When Will We See?

Opalanga Pugh was a tall, elegant, wildly talented storyteller who could capture a large audience’s attention effortlessly. She was probably also the first black woman I ever saw.

In my most vivid memory of Opalanga, I am a kid, maybe ten, at a storytelling camp near Idaho Springs, Colorado. A group of thirty or so adults and I stand around chatting, on a break perhaps, and without warning a commanding voice rises over the hum of conversation. The group parts as if we had rehearsed it, and we find ourselves looking not at Opalanga Pugh but at a bent, aged but unquestionably powerful woman in a shawl: Sojourner Truth.

I can still see her in my mind’s eye, radiating conviction, and then that voice calling every one of us to account, saying, “Ain’t I a Woman?” I have tears in my eyes now remembering her delivery of Truth’s historic speech as I did then hearing it for the first time. Children know something real when they encounter it. Opalanga introduced an entire world to me that day.

Until that performance, my ignorance of what it meant to be a person of color in this country was complete. Though I had likely been taught a few historical details, I didn’t consider the emotional impact of those experiences on the people who lived them, nor did I know much if anything about present day racism. White privilege was not a common term in the 1980s, but it was certainly my privilege to be ignorant of this history, not to have to live its consequences every day. It still is.

I am remembering Opalanga today because a student who attends the university where I work recently appeared at a party in blackface, and every student, staff and faculty member of color must be wondering, “When will you see that I am a person?” In other words, “When will you recognize my inherent divinity? When will you stop denying that our souls are inextricably connected?”

They must be asking with a depth of grief and anger that I will never fully comprehend.

Here is a poem for National Poetry Month from African American poet Lucille Clifton that, like Opalanga’s performance, opens up a world of joy and sorrow.

won’t you celebrate with me
By Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in Babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.


Note: There are multiple versions of the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.

Reaching Totality

If you want to get a sense of the interconnectedness of all being, start with a two-hour flight delay on your way to see a total eclipse of the sun. This will cause you to miss your connection, and then you might meet, as my mom and I did, a string of remarkably kind and helpful people.

IMG_4958
My sister, Mom, and I sometime before totality in Payette, Idaho.

The nicest and most interesting ticket agent ever explained that we could not fly anywhere near the eclipse, booked us on the next flight to Reno, and proceeded to tell us all about her niece who works for the Uruguayan national opera and her own passion for photographing whales.

The man behind the hotel desk in Reno in the middle of the night was patient and pleasant, and equally so the next morning when we checked out. The cheerful woman who drove us back to the airport to get our rental car regaled us with stories of the crowds that descend on Reno heading to Burning Man.

And then there were the people of Payette, Idaho, a town I never planned to visit but am grateful to have spent a couple of days in. Not only did the person whose phone number was listed on an online event announcement return my voicemail, she called her connections in town to find out who was offering camping spots.

We ended up with a gorgeous, large, and inexpensive campsite, thanks to the Miracle League of Payette, which offers adaptive baseball for children with disabilities and graciously serves as host when the eclipse comes to town, letting people sleep in the outfield and refilling the toilet paper in the bathrooms that, miraculously, offer running water. To top it all off, at the Dutch Bros. Coffee drive through, they gave us our frozen caffeine-chocolate-sugar sludge for free because we were first timers.

Not all of the kind people were strangers. My sister generously sacrificed spending time in the mountains, which she’d been greatly looking forward to, and met us in Boise. My friend Katie didn’t bat an eye when I told her she’d have three houseguests for a couple of days. She even let us cook her eggs over easy two mornings in a row, though I’m guessing by what was left on her plate that she doesn’t like runny yolks.

Don’t get me wrong, the sun turning black is indescribably cool. I recommend seeing it if you can, but don’t miss all the people along the way who help you get there.

 

From Cats to Poetry to Existence—Gratitude

It’s time for the annual gratitude edition of this blog, which begins with a big Thank You to all who read it. Here we go!

Warm things: clothes fresh out of the dryer, cookies fresh out of the over, tea, the moment of stepping out of a blustery or snowy day into a heated house.

Existing: The odds against it are—according to diligent internet research—1 in 102,685,000, and that’s just the human genetics bit, which doesn’t include the messiness of whether atoms would form at all, much less life.

Eating together: the way sharing a meal builds connective tissue between people, whether we know each other when we sit down or not.

Cooking: chopping vegetables, watching onions fry, the smell of baking bread—maybe I just really like food.

Farmers and ranchers: without whom the previous two items would be highly problematic.

Tranquility, serenity, peace, and joy, as Mark Nepo defines them in this quote I recently happened upon: “After all these years, I’m beginning to see that tranquility is the depth of being that holds what we think and feel, not the still point after we’ve silenced what we think and feel. Serenity is the depth of being that holds difficulty, not the resting point after we’ve ended difficulty. And peace is the depth of being that holds suffering and doubt, not the raft we climb on to avoid suffering and doubt. This leads us to joy, which is much deeper and larger than any one feeling.”

Poetry, because a poem can both break your heart and break it open and because something about forming one helps people recognize their own voice, even those whose voices are largely ignored.

The spectacular sycamore tree on the road into campus who has conspired with the morning sun to become a burst of yellowness this time of year.

Whatever it is about cats that makes us think it’s funny when they destroy things and gives us a “get out of required duties free” card when they’re on our laps.

People who work in industries that don’t stop during the holidays: ER nurses, doctors, and staff; garbage collectors; police officers; moms and dads; restaurant workers; EMTs; snowplow operators, and many more.

Family and friends: the true building blocks of life.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Open Up the Door

In case you didn’t know, The Beatles were really, really smart. They summed up what I learned this week:

When I was younger so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors

Last weekend, I was staring at a pallet full of wood flooring held together with two impressive steel bands. Over the phone, my dad recommended using a Sawzall to cut them because I didn’t have a tin snips. I had used a Sawzall before, so it was no longer in the category of scary power tool. But then he said, “You might want to put on some safety glasses if you have them.” At that moment, it became very relevant to my life that my neighbor’s garage door was open.

I had watched my neighbors build a bunk bed frame and so concluded that they probably owned many tools, including, perhaps, a tin snips, a tool that does not require safety glasses. I wandered into the garage and after calling some hellos met not my neighbor but a friend of theirs who lived around the corner.

There were no tin snips, but this young man knew all about Sawzalls. He could tell a blade designed to cut metal from one that cut wood in a single glance. He quickly noted that the metal blade I had inserted was old and dull and therefore might fly apart mid-cut. And then he volunteered to do the sawing for me. I said yes.

I’m happy to report that no shrapnel flew, no one was rushed to the emergency room. I’m even happier to report that a few minutes later, the young man came back to borrow some aluminum foil for barbecueing corn and stayed for a few minutes to ask me about my water softener.

It struck me that it took such a small letting go of self-assurance “open up the door,” to transform our relationship from “people who live next to each other” to “neighbors.” I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself and others that I can do it on my own, but The Beatles have it right: Help!


 

Note: The blog may be sacrificed to the home improvement gods the next couple of weeks as my dad and I install the above-mentioned flooring. If you know of any other sacrifices that appease these particular gods, please don’t hesitate to perform them on our behalf.

Feeding Each Other

To channel some combination of Julia Childs and Emily Post: there may be no better way to celebrate resurrection morn than by dining on that most splendid of nature’s creations, the egg, in all its wondrous varieties—quiched, deviled, etc.—while enjoying the companionship of good friends. Which is what happened at my house on Easter.

What made this brunch so delightful is that my friends—and mom—are awesome. First of all, they cook well and they enjoy eating good food. Yes, that really comes first. Second of all, they laugh a lot and don’t mind being silly. Though no small children attended, the tallest, least furry bunny I’ve ever met brought a basket full of eggs and put together an Easter egg hunt for the rest of us.

Third of all, they are smart and welcoming and loving. This particular group had never gathered before, and only a few people knew each other. I suspect that anyone who heard the laughter or observed the general good cheer would have concluded that these people had known each other for a long time. One friend was talking about a benefit bike ride that he was preparing for, and everyone immediately volunteered to contribute even though they’d only met him a couple of hours before.

As one story tells it, heaven and hell at first appear exactly the same: rows of long tables laden with food and lined with people sitting at the feast. The people hold long-handled spoons. The handles are so long you can’t get the spoon to your mouth. In hell, everyone is miserable because they can’t eat. In heaven, everyone is feeding each other.

I think that’s what happened this Easter—we fed each other good food, good conversation and good humor and were willing to be fed by others. Resurrection might be as simple as that.

Here’s a poem by William Stafford about our daily chance for resurrection. I’ve posted it before, but it’s the perfect size for Poem in Your Pocket Day on Thursday, April 24. Stick this in your pocket and hand it out or read it to people. Guerilla poetry!

Yes
By William Stafford

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out—no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

There Is Enough

Here’s something to add to your list of things not to do: spend a week talking about God and art, fly home, go directly to the outlet mall. Not sanity inducing.

I spent last week at the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe. I feel as if it reversed the spin of my subatomic particles—in a good way.

While searching for what might have shifted my perceptions, I realized that I spent so little time last week wanting things: wanting people to be different from who they are, wanting my life—or at least my income source and the state of my bathroom floor—to be different from what it is, wanting more dessert (OK, so there were eight flavors of self-serve ice cream, two of them chocolate, which was pretty magical).

We talked so little about discontent. We talked about poetry and writing habits and how to construct a play and where we were from and whether the worship service had gotten us to a prayerful place. And when we discussed difficult things, we focused on our experiences and what we might do next rather than assigning blame.

I do not think this happened because we were a gathering of saints who never speak ill of others in our daily lives. I think it happened because the Glen somehow managed to create an environment that says, there is enough: enough time, enough opportunity, enough talent, enough people who care, enough love. An environment that is the opposite of the one I found at the outlet malls.

Granted, it is easier to believe this when someone else is cooking your food and doing the dishes to boot, but I’m convinced that our everyday existence could be filled with so much more enoughness than it tends to be.

I don’t know how yet, but I intend to find out.

Entering Triple Digits

This is post 101, which means it’s time to pause for some reader appreciation. Without you, Being Finite would never have reached a milestone worthy of a Disney movie title.

A friend said we’re never so happy as when we’re accomplishing something that’s meaningful to us, even if the something is standing still and enjoying a tree whose leaves are bursting forth after a long winter.

It’s often hard for me to remember this at the beginning, though, whether I’m staring at the blank page or trying to convince myself to roll out of bed to exercise in the morning. Even if I will likely enjoy the activity—or the results of the activity—my mental inertia wins. I feel confident I could place in the top five if anyone ever held a mental inertia contest.

Most of the time, other people help with this. If I’m meeting a friend to run, my odds of actually putting on my shoes increase a hundred fold—if that’s a number odds can increase by.

And many Tuesday nights, I sit down in front of the computer, lock the cat out of the room, and ignore his destruction of the door because by some miracle, you all have been kind enough to let me know that these musings are helpful to you. You’ve given me an astonishing gift.

I know some of you but not others. Some of us are alike, and some of us couldn’t be more different; yet we share enough of being human that a few words about life’s ups and downs can connect us. Miracle indeed. Thank you for reading, for liking, for commenting, for expecting me to show up, and for sticking with me.

This particular entry was finished early Wednesday morning, and a tree full of songbirds greeted me as I opened my laptop. They were surely singing for you.