Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Two Poems from Maya Angelou

For several weeks I’ve been reading Jim Wallis’s bestseller, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Alongside this I’m reading again some of Maya Angelou’s poems. I find them tough, true and invitational. They invite me to see things through the eyes of others.

First, a sing-song poem for children living in Harlem, home to many African Americans, located in northern Manhattan in New York City.

In this first poem I hear seeds of resistance, resilience, pride, and discernment about how things are, and what it takes to stay alive. Try sing-songing it as though you were hopping or singing along with one of the children in the photo above. Can you imagine yourself in his or her feet? Why or why not?

Harlem Hopscotch

One foot down, then hop! It’s hot.
Good things for the one’s that’s got.
Another jump, now to the left,
Everybody for hisself.

In the air, now both feet down.
Since you black, don’t stick around.
Food is gone, the rent is due,
Curse and cry and then jump two.

All the people out of work,
Hold for three, then twist and jerk.
Cross the line, they count you out.
That’s what hopping’s all about.

Both feet flat, the game is done.
They think I lost. I think I won.

Here’s the second poem, also about life in the USA. This time from the perspective of an adult living on the edge. The note says this poem is to be sung. Can you find a tune that would work? Or make up a tune?

Contemporary Announcement

Ring the big bells,
cook the cow,
put on your silver locket.
The landlord is knocking at the door
and I’ve got the rent in my pocket.

Douse the lights,
hold your breath,
take my heart in your hand.
I lost my job two weeks ago
and rent day’s here again.

Both poems are from Maya Angelou, one of the Poetry for Young People series, published by Sterling Children’s Books in 2013; pp 14 and 15.

Here’s to a thoughtful, relaxing, challenging and uplifting weekend!

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 19  October 2018
Photo found at blackthen.com

My Dear Meadow,

How kind of you to welcome me
Yesterday when I arrived unannounced
And uninvited

You looked weather-worn and weary,
Sometimes disheveled and barely able
To stand upright

Leaning one tired limb against another
You seemed to be managing, though clearly not
For long

The air above and around you seemed deserted
Without its usual commotion of butterflies and birds
And beetles

Still,
When I saw you bravely doing your meadow thing
Against all odds, tears came to my eyes

Weathered
And leaning in on yourself you made my heart
Happy to be alive and visiting your aging presence

Tiny blossoms
Winked at me from the sidelines and reached out
To remind me that little things matter

Patches
Of muddy footprints pressed into half-dry mud puddles
Happily told me I wasn’t the first to visit you recently

Clouds
Of fluffy meadow seeds sped by on unruly gusts of wind
Distributing next year’s bumper crop of wild spring beauty

Bird houses
Empty for the season stood sturdy and brave prepared
To weather the coming freeze beneath ice and snow

Just in case
You’re not open the next time I stop by, I wish you
A long winter nap and restoration to your youthful vigor

Which is exactly what I hope for all of us.

With admiration,
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 18 October 2018
Photos take by DAFraser, 17 October 2018, at Longwood Gardens Meadow

autumn wind

sturdy evening breeze
rides first waves of autumn chill
chasing leaves my way
it sends cricket songs soaring
through layers of fading light

I wrote this poem yesterday evening after a late walk around our neighborhood. For now, we seem to have exited cycles of wind and rain from the South, followed by the same from the North and Northwest.  Maybe the fall chill can finally do its work and turn at least some trees and shrubs into flaming beauties.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 16 October 2018
Modern Art Nouveau painting by Wilhelm Kotarbinski, found at wikiart.com

Why it matters so much

Late last night I received a thought-provoking comment on yesterday’s post, Conversations that matter. Here’s the heart of my reply, edited for clarity.

Sometimes people assume seminarians have just finished college, then moved on to seminary, and will then become pastors of a church. My response begins with this assumption.

The demographics of the seminary I served were decidedly different from those you describe. Young, usually white men right out of college were a distinct minority during the 28 years I was at the seminary.

Much more prevalent were working adults, some already retired. Many were the first members of their families to pursue a seminary degree. They wanted to make a difference in their churches and organizations. They weren’t wealthy.

Many worked night shifts to survive, keep food on the table for their children, and pursue a seminary degree. Most were mature, wise and exceedingly persistent. Commencement was always a moment of pride, gratitude and tears before a packed-out house of families, friends, church members, colleagues, professors, seminary administrators and staff members.

Many entering students were already serving in churches. However, they too needed help. It’s no picnic to be a pastor or ministry leader in a church of any size or denomination.

The challenges and opportunities of teaching in an unusually diverse seminary were many. We lived and worked with age differences, racial and ethnic differences, inner city, suburban, and occasional rural differences, denominational differences, social and economic classes. You name it; we had it. Not just in the student body, but in our increasingly diverse faculty.

The hope many seminarians bring is that this educational experience will be heaven on earth. It isn’t! For some it’s hellish, full of pain, anguish, hard work and feedback they weren’t expecting.

As difficult as my up-bringing was, I still had and have the so-called advantage of being white. This is huge. Not just where I now live, but across the USA.

Yet it’s also a huge disadvantage given the isolation this brings in the form of housing patterns, church membership patterns, and the daily reality of white skin versus almost any other color of skin. It doesn’t matter what country you came from. If your skin isn’t white, you pay for it. White female privilege means I don’t even have to think about 1000 things others must think about daily.

As part of the older generation, we have the duty and privilege of paying forward what we’ve received. Not just because of or in spite of the color of our skin or our gender, but because someone invested in us. More times than we probably remember. Yes, we must keep an eye on the children, including young adults and even older adults we see from time to time.

They and we need these connections. Without them, we’re already dead.

Without them, we’re already dead? Yes. Dead in the water that’s meant to keep flowing upstream, against all odds.

Many thanks for listening and doing what you can to pay forward what you’ve received.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 October 2018

Conversations that matter

On 21 April 2016, I broke my jaw and my wings were clipped. Not just by the broken jaw, but by a string of unanticipated health events that followed. Today it takes time to attend to my aging body.

So I often wonder what the meaning of my life is now. Why am I here? I know I’m going to die. So what about the meantime, in whatever time I have left on this earth? Is blogging it? I love blogging, but….

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a friend and former colleague at the seminary. Would I be willing to interview a seminarian working on her MA degree? The answer was Yes! Of course! Big smiles and happiness! A high point in my life!

So this last week I spent time on the phone with her. Lots of time. We didn’t talk about the fine points of my life as a pastor (which I am not). Instead, we talked about the not-so-fine points of my life as a survivor of childhood abuse. Especially what it took in my late 40s to begin the long process of healing while I was professor and then dean at the seminary.

Why was this conversation a high point for me? Because it let me know I still have something to say. Especially, but not only to women and men preparing for ministry in churches, or for leadership in religious organizations.

Blogging about my experience has been and still is part of my healing. Yet nothing beats a one-on-one conversation, or a small group discussion in which I’m able to talk about what it took for me to begin healing.

We’re all dealt cards we didn’t ask for, even before the moment we’re born. Going into a professional position or a new job doesn’t magically make all that disappear. In fact, it often triggers it. Understanding how trauma shaped and still shapes us is worthy of our best efforts. Not alone, but together.

I don’t know how this will play out. Nonetheless, I’m hoping for more informal opportunities in which my personal and professional experiences come together in surprising ways.

Cheers!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 October 2018

when women refuse to be silenced

#MeToo backlash
a tsunami of contempt
contorted faces
taunting voice of POTUS
how dare they call us out?
crocodile tears for victims
rage at their own undoing
fear writ large
caught in headlights
frozen with disbelief
resorting to the game of boys
bullying their way to the top

All this and more
when women refuse to be silenced

The most powerful force that silences me is NOT what others say out loud or even to me about ‘these women.’ It’s my own deeply ingrained people-pleasing habit.

Though it isn’t as strong as it was several years ago, it’s still a powerful force. A forked tongue that keeps whispering I’m a hair’s breadth from being ruled out of order, or losing all my friends.

Some women and men in my life don’t struggle with this. I admire them. Watching them makes me keenly aware I wasn’t born or raised to this level of direct personal honesty. In particular, I didn’t learn to stand up for myself, and I’m still paying for it.

So here I am today dealing with demons of the past, though in a new key.

Thanks to recent events and our national history, I still have opportunities to speak up and act differently than in the past. Not as a child, and not as an outsider. I’ve more than paid my dues. I’m in the last chapter of my life, faced with opportunities to make a difference. Not just for others, but for myself. First, however, I have to negotiate just one piece of business:

“The dying woman has to decide how tactful she wants to be.”
With thanks to Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness, p. 62

It isn’t over until it’s over. I’m staying tuned.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 October 2018
Image found at luckyottershaven.com

Inconvenient truth

Bad timing
The look on your face
The tone of your voice
Your choice of words
What you said
How you said it
And a thousand other
Inconveniences
Called upon as evidence
Against you and your kind
Will never withstand
The strength of truth
Spoken out loud
By just one survivor
With nothing to gain
And everything to lose
Including false shame

If I had to name my greatest achievements in life they are, in order:

  1. Seeking help from a psychotherapist for unrelenting IBS, depression, shame, anxiety attacks and more. I was in my late 40s.
  2. Setting up a meeting with my parents and reading to my father my two-page statement. In short, I did not deserve to be shamed, humiliated or silenced by his beatings. This meeting took place on the eve of my 50th birthday.

The poem acknowledges the excruciating reality that there will never be just the right moment to tell inconvenient truth. Or just the right way. Or with just the right looks on our faces.

I applaud survivors of life-changing events, endured at the hands of others, who do their ‘homework’ and then speak out. As many times as needed.

We are an inconvenient truth in this nation.

We’re everywhere, in sight and out of sight. We want freedom from false shame, debilitating depression, anxiety attacks, and lies we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Many of us were violated as children or babies, before we were old enough to know what was being done to us. Often violation against us preceded our own violation of others. That doesn’t get us off the hook. It just clarifies the lay of the land and what we must do to make sense of what seems senseless.

We can’t change the people who victimized us. We can, however, give ourselves the gift of facing what happened to us, getting professional help, and learning to do what we think we can’t do to make amends to ourselves and others. No matter what the consequences.

A liberated voice doesn’t come cheap.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 10 Oct 2018

The morns are meeker than they were

Here’s an Emily Dickinson poem for all children, including you! Plus my note to Emily below.

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

Emily Dickinson: Poetry for Young People, edited by Frances Schoonmaker Bolin, illustrated by Chi Chung. Published by Sterling Publishing Co. (2008)

Dear Emily,

It pains me to say this, but I never thought of you as a trinket kind of girl or woman. But then again, it shouldn’t surprise me. You have a way of seeing beauty and even the entire creation in the smallest bird or flower.

I wonder if you had a trinket box like the one above. It comes from your century, and has a mustardy yellow autumn look about it. To say nothing of those pretty leaves and that bird in the center.

It’s too bad we don’t have photos of your trinkets. I was always told they could make or break a woman’s image. Nothing too big. Nothing too gaudy. Nothing that would call attention to me. As though I were saying, ‘Look at me!’

But your little poem has a different outlook. You want to be part of nature’s annual parade of colors. Or maybe it’s a great production. Or better yet, a grand ball in the ballroom of fields and forests glowing with bright colors.

Whatever it is, it won’t do not to smile back when nature smiles at us. So I’m off to my oldest trinket box to find something to wear today to the ball. I think I’ll look for that topaz birthstone ring my mother gave me when I was a child.

With kind regards,
From grown-up Elouise and baby Marie

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 October 2018
Photo of 1800s Trinket Box found at pinterest.com

Small gifts

Small gifts grace my eyes
Bursting with life and color
They command the scene
Announcing their calm presence
in the garden of my life

It’s difficult to think of my life as a garden. But that’s just what it is, isn’t it? A small patch of earth populated by new growth, the occasional stunning blossom, weeds, trampling of feet, the stench of manure, and all the rest that goes into the pot.

It seems nature, aided and abetted by a Master Gardener, combines the good, the bad and the ugly within one spectacular display. Seen from afar the garden glimmers almost like a desert mirage.

The photos above are from Chanticleer Garden. It’s a magical place. Even so, weather happens. People happen. Bird poop, poison ivy, weeds, and predatory mosquitoes happen. It takes a team of gardeners to keep up with pests, damage and overgrowth on the ground.

As for my life, I’m at peace with my past. Still, I can’t dispense with a team of gardeners, much less the Master Gardener. There’s work yet to be done beyond my limited eyesight and capacities.

Above all else, I want to keep the ability to see and appreciate small gifts sent via nature. Gifts that arrive unannounced, just when I need them. Like the photos in this post.

Happy Monday!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 8 October 2018
Photos taken by DAFraser, July 2017, at Chanticleer Garden.

The morning after the week before

Dancing in aisles around subjects
We wish we could avoid
Drunk with lust for power
Or sidelined as spectators
We are the worst circus in town
At war with ourselves in a script
Written in the heat of battle
Directed from the top down
Delivered on time or die the death
Of a thousand retributions

When did we become what we have become? Or has it always been this way?

In either case, we’ll get nowhere until we commit ourselves to listening and responding appropriately to the voices of survivors and to those who care deeply for their well-being.

As for survivors, we are many. Telling our stories matters. Listening to our stories matters. Working with us instead of against us makes a difference. So does ignoring, belittling or taunting us.

Recently I’ve been reading Intoxicated by My Illness, by Anatole Broyard. It’s about life and death. It’s also about his own approaching death. He’s brutally honest, funny, sad, thought-provoking and more. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re dealing with your own mortality.

Here’s a quote from page 68, revised to fit my gender. I don’t think Anatole Broyard would mind.

The dying woman has to decide how tactful she will be.

Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness, p. 68
Compiled and edited by Alexandra Broyard
Published by Ballantine Books
© 1992 by the Estate of Anatole Broyard

Yes, this is about the way I deal with myself and others. I’m dying a bit each day. It doesn’t matter whether I have a diagnosed terminal illness. I don’t have time to beat around the bush or hide behind polite niceties. Or promise to do things I know I cannot do.

This also has to do with this moment in our nation’s history, and the importance of survivors speaking out against all odds. I still have a few things I’d like to add to the conversation. How about you?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 October 2018

%d bloggers like this: