Celebrating a King

Martin Luther King day is the only Monday holiday I’ve ever felt inclined to celebrate or actually give thought to as anything outside of an extra day of weekend indulgences.

As one who always felt a passion for the civil rights movement and for black American people and communities, growing up I felt a blind love for Martin Luther King Jr. I didn’t know many details about him or his life or even his work. I just knew he stood for something I cared deeply about. And, for me, that was enough. For white folks growing up in white circles who wanted to have some sort of connection with black people and black history, Dr. King was really all we had. He was our access point. His writings were allowed in our curriculums and textbooks, his picture acceptable for our classrooms and school hallways. His Christian-ness and non-violent tactics praised in church communities. I carried my devotion to him proudly. It (regrettably) took many, years to move past my sheerly symbolic love for Dr. King. It’s been a beautiful gift getting to know this man I always loved from afar. So today, on this day of remembering him and the spirit he left us, I thought I’d share some memorable parts of this journey.

2003
My college friend Carlos knew of my love for Dr. King and he excitedly gifted me a shirt he’d received at an MLK day event. The shirt bore a giant picture of Dr. King’s face and I couldn’t have been more pleased. I wore it often, most especially on his holiday every year.

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Me and my summer camp bestie Lauren

 

2009
I started grad school for my Masters in Social Work. One of my first group assignments was to present about the organizing movements of the 1960’s. We read aloud from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I’m sure I had read it before but never had I really ingested its weight. For those of you unfamiliar, this is one of the most eloquent, highbrow “clap backs” ever written, and to white, Southern Christians at that (which, I have to admit, gives me a little extra satisfaction).

But King’s words were more than that to me, particularly at this time in my life. I was learning (and confused by) what it meant to be radical, what it meant to stand for social justice–reconciling my fairly straight-laced, conservative, southern, religious upbringing with the east coast “liberal” kids around me who wore rainbows and went to marches with their parents. As bizarre as this sounds coming from a blonde haired white girl, I realized that Martin Luther King was someone who “looked” like me. He dressed like the men in my family. He carried a brief case like my dad. He went to church. He quoted the Bible. He was tight with his family. He was from the south.

And yet his words were biting.  Scalding. Berating. They sounded polite. But they were fierce and unapologetic. They were unaccepting of the current state of affairs.  MLK was a radical freedom fighter disguised as a middle class suburban dad. He was probably the closest I’d come to someone who “looked” like me doing the work I wanted to do and saying the things I was too afraid to say. He gave me more courage to be myself in a place I’m not from—to celebrate my roots as a source of pride and not something to hide; to use my aesthetic and my person as a tool, a point of connection; to be unashamedly mainstream and unashamedly radical. Dr. King gave (and continues to give) me the courage to be “both” and “all”.

2011
At the end of grad school, I had the honor of being selected to go on a civil rights bus tour culminating in Jackson, MS, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. We stopped at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN where we watched a powerful short film called “The Witness”. It documented Dr. King’s final days and hours before his assassination through the eyes of Reverend Billy Kyles, who bore witness to King’s last moments. Watching this film affirmed for me that Dr. King’s work and his power were real, not something I had just made up as a naïve young white girl. Even those closest to him saw something of a divine prophet in him. Says Rev. Kyles about witnessing King’s final speech: “He was so overcome we had to help him to his seat. He had preached himself through the fear of death.”

The museum sits at the site of the former Lorraine hotel in Memphis, TN where Dr. King died. My two colleagues, Stan and Lizzy, and I found a seat outside directly across the balcony where he was shot outside room 306. Stan had ordered peach cobbler to-go from a famous local spot. As we traded bites, we were gifted a beautiful sunset and Stan noted that the spirit of the ancestors were with us in this moment. We all agreed that if Dr. King had any say over how he was celebrated, sunsets and peach cobbler would definitely be a the top of his list.

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The Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, TN
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MLK’s room and the balcony where he was shot

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Religious Upside Down

In case it wasn’t blatantly obvious by every single one of my blog posts, I had a super evangelical phase, which happened to be my entire adolescence and collegiate career. I did all the things—weekly Bible study, inner city ministry, church retreats, Christian camp counselor—the model Bible belt-er I was. Then I moved to New York City where Satan and “The World” (Christian-speak for the evil, secular world) got their claws in me. I kid (but really that’s what some people think). I grew up riding that sweet wave of evangelical enlightenment and in the salad days of the Christian Right. The book collection (preserved by my mom) in my childhood bedroom and my CD collection (preserved by my Case Logic) prove it. I’ve got all the greatest hits of the era: The Left Behind Series, Why the Left is not Right (no, I did not make up that title), Lady in Waiting (again, real title), and the now-infamous I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I knew every word to D.C. Talk’s “Jesus Freak”, and every Michael W. Smith album.

A couple weeks ago I reunited with some old college friends and we talked about how none of that stuff moved us anymore—church, Bible verses, Christian books (do those even still exist?). And, in recent years and weeks that world we were so steeped in has all but burned to the ground. Indie Christian rocker Derek Webb cheated on his wife and divorced. “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” author, fun-killer and pastor Joshua Harris divorced his wife, quit the ministry and is now an atheist. Evangelical pastor Bart Campolo (son of other famous evangelical Tony Campolo) left the faith and now preaches the gospel of humanism. Christian singer songwriter darling Jennifer Knapp is now openly gay and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is not having it. Author Linda Kay Klein just released Pure, a book about the trauma in young women that resulted from 90’s purity culture. I think it’s safe to conclude the consensus on this brand of Christianity is: Over. It.

Enter 2019 and I’m living in a time warp. Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez get saved. Chance the Rapper is “Jesus is Lord”-ing all over the place and releasing tracks with Kirk Franklin. Kanye releases a Christian album (and tells his staff not to have extra-marital sex during production). Ciara and Russell Wilson’s sexual abstinence-before-marriage makes headlines. It’s like having a friend who just discovered wind suits and bought one in every color. While me and my peak-90’s Christians are still in recovery, being apathetic as fuck and writing entire books and podcasts to process said apathy, famous people found the Case Logic under my bed and think it’s the coolest shit in town.

I’m not saying faith and belief are trends. At least, they shouldn’t be. And I’m all for people transforming their lives in positive ways. I just (perhaps naively) thought that a modern-day conversion would have an air of oh, I don’t know….the modern day. Are we really back to touting (heterosexual) marriage as our most evolved state and pretending Christian music isn’t bad and cheesy and watching mega churches jump to host the first celebrity who has a Jesus lyric and gospel choir on their album? Can I please get a witness? An amen? An explanation? At the very least, a meme of Kanye reading Lady in Waiting? K thanks.

And just for kicks and throwbacks…..

 

 

Dear (mostly straight, white) Men,

I don’t want to take care of you. I don’t want to explain feminism and sexism to you.  I don’t want to listen to you have diarrhea of the mouth trying to defend yourself every time you are confronted for your questionable behavior.  As for your “forgetfulness”, “good intentions”, “busyness” or whatever other excuses you’ve created in your whimsical, illusion-filled mind—no one cares.  Like really NO ONE cares and those things have nothing to do with the conversation (I don’t even need to know what the conversation is to know they have NOTHING to do with it).

Here’s the thing.  You have been raised and taught your whole life to believe you are “good”, that you are “better than”, that you not only have all the answers but that it is your duty to broadcast them (in a high volume, might I add) and lead all the ensuing discussions.  What you weren’t raised to do is listen.  In fact, you are so terrible at it there are many things–things that are the most important part of my lived experience in this world, things that are the deepest and rawest and realest pieces of me—which I will never ever share with you.  Do you hear what I am saying?  You do not get to actually have all of me and fully know me because of your stiltedness. (Which really sucks for you because I am awesome and deep and wise and just an overall really great human being to have in your life.)

Because I know that, in your current state, you cannot hear them–these specific pieces of me.  You live in a world in which most everyone defers to you—your physical abilities, your thinking, your words, your ideas, your opinions—and that has set you up to be a shell of a person.  You have not learned the fine art of self-reflecting, of acknowledging your capacity to hurt others, of making mistakes, of then saying you are sorry for said hurt and mistakes.  Do you hear what I am saying?  Most of your relationships with women are fake because they are playing a role that you need them to play.  How does that feel? –that your privilege drives people to be fake around you.

What you are good at is protecting yourself at all costs. And that comes in so very many forms.

There’s the you continuously trying to steer the conversation back to your intentions, which says to me “your perspective and your feelings on this situation must be mistaken. Let me explain to you what’s actually going on.”  Oh, and it also says, “ I don’t actually give a shit how you feel or what you’re saying because my number one priority is to make sure you still know I’m a good person.  Because this is actually all about me.”

Then there’s the “but my feelings are hurt too” and “what about this thing that happened to me?” which is just confusing because we weren’t talking about you. We were talking about me.  So, I’m not sure why that’s relevant unless, of course, you were once again reminding me that this is actually all about you (how silly of me to forget).

But you know what the irony is behind all these egregious, frustrating, self-serving behaviors?  For all the deference and accolades and unearned privilege you hold and wield, you actually feel really bad about yourself.  Which is why it’s impossible for you to look at your ‘stuff.’  Why it’s impossible to just say, “you’re right”, “I’m sorry”, “I hear you” or “I don’t understand.”

It would break you.

It would crush everything that you were taught to be as a man in this world and you would have a real crisis on your hands.

And do you know who your biggest inspiration will be in getting through said crisis?  Do you know who has felt crushed and stupid and worthless and at fault and broken?  Do you know who has spent most of their days feeling unnecessarily bad so that you could feel unnecessarily good?  Do you know who’s had to say, “you’re right” and “I’m sorry” to avoid being yelled at and embarrassed (at best) and raped and killed (at worst)?

Women.

While you were being groomed for an abundance of self-esteem and world domination, we were being raised to feel bad about ourselves our whole lives.  There’s always something to feel bad about—our bodies, our clothes, our face, our weight, our voice, our intelligence, our height, our wrinkles, our feelings, our opinions, our….well, everything really.  We have been made to feel bad by men and women alike.  We’ve felt bad at every stage and every age (this is starting to feel like a Dr. Seuss book) and just when we’ve crossed a threshold there’s a new hammer of judgment waiting on the other side.

It.  is.  Exhausting.

But it has made us strong.  Some might even say super human.  The kind of strength you (men) have never known and never had to cultivate.  The kind of strength that has to dig in deep places to survive and remember who you really are.

Because you are broken, I am broken.

And I’d hoped we could be broken together.

But I am running on fumes.

A Case for Glitter

Last weekend I spent three days learning the art of  peacemaking circles and walked away having learned just as much about myself as about circle keeping.  I affirmed that the spoken word is not my preferred or best form of communication–a fascinating (though unsurprising) discovery, made mainly through the sheer terror experienced each time the talking piece made its way to me.  Our (incredible) workshop leader Kay noted the importance of offering a variety of ways for people to respond throughout the circle process–with objects, self-made crafts, pantomime, etc.  ‘Otherwise’–she said–‘you are only catering to the people who are good with words.’  Now this is an obviously true statement and perhaps not even a remarkable one.  But (the more I’ve thought about it) it’s remarkable how much of our culture and process and spaces of expression hinge upon one’s ability to express him/herself verbally.  How many of our spaces are dominated by one form of expression?  And how can we create space for others to communicate by other means, allowing them to be their best selves?

I don’t have the answers….but I do have some thoughts.  I remember applying to college and of the ten (yes, TEN) schools I applied to, only one asked me to share about myself in some way other than the classic resume/essay/GPA combo.  One school (shout out to TCU) asked all applicants to take whatever creative liberties they wished with a blank 8.5″ by 11″ piece of paper.  Pure genius and pure fun.  That is likely the only application in my entire life that has ever been attached with the word ‘enjoyable’.  And I still remember what I did.  I recreated the scene from Apollo 13 where Tom Hanks is looking at Earth from the shuttle window and covers the entire planet with his thumb.

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I don’t remember how I described it’s significance at the time but watching it again, that scene provides such an incredible paradox of our insignificance and our brilliance.  That we are small and dispensable yet profoundly powerful–enough to leave and survive outside our own planet.  And to dare believe that was even possible in the first place.

And I would have never been able to express such profundity without being allowed some construction paper, glitter and glue.

All I’m saying is that maybe we can and should do more of that.  How many job candidates are we overlooking because we can’t figure out a better way to allow people to show themselves than a cover letter, resume and lame interview questions?  And how many voices are we missing in important meetings because the only way to contribute is by interrupting or speaking up or having the perfectly-stated three point plan?

This feels particularly important when working with marginalized folks who may actually be scared by the sound of their own voice.  Or artists who could bring a room to tears with a simple movement, photo or gesture but may struggle to create a fully formed sentence in front of a crowd.  Let’s get to crafting y’all.

Breath

I often find inspiration in unlikely places– words and phrases from real or fictional people, books, articles, or my own brain that dreams up visions and sayings providing purpose and clarity for this moment.  I thought I’d share some of my current bedrocks:

Breath (and Strength)
Last week my yoga teacher asked us to take a moment and pick one or two things to commit to during our hour of practice.  After some reluctance in picking two (my perfectionist self always tries to take on too much), I landed on strength and breath.  My favorite thing about yoga is that the entire practice is grounded in breath.  The goal is not to lift your leg higher than your neighbor or stretch until you feel pain (though both may happen) but to maintain your breath throughout.  I’m always struck by how counter this is to the world I live in (read: the world I’ve created.)

What if my own success was measured by remembering to breathe?  By noticing and being present and….breathing?  I often credit my strength as an ability to get through…to do all of the things I’m “supposed to”–to get through all the e-mails and the meetings and the news feeds and the happy hours and the dirty dishes and the endless stream of plans.  But breath makes for life and presence.  Breath allows us to show up to our lives, to our work, to hard conversations, to our surroundings and our struggles.  Through sick parents and hurricanes and relentless self doubt we breathe.

Sweating is always better
I’m pretty certain this one came to me after a recent run.  It’s about getting out of my own head–spending less time thinking and preparing and organizing and more time just doing (for the record, writing counts as doing).  “BUT I REALLY LIKE THINKING AND ORGANIZING AND RUMINATING ABOUT ALL THE ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES MY LIFE COULD HAVE!!”, screams every resistant bone in my body.  I’ve always been a very physical person but one who easily gets trapped in the cerebral.  Like, it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing if someone yanked me out of bed every morning and threw me into a cold river.  I would hate that person every time but I’d know it was the best thing. So, yeah.  Sweating (or hypothermia) is always better.  It just is.

Slow down
A few weeks ago I met a friend for coffee after work (ok, well it was my pastor…but she’s my friend!  And technically I had wine but…).   For a moment I was outside of myself looking at the two of us sitting at this nondescript table made available to us courtesy of the “No Laptops” sign–she with her tea and me with my wine.  The both of us with our “get to know you” questions and stories of faith and families and old vs. new New York.  And I couldn’t help but acknowledge what a small miracle this was in a city like ours and a time like this.  That there’s still space for two souls to sit and talk and connect and not have any particular place to be at anytime soon.  And how much better we both were for it.

 

Ties that Break

This last trip to Texas was a real doozy and I’m not sure where to begin but here is where I try to make some sense of things. A few realizations I had while I was back in my home state the past week (and I’m sure more on the horizon):

I’ve turned out really different from a lot of the people I grew up with—this may seem obvious but I’ve always held onto a reality that no matter how different the paths life takes my family and I, there will still be that common anchor. That sturdy, wrought iron core of a shared value or belief or whatever that thing is we are proud to boast as “ours” and ours alone. And lately that has felt tested as some of the things I hold core to who I am and how I am in the world are not only different, but in direct opposition to those of my closest kin.

Religion can be a source of great manipulation or great freedom and I think I’ve found the latter in spite of the former. There is a vein of Christianity I grew up around that says “no” to everything in its path. It generates fear of the other and is in the business of creating new “others” on the regular. And there are clearly understood lines drawn to dictate who is in and who is out. Who is good and who is bad. Whose eternity is secured and whose is not. Which words are acceptable and which are not. Whose lifestyle is celebrated and whose is not. Which questions are allowed and which are not. And I have since breathed cleaner air and cannot go back to that suffocating place.

Being a woman in my family comes with limits. Now this is certainly not something that is advertised or articulated in explicit ways (as sexism often isn’t). It is the ever-subtle yet ever-present sense that others hold a limited set of expectations for who you are and what you will be. It comes in the childish retorts from adults’ mouths when you question them on a belief, a position, a life choice because who are you, as a female, to understand such complexities? Who are you, as a female, to know what the right thing is?

It is often communicated through absences—the absence of substantial conversations about politics or finance or career or economics directed at the female members of my family. The absence of women’s voices in mixed company and the absence of male listeners when women do speak up. The absence of confidence I feel in the presence of brothers and uncles and cousins who are male.

And it is sometimes spoken in the ways things play out. Like how the men have managed to plan and attend their annual golf tournament for ten years strong while the women have barely gotten their reunion off the ground in the past couple of years. Like how every one of my female cousins is a teacher, nurse or stay at home mom. Like the fact that my brother owns two houses in two different states. And how the more questions I ask and the more ambitious my dreams get, the more I am looked at like a traitor, a dissenter, a “liberal”, one in need of “prayer.”

And, believe it or not, I am thankful. I am sad but thankful. Because with each look and with each subtle snub I am pushed to be more, to do more, to fight harder for those who feel like this times a billion. To continue to speak truth to power—right now, a particular power who is about to become our president (and all of those that voted for him). I am thankful I live in a city of other fighters and work in a profession where every day I see strong, female, black and brown leaders in action.   I am sad but thankful. Because this anger ignites me. And this anger builds empathy. And empathy builds love. And love is unstoppable.