To Belong

To Belong

The spaces that belong to you are not always the spaces where you belong.

The green carpeted floor underneath the ash pews in the church I was born in. That space belongs to me. Full of “aunts” and “uncles” and friends like Patty and Garrett (the first boy who ever proposed to me – we were maybe five), a community  I’d never known life without. People who knew my father before his illness and death, who knew my parents before their marriage.

That space is mine in the way only the place you were born can be. It accepted you for no reason beyond your existence.

The university campus I grew up on, a kid running more or less wild after the 3:00 school bell, playing games of tag with my brother and his friend that ranged through the several city blocks of interconnected campus buildings. Exploring roofs and nooks and crannies forgotten by all but the cleaning crew. There are few places on earth I will ever know so well, from the inside out.

Full of people who watched me grow up, who surrounded our family from its initial blending when my mother’s remarriage brought me a new step-father and two brothers, through my stepfather’s cancer and death, and then Mom’s second remarriage. People who saw and didn’t see.

This space is mine in the way places you grew up are, especially when that growing up was such a profound suffering.

But even then, there were signs I didn’t belong. Growing up I found my home in the stacks of the campus library and, as early as junior high, with the theater majors – the most classic of misfits. (The fact that I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater majors may explain a lot.)

It wasn’t until my early thirties, when I moved back to the small Bible college campus where my parents had met and I’d spent my earliest years that it came clear.

My office was my mother’s old dorm room, and my apartment was in the same building where my aunt and uncle had started married life. I was working with family and people who’d know my parents, and in hallways and classrooms where as a kindergartner I’d made friends of faculty and students and watched weekly missionary slideshows from all over the world.

These were spaces that belonged to me, but I didn’t fit. Over the four years I lived and worked there it became increasingly plain that I didn’t belong. No one told me, or did anything to make me feel that way – just the opposite, in fact. I was embraced and loved. But there was no place there for the questions I was asking. I was trying to grow, but the light wasn’t right there, and the soil.

I didn’t fit.

In retrospect, I never really had.

Where do you go when the spaces that belong to you, that you know, are not where you belong?

I went exploring. Not randomly, but in directions that seemed hopeful, through spaces that, while they weren’t where I belonged either, took me to more possibilities. I learned to follow Jesus beyond what I could see and to trust him with all I could not understand.

I left the land of my birth (there is no story without leaving home) to go to a land he would show me. Had I known twenty years ago where the journey would take me, I would have rejected it. If it led there, it could not be from God. But I learned to trust each step more than where I thought they might lead. I learned to listen beyond my assumptions and assertions. I learned to trust the questions I did not have answers to.

Every family and tribe has its own culture, and every time we leave home, we have a choice. We can carry the whole turtle shell with us, or we can learn to live in other people’s spaces, with other people’s cultures, languages, ways.

Perhaps the challenge of love is to let yourself belong somewhere that doesn’t belong to you. In a place you weren’t born into, that was not the space that shaped your growing up.

I live in those spaces now. I worship in those spaces. I learn in those spaces. I listen in those spaces. I share myself in those spaces.

Some of them, like my Episcopal Church family, are full of traditions and ways I will never fully understand. There are ways I don’t fit (Baptist edges don’t all quite wear down), but I belong. Others of them, like the LGBTQ+ community, are chosen spaces – created out of the needs of those who in certain ways didn’t fit the families and communities and churches that belong to them by right of birth. They have traditions, but they are younger traditions, still growing and expanding (not always gracefully). There are ways I don’t fit (my straight orientation and cisgender are not things I get to choose), but I belong.

These are not my spaces and never should be. I have no right to try to shape them to fit me. But they have shaped me, and I have found that I belong.

The spaces where you belong are not always spaces that belong to you. And maybe that can be a good thing. Maybe even the best thing.

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Speaking Out

Speaking Out

Last night I sang my first karaoke song ever. At church. (Another story!)

For me, it was something that, if I was ever going to do it, I just had to do it – sort of like jumping off the end of a diving board into cold water. At some point you have to stop thinking about it and thinking about how scary it is and just hit go.

The song I picked is one I know inside out – it got me through Junior High! Barry Manilow’s “I Made It Through the Rain.”

We dreamers have our ways

Of facing rainy days

And somehow we survive

We keep the feelings warm

Protect them from the storm

Until our time arrives

Then one day the sun appears

And we come shining through those lonely years

I made it through the rain

I kept my world protected

I made it thought the rain

I kept my point of view

I made it through the rain

And found myself respected

By the others who

Got rained on too

And made it through

As I sang those lyrics, I realized how true it’s become of my life.

Last Tuesday evening was significant for me. I was right where I’ve been every first Tuesday for going on three years now – attending OUTspoken at Sidetrack, Chicago’s monthly LGBTQ storytelling night in Boystown. Chicago has a vibrant storytelling scene (think The Moth – true stories told live), but in the midst of all the amazing storytelling events every month, OUTspoken stands out. Members of the LGBTQ community share their stories. Sometime those stories are from fifty years ago and sometimes they’re from yesterday. Sometimes they’re funny and sometimes they’re painful and sometimes they’re both and sometimes they’re really hard to listen to and sometimes they’re full of joy.

They are always beautiful.

They’re stories of lives that have been ignored and attacked and demonized and condemned and have found a way to live anyway, from voices that have been shamed and dismissed and silenced and yet still speak out. OUTspoken is a powerful, sacred space where those lives are celebrated and those voices honored.

I have always felt honored and humbled to hear those stories. They are gifts of courage and they have shown me how to be more deeply human and often given me wisdom to navigate my own life.

But last Tuesday, I was on the other side of the mic.

The invitation to tell my own story in that space was one of the greatest honors I’ve ever been given. It was only the second time OUTspoken has had a night of “ally” storytellers, and it would have been an amazing evening had I only been sitting in the audience. My fellow storytellers told remarkable, beautiful stories. But to share some of my own journey….

It wasn’t easy. I spent months thinking about it and working on the words I wanted to offer in this space that doesn’t belong to me and yet nonetheless is so special to me. Storytelling is about so much more than telling a story; it’s about sharing our lives and ourselves. When I tell a story, I’m offering my own sliver of the human experience, and those who receive it offer kinship. The recognition that, yes! in all our individual peculiarities we really do belong to each other.

Storytelling is creating (or finding) a kind of chosen family – something the LGBTQ community has had to do by cruel necessity, but which is deeply valuable far beyond that necessity. Kinship destroys the illusion of us and them while honoring the difference of me and you. We don’t have to be alike to belong to each other, to recognize each other. To recognize and respect the others who got rained on too and made it through.

I told my story, and I received so much more than I could give. A beautiful introduction that said, “You belong here!” The attentiveness of folks who wanted to know what brought me there. The warm laughter of connection. More hugs than I could count. And the generosity of thank-yous I don’t deserve from the very people who taught me how to be brave enough to speak out.

What If I’m Wrong? (About LGBTQ+ Inclusion)

What If I’m Wrong? (About LGBTQ+ Inclusion)

“But what if you’re wrong?”

It’s the question that characterized the religious context I lived most of my life in more than maybe any other. It has its corollary in, “Are you sure you’re right?” and both questions brought into focus what was most important to that community, and by extension to God: we dare not risk being wrong. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. Countless preachers urged us not to trust them, but to “search the Scriptures” for ourselves. It wasn’t a responsibility to be passed on to anyone else.

We wanted to be faithful – to love God and obey him and stay as far from sin as possible. The constant questioning of ourselves, of our motives and our thinking, was meant to keep us safe.

More often it kept me frozen – “But what if you’re wrong?”

That question was never more present or profound to me as it was in the days and months when I began to intentionally explore the “issue” of LGBTQ+ Christians.

It was actually the very question that drove me to ask more – “But what if I’m wrong?” I’d been raised by folk for whom that subject was settled absolutely. The Bible was “clear,” and sex was created for marriage between a man and a woman. Period. And they didn’t just believe that, they argued for it loudly and publicly, vehemently attacking the “gay agenda” and “gay lifestyle.”

And while the methods often felt misguided to me, I shared the underlying conviction and straightforward sexual ethic.

But…what if we were wrong? What if, as much as we were seeking to be faithful, there was something we were missing?

I’d been in churches that welcomed those who “struggled with same-sex attraction” in non-coercive ways that were full of grace and patience and hope (and I’d received much healing in various areas of my own life in those communities), but what if there was more? What if we were still missing something?

So when I was introduced to a community of people who were working to build bridges between the LGBTQ+ community and conservative evangelical churches, I got involved. I asked lots of questions of pastors who’d had a change of heart and mind, and I listened to scores of stories from LGBTQ+ people. Some of those stories were told publicly, and some of them were entrusted to me privately. They all changed me.

I realized something was very much missing – we were not loving real people, with their real lives that don’t neatly fit our “biblical” prescriptions. It wasn’t an “issue” for me anymore, it was people. I heard too many stories of rejection by families, condemnation by church communities, and suicide attempted. (The stories of successful suicides are all second hand.)

I was introduced to a very different reality than I’d seen before: the ugly, deeply rotten fruit of traditional church teachings on sexuality. And when the fruit is persistently bad, something is terribly wrong with the tree. Something needs to be reconsidered or even thrown out altogether.

But…what if I was wrong? I’d studied the biblical texts – original languages and contexts. I knew that there were good arguments that those texts decrying same-sex sexual activities shouldn’t be read in the traditional ways. But those arguments weren’t water-tight. They raised questions, but didn’t seem conclusive.

My mind and heart had shifted, but these different possibilities in the text felt shaky to stand on. I could never be sure I was right about them.

I found a mentor in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was deeply committed to non-violence and yet entered into a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was captured and executed a few weeks before Nazi regime collapsed.

In his vast writings on Christian ethics, Bonhoeffer observes that there are times when what is required to keep your conscience clear and what is required to love your neighbor contradict. In that contradiction, it is better to bear guilt yourself in order to love your neighbor.

As I looked at the lives of my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters who had found acceptance and affirmation of all of who they are in affirming churches (and more importantly, in their own hearts before God), I saw the fruit of their lives blossoming – love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, goodness, faithfulness, self-control. 

Looking at the life of Jesus, I realized that maybe we’d been missing the point. Jesus was far more concerned with loving people than with getting it “right” – or even with them getting it right. The Samaritan woman at the well who was concerned about the right way to worship God. Hungry disciples on a Sabbath walk through a wheat field. A woman condemned by the religious leaders for adultery. Outsiders casting out demons in his name.

Even if I was wrong, if I was missing something, I was no longer willing to risk their lives on the altar of being right, whatever the cost to me.

I’ve never regretted that decision. And as time has passed, I have only become more convinced that God’s heart for his LGBTQ+ children is love and complete affirmation and inclusion in the community of his followers. He has called them “clean” and we are in defiance of his Spirit when we insist otherwise.

I don’t believe I’m wrong. But if I am? LGBTQ+ folk are being invited into the embrace of the love of God, and his Spirit is quite capable of guiding them into any change he desires, regardless of their sexuality and/or orientation. If I am wrong? LGBTQ+ youth in our churches will know they can live, loved as they are by God and his people.

If I am wrong? Their lives are worth it.

Let Your Yea Be Yea

Let Your Yea Be Yea

A couple of weeks ago, over the course of two days, pretty much everyone in the church felt betrayed by Eugene Peterson, a man whose life and work as a pastor has deeply impacted and formed so many of us. He is a prolific writer, and everything I’ve ever read from him – whether it was about discipleship, or theology, or ministry, or even his translation of the Bible, The Message – came out of a pastor’s heart. As I worked on my own Master of Divinity degree and considered my own work in pastoring (something that, while I’ve never held the title, I’ve found is nonetheless part of my life), Eugene Peterson has been a significant model for me.

On Wednesday, Peterson affirmed that if he were pastoring today he would perform a same-sex marriage if asked to by Christians of good faith, and millions of Christians who are convinced the Bible condemns same-sex relationships felt betrayed. On Thursday, he reversed that affirmation, and LGBTQI+ believers who have fought for their faith felt betrayed.

Between Wednesday and Thursday, LifeWay Christian stores threatened to stop carrying all of his books, including The Message. LifeWay is the largest Christian bookstore chain in the country and is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. “LifeWay only carries resources in our stores by authors who hold to the biblical view of marriage,” they said, by which they mean “our interpretation of the biblical view of marriage.” LifeWay has a lot of weight, and they are willing to throw it around.

And on Thursday, Peterson retracted his earlier statement, saying, “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”

I can only imagine what it is to be Eugene Peterson, and I don’t know why he did what he did. He’s 84 and has spent his lifetime trying to live faithfully as a pastor and a pastor of pastors. I continue to love him, and respect him in many ways.

But he doesn’t get a pass from me on this. I don’t expect him to be perfect, and I don’t expect him to have everything figured out. But I do expect him to take responsibility for his words. All of them.

Particularly their pastoral implications on the real lives of real people who are rejected and ostracized by the church every day.

When I was in grade school, I was the opposite of popular. I was bullied – overtly rejected and ostracized day in and day out. The other girls weren’t interested in playing with me, didn’t even want to be seen with me. But my parents were friends with some of their parents, and most of us went to church together. When our families were visiting, or we were alone for some reason, some of them would play with me. We would have a good time together. Sometimes they even seemed to actually like me – for a little while. Then we would be back at school and it was like those times never happened.

There was one girl in particular – she was one of the most popular. We both had to walk to where we would wait for our parents every day after school. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, and she agreed to let me walk with her, but told me I had to walk half a block behind or in front of her so she wouldn’t be seen with me. Once we arrived, we’d play and have fun together while we waited, but not if any other friends were around.

After college, I found myself at the same church with her, and we became friends. I asked her about it once. She didn’t even remember any of the things that were so painful to me. “All I remember,” she said, “is how afraid I was they would reject me.”

It gave me a certain sympathy for her – she’d been a child acting out of her own insecurities. She was too afraid of what others would think to be a friend to me, and she let those who would reject her control how she treated me, the one who was rejected every day.

Eugene Peterson is no child. Lives are at stake, and those lives aren’t those of straight conservatives with traditional views on gender and sexuality. LGBTQI+ kids in non-affirming communities have exponentially higher suicide rates than those in affirming communities. And every voice makes a difference.

We all have journeys. Change is a process, and it’s sometimes appropriate to honestly say, “I don’t know – I haven’t figured that out yet.” It’s one thing to be in process. It’s another to say yes or no.

Either Wednesday was true, or Thursday was. Either way, Eugene Peterson owes an apology to the LGBTQI+ community.

Proud.

Proud.

The first weekend in June my friend Lauren was in town and we connected for dinner. It was the second time this spring we’ve had the chance to connect, and I’ve been so grateful for these opportunities. We were friends and fellow students in seminary over ten years ago, and we hadn’t seen each other since.

A lot has happened in those ten years. My own faith has come alive in new ways as I have sought to follow Jesus outside the lines and delve deeper into the Love that is the Life of all things.

And Lauren…when we were in school together, Lauren was a “he.” She transitioned a few years ago and I am so glad I have the opportunity to know the beautiful woman she is today.

While we were good friends in seminary, I had no idea Lauren was trans. What I did know was that my friend didn’t fit the masculine ideals our conservative evangelical school had for ministers. (Of course, I hardly fit those ideals either, but since they hadn’t quite figured out the same kind of ideals for women in ministry, I never encountered the same kind of pressure to conform.)

The school nearly refused to grant Lauren’s degree, though in the end, Lauren managed.

As she put it to me, she “zipped up her man-suit every morning,” but it was killing her.

There’s no way I can know what that must feel like. I can barely imagine.

What I do know is that there is life and peace in her now that wasn’t there before. She is at home in her own skin in a way she never was in seminary, and it is beautiful to see.

In that sense, Lauren’s story is much like that of other trans folk I know. They fight to live with honesty in the world with courage that takes my breath away. They have been willing to lose the whole world to gain their own soul. I am beyond grateful for all I have learned from them.

That is true to some degree of every LGBTQ+ person I know, and I am proud of them. Proud to know them, and proud to stand beside them.

June is Pride month, and in a couple of weeks I will be at Chicago’s Pride parade, standing for Love between the parade and the “Christian” protesters who proclaim something else entirely. Cheering on the friends and strangers marching, encouraging them to “Make Love Louder” than the hate.

Because there’s more than one kind of pride. There’s the pride of vanity and privilege and self-aggrandizement. And then there’s the pride that stands tall in the face of all that would demean and dehumanize. The pride that refuses to bow to shame and fear. The pride that won’t hide inside that zipped up suit that isn’t who they are. The pride of those who know Who loves them.

That pride is hard-won, and I am so proud of those who have won it.

Happy Pride, y’all!

Losing Terry

Losing Terry

When I met Terry we were standing in front of a shark tank.

I was a member at the Tennessee Aquarium, and between my college classes during the day and political events I attended as a Republican activist, I loved to spend an hour or two at the aquarium enjoying the beauty of the darkened “river canyon” walkway with its glowing tanks. The Gulf tank was the largest, rising three stories high.

Terry worked at the aquarium and tended to be on duty the same days I was a regular. I would come an hour or two before closing on weekdays. There were usually few visitors then, and in the glow of the Gulf of Mexico tank we started talking.

I don’t remember how many weeks it took for us to exchange names and contact information, but we learned a lot about each other.

I was in college at the fundamentalist Baptist university in town, from a family where far more of the men were preachers than not. Terry was a biology major at the local branch of the State university, the youngest son of a black Church of God minister.

We talked about the animals – I’m sure we started there. But since I was always (always) wearing a bright blue “I BACK ZACH” button for the local Republican congressional candidate, we were talking politics before long. Affirmative action was a long running discussion and I heard Terry’s perspective (though it was years before those seeds blossomed into a different position).

For all our differences, we became friends. We met for lunch sometimes, or dinner. I introduced him to some of my friends, and they became friends in their own right. My grandmother, who always wanted to know what I’d been doing when she called, started asking if we were dating, but no. We were friends. (She eventually started started expressing concern about what people might think of me if they thought we were dating. I assured her that anyone who would think less of me for dating Terry because he was black was not someone whose opinion I cared about. She stopped.)

Terry came to my college graduation knowing not a soul there except me. My family was looking for him, though, and when he showed up with flowers for me, both grandmothers hugged him warmly.

I’d met some of his family once or twice when we’d stop by his house. His father and I sat on their stoop one afternoon good naturedly debating eternal security (the idea that a person is “once saved, always saved”). He had at least five or six older brothers and sisters, all with or pursuing advanced degrees. Their mother had volunteered at their schools, Terry told me, and had known their assignments better than they did. She was determined her children would succeed academically, and they did.

When I came to Terry’s graduation in the huge university arena, his family were watching for me, and I was brought back to their house for the celebratory dinner. I sat squeezed around the table in the tiny kitchen with Terry and several of his siblings, and the rhythm of give and take and teasing eventually drew me in. Terry and I had always had a similar rhythm and soon his sisters were teasing him about the little blonde white girl getting the best of him.

We both stayed in the area and stayed in touch, and a few months later when I began to have debilitating anxiety attacks that wrecked me physically and kept me unable to work or drive safely for months, Terry nervously drove out to my folks’ place in rural northwest Georgia to visit and take me on outings. (He joked nervously that he could always feel the neighbors staring at him as he drove into the neighborhood.)

I remember one night when we spent hours on the phone. He’d just been to a family gathering and found out a cousin he was close to was gay. He was wondering what it would mean if it turned out to be biological. I remember saying that “we’re born sinful” and why would this be different? Something to be repented, changed, healed, but that didn’t mean he didn’t love his cousin.

That was what I believed, and I believed it was enough for a long time.

Eventually Terry moved down to Atlanta, but every time he was home for a visit or holiday, we’d make plans to get together. We had plans one Thanksgiving, but then I didn’t hear from him. I called his folks, but they always said he was out. I didn’t hear from him that weekend, and he never returned any of the messages I left on his Atlanta number.

Eventually, I stopped calling.

And then over a year later, I thought of him, impulsively dialed his number, and he picked up.

He was surprised to hear from me, caught off guard, but we ended up talking for hours. That previous Thanksgiving he’d come out as gay – to his family (he’d had to leave the house and hadn’t been back) as well as most friends. Everyone but me. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to tell me, he said.

“But why couldn’t you?” I remember asking through tears. “Didn’t you know I’d still love you?”

“That’s why I couldn’t tell you. I knew you’d still love me, and I knew what you believe and that it would always hurt you for me, and I didn’t want you to think of me that way.”

We cried and we talked, and we found our friendship again, tentatively, over the distance.

A couple of months later or so, I was huddled on the living room sofa, reeling and crying and devastated over the breakup of my first serious relationship (my first relationship period, and I was blind-sided on Valentines Day, no less, but that’s another story). The phone rang and my mother came in to tell me it was Terry calling for me.

And I couldn’t do it. I was overwhelmed with pain and confusion and I couldn’t handle the emotional complexity of loving Terry in that moment. I told her to tell him I was sorry but I couldn’t talk right then and would call him back when I could.

I wanted to find my balance first, to be present to something other than the pain that was swallowing me.

But deep down, I knew what he’d likely hear. After our vulnerable connection after all those months, he’d just hear no. He’d hear rejection.

And when days later I called him, he never returned my calls. I was sorry, but deep down, I wasn’t surprised. I had let my own stuff trump what I knew my friend needed.

I never heard from Terry again, and I’ve never managed to contact him since.

It was decades before my understanding and beliefs about what it means to be gay (or lesbian or bisexual or trans or queer or intersex) changed. And when I love and enjoy my LGBTQI+ friends and advocate for them and their community, I’m not making anything up to Terry. They aren’t Terry.

But I think of him, and I hope that I will never again let my own sense of need get in the way of accepting and welcoming a friend and making sure they know it.

My Father’s Voice

My Father’s Voice

I turned forty-five a couple of weeks ago. I’m fourteen years older than my father now. He died from ALS a month after my third birthday. He was just thirty-one.

I don’t remember the sound of my daddy’s voice, but I remember how it felt. He had a deep bass voice and a rounded, barrel chest I loved to snuggle into and lay my head on. I remember the feel of that rumbling bass.

I have other memories of him, but they are all the memories of a small child. The book he read me every night cuddled up on my Bambi sheets. (The same book. Every night. Buzzy, the Funny Crow.) Looking for him early one morning to get him up to make my breakfast, only to find him already in the kitchen at the stove. When he lost the strength to pick me up any more, but I could still crawl up into the big green recliner our church bought for him. The day he fell and couldn’t get up, and I went and got my big stuffed bear to put under his head while someone went to get the neighbor boy to help get him up.

There’s a short clip of tape from an interview the local news station did with him. I managed to find someone to record the reel to reel on VHS years ago. I only watched it once. He could only say a few words before he had to work to breathe for a few more. It hurt too much to hear – there was so little to recognize in his voice.

But there was one time I’ve heard his voice. It was around fifteen years ago, and I was working at the small, fundamentalist Bible college where my parents met. I was helping prepare for our big donor event of the year when my boss introduced me to an alumnus who was there to help with the decorating. We shook hands, and as he heard my name, a startled look crossed his face. “Are you Gene Ould’s daughter?” he asked, and when I said yes, he started to cry.

Will* had been in school with my folks in the 60s, and had known them even before they’d started dating. He’d been friends with Daddy, and they had long conversations in the dorm talking about life and theology – the things most college students talk about but with a good bit more Bible and religion in the mix.

Eventually, they also talked about the fact that Will was gay (though I doubt he used that word then, and when I knew him would describe himself as “same-sex attracted”). “Your daddy was the only person I told who didn’t treat me any differently,” he said with tears in his eyes. “He didn’t need to leave the door to his room open when I was there. He didn’t change the way he talked to me.”

And I heard it. I heard my father’s voice loving his friend, accepting him just as he was. I don’t know what my daddy thought about homosexuality – though it was the 60s, and I know he had a conservative sexual ethic. But I do know that whatever he thought it didn’t change the way he loved his friend.

Nothing anyone has told me about my father has ever meant more to me.

On my birthday this year I was surprised by a message from an old friend of my parents from those Bible college days, a man I knew as a child and haven’t seen or spoken to in over twenty years, though we’ve been connected on Facebook for a bit. He wrote to wish me a happy birthday and tell me how proud he is of what I’ve done with my blog. He talked about how Daddy was always asking questions and about his courage. And he said he was glad to see my father’s DNA in me.

My voice is my own. And my journey has gone far beyond where my daddy’s life allowed his to go. But I hope that somewhere in that undeniable DNA, when I speak, the echoes of my father’s voice still rumble in this world.

 

*Name changed