Today I Saw God
Today, I did things a little differently. There was no sudden urge to wake up and try to do ten thousand more things that I could not accomplish but would make me anxious anyway. There was no mad dash to put in my contact lenses that give the false perception of perfect sight. I was not rushing past the mirror after my shower; fearfully dreading the steam evaporating too quickly and forcing me to take in the visage of my less than perfect physicality. The frantic search for my body shaper and the rush to heat my flat irons to straighten my naturally curly hair was utterly absent.
Today, I paused to glimpse my full form; one that was shaped by the inconsistencies of self-doubt, overeating, extreme physicality, multiple pregnancies and childbirths, and the stillness of utter exhaustion. I stared at the scars from too tight shapewear that strained to give my bulges of womanhood – excess weight from having a child, losing a child, and having twins, weight fluctuations, and genetics – into a form that somewhat aligned with the requirements of American society. I flopped my "bat wings," as my nanna calls them, knowing they would never lead me into flight. I smirked at the faint remains of my "birth line;" a line that all the women in my family have that is our built-in pregnancy test which runs from the lower abdomen to the sternum and darkens once pregnant. I shake my head at the days when I didn't know what it was or why it existed. I regret many of the stretch marks that were not the result of my children but the result of seeking food as my solace because I didn't have friends who would understand what it was like to be in my skin, in my economy, or in this world as me. I marveled at the stories every inch told of a life imperfectly led and all the potential that lay before me in it.
Our bodies tell such grand stories. They hold so many memories and moments, yet we dismiss them as machines or a necessary evil to be accepted as an "intelligent" species. I have been guilty of being dismissive and cruel to my body, intentionally and unintentionally. I have even gone as far as starving it, poisoning it, cutting it and forcing it to be more like society says it should be. I remember hearing growing up that God made me in His image, that He has known me since before I was born, and that I am part of Him just as He is part of me. So, why do we – no, I – mistreat and dismiss something that is so precious?
While watching The Greatest Showman last week with my daughter for her birthday, these thoughts kept coming to me throughout the movie. It led to my momentary pause of all the things I do to restructure who I am to be what I believe others want me to be. But there is something unapologetically beautiful about all the characters in the movie that I found inspiring and wanted to embody. Yes, I realize it is a prettied up version of P.T. Barnum and his evolution of the circus, but the overriding themes of self-acceptance, contentment in what you have, and the love of diversity really convicted me.
These characters and their story initially rang so true because I too often feel an oddity and out of place, but willing to put it on display because it feels less lonely in the spotlight. I saw elements of myself in Lettie, the Bearded Lady, who has the beautiful voice but the world thinks is a horrific misstep of nature in her size and masculine face. I knew the frustration of Anne and Phillip's love that society disdained but felt so divine. I relate to the fat man who feels much larger than he is. And I humbly accept my similarity to P.T. Barnum who is always trying to prove himself to those who really matter the least, even though it feels like they matter the most.
The wonderful turn of events is, the gift of song, that has brought me to this stage has helped others share their oddity and malformations too. I have witnessed a huddled mass of outsiders that feel rejected, unworthy and unloved make a beautiful rag-tag crew of love, dare I say, a family, in the wreckages of our lives through church and the gift of community there. That is the beauty of God's love – when practiced not just preached – which shows in how we view our bodies and those of others. These shells that some covet and some cover are just temporary shells of the amazing gifts that God has put on this earth to share with one another. Energy is constant, not the human form. We are all connected by that energy to bring joy to each other. To revel in the odd and fantastic. To admire the extreme and bizarre. To embrace the strange and exotic. To love the misshapen and grotesque. We are all, at some point, one or more of these things to everyone else around us. I am so glad God gives us so many chances to see how amazing and beautiful we all are. It is amazing the fantastic and impossible things that can be possible when God brings together those whom the world would think make the unlikeliest team. I am thankful for the creative as well as the stoic, the cheerleaders and the naysayers, the loving and the bigoted, the intelligent and the ignorant, as well as the righteous and the broken. They are all beautiful souls and opportunities of love existing in beautiful bodies of varying mass and construct. How lucky we are to be apart of this circus. And how grateful I am to finally see I am blessed to be part of it all.
It is hard to believe that another year is just hours away from being done. I think for many, 2017 was far from a perfect year, with natural disasters, flawed human choices, and news outlets constantly imparting the state of "crisis" our world is in. Combining this with personal struggles, a lot of my friends are happy to say, "Good riddance," and "Get behind me, Satan." My year was less than stellar, but I know I will try to look ahead to 2018 with more joy and hope than fear.
This optimism seems a bit preemptive, I know, but as a Christ follower, my purpose is to find my fulfillment in helping to improve the lives of others. This upcoming year is one in which I hope to rewrite what those encounter me think of when they think of "Christians." It is the year that I practice what I preach when it comes to loving and guiding my children. It is the year that I will work to uplift those I meet with my actions, not just my words, and when my finances fail, I will offer my support with the gift God has called me to use over and over again–singing.
My prayers for 2018 are that more people act and worship through their year the same way. We are not defined by our skin tone, our political affiliation, religious affiliation, marital status, wealth or lack of any of the aforementioned items. We are defined by how we treat people, in the absence and presence of witnesses-human and divine alike. 2018 is the year I hope trolling dies and people learn to respond with educated and well-thought out responses. It is a year I hope open-mindedness reigns, when we appreciate our differences and acknowledge our similarities. It is a year I look forward to seeing teachers actually embrace an unabridged history-where we stop glossing over uncomfortable truths, accept our past, and use it to heal and prepare our future. It is a year that I will encourage those around me (and myself) to step out of our comfort zones, safe rooms, and personal bubbles to listen to differing perspectives, asking questions and sharing how the dialogue or ideology impacts them instead of hiding behind the most dreaded words, "I'm offended," (which often means shutting down and closing off).
These may be ambitious hopes and prayers, but I work through the One who taught us that we are to invite in the stranger, give drink to the thirsty, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, care for the sick and clothe the naked (Matt. 25:34-40). In doing for others, we should rejoice in all that God has given us and Jesus taught us to use. We were blessed by Him in all our states to use what we had to make heaven possible on Earth (Matthew 5:1-11). I hope other Christians join me in reclaiming Christ as Christ would want us to; not through persecuting others because they are different, but opening our hearts and minds to all those around us. Let 2018 be the year we understand just because an oppression is not our oppression, it is still an oppression, that a sadness that is not our sadness is still sadness, and that an injustice though not our injustice is still injustice and as a community of Christ is it our duty and responsibility to stand for those are oppressed, weak, sad, alienated, sick and poor. That is what Christ asks of us every year. This is the year, I will continue to pursue being that Christian.
This Thanksgiving was a simple one for our family. It had been a rocky few months with work and potential financial setbacks that I defaulted to my most instinctual response to my world spinning out of control: I wanted my family. So, this year, we spent Thanksgiving with my mom, my younger sister, and my hero, my grandmother. My grandmother is 90-years-old and will be 91 in January. She still makes the best yeast rolls (a BIG pull to family meals at my mom's house), looks like she may be in her late-60s or mid-70s, and she is mentally sharper than most people alive. Though physically she isn't as spry as she used to be, she can motivate you to do your best with just a raised eyebrow, and that is just what I needed going into the holiday season.
You see, I would be nothing without my grandmother. My grandmother stepped in to fill the void of a father when mine passed away when I was only eight months old. My mother was 20 and had two children under two. My nanna was and is the best father figure that any young child could ask for, in my opinion. She is musical, playing with amazing skill any instrument she touched. She led the student choir at my church with the same professionalism she led the adult choir and her all-state winning choirs at the high school. She was well-read and promoted reading and education at all times. One of my favorite sayings of hers is, "When you have learned everything, you know your time on Earth has come to an end." She is my mentor in exploring music and the arts. We discussed Degas, Serat, Van Gogh, Rimsky-Korsikoff, Rachmoninov, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Aaron Copeland, Rogers & Hammerstein, the Gershwin Brothers, Balanchine, Tallchief, Pavlova, Petipa, Fosse, The Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Scott Joplin, Sarah Vaughn, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Bojangles, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, and Herbie Hancock just name a few (and if you don't know who most of those people are, fortunately, there is Google). She taught me the joy of research and the power of learning who you are. She also taught me that who you are and will be is so strongly influenced by who you come from.
In the Bible, there are endless entries that discuss people's lineage. Even in the case of Christ, Matthew makes a point to take the most circuitous route possible to show his relationship to the great King David. That continues even today. Walt Disney and the Disney corporation honor the importance of lineage with the appearance of at least one apple in every major Disney film. This is their way to represent and honor Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first full-length animated feature film. It introduced us to the movie soundtrack, was Walt Disney Pictures' first majorly profitable animation, changed the landscape of animation as it was known, won the first Oscar ever for an animated film, but could have also been the film that ended Walt Disney's career.
In business and politics, we acknowledge the lineage of such families as the Rockefellers, the Hearsts, the Rothschilds, and the Kennedys. We watch the antics of their latest generations because their families have access to the mediums that draw us, "the unknowns" in, and many of us desire to be like them. In the world I grew up in that was based in the Southern African-American Baptist lineage was viewed much differently. It was the foundation of the "generational curse," in which it was believed that the circumstances of people today is a direct result of the sins and mistakes of their forefathers. This always baffled me because I always wondered why those who bore the names of slave traders, early settlers that killed entire populations of indigenous people, slave owners, and Confederate generals never hung their heads in shame or faced persecution because of the "sins" of their forefathers? When I informed a boy in high school that my grandmother and I learned his family had actually owned members of my family, instead of asking if I had learned anything else, his response was a snide one of, "well, I guess you're glad you're free now then. I would have made you miserable," followed by laughter. The fact that my ancestors were owned by someone was not a point of sadness or shame for me. My grandmother taught me by learning as much as we could about ourselves, we would find more commonalities and more reasons to live in harmony than we would not to get along. We all in a way have humble beginnings that are changed by our belief that somewhere in our past and perhaps, even someone in our future can create a positive difference for our own part of the world.
Looking from the outside in, the difference from those whose lineage and power is derived mostly from money and very little else and those who lineage comes from investing in something they love that could hopefully better the landscape of the world for a lot of people is a difference of quantity and quality. Those in the financial and political spectrum have a power they control through money. Once the money is gone; once it has no value or a value far less than it does now, that power is gone. I acknowledge Walt Disney was no saint, but Disney made his imprint through quality work. He was obsessed with the quality to make a defining animation that would inspire wonder and imagination. He was not afraid to lose money because what he loved was not in the bank – it was in his sketchbooks and then in his films. Closer to home for me, my grandmother opened her heart, pantry, closet, wallet, and classrooms to students from all walks of life for almost 40 years. She taught in the agrarian areas of Virginia which were the home to impoverished Blacks with limited access to education. She taught in her living room and churches. She taught during segregation into integration. She opened the minds of Black students who only saw the limitations that society wanted them to adhere to, changed the hearts of skeptical White students and teachers, and empowered all her students to be their best self. Years after her students graduated and she retired, her students would come up to her and tell her what a difference she made in their lives. They would speak for hours, and her students would tell me how lucky I was to have her every day. Those were words I didn't need hear but was so proud that I could.
When I come home and sit among the comfort of my family, I am thankful for the line of women I continue. My grandmother's persistence to do well in all things, my mother's desire to always do better than the previous day, week, or year, and the overall drive that those women taught me about never giving up is more powerful than any financial lineage I have read about or witness on the world's stage. It is Christ's example of giving to those who need it, loving those who don't deserve it, and raising up those who feel the least worthy. I am bathed in the stories of triumph in the face of discrimination, calm in the face of violence, compassion in the face of inequality, and truth in the face of lies. There is a world out there that would reduce my family down to the whitewashed history of slaves, loud-mouthed preachers, and uppity-negroes, but what I see are the descendants of the same people who can claim the One True King as their own. I hope to continue the line of people who inspire others to be in the world but not of the world. I couldn't ask for a better lineage to claim as my own.