This week I had to check my whiteness two times, first at the ONA Coalition National Gathering and then at the UCC General Synod. The lesson was reinforced for me that, even though I have more than one historically marginalized marker with which I identify (gender and sexuality), that does not mean I am enlightened or evolved in relation to other marginalized populations. It is no fun having to face this in real world situations, but it’s crucial to remember. It also teaches me that in discerning for the ministry, I have a lot to learn. It is God saying, “You’re not there yet.”
The first was during a talk given by a candidate on the slate for a UCC national office. Right after the UMC vote, I had been a little indignant about African delegates being the conservative votes that put the resolution against LGBTQ ordination over the top. Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson pointed out that the African delegates had been heavily lobbied and probably manipulated by conservative (probably Southern) delegates. Of course they had; it created the narrative that benefitted U.S. delegates while reinforcing the stereotype that Black bodies and Black churches were by nature “essentially” conservative.
The second instance was personal. I had a roommate for Synod, a gifted African American chaplain I’ll call Susan. One night, we went to a late evening reception for Members in Discernment for ordination. It was late, so there weren’t many people in the large Hilton hotel suite. In the corner, engaged in conversation with a conference delegate, sat Reverend Traci Blackmon, a rock star minister, prophet, activist in the UCC. She came on the national scene in helping people from Ferguson, Missouri, respond to the Michael Brown murder in 2014. Naturally, we were both star struck. While helping ourselves to the snacks and wine, Rev. Blackmon walked over and began heating up her leftovers from Maggiano’s. The three of us struck up a conversation about a contentious topic in the last session. She was very gracious and seemed to me to be in the mood to talk. It seemed like she needed to unwind before calling the very long day a night. So the three of us sat down in the living room area of the spacious suite while she ate. Even though it was late, I was energized. Like those cop shows where they have to keep the caller on the line so they can trace the call, I just wanted her to keep talking. She is a public theological intellectual, and like bell hooks, a treasure.
When we got back our room, I was revved up from the experience. “Traci Blackmon had a conversation with us,” I said. “Well,” said Susan, “she had a conversation with you. I think I may have made one statement.” Screeching halt. She was right. I, in my white academic privilege, had manipulated the conversation so that I could “own” an engagement with this person I admired. I knew how to guide conversation, to interview a subject, and that’s what I had done. My new friend was gracious, and to her great credit, she didn’t excuse or deny it to make me feel better. The irony is that throughout the conversation with Rev. Blackmon I kept telling myself that I was humbled to be in her presence. No I wasn’t; I was proud. Humility is what Susan exhibited, yet I was so blinded by my privilege I did not see it.
I am not suggesting Susan did not have voice–she did, and she could have called me out severely as we debriefed. What I realized was that in this space where justice and covenant were sacred ideals to be put into practice by all Christians, I had performed a microaggression from a place of privilege, so I am glad the space is also one of grace and mercy. Although, like the tools of privilege in my invisible backpack, I do not deserve them.
Like all GoT fans, Sarah and I had been awaiting Season 8 for two years. For the last month, we’ve been organizing our weeks around Sunday nights at 9:00. We’ve organized our Sundays around that one hour. This week, for the series finale, we had a minor change to our normal routine of gathering around our tv with tailgating snacks. We were in Orlando for a math conference. No problem~~we’d just watch it on HBO at the hotel. On Friday night, we discovered the LaQuinta provided complimentary Showtime. Not HBO. We had 48 hours.
Saturday was spent researching, me poolside and Sarah from a panel session. We called Buffalo Wild Wings, who was running commercials nationwide showing the Mother of Dragons. This probably meant they were going to have their monitors blaring with the final episode. Nope~~they didn’t have an HBO subscription. Could we live stream through our cable provider? Apparently not unless we were in proximity of our cable box. Did we know anybody who actually 1) lived in Orlando and 2) had HBO? Time was running out!
Thanks to Google, we discovered HBO Go and made plans to stream on our laptop that evening. Since Sarah’s high school friend–an engineer–was hanging out with us, we’d watch in the lobby. It was the best we could do. We started set up early, an hour ahead of time. Putting our heads together to make the most of our viewing environment, we got up our courage to ask the receptionist if she might dim lights and lower the volume of the lobby monitor blasting out Men In Black, which she was clearly watching from the desk. I was elected to ask.
“Lights? No problem!” replied desk clerk Julie to my first request. “I’ll dim what I can.” “Would you like to hook up the computer to our HDMI cable so you can watch it on the big tv?” A viewing event was going to happen after all! We grabbed the engineer and it was ON! Lights dimmed and the three of us planted ourselves on the comfortable LaQuinta lobby furniture just as the announcer began, Previously, on Game of Thrones.
Then a woman walked by and saw Lord Tyrion walking through the ruins of King’s Landing, above. “Oh my God, it’s ON!” We invited her to join us. She ran down the hall and returned with a hotel pillow. “Hi, I’m Sandy,” she said, not waiting for returned introductions as she snuggled in. Sarah texted her math pal Laurie, also at the LaQuinta, to join us; she appeared, giddy with excitement. The family checking in turned and looked at us and the tv. Their teenage daughter drifted over as her mom said, “Yeah, you can just stay right here and watch.” The teenager took a seat at a table behind us, on the margin. “Come on, join us~~it’s ok!” She took a seat on the couch. Sarah made a mad dash to the room to grab our road trip snacks–grapes, Triscuits, Babybel cheese.
We were, for that hour, persons of a common union, communing around an entertainment event. Sentimental sap that I am, I looked at us, and it felt good, comfortable. We didn’t talk~~except when Sarah’s friend enthusiastically punctuated each scene with a question. Is Lady Brienne pregnant?? Is Jon going to kill her?? I heard there’s a poison chalice!! There’s one in every community, and we love them anyway. Sandy’s phone buzzed non-stop, except when it was ringing. She eventually tucked it under the pillow. And, keep in mind we were in a hotel lobby; I’m heartened to know the Orlando LaQuinta is doing such good business from 9:00-10:00pm on a Sunday night. There was a steady stream of check-ins.
As the last scene faded and the credits started to roll, Julie turned the lights back up. As if on cue, our little viewing community began to stir, turning away from the big screen, where we had–finally–found out who would rule the 7 Kingdoms (sort of, fans will know what I mean) and watched Arya head west of Westeros. The most some of us could utter was, wow. Although some elaborated with expressions of disbelief–or validated predictions, whichever.
Our little band milled around, gathered up our belongings, and began to drift off. “A selfie~~we need a selfie!” Sarah insisted. “Gather around, everybody.” I looked at the teenager, “What’s your name?” “Chelsea,” she grinned.
Communities are like families: they come in different shapes and sizes. Sometimes we don’t get to choose its members. They give us a sense of belonging, if only for an hour in a hotel lobby. They can be chosen, but sometimes they form spontaneously. Sometimes they are temporary, like this one, never to be exactly replicated again. Thinking about it now, my heart is warmed, and its strings are tugged. I hope it happens again and again, random people who share a few moments. I think world peace and reconciliation could happen that way, friendly gatherings. Maybe not over tv; maybe over food or sports. Is that naive? Yes, of course. But there is something child-like in naivety–an openness to wonder and whimsey, to connecting. As a concluding thought, I was going to do as I usually do and end with a well-placed quote from Game of Thrones, but upon checking, I couldn’t find one that captured the spirit of anything other than violent-war-and-slaughter or mockery. So I settled on one of hopefulness and determination and purity of heart and, well, of openness–not unlike the promise of community. Hold the door!
The cat hated everybody. Everybody, that is, except me. And Sarah, of course–but she had owned Sarah for seventeen years, so that was to be expected. I only knew her for five months, and I didn’t really expect her to warm up to me. More than that, I never expected to warm up to her. So when we helped her to her final sleep on Monday, the last thing I expected was to feel what I felt and react how I did.
First of all, I am not a cat person. I had a cat once, and I despised it. Yes, my cat-loving friends will be shocked at that. Kitty was part Siamese and was mean. Worse than that, she caused me to lose sleep every night. If she was outside, she wanted in; if she was inside, she wanted out. Day in and day out. Why didn’t I just leave her in or out, you might ask? Well, I believe if you ask that, YOU are not a cat person. She would come to my bedside and claw at the blinds until I was awake. If I shooed her away, she’d wait till I lay back down and begin again. When she was outside, she would come to my bedroom window and claw on the screen, which is not a sound conducive to sleeping, especially as I lay there envisioning a trip to Home Depot to replace yet another screen. When I moved from Louisiana to Georgia, I gave the neighbors a bag of cat food and $20 to take care of the cat. I drove the U-Haul truck away as fast as I could so that Kitty couldn’t somehow attach herself and hang on for the cross-country trek. I was free of cats. Until Diana.
Sarah called her Hissing Ball of Fury because that’s what she turned into whenever anybody tried to touch her. Over the months, as I met Sarah’s friends, they all asked, “And how are you getting on with the Little Cat?” Only they don’t say “Cat.” They had learned the hard way. “Oh, she’ll like ME,” they had said, one by one. “I’m good with animals,” they had said, one by one. And one by one, they had approached Diana talking softly and reaching to pet her, only to have her turn into Miss Fury. Diana had been banned from veterinary practices in two states because she bit. I witnessed this myself when we took her to the vet three months ago. Two young techs had assured us, “Oh, she’ll be fine with us,” only to bolt from the room to fetch the doctor to do this first-year vet school procedure himself. “Diana bites” was written in bold red letters across the top of her chart. And so she did.
So what was my secret? I think it was that I let Diana be Diana. I let her come to me. When she sat with her back to us, which was her usual position until she got ready to be petted, I let her be. I only spoke to her when she looked at me, and never reached out to touch her. Then one day when she came to Sarah for her evening head-butts (Diana was a head-butter), she walked right into my hand. Then one morning I awoke with a cat sleeping on my head. On my head. She only hissed at me once. I had reached down to pet her as I walked by the couch where she was lying, foolishly thinking that we had bonded over the head-sleeping. “Don’t get to comfortable with me, old gal,” she seemed to imply in that hiss. “I come to YOU.” I only picked her up once. It was the day before she died. That is how I knew it was over.
The vet must have felt the same way when he picked her up on Monday morning and said, “This is the first time I’ve really gotten to examine her completely.” He gently felt her frail body and asked Sarah if she was sure of her decision. She was. We had set up what Sarah called “Kitty Hospice” at the bungalow over the weekend, administering IV fluids and concocting what looked like an awful mess but was evidently a cat delicacy Sarah called “duck soup.” Diana would take a little, then lie on a pile of Sarah’s clothes and her old teddy bear, Ted, until we took her outside to lie in the grass warmed by the sun. The fluids never pepped her up as Sarah had expected; she was that far gone. So we fed her duck soup and let her be outside as much as she wanted. She even hissed at a stray cat once. We had one brief second of hope, then watched as she turned away all but a bite of food. I am glad we had that weekend. As we watched Diana, I watched Sarah say goodbye to her friend of seventeen years.
I think things happen for a reason. Like finding an abandoned kitten two weeks ago–one that has pretty much taken over our lives by blessedly taking up our attention during the last week. I’ve heard the old saying that we don’t find pets–rather, pets find us. This one was put in our way at precisely the appropriate place and time. Just like Pastor Kim’s prayer in church on Sunday. As I sat there in the choir loft during the service, the words startled me out actually praying, hoping that it might in some way bring Diana’s human some comfort. Give us the courage and grace to live through the dying season, was the prayer. The grace to understand death, as well as life, even though the dying–the perpetual winter–dims a light in our souls.
As we sat outside with Diana Saturday, Sarah told me that she had chosen her name from Edith Hamilton’s famous book Mythology. It is appropriate–and somewhat ironic now–that her name had come from that book. In it, Hamilton quotes from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon:
Drop, drop—in our sleep, upon the heart
sorrow falls, memory’s pain,
and to us, though against our very will,
even in our own despite,
by the awful grace of God.
Aeschylus describes the process by which we come to the understanding for which the pastor prayed. Drop by drop upon the heart by the awful grace of God. How profoundly simple that it might come from the great blessing of being owned by a pet. But, if you are a cat person–like I am now–that is no surprise.
One of my friends is, like me, a recovering fundamentalist Christian.
She suggested that I might get to the root of my issues, whether about relationships, teaching, or writing–whatever–by forgiving myself. It took a recovering fundamentalist to recognize that and present it in that way. The closest I ever got thinking about forgiveness was when my therapist (the one I pay) suggested that I look back at the girl who married young because of gender role social expectations and not so subtle pressure from family. She asked me to engage with that young woman, going back even to the smart tom-boy who felt different and often alone. When I did that very hard work, I asked the young me for forgiveness. I realized that I did not feel like I had taken care of her. I remember that was a very hard session.
But forgiving myself now–that’s different from looking back at me then. Forgive, for what? The issue is the essentially the same it seems. Since my divorce, I have felt robbed of the 16 years I was married. (Side note: it has been 16 years since my divorce. Geez. Get over it.) Robbed, as though they were taken. Passive verb. I had blamed the fundamentalist church, my parents, my husband, Alabama–anyone, everyone. But me. Thing is, I’ve been furious with myself for having done this to myself–and for staying in it for those years. I did this. Me. (Now suddenly the anger issues my paid therapist brought up that I couldn’t see became very clear and noticeable). My unpaid counselor friend calls it discipline fundamentalism. I try to be “good,” but all that old unforgiven baggage surfaces and I act out (yes, there has been acting out), leaving me guilt laden and sorrowful. I make a pact with myself and resolve to do better. Trouble is, that doesn’t work. Hasn’t worked.
In addition to forgiving my self, I will tell myself as often as I need to hear it, “it is enough.” Not “I am enough.” I know I am–my issues are not about confidence or worthiness. I’m just never satisfied with what I’ve accomplished. It’s almost always writing. When I can’t dig in and write a lot, I will read, or now, write here. That’s enough. It’s working. Even writing it now I feel a tremendous sense of relief and peace. So whatever I do, it’s enough for today.
You may ask what this deep reflection has to do with fundamentalism. I think the imprint fundamental Christianity has had on me as a female has been about judgement. Naturally, I was taught at all costs to be a good girl because I would be judged by God. Here on earth, meanwhile, I was expected to be good and conform so I would be judged acceptable by others (what will the neighbors think). I learned to be good so that my daddy would not lose his temper. Be good, be good, be good. And if I were ever human–spontaneous, uninhibited, free-spirited (and all the behaviors these entail)–I felt that judgement upon me from all sides and fell short. So, forgiveness and acceptance is the first, deeply internal step to recovery from fundamentalism. It is the step that allows me to see that judgement is something that somebody else does. And it has very little to do with me. More on this later.
I have lately begun surrounding myself with friends who are either Sagittarius or who have backgrounds in a counseling or therapy profession, or both. I did not start out to purposefully do this, but once I noticed that I seemed to be collecting these kinds of people for friends, I kept keeping track. Now, It is altogether possible that they are drawn to me, so I am trying to figure out what it is that is appealing about me for these inquisitive, curious archers and advising helping professional types. I suspect it is that I tell a good story and tend to have some sort of conflict (I refuse to say drama), entanglement, or crossroads in my life that I am seeking input for. I don’t mind saying that I like to get different viewpoints about what’s going on in my life. It helps me make decisions; it also means I can change my mind based on what seems to be most suitable.
They have different approaches, these groups of friends. I don’t think any of them are both Sagittariuses and therapists. If I could find that person, I’d try very hard to move next door to her. Anyway, what this means is that I get different categories of feedback and support. Generally the Sagittarius free-forward-moving spirit helps me break out of my Virgo straight jacket and see my own possibilities. A Sagittarius cheers me on with, “You can DO it! You must GO for it!” as she is boarding the plane for her own next adventure (did I mention that my friends are almost exclusively women friends?). A counselor/psychologist, on the other hand, mainly asks me questions and insists that I feel my feelings before acting on them.
Let me try to back myself out and try to figure out what it is about me that these bits of cheers and counsel meet. Reading the paragraph above, my Sagittariuses pick up on the doubtfulness, tentativeness, resistance, and hesitancy that I counter with impulsive acting out. My mind-pros insist I get to the root of those feelings, which I avoid by impulsive acting out. Reading the paragraph above, I am surprised I have any friends at all. I think I do tell a good story, and am just endearing enough that they keep me around. I am glad they do.
What does any of this have to do with the topic, writing? Well, that’s mostly what I am doubtful, tentative, resistant, and hesitant about. And that is not a good thing, since I really, really need and truly want to be writing. Lately I’ve had the thought that even though I am a professor, I don’t have anything that I want to especially profess. That’s kind of like being on the Island of Misfit Toys. It is not that I don’t feel worthy or lack confidence; I have friends who have those issues as demons. I feel plenty worthy and confident. I think I haven’t found my joy, my bliss in it yet. I don’t think I’ve found a way, even after over a dozen years of being in the academy in one way or another, to do this job, this work, joyfully. And I truly believe it can and should approached and engaged with joy. So, joyfully onward today. My day, my work, my terms. My bliss.