by Kathryn Smith
Beneath my patio, a silent upheaval. Silent to me, though the ants hear it in their own way, a vibration humming their legs, a pheromone alert in their antennae.
The signals they give are clear: The colony has outgrown itself. A colony cannot serve two queens. The colony must divide. They leave in a cloud, what looks like exodus, swarming like their honeybee cousins leaving the hive.
Sometimes they war. Two colonies didn’t know they existed peacefully in such close proximity until one ant ventures too far. They fight their battles on the limestone patio, head to head, mandible to mandible. No drone warfare for these creatures. Exoskeleton as armor. No weapons but their own bodies.
Ants are social insects. This word, “social.” It does not mean they are good at making friends. It does not mean they have good small-talk skills. It means they only survive together, by following the rigid order of things. By following trails of pheromone signals, one scent toward food, another away from danger. Keeping others from danger and giving their bodies, if they need to, as food for the group. Working together to gather sustenance, to build a nest. Doing the work that’s been designated to them. “Social” as in “socialism.” Not as in having a lot of Twitter followers.
These social ants are disturbing my social life, their definition of social at war with mine. They’re bulging the cut limestone I so carefully installed, my partner and I digging out sod and then soil, tamping gravel and hauling in sand. So many wheelbarrowfuls of gravel and sand. Sand the ants now labor out, grain by grain, from between the stones we laid in a precalculated pattern, the level laid every which direction to ensure a flat surface, a place beneath the shade of volunteer maples where we’ll circle the patio chairs, set the table, and raise a glass with friends. Subterranean order undermining surface-level order. One society versus another.
Not long ago, I watched a deer and a raccoon face off in my parents’ front yard, a careful dance at dusk on a grassy plot. They didn’t seem to expect each other, yet both animals had grown accustomed to the human audience, paying no mind as my parents, my spouse, and I gawked at their encounter from behind a plate-glass window 10, maybe 15 feet away. You hear stories of more dangerous creatures—cougars or bears, usually—encroaching on housing developments that have encroached on the animals’ territory, the beasts threatening the neighborhood’s safety while the humans threaten the animals’ security. It is harder to coexist when the concerned species are roughly the same size, or at least proportionally close, and when they occupy the same strata, the same above-ground spaces. With ants, what we see above ground, what’s raiding my patio, is the proverbial tip of the proverbial iceberg of their underground nests.
The ants aren’t really a threat. A nuisance, an annoyance, a thing that bites, a bite that stings. But no, not a threat. Nor are they threatened, these insects with a foothold in every continent but Antarctica, their 22,000 species making up a fifth of the terrestrial animal kingdom. In terms of biomass, there are more ants than there are vertebrates. (How do we even know that? I imagine entomologists piling ants on a scale, calculating how many per ounce, how many per cubic inch.) What does this teach us about being social, about co-existing as species that share this Earth? I am neither scientist nor philosopher; I am a person, a specimen homo sapiens, who likes to observe things. (Introverted and so by some estimations antisocial, though not by the ants’ definition.) I like to crouch to the earth and watch the ants at war, their grappling in twos and threes. It may seem morbid, but it’s not the killing I’m drawn to. I like to imagine what it would be like to act wholly on instinct, to not think your way out of doing what the signals around you tell you must be done. Perhaps I think the ants can teach me how to live less fearfully. Or maybe they live only by fear.
Has anyone ever quoted William Stafford to talk about ants? Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” ends with these lines: “the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe— / should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.” Ants and their clear signals bring these lines to mind. I wonder what we can learn from them, from the ants, how we could better navigate the darkness that surrounds us by being clear with one another—whether working or warring, feeding or exiling. Ants are no model for peace, but in their clear signals, they create a model for honesty. Our life, like the ants’, is lived together, so perhaps we could learn from them to live deliberately as social creatures, working together as fully as they do—humans among humans, humans among hymenoptera among some 8 million Earthbound species, one body, many, many working parts.
Kathryn Smith received her BA from Whitworth in 1999 and her MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University in 2004. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Rock & Sling, The Cresset, Floating Bridge Review and RiverLit, as well as local anthologies. She sometimes thinks she might have been an entomologist were it not for the existence of earwigs.
Ant image is from here.
by Ryan Stevens
This year saw the launch of Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation4, which have currently sold a combined total of over 13 million units. Last year, consumers spent an estimated $21 billion on videogame products, and the industry as a whole is the second fastest growing media segment in the world, valued at over $86 billion. In spite of the explosive success videogames have demonstrated over the past five years, the stigma that surrounds the players is still hanging around.
When asked about what videogames entail, many people still have the ridiculous image of an overweight, Dorito-stained thirty-year-old sitting alone in a dark basement of his mother’s house playing some sort of violent shooter. Even those who recognize such a stereotype to be absurd still describe videogames as socially ostracizing or unhealthy. This mentality is a troublesome notion that can be easily remedied by providing a little perspective.
Putting the monetary weight of the videogame industry aside for a second, let’s consider the social ramifications. Gaming is no longer a minority group of outsiders who play alone in front of their television. In fact, 59% of Americans play video games, and nearly two thirds of players are doing so with others, either online or in person. The social element of gaming has even led developers to increase the output of multiplayer games, to the extent that the feature has become the standard. There are even contemporary games such as Titanfall and Destiny, for example, that take place entirely online with other human players. More importantly, this multiplayer community is not comprised entirely of total strangers, in fact it’s quite the opposite. The majority of gamers play with either a family member, a spouse, or with close friends, and 58% of parents play games with their children. The number one cited reason? It’s fun.
While games used to be male-dominated, even this aspect of the stereotype is being rebuffed, with current gender ratios of gamers nearing 50%. Games have extended into every age demographic, and though the average console owner is just above 30 years old, games are enjoyed (and marketed towards) children, teens, young adults, parents and even the elderly.
Curiously, the massive influx of gamers from every demographic is still not enough to deter critics who claim that videogames are overly violent, insufficiently monitored, or a generally unimaginative and passive experience. The truth is that the violence in videogames is no greater than that of film or television, and the rating system has advanced to compensate. Ratings extend to cover all the same age groups as movies, with the vast majority (88%) containing content equivalent to a G or PG rating. What’s more, over 90% of parents monitor what their child plays, and over two thirds of parents place personal limits on their child’s content usage. On the opposite end of the spectrum, artistic development for games has undergone monumental improvement, employing teams of writers, cinematographers, visual effects artists, and creativity directors to create games that are as stunning visually and thematically as they are fun to play. This influx of imagination has even led to national magazines like IGN, which rate games based on the experience they provide the player, which necessarily includes categories like visual depth, immersive gameplay, character complexity, storyline quality, and even sound and musical score.
Games have not only transcended the ugly stereotype that plagued them, they have left any credibility it had in the dust. Games have the complexity of film, the entertainment value of television shows, the intelligence benefits of books (including literacy rates), and have become more social than all three. They represent a colossal component of US and global economies, and have become a creative outlet for young and old, men and women, parents and children alike. Regardless of whether or not we find videogames personally enjoyable, it’s high past time to stop criticizing gamers, and start understanding why they picked up the controller in the first place.
Ryan Stevens will be blogging for R&S about film and social tendencies. As he describes it: “This would include an analysis of how ‘film people’ are viewed and how they behave (and how to behave around them), or a commentary on the ways we look at film vs. how we ought to look at film. I tend to find human behavior both fascinating and like to look at why we do or think the things we do and think. I’ll also likely include revelations about life and faith from the perspective of someone with depression.”
Image above is from here.
by Pierrette Stukes
These two teenage, giggling girls kept appearing before me. In the ticket line, as my husband and I bought our movie passes, they flipped their long tresses with one hand and scrolled their phones with the other. They were there in the ladies’ bathroom, checking their makeup in the graying mirror, scrolling their phones. And again, as we made our way into the theater, they bounced along and scrolled their phones.
I sidestepped, exasperated, to let them find their seats first and whispered to my husband, “let’s sit on the opposite side of the theater,” in a tone only a middle-aged woman with no children could adopt. I chose two seats in those short rows on the outer edge of the theater, hoping to get away from everyone. Not so—the theater filled up with mostly teenage and middle-aged women and a few men, like my husband, who patted my knee periodically as I sobbed my way through The Fault in Our Stars (2014).
I am a fifty-four-year-old, post-menopausal woman with a PhD in English Literature who has read the young adult Twilight series and seen all five of the movies, more than once. (What are the odds that there are more of me?)
My husband, Bo, has more refined tastes. He’s the Redbox movie chooser. We had the privilege to watch the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Late Quartet (2012) and to witness a rare, late-career performance by the stunning Julie Christie in Away from Her (2006)—both superb films that I recommend to every living person for their treatment of the long-arc of sometimes neurotic, sometimes noble life in the shadow of death.
We are eclectic in our movie tastes. We’re mesmerized by the psychopathic violence of Michael Madsen’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 Reservoir Dogs. We try to see the annual summer Tom Cruise blockbuster; we like to go to the theater to see Cruise movies because we get a rush from the vocal crowd gasping at the over-the-top explosions and daredevil antics.
We had never heard of The Fault in Our Stars. We did not know the movie is a closely-adapted film of a young-adult novel written by John Green and published in January 2012 to much acclaim. We did not know the narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster, is a sixteen-year-old-soul who is living and dying with cancer and an oxygen tank.
We do know we like the work of the intense, yet restrained, Laura Dern, the only actor in the movie we had heard of and who portrays Hazel Grace’s mother. And we do know I would rather sit with my cousin, Robbie, who is dying with courage and grace, than do anything else. My husband says that I am obsessed with death.
In 1998, my mother-in-law, Gertrude, died of uterine cancer. She turned ninety two months prior to her death. But when someone counsels, “Well, she had a long life,” you want to throttle them. Or, you at least want to have a wise, yet subtle, rebuke ready—about how the tenacity and verve of life itself demands to keep living, regardless of the seething, chronic ache in the bowels left by failed radiation.
Hospice taught us to care for Trudy: to prepare oatmeal when she could eat; to lie gently to her when she wailed, “I do not want to die. I do not want to die. I do not want to die”; to wash her translucent skin, crumbled from decades of life, when her body surrendered and began its inevitable dying process. Hospice taught us to lean into Trudy as she died, to lean into death.
For our Sunday matinee, Bo proposed Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow (2014), a dystopia of apocalyptic proportions. In this Cruise summer repeat, his character is trapped in a closed-loop of samsāra, even as he learns from each incarnation some essential skill to defeat the other-world aliens.
But Bo preferred The Fault in Our Stars. His sales pitch: Cruise’s summer movies usually rock the box office, but that long weekend, The Fault in Our Stars was defying the movie gods. That opening weekend, Edge of Tomorrow took in $28,760,246 and The Fault in Our Stars$48,002,523.
The title of the movie comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (1.2.135-40)
The speaker is Cassius, the prime fomenter against Caesar. Cassius is trying to rankle Brutus to rise up, to be the master of his fate, to not surrender to the fate of the stars.
Hazel Grace and her boyfriend Augustus, who is also dying from cancer, accept their fate with dignity. After young years spent in hospitals and in remission, they stop striving to beat the impossible odds with brute force. They surrender.
Surrender is a spiritual stance. It is what the Rev. Jean-Pierre de Caussade meant in his classic 1861 The Joy of Full Surrender, when he concludes: “When God lives in the soul, it should surrender itself completely to [God’s] providence.” We live fully, with joy, when we accept the reality of our own deaths.
That weekend, America did not want to be reminded, again, that we are living in an historical moment of horrific violence against human life. Instead, those giggling girls led America into the shadows of the theater. They were Psyches walking willingly into the unknown of the other-world. I am sure they turned off their phones, too. I did, severing willingly, if only for 126 minutes, the thin thread connecting me to the banal life of Twitter feeds and texts.
Pierrette Rouleau Stukes has published creative nonfiction in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Mountain Memoirs: An Ashe County Anthology, The Rose, Crack the Spine, and The Big Roundtable. Her essay “Swimming” was awarded first place in a regional creative nonfiction contest. “Tilted Toward Life” was nominated for the 2011 Best of the Net for nonfiction. Her short-short story “Between the Lines” and her essay “Misinformation Effect” earned an Honorable Mention in New Millennium Writings.
Movie poster image is from here.
by Liz Mitchell
What if I told you the word revival is not as musty as we once thought? What if the word revival is being revived, reformed, set free of dust motes and aged disinterest? Revival has been clothed in white oxfords and open-toe heels, carpeted in a shade of beige the committee agreed upon, and advertised on neon green fliers tucked under windshield wipers. Did you go? Neither did I. But when a move of God begins, it often does not begin in carpeted beige. It begins with a whisper, barely heard above the roar of routine.
I learned about just such a movement taking place in my hometown on (where else?) Facebook. It began small — one vision shared by a local man and his wife to reach out to the community and seek the ones no one else was seeking. God honored that desire and showed up, bringing heaven to earth in gymnasiums and banquet halls, and finally to the tent at the fairgrounds where I was once again invited to come to CrossFire, the revival.
But that lonely, ridiculed, stuffy word hung out there in the air, making me pause. I associate the word revival with men in their white button-downs, sweat circles under their armpits, spit flying into the microphone as their voices scream about the fires of hell and the many pitfalls that will get me there. I don’t do revivals.
On the other hand, how could I stay away from somewhere reported to be different? Somewhere God was showing up and showing off with miracles? If I went, if I rolled up to the fairgrounds and parked outside the tent in my cheese-cracker-encrusted minivan, what miracles might I see?
So I went. And revival was revived for me.
Revival: (n) restoration of force, validity or effect.
I saw evidence of the glory of God in that place. I watched people explain where there had been pain, and where instead they had full relief and range of motion. They raised their arms above their heads, jumped up and down, walked on legs instead of limping on them. They carried out the walkers they’d leaned on when they arrived.
In the weeks CrossFire has been running, I have heard testimony of people with a long history of diabetes leaving their doctors’ offices with normal labs and no syringes. I have heard testimony of abscessed teeth being healed and filled with gold. Unexplainable, medically documented gold fillings. I have heard testimony of the broken-hearted, the depressed, the distraught being renewed not by the hands of pastors, but by the hands of children. Yes, children. They believe in Jesus, too, and they do not have the millstone of unbelief and doubt hung around their necks. They just believe. And so they pray. And what they pray for comes to pass. Because God honors the prayers of even the tiniest warrior.
One day children were brought to Jesus in the hope that He would lay hands on them and pray over them. The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus intervened: “Let the children alone, don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.” Matthew 19: 13-15, The Message
I wonder what happened when Jesus laid His hands on those children. Did they scamper off to the nearest grove of olive trees and play their old games? Did they never spare the Nazarene another thought? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I have a hunch they were changed. I imagine that He placed his hands on either side of a small tanned face, looked into two big brown eyes and smiled. And in that moment, I believe some of His power entered into that child, forever transforming her into a lover of God, into a mover and a shaker for the Kingdom. If power left Him immediately when the hemorrhaging woman of Mark 5 touched the hem of His robe, how much more for those children he laid hands on, intentionally loving, intentionally blessing? How I would like such a blessing.
And why not? I was at a revival, after all. So I lifted my hands. I closed my eyes. I reached toward the heavens, opening my heart and my spirit to what was possible. And behind my closed eyelids I saw what I love to see. I saw fire. I saw angels. I saw beyond the veil. I sang and I loved. And what’s more, I received. Revival happened, not in an antiquated word in a paragraph on someone’s committee minutes, but in a moment when the Spirit moved, a tongue of fire crossing my heart, restoring an old concept with new life.
The CrossFire Revival continues in Madisonville, Kentucky, each week, Thursday through Sunday. The revival coordinators, Tod and Michelle Hill, plan to continue the revival for the foreseeable future.
After earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Evansville, Liz Mitchell taught adult education for two years in her hometown of Madisonville, KY, followed by ten years in public high schools as a Spanish teacher. During that time she also earned an MFA from Murray State University. Liz currently lives in Fairview, TN, with her husband and three children. She blogs, juggles mommy chores, and writes fiction when the planets align and she has free time. Liz has a piece coming out in an upcoming anthology from Family Fiction.
Image above is from here.
by Karissa Knox Sorrell
I walked down to the church kitchen to make a cup of instant coffee, piling in sugar and chalky powdered cream. I looked at the clock above the microwave: 2:38 AM. When I got back up to the Sunday School room, the voices had become louder – whether an increase in zeal or an attempt to stay awake, I wasn’t sure. My youth group’s All Night Prayer event was starting to get boring. The Thai words of prayer, peppered with the melodic rising and falling tones of the language, sounded beautiful, but by that hour my brain had ceased to comprehend them. I sat down cross-legged against the wall, still holding my coffee mug between my hands, closed my eyes, and began to pray in English.
* * *
The pianist had started playing I Surrender All. The preacher was shouting again, but I wasn’t listening to what he was saying. I was listening to words of the hymn: All to Jesus I surrender/ humbly at his feet I bow / worldly pleasures all forsaken / take me Jesus, take me now. I watched as people, many in tears, made their way down the blue carpet to the altar, and I felt compelled to go forward to kneel in prayer, too.
* * *
Prayer used to be something that could be done better and harder. You could use more eloquent words. You could pray more fervently, with more emotion. You could pray for fifteen minutes instead of five. You could follow a prescription, like ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication – always make sure your requests come last, of course. If your prayers weren’t answered, maybe you didn’t pray hard enough. I remember wondering what magic words I had failed to utter whenever my prayers seemed to get lost.
I recently went away to a cabin for a writing weekend. Next to my cabin was a labyrinth made of small wooden posts and woodchips. I walked the labyrinth twice a day. Each time I’d first place a candle in the center to have something to walk to. In the mornings, I wound my way around the circling path, fingering my prayer rope and praying the Jesus prayer or interceding for my family members. When I reached the center, I picked up my candle, turned, and wove my way back through the labyrinth until I reached the entrance. In the evenings, I read aloud prayers from a book as I walked: O Lord our God/ you parted the heavens / and came down to earth.
The act of walking and praying felt synonymous, synergetic even, as if the walking and the praying were working together to calm and center my scattered spirit. The written prayers were a gift, freeing me from the burden of saying the perfect words or having enough zeal. At the end of my labyrinth walks, I sometimes stood at the edge of the swirling path just to listen. I’d say I heard the voice of God, but it didn’t sound like what you might think. It sounded like silence. It sounded like birdcall. It sounded like wind shuffling between leaves.
I have found that beginning and ending my day with prayer is a routine that I long for whenever I don’t do it. My body aches for it sometimes more than my mind does. Those repetitive movements of crossing myself, touching prayer beads, and walking a labyrinth, sew my spiritual life to my physical one.
I am coming to believe that the work of my body is as much prayer as impassioned, whispered words are. As I push a grocery cart, laden with food for the week, I say: Thank you. When I brush my daughter’s long, tangled red hair, I say: I love you. When I cry in a moment of frustration, my body heaving and my face muddled with tears, I say: Help me.
This body/soul faith has taught me that prayer is freedom, although I used to see it as the opposite: something that required deep effort, mental focus, and desperate aching to hear a special word from God. Prayer was something brittle, hard, needing to be handled with care, and easily broken if you didn’t try hard enough. Now, I see prayer as my quiet act of offering and openness to the presence of God. It is my routine physical work toward a place of peace and grace. Prayer is something soft and winged, gathering me up and carrying me into the winds of the world.
Karissa Knox Sorrell is a writer and educator from Nashville, Tennessee. She has an MFA from Murray State University, and her poetry and nonfiction have been published in a variety of journals, including Relief, St. Katherine Review, Catapult Magazine, Parable Press, and Flycatcher. Karissa works with ESOL teachers and students in Nashville’s public school system. Read more of her writing on her blog, or follow her on Twitter @kksorrel
by Patrice Gopo
Spin, I hear my thoughts say. Spin. And so I do. My right foot steps away from my left, and I am a bride in motion. First one circle. Then another. On my wedding day a gentle breeze from an open window rustles my dress while smooth satin brushes my ankles. Peeking from under the swaying hemline is crimson nail polish framed by my velvet-brown skin. In a mirror I see something beyond bright lips curved in a smile or the A-line silhouette spreading from my waist. Spin again. As the skirt inflates and the current of cool air rushes against my bare legs, I know I look just as I had envisioned. Within a moment, the dress descends to reality, the current disappears, and folds of soft fabric kiss my skin once again. A final look, then I reach for the bouquet of white calla lilies secured by a single scarlet ribbon. With my flowers in hand, I approach an aisle dusted with red rose petals.
Just days after my fiancé slipped a bold blue sapphire on my ring finger, I hugged him beneath the bright, red digits of an airport clock. Until our wedding six months later, he would remain in Cape Town, and I needed to return to the States. Twenty minutes after exiting security and ten minutes after clearing passport control, I rummaged through the magazine section of a bookstore. A bride-to-be with a sixteen-hour flight ahead of her deserves a bridal magazine, I reasoned.
As the plane accelerated down the runway and the wings cut through the clouds, I inhaled the sharp scent of fresh cut paper. With each turn of the page, I encountered dresses: formal, modern, princess, ankle-length casual in whites, off-whites, creams and the occasional ivory. After one last glance through the plane window at the rippled turquoise of the ocean, the magazine went in the seat pocket in front of me. My eyes closed, aware that the glossy pages couldn’t offer what I already envisioned.
One day at the train station in the suburbs of Cape Town, my coworker mentioned “beige children.” Just after graduate school, I had received a grant to leave the States and work in a township on the outskirts of the city. As my time across the ocean dwindled, my South African coworker and I waited on a hard bench. A half hour stood between our seat on the platform and the inbound train to Muizenburg. She sipped a bottle of soda while I tore open a bag of chips. After a day spent helping women develop their business ideas, it would have been acceptable for the conversation to meander to lighter topics. Perhaps a comment about my coworker’s love of cola or how chilly the afternoon felt. We could have even diverted the focus to the sweet, Zimbabwean man I had met a few weeks earlier. In my daydreams, I let myself think he was on the path to permanence in my life.
But after some time in Cape Town, I had realized my classification as a black American unlocked certain conversations with black South Africans. Today was no different. So with the wind blowing off the water beyond the station, we instead chatted about the fresh engagement of two acquaintances, a white woman marrying a black man.
“People celebrate such marriages as the new South Africa. How we cross cultures and create beige children. But I married outside my culture too,” my coworker said. I thought about her Xhosa heritage and marriage to a Sotho man. Her annoyance made sense. In our small social group, intercultural marriages received a special nod as if they scaled a mountain of enlightenment. But I had noticed that “intercultural marriage” was a title bestowed on only those who fit the more obvious sub category of “interracial marriage.” And the interracial marriages that merited conversation involved a white person paired with someone of another race. Somehow skin color became what determined how far couples ventured outside their individual identities.
Ten months later on a two-week return visit to the Southern Hemisphere, the sweet Zimbabwean man proposed. As we stood mere feet from the edge of a cliff overlooking a suburb of Cape Town, my squeal of affirmation joined the strong wind around us. The glint of sunlight bouncing off the blue waves of the Atlantic soaking the beach below reminded me of the sapphire now heavy on my finger. As his hand reached for mine, I couldn’t help but notice his skin, just a shade darker than the brown of my own.
Shortly after arriving in Cape Town the first time, on the car ride back from her birthday lunch, a new friend told me about “white weddings.” The alliterative phrase piqued my interest. “Well, versus Lobola,” Vuyi said in reference to traditional wedding ceremonies people in several southern African countries practiced. “First at the Lobola ceremony, the family negotiates the bride price.” She talked about how after this the couple is traditionally considered married. Then days, weeks or even months later, there could be a typical western wedding. “It’s complicated,” she explained after I asked why people do both. “Some want an opportunity for a party. Others believe church weddings are more official. Perhaps some dream of spinning in a beautiful, white dress.”
Even as she spoke, I imagined the reach of western culture extending like long fingers across continents. Black South African girls must have witnessed movies and television programs with fluffy white dresses and handsome grooms—just as I had as a young American girl. “White wedding” seemed like a nice way to package the western trappings of marital bliss as if bridesmaids, a minister, a wedding march, and a white dress made a marriage. Only later did I consider that the word “white” may not have meant the wedding dress as I assumed. Perhaps it could have referenced the people who originated the custom.
The summer before graduate school, I shouted across the apartment to Jessica about the book I was reading on race and Christianity. For the few months before school began, I lived with her in the second floor apartment on Garson Avenue. That lazy Saturday afternoon while Jessica made herself tea, I sat in the living room with my legs curled up on the faded couch, flipping through the slim book.
“It’s not just me.” I raised my voice to reach her over the whistle of the kettle. “It’s not just me,” I said again before she could answer. “Metaphors about being ‘washed white as snow’ bother other people too.” I pulled myself from the deep couch that threatened to suck me in. Our paths met at the edge of the kitchen where her pink hands wrapped around a large mug. “It’s just that sometimes all this talk about being made white as snow, all the images of being black with sin before cleansing makes us white. Sometimes it’s just a lot.”
My voice trailed off. I held the book before her, offering it as if the words could rise up and articulate what I was stumbling through. I wanted to explain to her the weariness of knowing the name for the color of one’s skin equates with evil, sin and death. I wanted to talk about faultless colors shoved in hierarchical structures. Instead I just said, “The color white gets tiring.” She nodded her head as if she understood. And I think she did.
A few months into my junior year abroad, the day after my friends and I ate dinner at the Indian restaurant down the road from the Bayswater tube station, I found an empty seat in the student computer lab. The spicy masala had faded into my memory, but the previous evening’s conversation left me curious. On keys faded and worn from hundreds of papers typed and computer programs written, my fingers tapped out a query, “History white wedding dresses.” My brain absorbed a pile of new information about what I had considered an ancient tradition. And why not? White wedding dresses felt as traditional as diamond engagement rings—which I soon learned were both about as ancient as the end of the 19th century. After an hour at the computer, I felt as if I was unearthing some conspiracy plan to either equate white with goodness and purity or, at least, to dress all the world’s brides in the same color.
A single year: 1840. A single marriage between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, her in lacy white. At first, I assumed Queen Victoria had picked white to flaunt her chastity, as if to cloak herself in her own virginity. A few websites later, I realized she may have been a queen, but on her wedding day, she was first a bride. Modern brides turn a favorite necklace, flower, or season into the theme of an entire wedding, and Queen Victoria was no different. The inspiration for her white dress came from a treasured piece of lace. And a century and a half later, the western world and so many parts of the rest adhered to the tradition like an eleventh commandment. Even I felt pressure to adhere to a rule not originating in my own culture.
Thank you, Queen Victoria, and thank you, imperialism.
The evening my friends and I ate dinner at the Indian restaurant down the road from the Bayswater tube station, Shamik mentioned how brides in India get married in red. Over a table full of chicken tikka masala, saag paneer and dahl flanked on either end by steaming baskets of naan, he explained an ancient tradition I had never heard of. How the conversation emerged, I am uncertain. There were enough barely twenty-year-old women at the table, myself included, who could have hijacked any discussion and lured it to the topic of weddings.
As Shamik continued his explanation, my thoughts wandered to Hester’s scarlet letter back in high school English, femme fatales with bright red lipstick, or Eve reaching for a perfect crimson apple. I heard Shamik’s voice, but only snippets of his explanation reached my ears: passion, joy, commitment. As the discussion continued, my fingers sopped up bits of the savory, spicy curry with a piece of naan. Occasionally I saw vibrant red-orange streaks of masala painting the cloth napkin I used to wipe my hands. Could red really be a bridal color?
During freshman orientation at college, Zalenda asked me if I was “mixed.” Zalenda, the girl who lived in the only single on the dorm floor. Zalenda, the girl who would later be my bridesmaid and whose mother would design my wedding dress.
“Mixed?” My eyes rested on her, searching for a clearer question. I had just told her about my Jamaican parents, and I wasn’t sure what more she wanted.
“Mixed,” she said. “Something besides black.” Didn’t she know with skin the color of mine, the color of hers, we were black?
“Is there something else?” she said again.
I nodded, pondering a question no one had ever asked. “I’m part Indian. Like the country.”
“Who’s Indian?” she asked with a wide grin because she had guessed something of my background.
“Both of my grandfathers.”
“Both,” she repeated. She paused the length of a deep breath before she verbalized the basic sum of two fractions. “So then both your parents are half Indian, and you are too.”
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
My grandfathers had passed away years before, and throughout my American childhood, discussions about ancestry had not really strayed beyond black and perhaps Jamaican. I stared at Zalenda with my mouth open, wishing I could stare at myself instead. How had this stranger identified in a few seconds what I had failed to realize over the expanse of nearly 18 years?
It is after church one Sunday, and I am perhaps three or four. I stand behind my mother’s leg as she speaks with a friend in the foyer of what will later be my high school. My church lacks a building of its own so we meet in a school, in classrooms that will one day be my chemistry class or my calculus class or my world history class—which really just serves as a euphemism for European history from the ancient Greeks until just before World War II. We walk through hallways where I will one day exist as the rare brown face in the snow colored landscape of students sprawling around me.
At three or maybe four, I press against my mother’s leg, wearing a red-checkered dress with matching red tights and bright red shoes. As I wait for my mother, I think of the immense twirling power hidden in the soft folds of my clothes. My mother’s friend turns to me and comments on my beauty. Being reminded of a truth I somehow know, her words compel my mouth to smile, my body to shift away from my mother, and my right foot to accelerate me into motion. A blur of bright red fabric rises around me, and without knowing, I spin myself into a reflection of my wedding day.
Patrice Gopo, the child of Jamaican immigrants, was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. Her essays have appeared in Literary Mama, Relief, Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place, and on Charlotte, North Carolina’s NPR Station WFAE 90.7. She is currently writing a collection of essays exploring race, immigration and identity. Patrice, her husband, and their two daughters attempt to carve out a life of beauty in North Carolina.
Image is from here.
by Patricia Bruininks
On my right shoulder blade.
At the Missing Piece studio.
These are two answers to the question, “Where did you get it?”, which is often asked after someone learns that I have a tattoo.
The word ubuntu surrounded by three flowers shaded with orange and yellow.
This is the answer to “What is it?” And before being asked what it means, I explain that ubuntu is an African word that means “a person is a person through other persons.” My humanity is tied up in your humanity. We’re all in this thing together.
The answer to the question, “Why did you get it?” is a bit longer; it speaks to my spiritual journey and the joy, love, and hope that I eventually found in Christianity:
I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church in northeast Tennessee. I dutifully attended church three times a week, and the majority of my social life centered around church activities. Religious teachings primarily focused on “being saved” and I was charged, as all church members were, with the responsibility of witnessing to the “unsaved.” My interactions with this outgroup were to always incorporate some version of proselytizing, regardless of that person’s interest in hearing about the love of Christ. If I failed to share the word of God and that person died without converting, I would face judgment day with his or her blood on my hands. I remember fire and brimstone sermons that scared the hell out of me. I remember my devotion to God being scrutinized under a microscope. Despite the fact I had undergone believer’s baptism, I never felt good enough to be in the saved group.
As I became more educated, I had more doubt about Christianity. In fact, I was halfway through my graduate studies when, for the first time, I understood what it would feel like not to believe in God. This was an informative – albeit very unsettling – experience. I never lost my faith in the existence of God, but I did lose my faith in organized religion. As a social psychologist in training, I had become too knowledgeable about persuasion tactics, misplaced obedience to authority, and powerful patriarchal systems to trust what was being said from the pulpit.
For several years, I didn’t really know what to do with Christianity. I still prayed and read the Bible, but not as regularly as I had before. At the time I was teaching at a church-related – but not Christian – college, and during my five years there, a few opportunities came my way that guided me to where I am now. One of those opportunities was getting to co-teach a course on love with a professor in the religion department. We explored this topic through evolutionary and psychological theories (my part), and Buddhist and Christian teachings (his areas of expertise). It was through teaching this course that I first encountered the word ubuntu.
We taught the book No Future Without Forgiveness by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In it, Tutu describes the development of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a committee designed to address the human rights abuses that took place during apartheid in South Africa. Instead of putting the perpetrators on trial, the commission practiced restorative justice: in exchange for amnesty, violators fully admitted their crimes in the presence of their victims. This often led to asking for and receiving forgiveness from people they’d caused to suffer. Ubuntu was at the heart of this astounding historical event. In cases when the victims offered forgiveness, they gave a gift to the assailant and to themselves. Tutu explains that if we are all connected, then doing something good to someone is doing something good to oneself. If I am to be a person through other persons, then the better I treat others – no matter who they are or what they may have done – the better person I become.
Tears streamed down my face. Ubuntu was the most beautiful idea I had ever encountered. God wasn’t up there just waiting for me to screw up; he was delighting in the beauty of my existence. He is up there experiencing unconditional love for every single person, whether they know him or not and whether they obey him or not. I didn’t need to “be good” to please him; rather, obedience was the path through which I could continue to deepen my understanding of love. And by deepening my love for God, I would deepen my love for others, ingroups and outgroups alike. My view of Christianity was forever changed; ubuntu had rocked my world.
Fast forward a few years, and I am now teaching at Whitworth. I had been entertaining the idea of getting a tattoo for a while; it appealed to the rebellious streak that still resided in this 40-something woman. I wanted it to be meaningful, something that I would want to share with the world for the rest of my life. I finally decided on ubuntu. One afternoon I went to the Missing Piece Tattoo and met with the owner, Zach. He really listened to me when I explained what the word meant – what it meant to me – and he captured it beautifully. The artwork turned out better than I could have expected. In the matter of three hours he had designed the tattoo and I was branded as belonging to this new Christianity.
I often tell my students that the Christianity I now believe in is not the same religion of my youth. While it is a long process to lose the fear of judgment and feelings of inadequacy, I have come far. The best thing is that I no longer feel pressured to awkwardly bring up Christianity. Instead I can just focus on loving others and learning from them. As the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi goes, “Preach the gospel often, and if necessary use words.” My word, sometimes visible in the summer months, is ubuntu.
“I like your tattoo. Can you tell me about it?”
Of course, I would love to . . .
Patricia Bruininks grew up in northeast Tennessee. She left the South to attend Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, eventually graduating from nearby Hope College. She pursued her doctoral work in Social Psychology at the University of Oregon, becoming a lifelong Ducks fan. Before coming to Whitworth, she taught for 5 years at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Dr. B is married to Mr. B (Jim) and has two grown sons, one daughter-in-law, and two rescue pets (one cat and one dog). Her hobbies include crossing national parks off her bucket list (23 down, 36 to go), reading for fun (mostly in the summer months), and watching edifying TV shows like The Walking Dead (for the psychology, of course). She is Associate Professor and Department Chair of the Psychology Department.
by Heather Caliri
I swore I wouldn’t use poison.
The kids, you know? Also, the smell of the spray gives me the heebie-jeebies. It’s sweet, cloying, with a hard chemical edge.
Last year, when you invaded in the dry days of August, we got diatomaceous earth from a friend. It’s a white powder that some people use as a nutritional supplement, but it happens to destroy exoskeletons. We sprinkled it hither and yon, and poof!–you were gone.
Or was that because the weather cooled down?
Anyway, this year, thanks to the California drought, you invaded in May, not August. And I got right on the diatomaceous earth—no idea how to pronounce that—and the next day, you were gone.
Until I left the dregs of my sweet tea on the counter. And you came back.
Since then, you’re always here. Scouts on the counter. Trails snaking over the bathtub. I can feel you lurking behind the walls, in the cracks of the floor, in the minute space between the cabinets.
I parry, you thrust. I clean, you find the one crumb of sugar I left behind. You appear in irrational places, clustering in a sink upstairs. Where there is no food. My husband makes a joke about the half-eaten hamburger he left in there, but I feel dizzy from the idea that you will mass anywhere, for no reason.
I joke with a friend that the kitchen has never been so clean. She chuckles, leans against a counter, and then abruptly jumps away because there are more ants. The scouts are around even when the swarms are not.
“Ugh!” she says. “Get off of me.” She sweeps her hands down her arms as if contaminated.
It is constant, my vigilance. At first, I thought I would conquer. But now I see this is hubris.
I flick one of you off of my leg as I write.
I’ve been thinking about my journey of faith recently. How the truest parts of my faith came in the midst of awful messes.
Over and over, the trouble arrives. At first, I think: I can handle this. I think I’ll just keep on top of things. Besides, things will get better soon. I am sure that my ever-present vigilance will be rewarded, that soon order and success will prevail.
But when these storms of trouble hit they are relentless, aren’t they? They wear you out. Sometimes things don’t get better right away. Sometimes the meaning is a long time coming. Sometimes meaning isn’t forthcoming at all. Sometimes you find out only afterwards that the control you thought you had was part of the problem. The control is poison, if you will. The absolute solution turns out worse than the plague.
Oh, I am fond of a solution, an airtight plan, always thinking that outcomes are under my thumb. I love to believe that good intentions and upright thoughts manage this world.
But you keep coming, a black swarm, over my carefully sanitized life. You get in through all the cracks.
Ants, can I confess something? The relentlessness of your kind has been a kind of baptism.
Somehow, when you undo my control, you put me back together.
You come in certain seasons, no matter if I’m prepared, and I’ll admit it, even the worst poison won’t extinguish you. Wikipedia claims you form a quarter of the biomass of this earth. You are laced through the ground I walk on.
Perhaps the problem is not you. Perhaps the problem is my assumption that I can outlast your scouts, overcome the pourousness of these walls, be sure my home is impregnable.
Nothing is impregnable, in this life.
Look, ants, you are not welcome. I will keep the counters clean, I will sprinkle that fancy white earth, I might even go buy ant traps. I won’t invite you in.
But I will try my best to stop believing that my plans are any match for you. I will stop blaming myself when you get past my defenses. I will think of the great, grave God, who made your tiny, lithe bodies with the strength of Samson. I will thank Him for you, the swarming lot of you, and be ready for you to leave come the first rains.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego. She started saying yes to joy in her faith two years ago, and was surprised to find that joy led straight to Jesus. Get her free e-book, Dancing Back to Jesus: Post-perfectionist Faith in Five Easy Verbs, on her blog, A Little Yes.
Ant image is from here.
by Katherine Karr-Cornejo
Katherine Karr-Cornejo teaches Spanish and Latin American literature and culture at Whitworth University. She played soccer as a kid, which she can thank for an early concussion and a hatred of running. She’s never scored a goal, which sometimes happens when you always play defense. She roots for Colo-Colo and River Plate, no matter how well or badly they may be playing. She’s undecided about the Sounders.
Image above is from here.
Huge congratulations are in order for Julie Riddle, nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling. Riddle’s memoir was chosen for the American Lives Series from the University of Nebraska Press. The series is edited by Tobias Wolff, and the book is slated for publication in 2016. Read more about the book here.
Julie is the craft-essay editor for Brevity. She works as senior writer for marketing and development at Whitworth University, and is associate editor of Whitworth Today magazine. Her essay, “Shadow Animals,” from her memoir manuscript, appeared in the fall 2013 issue of The Georgia Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award. She holds an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Julie is also a fiend on twitter (@jriddle).
We’re delighted for Julie! And get in line, people, to order this book!