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Culture

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Poem: First Lines

first lines never cares what time it is
they nudge their cold noses against my ear, wanting to go for walks in the briskest part of the a.m.
they don’t care that I just went to sleep
that I’m lazy
that I no longer take to the habit of keeping journals by the bed for this very moment
that I want to shoo them away
but I’m too afraid of losing one
so I drag my right hand from under the covers
grab the pen that has long since riddled my bedspread with ink blots
and let the poem do its business
so we can both head back to sleep

some days I want to quit
afraid that the words I write or maybe even my own life just will never be good enough
but thankfully words don’t give up
they are ants, crawling in a line
sending out one at a time to scout out the territory
I mean they bring reinforcements
long lines of stanzas tracing the trail from floorboards, down the doorjamb, surrounding the perimeter of my walls
will not be stomped out or stopped until they find the sweet thing they’ve been searching for

so despite the decline of printing presses
or the fact that magazines, books, and newspapers are becoming an endangered species
or that words have historically been misused and taken advantage of
they will never grow extinct
will not be rationed or relegated to government assistance
words know no economic crisis
their stimulus plan
can be found in my grandmother’s scrabble tiles
searching for triple word score
or in the hands of a little colored girl
clutching the spine of for colored girls
hoping to find the backbone to be herself
in a world that would encourage her to be anything but

so as long as God is still speaking
as long as the story must be told
as long as the words hidden in your heart will always show up on your tongue
as long as a whisper still has the power to send the hairs on the back of your neck to rise in standing ovation
words will survive

they are really just like the rest of us
searching for a place called home
with strong arms and a warm heart to hold them
hoping for someone to take them in and accept them in their present tense
for someone to believe in them, that they can be something

which is why at the end of a long day of living
and an even longer list of things to do
I leave my worries outside this room
lay next to these words and wrap my arms around them until I can feel them breathing
and sometimes we wake up in the middle of the night just to share each other’s secrets
and after we both fall asleep
the pen slips from my fingers and leaves its mark on the page

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Janet Jackson, Control, and Surrender

I was a serious Janet Jackson fan growing up. I even wrote a letter to her fan club, sent her my 4th grade school picture, and told her how much Rhythm Nation meant to me. I was a special kind of nerd.

It all started with her album “Control”: Janet in the black jeans, crimped hair, large mic headset, dancing and singing. She made being brown and having hips and being soft-spoken okay. “Control” was about letting the world and herself know that she was no doormat.

I listened to that cassette and the words still ring back to me all these years later, “When I was 17, I did what people told me.” My preteen self, who understood very little about the words I was singing, gave Janet some serious competition with my bathroom mirror concerts singing the song as loudly as I could.

All these years later, I still want control. I want to ride through life, hold it by the reins and control which way it goes. Like young Janet, I had to learn that a part of life means choosing, not letting the opinions of other people override the voice of God and my own soul. I also had to learn there would be many things in life I would not be able to control.

I can’t control how long I have to stand in line and wait for things. I can’t control other people’s feelings or decisions. I can’t use my calendar, alarms, and incessant planning to command the outcome of my life. The moment I start to act like a know-it-all is when I become more aware how much I don’t know it all.

My safety net when I’m stressed is googling, planning, and worrying. I have somehow come to believe that internet searches, excessive information, and setting a timer for things is my best way to survive in life. The results of this method usually end in sleepless nights, failing health, and headaches.

I’m learning when life starts to crumble, when all the crutches I’ve trusted in start to cave in, my best course of action is surrender. In theory, the word surrender brings images to my mind of Psalm 23, still waters, bubbling brooks. In actuality, surrender makes me think I’m supposed to do nothing about the looming problem that stands in the way between me and a good night’s sleep.

Surrender is an easy word to say but it’s a lot harder to do. Surrendering means I really do trust God to know and do what’s best for me, more than I trust what I think I know or understand. As much as I want to hold onto things or people or ideas or plans, I have to make sure I put my trust in the One who made the people, who gives the ideas, who conceives all the plans.

Surrendering is not a one-time experience. It is something I must do, every day, moment by moment. When I feel my want for control itching in my fingers as I type my latest concern, problem or stress into Google’s convenient search engine box, I remember that sometimes life is about doing but sometimes life is also about resting.

Not just the kind of rest we get when we sleep, but a rest we need in our souls, especially when we take all of the problems of life and carry them on our shoulders as if we have the strength to carry it all. There is only One who carried it all, whose shoulders are strong enough for any problem, disease, concern, worry, wound or frustration. His shoulders are big enough to carry today and eternity. God is the one who is truly in control.

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To My Future Son: With Thoughts of Ferguson

You have yet to be born
You have yet to be conceived
But I see you in my dreams
And I dream of the man you will be
And I pray that God would help me to prepare you for this world
Even though I sometimes worry this world is not prepared for you

You are the seed of your mommy and daddy’s hopes and dreams
Irish, African, Scottish, Southern, American
You will be the best remix we will ever help to create
I want you to know your roots
That you come from hardworking people
That you are a descendant of slave and free
I want to play for you the songs of your people
Made on porches and hills
In villages and in cities
In the songs of the free
And the blues of the oppressed
I want you to always find yourself

Your skin
Will be a mix of daddy’s freckles
A tinge of red hair
The rich hue of soil
Sweetened by sun
My son
You will be a symphony of skin tones
A roux of all the generational colors and shades that helped create you

Your hair will curl at the slightest humidity or rain
Will bend and twirl
Constantly searching for beats for minute and electric frequency
Your wide shoulders and chest
Will carry the load God gives you to bear
While helping you to surrender that load to the One who has already carried it all

Your hands are meant for pianos, for saxophones
For carpentry, for artistry
For sketching the architecture and design that comes to your mind
For handling scalpel and needle to fix heart and brain
For lifting praise, for counting the days
For drawing the line
For knowing when to stand up and fight

When it’s time
I want to prepare you
For walking out of our door
Into a world that may see your brown skin and fear it
Misunderstand it
Demand it be subdued

I want you to walk tall, with your shoulders back as your grandma taught me to
But because I love you
I will tell you sad truths
Everyone will not love your brown skin as much as you do
There have been many men and women before you
Who lost their lives for having the same brown skin you do

My son
I will not teach you to walk in fear
To judge anyone by their color of skin or the money they make
Only by their character and the respect they choose to give or take
I will pray for you every night
And think of the mothers of Oscar, Sean, Amadou, Trayvon, Emmett, Michael
And so many more
Who’s hope for what would have been their son’s future now lies in you

And I will hug you
And kiss you
Even if it embarrasses you
For all the mama’s kisses missed
For all the things these sons didn’t live to experience

My son, every life matters
Their lives mattered
Your life matters too
I love you,
Your future mommy

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Like a Virgin

I lost my virginity in a hotel room. It was not like the movies, no dramatic musical crescendos, no perfectly crafted lines of dialogue, just two people cautiously traveling each other’s bodies for the first time. I was 31 years old and it was beautiful.

Like many church girls I signed a True Love Waits card when I was 14 and started wearing a purity ring in high school. My church community supported me, and my group of friends, mostly virgins, gave me no peer pressure.

In college, I busied myself in campus ministry and avoided dating to keep my worst fear from coming true. I was raised by a single mother who endeavored not to raise her daughters to intentionally become single mothers. I feared that I would arrive home with swollen belly and potential dreams dashed instead of completing the college degree my mom worked so hard to help me pay for and complete.

After college I spent my spare time working with the college ministry at church. It was normal on our team of twenty or so twenty-somethings for none of us to be getting any so my abstinence was accepted, applauded, and encouraged. My virginity wasn’t considered a freak of nature until I left my church bubble.

This is when I realized to be a virgin in my 20s, quickly approaching my 30s, to many people, seemed strange, weird, and unfortunate. I started working as an arts journalist, which changed my environment from church services to clubs and hip hop shows. When strangers asked about my ring and I explained it was a symbol of my commitment to Jesus to wait until I got married to have sex, I was met with blank stares.

In my late twenties, my virginity turned into a worry. I wondered what grown man would want to marry a woman in her thirties who had no sexual experience. A few potential dates applauded my choice. A couple of them tried a relationship with me only to decide breaking up was the best thing to do. Some of them expressly let me know that they did not date virgins, and didn’t want the responsibility, the clinging or the baggage.

By the time I turned thirty I was beginning to wonder if the status that I had worn proudly as a ring on my finger had become a liability to be managed and cautiously explained. So I decided the main thing my potential suitors needed to know was that I didn’t want to have sex until marriage. Whether my number of partners was zero or infinity was none of their business, especially on a first date. If we made it past a few dates into something that had the potential for a relationship, then I could share my status.

I wasn’t ashamed of my choice but I realized I didn’t have to wear my virginity on my sleeve. My virginity wasn’t the center of my worth. I realized although 14-year-old-me had signed a True Love Waits card, and high-school-me put on a purity ring, I was an adult now. My decision to wait to have sex until I got married didn’t have to be a platform for me to stand on. It was also a personal, private journey between God and me. A decision I would wrestle with, feel good about, get frustrated with, pray about, cry about, then feel peace about and decide that holding on to my virginity was something I really wanted to do: for God, for my future spouse and children, but also for myself.

I had seen and experienced enough abandonment, in my own family and among my friends. I wanted my first time having sex to be with a man who married me, wanted a family with me, and, like me, was living an imperfect life while growing and knowing Jesus.

The man I married had been my friend for almost two years. When I told him I was a virgin, as we held hands on our first date, I waited to be rejected or made fun of. He didn’t do either. He let me know that he respected and admired my choice and that before we were friends he committed to remain celibate until marriage.

A little over a year from that first date, we stood across from each other in front of our friends and family and vowed to love, respect, and walk through all seasons of life together. I shared a beautiful first time with him on our honeymoon.

I don’t regret it. I didn’t all of a sudden feel like the heroine of some chick flick but I felt sexy and beautiful and safe and loved. Not just because of the intimate experience I had with my husband but also because I was learning to love myself and to support my own decisions.

There are a lot of things connected to sex: our souls, spirits, bodies and emotions. There is a lot of guilt and shame shoveled at us for what we’ve done and sometimes for what we haven’t done; for what was done to us, or what we’ve done to others. God never meant for sex or sexual experiences to be a dumping ground for guilt and shame.

The choice to remain a virgin until marriage is an honorable one, just as the choice to wait until marriage whether you’re a virgin or not is honorable too.

The most important part is letting what we do with our bodies and souls, first become a personal conversation with the God who invented sex, created intimacy and feels no shame about communicating with us about either. From there we can make decisions that honor the God who made us in the first place and loves us unconditionally.

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My Princess Problem

I stood in front of a room of young girls and women, first graders to college students. I talked to them about how we want to carry good words with us. Words that remind us we are beautiful just the way we are, that we are loved and accepted, that God has plans for us and created us for a reason, that none of us are mistakes no matter how we got here.

I showed them pictures of my little girl self and how it took me so long to love and accept her and that I’m still learning to do so. And then I took questions.

One of the girls asked me, “Who is your favorite Disney princess?”

“I don’t have a favorite Disney princess,” I said.

And the entire room gasped.

I cycled through all the Disney movies I knew, the classic Disney films I’d grown up with before there was “Frozen” and “Brave.” I thought of “Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, how I never identified with their fair skin and straight hair. I thought of how divorce limited any memories I’d have of being daddy’s princess. I thought of how I grew up being raised by strong women who could not wait on Prince Charming or fairy godmothers or spells to rescue them so they became “can-do” women instead.

So I never dressed up as a princess, never imagined myself a tiara, preferred a fresh pair of sneakers instead of glass slippers, found my fairy tales in Toni Morrison’s fiction, Maya Angelou’s poetry, and John Steptoe’s African tale, “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.”

Then I remembered talking about princesses with another room of young women, many if whom had lived enough life to be twice their teen age. They were survivors of exploitation, trafficking, and abuse, beginning the lifelong journey of recovery. Once or month or so we sit at a table and write together.

We write about God, about the past, about things we love, about wounds. I asked them to write about what they thought about the word princess. I was curious to see if they had the same complicated relationship I had to the word princess. Some found it easy to identify with fairytales, some couldn’t bring themselves to believe in fairy tales based on the harsh realities their lives had been.

We tried an experiment. I asked them to invent their own princess and kingdom. We used our pens to describe what our version of princess would be like, what would be the rules of our kingdom, how we would treat the people who lived there.

We wrote about how we would help the people who lived in our respective kingdoms. Princess fashions ranged from gold to couture to sneakers and jeans. As we read aloud our various inventions of princess, I realized there was power in that.

Movies, magazines, or fairy tales don’t have to be the sole definition of princess for my generation of girls or any of the generations to follow. We get to invent our own princesses, tell our own stories.

I hope to say to young girls what I continue to say to my own little girl self; you can be your own version of princess. Whether you wear tutus or chucks, have freckles or rock an afro, remember that God makes no mistakes and he creates no replicas. So be the unique, original you that God made. That is the coolest, most awesome, absolute best thing you can be.

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