Listening to the Body

I was on a Zoom call and suddenly realized that I was leaning forward in my chair towards the screen. I was holding my breath so my frustrated response wouldn’t just pop out of my mouth as I waited for my opening to speak. My chest was tight, and I had tensed up my shoulders around my ears. I took a deep breath to steady myself and finished the conversation more calmly, knowing that I must revisit this awful feeling to figure out the message my body was trying to send me.

After hanging up the phone, I immediately started berating myself in my head, saying things like, “How did you end up here again? This feels very familiar and not in a good way. Well, at least I was able to pause before I acted out that feeling.” I shoved it away to think about later.

The following morning, I was still unsettled and ashamed of those unloving feelings towards myself and others. I began to journal.   My instinct was to distance myself from the relationship, thinking it just wasn’t going to work out. I started writing out why pulling back was the right thing to do and listing how the person frustrated me. It was their fault for pushing my buttons.

I paused a moment in my writing, echoes of other occasions where this had happened bounced around in my head. My writing changed, and I was curious to locate the point in the conversation where the emotion had risen. What was the old pattern I had repeated? Still focused on preventing feeling the feeling, I asked myself, “What could I do differently next time to avoid this situation?”

I pulled out all the books I could find that I thought would help me figure this out. Going to seminary got me in the habit of research and reflection when I’m unsure what’s going on with me. As I read, I recalled that being human includes having reactions and feelings, and I gratefully began to write about the feelings the conversation had stirred up in me. I quickly realized that I needed to establish a plan for alleviating intense emotion in the moment and a process for asking the bigger questions that could allow for growth and change.

After several days (more than a week, actually) of journaling and reading, I returned to my guiding scripture with a new perspective on how God was calling me to live.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12: 30-31

In the Moment

In my early thirties, my therapist had introduced me to the concept of the inner child and suggested that as adults, we can re-parent ourselves. A few years ago, I even took a course in compassionate mindfulness, but it never entirely made sense to me. The only thing I knew that helped me get through challenging situations was to slow down and pay attention to my breathing. But that wasn’t enough. A residue of that high energy was left racketing around in my body.

One of the books I read was Kristen Neff’s recent release called Fierce Compassion. She talks about the need to offer ourselves the same “tender self-compassion” that caregivers provide to a crying baby. We know that crying is a child’s attempt to express an intense need. Caregivers do whatever they can to satisfy the need with food, a clean diaper, a hug, soothing rocking motions, or soft backrubs while gently speaking words of comfort.[1] It hit home. I deserved to be comforted as much as a baby does. My pain needed comfort no matter the reason I was feeling it. I could deal with why I felt that way later after the pain was acknowledged and soothed.

Neff calls these moments of self-soothing compassion breaks. You can try some of them for yourself at her website. My favorite method is putting a hand over my heart with gentle pressure, as that is where my body gathers emotion. I’ve also tried rubbing a smooth stone between my forefinger and thumb. I’m still trying out other ways I’m comfortable doing when other people are around.

Figuring Out the Why – Two Old Beliefs

Once I soothe my nervous system, my thinking brain can kick in. Kristen Neff reminded me that besides God, I’m the only person who will be with me 100% of the time for my entire life.[2] Looking back at my guiding scripture, it makes sense that Jesus included loving self, along with God and neighbor, in the greatest commandment. There’s an old saying: wherever you go, you take yourself with you.

I’ve been on a journey to loving myself for a while now, so I know I can only change myself, but I also know that beating myself up or trying to suck it up and do better just makes me more anxious. It doesn’t make a long-term positive difference in my behavior. So, taking a loving deeper look at what was going on inside was the next step.

I had a fabulous ethics professor in seminary, Dr. Marcia Riggs, who helped me explore identifying needs in myself and others. In my family, no one ever explicitly talked about what they needed. You were just supposed to figure out what the other person wanted based on the reactions you ran into at any given moment. Not a great plan as it led to lots of frustration and anger on everyone’s part. So, I pulled out my needs and feelings wheels (you can search the web and find lots of examples of these). What was it that I needed and wasn’t receiving that triggered the unpleasant feeling and reaction on that phone call?

Looking at the needs wheel, I started thinking about the basic need to be seen and heard. I remembered a passage from a book Kain Ramsay wrote with Cinzia Dubois, where he talks about a rule from his childhood that children should be seen and not heard. He says that teaching children to keep their thoughts and opinions to themselves often carries over into adult life as an underlying fear of not being valued.[3] This belief was a rule in my family system as well, principally because I was a girl. There was a deeply held theological belief that women are to be submissive. When I moved into the world, I struggled with not being heard as a woman in business. I could see that, over the years, I created a narrative that I had to get angry and work up the courage to demand people listen. When played out, there were often external negative consequences.

I would often berate myself about causing a scene, so I spent a lot of energy holding myself back from speaking up. Kristen Neff talks about what happens in our bodies when we turn anger inward to try to regain control of our equilibrium. The cortisol, which by design started the fight response, now causes inflammation and can lead to eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.[4] These internal consequences for living with anger were equally harmful.

But there was more to the story than just wanting to be heard and valued. What held me back from speaking up earlier, vulnerably, and clearly saying what I needed from the relationship? I began to see that I was caught in a double bind. I returned to Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown to consider how keeping sight of my internal boundaries and believing in my value might be the answer to keeping my balance.

In Chapter 2 of that book, Brené talks about the need for belonging. She defines true belonging as “happening only when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” She goes on to say that our “sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”[5] Valuing myself is the starting point of belonging to myself. I needed to get comfortable with feeling separate from others even as I sense my deep spiritual connection with those around me. Brené was challenging me to practice the skills of trusting myself to stay grounded, vulnerable, and authentic while trusting that others can do the same for themselves.

Kristen Neff describes how anger can be helpful as a messenger if we listen to what it can tell us. [6] I heard it saying that I could parent myself by listening to the anger and actively remembering that my value does not fluctuate depending on how well I am heard and understood by someone else. I do not need to make them hear me. It doesn’t matter if they never see me clearly. I am not responsible for their actions. I am accountable for valuing myself enough to listen when my body speaks.

A Loving Relationship with Myself

So, what does it look like to value and love yourself? Our sense of self-worth, Ramsay says, is based on our understanding that we have intrinsic value. That value is not based on how we act or whether we are learning to be a better person.[7] It starts with understanding that the essential nature of God is love. (I’ve written about this in my post called God is Love.) I believe that intrinsic value comes from knowing that this loving God chose to create us. With that foundation, the value of each component, animal, vegetable, and mineral, of creation has incredible value. When I lose sight of the reality of God’s loving and creative presence being always with me and for me, I must ground myself again in this truth.

I am also working on the concept of accepting all aspects of who I am while continuing to learn new ways of being in the world. Ramsay includes “extending yourself to others, sharing your value, taking responsibility for your emotional and mental inconsistencies, and embracing imperfections[8]” as part of that journey. Kristen Neff includes an entire chapter in her book to “caring for others without losing ourselves.” She tells us to “turn inward” to the “wellspring of warmth and goodwill as the source.” Neff encourages us to experience the full range of human emotion. We will also have to honor our human limitations, including time and energy [9]. We celebrate the beauty of who God has created us to be in our complete humanity when we live in this way.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Both. For me, this is the hardest part of the Great Commandment. On this leg of the journey, I uncovered and let go of some old beliefs, practiced ways to self-soothe my inner child, and clarified my boundaries a little better. I still have some miles to go. This journey is becoming a way of life, not a destination.


[1] Kristin Neff, Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive, Kindle (New York, New York: Harper Brothers, 2021), 113.
[2] Neff, 290.
[3] Kain Ramsay and Cynthia Dubois, Responsibility Rebellion An Unconventional Approach to Personal Empowerment, Kindle (Houndstooth Press, n.d.), 88.
[4] Neff, 68.
[5] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness, Kindle (New York: Random House, 2017), 31.
[6] Neff, 68.
[7] Ramsay, 120.
[8] Ramsay, 122.
[9] Neff, 253.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Living the Playful Life

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I spent a weekend in the north Georgia mountains where I read slightly racy mystery novels, napped when I felt like it, and ate whatever sounded good at the moment.  For the first time in years, I allowed my mind to let go of planning future projects, preparing for the next thing, analyzing, and thinking deeply. I didn’t even plan or pack the food for the trip. My daughter did it all, even the navigating. On the way home, when we stopped to buy gas, she asked me if I could drive for a while, and I had to pause before answering. My brain was so relaxed and just open to what was going on around me that I wasn’t sure if I could refocus enough to drive. I got behind the wheel and had to reorient and take a deep breath before starting the car. That weekend got me thinking about what play means to me now as a semi-retired adult.

I’ve always been a somewhat serious person. Even as a child, my mom said I wanted to familiarize myself with my surroundings before abandoning caution and just playing. Tricycles had to be pushed around for a bit before riding them. I had to observe the other children for a few minutes, I think to take on the group dynamic, before joining in a game of make-believe “house.” I enjoyed those types of activities but was perfectly happy to spend hours reading a book and living in the world I saw in my head.

Somewhere along the line, I forgot how to play. Maybe it was when I was working full time and going to school at night. I had something to prove and no time to spare. I remember being afraid that if I were to let go of keeping on top of everything, even for a little while, I might not be able to pick up all the pieces again. My mom’s habit of list making became important to relieve some of the anxiety of too many things to hold in my head. I was a workaholic who couldn’t just sit and watch a tv show without looking at a magazine simultaneously (that was before the days of scrolling on smart phones or tablets).

After returning home from our mountain weekend, I kept thinking about what play could look like as an adult and got out the dictionary. Unfortunately, the definitions only referred to children’s activities, so I decided to substitute “individual” for “child”.  Here’s how the definition of play would read:

Activities performed for self-amusement that have behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. It is self-directed, and the rewards come from within the individual; it is enjoyable and spontaneous.

  • Self-directed
  • Self-amusement
  • Provides rewards
  • Enjoyable
  • Spontaneous

I want more of those things in my life. Maybe I just need to think about play a little differently. Is play more about how you feel when you’re doing something instead of a pre-defined list of activities?

I have the self-directed part covered. It’s part of my personality. I had to think a bit about what it means to amuse myself, though. The synonyms I found were delight, diversion, enjoyment, hilarity, laughter, pleasure. It seems to imply an activity that brings on a smile or feeling of happiness, not just an absence of pain or presence of contentment. For me, simple things like noticing the flash of a bird when I’m taking a walk or watching the cat playing solo hockey with a toy all around the kitchen would seem to qualify.

Play also provides behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. I really had to think about this aspect of play for a while. I can see how playing a sport could qualify as playing with all the “good job” and high fives as social rewards if you’re good at it. I’m not good at it, so sports are not on my list of favorite play dates. But enjoying having lunch with an old friend after so many months of staying at home because of the pandemic seems to fit the bill. Eating food that someone else cooks and brings to you, and you don’t have to wash the dishes! A great conversation as you catch up on everything that has been going on in their life. Lots of behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards from those activities. And it also qualifies as enjoyable.

The most difficult part of play for me is spontaneous, which means free, unstructured, and instinctive. Does it count when I set aside time in my calendar for “doing whatever I want?” As I’m reminded of the Buddhist value of non-attachment, I think the answer is yes.

Buddhism teaches that joy and happiness arise from letting go.

Thich Nhat Hanh

I think some of my happiest moments as an adult have occurred in times like our weekend in the mountains. Periods of time clearly labeled on my calendar but only loosely planned. I can leave behind the to-do lists and only a loose itinerary. Space opens to become curious and interested in what is right in front of me, and there is freedom to follow that curiosity to see where it will take you.

I think that’s why I’m attracted to road trips. You never know what you will find when you decide to take a left instead of a right turn along the way. I’m intrigued by the variety of houses of worship I come across and frequently pull into parking lots or turn around to get a photo. The architecture, grounds, and cemeteries speak to me as a unique expression of a particular group of people in a specific place attempting to worship their personal version of God.

As you pass towns, houses, and yards, it’s like looking through a Viewmaster (remember those?), seeing snapshots of life. That family has a dog. This farm has horses. The next house has goats in the yard. I notice the broad span of a hawk’s wings as it circles above the road, and I wonder what it sees. The spectrum of green spread across the trees on a mountain reminds me of a Pantone chart, sun and shadow creating lighter and darker tones.

Photo by Girl with Red Hat on Unsplash

I’ve been trying to apply this idea of not getting too attached to any particular outcome as I move through each day. It’s not always easy, even though I know that I can’t control so many things in life. But when I open space in my heart and mind, the magic happens. Life becomes more like a road trip. A playful adventure full of fascinating people, places and possibilities.

Header Photo by Dan Counsell on Unsplash

A Tribute to My Mom

Growing Up in the Pine Woods of Alabama

This past Mother’s Day, I wanted to honor the woman that was my mother by collecting some of the pieces of her story that I remember and trying to flesh out the context that shaped her. In many ways, her life was the product of the culture that surrounded her. But there was also strength, resilience, compassion for others, and simple joy in everyday things. She profoundly impacted my life and how I move in the world. Unfortunately, it’s too late to truly get her perspective, but I wanted to write about what she shared through the years with thanks for her love and care.

Family History

Her name was Emma Mae, and in the Southern tradition, both names were used and almost run together. Her mother was Emma Isabell, but everybody just called her Emma, except my grandfather, George Washington Poe, who always called her “old woman.” I wish I had asked more questions about her earliest memories. Most of the stories she told were about family, and hard work.

My grandparents married in 1915 when Emma was twelve, and Poe was nineteen. I don’t know how they met, but the story goes that she was the only girl in her family and didn’t even know how to cook because her father was afraid she would ruin his supper. I do know they were both born in Washington County, Alabama. He was born in Wagar, and she in the Vinegar Bend community. I found a county record dated June 1917 where my grandfather was exempted from the World War I draft because he was already married with one child and claimed his stepfather as a dependent. I wonder which stepfather lived with them. There were step brothers and sisters from two other men besides my grandpa’s father. One step sister was the age of my grandparents’ first child.

Historical Perspective

In order to understand what that time and place was like I did some research about the part of Alabama where they lived. Named after America’s first president, Washington County was the first official Alabama county established in June 1800 and was home to the original state capital. Choctaw tribes had populated this land before White people arrived. However, by the 1830s, there were very few Choctaw people remaining in the county. Cotton was the big crop and plantations turned into sharecropping enterprises after the Civil War.

During the Great Depression farming declined so lumber and turpentine became the major job sources for everyone. The turpentine industry required intense labor to collect the pine sap and distill it into salable turpentine that was used for fuel and to make varnishes. The Great Migration of Black families moving out of the agricultural South to more industrial Northern and Mid-Western states had not really taken hold yet in this corner of Alabama.

My Mother Enters the Family

My mom was born in one of those turpentine camps called Hawthorne, in Washington County, Alabama, in 1932. Hawthorne wasn’t even an official town, just a community. I wonder if it was named for the Hawthorn family that owned a plantation in nearby Wilcox County. I’d love to find records that showed whether that family owned or leased the pine woods and ran the turpentine camp. From what my mom said, the camp consisted of a tiny church, grocery store, school, and two groups of rough cabins (one for White families and one for Black families) loosely grouped around the sap processing equipment. If some of the men weren’t married, they lived in barrack type cabins separated from the families. The landowner/lessor owned everything and workers paid rent for the cabins and bought supplies at the owner’s store.

I don’t know exactly what my grandpa’s job was in the camp, but he was White, so he probably didn’t do the heavy labor in the forest. Instead, that work was done by the “negroes” who lived in a separate group of shacks that were even less sturdy than my mom’s family’s. They would have had to tramp through the endless pine trees from sunrise to sundown, checking the sap buckets and dipping whatever had dripped out into larger containers to be hauled back to the camp. The White men were usually supervisors or ran the distilling equipment.

I don’t think they ever thought about how poor they were. Everyone around them lived the way the they did and only a few men ever left the camp to take the turpentine to market and return with supplies to be sold in the little store. There were eight children in my mom’s family; she was number seven. The oldest was a girl, Lola, who was born when my grandma was thirteen. She was followed by two brothers, another sister, and then another brother. Virgie, who was two years older than my mom, had Downs Syndrome. The baby sister, Shirley, was born when my mom was four. All the children wore overalls; they were sturdy, and it was easier to pass them down as children grew. Also, Alabama winters were mild, so shoes were rarely needed.

My mother described the cabin as having a dirt floor, and there was no electricity or indoor plumbing. She recalled a garden where she learned to pull weeds at an early age and her other job was to watch over Shirley and Virgie. Lola was sixteen when my mom was born, and she and the other older children did the heavy work. The girls would help my grandma wash clothes in large metal tubs and hang them out to dry on a line strung between trees. They had eggs that had to be gathered, chickens that had to be fed, their necks wrung, and feathers plucked so they could be fried up for dinner. Cooking and heat were provided by a wood stove. I’m sure the boys chopped the wood.

When I look back at the one class picture my mom had from that time, there were no Black faces in them. I wonder if the Black children even went to school or if the schools were just separate. My mom never talked about how the Black and White families lived together in the community. However, I know the tiny church was only attended by White families. Singing was her favorite part of church and I remember her singing hymns even as she did housework.

My mom never talked much about what it was like moving in second or third grade to Baldwin County, Alabama. A house was built in a different patch of pine woods outside Fairhope. I don’t know the details of how my grandpa could afford to buy land, but with a few cows, chickens, and a garden they got by. At some point they planted pecan trees in one of the pastures and the kids picked them up in the fall. My grandpa worked the pine forest and sold the sap for turpentine.

When World War II started, the oldest boy, William, was twenty-one and wanted to join up but couldn’t pass the entrance exam. So instead, he went to work at one of the civilian infrastructure projects in support of the war effort. Another brother, Leo, was 18 and went to work in one of the shipyards in Mobile across the bay.

Eating together was a big deal. My grandpa always sat at the left end of the dining room table and was served first. Grandma never sat down to eat, constantly moving back and forth to the kitchen for plates of biscuits and other food. Mixing molasses and butter was a perfect spread for a warm biscuit. As the years past, sliced white bread from the store was also served. Grandpa called it “wasp nest” because it collapsed in your mouth and tasted to him like paper. My grandpa also wouldn’t eat the fantastic fried chicken my grandmother made. He said even the smell of the chicken cooking reminded him of all the chicken soup he had to make for his younger siblings and mother as they recuperated from yellow fever when he was a teenager.

As my mom’s older brothers and sisters got married, they each received two acres of land from my grandpa and built their own houses across the dirt road or on the other side of the pecan grove from the main house. Living so close together, everybody knew everybody else’s business. There was a story about how the wife of one of the brothers’ was caught pouring buckets of water on the floor at the back of their little house and sweeping the “river” out the front door. It was a good thing they didn’t have much furniture. My mother described life as a lot of “messin’ and gommin'” going on all the time, especially as the grandchildren started coming along.

My mom’s social world was small. In high school, she was involved in Future Homemakers of America and Beta Club. The family attended a small church. After my mom died, my uncle shared that there here had been a boyfriend that everyone thought she would marry. But graduation came and that didn’t happen. Apparently, the guy got engaged to a prosperous farmer’s daughter.

Her high school counselor had asked her about college, but there was no money for that. The choices for jobs and available boys was limited so she considered joining the military.

I don’t remember my mom ever saying why she choose the Navy. Maybe it was the spiffy uniform, or they paid the best, or the boot camp requirements weren’t that hard for women at the time. She did talk about having to know how to swim but that wasn’t a problem since she had been swimming in the creek behind their house for years. There were deep spots that were even good for diving out of the tree platform the brothers had built.

Looking back at the pictures of my grandma in her Sunday dress and my twenty-year-old mother in her uniform the morning she left, my mom looks so self-assured and happy. Grandma was so proud. Mom had never been away from home, but had loaded everything she owned into a military issue trunk that had her name stenciled on the side and got on the Greyhound bus headed for Norfolk, Virginia. It was March 1952.

Reflections

There are so many things I wish I could go back in time and ask my mom and grandparents about.

In that small poor community in the Washington County pine woods, did the racist rules of that time period apply or did at least the women and children understand they were all in the same situation and needed one another?

I wonder if there were stills that made something other than just turpentine. What was it like for my grandma to have barely entered puberty and be married off knowing nothing about housekeeping? Was marriage even her own choice? What was it like to raise a Down Syndrome child in that time when there were no therapies or support programs to help her learn to her greatest potential.

Was there more to my mother’s decision to join the Navy? Was she excited or terrified to see the world outside Alabama? I think it was probably a little of both.

Reflecting on my mother’s life is part of my ongoing work of understanding who I am, and how I was formed so that I can stay awake and not just act reflexively. As an only child, I was very close to my mother. She had an inner strength that many people probably never saw because she cared so much for other people. She had a strong work ethic and always gave people the benefit of the doubt. I hope my journey of remembering encourages others to consider such a journey in their own lives.

Pine Tree Photo by Pert Wardhon on Unsplash

Spring as Liminal Space

I have always loved Spring in Atlanta, even with the pollen. As soon as there are a few days of warmth in February, I start looking for the daffodils to start poking their heads out of the pine straw. My friends that have moved further north are still experiencing snow and cold. I know we’re the lucky ones. In the South, we know Spring is here.

Something about the consistency of this process every year brings comfort and hope of renewal and growth for my own life. It feels like a good time to make plans. In the past, the signs of Spring started me thinking about Summer vacations, signing my daughter up for summer dance or art camps. We could feel that the school year would soon be over, and I knew it was time to make decisions about the coming school year. Programs were signing up students for Fall, and, God forbid, you should wait too late and miss out.

One of the earliest flowering trees is the redbud. From a few feet away, the tree looks like the branches are turning purple. For the past few years, I’ve taken pictures of this progression from fuzz, to flowered limbs, to tiny heart-shaped leaves of dark maroon. The leaves grow in size. By the time Summer arrives and the weather is hot, they will be beautiful chartreuse hearts.

I’m naturally a “think ahead” planner sort of person, so this constant imagining of what will be needed seemed natural, even necessary. After all, it was also a big part of what I did for a living, making project plans and monitoring what needed adjustment. Living that way gave me a feeling of being able to shape my life as I wanted it to be.

This Spring, a progression of colorful flowers bloom every week in the park, and gorgeous sunny days are relief from staying inside so much this Winter. Within a week, both my daughter and I will be fully vaccinated, and our world will expand even further to include friends we’ve only seen via Zoom or at a distance. We’ve made a few plans, a weekend in the mountains, and I plan to visit my good friend in Wisconsin this summer. As we did six months or so ago, we are rearranging the furniture just to look at something differently. We’re slowly going through the accumulation of stuff in the storage room, hoping to lighten the load of things tethering us to to the past.

The pandemic has me thinking about another aspect of Spring. With warmer weather comes the clash of cool air with warm, creating storms. They roll into Atlanta from the West and, because of my daughter’s anxiety about tornadoes, we pay close attention to the weather forecasts, preparing for the worst. Sometimes we can’t even clearly see just across the street. Those moments of waiting to see where the storm’s path will go are a liminal space of unknown.

This second Spring of Covid feels to me more like this liminal space of storms than the exuberant flowering of possibility. It sometimes seems that a new normal is right around the corner. But the past few years have taught me how quickly conditions can change. I’ve learned to seek out more information, wait a few minutes, look for the signs of how things might unfold. Sometimes, I just have to wait, with nothing to do, until it’s clear how things will turn out. Even when I think I know.

My pod during the pandemic has been my daughter, our cat Lynxy, and me. Like many people have reported, sharing space and finding the balance of time alone and together has been a challenge.  We have learned that life together is smoother when we say out loud what we need in each moment. Even Lynxy has a repertoire of sounds and movements to indicate what he wants us to do.  

So much togetherness and lack of distraction provided some clarity about my daughter’s mental health and led to a diagnosis of Bipolar 2 in addition to ADHD. Not having to go on campus for classes also made it easier for her to adjust her life to having inappropriate tachycardia syndrome. Meanwhile, I finished up my thesis and graduated from seminary, and have had to find new and creative ways to spend my time and not over-focus on my daughter. Some days it even works. We found it necessary to adjust the rhythm of the day based on what unfolded.

We are in a liminal space between storms right now. My daughter has registered for summer online classes, knowing that in-person may resume in the Fall, but that has yet to be announced. I wait to find out if some part-time work will continue past Spring. But I’m feeling the need to go easy on the planning ahead. I ease forward, watching for the next part of the path to be slowly revealed. For right now, I need to focus on the three feet around me that I can clearly see right here and now. It is less painful to make adjustments that may be required when I’m not charging ahead full force.

There are other benefits of living life more slowly. As I go for walks, I am more aware of how the trees, the turtles, and the ducks on the pond change every day. Will this slower pace and noticing provide resilience when the inevitable storms of change roll through my life? Can I hold space for flowering and growth along with the unknowing of the rain and storms? Perhaps even enjoy them both?

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . .

Ecclesiastes 3: 1 (NSRV)

A season for planning farther ahead may come again. But for now, I’m in a liminal time of living in the moment. Enjoying what is and trying not to get too attached, knowing change will come.

Rain Photo by Cristi Goia on Unsplash

Seeing My Whiteness

What are my earliest memories of being aware that I was white? That seems a very different question than asking when I first noticed other people’s skin color.

My mother told a story about a trip to New York when I was really little. My dad was in the Navy and was signing paperwork to re-up for a few more years. They had a car and offered another sailor who was black a ride. Apparently, I was afraid of him and kept saying something about him being pink. You need to know that I had spent the first years of my life in Morocco. Darker faces theoretically should not have been unusual so, why the upset?

When I was around two and a half, my mom left my dad, and we went to her parent’s house in the country outside Fairhope, Alabama. My grandfather made a living collecting pine sap and turning it into turpentine. Again, no personal memories, but I’ve seen pictures of a black man named Mose that worked for him. In the photo, he’s sitting in a chair in their kitchen, holding a plate of food. My understanding is that when somebody took this picture, the rest of us were sitting in the next room eating. Probably my mother, since I have the picture. He was a person I was familiar with, and apparently, I wasn’t in the least afraid of him.

From the vantage point of time, I wonder what was going on in the adults’ minds involved in these stories. None of them are alive to ask about it, but I can take a guess based on incidents I do remember. The New York story took place in the late 1950s, and it was a fellow sailor. My parents were probably only mildly embarrassed at my childish behavior. On the other hand, they probably didn’t blink an eye about Mose not eating at the table with everyone else. But what did the sailor think? Mose?

Fast forward to when my daughter was little. It was the mid-1990s. I was a working mom, and my daughter spent her days at a home daycare run by a Cuban American mother and daughter. The mother cared for my daughter. She spoke Spanish to her and cried when I moved her to a nursery school closer to my work when she was around one and a half years old. The lead teacher, Jody, was a very experienced black woman.  The first week was rough. A new place, new people, and my daughter cried when I tried to leave her. Jody said not to worry. That my child probably hadn’t seen many black people. She’d seen it before, but it always worked out just fine.

I knew I was white at that moment. I’ll never forget the shameful feeling of being so white and living in a bubble of whiteness. I thought I wasn’t racist. My work world was multi-racial. But it was heavily steeped in the “I don’t see color” denial. I lived in primarily white North Fulton County. I wondered whether my little girl was crying because new places are scary or afraid because Jody had a different skin color than she did. Jody was right that it all worked out. She came to our house, bringing her niece with her, to baby-sit. My daughter named her white baby doll after her. But Jody and I never had a conversation about it again. I didn’t ask what she really thought.

But I didn’t understand the amount of space that I take up as a white person without giving it any thought until a couple of years ago in the grocery store. I was running into the grocery store to get one thing on the way to somewhere else. I was walking fast and focused on finding the item I needed and wondering why Kroger thought they had to lay out every store just a little differently. I was annoyed and barreled out of an aisle into the path of an older black woman pushing her cart full of groceries. The alarmed and fearful look on her face stopped me in my tracks.

The space I take up matters. I have no right to move thoughtlessly through the world, and my self-centeredness has significantly more effect on those with brown and black skin. Changing requires breaking a lifetime of habitually asking first and foremost how things affect me. As I listen to the news or make everyday decisions, the lens through which I look must be broader. I must ask, “How does this affect people of color?” I can’t assume I know. I must ask. I must listen and remove myself as the central opinion to be considered. How could I possibly justify not caring about their wellbeing? It’s not a sacrifice. It is an act of love.

I’ve come relatively late in my life to this point of view. White culture still has a strong gravitational pull towards centering self. I need a more substantial practice of resisting it than just being hospitable to people in my building or sincerely grateful to the lady at the self-checkout. So I seek out places to use my skills to support women of color who are leaders. Sometimes, I don’t believe anything has or will change in the world around me. But if love can continue to change me and the seeds of freedom to change are planted in even one other person, love has grown.

Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.

Romans 8:11 (The Message)

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash