty" and "beautiful".

A young pal of mine has been struggling with this distinction recently.  She is the offspring of a bi-racial marriage and, as so often biracial kids are, she is a gorgeous girl, with creamy tan skin and hair that can do just about anything, from cloud-like to curly to Breck-girl straight.

She's also a pre-teen, which means that she's surrounded by pre-teen girls who are, as a general rule, ugly.  I do not mean this in a physical sense, but rather as my mother-in-law would use the term.  They are mean, insensitive, hateful, vitriolic.  And so my little friend, with her can't-be-boxed-in genetic makeup, has been the recent target of some nastiness.

It steams me.  Seriously.  I'm not even her mother and I wanted to find the little turds and clobber them.  This is, of course, not helpful in the least, so I reminded her (through her mom) that she's made by a God who doesn't make mistakes.  It won't help right now, but maybe when she's a grown up she'll remember that good folks had her back and she'll remember to be beautiful, not just pretty.

But hearing about her struggle reminded me of my own ugliness.  These days, a few years beyond my own pre-teen angst, I turn my ugly behavior to the woman I put eyeliner on every morning, berating myself for the extra chips and queso I chowed down the previous night, scowling at the road map of stretch marks crawling across my abdomen, grousing about my sub-standard wardrobe and scarred knees.

I am my own mean girl.

I'm not alone in this.  It's true of many women I know.  I have friends that are kind, loving, supportive and helpful to one another and seriously hateful to themselves.    We nitpick and judge.  We compare our 30-something selves to our 20-something selves, never favorably.  

I've internalized the voices that I heard as a middle schooler.  I never thought it would happen.  I'm a feminist, after all.  I have a daughter, after all.  I know better.  I know about skin-deep and behavior and scars are a sign of a life well-lived and stretch marks are trophies and all that BS.  But as I really start to age and my body starts to show the hard wear I've inflicted on it, running, babies, sun, etc, my mean girl comes out.  It is as hard to admit as it is to live through.

The two practices that I find myself working toward in recent years are balance and gentleness.  I achieve neither on a regular basis, but I get them each from time to time.  And over and over, I find gentleness is much easier to practice on others.  Much much harder to offer it to myself.  So I'm going to work on pointing gentleness back in my own direction from time to time.

I do, after all, practice beauty.  I am--often even-- beautiful, even when I'm not so pretty.  In truth, much like what I tell my kids, I would rather be beautiful-- kind, just, gentle, strong, compassionate-- than pretty.  Beauty lasts while, as I am learning, pretty doesn't.  I want both.  I can't always have them.  But I can choose beauty, just like I'm teaching my kids to do, but I can direct it to myself.  

Recently, the previously mentioned 4-year-old said to me-- while I was putting on makeup, no less-- "Mommy, you are beautiful." To be honest, I was only half listening in the mad rush of the morning get-er-done.  "Thank you, sweetheart," I said, distractedly.  "You're beautiful because you love me," she contiued,  "And that's beautiful behavior."  And right there in the bathroom, with a towel on my head, in my old holey bathrobe, she was right.  The opportunity that I have to love that kid does make me more beautiful.  Scars and all.

She gets it.  For now.   Now I'm the one that needs to remember the lesson, to store it up for the days that are surely coming when I've GOT to get over my own petty pretty complex in order to bear her up when some other little girl tells her that her legs are too short, her hair is too brown, her smile is too wide.  I'll have to remind her that she is beautiful because she loves me, and that's beautiful behavior, even if she's having a hard time loving herself.  It won't be enough to counteract the pre-teen turds around her, but it might teach her a lesson in gentleness and beauty that she can put to use a few years later.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Christian Persecution. Not.

This whizzed by on my Facebook feed yesterday:

Apparently, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called out whining first-world Christians to "grow up" and stop referring to themselves as a "persecuted minority":  
"When you've had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely," he said. "Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. 'For goodness sake, grow up,' I want to say."

I don't agree with everything Williams said or did as the ABC and there are a few things I think he could have done much better.  But in this he is spot on.  

Christians in the United States have it pretty darn good.  And by "pretty darn good" I mean that we are not barred from government jobs because of our religious status, we can choose where, when and with whom we'd like to worship, we can be fairly certain that our religious preferences will be noted and respected while we are in the hospital, we can more or less trust that our families will not be killed in their beds because we confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  

I get the sense that for the whiners that inspired Williams' harsh but totally deserved comment, having the postal worker say "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" is some sort of religious oppression.  And not allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed at the county courthouse is rather like being publicly flayed in the Roman square.  

Several years ago, I traveled to Burma/Myanmar, which, at the time, was still a military dictatorship and had a <2% Christian population.  Our goal was simply to enjoy the company of other fellow Anglican Christians there, to let them know that they were remembered and to make the world just a little smaller.  We were told not to bring Bibles or prayer books in case our luggage got searched.  We could wear crosses but be prepared to hide them in case it became a matter of personal safety.  One afternoon, the local police showed up at our hotel to make sure we were actually doing what we said we'd be doing.  They checked every passport.  It was frightening and thought provoking but ultimately, we knew we would go home, to a place where we could wear our crosses, carry our Bibles and even preach on a street corner if we wanted.  Our persecution was limited in time and in scope because we were North Americans.  

Our Karin friends there lived well below the poverty line because government jobs were closed to them so long as they remained professing Christians.  In the city, violence toward them had abated in the recent decade but suspicion had not.  They often found themselves cast out, followed and questioned, meager homes searched and tossed, friends pestered, kids taunted and bullied. The stories we heard were not horror stories, but the situation was unsafe, frightening and relentless.  The power of their faith and their ability to continue to proclaim it, on the other hand, was inspiring.  

I have no idea if I could sustain a life of faith under such circumstances, especially with children to care for.  But my experience in Burma/Myanmar has left me with little tolerance for those in our country who play victim because their cream doesn't always rise to the top.  
Dethroning the entitlement of those who believe that the world owes them something special because of their faith beliefs and practices doesn't smack of persecution to me.  Nicely done,  Rowan.               

p.s. I have no idea why this post is randomly highlighted in white.  Sorry. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

self-definition and struggling with the Gospel

In the last couple of weeks, Luke has given us Jesus' walk toward Jerusalem and all the difficult teachings therein.  I've always had a love-hate relationship with the "where your treasure is" teachings.  I'm not much of a "stuff" person, really.  I want a car that gets me there, safely, but past that, I don't care much.  I don't get really excited about clothes and I LOATHE shopping.  I do love a good gadget, but I've had the same iPhone for 2 1/2 years and don't really care for an upgrade.  My beloved laptop is seven years old and I refuse to admit that it is ancient by technological standards.  It still works, after all.

But I don't really live simply.  I can be easily convinced that I "need" something and my messy house is a testament to all the things my family and I "need".  It is easy for me to imagine that Jesus didn't need stuff because Jesus didn't have kids.  Kids are ridiculous stuff magnets. First it is carseats, strollers, diapers and multi-part bottles, now it is socks and shoes, Legos, backpacks and art supplies.  Jesus can talk about lilies and ravens because he didn't have to carry a diaper bag.  And my kids are not really "stuff" people either.  They actually don't ask for much.  But we do seem to have scads of stuff lying about.

I can bluff and say that our hearts are not really with all this daily detritus.  But one glance at my four-year-old in the corner howling because she can't find THE-SHOES-I-WANT-NOT-THOSE-THE-OTHER-ONES-WITH-THE-STRAPS and my stomping around the house with WHO MOVED MY PHONE? and you'd call my bluff immediately.

Implicated.  No matter how I look at it, my heart is divided.  It is, admittedly, more divided now that I have kids.  So much of my baggage (literally and figuratively) contains things to keep them safe, occupied, fed and happy.  But as I get older, I am less excited about "making do" with a spoon when what I really "need" is a new stand mixer.  "Making do" is no longer a challenge or adventure, but a drag.  And so: more stuff.

So what to do with this placement of my heart?  What to do with this Gospel?  This time around, I'm thinking about stuff and self-definition.  How do I want to be known?  How do I want to know myself?  Am I "the mom who lives in the green house with the big addition on the back"?  "That priest who drives the Highlander"?  "That lady over there with the great shoes"?  When I die, will they say, "Oh wow, this stand mixer makes me think of Mom.  She sure loved this mixer."?  Ugh.

In an attempt to heal the divide of my heart--slowly and over time, of course-- I'm working on rearranging my list of definers.  I'm working towards moving "beloved child of God" to the top.  "Forgiven, loved and free" should come shortly thereafter.  Then maybe after that, my community connections: mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend... because it is through each other that we get to know God.

Eventually, the list will by necessity contain my hobbies, favorite ice cream, where I live, what I drive.  But my intention in reordering my list is to slowly convince my heart that it needs to be more firmly rooted in those primary definers.  Beloved, forgiven, loved, free.  I need to convince my heart that the stuff-- Highlander, Legos, iPhone-- while convenient and helpful at their best, are not even tertiary on my list of worth.

Hear me now:  I'm not going ascetic.  You probably won't even see the difference in my everyday self.  The difference is in my own head, how I value myself by trying to believe in the value that God puts on me, a value far greater than the stuff I surround and define myself with.            

Thursday, April 18, 2013

When you mess with a runner...

It has been three days since some maladjusted, vengeful, hate-filled person dropped off a package full of evil at the finish line of the Boston marathon. 

I'm running out of things to say about the darkness that can reside in the human spirit and the power we have to overcome it.  I'm tired of trying to think profound thoughts about how we can rise above, about how God weeps with us, about how the hands and feet of Jesus rush in.  It is all true, I believe these things, but there have been too many events, too many sadnesses on the national front, too much violence against bystanders and non-combatants and children.  I'm tired of hearing my own semi-profundity. 

This time I'm just mad.  Pissed, actually.  Tantrum-inducing, desk-beating, screaming at the computer ANGRY.  I'm keeping my choicest words to myself because I don't need to get my blog an r-rating for language. And I'm really glad I'm not schedule to preach this weekend because my poor parishioners might get an undeserved face full of white-hot unglorious furiosity.

I wonder (though I doubt) if I'm the only one who is experiencing this kind of weariness of meaning-making? 

These travesties of human evil keep hitting closer and closer to home.  I know, as many of my good friends do, that feeling of crossing the finish line at mile 26.2.  It was, for me, a fascinating experience of simultaneous great personal triumph and the humility of total depletion.  I used everything I had--every ounce of physical strength-- to accomplish a great feat of will.  I remember thinking that I was a member of a very small portion of the human population that could accomplish something so personal, so individual and do it entirely on my own.

And to see that video, with the marathon clock ticking along the 4 hour mark, watching runners so close to that goal knocked over in a blast of fire and smoke... well. White-hot unglorious furiosity. 

There are plenty of other things in the Boston debacle to be livid about and myriad others to weep about (8 years old, dear Lord.).  I've run all of them through the loop in my brain that obsesses over these things.  But I can so viscerally connect with the glory of the finish line and all that it stands for, now translated into yet another crime scene, yet another symbol of fear and violence.

Makes me want to go train for another marathon.


Saturday, March 16, 2013


Unfortunately, it is the word on the tip of my tongue this week. I don't believe for a minute that Lent or life with Jesus is about guilt. Guilt is stifling. And yet, it creeps into me and sits there. And taunts me. And, for the most part, I let it. Until I say, that's enough. Something needs to come in its place.

The week started for me with the birth of a baby. A long expected baby whose arrival I was very excited about. Immediately, I wanted to hold the baby, care for the baby, shower the parents with care and meals and love. Or what I equated with love at the time. It's Saturday, and I have not seen the baby.

Then, I went to a PTA meeting, my second of the year. Why? Because I believe I need to be there, helping, supporting. And I have been doing none of those things. Not only that, I am clueless. I don't know what's going on, and so I'm not much help. But I try.

Then comes an email from Paul's baseball coach. The league has cancelled their game because we (as a team) have failed to produce enough volunteers to run the concession on Saturday morning. It's our responsibility. As a team. Even so, I feel individual guilt. It's a stretch for all of us. But why can't I stretch more and make it possible? I offer help. I try. There is lots of saying, "it's ok" and "you do what you can". It gets covered by someone else. I know that if I don't help in some way by the end of the season, I'll feel more guilt. And I know too that it's not just in my head. Someone will say too, you needed to do this. We needed your help.

And the blog! I'm supposed to post on the blog!

This is hard for me. I know guilt is not the answer.

What good am I doing anyone if I do too much? Something will get dropped. And yet, there is the other voice that says, "you could do more".  Right?

Even now, I am at home while my seven-year old plays his second baseball game of the season. I haven't seen any of any game yet, and I won't today because someone needs to be home with the baby while he naps. Logical, right? I mean I can't be in two places at once. But, couldn't I have figured out a way to make it work? Apparently not.

Reading Noelle's two previous posts, I am reminded of all the life that has gone on while I have felt guilt. Life continues. Things happen. Big things and small things. Changes and moments that I knew nothing about, until now. I am forever grateful and expressing gratitude that in this moment, I got to read those stories and know about them. They remind me of all the things that we all have going on, and how much we are all trying to live into what God has promised: love, grace, mercy, forgiveness.

Where can I go from here? I say, "I'm sorry". Amazingly, that's enough. People accept my apologies! Even my kids, in their wild emotions, accept my apologies when I can't do for them all that they wanted. And then what? I listen. I pray. (thank you Noelle). I listen to what God has to say. I listen to what you have to say. God is working in you and in me and I have much to learn.

Some days, our amazingness will pull off many things at once, with God's help. And other days, I will try and I will fail.  I will lean a little harder on you. I will give thanks for you and I will accept me as I am and what God has enabled me to do today. These are easy words to type. Harder words to live. I welcome all your thoughts because I know that alone, I am guilty. With you, I am forgiven and made new.