musings of a lover… of … yes… that, too…

Archive for the ‘Remembering’ Category

Re-Thinking

I haven’t been able to write and I need to do so. But I have been reading to write (writers will understand this concept). I ran across something that I wrote in 2012 and posted in 2013 on Facebook. For some reason it moved me to post it here. Maybe it will help someone else. It helped me to revisit it…

 

Some years ago there was a Luzianne Iced Tea commercial where an old man who had drank Lipton up until that very second stared out from a porch, looking pensive. He had just “discovered” that Luzianne tasted so much better than Lipton’s tea. He then looks into the camera and says, “it makes me rethink my WHOLE life.” We are, of course, supposed to know that this taste of tea was more than a “game-changer.” It was a life-shattering, life-altering, reality-breaking moment.

I had that day yesterday. I am always examining my life–some of my friends think I do it too much. But I don’t know how one lives in a world where she or he is not willing to see the way her or his fingerprints, footprints, hand print, life is affecting people around her or him, the environment, the planet, the universe. But yesterday I ran into the walls of self-perception and self-deception. Perhaps I have been deceiving myself, I said. I HAVE been deceiving myself, I said. Damn! I have been deceived! I said. And I have been the Deceiver. (If enough people reflect it back, maybe it is you, and maybe the “others” are reflecting your own distorted self-perception).

We all have our “version” of what happened in history. I know because I come from a big family and sometimes when I listen to the telling of an event where I was present, I don’t remember much of the details or emotions I hear being described. None of us is deliberately lying (I think that even when I think some of us are purposely embellishing). But the way we remember, and what our memory stores, is directly related to where we “were” in the cosmos when the event occurred–where we were emotionally, professionally, spiritually, psychologically, etc.

That then, is why one’s memory of a thing can change as one is healed, reconciled, or just does not care anymore. But listening to other’s telling of “a thing” becomes important to correcting our perceptions. I don’t ever want to hold on to a distorted perception that will kill relationships. If an experience really is “life-altering,” my great hope is that I’ll be able to learn from it again and again as I hear and see it from different angles and out of others’ memories. I want to be better, all the time–which means I don’t want to live in or help create deception.

(This Reflection was written and not posted on January 11, 2012–I’m sitting here wondering what the “experience” that I considered so significant was. I don’t remember–and that too, is a part of the point of this post on October 26, 2013 [and now, on June 21, 2014]).

A STOMACH FULL OF PRIVATE PULL-OVERS

CONFESSION:

I am triggered by the Macklemore/Lamar situation at the Grammys, but not for the reasons others seem to be.

I’ve had a stomach full of private pull-overs by “colleagues,” staff, board members, and students, all acknowledging “privately” that I had been “robbed,” “lied to,” “abused,” “put in an untenable position” (cold comfort). That’s the PRIVATE story.

Publicly, they’ve lauded their goodness (“we’re the best thing”) and cast conspiratorial whispers on whether I  ever was “the right one” or whether I had lost my mind (“I’m really worried about Dr. Valerie,” complete with “the look”). They’ve chided me if I even LOOKED as if I was going to acknowledge my own pain from trying to survive in a system that was killing me. “You’re trying to destroy us!” I was told. “You HAVE to bless us as you leave!” I was told. No, really.

Never mind that I was LITERALLY dying. Bleeding out of every orifice (I mean every: eyes, nose, ears, vagina, rectum and open sores) while laying in my vomit from violent convulsions because I had a migraine that was trying to take me out. I knew, one day, it was going to kill me. I was going to die. Someone would find my dog sitting near me, whimpering in the shadow of my cold corpse. It would take a couple of days because–for all the talk of community–I wouldn’t have been missed until the second or third class and then it would be to reprimand me, not to check on me. Laying on the floor in my basement, I knew that I wasn’t even a cog in the machine: I was the nuisance everyone wanted to just disappear. Or as one person said: “If you’re so miserable, why don’t you just leave?” [unspoken parenthetical: and while you’re at it, you’d better not tell people we worked at making you miserable and stood back sympathizing with students while they accused you of things later proven a lie. You’d better not tell people we started blaming you for the abuse you were taking].

I left, not because I didn’t feel “called” to that place. I left because I was going to die. And cold comfort that after all the attacks, the lies, the abuse, the neglect, the reneges on promises, the silencing that two board members should pull me aside, or in the case of a local pastor, take me to lunch to say: “you’re right. We didn’t honor our contract with you. We did make you promises that we didn’t keep. We did demand you do things that your contract expressly said we wouldn’t. We didn’t befriend you. We left you to fend for yourself. We didn’t embrace you.” These words are sharp arrows in my memory tonight and a different kind of bleeding is happening. My one gift is: I’m not bleeding out and this time, I’m not going to die. At least not tonight.

For the most part, like Kendrick Lamar, I (and others like me) have just taken it and  moved on. I mean, what can you do when people know something is evil and blame you and shun you for saying it out loud? Or, what do you do when someone refuses to pass the peace to you in worship because you decided to tell the truth about you: “No, I didn’t get kicked out of my house; no, I didn’t get fired; no, I’m not crazy. And yes, if you have issues with something here you should say so. ‘Your silence won’t protect you.'” What do you say when people insist that you didn’t give the institution a “chance,” even though you gave it four years while you were bleeding to death?

And it’s harder still when colleagues from other institutions who’ve been abused or maligned as much or more than you decide to join the chorus because they’re afraid of being kicked off their particular plantation, afraid that my ‘insolence’ will rub off on them. What do you do when they start writing a narrative about your life that is so far from your reality as to be laughable?

Yes, I walked away. A black woman tenured in America and I walked away to save my life. And for that salvific act, it is possible I may never teach again in a religious institution because truth-telling when you’re bleeding out is anathema.

My friend and I have been processing some of my experiences again for the first time in a long time today. I’m raw. So Macklemore’s private tweet to Lamar hit that exposed nerve like the sharpest knives. This time I decided to say, “OUCH!!!!

Violence-Free Parenting: (NOT an oxymoron III) Emotions are Human and so are Hormones

“We hate children.” ~ My pastor as we were talking about the comments people were making on Facebook about punishment (not discipline)

“STOP Crying!”

“I’m going to give you something to cry about!”

My older son came in from school one day very angry and slamming doors. I was in the kitchen and heard the huffing and puffing and the slamming and rushed in to the living room. “What is WRONG with you!???” I demanded. “You better STOP slamming my doors, boy!” He looked me in my face and through his clenched teeth with a ferocity he said, “Mama, teenagers have bad days, too!” I softened my face and put my arms to my side. He was heaving. I didn’t really know what was going on and I had charged him without any concern for him, but for the door and for my own peace of mind. “You’re right son. You’re right.” We stood there and I waited for my words to soak in. He started sobbing. I reached for him and he came to me and let me hold him. He wasn’t ready to tell me what had happened. But he was ready to let me comfort him. When he calmed down, I said: “You’re right. We all have bad days. I”m sorry you’re having one. If you want to talk about it, let me know. But you can’t slam doors.” With that he went to his room with his own emotions, free to share them or not.

We reminded ourselves and our children that it’s okay to have emotions. We have tear ducts for a reason. We get disappointed, frustrated, angry. None of these emotions is sin. They are human. And my husband and I had to remember that preteens and teens have the added rush of hormones coursing through their young bodies, with changes rapidly happening that they neither understand nor could control. Add a menopausal woman to that mix and the interactions could be volatile. Unless. Unless we allow each other to be human. Unless we are kind and tenderhearted toward one another. Unless we refuse to keep a record of wrongs.

But expecting our children to “grin and bear it” when privileges are withdrawn, restrictions are imposed, or when we refuse a request is not fair. As adults, we don’t expect ourselves not to feel disappointment, grief, sadness, or anger. We learn to govern our emotions, not deny them.

This particular son had emotional outbursts often before this moment, or as he came to say, “anger issues.” I taught him a proverb (Proverbs 16:32) when he was very young. That text reads,” One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.” I told him that if he learned to manage his emotions it would make him a mighty man. It became our touchstone when he was out of control. And he disciplined himself with it even now. But my discipline that day was to re-train myself as to how to react to human BEING. He needed to emote. He didn’t need to slam the door. But if I had focused only on that door, I would have unnecessarily provoked more frustration and anger. Instead I nurtured him and made space for him to bring his full self into that room. I admonished him not to destroy anything in the process (thus the “don’t slam doors”). Both were warranted.

We were NOT perfect parents. We prayed often and repented as much. We didn’t get it right all the time. But I had a delightful conversation with my now 32-year-old son about parenting: mine, his dad’s, his… And the fact that we managed to live into our commitment to violence-free parenting. He said the whippings he can count on ONE hand (without using all the fingers) he absolutely deserved. I argued that he did not; that we could have found other ways for consequences to be in play. But to hear him talk about discipline (not punishment) and the fact that he NEVER (his word) felt we were being punitive in any correction he received blessed me beyond measure.

We were committed to treating our children with respect and dignity. After reading all the horrific comments on Facebook and twitter advocating for brutal and violent parenting euphemized as “spanking,” I had to reflect on key moments rearing my children. I’ll keep posting about it until I’m done. I will post some Epic Fails as well. But I start here. Because I can’t believe how cruel we are to our own children–in the name of love.

Getting up…

*this post has been in the making sometime, at least six weeks…

Love doesn’t mean that you never cry. Good thing. One night, I couldn’t cry for a long time. Maybe I should say, I didn’t cry. I was afraid of my own tears. Afraid I might start crying and never stop.

But I awakened one morning not long ago in prayer and meditation after a “dark night of the soul.” I am glad for passage over the rough and narrow terrain of a trail strewn with tears and regrets. I thought about the notion that ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’ I don’t agree. My lungs are compromised from a battle I lost many years ago with bronchitis. It left me weaker, more susceptible to colds, prone to asthma attacks, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Cold air and allergies pack more punch than before the compromise. I had to learn new ways of being in the world because it didn’t leave me stronger. I do think the battle left me wiser. I pay attention to my body more. I (usually) can see “it” coming re: attacks on my lungs and either head it off or minimize the impact.

I hope that night’s journey through the birth canal of pain will leave me wiser because I don’t imagine it will leave me stronger. You may be tempted to tell me not to feel this way, or that I will be stronger, that I will survive, yada yada yada… please don’t. I am getting up from a bed of grief, but I AM getting up. Humans do it everyday. Get up, even when getting up seems futile…. Even when there is no energy they can muster. Humans get up. I am human. I enter this day with the FIRM assurance that “many waters cannot quench LOVE, neither can the floods drown it.” The human project continues. I AM in it with you! Love. Loved. Loving. Getting up… and grateful, even so…

An Endless Love: My Tribute to Ryan Caron, May 16, 1990 – February 5, 2009

I love Ryan Caron.

I. LOVE. RYAN CARON. He was (one of) my Pride and Joy. I was his chosen godmother. He had a godmother assigned by his parents, Howard and Rachael. But I STILL remember the email exchange where he asked me if I would be his godmother. He was 11, and at that time had been a parishioner in our congregation since he was a toddler. I had been his pastor. He wanted more. I don’t at all pretend to be the only person Ryan made feel special by his choosing. I know there were MANY, like the family who cared so much for him and his parents and sister when he made the trips to M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston more times than he wanted (see that account by music man Walt Falconer).

But I was special to him. And he was very special to me. I love/d him. He delighted in me.

When I met Ryan, there was no guarantee after that first meeting that I would see him again. His mother, now my daughter in ministry, Rachael Caron–author of Secret Sins of the Heart and now one of the leaders of Fresh Water Ministry–almost did not come back to church after that first encounter. I was preaching. In shorts. I looked nothing like the pastor of Rachael’s youth that she expected to see.

And I used the word “nigger” in the sermon (I could say the N word, but in 1990 we weren’t using that tamed expression). And Rachael is married to an Anglo (to use the Texas language), which means Ryan is/was bi-racial/multi-racial. I won’t take the time here to explain the context of the way that word came up in a sermon, but note my relief that they did come back and they became engaged members of Banah Full Community Church.

Our love relationship begun in those early days. Curly-headed Ryan on unsteady toddler’s legs would run toward me. And just before he reached me, he would leap and I would catch him and swing him around and kiss his face all over. I delighted in him. He loved me. We were a match in every way.

He adopted my sons as his brothers, especially Deon. His affinity to Deon was his love for music. He was enamored by Deon’s flow. Ryan was an excellent singer, a musician, a lyricist, a poet. He loved Darius because Darius picked him up and rode him piggy back and made his squeal with laughter. He became my son without even trying. They loved him. He delighted in them.

There are so many memories. Him reading poetry to me and asking me what I thought of it. Ryan talking theology, really trying to comprehend the Mystery whom he loved so much. Ryan telling me to listen to certain music and explaining it. Ryan crying. Ryan laughing.

It started innocently enough. Ryan had what looked like a bruise on his thigh. But it wouldn’t heal. And I still can recall the feeling of having the wind knocked out of me when Rachael called, crying. “It’s serious.” Over the next few weeks we would learn just how serious. Ryan was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood onset cancer–with a 5% survival rate. The church would fast. And pray. And fast and pray some more. And prophesy. And cry. And hope. And despair. We ALL loved Ryan Caron. And he loved all of us.

Ryan would email me in the middle of the night and ask me, “mama are you up? I have questions.” Most of the time I would be up. And the questions would be about love. And how God works. And about what he wanted to do when he grew up. And, later, about death. And whether he could/should believe he would be healed. He would tell me, “I just don’t want my mom to be sad.” Or, “I really want Shannon (his sister) to be okay.” Or, “My dad isn’t doing so well. How do I help him?” I’d like to say I had wisdom in those moments. Mostly, I had a listening ear.

I know it will sound crass to say it, but Ryan was a “star” cancer patient. He stood out because of his optimism and faith and laughter and the way he cheered everyone around him. He got to be an ambassador and to meet Lance Armstrong and cast members of The Closer and play music in dives around Austin. Although he did, he seemed never to tire. He LOVED people and they loved him.

Ryan never stopped living. He was in a choir and went out with his friends up until the end. He wanted to graduate high school and ended up having a one-student graduation because he was sick at the time of the actual graduation and people showed up in DROVES to cheer him across the stage. By force of will and some inner strength that amazed us all, Ryan skied and raced and sang barber shop quartet and wrote gospel and hip hop songs and shot commercials and gave speeches to foundations and their supporters. We delighted in him.

In 2004, when I returned to Austin from Memphis after a year teaching, we were in a worship service, the last one where I would be called “pastor” of that church. I told the church the story of being called to gather the “Tribe,” a collective of artists. Afterwards, Ryan walked up to me, propped himself up straight on his crutch and saluted me. “Pastor Valerie,” he said. “I am a warrior in The Tribe. I am an arrow in the quiver of God and I shoot straight from the heart of God, nothing but love. YOU WILL ALWAYS BE MY LEADER. I will follow you ANYWHERE.” I cried. Sobbed. He hugged me, and whispered “I love you” into my locks.

Ryan told me once that God had assured him that it would be over in seven (7) years. And, he made me promise that if he needed me I would come to him. In August 2008, Rachael called me. Ryan wanted me to come. He was in the hospital in Houston. He was having terrors. The chemo was making him sicker than usual. He was scared. “Mama, you promised if I needed you that you would come.” I said, “I will be there tomorrow.” I was in Memphis. I spoke with my dean, gassed up my car and planned to drive the 10 hours to Houston. But when I went by the school, my now good friend Kirk Whalum, Memphis born grammy-winning saxophonist, was in the room. He heard snatches of the story. He heard I was driving. He asked me to give him an hour before I left. And when he called me 30 minutes later, he had provided me a frequent-flyer ticket. In that moment, Kirk and I were connected because he fell in love with Ryan just by the story. We both loved him. I owe Ryan my friendship with Kirk and Ruby.

When I got to Houston, Ryan wanted to talk about death. And only death and the dying process. Years of being a chaplain in hospice kicked in for me. I actively listened. We cried together. We prayed. We screamed at God together. We wondered out loud. And then he reminded me: “Pastor Valerie, remember I told you 7 years?” I did. He said, “I just didn’t think it was going to end in death.” And when I opened my mouth to protest, he put his hand to my mouth and shook his head, “no.” I just collapsed onto him and the bed and we wrapped each other in our arms and we both wept until we were relieved with the awful truth that descended on us both. My beloved Ryan had assurance that death was coming. And all he wanted was for me to know that he knew. He loved me like that. And I delighted in him.

When we were spent with our grief in the moment, we let go. He said, “You know you have to preach the sermon right? You know, right? Please promise me.” I said, “Ryan you don’t need my promise. Of course, I will do the funeral.” “PROMISE ME,” he insisted. So I gave him a promise I knew I didn’t need to make. I knew when I got up from his bed, laying in the blank space where his amputated leg should have been, that I would eulogize him.

Ryan knew death was coming. But he didn’t wait for it. He lived EVERY MOMENT he could when tumors weren’t being cherry picked from his body. He fought to be with his classmates and friends. He wrote furiously. He played music. He talked to me often. I loved that he wanted to talk to me. He lived through the death of his grandmother (Rachael’s mom), and then the family dog. But he kept going. He got a tattoo that he designed inked onto his skin for his wedding. He married his school-days sweetheart Melody on January 16, a day after my birthday. I performed the ceremony. It was stunningly simple and beautiful. When I asked each of them the question that ends “as long as you both shall live,” you could hear the sobs in the room. But both Melody and Ryan were brave in the face of death. They had a fierce love.

Ryan was tired and nurses and doctors were on hand. By then he had been having seizures as the unrelenting cancer was eating into his brain. Though we begged, Ryan refused to sit during the ceremony. And then he refused to leave early. He wanted to speak personally to everyone who came. And there was so many there. They loved him. And he delighted in them.

Then, around February 2 or so, Ryan called me. He was conscious, but as he said, he knew his time was near. I asked if he wanted me to come. He said, no. “You’ll just going to have to turn right back around for the funeral,” he said. “And you HAVE to be here for that.” Over the next few days, he called friends and family to his side and blessed them with a word or by laying hands on them and praying for them. The day he died, I am told, there was a line down the block of young people waiting to have their last moment with him. He became impatient with death, after he knew the hours were short. He wanted death to come on because, he said, “Mama, I’ve seen my mansion and it’s beautiful.” He was ready. So was I. Most of us were not.

Ryan died on February 5. I spoke with him within a hour of his last breath. He said, “thank you Pastor Valerie. I love you Mama. And don’t forget, you HAVE to preach the funeral.” “I love you too Ryan,” I said. “Very, very much. Thank you for choosing me. You are my endless love.”

February 14, 2008 was a dreary day in Cedar Park, TX. My friend Catharine Cummings had driven me down so that I could be rested and have the sermon ready. We arrived the night before and laughed with Rachael as the final details were being put in place. When we got to the church, more than 700 people had gathered to bid Ryan their final respects. The music ranged from choral to barber shop to gospel to hip hop. It was so Ryan. He “other mother,” Dr. Sherri Benn who had been with him when he got it, read the story of his tattoo and how Ryan talked to the tattoo artist about God the whole time.

I rose to preach. Song of Songs (Solomon) 8:6b-7a:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.

It was Valentine’s Day, a fitting day to pay homage to a man who knew how to love and who proved to me that love is STRONGER than death.

I am just glad I had the privilege to know his BRIGHT STAR and to serve him in any way as his pastor, god/mommy, beloved, and friend. Rachael gave the world an amazing GIFT when she conspired with the Universe, G*d of Heaven, Divine Love to bring him into this world through her body. I love/d Ryan Caron. He loved me. And that is my delight on this day. Happy Valentine’s Day, Ryan.

Managing the Wounds

Mama, my oldest sister Pam, my middle sister Deb, me, my brother Wayne, with my youngest sister Gwen in front.

When I was 4, almost 5, my parents decided to move from Enterprise, AL, where my father was stationed at nearby Ft. Rucker, to Cleveland, OH. I wonder, as I type these words, why they chose Cleveland. I am told that I was a daddy’s girl as a baby and toddler, but I have no memories of such. The children–my brother Wayne, my older sisters Pamela and Debra, and I–were to live with my mother’s parents in central Alabama until they were established.

The plan, as I understand it, was to send for us in the summer of 1964. When they left in the middle of winter, I tried to hide in the floorboard behind the driver’s seat. I wanted to go. I did NOT want to be where my parents were not. I lay as still as I could and tried not to make a sound. They looked all over for me. I could hear them frantically calling my name, and hoped in my little girl’s mind that they would “give up,” get in the car, and discover me only when they arrived in the mythical land of Cleveland. What did I know of Cleveland except that it was the place my parents chose and the place that called them away from us. And the place I was DETERMINED to go with them. But, finally, someone decided to search the car.

I don’t remember who. But I do still remember the pounding of my heart in my ears… so proverbial and so true. I started crying the moment the quilt was stripped from my body. I wailed. I screamed. I think this memory is why the scene in Roots of Kizzy being sold away from her mother still makes my mouth dry, my stomach turn, and my eyes water. It was the first abandonment I ever had. It was the first time I knew that people who I loved, who I NEEDED, could willingly leave. I had not, to that point, known anything of death and loss. But something died in me that day.

And 49 years later, I still have to manage my heart when I leave the presence of family and friends. I have to say that it is not abandonment for someone to choose themselves. I have to say, even if it is abandonment, I can live through it. I have to say, love sometimes moves away. But the 5-year-old in me still wails, kicks, and screams sometimes. So, I had to learn to soothe her, to comfort her, to let her know we would be okay, we would survive, we would live. I have to say to her, sometimes, leaving does not mean you are not loved. I have to tell her sometimes: breathe. It’s going to be okay, even if you have to manage the wounds.

Of course, the wound/s are not the only part of that story, as my youngest sister, Gwen, points out. My parents never returned to carry us away to Cleveland. Instead, my mother returned alone, pregnant with her. We never moved. But I got a sister and a best of friend from the venture. And I must testify: she helps me more than she knows to manage the soul wounds expressed in moments like the one I’ve described.