The week began with planting.
On Monday, my husband and I got up early and drove to an elementary school west of the city. In the darkness before sunrise, we helped his coworkers unload bale upon bale (upon bale) of pine straw, platters of pansies, purple cabbages, and bags weighed down with soil. As it grew lighter, more people gathered--both Sean's colleagues and their families, along with the school community, principal and teachers and kids. Though the sun was hidden behind a cloud, we set to work unstrapping the straw and spreading the strands around the front of the school, in the courtyard, all the way back to the playground. Shaking hands and introducing ourselves, sometimes talking, sometimes working in silence, children scurrying from spot to spot to help.
Around halfway through, two of us began to plant pansies in an unbroken circle, underneath the school sign at the entrance. The small plot already held soil, though hard at the top, and was covered with older pine straw. Not giving it much thought, we began digging out small holes for the flower parcels without moving the old straw. But as we worked, it quickly became clear that the straw needed to be raked out, with some original plants dug up and replanted, before we could go any further.
It was satisfying to remove the old straw, to see the soil slowly start to appear beneath it, to see the marks of the rake that showed us it was still soft underneath. When I went back to my spade and the pansies, I started to discover old roots not far down, and would pull and tug and follow to see where the root led--often ending up quite far from its beginning. It had reached far.
I savored kneeling in the dirt, wheedling a pansy and its packed soil out of the planter, waving to people who walked by.
On Tuesday, I listened to Bree Newsome speak. The woman I first saw scaling a flagpole nearly two years ago, holding the Confederate flag she had just removed from the SC state house grounds, doing what needed to be done in the face of terror and hate. What should have been done long before.
"What does it mean to be conscious?" she asked. Then she instructed us to breathe in...breathe out. Breathe in... breathe out. To be conscious, Newsome said, is to become aware of an unconscious behavior. To consider the reality that exists outside one's individual experience.
After the Mother Emanuel massacre, she told us, a small group of activists met to plan how to take down the flag. But they had to determine--who was physically able to climb, who could risk being arrested? When they narrowed it down, there were three remaining, and she was the only person of color. They agreed--how important for a woman of color to remove the flag. And how symbolic for a white man to stand at the bottom as lookout.
It wasn't that she was unafraid, she told us. But the power of this particular action, the necessity of it, outweighed the fear. She wasn't fearless; she was faithful.
You have to ask yourself, she said: What will be my contribution? Where will I jump in to help humanity lift itself up?
"Every person has within them the ability to be a changemaker," she said. "Deferred dreams will not sustain us as a society."
I hadn't realized that she isn't much older than I am.
On Wednesday, I went to a forum where we could share how we think our large private university can or should engage more deeply with our city. In a place where our individual schools are so often siloed and can feel almost like solo institutions, it was fascinating and inspiring to hear voices from around campus and beyond, acknowledging that we aren't doing enough, and expressing the passion to dive in--to connect with affordable housing, public health, the business community, hospitality, the arts, our diverse immigrant population, communities of faith, and beyond. It was a dynamic back and forth on how to use what we have as an institution and as individuals to create change.
On Thursday, Woodie W. White, a retired bishop in The United Methodist Church, delivered his annual Letter to Martin Luther King Jr. in our morning chapel service. He's done this every year for decades, recounting to Dr. King the good and the bad of race relations in America over the past 12 months. This year, he began, "the letter almost did not get written." But it did, thankfully for all who were present, and for all who read it. (You can read it, but it's not the same as watching/listening--which you can do above. Bishop White's voice will be balm for your soul.) We aren't just trying to build a better nation, he said, and I imagined Dr. King nodding emphatically. "We Christians strive for a more beloved community, for what we sometimes call the reign of God. It is where love and justice prevail and where we embrace a common humanity, not just as citizens, but also as brothers and sisters."
During the prayers of the people, we prayed for Barack Obama, the day before he left office. We prayed for Donald Trump, the day before he took office.
At the end of the service, the congregation joined hands to sing "We Shall Overcome." There was no one on my left side, so I lifted that hand up in prayer. As we reached each new verse, my eyes filled more and more with tears. We shall overcome... We'll walk hand in hand... We shall live in peace... We shall all be free... God will see us through...
Why did I cry? Because of the energy of all who surrounded me, including the cloud of witnesses I couldn't see but felt, the history and purpose of the music and lyrics. Because I was humbled by my privilege, knowing my tears would fall harder in the midst of oppression. Because oppression is still deeply real and present, and I don't know what's coming next, and I want to be part of the change. Because I adored this First Family and I could hardly believe eight years have passed. Because the raising of voices in song always makes me feel that there is good, within and beyond.
On Friday at 11:00 a.m., I bypassed my regular workout and a friend and I walked downstairs to the chapel for Holy Eucharist. I needed the sun shining through the stained glass cross, the intimacy of the small gathering (where two or more are gathered... and there were just barely two or more). I loved singing two of my favorite hymns ("Gather Us In," "The Summons"), and the piano music that accompanied the entire service. The two lessons were from the prophet Isaiah--"the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light"--and Matthew, when Jesus says he has come to fulfill the prophet Isaiah, "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light," and calls his first disciples to him. Khalia's homily shone with peace and hopefulness, and a call to follow, as that first call came so long ago. She invited the four of us up to the table for Communion, where we recited the familiar words together and served one another the bread and cup.
I've gone to church my whole life, but I've never bowed down at an altar rail and officially given my life to Jesus, never gotten "saved." It's not my way, not something I felt moved to do, and I didn't want to do it unless I felt moved. Some may say that's because I want to have the illusion of control in my life, and sure, maybe it is. But I think it's primarily because my experiences and relationship with Jesus have come organically, as I've grown up, left home, returned home, met people and communities throughout who have nurtured both my doubt and my belief.
I've always been a God girl more than a Jesus girl, because God is easier for me to comprehend, a feeling or a being deeper and wider than myself, than the world, and for some reason that has not been difficult to sense. God encompasses all elements, and there are many ways to God. I've never been bothered by, and in fact greatly love, the truth that there are multiple faiths within our human family. It's such a joy, that diversity of paths wrapped up in the same human seeking. And so Jesus has always been tougher for me--a human not fully human, yet God completely God, in the midst of a world that holds other possibilities for divine beings, and the one you believe in is often by the luck of where you were born and raised.
But Jesus has slowly become more real to me, as I cultivate who I want to be in the world, what I want to stand for, how I want to act. To be part of the great light. I'm sensing that more and more these days.
After Eucharist, at noon, we walked in the abnormal yet lovely January sunshine, stood outside a packed reception hall--the reception hall where Sean and I had our first dance as husband and wife--and listened to the strains of a Brahms quintet, in turns both leisurely and frantic. This is where I should be in this moment, I thought looking out over the crowd, frozen into music, as the clock carries us into the unknown.
On Saturday, I left the house at eight o'clock to buy poster board and markers at CVS. I guess this means I'm doing it, I thought. The downpour started not long after, making the couch more and more appealing. But the purchase of the supplies had been the deciding point--at 10:30, I kissed Sean, got back into my car, and navigated the watery highway to church.
I'm still processing a lot from the Atlanta women's march. My primary response is that I'm so glad I went, and I'm proud that I went. I felt hopeful, empowered, part of something meaningful in this polarizing age (though there's the tension--this was polarizing, too)--to lift my heart and my voice and my sign for purposes much greater than just me. I could have easily cozied up with a blanket and a book, but I did what was, for this introvert, the tougher thing. I would have missed out on the camaraderie, the hope, the adrenaline in the midst of 60,000 strong, and then when I got home, the amazement of a Facebook feed full of march photos from all over the country and world.
I wrote on my sign, "Do Justice. Love Mercy. Walk Humbly," from the Book of Micah. And so though it wasn't specified, I walked for Korryn Gaines, Terence Crutcher, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and more. I walked to show my Muslim neighbors my support, because how would I feel if I were persecuted for the most important part of me, my faith? I walked because a white man can still spend only three months in prison after committing rape and assault on an unconscious girl. I walked because my gay and married friends are my best Christian role models. Because immigrants are what our country was built on. Because refugees have nowhere left to go, and if we truly believe in the American dream, it should include them. Because the separation of church and state is important. Because 70 degrees and tornado watches in January aren't normal.
I walked because he may not be the president that I wanted, but he is the president... And I know my privilege as a white straight female shows up even in that statement, in accepting that, but I hated when some on the other side did this to President Obama, did not claim him for deeper, uglier reasons than policy, and so I'm trying, just the slightest bit, by at least acknowledging that current reality. I walked because in the midst of that current reality, I want to do all I can to be part of the great light.
To me, this is where Jesus comes in. "I do not deny that we have a new president, but I do not have to follow his example," I wrote on Instagram. (A woman on MARTA said she saw a sign that read, "He's the president, but he's not my leader.") "I'm sure not great at it, but I'm trying to keep up with this dude from Nazareth, who I believe would have marched--was marching--alongside us today." Jesus (who was not white, by the way) loves us all, but he walked with those on the outskirts, with the oppressed, with those whose rights are threatened, with those who need their voices heard. My prayer is that the new president ends up doing the same. But whether or not he does, my prayer is that I end up doing the same.
Another response that I've had after reading the thoughts of both strangers and people I look up to on social media (oh that oxymoronic space, blessing and curse, isolator and community-builder), is realizing that I need to be more humble, and recognize that I simply overcame my introvert-ism and rain clouds for five hours on one Saturday, when women and men of color and all personality types have been marching for decades in all kinds of weather, waiting for the majority of whites to join in.
No alternative facts here; just a convicting and true truth.
I think about Bree Newsome, leading us to breathe, in and out, in and out... Becoming aware of an unconscious behavior.
Because I'm not a march person, or I haven't been in the past. And I know I wouldn't have gone on Saturday if a group from church hadn't proactively gotten together and made it relatively easy for me to get there. I believe Black Lives Matter, but do I really if I haven't been to a march or a rally? I waved to the cops in their raincoats, said thank you, they smiled and waved cheerfully back, but if I were at a Black Lives Matter march, would they be as open, as smiling under riot gear?
And there's also the matter of intersectionality, which Facebook friends have brought up and educated me about as well--the truth that white feminism and the lives and rights of black women have not typically gone hand in hand. As one sign on Saturday read, "Feminism without intersectionality is just white supremacy." And the reminder on multiple other signs that while 94% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton, 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. So I'm asking myself: What is my role, as a white woman who voted for Hillary Clinton, who can barely comprehend why a woman of any race would vote for Trump (and I know that there are also women who can barely comprehend why a woman of any color would vote for Clinton) in starting conversations with my fellow white women who are Trump supporters? I hardly know any in the first place, and those I do are family members who I don't know that well and don't want to be completely ostracized from. How can I use my privilege to listen and speak to others of privilege who I don't understand (and then share my own side)?
Breathe in, breathe out... "Every person has within them the ability to be a changemaker."
I saw a Facebook post yesterday by Leah Peterson addressed to white women (she's white too), and I feel like I'm doing what she says not to do: "I see you out there, marching and trying to be better than you were last year, last month, last week, yesterday. I see you trying to figure out how to be an ally to the Black community and to other marginalized groups. I am too...And then I see you read something from a person who is expressing their hurt and anger, one of our Black sisters, and your old programming comes right back up *bloop* and it's hard to not just grab those old feelings and put them right back on...Stop. Just stop. Our Black sisters and other marginalized friends have every right to be angry and frustrated and impatient and sarcastic or anything else they want to be. Because they are expressing THEIR LIVED EXPERIENCE."
She's so very right. As a writer of real life, I can attest to the value of expressing your lived experience--most especially, the value and gift of others sitting with you in it without judgment, and even better, in support and understanding.
Peterson goes on, "The best thing you can do is take in all those feelings coming from our sisters who are hurting and angry and OWN IT. Remind yourself that yes, you're trying because THIS is how they feel. You're doing what you're doing because it's RIGHT and it's how humans with empathy and sympathy and a working heart should live their lives once they figure it out."
Breathe in, breathe out... What will be my contribution? Where will I jump in to help humanity lift itself up? To lift my fellow women of all backgrounds up, especially those who have been without my encouragement?
I'm grateful that Peterson wrote those words and shared them. I hope and pray I'm owning it, hope and pray that I can hold both of those responses--my pride and gratitude in participating, my humility and knowledge of much more to be done--in tension with one another, respecting myself, those I marched with, and those who have been marching long before me.
The one thing I wish I had done more of in the midst of the energetic, jazz band, cheering and chanting 1.7 miles: Talk to people I didn't know. At one point, I turned my phone around to take a selfie in the midst of the throng. I put it back in my pocket immediately, didn't look at the resulting photo. But when I got home, I noticed the woman just over my right shoulder. Beautiful, African-American, smiling underneath her baseball cap. Her eyes also reaching my camera.
I wish, so badly, that I had sensed her presence, turned around, and introduced myself. Or just turned around in the first place to do more than snap photos.
Next time. Because for me--for all of us, especially those of us who are growing in this knowledge--there needs to be a next time.
This piece of writing doesn't really have an end. I don't feel like it can, because here we are, still working. Still grappling. Here I am, still trying to explore myself and the systematic elements of privilege that have deep roots. None of it completely hits the nail on the head, all of it is imperfect. What I say in this moment is not the end all be all. It's just a start. But, being me, I had to write it down.
And though this piece can't really have an ending, I do believe that the the week itself ended with planting. Clearing the old pine straw out of a circle of soil, and finding soft, fresh dirt underneath the hard surface. Fashioning space for new roots to grow out from where they began, watering so that color will blossom. So that, planted side by side in an unbroken circle, we can learn and work together to be the great light.