Tuesday, October 29, 2013

neighbors and the "n----" word

Dear Neighbor,

Using the "n-- word" in front of me is not a good strategy for endearing yourself, and so I'm more than a little surprised at myself for writing to you during these "30 days to 30" of meaningful influence. We were discussing the recent neighborhood break-ins, and you made it clear that you believed the thieves were black. "Now I'm not racist," you said, "but there's black people and then there's n-------s."

You were not the first person to ever say such things in front of me. My home state of Indiana has a nasty legacy of racism that often works its way into conversation (this is an extreme, but not isolated, example). Even my own grandmother, unhappy that we had hired Miss Dorsie to "look in" on her as her memory and health failed, would trouble my heart by saying things like, "I think that black woman you hired is stealing my candy." (She actually came to love Dorsie very much, but that is worth its own story).

Even so, your words shocked me. Our conversations to this point had been bland and neighborly: the success or failure of tomato plants, varieties of dog food for a shiny coat. But that evening, I was in turmoil.  Normally when you talk--for you talk a great deal--I nod and smile, but of course I couldn't keep smiling. Turmoil: what should I say? what authority do I have to say anything? God, forgive me.

Afraid to tackle your word and assumptions directly, I think I mumbled some story about some neighborhood teens who had done an excellent job cutting my grass, to which you responded that they were probably casing my house in preparation to rob me. At the point I created an excuse to leave the conversation and finish my walk.

That conversation left a bad taste in my mouth. I was ashamed of myself for not saying more, but I also could not imagine what I could have said. The simplest, and perhaps the best, would have been "Please don't use such language in front of me." But a thing is no less hard because it is simple and good.

I spent a week reflecting on the many ways in which cowardice enervates virtue; if nothing else, I should thank you for prompting that stern lesson.

I am really writing, however, to thank you for not letting the story end here. A few days ago, as I was taking Cora out on a run, you called to me from your backyard. Heart sinking, I stopped. Without any preliminary small talk, you said, "I haven't had any peace since we talked last week. I'm sorry for the words I used. When I spoke, your face just fell, and I thought, 'Would I have said that in front of my daughter? Would I have said it in front of my black friends?' And of course the answer was no. Your face--it just fell. I'm so sorry."

This was a much more tender shock. I lingered for a while, and we talked about words and their power, and you, perhaps in a lopsided effort to show equal-opportunity suspicion, suggested that perhaps the thieves were a white family that had been renting a house nearby. 

 It was a strangely redemptive answer to the the worries that had been nagging at me. One apology cannot heal all things, but it helps. It helps me remember that patterns of fear and suspicion change slowly, but they can change. Perhaps for now only your language has changed, but that may herald more. It helps me remember that I have my own prejudices--racial, social, economic, religious--and that I must never let those unthinking, unloving assumptions control my language. It helps me remember that the Holy Spirit can speak through conscience, through sad eyes and troubled faces, even when his servants are tongue-tied.

Your neighbor,


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I prayed for brothers

Dear Lennon,
You know the story better than I do: how you approached me in 7th grade homeroom and said, in a single breath, "Hey-I-see-you-pray-at-lunch-do-you-go-to-church-can-I-come-with-you?" In the years since, you have told me about the anxieties and stirrings that led to this question, but at the time I was baffled by such a profound request from a boy I hardly knew.

Sixteen years later, we've known one another more than half our lives. You--and now you with Amy and sweet Andrew--are home to me, just as my parents are. I know I would not be myself without your friendship, your fraternity.

Every memory is worth its own story -- how can I catalog them? It seems unfair to summarize the shining May of your wedding day, impossible to relate the joy in your voice when, in the wee hours of the morning, you called to tell me of the birth of your son. The ordinary days are even harder to distill. Those long evening bike rides along the railroad tracks, for example, the summer  I left for college. Or the season you came to live at our house, inhabiting Spare Oom, next to my own room in the attic, when we would spend every Friday night talking into the small hours, sometimes waking my father with our laughter.

What about the night you left for Iraq? I was on the phone with you until the last possible moment, and then you said, "Okay, I -- it's time to go." Suddenly, because of you, I had joined that ancient and universal sisterhood of women who have watched, with terror and pride, as fathers, sons, husbands, brothers leave for war. Until you came home, I braided yellow ribbons into my hair. When you came back, the stories you told humbled me in ways nothing else has.

In 7th grade I'm quite sure I outweighed you, but you grew strong so quickly -- you are still strong, but one of the gentlest men I know. You can be sanguine to a fault; your resilience and good cheer amaze me.  You are a devoted husband, a loving father, and a wise teacher. Your vocation is to protect people from harm and ignorance, and sometimes you must do those things roughly, but you also make the world beautiful. My best teapot and my favorite knitting needles, after all, were gifts from you.

Sometimes I am amazed you put up with me when were teenagers. When I consider all that you endured and witnessed before you were eighteen, I wonder that I didn't seem impossibly naive, hopelessly fragile. But for all of that, you were the first person to ever tell me that I was strong. Thank you for all the years you have spent provoking and protecting me. Thank you for teaching Andrew to call me "Aunt Bethany," and for demanding that I come each Christmas. Thank you for marrying my friend Amy, so that she has remained such a strong and beautiful presence in my life. When I was a little girl, I prayed for brothers, and you were God's first answer.

Your sister,


2002: Easter baskets at home

2007: Home from Iraq to meet his newborn boy
2011: Christmas with one of my favorite families

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In which sausage is a love language

Dear Grandpa,
   Did I ever write you a letter while you were alive? I posted epistles to strangers with pretty houses, authors who penned fine tales, and friends from summer camp, but I don't think I ever wrote to you. In fact, I don't remember having a proper conversation with you until the months just before you died. When family gathered at your house, I always stayed near  Grandma, who gave me "orange drink" (what was that, anyway?) and let me play with that battered Madame Alexander doll, whom I named Lyca, after the William Blake poem. You would sit by the television, only a foot or two away, because you were legally blind, and watch football or westerns. You and your television were equally inscrutable to me; I could imagine no entry, no opening words.
   Had anyone asked directly, "Do you love each other?" I would have said "Of course," hoping they did not ask for proof. I had no proof, except that I was often sad when I thought how sad you seemed. And proof of love from you?  For a long time I had only one story, this story:
   I was seven or eight years old, and my parents left me at your house after Christmas. They were taking their students to an inner-city mission, and they thought it was too dangerous for me to come along. I did not want to stay with you and Grandma. Normally your house was full to bursting with aunts, uncles, and cousins, but on my own I felt lost in your house. There were rules I did not like, such as, "You may not eat outside of the kitchen," and the water from the faucet smelled of iron and I wanted to go home.
   I remember sitting on the carpeted floor of the living room, leaning against the couch, wanting something--I don't remember what--but being too timid to ask. Suddenly you walked into the room and stood before me. Because I usually saw you sitting, you seemed so large standing -- tall and broad, a blacksmith's son. You had a plate of cheese, crackers, and sausage, one of your own favorite snacks. You set the plate down on the floor in front of me -- on the carpet, which Grandma did not allow. I asked, "Is it okay?" and you nodded. I would like to think you smiled or tousled my hair--it would fit the story well--but I don't think you did. I hope I said, "Thank you," but perhaps I really am your kin, and I had already learned silence from you. You left the snack and returned to your chair by your television.
    Most snacks fade from memory with the eating, but I remember those crackers and sausage after twenty years. I remember because in that gesture you answered the questions I had been afraid to ask: that you noticed me, so quiet among the bustle of other grandchildren; and that, in that moment, at least, you understood that I was sad and you found a way to make it better. That you loved me.
   Thank you for teaching me that doing a small thing in love can shatter darkness. Thank you for teaching me that the way we treat children matters, even when their sadness might seem slight or trivial. Thank you, always, for the cheese and sausage and crackers. I love you, too.

My grandfather as a young man.

Monday, October 21, 2013

30 Days to 30

In thirty days, I will be thirty years old. Yesterday I asked some friends how they thought I should celebrate this transition, and the ever-wise Liz suggested I write to thirty people who have shaped my life and ways. Her suggestion resonated with something I've wanted to do for a long time with this blog: provide my readers with a sense of the great cloud of witnesses surrounding and sustaining me in my quest for Home. Over the next thirty days, I will post letters each day to a person or community that has helped bring me through thirty glad years of life.

Dear Students,

For twenty years, I waited for you. Coming home from kindergarten, I would set up schools for my dolls and teach them songs. Years later, as a college freshman I would slip into empty classrooms and cover the boards in sonnets and sentence diagrams. I taught myself by imagining you with me.

I met you first in China. You were Chinese, South Korean, and Uzbek, shy and respectful, eager to learn English. I was twenty and terrified, stumbling my way through each day's lesson. You plunged into our course, studied and struggled, laughed and wondered. You called me, "Teacher! Teacher!" slipped your arms through mine, and led me down to Yanji, guiding me through rainy streets. You were Misha, who would laugh, in that deep Uzbek accent, "Ah, you name iz Bear! The animal! But you are such a little bear!" You were Tak-Bong, who cried with me on the day I left China behind. You were Pu Zhen, who made me promise to visit your home in Tibet on my honeymoon.

With my students at Yanbian University of Science and Technology, Summer 2003

Three years later, you were Texans, green-and-gold Baylor undergrads.  I felt like a child playing dress-up in my heels and mascara, but when I asked a question you would say, "Yes ma'am." At first I wanted to giggle, but I knew you said it because your mamas had taught you well, and then I realized you said it because you thought I had a right to be there, saying words, grading papers, teaching. For six years you were my consolation, ballast against the weight of doctoral courses, exams, and dissertation. You taught me about humor and faith, diligence and deceit, apathy and ambition. You were gregarious, enthusiastic, lazy, audacious, flighty, courteous, beautiful. You were Abigail, who could always make her classmates laugh; Lincoln, brimming with excitement about music; Kirat, who decorated my hands with henna; Chase, who would linger after class with questions about Tennyson.

Autumn 2007: These Baylor freshmen had my class at 8 AM during my first-ever semester of teaching. Bless their hearts.

Spring 2012: My last group of Baylor students. Bright and joyful, all of them.

And now you are Southerners, raised among hills and coastlines I hardly know. You work hard, so hard I worry that you will spend yourselves too soon. You do brilliant things because you love excellence: class discussions and amateur theatricals, concerts and essays, mission trips and potlucks. When I interviewed here, you welcomed me, prayed for me. You come to my office and interrupt my grading or my reading and I do not care because your eyes are always so alive. You come to my house to bless my new home, or to roast marshmallows in the yard, or to ask questions about the midterm. You are Tiffany, who gathered her friends to carry boxes to my third-floor apartment. You are Amanda, who traveled to Italy with me. You are Anna quiet in class, yet with such wise eyes. You are Regis and Bethany, who asked if I would see family at Christmas, who worried that I might be alone for the holidays. You are Sara, now in Texas learning to teach on her own.  In so many ways, you are more than I can name.

Autumn 2013: Enjoying a houseful of students

I have often thought about how my own teachers shaped the person I have become, but today I realize how much I owe to you. In very practical ways, I spend most hours each week working for you: reading, planning, presenting, evaluating. For so many years I studied for the sake of studying, with a hermetic joy. Now I study for you. After so many years of hearing you call me, "Teacher," I have finally begun to believe that I can claim that name. You are my protégés, my judges, my audience, my agitators, my friends: my students. Thank you for all you have taught me.

Ever yours,

Teacher/Miss/Dr. Bear