Friday, February 6, 2015

...of ghosts and mockingbirds and Miss Nelle Harper Lee

I lived in Alabama for thirty years. Yet, when people asked where I was "from", I inevitably answered "Georgia". The reason is complex as any discussion of home can be. Many of my ancestors, as well as the settlers of Dublin, Georgia, where I grew up, were Irish. A six-month stint in Ireland was an immersion into the etymology of my southern vocabulary. Words and phrases from my past came to life in conversations there. Ask an Irishman for directions and he'll tell you to "turn left past the fillin' station". Actually he'll tell you to walk past "where Lianna's used to be", then add, "See the "fillin' station down there?" When you nod, he'll say, "Don't go there." Fifteen statements later, he's invited you to drop by his pub, suggested a side trip or three, and told you about the woman who lives across the street ("It's a sad story, for sure, Mary's life is. She's a drinker, you know. As we speak, she's in the church, confessin'."). You may not be any closer to finding the B&B but somehow you don't care.

If I had a potato for every time we encountered that popular southern query, "Where are your people from?", I'd make a big salad and invite you to dinner.  Jane would answer that her grandmother hailed from County Clare and her grandfather from Waterford. Then I would say that I wasn't sure where my grandmother's people lived in Ireland. Heads would cock slightly, an eyebrow would lift a bit. And I would quickly add that they immigrated in the 1820's and records were scarce. Heads would nod in sympathy. "Well, what was the family name?" "Day," I'd reply. The Days, I would learn again and again, were originally O'Days, "but they dropped the "O", don't you know, because of the British." [Insert scowl. At this point, I made a mental note not to call attention to my English ancestors.]

This brings me to To Kill A Mockingbird and the uproar over Harper Lee's to-be-published, Go Set the Watchman. I suppose those who live outside the south see this as either a non-issue or the latest conspiracy theory. But for those of us who grew up in TKAM country, this story is personal at many levels, from racism and poverty to Bear Bryant and Atticus Finch. This is a tale of who we were and who we have become,  a walk through a familiar, personal wilderness that both discomfits and affirms.

I was twelve when I read The Book - the experience a string of Aha! moments and shame - and met my people. The Ewells represented everything I detested about my birthplace. I encounteed Tom Robinson in those pages, knew him more intimately than I could have in real life. Scout and Jem were familiar characters in my world. Almost everyone I knew loved a Boo. Mine was an older distant cousin, a gentle wisp of a woman, brilliant but hidden away in a dark house filled with old history books and newspapers. I loved her sweet, quiet voice, her bookish ways, and knew that most around me missed the essence of her. But not my Daddy. My Atticus. He loved her and taught me to respect her before I'd ever met her. She was set apart in that small community. Depending on the speaker, she was either crazy or a witch. My father said, "She's from another time." Then he added, "And you're going to love each other." He was right. For too few precious meetings, we did. She remains fresh in my memory and even now, in quiet moments, I can see her pale blue eyes and long grey hair pulled loosely back into a chignon of sorts. She wore long, soft dresses of voile and fine lawn and white cotton gowns and told me stories of history and places I longed to see. The bookish nature in me met the bookish nature in her and I felt less alone.

Perhaps southerners are in a stew over this latest book news because this is, for us, a family thing. We've seen our old people taken advantage of by those who prosper from their misfortune and weakness. For every Atticus, there is a wheeler-dealer whose public face and private actions don't match. And then there's Bear Bryant. When we moved to Birmingham, Patrick was fifteen months old. I remember a conversation with his pediatrician who talked about the economic contrast between Georgia and Alabama. With the exception of the bigger cities - Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville - much of the state had long offered little in the way of a living wage for the majority of its citizens. This, he said, explained the draw of Bear Bryant. Pride. Countless Bama fans never attended university. Many never finished high school. But Bear, the southern Everyman with a good-old-boy swagger, gave Alabama bragging rights. Fans who claimed allegiance to a school they had never attended were lifted from the realm of poor white trash to the ranks of The Elected by association.

For others, Miss Lee's book shouted, "See! We're not all racists." But prejudice exists in all of us, sometimes in dangerously subtle ways. And anger abides in those who yet hold dear the Confederacy. We southerners are, to a degree, the Middle East with a drawl. I've often thought of the significance of the assassination of President Lincoln and wondered how he would have structured Reconstruction. I'll never know but I have my suspicions.

So why did I claim Georgia thirty years after leaving? Why, for all those years, did I feel a bit of an outsider in a state where so many good friends live?  Part of the answer rests in my own story and has little to do with geography. An uglier admission is that I wanted to distance myself from the front-page bombings and Bull Connor brutality even though my home state was every bit as dead-set on matters of race and segregation. [Vs. 2, "Hear me, o children: do NOT be prideful." I do not always take my own advice first time around.]

This latest news is an amalgamation of contradictions and pride, much like Miss Harper Lee, she of New York City and Monroeville, Alabama. Not a recluse but private, she mirrors the Boo in each of us, the ghostly wounded soul. She has chosen not to air her hurts but to live honestly...and all whose frailty remains masked feel less alone in their vulnerability. She modeled Atticus after her own father and her heart is found in these words: "Miss Jean Louise...Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father is passing." Southern girls who love their daddies are apt to quote this at the drop of a hat and shed a tear.

We may never know the truth of how this new/old book was launched. But for those of us who met ourselves in the pages of her classic book, the events are personal. We are in the wilderness with her. With the death of Alice, Harper Lee's fiercely protective sister and attorney, and the sudden, coincidental discovery of a long-lost manuscript, the timing seems suspect. Because we fear that, with Alice's death, another Atticus has departed and no one is left to keep Miss Lee - or us - safe. We are all vulnerable, never more so than as infants and then again in old age, and we fill our in-between years with dread. We borrow trouble and foolishly mourn in advance the loss of dignity and independence. We, not so foolishly but perhaps prematurely, declare a pox on those who would profit from another's infirmity. And the whispers gather, calling us to remember and cry out. It's a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Monday, January 19, 2015

...walking the lonesome road

In the end
we will remember
not the words of our enemies,
but the silence of our friends.

Dr. Martin Luther King
Born January 15, 1929
Assassinated April 4, 1968

The late Dr. Dow Kirkpatrick was the grandfather of my daughter's friend, Amanda. This is how I knew him. But his legacy reached beyond his loving family, beyond the churches he served. His actions ripple yet and today seems a fitting time to recall him and others whose lives impacted many. His obituary stated that he "preached racial harmony and social justice from the pulpit and beyond, undeterred by threats." And "spoke out on social issues ranging from racial equality to welcoming homosexuals into the church."

He was pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta from 1957-1962 during the turbulent days - and nights - of the civil rights era. His obituary also mentions that "he helped draft the Ministers Manifesto in 1957. That document, signed by 80 Atlanta preachers, is credited with helping the city desegregate peacefully. It is believed that St. Mark was the first white Methodist church in Atlanta, and probably the state, to receive black members."

The Ministers many remember? How many of today's generation have heard of this, understand the risk, the passion, the theology of this? To tell a bit of the story, I draw from a book written by Bob Shand, In My Father's House: Lessons Learned in the Home of a Civil Rights Pioneer:

The pastor of Atlanta's First Baptist Church, Dr. Roy McCain, delivered a sermon, "This Way Please: Facing Life's Crossroads", in October 1957. As described by Shand, he "demanded that Christians step up to their responsibilityto confront prejudice and ended with what would become a catch-phrase. There are times when silence is golden; there are also times when silence is yellow." [1]

His follow-up sermon asked "Who speaks for the South? College professors have been 'realively quiet'. Many of the South's politicians are interested only in getting votes, and the 'pulpits have been paralyzed'."  This was published by The Atlanta Journal and the late Ralph McGill, editor of The Atlanta Constitution, followed up by inviting a number of Protestant ministers to issue position papers about segregation. The paper ran thirteen weeks of those articles. Dr. Kirkpatrick wrote one and became on of the drafters of the Manifesto. The others included Dr. McDowell Richards, President of Columbia Seminary, Dr. Herman Turner, Rev. Milton Wood, Dr. Harry Fifield, Dr. Monroe Swilley, Rev. Robert E. Lee, Rev. Harrison McMains, Dr. Charles Allen, and Dr. Dow Kirkpatrick. Shand wrote that "these mens were chosen because, in most cases, they served the largest congregations in their denominations. At least the largest congregations whose pastor was willing to sign the document." [1]

The climate was deadly. Dr. Bevel Jones wrote, "Almost as important as the document itself was our method of gathering support for it. We decided not to mail it, for our adversaries could get hold of it and sabotage our efforts. Instead, the clergy comprising our core group glued the manifesto to tables at several designated churches. Then we wrote a letter to all Atlanta Area ministers whose addresses we could obtain, asking them to go by and read our manifesto and, if they would support it, to sign their names." [2]

The Atlanta Ministers' Manifesto of 1957 ran on the first page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday, November 3: "Eighty Atlanta ministers have signed a manifesto presenting the first such declaration of beliefs on racial problems to come out of the Deep South." Here is the opening:

  • Freedom of Speech must at all costs be preserved.
  • As Americans and Christians, we have an obligation to obey the law.
  • The public school system must not be destroyed.
  • Hatred and scorn for those of another race, or for those who hold a position different from our own, can never be justified.
  • Communication between responsible leaders of the races must be maintained.
  • Our difficulties cannot be solved in our own strength or in human wisdom...but only through prayer.
Many pastors across Georgia joined in support. Two groups, the Colquitt and Tatnall-Evans Baptist Associations, came out in favor of segregation. And negativity remained among individuals. The fight within the white community had begun.

Fast forward to present day...and my words:
I've been treated with respect by believers and non-believers alike and hope that I return this to others. I've also been treated with complete contempt by representatives of both groups. Labels, in the end, mean little without appropriate actions. Love is a verb or it is nothing at all.

Where are the church leaders now? One of those liberal United Methodist leaders, Dr. John Rutland - whose life was threatened regularly, whose children were threatened with kidnapping, whose front yard regularly displayed burned crosses - often quoted this: the purpose of the church is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. I am blessed to have known the late John Rutland and Dr. John Claypool. To now know people such as a young UMC minister in South Georgia, Arnie Raj, Mike and Barbara Harper and Joe Elmore who ministered to me at Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church (and beyond), and an accidental e-friend, Roger Wolsey, Director and Pastor of the Wesley Foundation, at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He is the author of a book I highly recommend, Kissing Fish, and one whose story I'd like to share in a future post.

At a national level, though, must we wait for utter desolation for a Dietrich Bonhoeffer to step up? Too many of the voices that once brought us together serve to divide us now. I pray to hear more concerns about human rights than trust funds and taxation. If we don't believe in a greater goodness, in what is best for all...if we don't "live simply so that others can simply live"...then we are well on our way to creating hell on earth. 

1. In My Father's House: Lessons Learned in the Home of a Civil Rights Pioneer by Bob Shands
2. Dr. Lewis Bevel Jones III, (born 1926) is a retired Bishop of the United Methodist Church and currently Bishop in Residence at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 i ended up in the back of a police car

I thought better of taking a picture inside the police car. 
This is the drive home from Home Depot later that week,
the last decorated tree in my lap. Cars figure heavily 
in my 2011 Christmas memories. 

The day started innocently enough. Bill was working up in Ukiah so I sent him a selfie from D-Dock. The bright sun effectively removed all my wrinkles. Just so you know, the brown fringe is my hair and the fuzzy black and pink frizz is a hat knitted by a friend. The overall effect is a punk haircut with a rad color job. But I digress.

After checking on the boat, I decided to walk the three blocks to CVS for a few essentials: toothpaste, lipstick, Christmas-y nail polish, and Dove hairspray. First I strolled through the town home community next to us to see the decorations, made a right on Regatta Boulevard, stopped, took off my jacket, and tied it around my waist...a happy woman. Then the day began to unravel at the next intersection.

One minute I was crossing the street, the next I was flying through the air after tripping over the curb. A hard crash ended my space exploration. After a significant pause, my breath returned but the thought of broken bones grinding against each other dampened my desire to move. About this time, a car pulled up next to the curb and stopped.

The first thing I saw was a pair of steel-toe lace-up boots covered in either a Jackson Pollack painting or slaughterhouse residue. As I started to rise,  a hand reached toward me. Then I saw four more boots that looked just like the first two.  When I gingerly rolled to one side before testing my weight, the car came into focus. Two dinged doors - each a different color - contrasted strongly with the body paint...all equally coated in muck.

Now, I'd heard stories of inner Richmond but I was nowhere near there. Evidently it had come to me. For better or for worse, I determined to meet it on my own two feet. With as much dignity as I could muster, I unfolded upward, then watched as pieces of my bracelet fell to the ground. The trio introduced themselves: Jesus, Howard, and Jamil. We were a rather ecumenical group. As Jesus retrieved the bits of my bracelet, Howard inquired if I was okay. I assured him that, other than a few scrapes and bruises, I was okay. Jamil thought they should take me to the hospital, an offer I politely but quickly declined.

Howard checked my arm which was bleeding through my good pink turtleneck. Jesus pointed out my ripped pants' knee and Jamil offered a ride to the ER again. Grace had ridden up, not on camels or horseback, but in a tatty old Dodge. They waited for a few minutes until they were assured that I was only a little worse for wear. I shook each of their hands and said, "I can't tell you how grateful I am for your kindness. What fine gentlemen you are." Each of them stood a little taller and grinned, then Jesus said, "You're not from around here, are you?" I told them that I am now and they welcomed me to California.

Hands waved out the car windows as they drove away and I gave them a thumbs up, then began the trek to the drugstore. Another car pulled up beside me, this time a black and white with a Richmond police officer inside.

"Ma'am? Are you okay?"

"Yes." I said that I'd fallen and was headed to CVS for a few things. My list had now morphed to bandages and Advil.

"Well, get in and I'll drive you."

"Oh, no. The walk will probably help me work out the stiffness."

"Nonsense. But you'll have to sit behind me."

As I closed the back door, my cellphone rang...Bill calling between patients. "Hey!" he said. "Had a minute and wanted to see what you're up to this morning!"

"Well, sweetheart, at the moment, I'm in a police car."

After a hurried explanation from me, Dr. Bill the PT explained how my neck issues and nerve damage had caused foot drop which in turn led to my fall. Post-diagnosis Bill reverted to my husband and VBFF, promised to call back in an hour,  said me he loved me and would be home by seven. I then became acquainted with Officer Chris. She was a delight. Told me about her upcoming class reunion and I discovered we had quite a lot in common. After a rather exciting roundabout route to avoid a long train, we arrived at the drugstore. She gave me contact info and once more inquired if I needed to go to the hospital. Both of us were laughing when I climbed out. I saw a man on the curb across the street, staring intently. But he wasn't nearly as interested as the woman who walked outside as I exited the patrol car.

Inside, the checker, Catherine, noticed my rips and scrapes. Another assurance was forthcoming. That morning Catherine, the widowed black mother of two, became my first regular "neighbor" in Marina Bay. Next time she saw me she told me she'd been praying for me. Until she transferred earlier this year, every trip to CVS was a hugfest.

Remember the gentleman seated on the curb? Well, when I walked out with my first-aid supplies, he called out, "You must rate. Pick up and delivery!" I waved again and limped home.

And that is how I ended up in the backseat of a Richmond police car and met my very own Kris Kringle, Officer Chris, and the Three Wise Guys.