Short Fuses and The Long View

As I watched the March for Our Lives protests taking place around the country on March 24, 2018, I was filled with several conflicting emotions. I was proud that students—a long ignored and discounted group—were organizing and harnessing their frustrations into something tangible. I was sad many were unwilling to listen to what they had to say, writing them off as nothing more than malcontents and “angry, opportunistic…media hyped know-nothings.” But most of all, I was unnerved, and that feeling had no specific source. I just know that when hashtags begin trending and momentum grows on either side of the gun debate, I begin to worry.

Image from Patch.com/Getty Images

 

Guns are a touchy subject, and the spectrum of advocates on both sides is wide—from those who believe in zero restrictions to those who want all weapons banned. It’s not productive to rehash all the talking points here, and I wouldn’t presume to be able to solve such a thorny debate on this, my humble corner of the internet.

Josh Britton published an excellent piece over at Mere Orthodoxy this week about the march and why he didn’t participate. In it, he states, “I lament with the Parkland victims, and long for the day when God will put an end to all violence. But I also worry about putting too much hope in legislative action to solve the complex problems that confront our world, and can’t help thinking of how often such attempts have gone awry in the past.”

Something going awry. That’s the thing that gives me pause. There are always unintended consequences to social change and legislation. Consider Prohibition and the many ways it changed the United States for the worse. The War on Drugs is another stunning example of government overreach, and it is still having an impact on our nation—particularly on people of color.

If Only We’d Known…
The Ice Bucket Challenge, one of the biggest social media trends of 2014, certainly raised a great deal of money and awareness for ALS. (Funding also gave scientists a way to discover a new gene linked to the disease, so huzzah for that!) However, have you heard much on the subject since? ALS is still a long way from being cured. Many people participated out of peer pressure or to feel good about their social media “activism,” but how many of those same people would do such a thing again? The results aren’t reproducible, and overall, according to Jaqueline Herrera, the Ice Bucket Challenge was actually harmful to philanthropy.

The same is true for sending food overseas to those “in need.” According to the well-researched documentary Poverty, Inc. (available on Netflix), our good intentions can actually cause great harm. For instance, former President Bill Clinton, encouraged by U.S. rice producers, authorized sending thousands of pounds American-subsidized, tariff-free rice to the island. The catch? The decision drove local growers out of business. After all, it’s hard to compete with free. It has also had a huge impact on the Haitian diet. Rice, which was once consumed once or twice a week along with other healthier staples, now accounts for one quarter of the average Haitian’s caloric intake. We don’t think about this when we send in our donations, but it’s happening all over the globe. It’s not that we need to give less; we need to give more wisely.

What do both of these things have in common? A swelling of popular opinion driven by social media, much like that enjoyed by the March for Our Lives. If this movement (however well-intentioned) leads to sweeping changes are made to gun laws—restricting the average citizen’s access to them—what might the unintended consequences be?

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I’m no gun enthusiast; however, I’m comfortable with them. I learned to respect them early and was taught how to shoot when I was old enough. But my view on their purpose, and the intentions of the founders in their creation of the Second Amendment, changed in the spring of 2013.

My husband and I purchased a house in Cobb County, Georgia. One Saturday morning, my husband left to run some errands, and not a minute after the garage door hit the ground, he called me. “Sweetie,” he said. “Do you have anywhere to be in the next few hours?”

I told him I did. “Well, you better leave now. I don’t know if you’ll be able to later. Just ask the cop in our driveway to move. He did for me.”

I looked out the window, and sure enough, a patrol car was on our property. I took my husband’s advice, grabbed the things I’d need for the afternoon, and headed out.

There wasn’t one sheriff’s deputy in our neighborhood that day. There were forty—all of them armed to the teeth. I saw countless military-grade rifles, men in SWAT gear bearing flash grenades, extra magazines, heavy flashlights, and truncheons. One officer lay on a shooter’s mat, sighting in a rifle. Another sniper was posted on a play set.

I wish I had had the presence of mind to take photos that day, but honestly, I was so bewildered by the sight of a platoon in my neighborhood, it was all I could do keep my car on the road. It was the quintessential definition of using a bulldozer to find a china cup.

There were no reports in the local papers about this incident, no coverage on the nightly news. But from what I gathered from neighbors, a family in one of the homes has a son who is mentally unstable and was holding his mother hostage with a knife. Thankfully, the situation (despite the seven nation army) ended peacefully, and the young man was taken into custody.

Lock and Load
Cobb County, like places around the United States, has received a great deal of surplus military equipment thanks to the 1033 program. Tactical gear and military-grade weapons are just the start of it. Armored truck and personnel carriers, grenade launchers, and helicopters have also been distributed to local police. Cobb County even added a tank to their arsenal recently. No kidding—an honest to goodness tank.

There’s a reason Ferguson, Missouri looked like a war zone when the riots over Michael Brown’s death were happening. It’s because the cops were armed like soldiers, and this is becoming more and more common these days. According to C.K., author of “The Rhetorical Power of ‘Support Our Troops’” over at The Economist, “There are now 50,000 to 80,000 SWAT raids each year in the country.”

He goes on to say, “There is little evidence that such militarization reduces crime, and a considerable risk that it alienates communities and leads to an increased number of civilian deaths….Using county-level data on overall deaths caused by the police in four states, Casey Delehanty, a social scientist, and colleagues found that larger 1033 transfers are associated with more police killings. The risk of a civilian killing by the police is more than twice as high in counties receiving the maximum 1033 transfer compared to counties that receive no transfers. The authors show that this relationship is not simply caused by a higher risk of criminal violence in districts that receive larger transfers by demonstrating 1033 receipts are also associated with police forces killing more civilian dogs each year as well.” (I know The Economist isn’t always top notch, but it was a solid summation. If you want to read the original paper in its entirety, it’s here.)

Apparently, not even our dogs are safe these days. #Merica

Image from sputniknews.com

Police forces aren’t turning weapons down. They’re taking them from the government as often as they can, and these items are meant to be used. Hence, the stunning show of force in my suburban neighborhood when a few officers and a negotiator were all that was called for.

It is a hard truth, but one we must face. In the United States, people of all races—but predominately those with black or brown skin—are being shot and killed by police officers. #BlackLivesMatter began for a legitimate reason. Yes, some people are shot because they pose a threat to a community. Some do assault police offers and must be met with force. Some attack with every intention of committing “suicide by cop.” I’m not discounting any of that. However, just this month, Stephon Clark was killed in his grandmother’s back yard in Sacramento, California. The reason? He was knocking on the window to ask if she could let him in. (Apparently, the bell was broken.) He also had a cell phone that “looked like a gun.” For all that, he was shot at twenty times. Eight bullets hit him, seven in his back. Were the cops in the area to stop a murderer or rapist? Were they there trying to prevent a violent crime? No. They had been called in because of a vandalism complaint. Someone was breaking into cars and stealing stuff. A minor crime was met with major force—and someone’s child, someone’s father—is dead.

In the Name of Safety
County and city police forces are well armed, and they have shown they are willing to use the weapons they’ve received from the federal government. Now consider the fact that March for Our Lives has three primary demands of Congress:

  1. Pass a law to ban the sale of assault weapons frequently used in mass shootings
  2. Prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines
  3. Close loopholes in background check systems and require background checks on every gun purchase

Are these weapons and magazines banned across the board—for law enforcement as well as your average, law-abiding American citizen? The petition doesn’t call for such a restriction, and I’m fairly sure that if Congress does act on these demands, no such language will be included in the law either. Law enforcement will continue to receive (and use) the same weapons citizens are denied. How can a people peaceably assemble or petition the government for a redress of grievances if agencies “armed to meet any threat” deem protesters to be just that—a threat—and are more likely to shoot than listen?

Former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens has already called for a repeal of the Second Amendment, deeming it “a relic of the 18th century.” He’s one man, but I wonder how many Americans feel the same way. How many watched the March for Our Lives—filled with emotionally-charged images and highly-tweetable moments—and agreed with the sentiments expressed without considering all the ramifications altering the Constitution? Keeping our kids safe in school. Preventing mass shootings and domestic terrorism. Both are good things that could be achieved in the short term via gun control, but what else might people with less altruistic goals accomplish through that action?

The long view must be kept in mind. If the simple act of donating rice has left a nation economically crippled and dependent on foreign aid, the danger is far greater when it comes to weapons. We must undertake the process of revising America’s gun laws with great care and consideration. No good decision has ever been made in haste or when emotions are high, and we cannot afford to get this one wrong.

Image from k1nsey6.com

Who Am I?

Whenever I go home to Florida, it isn’t my mother’s home cooking I’m starved for, though she is a fine cook in her own right. The minute I hit the state line, I start salivating for a bowl of pozole prepared by Nina, my sister-in-law’s mother. Filled with rich slabs of pork, hominy, and a sauce made from guajillo, piquin, and ancho peppers, it is simple and undeniably genuine. I ladle a serving into my bowl, cover it with onions, radishes, cabbage, avocado, and fresh lime juice, and eat until I can’t hold another bite.

It’s the same reason I love their Día de los Muertos observances. In order to celebrate and remember loved ones who have passed on, families go together to cemeteries to clean and decorate graves. They build altars to welcome the dead back to the world of the living and offer them their favorite food and drink. They dress as calacas (skeletons) and revel in the streets to encourage the dead to linger and party with their loved ones. And marigold petals and blossoms are scattered from altar to graveside to help the dead find their way home after the merriment’s done. It’s colorful, lush, and built on centuries of ritual.

According to David Eagleman in his book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, “There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”

Diá de los Muertos prevents the third death because, each year, the living come to remember those who have gone on, to continue including them in communal traditions. Compare that to mainstream American culture where we relegate our elderly to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, effectively “burying” them before they’ve even experienced the first death. We push the very thought of mortality and decay away with both hands, squinching our eyes shut to avoid looking at the eventuality that will come for us all.

There are also words in Mexican culture that I adore. Take sobremesa for instance. It has no English equivalent. Essentially, it means “after-dinner conversation” or “words shared over a table.” It refers to the time spent lingering after a meal, when people speak, relax, and digest together. Another thing we do poorly here in the States.

That’s what I’m missing—words without equivalents, food that fills, traditions that extend back into time immemorial—things that tie me to a people, a place, and a way of life. And there’s nothing to satiate this powerful craving that’s deeper than hunger, somewhere below the belly.

But, here’s the thing, I do have a culture. It’s American. It’s white. And it’s the one shoved down everyone else’s throat.

To be white in America is to be a part of the dominant culture, a member of an obtuse hegemony that doesn’t understand who or what it is.

From what I do know of my family’s history, I am the product of two lines of immigrants—one from Germany and the other from Ireland. (My Irish ancestors were originally from England, but because they were practicing Quakers, they fled to avoid religious persecution.)

But we have no German traditions. No Irish ones either. We speak no second language, eat no distinctly German or Irish meals or celebrate any culturally-specific holidays. No one in my family is a practicing Quaker. Whatever “roots” I had are gone, lost to time and tide. And though I can’t explain why, I feel like I’ve lost some part of myself, some level of singularity, as a result.

This loss is due, in part, to the “racial bribe” offered to people like mine after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, which pitted the poor (white and black, bond laborers and free men) against the wealthy planter class. According to Michelle Alexander, after the rebellion was suppressed and Bacon had died, “White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites.”

Essentially, people from Ireland, Italy, Greece, and other “lesser” nations—once thought of as “sub-human”—were integrated into “whiteness” when it was politically advantageous to the ruling class, when they needed to boost their numbers for political or economic reasons. (If you want to know more, there’s a fascinating two-part piece on this topic by Quinn Norton that I highly recommend. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg is also a winner.)

The impact of all this is still felt today. And it’s still going on. Don’t believe me? Look at the way Asian Americans are embraced by mainstream culture today or how many people of Hispanic descent now choose to label themselves as “white” when surveyed.

This is where the dissonance I feel comes from; it’s the reason I long for something authentic and gritty and tangible I can never seem to find. Somewhere deep down, in a place beyond words, I’ve always known that I’ve been sold a lie. That my “culture” is a construct, my “race” is nothing more than a box to check on legal and medical forms.

Perhaps racism, a hatred of the “other,” stems, in part, from jealousy. White people, whether we know it or not, our birthright was sold for a bowl of stew. To get a scrap of power and a wafer-thin portion of respectability, our ancestors submitted themselves (and us) to erasure. Hence, we’ve lost all sense of who we are. And to keep this flimsy social upgrade, all they had to do was harden their hearts and participate in atrocities that terrorized generations of people of color. And we continue adding to this problem by denying it ever happened.

I didn’t make that choice all those years ago, but I feel it. I have profited from it. But it has cost me something as well, though I could never put my finger on it until recently. I now understand that I have been handed an empty bag labeled “American culture” and told to protect it at all costs because it is precious. I was told I’m a denizen of a “Shining City on a Hill,” plunked in front of a flag in kindergarten and told to pledge my allegiance to it, to stand at attention with hat off and hand over heart to sing the national anthem with gusto.

And if someone takes a knee in order to draw attention to the fact that the flag and anthem don’t represent all Americans? If someone has what Atticus Finch calls the “unmitigated temerity” to speak up, to say that there is a deep racial divide that needs addressing in order to make the United States home for everyone? I’m told not to listen, to unequivocally shun him and his ilk, to protest the sport that gave them a platform to speak from in the first place. It’s not patriotism that motivates such a thought process, it’s nationalism—the shifty, drunk uncle that patriotism is often saddled with. And I ain’t buying.

Let’s be honest. A flag has no power of its own. It’s a few strips of cloth and a handful of fabric stars, an abstract representation of what America is supposed to mean. If we truly love it, we must be willing to lay it down and listen when a citizen speaks up and says that all isn’t well in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” When we can love and respect people of all colors and nationalities more than the narrative we’ve been sold, the one that flag promotes, we can do precisely what Langston Hughes encourages in his poem “Let America Be America Again”:

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

Notice the word “great” is nowhere to be found that last line. Why? America has never been great the way we think, never lived up to her potential. She hasn’t been America for all the people who call her home. But she could. She is rife with glorious possibility, power, and potential, but unleashing it will require some hard conversations and realizations on the part of white Americans. Things have to change if we are to make her again.

I cannot regain a sense of my own culture, but I can reject the ersatz one. I can point out what’s wrong with the nation I cherish and help heal what’s broken. I can lay down the lie and free up my hands to help create something better. Something more nourishing. Something more real.

In My End Is My Beginning

Georgia. From the Greek, the feminine form of George, a word meaning “a tiller of soil” or “farmer.” The name fits seeing as how the state is filled from border to shore with farmland. But while some folks settle in and work the earth, more often than not, it’s a place people pass through or end up marooned in by some sad twist of fate. Think about it…

Gladys Knight got here on a midnight train, leaving sunny California to return with her man in his shame and failure (whoo whoo!)

The brokenhearted Marshall Tucker Band arrived on a Southbound, one that took them to the place where “the train runs outta track.”

It’s the place where innocent men are hung because of backwoods Southern lawyers, where good men settle down with their hard lovin’ girls, where it’s easy to think it’s raining all over the world.

Seems like no one who comes here is very happy about it (except Ray Charles who made a fortune singing about moonlight through the pines, but let’s not bring him into it.)

Like many, I’m a sojourner in the thirteenth colony, brought here against my wishes. I’d lived in Georgia once before when I attended Valdosta State University, where I earned two bachelor’s degrees and hooked me a husband. But when I lost my teaching job and scatted on back to sunny Florida, my adopted home state, I was glad to shake the red clay from my feet. Little did I know that less than a decade later, I’d be back and settled in a city much farther north—Atlanta, the pit of the peach state.

This sprawling metroplex, now known as “The Hollywood of the South,” was established in 1837 as the end of the Western & Atlantic railroad line. Unlike other capitals, it’s not on a river or a coast, a locale easily accessed by waterway. It’s tucked firmly, stubbornly some might say, in the right breast pocket of the state. And though six or seven major roads can get you here these days, don’t count on any of them being faster than that original train. Oh, and it’s original given name? Terminus, which means “final point” or “end.” How fitting. (Thanks to The Walking Dead for that little factoid.)

So yes, it’s safe to say I’m not head-over-heels in love with this place. I miss the ocean and fresh seafood, saw palmettos and mangroves, eating oranges straight off the tree and the taste of homemade Key Lime Pie. I miss endless green golf courses and hidden freshwater springs and manatees. I even miss anoles.

It’s not just creature comforts I’m kvetching about either. For the first time in my life, I’m six hours away from my family, which left me feeling adrift and isolated at first. But I’m starting to understand the value of that kind of distance.

Before I left home, there were many things to which the answers seemed sure. Why? Because I lived in an echo chamber, surrounded by people who looked, thought, and acted like I did. Consensus doesn’t call for much in the way of soul searching. Here in Atlanta, however, I’m away from kin and have had to build a larger social circle to compensate. Sharing space and time with a more diverse group of people has proven to be one of the greatest blessings (and causes for growth) I’ve ever experienced.

For the first time in my nearly 40 years on this earth, I listen more than I talk. I have sat wide-eared with people I’ve grown to love and value, and they’ve revealed so much. They told me how they grieve over tributes to the Confederacy in town squares or carved into Stone Mountain. To them, the latter is a blight on an amazing creation of God, and each statue, plaque, or obelisk reminds them that racism’s roots run deep in the state we all call home.

As a lover of all things historical, I once argued that such monuments should be left unmolested in order to preserve history (and avoid repeating it). However, knowing that these objects cause others pain, seeing it writ large on the faces of fellow image bearers of God, compelled me to revise my opinion.

That unsettling revelation led me on a paper pilgrimage, and I read books like Blood At the Root: A Racial Cleansing In America by Patrick Phillips, White Awake by Daniel Hill, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, March by John Lewis, and Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson. With each volume, I’ve been challenged, forced either to defend or amend things I once thought settled, and while it can be challenging, it’s been well worth it. The work has reframed my understanding of the legal system in America, helped me see the ways we confuse patriotism and nationalism, and broadened my view on immigration and belonging.

The distance has also required me to look at my faith with fresh eyes. For too long, I went along with what I’d been taught, and while there’s nothing theologically amiss about the doctrine I grew up with, it never felt fully mine. I had never been obliged to step up and own it. Being here allowed me not only to find a place I can call my own for the first time; it also drove me to the Bible and theology texts of all shapes and sizes. The process has shown me the shocking scope of things I didn’t know, and that is cause for both great humility and expectation.

When my the pastor says, “I ask you, Christian, what do you believe?” I stand with my brothers and sisters and say….

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

I recite it and know in a way beyond words that what I believe is true. That it is solid. That it will hold. That it will never be found wanting. That’s well worth a little geographical discomfort.

In “East Coker” the second of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, he closes with the following stanza.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

And that’s precisely what I’m doing. I am “still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion.” Georgia, despite being the last place I wanted to live, became the place where I needed to be. What I saw as an end was actually my beginning.

Once again, Eliot says it better in “East Coker” than I ever could:

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

In this place, this state and time, I have learned that what I “do not know is the only thing [I] know.” Here in this strange, broken, and somehow beautiful territory, I have become a farmer of sorts, one who turns over the soil of her own heart, removing weeds that hinder growth, sowing good seed, and watering it in faith.

Yeah, Georgia ain’t much, but it’s home.

Get It While You Can

Listen up, kiddos, and I’ll tell you a sad, sad story.

The hubby and I have a very short list of performers we will pay top dollar to see. Prince was one of them, so when he announced he would be playing two shows at the Fox here in Atlanta, I battle planned, logged on, and scored two tickets as an amazing early birthday present for myself. I then went to the Fox to pick up those tickets in person on the day of the show. And by the time I got back to my office with the tickets in hand, Prince had cancelled due to illness.

The rescheduled show the following week conflicted with a work trip, so those two tickets went to another lucky couple. No big deal, I told myself. He’ll play another concert here soon.

But he didn’t.

He never played again after that night. Because he died. On my birthday. I can’t make something like that up. (David Bowie died on my husband’s birthday, so 2016 was rather calamitous.)

So I made a vow to myself. If there was a performer or band I wanted to see, I would buy the tickets without hesitation. After all, few of the artists I like are getting any younger. (Truth be told, neither am I.) So along with my husband, Wayne, and a couple of gal pals, I embarked on a year of musical delights.

***

Concert One — Duran Duran
Chastain Park Amphitheater (4/8/17)

For our first concert, we selected a band we’d both liked for a long time, and not just for the 80s stuff either. “Ordinary World,” which I’ve shared here and some of their stuff from the 90s is stellar. And have you listened to Paper Gods yet? Holy Jim Croce, that’s a good album! It was a perfect night weather-wise, and we had an absolute ball. Oh, and we decided that we would need to bring earplugs to future shows, which made us feel old at first. However, I’m glad we decided against vanity because, after nine or ten shows, the ol’ eardrums would have been pretty well used up.

Concert Two — Red Hot Chili Peppers
Phillips Arena (4/14/17)

These were actually the first tickets we bought for the “Year of Concerts” as we came to call it, and the hubby was probably more excited about this one than I was. He was the bigger RHCP fan in high school and college, but I was still really jazzed about seeing them. Plus, Babymetal was the opening act! My friend Ed is a huge fan of theirs, and he introduced me to their stuff years ago. It was amazing to hear those ladies live and in person.

They’re not 20-somethings anymore, but dang if the Red Hot Chili Peppers don’t put on a high-octane performance. I chose a slower track from them to share with you, “Under the Bridge,” but they brought it all night long. We got a great show for our money, which had yet to run out. That part comes later….

Concert Three — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Phillips Arena (4/27/17)

I knew the minute the show was over that this one was going to be my favorite. Every man and woman on that stage was on fire that night. (I was especially blown away by the Webb Sisters who sang backup.) Everything sounded great, and the audience was locked in. Some shows I took in this year were much less enjoyable than they could have been because people weren’t there for the music. They were there to socialize and take pictures for social media. But not this show. Everyone there was listening, singing, cheering, and having fun. It was a great great night, and having Joe Walsh as the opening act? Top notch!

And then Tom Petty became the reason I was glad I started this whole concert-going madness. When he died on October 2, 2017, Wayne and I both knew that we’d been lucky to see him and the entire band together. We now have some wonderful memories from the 40th anniversary tour, something later generations will miss out on. Of all the folks who have died this year, Tom Petty has hit me hardest, both because I love his music and because I know from first-hand experience what a great talent we lost.

Concert Four — Billy Joel
SunTrust Park (4/28/17)

Yes, you read that right. The night after Wayne and I saw Tom Petty, I went to the first-ever concert at SunTrust Park, the new Braves Stadium, with a couple of girlfriends. The sound was way outta whack to say the least, but Billy managed to shine through it and put on a super fun show. (I wish I could say the same for his opening act who was so awful that I’ve forgotten his name out of sheer spite.)

The best thing about the night was the fact that Billy improvised quite a bit, brought in a lot of other folks’ music, and told a lot of great jokes and stories. He’s probably best in a smaller venue just for that fact alone. He also let us vote when it came down between two equally popular songs, so some of the tracks I never expected to hear like “Vienna” and “Zanzibar” were performed. Two of my favorites —“Leningrad” and “Allentown”— didn’t make the cut, but with a catalogue as big as Billy Joel’s, it’s a wonder we got past the greatest hits. (And for the record, this was the concert where a bunch of chumps two rows ahead of us talked and snapped pictures the entire time. What a waste.)

Concert Five — Tears for Fears 
Daily’s Place (6/10/17)

These tickets are the quintessential definition of an impulse buy. We were on our way down to Jacksonville for vacation and heard a commercial for this concert on a local radio station. Before we had reached my parents’ house, I’d already bought the tickets on the Ticketmaster app. And, with ready-made babysitters eager to take the kids, the next night, Wayne and I were once again awash in 80s/90s bliss. We also got to see the new Daily’s Place concert venue, which is part of the EverBank Field complex (where the Jaguars play). It’s not a bad little joint to take in a show, and they have a solid set of concerts coming up in the future!

Concert Six — U2 
Raymond James Stadium (6/14/17)

Of all the shows we saw, this one was the most logistically complicated. In fact, we planned our entire vacation around it! (I even became a one-year member of the U2 fan club to get early access to tickets because I knew they were going to sell out.) They did a lot of their early stuff from War and Rattle and Hum as well as a few tracks from Achtung Baby, but the big draw was the fact this tour was put on to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree. And they played the entire album…in order. My favorite song from that wonderful record (which was one of the first I ever bought) is “Red Hill Mining Town,” and I never actually thought I’d get the chance to hear it live. Totally worth all the hassle and travel to see them in Tampa.

After this one, Wayne thought I’d be about done, but oh no….there was more music to be had. So the credit card came out for three more shows!

Concert Seven — Chicago and The Doobie Brothers 
Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (6/23/17)

This was our second time seeing The Doobie Brothers (in the same venue no less). We got the chance to see them and Don Felder in 2016, and they were great both times. It’s amazing that they still have the range and can create those amazing Doobie harmonies that I grew up loving. This time around, I got to hear “Eyes of Silver” and “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman,” which was pretty satisfying.

This was the first concert we got rained on, which put a damper on things for Wayne, but I just jammed on through it. After all, part of the reason we started all this concert nonsense was to remember that just because we’re working full time jobs and raising two kids, we’re not too old to have fun (even if we were soaked.)

And then, holy crap, came Chicago. Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, and Walter Parazaider (four of the seven founding members) are still in the band. And let me tell you kids, they haven’t lost a step. Those chops held up for more than two solid hours of playing time, and they sounded absolutely fantastic. The licks were hot, the rhythms tight. It was a super impressive show no matter which way you cut it. Wayne is on the record as saying this one was his favorite.

Concert Eight — Blondie and Garbage 
Chastain Park Amphitheater (8/6/17)

This is the only concert we bought more for the opening act than for the headliner. I have long been a fan of Garbage. In fact, back in the day when every other girl wanted to be Gwen Stefani or Courtney Love, I wanted nothing more than to be the sexy Scottish songstress, Shirley Manson. This was the second show where weather got in the way, and Garbage had to stop in the middle of their set, but “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” did eventually get played, and Wayne finally after so many concerts finally decided to dance for the first time thanks to “Push It.”

A funky little duo called Deap Vally kicked off the night’s fun, and I was really impressed with them. It’s nice to see that a new generation of female rockers is alive and well.

Blondie was also stellar and sang all the songs you’d expect. But the most amazing thing about it didn’t hit me until we were leaving….Debbie Harry is 72 years old. Seriously! And she still rocked the house and performed “Rapture” in its entirety. The great ones really do go the distance.

Concert Nine — Eagles
Phillips Arena (10/21/17)

Glen Frey was the other great one we lost this year, so I jumped at the chance to see the Eagles with Vince Gill and Deacon Frey playing in his stead. I saw the Eagles back on the Hell Freezes Over tour in Cleveland in the 90s, and it was just as wonderful the second time around. Gill was superb as lead on some of the older, country-leaning tunes, and Deacon held up rather well for a young fella. Joe Walsh (who we were seeing for the second time in one year) stole the show on more than one occasion. He. too, is a rock god that refuses to act his age. What made this one great was the fact I got to see it with Wayne, my friend Amy, my aunt and uncle, and my parents (who introduced me to the Eagles when I was knee high to a grasshopper).

Oh, and if you want to know what love is, my friend Julie let me use her AMEX to buy the tickets early. The first show sold out, and AMEX cardholders got early access to the second. I wasn’t about to miss out, so I called in a favor. But letting someone charge $800 to your card? That’s trust on a biblical scale.

Bonus Show — James Armstrong
Blind Willie’s (11/17/17)

I also love shows in dives, bars, and dingy clubs, so I jumped at the chance to see James Armstrong live this month. I’ve just recently discovered this cat, and I think he’s rather dishy. He just put out a new album in October that’s doing really well, and he puts on a great live show. Blind Willie’s is a great place for live music in Atlanta, and I’ll definitely be back in there soon.

***

So there you have it. One year. Ten shows. Twelve different bands and performers I’ve always wanted to see. We’re a little poorer (okay, a lot poorer) for it, but I honestly say that I’ve never had more fun than I have in the last twelve months. Going to these concerts, experiencing all these unforgettable performances, helped me remember that I don’t have to settle for a humdrum life. It’s so easy to do!

I don’t want my nights to evaporate in a haze of Netflix binges and bottles of chardonnay. Like Billy Joel says, “But you know that when the truth is told, that you can get what you want or you can just get old.” I’ve chosen to get what I want, which to live, to make memories, and to use up every minute of my life (and dime in my pocket if that’s what it takes) in a way that makes them precious. To that end, we’ll continue the concerts in 2018 and beyond….just on a slightly smaller scale. What’s next? The Foo Fighters on April 28th at the Georgia State Stadium. Another concert for another birthday, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate turning 40.

ROCK ON!

But I Thought…

Since I became a foster-to-adopt parent in 2015, I’ve learned a lot about assumptions. Just like our boys, my husband and I are white. We’re both just shy of 40, the perfect age to have two kids under the age of eleven. Because of these two facts, many people assume they’re our biological children.

Oftentimes, that is a blessing. We don’t have to tell people their story or make our sons feel awkward or different if we don’t have to. Other times, it has been a hindrance. People assume our youngest is acting out because he’s willful or because we’re lax when it comes to discipline. But the truth is that he is coming to us from a hard place and is still working through the trauma that sent him on the long journey to our front door.

People assume things about adoptive parents, too. This is why I shouldn’t have been confused when a woman I had dinner with recently said, “Well, after you’ve been through the pain of infertility, your children must be such a blessing.” She finished the statement with a knowing wink and a pat on my hand that set her bracelets to jangling. “The Lord certainly heard your prayers, didn’t he?”

Here’s the thing. My husband and I didn’t struggle to conceive, give up, and “settle for” adoption. On the contrary, I’m likely as fertile as the Nile during flood season. We chose not to have biological children for reasons both personal and medical, but when God started leading us to adopt a sibling group here in Georgia, we obeyed.

When I revealed this fact, she sat in stunned silence for a moment, trying to process the information.

Yes, I wanted to say, neither of us fancied children. Yes, when we did choose to adopt, we never considered an infant. Yes, we wanted more than one. Yes, we chose a child with special needs. And no, we’re not crazy people with a martyr complex.

As Christians, we assume we know what adoption is all about. For instance, we know that God executes justice for the fatherless (Deut. 10:18) and that pure and undefiled religion requires the care of widows and orphans (James 1:27), but when it comes to carrying out that high and holy calling, obedience doesn’t always come easily.

It certainly didn’t for us. We dragged our feet at several points in the process, scared out of our minds by an adoption horror story or alarming statistics. But God was patient with us, and despite our fumbling, halting steps, he led us to where we find ourselves today.

And our adoption story—like most folks’—isn’t chock full of Hallmark Channel movie moments. There are tearful, emotional days that end with my husband and I talking in the dark, admitting to one another what big, fat failures we are. But there are also ones filled with small miracles and mercies—good behavior at school, a successful afternoon speech therapy session, a peaceful family dinner. We treasure each one of those days because they mean we’re making progress. Still, more often than not, parenthood has left us singing “Life In Wartime” by the Talking Heads: “This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around.”

We assumed we knew what we were getting into. We were wrong. Oh brother, were we wrong.

Adoption has been both harder than we ever expected and more rewarding than we anticipated. Just as he was when we started this whole crazy mess, God has been with us every step of the way. And for some reason, I can’t help but assume he’s been enjoying himself immensely.

Raising Super Men In the Age of Wonder Woman

Like millions of other fans, I happily plunked down $13 to launch Wonder Woman into blockbuster status on its opening weekend. In fact, I was so excited that I purchased dress-up kits for my gal pal, Amy, and me. Yes, as 40-somethings, we attended a film resplendent in plastic tiaras and gauntlets. Come at us, bro.

But what do to with the things after the movie? They’re not display worthy, and while I felt fun and totally awesome in them at the theater, I don’t think I could wear them to jaunt about town. But I do have two kids, a daring duo of boys who love any and everything to do with superheroes. One has a DC themed bedroom and can’t get enough of The Flash or Superman. The other is surrounded by all things Marvel and loves Captain America and Spiderman. We have figures. Costumes. Web shooters. Shields that shoot projectiles. Marvel Tsum Tsums. Superhero pillows and Legos. The list goes on and on, and as a mother who loves all things comics, I am thrilled to be able to share all my nerdy knowledge with the kiddos.

When we got home from the theater, I asked the kids if they wanted the gauntlets, tiara, and Wonder Woman badge, fully expecting them to say, “No thanks. That’s girl stuff.” But get this…they fought over it!

“The crown shoots a laser!” my youngest shrieked.

“I bet these things can stop Thor’s hammer,” the oldest said, clumsily buckling them on his skinny wrists. They have plans to share the WW logo, wearing it on their capes.

It warmed me down to the cockles of my cold, stone libertarian heart to see this. They don’t see Wonder Woman as a “female super hero” on a team, but as “a superhero” like the male ones they so admire. Like their daddy (who was as excited to see the movie as I), they see women as strong, beautiful, fierce, independent—different than males certainly, but equal to them in every way. And this has come with very little coaching on our part.

Over the two years we’ve had them in our home, there’s been a discussion every time someone used the phrase, “You hit/run/swing/pitch/play/act like a girl!” in a derogatory way, and the incidences are now down to near zilch. They’ve learned to hold the doors open for ladies and to end their addresses to women with the words “ma’am” or “miss.” My husband has certainly led the charge. As the head of our household and alpha male extraordinaire, he bears most of the responsibility for “training them up in the way they should go.” It’s been wonderful to see him explaining how powerful the Scarlet Witch is or pointing out how Princess Allura is just as integral to the success of Voltron: Legendary Defender as Pidge, Hunk, Lance, Keith, or Takashi. (Spoiler Alert: Pidge is a girl in this version, too, which is a nice bonus!)

He also makes sure to point out the women in the Bible. Sure, we talk about David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, the skeletons in the Valley of Dry Bones—all the kinds of things boys love—but they also know the stories of Rahab, Shiphrah and Puah, Deborah, Esther, and Mary. They’re aware of the valuable contributions these ladies have made to the kingdom, how God uses women as well as men to accomplish his purposes on this earth. And I can’t help but think that this equal “screen time” is helping frame their worldview the right way. We hope it will help them become wise men of valor who esteem and honor their future wives and all the other women they come into contact with. 

The ship of progress turns by slight degrees, and hopefully by the time our two little nuggets are out there in the world, they won’t be happily shocked to see a movie directed by a woman with a female in the lead role. It’ll be a matter of course.
We can’t let them see the movie just yet as they’re still a bit too wee for it, but in another year or two, we’ll show them all the stories we love. And I firmly believe they’ll be as stoked to watch Wonder Woman in action as I was.

 

 

At the Root

It’s easy to get spoiled when you live in a city with a great museum, which is precisely what I have with the High Museum here in Atlanta, Georgia. The latest special exhibition, which closed May 7th, was Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950. Comprised of 200 works, the exhibit was broad in scope and filled with artists both well-known (Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Grandma Moses, N.C. and Andrew Wyeth) and obscure.

Organized by region, the artworks depict the South, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Midwest, and West from 1915 to 1950—a period spanning Prohibition, the Great Depression, and industrialization. The pieces share a common theme, though, according to Stephanie Heydt, the High’s American art curator: “All of this work is about memory and the history of a place as experienced across time.”

That’s the thing that struck me as I toured this exhibit–the feeling that I was seeing “memory and history of a place across time.” Each of the five sections of the exhibit were painted a different color and arranged to tell the story of the region, so it was clear when you moved from one to the next.

I toured the entire display once, beginning with the South and ending with the West, taking my time and using the audio tour to learn more about certain artists and their works, and then went back to the pieces that spoke the loudest. As I walked, I noticed myself growing more and more removed from the work—not because the pieces weren’t lovely or challenging, but because there was no personal connection for me. The art from the American West was like looking at the surface of Mars.

In “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost says that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” But I think the opposite is true as well. Home is the place you have to take into you. It’s unavoidable. In the place you call home, the cadence and vocabulary of the people who live there find their way into your mouth. The food they make fills your belly and satiates your spirit. The music they create is the soundtrack of your life, and their traditions mark the rhythms of your days as surely as solstices and cold snaps.

I’m a product of the South (with a dash of Midwest thrown in for good measure). To me, home is fields of cotton and tobacco. Homemade biscuits. Revivals in white clapboard churches. Country stores. Friday night football games. Poke cake. Johnny Cash. Sun tea in Mason jars and backyard gardens filled with tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes.

 

“Tobacco Sorters” by Thomas Hart Benton (1942/44)
I think that’s why “Tobacco Sorters” by Thomas Hart Benton struck me. I only helped harvest tobacco a few times, but brother was it enough. That is disgusting, hard, hot labor. You can tell just how hard it is from the man’s face. Look how the wrinkles and creases in his skin mirror the leaf in his hand. Even his hat and shirt look crumpled and tired. The little girl on the right is still fresh, but she’s new to the trade.

Other workers are working in the background at the drying shed, and I can imagine they are somewhere between these two on the spectrum. These are people I know and have spent time with. Decent, hardworking folks who are trying to scratch a living out of the earth, some years with better results than others.

“Farmers” by Ben Shahn (1943)

The same is true of the men in “Farmers” by Ben Shahn. In this piece, they’re at an auction, buying equipment from a farmer who’d gone bust. They’re looking for a good deal, knowing all the while that, with just one bad harvest, they could be next.

“Hoeing Tobacco” by Robert Gwathmey (1946)

But working land is hardly a “privilege” reserved only for poor, hardscrabble whites. Pieces like “Hoeing Tobacco” by Robert Gwathmey make it clear that black hands planted, tended, and harvested tobacco too.

“The Building of Savery Library” by Hale Woodruff (1942)

And then there are moments when you see blacks and whites working side by side to create something grand like a university library like they are in Hale Woodruff’s beautiful mural, its colors so bright they draw you across the gallery to get a better look. There’s hope here. Beauty. Progress.

But like any exhibit worth its salt, Cross Country contained pieces that shock people out of their complacency, ones that made patrons face something unpleasant or come to terms with something they’d rather not. In moments like these, Lucille Clifton says it best: “it is friday. we have come / to the paying of the bills.”

“Man With Brush” by Frederick C. Flemister (1940)

Frederick C. Flemister
 provided that moment for me. He was born in Georgia and went to school in Atlanta. He called the South home too, but this is what his South looked like.
“The Mourners” by Frederick C. Flemister (n.d.)

All those lovely Southern things I mentioned earlier? I bet he experienced and loved them too, but Flemister also had to deal with violence, racism, and lynchings like the one depicted in his work.

Though it’s done in a style reminiscent of Renaissance paintings of the Pietà, there’s no mistaking what’s happened. A man has been murdered and, like Christ, lies draped across his mother’s lap. The perpetrator is riding away in the background. The noose, though cut, looks sharp as a blade. The deed is done, and all that’s left is for the mourners to cry to heaven while a blood red scarf billows in the wind. The scene is beautifully rendered, but that doesn’t soften the blow. On the contrary, it highlights how hideous the moment truly is.

As much as it pains me to admit it, this is also part of the place I call home. Like the child in the painting, I want to run away, to turn my head, to pretend it didn’t happen. But there’s no denying it. I’ve been to the place where Mary Turner died. I currently live thirty minutes away from Forsyth County, which remained “White Only” through brute force for most of the 20th century. (Read Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips if you’d like to know the entire story. It’s gut wrenching.)

Yes, home is a place you take in, but you have to take all of it.

I may never have lifted my hand in violence or knowingly ostracized someone, but oh, so many have…and done so willingly. “The Mourners” depicts something at the root of my South, planted long before my little branch ever came to full flower. But that doesn’t change the fact that it must be recognized, rectified, and resisted from now on if we’re ever to scour such atrocities from this good earth. Removing a monument of Jefferson Davis won’t do that. Facing the truth, however hard it may be, and calling it by its right name? That just might.