Who, What, How Deeply Black Men Love

The Root published one letter here–which will become a series–as a testament and reminder of “who, what, and how deeply black men love.” It’s to all our sons! The first letter:

Dear Sekou,

Simply saying I love you isn’t enough to express how I feel about being your father. However, it’s exactly how I feel. I grew in love with you from the moment I found out you were in your mother’s womb. I grew in love because I knew that you would be a great addition to the world we live in. I knew that inside of you was something special, even magical.

As your fingers and toes formed inside your mother’s belly, a new space was being created inside my heart, just for you. It’s a sacred space from which comes the deepest, most pure love: a father’s love.

Not only do I love you as my son, but I love you as the divine gift and human being you are. You are the purest part of me and your mother wrapped in beautiful brown skin, a dazzling smile and a golden spirit that draws people near.

Sekou, I love your musical laughter, your inherent intelligence and your amazing sense of humor. The moments we spend together are priceless, and no matter where I am in the world, a simple thought of you causes me to smile from deep within.

Son, love is one of the most powerful emotions we have because it inspires us to give our all and sacrifice everything for those we care about. Love is sacred because it comes from the most authentic space inside of us—our heart.

As males, we are often taught that love is a weak emotion, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. A tremendous amount of courage is required to love someone because to love is to trust and believe in the greater good.

The world we live in today doesn’t always look like love, but trust me, love is there. There are so many wonderful and caring people in the world, and you are truly one of them.

As your father, I promise to do three things for the rest of your life: I will love you absolutely to the best of my human capabilities. I will always have your back and be a guiding source of wisdom upon whom you can rely, and I will be here to encourage you through my actions and deeds because they speak louder than words.

Son, not only are you the future, but you are also the present, and your place on earth right now, right here, in this very moment, is more important than anything else to me. You are a reflection of the many sons throughout the world who are making it a better place.

Thank you for bringing me so much laughter and light. Thank you for inspiring me to work harder to ensure your future is secured. Thank you for allowing me to fully be the father and man I am destined to be.

Love always,

Daddy

An Amazing Birthday

I was thinking over it the way I think of it at least once a week. The space of emptiness, the hunger that never quite ends. It is not nothingness because something is there. But it is insufficient.

It is more like emptiness since emptiness in me still has scraps or stains of your presence on the walls of my soul. I go into my fleeting memory and I get irritated immediately–I have to remind myself of all the things I have to be grateful for–but the irritations rise by grieving reflex.

I think of the hollowness that is a reminder of the mild surplus which was once. The laugh that was slight, hardly ever full, but that always made me laugh too. And I’ll never hear that laugh with these ears.

I’ll have to burrow into my recesses. I’ll have to sleep hard and pray for that dream that may still come. I have to mimic and try to be like you, in my laughter. I have to watch my brother’s face and see the muscles laying and stretching into the splendid image of you. I have to wait.

In a real way, I’ll hold that laugh for you. I’ll share other ones with other people at other moments, but there’s a laugh that’s just for you. I hope with all my imaginative, creative abilities that you’re spreading that meek joyfulness in eternity, amusing heaven and brightening angels’ eyes. I hope you’re having an amazing birthday.

Week In Review

I should have written this one week ago because it’s a memory worth keeping. I told Dawn about it when it happened. I’m logging it here as a way of keeping my memory, of preserving it.

We were heading out in the morning. It was either Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday since the boy was in his blazer. Bryce was at the door and I was grabbing a bag.

He said to me, “I’m great daddy.” I looked at him to listen again to what I’d just heard. Sometimes he says things that are completely surprising, and I’ve learned how I shouldn’t be surprised when he does this even though I am. He repeated himself. “I’m great daddy.”

I told him that he was great. He had been on a roll lately. And I said so. I told him that he had been making good choices and that he could keep being great.

“I am. I’m going to stay great.” Of course you are, I thought. You’re exactly right.

About Playing

Dear Bryce,

I want you to know that you’ve been doing a great job at life. Watching you grow this year has been a lesson to me. You love to play. Your mother said once that you lived to play. That still fits.

But you are such a good student. You do all your homework and usually finish it quickly so that you can play. Your teachers and we your parents have some difficulty keeping you from all that play when nobody else is ready to play. Even with those, there’s part of me that never wants you to stop playing. I want you to find a way to keep playing, to live playfully.

Part of me wants to say, when we’re at the table about to eat, before we pray, that we must be reverent. And part of me wants to edit myself and find a way to explain to you that all of prayer is playful. That the two in the eyes of the Divine are the same. I want to tell you that if you can balance living and playing, then you’ve lived well. I want to tell you to be as responsible as possible, to be as strong and generous as possible, and to do all of those without compromising play. I want you to be able to consistently revile in life, to be about playing, and to do so without compromising all those other important things.

It is a succinct picture of Sabbath. It is a simple way of expressing joy. It is pure and honest and descriptive of your personality. It is, in a sense, who you are. That is both frightening for the stark clarity that is you and enlivening because it is a kind of complete integrity on display.

I want you to play. In some ways, son, that’s all I want you to do. Perhaps the best thing I can tell you is to find a way to always play. To get the other stuff done. To do the homework. To clean your room. To get all those things “out of the way” so that you can do what you love, do what you live to do.

Perhaps it’ll take me a few years to fine tune my message, to figure out how to present that lesson to you well. Right now, you’ve got the playing thing down. I hope you never lose it. I hope in my efforts to father you that I don’t hamper it. And I hope you keep teaching me this year and that I learn a bit more about play.

 

Among Many Tasks

The fall will bring a slightly different schedule for me.  The whole thing holds together and will open me to new ways of deepening my vocation and the little works which make up my vocation.  I’ll be doing a lot, and I’m looking forward to it.

Perhaps it seems inappropriate to hold this poem on this blog, but it seems a striking reminder for me as a parent.  In the end, as I see it and believe it and imagine it, all our small works turn to one task of continued self-surrender, continued dying.

That dying sits at the bottom of my faith, though that bottom would quickly, almost too effortlessly, be named as living.  That eternal life only comes after one has regularly and daily passed through the gates of death.  Life comes from death, says the One we follow.  May this poet’s words be a reminder of these things to me:

Among Many Tasks

Among many tasks

very urgent

I’ve forgotten that

it’s also necessary

to be dying

frivolous

I have neglected this obligation

or have been fulfilling it

superficially

beginning tomorrow

everything will change

I will start dying assiduously

wisely optimistically

without wasting time

Tadeusz Rozewicz (From The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry)

Gratitude

You don’t have an income or a bedroom that belongs to you.  You don’t have clothes that haven’t been given to you.  So, beautiful son of ours, remember to be thankful because your entire life is still so early and so young that it’s all a gift.

Walking into your room, which I still say is my home office, you are surrounded by gifts, things given, including the words painted on your walls which were done by Auntie Sheila and Uncle Alan.  When you’re able to read those words, they too will remind you that you come from some where, that your life was given to you and given to us.

Everything around you, unearned by you and really unearned by us, is a bold or implicit sign to be grateful.

Intimate Partners, Violence, and Other Related Things

There is a misconception that abuse is limited to physicality (or heterosexual relationships) but it’s not.  I believe emotional, psychic and psychological abuse is also unacceptable and just as damaging.

There is so much worth rehearsing in our heads, pushing into our ways of being, and practicing in our relationships in those words and in the post below.  I’ve been encountering more conversations about intimate partner violence, relational abuse, domestic violence, whichever brand you’re familiar with.  And among the many things I question and consider, I come back to how I’ll raise my son to live in the world.

But I’m a pastor and a teacher, and I always (and almost immediately) question what I’m saying and showing and putting forward for the people who are a part of my spheres of ministry and influence.  I hope the men especially that I know are doing the same things as they listen to the news, watch television, and engage in barbershop talk.

The sinister evil of abuse is in its pervading, serpent-like ability to creep and dance and stand in culture as if it belongs, as if the world is as it should be when people harm one another.  Of course, it is a part of my faith structure, my theology, my talk about God-in-relation-to-God’s-stuff to say that the world is not exactly the way it should be and that such violence is only a grand, bold, and startling show of how bad the world is in these instances.

Relational violence is a narrow version of violence, and violence in its broadest sense is wrong and misdirected and worth our being troubled over and changed by.  But this type of violence, this violence that happens between people who supposedly love each other, people who are related to each other, is so destructive.

I tell couples in my church who are preparing for marriage that marriage is so potentially and actually effective, for good or bad, because marriage is one of those mystical vehicles that God uses to initiate, enrich, or nurture grace in our lives.  Of course, I can say about other vehicles and not marriage alone, but my point is to say that the impact of marriage is in its strong placement in our lives.  We do marriage daily, and when we give ourselves to certain practices daily, those practices–loving practices, misshapen practices, and so forth–eventually because the ways we get whatever we perceive God has for us.

Further, or in other words, marriage specifically and loving relationships more broadly construct how we understand, accept, and exhibit love.  Those relationships influence and shape us.  So when those relationships are inherently and historically violent, we attach all types of meanings to that violence in the context of a relationship, right?

We think that relationships are supposed to be violent and that when violence isn’t present, the relationship is off.  We believe worse things, too, like our prospects for better love or different love are low.  We set ourselves into a theological or psychological framework to judge our love and our promise-keeping by our settling with abuse.  We believe our faith demands that loyalty and commitment be expressed through the daily submission of our whole selves to the foolish presentation of hatred through words and gestures and the lack of good words and good gestures.

I’m grateful for all the good teachers and tutors who help me walk through the conversations (hushed though they may be) happening in the media these days.  This post–and perhaps all the posts over at the Crunk Feminist Collective–needs to make its rounds.  Read the full post here.  And share it.

An Old Friend

I visited an old friend this past week. I’ve known her since 1984. We spent lots of time together when I lived in Urbana, Illinois. We visited together at least once each week until she moved away in 2002. She moved to a small town near Schenectady, New York and changed her name. I knew her as the Elite Diner. Now she’s the Chuck Wagon.

I had to go about 900 miles to see her. According to the map, she was just a few miles off the road on my trip to Maine, so it seemed a good detour. Turns out it was a great detour.

I scoured the roadside as I drove down the Western Turnpike (Hwy. 20) hoping to see her at every turn. Then, suddenly, there she was. Just as I’d remembered her. Silver with red trim, the rounded corners, windows across the front. The Elite Diner.

She lived on the corner of Elm and Vine in Urbana the 18 years I had known her. She and her cramped parking lot took up the corner, so she looked bigger than she does now.

I parked and climbed a few unfamiliar steps, then entered surroundings that were familiar and comforting. She has not changed much on the inside. Same green and pink tiles on the floor with the same cracks in the tiles. The same silver, pink, and green on walls and ceiling, same booths, though reupholstered.

I sat on the same stool at the counter I had occupies hundreds of times, sometimes by myself, sometimes with one of my children on a stool next to me. The green Formica on the counter was the same. The seam in the Formica had been rubbed smooth and white from thousands of plates of food and mugs of coffee sliding over it.

I had spent hundreds of hours of writing, thinking, planning, or just gathering my early-morning thoughts. I’d had meetings with colleagues and bosses there. I’d commiserated with Bob the welder, who also had an infant son at the time. We’d compare hours of sleep or lack thereof from the night before.

But mostly, this became the place I shared with my kids. This was where we connected over coffee and hot chocolate, sometimes a sweet roll, sometimes a Number 9 (an unhealthy but totally satisfying plate of biscuits covered with hash browns and gravy). My children, now 32 and 25, never hesitated if I woke them before dawn, two full hours before their school started, as long as the question was, “Want to go to the Diner?”

I can’t tell you much about what we did while sitting there. We talked, or not.  Sometimes the talk was about school or homework. We listened to the music overhead and I sometimes I talked about (or made up stuff about) the oldies playing and what was going on with me when the song was new. And we watched and evaluated the cook as he labored over the fried eggs, pancakes, bacon, and other breakfast items being prepared. “Don’t pat the pancakes.” That’s one of my cardinal rules of breakfast cooking, if you care about tasteful, fluffy pancakes, that is. It’s also a pretty good metaphor for lots of things in life. That was something we always watched for.

I was sitting on this very stool the morning my daughter and I had a falling out that ended our trips to the Diner for a few years. It was a sad but necessary morning for each of us. As a friend of mine said to me, “Parenting is about teaching your children to deal with disappointment.” That was one of those morning when we each learned lessons we didn’t want, but needed.

To finish, John Powell’s post, click here.

Where Wounds Become Insignificant

When a wounded child climbs into its mother’s lap, it draws so much strength from the mother’s presence that its own wound becomes insignificant.  So too with us when we climb into the lap of our great Mother God.  Our crisis soon domesticates and comes into a peaceful perspective, not because it goes away, but because the presence of God so overshadows us.

When I read this in Forgotten Among the Lilies, I thought of Eliot, next to Bryce, slipping at the table Sunday, nearly falling to the floor but stopping as his ear clipped the chair.  Hard enough to sting.  Hard enough to crack the little eruption that is a child’s pain magnified by surprise and other people’s company.

I had one of his arms to lift him.  Maggie came over to pick him up because he was crying by then.  He complained about the pain and Maggie took him in her arms, his head to her shoulder, and convinced him by her hug that he would live through it.

He calmed as long as she held him.  Then he cried again, trading his mom for his dad.  David, master of redirection with the boys that he is, turned Eliot’s attention with a high-pitched question.

The image of a child in pain.  The image of a mother, then a father, and a few onlookers.  It seems like these words are easily seen.

What I Fear

A news story about the United Nations and the Roman church’s response to sexual abuse of minors and an article about the Texas teacher who assaulted her students by giving a boy a birthday lapdance.  I read those stories before I sat to write.  Of course I thought of how me and Dawn have been troubled over the ways we will shepherd our son through his natural social disposition toward a more realistic humanity because of the world’s wrongness or, the world’s distortion and because people in the world are wrong and distorted.

When I think about teachers harming students and family members harming students, it makes me shake my head in disgust.  Raising a child, a son in my case, is such an experiment in trust.

I think of those boys and girls who were molested–even if only in a psychological way, although such molestation always joins other kinds–and how their skies have fallen, been severely limited, or turned perpetually bleak.

What I fear is my son’s absolute proximity to children who are hurt, victimized, ignored, unseen, underfed, and unloved.  I fear the unnoticed ways all our children are hindered because of the stupid decisions of a person, a family, an institution, a culture which promotes poor ways of parenting as a society.

There is only so much a parent can do.  There are so many things that a father can’t control about his child’s path.  There is so much trust inherent in bringing home a baby.

I’d love to see my son protected and I will do everything I can to preserve his life, his whole life, his happy life, his enriched humanity.  But I do fear that I will change him and his budding openness to people in general because of the specific people who don’t deserve his beautiful self.

Allergies

Puffy eyes, a dripping, sniffling nose, tiny and multiple bumps that remind me of hills on his face.  It’s either an allergic reaction or an allergy, which is the same thing, isn’t it?

In some ways, the canvas of my son’s beautiful face made only more beautiful can be fixed by something diagnosed, something prescribed.  In other ways, the rumple in our lives that comes with spring is a reminder of how this wonderful son has things happening in him that I’ll never see, never be able to control, never be able to change.

Seeing him helps me see that as he grows, I must grow.  Grow to surrender that daily lie I live into so well: that I control any of this experience called raising a child.  I have a part and I’ll play it.  But there’s someone else in control.  That’s the hope and that’s the worse feeling in the world.

Parenting and the Divine Advantage

I think this quote can touch a lot of the places I’m walking through as a father.  It’s admittedly about a common prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, but it seems to relate to the giving and surrendering of the will, the offering of many little, hardly-noticed acts which are so common in parenting.  Can what a mother or father does be turned into the Divine’s advantage?  Can wiping a nose or a butt or a shoe be taken into the larger world of God’s stuff?  One would hope.

This is from Evelyn Underhill’s reflection on the phrase, “Thy Kingdom Come”:

Thus more and more we must expect our small action to be overruled and swallowed up in the vast Divine action; and be ready to offer it, whatever it may be, for the fulfillment of God’s purpose, however much this may differ from our purpose.  The Christian turns again and again from that bewildered contemplation of history in which God is so easily lost, to the prayer of filial trust in which He is always found; knowing here that those very things which seem to turn to man’s disadvantage, may yet work to the Divine advantage.