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

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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

Life Cycle of a Dream

Back in January, I was doing a lot of thinking about dreams—the visions for our lives that we may or may not have, and that we may or may not chase if we have them. The poem I shared then was a lament about the apparent inability of some young people of my acquaintance to imagine realities beyond the familiar.

Another strand of the topic I’ve been pondering in recent months is the idea that sometimes we have dreams, and we chase them, and they come true…and that’s not the end of the story. By way of background…my dear friend, Lee Harper, and I spent eight years pursuing the dream of opening a coffee house in our inner-city Jackson, Mississippi, neighborhood. That dream came true on June 6, 2008, when Koinonia Coffee House celebrated its Grand Opening—and in the months and years that followed, as Koinonia became the racially, socio-economically, politically and otherwise diverse community gathering place we had so fervently longed for it to be. (For more about Koinonia, visit the coffee house’s Facebook page or website.)

But a couple of things got in the way of a simple “happily ever after” conclusion to the coffee house saga. One was that by the time we finally opened our doors, my imagination had been caught by a new dream: the hope of making a writing life for myself (and for some reason I didn’t think working full-time-plus co-managing a coffee house would facilitate my literary aspirations). Another was that although we received tremendous support from our community, money didn’t exactly roll in, and there have been multiple occasions on which Lee and I (and since I moved back to California to chase my next dream, just Lee) seriously considered shutting the whole thing down. (Lest I send any of Koinonia’s customers into a panic, the coffee house has weathered each of those storms and remains alive and kicking as of this writing!)

It was after one of those “maybe it’s time to close the doors and move on” conversations that the thoughts shared below began swirling around in my head and demanding to be given a home on paper. For the record, my answer to the middle question is no, I absolutely do not believe something should be called a failure simply because it doesn’t (or may not) last forever. Seeing a long-cherished dream come true—for any length of time—is really quite a wonderful thing!

Life Cycle of a Dream

How does that first glimmer of an idea—
that inspired aspiration so lofty
and compelling
that its attainment seems as impossible
as its pursuit is inevitable—
become one more chapter
in a storied past?

Do you count it as a failure
if that which has been
so painstakingly envisioned
appears
and then vanishes again,
Brigadoon-like,
replacing hours, days and years
of working and waiting
praying, hoping and striving
with a rumpled patchwork of memories
joyful, painful and ordinary?

Or is this the nature of dreams:
to be so ephemeral
that they can be grasped only briefly—
spoiling like manna
if held onto for too long—
and so richly satisfying
that a mere nibble is sufficient
to nourish the soul
until the next captivating notion
comes along?

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Dream Job

Following the observance, last week, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the dreams we human beings have for ourselves and one another–and, as a corollary, of the dreams some of us don’t have.

The poem below describes an interaction I had several years ago with two young men in my neighborhood in west Jackson. As younger boys, these two had participated in Bible clubs and tutoring sessions (as well as the occasional cookie-baking party) at my home, but they had outgrown all that some time back. We  remained friendly,  but I had been uninvolved in their day-to-day lives for a while before this conversation.

As I’ve thought back on this incident (and considered sharing this poem), I’ve been plagued by a nagging question: Is it right and good–or elitist and snobby–to want all young people to have (and be able to articulate) dreams for themselves that go beyond the kinds of realities they see around them every day?

Most of us–whether we grow up in low-income inner-city neighborhoods or not–will never hold our “dream jobs.” Is it cruel, I find myself wondering, to urge a young person who has set his sights on something that may well be attainable to aspire toward something more unlikely (just because that far-fetched idea seems more “dreamlike” to me)? Would doing so just sour this young person toward the job and life in which he may eventually find himself? Or is even an unfulfilled dream valuable because it challenges us to learn and grow and attempt things we don’t yet know whether we can achieve? Is shooting for a star and landing on the moon really so terrible?

Perhaps most to the point, from time to time, seemingly impossible dreams do come true. Who am I to attempt to guess whose will, and whose will not?

Personally, I seem to have made it my life’s work to chase dreams–most often with dramatically mixed success–and though I occasionally fantasize about having a “normal” life, I don’t really think I’d want to have things any other way. Then again, I’m not trying to provide for anyone but myself, and I have a family willing and able to catch me when I fall. On the other hand (or perhaps we’re back on the first hand now), should a few extra obstacles prohibit the pursuit of a dream? So I continue to wrestle with this question of what is the best and most loving way to respond to a young person whose ability to dream appears to be stunted.

I welcome any thoughts folks may have on this topic! In the meantime…

Dream Job

The two teenage boys
tell me they’re almost ready
to start looking for jobs—
school having long since ceased to be
a way to spend their days.

Street basketball
and sitting on front porch steps
have apparently become tedious,
or perhaps it’s just that these pursuits
are somewhat less than satisfactory
to the hard-working grandmas
with whom these young men reside.

Eager to show my approbation
of their work-related aspirations,
I ask the boys a question
that seems simple enough to me:
“If you could have any job in the world,
what would it be?”

Both are stumped.

One never does come up with a response.

The other thinks long and hard
before venturing,
with a conspicuous lack
of enthusiasm,
“I guess I’d like to work at Walmart.
I enjoy putting things together, you know.”

Stunned, I mumble something
vaguely affirming
and stagger off toward my home—
two doors down and a universe away—
not wanting to malign
a respectable ambition,
and yet wishing desperately
that my young neighbors
could conceive a dream
outside the big box.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Thanksgiving

I realize that Thanksgiving was last week (at least, it was in the US of A), but I didn’t post anything then because I didn’t think I had a “Thanksgiving poem.” And in the more traditional senses of the holiday, I in fact do not have a Thanksgiving poem. After this sentence, there will be no references to turkeys, fall foliage or pumpkin pies in this post.

I have to go back a ways to explain the gratitude tied into the two poems shared below (one written in 2005 shortly before the event described in the second took place, and one scribbled just recently in hindsight). When I first moved to Jackson, I and several other interns were each assigned to a sort of host family–we didn’t live with our families (then, anyway), but they took us under their wings, spent time with us, answered questions, etc. I had the privilege of being assigned to a remarkable woman named Gloria Lotts and her son, Kortney.

For the last six months of her life, Gloria and I did share a home, and I was both inspired and shamed by her strength and generosity (consider, for instance, that I stayed home from work with a cold one day, and she–in a wheelchair and losing her battle with cancer–brought a bowl of chicken soup to my room at lunchtime). More than anything else, I remember Gloria’s apparently infinite capacity to love and nurture young people–not only her own son and generations of children at her church, but also the teens and preteens in our neighborhood who seemed bound and determined to walk down destructive paths. So while I am certainly thankful that the drug traffic ceased (reading the poems should make this statement make sense…), I am more grateful for the lessons Gloria taught me about patience, courage, compassion and hope. Rest in peace, dear friend!

Traffic

Another car pulls to a stop
In front of the house
Across from mine
Its horn sounds one short honk—
Decently and in order—
And driver and dealer
Conduct their transaction
With fluid motions
And infuriating calm

With each exchange
My heart retreats a step
Fear and anger vying for control
Of the territory ceded by hope
I wish I knew
Whom to blame
Or how to change
This reality on the street—
My street—
Before it claims another child
Too young grown old
Too soon ensnared
By the promise of escape
Only to be faced
With the threat of confinement
Of body, mind and soul

© 2005
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Clean-Up

(for Gloria)

For months, you sat on our front porch,
praying for the drug dealers
across the street
to find a more honorable way to exercise
their entrepreneurial inclinations.

Impressed not only by your persistence
but also by your tender-hearted bravery,
I observed as you greeted these young men
day after day
and told them of the fervent aspirations
you held for them.

When you died,
great gaping holes opened up
in a multitude of hearts, homes and institutions
and the world was changed for the worse—
except for this one thing:
In the wake of your departure
the illicit traffic on our block
ground to a halt,
and as I rested in the blessed quiet
that followed
I could only surmise
that you had seized an early opportunity
of whispering your loving petitions
directly into
the listening ear of God.

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Mississippi Mud

On the lighter side…this poem isn’t about life in the city, but rather about what can happen when you take a city girl and plunk her down “in nature” (and by nature, I mean the edge of the Mississippi River, about a mile and a half from downtown Memphis).

This piece appeared originally in the 2009 Poets Anonymous collection, Bending Toward the Light. If you’d like to hear a dramatic reading of the poem by my dear friend and fellow poet, Jennifer Merri Parker, click here.

Mississippi Mud

Up to my kneecaps
in Mississippi mud
it slowly sinks in
that I have chosen
the wrong dock—
not the one,
well-paved and hospitable,
from which we’d set out
one short hour before,
but another,
similar in appearance,
yet different in nature—
treacherous, slippery
and not at all where I want to be.

Amid squelches and squeals
I am able to salvage
one of my shoes
but not the other
and, chalking the loss up to “tuition,”
I mark this lesson as learned:
that, absent an invitation to tread atop the waters,
we mortals must be selective
about the times we elect to
step out of the boat.

© 2009
Alexis Spencer-Byers