Sunday, October 11, 2009

Letting go of the binding grip of secrets...

I just watched a History Channel program entitled “The Secret History of the Ku Klux Klan”. I’m sill recovering.

I was feeling so overwhelmed by the horrific tales of violence and politic power wielded by these people for over a century that I called a friend in California in hopes that she could calm me down. Her first advice? “Turn it off!!”

But I couldn’t. I have secret of my own that I only tell people occasionally, and when I trust they won’t judge me when they find out. The town and county in which I grew up is the hotbed of Klan territory in Indiana. I’ve been both repelled by the Klan stories I’ve heard throughout my life and morbidly curious about their history…I’ve wanted to know why they are the way they are.

Whenever I hear about the Klan, I immediately feel guilty by association. It’s been a source of shame for me since I first heard about the meetings in the woods outside of town when I was a very young child. So when I told my friend this, she recommended—strongly—that if I felt compelled to watch it, I find a way to cleanse myself of its impact on me.

So this is my attempt at cleansing my soul from this terrible legacy that’s been foisted on me against my will. The Klan kept our town all white for decades.

First, let me say that no one in my immediate family or close circle of friends had sympathies for the Klan or their ideals. When my parents were in college, they participated in sit-ins at a local diner who wouldn’t serve Blacks at the counter. And my friends shared my own horror disgust that our hometown had a reputation for bigotry and the violence and hatred that always accompanies such attitudes. It was part of our collective feelings of inferiority.

There was a story that haunted me when I was growing up. It was about a murder in the county seat that took place in the 60’s. A young Black woman was selling encyclopedias door to door and she mysteriously disappeared. Her body was eventually found just outside of town. I don’t remember how she was killed, whether she was beaten or shot, but the case has never been solved. I suspect it’s a shared secret that some folks have taken to the grave and others continue to grasp tightly.

In my own hometown there is a popular cafeteria-style restaurant. There weren’t very many people of color going through the line, but on the occasions when one dared to, the server who took the entree orders would step back and cross his arms over his hest. It was a showy gesture that made it clear to everyone around him that he was refusing to serve anyone who wasn’t white. The server died several years ago. But why it was tolerated by the owners and managers of the restaurant for so many years is unfathomable.

When I meet an African-American from anywhere in Indiana, I’m hesitant to name the specific name of the town and county where I grew up. Once I reveal it to them, with an apology for the sins of my community, they say, “Oh yeah, we were always warned not to go there alone—especially at night!” They are always good-natured about it, almost like they have experienced that same attitude in other parts of the state and country.

But it’s not anywhere else; it’s my hometown. It’s personal. It’s shameful. And it makes me furious that they think they speak for all of us. In case I haven’t been clear, let me assure you--they don’t speak for me.

I haven’t mentioned the specific name of my home county or town here in this entry. It’s part of my profile here on my blog ad on Facebook. You can look it up if you want. But I withhold the names for a number of reasons.

1. It’s to protect the people I grew up with who are no guiltier of prejudice than I am. They may not want it revealed, and I want to respect their privacy.

2. I recognize that ours is not a unique story. There are lots of towns and areas of the country where the Klan is active. More’s the pity.

3. While this is a undeniable legacy of my hometown, it is not what defines its character. There is much more to the community that raised me than the Klan—a loving and spirited people, generous churches and other organizations, and compassionate individuals to name a few.

There’s a saying in 12-step groups—“You’re as sick as the secrets you keep.” In revealing my secret publicly, I wanted to cleanse myself of the darker side of my hometown. While I wasn’t wholly successful, it’s a start.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Cat Named Juju

I recently acquired a kitten--or, more accurately, she acquired me. They found her in the parking lot at my apartment complex.

I was going to the front office area, the other day, to get my mail when I heard someone say, "ask Arlene!."

I was about to ask, "Ask Arlene What?" when the office manager asked enthusiastically, "you want a cat? It's real friendly!

I took one look at he little black and white imp in her arms and said, "sure!"

And that's how I became a cat owner again. Just look at her...is she not the cutest little thing you ever did see? She's a furry ball of perpetual motion. She's quite the entertainer. She's a joy.

I took her to the vet last week ad they confrmed she is a girl (We weren't sure because she was so little. The folks in the apartment office figured her age at six weeks, but the vet said that, based on her weight--3 pound--she is more likely three months old.

She loves sitting in my front room window sill. It's where I used to have my 'Jesus collection,' until she jumped up there ad started knocking things off the shelf. I couldn't get after her too much, since it's a cat's natural instinct to be curious about the word around her. I'm on the look out for an enclosed case for my collection, as I figure she's not going to leave any surface untouched.

This is her perch in my bedroom closet. She's a jumper an a climber.


But mostly, she's a soft, furry bundle of energy. She's Juju.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Evelyn and Laurie

This is a true story about my friend Laurie and her mother, Evelyn. I've used it in sermons on a variety of topics, such as grief and redemption. I had lunch with Laurie yesterday, and as we were talking about our lives, both the blessings and the burdens, I realized I have never told Laurie I'd written this story.

It's based on an email I received from her a few years ago. I present it here in memory of Evelyn, and in honor of Laurie.

Evelyn lay on her bed in the corner bedroom of the house where, as a widow, she had raised her four children on her own for the past nearly 30 years. As a hospice care nurse held and stroked her hand, she tried to allow her body to relax, like the nurse kept urging.

"Come on, Ev, you can do it," the nurse was saying. But the breaths kept coming out in rasping heaves. Her body was resisting death, just like she had for the past several months.

Always strong and independent, once by necessity, later, perhaps out of habit and a bit of pride, Evelyn had resisted every step of the way. First it was giving up her car, then enduring strangers in her house saying they were there to take care of her. And then there was that blasted walker. Why did her legs keep failing her? And her mind? She kept forgetting things. Now, she could feel her body shutting down moment by moment.

She knew it was near the end, and so did her family. Two of her children were in the other room, waiting. But they had been waiting for months, as they all thought she had reached the end of this life before. They'd said their good-byes more than once. They had made their peace.

“Why do I linger?” she thought.

"Come on, Ev, you can do it," she heard the voice say above her. Was it the nurse, or God? Either way, she wished she could tell the voice, "My name is Evelyn."

She became vaguely aware that there were more people in the room, now--her youngest daughter and son. The nurse must have called them in. It must be the end, again….

Laurie watched her mother's chest move up and down and heard the loud wheezing sound coming from her mother's throat. “Is this the end, again? How many times will we have to say good-bye?” she wondered.

The labored breath sounded ragged, as if torn from her body. She thought, could that really be coming from her mom? The nurse had told them the body does this at the end. It fights to continue, even when it's too weak to breathe. In fact, the body can be so weak, it can't relax.

Soon, the breathing changed to a quieter, more peaceful sound. It was a sign that her mom was able to relax, the nurse said. Then the sound stopped altogether. The silence was huge and overpowering in that small room, where, as a child, Laurie had run to her mother's side for comfort.

"Is she gone?" Laurie asked the nurse.

"Yes, she's gone," the nurse said.

The silence was replaced by sobs coming from her own throat and from her brother beside her. Suddenly, a loud gasp, a desperate intake of air came from the direction of the bed and it startled the two of them. She almost laughed when the nurse explained, "Sometimes they do that. They take one last gasp of breath."

Clearing her throat and wiping away the tears, Laurie hugged her brother and headed for the telephone. There were a lot of people to call, arrangements to be made….

Friday, August 21, 2009

Where 've been all year...

This has been a strange year. It was unlike any other of my life. I began 2009 in the hospital. In fact, I ended 2008 in the hospital.

I don’t remember Christmas or New Year’s—I was recovering from heart surgery. I missed the inauguration, although I was in Washington, DC—the doctors did a tracheotomy on me and put in a feeding tube that day.

Just before Christmas, I came down with an infection that felt like the flu. I even casually mentioned it on Facebook: “Arlene has the flu—boo hoo.” I thought I would come across like I was feeling sorry for myself. I mean, it’s not the worst thing that can happen to a person. It was barely worth mentioning.

I never imagined it would lead to a stroke or destroy a valve in my heart. I would stay the hospital for 3 months drifting in and out of consciousness and coherency. There was a time when I couldn’t speak, couldn’t write, couldn’t put a sentence together to… well, save my life. I had to learn how to walk again, feed myself, bathe myself.

I went from utter despair to hopefulness to determination, back down to despair again. But mostly, I had a flat affect. I couldn’t—didn’t want to—pray or read or write in my journal. The first time I heard music—on a friend’s iPod—I cried. I had really missed it.

By the time I left the rehab hospital in DC the day after St. Patrick’s Day, I was walking with the assistance of a walker, but I still had to use the wheelchair for long distances. My legs were swollen ad had begun to leak fluids. But I was ready to get out of there and get on with my life.

I moved to Indiana to stay with family. However, within the week I was back in a rehab facility. I spent Palm Sunday and Easter there. It didn’t have a strong rehab program, so when I left the place, my legs were just as swollen, if not more so, than when I went in.

So, I wasn’t surprised that, within two weeks I was back in the hospital—this time in Indiana. I went from the hospital to acute care to another rehab facility. That took me from the end of April through the day before Father’s Day. I l was about 60 pounds lighter, my body no longer swollen and leaking. I’d graduated to a cane for long distances.

So, by my calculations, I have spent all the holidays from Christmas Eve through Memorial Day in a hospital bed. And that doesn’t count Flag Day ad D-Day.
  • I’ve skipped some details about my odyssey into the world of healthcare, insurance and public benefits. I’ll leave those for the book I’m writing. But let me close with some positive things that came out of my experiences:
  • I learned I have a big family—some related by biology, most related through friendship. They rallied around me, both physically and spiritually. I felt their prayers from across the country, not to mention Iraq, Canada and the Czech Republic. I could not have made the recovery I have without their care, love and support.
  • I have a renewed appreciation for life. I learned that I am not content merely to survive. I crave the fullness of life—in all its chaos and order, joy and sorrow, clarity and confusion, abundance and loss.
  • I have a new energy, if not an exact direction, for my ministry. I want to continue to touch people in a deep ad spiritual place through my writing, preaching and outreach. But at the same time, I am remaining open to the Spirit—listening for where she is calling me to be and what she’s calling me to do for God’s people and planet.

I am now living in Eureka, Illinois, where I went to college in the 80s and spent 7 years as the local newspaper editor in the 90s. I have returned to a very special community that twice before cocooned me in love and care. Armed with the confidence and courage that exudes from their support, I’m ready to begin my life again.

Blessings,
Arlene