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.

The Rear View and the Forward Gaze

“Society is built, instead, upon the countless habits and rituals of its members, both living and dead. Since collective identity emerges imperceptibly from these everyday experiences, our understanding of ourselves is always rather nebulous and imprecise — like one of those optical illusions that, when one focuses too hard, dissolves back into the page. As each generation passes, we forget something essential — if intangible—about ourselves. With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.”

Kit Wilson, “Sentimental Nihilism and Popular Culture”

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Perhaps it’s because I’m reading A Canticle for Leibowitz or because my grandfather is slowly dying from Alzheimer’s or because the world is changing so quickly that I feel powerless and totally other in my own skin, but whatever the reason, this article by Kit Wilson struck somewhere deep within me and sent everything to rattling and swaying. But that was a good thing because—in some strange roundabout way—it helped me to replait a few loose thoughts.

The Value of History
I highly recommend reading the piece in its entirety, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll give you the précis. Focusing on the arts, Wilson argues that a shared history is essential to culture, that tradition has a greater purpose than we know. When we hurl those things out the window in favor of the new, when we embrace only what is deemed relevant and “burn the great oaks of Western culture to the ground,” it is we who end of sitting on and sifting through the ashes. And without a robust understanding of tradition and shared history, “Every last inherited standard — every last comfort — must be torn from us once and for all.”

Image courtesy of http://mentalfloss.com/article/51788/62-worlds-most-beautiful-libraries
Image courtesy of http://mentalfloss.com/article/51788/62-worlds-most-beautiful-libraries

The nihilism that plagues us will be our undoing, according to Wilson. To combat it, we must embrace history and “engage with one another as members of a common group.” And the best way to do so is through pop culture, which has “stayed the course of the 20th century much more successfully than [its] ‘higher’ cousins.”

“Popular culture crystallised archetypically Western tropes that, if nurtured, may still blossom again,” Wilson says. “So ingrained in the public’s mind are the perfect cadence and the love story that not even the Enlightenment’s cynical ticks can burrow deep enough to suck them out. Today, like the lounge suit, their ubiquity conceals a quintessentially Western inheritance. But it cannot look after us alone. It is but one part of an urgently needed review of who we are and where we’re going. And to face the future with any confidence, we must begin with the memory of where we once came from.” (Emphasis mine)

The artistic past we tried so hard to erase is still there, hidden in plain sight. The familiar strain in the mundane. And I heartily agree with his call to redeem the past. There is absolutely no shame in remembering where you came from, in asserting that your culture’s past (tangled and flawed as it might be) is valuable and worth preserving.

I think about literature, my own beloved discipline, and I am grateful for the professors who taught me Shakespeare as well as those who exposed me to Lorraine Hansberry. Incorporating Mariama Ba into my life doesn’t mean George Orwell needs to go the way of the Dodo. Making room for Ishmael Reed doesn’t make it impossible for me to keep on loving T.S. Eliot. (And if you want another interesting read from an unexpected place, check out what Monica Lewinksky—yes that Monica Lewinsky—has to say about him.)

Image courtesy of http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/classical-street-art/beethoven-wall/
Image courtesy of http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/classical-street-art/beethoven-wall/

In Life As Well As Art
The brutal murder of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina last week has had us all doing a lot of soul searching, and a great dialogue has opened up regarding race and the many meanings of the Confederate flag. It is most definitely not all things to all people.

Days after the shooting, many called for the flag to be taken down, calling it an unseemly relic from a painful era in our nation’s history that has no place before a government building. I have lived in three states during my 37 years on this planet, and all three of them seceded from the union. So yes, I am a Southerner. However, I have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with the flag. I always thought there were better symbols for the beautiful place I call home—sweet tea, bar-b-que, graceful front porches, fried okra, fireflies, green fields full of grazing horses, and magnolia trees for starters. It is those things and dozens more like them that come to my mind when I think of the South, and I know I’m not the only one.

Image courtesy of https://www.etsy.com/listing/109743290/nature-photography-savannahs-wormsloe
Image courtesy of https://www.etsy.com/listing/109743290/nature-photography-savannahs-wormsloe

That’s why, as a white southerner born and raised, I am all for retiring the stars and bars. For too long, it’s been an obstruction to race relations, an unnecessary distraction that somehow keeps us from the business of getting to know and love one another as human beings. It’s proper place is not flying before any state capital, but resting in a museum where it can be displayed in a way that allows it retain whatever respect it is due.

But there are some who aren’t satisfied with the quiet and peaceful removal of the flag and objects like it. Instead, they want it abolished, destroyed, and otherwise scrubbed from the pages of history. Some are also calling for the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers, and one writer has even gone so far to say that Gone With the Wind and shows like The Dukes of Hazzard should be removed from store shelves and cast aside. Even Apple joined the fracas when it stopped selling all gaming apps that had anything to do with the Civil War.

As one who believes kindness is paramount, I agree that there is value in sensitivity and in caring for the needs of others. However, doing so shouldn’t mean we rip the past up by the roots and toss it on the compost heap. That is a Pyrrhic victory in every sense of the word.

The Holistic View
To dispose of every reminder of an unpleasant era is to remove a piece of a culture’s bedrock, to mar its matrix so to speak. It also casts aside those things in the past that were good and worthy of praise. And most dangerous of all, eradicating the past robs us of the ability to learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future.

Image courtesy of NBC.com
Image courtesy of NBC.com

As Wilson said, “With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.” The generation who marched for Civil Rights won’t be with us forever, and when they are gone, how will children grasp the greatness of that movement as well as why it was necessary? Without preserving the past, what came of it, and what caused it, our understanding of ourselves is incomplete. Our history will become a book with chapters ripped out.

Preserving things like the Confederate flag and safekeeping them for future generations is the only way our culture can live beyond us, and that’s why we must not do away with unpleasantness in the name of political correctness. To do so is only to deny ourselves permanence.

Tow Mater, an unrecognized sage of the modern era, got it half right when he said, “Ain’t no need to watch where I’m going. Just need to know where I’ve been.” I mention him partially in jest, but the statement—like many of the things that Pixar creates—points to a greater truth. We need to know where we came from, but we must also be sure to keep our eyes on the road ahead if our culture is to get to its final destination in one piece.

No nation is perfect, but the United State of America is ours. It is up to us to both preserve and better it by maintaining a holistic view of history. That’s why we must doggedly maintain both a rear view and a forward gaze, and may God help us if we relinquish either.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

 

Story In a Box

Finally, after three plus years, all our stuff is under the same roof again. After fetching the last few boxes from my in-laws’ attic, we spent the better part of last Saturday unpacking and strolling down memory lane—looking at old photos, combing through band memorabilia to see who had the most superior medals, and (in my case) wearing every single piece of graduation bling I ever earned.

Graduating like a boss since 1996!
Graduating like a boss since 1996!

We found fun things like a scrapbook full of photos from our last vacation in 2004 (Yes, it’s been that long!), a Nintendo system we bought on whim off of Ebay because we had a hankering to play Zelda and Battle of Olympus, our old letterman jackets, some useless gewgaws from my days as a high school teacher, and even an ill-advised Halloween costume that I kept for some reason. However, it wasn’t until tonight when I was breaking down the boxes to take them out with the trash that I noticed this.

box1

Don’t worry. This isn’t Schrödinger’s box or anything. Nothing nefarious happened in it. In fact, it’s never held anything more harmful than a few silk flowers and is now as hollowed out as Miley Cyrus’ sense of self-worth. (Too soon?!?) But it’s not what was in the box that matters. It’s the flimsy cardboard itself.

This box was filled with, as the label says, “China Hutch Stuff.” We haven’t owned that hutch since 2003, when we lived in our last home in Valdosta. I lost my job teaching in Echols County due to budget cuts, and rather than stay, we chose to move to Florida where the sun is always shining and there are only two seasons: summer and January. I packed that box when I was 25 years old and (as we say in the South) was feeling fine as a frog hair split three ways. Back then, two men I love (my grandfather and my great uncle James) were still alive. We had yet to make the mistakes that would send our lives on an entirely different trajectory. Even my illness was still months away.

When I wrapped the champagne flutes and cake topper from our wedding and tucked them away amid the keepsake napkins, ribbons, and party favors from that magical, long ago day, I was a completely different person than I am now. It may be my hasty handwriting on that box, but I barely resemble the cocksure dame who scribbled it.

I’ve moved that box six or seven times (without once opening it), but when I saw it again today, the ten years between that moment and this zoomed past me at once like something out of a cartoon. It felt foreign to me, like a relic from a life I barely remembered. And the time it represented was like a piece of threadbare cloth, faint and worn thin from too many handlings.

I considered saving this box, keeping it so I could remember the way things used to be. But when I thought about who I was then and how far I’ve come spiritually, emotionally, and mentally, I realized I wouldn’t trade anything to go back. That life, I see now, was just as empty as the box is today. What I thought was worth pursuing was really a “vanity of vanities.”

The real joy is never what we leave behind. It’s the glorious possibility that surrounds us today and what lies ahead of us tomorrow. And that is something that can never, ever be contained in a box.

The Logistics of Grace

Here is my first article for 2013 in In Touch Magazine. This was one of those fun pieces to write. It allowed me the time and space to dig into Scripture and to tie what I found to a relevant historical detail. Seriously, if you’ve never heard of the Red Ball Express, do yourself a huge favor and go learn about them. Don’t watch the 1952 movie; it’s not accurate and doesn’t do justice to the brave men who drove the routes. Instead, I recommend reading The Road to Victory: The Untold Story of World War II’s Red Ball Express by David P. Colley.

This article is also available on the new and improved In Touch Ministries website, and you can a free subscription of the print magazine by visiting here.

Lost at C

Alright boys and squirrels, this one is going to take some explanation.

I recently visited the High Museum here in Atlanta, and I walked around the corner to find the installation piece titled Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey. At first, the sheer size of it caught me off guard; it filled one of the larger spaces on the second floor of the museum by itself! However, despite its size, it contained very few elements. Unlike his other pieces, which were mixed media and contained everything from fishing line to glitter drenched construction paper and old photos, Windward Coast was stark by comparison. The description posted on the wall informed me that what I was looking at contained nothing more than “piano keys, a plaster bust, glitter, and a shell with sound.”

The description also informed viewers the intention of the piece, what it was meant to convey. (Yes, I am aware that what an author or artist intends to say is meaningless to discuss because we all experience art and come away with different interpretations. I’ll not argue that here as this piece is direct proof of that fact.) The title of Mr. Bailey’s entire collection was titled Memory as Medicine, and it was his attempt to connect with his immediate and distant past as a black man, a soul abruptly uprooted because of the evils of slavery. The plaster bust, glittering and black in the spotlight floats amid a huge “sea” of piano keys that are arranged to replicate moving water and crashing waves.

I had to admit as I looked at it a second, third, and fourth time that the piece was impressive. However, when I sat huddled in the corner to examine it and take notes, I was able to see the keys  at eye level. Some were tipped with plastic, others with something darker (perhaps bone or ivory), and black keys, those glorious half steps, were intermingled with white. It was then that I got to thinking about the pianos themselves–their guts lying on the floor. What kind of pianos had these keys come from? What kind of “lives” had they led?

Which sat in cold parlors or warm family rooms? How many of them proudly bore the family manger scene at Christmas? How many had the pleasure of enjoying two family members playing them together or been a part of a child’s musical education all the way from “Hot Cross Buns” to more challenging pieces? Had someone fallen in love near one or spent an hour in solace using it? How many had been given up willingly, and how many were sold out of desperation or ignorance as to their true value?

The more I thought about it, the more I saw a parallel between the pianos and the slave floating in them. They, too, were displaced, stripped of their meaning, value, and voice! That’s what bothered me the most about the piece–all the stories of pianos and the families who owned them floating in there that could no longer be told. Theirs were stories worthy of attention, too, and they had been cancelled out to create this installation.

I was planning on writing a free verse piece to mimic the chaos of the sea of keys, but the more I thought it over, I came to see that a fixed verse poem was more appropriate. To make something orderly out of something chaotic, to give meaning to something so disjointed, I would have to try something requiring rules.

I didn’t want to rhyme or be stuck by a meter, so I chose the challenge presented by the sestina. Please take a moment to read the link here if you’d like to know more about this form.

Essentially, the poet must choose six words and repeat them at the end of each line. I chose sea/see/C (homonyms, homophones, and homographs are fair game), keys, tone, master, wood/would, and sound. The first stanza is A,B,C,D,E,F. You then repeat that pattern, using the last word in one stanza as the first in the next. For example, if you look at stanza two, you’ll see that tone (my F word) is the end word of that new line. That stanza is ordered F,A,E,B,D,C, and so on and so forth it goes until all six stanza are complete.

The envoy, the three line stanza that closes a sestina, includes all six words in three lines. They do not have to be at the exact end, but you must use the B and E words in line one, the D and C words in line two, and the F and A words in line three. (However, some poets change that up and use the six words in whatever order they prefer).

It’s difficult because of the repeated words that create a sort of internal rhyme structure. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s a solid start. I’ve not written a complete sestina on my own before this, so that’s progress!

Please read and comment. Let me know what you think!

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Lost at C

A Sestina Inspired After Viewing Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey

The gallery floor lies buried beneath a sea

of writhing, cacophonous keys.

In the distance, as if discarded by his master,

a slave’s head bobs without a sound

amid the endless waves of splintered wood.

His suffering sets the tone.


But I’m left longing for the tone

that sounds when striking middle C,

the note among all others that would

help me place my fingers on correct keys.

A familiar place, safe and sound

on the instrument I longed to master.


In how many homes was it the master,

the symbol of domesticity? In tones

of chestnut and mahogany, the sound

made by each was like the sea,

rhythmic as a metronome, as key

to the security of its home as the roof or the wood.


If not for this artistic creation before me, how many would

still remain in the hands of a master

who’d polish its surface and clean each key,

tune it to maintain those harmonious tones,

relish the marriage of hammer and string, and the delicate C

atop the eighty-eight orderly architects of sound?


Would someone open the lid to release the sound

and the family history locked within the wood?

Would a starving soul sit on its bench once again and see

that while time is something we can never master

we can preserve memory in the mind’s sepia tones

and in sacred objects like a piano, those that are key


to understand our parts in life’s symphony? From key

signature to coda, from downbeat to the sound

of the final fermata, our pasts set the tone

for all that was, that is, and that ever would

be. None of us live lives made from a master,

without uniqueness, our own variation in C.


Knowing this is key to what otherwise would

be a sound failure. One cannot master his past

by stripping another of his tone and using it to create the sea.