Friday, August 15, 2014

...the thing I can't abide

Great minds discuss ideas
Average minds discuss events
Little minds discuss people

Attributed to
Eleanor Roosevelt, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover,
and that ever-wise Anonymous

Overheard, a conversation between two women, their voices unmodulated. Perhaps they thought - mistakenly - that the modern light fixture overhead was some new-fangled cone of silence. Hapless dining neighbors tried not to hear as the pair picked clean the bones of their mutual object of scorn. Once the cadaver was sent to the Morgue of Dead Conversations, the next person was rolled out. This second conversation was less attacking...along the lines of "bless her heart, you know that her husband..." What ensued was a second/third/fourth-hand public discourse on a family's sorrows.

What satisfies us, temporarily but often, to discuss/diss/diminish our fellow travelers? For starters, I don't have to look too closely at my own issues if I focus on yours. Or perhaps the dishee du jour echoes some personal unhappiness...a loss, a struggle with another's problems, a broken relationship. What remains unhealed within me festers and I'm left to pick at the scabs. I've been on both sides of the conversation and hear me: well-intentioned or satisfying know-it-all words have serious repercussions for all involved. Listening to gossip but not "participating" is akin to being a little-bit pregnant. I now say, "I"m uncomfortable with this conversation since I don't know the facts." Because a better person than I told me to say this.

Whatever sins had been committed by the lunch subject, gossip was never mentioned. Practiced at their table with pleasure and skill but never once called out as a deadly scourge. Given the proximity of the nearest table, I can attest that much of the information passed back and forth at full volume fell under dubious source headings..."so and so's neighbor heard", "my cousin's yardman said", and the ever-popular "I just bet..." and "No one has to tell me. I know..." Dicing and slicing, hashing and re-hashing, they were still at it when I left.

Now gossip has gone viral. The social media is an unholy cutting board. Lies are spread. People dissected. The old-fashioned folded newspaper has unfolded into an e-format with outrageous comments by anonymous forum trolls who attract offensive followers. How vile the creature who sent Robin William's daughter Photoshopped pictures of her father supposedly lying on a morgue table with bruises on his neck.

Words hurt. And wounded people wound. Even when I know the speaker is a damaged soul, the ripple effect of the gossip - the pleasure others take in listening, passing it forward and preaching - impacts me. Or my family. The choices are to participate or ignore. The first is just plain wrong and the second is hard. Forgiveness for all involved takes time but if I don't, the result is more pain. Your opinion of me is none of my business. You're entitled to your feelings. I'm not responsible for any one else, thank heavens. I have enough trouble with my own character defects. Here's my litmus test. When I feel compelled to go out of my way to convince others, I ask myself "Why?" If, when I'm confronted repeatedly, I ask "Why would hearing this give me pleasure?"

Is the impact of gossip worth a few minutes of malicious pleasure? Do I pass on an earlier layer of loose talk in order to justify my dislike of another person or ignore my deficits and chance that my source is as wrong as my own oh-so-good but, in fact, spiteful intentions? What am I trying to fix...and what might I ultimately destroy? Whatever personal experience exists, none among us can know the full story of another's life or the depth of someone's pain or fears. A careless chatfest is the first cousin of character assassination and lying. Oh, what a tangled web...

If I can't communicate honestly and civilly with others, if I don't demand media standards and dedicated moderators, if I seek out the lowest-common-denominator sources because they tell me what I want to hear, I'm part of the problem.

...from a United Methodist minister:
If every detail of every life were known, we could hate no one. 

But some of the hateful words I see and hear daily make this a challenge as never before.
I do know who said this...a good beginning and solid advice.

Clean around your own doorstep.
Granny and Mother

Leave the world a little better.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

...from the outside in

Mendocino coast, photograph, Celeste Bracewell, 2014

I am drawn to water’s edge. From an old journal, words that have appeared here before:
My childhood was spent in a hot humid landscape of gentle, rolling hills bordered by pine woodlands. Flat beaches of white sand, the marshes of Glynn, and ancient oaks with moss-draped branches that brushed the ground of the tranquil Georgia coast quietly seduced. But the raw, rugged beauty of distant seaside cliffs called to a young girl, a desire that hinted inexplicably of homecoming.

My first experience with such a coast was during a business trip to San Francisco in 1992...a drive into the Marin headlands over the Golden Gate. That foray would be repeated each time I returned to the city, to sit with a book - largely ignored - and banana nut bread from Sears Fine Dining to tide me over while I watched the tides below.

Then came Ireland. I became hopelessly addicted. One drive was too many and six months’ worth not enough. I lived in Kinsale near the harbor. From Cobh south to Glandore and beyond, around the Dingle peninsula, up to the cliffs of Moher, the edges called. 

Last Thursday we drove to the Mendocino coast again, turned north and traveled beside the cliffs for a while before turning inland onto the headlands. The rolling fields of sea oats are sparsely populated by a few farms and inns, coastal cypress, and clumps of redwoods. 

We arrived at the bed and breakfast exhausted. Two hours until dinner so we retired to the chairs on our small porch, to a welcome silence. Beyond the field, the marine layer bled into the sea with only a trickle of sunlight to define the distant gentle waves. After a while, I dressed for dinner. As we walked to the car, Bill commented, “You love the peacefulness of this place.” 

This peace, however, was tinged with deja vu. I’d had such moments before. Another entry in the above-mentioned journal records Madeleine L’Engles’ words which echoed my experiences: “We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn in a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.” 

The edges call, will always call...wild or peaceful, gentle or rugged. But the headlands hint of homecoming. Why? The old barns that lean against the wind remind me of delapidated south Georgia farm buildings of my youth. As do the dirt roads and sagging wood fences. A sentimental link, yes, but incomplete.

As we drove, I answered Bill’s remark. “It’s the vastness of the place. The silence.” The next morning, I woke early and watched as first light met fog.  Shapes emerged...the strand of great cypress, the water tower over the cottage and the redwoods just beyond, a clump of flowers in the center yard. Then movement as a deer emerged from the mist. 

While we ate breakfast, the fog lightened and began to recede. And as it did, an answer surfaced, the missing element. Light. Like my grandparents’ farm, the headlands are marked by the absence of artificial light. In those vast rolling fields, six hundred yards from the shore, I watched as the natural order cycled. Watched as light gave shape, colored and re-colored the landscape, traced the waves, marked the ragged edge where erosion and creation merge, then withdrew in the night fog to return again at dawn...when, each morning, the universe, with the joy of a small child, exults in “Do it again!"

I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.
Annie Dillard

Ah, Ms. Dillard, I can explain little of life and less of the universe. 
But this I know: in such light, in deep silence, my spirit listens best. 
Sometimes a hat helps.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

...An Easter Morning at 16th Street Baptist Church

Photo by Rod Scott
Birmingham, AL

from the Wiki:
The stained glass window above was donated by the people of Wales
after the 1963 bombing of the church. The south-facing window was designed 
by Welsh artist John Petts and depicts a black Christ with his arms outstretched.
The right hand symbolizes oppression, his left is asking for forgiveness.
The words “You do it to me” refer to Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats.

Several years ago, my friend, Jane, and I attended Easter Sunday services at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham...the church where, on the morning of September 15, 1963, four young black girls died as they walked to the downstairs assembly room: Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14) and Cynthia Wesley (14). They never had the chance to grow to adulthood. To make the journey of self-discovery. To live out their highest ambition. All because of cowards who placed dynamite with a timer beneath those basement steps. 

Fast-forward to  2007. Jane and I were both raw. She mourned her daughter, Karen, who had recently died. And I struggled to make sense of life in the aftermath of a series of losses. We weren't running away that day. Just walking to Jerusalem, to an empty tomb, down a different path. 

Typically, Easter in Birmingham is warm enough for linen, with a light cardigan or jacket. April 8, however, dawned a chilly 30 degrees, then limped to a brief high of 43. And felt colder in the gusting wind. Easter egg hunts were held indoors. One friend reported weeks later she finally located the missing egg behind a planter in the rarely-used formal living room. More accurately, the offending egg found her.

Spring pastels were exchanged that morning for winter black and heavy coats. Straw hats went back into hatboxes and out came wool felt cloches. Understand: Jane and I are both hat people. In the south women of all races once wore beautiful hats to church on Sunday. This custom was killed off by "Seven Day Wonders", those bouffant hairdos of the white community that had to last between beauty parlor appointments. Otherwise sane women wrapped heavily teased hair in toilet paper at night in an effort to maintain lacquered pouffiness.

Black women, however, still embrace hats in the south. Jane and I would once again be among our own kind. Sort of. We struggled against the harsh wind as we climbed up the steps. A nice usher led us to a pew where we were given a warm welcome by our neighbors. We were the only white people in the church. What stunned, however, was the realization that we were - with one exception, a wizened little lady with a turquoise turban - the only women wearing hats.

After two hours of incredible music - a jazz band, no less - and a relatively brief sermon, the service ended and our pew neighbors wished us a "Happy Easter". Invited us back. The couple in front turned around and spoke. The wife first, then the husband who paused for a moment and said, "Nice hats." With a smile.

On Monday, I told a black co-worker that I had attended Sixteenth Street Baptist with a friend. I closed with the news that we were the only two women with hats.

Deborah exclaimed, "No! You can't be serious."

"Oh, but I am."

"Celeste, my people ALWAYS wear hats."

"Not at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, they don’t, Deborah."

"Well, I never."

Here's the rest of the story. Over the years, the community changed as residents moved to suburban neighborhoods. This inner-city church was in a re-building mode: updates to the structure as well as the creation of an environment that welcomes the young people who now populate the area. The day we attended, the ushers had shed coats and ties for white tees with "Sixteenth Street Baptist Church" printed in black. They welcomed every one alike, whether in Sunday finery or jeans...or, in the case of Jane and me, hats. 

Because they know what is important. On that morning in 1963, "the explosion blew a hole in the church's rear wall, destroyed the back steps... and all but one stained-glass window." [from the Wiki]. The frame stood fast but the face of Jesus was blown out by the blast. And the sermon planned for that day but not delivered: “The Love that Forgives." 

News photo of damage to the surviving windowUnknown source

This photo by Rod Scott of Birmingham shows the present-day stained glass window.

I was in seventh grade when the church was bombed, old enough to remember the coverage. At twelve, I could not comprehend the hate behind such acts, nor can I now. But for two hours that Sunday, Jane and I came in from the cold. We sat beneath that window, walked past those basement steps. Gaping holes have been filled but scars remain. In the building. In all of our lives. However brief the intersections that cold April morning, Easter has never been the same.