It’s Complicated

Without going into the whole tabula rasa thing, I’m simply going to share something I heard on a podcast a few weeks ago. It wasn’t anything I didn’t already know because I did. But what arrested my attention and kept me listening were these words by the presenter: You know what you know because you’ve been told that by someone.

That someone might have been a parent or a teacher or a friend. Still, until you heard those words, you didn’t know that fact, i.e., the earth is round. As you matured and began to read, words from a book told you things you didn’t know before. Before long, you realized you were part of a culture, and although you knew there were different cultures and peoples and traditions and languages in the world, yours was the most awesome. Maybe you were a bit ethnocentric. I was. Probably still am.

As a child, I learned to speak English. In my baby book, my mother wrote, “Jane now says so many new words each day that I can’t write them all down.” I’m confident that the words were dog (not chien), brother (not frere), and house (not casa). My parents and extended family spoke only English, not French or Spanish, so that’s what I learned. A simple example, and yet you get the point. Language is a huge and unifying part of one’s culture. 

We went to a Baptist church where I was taught that “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.” My young friends and I sang those words with fervor, and yet none of us really knew any other children except the ones who were just like us. Until I went to college, I didn’t have classes with any Black or Asian Americans.

In grades 1-12, my friends and siblings learned quite a lot about the traditions and history of our country. George Washington was our first president and a brilliant military leader; Thomas Jefferson was a great statesman, the third president, and primary author of the constitution; Native Americans (called Indians back in the day) were savages who lay in wait to attack Europeans as they tried to “make it” in this land.

I’m not saying the above statements are bogus. I’m saying the truth is somewhere in the middle. 

Washington was indeed America’s first president, Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces, and slave owner of about 300 slaves (give or take). Jefferson once called slavery an Assemblage of Horrors, yet he owned around 175 servants. And then there’s Sally Hemings. Native Americans lived here long before the Europeans arrived, but now ….

I bought it all—hook, line, and sinker and was an adult before I realized how complicated things were. My awakening was slow. First, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His “I Have a Dream” speech can still move me to tears. Then I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The world was changing, and while I saw that as a good thing, it was a little discomforting. I read Ramona and learned more about the treatment of Mexicans and Natives, visited Juneau and stumbled upon “The Empty Chair” Memorial, toured Mount Rushmore and began to understand why the Native Americans were a bit bothered by the faces of white men carved into what they (the Natives) viewed as a sacred mountain. During the last several years, we’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many Plains states, and some of things I saw and heard and read will disturb me for the rest of my life. 

One night I watched an interview with Susan Sarandon and Jimmy Fallon in which she said, quite calmly and assuredly, that America was founded on the “genocide of Native Americans and on the backs of slaves.” I gulped. In that moment, I knew she was right and that she had known this truth for a long, long time.

I just started reading Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. It’s funny and clever and smart (like he is). At the end of the introduction to apartheid, he says: “….but the general thrust of it should be easy enough for any American to understand. In America you had he forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of these things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”

I’m not dissing my teachers, preachers, parents, friends, books, or television for the things I blithely accepted as fact. I’m saying that being open to learning the “also truths” has been eye opening. It’s complicated.

Shadow Sides

I’m woke. I finally get it. And my awakening came during church yesterday morning.

The speakers gave talks on topics such as love, forgiveness, and following Christ. While sitting there, a character in a short story I’d just read came to mind—Mr. Stovall, a deacon in the Baptist church. In the story, Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun,” a black woman asks him when he’s going to pay her: “When you going to pay me, white man? When you going to pay me, white man? It’s been three times now since you paid me a cent—” Mr. Stovall knocked her down and kicked out her teeth.

Nancy spent the night in jail, attempting suicide toward morning. When the jailer found her, “Nancy was hanging from the window, stark naked, her belly already swelling out a little like a little balloon.” After he revived her, the jailer “beat her, whipped her.”

Barely into the story, I knew

  • that Nancy is black, 
  • that people (including Mr. Stovall, the Baptist deacon) use and abuse her, 
  • that she’s expecting a baby, 
  • and that there’s something sketchy about this pregnancy. 

Who’s the father? We soon learn that it’s not her husband, a man who says white men are allowed to come freely into his house but that he can’t go into theirs. Jesus, the husband, is angry and wants to kill Nancy—or so she believes. Is it because of her behavior or because of his own powerlessness over the abominable situation that exists?

Does Jesus know the father is white? Yes, and so does the reader. The fact that Faulkner makes a point of the interaction between Nancy and Mr. Stovall implies that Stovall is the father—or that it’s someone like him, some respectable white Christian.

But wait. Aren’t Christians supposed to love one another regardless of race or creed? Yes. everyone knows that. And yet. And yet here’s the poor, scared, powerless, penniless black woman carrying a white man’s baby (against her will) who gets her teeth knocked out by a white man who’s quite possibly the baby’s father. And he’s parading around as a Christian. And her husband plans to kill her because of her situation.

Some people see Christians as hypocritical and scary. Honestly, I can understand the hypocritical aspect a little. A bit hypocritical myself, I struggle with always being fair, loving, kind, generous, and forgiving. At the same time, I have to hold back when I hear a Christian dissing someone of another race or religion when they themselves are often cruel, bigoted, and judgmental. I have friends who dislike Mexicans, Muslims, Indians, Hindus, Syrians, Jews, transgender, gay, and any and everybody else whom they either (1) don’t understand or (2) feel superior to. 

My husband has a friend who used to say, “That ain’t right, Bo. That ain’t right.” Although his comments weren’t related to Mr. Stovall types of behavior, they align with the current hate mongering. Being okay with white supremacy and condoning racism, sexism, and all other isms that demonstrate hate, not love, just “ain’t right.”

So here’s my epiphany from yesterday. Neither Mr. Stovall nor thousands like him have personal insight into their shadow sides. They can’t see themselves with a clear eye. And nor can I. Fortunately, I have people in my life who can and do try to help me see the light. I say “try” because I, like you, am a work in progress.

Golden Age?

One recent morning, I turned the corner to go back in the neighborhood when I heard a great line on a podcast. In this case, great means true. “Conservatives long for a Golden Age that never was and liberals hope for a perfect tomorrow that will never be.” That’s it, I thought. That’s the gospel truth!

There was never a Golden Age in America, at least not for everyone. Just ask the Natives like Chief Powhatan. And there will never be a perfect tomorrow–or even a fair and equitable one.

When planning our 50th class reunion, some classmates and I talked about how fortunate we were to have grown up in a sleepy little town in South Carolina’s midlands. Before I go any further, don’t be offended, fellow Camdenites. To us, it might be the best little corner of the world ever, but I’m often amazed and disappointed when I tell people where I’m from and they give me the stare that asks, “Where is that?”

“About thirty miles east of Columbia,” I tell them, and if they still look befuddled, I add that Columbia is the state capital. It’s nice here, always pretty and usually peaceful. There are robberies and drug busts and hungry children, heartbreakers in all locales, but that’s a story for another day.

Back to the reunion planning day. After bandying back and forth about our good fortune at having been raised in Camden during the best of times, those years of relative prosperity after WWII and before Vietnam, someone said, “For us, it was a good time, yes. But it wasn’t for everyone.”

I recall being glad that someone besides me had introduced the elephant in the room and led him to the center ring. Someone else’s bravery in truth telling gave me a pass that day. I could listen and contribute to the conversation without being blamed for casting a pall over our lively and lovely lunch by bring up something unpleasant.

Every girl (we still think of ourselves as girls, not old ladies) at the table had grown up in a similar environment. Some were raised in wealthier families, and some were Baptist while others were Methodist. You get the picture. We had been homogenous as kids, not a Buddhist or African American among us. In fact, we were raised in an era when JFK was given some flak for being Catholic. Would he answer to the Pope or to the people? It’s actually laughable to consider how scared some Americans were of JFK’s religion.

About our so-called Golden Age, there was that Bay of Pigs thing, the Red Scare, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. Am I going to mention the Civil Rights Act of 1964? You can bet on it. Although change had been brewing for years, this legislation changed America’s landscape forever. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, and Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter from the Birmingham jail. His “I Have a Dream” speech is a standard selection in college literature texts. There were other leaders, but this is a blog, not a history lesson.

I’ve rambled. My point is that to my classmates and me, we thought we lived in a golden age. We were naïve. We lived in a bubble, blind to social injustice and the several horrors and misfortunes that others suffered. In our white-bread world, we actually believed Native Americans were the bad guys. Or I did. I believed the history books. And we knew little about African Americans although they likely comprised 25-30 percent of the community’s population.

Then one day at the doctor’s office, I noticed another door at the end of the hall, one that had escaped my notice before that morning. While waiting for Dr. Shaw to come in and diagnose my tonsillitis, a frequent happening, I asked my mother about the door. When she didn’t answer me right away, I looked at her face and could tell she was bothered by my question.

She leaned in and whispered, “That’s the colored waiting room.” My mother, by the way, was simply using the parlance of the day and was the least bigoted person I’ve ever known.

Shocked at the revelation, I didn’t answer. I see that moment as an awakening, for it was absolutely the first time in my young life that I recognized inequality. I’m not dissing the doctor.  Like my mother, he was a product of the times. I’m simply expressing my feelings about America’s mistreatment and marginalization of people perceived as “different.”

While conservatives long for a golden age that never was and liberals hope for a perfect future that will never be, could we just love one another?

 

Robbed at Gunpoint

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True story, a frightening one. The event happened last summer and continues to haunt me. This afternoon, I came across what I wrote about it at the time. I had no answers then, and I don’t have any now—just a conviction that I (we?) need to consider social injustice of all kinds.

“Last week I dined with two old and dear friends, one of whom had been robbed at gunpoint the night before. She and her family were watching television when she heard the unmistakable click of the back door. Was it the wind? Curious but not alarmed, she turned to look, and four masked men bounded into the room.

“All had guns, and each intruder leveled a gun at the head of one of the four family members. Four people who’d been enjoying their time together at day’s end moments before were now held captive by the invaders. Pleasure turned to terror.

“As my friend said, ‘It was surreal. I felt like I was in a dream.’

“The young men wanted money, not silver or jewelry or electronic devices. Sadly for them, the family had less than $50 in cash between them. After dumping the contents of the two women’s purses, the armed robbers (is there a better term?) retrieved at least one debit card and asked for the PIN. No fool, my friend readily gave it to him, and two of men left for an ATM machine with this promise/threat: ‘If this doesn’t work, we’re coming back to shoot all of you in the head.’

“Held hostage in what had been presumed to be a safe haven, the family felt powerless. Cell phones had been confiscated and doused with water by this time, making contact with the outside world impossible. Although they were confident that the PIN would work, the family still felt frightened, especially as they thought of the innocent two-year-old sleeping in a nearby bedroom.

“Quick thinking on the part of the young adults, the couple’s daughter and her husband, prevailed as the two began distracting the men with questions. My friend’s husband gave an award-worthy performance of faking a heart attack that must have unsettled the two remaining intruders because they fled before their partners returned, taking house keys and the home owner’s car.

“At least one phone still worked, and someone called 911. Police officers arrived in a matter of minutes. Three of the four men, all under twenty-one, had been apprehended by the time of our luncheon the next day. By that afternoon, the fourth was also in custody.

“How could something like this happen in such a seemingly safe neighborhood with pretty lawns and tree-lined streets?

“Another friend, Maria, and I absorbed this story as we dined on salmon atop spinach lunches and a special sauce. Maria began talking about a recent anniversary trip and delighted us with stories about her adventures, including a ride in hot air balloon. We chatted briefly about two other friends, one in Alaska and one who just returned from a trip to England and Scotland.

“Life was good for them—and for us too. Didn’t we deserve things? Trips and opportunities and salmon atop spinach? Doesn’t everyone? The conversation reminded me of stories I’ve read about people in the most adverse of situations who somehow do more than merely soldier on. They laugh, joke, eat, make love, and sing even as bombs explode around them.

“My friends and I discussed local politics, the juicy sweetness of peaches, and travel adventures including hikes, sailboat rides, and plantation tours. Admitting she had been a tad nervous about riding in a hot air balloon, Maria said, “There was that one that bumped into a barn, you know. It can be dangerous.”

“No matter what exciting, trivial, or funny story came up in conversation, the previous night’s incident was there, hovering over and around and above us. Our dialogue always came back to it.

“When asked if the thieves were black, my friend hesitated a moment before nodding yes. There was sadness in that nod, and knowing. Knowing developed from decades of working with college students and from reading and observing life with a clear eye. A woman of deep faith, she was likely thinking, ‘All are precious in His sight’ even as she relived the terror of the night before.

“Horrific things have always gone on, just not this close to home. I saw The Independent State of Jones last week and was sickened by the work of the Klan. I can still feel my involuntarily uptake in breath when Mr. Moses realized that three white men were following him with taunts and name-calling. His murder was cruel and merciless.

“I recently reread Elie Wiesel’s Night and wondered how the world could stand by and watch. Roosevelt knew about the Holocaust, and I’ve often wondered about his silence. Not a political scientist by any stretch of the imagination, there are many things I don’t understand. We were less of a global community then. Now we send troops to places in the world I’d never heard of until now, but then, six and a half million Jews and other “undesirables” were killed while the world turned a blind eye.”

Nearly a year has passed since the summer night intrusion and the next day’s luncheon. I still have no answers, just a conviction that all lives matter.

 

Love How You Can

Love is the word. Love makes the world go ‘round. And then there’s that commandment to love one another.

But what does love mean? And what exactly did Christ’s word really mean? How can we love everyone?

My brother Mike and I sat with our spouses and dozens of other people, all strangers, in the happy, busy, buzzy atmosphere of Abeulo’s in Myrtle Beach Friday night discussing the above questions. Our appetites sated and our moods elevated, we began talking about the homeless, the tired, the needy and what our responsibility was to them.

“We’re supposed to love everyone,” Mike said, not in a preaching way, just stating a reminder of something the four of us already knew, and he and I began to toss thoughts and feelings back and forth. I said my heart hurt as I thought of the Syrian refugees, especially the mothers and those little children. They’re as “precious in His sight” as my own grandchildren who had the good fortune to be born in America to parents who love them.

Did we come to a consensus or vow to devote ten percent of our time and money towards aid for the less fortunate? No. In fact, the only things we agreed on were (1) charity begins at home and we need to be more loving and kind to the people we live with and (2) we need to ponder Christ’s words and their implication for our lives.

Later that night I recalled Aaron Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love. There are several kinds of love, including one called plain old “liking,” but the ideal love is consummate love. Consummate love is comprised of intimacy, passion, and commitment and is an ideal towards which many aspire. Not everyone is fortunate enough to experience consummate love, however, and even if it were possible, it’s not the type of love one can feel towards everyone.

I’ll spare you the rest of my pondering about Sternberg’s theory and its application to Christ’s commandment. It’s quite interesting and something you can easily find and read more about online. What popped in my mind as I was thinking of Sternberg is something a former colleague of mine quipped one afternoon as some colleagues were chatting about an office romance. The chatter turned into a heated discussion as people began to actually take sides. This is going nowhere I thought and was about to leave when someone said, “There are a lot of ways to love, Folks. People love how they can.”

There are a lot of ways to love, Folks. People love how they can. What I love (there’s that word again) is that it cuts right to the chase and, without embellishment or hifalutin theories, speaks volumes. I can’t take everyone home to raise or join the Peace Corps or round up all the homeless people or love people who abuse children. I can’t. But I can love how I can.

Saturday afternoon I parked my car toward the back of the parking lot at HomeGoods in Myrtle Beach. After I turned off the ignition, I read a couple of texts and was in the middle of responding to the second one when someone thumped on the passenger side window. Momentarily startled, I looked around to see a face (no description because of the situation) that I perceived as non-threatening, so I lowered the window.

“Hello, Ma’am. Don’t be afraid. I’m harmless. My name is ____________, and I’m a Vet who hasn’t been able to find a job no matter how hard I’ve tried, and I just need some money for a meal. Can you help Old _________ out?” All of this was delivered in one long string while I stared at her, recalling the conversation of the night before. I found the change purse my husband had bought me as a souvenir in Denali on a land/sea cruise we lucky ducks had taken and rummaged through it until I found a ten dollar bill. I gave it to the kindly-looking, well-spoken, middle-aged woman standing at the window, and off she went.

Was I crazy to have done that? She wasn’t dirty, disheveled, or lean—just the opposite. She asked, I gave. No questions asked.

If Mike is reading this, my answer to our questions Friday night is that you (all of us) love how you can.

 

Child Brides and Monkey Pox

Last week a couple of good friends and I went to a Women of Vision exhibit at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, and we had a great time.

Wait. It was great, but it was also consciousness-raising and thought-provoking. Although I have a copy of the book by the same name, seeing the enlarged photographs up close and personal was a sobering experience. Reading more about the stories behind the images and hearing the photographers discuss them have haunted me all week.

We saw a child with Monkey pox, a virus caused by eating contaminated meat. In this case, the child had eaten Gambian rat, the only choice in town so to speak. Starve or eat rat? That’s what psychologists call an avoidance/avoidance situation, one in which neither alternative is good.

 My friends and I had just dined at Chicago Dog across the street, a diner with lots of atmosphere and several delicious food choices. Our conflicts were of the approach/approach variety since all options were attractive.

We saw a frail-looking 5-year-old bride posing with her 25-year-old husband and another child bride howling with fear and as she rode with her family to her wedding. We also looked into the eyes of an 11-year-old who had attempted to commit suicide by catching herself on fire rather than succumb to a life of sexual and physical abuse.

 On the way to Charlotte we had talked about gender issues, including the incidence of cohabitation, the elaborate venues of today’s weddings in America, and the quest for romantic love.

We also saw girls in Mumbai standing in front of their cages. They were prostitutes with no education and few choices.

Here in the United States, education is a right and responsibly for all of its citizens…including the females.

After viewing the exhibit, I was a feeling a bit melancholy, not for myself but all of the injustice and unfairness in the world. How and why did I get so lucky?

Something else that niggled me was the oft-quoted reminder that no one gets to heaven without a belief in Christ. And yet I was 99.9 percent sure that none of the above people had heard of Him. Did the child in the Congo with Monkeypox go to hell? And what about his mother who sat weeping beside his bed day after day, week after week?

 I could not/will not believe that something so unfair can happen.

A couple of days later, I read a Face Book comment by one of my nephews that sent me to Mere Christianity, one of C.S. Lewis’s most profound and popular books. Although I had read it many times (especially some chapters), on this day I opened the book right to the following sentence:

But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangement about the other people are.

It’s not that Lewis knows the answer to all mysteries, but he’s certainly further along the path of understanding than I. For the moment, I feel better about the child brides, the Monkey pox victims, the starving children, and the prostitutes. God has not told us about His arrangements.

Have you ever had similar thoughts and feelings? How did you deal with them? 

Load Down the Wagons

From employees to taxpayers and citizens to college officials, the view seems to be that reflected in Sheheen’s conclusion: LOAD DOWN THE WAGONS; TO HELL WITH THE MULES. While this quote is in reference to situations that occurred while Sheheen was Commissioner of Higher Education for South Carolina, that attitude is still prevalent.

For months, Camden has been embroiled in a conflict situation about city administrators using taxpayers’ money to construct a YMCA when the city already has recreational facilities that seem to be working just fine. I don’t pretend to understand the politics and practicalities of it. I just know that it was/is a major deal that has people writing and signing petitions and that the powers-that-be appear to be insulted/annoyed/shocked that the citizens dare to question them.

A week or so ago I read an article in the Chronicle Independent that summarized the situation and provided a solution. Written by Fred Sheheen, the article was so superbly crafted that even I could completely understand the recent goings-on. The title itself lured me in, “Can this really be happening?,” and when I read the first sentence, I knew I was in for a treat: “Seldom have I witnessed such a gross malfunctioning of local governments as that which has developed in Camden and Kershaw County over the future of recreation programs to serve the citizenry.”

As much as I enjoyed the article and appreciate Sheheen’s clear, crisp writing and the enlightenment it provided, I have to admit that his conclusion packed the most powerful punch of all. It was so perfect, in fact, that I found myself laughing aloud. Why? Because it speaks to much of how things are managed and how people are viewed.

From employees to taxpayers and citizens to college officials, the view seems to be that reflected in Sheheen’s conclusion: LOAD DOWN THE WAGONS; TO HELL WITH THE MULES. While this quote is in reference to situations that occurred while Sheheen was Commissioner of Higher Education for South Carolina, that attitude is still prevalent.

What do you think? Do you see examples of loading down the wagons with little regard for the mules? Can/will you share an example?