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!!

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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

Books!

AT & UV

Well, it’s official—Another’s Treasure exists! Here she is, getting acquainted with her “big sister,” Urban Verses.

I remain overwhelmed with gratitude for/to all the people who helped nurture this project—and me—along the way! I could never have gotten this far without your support, encouragement, talents, and prayers.

Now, of course, comes the part of the process where I invite anyone who thinks they might enjoy reading this collection of poems about my adventures in cross-cultural urban living in Jackson, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to nurture the project further by acquiring a copy. Books can be purchased on Amazon.com or from me directly (use special pricing code UVB1410 for a little Early Bird discount if you order from the Urban Verses website).

Meanwhile, here is what I know so far about upcoming book-related events:

Jackson
Koinonia Coffee House (136 S. Adams Street, Jackson, MS 39203)
Friday, November 7
5:00-7:00 pm

Los Angeles
With Love Community Market & Cafe (1969 S. Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90007)
Saturday, December 13
5:00-7:00 pm

San Francisco
location & date TBD—cast your vote for 11/30 or 12/21…

If you are in or near any of these areas, I do hope you will come out to visit, enjoy some poetry and snacks, and support a couple of the small businesses nearest and dearest to my heart.

Thanks again for accompanying me on this writing & life journey!

Another’s Treasure

This latest blog silence has been a long one indeed, and I apologize for that. I don’t know if the excuse/explanation will seem like a good one, but here it is:

For the past few months (okay, let’s be honest—the past couple of years), I’ve been working on putting together Poetry Collection #2, now officially known as Another’s Treasure.

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cover design by Talamieka Brice, Brice Media

As I’m sure most of you can imagine (or know from your own experience), this has been a time-consuming, emotionally intense, and all-around terrifying process. Much of the time, the prospect of actually completing the book and sending it out into the world seemed like a taunting mirage that was always on the horizon, but never actually got any closer.

Now, though, I am told that I will have books in my hands in just a couple of weeks! (Which means, of course, that anyone who is so inclined can have books in his/her hands not long after that…)

If you live in or near Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Jackson (Mississippi), stay tuned for information about book-related gatherings in your area. It will be my pleasure to share with you in person some of the poems in this collection, a few of which may be familiar from this blog.

For those of you in other parts of the country/world, I will of course be honored if you choose to acquire a copy of the book (ordering information will be forthcoming), peek into my life and mind through its pages, and share any responses you might have to these reflections. Writing about bits of life is always a great help to me in understanding and appreciating my experiences; engaging in discussion with others makes the whole process so much richer and deeper. I look forward to the conversation, and as always I am deeply grateful for the gift you give to me by reading!

The Quarry

A few weeks ago, when it occurred to me that 2013 was winding down, and I had not made what one might call substantial progress toward my resolution of figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up (having entertained and/or attempted and subsequently abandoned some half-dozen career/life dreams over the past 18 years), I staved off panic the way I generally do–by starting a poem and hoping that the writing process would yield some degree of insight or comfort.

What happened, as I scribbled, was that I was reminded of something I have realized on multiple occasions before (but apparently have trouble remembering on a gut level): that in so much of life, the journey matters more than the destination.

Yes, I still need to sort out what my next vocational season is going to look like. It would be wonderful if, in that season, my work life could become both more financially stable and more tied into my passions for creative writing and youth ministry (because why wouldn’t those two goals go hand-in-hand?!). It would be kind of fun to be able to answer the question, “So, what do you do?” with a word or phrase rather than with a squid-like paragraph comprised of a compound thesis statement and multiple (mostly run-on) supporting sentences. I wouldn’t mind feeling that I had arrived somewhere–that all of the wandering and improvising had actually had some overarching direction and purpose to them.

In the meantime, though, the hodge-podge of freelance editing projects, youth ministry/education-related volunteer commitments, church/neighborhood activities, poetry writing (both solitary and communal), and relationships with family and friends provides me with a rich, joy-filled, inspiring and very interesting–if not particularly streamlined–life to live as I am growing up.

Below is the poem born from this process of emotional decompression–but before I yield the floor, let me wish everyone a happy new year and express my hope that we will all find joy, growth, grace and whatever comfort and encouragement we need on the next leg of the journey!

The Quarry

I stagger into the quarry
limping under the oppressive weight
     of a beautiful
     but ill-fitting
          burden.

As I tenderly relinquish
the latest in a series of boulders—
each lovelier than the last
and all smeared
     with the blood, sweat and tears
     extracted by the double-edged pick
          of imperfect discernment
          and hard labor—
joy at the release
mingles with the gnawing emptiness
that now rests
upon my ravaged shoulders.

As the anxiety mounts,
I frantically survey the field
searching for another massive stone
I might be fit to carry,
not yet noticing the exquisite mosaic
taking shape upon my back:

     multi-colored remnants of rock
          some smoothed by time,
          others still bearing
               jagged edges
     all mementoes
          of seasons past—
     reminders of small successes
          instructive failures
          unexpected adventures
               and opportunities
          momentous occasions
               both glad and grievous
          and the richness of life shared with others
               still learning to embrace
                    a yoke that is easy
                    and a burden that is light.

© 2013
Alexis Spencer-Byers

On Aging (and Partial Recall)

On the occasion of my 41st birthday, it seemed appropriate to share these two poems written in the wake of last year’s more traumatic numerical adjustment.

“On Aging” is a bit angsty, but regular readers of this blog will rightly suppose that as I’ve enjoyed this recent season of emotional rejuvenation and reconnection, I’ve become less worried about all of this than I was several months ago.

“Partial Recall” is a lighter-hearted tip of the cap to the (often detrimental) effects of time and life on memory, inspired by a visit to The Huntington Gardens a while back.

I’m tremendously grateful to have had 41 years thus far, filled with family, friends, a wide variety of opportunities to engage in meaningful work and creative endeavors, plenty of adventures, and lots and lots of learning experiences!

On Aging

When did I decide
that the only way to prove
     I’d learned
     from past mistakes
was not to make any new ones?

What impelled me to start checking
     and rechecking
doubting
     revising
     and tempering
every word
     each decision
     any hint of emotion?

While it’s true I do not miss all
     of youth’s impetuosity
     and drama,
and some of this newfound caution
     may well be wisdom—
     or akin to it, at least—
I pray maturity does not come
     at the expense of courage—
that fear does not make me a fossil
     before my time
nor the specter of imperfection
     leave me no more than a shell
     of the flesh-and-blood woman
     I once felt certain
          I could become.

© 2013
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Partial Recall

The groundskeeper who rakes
     fallen petals and leaves
from the gravel walkway
     in the Shakespeare Garden
calls to mind Hamlet’s gregarious grave-digger,
but capricious memory—
     weighed down and distracted
     by myriad tasks waiting impatiently
          to be done
     not to mention countless slights
          and bits of silliness
          much better forgotten—
cannot conjure more than a faded image
     of a skull,
a few fragments of that most famous
     existential soliloquy
and the non-specific sense
     that Shakespeare’s humor
     was always a bit earthier
     than one expected it
          to be.

© 2013
Alexis Spencer-Byers