Archive for the 'faith' Category

I am Not Rome

amywink June 26th, 2018

Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. John 14: 27

A friend of mine, with whom I engage in deeply satisfying theological talk, declared recently during a discussion of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, “I am Rome” as a way of illustrating his sense of his own privilege and personal history growing up in Dallas. I laughed. I continue to be amused by this description, partly because “I am Rome” is so brilliantly appropriate and while I do not think of him as Rome, that is often now exactly the thing I need to remember when we talk. But the idea of Rome–as the culture of social and economic privilege, the culture of what is “right”, the correct dream for everyone, the key to “success”–can be deeply seductive because Rome looks like a good life, a powerful life. It looks “right”. Claiming Roman citizenship, as the Apostle Paul did, protected a person from persecution (until it didn’t). One might be protected from being different even as one searches for a way to change Rome; one might even eventually use Rome to change Rome.

In recent weeks, I have been trying to comprehend the new direction my life is heading. Now that my immediate grief has subsided, now that I am rested and awake again to discovery and to understanding my own sense of who I am, I am deciding what I want to do with my time and my life now, what joys I will follow, what I am now being asked to do in the world. I did not have an idea about this part of my life, much less any plan for it, partly because it seemed like I wouldn’t ever get here and partly because I am still astonished that I am here. I am not a person who enjoys change but I have learned to change because that is what my life has been–that is what life is–even though I would prefer it remain stable, my life is changing. As Neil deGrasse Tyson so eloquently explained, “There is no fixed point in the Cosmos. All of nature is in motion.” Last spring, I noticed I was getting a little bored with my restful life, not unhappily bored, just enough to notice and I asked myself “Is this it? If this is it, I am okay, but I am not sure this is all for me to do.” I decided to let myself be bored because it had been so long since I had the luxury of boredom. I left the question hanging in the air, waited, and eventually forgot I’d wondered so dangerously out loud and honestly. Until an answer arrived “No, there’s more and you are only now half awake.”

I did not understand how true that was until I started writing again in the fall after I decided to take a risk (I had learned not to take risks) and accept the invitation to join the Disciple Fast-Track class forming at First. The invitation came at a moment when I had just decided not to follow an old idea of my future (and to leave behind most of the baggage that came with that old idea) but I had no idea where I was going and I really never would have thought, when I was taking that first step, that I’d actually be heading in the completely correct direction toward the life I had always wanted, one I thought I would never get. Inspired by our theological talk and Biblical reading, I started writing. Suddenly, I was a writer again and I was writing nearly every day, after not writing anything creative for a long time, almost a decade. Kathleen Norris described a similar experience when she described how the regular devotional pace of monastic life lead to an extremely creative period in her life; how the poetry just poured out of her during that time.

It was the same for me. I started writing poetry, and though I had written a few poems at the beginning of 2017, I can also describe this experience as poetry pouring out of me. And I let it. I didn’t even ask any questions about what was happening. I just wrote. By the end of the fall, and the close of the Old Testament Disciple study, I had written more poems in the 12 weeks than I had written in all my previous years combined. I wrote more essays, which I had also stopped writing, partly because I had not been able to think deeply. Suddenly, writing was no longer difficult, no longer a struggle, partly because I had the time and I was no longer completely exhausted, but mostly because some thing in me had opened and I was felt compelled to speak. I never expected (or even thought to expect) that the members of my Disciple class would be the most brilliant writing group I had ever had, though I did say at the start that maybe the class might make me a better writer. I never expected that First United Methodist Church would be the creative partner I needed for the return to my creating life (I do think Stacey would be amused and think it only right that the role she filled could only be refilled by an entire congregation of people). While I was surprised, I didn’t think that any of this was wrong. I felt a lot more like “Oh. I had no idea. Oh. ” I paid attention and I put together an entire book.

It was unsettling. Lovely, but unsettling, as if I was swept up in some thing much larger than myself that had moved me into the creative life I had wanted, the creative life I was meant to have. There was nothing between myself and the person I was meant to be any longer. I was reminded again how unconventional my life was. Can a poet ever be Rome?

I paid attention. I kept writing. I became a writer, finally, because all of me came together to write. All of me was suddenly present. It was an experience I recognized but one that had been extraordinarily rare. Suddenly and wondrously, I was completely present and writing. Someone asked me, when I tried to explain, “but you’ve written before?” and while that’s true, all I could reply was “Not like this, not at all like this.”

I paid attention. I tried to explain to those who had no idea why I was astonished or so happy.

I was open and I was the self I had always wanted to be, the person I had been working toward, the person I had set aside because I had other things I had to do, the person I thought I’d never get to be again. What had been in the way was no longer there. And I understood, with some horror, how very bored I had been. There is nothing quite like being fully engaged to reveal how very dulled I had become.

I paid attention, and almost without noticing, I was much further down the path into my next life than I expected, and I was surprised by where I was heading because in all the yes I was feeling, there was abruptly a new ask, a very different kind of “yes”, a quiet but arresting “oh, by the way, and also this.”

And. Also. This.

I stop.

And Rome catches me, whispering old fears I still carry deep within me, and those fears erase the “and”, cloak the “yes” in convention because I am asked to be something I haven’t the vaguest notion of how to be, except that it seems also a thing that I have always been, just newly defined. I am limited by my conventional understanding and doubt floods me even as I try to reconcile what I know to be true with what I am being asked to recognize is true. The safety of conventional understanding is also the danger of it and while I know this, I also suddenly lose that understanding in my confusion. While I have tried to live conventionally before, that life has never been mine, even if I hoped for convention (because that would seem safe) at some moments. My recurring nightmare of being offered a conventional life that I cannot afford to turn down speaks to my deeper understanding of who I am. I am not Rome.

But the voice of Rome, the voice of culture, the voice of convention, is seductive in ways that are confusing. The voice that encourages us to be who we really are is slowly drowned out by the voices that say “here is the one way.” Even as I am being asked to expand who I understand myself to be, (the “And. Also. This.“) I am faced with pressure to narrow “and” to “only” some of which is my own making and some of which is well-intended advice from friends, advice I have sought but which I find myself (annoyingly to myself and I’m sure to them as well) only able to answer at this time, “no, not that.” or “I don’t know” or “all I know is this” in very very vague terms as this writer loses her language, her means of being in and understanding the world. In his essay, “Self-Reliance”, Emerson wrote there are “voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the [humanity] of every one if its members . . . It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”

At this moment right now, I am without a name for what I am supposed to do, the customary understanding seems not exactly right and every time I press against those conventional ideas, I know it isn’t right even though I would love to know the end point toward which I am currently headed. All I know now is the direction I move will open if it’s right, and it may only open one step at a time because I can only take one step at a time. As a wise friend recently counseled, “You will know.” When I am quiet, I know this and I remind myself “follow what you love” to learn my newest direction. I remember I am a writer and what I do next must also support that. But, it is so easy to forget, so easy to want everything to be clear before it can be clear. So easy to want to be Rome, even though I am not Rome.

When I learned to drive, I started with no experience, not even riding experience. I learned from the very beginning and I learned how to have good hands, soft hands. For those who do not work with horses, it seems that we use our hands to steer by force, as if the strength in our arms might actually move a horse’s entire body. But what we are doing is counter-intuitive, softening the hands so the horse seeks contact with his mouth through the bit and reins. It is not the goal of a good driver to force a horse by pressure into moving, but to ask a horse to respond to the soft pressure guiding him where to go. This was very hard to learn and it is possible to use a severe bit and hard hands to move a horse but that is not good driving. Luckily, Will was forgiving and easy to drive. When I started driving my mare Blessing, I had to learn how to lighten my hands even more, so soft was her mouth, so sensitive to the slightest movement of my fingers. Sensitive to a fault, my trainer said, and slowly brought us both along. I don’t think she was speaking only of the mare. Blessing refused to listen to hard pressure so becoming stronger, using a heavier bit only made for arguments I would never win. We frustrated each other even as we wanted to work together.

I wanted to drive her. I wanted to be good enough. And I pressed myself hard to be good enough, yet I didn’t exactly know what we needed until I stopped pushing against what I thought I needed to do. I waited and thought instead about a different way to connect. I knew my limitations and I knew her needs, so I looked for the softest bit I could find. If I could not lighten my hands enough, I needed a bit that helped us communicate. I ended up with a riding bit, a French Link snaffle, a bit designed for horses with a low palate, with a large copper lozenge in the middle. It wasn’t a driving bit and it was entirely non-traditional, but with that light bit and my soft-enough hands, Blessing and I could drive together. Eventually, I also learned that if I took off my leather gloves (as is not allowed in competition or advised at home), we could drive even better. She listens and responds to the softest hands I can muster, the lightest squeeze of the fingers. She is a challenge to drive because I must always be mindful of our light connection but when we are together on our drives, we are present to each other and moving together with only the slight pressure of my hands. She is always looking for me and I am always reaching for her.

I was once asked why I drive her in a snaffle, by someone one who thought she needed stronger handling and a more severe bit to be made to obey, someone who seemed to think of horses as machines. I only explained that this was the bit that she liked, that I liked. I knew my mare. She wasn’t going to obey my hands if they were heavy. I looked for the way for us to work together because I wanted to work with her, not against her. We simply needed to listen for each other. She wanted to work with me, not against me. My wise trainer knew all of this. She also knew I would figure it out.

Right now, I am thinking of this lesson with Blessing as I think about the yoke I am accepting, the light burden I am being asked to carry. I am asked to understand “and also this” not as a limitation, but an additional understanding to the self that I am, an additional element in the creation of my fully human self that will enable me to do the work that I am meant to do in the world, even if I do not yet have a name for what that is. I am being asked to explore, to be curious, to learn, to keep going, not as a single-minded pursuit of one thing, but as a growing experience of who I am continually becoming. And I am being asked, not Rome, to bring everything that I am to this call because the work I am meant to do is also seeking me.

Failure in Translation

amywink June 14th, 2018

A friend I knew in graduate school used to tell the story of how her friendship with the cluster of Italian graduate students began at a museum in Italy, where she, speaking Italian, had constructed her sentence in the language she was still learning and instead saying “I have made a mistake” she had, in her usage, said “I am a mistake.” To which the kind Italian stranger standing beside her had responded effusively, “Oh, you are not a mistake!!” and had helped her understand the difference in translation so that she would not longer announce that she was some kind of “mistake of the Universe” and had only, like humans do, made a small mistake.

Our American cultural narrative of success provides no such nuance and moving home at 36 means only one thing: failure, as in “you are failure.” Our belief that if we work hard, do the “correct” things, follow the conventional path, we will be rewarded for our efforts has no room for what happens when a person does all those things and still cannot find the job. The external cultural narrative exerts a great deal of force on the understanding of experience, even if the knowledge of what has happened complicates the prevailing idea. Add to that the popular misconception of work in higher education as some kind of easy life in the ‘Ivory Tower’ completely divorced from reality (and therefore the target of a fair amount of cultural hostility) from which no one can ever be fired. Let me just say, I have never encountered this utopian vision of academe and when people talk about the “liberal” slant of higher education and the feminist paradise that exists there, I laugh (but that is another essay for another time.)

I had not lived at home since the summer of 1987, when I left Austin to pursue my graduate degrees at Texas A&M, after completing 4 years of undergraduate school at Southwestern, also not living at home. I had not lived at home for a long time, for good reason. Our cultural narrative of “moving home” implies that home is a safe place; that one is returning to the nest seeking the comfort of a welcoming family. The cultural narrative has no room for the problematic return to an environment complicated by mental illness. When I knew that the only path before me was the road home, I was afraid. Afraid because it seemed right and afraid because I knew what I was heading into, except I didn’t really know that what I was about to encounter was worse than I had expected. Yet, failed and afraid, I came home in May of 2001. My parents did welcome me and were also afraid.

It would be unfair of me to claim that they did not want me home or thought I was a failure just as it would be unfair to claim that I was not relieved I had a net at the bottom of my fall from grace. They both worried, about what this meant for them, what it meant for me, what it meant for us, and a lot about how would we all afford this. My mother was a retired teacher, my Dad also, though he was working at Home Depot. Our home, the house we had moved into in 1974, was not large, 1300 square feet. I moved most of my things into storage and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, since my conventional plan had not worked at all. I was about to have a book, I had a lengthy vita, I had years of successful teaching experience. This was the thing I was made to do. I had a gift that no one wanted, a calling that culture refused to answer.

It was a hard place to be.

When people say “embarrassment won’t kill you,” I have often responded “No, it’s worse because you have to live through it.” The same goes for failure, you have to live through it. I understood, on most days, that I was not failure, that the system was the problem. While academic and popular culture might push the narrative that I was a failure because of my own fault–something I hadn’t done, some step I hadn’t taken, something wrong with me– I understood that the story people might be telling themselves was a story for their own comfort, whistling past the graveyard of failure themselves, holding onto their ideas of rewarded merit. I had tried to follow convention and it had not worked at all.

I had fallen. I was flat on my back. I was no longer looking down at the frightening fall. I had to look up. I also looked around. My parents were in serious trouble. My mother’s bi-polar disorder was poorly treated. My father, though we did not know this at the time, was beginning to feel the effects of Parkinson’s disease (which would be diagnosed in 2005). The house was in disrepair with half-finished renovations my Dad could no longer manage and also filled with things my mother refused to part with (yes, it was a hoard). I knew I could not live like that. I knew they could not live like that.

I had come home hoping to leave as fast as I could and suddenly I understood I could not leave.

“I cannot leave.” I told Stacey, who said she always remembered the moment when I said that. And it didn’t matter what culture said about failure. What mattered was not abandoning my parents in their difficulty even if that is not what I wanted.

It did not look like my calling, and yet, here was what I was being asked to do: care.

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A Landscape of Indifference

amywink June 12th, 2018

As much as I would like to say that my escape from my first academic job lead directly into happiness, my second academic job at a small university in Kansas, came with troubles of its own. My friend Sheryl had indeed saved me by contacting her friend, the department chair, and he hired me to replace an outgoing faculty member so in the summer of 1999, I made my way, with the help of my BFF Kristi, into the heartland and out of Texas.

And it was beautiful. I left behind the tall pines of East Texas, my garden, and my darling house, and moved to Emporia, in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, 45 miles south of Topeka. The town was picturesque, a postcard for Midwestern Americana. It looked like home.

And yet, I had a terrible time finding a house to rent that wasn’t in such a terrible state of repair as to be dangerous. I did eventually find a house with a fenced yard (I had dogs) and I set about to make it habitable–though I never was able to keep the birds from falling out of the furnace in the basement and suddenly flying into the house and the hole in the ceiling was never patched. The young faculty helped paint the interior before my furniture arrived (3 weeks later), and I pulled up the shag carpet with the permission of the landlord (as God is my witness, I will never have carpet again) and made the place mine. I tried again to bloom where I was planted but I also knew that I was not going to be able to move again and again. My roots did not like being disturbed. I knew it was going to be was this place or no place. I held on to hope for this place but something had gone out of me and I was more reserved and wary.

That fall, the silver maple in the front yard turned such a miraculous color of golden yellow that it illuminated the entire interior of my house, which I had also painted yellow. It felt like peace.

The department chair encouraged me to teach my academic specialties, asked if I wanted to teach another women’s autobiography class, engaged me in the department. I sent my book manuscript off to the press, where it was accepted for publication. All seemed to be going “according to plan” and I continued to do all the “right things”: attend conferences, publish, teach.

Everyone said I was “on my way” to a good tenure-track position. And it did look like that because that is what everyone said was the right way to go about getting an academic job. This was the plan. This is how it happens. And yet that was no longer the way because there were far too few jobs and the old “right way” to get one had not kept up with the times. Still, everyone clung to the idea of the right way because what would it mean if that was no longer the right way?

I had no interviews that year at MLA (where everyone in Literature and Languages interviews), which was in Chicago, where I visited Stacey, and we watched 1999 turn to Y2K as Tom Brokaw kept saying “Nothing continued to happen.” Truer words were never spoken. Nothing continued to happen.

I tried to love where I was anyway. I loved the Kansas prairie. I spent a lot of time antiquing and learning the history of the area. I was very close to the route of the Overland Trail to Oregon and could go see the ruts worn there by all those who traveled West. I visited Lawrence occassionally, which was gorgeous. I tried to garden because I could suddenly plant things that would never survive in Texas. I liked the students, who were genuine and kind as one might expect in Kansas, and who found me quite exotic (just as my East Texas students had done). My classes filled and I was happy enough. I taught an Advanced Composition class focused on personal narrative and had an amazing time with the students. Two of them had essays published in the college wide publication of Best Essays, and faculty commented that personal essays usually never did get in.

I taught a wonderful class in Women’s Diaries the first summer and it was perfect, a dream class in which I was able to do the things I wanted to do with the 6 students in the seminar. I took them as a class to the Kansas Museum of History, where we toured the exhibit and had a more visceral experience of the diaries we’d read of the Overland trail–one student tried to lift the iron kettle and nearly fell over. We all understood that she’d have died on the trip. I took them all out to dinner. It was a beautiful teaching experience and one I will always cherish because I got to be the teacher I always wanted to be.

And then the department chair left for a position at another college at the end of my first year and in the midst of that change, all the welcoming faculty retreated to their offices. I became invisible.

Active hate is one thing to experience but indifference may be worse. At least with active hate, you can see your enemy clearly. It’s easy to know you exist, even as some kind of ill-conceived representative of an idea. Indifference makes a person invisible. People stopped talking with me. If they did talk with me, mostly it was to assure themselves that not thinking of me was perfectly reasonable. I heard more than once “Oh, you’ll be fine. You have a book.”

And yet, nothing continued to happen. The new chair perkily told me, standing in the door of my office, that there wouldn’t be a position for me the next year. She wasn’t sure she could even offer me summer teaching. And I was at an end. Nothing I had done made any difference and yet this was the thing I was entirely meant to do. This was the soul-work of my life and I was very good at it, gifted. I had the vita to prove my worth. And there was no help for what to do next except cursory suggestions that I “could do a lot of things” or, the fall back for everyone who can think of nothing “There’s always technical or business writing. You’ll be fine.” And they walked away.

That winter, my golden tree did not last a week as winter blew in with snow. My house did not glow with the light as the entire landscape turned grey and icy. It was an apt reflection of my internal darkness as the vision of my future faded. At Christmas, I had to wait for the temperature to rise to zero before I headed south to Austin.

I did apply for a number of other academic administration jobs, etc, and nothing continued to happen. My future went entirely black and my own light almost went out.

Only one way opened, returning home to Austin, to live with my parents for what I hoped would be as short a time as possible. I had no idea what I was walking into or what I would be doing or anything else. I just knew I had to go. And so I came home a failure in May 2001 because “home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I was 36.

20 Years

amywink June 7th, 2018

It has been twenty years since James Byrd was murdered in East Texas, when I was teaching at Stephen F. Austin State University. My memories of that time still cause a visceral reaction and my voice shakes when I tell about it, though I keep telling it. But it is different when I write and perhaps that is why I write instead. I originally published this piece in the Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. 11(Winter 2005-06). I still remember holding her hand.

The Middle of Difficulty

Sometimes in my writing classes, I have asked my students to write about a community problem and determine what action they, individually, can take to affect change. In essence, what can an individual do on a personal level to solve a large, sometimes overwhelming, problem? They do very well describing and pointing out problems, writing ardently about things that need change. They flounder when describing what they can do, falling heavily into cynicism and ennui. It’s not that they don’t want to create change, it’s that they do not recognize how an individual continually creates and re-creates the world in which he or she lives. This year, I may tell this story:
In the summer James Byrd was dragged to death behind a pick-up truck outside of Jasper, Texas, many of us in the region were fixed in our horror. The heat was unbearable as well, rising to near 120 on many days, as if Hell had been invited in and decided to stay awhile. I was teaching an eight o’clock class to heat-exhausted undergraduates. One day, a colleague noticed one of her basic writing students, an African-American woman, nodding off in class. When she asked her if she was ill, her student replied that she was very tired because she had been walking to the university from her home . . . 30 miles away. Her story unfolded. She had been refused Medicaid benefits for her epileptic son because, when she’d gone to court in her clothes from Goodwill, the judge thought she dressed too well to need the money for medication. Because she didn’t have enough money to keep her car, and she knew that getting her education was the only path she had out of her life in poverty, she walked. Because she wanted to be in school, she walked, starting well before dawn so she could make it for her first class at 8:00. She walked in the dark, in the piney woods of Deep East Texas, which stretched on to the east, where her cousin James had recently been killed.

Profoundly troubled, my friend started to find assistance for her student, whose needs were so many. If nothing else, we will get her a ride, I said. I asked my class if anyone came from the same direction. My quietest student, her Irish ancestry clear in her red hair and porcelain skin, volunteered, her eyes widening when I told her why she was needed. We arranged for our students to meet and they began their daily commute together. When I met my colleague’s student that day, she could not speak but to this day, I can still feel her hand grasping mine. I had done a tiny thing, but the impact was great. Her world changed. My student later wrote how much she learned by talking with her new friend as they drove to campus, and I asked her if she ever thought about what she might be teaching with her own being. My friend and I continued to find help, and while we could not change everything– the history of racism and sexism compounding the difficulties of her personal life, the poverty she struggled to escape– we did help. And we found more help. No, this small connection did not end racism, did not cure her son of epilepsy, did not free her from poverty. But if we had thought only of solving these problems, we might never have solved the most immediate one. She needed a ride to school. We found her one.

I hope this is a story my students understand. I hope they learn to see solutions as easily as they see problems. I hope that they see how they might practice in their lives the small changes that affect the larger world. I hope they understand the necessary union of theory with practice. I hope they consider how their ordinary lives can exemplify larger ideals. I hope they understand that generosity blesses the giver and the gifted. I hope that they see in the middle of difficulty, there are many opportunities awaiting discovery.

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

amywink May 31st, 2018

In this place of presence,
I stand remembering,
church to the right
cemetery to the left,
thinking of the walk
between the two,
and I, instead, looking across
and into the memory
of wide fields and the horizon
east, when the sky filled
with billowing storms
and trains passed
north and south.

Standing here
in this thin, quiet place
between now and then
where once the favorite home
of my memory stood,
I returned to the porch
and steps and swing,
returned to when
I sat listening, at six or seven,
slowly opening to the way
I would learn to tell
the beauty of this
difficult world,
a gift arriving
on a whisper

“See? Here it is.

Here. . . here. . . here.

Tell it.”

and I began.

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