Church for the First Time

I went to church for the first time recently. Not the first time I’d ever been inside a church, obviously, but it was the first time I’d ever actually taken myself to church. No wedding or funeral or quinceañera.  No family or friends.  Just me.  Going to church.

angel on the wall

I wanted to hear the choir.

Of course, there was a little more to it than that, as there usually is. A conversation, a choice, a circumstance, but when the pieces fell, I really just wanted to hear the choir.

My parents rarely took me to church as a child, but they did take me to the gospel tent at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.  And the music in that tent would fill me.  It would give me this feeling I have no name for, this resonance in my bones.

I wanted that feeling.  So I decided I should take myself to church in search of a choir that could make me feel it.  I asked around and ended up at a Baptist church in a historically black neighborhood.

And for a moment, from my pew in the back, I sensed it, that feeling.  Unfortunately, on this particular Sunday the resident choir was cut short, as there was a guest artist who performed, and I’ll suffice it to say that his brand of praise music was not my thing.  But I did experience a moment, and it was a moment of joy, and that is all I can ask for these days.

And though it wasn’t what I went for, I did appreciate the sermon as well, on forgiveness, loving thy enemy, and praying for those who have wronged you.  We’ve all been wronged. We all have something to hear in that.

The pastor was out of town, so the sermon was delivered by a guest reverend.  In speaking about forgiveness, she brought up the lure of revenge and how Hollywood loves a revenge story.  One example she used was the movie Waiting to Exhale.  From the congregation’s immediate response upon hearing the title, it was clear that many had seen this movie and were familiar with the plot-line of a woman whose husband is leaving her for someone else.

The reverend elaborated. Not only does she find out that her husband…of eleven years!…is leaving her for another woman…but he is leaving her for a WHITE woman!… To which the crowd responded with several more calls of affirmation.  People were feeling this example.

I was the only white person in the room.  The aforementioned white woman. I could feel eyes all on me, real or imagined, and I did my best to keep a poker face, figuring that any of my potential responses could be construed as inappropriate.

The reverend backpedaled.  Now, I don’t know why that made it worse, but somehow in the movie, that made her feel worse…

I’m curious if the reverend would have included this disclaimer had I not been present that Sunday, but of course I’ll never know, and ultimately it’s not important.

Either way, her words did not deter the young man sitting next to me from slipping me his number while we held hands during the closing prayer.

Really, I was just there to hear the choir.

Though really, I shouldn’t have to explain why I was there, or what brought me to that particular church on that particular Sunday, or why I love live gospel music, or any of it. I shouldn’t have to, and in fact, I don’t have to, and I know that, at least on some base level.

But over the last several months, I have felt judged for both not going and going to church.  I’ve felt I had to defend myself on both ends.  And that, in a word, sucks, though it is neither new nor surprising.  Part of it is that perhaps I care more about what other people think than I thought I did.  I’d like to pretend I’m over it, when the truth is, I’m still knee-deep.

And I have just begun my Jesus year, as some say, which I find both more amusing and more appropriate now then I would have ever before.  It’s possible I could use a resurrection metaphor right about now.

However, I’m not anticipating enlightenment or a rise to the messiah this year.  But I can still aim for more of that feeling.  Resonance.  And joy.  Whether it comes from a gospel choir, or finally forgiving, or the weight of my own exhale.

Not a Newspaper Blackout Poem

This is not a newspaper blackout poem, as obviously, there was no newspaper, just a journal entry from a couple weeks ago, but that was my inspiration.  And I liked it.

newspaper blackout poem
not a newspaper blackout
Not a newspaper blackout poem
Not a newspaper blackout poem

This Day: In Rememberance

I wrote this a decade ago, as part of a contemporary dance solo.  If I ever update the copy from VHS, I’ll share it.  Until then, only the words…

This Day

When my grandfather died, I had my hands on his feet.
The feet of my father’s father.
Father Thompson at the foot of the bed,
This day you shall be with me in Paradise.
The first and only time in my life a Catholic priest
Has made me feel God in my bones.
This day.

A Datoga tribeswoman in northern Tanzania once told me,
That when a person dies,
Their spirit goes into the Earth.
Goes underneath our feet.
This day you shall be with me in Paradise.

A Native American woman from northern Arizona once told me,
That the eyes of the soul
Are on the soles of our feet.
This day you shall be with me in Paradise.

I have heard from many people,
Many times before,
That the eyes are the windows of the soul.
I wish I remember my grandfather’s eyes,
In those moments before he died.
He had the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.
But all I remember is my hands on his feet.
My aunts had given him a pedicure.
This day.

The day my grandfather died
I lay my hands on his feet.
The feet of my father’s father.
And this day,
This day you shall be with me in Paradise.

This day you shall be with me in Paradise

Dr. William Alexander Roy
Nov. 20th 1914-July 18th 1998
Rest in Peace

The Stars as I Remember

I smelled Tanzania in the morning dust of Marfa, Texas.  A rush of memory inhaled.

It was the morning after the night I realized that the stars were no longer available to me.  Not in their fullness at least, not all that I know are up there.

When you have a slow-progressing ailment, you get surprised sometimes.  You go so long without trying to do something, that you don’t even realize that you can’t do it anymore. Slow decline is sometimes imperceptible. Until you’re at McDonald Observatory for a star party, and it hits you, that obviously night-blindness would hinder star-gazing, but it’s been so long since you’ve been away from light pollution that it hadn’t even occurred to you.  And then that which is lost begins to sink in.


Image: David DeHetre on Flickr

And with these surprises, there is a choice to make.  How low do you let this new information push you?  How long and how much do you let yourself be crushed?

I can still see some stars.  And planets are still clear and bright.  But I will never again see the stars as I remember them.  But I do remember, and that becomes all the difference. What I can no longer see, I have seen.

I have seen the stars in Tanzania.  The whole blanket of the Southern Hemisphere sky.  I have seen the stars from the floor of the Grand Canyon and from a glacier in the North Cascades.

And I can remember the first time I saw a shooting star.  I was on Icehouse Lake in Northern California.  It was clear and perfect and unmistakeable, and I realized I’d been wrong every other time I’d thought I’d seen one.

I saw a shuttle re-enter the atmosphere once, as it made its way back to Houston.  And I saw the Northern Lights once too, with my mother in Montana.

All these memories came back to me, sitting in the dark at McDonald Observatory.  I focused on the brightest stars still visible in the night sky, and I chose to feel grateful.  I have seen, and I remember.

This thing that I have, Retinitis Pigmentosa, isn’t going anywhere.  It will be here, with its gradual, unwanted surprises.  But my memories will be here too.  All the moments of wonder and beauty. They belong to me, even if everything else fades, even if on the surface I lose track of them.

The imprint remains.  Like dust.  Like morning.

What is Art?

I have to begin here with a public service announcement for anyone who will ever find themselves in the act of public speaking in any capacity.  Please listen carefully.

Do not quote yourself.  As in, I’d like to end with a couple of quotes.  The first is from Plato and the second is from me.  

No.  Really, no.  Unless, of course, the title of your speech is I’m a Gigantic Douche Bag, then by all means, quote away. Otherwise, it’s really not a good idea.  It makes the audience want to hurt you.

And I don’t mean that hypothetically.  I was that audience, at a professional development some weeks back.  I should also say the speaker was an actor, so you know, that explains, if not excuses, the situation.

But before he lost me with his unbridled self-love, he actually said something meaningful to me.  He offered up a definition of art that I quite liked.  Something along the lines of, art is putting things together that you care about.  (Sorry buddy, I don’t remember your name to give you full credit here, and quite frankly, I don’t care enough to find out. I trust you will credit yourself enough in the future for the both of us.)

Anyway, a nice definition, I thought.  And it stayed with me despite my wanting to wash my brain after the self-quote debacle.  And it got me thinking, for the zillionth time, about the nature of art and how we define it.

One would think that after an extended Liberal Arts education and years as a creative movement teacher that I would be completely done hashing out questions like what is art?  But I guess when something is important to us we can chew on it forever.

But this time, I thought I would try something new, so I put it out there on my personal Facebook page, to see what sort of comments I would get with the prompt Art is…

And it went a little something like this:

Art is…

…deeply missed by my body and soul
…an essential part of being human
…a new adventure in abstract
…the best umbrella in a shit storm
…life energy honored
…emotion conveyed
…when you create something from nothing

Beautiful, isn’t it?  And what I was left with, beyond the feeling that I’m friends with some awesome and poetic people, was the perfect reminder that quite simply, art matters.  Definition and construct aside, whatever it is, it’s worth it.

So go make something.  Or see something, share something, touch something, feel something, create something, do something.  It matters.

But don’t worry, I won’t quote me on that.

what is art