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 Diá 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 Afterlife, “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 to 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.

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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.

Blue On Red: The Women of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

“Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” — Matthew 20:22 (KJV)

***

We’re now four episodes into Hulu’s marvelous adaptation The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and the show is hitting me hard in ways both expected and surprising. For instance, I had no doubt that systematic, institutionally-endorsed rape would be disturbing on a whole host of levels, but I’m actually seeing the sinister aspects of Scrabble, macaroons, and Latin primers.

There is much to explore in this show, but one thing I’ve found particularly compelling is the interplay between two groups of “legitimate” women in Gilead’s hierarchy: the Wives and the Handmaids. The Wives are taking quite a bit of heat from viewers (and rightly so). One author calls them the true “gender traitors”; another says they are “cruelly complacent.” And it is impossible to deny either of those descriptions when several of the scenes involve Serena Joy clutching cruelly onto Offred’s wrists during “the ceremony.”

Breathe. Hold. Push.
But the scene that throws this relationship into sharpest relief happens in episode two, “Birth Day.” I’ll give you a brief run down. In one room of a palatial estate, the Wives sit around Naomi, the Wife of Ofwarren’s Commander. She is in labor, but hers is of the faux variety.

Dressed in an elegant white nightgown, she reclines against a nest of pristine pillows on ivory carpet, sunshine streaming through the windows. A harp plays soothing music in the background. The Wives, in their standard blue attire, encourage her through her false pains—the only experience of childbirth she can ever have since she is sterile—all the while drinking tea from prim china cups, feasting on nibbles, and quietly repeating the word “breathe.”

The rhythmic chanting is also going on upstairs, but the words “hold” and “exhale” are added to the mix. Here, the handmaid Ofwarren (A.K.A. Janine), assisted by several of the dismal brown Aunts and a passel of red-clad Handmaids, is doing the real teeth-gritting work of birth—complete with the screaming, panting, and valor it requires.

Offred, via voiceover, sums it up perfectly: “There’s a smell coming from that room, something primal. It’s the smell of dens, of inhabited caves. It’s the smell of the plaid blanket on the bed where the cat gave birth before she was spayed. It’s the smell of genesis.”

Despite the vast number of people in the room, we recognize the moment for what it is. And that makes it one of the most “normal” scenes in the show…until, well, things get very weird and very Gileadean again.

When the time comes to push, the Wife is brought in to experience the moment of birth. She sits behind Ofwarren in a birthing chair—an echo of the ceremony that made this baby possible in the first place—and mimes the moment until the child is born. There’s an instant of respectful silence until Aunt Lydia pronounces the baby to be a healthy girl.

All the women celebrate, and for a fleeting second, there’s harmony. Then the cord is cut and the girl is wrapped up in a clean blanket, but rather than be handed back to the woman who carried her and brought her into the world, she is given to Naomi who has settled into her “rightful place”—the bed Ofwarren previously occupied. As far as the Wives and Aunts are concerned, Naomi has always been there. The birth mother doesn’t exist.

As they coo and carry on over the little miracle, the Handmaids are left to look on from a distance and care for Ofwarren who sobs into her hands. In a moment of solidarity (that also bears a striking resemblance to another, less lovely group scene in the first episode), they wrap arms around the poor woman to comfort her.

It’s very easy to hate the Wives here. After all, they’ve done none of the sweating, bleeding, or suffering. They’ve sacrificed nothing for this moment—only swooped in to capture the prize that makes it all worth it. Yes, they are part of the evil system that made this all possible. Yes, they are cruel and capricious and oppressive. Yes, they are preying on those weaker than they. But—and hear me out here—they are victims too in a way. Like the Handmaids, they endure the ceremony designed by men. They live within the tight confines of the caste system. They feel fear, loss, and shame.

In the hierarchy, they have greater power. Yet when it comes to childbirth—the great pinnacle of achievement for women in this dictatorship—they are powerless. They can do nothing to make themselves (or their husbands) fertile. For that reason and others, theirs is a hollow existence, and all they can do is watch and yearn and covet. Say what you will, but that’s a lousy place to be.

What’s Yours Is Mine
Unlike the women of Gilead, I never needed to give birth. I likely never will. I am, however, a mother of two young boys my husband and I adopted from the foster care system. I didn’t go through the months of pain and suffering it took to bring them into being. The State gave them to me.

It must be acknowledged that my sons’ birth mother made poor choices. She didn’t see to their welfare and, at times, even put them in danger. Despite multiple opportunities to change, she did not. She has yet to do so. And yet…

Once the adoption was finalized, we applied for updated birth certificates, ones that show their new names. When they arrived, our lawyer advised me to check over everything and make sure all the spellings were correct and the dates accurate. That’s when I saw something that left me dumbfounded. In the section labeled “mother,” my name was written. My birthdate. My address at the time of the delivery. My state of birth.

All evidence of their biological mother is gone.

Her name and information is buried in court records and electronic details, but as far as this piece of legally binding paperwork is concerned, she’s a ghost.

At each stage of the adoption process, I never lost sight of her. I always reminded myself that my good days—ones where the legal system did its job and brought the kids one step closer to being ours forever—were likely her worst.

I didn’t “steal” her children as Naomi and the Wives did, but some tiny part of me understands their joy. I have children to love and care for, to raise and celebrate. Their base hits in little league are mine. Their science fair wins and good report cards. I’m the one they run to now saying “Mama!” with their little arms outstretched. And while I relish every moment of it, a piece of me knows it came with a price.

So no, I can’t fully hate the Wives though they are petty, heartless creatures. In some ways, I even pity them. Their children and mine became ours as a result of a broken world, one filled with hate, heartache, and sin. But thankfully, a better day is coming—not in the form of a bloody coup, but in the One, the pioneer of our salvation who drank the cup of suffering and died to bring many adopted sons and daughters to glory.