Come to find out…

It strikes me lately that there might be a fine line where grief and longing move from an accurate representation of loss to a habituated thousand-yard stare.

As much as I think I’ve been defined by some loss, I have to also recognize that a sentimentality for the past has long been hardwired in.  I have always been wistful for anyone’s past. (I desperately wanted to be Mennonite for an entire confusing year in suburban Wichita, Kansas during the mid-80’s, eclipsing in its intensity my 3-year run as a Old West cowgirl.)

Longing for something, especially while you are still in the thick of it, has got to be one of those human emotions so far above the top rung of Maslow’s ladder of needs as to seem willfully tedious and precious to many people.  And yet, longing and sentimentality can also be so incredibly universal and normal, even where the most basic needs are missing.  We no more base our needs on a clear, ascendant ladder of parallel rungs than we make rational, non-emotional buying decisions (sorry, economic theory 101).

Because people are complicated.  A friend who is a refugee trauma psychologist once told me, at a barbeque in my backyard just after she was back from Pakistan, that she had waited for the Iraqi refugees to cross the border into the UN safe camp in 2009, preparing to help them hold and process stories of unspeakable horror and trauma. And she did. “But the funny thing was,” she said, “so often the first thing that people wanted to talk about was how they wanted to get back together with an ex-, but now the ex- was with someone else; or that their new brother-in-law had really changed family dynamics they resented their sister for it.” Alongside the tragedy, life is also teeming with all the normal hair-splitting stuff, longing high among them.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large. I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman.

Charlotte, my 8.9999-year-old daughter, has fallen off the top rung of Maslow’s ladder recently by pining that her childhood is speeding by.  She usually tells me this with toothpaste smeared across her cheek and missing an essential article of clothing, which makes her existential anxiety all the more poignant.  “There’s all this change and expectations and hardly any recess anymore and I’m growing up too fast and just want to be a kindergartener again,” she wailed breathlessly the other night, trying to get her pointy elbows and knees to tuck into my lap.  I get it.  Having similar antennae to the world, I remember missing my childhood while it was still happening.  Nowadays, I rush to my laptop to work with great gratitude and in the very next breath immediately imagine myself when the kids are gone missing this part of mothering … missing what I am experiencing in real time.  Oy.  Longing for something, especially something or someone not yet gone, can heighten our sensitivity and gratitude, can attune us to greater beauty in that eye-brimming way, can fuel our sense of pathos – it’s a painful sort of visceral poetry.  But maybe it can also be addictive.

My longing for my mother, gone 26 years now, has become such a present and familiar emotion for me, like a sweater never taken off, that I think it is projected through an unease and a wanting in many other forms. Like needing to emotionally pat down friends and beloveds after seeing them for reassurance. Like wanting more of other people, too much of other people, when really I want more of her. When really I need more of me. It’s like writer Cheryl Strayed said on the absence of her own mother, “it’s a constantly empty bowl, that I must repeatedly refill and refill.”  To me, it feels a bit like an amputation, physically altering and life changing, no moment that I am not aware of it, frequently with those little stabbing phantom reminders.  But Cheryl and I (she lets me call her Cheryl) have the same idea – it’s omnipresent and seems to always be sending up a signal.

So, I am trying to sort out where grief and sadness bleed into longing and pining.  And the task I’ve been mulling on recently is how to give kindness and validation to the grief, but examine (and hopefully quit) where I stoke the longing.

The grief is valid and real.  I once told a friend that I felt so guilty for lugging around this sack of sadness with my children.  I’ll never forget the relief when she said, “Maybe they will love your sorrow as a part of you. To them it will be another beloved trait of yours: blue eyes, furrowed brow, disproportional dislike of pretzels, humor, sorrow.”  She gave me room to accept – and go ahead and feel – this part of me.

But the longing is a hungry wolverine, with dirt under its long sharp fingernails, irritated and peeved as it noses around insatiably.  Longing does not have the depth and stillness of sorrow – in some ways, it is a diversion to not feel the sorrow. It is restless and wanting. It’s a bowl that can’t be filled.

Kurt Vonnegut, God bless and rest that dear man, reminds us how normal this is, this longing for more, and also how insidious. “When a couple has an argument nowadays they may think it’s about money or power or sex or how to raise the kids or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though without realizing it, is this: ‘You are not enough people!'”

This is funny and true and confusing and uncomfortable, all at once. I know that what drives me to reach out and connect is healthy and useful, not just for me but for other people too. We lean forward to connect with other people, who are then emboldened by love to reach out to more people. Our insistence and persistence with each other and our connections helps hold up the whole leaky, rag-tag, beautiful raft of humanity.  I believe in love by doing, in checking in, in being active in each other’s worlds.  We need each other and fulfill each other.  But we cannot fulfill ourselves solely in this way. So the anecdote is to fill up oneself – but not to back away from needing and being needed by others, not to lose connection.

I remember an encounter at the Wag-a-Bag™ in Texarkana, Texas, coming back from a couples’ weekend away in the mountains of north Arkansas with Steven circa 2010.  While he breezed in and out of the men’s room, I slowly aged in the long women’s line behind a woman determined to engage me in conversation.  Finally, I gave in and asked her where she was going.  A family reunion, she replied, but it was going to be a surprise to see her 85-year-old dad and stepmother, who she hadn’t spoken to in 11 years.  “Wow,” I offered – and meant it.

“Yeah, you know, I tried calling several times but never could get them and they didn’t call so we just didn’t speak.  WELL –”  She paused dramatically.  “Come to find out the area code had changed and I had the wrong number.  So, we just hopped in the car and came on!”

There are so SO many things that I don’t want to “come to find out”, but for sure one is that I don’t ever want to come to find out an 11-year gap occurred because an area code changed.  I am glad for the part of me that is hungry and seeking, curious and excited to connect.  I am working to accept the part of myself who misses my mother on a level that’s almost too much to bear. And I am also increasingly aware of the fact that there are some times when the hunger becomes insatiable, when my longing has me wanting everyone to be “more people,” instead of quietly heading home to do the lonely and difficult – but more sustainably satisfying – work of refilling that constantly empty bowl myself. Then refilling again.   And again.

Earlier today I asked Steven to read a draft of this and he said – “it’s like you are saying grief and longing are separate and it’s the longing that must be released, but you yourself don’t quite believe it.” At first I felt so dejected in that way you do when someone calls you out on a truth you yourself hadn’t quite illuminated.  He’s right. I’m not buying this quite yet because it’s hard, because there is a lot of tangled gray here, and because I still sorta love my addiction.  But there is something here – a trail of breadcrumbs I am following, and I know it’s going somewhere I need to go.  And I am also aware I don’t have to have it all sorted out on this blog.

And maybe all the better if I don’t.

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One dinner, a Reconciliation Dinner

My hometown is beautiful because it is willing to talk about its ugliness.

I’ve been off my blog beat the past two weeks, focused on this event one year in the planning – and then all the fallout of the other things I wasn’t focused on because of the Reconciliation dinner. So I just have this to offer you – the recent newsletter I wrote summarizing our dinner. It takes you through much of the evening’s timeline and content – but its significance is one I’ll be unpacking for some time to come.

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On August 27, just over 100 people gathered at the Petroleum Club in downtown Shreveport to take part in the city’s inaugural Reconciliation Dinner. A diverse group of individuals — black and white, young and older, men and women — who have devoted themselves to the work of improving racial justice and social equity came together to discuss their personal stories, the challenges we face in Shreveport today, and what kind of city we might be in the future.

A short video recap of the dinner

Conversation took place over a meal that celebrated our local North Louisiana cuisine, expertly prepared by Chef Hardette Harris, creator of the Official Meal of North Louisiana. The familiarity of this comfort food — greens, cornbread, smoked meats — foods we all ate at grandmothers’ tables, warmed the conversation, facilitating greater ease and flow of dialogue.

During the evening, the “Pioneers” of civil rights in Shreveport were honored. The Pioneers of Reconciliation comprised a non-exhaustive list of those who have gone before us, in many cases sacrificing and risking everything to blaze new paths to begin tearing down oppressive barriers to equality.

Four guests shared their own personal experience through a storytelling exercise we called the Sawa Bona moment. In the South African Zulu language, “Sawa Bona” is a unique greeting, which literally means, “I see you.” More broadly, however, it means, “I see you, I value you, and I witness you and am listening.” The respondent replies, “Sikhona,” meaning, “I am here.” I am here because you have seen my humanity; your acknowledgment and deep listening validates me and gives me identity. Each of the four Sawa Bona storytellers told a brief personal story, holding a single candle, before a room rapt with quiet attention. Rosie Chaffold delivered an unflinching look at the realities of deep and institutionalized racism, and told how her decades-long fight to transform a community through a neighborhood garden revealed more cross-cultural similarities than differences. Laurie Lyons spoke of her own painful coming-of-age on the privileged side of social inequity in Shreveport, a reality rarely discussed or revealed that proved to be a catalyst in her own life.

After dinner, the seven Rising Voices were acknowledged and an excerpt read of their essays on a vision for stronger reconciliation in Shreveport. As seven young people under 40, these Rising Voices have already made significant personal investments and great strides in local human rights. Their exceptional leadership and promise lies not only in their vision for a more equitable and just Shreveport, but also – and perhaps especially – in their insistence we take deep and realistic stock of how racism affects us all today.

PoeticX, Shreveport’s poet laureate, capped the evening and brought the crowd to their feet with his powerful poem, “When We Shake Hands ©,” written for the occasion. Click Here for a printable copy of the poem, or better yet, watch this talented spoken word artist deliver it himself.

Sponsors and in-kind supporters made the evening possible, including the generosity of our hosting location, the Petroleum Club and Chef Eddie Mars.

The Reconciliation Dinner Shreveport was a success. And yet, we acknowledge, it was also only a baby step towards a stronger spirit of reconciliation for our city. Certainly, an event is not a movement, a dinner itself does not make social change. But perhaps with heightened visibility, a little murmur of noise and discussion in what has so long been deafening silence, perhaps we can bring greater acknowledgment of and emboldening to discuss what one Rising Voice called “the two Shreveports.” This will only be possible with momentum. Where we go from here, in ways small and large, formal and informal, will shape our true success and the overall health of our shared future.

Dinner guests were provided a brochure of dialogue techniques and conversation starters to help support their existing efforts in office breakrooms, school classrooms and around dinner tables. (Click Here to view or download a pdf of this brochure).

To move forward together, we want to hear from you. Where are constructive conversations around race and racism occurring in your orbit? At your church? Your child’s school? Your workplace? Or maybe in the quiet of your own living room? Please email us at answers@reconciliationshreveport.com with where efforts in reconciliation are happening in Shreveport, that we might better connect and support each other.