The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

You tell people up here that you’re from the South, and nine times out of ten, they say the same old thing: “I’m sure you miss the sunshine.” Rhonda and I both miss taking sunshine and easy morning commutes for granted. But what we really miss are the laughter and embrace of our mothers and grandmothers and aunties, kin and not kin. We miss the big oak tables in their dining rooms where, as kids in the seventies and eighties, we ate bowl after bowl of their banana pudding as they talked to each other about how much weight you’d gained, like you weren’t even there. We miss helping them snap green beans and shell peas sitting at their kitchen tables watching The Young and the Restless on the TV perched on the pass-through. We miss how they loved Victor Newman, hated Jill Foster, and envied Miss Chancellor and how she dripped diamonds and chandeliers.

We miss their bare brown arms reaching to hang clothes on the line with wooden pins. We miss their sun tea brewed all day in big jars on the picnic table in the backyard, then later loaded with sugar and sipped over plates of their fried chicken in the early evening. We miss lying next to them at night in their four-poster beds with too-soft mattresses covered by ironed sheets and three-generation-old blankets. We miss their housecoats, perfumed with Absorbine Jr. liniment and hints of the White Shoulders they’d spritzed on from an atomizer that morning before church. We miss tracing the soft folds in their skin when we held hands and watched our favorite TV shows in their beds. Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest.

We miss how they laughed and were easy with each other. How their friendships lasted lifetimes, outlasting wayward husbands and ungrateful children. Outlasted that time Alma caught Joe cheating and she whacked him on the top of the head with the sword he’d brought back from the war, but he told the people at the hospital he didn’t know who did it. Outlasted having to hide your medicine bottles in your shoes because, otherwise, seven of your nine children were liable to steal them. We miss how they seemed to judge everyone but themselves. Or maybe that judgment was in the “nerve” pills they procured from the Chinese doctor on Bay St. who didn’t ask questions. We miss their furtive cups of brown liquor on Friday and unabashed cries for Jesus come Sunday.

We miss their one gold tooth that made us wonder who they had been as young women. We miss their blue crabs, the shells boiled to a blood red in wash tubs atop bricks over makeshift fires built in the yard. The wash tubs reminded us of cauldrons, full of rock salt– and cayenne-drenched water bubbling and rolling, mesh bags of seasonings and halved onions and peppers floating on top, along with potatoes and ears of corn. We miss how they stood over those cauldrons like witches, stirring a potion. With sweat beading on the tips of their noses and smoke swirling around their hands and wrists, they wielded long-handled spoons to press the frantic, flailing crabs toward their deaths.

We miss how they made our Easter dresses and pound cakes and a way out of no way.

Deesha Philyaw, from “Snowfall” in “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” (West Virginia Press, September, 2020)


Notes:

  • Let’s rate this book as: “Wow.” And Highly Recommended.  Finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. Winner of the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award, and so deserving.
  • Kirkus Book Review: “Tender, fierce, proudly Black and beautiful, these stories will sneak inside you and take root.”
  • Los Angeles Review of Books:  “Her characters create intimacy and have hope, not despite their ugly odds but because of them.”

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

What do you do religiously—not only often, but with great love and faith? Writing, painting, running, volunteering? Do one of those things today; do something religiously.

KEEP MOVING.

Maggie Smith, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change (Atria/One Signal Publishers, October 6, 2020)

Lightly Child, Lightly.

Walked by this box at Cove Island Park, what, 100x? 200x? 500x? Had never seen it before.  Today, I noticed.

[Read more…]

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

It was over, he said. It was too late, we had dithered too long. Our society had already become too fragmented and dysfunctional for us to fix, in time, the calamitous mistakes we had made. And, in any case, people’s attention remained elusive. Neither season after season of extreme weather events nor the risk of extinction for a million animal species around the world could push environmental destruction to the top of our country’s list of concerns. And how sad, he said, to see so many among the most creative and best-educated classes, those from whom we might have hoped for inventive solutions, instead embracing personal therapies and pseudo-religious practices that promoted detachment, a focus on the moment, acceptance of one’s surroundings as they were, equanimity in the face of worldly cares. (This world is but a shadow, it is a carcass, it is nothing, this world is not real, do not mistake this hallucination for the real world.) Self-care, relieving one’s own everyday anxieties, avoiding stress: these had become some of our society’s highest goals, he said—higher, apparently, than the salvation of society itself. The mindfulness rage was just another distraction, he said. Of course we should be stressed, he said. We should be utterly consumed with dread. Mindful meditation might help a person face drowning with equanimity, but it would do absolutely nothing to right the Titanic, he said. It wasn’t individual efforts to achieve inner peace, it wasn’t a compassionate attitude toward others that might have led to timely preventative action, but rather a collective, fanatical, over-the-top obsession with impending doom. It was useless, the man said, to deny that suffering of immense magnitude lay ahead, or that there’d be any escaping it. How, then, should we live?

Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through: A Novel (Riverhead Books, September 8, 2020)


Notes:

It’s like an eggshell, only much tinier, much more delicate.

I’m holding the skull of a baby wren. I found it this morning in one of the nests in our yard, right down the back in those willow trees; I think its parents must have left it there when it died. Discarded. Or maybe they waited with it as long as they could. It’s like an eggshell, only much tinier, much more delicate. It barely fits on the tip of my pinkie finger. I keep thinking about how easy it would be to crush. It reminds me of her. But not of you. You are made of a different thing. Something far more enduring. I never saw that thing you spoke of, the one that was missing from the stuffed birds in my lab. I see it now, or its absence. Your absence has never felt crueler. I’ve never hated you until now. I’ve never loved you more.

Charlotte McConaghy, Migrations: A Novel (Flatiron Books, August 4, 2020)


Notes:

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

Remembering that time …

when we had unrealized possibility,

the drifting period of our youth.

Kate Zambreno, Screen Tests: Stories and Other Writing (Harper Perennial, July 23, 2019)

 


Photo: Alain Laboile

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

The first moment I wrote in my notebook again, I wrote of that fleeting feeling in the morning, of possibility.

That’s what I want Drifts to be, my desire and longing for it.

Kate Zambreno, Drifts: A Novel (Penguin, May 19, 2020)


Portrait of Kate Zambreno by Nikola Tamindzic

Facts could be trusted. Facts consoled.

On this point, Trebek is remarkably direct: Even if he can’t quite understand the public fascination with his life, he knows he means something significant to the culture, something soothing and in short supply. He knows he fills a need. For the 36 years hosting “Jeopardy!” — an industry record— he has been a nostalgic father figure of sorts, showing up reliably at dinnertime and remaining tantalizingly aloof. In the autumn of the media patriarchs, he stands practically alone, untinged by scandal. His authority derives from his defense of facts, not their distortion…

Trebek might have inspired dread in his teachers and early employers, but he discovered that his real talent was in projecting calm, in allowing others to shine. As a host, it has been his proudest quality — his ability to buoy an anxious contestant through tone alone.

Facts themselves can confer steadiness. A small aside: I took to “Jeopardy!” early, and in high school had a weird, cursory career competing in televised trivia contests. My teammates and I — immigrants all, as it happened — glutted ourselves on dates and data with a hunger I couldn’t have possibly explained at the time but that now seems embarrassingly obvious. Facts could be trusted. Facts consoled. Their patient, dogged acquisition constituted a kind of shy possession of the world.

Of course, any possession in this life is, at best, temporary. “My life has been a quest for knowledge and understanding, and I’m nowhere near having achieved that. And it doesn’t bother me in the least,” Trebek cheerfully concludes. He ends the book at home, like of all us, in quarantine. He is exhausted by cancer treatments, exhausted by uncertainty but still sublimely calm and grateful. As he’s always advised his contestants to do, he’s already looking ahead to the next question.

~ Parul Sehgal, from In Alex Trebek’s Reluctant, Moving Memoir, Life Is All About the Next Question, in New York Times, July 21, 2020


Notes: His new book “The Answer Is: Reflections On My Life” can be found here.

Guess.What.Day.It.Is?

A camel library is giving children out of school in some of Ethiopia’s most remote villages a unique opportunity to continue reading and learning, despite COVID-19 school closures.

Save the Children first began the camel library in 2010. The program includes 21 camels, which are traditionally used by communities in the Somali region of Ethiopia to transport goods across the hot lowland areas. Camels can carry up to 200 storybooks at a time in wooden boxes strapped to their backs. The project currently reaches over 22,000 children in 33 villages.

Across Ethiopia, over 26 million children are out of school due to COVID-19. By continuing its camel library outreach program, Save the Children is making sure children can continue to read and learn while at home.

Mahadiya, 13, is in grade seven in a remote part of the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia. Since COVID-19 forced her school to close in late March, she has been unable to go to class.

To help her keep up with her studies, Mahadiya is making use of Save the Children’s mobile camel library, which visits her village every week. When she grows up, Mahadiya says she hopes to become an engineer.

“Before the coronavirus, we used to go to school regularly,” said Mahadiya. “The school used to provide us with a meal each school day, but now that has stopped. I feel sad and disappointed that I cannot go to school.

“I am worried it may not open soon. Because of this, I am worried that we could forget some of the things we learned in school and we could fail our exams. 

“After schools were closed, many children were out of school and they were exposed to child labor and exploitation. Many children have become herders and some walk into the bush to look for firewood. When schools were closed, I was very sad.  However, the camel library continued to come to our village and supplied us with storybooks. I feel very happy and I am now able to borrow and take home the storybook that I would like to read.”

Mahadiya’s family has also suffered financially during COVID-19 due to school closures and movement restrictions. Their family income used to come from a small shop, but because of increases in the price of goods and a decrease in the number of customers, her family is struggling to make ends meet. Her family also used to own livestock, but the ongoing drought in the region meant that most of the animals needed to be sold.

“It has been nearly three months since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was recorded in Ethiopia,” said Ekin Ogutogullari, Save the Children’s Country Director in Ethiopia. “The virus poses particular challenges for vulnerable populations living in high-density or resource-poor communities, migrants, and displaced children.

“In Ethiopia, we recently conducted a survey where children told our team about their perceptions and concerns about COVID-19. Children raised concerns around increases in child labor, early marriage, and abuse due to the outbreak and closure of schools.

“On top of this, Ethiopian children and their families are facing floods, desert locusts, cholera, measles, food insecurity, and rising poverty levels. The scale of this crisis is huge, but we are determined to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and ensure no child is worse off at the end of this pandemic.”

~ From COVID-19: A Camel Library Takes Remote Learning to New Levels

 


Notes:

  • Background on Caleb/Wednesday/Hump Day Posts and Geico’s original commercial: Let’s Hit it Again. Caleb is grounded in Work For Home and can’t come out to play this week.

T.G.I.F.: Freedom

“I was reading Kierkegaard while waiting to pick up my children from school. I wished I could wave some mother out of her idling vehicle and show her the passage. Reading, however, is a kind of private freedom: out of time, out of place.”

~ Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

 


Photo: Elena with Reading

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