What Means Water

In the summer of 1983 after I completed my masters degree, I decided to celebrate by taking my children on a westward camping tour. I bought a used pop up camper and borrowed a camper’s atlas. Between the green areas marking national parks and the homes of relatives, the trip could be done cheaply as long as we avoided lodging at places with nice beds and bathrooms. A campground with showers was a premium find, although almost any lake or river would do.

Between Kentucky and Colorado, water was abundant and clear. However, when we left Colorado, we entered long stretches of hot highway passing through dry land spotted with sage brush and scraggly junipers.

“Let’s find a river and cool off before lunch,” I suggested during a monotonous morning of driving.

The map showed an area near the highway where the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado River, passed through a state park. Anticipating a cool dip, we left the main highway. Asphalt soon narrowed to a dusty gravel road that stopped at a parking area identified as Green River State Park. There was a primitive toilet sheathed in wood slats and covered with a vented tin roof. A hand pump stood near a couple of picnic tables. A few cottonwood trees indicated the presence of water nearby.

When we walked to the river, we found a muddy ditch.

“A river? That isn’t a river!”

“And it sure isn’t green!”

“It’s the Mud River.”

“Well, at one time it must have been green,” I suggested. Mentally I speculated that ranchers had dammed the river and reduced its flow. Summer sun had evaporated what water remained.

We tried washing our hands and faces at the pump. A gush of water burst forth after energetic pumping then seized. We resorted to our five gallon water jug, made some punch, and ate sandwiches before retracing our path down the road to the highway and continuing on.

As a mother with two teenage girls and a preteen son, I had plenty of experience soothing disappointments. Any six week adventure with my crew was bound to present some difficulties. Outwardly I reframed disappointments with optimistic possibilities. “Mountains ahead!…Look! A US Forestry sign!…Just wait until you see the Grand Canyon!…Yosemite is awesome!” Inwardly, however, I questioned myself. Had I too hopefully entered into this trip?

Caught up in the newness of each day and its surprises, everyone so far had been a good sport. Another side tour to a mud hole might cause my cooperating kids to rebel.

Later that day we stopped for gas at a truck stop. A couple of vehicles were the only signs of civilization. A gritty wind blew from the south, our shorts flapped against our thighs, and our hair whipped across our faces. Inside the establishment we discovered pay showers. Each of the two showers was on a timer with a coin slot. A quarter provided a five minute spray of lukewarm water.

The showers were behind a lockable door. A noisy venting fan in the ceiling switched on with the lights. Stingy vinyl shower curtains hung from rods, but the prefab showers looked clean.

“I’m getting our towels and some soap. We are going to take showers!” I announced. I imagine they rolled their eyes at each other. I didn’t stop to see their reactions. Children are free to have their own conversations between each other without a parent listening. Besides, I was determined to demonstrate how refreshing a pay shower could be.

Like ducklings following Mother Duck, they fell in line, at first reluctant, then timid, until finally splashing and laughing and asking for more quarters.

The five minute blessings of soap and water at a truck stop had washed away more than sweat and dust. Our doubts had disappeared.

Somewhere beyond the rugged, salmon colored horizon line was our destination for the day, a place we had only seen in National Geographic and heard about from others. Finally, the highway began to twist until we were climbing switch backs toward the cooler regions of Mesa Verde.

The Green River’s mud and the truck stop’s showers are mostly a forgotten layer today. If I were to ask my adult children about that day, they might say, it didn’t happen that way. Nevertheless, I’m sticking to the story.

At home in Kentucky a small pond burbles next to the deck. We water plants every summer morning, take generous showers, and drink freely from faucets. We can be at Barren River Lake in only forty minutes. We vacation in the North Carolina Mountains near the French Broad River and its tributaries. We have arranged ourselves around the soothing sound of water. We experience a trusting and secure relationship with water. In our imaginations rivers are resources of refreshment, lined with cooling trees.

On that camping trip, we learned otherwise.

I like to think we were acting on faith, exercising a pattern of hope. We believed in the possibility of flowing water. When we found mud instead, we pushed on. We weren’t free of doubt, but we also didn’t cave in and turn back.

On Mesa Verde that night, cool breezes brushed at the trees around our campsite. A slight drizzle fell at dusk. We slipped into sleep. In the morning, sunshine and chilled air awakened us. After a breakfast of cereal and fruit, we toured the ancient ruins of people from the past who had carved a life out of the mesa’s cliffs and wet springs, safely above the unyielding dry land to the east.

It’s no surprise that in literature and song we find Justice flows like a river. We hunger and thirst for righteousness. We’ve got peace like a river. We’ve got joy like a fountain. Love like the ocean.

A Mothers’ Celebration

Today is Mother’s Day. I am with a daughter and her family, embraced in familiar routines, cocooned by my own motherhood with its myriad and layered roles, its history, even its unknowns.

There was a time when Mother’s Day caused me heartache, when I could not free myself of the grief of losing my own mother to tragedy eight days before I turned thirteen. For many years I did not go to church on Mother’s Day for fear of publicly sobbing, uncontrollable grief rising like a geyser to flood everyone around me and spoil the occasion. It was a selfish reaction, I believe, for my children loved me and showered me with understanding affection while I quietly went to the garden to trim roses and plant petunias.

Indeed, the cure for my inability to live comfortably with loss was the continued growth of my children’s adult lives, their voluminous selves, their developing families, the absolute repetition of nurturing love, its intensity, its familiarity. A simple blessing unfolding over and over.

I once feared I would die young and never see this unfolding. But that did not happen. I have lived and am still vibrant at 75 years old. I can attend college graduations and may even live to feel a great grand-child in my arms. This gift of life overwhelms me at times, welling up in my heart and radiating out in silly ways, dancing while cooking, humming while weeding, sometimes causing me to want to reach out and hug people unawares. How can I tell a friend this? That suddenly I want to embrace her and tell her how happy I’ve become!

Frankly, my experience is both ordinary and extraordinary. It will certainly resonate with others. What if we mothers and grandmothers would suddenly be thrown together in a great song fest of gratitude, dancing and embracing each other and our loved ones. Oh what a celebration that would be!

Photoshopping History

With today’s photography tools, my face can be replaced with yours. If a blemish appears, it can be retouched. If the flowers look bedraggled, I can renew them with digital fresh flowers.

Recently after the hanging of an exhibit of historical church photos, my friends and I saw that blackface masks were decorating the back wall in one picture. The 1960’s photograph is of a band called the Pantomime Band or PB. Two men are in drag, with faces painted like mimes. Musicians and singers are wearing red stripped blouses and shirts. They have skimmers on their heads. The PB Band possibly didn’t actually play their instruments but pretended, or mimed, using recorded music.

The purpose of the band was playful, innocuous, designed as a fun way to kick off a church campaign for annual pledges. They only “played” for two nights.

“Is that Lenny in drag?” Asked my friend. Eighty-eight years old, she remembers people who have long since departed. ‘

“Look, there’s Joe!” Said someone.

“No, that can’t be Joe. That’s Joe’s dad.”

The band’s photograph, resized and enhanced, had been touched many times, framed by the members of the church art board, and hung. No one had said anything about the five small masks in the picture—until after every photo had been hung and workers were cleaning up.

“That’s black face! You can’t hang this! You’ve got to take it down!”

I backed up. I think I said, “Noooo” as in “We can’t remove this photo; it’s necessary” mixed with “Oh no, how did I miss that. Let’s photoshop it.”

I don’t think he heard me. “Look, we have to take this one down. It’s black face,” he called out.

“What is it?” Asked my venerable friend, followed by a cacophony of five voices in unison.

“Oh no! It has to come down/Photoshop it out/It will have to come down/I didn’t see it/You can’t have this up/People will be upset/What will we do?/Take it down!”

“I’ll do it,” said a photographer.

“What?”

“Photoshop it, erase them.”

And so, it was done. The digital photo with its masks on the wall was “shopped” and reprinted and placed over the original photo in its frame on the wall.

What are the philosophical implications of erasing historical documentation, even in a local photo?

In the 1960s’s in the United States, Martin Luther King and others were insisting on equal protection under the law, an end to separate but equal. An awakening of sensitivity to racism was on the rise, but probably not to the level to cause a small group at a Kentucky church to realize that black face as a stage decoration would offend viewers forty years later.

My husband joked, “I’m bothered by men in drag. I want those two queens erased.” We laughed. But men dressed in drag, pretending to be queens, could offend a transgender person, as in They were making fun of me and my people—Even if dressing in drag was considered comical at the time in the 60’s when transgender people were usually hidden and commonly ridiculed, before the rainbow movement arose, before people understood being gay or transgender to be a biological, natural fact of life.

Our collective memory of making fun of queer people cannot be erased, anymore than our memory of symbols of latent racial insensitivity like black face masks, separate water fountains, and the back of the bus.

A divorcee, resenting the over-large family portrait above her mantle, glued Abraham Lincoln’s face over her ex-husband’s face. We are amused by her act of defiance. She knows she had children with the man, ate breakfast with him, argued over the thermostat, put away his shoes. Covering his face emphasizes the irony of her situation.

It is impossible to know the inside story behind the masks in the Pantomime Band photograph since the only record we have is the original photograph of friends having a jolly good time pretending to be a band for a Christian fundraiser. They might have looked for mime masks but instead found black face ones. Hanging them was an Oh well what the heck choice.

History can be redacted, rewritten, omitted from new editions. Would an erasure be misunderstood, over time? Our photoshopped photo, with its masks removed sits on top of the original. It will be discovered someday. Someone might notice and be puzzled. Would the truth matter?

Maybe in 2019 the church didn’t want to advertise its 1960’s insensitivities. Or maybe someone objected to the black face masks. Either option could be true. Would one option be more acceptable than the other? Imagine someone thinking, They were ashamed of their racism, when in actuality five people feared black face masks in the original photograph would disturb a parishioner or visitor. To erase was a politically correct move, which might be interpreted as morally objectionable by a historian. The erasure choice is sensible within one context, but possibly disturbing and misunderstood in another situation and time.

If the image erased had been two water fountains side by side, one labeled “White” and the other “Colored” as if to erase our shame for waiting so long to come to our senses, someone would have said, “You can’t do that!”

Irony in history is like oxygen—everywhere.

A Nutty Season

Beginning in late autumn, walnuts blanket our lawns and flower beds with rotting black mushy balls the size of lemons. In June the nuts sprout under shrubs and in the grass like sneaky aliens. That is, IF the nuts are left undisturbed.

At our place, a mature black walnut tree spreads high and wide just off our deck along a fence line; another marks the front edge of our property and the entrance to our driveway. In the hot summer the trees give welcome shade. They also infect our soil with juglone, a chemical poisonous to most flowers, vegetables, and shrubs, even pine trees.

Sitting on our deck in June, a friend praised the back yard’s black walnut. “That is a gorgeous tree!” Graceful, extravagant, enormous, the tree survived a property line clean-out 30 years ago. When we couldn’t grow tomatoes within 50 feet of it, we moved the tomatoes. When a pine shrub died, we replaced it with a juniper. Zinnias instead of petunias. Hydrangeas instead of azaleas. We have definitely accommodated the tree.

In early November when we walk across the lawn and our feet roll and twist on freshly fallen nuts, we begin their removal. After filling a wheelbarrow with nuts, we cart them 200 yards to the back tree line where squirrels dine. We have been doing this for years, even though as we age and lose cells, the trees grow and gain cells, thus producing ever more nuts.

Two days ago, we finally finished tossing nuts into trash barrels, carting off nuts to squirrel piles, rolling up nuts, raking nuts, digging out nuts, driving over nuts.

We could hire someone to pick up the nuts or even to cut down the trees. So why are we still doing our own nut removal? Because we can is the simplest answer, but there is more to the story.

It’s about respect. The trees are prolific, provident.

It’s about cooperation, with each other and the trees. After all, walnuts fall only for two weeks while we have enough energy and will to rid ourselves of them, over time, an hour here, an hour there.

It’s about responsibility and reciprocity. The trees shade us, cool our yard, clean our air. In the deep woods, the walnuts could remain in place on the ground, but we have an artfully landscaped yard which requires consideration.

It’s about participation and attention. The trees participate in growing and giving naturally, without debate or analysis. They nourish and replenish. Tending to them and their fruit engages us.

This extended metaphor about black walnuts is intended to remind us how best to honor life, celebrate faith, practice peace, and acknowledge each other and our natural world with respect and kindness.

Seasons Greetings, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukkah, Blessings and Peace—Within these phrases are foundations of respect, cooperation, responsibility, reciprocity, and participation; repetitive allusions to deliverance and salvation; reminders of celebratory events, generosity, and renewal. Even if used carelessly, the phrases maintain their foundational intention.

There is a natural order to trees, life, and meaning, which begs our attention and care, even when we are distracted by disruptions and challenges. We respond, perhaps not joyfully, but tenderly, deliberately, faithfully, gratefully, patiently, because we can, because we must. We are more than ourselves. We all are.

New Mercies I See

You, God, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, and my foot from stumbling, so I’ll walk before the Lord in the land of the living. —Psalm 116:8-9

I’m surprised to find myself living still. When I was forty, I wondered how long I would have and how I would use that time. Circumstances had alerted me. I had been delivered from death, tears, and stumbling. Now what? I can’t say that I actually made a conscious list of goals, but I certainly was choosing a deliberate direction to walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

I learned to recognize God at work in my life—everyday—in communion with others. In my home love bloomed; with friends laughter and work flourished; in teaching love soothed adolescent behavior; reminders of god’s covenant spread like water.

Life was simpler than I had believed, made simpler by God’s presence in my beginning thoughts, my daily choices, my reactions.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve made mistakes, ridiculous ones. I have had my share of shameful moments. Intemperate outbursts. Painful and confusing sidetracks. Oops, try not to do that again! What is wrong with you, woman?! Get a grip!

Recently, one afternoon I was loading a cart of groceries into the trunk of my car. I was bone tired, overheated, thirsty. I needed to return my cart. Which way was faster, the front door of Kroger’s or the cart return in the parking lot?

A woman with two grandchildren was approaching. The children, dressed in school clothes, playfully pushed their grocery cart. The grandmother must have noticed my fatigue.

“Verona, take this woman’s cart back to the store for her.”

The sweet child, her hair in plaits, smiled and said, “Yes ma’am.”

“Watch the cars, now.” The cart was almost as tall as the child. A truck waited.

It was an ordinary act, simple, gracious, kind. God in the living.

I’m grateful to be among the living, to have witnessed love enacted in a Kroger parking lot. It reminded me again how our job as Christians is to see God at work in the world here and now and to join in that work. I like walking with the Lord here – in the land of the living.

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

Maya

I’m wondering what Maya thinks of Ayanna Presley’s win in Massachusetts with the propelling message, “Change can’t wait.”

Maya sat in a front row seat in my junior English class. She carried herself gracefully, artfully downplaying her natural beauty with jeans and tee shirts, her colorful bracelets hinting at the sparkle behind her conservative front.

Maya wasn’t a girl to be ignored. If she did poorly on an assignment, she’d stay after class with questions. Could she do another assignment to practice what she had missed? She was determined to improve.

Her reading journal hinted of deep fears, trouble at home, barriers of poverty and insecurity. She wrote that the only way to improve one’s situation was through education and association with good people. However normal that sounds, for her it was an imperative that couldn’t wait.

One day she asked if she could meet with me privately. Apparently something I had written in her journal had caused her to trust me. “I have to barricade my sister and myself in my room at home. My mom’s cousin won’t leave us alone.”

Imagine delaying going home by participating in after school sports and tutoring, taking the bus home, grabbing something to eat and using the bathroom before “he” shows up, and then pushing furniture against the bedroom door. Those were the circumstances under which Maya had done homework and slept ever since she had entered puberty, three years earlier. Now she felt she had to protect her sister as well.

Near the end of the school year when counselors came to our classrooms to enroll students in classes for the next school year, Maya asked me to recommend her for AP English, a demanding course of literature taught by an exceptional teacher, Anne Padilla. Maya was underprepared for AP English. I tried to dissuade her.

“Was AP English the best course in the department?”

“Yes, but…”

“Then that’s where I need to be.”

I spoke to Mrs. Padilla. “She’s not prepared but she wants the challenge. It will mean extra work for her and you. She might fail.”

My colleague was known for her compassion and her high standards. I was prepared to disappoint Maya, but instead, after Mrs. Padilla agreed to take her, I returned with “You’re in. She will accept you based on your willingness to do your best.”

Which is exactly what happened. Maya entered with a deficit in composition skills and passed the class, graduating with the kind of personal achievement not measured by standardized testing.

Maya went to our local university. Beyond that, she faded into the community. Like almost all my students, she exists in my memory as an adolescent. I would like to think that when she heard about Ms. Presley’s winning the democratic nomination in Massachusetts, she nodded and thought, “Yes, ma’am. Change can’t wait.”

Tasha

She was hefty and noisy.  Definitely Imposing. That was my first impression.  Exactly who was going to be in charge?  Her or me?

Her followers established a tight perimeter in seats around her.  Uh huh.  Uh huh. Yes ma’am.  But no ma’am. I ain’t gonna read no books, no ma’am.  I ain’t never read a book in my life. Ain’t gonna start now!  No ma’am.

To Queen Tasha, the aggressive guard of the girls’ basketball team, all space was like a basketball court.  There were her teammates, her coach, and her opponents. Her job was to protect her teammates, advance the ball, and outflank her opponents. Believe me when I say she didn’t exactly think of me as her coach.

Her basketball coach, a firm supporter of academics, was a no-nonsense gal who also taught math.  I walked alongside Coach J after lunch one day.

“If Tasha refuses to read books in my class, she will fail English III.”

”Oh, she’ll read the books, all right, or lose court time,” she promised. “I will speak with her.”

My next move was to find a book that she would like.  In the library was a worn out paperback about a female professional basketball player who had come up through poverty, broken free of a family drug culture, and become a powerful figure on the court in high school and college, and built a professional career as a player and coach.  The star’s miraculous story included the touching rescue of her little brothers, whom she raised.

I placed the book on shelves with other books available for independent reading.  Would she find it?

On book selection day, I did my usual introduction and turned the students loose in the room to browse through books.  I struggled to be casual, hanging around to answer questions and give encouragement, alert, however, to what Tasha was doing.

She had left her desk and was picking through books as if they were slimy slugs.  Then she paused.  In her hand was the worn out paperback I had planted among newer books.  She was taking it to her desk.  One of her friends was also interested in the book, but competitive Queen Tasha wasn’t about to part from it.  “You can read it when I finish.”  When I sent the sign up sheet around, she wrote the book’s title next to her name.

Signing up for a book isn’t exactly reading.  We wouldn’t know until later if she was actually reading it.

Two days later, Tasha burst into the classroom waving the book.  “This is the best book ever!  Do you know what this girl did!?”

She didn’t want to do anything in class except read her book — a new issue.  I left her alone, because not participating in independent reading would insure failure, whereas not participating in short classroom exercises would only lower her average, not fail her.  Perhaps if she turned into a willing reader, she would take an interest in other activities.

In writing a personal narrative, she struggled to find the words to show how, when she was five years old, social services and the police had taken her and her three siblings from their mother one night.  Like other non-readers, she could express herself freely aloud but not on paper.

“Let’s give your story time to develop,” I suggested. “You can add to it and revise it over time.”

Soon Queen Tasha was quieting the classroom.  One look from her and the strutting mac-daddy’s would straighten up.  She brooked no nonsense from her friends.  “Show respect!”  She’d say to them.  My classroom discipline problems were being solved by the very student who had attempted a take over.

With every book she read, she discovered more language.  She practiced sentences.  She bragged about her new vocabulary. She learned to code switch from black English vernacular to standard English.

Tasha finished English III with an A.  She joined a school leadership team, she applied to college, she excelled on the court.

Imagine her happy and warm, not angry; progressive, not defensive.  To be hugged by her was to be completely enveloped, her enthusiasm like a down comforter.

In college, she continued her leadership roles.  “I’m going to be a teacher,” she said.  And so she did.