It’s time we listen

I wrote this three years ago, the week the Michael Brown died. I didn’t post it then because I wasn’t sure it would be helpful in any way. It was too much about me, too much from my own experience. But I have been struggling to find something to say during these past few days with the latest round of lamentation from our St. Louis community. I wish so hard that we would begin truth and reconciliation in this country, something that we have not yet had. So, I post it now, just in case it helps in some small way.

It has been a painful week here in St. Louis. A young man is dead.  A young police officer’s life has changed forever (at best). The Band-Aid covering the wounds of the marginalized in our city has been ripped off, and their wounds laid to bare, and they are angry. We want to look away. Surely, it can’t be that bad, we think.

Much of their anger is directed at police.

My cousin’s husband was a police officer. Over twenty years ago, after the Rodney King riots, her daughter wrote a thoughtful piece about respecting the good police officers out there, rather than focusing on the few bad apples. In a small way, I understand her feelings. My parents were public schoolteachers, a much-maligned group if there ever was one. Whenever I hear people rant about teacher tenure or how teachers don’t really care about students or how they aren’t very bright, I feel disappointed and defensive. I can only imagine how compounded that disappointment must be when you or a loved one has a job in law enforcement, where even routine traffic stops can turn deadly.  I feel it also at my job teaching at UMSL when my colleagues are maligned in a similar fashion. I feel attacked when the complaint is directed at me (and it has been).

It happens more often than I let on. In my role as advisor to writing students and as a writing instructor, students begin to feel comfortable complaining to me. I understand the frustration when faced with these complaints. It can be hard to listen to them, especially when the student is passionate and angry. Especially when that anger is thrown my way.

But here’s what I’ve learned: people who are hurting want someone to listen to them. Without judgment. Without the typical party line responses. On my good days, I take a deep breath and let them talk. I usually find that the outrage is about more than one instance with one instructor.

It’s about so much more.

I could say a lot more here. I could talk about students who walk long ways to catch a city bus to the Metrolink so they can come to class, when in reality they live closer to UMSL than I do but have no transportation. I could talk about domestic violence and the more than one occasion when I’ve had students living in threatening situations, and yet still come to class. I could talk about parents who work full time, take a full course load, and still bear the brunt of responsibility for childcare. I could talk of young women stalked by fellow students. I could go on and on. The truth is that when a student comes to me in anger that anger usually originates in fear and fatigue and stress.

When those students find me, I try to take a deep breath and listen. Once they realize I am listening, some of that stress goes away. There are often tears. There is sometimes anger. Slowly, I begin to ask questions. The questions cannot come too soon. They cannot sound accusatory. Often, I explain my reasoning for the question before I ask it, so as not to be misinterpreted. Usually, I can help them work through whatever it is that’s causing the problem at school. Often, it’s helping them understand the system, given that so many UMSL students are first-generation college students.

However, sometimes, their beef is not a mere misunderstanding of the system or of the faculty member’s expectations (or even just fatigue and stress). Sometimes it’s legitimate even when I know the offending party to be someone who has a big heart and who cares deeply about their students. That’s when it’s hard.

I am not perfect. I get frustrated and I know that I’ve not always responded appropriately. But I know that I must set aside my feelings, whatever they are, even those tired old feelings of “here we go again…the teacher is the villain…,” so that I can listen deeply. This can be profoundly difficult, especially when I am stressed and fatigued myself.

I understand how hard it is to listen to the pain.

This past week, many in the black community have expressed their distrust of the police (and that’s putting it mildly in some cases). Many of those voices are the voices of young black men. I know that it’s hard for police officers and their families to hear. I know that it’s uncomfortable for white people to hear. We want to believe that the racial injustices that have plagued our country are in the past. We are uncomfortable with the message these young black men are trying to send: that it is not in the past. That even good cops can have irrational fears of young black men (regardless of the specifics of this particular case). That so do we.  And that fear is dangerous to them.

Some may ask: but what about the police? what about their families? They are people, too!

That’s true. They are. The police are also the authority, the ones with a badge and a gun. Not only is it appropriate for them to listen to the grievances of the community they have been hired to serve and protect, it is their responsibility. It is hard. I know. I’ve had to listen to hard things, albeit under very different circumstances, in my own job as a faculty member at a public university. One day, during my first semester back after a traumatic illness, a student dropped by my office because she was struggling in class. The situation she found herself in was complicated, difficult, and dangerous; it was destroying her ability to concentrate. As she told me about her situation (students are always reluctant to do so), I found myself wavering. You see, I was still suffering from trauma myself. Loud noises disturbed me. Strong emotions from others caused me nearly to faint. Her situation was so painful and so hard and so disturbing that I simply could not listen.

I almost vomited.

I concentrated on breathing through my nose. I checked with her to make sure she was in touch with the appropriate professionals. I whispered my advice about the class as succinctly as I could, and I prayed for her to leave, hoping against hope that she didn’t see a lack of compassion in my actions. It was hard. It would have been even worse if she were complaining about me or my colleagues (she was not). Yes, my situation was different, but I was traumatized. I have no doubt that many police officers are traumatized, too, just by the nature of their job. But it was NOT appropriate for me to tell her about my situation, to put my own trauma, fears, and needs ahead of hers. I was in a position of authority. It was my job to listen, even though I was barely able to. And so I listened the best way that I could.

The situation in Ferguson is disturbing for all involved, including the police. They need their support system. But minimizing the pain of the marginalized should not be a requirement for supporting the police.

The response to the death of Michael Brown is not just about the death of Michael Brown. It’s about so much more.

And we will not move forward until we listen deeply.

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It’s a question of fear

The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

As I mentioned in my last post, I grew up Southern Baptist. I can’t say whether the church was liberal or conservative; I knew no such distinctions then. My parents voted Democrat (mostly); many of their good church friends did not. That’s about where the conversation ended for me. All in all, it was a loving place for me.

We went to church three times a week — twice on Sunday, once on Wednesday — throughout the year. By that I mean that we attended Sunday School and a church service on Sunday morning, and then training union and a church service in the evening. Wednesday night was a meal, Girl’s in Action (missions class), a prayer service, and choir. My dad sang in the choir and was a deacon. My mom’s passion was missions. Both taught Sunday School. Whew!

By the time I was in high school, I’d go on Wednesday night for the meal and maybe choir practice, and cut out on the rest. One Wednesday night my senior year, my parents brought someone home with them: a woman, wailing in psychic pain, intent on committing suicide.

I do not know who she was, only that she did not attend the church. And I don’t know how she came to be with my parents (did she know someone? did she call the church?). All I know is that my parents went to Wednesday night church and came back with her. My mother introduced her casually, as if bringing someone home in this state was the most normal thing in the world. She said they were trying to find this woman some help.

At first I thought nothing of it. I tried to ask a few questions to learn more about the situation, like why it was my parents, of all people, who were handling this situation, but the woman’s emotions were too unstable. I remember she and my mom sitting at the dining room table, then moving to the couch, and then back to the dining room, while she sobbed all the while.

She appeared to be in her 40s or 50s, and, as I remember it, she had her hair pulled back in a bun. I don’t remember much about her face because she mostly held her head in her hands, either face first into both hands or with one hand on her forehead as she leaned on the arm of a chair. She vacillated from crying to wailing to apologizing for being so much trouble to talking about wanting to die.

I think that she refused to go to the hospital. I got a sense that had to do with money.

And, somewhere in all that talk was the mention of a knife. (Was this true? Or did I project that on to her?)

When Mom wasn’t comforting this woman, she was on the phone trying to get help.

“Doesn’t someone at the church know people to call about stuff like this?” I finally had the courage to ask when I found a moment to speak.

My parents looked at me blankly. No.

“Don’t be afraid,” Mom said. “She’s harmless. She’s just hurting.”

But I couldn’t get the thought of knives out of my mind. I remember that she was nervous to be at home with knives around. (Or did I make that up, with my overactive teenaged imagination?) The truth is I was trying hard not to pay attention to the details of her situation. It felt too personal for me to hear, and too scary.

And I couldn’t get away from her tears.

More phone calls. More talking and comforting. But no help. I came to realize that the phone calls were about two things: finding professional help for this woman’s crisis and finding her a place to go for the night. What became clear to me as the night wore on is that we were on our own. Finally,  my mom announced that this woman would spend the night with us.

I was terrified.

As my parents made more arrangements, I tried to get their attention. “Please no, not here. Isn’t there somewhere else she can go?” I may have said aloud, but the words dissipated into the chaos of the night.

Finally, I got my mother alone. “Mom,” I said. “What if she gets up and tries to find a knife?”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said, “You’re not in danger. She is more likely to harm herself than you.”

But that’s exactly what I was worried about. What if I woke up to her committing suicide?

Knowing that she had a place to stay, that she was not alone, did calm her a little bit. I, however, was still terrified. I’d never seen such despair, such anguish.

Then, in a rare quiet moment that evening, I appealed to my dad. “Could I please stay next door?”

We lived next to a family who also attended our church, and I was good friends with the youngest daughter. Dad agreed quickly, but I felt like I was abandoning my parents. Isn’t this the stranger at the door that Jesus talked about? Isn’t this the Christ in the unexpected place that we are to help? Aren’t I horrible for running from it? And, why are we alone in this? Where’s the rest of the church? The ministers? Doesn’t the church get calls like this regularly? What do they usually do?*

I never got answers to those questions.

I can’t remember how many nights this woman stayed at our house. I think two. My parents did what they could to help her. Later, when I asked my mom why no one else helped us (not really, at least), she said:

“They are afraid.”

Just like me.


*This is some of what my friend was referring to (see last post). I do not have any empirical data on this, but my experience is that  evangelical churches focus on saving souls, not necessarily on helping the community in need (church members, yes; larger community, often not). Of course there are always exceptions and “liberal” churches often care about social justice, but help in problematic ways. In the end, I realize that both approaches are problematic, and fear is what’s driving the problem.

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God, Social Justice, and Mom

Since November, I have struggled to write, though I have felt that some response is necessary to what’s been happening in our country and in the world. Writing is one of the ways that I process things so it’s a bit of a problem. Every time I feel something welling up within me to say, something else happens that topples it right out of my mind. So I’ve decided just to start. I know as I write this something will happen that will make this post seem so profoundly insignificant that I will wonder why I am bothering at all. Oh well.

In the last week, I’ve had a few conversations both in person and online that underscore how the way we experience the world can inform much of how we view politics, religion, and all else that happens in the world. This is of course obvious, but it often surprises me nonetheless. Even those of us from seemingly similar demographics can misunderstand each other easily. I generally don’t talk in detail about how my family history has affected my point of view to too many people. I’ve found that most people really don’t care, to be honest, and I try not to make the situation at hand about me. But, then again, I can see that we need to talk about these things to promote more understanding, which is the only way through such deep devisions. So I will start this conversation here, on my personal blog.

One of these conversations was with a conservative friend who is staunchly anti-abortion and deeply religious. My friend lamented that although she agrees with the platform of the religious right Republicans in many ways, she is dismayed at the lack of compassion toward the poor and marginalized she sees in the churches she has attended (outside of evangelism, which is not the same thing). She was referring, specifically, to governmental social programs and social programs coordinated by the churches, which is necessary if you eschew governmental social programs. In fact, the argument for cutting programs is that private citizens and churches are better prepared to handle such things. My friend is dismayed because those programs are few and far between, and are coupled with an antipathy for the governmental benefits they are meant to replace and an antipathy for the poor.

I’ve seen this myself, having grown up Southern Baptist and having attended church in one way or another my whole life. But before I speak of my own experiences, I feel I talk about my mother first. I think it was her honesty when I saw my local religious leaders utterly fail at even attempting such work that struck a deep chord in me, affecting my reactions to the subject. But to understand my mother’s view, you must know something about her.

My mother was born the 10th of 11 children to a poor white family living in Arkansas during the Great Depression. I’ve always been told that they lived in a shack (not my words) with sod floors. She was born in that shack. They thought she was dead, too. To their surprise she came out very much alive, and from that day forward, “her feet never touched the ground,” my aunt has said, because they were so afraid of losing another child. You see, my grandmother buried two children while pregnant with my mom, a three year old boy and a thirteen year old boy, within one month of each other. She would bury seven children before her death at almost 85.

My mom was tiny and fierce, loving and frustrating; she was a force. The weight of her reactions and opinions was so overwhelming to me that I refused to tell her things about my life until I had already “figured out what I thought.” She never understood why I kept things from her, and I realize now that it hurt her feelings. It was my way of creating some space for myself, rather than arguing with her (a battle I would never win) or being so overwhelmed by her thoughts that I wouldn’t know if I was doing the thinking myself.

She left home at 15 because of an abusive stepfather, her own father dying when she was just 10 years old. One day, after yet another disturbing incident, she gave my grandmother an ultimatum: “Either he goes or I do.”

My grandmother’s response: “It’s his house.”

So my mother packed her things and left, taking her 11-year-old brother with her. They were living in a little town called Bellflower in Missouri by then. Mom and Uncle Dan caught a train to St. Louis, and landed on my Aunt Betty’s porch. What happened next is fuzzy. I’ve never been told how long they stayed, only that my mom could not look after her brother, and Betty, her sister, only 20 at the time and married with small children, did not feel that she could take on either one of them. She was overwhelmed. Mom and her brother went back home.

It didn’t last. The second time my mother left, it was for good. She went alone this time, knowing she could not care for a 11-year-old. She took a night train to St. Louis and ended up spending the next few years sleeping on her brother’s couch in Illinois. She was always thankful for his kindness in taking her in, but it wasn’t easy.

Mom lied about her age to get a job waiting tables in an all night diner in downtown St. Louis. She’d go to school all day and then catch the train to the city and work until 2 am, when she would walk through the city streets alone to catch the train back to Venice, Illinois, where she had to walk about a mile, she told me, to her brother’s house. She’d catch a few hours of sleep before getting up to go to school the next day. My understanding is that she worked full time, paid for her own expenses, and sent the extra money, if there was any, back to her mom.

This experience shaped her understanding of race relations in this country (more about that in a different post) and her passion to help people, young people in particular. She told me once how angry she was when another brother got in such a heated argument with his teenaged daughter that she left, 16 and pregnant, by train through St. Louis from southern Missouri. Mom was incensed when she found out that no one bothered to tell her that my cousin was on her way to St. Louis.

“I would have helped her,” my mom said. “She could have lived with us.”

I wouldn’t call my mom a social justice warrior. She was not an activist. Her tendencies in church work were more toward the evangelical than toward social justice. Her desire to help those who had nowhere else to turn was more personal in nature and led to the first time I saw Christian ministers and people turn away from helping someone in need.

Stay tuned…

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Musings on a Thanksgiving Monday

Musings on a Thanksgiving Monday

So, I’m on fall break. People think it means that I don’t work, but no, not true. I worked today. Because grades. Oh, and meetings to schedule. It never ends, people. Really.

And, I’m not complaining. I worked in my pajamas. I know.

I’ve been trying to keep a more positive outlook on the state of our country, all the while scoping out land in Vermont (blue state, close to Canada, fairly cheap). I actually got to the point where I thought that maybe, just maybe, the Biden-Obama memes would get me through the inauguration and that Trump Twitter wars just might get me through until the midterms when it hit…that darn Neo-Nazi, crazy-ass video of the white nationalists doing their Heil Trump, with the salute and everything.


I checked it out from several credible sources (I do try to practice what I preach), and it’s so real that the restaurant where their dinner was held issued a public apology. I won’t post a link to it because, because, because…

It’s Thanksgiving. Do your own research. I’M ON BREAK!

Saw the movie Loving last night. Cried. Watched Prince’s sister accept AMA soundtrack award for him. Cried. Got hit with a hard wave of homesickness for my mom, probably because of Thanksgiving. Cried.

Felt guilty about preparing for Thanksgiving while our country once again breaks a treaty with a Native American tribe. Felt powerless. Wept down deep in my heart.

Told hubby about Vermont plan. He said no. If the worst happens, HE’D run for office. He said with a serious face in a serious tone. I laughed…and laughed and laughed (which was his intention, lest you worry that I was making fun of him).

Still binge-watching The West Wing. Hubby has moved on to The Flash. The Netflix superhero series are endless.

But there’s GILMORE GIRLS. My next binge.

And one more PD James novel. My next book.

And my daughter, who came home from school, excited about so much…Thanksgiving with her cousin, Christmas, and a few leftover pieces of Halloween candy. She gets lovelier and lovelier every single day. She makes me smile. Every single day.

I am thankful for so much — my daughter, my husband, friends, family, and a job I truly love. I am blessed. I wish all such blessings for everyone this Thanksgiving. I mean that.

I leave you with words from Prince, as quoted by his sister Tyka, words of peace: “With love, honor, and respect for every living thing in the universe, separation ceases. And we all become one being, singing one song.”

Peace and love to you this Thanksgiving.

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Musings on a Monday

Moving my musings to the blog…or else I’ll never get started.

After three days of not eating much because it was too painful, I attacked three big squares of one of those fancy dark chocolate bars with shreds of almond and sprinkled with sea salt. Made the unfortunate decision to dip each square in a tub of peanut butter before eating it. I think I am now sick again, just of a different sort.

Sorry…I don’t count this as an election post (which I promised not to do)…but T wants his children to have top secret clearance? Really?

And some white nationalist dude as chief strategist?  WTF? I checked many sources for that one; it’s REAL people.

In trying to understand why someone would be happy with Trump, I’m reminded of the way I felt when I was at Aquinas Institute of Theology just after the priest sex scandal broke. I was all, “They should be in jail! It’s a horrible crime! These were CHILDREN!” and they’re all, “Yes, they broke the celibacy vow.” Stunned, I walked away muttering something about jail time while waving and flapping my hands.

I’m going to leave you figure out for yourself how that’s analogous to the current situation. ‘Cause I don’t feel like explaining it.

I am neurotic about what I put down in words so I must say that in the above statement I was not referring to the  professors or advisors at Aquinas, who were wonderful, but some of the priests who were my classmates. They kinda didn’t realize I wasn’t Catholic.

I’ve decided to binge-watch the West Wing. Just because. Problem is that my husband is binge-watching The Arrow. We take turns. It’s called marriage.

No matter who you voted for, if you need a laugh, check out the Biden/Obama memes. You will laugh. I promise. Trust me. Trust. Me.

Poetry is making a comeback right now. Poetry just might save our lives.

I’m still pondering Leonard Cohen, just beginning to delve into Merton again, and searching for Dorothy Day.

Let the light shine through the cracks.


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A very late Easter post

Every Easter, I am transfixed by the resurrection story, the truth of death and rebirth and presence and death and rebirth and presence grabs hold of my senses, permeating through my very being.

I have seen it. In the most basic sense, we all have. We just argue over how we express it. Each winter we are reminded of it, with the cold brown earth and brittle leaves fallen to the ground overlooked by bare trees etched in the sky, a trace of life with death overshadowing. Then the earth recovers, slowly at first with a few warm winter teasers, and then more fully when we see the buds form. As I check my flowering plants, I always wonder if they’ve made it through. Every year I think they’ve died. And every year I am wrong, even the year when dying plants were the norm and experienced landscapers were amazed that my new and struggling little plants survived.

But resurrection is more than just surviving a “seeming” death. It’s being brought back from a real one. There are so many tiny deaths we suffer every day, and in that death is the making of a new life, not the same one, but life indeed, just like Jesus after bursting through the tomb. The presence of that mysterious connection between us–that relationship that is as real as sunshine even though we struggle to describe it adequately–seeps through my crusty soul, stiff with daily life and worry, into the air that we breathe in that place where we all turn our eyes to all that we cannot explain. It’s as if Jesus is standing right there, pointing to the beyond, with an expression that beckons us to wake up and take notice, there is life beyond what we can imagine.

As I pondered this reality this year, I was struck by the dates in my life that are steeped in significance. Random dates, to be sure, but to label them coincidence seems to diminish reality in some way, shoving it under the rug because it causes us to question our sense of logic and materiality. One such example is this: April 12 was my daughter’s original due date, which was Easter that year. With an April birthday, she often has a birthday near Easter, if not on it. The same is true for my mother, whose birthday was April 20. That year, our Easter baby was not ready. She never dropped, even one week after the due date. The doctor put me in the hospital to induce, but nothing they did worked. They sent me home to come back the next day, April 20, my mother’s birthday (and her last). The doctor did not know that it was my mother’s birthday when she made that decision.

This year, my sister’s open heart surgery is today, April 12. When I was speaking to her husband a few weeks ago, he mentioned that if everything went well, she might get out of the hospital on April 20, my mother’s and Sienna’s birthday. I don’t know what to make of such coincidences in life. I’m sure there’s some sort of math problem that you can conjure up to explain the possibilities of that happening, but what I can tell from just a little bit of statistics is that the odds are against it, although probably not extraordinarily unusual. But such things cause me to pause and wonder, reminding me of the resurrection story.

My sister’s surgery is a success I’ve just heard, and yet I know that she has a long road ahead of her, a road positioned in the same world as the one in which she closed her eyes this morning and yet one in which everything will be different. It will be her own journey, but it will be one immersed in a new kind of  life, a resurrection, if you will.

So here we are, the same dates popping up in our lives as significant of life and death and recovery and presence and death and life again.

And he is here, too, (or “she” is, as my daughter would say) pointing to that which is just beyond our view.

Happy (belated) Resurrection Day.

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New Year’s Resolutions? Nah

sienna_drawingI meant to write a post reflecting on New Year’s, not exactly resolutions but intentions. Not feeling it, though, so never mind. Except this:

My wonderful husband bought me a new digital SLR camera that I haven’t used yet. So I’m going to take some photos with a decent camera this year…not my phone!

That’s it for this year.

I’ll end by sharing a picture my daughter drew, just because I feel like it. She’s wonderful.

That is all.

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