Places to Find Strength

To add more of an answer to your question, when you take off your red and blue power rings, you’ll still be strong.  Your strength doesn’t come from plastic pieces melded together in unseen factories.  Your strength has traveled a much longer distance to reach you.

Your strength comes from more people than you’ll meet because you were loved before you were conceived, loved by church people of all colors, loved by relatives around the world, loved by people who passed into eternity before they talked to you, loved by gift-givers who we thanked but whose generosity has rolled into the long sustained gift that is your life.

Your strength comes from your aunts and uncles who will give and have given their energies for you and for your cousins and who have been good parents, even to you, and who have been counselors and aides and supports and anchors for you already.  Use up the time they spend with you and relish their spoiling, open, broad care.

Your strength comes from your mother who has thrived and triumphed through and after hardships, injustice, great and difficult choices to become the splendid champion she is.  Ask her about them and close your lips to listen.

Your strength comes from your grandparents; one you don’t remember, except through our pictures and our stories; one you bring up from time to time, when you ask about sickness and death and heaven; and two you know and love and hug and see.  All of them have more to teach you than you can learn.  Find every way to be their student.

Your strength comes from great-grandparents who made music, who produced crops, who wandered over more acres than you’ll ever count, who gave hard, who had many children and watched them live and bear their own children and, some of them, die.  They wanted a beautiful future for you even though they couldn’t touch you and every act of submission and toil and business and production had seeds of grace for you in it.

Your strength comes from great-great-grandparents who sang spirituals in fields they didn’t own and worked day-long lives that collected into decades of labor that bore no capital or income or appreciation because their world was decorated in corruption of the deepest kind.  But there was so much more to them than their taken wages and taken days.  They, too, saw far into the dark ahead of their futures and they saw you and they worked and suffered and enjoyed and ate and slept and tried so that you would have all those abilities within you too.

 

An Old Friend

I visited an old friend this past week. I’ve known her since 1984. We spent lots of time together when I lived in Urbana, Illinois. We visited together at least once each week until she moved away in 2002. She moved to a small town near Schenectady, New York and changed her name. I knew her as the Elite Diner. Now she’s the Chuck Wagon.

I had to go about 900 miles to see her. According to the map, she was just a few miles off the road on my trip to Maine, so it seemed a good detour. Turns out it was a great detour.

I scoured the roadside as I drove down the Western Turnpike (Hwy. 20) hoping to see her at every turn. Then, suddenly, there she was. Just as I’d remembered her. Silver with red trim, the rounded corners, windows across the front. The Elite Diner.

She lived on the corner of Elm and Vine in Urbana the 18 years I had known her. She and her cramped parking lot took up the corner, so she looked bigger than she does now.

I parked and climbed a few unfamiliar steps, then entered surroundings that were familiar and comforting. She has not changed much on the inside. Same green and pink tiles on the floor with the same cracks in the tiles. The same silver, pink, and green on walls and ceiling, same booths, though reupholstered.

I sat on the same stool at the counter I had occupies hundreds of times, sometimes by myself, sometimes with one of my children on a stool next to me. The green Formica on the counter was the same. The seam in the Formica had been rubbed smooth and white from thousands of plates of food and mugs of coffee sliding over it.

I had spent hundreds of hours of writing, thinking, planning, or just gathering my early-morning thoughts. I’d had meetings with colleagues and bosses there. I’d commiserated with Bob the welder, who also had an infant son at the time. We’d compare hours of sleep or lack thereof from the night before.

But mostly, this became the place I shared with my kids. This was where we connected over coffee and hot chocolate, sometimes a sweet roll, sometimes a Number 9 (an unhealthy but totally satisfying plate of biscuits covered with hash browns and gravy). My children, now 32 and 25, never hesitated if I woke them before dawn, two full hours before their school started, as long as the question was, “Want to go to the Diner?”

I can’t tell you much about what we did while sitting there. We talked, or not.  Sometimes the talk was about school or homework. We listened to the music overhead and I sometimes I talked about (or made up stuff about) the oldies playing and what was going on with me when the song was new. And we watched and evaluated the cook as he labored over the fried eggs, pancakes, bacon, and other breakfast items being prepared. “Don’t pat the pancakes.” That’s one of my cardinal rules of breakfast cooking, if you care about tasteful, fluffy pancakes, that is. It’s also a pretty good metaphor for lots of things in life. That was something we always watched for.

I was sitting on this very stool the morning my daughter and I had a falling out that ended our trips to the Diner for a few years. It was a sad but necessary morning for each of us. As a friend of mine said to me, “Parenting is about teaching your children to deal with disappointment.” That was one of those morning when we each learned lessons we didn’t want, but needed.

To finish, John Powell’s post, click here.

Remembering

I sat with my mother, and looking and listening to her was like hearing a favorite splendid song.  Her smile, in her eyes and her mouth, was an invitation to laugh as she told me stories from when I was my son’s age, when I said things I heard from Ms. Goodlett, our one-time babysitter.  She mirrored the expressions in my face, the same ones I chuckle at with the boy these days, the ones I tell Bryce that I gave him.  Mama told me stories like they happened just yesterday morning, like she had been remembering them so she could tell them to me, remembering them again for me.

Ode to Gumbo & Other Memories

For weeks I have waited

for a day without death

or doubt.  Instead

the sky set afire

or the flood

filling my face.

A stubborn drain

nothing can fix.

Every day death.

Every morning death

& every night

& evening

And each hour

a kind of winter—

all weather

is unkind.  Too

hot, or cold

that creeps the bones.

Father, your face

a faith

I can no longer see.

Across the street

a dying, yet

still-standing tree.

So why not

make a soup

of what’s left?  Why

not boil & chop

something outside

the mind—let us

welcome winter

for a few hours, even

in summer.  Some

say Gumbo

starts with file

or with roux, begins

with flour & water

making sure

not to burn.  I know Gumbo

starts with sorrow—

with hands that cannot wait

but must—with okra

& a slow boil

& things that cannot

be taught, like grace.

Done right,

Gumbo lasts for days.

Done right, it will feed

you & not let go.

Like grief

you can eat & eat

& still plenty

left.  Food

of the saints,

Gumbo will outlast

even us—like pity,

you will curse it

& still hope

for the wing

of chicken bobbed

up from below.

Like God

Gumbo is hard

to get right

& I don’t bother

asking for it outside

my mother’s house.

Like life, there’s no one

way to do it,

& a hundred ways,

from here to Sunday,

to get it dead wrong.

Save all the songs.

I know none,

even this, that will

bring a father

back to his son.

Blood is thicker

than water under

any bridge

& Gumbo thicker

than that.  It was

my father’s mother

who taught mine how

to stir its dark mirror—

now it is me

who wishes to plumb

its secret

depths.  Black

Angel, Madonna

of the Shadows,

Hail Mary strong

& dark as dirt,

Gumbo’s scent fills

this house like silence

& tells me everything

has an afterlife, given

enough time & the right

touch.  You need

okra, sausage, bones

of a bird, an entire

onion cut open

& wept over, stirring

cayenne in, till the end

burns the throat—

till we can amen

& pretend

such fiery

mercy is all we know.

Kevin Young’s Ode to Gumbo in Dear Darkness

“…a study of this baffling geography…”

James Baldwin, a grossly talented, truthful, and penetrating writer, is at his best in some of the reviews, speeches, and essays in the edited collection The Cross of Redemption.  This is the first part of his review of The Arrangement, a novel by Elia Kazan:

Memory, especially as one grows older, can do strange and disquieting things.  Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal.  When more time stretches behind than stretches before one, some assessments, however reluctantly and incompletely, begin to be made.  Between what one wished to become and what one has become there is a momentous gap, which will now never be closed.  And this gap seems to operate as one’s final margin, one’s last opportunity, for creation.  And between the self as it is and the self as one sees it, there is also a distance, even harder to gauge.  Some of us are compelled, around the middle of our lives, to make  a study of this baffling geography, less in the hope of conquering these distances than in the determination that the distances shall not become any greater.  Chasms are necessary, but they can also, notoriously, be fatal.  At this point, one is attempting nothing less than the re-creation of oneself out of the rubble which has become one’s life…

Dear Dementia

I didn’t believe it was you when I first saw the signs.  The missed memories were small, so slight they were unnoticed.  I forget.  I get agitated.  I make mistakes, lose things, get mixed.  I was like everyone else who loved: I wanted more.

I began what is still the dismal existence of a loved one struggling with you and your fingers wrapping and stealing things from my father.  I started to look at all those yesterdays, fading in my own memory, and I grabbed for them.  I called them back the way a grandparent calls for their only child’s offspring when, because of intuition, they know that was the last visit.  The rides in my dad’s white van and then the brown van.  There was a  black van too, I think.  I sniffed for the smell of worms and dirt when we went fishing, when I was so small I felt nothing but incompetence because I couldn’t do what my father found so easy.  I listened to the sound of his laughter, not just his laughter, but the way it sang like a Delta blues man.  I looked at the crinkle that was his smile.  I wanted that grin to be mine.

You pulled me from my memories.  Reminded me that you hadn’t won yet.  That yours was a most sinister work because no one knew, and no one knows, when your job would be done with my dad’s brain and body.  You shouted in the tone that was once was my dad’s.  It was his voice, and it wasn’t.  And the reality of my life—the lives of my brothers, the lives of our aunts and our extended loved ones—is that you and dad are dancing.  And his feet are clipping and stumbling under what was once his best song.

You gave him pain and depression at what he can no longer command.  You made him mad at everybody and nobody.  You snatched his ability to attend to the mundane affairs of bills and greetings and polite conversations.  You made him unpredictable so that he couldn’t travel, so that he couldn’t go home and live on his own and be alone.

I hate you.  You’ve taken so much and you’re not even finished.  You have hardly done to me, to us, what I know you’ve done to others.  But know that I’m not alone in seeing your memory-soaked hand clenching and withdrawing from the collective worlds which have been ours.  I hear the prayers of my friends in my ears.

Roland and the way his hand pressed into my shoulder just yesterday, the words he prayed, the faith he had for me, even though today’s conversation with dad tried hard to erase my faith and my friend’s.  Libby and her careful way of saying just enough to express a deep understanding, a selective and prophetic care, and how she brings a prayerfulness whenever she approaches.  Lisa’s powerful prayers that the ground I’m on is sure and steady and the way she keeps praying, the mirror she is to people I see and don’t see.  Lauren’s steady gaze when she asks me respectfully and compassionately how I’m really doing and dealing with the junk you’ve thrown at us.  Byron and his admonition to take care of myself, to do what I need, to care for me so that I’m not surprised by my own breaks and broken places.  Lucy and the regular ways she brings me before the Presence, keeps me there, helps me see me and see truth and prepare to live from more than pain but love.  Winston, his faithfulness and his ability, through history, presentness, and vision for what’s to come, and how he keeps at the work of partnering with God to help make me good through the terror of unknown trials related to you.

Your hand is hard.  But I do not envy you.  Because you, partner of all that is sinful, will have a lot of giving to do.  Diseases like you must hold the things you take and you must return them.  So, my faith, sometimes thin as cracking leaves at autumn’s end, feels tiny.  And even if it disappears to an invisible quality, it will not leave.  It will not depart.  You cannot take it from me.  You cannot steal it the way you have my father’s best qualities.  You cannot leave in faith’s place depression and sadness the way my father struggles now, even without the words to give to his interiority.  I’m looking at the collective faith of an increasing cloud of witnesses, and while your reach is long, it cannot capture all my friend’s strengths.  There are some things you cannot do.