A Lament for America

On this third day after our most recent presidential election, I remain sorrowful and deeply disappointed (both in and for us as a nation). I am gravely concerned about what this next season will look like for individuals and communities who are dear to me. And, frankly, I am grieved and ashamed that so much of the white American church has either embraced or accommodated truly hateful, un-Christlike rhetoric and behavior from the person who is now poised to fill our nation’s highest elected office.

I am moving into the “we have work to do” camp—because we certainly do. As has ever been the case (only now amplified and validated in a devastating way through this election process), racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and a host of other discriminatory and violent ideologies are alive and well in our society. Those of us who recognize the harm and evil in that fact (whether we have long been painfully aware of this reality or have just had a very rude awakening) have an ongoing responsibility to fight for transformation in how members of various oppressed groups are viewed, valued and treated.

But while gearing up for what lies ahead, I have also felt the need to lament what we have witnessed this week and in the months (and decades, even centuries) leading up to November 8, 2016. And so, with the words of Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah ringing in my ears (and very much aware of how guilty I am of not loving all my neighbors and how much I still need to learn and grow), here is an attempt to communicate some part of the anguish, anger, and sorrow, as well as the (sometimes very fragile-feeling) hope I carry in my heart in these days:

A Lament for America

Oh, America.
So beautiful in myriad ways:
land of innovation and imagination
a place where dreams run wild
     and many that are chased are caught
a lofty experiment
     boldly declaring the possibility
          of unity in diversity
adopted home of many a weary sojourner
     desperately in need
          of a safe place for a fresh start

But we have been that whitewashed sepulcher:
externally shiny and bright
adorned with every form of advanced technology,
     with breath-taking talent
     and jaw-dropping wealth
self-proclaimed greatest nation in the world
self-righteously pointing the finger
     at those we deem less moral than ourselves
but on the inside, stained with every “ism” in the book
prejudiced and prideful
fearful and furious
willing to take out our anxieties and disappointments
     on those already vulnerable in our midst
the privileged among us feasting on the forbidden fruit
     of stolen land
          stolen labor
          stolen lives

And now here we stand, with our feet in a most precarious place
for God has been down this road before
     with many a generation of stiff-necked people
and His anger burns white-hot
when the poor find no justice in the courts
when the foreigner is not welcomed,
     the widow and orphan not provided for
when people who bear His Name bow down
     before those who have no claim to their allegiance

Lord of mercy,
be near to the broken-hearted and bind their wounds
bring the oppressor to justice—
     and contrition
stand in the gap for those whose worth and dignity are denied
     whose health and well-being are recklessly cast aside
teach us, O God, to search our own souls
     and lay them bare before you
then fit us for the crucial work ahead—
     the never-ending labor
          of loving our neighbors—
               and (Lord, help us!) even our enemies—
               as ourselves.

© 2016
Alexis Spencer-Byers

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September 11

I share the following poem with a fair amount of trepidation, for I am acutely aware that it may offend and/or anger some who read it. I have chosen to post it today, rather than yesterday, in the hope that this deferment will help to communicate that my intent is not to minimize the horror and suffering of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

My heart breaks for those who lost their lives, for those who lost loved ones, for those who bear deep and enduring scars of various types, and for the hatred that incited the violent actions of that day—and it swells with gratitude for those who rushed, at great risk to their own lives and well-being, into harm’s way to do whatever they could to offer aid to others.

But for 15 years now, every time I’ve heard someone (usually someone white and/or affluent) say that 9/11 changed everything, I have silently wrestled with the sense that this is more true for some of us than it is for others. For some Americans, the world was basically a safe and happy place on September 10, and a sad and scary one on the 12th. For others, life before 9/11 was already characterized by far too much struggle, suffering, fear, discrimination, threat, and attack.

This year, as battles rage over national anthem protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other topics that highlight how different the experience of America is for different groups of Americans, I feel compelled to add this long-stifled reflection (an almost-certainly imperfect/insufficient response that I can only even attempt because I have been so graciously welcomed and educated by non-white, non-affluent communities and friends) to the conversation—and to plead with my fellow privileged Americans to try, in whatever limited way we are able, to imagine what it must be like to face the homegrown terrors that some of our neighbors (Americans of African, Latin American, and many Asian descents; American Muslims; members of the LGBTQ community; and others) confront every day.*

There are many things that I love dearly about this country of ours. But there are also things that have been and continue to be terribly, terribly wrong with how we do life together here. I pray that as we seek to be honest and, where necessary, repentant about those things, we will be better able to labor together toward the beautiful vision of liberty and justice for all.

————

9/11

The towers fell,
and choking clouds of dust and smoke
     darkened the sky,
     stinging wide eyes
     and parching opened throats
          from which rose the anguished lament:
In this cataclysmic moment,
     the foundations of the world have shifted
     and the fundamental nature of our existence
          is forever changed!

And my tears flowed,
mingling with bitter rivers cried
     by a multitude of fellow Americans,
because it was true…

…and because it wasn’t.

I wept with those who no longer felt secure
     in the nation they called their home,
and with those who had never for one moment
     labored under that illusion…

…with the parents who suddenly sensed
     that the world was a treacherous place
          into which to send beloved children
and with those who had long known
     without any shadow of doubt
          that this was the case…

…with those just now being exposed to the notion
     that they might be targeted
          not for who they had chosen individually to become
          but for a collective identity
               they’d been handed at their birth
and with those whose backs bore generations of scars
     attesting to this terrorizing truth…

And as I wept,
I wondered
if the privileged would ever know
     what a luxury it was
     to be utterly shocked
          when tragedy struck.

© 2016
Alexis Spencer-Byers

* Two notes: 1) This reflection represents only one strand of my response to an incredibly complicated set of events and realities related to 9/11—much more could be written about the ensuing backlash against American Muslims, the Iraq War, etc. 2) Nothing I say here is meant to imply that Americans who experienced various forms of terror prior to 9/11 were not deeply grieved by what happened on that day, or that their love for America is any less real or true than that of those who may have a “simpler” experience of our nation.

Aftermath

I spent much of last Thursday on an airplane, weeping and trying to write about the events of the first half of the week. Since then, I have been in a largely-offline, slightly surreal Indiana family reunion bubble, hearing bits and pieces of information about subsequent tragedies and trying to navigate the emotional juxtaposition of grief, fear and anger on the one side, and celebration of my grandmother’s 95 years of life, love and courage on the other.

While there’s a part of me that feels uncertain about sharing anything when I am so minimally informed about the later events of this incredibly painful week, there is a more substantial part that knows without a doubt that nothing that has happened since Thursday morning changes how I felt (and feel) in the wake of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Other lives, events and realities matter, of course, very greatly, but nothing about them detracts from the fact that black lives matter… so, so much… every day… to God, to me personally, to the fabric of our shared human experience… no matter what else is happening, related or unrelated, in the world around us…

And so, while these words are feeble and completely insufficient, I offer them to my beloved brothers and sisters who face injustice, oppression and danger with profound courage and resilience. I love you, I grieve with you, and I will continue to learn how better to stand with you in the ongoing human rights struggle.


Aftermath

The grief settles on my shoulders
like an insatiable bird of prey—
talons and beak gouging my flesh
until the blood streams down my face and arms—
angry red rivulets that mourn
but can never match
the lifeblood that pours from the gaping wounds
of another brother gunned down
during a routine traffic stop.

The fear takes up residence inside my chest
like an implacable boa—
mercilessly constricting my heart
as the images of endangered loved ones—
innocent, trusting brown children,
earnestly striving black men—
flash through my mind,
endearing smiles on their faces
arbitrary targets on their backs.

Guilt and despair shred my soul
like a ravenous lion—
dismembering the illusion of progress,
stripping away idealistic visions of justice and peace,
devouring the notion that I will ever be able to do anything
that will begin to atone for the atrocities
perpetuated under the protective cover of white privilege.

And yet…
somehow…
against all odds
and every expectation…
determination kneads my belly
like a relentlessly purring tabby—
on her eighth or ninth life,
to be sure,
but unwilling and unable to expire
while those against whom the attack is leveled
arise to face another day
and another
and still another
heart-breakingly aware that they may not reach
the Promised Land
yet completely committed to pressing toward it
just the same.

© 2016
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Thank You

It has once again been ages since I’ve posted anything (Is there a “most inconsistent blogger” award out there somewhere? Because I’m pretty sure I’d be a contender!), and the longer I’ve put it off, the more I’ve felt pressure for the next thing I shared to be something grand. But, alas, I don’t have anything grand to share.

So…instead, today, I’m going to post this intentionally small something: a brief Thanksgiving reflection that attempts to convey the difficulty of expressing how grateful I am–for any number of things, but primarily for the many astonishingly loving/supportive collections of humans I have been privileged to be a part of along the way.

Thank you to and for all of you*, and happy Thanksgiving!

 

Thank You

“Thank you” hardly seems an adequate vessel
to contain the outpouring of gratitude
that longs to present itself in a form
sufficiently splendid
to mirror the magnitude
of the blessings that brought it into being.

But perhaps, like that rough-hewn chalice of old,
a humble cup is best suited to hold
this finest of wines—
a rich, earthy blend
pressed from the fruit
of daily gifts:

a place to lay my head
a part to play in labor that matters
and a plethora of lavishly loving people
with whom to share the journey.

© 2015
Alexis Spencer-Byers

* A special thanks to Street Poets for creating the space for this reflection (and for being one of the collections of humans for whom I am profoundly grateful!), and to Indiana Jones’s writers for imprinting the image of a humble holy grail on my mind so many years ago…

Quiet Warrior

Ten years ago today, my friend Gloria’s battle with cancer concluded, and she entered into her rest.

It doesn’t seem like nearly that long ago that I spent the night wandering in and out of her bedroom, checking her breathing and pausing from time to time to read to her from the Book of Psalms or some of the many loving cards and letters stacked on her bedside table.

It seems like just a few blinks ago that I finally lay down, the hospice nurse’s assurance that we were several days from the end ringing in my ears, only to wake a couple of hours later to discover that Gloria had quietly taken her leave while I slept.

I can still see the house filling rapidly with members of Gloria’s “village” who came to bid farewell to the body that had housed a truly remarkable spirit.

After that, I confess, things are a bit foggy—though I do have vague recollections of a funeral home, a memorial service planning meeting in my living room, and of course the memorial and burial services themselves.

As I look back on that difficult/sad/infuriating/beautiful/rich season from this near-far distance of ten years, any number of images and stories swirl through my brain—but the memory that stands out and begs to be shared today is one from a few weeks before Gloria’s death.

I had picked up a cold somewhere, so I stayed home from work that day and slept through most of the morning. Around noon, there was a knock on my door, and I roused myself enough to mutter groggily, “Come in?”

Gloria’s son, Kortney, opened the door so his mom could enter the room in her wheelchair, a tray holding a bowl of chicken soup and some other lunch items sitting on her lap.

It was a small gesture, but a tremendously powerful one. I was overwhelmed and touched by the fact that someone whose situation was so much more serious than mine—who was experiencing true suffering and not just minor discomfort—would go out of her way to care for me and meet a need I had. It was a beautiful illustration of Jesus’ exhortation to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I have thought of this moment often over the last decade—particularly when I feel too tired or busy or burdened to do something kind for another person. It’s not that there aren’t times to say no or to choose rest (there certainly are!), but there are also times to “play through the pain” and serve sacrificially. I want to be the kind of person who shows up at a friend’s sickbed with a bowl of chicken soup, even if I am facing struggles of my own.

Thank you, dear Gloria, for the many ways you inspired me and helped me to grow during (and beyond) the years I had the privilege to spend in community with you in Jackson!

– – – –

Quiet Warrior

for Gloria

Quiet warrior
Steady presence in my home
Enduring pain
And disappointment
With strength and patience passing
My still feeble understanding

Devoted mother
Tending more than just her own
Among the children
In our flock
From a heart whose depths defy
Measurement by worldly standards

Trusting child
Holding tight the Divine Hand
And ever heeding
Her Father’s voice
As it summons her so gently,
“Come and make your home with me.”

© 2005
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Another’s Treasure: Kindle Version

AT_Kindle

Greetings, friends!

Just a quick note to let you know that I have dragged myself ever so slightly closer to the 21st century, and Another’s Treasure is now available as a Kindle e-book (check it out here). I would not recommend trying to read it on a phone (the line breaks in the poems become pretty chaotic), but it seems to work okay on various larger devices/screens (iPad mini pictured).

For those who have purchased and/or read and/or shared responses to the paperback version, thank you so much for your support of this project! For those who have been biding your time in the hope that this announcement would eventually be made, apologies for the long wait, and happy e-reading!!

AT_Kindle_text

Profiled

As I grieve, pray, wrestle with anger and fear, and ponder how to move forward with hope and grace in the wake of the most recent events in Ferguson (and elsewhere) it seems good to share this poem/story. I offer it both as an expression of solidarity with those who daily deal with other people’s inaccurate assumptions and as an acknowledgment of the privilege that was at work (not only in the moment I describe, but also in a lifetime’s worth of earlier moments during which I was not mistreated or unjustly targeted because of the color of my skin) to cause my brush with law enforcement to end vastly differently than do far too many involving black and other non-white Americans (whether those interactions result in use of deadly force or “just” persistent disrespect and antagonism).

I do not, by any means, intend to vilify all police officers or other law enforcement officials. I have met and heard of many who care deeply about those they have committed to serve and protect—including those of their constituents who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. I do intend to convey dismay over the ways that we (an intentionally general pronoun that likely includes all of us, to some degree or another) continue to stereotype, judge and devalue one another across various lines of difference; heartbreak over the violence (physical, verbal and otherwise) that sometimes flows out of those thought processes; terror on behalf of families raising black and brown boys in the U.S. today (though let’s be honest, this has been treacherous terrain for hundreds of years); and the fervent hope that those of us who hold power and/or benefit from privilege will lay down our defensiveness and denial, listen to other people’s stories, reexamine our own narratives, and look for ways to work for meaningful change in discriminatory systems.

In line with these hopes, I share these reflections on a brief chapter of my story:

Profiled

Dashboard lights strobe,
a siren wails,
and before I remember my right
     to a well-lit stopping place,
I am standing in the empty parking lot
     of an abandoned business,
targeted by narcotics officers
because I had the temerity to enter—
     and soon after depart—
an apartment complex notorious
     for its high rate
     of drug trafficking.

They claim they did not see
the friend I dropped off
     at her home,
although her front door
stood just a few short yards
from where they’d taken up their post—
     vision tunneled—
and waited for someone
     who looked like me
     to do what I did.

As one of them ransacks my car,
I stand beside it
     under the watchful eye
          of the other,
trembling—
not because I am in possession
     of any contraband,
but because I have realized
     with a sickening sinking of my stomach
that I have in fact done something wrong:
I’ve been out and about
     without my license to drive.

My anxiety increases their suspicion,
and yet their search of my vehicle
     and my pockets
yields nothing illicit.

When at last they come to the conclusion
that I could not possibly be savvy enough
     to conceal banned substances
          from them,
their contemptuous countenances change
to expressions of concern
for this young white woman
who finds herself alone
     and apparently ill-equipped to navigate
          the mean streets of their beat—
while I am reminded,
     neither for the first time
          nor the last,
how different even the similarities are
on opposite sides
     of the color line.

© 2014
Alexis Spencer-Byers