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…

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

Blooms

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending a morning at The Huntington Gardens in San Marino, California. As I strolled through the Desert Garden, admiring various aloes and cacti, I was reminded of the profoundly hopeful truth that beautiful and healing things can and do grow in those places that on the surface appear to be least capable of nurturing life.

This Advent season, I have needed to hold fast to that truth.

As I think of the young men I encounter at Camp Miller and the pressures they will face when they return to their ’hoods…

As I think of the children in my neighborhood who struggle to read at grade level and the negative outcomes that frequently attend low reading proficiency…

As I think of so many families who lost loved ones far too soon over the course of this year…

I wish for all of us a hope as resolute and lovely as the flowers that adorn sidewalks, deserts, and other hard places of our world.

Blooms

The most exquisite flowers
spring up
in the least likely spots—
lending splashes of color,
     beauty
     and grace
to landscapes otherwise barren,
     desolate
     and drab.

Their slim,
seemingly flimsy stems
mask the strength it must take
to push through hard earth,
     concrete
     or weeds
on valiant quests
     toward sunlight
     and rain.

As I breathe in their scent—
     a heady mixture
     of sweetness and tenacity,
     resilience and hope—
the petals of my own stunted spirit
begin to unfurl,
and I turn up my face
     as I stretch toward the sky.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Play Ball!

What is it about this sport
that fascinates me so,
when the best a player can do
is end up back where he began?

Why do I accept as a worthy goal
the ability to run in circles—
or have I been fooled
because the powers that be
have given those rounds sharp corners
rotated them 45 degrees
and dubbed them diamonds?

How is it that I have become mesmerized,
spending hours each day
for 162 days
glued to a screen
just so I can watch
the most accomplished of these athletes
come up empty
seven times out of ten?

Am I addicted to the rewards
(and to the frustrations
that drive up their value),
bringing my pan to the river’s edge
and sifting through all the walks,
foul tips and errors,
the pop-ups and routine ground balls
for the sake of turning up
one glittering, precious nugget:
that scorched line drive
towering homerun
swan-diving catch
or picture-perfect double play
that makes all the time invested
worth my while?

Or is it that I wish we could approach
more of life
with the perspective we bring
into the ballpark—
celebrating with wild abandon
the successes of those we care about,
accepting periodic failure
as just one element in a complex equation,
and knowing there will always be
another inning
another game
or, worst case, another spring
wherein we once again will have
the opportunity
to knock one out of the park
or sacrifice ourselves
so that a teammate may advance?

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers