Not at ALL What You Thought

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ten Acres and a Mule

My car filled with the smell of old cigarettes. The young man wasn’t smoking at the time (and I’ve never smoked), but you know what the memory of cigarettes in your clothes does to the general vicinity regardless. I was taking him home from class. The brakes had gone out on his car, and then somebody’d had his car towed from the place where he had left it.

“God’s tryina tell me something,” my student said. “Takin everything away so I can see straight, get my life straight.” I pointed out that God had been known to do that sometimes.

“But He hasn’t taken Himself away, remember,” I said.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Life’s good right now,” he added, “even though it’s hard to raise a child without a good job when you’re just young.” He was right. I pointed out that raising children was hard for anybody, but I congratulated him for wanting to make something better of himself. He wants to be an architect. He told me about a home he saw by accident while standing on a roof, working on another house.

“I could see the ‘no trespassing’ signs. My boy said, ‘I don’t care how pretty it is,’ but it was the most beautiful house I’d ever seen.” I pointed out that the ability to see beauty was a good thing, that We needed more young men who wanted to create things.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. His dream, he said, was to design beautiful homes and then hire his friends and family to build them.

“The plan's in place. I just have to get there. I just want my ten acres and a mule,” he said.
Ten acres?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “That’s all I want. Ten acres is a lot, you know. That’d be enough for me.”

Lord Jesus, my brother, bless our young brothers and sisters who aren't greedy, no, not even when they dream.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Terms of Endearment (an old essay!!!)

As I left forty to arrive at forty-one, I reached a few startling revelations. I found myself surrounded by men who slather me with endearments. This I found “startling” in view of another disquieting revelation: the man to whom I was once married for nearly eleven years never called me by an endearment (but, for a while, I was so in love, just the sound of his voice using my name was endearment enough). Later, in yet another revelation, I remembered that even before I was married, I lived in a more or less No-Endearment Zone, along with most of my family members. These revelations have had an extraordinary effect upon me.

Because I’ve been a Christ and Bible devotee for nearly thirty years, I believe in the authority of the word. According to Genesis, God the Father spoke everything into existence. The writer of Proverbs has said that the power of life and death is in the tongue. One St. James said that the tongue is a fire (kindled probably in Hell). St. Paul, arguing that Christians should be just like God (something apostles are always saying), pointed out that we have the power to speak things –good and bad-- into existence, too.

In my then-twisted mind, this meant that, maybe, my former husband never called me “honey,” “sweetheart,” or “dear” --simply because he did not find me endearing. So was it really his fault? The man seldom called me anything except “Regina” (the name by which my family members and many close friends have called me all my life). When the man who used to be my husband was feeling particularly passionate and feisty, he might playfully call me by my first, professional name, but no endearments. He was rarely inclined to compliment my cooking, the way I took care of our children, the way I made love, or my looks (these last of which, admittedly, were rapidly deteriorating at the time), regardless what other people thought or said about me. But, to tell the truth, unless we were in the bedroom, I never endeared him, either.

Except for one horrific drive home during which I realized –because he showed me deliberately—that, far from recognizing my need for validation, he was beginning to take great delight in wounding me, insulting me, and otherwise offending me. In response, during that drive, I remember, I called him “dear,” “honey,” and “darling”—albeit through my teeth. Maybe, on some level, I thought I could speak his dearness into existence. My belief in the power of the word, in turn, also made me think, way down the road, particularly after our
marriage disintegrated, that I had no endearing charms –that, for example, my hair, my singing, my degree, my clothing, my values, even, had little or no worth, simply because the man who used to be my husband had never behaved as though they were.

Further down the road, years after our marriage had disintegrated, when I was condemning the man for his dearth of endearment-use, I realized that my family had never used them, either. My parents called each other (at least, in my hearing) only by their names, “Agnes” and “Lassie.” (Daddy used to call my little sister “daddy’s baby,” and after we grew up, he’d call me “daddy’s big baby,” and he often called his second wife, while employing an ironic tone, “sweetheart,” but that was about it.) Don’t get me wrong, though: the absence of endearments did not, therefore, mean the absence of love (in the very least manifested, I always think, by the prodigious struggles Agnes and Lassie made to shelter, feed and clothe us).

Today’s preachers make a big deal about God’s naming habits. I especially like the story of Abram and Sarai. These people were a century old, apiece, when God started talking about them making a son together. But how, after all the lies (“Naw, man, she’s not my wife. She’s my sister. Take her”) and betrayal (“Yes, Abram, I know I told you to take Hagar, but I blame you for her new stank attitude, you dirty old coot”), would God get this couple back in bed together? He changed their names. And every time he called her “princess” --Sarah-- and she called him “father of many” --Abraham-- the ancient juices started flowing. Before they knew it, they had made laughter –Isaac-- together.

But times change. Feminism seems to frown on sexual interdependence. Women are not supposed to need men any more. Even among us Fundies, it’s all right to want, desire and get one, but women are told never to say, “I need a man.” But a startling thing happened to me on the way to forty-one: men started finding me dear. I think it was my pastor (the man I call my father in Christ, though he’s a couple of years younger than I) who called me “my dear” first. And although he complains loudly that ours is a church full of “dysfunctional” people, when total strangers embrace him at the prayer altar, he embraces them right back: for some reason, he finds everyone dear. (I think he’s trying to be like God.) And the endearment
continued: the older men asked me, “How you doin’, baby?” and complimented my clothes. The younger men, the men my age, called me “boo” and “diva” and complimented my singing. A colleague called me “angel.” A cyber-bud called me “darlin’.”

And then some sisters started calling me “shoog” and “dollbaby,” and “Aunt Regina.” They complimented my hair.

So what I found out about my brothers’ endearments is probably politically incorrect. But it’s true. While those endearments have turned my mind inside out, they have also opened my heart. Some men, for some reason, found me dear. I started to feel dear. And then I saw the cherishable all around me.

I started endearing people myself. Beginning with my cyber friends, who first became honeys, darlin’s, and sweeties, I then showered my daughters, first with nicknames (maybe the first in my family since my little sister started calling me “Gine”) Loolie and Boolie, and finally with “darlin’s” and “sweeties”. My pastor’s oldest son, who sings next me in the choir, who “babied” everybody (because he’s an old soul, like his daddy before him), I now “baby.” The landscaper, with whom I used to correspond and talk, I “sweetied,” as I do my girlfriends now. A man who was once becoming very special to me I found the courage to “honey.” My students are all “dear,” “beloved,” and, in mass e-mails, “my heroes.” (A chosen few are “dollbabies.”) My nephews are “pookies”. My brothers, especially when they get on my last nerve, are “sweetie-pies.” One of my best girlfriends is “bubbala.”

When I began speaking these endearments into existence, I had no idea of “paying it forward.” But I know what Jesus says: give to those who have nothing with which to repay you. Somebody, somewhere, found my brothers dear, and they gave the dearness away to me. And the more I give it away, the more I find preciousness all around me –and within me. So I thank you, Felton, Fletcher, Kevin, and Ron. I’m grateful to you, Raphael, Hollis, and Sam. God bless you, Arlee, Ernesto, Hector, and Leoghann. You did me a world of good.

c.2004 Gine

Brother Jesus, bless those who openly cherish those You have sent to surround them.

Elderberry Mice (A Story!!!)

Jeri didn’t object to mice on principle. When Mikkee, her twelve-year-old horticulturalist, came in and announced their presence in the garden, Jeri replied, “Well, you live in the country, you gotta expect mice. Long as they don’t come in the house, we’ll get along fine.” To ensure separation of mice and women, Jeri allowed Mikkee and Temple (the nine-year-old) to pick out two kittens from the neighbor cat’s most recent litter. The calico kittens, christened Merlin and Nimue, took to the girls and the house immediately, and Jeri stopped thinking about the mice.

Until they got into the elderberries. Now, it wasn’t that Jeri felt stingy about the berries. They fell out of the trees all the time during the season. Nobody could pick and eat, or pick and can, or pick and ferment all of them. More likely than not, somebody ended up tracking purple into the house. In fact, the first time she saw one of the field mice sitting in her garden, among the marigolds, azaleas and mums, watching her sit on the porch as it daintily munched upon an elderberry, Jeri said aloud, “More power to ya. Enjoy. Tell a friend.” She was kind of dismayed that, at the sound of her voice, the little creature immediately dropped the berry and disappeared, but, later in the week, she was pleased to see another (the same?) mouse, in almost the same place, enjoying another berry.

Their eating wasn’t the problem. Maybe problem wasn’t even the word Jeri used when thinking about it. The issue was the effect of the elderberries on the mice. At first Jeri thought the new color was a trick of the light, or even proof that she needed a new prescription for her glasses. But then one evening, as Mikkee, Temple and Jeri were sitting on the porch enjoying the breezes and the lush smells that came with them, Temple asked, “That mouse ain blue, is it?” Jeri stared, first at Temple and then at the mouse in question; Mikkee, without looking up from The Amazing Maurice, said, “Don’t be stupid.” But when she didn’t hear her momma respond in support, or at all, Mikkee had to look up, too --at Jeri, at Temple’s indication, and finally at the mouse.

“It is blue!” Mikkee conceded, “Or bluish,” ever loath to admit that her sister might be right. This mouse seemed to have changed its coat from velvet gray-brown to velvet gray-blue. And something else occurred to Jeri: during the entire conversation, in which neither Mikkie nor Temple had lowered their voices (because they never did), the mouse simply sat there, training its translucent, delicately-veined ears on them and wiggling its wet-paint nose. It didn’t flee.

“This is an interesting development,” said Jeri.
“We oughta catch it,” said Mikkee, putting down her book, as if she were going to leap upon the creature right then and there.
“Yeah!” said Temple, standing up. Of course, at this point, the blue mouse’s courage? curiosity? dissipated, and it darted into the marigolds.
“Awww!” said the girls, devastated.
“You need to leave it alone anyway,” said Jeri. “Leave all of them alone. How’d you like it if some huge person took you away from your family just because you were brown –so she could study you?”
“Awww,” said the girls.

The Elderberry Phenomenon changed the complexion of everything (not just the mice). Mikkee and Temple started leaving little piles of elderberries all over the garden, hoping to entice little blue creatures out into the open. Blue mice was the first thing Jeri thought of every time she went outside. The second thing she thought of, obviously, was the kittens.

And then the matter was settled. One evening, while the family sat in the living room, watching An American Tale, Merlin appeared with a gift which he laid at Jeri’s feet. It was a blue mouse.
“Awww!” said the girls, devastated.
“I knew this would happen,” said Jeri. “Oh, well. Such is life.” Mikkee, wiping her eyes, gingerly picked up the little creature and put it in one of the plastic containers in which the Szechuan Inn delivered take out. The three of them had a quiet little ceremony in the back yard that evening.

Shortly after the “amen,” Temple gasped. Staring at Merlin and Nimue, who were frolicking among the clover under the moonlight, she whispered, “Those kittens ain blue, are they?”

c.2007 Gine

Dear Jesus, brother, bless the single mothers who have made up their minds to answer the tough questions --as best they can.