Holding the Door

Holding the Door

Driving to work this morning I heard a story about Nashville artist Jason Isbell. Isbell is from rural north Alabama near the Tennessee state line (a couple of hours west of where I grew up). He’s a thoughtful and curious songwriter whose songs are full of the nuances of humanity and real life, and he feels the tensions of the history-haunted south.

I’m a white man living in a white man’s world
Under our roof is a baby girl
I thought this world could be hers one day
But her momma knew better

…I’m a white man living on a white man’s street
I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet
The highway runs through their burial grounds
Past the oceans of cotton

I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
Wishing I’d never been one of the guys
Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke
Oh, the times ain’t forgotten

…I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation
I think the man upstairs must’a took a vacation
I still have faith, but I don’t know why
Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes

(from “White Man’s World,” by Jason Isbell)

Isbell has found an audience beyond country music, and that audience is growing. “Doors are open to me and I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna walk through ’em,” he says. “But I’m also gonna try to hold ’em for somebody else before they slam in their face. And at the very least, at the very least, discuss it with people.”

It’s a good image: holding the door open for somebody else. He sees what’s happening for him, and he recognizes others aren’t getting the same opportunity.

When I was in college, I took a class in Apologetics. I attended a fundamentalist Baptist university, and that class was part of the theology program. It was a large class, and I was one of only a few women. Apologetics is about how Christians answer hard questions, and I had lots of questions (that had something to do with why I took the class!). But I could sit forever with my hand in the air and never get called on by the (generally good natured) professor. He was never rude or unkind to me, but it was like my hand was invisible. After a few weeks of this, the student who sat behind me, Nate, started raising his hand if mine had been up a while. When the prof called on him, he’d act confused and defer to me to ask my question first.

He held the door open.

Later, in my first real job, I worked as the one-woman office staff for my pastor’s speaking ministry. I had a great relationship with both my pastor and my boss and a good relationship with the other men on the ministry’s board. When they decided to launch a national radio ministry, we began to work with an agency that produced and distributed many of the most well-known evangelical radio ministries. Things were still in development when the president of the agency, Jon, and I met at a conference, and we hit it off. He began to informally mentor me, and when it was time for him to fly in for his first meeting with the board, he asked if I would be in the meeting. I’d never been in a board meeting before, but it was clear Jon expected me to be there. My boss decided I could sit in a chair in the corner of the room and take notes.

Jon arrived, and after the introductions and greetings had gone around the room, he spoke up and said, “Before we get started, can we find another chair? I’d like to make room for Jennifer here at the table.” He shifted things around and held a chair for me right beside him.

He literally and figuratively made a place for me (the only woman in the room) at the table and was intentional about including me in the ensuing discussion.

When it was time for our people to fly out to California to meet with the agency production and distribution teams, Jon told them, “Don’t bother to come if you don’t bring Jennifer!” So off I flew. I learned a lot on that trip, and future board meetings included me. Jon saw I had something important to contribute, and the men started to listen when I spoke up.

Jon held the door open for me.

Doors don’t open the same for everyone. For some of us, generations of access to education and systems that were designed for our benefit turn a lot of doors into the kind that see us coming and slide open with a whoosh of anticipation. We hardly even know a door was there. But those doors don’t recognize everyone, and others of us have to exert a lot of effort to push and pry them open. Sometimes it just requires more than we have. And sometimes the doors are locked to us.

If I can pay attention and recognize the doors, if I can notice when those doors that open for me aren’t opening for someone else, that’s when I can hold the door for them.

And maybe if enough of us notice, we can get the doors re-programmed, or just take them out altogether.


The Pain and Perils of Fitting In

The Pain and Perils of Fitting In

“Don’t worry. It’s all right. I’m sure no one will think you’re my friend.”

I’ve been watching Netflix’s new series, Anne with an E. As much as I loved the old Anne of Green Gables series of books and mini series, this one is deeper than those were – grittier and with more human complexity. It takes Anne’s history as an orphan, worked like a slave and abused, seriously.

And it doesn’t sentimentalize the brutality of children. We too easily accept “teasing” and “bullying” as normal rather than recognizing them as the terrorizing acts they are.

Anne Shirley’s vibrant imagination is not just a charming gift of creativity. It is a survival skill, a life raft that keeps her moving through the unlivable.

Those words, “Don’t worry. It’s all right. I’m sure no one will think you’re my friend,” are her response to a schoolmate who is horrified to learn she will be staying with Anne’s family for a few days after her house has caught on fire (and been saved from complete destruction by Anne’s quick thinking).

I’m fairly sure I said much the same words myself more than once while growing up.

There aren’t really words to express what it feels like to know your peers despise you, and that you have to go back to school with them the next day anyway. And the day after that. And the year after that.

For me, it started in fourth grade. By fifth, life was a nightmare, and much like Anne, I fled to my imagination to survive by reading through each day. Recess, lunch, any free moment, I lived in the world of whatever I was reading.

I remember the first time my mother had “room mother” duty and visited my class. That day after school she told me, “You’re right, they hate you. I don’t understand why, but they do.”

I was surprised she could see it. Adults generally didn’t. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Gardner*, in particular. I adored her – we all did. She was blonde and young and good natured and fun. And she was concerned that I didn’t socialize and play with the other girls. She took me aside to talk about it and ask if there was a problem.

There was of course. The girls mocked and ostracized me, and her daughter was the ring leader (in a move that I doubt would happen today even in a small private Christian school like ours, her daughter had been assigned to her own mother’s class).

What was I supposed to say? Your daughter is cruel and mean, and I don’t want to play with her any more than she wants to play with me? Kids know better. At least I did. I said something about not knowing how to jump rope (the activity the other girls spent most of their recess time on and that I could never understand the attraction of).

So, Mrs. Gardner made a project out of me. One recess she enlisted her daughter and her friends to teach me to jump rope at recess. I remember all of us kids looking at each other and silently agreeing to go along with the fiction – to protect Mrs. Gardner from the real world.

The next recess we all returned to our regular ways.

After a week or two, Mrs. Gardner tried a different tactic and suspended my library privileges in an attempt to deprive me of my regular refuge.

This wasn’t the first time a teacher tried that with me. In second grade at a different school, a student teacher had a scheme in which we had to read so many books at each reading level before we could advance to reading books in the next. The first level was mostly Dr. Seuss, and I’d pretty much skipped that level long before. Those were “baby books” to me, and I refused to read them on principle. The librarian, Mrs. Redmond, liked me (librarians always liked me) and helped me find other books until the teacher made her stop. Mrs. Redmond told me to get my mother to take me downtown to the public library and get me my own library card so I could read whatever books I wanted, and that’s exactly what we did. (Librarians are more subversive than one might think!)

So when Mrs. Gardner took my school library privileges away, I just started bringing my books from the library downtown. And they saved my sanity and my heart.

Children can be brutal, and adults can be naive fools about them.

In the years that followed (I graduated high school with pretty much the same group of kids and it was one of the happiest days of my life), we all learned to survive. I learned the girls who would tolerate me hanging around (I had to sit somewhere at lunch), and they learned, well, to tolerate me, I suppose. The ostracizing became less overt, or maybe we all just got used to the way things were.

They didn’t understand me nor I them. And for all her good intentions, Mrs. Gardner had only made things worse.

Madeleine L’Engle said once, “If we ever, God forbid, manage to make each child succeed with his peer group, we will produce a race of bland and faceless nonentities, and all poetry and mystery will vanish from the face of the earth.”

I read that when I was 11 or 12, in A Circle of Quiet, the journal in which L’Engle speaks of her own misfit childhood. It helped save my sanity and was perhaps the first time I felt affirmed in being who I was.

I didn’t fit, but it was okay – I didn’t need to.

We shouldn’t have to fit to belong, to be loved. To be delighted in and invited to bring all of ourselves to the table of community and friendship. It’s in embracing our differences that we are rich. Colors, cultures, genders, attractions, affinities, quirks, wounds, and gifts. There are colors of creation we have never imagined. Assimilation creates a gray blob. Melt all the crayons together and you get something so boring as to be useless.

But mix them up in a bowl together, each distinct and wholly itself, and you have the means to create something new and infinitely beautiful.

Don’t worry. It’s alright. You don’t have to be like me for us to be friends.

Actually, I’d rather you weren’t.

*Not her name

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    

Turning Blue Babies Pink

Turning Blue Babies Pink

In the summer of 2013, a doctor died in Memphis named Sheldon Korones. He was 89 years old and had dedicated his life to fighting infant mortality in that city.

He was once asked, what gives you the most pleasure? He answered, “Turning blue babies pink.”

Brett Trapp relates that story on his blog, “Blue Babies Pink” (I listened to the podcast version). Brett is a gay Christian who grew up as the son of a conservative Baptist preacher in the south, and the blog explores what that was like and relates his coming out journey.

When I heard Dr. Korones’ answer, I started crying. Distracted by the stereotypical colors of gender, I’d missed the significance of the blog’s title until that moment.

As a straight, cisgender woman, I’ve never had to struggle with so many of the things Brett and my LGBTQ friends have had to face. I listen to their stories and I am heartbroken, awed, and humbled.

But I do know what it is for a part of who you are to be invisible, smothered by contexts that don’t know how to acknowledge who you are and don’t particularly want to. And I know what it is to face rejection and pain so deep that part of you dies, because it truly is too much to bear. Sometimes that isn’t even a choice – particularly when we are children.

Sometimes it’s how anything at all survives.

I also know what it can take to let yourself come to life again. The pain is still there, waiting to devour you, and beginning to come alive again means feeling it. All of it. It can look endless and impossible. Unthinkable even.

But there’s no other way to life but through it, and for me at least, there came a point (a series of them actually) when finding life was worth it, even if it killed me.

Too many don’t make it through.

There is one thing stronger than death.

Love is stronger than death.

As I have walked alongside LGBTQ friends, over and over again I’ve watched love turn “blue babies pink.” I’ve seen so many find the courage to face the pain and come alive.

A friend of mine said once that courage is doing really scary things really scared. It was the first time I could relate to “courage.” And the only times I’ve ever seen real courage in action in my own life or anybody else’s, love was behind it.

Because love is stronger than death.

Death keeps us locked up – afraid and numbing ourselves to all the pain we can’t bear. It keeps us isolated and lonely, even with friends, because there is so much of us they can’t know. It makes us pretend and protect, because we can’t bear to think of the consequences if we don’t. Death will eat us alive.

But love won’t stay locked up. It won’t stay silent. It will stare down pain and death of every kind, if we can find the courage to let it.

I love the stories of “blue babies,” strangling on the hand life has dealt them, beginning to turn pink. Finding the strength to take deep, full breaths – the courage to love and be loved, with all the risks that entails. Coming alive to grow and thrive and walk and run and fall and get back up again and lose and try again and grieve and keep moving forward.

Where the Spirit of Love is, there is freedom. Where the Spirit of Love is, there is joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Where the Sprit of Love is, the dead walk out of their tombs.

Where the Spirit of Love is, an army of dry bones – blue babies – are covered with pink living flesh and breathe again.

Where the Spirit of Love is, there is life.

Messy, complicated, painful, glorious life.

Like Dr. Korones, I will fight to see blue babies turn pink.

Messing Up

Messing Up

I’ve messed up the past couple of weeks.

I messed up in a relationship. I let what I wanted blind me to where someone else was and what they needed. I didn’t mean to, but I did, and I messed up.

I also messed up a story I told at an open mic. I’m new to this storytelling thing, and it’s scary. But I want to learn to do the stories and the people in them justice. I tried winging a story I’ve been thinking about, and I got something important out of place and messed it up.

I’m sure there’s plenty of other things I messed up this week. And I’m guessing you probably did, too.

But something has shifted for me.

This week, when I messed up, I didn’t freeze and I didn’t hide. I owned it.

We talked about what happened, and I’m figuring out what moving forward and growing looks like.

I kept telling the story, and when I got to the end, people were still with me.

I used to be so afraid of messing up, of getting something wrong. If I’m honest, I still am sometimes.

But now, I’m more afraid of getting frozen there. I want to keep living, as messy as that is. Because as much as I mess up, good things keep happening and good gifts keep coming.

Don’t misunderstand, there are real consequences to messing up, consequences I have to own up to and live with. And sometimes they’re pretty devastating.

But I’m learning, and living.

I can’t remember when I first heard that failure is part of success. It’s pretty ubiquitous. But that came with a parallel lesson that everything mattered, that every choice and decision had consequences that could affect the rest of my life (if not eternity).

I’m not sure I don’t still believe that, but I certainly see it differently. It’s those choices and consequences that make up a life. That’s what actually living looks like.

I know people who are haunted by lost opportunities and dreams, marriages that ended, careers gone. But I see other opportunities opened up for them, new possibilities, hard won strength. And I’m awed by the possibilities of their lives.

I’m learning to see my own life the same way. Everything that ends isn’t a failure, and trying and failing doesn’t make me a failure. My feelings have had a hard time catching up with what I know, but they’re starting to come around.

There’s something I’m far more afraid of these days than failing or messing up or getting it wrong – and that’s not trying.

There’s so much more, so much to explore and learn and grow into. And sometimes I’m going to get it wrong, but I’m going to deal with it and keep trying anyway.

I may mess up, but I don’t want to miss a thing.

Love in a Multiverse

Love in a Multiverse

So many things could have been different.

Everything, really.

Sometimes I think of who I might be if my daddy hadn’t died. It’s an entirely different life, an entirely different me, so different I can’t imagine.

This universe with this particular me is only one of an infinity of possibilities. So many choices –many mine and many not – have created this one. But the others are there, too.

There’s the one where I died, as I nearly did, before I was even two.

There’s the one where I went to the secular university I wanted to, a completely new world, instead on the Baptist university I’d grown up at. I wonder who I’d have turned out to be.

There’s one where the first boy I dated in my mid-twenties decided I might be his type after all and I married him as I was ready to do. I don’t doubt we could have made a good life together, a good family. But I would be a very different me – a far more conventional me.

There’s the one where the first boy I kissed didn’t have the sense to recognize that we fit in all the worst possible ways. I wouldn’t have had the sense to walk away myself, and we would’ve been a disaster.

There’s the one where I never stopped and went back to check out the book with the scandalous title – “A New Kind of Christian” – on the new non-fiction shelf at the public library. Who would I have been had I not found others were asking the questions I was? Thinking the thoughts I was? And that there was somewhere to go with those thoughts? Had I not found a path out of fundamentalism?

It gave me life but it was smothering the life out of me.

There’s the one where my seminary boyfriend wasn’t so afraid. I’d be different had we stayed together. I would’ve held myself back, and I don’t know that we could’ve made it.

There’s the one where I never got that shove into real dating. Never got past the fear of that unknown. Never found my way through the risks to know who I am and the freedom to explore who I can be.

And there’s the one where I never met you. Never was challenged by our conversations, never shaped by the dance of our friendship. Never had to figure out who I am in just the ways who you are pushed me to. Never had to think about your questions and change because of the answers. Never learned to love in the particular way you were there to love.

You’re the reason this is the universe I’m in instead of so many others that could’ve been.

(Inspiration owed to the brilliant ending of La La Land and the songwriting of Heather Styka.)