Tortuga

Last weekend I went exploring parts of Chelsea, and spent a good bit of time walking and then sitting on the High Line. It was a beautiful day – warm, sunny, clear blue skies – so unsurprisingly there were quite a number of people out doing the same. I carried a packed lunch with me and at one point I sat down on a bench to enjoy my picnic, sunbathe and people-watch. It felt glorious. It was entertaining too, because everyone it seemed stop to marvel at a tortoise on the narrow lawn in front of me. He was a small thing, for a tortoise, about the size of my hand, and he was the only creature on the grass. He brought so much joy to surprised passersby, children and adults, when they noticed him wandering around there. “A turtle!” They would invariably exclaim, pointing him out to their companions and stopping to stare in wonderment. “How did he get there?” many would ask aloud, and then pull out their phones to take a picture. It was a great mystery, how this ‘turtle’ had made its way onto that particular patch of grass. This mystery was the cherry on top of the lovely treat the tortoise presented – us city folk rarely see animals other than dogs and pigeons when we’re out and about.

Although I didn’t notice the tortoise on my own, I became aware of him not long after I sat down, and was quickly more intrigued by the reactions of the pedestrians than the animal itself. It made me wonder about how we take pleasure in the magic of things that seem to just happen in our lives, though if we could see or understand the strings which brought them all together they would seem so much more mundane and even expected.

Lounging next to me on the bench was a quiet, unassuming man, who brought his wife’s tortoise to the park to sunbathe. Every now and again he would get up and bring Tortuga back into the area directly in front of him, but not so frequently that his presence was always obvious to those around us. Because he did not make a big show of his ownership of the tortoise, either by correcting people’s misperception that it was a turtle, or with body language that pointed to him as pet-owner, for all but those who came around to our side of the lawn to take a closer look, the mystery of Tortuga’s presence was preserved.

The gentleman’s actions led me to thinking about life in general, and all that must happen behind-the-scenes of events and circumstances that seem unexplainable to us. The fact is, whether we realise it or not, God is there. In the cosmic scheme of things, we are the turtles he has brought to the lawn.

Tortuga’s playground, which separated me and his owner from everyone else, recalled for me how our human nature and earthly home act as a barrier between us and God. While we may be looking at the same thing, we have totally different perspectives. Because of my position on the bench, I was privy to Tortuga’s name, his history and how he came to be at the High Line. I experienced his exploratory movements in a totally different way than everyone that whipped out their cameras – in fact I tried to take a picture of the people taking pictures. Our different knowledges put us in separate categories. They enjoyed looking at him while I marvelled at the great happiness he brought them.

This is analogous to my relationship with God. He is in control of my life, and knows things about it that I can’t, and never will. Furthermore, like Tortuga’s owner, he is always watching me and has control over what I encounter and when. From my perspective on the other side of the grass, I can’t see all that He is doing and will never be able to know the explanations for everything that happens, but I need to trust in him and his sovereignty all the same.

You look beautiful even when you clean your nose!

…a man shouted at me from his vehicle, as I approached the end of the sidewalk and prepared to cross the road in front of him. He must have seen me blowing my nose seconds before. I’ve written about catcalling elsewhere, but this is the kind of street attention that I find sweet and uplifting. The guy was nice, he had no ulterior motives, he just wanted to let me know he thought I was beautiful. Considering the fact that I was sick, and certainly not feeling like I looked my best, that was a really welcome compliment. Thank you sir.

New Perspectives on Faith

Working with two year olds is consuming, tiring, challenging. I enter a toddler vacuum at the beginning of the day and am cut off from the outside world and ordinary adult life until I return home in the evening. I’m very new to this job – it’s only been a few weeks – and there have been many times when I’ve  felt overwhelmed by all it requires of me. It’s easy to feel, too, that all this position does is take from me, while I receive nothing in return. In peaceful moments, however, I marvel at all that my students are teaching me about love, forgiveness and living with gusto.

First, on love. It’s easy to understand that my tiny charges are in love with their parents. For several of them separating at the beginning of the day involves some combination of tears, protests and a refusal to take off jackets and outside shoes. What I’m always delighted to witness, however, is how much they love one another. Or maybe it’s how they’re unafraid to demonstrate their love for each other. When a friend arrives in the morning they happily shout his/her name, and drop whatever they’re doing to come to the door and greet them with hugs, smiles and kisses. If a friend is crying because they are hurt or don’t want to leave their parents, I can count on at least one student to try and comfort them with pats on the back and hugs. And, when one of my students wrongs another, after an apology all is forgiven and it’s as though the transgression never happened.

1 Corinthians 13:4-5 says “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (NIV) My students struggle like all the rest of us with all but the last characteristic on this list, and I can see how much of an impact this has on our classroom environment and my relationship with each of them. They forgive totally and completely, in a way it’s rare to see with older people – even if the ‘older’ person is 6. It is tempting to dismiss their actions based on the wrongdoing – often the issue is that someone pushed them or grabbed the book they were reading – but in their two year old minds, developing in stable families and neighbourhoods, these are truly aggravating problems.

Another thing that surprised me is how readily my students forgive me. I discipline them so regularly, I was nervous in my first week that they wouldn’t like me. I know this is different than the peer-to-peer interactions I described, but how easy is it for us to resent people who correct us, even if they are right?

In addition to this easy forgiveness being good for the community atmosphere in our classroom, I’ve noticed how good it is for the individual student. After receiving their apology, they turn their minds completely to whatever they were doing and are able to focus on and enjoy it totally, without any lingering feelings of indignation. How different from my own experience, when I say that I’ve forgiven someone yet still feel bitterness and discontent creeping into all aspects of my day. I can see in my charges why forgiveness is so important for the wronged individual: it frees your mind and energy to focus on everything else you have to deal with, and whatever life throws at you next. Hanging on to the past and nursing self-righteousness does more than alter our moods, it actively works against our ability to give all of our effort and attention to present tasks and responsibilities. I understand this even more clearly now that I can witness the exuberance with which my students carry on with their days. I want to be just like them!

This brings me to my students’ exuberance in general. They are so enthusiastic about the little rituals in our day, regardless of having done them many times over. When it comes to new activities or people, they are immediately curious and excited to learn more. Their growing minds explore and absorb everything around them, so that when people ask me what it is that I can teach two year olds, my answer is honestly everything. Their zeal for life is heartwarming and inspiring – I want to have the joy they do! Although it’s not possible for me to return to the care and responsibility-free mindset of a toddler, I know that each day offers reasons for me to be joyful and astounded. No matter how old I am, like my Grammy says, “You learn something new every day.” I had a hard time believing her when I was younger – there had to be some threshold of adulthood at which I would cease to be amazed or confounded by life right? Wrong. And what a gift that is! An even greater gift is the unshakeable security I have in Christ, who loves me and called me to him by name, who has saved me from myself and offers me a soul-satisfying relationship with him.

Despite the difficulties with this job, when I reflect on these things I feel blessed that God is using my students to teach me so plainly about the life he has asked us to lead, and to give me a glimpse into why his commandments are good for us. Watching my students interact with one another, and having to deal with them myself, is giving me a new perspective on our sinfulness and its consequences for us as individuals and in our relationships. I also feel acutely the ways I come up short on the fruit of the Spirit, especially because it feels like I need to use all of them to get through each day. As I am stretched by my teaching responsibilities, and observe the workings of two year old hearts and minds, I’m learning about my faith in a completely new, refreshing way, uniquely tied to this (unexpected) classroom experience. It’s so stimulating to ponder these things, and I’m excited about the changes this role is bringing to my spirit. Praise Him!

 

*The fruit of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23

On Riding the Subway

Riding the subway is like playing a game of chance, I never know what I’m going to get. Some trips are totally calm, uninterrupted; others are so bad I have to switch cars. People watching is often entertaining, and I have been hugely surprised, in the short time that I’ve lived here, to recognise three different people  on their commutes. What are the odds? I’m not someone that has a particular spot on the platform, nor do I get on the trains at the same time each day. Somehow though, the fates have lined up and faces that were  foreign on a previous day become familiar on the next.

One thing that is a huge peeve of mine is when people don’t adjust their legs to accommodate newcomers to their bench. It’s happened to me with both men and women, but is a more regular occurrence with men. People have discussed this elsewhere on the internet, but I have also found it to be true: they sit with their legs spread, and cannot for the life of them close them when they have a seat mate. It is so disgustingly rude and entitled, and obviously not necessary. If some men can sit with their legs closed then it must be possible for other men to do the same.

Another thing I’ve noticed with male subway riders is their tendency to make noise. The subway is supposed to be a place where you keep your personal activity just that – personal. If you’re having a conversation, watching a movie, listening to music, that’s all fine, just don’t oblige your neighbours to be involved. Well, I have been the audience for many a rap freestyle, opera singing practice and general sing-along for my fellow male riders. I’ve also had the opportunity to go to a number of free (!) mini-concerts, as men have shared their music with all of us by playing it through the speakers of their phone or stereo. There are signs all over the cars informing passengers to wear headphones and speak quietly, but these are flagrantly ignored.

Why is it that these men think it’s ok to infringe on other passengers’ personal space and activity, to disregard the rules and pretend as though their actions are not in fact disrespectful? Power. Here comes that word again. The subway presents an opportunity for them to dominate a space and make their strength and presence known. Particularly for men who are part of minority groups, who have limited abilities to demonstrate their masculinity in the expected ways of the world: wealth, career, social prestige. The subway car or platform is a place where they can assert themselves and people are forced to pay attention because of the ways they are made to feel uncomfortable. This brings me to something else I’ve noticed – no one ever confronts them.

Perhaps with seating one individual might ask the man next to them to close his legs. For myself, I do the passive aggressive thing and wiggle around until I have room, take advantage of the shifting that happens during stops and starts. However, when it comes to men performing or enjoying a performance, they’re left alone. In weighing the possible outcomes of confronting them against the benefit of keeping the peace, it seems like the odds are ever in the men’s favour. I mean, as much as they invade our spaces and intrude in our lives, they clearly feel they have a right to what they’re doing, and/or they don’t think that it’s a big deal. How then, in the space of a subway ride, could you convince them otherwise? Could you peacefully convince them otherwise? I don’t know, but it certainly makes me angry – and feel impotent – about the fact that the best answer seems to be to try and ignore them, which is what everyone does. The status quo is maintained, but we all more or less peacefully ride the subway one more day.

Power and “The Known World”

“Papa, just cause you didn’t, that don’t mean…” Augustus took down a stick, one with an array of squirrels chasing one another, head to tail, tail to head, a line of sleek creatures going around and around the stick all the way to the top where a perfect acorn was waiting, stem and all. Augustus slammed the stick down across Henry’s shoulder and Henry crumpled to the floor. “Augustus, stop now!” Mildred shouted and knelt to her son. “Thas how a slave feel!” Augustus called down to him. “Thas just how every slave every day be feelin.”

Henry squirmed out of his mother’s arms and managed to get to his feet. He took the stick from his father. “Henry, no!” Mildred said. Henry, with two tries, broke the stick over his knee. “Thas how a master feels,” he said and went out the door.

Edward P. Jones, The Known World p. 138

I don’t usually mark up the books that I read. A passage has to be particularly striking for me to highlight it or write a note in the margins. This was one of those. I was overcome by the truth and the violence in this scene, and it’s haunted me ever since.

The Known World tells the story, in a roundabout way, of what happens to the plantation of black slave-owner Henry Townsend after he dies. It’s an incredible book, not least because the places and people are entirely fictional but feel so real I kept trying to look up miscellaneous facts and personalities. I told a cousin that my favourite thing about The Known World is probably the way it’s so destabilising. There are lots of characters involved, but Jones doesn’t tell their stories in chronological order, so it took a while to get my bearings and even then I felt like the ground was ever-shifting beneath my feet. There’s a little magical realism sprinkled throughout the story too, just enough so that you’re mostly on solid rock, but every now and again puddles of water creep through so slowly and ordinarily you wonder whether some fantastical event that you wouldn’t otherwise be taken in by could actually be possible.

Then of course the whole subject of the novel is unfamiliar territory – who really talks about black slave owners? Even though they were an extreme minority, the fact that there were free black people who owned slaves adds a fascinating complexity to the fabric of society during this period. One aspect of this complexity is played out in the relational dynamics of this scene, and dwelling on what’s happened for a little bit shows us why it’s important to think about these complexities at all.

Augustus and Mildred are Henry’s parents. All of them began their lives as slaves, and Augustus worked to free first himself, then his wife and finally his son. While he was still enslaved Henry developed a relationship with his master, which continued after he was freed. His former master mentored him and helped him develop his own plantation. This scene is the aftermath of Henry revealing to his parents that he has bought his first slave.

Augustus and Mildred are, understandably, bewildered – how could a son of theirs ever think to buy another human being? Did they somehow go wrong in assuming that he would implicitly understand the evils of owning another person? That it was tantamount to returning to Egypt “after God done took you outa there”? (137). They have to ask him, explicitly, whether or not he knows it’s wrong, and Henry replies that no one ever taught him so. Then he becomes defensive – owning slaves isn’t illegal; he’s not doing anything a white man wouldn’t do. It’s clear that parents and child are at odds, and Augustus, having vowed to himself never to suffer a slaveowner on his property, kicks Henry out. As he’s ushering his son out the door, he tries, one last time, to convey to Henry the implications of his purchase.

When Augustus brought the walking stick crashing down onto Henry’s shoulders, I felt as though I too was receiving the blow. It’s one thing to be moved by accounts of the mistreatment of slaves, to be appalled at how plantations were run and to be disgusted by Jim Crow laws. It’s quite another to imagine myself buckling to the floor every day under the force of a solid wooden stick slamming down onto my shoulders. I felt as though the wind was knocked out of me. I felt beaten down. The analogy was so very real. I cheered for Augustus for making his point so clearly, for definitively proving the moral high ground, even as I was still reeling from the blow he dealt his son. Then, before I could catch my breath, Henry comes back for the last word, demonstrating his immense power by actually breaking the stick over his knee. He is totally free from that subservient position, and, strangely, I felt myself rooting for him too. Yes! Go Henry! You’re not gonna take that! Sock it to ’em!

Therein lies the tension that makes this passage so illuminating and compelling. On the one hand, Augustus, standing up against the oppression of a system and refusing any part in it, even if it means ejecting his son from his house. On the other hand, Henry, who has found a way to extract himself from the system and will soon benefit from it. Who can blame him? In the moment his father chooses to represent him as a slave, Henry appears the underdog. Then he pulls himself up off of the floor, takes the white man’s chains and shows himself capable of destroying them. The memory of him beaten down is still so fresh in my mind, it’s easy to understand the delicious temptation for the power that a master wields, and the desire never to be on the ground that way again.

In this exchange we have two black men on opposite sides of the slavery debate, and both of them appear to be winning; well, winning in the sense that we can empathise with either side. It’s brilliant, and one example of the way The Known World constantly plays on our perceptions of absolutes, of truth and fiction. To the very end, I found myself wondering about my beliefs of the known and the unknown, what’s fixed and mutable in the world. What about decisions that some (black) people make today to look out for their best interests, deceiving themselves about the effects they have on the wider community? If they have personal experiences with these consequences, is it worthwhile illustrating these to try and convince them to pursue a less selfish course of action? How far does empathy for that individual’s experience with this pain go in our conversations with them? And let’s make this more personal – what about me? If there’s anything I learned from this novel, it’s that I can think I’m totally within my rights to act in some way or hold a particular belief that is in truth abhorrent.

The power dynamics described in The Known World – between slaves and slave owners; black, white and Native American people; civilians and the law; men and women – make this far away 19th century world more real to me, and make the unseen forces which operate in our world seem realer to me too. And I wonder about all the ways of being that I – we – have inherited: absolute, fluid and somewhere in that spectrum, from the world that Augustus and Henry lived in.