Constants for the Wanderer, Current Events, Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting, Prayer, Race

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.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Writing Craft

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.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting

What Contraceptive Ignorance Costs Us All.

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^^ The adults in my life, on the issue of birth control. ^^

I was taught nothing of birth control. In the white-walled rooms of youth groups where we buried our noses in bibles and pretended the promise or memory of sex wasn’t palpable, we were not permitted to ask. And in our nightfallen homes, the flicker of TV-light dancing on the weary, work-ashen faces of our parents, we dared not bring it up.

I did not have friends who I knew were on it, did not discuss its dire need among the ones who were already smitten and surreptitious. I wouldn’t hear any of my girls openly, casually discuss it till we were in our mid-20s and even then, the possible side effects sounded terrifying: bloating and rapid weight gain, mysterious acne and blood clots, uncertainty attendant to possible misuse.

Contraceptives felt like contraband, something to be secreted away or shrouded in enigma and shame, if used at all. It would take years for me to truly understand the vital need for a woman’s vigilance around procuring it.

I had sex for the first time at 24, a week before my 25th birthday. A condom was used, and this set a precedent: one partner, one form of contraception, one party responsible for securing and using it (him). My first pap test was during that 25th year, with a black woman in a Midwestern city who did not press me on the issue of birth control. She asked if I was fine with condoms. I nodded meekly. Her lips became a terse line as she jotted this down in my chart. We moved on.

The same happened at my grad school clinic a year later after a pap. “You and your partner are welcome to explore any contraception you wish. Or none, if you’re exclusive and tested. It’s up to you.”

And so it was that I never saw up close the oblong compact I could gingerly open, looking down and comparing it to a theatre in the round: each compartment a tiny seat, each pill a fully paid ticket to bodily freedom.

No one told me there were springy bits of copper and plastic that could be positioned inside you for years, preventing all possibility of pregnancy. I knew little of the patches we could press to the backsides of shoulders or the sexiest curve of our hips, patches that withstood the daily pulse of shower-water and willed their potion firmly under our skin.

I was doggedly incurious and there were many reasons: the long-distance nature of my relationship made physical intimacy infrequent — far too infrequent to warrant the constant use of a contraceptive. And what would come of my body? Would it rebel, resist, reconfigure? Would I be labeled loose if the pills or patch were discovered by the women who’d never seen for to tell me they existed in the first place? Would an IUD lodge itself someplace precarious? Would I forget to use whatever I chose?

Would it fail? Would I?

I was not raised to prepare for premarital sex but rather for any number of punishments that could befall me in its wake.

Indeed, my pregnancy at 29 was considered, by some, to be some sort of handed-down sentence. Among those for whom discussion of birth control remains a hushed or silenced subject, conceiving you seemed evidence of a fundamental failing. And to the extent that it is true that I’ve failed at anything, it is at handing responsibility for my body over to a partner whose stake in its reproductive health is, necessarily, far lower than my own. It is at not investigating all the (then relatively unthreatened) options open to me. It is at leaving so many stones of knowledge unturned.

Contraceptive ignorance is far costlier than a prescription. It limits the conversations we can comfortably enter, armed with an informed opinion, an educated vote. And, to be sure, remaining willfully ignorant of the myriad roles of contraception — those far beyond the mere prevention of pregnancy, far beyond the myopic scope of stigma — makes us complicit in every legislative battle women and men are waging to retain affordable access to birth control and care.

Pretending we are not sexually active often enough to need it directly threatens the rights of those who are certain that they do.

Make no mistake, the decisions to conceive and give birth to you were entirely mine. No legislator told me I had to; I was not barred any preventive prescription I would’ve needed, had I made a different choice. I want you to grow up in a society where the same is true for you.

You are still so little. I am still so out of my depth. How will I give you a wide, unobscured berth of information when I am still cobbling my own knowledge together in bits and pieces? What exactly will we say when we whisper close, over cocoa, ’round issues of sex, reproduction, contraception, and faith?

I have time to yet to figure it out, but I am alarmed at how fast that time is dwindling. I am equally alarmed at how many of your options are dangling in the balance.

There is no way of predicting what, precisely, you’ll need. Every woman is a wonder, in her capacity to decide what is best for herself. And this, of course, is where we will begin. This is your God-given body. This is your God-given mind. This is your God-given will. These are the tools you must use to lay claim to your every choice.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting, Prayer

Get Real, Get Right.

Like Truman, I had walked to the end of a soundstage, expansive and domed, a manmade construct where I’d dwelled since the day I was born. I followed a once-holy script, so weighted with rewrites the original text seemed illegible, and in its appendix, a map of circuitous arrows. This was a province governed by a trumped-up paranoia, a place where God watched like a hawk with the imperative to smite at any time. He sat high and looked low and, though he was love, He was also a wielder of swords; just the threat of one’s wing or the promise of another sword’s knighthood, whole lives could be held in check. Though the God they’d confined to this land necessitated lifelong service to the poor, the men and women who believed themselves His ambassadors amassed wealth at the people’s expense and boasted often of their riches to impoverished congregations.

These leaders were not like John the Baptist, wild-eyed eccentrics momentarily stricken with doubt but ultimately willing to die for their gospel. They were not like Moses, weary and at times uncertain but obedient even after 40 years of wilderness.

They were more akin to Ananais and Sapphira, apportioning unto themselves not just money, but truth and hope, compassion and power, which belonged to an uncompromised God and, in turn, to an underserved people.

At the edge of the world, at the age of 25, I clawed free, broke through an uncharted dimension. On the journey, many people passed by, headed into the land that I’d left.

I didn’t warn them of the sanctimony that would meet them there, did not tell them that though its pew-sprinting, alter-fainting, frothed-mouthing practices may seem the height of religious freedom, they were not headed for liberty but instead a new snare.

Beyond the only world I’d known, I met many obstacles. Uncharted terrain is always treacherous. I stumbled through jungles, nearly missing the garroting vines. I fielded the unbidden questions, the doubts, the stalking of betrayals so intense I longed for amnesia. And eventually, it came.

I forgot the kind of God I used to worship, a deity diluted and delivered on tin trays through the slats of a confined life. I forgot how it felt to be shackled.

There were seven years of vertigo. Mostly silence. Neither God nor I seemed angry, but we made little effort to connect.

I emerged with a girl, tiny and worshipful in ways that reignited memory. She sways at the lilt of a hymn, lifts her eyes toward a heaven she recognizes, stretches her lithe little arms at the crooning of cantors, opens a door.

I know that, in order to effectively mother her, I must talk to the God she knows, must engage in a faith like hers, must love without suspicion.

So I take her to–of all places–a VFW hall, where men in robes make the sign of the cross over their hearts and minds. A jazz guitarist and his wife lead songs that initiate conversations with God, rather than discussions with each other about how they should converse with God–or how they should feel while doing so. The holy eucharist is shared every week, and questioning is welcome. It is an entirely unfamiliar place. I approach it as the refugee I am, with guardedness and more than a little fear. But louder than the din of my doubt is the prospect of hope.

I am learning unabashed belief from the little girl, whose eyes grow wide during worship, who ceases her busy tinkering during prayer, who smiles at the priest who crosses her before I partake of the sacrament.

These days, I follow her lead. Later, she will follow mine. And someday, she will walk to the edge of the world and feel confident she knows the God who is beyond it.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Prayer

Make Haste.

I am often afraid, though Your word says, “Fear not.” I have been told that my fear offends You, that my anxiety is a rebellion You cannot abide. I am told that I am not to rely on this brain You’ve given me, so limited in its purview, so primitive in its ability to decipher; but instead, I should relinquish the boundaries of my own intellect and allow Your presence to invade that which my instinct tells me to protect and to closely guard.

I do not know, I do not know, I do not know what I know.

So, come. The kingdom I’ve erected is crumbling. I am willing to let You reign. I will quit the deteriorating palace and take residence in a hut at the foot of the hill, until You re-establish all that my hand has failed.

This does not mean I will be an unquestioning subject. It will be difficult to see all my work dismantled: the education I fought so hard to attain, through debt and jobs worked well after midnight, to finance what exorbitant loans could not; the home I scraped up just enough to rent, by teaching twice as many courses as a full-time professor, at three different colleges, while sleeping on the sofa of relatives; the car I waited 13 years to own, 13 years to be able to drive, after droves of attempts at earning a license.

These will not be easy losses. And though I know that I only attained these things because You allowed me to, I still do not want to let them go.

It is terrifying to trust. And it is terrifying to plead into the silence of a dark room for deliverance from a disaster of my own making. I do not like the idea of needing things I cannot supply for myself. Basic things: food and shelter and transportation. It is too cliche a fate, to be pressed into trust by the vices of under-employment and poverty.

But if such pressing is what is required, I submit myself to the stocks.

We have been here before. And I know that we are here again because I did not learn how to trust You implicitly the first time. We are here because there is a point You need to make. We will come here again, and again, if need be; we will return to this isle as often as it takes me to accept that I am not You.

On this isle, there is a scripture in the sand, just beyond the reach of a rising tide. It is the first I ever learned, the one I hoped I’d never truly need, though I recall and recite it for even the lightest afflictions. It is the one I’ve never needed quite as much as I need it today:

Make haste, O God, to deliver me. Make haste to help me, O Lord.

I learned it when I was eight, and somehow it still carries me. It is the raft and the oar, when I am tossed from the oceanliner into the sea. I say it when reason betrays me and the sky closes under Your eyelid and the water of an unrelenting rain is all that is keeping me alive.

Hurry, it says. And wash me back to the shore of choice. I will choose differently, this time. I vow I will choose only You.

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the Nine series (novel excerpts)

Nine.

Nine had always found the house on Joshua Tree Court dystopian. The entire community, lined with imported saplings and prefabricated town-homes, felt like something shiny the leaders of a New World would build after decimating every person, place, or thing that came before them. That the shutters were painted a pretty shade of purple was little consolation.

While her parents were picking out cheap interior fixtures—railings that would become rickety within a year of wear; faucets that would soon lose water pressure; sinks that never seemed to drain right; and taupe-colored carpeting that would mottle within months–Nine wistfully imagined her family back in their two-bedroom apartment across town, where the high school she’d attended for the past three years was just two streets away and her semi-estranged grandmother lived in a building one block over.

After her family settled in, Nine’s stepfather, Paul, who she’d been inexplicably calling “Dad” since she was ten years old, planted star-gazing lilies in the tiny front yard, because they were her mother’s favorite flower. This also did little to hearten Nine, who felt a prickling heat crawl up her arms, like a warm-legged troupe of invisible tarantulas, for the entire first year that they lived there.

“Dis child so insolent she doan know a good ting when she see it,” Paul lamented, watching Nine drift sullenly from room to room of their new home, openly, if silently, pined for the days before he was a part of her family. “In time she come to realize what she have.”

But Nine’s uneasiness persisted, as did the idea that she was living in some alternate world, where dread numbed emotion better than Icy Hot.

Continue reading

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Faith, Nonfiction

Gilded

Days before our annual New Year’s Eve Service, Pastor Robinson absently asked me to pen a poem and plan on reciting it some time after praise and worship and before his sermon. Because I had very little sense of self-preservation, I agreed.

I did not tell him that commissioned art requires ample notice.

I did not tell him that the rapid-fire performance pieces I recited didn’t spring from my head fully formed.

I did not tell him what I believed then—that I couldn’t write poems for church services without spending time praying and hand-wringing and lamenting, without asking God if the often scathing criticism I snuck in by rattling it off too quickly for listeners to immediately process was actually okay to repeat aloud.

I did not tell him that that settled, Yes, I do believe I’m free to write and recite this; No, I don’t need to further edit myself sensation—the one I was so sure then was the presence of God confirming the words He’d given me—simply could not be rushed.

I simply nodded and agreed, then spent the next four or so days panicking and envisioning myself in a room filled with hundreds of sequin-clad onlookers with absolutely nothing to say.

Somehow, I managed to get a poem written. I printed it out and spent the remaining day and a half before deadline desperately trying to commit the piece to memory. I was always terrified to stand in front of the church to share poems. Though all writing is nakedness, poetry is nakedness on a JumboTron; and I always found it comforting to have a page to hide behind. I’d approach the microphone, unable to hear any thought other than, Just get it over with. Just get it over with.

keep reading…

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