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.

AT_cover_front

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

Making Mud

As promised, here is a second poem about the transformative effect of interacting with incarcerated teens via the Catholic Services ministry at Camp Miller (as well as with some other inspiring youth I have recently encountered through a wonderful organization called Street Poets). I continue to be profoundly grateful for how these young people–with their struggles, rough edges, refreshing (if sometimes frightening) honesty, kindness, courage, and creative talent–are softening the soil of my heart. Even as I recognize the potential for great pain that is inherent in my growing attachment to these “at-risk” youth, I am deeply appreciative of the privilege of sharing a season of life with them.

Making Mud

With joined hands
     and soothing voices
they form a seamless healing circle
     all around me

names
     faces
          stories
     memories
dreams . . .

Tears of joy and sorrow
     anger and fear
          regret and relief
               tenderness and compassion

fall onto packed ground

not yielding life
     right away

but seeping in
     softening the soil
          making mud

creating a space that is
     messy
          malleable
     vulnerable
enriched

at-risk for being marred
     by the gouging imprint
          of a careless boot
          or wayward tire

yet simultaneously able
     to nurture and sustain
fragile seeds
     of hope and faith.

© 2013
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Breaking Out of the Box

With apologies for the long delay in posting new poetry…

Since sharing my first three Camp Miller poems (“Free”, “Gang Intervention”, and “The Fence”) a few months ago, I have continued to reflect on the opportunity I’ve had to spend time with incarcerated teens through the Catholic Services Juvenile Ministry of the Los Angeles Archdiocese Office of Restorative Justice. As much as anything, I have been overwhelmed by the way that being in fellowship with these young people has brought healing and refreshing to my own spirit after an extended season of transition and a certain degree of emotional closed-off-ness.* (While I still hope that my encouragement will in some small way help my young friends press on toward constructive and joy-filled futures, I am more and more convinced that I receive more than I give through our exchanges.)

I have found it difficult to put into words the transformation that is underway in my heart–or the depth of my gratitude for this emotional renewal and growth–but today’s poem and another that I will share very soon are early attempts to cobble together a fitting expression of thanks to my young brothers who are, to again borrow words from Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries, “returning me to myself.”

*see my earlier post/poem “Numb” for context…

Breaking Out of the Box

I had sentenced myself
     to a lifetime
     of model citizenship,
relentlessly striving
     to subdue
     and repress
unruly emotions:

     fear
     anger
     jealousy

even love—
or at least the need-based
     counterfeits
that so often pass
     for love—

but now my corseted life
brushes up against
the chaos and pain
     of crime and punishment

and instead of watching
     with maternal pride
as my hard-won veneer
     of self-control
smoothes and shines
those who have been caught
     coloring outside the lines

I can only catch my breath
as scarred hands clasp mine
     in prayer
     and newfound friendship

offering back to me my heart

reminding me that perfection
     and excellence
are as often enemies
     as allies

and inspiring me to plead
     for early release
     from this solitary holding cell
          of my own construction.

© 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

Camp Miller, Part 3: The Fence

One recent Saturday morning at Camp Miller, I sat and watched as half a dozen teenage inmates helped lead a worship service. I listened as they spoke of their gratitude for family members, life, and the opportunity to fellowship with the volunteers who had come to visit them that morning. I listened even more intently as a few of them expressed their hopes of finishing school and becoming doctors, chefs, or volunteers themselves. Later, I tried to capture a bit of the awe, joy, hope, sorrow, and fear that had washed over me during that sacred hour.

The Fence

Bearers of the divine image
in their scars and sorrows
     as much as in their irrepressible dreams
          of doing good
          as well as doing well,
they wear the green and gray garb
     of incarceration
with a restless resignation—
counting the days that stand between them
     and freedom,
the minutes that still must transpire
     before they will breach the barbed-wire boundary
     that keeps them from home.

This fence, I’ve been trained to understand,
is a just necessity,
put in place to protect the bodies and belongings
     of the law-abiding
from the reckless young men
     now caught within its confines.

But what will protect the minds and spirits
     of these wounded warriors
from those on the outs
who cannot or will not perceive
     among defiant tattoos
     and other marks
          of a rough-and-tumble existence
the indelible stamp
     of a Creator
     who makes no mistakes?

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Camp Miller, Part 2: Gang Intervention

Early in my poetry-writing days, I spent a lot of time writing about the apostle Peter. I identify strongly with this impetuous, stubborn follower of Christ who had a special talent for putting his foot in his mouth, biting off more than he could chew, forgetting things he had learned, and otherwise stumbling his way through a life of faith and service.

Recently, I was inspired to consider one of Peter’s interactions with Jesus from Jesus’ perspective (or as close to Jesus’ perspective as I could get, anyway). During a Saturday morning mass at Camp Miller, one of our leaders guided us through a meditation focused on Peter’s water-walking misadventure (see Matthew 14:22-36).

I thought about how the young men at the camp could be described as at-risk for sinking in stormy waters, and about how desperately I wanted to help them keep their heads above the surface, and about how inadequate I felt to do that. An hour or so later, after some fellowship time that I thought might or might not have been “useful” to the guys, one of them stopped me on his way out to give me a hug and find out when I next planned to visit.

While I still feel a lot more like Peter than like Jesus, it was good to be reminded that the simple presence of someone who cares matters to someone who is struggling—and that while I do in fact lack the capacity to pull these young people from the waters that seek to swallow them, I can at least hold their hands for a moment and assure them that there is One whose grip is much stronger than mine.

Gang Intervention

I visualize the grip
     of the carpenter’s son:
strong, sure, yet infinitely gentle
as he grabbed hold of Peter’s
     flailing limb
and hoisted his drowning friend
     to safety.

How I long to possess a hand like his!

But my arm trembles and strains
as I strive to maintain my hold
on youthful fingers
that I fear are not completely committed
     to the clasp.

And why should they be,
     I interrogate myself,
when the rushing winds that terrify me so
     that whip the waves around us
     into such a treacherous frenzy
carry on their breath a siren’s song—
a seductive strain
whose lyrics of love and loyalty,
     set to the harmonies of home,
beckon with a power
     and familiarity
I cannot begin to match?

Then, just as it seems I will lose my grasp entirely,
     consigning us both to a watery end,
earnest eyes meet mine
and a grip of steel tightens around my wrist
as a soft, incongruous voice
entreats me to hold on
     for just a little while longer.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers