Black Faith in a Time of White Supremacy.

1.

When the mothers of the church got to casting out demons, they’d set their massive weathered bibles in our tiny laps and tell us, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” And we wouldn’t. We’d clutch those King Jameses in our trembling hands and we’d wait out the after-service exorcisms.

We were children of parents who spoke in other tongues, danced themselves to ecstasy, prayed themselves apoplectic. The adults addressed the devil directly sometimes, told him he couldn’t steal their joy, demanded back the years he had stolen, the relationships he’d severed, the health he’d destroyed.

They told us we were waging a war unseen. We’d best be prayed up and gird ourselves against principalities and powers, spiritual wickedness in high places, miscellaneous, but terrifying minions from hell.

We believed them.

2.

I talked to a friend from that childhood church a few years ago, one whose parents, like mine, were on leadership staff there. That one of mutual friends had died suddenly, young and wed and parenting, still zealous about his own faith, was the reason we’d gotten in touch at all. We were trying to make sense of it.

I was thinking of how late we would stay after service as kids, waiting for our parents in the semi-darkened sanctuary, security volunteers posted, yawning, at the entrance and exit doors, all but the most fervent among them, longing to head on home.

“Do you ever think about how we were raised, how different it was?”

I was asking as if gazing back at something we’d survived. I was asking as a woman who considers herself logical and rational now, but who also still hopes for heaven and shivers at the thought of hell.

I wondered if he remembered the bibles in our laps, the prayer warriors and their wrinkled hands, all those conversations about demons conspiring to lure us away from our Lord.

He was calm when he answered. “All I know is that without being raised that way, I’d be dead or crazy now.”

My grip on the phone loosened. He didn’t say any more. But the weight of a dozen secret, sidestepped disasters walled themselves high behind his words. I couldn’t push back, even if part of me wanted to.

I believed him.

3.

We welcomed the white folks in. And over the years, they came. Some poor and some polished, they came. We broke bread with them. We prayed for them. Aware of what we guessed might be their discomfort with our traditions, our language, our liturgy, we sometimes went out of our way to assuage their unease. We laughed alongside them. Thought nothing of it.

They rarely stayed.

4.

I needed time away from church because it began to feel too much like a house of superstition than a respite reserved for communal worship. I did not want the strength of my faith to be predicated on the material blessings I stood to gain by believing. I just wanted to believe. Even when babies were killed by those closest to them. Even if those professing to share the same faith as mine committed unspeakable acts of violence. Even if I never earned more than I did at my poorest. I didn’t want to think that by tithing or praying I was somehow more insulated from harm than my neighbor, that my church attendance or my own unfocused stabs at righteousness would protect me from worst of life’s fates.

John the Baptist was beheaded. Four girls burned. As have countless crosses. Myles Munroe and his wife died unexpectedly in a plane crash, on their way to work for their ministry. Our Christian friends and relatives contract diseases from which they die as often as they are healed. We are not all spared. And what good is our belief if it can be shaken when God doesn’t step in to prevent the calamities we don’t think we deserve? What good is our faith if we base it on the dollar value of the bills we place in an offering bucket or on uttering a certain combination of words during prayer? What makes any of us think we will never have to stare down unimaginable despair, simply because we’re devout?

I needed a God who felt all the more real when the world was at its worst. And to test that He was the one I had vowed all these years to serve, I thought I had to get away from all the other Christians who sought to define Him for me. I had to interrogate what I questioned, what I doubted, what rang false, even after a series of itinerant preachers echoed it during revival.

There comes a time when faith can no longer be absorbed secondhand. Wheat — what you alone are certain you believe — and tare — what you’ve been taught but have never bothered to question — must finally part ways. And the voice that exits your body in prayer must be clearly recognizable as your own. It cannot mimic your mother’s or be tinged with the sweetness of Grandma’s clichés.

This is your life. You alone will answer for it. And the only voice you’ll be able to access then will be your own.

I wandered a while on a long stretch of road, the light on its path possibly dim at turns. It took entire years. I left markers along the dirt, not entirely sure I wouldn’t find myself returning to them.

5.

My meandering days were numbered when I had a child. It was clear to me as she ripped her way out and the nurse rested her in my arms: this girl was not the work of her father and I alone. She had not gotten here by sheer force of my bodily effort. She was not a result of mere biological function and, because of this, part of her would always be unknowable to me. I’d need help then, to reach that part of her. I’d need a mediator whose presence among us was also not the mere work of mortal hands.

The church friends I made as a child are still, by and large, still fervent about church and faith. Even the ones I wouldn’t have guessed would be. Most of them are parents. They are raising their children the way we were raised. They are doing this because it works. If they, having ventured away from our sacred, if cloistered, community, and having seen and survived the darkest days they’d known, and having found themselves right back in the house of God , alive and there to tell, then so would their children. Most of them.

This is reason enough to return. This, and days like this one, when the words to explain how this happened, where and when it happened, could not possibly come without divine intervention.

6.

7.

Before the massacre at “Mother” Emanuel in Charleston, SC, I had been inching ever closer to God. He came at church on Sunday, when the pastor told us, “You have to cope before you can conquer,” and later asked us to turn to our neighbors and declare, “I am raising my faith to the level of my fight.” He came though a long conversation with a friend that night. We prayed for one another. No. More accurately, he prayed for me and I stammered a few well-intentioned words in return. But he told me that God did not feel the same way about my faith as I did. He didn’t see it as feeble, flagging, inadequate. He didn’t consider it something I was “struggling with.” I am not a case study in what it means to falter. My faith has been sufficient, even when it’s seemed small, even when I’ve had a hard time voicing it. It’s been sufficient because I wouldn’t let it go. It’s a seed and, as such, it retains its ability to grow.

When we doubt, the friends who believe alongside us are often the light that keep us drawing nigh, lest we float away. We hold onto them when horror rushes in. We remind them, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” In that moment, they are the Word in motion. And if we must die, for welcoming the troubled white supremacist 21-year-old whose boyish face looks as innocent as the brain behind it is wicked, if we must die for praying alongside him, if we must continue waging a war as unfathomable as it is unseen, there is no one better to be with in the end, than the people who kept us feeling closest to God when we felt farthest away.

There is no greater lesson to be gained for believers than to keep believing, right next to those with whom and for whom you would not mind dying. We are what we need most, now and ever.

8.

Yesterday, I sang a worship song. I haven’t done that, unprompted, in a while and I’ve never recorded myself singing one. I am glad to have that moment now, when freedom feels like such an improbable farce.

I echoed the words of a popular tune, one that the congregation had crooned in church on Sunday. I sang that I’d withhold nothing. I meant it and cried as I often do when I sing a prayerful song and every fetter falls and I feel — however fleetingly — free.

I sang it twice.

Hours later, nine other people who likely knew and sang that song and whose hearts promised the same, lay dead just feet from their church’s altar.

Here, Lord, is my desperation.

Here, Lord, lay my anger.

Here is the love I hope won’t not kill me.

Here, my longing for retribution.

Here, the depth of my unforgiveness.

Here, my hopes for their souls’ safe passage.

Here, my desire to see them again, in a life beyond this often terrifying one.

Here, every doubt I have about what was and what is, and what’s still to come.

I deny You nothing.

Wild Swings at Opportunity and What It’s Like to Land One.

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“Every now and then, you should land one of those.”
When I was expecting my daughter, I wrote prolifically — mostly about the experience of first-time pregnancy and how alone I felt while I was carrying her. I posted a lot of that writing here, then pulled some of it because I thought I might shop a memoir about it (What’s left of the published posts can be found here. If you choose to read any of that, it works best to read chronologically, which means starting at the bottom, with this post).

I continued to write as much as I could after her birth and, for a number of reasons, ranging from my part-time job as an adjunct instructor, which took me away from home for a few hours a day, to my quickly-acquired proficiency at composing drafts exclusively on my cell phone, I was able to maintain decent output.

She’ll be five in a few months and I definitely feel like I’m hitting a wall. I decided last spring to take first a semester, then a year away from teaching. I’d scored a fellowship with Colorlines.com, where I was responsible for managing their social media and engaging their rapidly growing readership. It was basically a one-year position with the company and it paid much more than I would’ve made teaching and allowed me to stay home with my daughter more, so the teaching hiatus was a no-brainer.

When that job ended last November, I interviewed either by phone or in person with several impressive publications (sometimes for more than one position) and figured my odds of being hired full-time with one of them were pretty high. Five months later, however, and I’m still without a full-time job as a writer or editor — a circumstance, I’ve learned, is fairly common, even among much stronger writing and editing candidates than I. My only income at this point is as a freelance writer — which wouldn’t be a problem at all, if I were writing at the output I used to be able to and if any of the writing I’m able to do paid more.

Something happens when you’re home all the time with a four-year-old who only attends school two hours a day and you don’t have the freedom to leave her in someone else’s care nearly as often as you’d need to, in order to attain the kind of silence you require to generate ideas worth pitching, to actually pitch them, and then to write the piece as quickly as you’d have to in order to win the assignment and keep current with the news cycle.

The mind dulls — and you have to be increasingly inventive about sharpening it. Now that I have no job to escape to (Trust: a job is definitely an escape for a parent-writer.), and home is full of preoccupations, I’m physically tenser and less agile, creatively.

My daughter has special needs and, often, I vacillate between the temptation to homeschool her (which would result in even less writing time and, by extension, even less income) and finding more extracurricular programs for her to attend that will aid in her development in the many hours she spends outside of school. The latter option would also mean less dedicated writing time, but at least I could steal the moments she’d spend in a class or in a social group to try thumbing out a few essays on my phone.

It’s difficult to explain this sort of life to people with traditional jobs, pristine time management skills, and the luxury of undivided work attention. But the short of it is that life with a small child and without a full- or even part-time, out-of-home job is a trial-error, hook-crook, catch-as-catch-can existence. I’m rarely able to get away and the less time I spend in a childfree, silent environment, the harder it is for me to sharpen my writing — or even to maintain its current quality.

A few months ago, I did something I always do when I feel trapped. It’s something I’d recommend to anyone who feels backed into a corner. Indeed, it’s the only way I’ve ever gotten out of a corner — and I’ve been pressed into many.

Here’s what I did: I swung wildly at opportunity, giving no thought to the cost or logistics. I launched myself toward anything that looked remotely like a life raft, reasoning: This could turn out to be sinking flotsam or it could be the very thing that will bear me up and carry me toward a new shore, the right shore, a more permanent solution. 

I got into grad school that way. I was living back home in Baltimore, working a job that barely supported me and my mother, who was living with me. I began to feel trapped by the burden of rent on a two-bedroom apartment and all the other costs associated with living and supporting two people. And then, Sarah Lawrence accepted me. It was the only school of the three to which I applied — all outside of Maryland — that did. That made my decision for me. I needed move to New York. This was 2004. I tried hard — so hard, in fact, that when I didn’t find off-campus housing (SLC doesn’t offer graduate housing), I resolved to take Amtrak from Baltimore to Penn Station in New York, then Metro-North from Grand Central two times a week for classes.

I was so desperate for a big, life-changing leap toward relief that I’d convinced myself this was doable. Then, the first day of classes, it rained. The storm waylaid my train somewhere between Delaware and Philadelphia, and I got to the Bronxville Metro-North Station, a mile or so away from campus, just as my second-ever class as a grad student was beginning in one of the many Tudor cottages on the school’s rolling greens. I’d missed my first class entirely. I walked the mile in the rain with a flimsy hooded windbreaker bearing the college’s name as my only shield from the downpour. I got to class completely drenched and introduced myself in a small voice, shaky with tears.

I knew then — and not a moment before — that it wasn’t going to work. I’d been so tenacious. I had leapt. A door had opened. I had run toward it. I’d followed the prescription of every easy aphorism we hear in life. And I’d gotten my feet on dry ground. Sarah Lawrence was everything I knew I needed then: an escape from years of compound responsibility, a chance to qualify myself for better work, a life of independence and solitude.

But the timing was off. That first day, with its rain delays and its mile-long foot trek at the end of a five-hour commute, let me know in no uncertain terms that this was the dream I was meant to realize, but not under such treacherous conditions. If I moved at that level of haste and desperation, I’d rob myself of the respite I was seeking. I’d merely be trading one type of nerve-fraying stress for another.

The next day, I talked to admissions about deferring enrollment for a year and they granted my request. Those were dark days; I was listening to a lot of Elliott Smith at my job (where my coworkers had already thrown me a going-away party and my supervisor had granted my request to telecommute while I studied out of state). Returning to the office was humiliating and demoralizing, even though everyone there was supportive and polite and patient with my daily, nonstop moping.

I was basically like ^this^ for a year.
I was basically like ^this^ for a year.
For the next 12 months, I focused on getting out of that apartment, getting out of Baltimore, moving to lower Westchester, and attending the classes I’d dreamed about, with the people I’d met at orientation the year before (who’d all be second-years by the time I returned, graduating during the spring of my first year).

It happened for me — and it was much easier the second time around, in some respects, but it was still difficult to leave my mother without the apartment I’d been providing for us both. That was the thing I couldn’t allow myself consider if I wanted, at last, to escape.

Single motherhood, over time, has backed me into the same kind of corner. I’m financially supporting a child and my mother again. I don’t have enough income to adequately do so. It often feels like I’ve only qualified myself for the kind of work that doesn’t pay regularly, quickly, or sufficiently. I’ve enough credentials to adjunct, but after six years at that, I’m not a competitive candidate for a full-time professorship. I’m good enough to write short essays for part-time income, but not quite desirable enough a candidate for full-time hire at a major publication.

And I still haven’t written the right manuscript — the one I want to send out into the world, the one some generous reviewer will dub, “a promising work from an important new voice.” Doing that often feels fairly far away while I’m parenting, stressing over money, trying to be thoughtful and incisive in all my for-hire writing about the news and trends of the day.

So I did something I’ve been putting off in all the eight years since I graduated from Sarah Lawrence and certainly in the nearly six years between pregnancy and now: I started applying for bigger, broader things. I applied for Code for Progress’ minorities in code fellowship, in hopes that I might acquire a new skill and the chance at earning a livable wage from a single company. I applied for several summer fellowships and retreats. And I applied for a program at Yale that would teach me how to be a better journalistic storyteller.

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Me, before I realized I’d messed up my donation-funds-collection timeline. (And me now — because I’m still hysterically, burstingly grateful to all of you. :))

Some of you know that I got into the Yale program, because you helped me fund it via Indiegogo*. I also just learned that I received a single mother’s fellowship to the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s summer retreat in New Mexico, which covers the costs of registration and housing, but not travel. Do I know how I’ll get there yet? No. No, I do not. But that’s my process. Swing. Miss. Connect. Cross every bridge I possibly can — even the most rickety and unstable among them — just as I approach it. Sometimes, a foot falls through a rotted slat, other times, an entire leg. But I’ve always made it across — or I’ve veered toward a stabler bridge.

Dreams are never neatly wrapped. They don’t arrive already assembled. But you do not achieve them by wringing your hands. You can only lay hold to them by reaching. And your reach must always, always exceed your grasp. Your dreams should leave you storm-drenched and weary. They should make you sob over their seeming impossibility. They should render you sleepless. You should want to throw all the disparate boards and cogs that you thought might interlock and simply don’t. And, if you’re a person of faith, you will always find yourself begging and bargaining with the God you serve. You’ll fling yourself at His feet in surrender.

That way, when you hold the finished thing in your hand, when you arrive at the end result — the brighter shore, the other side of the canyon, you will never be able to say that you got there alone. You’ll understand acutely the limits of your own imagination, your own tenacity, your own income, your own insight. Something a little extra, a little beyond your pale, a little miraculous transpired while you railed and while you rallied.

By God, by jove, by the myriad wonders of risk itself, here you are.

* I can’t thank everyone enough for funding my trip to Yale in June! Everyone who contributed did so so quickly, it humbled, awed, and staggered me. I appreciate it so much and hope I’m able to continue maintaining whatever quality it is that inspired you all to help me. I hope I’m able to continue being, not only the kind of writer you want to read, but the kind of writer who encourages you to write for yourself. If you’ve noticed, that campaign, though fully funded, is still open. That’s because — in true messy-dream-delivery fashion — Indiegogo won’t let me close the account or withdraw funds until after June 13. I selected a 60-day campaign, completely underestimating the generosity of friends and strangers. And now I’m being forced to keep the campaign live and the money in a holding pattern until that 60 days are up.

I haven’t submitted my deposit for Thread at Yale yet, because it will need to come out of my very limited bill-paying money, until I can reimburse myself at the end of June. But I will before the first of May. (Don’t worry, givers! I’m going — and I’m frequently updating you via social media while I’m gone.)

In the meantime, I’m placing the link here, in case anyone who hasn’t yet contributed might feel compelled to make my life slightly easier by giving through Paypal and not via Indiegogo’s credit card form. Apparently funds contributed through Paypal can be immediately disbursed (yet another fact I wish I’d known beforehand).

I’ve already asked a lot and you’ve given beyond my wildest dreams, simply because I worked up the boldness to ask. So I hope it doesn’t hurt or wear on anyone’s patience or kindness if I ask again.

New Gig, Old Ghosts.

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I discourage easily. This will come as no surprise to people who regularly read my work here. And I’m just coming to terms with the fact that all my days are marked with either a vague or an acute melancholia. I’ve always known that, but I’ve never been comfortable publicly, directly owning it. I can’t say that I’m depressive; I’ve never seen a therapist, never been diagnosed with anything. I do bear some of symptoms of depression, but I’m never quite incapacitated by these symptoms. They just sit with me, like familiars. And I function. Sometimes, in fact, they help me function, as it relates to writing.

I try not to talk about this too often, for two reasons. The first is that, when I’m sad or suffering from a fairly intense crisis of confidence or a bout of ongoing disappointments or genuine panic about the possibility that things may not actually work out in the end, people tend to think I’m fishing for affirmation and reassurance. I can assure you I’m not above fishing for affirmation — words of affirmation are my love language — but if I’m expressing an insecurity here at my blog or even on social media somewhere, I’m not trying to make others feel obligated to cheerlead for me. In truth, I have enough wonderful friends and family who do that without any prompting. They’re exceedingly patient about it and they never scold me for ingratitude or seem put-upon for their efforts. They’re just good to me, for whatever reasons, and I’m more grateful for them than I can say — even when I’m too down to see the goodness aligning all around me.

The other reason is less general, tied to the culture within which I was raised. I grew up in church in the ’80s and was reared at the height of the Word of Faith Movement. Positive thought and language was central to that approach to belief, and if you said that you were sad, you’d be chastened not to “confess that over your life.” It made God — who was a granter of declared desires, a supplier of needs and of supernatural self-confidence — look really bad. A lot of times, I heard in sermons that my personality, my reticence to hide my sadness, was an indictment against biblical truths like, “We are more than conquerors through him that loved us” or “Be anxious for nothing but in everything through prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, make your request made known unto God” and “Do not be sorrowful, because the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

There was an emphasis on renouncing negativity — and sometimes, the labeling of things as “negative” — like certain moods, emotions, or creative expressions — felt untenable to me. “Don’t claim that” and “don’t confess that” were oft-repeated admonitions, especially during adolescence. So, in conversation, I learned not to express sadness. Or insecurity. Or jealousy. Or malaise. Or discouragement. Or feelings of inadequacy. Or fear that I wouldn’t find someone I loved enough to marry. Or fear of marriage, period. Fear of attracting (and re-attracting again and again) a certain kind of man, a certain kind of career outcome, a certain kind of fate. Those currents continue to pulse under my skin. Sometimes, they still show on my face. But I manage them by writing. Putting my “negative” experiences on paper comes with its own chastisement, but I’m better able to handle that than someone coming up to me and accusing me of not trusting God.

I am talented and I work hard at writing — or at least I work consistently at it. I read a lot. I try to develop informed opinions and challenge myself to articulate them well. And I also just want to move people. Especially the melancholy people. And even more specifically, the people who have internalized opinions of themselves that are hypercritical, unflattering, or ugly. I write for the self-conscious and for the people who cry over words, both good and bad ones. I write for those who feel compelled to hide — and for those who take tentative steps into spotlights. I write for the people who shrink at center stage, because they aren’t sure how they got there or if they want to stay.

And I don’t know. It’s hard to find homes for that writing sometimes. Welcoming homes, homes that pay, homes that don’t discourage lyricism or honesty. But I can also attest that, when you write — even when you feel most transient — so, so many outlets will open their doors. You will entrust something of yourself to them, and in turn, they will entrust something of themselves to you. And it will be okay that none of these spaces become permanent homes.

You are not always down and out, when you are discouraged. You are not inadequate when you aren’t working where you want, at the pace you want. And your real feelings are more useful to others than any you may feign for those who are uncomfortable with candor. You aren’t “making a liar out of God” by being honest with yourself. For me, at least, “confessing” my actual, fraught, deficient, uncertain, doubting, terrified thoughts before God and man are an expression of how much I trust God not to condemn or abandon me. Honesty about how often I sit with sadness or how close discouragement often feels, that is the true measure of my faith.

In many ways, I think it also accounts for the opportunities I’m afforded. They are many. I am at once overcome and relieved and intimidated by them. I’ve no need to apologize for that. My joy has never been invalidated by my sadness.

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Starting next week, I’ll be writing for my friend Alyssa’s blog, Act Four, at The Washington Post. I’ve guest-blogged there before. Though I’ve blogged about both of those experiences, here’s something I didn’t share: the first time Alyssa invited me, she said that maybe it would turn into something more frequent. As is usually the case when I hear that, I didn’t hold the maybe in my palm. I didn’t turn it over or envision it or name-it-and-claim-it. I simply thought: if it will be, it will be. I put both the bridge and the crossing of it out of mind, until… well, now. May my measure of faith and my melancholic heart carry me over.

For Bobbi Kristina.

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I hope there is a meadow and treetops without end where you are, the grasses beneath you so thick they catch and hold the voices calling out to you from your bedside. I hope you hear your mother, too, ululant on the wind. You are not alone; hear the voices. You are not alone; tell your demons. You are loved, even by us, the fickle, cruel-faced public. You are loved by the Maker you may be poised to meet. Wherever you are, girl, I hope you are climbing, and from an uppermost perch, I pray you can see clearly the truth of who you are.

We remember the girl you were, the woman we prayed you’d become — even if the becoming itself would’ve required a miracle. Instead, the miracle is that you’ve held out as long as you have. Instead, the miracle is that you still have time.

Over the years, we lamented your odds, raised as you were with parents whose wealth often waylaid their efforts to keep lucid and clean. We rooted for you in spite of them and rooted for them, in spite of themselves. We are still rooting.

But I also understand where you are: someplace distant and exacting. You are hanging from a limb that you are no longer gripping. The snag and the crack are conspiring. Soon that limb will turn you loose. There’s no telling where you will return. Perhaps you will be here, awake, surrounded. Your father weeping, your siblings sighing, your truest friends deeply relieved. Or you may open your eyes elsewhere, a flatline braying in the breeze.

I am unbiased. I believe you should float toward the sounds that bring you greater peace. I believe you should be where you feel you most belong.

I was 14 when you were born, the embodiment of your parents’ frenzied, fully public love. You were born under the glare and pop of flash bulbs, the light too harsh for your soft brown eyes. You were pulled toward center stage with pride, and you stood under the beam of your mother’s spotlight. But you were always timid there, waiting where she asked you to, unsure, but echoing the words you were told. It was clear that she wanted to build your confidence. It was also clear that you would’ve preferred those lessons to be meted out in the privacy of someplace sacred and silent.

I remember worrying, in those moments when it was most obvious that your parents were unwell. You were a family, laughing, traveling, spending. You were a family, unraveling. We all worried over you, some of us even voicing unkind predictions. Armchair clairvoyants that we we were, we saw your future forging itself with sorrow.

But this is not what any of us wanted for you. A tub, a tomb, like your mother’s. There are other ways to get back to her. There are other ways to get back at her. I wish you’d found the healthier ones. And maybe you may find them still.

If there is, in fact, a meadow, if there are towering trees and voices in the grass, if there, you can understand how much you are wanted, how imperative it is for you to be well, then where you are is where you should be. And when the bough breaks, may the arms into which you fall be loving, baptismal, and warm.

This is a Year for Divining.

2015.
2015.

I was at home, in the gilded glow of our living room. My daughter was near me, warm and giddy, conducting such energy, we jolted when we touched. She is beautiful, I thought, as she held her shallow of cider a brandy glass. She is mine to raise another year. My God, what mercy, what miracle.

I will make myself more worthy of her. I’ll be braver, wake early enough for her to do the things I’ve been doing for her when we’re low on time. She will not be so short-changed. I will not be so enabling. She is four and already it is past time for her to learn that a woman must care for her own body, her own mind, her own desires, her own rest. A woman must learn to stand guard at her own gates. While men sleep, while they wander, here she and other women will be: in a home, at a border, standing on some sacred, secret promise that must be protected. This year, she will read. This year, she will bike. This year, we will understand each other better.

My mother is newly in love and spent the moments immediately following midnight cooing into her cell phone. There are secret things I want this year, as it relates to my relationship with my mother. May I find the words for all those things. May they be given voice and wing.

Nana fell asleep curled into her loveseat, Meghan Trainor stiffly dancing while cheerily singing about a liar on the television in front of her. She is growing older, getting tired, but she’s also still quite spry and in remarkable health. She deserves an unencumbered home, grown folks and small children as visitors rather than residents. I want to be able to move this year, so that the composition of all her rest and noise and quiet will be hers to conduct. We all have our own symphony of self-care, with intricate sections to balance. May ours be less discordant with hers this year. May we all be better attuned.

The ball-drop itself was a blur; I didn’t quite watch. I was snapping photos of the girl, sending texts to friends, recording the moment rather than residing in it. Perhaps there will be less of that this year. I may just close my eyes before crossing all my new thresholds. I may take deep pulls of the scents draping the air. It’s important, isn’t it, to be able to say in the moment, This is how the world smelled before your life changed: of yeast, of urine, of garlic, of leaves.

I couldn’t have missed it, I’ll be able to say this year, in the recounting. It was all so distinct.

After midnight, I read a novel and wrote a friend to say: I see you and I love you and I care. This is the person I most want to be: one who exhorts, one who senses whorls of magic around her and reaches out to pull others into its path. I do not want to go alone. If I am meant to progress this slowly, I want all of us — as many as can — to go together. It’s my hope that in practicing these parts of my purpose as my first acts of 2015, the balance of this year will be spent bearing witness to beauty, wishing its regenerative breath upon others, being better to myself and to others than I often believe that I am.

Our pasts lay like salt slicks behind us, bitter, and hard and preservative. They’ve been lived, taken down to our souls, given residence. Now we must leave them behind. Even the lessons. Even they should be revisited sparingly. Neither our failures nor our victories are intended to be caressed as regularly as rosaries. We are meant to make all things new. We are meant to love, not by rote and not from the root of some bygone memory, but by virtue of what is happening right now. We cannot place old emotion into the casks of our newly resolute hearts. We cannot revive the life that’s been laid to rest.

All we can do, granted the rarity and wonder of another year, is spend it awake — to our flaws, as well as to our particular strengths and powers. All we can do, given the grace of a 2015, is find whoever may need us and determine whether it is best to deny them or draw them near. This is a year for divining, for being as perceptive as possible. It is a year to grow strategic and wise. What you’ve needed is nigh, if you’ll learn where to look, far nearer than when you first believed.

Whimsy, Faith, and the Thirty-Something Woman.

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1.

I don’t belong in Icing by Claire’s*. The other shoppers browsing beside me wouldn’t be able to sit legally at a restaurant’s bar. They wouldn’t be able to rent a car at the considerable discount adults over 25 are offered. Their faces are unlined, their hair devoid of even a single silvery strand. They are still girls, really; crow’s feet will not alight on their faces for several years to come.

This is my second trip. The cashier has natural hair. The first time she rang up my purchases, her afro was pushed away from her forehead with a plain black band. Now her hair is a garden of two-strand twists. It looks like the kind of work I don’t yet want. I smile at her and recommit to my TWA. The TWA, after all, is why I’m here. Cutting my hair was one thing; feeling elegant and feminine with this cut will, as it turns out, take quite a bit of accessorizing. I know nothing about accessorizing.

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We are closer in age than the customers around us. When I approach the counter this time, she doesn’t let on that she remembers me. Maybe she doesn’t. Either way, I’m grateful as I empty the mesh shopping basket of its contents. She rings up the molehill of trinkets between us: earrings fashioned of plastic and tin, shaped like peonies and roses; cheap garlands of synthetic florals; gilded Grecian headbands, bound to tarnish if worn more than a few times this summer.

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I took this about ten minutes after leaving Icing the first time. That little smile signifies a style breakthrough.

I am probably too old for this. I am mother to a girl who will be starting pre-K in the fall. In November, I will be closer to 40 than 30. For six years, I have taught college students, every semester widening the chasm between their sartorial sensibility and my own. As someone trying to make her living as a writer, being taken seriously has always felt like an Everest climb, a consumption by quicksand, a swim upstream. I am at an age where it is necessary to pinch the bridge of my nose while hunching over bills, at an age where my elders wonder aloud when the work that I do will afford me a lifestyle commensurate with grown-womanhood. (Whither the mortgage, the marriage, the retirement plan?)

And here I am buying flimsy floral baubles at the very accessory chain that interviewed (but didn’t hire) me for my first job at 17.

The cashier tells me the total.

“That’s almost, to the cent, what I spent here last time.”

She courtesy-smiles, waits silently for the debit system to approve my transaction, then hands me the bag. “Here’s a frequent shopper’s card.”

I accept it with thanks but hope I’ll never make enough purchases to redeem it. Two teen girls compare tubes of glittery fruit-flavored lip gloss as I walk out.

2.

At revival, the visiting evangelist descended from the pulpit into the congregation. He was illustrating a point about the importance of vision by asking children what they wanted to be when they grew up. I was 8 and the third kid he asked.

Self-serious little person that I was, my answer was immediate. “I want to be an author.”

Mine was the first response he’d gotten that wasn’t, “I don’t know.” So he riffed on it for a while. “Will y’all excuse me for a minute,” he said, pulling up a chair near my aisle. “I gotta sit and talk to this young person.”

He began to tell me my future. “You’ll read a lot, write a lot of books. You won’t be like all the other children.” His voice took on a wistful, kindly tone. “You’ll never have a day of lack.”

This is all I remember, but he spoke to me for a good five minutes: a monologue amplified by microphone. In the end, we bowed our heads as he prayed that the things he’d just said would come to pass. I kept the cassette recording of the sermon and listened to it once every few years until college. That was when I lost it.

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My church calls this sort of thing a prophecy and the man delivering it a prophet — even when the foretelling is fairly straightforward (Voracious reading is a requisite for quality writing, for instance). Though mostly taken with a grain of salt, my faith still regards prophetic words as sacred.

We are no strangers to mysticism. We believe that the spirit of God might manifest itself during a church service as an indoor fog, the effect like a supernatural smoke machine. We believe that speaking in tongues communicates something to our God that English can’t. We believe that through mere touch — hand to forehead, hand-to-hand, hand-to-shoulder — a minister can confer the spirit of God upon us in ways that make us swoon, faint, convulse, or sprint. We call this being “slain in the spirit.”

For all this trust in experiences that would seem, to anyone who lives outside them, illogical, loopy, or unsound, it’s hard to believe that pursuing a life in the arts would not be accepted as a natural progression.

But being a writer — particularly of fiction — often felt like an unnatural desire. To write fiction was to lie. To lie was sin. Writing nonfiction, if not self-help or testimonial, also felt like the wrong kind of work, for honesty about one’s deepest flaws or exposure of the cracks in other folks’ facades, was regarded as a very real betrayal.

There is little left to write — and even less to write well — whenever these are the guardrails.

In my teens and early 20s, I sometimes came to church wearing a sarong as a skirt with a macrame brooch of a black, Afro-puffed angel holding it in place at the hip: a tiny reclamation of the fanciful. Sometimes I wanted to wear glittered wings and frolic like a fairy, to create a worship experience that felt like the Mamas and the Papas or Simon and Garfunkel or Angela Bofill music sounds. Otherworldly. But I always suppressed the real questions I wanted to ask in prayer. I wrote trite, implausible stories of Christian conversion. I kept my longing for purple hair and hennaed palms to myself.

What do you want from me? I should’ve asked at a much younger age.

I know now what God would’ve told me: Not this.

3.

I have always had muses — none of whom were acceptable choices for teenage churchgoing me.

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Lisa Bonet
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Shannyn Sossamon
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Angela Bofill
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Vonetta McGee
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Erykah Badu

Wear what you want. Love who you want. Give birth when you want. Find ways to live freely. I am drawn to an artsy woman whose look belies her life’s philosophy, because life philosophies — genuine, personal ones — are not easy to form.

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You cannot take stock of present-day Lisa Bonet and not know with all certainty, you’re beholding a woman who — to borrow from Langston Hughes — stands on top of the mountain free within herself. I don’t think that confidence came at low cost, but we purveyors of pop culture have always been drawn to Bonet because we sensed that she saw no trail ahead yet continued, somehow, to set one ablaze.

That kind of freedom can feel like it’s at odds with a few of my faith’s tenets. For us, submission to God’s word and will are the only real freedoms. As Christians, we do not live to please ourselves — and this runs counter to everything I know of myself as a writer. A writer must create to please herself; it is that very self-assurance that earns her reader’s confidence.

4.

For a few months in college, I tried to grow out my perm. I lived alone and if my hair looked too unruly, I’d wrap fabric around it (usually an old t-shirt) and pretend that it meant something regal. I’d stand taller, jaw set against stares or uninvited comment and, for the first time in life, I felt in control of the image I was projecting to the world.

I still wonder what it should mean for our daily lives that we were made in the image of God with the intent that we should behave as though we are reflections of God.

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But for years, it meant treating my body and whatever adorned it as an afterthought. It meant treating my appearance as inconsequential rather than as a point of particular pride. I wore neutrals: denim, earth tones, cotton tees, department-store, factory-outlet dresses. I am still uncertain which colors best complement my skin. (Am I a winter or what?) And this belief that reflecting God meant being conservative in attire and carriage has also meant decades of long hair. Hair long enough to draw a curtain. Hair that doesn’t out the wildness underneath.

The wildness I wanted then seems more permissible now. Churches have factored arts and entertainment into their Sunday rituals. Spoken word, drama, pantomime, liturgical dance. It’s all there. But I am a different brand of feral these days.

My mother convinced me to perm my hair again in college by insisting I couldn’t attend church back home in a headwrap. “It’s Easter!” she’d said. “Easter!”

It took fourteen years to go natural again. Fourteen years and here I am leaving Icing, eager to embrace the sprightliness I denied myself so often as a teen. Here I am writing about my faith’s messy intersections with my chosen vocation. Here I am being as weird as I’ve always suspected I could be.

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But am I too old for it? At 34, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like an overgrown child whenever I place a crown of fake flowers on my head. It seems that, by now, I should have my personal aesthetic figured out. If nothing else, I should know what stores don’t make me feel like the old chick at the club.

(When did I become this self-conscious?)

We talk about reinvention as though it’s a very mature and high-brow process. But so much of it is playing dress-up and making yourself okay with prancing around in new personas till  you find the next one that’s a natural fit.

6.

The Jesus who keeps me Christian roamed and ruminated and attended riotous parties. He heard disembodied voices, battled demons, drank good wine and was led by a calling higher than himself. That Jesus gets me. He gets why I don’t find nudity particularly offensive, since according to our own sacred text, nudity isn’t the sin; shame is. He preferred a complicated story and understood that not every tale worth telling ended with profession of faith in him. He didn’t recoil from the grotesque, and he was irrepressible. The Jesus who cursed fig trees wouldn’t care one wit if I ring my hair in fake foliage. He didn’t conform. And maybe, just maybe, he’d be disgusted with anyone who’d ask me to.

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How I long to be more like him.
*I found out Icing has a shop online option while writing this piece. Guess where I’ll be copping hair garlands instead of in-store now?

To Die is Gain: On Meriam Ibrahim and Freedom.

Meriam Ibrahim, pictured with her husband of three years, Daniel Wani, a biochemist and Sudanese U.S. citizen
Meriam Ibrahim, pictured with her husband of three years, Daniel Wani, a biochemist and Sudanese U.S. citizen

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. […] Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. […] For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him….  — Philippians 1:21-24, 27a, 29, NIV

They say that even in labor, your swollen legs remained shackled and that your son, Martin, just over one and half years old, has been living with you under hellish conditions in Omdurman Federal Women’s Prison since you were arrested in September 2013. Yesterday, the world saw you holding your newborn daughter in a photograph. She was also shown resting in her father’s arms; this was the first time they had been allowed to meet. Her name, by coincidence and serendipity, is Maya, born days before the passing of the most renowned “Maya” the world has ever known. Your baby girl is breathtaking, as is your tiny son, whose large, dark eyes are like yours: serene, aware, uncompromising.

You are 27 and Christian and married. In America, this would be referred to as “doing things the ‘right’ way.” Had you married here, you could’ve danced to “My Baby Just Cares for Me” at your reception — simply because it’s true. No one would’ve questioned the validity of your union or labeled your joy as apostasy and you as an adulterer. You would’ve been lauded, held up as an exemplar of wholesome living. And had you been born here, it would be simple logic that you would adopt the religion of the parent who raised you — but only if you were so inclined. Your mother’s faith, after all, is the one to which you have been most exposed, the faith that you would have observed in action. Your father has been absent since you were six; who can know what he believed, other than that men can leave wives and children whenever they wish?

In America, faith is languorous and theoretical. We are extended the leisure of lifelong contemplation. Many of us are only as close to God as we feel and when we seek Him, it is often because we are wanting, unhappy with ourselves, after moral superiority, or courting approval. We pretend we have not come to Christ for a relationship that’s transactional, but too many of our churches preach that this is exactly what Christianity is: belief that if we perform, we will be rewarded. To be fair, I may be perched at the more cynical end of our faith’s branches. It has been a long while since I have seen fresh fruit from this vantage, so long, in fact, I sometimes wonder if the flock of us here are figs accursed: either tough and underripe or so fat and dripping we are on the verge on rot.

You should be in the throes of an intercontinental love affair, well on your way to joining your Sudanese husband in the home he’s secured for you with his U.S. citizenship and his residence in New Hampshire. By now, your new neighbors should have the benefit of proximity to your faith, so distinct from their own in that it has been threatened with government-sanctioned death. When you get here — and my faith is still strong enough to pray and hope and believe that you will — Americans will try to tell you that we know religious persecution. They will tell you our government has taken prayer out of schools and they’ll give you anecdotal evidence about gunman who’ve asked victims to deny God before shooting them in cold blood. They’ll cite abortion laws and tell you how challenged and buffeted they feel by The World’s changing mores. They’ll also have stories about missionaries at the ready — jailed for smuggling bibles and murdered for sharing the gospel.

Here, in order to access empathy, we distill people into the facets of themselves with which we can identify. To comprehend their plight, we need their reality to bend toward our own, and we discard the dimensions that are too complex or inaccessible to do so. (This is, in some ways, an inversion of what your own government is doing, in isolating the parts of you it cannot comprehend — not just your Christianity, but your insistence on maintaining your agency as a woman, as a daughter of a Christian mother, as a wife of a Christian husband, as a mother to Christian children you are willing to die to see raised in your family’s chosen faith.)

But if we are at our most honest, we would have to admit that a faith strong enough to submit oneself and one’s toddler to disease, interminable confinement, 100 lashes two weeks post-birth, and hanging in two years — as soon as the baby is weaned — is foreign to many of even our most devout. We have little context for women like you — yet women enduring punishments similar to yours are not uncommon. You are being flogged, killed, or threatened with either fate not just elsewhere in Sudan, but in the Maldives and Iran and Saudi Arabia and in countless countries other than my own. I would be remiss and disingenuous to attempt any personal parallel to that kind of suffering; I wish this were true of all of us who know full and well we will never face such brutal conditions.

Nonetheless, forgive my naivety in feeling grateful to have heard of you, at least, while there are still a few days left to fight for you. I’m sorry our embassy has so thoroughly failed your husband. We didn’t act when he first made us aware, waiting instead until your beauty and faith and cherubic children made your story more accessible to our sense of what’s right and just. It feels so late and impotent an effort, but we are fortunate to be forced to reckon with our negligence and what it does to families like yours.

We need to see the cost of unbroken faith, need to be ever reminded that the persecution of the privileged is not equal to that of the oppressed, need to recall what a woman who refuses oppression looks like after months of enduring the worst conditions and least possible care in a country that has always denied her freedom of speech, faith, choice, and identity.

It is not a universal experience. You are your own — and you are willing to die to remain so.

Here, we are often asked if we are willing to die for what we believe in. But we are asked in air-conditioned churches, where interfaith couples are as common a sight as dresses and suits. When we say yes, it feels like a favor; we are willing to give up a world where we have always felt some level of freedom for an eternity where we will feel yet freer. You are giving up a world that has denied you even the most inalienable of rights for a God who has always understood how vital those rights are to your existence.

I hope you live. I pray you do. I believe you will. But if you are martyred in two years or earlier, know that we who remain as witnesses will make sure your son and daughter know why you held on so tightly to yourself and your God. We will be here to help them make sense of your reported words to your husband:

‘If they want to execute me then they should go ahead and do it because I’m not going to change my faith. I refuse to change. I am not giving up Christianity just so that I can live. I know I could stay alive by becoming a Muslim and I would be able to look after our family, but I need to be true to myself.’

We will all be freer for it.