Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

On Black Lives Matter: confessions to my friend, a cop and Christian, whom I admire and love.

In Uncategorized on 13 January 2016 at 4:50 PM

Truth is, I love you like you’re my brother. And I respect you. And I think that as a cop you have a lot of courage to do what you do—a lot of willingness and self-sacrifice. I’m grateful to have those kinds of things in my friends. Thank you.

And while you are in more danger than I ever was as a public school teacher, I have come to believe that these are comparable jobs insofar as one can be a good teacher, or a good cop, and still belong to a system that needs to be critiqued and improved.

I was not a bad person because I belonged to what I have always thought was a bad system; no, in fact I think I was a good teacher. I think I earned the respect of my students and their parents. I think I changed lives. But I also think the public schooling system is a horrendous way to educate our children. I did not take it personally, then, as a harm to myself, when someone slammed the public education system; instead I had to listen with an open mind, then go on teaching as best I could, even if I agreed with them.

A better example, though, would be this: I am what many call a pacifist (though I take issue with “pacifism” as a concept and term), and I believe that military force which takes human life is immoral—but I also respect and love and am grateful for the points of view of those who are in the military. So even though I disagree with the system they belong to, I do not undermine them or their courage.

In the same way, while I uphold our friendship and love you as a brother, there are also things I have come to believe about our country’s (and the police’s) relationship with the poor, and with racial minorities (especially those we colonized or conquered in the past, such as First Nations people, Latinos, and Black Americans), that demonstrate a large system that needs critiquing even today and even while the police may themselves not be bigoted individuals.

It is very complicated and nuanced, this position of maintaining unity between us while having such different views, but I suppose all that’s to be expected. Here we are, the descendants of powerful people, who because of this power cannot see our history well. Our nation does not know how to handle the past, either. We don’t know how to grieve the horrors of the past and move forward from the conquering and colonization of peoples whose suffering we gained from. We turn a blind eye on how, say, we “evacuated” Oklahoma of First Nations people in order to give it away to white Americans. We do not think twice about redlining and how Black Americans have been kept from building wealth; we demonize the poor descendants of once-conquered peoples while forgetting the genocide and enslavement that fortified our ability to produce wealth through “good, honest hard work.” And when echoes of these injustices grow loud, we scramble to silence the past.

But it won’t stay silent. Dissonance resounds.

I think you and I disagree about these things. Even so, I’m mostly comfortable with our disagreement, though of course I wish you’d be persuaded to see things my way, since at bottom I believe what I see is closer to justice—justice which hopes for your partnership. Still, I hope to refrain from fostering an “apartness” between us, and from sustaining poor critical reasoning between friends, so I accept our disagreements for the most part.

Since I consider you someone worth disagreeing with but loving nonetheless; since I have known you for years and want you in my life; since I respect you: I offer you a bit of what I’ve come to believe and how I’ve come to believe it. We may disagree at the end of it, but it moves us toward a deeper conversation with each other, which I am willing to enter into.

I was attending lectures of a class (called Understanding Race & Sex Historically) that my writing students were enrolled in, and I was reading the books on the syllabus, etc. (one was called The History of White People, which is so so good, though I acknowledge the provocative title that likely turns a lot of people away), and taking notes about the history of racism.

The professor was a legal historian who lectured through the history of racism by showing how American laws had built bias and oppression into the foundations of our country. It was an incredibly insightful semester, one that caused me to doubt the history I had memorized, or at least the angles of heroism I had once learned to love. Sure, over the years I’d heard rumors of “Your American heroes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” but I’d never really sat down to study the other side.

In great part because of this class, I saw that much of what I once believed (whether expressly or passively) about the racial history of America is incomplete, is biased in favor of the (mostly white) rich, and exists largely without my interrogating it (which makes my former passive beliefs as or more harmful than any expressed belief I might have had).

I recommend The History of White People, for sure—it’s by a historian from Princeton, Nell Irvin Painter, who helped me name some of my own misconceptions about race (especially that race is a social construct, a scientific myth, something fake I’ve been told is real, so that I have ascribed certain attributes to certain races).

Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it like this in his book, Between the World and Me: “the people who want to be white,” and “the people who need to be white.”

These descriptions of white people—which emphasize that whiteness is a myth created by “the people who need to be white” in order to separate themselves from “black” people and “red” people—rhetorically work their way into my thinking: need to be white; want to be white. Not just “white.”

Because “white” is fake, is a fantasy, is the result of a demand to be powerful because 17th-century Virginian lawmakers made it so. This myth has been very powerful for me and for American culture as a whole. And it has caused so much suffering. And it persists as a social reality even though it’s a scientific fiction.

(I believed the fiction, to some degree, for a long time.)

Anyhow, even though the legal historian’s lectures opened me up to historical perspectives I hadn’t considered before, and even though Black Lives Matter was a real and functioning organization then, I hadn’t really been fully “converted” to this new way of thinking. #BLM was more or less just one of many causes, from my point of view.

Then somewhere along the way, it occurred to me to ask, “When did the Civil Rights Movement end?”

This was the most interesting and upsetting question I had going in my head for a few months. Because, growing up, I (passively, unreflectively) thought the Civil Rights Movement was a discrete movement—with a beginning and an end. And I think that, while I’d never asked the question before, I believed the Civil Rights Movement had ended when Martin Luther King was killed, or I guess I just sort of assumed that’s when it ended. And I also believed—not outright, but implicitly, passively, unreflectively—that the Movement had been a success: MLK had “won.” MLK was the “good guy” who had beat bad racism. He got a holiday on his birthday like Lincoln and Washington. He was in my history books in black & white pictures, proving his victories were from long ago and I didn’t need to worry about them. He was celebrated and allowed into the fold of great Americans. So we totally understood his message and realized the Dream, I thought.

The backwardness of that thought didn’t hit me for a long time, until I intentionally sought out answers. How did his assassination end racism? Wasn’t his assassination instead evidence that racism was alive and well?

In fact, right before he was killed, he wrote a book, Where Do We Go from Here?: Chaos or Community, describing how he believed the work was just getting started.

Rather than think, then, that MLK’s death was somehow the end of a successful civil rights movement, I instead came to believe that MLK was a martyr of an unfinished movement, that his Dream was never realized, and that while he’d helped Americans move toward unity there was a long way to go.

But what more work was there to do?

I had never imagined that as a good question, and I had never imagined that there was even a possible answer to that question, since I’d (passively) believed that MLK had won, that the work was finished.

Yet there it is—this question exists and demands an answer: What more work is there to do?

The question isn’t mine to answer, but to ask—and to listen to others answer—since I am now totally outside of my own wisdom and experience.

A very powerful part of my coming to believe this was that I had, for years and years, taught MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to my writing students, but I began to see something new in it. The letter itself is a beautiful appeal to the white clergy in Birmingham who had written an open Letter to the Editor criticizing MLK’s presence and actions in Birmingham. They said he was “untimely” and “unwise.” They talked about how he should wait and how justice, in God’s time, would come about. (They were much like the white liberals who booed the BLM activists as they disrupted Bernie Sanders’s speech: sympathetic with the aims but against their means—but more on that soon.)

Teaching MLK’s letter from my fomer point of view—from the point of view that agreed racism was wrong but that MLK had “won” and the Civil Rights Movement was over—I just sort of moved through how powerfully King responds to his contemporaries: how he appeals to them on every level, how he so intellectually makes a case that I, forty & fifty years removed, can now see clearly.

Of course, King was right; of course, the clergy were wrong. But I only see that as one who believes his time can be analyzed justly from my vantage point, from the “other side” of racism (as though we somehow have reached that “other side.”)

But, having today changed my point of view—now believing that the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t succeeded completely, that there is not (yet) an “other side” of racism, that King’s death made him a martyr, not a victor—I have begun to see that the white clergy had a lot in common with, say, Fox News commentators and well-meaning conservative Christians (my friends and family) who, like the clergy of MLK’s day, tried to explain to King how despite King’s (and the rest of Black America’s) expressed suffering, white America somehow still knew better than King did.

White people telling Black people what’s up about Black experience, about Black expression, about Black protest: it looks very familiar to me. And it made me believe that now I lived in a time of a new (or continuing but newly vigorous) Civil Rights Movement. And history told me that the most reliable people about Black suffering were not white people in power, but the Black people who were suffering.

Show me the way, then, has become my new posture.

That is, I give credibility to and trust the voices who shouted out, who cried out, whose only form of “evidence” in their arguments were things like, “If he’d been white the police officer never would have…” And when I replay scenarios (like Trayvon Martin & Mike Brown & Ezell Ford, etc.) in my head, now with white men being stopped instead, I find that I can only agree. Their point of view comes from their experience; the only thing that has changed is…I believe them.

It turns out, though, that I implicate myself as having bought into racist (or, white supremacist) lies, since I actually have to do the computation in my head in order for the truth to be clear to me: that is, my need to consciously give those voices credibility, and my need to pause and ask myself, “If he’d been white…” means that, deep down, to me, “Black people aren’t fully human.” This is the message I have learned in my country, in my community, in my “Oh, come on, I was just joking!” culture and background.

This is pretty uncomfortable for me to realize about myself, because I find I’ve been complicit. I am part of the problem. And this breaks my heart.

And still, I recognize people like me everywhere: well-meaning white people like me (though I am brown, too, but whatever, since for most of my life I self-identified more with my white friends and family…) who have all their lives thought in the same matrix of reasoning that led me to believe (1) race was somehow real, that (2) Black people are in some (perhaps un-nameable) way fundamentally different from me, so that (3) because of that difference I don’t relate to their pain as I ought to.

The mythology leading me there is powerful, though not always this obvious. And I have to realize that. I have to learn to doubt myself, and my formal education, and (even my implicit) beliefs about race.

So I found new people to teach me. Cornel West was one of those. I heard him speak at CSULA (where Black Lives Matter LA cofounder Melina Abdullah is chair of the Pan African Studies department) to defend to the president of the university why Pan African Studies ought to be among the General Education requirements for all students—not just a major or minor or set of electives. It was the most stirring lecture I’d ever listened to.

One line stands out to me, which again revealed my implicit agreements, my complicity, with white supremacy: he said,

“Anybody who thinks they can understand Modernity—not just Malcolm X, but John Coltrane, W.E.B. Dubois, E. Franklin Frazier, Duke Ellington, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, The Dramatics and The Whispers—if you think you can understand America, if you think you can understand the modern world, if you think you can understand what it means to be human without Black Studies, the doings and sufferings of Africans in the New World, it means you haven’t had a strong enough commitment to truth and justice.” (The true speech, after the introductions and thank-yous, begins at 35:00.)

But I’d only ever understood Modernity through Descartes, Locke, Kant, Jefferson, Pound, Eliot, Wolfe, Stein, etc. I’d only ever seen my history through white ideas, not through Black suffering. Black people had never entered into it, except as they appeared in my college electives, like in classes called “The Harlem Renaissance.” If West was right, though, I needed a stronger commitment to truth and justice—and I had plenty to learn, especially since I didn’t know many of the names on his list.

How many millions of people throughout how many hundreds of years—how many voices crying out had I been taught never to hear? And how ought this Black suffering belong to my education, to my intellectual life, and finally to my actions in the world?

This insight hurt me. I’d compartmentalized the ideas of white men from the sufferings forced on Blackness. And I hadn’t seen that they belonged to one another inextricably.

So I began to fish around for answers to other questions. And I hold my face to the fire each time I learn a new insight, which was and continues to be a spiritual discipline for me, a kind of prayer of repentance, a kind of confession—since whenever I learn some new insight, that feeling of insight correlates to my complicity in white supremacy, because the only reason I hadn’t already believed the insight was that I was trained to see things from the point of view of the “people who need to be white.”

So I have allowed my sources of credibility to shift. Each book, poem, speech, video, demonstration, etc. implicates me, shows me I need to be humble, shows me that I need to listen.

I have come to believe, then, that the burden of proof is on people like the white clergy in MLK’s letter and no longer on the MLKs of our world (a rhetorical move even he makes at the end of the letter, when he moves to express his disappointment in the white church). The burden of proof is not on the activist, not on the BLM spokesperson, not on the kid who stares down a police officer as a form of nonviolent protest, not on the chanting crowd doing a die-in in the streets—but on the descendants of those who have for centuries refused to hear them truly, people like the white clergy in 1960s Birmingham—that is, it’s on people like me.

They may not look like MLK to us (or Gandhi or Mandela or Tutu or Thich Nhat Hanh, etc.), but one thing I find interesting is that those leaders could only ever “look like” MLK to us from our present vantage, from my point of view today. In his day, MLK was a menace, monitored by government, hated by power, a threat to the status quo, made to seem horrible, threatened constantly, and eventually murdered.

That is, even in his own day, even MLK didn’t “look like” the MLK we know today.

King cried out against an unjust system. Black Lives Matter does, too. And if the system itself is unjust, we can’t demand that they go through the system to prove its being unjust, though that’s what the white clergy had argued—“Don’t disrupt,” “Use legal means,” “What’s legal is just,” things like that—which is reasoning that loses its traction after a few paragraphs but for some reason has held on in the courts and in the media even until today.

If we use the same “What’s legal is just” logic—or, similarly, if we use the “Only those who were convicted were guilty” logic—logic many use today to show how police (because of non-indictments and legal exonerations) aren’t part of a brutal and unjust system—then we’d also have to agree that Black people were also never lynched, since no one was ever convicted of lynching.

But because we know they were, we also know that the system had something wrong with it. The BLM movement is responding to the same kind of thing, since lynching was once sanctioned by the state. In the same way, we know that unjust but “reasonable force” is also sanctioned by the state, among many other evils. So we have to appeal to something bigger than the system—that is, we have to appeal to justice—in order to bring about change, which is what the protesters are up to.

It’s a beautiful poem, really, what they’re up to, their protests, and we begin to see the beauty and elegance when we begin to listen to them like their stories matter as much as ours do.

To put this in Christian terms—they belong to a prophetic movement. But prophets are only recognizable as prophetic…in retrospect. Still, before history shows them to be prophetic in the past, prophets had to be trusted (or else exiled) in the present.

So the history of Black suffering is the history of white supremacy acting in God’s name, conquering the world, demonizing and brutalizing and marginalizing the Other. But the prophetic imagination that speaks truth to power is a vulnerable, awful, dangerous, beautiful thing, and the powerful are uncomfortable with it, as they always have been—especially for well-meaning, loving, introspective Christians like me who find it difficult to reconcile that outward brutal systemic power structure with the kindness in my heart.

(Which, if I’m honest, is a powerful function of white supremacy: to distinguish my inward life, my motivations, my private spirituality, from justice in the world. This distinction, which I have so longed abided in, has kept me quiet and prayerful where I should have been loud and disruptive.)

So to be non-Black, and to be (as) complicit (as I am) in white supremacy, is, in my view, to negate myself from having much to say about how the prophetic imagination ought to look—since it’s never the powerful and complicit who are the prophets, but the subjugated, the enslaved, the driven out, the outsiders.

To participate in justice, then—again, in Christian terms—I first have to admit that I’m more like Pharaoh than I am like Moses; it’s my job to listen to Moses, to trust him—not to critique his message. While I am uncomfortable, then, when I demonstrate in the streets (I have heard people say things I disagree with; I have marched alongside communists and anarchists; I have marched alongside Black Lives Matter activists being indicted for felonies; I do not agree with all of everyone’s goals, nor do I think I gain—among my friends and family—anything from their reputations), still, I think this is a prophetic movement. This message is, in the end, peace and justice—God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

And, as I look back at the prophetic voices of last century, I see the unified vision of Black freedom in everyone’s heart, which kept everyone singing together—and which brought MLK (Christian) and Malcolm X (Muslim) and Howard Zinn (communist) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (Jew) to lead followers along the same path, though they had disagreements between themselves.

I should not, then, critique the BLM movement as much as I ought to learn from it. And even if I did criticize the movement, the burden of proof is on me —is on power, on Pharaoh—not on Moses. The burden of proof does not belong to those—as it has in the past—who cry out, “I suffer!” but on those whose response has been, “Yes, but your real problem is…”

Additionally, I do not believe that “respectability politics” (the name for what those in the movement think white America is demanding of the Black activists) is the right means anymore (though it might have been at one time, especially in MLK’s day when the only chance for Black people to be heard would be if they were dressed up in ties and dresses, staying calm, saying please…), even though nonviolence, peace, and justice are always the goal.

Let’s remember, protests come in all shapes and sizes, including the destruction of property—and we ought to abide in the distinction between violence and the destruction of property, while looking compassionately at those who “explode” in places like Baltimore last spring. The passive bus boycott worked (for a little while) in the 1950s. But the Boston Tea Party is praised in American history, which included the destruction of property. And Jesus cleared the Temple, which also included the destruction of property. And the Underground Railroad was, after all, according to the laws then, outright theft, and yet we’re in favor of it. Sometimes people march in the streets; sometimes they strike; sometimes they chain themselves to trees; sometimes they dangle from bridges to stop ships from passing; sometimes the “occupy” Wall Street; sometimes they intentionally busy phone lines; sometimes they tweet or share videos on Facebook. Some of these protests qualify as what you called “sabotage”; others you may approve of and call “civil disobedience.” We like to pick and choose our protests: we like the students protesting in Tiananmen Square, but we condemn BLM protesters blocking the 405 freeway.

It’s not the respectability, then, of the protestor that I want to trust, but their ultimate message, their angles on peace and justice—and for my part I agree that BLM is out for authentic peace and justice.

(But this is where I try to make a distinction: I do not believe that peace is the absence of violence, but the presence of shalom—which is putting things to rights. Shalom is the word that makes brothers of justice and peace, so that “No justice, no peace!” is not a chant to make threats, but an ontological crying out, a call for shalomI believe that today, when the government calls for “peace,” they really mean “silence.” And authorities appeal to MLK—i.e., “Martin Luther King would not have demonstrated like they did in Ferguson”—as a way to silence the prophetic disruption whose goal is true peace, true shalom.)

So I do not think that BLM should have to be “respectable,” since the burden of proof is not on them anymore. It has been too long—the data has long been available, the stories have long been told, the laws have too long been changed while systemic racism remains—for the burden of proof still to be on Black America. They are tired and angry and demanding equality. And they should get it, even if they have to raise their voices.

When I reread the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I see that the most beautiful paragraph, the most heartbreaking, is the paragraph where King describes why it’s no longer time to wait, but time to act. I find this paragraph—its message, its emotional relevance—is still true today, only it’s been put on hold another fifty years. We are hearing the same responses from power today as we read in history books, and yet we are only able to recognize prophetic imagination in MLK in retrospect; we must have the courage to name prophetic imagination in our own day, and belong to the present Kingdom movement. Otherwise, being more like Pharaoh than Moses, we might face the plagues—or as Langston Hughes wrote, “What happens to a Dream deferred? // …does it explode?”

So, because of my complicity with white supremacy, I find I really have no say in what happens to the deferred Dream. I can repent of my complicity, but I can’t direct the movement toward justice: it isn’t mine to direct.

This is the reality, I think, in today’s America: Whiteness can make no demands on Blackness, and things have started to explode. And yet Whiteness continues trying to direct, to object, to critique, to characterize MLK as in a different category from Patrisse Cullors, which is to assume a position of power and privilege—to demand being Pharaoh—rather than to repent and make movements toward reconciliation.

Even so, Black Lives Matter is a movement of nonviolent direct action, much like King’s, though even members in the movement have warned against demanding “the next King,” since protest is something to engage in, learn from, and progress over generations. I have talked with and demonstrated with and partnered with some of BLM’s leaders, including Jasmine Richards, Shamell Bell, Melina Abdullah, and Patrisse Cullors (who appears in this video of a nonviolent, ongoing, creative protest). They are amazing, wise, driven, creative people who deserve our respect without their needing to be “respectable.” Instead, they’re creative disruptors responding to—and teaching so many others how to respond to—real injustices in a way that speaks truth to power, but nonviolently, through creative direct action.

I say this—I praise them—even while I do think it’s a stretch to demand that they be like our present perception of Mandela or King or Tutu as criteria to partner in their movement, especially since Mandela (and King and Tutu, et al.), in their day, were unpalatable-to-power prophetic voices (e.g., Mandela was once considered a terrorist in our country); that is, it would be very difficult to discern who the current MLK is, even if there were one, without first hearing them and trusting them.

At the same time, I think we ought to remind ourselves that prophetic voices have a long history of being so strange as to warrant (from the point of view of the powerful ) their assassinations, their being driven out, their being despised, their being on the margins. I’m reminded of Moses, Nathan, Elijah, Hosea, Amos, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul: speaking truth to power is never soft on power, and it comes at the cost of one’s reputation and often one’s life. Power hates the prophetic imagination and will do what it can to silence it.

And Richards, Bell, Abdullah, and Cullors (among many others), as far as I can tell, are doing it right—doing it with anger, sure (even our prophets were angry), but doing it in the name of love and justice. They are unbelievably, unapologetically, beautifully, bravely acting in and for the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And it’s my honor to have joined them as much as I have so far.

I find it my first job, then, to grow in compassion. I have to “un-become” racist even while I have become an anti-racist activist. (And I have to become the kind of person who doesn’t need to do the computation of “If he was white the police wouldn’t have…”). These are my first moves, but they happen simultaneously with my activism. My actions cannot wait for my unconscious bias to catch up; I have to move forward.

So I find that I’m a teacher (to some) in this movement—a teacher for outsiders who might become allies—since I’m someone who is “outsider enough” to ally with BLM while also communicating to people who aren’t Black.

I was recently a part of a panel along these lines. We watched a PBS documentary called American Denial (which, by the way, I couldn’t recommend more highly—it’s so tremendously important and good, filled with great thinkers and writers like Michelle Alexander and john powell (also here); other thinkers and leaders, like Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, singing here a song that moves me deeply, are also worth listening to; Vincent HardingJohn LewisAlicia Garza are all voices that belong to this chorus). We had a panel in which I confessed my complicity in white supremacy, my passive but harmful beliefs, and yet my commitment to name and overcome my biases.

Today, I try to show how power might partner with this prophetic movement. We have so many examples in history of those who failed to hear the greater message, who missed the forest for the trees, and I want to help people see the forest. Which is why my friend Justin Campbell and I cofounded The Just Love Coalition, and why we continue to find ways to be active in the name of racial equity, even though I’ve still got so much to learn.

In short, I think that if we offer Black Americans the kind of credibility, say, that a journalist would give to witnesses of a crime, their collective voices unfold a story far outside of our experience—and yet well within our responsibility—so that I am compelled to join what seems to me a continuing Civil Rights Movement.

Again, we may disagree. I understand that. And maybe after all these words here you still aren’t persuaded; maybe nothing has changed between us. But allow me to name what I see, even so: you are my friend, and a cop, and a Christian, someone I love and admire—and I am a new activist who has allied with the movement for Black lives. We are on different sides of the issue, something that has begun to touch both of our lives deeply. I appreciate that our disagreements may tempt us to part ways or grow resentment between us, but I also hope to remain united to my friend, my brother. Thank you for listening to me. I look forward to listening to you.



To my sons, for Father’s Day.

In Uncategorized on 10 June 2015 at 1:50 PM

Dear Jonah & Simon,

My family was pulled apart by lust: years of lust, generations of lust. So I grew up in two homes. In one home I woke up in my bed on school mornings; the other I visited two Saturdays each month, and Uncle Chris and I used the extra blankets and pillows they kept for us. In both places we heard and saw so much very loud anger, and in both homes there was secret quiet lust, and soon everyone moved apart from everyone else. Uncle Chris and I went largely neglected.

So much very loud anger and secret quiet lust and moving apart from everyone else gave us good reasons not to trust our fathers, but we did not know how not to trust them, precisely because they were our fathers. So we learned, over years, how to keep secrets from others, and from each other, and from ourselves.

Which is to say, from a purely mathematical point of view, if you look at just the odds: your mother took a terrible risk to marry me. Because if you think I’ll be around to raise you, cooking you Sunday-morning French toast; if you think I will teach you soccer and baseball in the backyard and bring you Band-Aids when you need them; if you think I’ll pray with you when you’re afraid or tell you the lie that I am the strongest (so monsters could never get you); if you think I will see you more often than two weekends a month and every second Christmas, then I should say very plainly so you can understand: it’s probably not going to happen.

Because the odds are the odds. We hardly have a one-in-three shot of making it through together. This is the most uncomfortable truth I know.

Even so, Spirit moves within us and we move along its Way, even if we move slowly along.

For example, I have now lived with both of you longer than my own father lived with me. The first time I realized this—that, living with Jonah, I’d out-lasted my dad’s time living with me—I was alone in the house as I picked up after you, on the phone with your mom while you and she were out running errands. Your mom and I were talking about what our plans were for the day, and while we talked I found one of Jonah’s toy swords in the bathroom, stuck through the handles of a cabinet, as though you’d trapped a monster hiding in there. You’d left the sword there, I imagined, and went off to play one of a hundred other games you play.

I pulled the sword out of the cabinet’s handles, laughing at first. I told your mom what I’d found and I said to her, “There must have been a dragon in the bathroom this morning. Jonah was busy being a hero before breakfast.”

Then I thought how my own father did not know my daily games at this, your age, that he never saw daily evidence of my own Hero Movements throughout the house. So, on the phone with your mom, I began to sob, and I couldn’t talk anymore. She didn’t quite know what to make of it—because I’d just been laughing about how beautiful it was.

In stories I have written, my descriptions of fathers and sons take up so much of my energy and feeling. I have become any kind of writer because of wounds my fathers gave me, whether from neglect, or abandonment, or physical harm, or their drinking, or their very loud anger, or their secret quiet lust, or just having no one bring me lunch on my birthday.

A wise poet, though, taught me that from my wounds my compassion grows up. And I’ve seen that from my wounds, I write stories. I look deeply into my hurt: into the hurts I’ve felt, and hurts I’ve caused, and hurts I’m capable of causing still. These teach me how to write, but they also teach me to love and forgive my fathers generously, and to pray for them, and to hold them close to me when I see them and say, “It’s good to see you. I love you.”

More than my writing, though, more than the working and thinking I’ve done through graduate school or as a professor—more than any idea I get paid to do—you, my sons, demand of me more creativity, more intellect, more patience, a better memory, more willingness to think new thoughts and to change, more depth, more vulnerability, more courage. I have never worked so hard as when I am with you, as when each morning I remember you, as when I’m showing you and telling you and teaching you about the Way of the world.

Just last week, Simon asked a question that Jonah had also asked a few years ago: “Did God make our house?” How do I help this child, who can’t listen to me say more than ten words in a row, to understand both that God made everything but that humans made the house?

But I am Dad. I am All The World’s Answers. I am Security. I am Tallest. I am Strongest. I am Smartest. (But of us only I know today that I am Full Of Shit.) So I thought. I was quiet. I’ve read some about this, and I’ve heard smart people have discussions about this. So I tried. And I gave you two words.

I gave you the word Creation: Creation, I said, is the whole world God made. All living things. All trees and rocks and mountains and dirt and sun. All oceans and sky and wind and rain and cold and hot.

Then I gave you the word Culture: Culture, I said, is what we make of Creation.

Our house is Culture, I told you, because we took Creation and made something of it. You seemed to understand pretty soon and I felt like a pretty good dad, a good teacher, a smart someone you loved and trusted. You pointed at the dogs and you said, “Creation!” You pointed at the couch and kitchen table and you said, “Culture!”

Of course, I was ripping off Andy Crouch, someone whose book I hope you read someday. But that’s exactly the point: How do I take my knowledge, my wonder, my questions, my doubt, my hurt, my love, my compassion, and then get them into my child when he asks, “Did God make this house?” How do I give you Plato’s tripartite soul when you don’t want to take a bath but have to; or measure the Teacher of Ecclesiastes against Aristotle, then unify their ethics for you; or do I let you fall down or do I keep you from falling down, or both, and when; or when do I have to keep up playing Hard-faced Dad, or when do I give in and just give you another damn scoop of ice cream; or when do I apologize, or change my mind, or explain myself, or say, “Because I said so”; or when do I just hold you as you cry?

These questions will go unanswered here. The point is not to answer them, but to show them to you, and again to remind you that, in truth, the odds of me staying in this family to discover the answers together—they’re low odds. It’s a sad truth. It’s a truth that shows us the horrors this world can contain.

Still, it’s a truth I remind myself of almost every day, in order to begin from there—begin from hurt I’ve felt and caused and am capable of causing still—and to move forward.

If I’m going to be any kind of a Dad Who Stays, then I have to make it my life’s work, my best work—better and beautifuler than anything I’ve ever thought up as a writer or professor, better than any explanation I might offer you, my sons—to stay.

And to be welcomed to stay.

And to become exactly the kind of person my fathers were not.

And it will take all my energy. And it will take all my love. And it will take all the compassion that comes up from my wounds.

So now I look at you, Jonah and Simon, and it occurs to me to ask: Are you Creation, or are you Culture? And I find that, to me, you are both: God made you, and your mother and I make you. You are God’s work, God’s Creation, given to us to make something of. And today, I’m doing my part, as far as I know how, to make Culture of you, to help form you, with you, even as you are precious without me.

So this is one last word: Every day when I remind myself of our terrible odds of staying together, and when I begin by first seeing the fact that I am broken in just the same ways my fathers were broken—I understand that I have an option to choose Resentment. If I want to, I can remember and abide in what my fathers did not give me. I could, if I wanted to, hold it against them for hurting me. And I could sustain those feelings. Some days I have chosen to abide in anger. I have thought about my father’s decision to leave us, about his choosing the pleasures a woman gave him over the thick rich deep roots we, his family, should have grown about him, his choosing to raise her kids rather than his own sons.

And sometimes I’m tempted to stay in the angry feelings, and to agree with them, and to escape from them—which, if I did, would, after years, only replicate and multiply those angry feelings in you.

So instead, on most days, given our terrible odds of staying together, and given that I have no good business being among you outside of Spirit’s movement among us, I remind myself that I am broken in just the same ways my fathers were. Then I choose to see what I can be grateful for. Because I am broken—so hurt and so hurtful—I can grow compassion and forgiveness for them, and I can be grateful. And while I could expose you to the same story I used to live within, a story I grew up in, a story I don’t want you to live within or grow up in, I can choose instead to be grateful for the willingness to move against that story.

And so, today, Gratitude is what I want show you, is the fire I’ll huddle around.

I have been taught to seek out Spirit, to open myself to Spirit, and to find and name and move within my gratitude. Today, rather than remain angry that my father did not know me as I know you, I am instead grateful to know you, grateful to hear the sounds of your laughs, grateful to remind you that, No, communion juice after the service is not punch; grateful to run my fingers over your hair and face; grateful to watch you wrestle, and jump, and be shy, and sleep. I am grateful to be with you when you cry and scream and throw tantrums. I am grateful for your disobedience. I am grateful for your need. I am grateful for your vulnerability. I am grateful to comfort you when you’re afraid.

I have learned to be grateful, in the space of just one breath, for your whole lives, your birth and your old age, all the good, all the bad, all the easy, all the uncomfortable, because you are Creation and you are gifts to me to make something of. So if there is anything I can teach you today, anything I can show you, anything I can build into you—it is this deep abiding gratitude just to be with you, just to be your dad.


I wrote three paragraphs. Finally. Three!

In Abraham, Allison, Bathsheba, Breath, Christianity, Communion, Connected, David, Genesis, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, Job, John, Joseph, Making a Mistake, Mary, Moses, Mud, Myth, Passover, Prayer, Prostrate, Spirit, Stations of the Cross, Stillness, Story, The Way, Uncategorized on 24 March 2013 at 8:57 PM

At my church for the past few weeks, we’ve been observing Lent and meditating on the (new) Stations of the Cross. I’ve helped organize and facilitate some of that. Below are the meditations I wrote for this week, the final week of Lent—


Twelfth Station: Jesus Speaks to His Mother and Disciple (John 19:25-27)

Abel, dead and cold in a field, had been Adam & Eve’s innocent son. And Abraham bound Isaac to the altar. And Jacob for years lost Joseph to the wilderness. And ten thousand mothers of ten thousand murdered boys cried out to God in Egypt. And Bathsheba’s baby died very soon. And David wept for Absalom. And Job and his wife, what but the whirlwind was left for them after the quake? — And you, Mary. You lose your child, too. You kept him safe from Herod once but now you watch his body suffer, bleed out, die. What hopeful secrets does He keep from you, Mary, and what horror does He allow you to abide in? You belong to the Story; your sacrifice is your people’s Story—and now you bear its weight. The Kingdom comes but you don’t know it yet. So let yourself be held. Move into the arms of this beloved disciple. It is no consolation, I know, but the LORD gives you this body to writhe against, to weep into, to suffer alongside you. Love upholds you still. So can it be, Mary? Blessed be the Name, even now? Will you say it with me, Mary?—will you bless His Name with me, even so?


Thirteenth Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross (Luke 23:44-46)

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” Jesus said. What can I commend to God? Not even my time on Facebook. Not my morning coffee. Not my impatience. Not my wife’s emotions, nor my own. Not my anxiety. Not my desire to control. I cannot commend into His hands my desire to be best, to be noticed, to be liked, to impress. But these are what He requires in the Kingdom. I’m to be a vessel of His Kingdom, not of my small loud will. So I close my eyes. And I practice. Father, into your hands I commend this breath. And this one. And this one again. I breathe You in, my Father, and I breathe me out. I take your Spirit within me like these filled-up lungs, like this blood that stirs throughout my body. I breathe in your Likeness, your Spirit. I join my breath to yours. One breath at a time. Into your hands, my Father, my Creator, I commend this breath. And this one. And this one again.


Fourteenth Station: Jesus Is Placed in the Tomb (Matthew 27: 57-60)

As you lie prostrate on the cold hard ground your body feels the earth against itself, this God-made earth, so big, so full of love and death, now against your chest, now beneath your belly, now pressed even to your cheeks. This is not an insight; it is a practice. Your body, your only true possession, rests upon the earth. You can smell its wildness. You can hear its generations of passing life, this great muted groan singing to you as through layers of mud. When you are dead you are like the mud. You are a once-a-song returned to the mud. You are a once-a-song that became silenced by the mud. It is the Way of the world. Even God becomes like the mud. He joins you—for you. His body becomes like the layers of mud and contains for a moment all these muted songs. Alive, He was so beautiful a vessel; dead, He becomes like the mud. Listen. Stay here on the ground until creation sings to you through the mud. Stay quiet. The world is singing. Press your ear to the earth. Listen to the silent groaning music. Join your God in the mud. Join your voice to His beautiful—to His terrible song.


Chase us. Bug us. Haunt us. Woo us. —A communion prayer (4).

In Christianity, Communion, Connected, Jesus, Making a Mistake, Moses, Myth, Passover, Prayer, Uncategorized on 8 October 2012 at 6:21 PM

Our Father,

We are tired. And we hurt. And we twist inwardly. In the evening, before bed; while we sleep and dream or stay awake alone; while we wake in the morning, eat, shower, arrive; and even now as we gather in your Name: there is this Something and this Something Else. And if I pay attention I can feel them moving. I worry and I fear and I plot and I fight and I grow bored and I complain and I doubt and I gossip and I eat too much and I desire and I grow proud and I hide and I agree with my disappointments and I hope and I trust: apart from the Name. I understand that I want you and I do not know how to want you. I fear you and I go on being afraid. I return to you and I continue in my exile. I am foolish. I am your beloved.

So I am tired—but I wear myself out; and I am hurt—but I am hurtful; and I twist inwardly—but it’s my own shame I’m trying to escape.

And I find, after years and years—I regret myself.

Still, you have come—you, voice of creation; you, Passover lamb; you, Bread in the desert; you, Messiah. You wash my feet. You break yourself open. You pour yourself out.

Because of you—even while we do not know ourselves, even while we do not know what we are doing, even while we fumble around like badly told jokes—even so, we gather in your Name. You say, This is my body. You say, This is my blood. You say, Remember me. So we try. We do what we can. —But give us your Spirit; help us do what we cannot do. Chase us. Bug us. Haunt us. Woo us. Help us love, and trust, and pray—according to the Name.

Malachai. Beethoven. Sigur Rós. —A communion prayer (2).

In Beethoven, Communion, Curse, Elijah, John the Baptist, Malachai, Sigur Rós, Uncategorized on 27 April 2012 at 8:54 AM


At first I cannot decide whether to read your oracle to Malachi in silence, or while listening to music.

I choose music.

Then I cannot decide whether Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or the Parantheses album by Sigur Rós will be more appropriate—whether the promise of joy, or of curse.

I choose Sigur Rós; I choose curse.

You see me. You hear me. I read aloud. I pace.

What are these sounds of curse, this music that teaches me the weight of curse: that darkness, that apartness, that despair, these slow sad movements, these notes so far apart from each other. Yes, you love your people. But when they—when we—do not abide in the Way, when we leave, rob, keep for ourselves what belongs to you: we become a curse.

So I read aloud. And the music is here. And the curse is all around me, is in my ears, is filling me up: voices singing longing, voices singing destruction. You show me the way of my darkness. You surround me with curse. Its weight is unbearable. It enters my body and it moves throughout my body. I am filled with it. I am crushed by the curse. I am under the curse.

So I join your people. I am with them, thousands of years ago. I am among them. And we are selfish. And we have robbed you. And we are afraid. And we are desperate. And we are apart from you.

And what then.

“Behold,” you say, “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome DAY OF THE LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers.”

Even while we rob you and turn away from you, even now while we are a curse: still we are your children. Still you promise Elijah, the gift of John the Baptist. Still you promise the DAY OF THE LORD, the gift of your Son. Still you promise reconciliation, the gift of your heart turned towards me, of my heart turned towards you.

In remembrance of the curse, in remembrance of your Son, in the hope that you and I will turn towards one another: we break bread and we drink of the cup. We join the story: it comes—the DAY OF THE LORD comes.

Because of you, we remember together that in your Son, in this broken body, in this spilled blood, the promise of joy now contains and overcomes the promise of curse.

Father, forgive us our sins, we beg. Turn your heart to your children, we pray.

Italian chefs from Egypt. The peoples of Ecuador. Mean, helpless old ladies. Mongolian Barbeque. Even so.

In Allison, Connected, Italian chefs from Egypt, Jonah, Mongolian Barbeque, Old ladies, Raymond Carver, Robin Dembroff, Simon, The peoples of Ecuador, Uncategorized on 31 August 2011 at 10:29 AM

My family are Latinos, which means that even though the invitation to the Mongolian Barbeque says 6:30 PM (just thirty minutes before our one-year-old usually goes off to sleep), they begin to show well after 7:15 PM, except us, except us, since a few weeks earlier we were eating at the Italian place, to wish my mother and stepfather well, to say goodbyes before they went off to Italy for three months, that restaurant owned by an expert Italian chef from Egypt, where the food was perfect but the kids went nuts, screaming, throwing food, pounding the table, spilling drinks, finding seven hundred ways to ruin a nice evening at an Italian restaurant, so that we received from other patrons (and gave right back to them) all kinds of dirty looks, so that even this old lady told my one-year-old nephew, “My God. Can’t you just shut up?” and I gave her a long, cold What the fuck, grandma, you wanna start something? stare, until she quietly went back to drinking her old lady’s milk with her old lady’s pills. So, tonight, when my brother invites us out to dinner at the Mongolian Barbeque at 6:30 PM, we show up early, very early for Latinos, at 6:00 PM, and we feed our kids, and we stuff our faces, and we wait around like a bunch of idiot gringos for the Latinos to show up. Does this strategy work? Almost. By the time the peoples of Ecuador arrive to eat, our kids have already eaten, are therefore not grumpy, and we believe we, the parents, are in control. We believe we are geniuses, that this night is an enormous success. And we look around to confirm that there are no old ladies to intimidate. But the peoples of Ecuador have brought their children, and these children see my children, and they play with my children, and, now that it’s getting late for children, this evening at the Mongolian Barbeque  becomes like a slumber party, with screaming and running and strange secret games long into the night. And Jonah, my three-year-old, who can blame him, who can say it could go any other way, gets himself into some trouble, because it is so late, and because he hits, and because he screams, and because he scratches, and because he kicks, and because he bites, and because he is three years old late at night with cousins and children, and his little child’s body does not know how to behave in a Mongolian Barbeque where there are no slides or wide open places to kick a ball. So he disobeys. And we tell him No. We walk him outside. We have a time-out. We come back inside. We tell him No. We bring him back outside. We spank. We bring him back inside. We tell him No. We bring him back outside. And it is late in the evening now, and we are driving home, and it is after the trouble, after our words together, after the time-outs, after the spankings, after his biting and hitting and kicking and screaming and telling children mean words. The night is quiet, and we drive silently along the road. And Jonah says, “I have to stop doing those bad things. I have to stop doing those bad things. But I just can’t.” I hear him say this, and I hear him repeat it, and I ask him questions, and Alli asks him questions, and he keeps saying it, keeps saying, “I just can’t, I just can’t.” I am moved to tears, and Alli holds his hand, saying, “We know. Mom and Dad know. We are the same way. It’s so hard, isn’t it, Jonah, to stop doing bad things. But do you know that we love you, Jonah, and that we are always connected.” And Jonah says, “I just can’t stop,” but then he repeats after Alli, “We are always connected.”

The past few days, I have been thinking about that night, about how rich and beautiful it was, about how my son taught me about honesty, and love, and the sickness of my inward life, how he taught me about my God who loves me and forgives me and abides even in my sickness. And then something else came to mind, an old student, Robin Dembroff, who, just before graduation, was inducted into the college’s honors society. She asked me to be the one to induct her into it, so I did. And this is the speech I wrote to do it:

Robin Dembroff is the smartest student I have taught, the one I thought about when, preparing for class, my anxiety would rise about my whether I know…more than they know. All professors know this feeling, know those moments: moments of faking it, of saying “I don’t know” in four-syllable words, of believing that any second now the game is up, moments of, “How long do I have look up and away, and say ‘ontological’ and ‘soteriology’ –so I can just—get—out—of—this?” It was her face I saw, her questions I imagined, her possible objections or obscure facts that made me afraid.

For this reason, I am glad to be rid of her.

She is very smart, the best kind of student. And every teacher she’s had knows it. In this regard, then, she belongs in the EKE. And for this she deserves our recognition, deserves this ceremony, deserves my personal and heartfelt congratulations:

Congratulations, Robin. This is a big deal. A wonderful achievement. Thank you for being so smart, for taking so much time, for devoting yourself to such difficult questions, for being such a good writer and thinker, for being so creative, for being the kind of student who intimidates me.

But your being smart, or my being your professor of smart stuff—these are not why you asked me to be here. My standing here has almost nothing to do with smart stuff.

And I want to honor that. And I want to spend my time talking about you in ways I know match your reason for my standing up here.

There is a very short poem by the great storyteller Raymond Carver. Carver: that reformed and recovered drunk, that cheat, that neglectful father, that abusive husband, that generally mean person. The poem is called “Late Fragment,” which he wrote at the end of his life, just before lung cancer killed him. This is how it goes:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Carver, the brilliant storyteller and worst kind of person, who told his own life without excuses, presenting himself in his stories as the worst kind of person, finally found recovery, found a great deal of reconciliation, and, eventually, he found himself beloved on the earth—even so. It’s in the even so that his life story is told here, in the even so that my and your and Robin’s lives are told. We are suffering, wandering, confused, hurt—and hurtful—we are the kinds of people who, left to ourselves, are no better or hardly better than Carver ever was. And, even so, even so, we are beloved.

This is why Robin wants me up here. Because of even so.

To be honored in front of so many, to be told Good job, and Congratulations, and We think you’re something else!—it’s a kind of love, or a stand-in for it. At the very least, it’s like love. Because it’s people giving you this big good thing.

And in its being like love, this smart stuff event, I think Robin made the mistake of putting up in front of you someone who almost has nothing to do with her smart stuff, but someone who has seen her through years of her learning her own belovedness; someone who would assume her smart stuff and then ignore it; someone who will instead tell you about her belovedness even so.

Last year, Robin wrote love-letter-paintings to many, if not all, of the Torrey faculty, these people who represented to her smart stuff and even so. Her friend Renee painted likenesses, and then Robin wrote the words over the painted image. Here is what she wrote on mine:

Of course, he says. Of course, yes. Fingers skim along rows of bindings, pulling down certain volumes. Not that he means to read from each one. He wants to remember them, delight in them and, most of all, simply have them in his hands. He arranges the books in a careful stack on his desk and, each time he lays one down, talks about a particular section and the author’s particular genius. Always in particulars. And this—amazing. Amazing. He extracts a book and, for the slightest instant, pauses to feel its weight in his hand. While he tells me about the text, he turns the pages over, one by one, only to have their texture between his fingers. The rustle is warm and familiar. His eye skims passages, head shaking with awe. Does he know the corners of his mouth arch this way every time a familiar text is in his hands? Or how many students have learned to love fitting words through witnessing this expression? To find richness in so many things… We see it most when he looks at his son. Or hear it when his voice cracks, and he laughs at the remembering of himself. He leans back and is still. Now. Space to wordlessly revisit where we have been. Words are beautiful, but only as signs to wordlessness. I remember. Now. I am beginning to understand where understanding ends. He knows this place, and that is how he brought us here. Now. Nothing but to sit here and process. To process without being alone. To not be alone as the end of the question. And then—slight lean forward. I know the drill. Social etiquette for time awareness. My appointment should have ended long ago. I motion as if to leave, but when I blink, he’s leaned back again. A gentle, but defiant flash passes through his eyes. No, no, wrong, it says. Things can be different. He searches for something until he finds it. And then his finger jabs a page and slides the book to me. Read that, he says. Everything is in that ‘even so,’ he says. It’s wonderful, really. Even so. Wonderful. Even so.

And so, Robin: No, you are not alone. I hear you. I am connected to you. My wife, my in-laws, and I—we love you. You are a part of our family. You are a gift to me as much as I am a gift to you. You are a gift to this institution, to your teachers, to your friends, to your family, to our Lord. You are beloved on the earth. Even so.

Peculiar Graces: Introducing, our baby! (by Allison)

In Peculiar Graces, Uncategorized, Written by Allison on 30 October 2009 at 1:18 PM

Folks, the past 4 weeks for me have been pretty sick ones. This has been quite a surprise for me, because with Jonah you see, I wasn’t hardly sick at all. But, man, even since that six week mark, I have been the typical nauseous, food averted, smell sensitive, roller coaster of emotions pregnant girl. I am even craving pickles if you can believe that. It’s been pretty hard, running after Jonah and feeling this way. I have decided now definitely, that this will be our last child. And, I ask all of you to hold me to that once I change my mind in 3 years. So, this is our first ultrasound picture, taken at about 7 weeks. I am now 10 weeks and at my 12 week appointment we get another ultrasound! I am really excited for this one. The baby will have arms and legs and thumbs and everything! And, there may even be the slightest chance that we could find out the sex! It may be way too early still, but we will keep you posted. :)

Peculiar Graces: New beginnings (by Allison)

In Allison, Jonah, Peculiar Graces, Simon, Uncategorized, Written by Allison on 27 September 2009 at 8:51 AM

This is a tad bit embarrassing, that we call this thing a blog and never, I mean never post on it. But, we can redeem ourselves, right? And what better reason do we have now that Jonah is a two and never a dull moment. I could write about what he is doing at any given time and it would most likely be worth at least a chuckle. Oh, and also, we are expecting another little person now. It is so weird to say this, and I only say it to myself and God because it doesn’t feel quite official or real yet even, but, ahem…. I have two children. There. I said it. And here’s another truism. I love saying that. We (all three of us) are pretty darn excited to be starting this new journey. It will be my birthday in a few days, and for one of my gifts (my husband is so sweet) he gave me Saturday night off, and Sunday too, to just go and be and do things I like to do. I found that during the first 20 minutes in the car, alone, I had the realization that through all of the chaos of being a mom of a two year old, and just being busy now a days, I hadn’t really taken the time to “be” with this new little one. I hadn’t talked to it yet. From the day I found out I was pregnant with Jonah, it was all I could think of. I was always rubbing my belly and telling him things, narrating what song was on the radio for him, or just telling him how excited I was to feel him move. I felt sad that I hadn’t done this yet with kid # 2. Of course it makes sense that things are busy, and that being only 5 weeks I still have plenty of time to do these things, but I couldn’t help but feel some of my own childhood sensitivities about being the second child. All of this might be a big pregnancy hormone induced, overreaction, but I felt a special connection with this little one. I felt like saying to it, and I did, we are going to get each other. We will have a special connection. We are both second children, and I fell close to you in that.

So there you have it, these are some of the things going on. We are also desperately going through names in which Carlos and I cannot agree on to save our lives. But thankfully, we have plenty of time. Jonah just had his 2 year photos taken by a good friend of ours, Elizabeth Thompson. If anyone needs photography she is outstanding. Will post these pics soon.


Peculiar Graces: Chest

In Jonah, Peculiar Graces, Uncategorized on 7 June 2008 at 7:15 AM


When I was younger and had no wife and no child, no girlfriend, no job, no prospects, I sometimes imagined what it would be like to be a dad. After lamenting for a little while, since being a dad seems to entail the rest of that list, I imagined that probably one of the best parts of being a dad was letting your son or daughter sleep on your chest, while you, too, slept. I imagined this being such a good part of being a dad in part, I think, because of the blurry memories I had of sleeping on my own dad’s chest.

Lately, rather than put him down in his bed for his morning nap, I have put Jonah on my chest. We sleep together on a reclining chair, his baby snores putting me to sleep, his little fist clutching a snag of my T-shirt.

Let me tell you, it is every bit as good, even better, than I’d imagined. At times I reflect that I have come through all kinds of painful things, had to endure years of things I won’t talk about here, but things that are nonetheless very painful. Then, sometimes, especially when I am lying down with Jonah and he’s sleeping on my chest, I am aware that all that past pain was worth it, that I would do it all again in a second, if it meant that I could arrive again at getting to be Jonah’s dad. What a gift he is.


Peculiar Graces: Dark, Dark Nights

In Allison, Connected, Jonah, Myth, Peculiar Graces, Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on 30 October 2007 at 9:40 PM

The hardest thing I have ever known is to become a parent. Fifteen years ago I became a high schooler; that was pretty hard. Then came college, which was harder; but then, after a while, if I’m honest with you, it got easy. After graduation, becoming a teacher was hard, too, but eventually it was manageable. Then Alli and I married, and I turned into a husband: Wow—now that’s still very, very hard. But Parent, being the parent, being the dad, being so powerlessly in love with this vulnerable, crying, helpless, beautiful, loud need wrapped in personhood…I mean, it’s just the hardest thing I have ever imagined, and the hardest thing I have ever done.

I sit back to reflect on it for a moment, in order to come up with the words, with the images, to prove to you by way of metaphor that I’m telling the truth, to show you, to make you aware in a way that is just right, in a way that would explain it perfectly, clearly, even for those of you who aren’t parents yet. I reflect on just how hard it is. I think of the nights, of the loneliness of night when no one is around but the three of us, darkness everywhere and a hungry baby. I want to make you understand. But my arms dangle, and they hang—limply—at my sides. They become numb. I am tired. My shoulders hurt. I find I can’t even type the words to describe it. And anyway I am wordless for it, unable to describe anything this hard, and so typing wouldn’t do any good anyhow. And yet, here they are: the words have appeared. Somehow the words are brought to the page.

Maybe that is how I feel.

Sure, of course, I love him. His smells are everywhere in the house. On my hands. On my shirt. In the living room. In the kitchen near his baby’s bottles and baby’s bath and baby’s towel. They are there when I do the dishes, and when the laundry is folded by the couch. I have never been more aware of my gratitude, or more conscious of my love, or closer to the belief that my love is a thing in my chest, something I could take out and show to him if he asked to see it, its weight and size, its rounded edges, the hardness and softness of it at the same time, its willingness to sacrifice or change shape at his will, for his safety, for his pleasure.

Or maybe I believe that my love is my chest itself, and its heaving is proof enough.

Several days ago he gave out his first social smile—to me. He looked me in the eye as I sat down next to Alli on the couch, who was holding him. I had put my finger in his hand—a cheap trick to make myself feel loved, really, since it’s a reflex for him to grab onto me—and he turned his head to see me. He looked, and he looked, and then he gave a sign of recognition. Something in his face changed as if to say, You. And, in a moment, he smiled. He held it for about seven seconds. He was smiling at me, right at my face. This was not gas, or poop. This was us. You could not talk about the energy and warmth I felt throughout my body when it happened, since really it is unspeakable. I love my son. You know that, and I know that, and there is no question about the matter.

Still, my son suffers. He has colic, or something like it, and we know this because every night he cries and he cries and he cries. This—watching him cry without end—this is pain I have never felt, every night.

It is pain I have never seen before either, because even in marriage, in this relationship we call our most intimate, even here with my wife, both of us have had the decency to hide some of our pain from the other.

But this one, this Jonah, he cries and he cries, and he continues to cry, and sometimes there is no consoling him.

I walk around with him, and I hold him to me, but he pushes away. So I bounce him, up and down, up and down, but he waves his arms and he kicks his legs. Then, because the walking around hasn’t worked, I sit down with him, but he writhes, and he wiggles, back and forth, arching his back, kicking his legs some more. I stand up again, and I hold him up and out, so he’s facing the world. Maybe something out there will calm him, yes—but his eyes fill with terror, and he holds his arms out as though he wants to feel more secure.

So I turn him around to face my chest, but he presses his face into my shirt, shaking his head back and forth, rubbing his face against me, pushing his face deeper and deeper into my chest, and I feel the heat from his face, that hot breath leaving his mouth, the sobs, the air that leaves his body like desperation, and all the time the voice, the pain, those high-pitched notes that carry through the rooms of our house, through my head and down my back, into my stomach and legs, Dad, help me, I hurt, I hurt, I need help, please help me. He hides nothing. He grieves everything. He has been born into this world with a mountain of pain, and he is honest enough to let it show. And I can’t do anything, Jonah. I can’t do anything at all. What can I do? I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried it all.

Now metaphors are not good ways, I know, to establish something as a fact. Just because this something is like that other thing does not mean that either is true, I am aware. So please do not misunderstand me.

Still, I am about to make a metaphor, but by no means do I believe that the likeness between the two makes one of them any truer. However, if the facts of the matter are true, and if the likeness is right, then metaphors are very good teachers, are they not?

The work of metaphors, then, is to clarify the truth, not to establish it. I understand this—let that be known.

A few nights ago, Jonah was crying. Alli, who wakes up with him early every morning, was pooped by now, and rightfully so, for she is this family’s anchor, its strength. She gives too much, which is what mothers by nature do. Mothers might be the most powerful force in nature, and Alli is no exception. By now, though, she had worked beyond her ability, and so I had sent her off to sleep.

It was now just we two, Jonah and Dad, and the dark, and the sounds he was making long into the night.

I held him in my arms.

He cried.

I bounced him.

He cried.

I moved him to face the world.

He cried.

I moved him to face my chest.

He cried.

He was hiding nothing. He was grieving everything. He had a mountain of pain to carry, and he was being honest with me, letting it show.

And I couldn’t do anything.

So I began to whisper very softly into his ear, Jonah, I’m here with you. This is me, it’s your dad. I’m here. I’m right here. Jonah, do you hear me? Jonah, I’m here.

We walked around and around the kitchen, because at night it’s the darkest room of the house, and darkness brings sleep—it says so in all the baby books. Here we were, in the darkness of night, around and around and around the kitchen, around and around for a long time, and he’s crying like always, and I’m whispering to him, I know, son. I know. It’s so hard. It’s so so hard. But here I am. Here I am with you.

Did I think he could understand me? And if he could understand me, could he hear me over his cries? I suppose part of me hoped he would. I held him close to me, and still he kept crying.

And for a moment, I will tell you, because this is the truth I believe in, and this, you might have guessed, is the metaphor I was working up to: I understood the reason for Christ. I understood that I would give anything to help my son, that I would give up all my possessions, all my relationships, and even give up my own existence, if only Jonah could be made to have what he needed. I would do anything to climb down through my years of knowing and experience, and I would join him in his babyness, and I would take it all onto me, because I want him to experience relief.

When he suffers, I suffer. But I would suffer all the more if only his suffering would stop.

This understanding came in a moment, and then, in a moment again, it was gone.

I know: Not everyone who will read this believes in the same truth claims that I do, and so I do not want to offend. Please, if you want to, consider it a nice metaphor, a silly way for me to cling to hope in the midst of hopelessness, a foolishness, a game, or a way for me to deceive myself into believing that existence makes sense; in short—call it a pretty form of denial.

But, again, if the truth of the world is that Jesus somehow offers us relief, that in the midst of all this suffering, in the midst of all these cries—there is hope, that somehow by this offering we are able to connect, and to receive grace, to reconcile one to another and to God in heaven, and finally to live without alienation, and if there is in fact a God who wants to use this universe to demonstrate his love for creation, then this parenthood, this being the dad, this hardest best thing—has made itself to me a picture of God’s love which illuminates truth beyond my wildest imaginations. And for a moment I see the love, I understand the love, and I feel the love—all the love in the universe which surrounds me, and surrounds you, and surrounds us all. And my heart grows big with thanks.