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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.

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Last night, I spent about an hour Skyping with a good friend in California (grad student, genius, and fellow writer C.E. Tucker – keep an eye out for his work) on my fantastically fast and clear MacBook Pro. When I got off Skype and left Christopher to his scriptwriting, it was a little before 8 p.m. I decided to open my net browser and check email before heading off to read a book, and I saw the announcement on Apple.com – Steve Jobs, 1955-2011.

Stories about Steve Jobs abound across the various media outlets this morning. Two separate articles – one about his death and one about his vision – are the most popular on NPR.com.  The front pages of washingtonpost.com, nytimes.com, and cnn.com each boast about five separate articles about Steve Jobs’ life, inventions, health, and impact. Every media source is announcing his passing in an overly-large font.  The New York Times is inviting readers to submit photos of themselves using Apple products over the years.

Other front-page articles of the day? The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. Sara Palin won’t run for President. Occupy Wall Street continues. Cnn.com, which always strives to keep it classy, prominently features articles about Anthony Weiner Halloween costumes and Amanda Knox’s potential book deals.

If I hadn’t stumbled into my kitchen a little later than usual this morning (I’m on Fall Break), if I hadn’t had time to read the Editorial page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, I would not have heard NPR’s end-of-the-hour broadcast or seen the tribute buried in the Local section of my newspaper – the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, tireless and vital leader of the Civil Rights Movement, passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Like Jobs, Shuttlesworth had been ill for some time, unlike Jobs, online memorials will not be pouring forth for the man who is credited with bringing the Civil Rights Movement to its largest and most influential battleground – Birmingham, Alabama.

Shuttlesworth was one of the “Big Three” in the movement, co-founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph D. Abernathy. I first heard of Martin Luther King sometime around 1984 when my first grade class read about him in a Weekly Reader. I did not learn about Abernathy or Shuttlesworth until the summer before I began graduate school, when I read Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter’s excellent write-up of Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement.

McWhorter’s tome is over 600 pages long and filled with narratives about every major figure on both sides of the movement in Birmingham. It weaves the fabric of history and narrative seamlessly, but the sheer number of people involved, combined with their varying motives and degrees of involvement, can make the book feel overwhelming in places. Through all these fighters, all these characters, the one that rises above the fray, the one most memorable to me, is Shuttlesworth.  I devoured any portion of Carry Me Home in which he was a major figure, and that is a good percentage of the book. At times, he seems almost like a superhero – dashing in and creating good when all hope seems lost.  He was also completely fearless. Throughout the book, he calls out to those who would stop his movement or physically harm him. He loved reminding segregationists that they were going to lose. He openly challenged Bull Connor, often calling up the brutal segregationist to let him know where they would be demonstrating, inviting the public safety commissioner to come and “be a part of history.” He called the movement what it was: a war.  In an interview years later, Shuttlesworth said the goal of his work in Birmingham was “to have a war against injustice. Not against people – against injustice. A war against any system that sets up a thing where a man cannot be, cannot become.”

It was Fred Shuttlesworth who confronted the racist institutions in Birmingham long before the national spotlight turned there. Shuttlesworth convinced Martin Luther King to bring the crux of the movement to Birmingham. Shuttlesworth organized the Children’s Crusade that so galvanized the movement and horrified the nation. Shuttlesworth sheltered the Freedom Riders in his church after they had taken brutal beatings and it seemed they could not go on. It is widely acknowledged that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have been passed were it not for the tireless work of Shuttlesworth and the activists in Birmingham.

Shuttlesworth himself suffered tremendously. His own decision to become an activist in the movement had been brought about by the elimination of  segregated schools through Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. His most severe beating came three years later, when white men attacked him, his wife, and his two daughters as he attempted to enroll his children in an all-white high school.  Shuttlesworth was beaten with chains and brass knuckles. His wife was stabbed in the hip.  Over the years, he suffered other beatings, was injured by fire hoses, and was arrested more than three dozen times. He was twice targeted in bombings.

Through all the physical and emotional persecution, Shuttlesworth never cowered. In fact, I think one of the reasons I’ve been so drawn to him would have to be his fiery, indomitable spirit. He could preach love, yet wield words as weapons. After emerging, miraculously unscathed, from his dynamited home on Christmas night in 1956, a police detective told him, “If I were you I’d get out of town as quick as I could.” Shuttlesworth replied with, “Officer, you are not me. You go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could save me through this, I’m here for the duration and the war is on.”

We don’t often encounter Shuttlesworth in watered-down stories of the movement. Even McWhorter writes that “his personality did not invite the term ‘beloved’.” And, because Shuttlesworth forced us, all of us, to confront the uglier side of our own humanity rather than creating shiny toys, remembrances of him will be buried under the tide of memorials for Steve Jobs.

Now, don’t get me wrong – Steve Jobs brought some very cool things to life as we-in-a-certain-demographic know it. As I type this on my sleek MacBook Pro, I’m listening to classical music on West Virginia Public Radio (which I much prefer to Chattanooga’s station) through an app on my iPod touch.  It’s a lovely fall day and, at some point, I plan to sit on my porch and figure out what the latest version of iPhoto can really do. Next week, when I travel to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books, I will be able to carry my iPod touch in lieu of my laptop. With it, I will check the weather, send emails, and do a little conference networking, all from a device smaller than the palm of my hand.

One quote that has been floating around about Jobs today is that “he knew what we needed before we knew we needed it.”

Apple products are great, ingenious even, but I could have written this on a typewriter and sent it to newspapers in the hopes that someone would print it. I’d be fine listening to NPR through the radio. I could organize hard copies of my photos, get the weather through the newspaper, and network via business cards, address books, and ink pens.

If anyone gave us what we needed before we knew, it was Fred Shuttlesworth. His life’s work was not limited to people who could afford to buy gadgets. It has benefitted us all.  Shuttlesworth’s colleague, Martin Luther King, once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  In this country, at the very time that Steve Jobs was born, America was not a just place. Everyone – white and black – was aware of it. And whether they were willing to admit it or not, I believe most people knew that this unbalanced world, this institutional and vastly unfair way of being, was rending the fabric of American society.  Years before the movement really took off, Fred Shuttlesworth was challenging the horrible, horrible injustice of segregation – the injustice that was constricting everyone and preventing this entire country from becoming. He and the other members of the SCLC chipped away at it until Jim Crow was brought down and we could all be freed from its tyranny.

One of my earliest memories of using Apple products is of sitting in the computer lab at my elementary school, confronting a game called “Math Blaster” on an Apple IIE. As I recall, the game involved solving math problems quickly enough to allow a stick figure to be shot from a cannon at the circus. The problems came faster and faster until, eventually, everyone’s stick figure perished. My character died frequently, and we all thought this was hilarious. I remember sitting in that room full of white, black, and Asian first-graders, all of us laughing and laughing. Steve Jobs brought us the computer, but Fred Shuttlesworth brought us each other.

Much work remains, but the foundation has been laid.

We still live in a society that perpetuates a “system where (people) cannot become.” Perhaps the next great innovator will combine Jobs’s technology with Shuttlesworth’s vision.

But, rather than waiting for that singular person, let’s pull out our idevices and learn about the men and women of the civil rights movement who knew what we needed before we did. In his memory, let’s continue the war against injustice which the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth fought so boldly across seven decades. The work remains and innovations in all facets of American life must continue.

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