Sunday Matinee

This place has seen better days, I said to myself as we entered the dollar theater, but then again so have I. The carpet—a jarring geometric affair only found in theaters, hotels, and bowling alleys—was threadbare and puckered in places. The glass front of the concession stand was streaked, like someone meant to give it a good cleaning, realized mid-swipe where he was, and gave up. The lighting was dim, and some part of me thought it was for the best. It’s hard to complain when tickets are two bucks and I can afford to get everyone popcorn and candy without having to take out a second mortgage.

On a Sunday afternoon when three of the features are kid-friendly, the place is usually packed with families like mine looking for a few hours of peaceful distraction. So, like the rest of the herd, we shuffle obediently into theater three—Junior Mints and Buncha Crunch in hand—to enjoy Mary Poppins Returns. Ready to forget all about sticky floors and ripped seat cushions for two hours while we watched Mickey’s glossy, four-fingered magic show.

Unlike the glut of Disney’s recent films—naked cash grabs that are nothing more than shot-for-shot remakes of classic cartoons—this film attempted to build on previous work. Once again, the Banks family is in trouble, but not of the Edwardian era, white-people-nonsense variety. Twenty-five years have passed, and this time Michael is the pater familias. His three children (Annabel, John, and Georgie) are the ones in need of Mary Poppins’ enchanting assistance after their mother’s death the previous year. Jane, his poor spinster sister, is around, as is the bedraggled housekeeper, Ellen. Even crazy Admiral Boom and his first mate, Binnacle, are still alive and shooting canons on the hour. And characters that don’t make a repeat performance—like Mary’s Uncle Albert, forever laughing himself to the ceiling—are replaced by analogs. In this case, Mary’s cousin Topsy who can fix anything except on the second Wednesday of every month when her world literally flips upside down.

Rather than the hyper-pristine London of the past, this film is set during the Depression and is, in the production designer’s words, “gritty” and “dipped in reality.” Unlike Jane and Michael who were only losing their home in the emotional sense (because their parents were too busy counting money or smashing the patriarchy to worry about them), the second generation of Banks will lose 17 Cherry Tree Lane if the bank loan isn’t repaid in full by week’s end. So much for escapism, I muttered to myself. But Mary Poppins shows up, works her magic and—spit spot—problems get solved and people become their best selves.

Just like the original, this film is imaginative to a fault. There are kites and balloons aplenty in the park. Every dark alley and close is safe thanks to an army of kind lamplighters, led by Jack (Bert’s apprentice as a child). There’s even a magical scene much like the one in Bert’s sidewalk chalk drawing, but this time it takes place on the outside of a chipped porcelain bowl. There’s singing and dancing every few minutes, and, of course, the obligatory happy ending is practically perfect in every way.

The film is also abounding with Instagram-worthy Mary Poppisms like “Everything is possible. Even the impossible,” “Head up, and feet beneath you,” “You can’t lose what you’ve never lost,” and “There’s nowhere to go but up.” The last of these is the title to the movie’s closing song, which is sung by people floating above a fair via the help of magical balloons. The song is about celebrating the enchanted possibilities of childhood, of keeping hope alive in your heart, and it closes with the following two stanzas:

If your day’s up the spout,
well there isn’t a doubt.
There’s nowhere to go but up.
And if you don’t believe
just hang on to my sleeve,
for there’s nowhere to go but up.

As you fly over town,
it gets harder to frown.
And we’ll all hit the heights
if we never look down.
Let the past take a bow.
The forever is now.
And there’s nowhere to go but up, up!
There’s nowhere to go but up!

We were leaving the theater, my youngest son still singing the tune, when I saw a woman sitting near the lobby’s left exit door. She was easy to miss, slumped in the corner of a high-backed bench topped with dusty plastic plants. She was dressed in the theater’s standard-issue polyester uniform, name tag unreadable on a too-tight black vest, her Vera Bradley knock-off purse wedged tightly between her swollen feet as she waited, I assumed, for a ride home.

Unlike the green-haired girl behind the ticket counter or the budding jock who’d fetched our candy with a “ma’am” so sweet I hardly minded being so labeled, she looked to be somewhere between fifty and sixty, a woman who should have been enjoying a Sunday off. But she’d been collecting trash from the floor and wiping up pools of what passed for melted butter alongside people more than half her age for minimum wage. Every stoop and heft of it showed.

Other belongings were pinned between her and the wall, and there was nothing of the “peaceful sleeper” business about this woman. She rested watchfully, tightfisted, unwilling let life take one more thing from her. Looking at what part of her face I could see, pinched with worry, I wanted to hug her. To tell her I’d been there and understood. That things might get better.

And there’s nowhere to go but up! my youngest continued to warble, oblivious to the contradiction in front of him.

No, I wanted to say. Sometimes, there’s nowhere to go but down. Sometimes, there’s nowhere to go at all. There are no Topsys in real life who can fix what’s broken. Rarely, if ever, do things work out the way they should. More often than not, we start out soaring but end up defeated with our faces in the dirt. Time sees to that. But how to say that to a child still holding on to his own green balloon? How to tell a woman who’s crash landed that getting up is possible again if I don’t know that it’s true? The weight of both questions kept my lips closed.

I kept silent rather than stop the song. And I knew better than to linger.

This show wasn’t for me.

 

 

 

Enough Already

I review hundreds of Christian books a year—skimming and scanning them to see what’s trending and what might be beneficial to share with our readers. These come from every publisher imaginable, and many of the works that cross my desk are solid. Writers are pushing into new territory, making biblically-sound arguments, and faithfully teaching the Word of God. The hot topic du jour changes, of course. One year, brokenness was on everyone’s mind. Being “messy” and “real” had a heyday too. The Enneagram is still going strong. Perennial topics like grace, peace, and love are never in short supply. And the leadership books…oh, the leadership books. Have mercy.

However, since I began this work seven or eight years ago, one thing has remained constant: Women’s books are pastel. And I mean that both in terms of visual design and substance.

These are two books I recently received in the mail. What do you notice? What do they have in common? Pleasing robin’s egg blue covers with pink accents. Feminine font. Encouraging titles. And flowers. Always flowers.

I read a few pages of each of these offerings and promptly put them on the giveaway pile at the office. The first reason is because we need books that apply to both genders and a wide variety of ages, and these are specifically aimed a female audience in a certain stage of life. The second is because the message of each is very self-focused, and we need writers who can speak on topics that pertain to the church as whole.

My gripe is not with these two publications in particular, but the overall market for books aimed at Christian women. I did a quick search on Amazon looking for top sellers, and here’s what I came up with.

Each cover (save three) is decorated with flowers, leaves, and vines. And the ones that don’t Make use of other common visuals—a feather and a butterfly (which symbolize freedom or lightness) and a pair of hipster casual tennis shoes (being messy or real). Ladies, I guess we never get tired of taking pictures of our feet, do we?

Perhaps this is my personal preference showing as I’m not a fan of overly-feminine things, but I feel like these covers say a great deal more about the books’ intended audience than they do about what’s inside the works themselves. The message I’m getting isn’t “Drink deeply from Scripture,” “Combat what’s sinful in yourself,” or even “Renew your mind.” It’s “Be soothed,” “Love yourself,” and “Stop trying so hard to be perfect.”

Now, I will say that several of these are Bible studies, which is a far cry better than a first-person book that uses Scripture as a reference. However, to be honest, I’ve picked up many a women’s study over the years hoping to find something challenging and convicting, something that compels me to look at God’s Word (and myself) differently. And so many times, I’ve come away feeling disappointed.

Having never read any of these books, I can’t speak about them in particular. However, most of the Bible studies I’ve tried just aren’t deep enough. They’re too focused on how I feel about a passage from the Bible or how it speaks to my experience. Call me crazy, but if the goal is to die to self, to crucify my flesh with its passions and desires, to decrease so that he might increase, my feelings and experience don’t enter into it at all.

John’s Gospel ends with as clear (and tantalizing) a closing sentence as any in the Bible: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). Not “that you may feel like God loves you” or “that you may feel he’s your Savior.” It’s that you may believe and, by believing, you may live.

I don’t know if women continue to choose these books because it’s what they truly want (or think they should want) or if they’re afraid of taking on something more substantive. But I am painfully aware of just how many books are being marketed to Christian women and what they contain. We are being well and truly shortchanged.

One of the best-selling new non-fiction books of the decade—Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be—is the natural and obvious outcome of this trend. 1.6 million copies of her work found their way into women’s hands in 2018. Its message? According to Hollis herself, “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are. That’s the takeaway.”

“What sets this book apart is — this sounds so lame to say—is my voice,” Hollis told the AP. “I’m not an expert. I’m not a guru. Anything I’ve ever done, the work I’ve done, has always been like your girlfriend telling you what worked for her.” That’s what women are paying to hear, and the thinnest veneer of Jesus imaginable makes them think they’re reading something of eternal value. Both Alisa Childers and Laura Turner have written outstanding reviews pointing out the shortcomings of and the dangers inherent in Girl, Wash Your Face, so I won’t belabor the point by adding my two cents. However, one line from Childers’ review is relevant here.

“I’ll be honest,” she writes. “Reading this book exhausted me. It’s all about what I can be doing better and what I’m not doing good enough. How to be better at work, parenting, and writing. How to be less bad at cardio, sex, and you know, changing the world.”

So many flowery books about peace and balance. So many books about how we are enough and need to stop the crazy-making attempts at human perfection. And yet Hollis’ book—which encourages us to do more and try harder because, dadgummit, we’re the captains of our ships and the mistresses of our own destinies—is flying off the shelves. We’re consuming contrary messages, neither of which will ever soothe. Instead, we’re left anxious and troubled about many things, forgetting we can choose the good portion.

There are topics like cosmology, pneumatology, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology to study, and books about them aren’t in short supply. So why do we consistently settle for anything less? Why are we all so concerned with finding peace here on earth (and in ourselves) when Jesus clearly tells us, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword….And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:34, 38-39)?

I firmly believe that women are capable of serious theological study. We are created in God’s image, gifted with minds to explore everything from hallelujah to the hypostatic union. It’s time to leave our Pinterest-perfect faith quests behind and start demanding more of Christian publishers…and ourselves.

Redeeming Words

I get roughly two hours a day to myself. One hundred and twenty obligation-free minutes that must be spent well. There are times when I do opt to watch a movie or a couple of episodes of a television show, but more often than not, I spend that precious time with a book (usually with a baseball game on in the background).

Everyone knows that reading is certainly better than binge watching or losing endless hours in front of a video game console, but not all reading material is created equal. And, in this day and age, how we read matters just as much as what. I’m not against popular fiction mind you; my bookshelves and my library card will attest to the fact that I’ve consumed my fair share. However, I read it for an altogether different reason than I do a solid piece of non-fiction or a “classic” work.

When I was an English major, I read with an attention to detail that would impress a ship-in-a-bottle enthusiast. Pen, highlighter, and page flags at the ready, I attacked a work of literature or critical theory ruthlessly. I highlighted passages, wrote reference notes in the margins and on the blank pages at the back. Basically, I did what Billy Collins said all students do, I beat it “with a hose / to find out what it really means.”

I have neither the time nor the inclination to read in such a way these days. I want to experience the books I select and enjoy them for what they are, but I also don’t want to lose the ability to read critically and with attention to detail. I want to investigate language and understand how words work together.

Apparently, I’m in the minority.

According to this article by Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA, “skim reading” rather than “deep reading” is the new normal. In her research, she’s discovered that, “Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ ‘cognitive impatience,’ however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts and the deliberately confusing public referendum questions citizens encounter in the voting booth.”

I’ve noticed this cognitive decay happening with people I love. Those who once read books now spend all their free time staring at and swiping on iPads and phones, and over the years, their ability to concentrate has been whittled away. I don’t know if they’re even aware it’s happening, and, sadder still, I’m not sure they care.

Hundreds of studies have been done about the impact of technology, and most of the research isn’t good. According to doctors and researchers, we’re miserable and lonely. Our kids are pretty much wrecked and suffer from anxiety and depression because they’re always connected. We bemoan the lack of civility in our culture and the fact that thoughtful debate seems to have gone the way of the Dodo, yet we won’t put down the things that make us reactionary rather than thoughtful citizens.

When it comes to books, however, the research is all positive. Reading—especially fiction—allows us to take Atticus Finch’s advice and “climb inside [another person’s] skin and walk around in it.” Through reading, we gain empathy. Immersing ourselves in good books makes us smarter. It keeps our minds sharper and helps us be more relaxed.

For this reason, I read at least fifty books per year (both in hard copy and audiobook form when I’m driving), and ten of them must be classics. In addition to a dozen works of non-fiction, some poetry, and a couple of graphic novels, I’ve read Invisible Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, A Raisin in the Sun, Candide, A Moveable Feast, and, most recently, Crime and Punishment.

I have thoroughly enjoyed each of these books, and I’m looking forward to finishing a few more before year’s end. However, good as Dostoyevsky’s novel was, I could feel my mind wandering in parts of Crime and Punishment. I tuned out during a few long descriptive passages, and my eyes glazed over more than once when the story seemed to rewind and repeat itself. Twenty-five-year-old me wouldn’t have done that. That version of Jamie would have read it with laser precision (though with less joy, I think) and analyzed everything about the diction and syntax. She would have marked any instance of symbolism and every allegorical reference (of which there were many). Don’t take that to mean forty-year-old Jamie is a slouch though. Whenever I caught my eyeballs getting loose, I stopped. I re-read and re-focused. I kept a pen in my hand to underline sentences I enjoyed and make observations and predictions.

All the other moms at taekwondo practice (and their kids) may have spent 45 minutes on electronics, but I spent that time in St. Petersburg, Russia wrestling with some thorny moral questions. I’m not judging, believe me. I’ve spent many an hour scrolling social media, but I’ve made the decision to severely curtail my use of those platforms in order to make room for other things. Better things. More filling and rewarding things.

Reading Crime and Punishment expanded my knowledge of Russian history and geography. I even gained a little linguistical wisdom. Take the protagonist’s name for instance. Rodion comes from Rhodes, a Greek island, and Raskolnikov derives from the Russian raskolnik meaning “schismatic.” He is worthy of such a name, for he spends much of the story isolated and of broken because he is of two minds.

Spending time with characters like Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is well worth the time and effort it takes to read their stories. Being inside his head as he wrestled with an ethical dilemma allowed me to experience it up close and personal too. I had to ask myself some hard questions about the value of human life and where I stand on punishment and redemption. I was forced to re-examine my thoughts on morality and the power of God’s grace.

And beyond that, there are the soaring phrases that I will keep with me always:

  • “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
  • “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”
  • “The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
  • “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.”
  • “It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.”
  • “There is nothing in the world more difficult than candor, and nothing easier than flattery. If there is a hundredth of a fraction of a false note to candor, it immediately produces dissonance, and as a result, exposure. But in flattery, even if everything is false down to the last note, it is still pleasant, and people will listen not without pleasure; with coarse pleasure, perhaps, but pleasure nevertheless.”

Spending an hour on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram seems so paltry, so insufficient when there are words like that out there to feast on. And yet, many of us choose technology instead. We use it to escape reality, to numb our brains to the world around us (especially when it’s unpleasant and we “can’t even”), but what we really need to do is lean in.

In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, John the Savage (so named because he’s grown up outside of the World State’s influence) says of mosquitos and flies, “You got rid of them. Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. [You] neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy….What you need…is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”

Like John, I want to know the world in all its beauty and savagery. I want to pay the cost required to live well, to know true pain as well as joy.

Near the end of her article, Maryanne Wolf states, “The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended ‘collateral damage’ of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

The last sentence makes it obvious why deep reading essential (and why our culture is the way it is today). I’ve studied far too many dystopian works to claim ignorance. They’ve shown me what a world without thought looks like, and it is a terrifying prospect. I don’t know if the predictions of Orwell, Huxley, Lewis, Atwood, Dick, Burgess, or Bradley will ever come true. I cannot tell if our world will one day resemble the ones they created as a warning. What I do know is that our minds cannot be spent frivolously. They are precious gifts we must defend at all costs against a world eager to consume them.

 

 

What’s the Value in That?

Monday, I watched this 60-second documentary about dogs and went spiraling into an existential crisis of sorts.

It wasn’t the senior dogs that nearly had me in tears, though their sweet graying faces were touching. It was the moment the dogs were taken to an assisted living facility. “Most of these people are lonely,” says Kim Skarritt, the founder of Silver Muzzle, via voiceover as senior citizens pet dogs and smile broadly at the camera.

I’ve been struggling to find balance in my life as of late. Being a mother has a way of sucking up all the spare time in a day, making it difficult for a woman to pursue her personal goals and dreams. I’ve wanted to spend more time writing essays and stories of my own, but with a full-time job and a family to take care of, that can be a little dicey. Every hour I spend has to come from somewhere else, so I typically end up waiting until the end of the day (when I’m already drained). That means I’m either losing sleep or precious hours with my sweet husband, whose company I very much enjoy, but I keep on doing it because—dadgummit—writing is my great purpose in this life!

And then I watch that video and think about homeless animals and lonely senior citizens, both populations shoved to the margins, things we’d rather not think about. Then there is the current immigration crisis to consider, the one that is forcibly separating families at the border and sending children to detention centers. I can’t forget that there’s racial injustice everywhere or the fact that white people are falling down rabbit holes of hatred. On any given day, there are 428,000 children in foster care. The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have drawn my attention to the fact that suicide is on the rise in the United States. In fact, it has risen nearly thirty percent since 1999. Oh, and opioid abuse has reached epidemic status.

I haven’t done a singlething to combat any of this suffering. But, hey, at least I wrote that short story I’ve been noodling on, right? Yay for me!

In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus tells his disciples that when the final judgment comes, “the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matt. 25:34-40).

There ain’t word one in there about the arts, folks. I was bored to tears, and you entertained me with your dazzling prose. Not even in The Message version.

That is what it means to be about the Father’s business, I think. That’s what I should be doing. People young and old give up and die every day because they think no one cares about them. I could reach out and tell them otherwise. People everywhere are in need of food and clean water, access to better education and childcare. I could help them get it. People are strangers, even to their neighbors, and social isolation is crippling us emotionally. I could shut this laptop and walk down my street. What is an essay—even one that’s well-crafted—in the face of all that? If I throw the last 5,000 words I’ve written into the abyss, what would it change? Probably nothing. I tell you what—sometimes writing feels as pointless to me as chopping decorative pillows.

However, writers are fond of defending their craft as absolutely necessary to the human condition. Ernest Hemmingway said it requires one to “sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” From someone who cut language pretty close to the bone, that’s a bit melodramatic. Neil Gaiman said, “Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing day nothing else matters.” Really, Neil? Nothing else? According to Maya Angelou, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I can think of a few.

Books are friends, portals into the soul, journeys taken on magic carpets, a way of saying what cannot be said any other way. Yeah, we like to pile on and puff it up for looks. Phillip Pullman believes that, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” And I’ll stop with that, because I can get behind this sentiment—even if it was said by a self-proclaimed “religious atheist.”

Hell, even the fact I can sit here and kvetch about all this on my Mac from the comfort of my middle-class home (with Solomon Burke on my record player for goodness sake) requires me to admit the staggering amount of white privilege I enjoy—yet another issue in need of a solution.

So, yes, it’s safe to say that I’m questioning a great deal about my “passion” as of late. Writing to inform, to persuade, and to educate—I’m feeling pretty okay about that—but beyond those goals (none of which I would dare label as “noble”) I’m of two minds. Can I continue to spend time writing in a world where my cat has it better than a lot of people? Can I, in good conscience, spend hours working on an essay when I could be helping ESL students better express themselves?

Nathalie Sarraute said “the act of writing is a kind of catharsis, a liberation.” Those are two words a lot of people don’t know the meaning of, much less could ever hope to experience. And what are catharsis and liberation worth when there are millions of people struggling to keep it together or feed a family on a few bucks a day? I don’t think there’s much catharsis to be had in a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese, but I could be wrong.

Finally, dear reader (and if you’ve managed to hang on this long, I salute you), all this navel-gazing is not meant to heap hot coals on your head. My judgment extends no further than the rather roomy confines of my own flesh and bone. This uncertainty is mine and no one else’s, and this post is only a marker for those who, like me, are finding their way.

This Good Earth

I possess a priceless fact, though I didn’t realize how rare and beautiful it was until recently. Both my grandfathers are deceased—my paternal grandfather (Grandpa) succumbed to cancer on September 25, 2008, and my maternal grandfather (Papaw) died to due complications from Alzheimer’s disease on August 5, 2015. I was close to both and can say that I was well and truly loved by them. And while that is indeed incomparable, it’s not the fact I’m here to talk about.

Both men were farmers, and each drove a pair of mules when working the land. But that’s not all. I know those animals’ names. Grandpa called his Doc and Rodney. Papaw’s were Jim and Adar. Neither set matched because, according to my father, a similarly-colored pair was usually purchased together from a breeder. Very few farmers had enough cash on hand to do so. That’s the kind of detail I keep in my pocket, something to worry with my thumb whenever I’ve lost my bearings.

There’s a certain sturdiness that comes with knowing things like this. Not only were my grandfathers real people I smelled and touched and loved. Men who carried me on their shoulders and did their best to help ensure I never went without. They also had a past; they were connected to a place in a way I, with my limited time working a farm, can never be. But when they told stories, thankfully, I listened. I gobbled their tall tales and humble yarns up like so many plates of beans, and they’ve carried me through the last decade—the one I’ve had to live without my patriarchs, my humble men of great valor.

I’ve never driven mules, never worked land from seed to harvest. However, I like to think the ability to do so is in my genetic code somewhere—like the musical talent I got from Papaw and the knack for words that came from Grandpa. If those traits manifested in me, why not an ability to cultivate life from the earth? I sometimes imagine myself buckling a pair of mules together, picking up the reins, giving a gee or haw, and having the entire thing figured out in just a few passes. And while I know it’s fantasy, the wish of a woman longing for something she’ll never have, I can’t quite bring myself to give up on the idea.

In The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee tells the story of the Hunger Winter (Hongerwinter), which the Dutch endured from 1944-1945. He writes, “Tens of thousands of men, women, and children died of malnourishment; millions survived. The change in nutrition was so acute and abrupt that it created a horrific natural experiment: as the citizens emerged from the winter, researchers could study the effect of a sudden famine on a defined cohort of people. Some features, such as malnourishment and growth retardation, were expected. Children who survived the Hongerwinter also potentially suffered chronic health issues associated with malnourishment: depression, anxiety, heart disease, gum disease, osteoporosis, and diabetes. (Audrey Hepburn, the wafer-thin actress, was one such survivor, and she would be afflicted by a multitude of chronic illnesses throughout her life.)

“In the 1980s, however, a more intriguing pattern emerged: when the children born to women who were pregnant during the famine grew up, they too had higher rates of obesity and heart disease. This finding too might have been anticipated. Exposure to malnourishment in utero is known to cause changes in fetal physiology. Nutrient-starved, a fetus alters its metabolism to sequester high amounts of fat to defend itself against caloric loss, resulting, paradoxically, in late-onset obesity and metabolic disarray. But the oddest result of the Hongerwinter study would take yet another generation to emerge. In the 1990s, when the grandchildren of men and women exposed to the famine were studied, they too had higher rates of obesity and heart disease (some of these health issues are still being evaluated). The acute period of starvation had somehow altered genes not just in those directly exposed to the event; the message had been transmitted to their grandchildren. Some heritable factor, or factors, must have been imprinted into the genomes of the starving men and women and crossed at least two generations. The Hongerwinter had etched itself into national memory, but it had penetrated genetic memory as well.”

Granted, neither branch of my family endured something as stark and horrific as the Hongerwinter, but if it is true that such an event could affect a family for not one but two generations, could a person be shaped by more mundane tasks and habits as well—especially those that have been practiced since time immemorial? Could the hours my grandfathers (and their grandfathers before them) spent behind a plow gently encouraging their animals have, in some small way, cultivated something in me too? It heartens me to think so, especially now that the way I view the world—and my very self—has changed forever.

“Race,” writes the historian Nell Irvin Painter, “is an idea, not a fact.” I have come to a fuller understanding of this truth in recent years as well as the fact that the “white identity” I’ve assumed for most of my life is as flimsy and worthless as a Confederate dollar. According to Dr. Painter in this piece from 2015, “It has become a common observation that blackness, and race more generally, is a social construct. But examining whiteness as a social construct offers more answers. The essential problem is the inadequacy of white identity. We don’t know the history of whiteness, and therefore are ignorant of the many ways it has changed over the years.”

As I have written before, white identity—such as it is—was created via erasure. It is described by virtue of what it isn’t. Hence, I am “white” primarily because I am not black or Asian or Hispanic. “The useful part of white identity’s vagueness,” Dr. Painter says, “is that whites don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting. A neutral racial identity is blandly uninteresting.”

Blandly uninteresting. Yes. That is what I have always felt about myself, what I have known in way beyond words. Even as a child, I was well aware that some part of me was missing. I’ve never had to grapple with who I am in the larger sense of the word because American culture has always said, “You are white. You are superior. You are normal. No need to think too hard about it. It’s everyone else who is lacking.”

Now, people are starting to speak up about white privilege, and because of the dearth of self created by that erasure, there’s nothing for white people to stand on. The only two options for self-definition open to us are “devoid” and “dreadful.” I’m either nothing or I’m a member of a “race” that has maintained supremacy through rape, murder, theft, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and systematic mass incarceration.

“We lack more meaningful senses of white identity,” Dr. Painter asserts in her conclusion, but the solution is not to create distinctions or lines. “White identity” can be reinvented by abolishing white privilege and building on other, more positive and inclusive factors. That is why knowing those mules’ names fills me with a sense of joy and contentment. They are a fact from my past that has not been fabricated or co-opted. Jim and Adar and Doc and Rodney are rock solid proof of who I am and where I come from, and they connect me with others as well.

Men and women from all “races” worked the land. Other grandfathers with different skin colors than Papaw and Grandpa also barked a solid gee and haw. They knew the sleepless nights when a cold snap came and threatened their crops. They, too, put in a hard day’s work and got up the next morning to do it all over again. And all of them rejoiced when the harvest came in and there were cans of peas and corn and tomatoes put up for the hard winter to come. This is a piece of my identity that doesn’t cause shame. It is simple and wholly good.

I can work with that.

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 legal changes with regards 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.