Two years ago, my husband and I went to Central Europe and heard the stories of those once neighbors—laughing together, eating supper, playing cards—who fell to pieces over “Serb” and “Croat” and “Muslim,” and began killing one another.
We all know the stories of Germany where those who were once the piano teacher, the gardner, the old lady in the flat below became “the Jews,” and were sent to the ovens to die.
We read with dismay how those in the Middle East—Sunnis and Shias, Coptic Christians and Muslim Egyptians—work together, play together, marry one another—do everything but worship together—then begin slaughtering one another.
We say it can’t happen here, but it already has. With Native Americans—even those who had become Christians, living next door to the whites, knocking on their doors to borrow sugar. Our neighbors, until the sparkle of gold or the greedy cotton seed forced them off the land and onto the Trail of Tears, a trail that swallowed one-fifth of the Cherokee nation in death. And that’s only part of it.
I pray it won’t happen here again, but I read how Facebook “friends” talk to one another, and I hear it in the name-calling, labeling, cursing. The objectification of the “liberal” or “conservative” (and folks aren’t using those words, but I’m not gonna repeat ugliness). The coarse appellations tagged on the other side’s candidate, then repeated with glee. The discourse is as unattractive when someone’s attacking an “opponent” as when those in a like-minded thread are echoing their beliefs. It’s terrible, really. The way neighbor is speaking to neighbor. Friend to friend. Former neighbor, former friend.
I type these words from the great room of the house we recently finished building. During those many months, we dealt with electricians and assemblers, landscapers and garbagemen, utility workers and architects, designers and cabinetmakers, curtain hangers and sofa salesmen. I don’t know the political persuasion of a one of them. Some, I’m certain, are “conservatives” who hold wildly different ideas than my “liberal” self.
But that’s not the way I see them.
I see the Direct TV guy who sweated on my porch for an hour in 100 degree heat to get our TV working. And the mover who lifted an entire set of bunk bed iron onto his shoulder and hauled it up two flights of stairs. And the cabinetmaker who patiently met until we came up with not cabinets at all but a work table. And the sofa salesman who called two days after his surgery to make sure the sofa delivery had gone well. And the garbagemen who made a second, special trip to pick up our trash because they didn’t know we’d moved in and needed garbage pick-up. And the architect who specified down to the detail of frigging lightbulbs, because he wanted us happy.
These men and women built us a sanctuary and became our neighbors. Yet, I am supposed to redefine them based on whether they are “liberal” or “conservative”? I won’t do that, anymore than I will give into the incessant, seductive political drumbeat and redefine friends who have shown me their caring, support, and even love, simply because we have differing political thoughts.
They say the election is “divisive.” But it can only be divisive if we agree to be divided based on thoughts we’ve conjured up in our heads. I don’t agree to let that happen.
No, you are not my conservative friend. You are my friend.
We’ve finished the beach house. I told y’all about the narrative I’d created to guide the process along. I’m only gonna share one photo, or else I’ll go crazy showing you my whole house. This is a guest bedroom, which actually gives you a good idea about what the house looks like:
I need to pick up a round table from our house in Memphis to use beside the right of the bed, but otherwise this room is finished. The maps over the bed, a gift from our daughter-in-law, show the meanderings of the Mississippi River from the 1820s to the 1940s. I love them. We wanted a peaceful, “non-beachy” beach house. Or, as my husband says, “a 1940s Caribbean beach house.” I’m pleased with how it turned out.
So. Having gotten the house in manageable order, I’ve returned to revising JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. Here’s the foot on the new table I’m using on the beach house porch as my writing desk:
I figure if that doesn’t inspire pirate writing, I don’t know what will!
Oh—and stay tuned: a new Thumb Prayer page for this website is in the works!!!
In the assemble hall at Power Elementary School once a week we’d gather for sing-alongs. Our wooden chairs had squeaky black-hinged seats that flipped up when not in use. Sit too far back and, if you were a skinny, skinny child like me, the seats flipped up when in use as well. In this cavernous space with its regimented rows, I’d belt out while singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” the line “land where my father died,” because my father had died, and I thought the song belonged to me. Here during our group moments, we skipped singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic—”Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”—because this song had been the North’s battle song during the Civil War. And we were in Jackson, Mississippi. And it was the 1960s when that history still very much mattered.
Today, in 2016, I returned to church for the first time in many years as a Mississippi property owner. Up until then, I’d been thinking of our new house on the Gulf Coast as 45 minutes from New Orleans. An extension of our lives in the Big Easy, where history is more defined by Jazz and pirates, French and Spanish architecture, and Creole cooking than the typical concerns of “Southern” history. Or I’d been focusing on the “ALL are welcome here” signs I’d seen in almost every Bay St. Louis store window, an explicit rejection of the anti-gay hate bills the Mississippi legislature recently passed. But we are back in Mississippi, no doubt about it—yesterday at the local 4th of July celebration I heard nothing but country music blasting from pickup trucks.
Inside the sanctuary of the tiny Episcopal church, the windows opened to the gulf, sunlight sparkling off the rippling bay. From another window, you gazed at an angel carved from the remnants of a Hurricane Katrina oak. The hurricane obliterated the church, along with so much of the coast. The church rebuilt, and the angel now stands witness on its grounds.
As we slowly proceeded through the Episcopal liturgy, I couldn’t take my eyes from the windows. What matters the complicated theology we have worked out in our heads when the sunlight glances like diamonds off the tiny waves? How important is the exclusivity of “the only son of God” proclamation when the blue of ocean spreads freely into the azure sky? It was a perfect combination for me. A God-filled sanctuary—a backdrop, a foundation—from whence I could experience God in creation.
Then the choir began to sing the Offertory anthem, that being the song the choir performs while the church is collecting donations. The choir was small, wobbly. Maybe eight people. But brave-hearted. On this Sunday of the 4th of July in Bay St.Louis, Mississippi the church sang as its anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
I have no idea if they did it on purpose. I don’t know if people even think anymore about the overlays once imposed on the song. But, for me, with my history, it was a moment.
A church in Mississippi was singing as its offering on July 4th Sunday the former battle song of the North. When the aging, white-people choir sang about the coming of the Lord, I heard the Lord’s arrival in them choosing this song. I heard reconciliation. Repudiation of division and a choosing of America. The United States of America.
Change comes with a slow creakiness and then it is upon us. It is our place to recognize it when it arrives.