Sunday, February 4, 2018

A few Book Reviews

I wrote a few book reviews in recent months. My kids couldn't believe that I was so excited to get invited to write book reports. But, they do think its kind of cool and weird to see my name in the magazines on the coffee table.

Below are links to the reviews as well as a little background story.
1.) I met Camille Dungy when she did a poetry reading at an AME church in Athens, GA.  I loved how she honored that sacred space with her own words and by reading the words of other poets that had shaped her.  It was spring break and so my children were out of school and my parents, sister, and young niece were in town.  They wouldn't have chosen to spend a sunny spring afternoon at a poetry reading but they all came and enjoyed it.  When she was finished I asked her to sign my copies of a powerful anthology that she edited called Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and a collection of her own poems called What to Eat, What to Drink and What to Leave for Poison.

Even though I assured them that the books were for our whole family, my children wanted her signature too.  So, they stood in line and asked her to sign their faces.  Camille Dungy and I had a little "mom to mom" moment where she was not going to sign my kids in sharpie unless I directly requested it.  I looked at my kids and shook my head, "OK kids, she can she just sign your hands instead of your face." So she signed their hands.  They immediately pressed their hands to their faces so that the reverse image of her signature showed up on their heads.  Let's just say Camille Dungy left a lasting impression on all of us and she didn't forget us either!.

When I saw that she had a new collection of essays Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History I knew I had to read it.  Last spring I was preparing to attend a writing retreat called Revision, Spirituality and the Writer's Life and we were asked to choose a book that we thought of as influential in our own book projects.  The problem was that her book was not going to be released until after my retreat but I knew it was the book I needed.  So I emailed her and asked her if I could buy it early for my retreat.  She said yes, and  I got a signed copy with the command "Thrive!"  Her book is definitely providing the wisdom and inspiration for me to write the book I need to write.

Here is my review called The Vocation of Being a Stranger of Camille Dungy's Guidebook to Relative Strangers that I wrote for the Jan 31, 2018 issue of The Christian Century

2. Englewood Review of Books named Jesmyn Ward's Sing Unburied Sing the best novel of 2017.  It is a heart-wrenching gem of book, that has gotten all kinds of other accolades. If you haven't read it please, please do. It was an honor to review it.  The full review is only available in print in the Advent 2017 edition of the Englewood Review of Books but you can read a piece of it here.

3.  I also offered to review a book by Daniel Coleman called Presence and Process: a Path Toward Transformative Faith an Inclusive Community, without really realizing what it was about.  The title made me think it would be about the transformational process of staying present when you are in a community with divergent viewpoints.  It was actually about how the rise of Buddhist practice in the West has led to and influenced deeper Christian contemplative practice.  It was interesting. The author went to Earlham School of Religion which is just down the road from Earlham College where I studied.  You can read the full review online here at the Englewood Review of Books 

Friday, January 26, 2018

About that clothesline…

 In January 2014, Communities Magazine published an article I wrote called “Putting Our Lives on the Line”.  I wrote about the joys and challenges of line drying laundry for my family of six in the intentional community where I lived.  I felt good about the piece and shared it with friends and family. I was amazed when the editor wrote me to say that a writer for the Scientific American blog cited my article in a piece about environmentally sustainable practices.  I just got word yesterday that it will be included in a new book, Sustainability in Community: Resources and Stories about Creating Eco Resilience in Intentional Community. (Yay, another step toward becoming a bonafide legit writer!)  This book is one of a four-volume series on intentional communitiesBut here’s the catch, the addendum to my piece: In December 2017 I moved half a mile away from the intentional community where I lived when I wrote the piece, and I own a dryer now (but I hardly ever use it.)
                My love affair with line drying may have started to wane when I visited a friend on a rainy day in 2015 and brought a load of wet laundry with me.  She’s a college professor, poet, and mom who was happy to share her dryer with me.  I popped my clothes in to dry and realized as we drank coffee and talked, that I wanted more choices than my current life offered. When I got home that night I wrote in my journal, “So is a basket of warm and fluffy clothes going to be the lure that finally pulls me out of intentional community?”
                Then my mother-in-love moved to town in 2016.  She watched me scrambling from one incomplete project to the next.  She watched my children as I jumped from meeting to meeting. And she watched me haul baskets of laundry in and out of my house. “Crumb (that’s as close as she gets to cursing), Josina, when do you ever find time to write?” I told her that I wrote on the occasional mornings when I would wake up naturally at 4 or 5 or sometimes at night when the kids are in bed.  She is a classical violinist who knows from experience that raw talent can be refined through discipline and routine.  She asked me how many hours a week I spent hanging and folding laundry. I guessed at least three.  “Here’s what I’d like to do for you,” she said, “I’ll do your laundry but only if you use that extra time to write.”
                So, she did my laundry, for a year, and I found my life falling a little more into balance.  I also felt like the biggest hypocrite, imposter-fake-earthy-mama in the world.  Here I was playing the role of the happy communitarian who – wait for it- actually, wore clothes that went through a dryer! It was like the year in junior high school where I tried to be a complete vegetarian, even tried to talk my friends into it, but, when I got home from school, I heated up a hamburger and ate it alone in my bedroom.  I was eating my words, slowly and privately, unable to publicly admit to the internal conflict I felt between my ideals and my practices. I felt a growing strain in my relationships within my community because I knew that I could not rely on my mother-in-law’s generosity forever.  I would have to choose to accept line drying for the rest of my life or move.
I also felt this amazing outpouring of grace.  Every day that I dropped off laundry I felt like we were doing important redemptive work.  Historically, when a woman of color appears with a full laundry basket at the door of an older white woman the clothes are washed, dried, ironed and folded by the brown hands. I appeared with baskets of unsorted dirty clothes and she returned them to my doorstep oftentimes better then I left them.  Missing buttons were sowed back, rips were mended and there would be little yellow sticky notes of apology for not being able to get out a stain. I didn’t use a full three hours each week, but I started to prioritize writing time and produce work that felt tighter and stronger than when I was writing haphazardly. I felt a little embarrassed and completely undeserving of my own personal Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Beatrix Potter’s laundry-doing hedgehog). Almost every week I would say, “You don’t have to do this for us, really I can manage.”  And she would assure me that she didn’t have that much to do with her day and that it made her happy.

It made her happy.  As the years rolled by (and as I fought multiple rounds of super lice on my kids' heads- we’ll save that for another story) I began to resent that I did not have the option of a clothes dryer.  I realized that I felt happier knowing that I have choices. I realized that if I had to choose between 2 uninterrupted hours of writing or 2 hours of winter line drying, I would choose chilly fingers on a keyboard over chilly fingers gripping clothespins. I wanted my children to remember and see me happy with my choices.

I’m not going to be able to trace every thread that lead to my family’s decision to move, but one of the factors was, indeed, my desire for the choice to use a clothes dryer- a choice that our community had decided, long before we moved there, would not be an option.  There is this tragic scene in the movie Ray in which his little brother drowns while his mom was at the clothesline. Ray Charles’ heroin addiction was an attempt to bury that haunting memory. I think constantly about women who had and have very little choices in their lives and the tragic consequences that can emerge when women and children are drowning in poverty.  Hanging line after line in the Georgia sunshine I felt this enormous tension between the pleasure and privilege I had to slow down and hang my clothes on a line and the desire for time to join my voice with others in the ongoing fight for justice and equality. It doesn’t have to be either or, but for me and my family to thrive, I knew that we needed something as simple as how we did our laundry to feel like a complete and voluntary choice.
We bought our dryer on a rainy day in December, one week after we moved into the old farmhouse where we live now.  My husband and I went to the used appliance shop in the next town over and picked out a simple model for $125. It has been over a month, and I have used the dryer about four times.  We have a drying rack in the kitchen and a clothesline out back which we use on a regular basis.  I still love that time of birdsong, breeze, and sunshine. I don’t regret any of what I wrote or practiced over the past six and a half years. I moved only half a mile away because I still value and I am very connected to the community that helped to form me and my family. We still want to be good stewards of our resources. But I needed to be happy, free of resentment, and joyful in our choices. We are still intentional about nurturing healthy relationships to the earth and the people around us, and, sometimes, that means we choose to use a clothes dryer.

So, if you’ve read this far, I’m curious- 

When have you had to eat your words- have you written or proclaimed something that needs an addendum?  

Have the things that were important to you four years ago changed? 

How do you live with the gap between righteous ideals and flawed practice? 

Have you ever tried to hide your choices from the people you love when your values and practices diverge?

Have you ever chosen to distance yourself from a community so that you can strengthen those relationships and live more authentically?  

And of course, how do you dry your laundry and why?  

Thursday, October 5, 2017

On loving a Chicken named Chili

I’d like to interrupt this steady stream of depressing news (Vegas, North Korea, 45, Puerto Rico, violence, you know the rest) to introduce to you a little red hen named Chili.  Her left foot is crooked.  She doesn’t lay predictably.  She poops on our front porch and eats the cat food. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they have a chicken that thinks she’s a cat (thankfully our cats don’t poop on the porch).  But since this silly little porch chicken came into my life I’ve had something to laugh about and laughter feels a lot better than the alternative right now.

 On Tuesday night my husband sent a group text to a few friends and family: Chilli chicken in da house.  After taking the picture Michael promptly put her into her pen in the front yard. 
That little white swirl on the cushion is lint, not poop, but why, you may ask, is there a chicken on the couch in the first place?  How did we get to this point? 
We’ve been living for the past six years in an intentional community that keeps chickens for eggs and meat.  We have about 75 of them and they live far from the houses on a field with movable fencing. Similar to this one pictured here: Image result for joel salatin mobile chicken coop

Following the farming practice made popular by Joel Salatin the chickens aerate and fertilize the soil where the cows had grazed.  Though they live a happy life of pecking and scratching in the ground by day and roosting in their stylish mobile chicken coop by night, chickens never meant much to me until Chili showed up at our house.

It was the morning after the total solar eclipse (We had 99.67% here but drove to SC to see 100% - but that’s another story).  Some of our friends who had come down from Philadelphia for the big event woke up to a loud clucking on the porch. “So does that chicken always sleep on your porch?” Angela asked as I filled her cup with black coffee.
“What chicken?” I wondered aloud.  Maybe the bird’s little internal homing mechanism got interrupted by the partial darkness the day before, maybe she wanted in on the party with the Guesses, maybe God sent her as a feathered messenger from above bringing me good tidings of great joy but for whatever reason she found in our porch a home and we decided we’d keep her.

Her head was bloody on top. We get the phrase “hen-pecked” from that practice of chickens ganging up on weaker chickens.  Like I said before her foot is crooked so she doesn’t fit in.  There was no way that I was going to put her back in the pen with the sharp-beaked flock.  We pulled over an old bottomless cage that we once used for tending rabbits and made it her new place to sleep in the front yard. The kids started calling her Chili, perhaps for the ruddiness of her feathers, perhaps because it rhymes with silly.

Chili is a people chicken. She runs up to greet us as we come and go from the house.  She stares at us through the door and pecks at the glass begging to be let in.  We don’t let her, and we curse when she poops on the welcome mat.  She doesn’t mind being held. When I sit on the rocking chair on the front porch I scoop her up onto my lap and smooth her silky feathers.  She doesn’t flap and squawk.  She lays an egg now and then in an abandoned terrarium, and when she does our daughters rush to bring it, still warm, into the house. She likes to be talked to.  Every morning we have a little chat- I do most of the talking.

One afternoon, about a week after Chili started roosting with us, a friend saw the chicken on the porch and thought she was doing me a favor by plopping her back in with all the other chickens.  I tried to hide my consternation when she told me, but I think I was visibly disturbed.  I’ve gone all these years without a chicken in my life, but the idea of losing Chili made me ache as I ran toward the fence and scanned my eyes across a sea of anonymous birds. Here was the test- did I really know her at all?  Did she really know me?  I stepped into the pen and looked at each bird. I knew she wasn’t one of the white or speckled ones but there were dozens of reddish brown hens.  

“Chili, hey Chili chicken,” I called out to the feathery ones but I was met with empty birdie-eyed stares and absent-minded clucks. “Hey Chili girl, c’mon now.” Then a little chicken sidled up to my leg and gave a little, “Brr-bruck?”  She pointed her crooked foot toward mine and I scooped her up into my arms.  All those Bible stories about shepherd and sheep rang true as I was assured that we actually do know one another by name- this bird and me.

A few years back I went to year Alice Walker speak at the Morton Theater in Athens, GA.  At the time I was a bit bemused that this writing legend, speaking to a packed auditorium (the most diverse crowd I’ve been in since moving down south), who could have spoken to us about anything in the world chose to share her delight in raising backyard chickens.  It had something to do with love.  She wanted us to realize that peace is a practice as fragile and miraculous as a fresh laid egg and that if a heart can feel the tragedy in cracking an egg with a half formed chick we can feel the tragedy of greater losses.

I wish it were that easy, that peace on earth were as simple as each creature knowing and being known by name. That our hearts would stay fragile and open and willing to keep breaking.  But even Nazis and Klansman can be kind parents, farmers and pet owners.  Loving the ones close to us doesn’t always lead to love of the ones far away, the ones we think of as others, the ones we kill with drone strikes, the ones whose blood we have not seen. But still I cling to the hope that tenderness to any living thing might soften us to one another.

I know a man who arrived in the US as a refugee from Congo. Before war pushed him and his family from their land, he lived with cows.  While he was staying at Jubilee he accurately predicted the birth of a calf based on his lifetime of nearness to the life rhythms of cows.  He lives in a city now, works in a chicken plant where white gangly birds who never see the light of day are hacked and chopped into convenience food. We saw him a few weeks ago and he confided to a friend of mine that when he has trouble sleeping he turns on his smart phone and looks at a photo of a cow.  It helps him to feel at home.

I’m sorry, I wanted to write something to help us all laugh a little bit and now I feel like crying again.  I want you to know that I’m a hypocrite too.  I still eat factory farmed meat.  I’ve witnessed and plucked but still have not directly killed my own food.  In his book The Witness of Combines Kent Meyers has this beautiful chapter called “Chickens” about how quickly our affection toward chickens can be transformed as they become chicken, but how even the process of butchering –when done with care- can feel sacramental.

 I can hear Chili clucking now in the yard. I have a feeling that even if I become a woman who butchers her own supper, Chili – my first chicken love- will grow to a ripe old age

Since this little Chili bird came my daughter, Seraphina, who is usually the last one out of bed, has been waking up early to let her out, give her grain, talk to her.  My son wants to kill her on account of the poop on the porch.  Our porch is actually cleaner than usual because of all the sweeping and spraying and the shoes are stacked up neatly because no one wants poop in their shoes.

On a day when the sky turned dark a silly little bird came to our home for solace.  She brought us extra work and joy. Her head is healed now and my heart, my ever breaking heart, is happier for her arrival.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

I rest me in the thought

I’ve been distraught of late.   I know better.  I know God is more powerful than people.  Yet I've been floundering, not really praying, not really feeling blessedly assured. I've been crying for the ones who can’t go home, for the ones who are suffering and may suffer more as a result of the bad choices of greedy, fearful and misinformed people.

I offered to watch a friend’s baby this morning as much for my own sanity as for her ability to attend English class.  The baby and I went to visit Grandma Coffee.  Coffee is 97 years old.  In worship last Sunday she stood up and told a story that she’s told many times before, a story that never gets old:

She and her husband had just arrived in Korea as missionaries at the end of the Korean War.  There was  a building that she recognized as a church except all the windows were blown out and there were piles of rubble.  Yet she could hear voices coming from that ravished space .  Voices singing in Korean a song she knew well in English. “And though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”  So she knew God was already there and thus begun her two decades in Korea with the theme song of her life becoming “This is My Father’s World.”

She held this little baby during part of Sunday worship, this baby whose mommy made it safely to the US and for the misfortune of being a survivor of a crime and the courage of reporting it can now stay in this country out of the shadows. We hope.  

This baby and I came to Coffee’s this morning because I thought she would like to hold the baby again.   I also  thought, surely, in the presence of these very young and very old souls I would find some solace.

I told Coffee that I am angry, sad and scared.  Then she spoke my deeper thoughts that I’ve been trying to conceal. “And you find yourself thinking, ‘Lord strike him down.’ But you know that isn’t going to work at this point because there must be others that think and feel like him.  And so you pray.”

Every morning she has been reading, or rather asking someone to read to her from John Baillie’s daily devotional.  She had already read it this morning before I came, but asked me if I’d like to read it aloud. “ Can you read while holding a baby? I can’t see the words anymore.” The baby had fallen into a deep and settled rest upon my chest.  Her warm breath steadying and deepening my own tight and anxious breaths.  “Yes, I can read with a baby in my arms. I have years of practice.”

So I read and prayed and those tears sprang a leak down my cheeks.  “Help me, O Lord God, not to let my thoughts today be wholly occupied by the world’s passing show.”

And it helped.  From the outside someone might have mistaken me for the helper- holding the baby, visiting my elderly neighbor.  But I was the neediest, the hungriest, the most consoled. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

lament for an Inaugural poet

Image result for on the pulse of morning

In my short 38 years, I have only attended one inauguration and for one reason, to hear a poem.  I grew up in Washington, DC. In the years my family lived there, between 1980 and 1996 we went downtown for protests more often than for celebrations. In January 1993, mom and I bundled up and caught the Metro downtown for Bill Clinton’s inauguration.  I remember standing in the throng of people and watching his motorcade pass.  His window was rolled up for security but I could see a waving white hand behind the black tinted glass.  I had not come for a glimpse of a hand behind glass, I had come to hear the voice of Maya Angelou reading her new poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.”   The year before, I had read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for my eighth grade English class. I knew it would be a gift to the nation and to me personally to hear Maya Angelou read on the National Mall.  Her poem, her voice vibrating through the loud speakers across a sea of people standing quietly, peacefully, breathing steamy winter breath together instilled a sense of hopefulness, a sense that I belonged.  My hope was not in the new president but in the fact that Maya’s truth-telling words were welcome, her voice was invited.  I was coming of age into a belief that my voice would be welcome too, that we were becoming a nation that was growing toward its lofty ideals. I took her words to heart, my fourteen year-old self heeded her words as a commission:

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

There have only been four inaugural poets in our nation’s history.  Robert Frost, invited by John F Kennedy was the first.  There was a long silent spell followed by Maya Angelou who was invited by Bill Clinton in 1993.  President Obama is the only US president who invited two inaugural poets, Elizabeth Alexander in 2009 and Richard Blanco in 2013. In only four people there is a rich representation of African American, Latino, White, gay, female and male,  people who chose words as tools for inner and societal transformation.   

For the past five years, I have lived in rural Georgia and been have been challenged to love my neighbors while maintaining a voice that is often quite distinct.  I do not want to just fit in or for my kids to accept many of the cultural norms as "normal," yet I want to actually love and know people without fear. I attended an all day sporting event with my son a few years back. He and I read an O magazine together as we waited for his turn to compete.  One of the feature articles was a list of questions to encourage personal reflection and growth. He then read the questions aloud to his teammates. Most of them humored him with their responses.  Except when he got to this question, “Have you tried poetry?”  One child seemed obviously annoyed that my son was focusing more on Oprah than his sport and replied derisively, “Poetry is for hippies and vegetarians!” His mother, the coach, cast her son a silencing glance but did not raise her voice in defense of poetry, hippies or vegetarians. I think this boy may have hoped to insult us with these labels. We just laughed.  I turned to him and said, “Poetry is for you, too.” 

As many writers have already pointed out, there will be no poetry read at today’s inauguration. Poets, at their best, are truth tellers, and truth did not receive an invitation. But tomorrow when the streets are flooded with dissent, the truth will be made clear.  Poetry and truth telling and courage will continue with our without presidential invitation.

 In 2014, I heard Richard Blanco read in Atlanta. As the son of an immigrant, he spoke about what it meant to be invited to read at a US presidential inauguration. He quoted his Cuban born mother who said to him, “You know m’ijo, it’s not where you are born that matters, it’s where you choose to die. That’s your country.”  

What is my country? Death keeps coming quickly and uninvited in this country. What a privilege it would be, what a beautiful nation we could become if untimely death were not thrust upon people- from unborn babies, to death row inmates and to victims drone strikes, state sanctioned police and vigilante killings and shooting rampages from legal assault rifles. These early deaths are not their choice. (I know some may chafe that I mention babies here. I am in no way advocating that Roe V Wade be overturned. I am advocating a culture of life from cradle to grave, a culture so loving, so free of rape and abuse, so affirming of life that it would make abortion rare and obsolete, never illegal).

Before Richard Blanco read, he was introduced by a beautiful rising star in the poetry world named Jericho Brown.  As I heard him read, I thought, “Yes! Him! His voice! Our nation needs to listen to him. Perhaps Jericho Brown will be the next inaugural poet.” His poems cut to the quick.  In December his poem “Riddle” appeared in the Georgia Review. It starts with the unrecognizable body of Emmet Till, the refusal to hear a mother cry and continues

We do not know the history
Of ourselves in this nation. We
Do not know the history of our
Selves on this planet because
We do not have to know
What we believe we own.

It ends with the line, What? What on Earth are we?

Many appropriate poems have emerged in recent months, but this it the one I am re-reading today. 
I’ve also got Maya’s words burrowed deep in the folds of my memory.  As the old song goes “I won’t let the devil steal my joy.” Though my heart is heavy with lament today, he who shall not be named is not the author of my hope. And so I will heed the final lines of the poem I heard 24 years ago today and face this day and the days ahead with a hope that will not be taken by this regime change.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Father's Day Manicures

Here is poem in two parts that I wrote based on my dad's recent visit to our home.  He is such an amazing grandfather and continues to challenge, love and encourage me.  I love the strength of my father's hands and that he always taught me, "The pen is swifter than the sword." I am so very thankful.

After sawing logs on the couch,
your Daddy wakes and says he’ll bake
 a sweet potato pie.

You look at his thick rhinoceros horn nails,
and say, “Daddy, please wait.”
Then you start to clip those jagged saws
and say, “How could you let them go
for so long?”

You gather the clippings
 in your skirt and your son tells you
 that you are acting
 like his mom. But your dad
is no longer acting
like your son who would have
 balled his sharp nails into a fist
 if you tried.

Daddy says, “I can’t
remember anyone ever
clipping my nails.”


He considers the small
 bottle of purple  metallic polish
 and says, “Yes, I will
 paint your nails,
but I have never painted
a person’s nails before.”

She says that’s okay
and spreads the sum of her years
 on a flattened macaroni box
 to protect the table where you sat
 as a child and now stand at a distance

 to watch your father bent over
 and concentrating with bifocals off.
 The top of his head gleams,
the bald spot that was a golden coin
 has grown into a mirror.

 And this little curly haired girl,
 your daughter, is you
though he never said, “yes”
when you asked.    

you want to bottle this moment
 to take a picture of those thick 
tree trunk fingers holding her red bud twigs.
She sighs her patient I’m a big girl sigh
as he takes his time and colors outside the lines.