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    Our neighborhood pool always hosted a day of contests and games on the Fourth of July. When I was about 9 or 10, one of the contests involved tossing poker chips into the pool and inviting the dads to swim around and get as many as they could. Each poker chip could be cashed in for a can or case of Coca-Cola, depending on the color. I love Coca-Colas. Always have. The prospect of free cokes (in cans!) for the rest of the summer was just about the most glorious thing I could imagine, so I convinced Dad to enter.
      The poker chips were tossed into the diving well, a whistle was blown, and a scrum of dozens of 30 to 50-year-old men jumped in and started grabbing all the chips they could. The pool water literally frothed. There were hundreds of poker chips on the bottom of the Seven Hills Pool, but the whole spectacle was over in less than sixty seconds. All the dads went into the clubhouse clutching their winnings, some of them coming back out with hand trucks to haul all the cases of Coke they had won.
     I couldn’t wait to see how many Cokes MY dad had gotten. I spent some long moments envisioning the massive store of name-brand fizzy goodness that would soon be the Tocknells’, and then Dad emerged, looking disheveled and perturbed, carrying four cans of Coke by the two empty rings of the six pack. “We can each have one,” he said, holding them out to me. Implicit in his proclamation: “Let us never speak of this again.”
     We really enjoy telling this story in my family, mostly to pick on Dad, and he always responds with extreme indignation that a simple Fourth of July neighborhood game turned into Underwater Gladiator. “I had NO IDEA it would be like that. I was completely unprepared!”
     The Great Coke Debacle of ’88 encapsulates something I love about my father: The idea of fighting over anything solely because it’s there and someone else will get it if you don’t makes zero sense to him. You fight for a principle, yeah, but greed? Greed is useless. Here’s a cold Coke on a beautiful day and that’s enough. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.🙂

Where are you?

birnam

 

Here at my place of employ, the faculty is putting out a daily Advent devotional via email. Today was my assigned day.  This is what I wrote: 

Gen. 3:8-15
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock
   and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
   and you will eat dust
   all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
   between you and the woman,
   and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
   and you will strike his heel.”

Anyone who spends as much time reading literary works from across the centuries as English teachers do will notice, not only the pervasive nature of snake imagery, but also how none of it is crafted to leave the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Sure, there are some individuals out there (including me) who think snakes are cool, but our collective reaction as a species is primal. We don’t like snakes. We bruise their heads, and they bruise our heels.

Reading these verses, I thought especially of a line from Macbeth, “We have scorched the snake, not killed it” (3.2.15). By that point in the play, Macbeth is already King of Scotland, having dispatched the previous King after having him over for supper. However, Macbeth doesn’t feel safe in this ill-gotten kingship, and he gives Lady Macbeth the line about the serpent right after he’s sent a team of hitmen to kill his best friend and that friend’s young son.

In the context of Genesis, I consider all the animal metaphors Shakespeare didn’t use. His Scottish tyrant doesn’t say, “We have shot the bear, not killed it,” or “Stabbed the dragon, not slain it.” Shakespeare chose to personify Macbeth’s fear as a small, wounded thing that slithers over the ground. Macbeth acts for the sake of his own protection, not from an actual threat, but from his perception that something terrible waits for him in the dust.

In these darkest days of the year, we are reminded that we often do the same. But the promise of  Advent is that God will not leave us with our real or imagined serpents. In Genesis, the Lord also speaks one of my favorite lines in the Bible: Where are you?  I imagine God asking this question while looking directly at Adam and Eve’s feet sticking out from a honeysuckle bush. God knows where they are, physically. What he wants to know is what they’re hiding from. Where are you?

We never know when God will show up amidst our fear and brokenness and ask us where we are, but Advent reminds us that we can visit those dark places without the fear of being left there.

Where are you? God asks.

And we answer.

My first thought upon hearing that Atticus Finch was a segregationist was to wonder if the recent trend of naming boys “Atticus” would screech to a halt. As NPR moved on to a new topic and I made coffee in my kitchen, I pictured some frantic yuppie couple in Brooklyn or Nashville Googling “boys’ names” while their hospital overnight bag sat packed and ready in the corner. I’m not going to lie – I smirked at the image. Silly trendy yuppies.

But as my mother used to say, pointing one finger at someone else aims three back at yourself. If you, like me, are white, American, and named for an ancestor, the overwhelming odds are that you also tote a complicated cultural load.

Before I discuss the nonfiction truth of what it means to confront a legacy, let’s look at the fictional one. In Harper Lee’s universe of Maycomb, Alabama, Atticus Finch defends a black man in court in 1935 and rails against Brown v. Board of Education in 1955. I’m going to be blunt here: If this surprises you, there are some serious knowledge gaps you need to address regarding the South, the white moderate, and the sea change Brown ushered in. The Civil Rights history book, Carry Me Home, would be a good place to start. It’s long and multi-faceted. To Kill a Mockingbird is neither of those things; the novel so many Americans love was created for an entirely different purpose.

Mockingbird is a 20th century morality play. The racist townspeople whom Scout, Jem, and Dill encounter consist of a bitter old woman, a lynch mob, and Bob Ewell – a shiftless drunk who throws the n-word around with abandon, beats and rapes his daughter, and meets his demise because he sneak-attacks the Finch children. On the other side, we have Atticus Finch – America’s dream dad. Atticus dispenses wise advice about courage, empathy, and the fairness of the courts, all in a way his cherished children can understand. However, we readers learn very little about Tom Robinson, the man Atticus defends. All we really know is that Atticus and other white Maycombers consider Tom to be the “right” kind of black person. It’s clear throughout the book that Atticus has taken the case because he believes in upholding the fairness of the law. The law in 1930s Alabama was dominated by Jim Crow.

And so, in Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise “Scout” Finch comes home from New York City and the man who once called Tom Robinson “a quiet, humble Negro” is now telling her, “The Negros down here are still in their childhood as people.” Paternalism reigns in each Atticus, but Jean Louise is upset and disillusioned, and, from what I can tell, so are some journalists who have read the book already and at least one who hasn’t.

Y’all, of course Atticus is racist. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker some years ago, Atticus demonstrates his own prejudices throughout the novel. His words regarding the “trashy” Ewells and his chummy relationship with the Sheriff indicate that Atticus moved in the rarified air of the privileged white moderate. Also, while Atticus says a number of compassionate, moral things in Mockingbird, he never talks about overthrowing the system he’s working under – he mainly wants to make sure it works equally well for all parties.

We have to move past our Mockingbird understanding of racism. Racists are not only the Bob Ewells of the world, stumbling around full of malice and corn likker. Good people are racist, and I don’t mean that in an apologist sort of way. Matters of race are hard to discuss and even harder to understand, so we white people create this headspace where racists are thoroughly, demonstrably evil, and we are not. The truth is, if all racists were the KKKs and Bob Ewells, we would have figured out how to get rid of it all a generation ago – very few of us tolerate that degree of evil. The truth is, everyone is racist – or at least makes snap judgments based on race, which is my definition. Racism is as multi-faceted as we are. Like a number of white men of his class and standing, Atticus believed that most people were fundamentally good. He would never be so base as to attack a black man or use the n-word,  but he still believed that blacks and whites were intrinsically different and should lead separate lives. Atticus was wrong. He was not “a victim of his time.” He looked at the facts and drew the wrong conclusions. From the reviews I’ve seen of Watchman, Jean Louise recognizes as much.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I carry the name of an Atticus of my own. My middle name, Euline, was my grandmother’s. Grandma was born in Alabama in the early 1920s. She died when I was twelve, but I learned much from her in that first decade of my life. I took my first steps in her yard in Birmingham. She taught me about art and storytelling. I have a clear memory of the day she told me what a lie was and explained why I must never tell them. It was years after Grandma passed away when I learned she’d had nothing good to say about Martin Luther King or the end of Jim Crow. Considering that she grew up white and poor in the South, I might have surmised as much, but it’s still difficult to learn. And the thing is, if you’re a white Southerner and you’re paying attention, your memory is filled with Atticus Finches – neighbors, grandparents, and teachers who shaped your moral landscape, yet were themselves opposed to desegregation, often vocally so.

I want to defend my grandmother and the other role models of my childhood. I can’t say they were bad, nor can I say they were good. The long-gone folks whose space I now occupy, whose mantle I have taken up, were like me, I suppose, good in many ways and bad in many others. I don’t intend to vilify, lionize, or make excuses. The only thing I can do is what I hope my descendants and students will one day do for me – recognize that real people are complex, recognize their own fallibility in mine, learn, and press on to a more enlightened state.

Rather than despair at the racism of Atticus Finch or our grandparents, it should make us respect the Martin Luther Kings and Fannie Lou Hamers all the more. They were visionaries, and being a visionary takes far more than being simply good.

For the record, I would pass the name “Euline” along to a daughter, if I had one. The name evokes my family’s past as tenant farmers, my grandmother as a real-life Rosie the Riveter, and my mother’s lessons and good humor (Euline being her middle name as well). I would tell that daughter the truth about the past, just as my mother did for me, and I would hope that she would face those truths squarely and work in her present to improve upon the future.

I had a great time reading from Confederate Streets and discussing the finer points of writing literary nonfiction at the Chattanooga Downtown Library last night. Thanks very much to those of you who came out, even with Riverbend going on! By the way, I have another blog of essays about Chattanooga at a not so secret location, if you’re interested.

As of today, Confederate Streets has been out in the world for four years! 2015 has been a good year for it so far. I have a piece about Sam Dodson and the Nashville Clergy Movement in the current issue of Sojourners Magazine. I read from “Our Most Segregated Hour” and some new pieces at Lee University in January, and tomorrow I’ll be reading and leading a workshop at the Meacham Writers’ Workshop at UTC. Thanks to you all for your support!

10) Iceland is not actually made of ice. It probably got its name due to the Vatnajokull – Europe’s largest glacier, which is in the southeastern corner of the country. The rest of Iceland has mountains, volcanoes, more glaciers, rivers, meadows, cliffs, black sand beaches, and this crazy moonscape-type area which isn’t found anywhere else in the known universe (well, except for on the actual moon). On the whole, Iceland is much greener than Greenland.

 9) Iceland is all about confluences. It’s situated where the North Atlantic and Artic Oceans converge, though only a small part of the country, Grimsey Island, sits above the Arctic Circle. In Thingvellir National Park, the gap between the North American and Eurasian continental plates is visible.

8) Iceland’s capital city is Reykjavik, but maybe they should just call it Rage-kjavik. (As in the slang for partying, not a synonym for anger). The city is renowned for its runtur (literally “round tour”), a pub crawl which occurs both nights of every weekend all the year ‘round.

7) Perhaps because of their runturing, Icelanders are very fond of hotdogs, which are made with lamb and served with a special mustard. In the true fashion of a hangover meal, Icelanders pile toppings on their “pylsurs.” In 2004, Bill Clinton was skewered (see what I did there?) in political cartoons when he ordered a pylsur with no toppings. Other national delicacies include puffin, whale, and fermented shark meat.

6) In 2008, the Icelandic government established the Vatnajokull National Park, which surrounds the glacier of the same name. With glaciers, rivers, geysers, and such, the park embodies Iceland’s dynamic geology. About 12% of the country’s total land area is protected in the park, and Vatnajokull is, in fact, the largest national park in Europe.

5) J.R.R. Tolkien was a devoted fan of all things Icelandic. He studied the language at Oxford and taught Old Icelandic as a professor. Before the Inklings were the Inklings, they were the Kolbiturs (literally “Coalbiters”), a term for a type of hero in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. J.R.R. Tolkien had an Icelandic au pair watching after his children while he was working on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Many of his ideas, such as trolls turning to stone, have roots in the types of stories Icelanders tell young children.

ChristmasCat

4) Icelanders like to profess a belief in elves, trolls, and, my favorite, a giant cat that comes down from the mountains at Christmas and eats all the children who didn’t get new clothes.

3) Convincing potential tourists that Iceland is more than a frozen, dark hunk of rock at the top of the planet has become a national priority. They’ve done a good job thanks to the Inspired by Iceland campaign, where visitors to a website can propose alternative names for the country, and watch videos of trendy people having a good time.

2) There’s more to Rage-kjavik than a pretty face. In 2011, it was named a UNESCO City of Literature. Reykjavik is the only non-English speaking city to earn this honor. Iceland loves its writers – there is even national union for them which provides modest living stipends.

1) Andddd….the most interesting thing about Iceland, at least to me, is that I will be spending most of the month of June there.  Woohoo! Fist pump! The school where I work offers study grants for faculty who have taught at the school for at least three years. I’m wrapping up year six and finally decided to take advantage of it. This is what happens when you sit around on New Year’s Eve talking to two very well-traveled Classics teachers, I guess.

#####

I’m thrilled. Aside from a few weekend trips to Canada when I lived in Montana, I haven’t left the country since I was 17. Like the American Transcendentalists, I’ve always defended and enjoyed the idea of “deep travel” – taking any place you happen to be and opening all five senses to it. I’m fine with road trips, and I know that I could spend the rest of my life exploring this corner of Appalachia and still not know all there is to know. However, there’s also something to be said for throwing yourself into a completely new place. This summer, that’s what I’m going to do.

I have some specific plans for the three weeks I will be in Iceland. I’m really interested in exploring the reasons for and effects of item #2 on my list. Why does this remote, sparsely populated country value literature so much? How does that valuation inform the national ethos? I’ll be spending lots of time in Reykjavik to get a sense of the contemporary scene, but I’ll also explore the Western Peninsula (where the Sagas were set), travel up to the northern capital of Akureyri for an arts festival, and make stops at various cultural museums and writers’ residencies around the county.

I have some days scheduled in for roaming around the natural landscape as well. So far, the Hornstradir looks the most interesting. It’s about as remote as you can get, and there are some backcountry tours I can connect with to get up there. I’m really hoping to see some puffins and whales in the wild, not just on my plate. (Ha, ha…I don’t think I’ll actually eat either, but one never knows about such things.) If you have been to Iceland and have any suggestions for things I should do, see, or eat,  please leave a comment!

I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity and interested to see how/if it changes the essays I write later this year.  I’ve never claimed to be a travel writer, but maybe there’s a niche for me somewhere.

English is spoken almost universally in Iceland, but its citizens also take a great deal of pride in its own language. I guess that’s to be expected from a country that places so much stock in written expression. In hopes of at least learning the basic phonetics of the language, I’ve downloaded an app on my phone and poked around on YouTube. So far, Icelandic makes absolutely zero sense to me, but I have at least figured out how to say goodbye:

“Bless Bless.”

(Christmas Cat image taken from hugleikurdagsson.tumblr.com. Very cool site.)

It’s mid-January and I’m sitting here in my study next to my Christmas tree, which is shining forth from the front window in a blaze of white plastic, Wal-Marty glory. It’s time for it to come down, I know, but it’s been gray and rainy for over a week now, and the tree is such a lovely antidote for the darkness.

I like it, okay?

I like it, okay?

One July in the early 2000s, when I was a newspaper reporter in Middle Tennessee, I was sent out into the country to interview a woman who kept her Christmas decorations up all year. This didn’t involve merely a tree and a wreath on the door, as I’d anticipated. No, this sun-baked home on the outskirts of Mt. Pleasant was engulfed in Christmas. The shades were drawn against a blazing summer’s day and a scented candle in a jar overpowered the place with cinnamon. The house was stuffy, and many of the ornaments she collected played tinny renditions of Christmas carols. I can’t even remember why she kept everything up all year – I feel like her only answers to my questions were variations on, “I really like Christmas.”

I really like Christmas, too, but it seemed oppressive, this Christmas in July. To this day, there will be a summer afternoon when I have the AC cranking, a cold drink in one hand and a book in the other, and I’ll suddenly think of that woman. I’ll think about how she is sitting in shade-drawn darkness with a gingerbread candle blazing away while battery-powered Hallmark characters trill “Silent Night,” and it makes me a little sad. Life is meant to be lived in seasons.

I know I can’t judge the woman too harshly since I am, after all, sitting here with a tree that’s ready mark MLK Day celebrations. There’s a good chance that her early Christmases were spare occasions. Or she could just be really eccentric. Or both. Probably both. In any case, my tree is coming down very soon, but I might throw some colored lights up around my windows, because any light we can muster at this time of year is good to have.

January is when I feel most grateful for the fact that I am familiar with the liturgical calendar. In January, the weather is rainy; the sky moves in, close and cold. It’s dreary, but it’s also not a terribly busy time of year for me, so I can write and continue the contemplations I began during Advent. January brings the season of Epiphany. Advent is all about waiting for the Incarnation, reflecting on it. Epiphany is a chance to celebrate what the Incarnation means. Christ came for everyone, not just a chosen few. That’s a beautiful and weighty concept. The sermon I heard on the first Sunday of Epiphany dealt with that concept of Christ being a light for all people. The three kings (who were probably neither three, nor kings) are the ones who first had the wits to “search diligently,” as bad-guy Harod put it, for Christ. They saw what they believed were signs and acted on them.

As in Advent, Epiphany focuses on the symbolism of light. There are hymns about stars and the Old Testament scripture from Isaiah: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

The purpose of starting this blog up again is two fold – first, I wanted to post excerpts from essays I’m working on. Second, I wanted to reflect on the research I’m doing and the themes I’m mulling over – the big ideas behind the stories. This post serves the latter purpose. I’ve been working for some time now on an essay about travelling at Christmas.  And here, in the flat light of January, there are thoughts from this past season that just won’t leave me, some ideas from December that I hope will continue to grow.

I enjoyed the Epiphany sermon this year because it seemed to fit in so well with the thoughts that rattled around in my brain during Advent. Like most Advents, I drove a lot, walked the dog a lot, read and journaled a lot. In the middle of all this contemplation came a national tragedy and its subsequent finger-pointing. I watched the news and read my facebook feed and did finger-pointing of my own. To me, the Sandy Hook shooting was a sign of our individual failures contributing to our failure as a society, our darkness. Sermons and Advent readings; however, helped to shift my focus just a bit. We dwell in darkness, it’s true, but it’s seeking Christ which is important. If I focus on my sins or on the collective sins of a society, if that is where I pour all my energy, I’m doing it wrong. In December, I read Watch for the Light, a collection of essays devoted to the season. One essay and story in particular will not leave me – Brennan Manning’s “Shipwrecked at the Stable.” In it, among other things, Manning relays an imagined conversation between St. Francis and Brother Leo:

“Leo, do you know what it means to be pure of heart?”

“Of course, it means to have no sins, faults or weaknesses to reproach myself for.”

“Ah,” said Francis, “now I understand why you’re sad. We will always have something to reproach ourselves for.”

“Right,” said Leo. “That’s why I despair of ever arriving at purity of heart.”

“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is – your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him. The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness, and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble, distracted, insecure, and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled – stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”

Of course, now that it’s January and life has moved back into its usual rhythm, the immediate instinct is to look at this passage and wonder how I’m doing, which is exactly what St. Francis says we shouldn’t do. It’s hard to quash that. The issue, I suppose, is walking the line between self-reflection and idolatry – a struggle which those of us who write creative nonfiction are already aware of.

A few years back, I went to church in downtown Jacksonville with my father on the day after Christmas. During the sermon, the priest gave a sigh and said, “Now it’s back to ‘the real world’, right?” Then, she corrected that perception. A world where we get caught up in the day-to-day, where we live by a mantra of ends justifying means, where we forget to treat the needy with respect and dignity – that’s not the world God intended. The real world, she said, is the one we celebrate at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. That’s the one we need to carry forward.

So, yes, it’s January. My tree will come down, but the lights are going to stay up, and I will continue to work on my essay about Christmas traveling and what that entails, not because I can’t let go of Christmas, but because Epiphany means I shouldn’t let it go, not yet. Winter looks promising indeed.