Lent: Redemption

amywink February 21st, 2018

“Stories are a gift to the tribe and stories have always been the best way for us to make sense of this hard world, or try to.” Greg Garrett

Reading the 19th-century diaries of Henrietta and Tennessee Embree taught me a great deal about compassion. The moment Tennessee wrote about backhanding her two-year old daughter across the face, hitting the child hard with her ringed hand and then her own horror at doing so was a moment I had to put down her journal and think hard about how I might judge her or understand her. I had liked her, felt for her, and suddenly, she struck her daughter in an unforgivable way and I could not like her.

Her fate in my writing would depend on how I responded. I could dismiss her. I could demean her. I could forget her humanity. She was racist, wealthy, abusive. What more did I need to condemn her? We are so much more evolved now, right? What value would there be in considering her humanity? Instead, I found my compassion in understanding the life she lived with her abusive husband, the fear that pervaded her life, and what must have been overwhelming moment, one that exploded into violence. I forgave her.

It has been over twenty years since I first encountered that moment in her 1867 diary and yet that moment stays with me today because my work turned on how I responded to her. A graduate student once wrote me about Tennessee Embree, asking “If there was basically a women’s shelter in Belton, why didn’t she just go there for help?” There was judgment in the question, like there is still today, but the answer I sent was very simple, very human: “She didn’t like the woman who ran the Belton Women’s Commonwealth.” That is the thing that stopped her. I never heard back from the graduate student. I suspect my answer might not have been what she wanted to hear, but it could also have been that my answer was just not exciting enough, not deep enough, for what the student wanted to write. I don’t know. I do know that Tennessee was a human being and it is hard to be a human being.

What does it matter what way I wrote about this long-dead woman? What does it matter how I chose to respond in a critical book on women’s diaries that so few people might eventually read? My response mattered because I was telling her story, the story she kept privately, the story I was reading, the story that now became part of my story. My responsibility to her story was also a responsibility to her, my responsibility to understand her humanity. I had to reach. I had to set aside my self (my PhD-seeking, make-a-critical-impact self) and reach, instead, for her.

When I eventually met Tennessee Embree’s descendants, they asked me “What made Henrietta and Tennessee special? What made them important enough for you to write about?” I answered, “Their ordinary lives.” I explained that they lived ordinary lives, in a community of people, and experienced ordinary human things, in the same way that we experience ordinary human things. The value of their diaries is exactly that, not in being extraordinary. When we read the story of ordinary living, we can come to understand what makes us human, the things that connect us to each other. The moments of ordinary failure, or ordinary achievement, help us understand, as Richard Rohr describes, the “shattering experiences of living.” Their ordinary lives, their ordinary words, reach across time and like a revelation, illuminate the difficulty and elegance of being human.

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