Unearned Chicago Whiteness

I want to be a woman who is not afraid of young Black men. I want to enter the subway platform like an alley cat flic-flac’ing her cold feet into lackadaisical safety. I’m an old woman who wants to love non-Anglo words bouncing off the curve of the tunnel—ping! pow! hitting the pulse of the collective-waiting-for-the-train with differing beats-per-minute.

Imagine if I accepted Black culture the way some accept Chinese culture. I’d stop trying to colonize Black names—it’s Na’Dia, not Nadia! I’d quit harping at the Walgreen’s cashier for her gold-plated elongated fingernails—how can you hit the keys with those? I’d accept rap and hip-hop, stop changing the words or the beat whitening it all up just to enfranchise my fragile birthright. 

I’d walk down Lawndale streets, how-you-doin’, and ‘wassupin’, a welcome visitor looking for friends and food and local art. Next day I’d take you with me sayin’, meet Taneesha from poetry class and oh there’s Damari from tutoring. Hi Fam. Here’s my friends. I’d hear new language poppin’ outta my own mouth. Like they were my own words. Like they have to do when they walk white and talk white on Michigan Avenue, or else. Or else, the judge says, I can’t understand you. Speak proper English. 

We’d gather all together and go to the movies, sit side-by-side transforming ourselves into subcutaneous doppelgängers. We’d be like, oh that’s funny or Girrrlll I feel ya’. All hands would open and close on popcorn from the same bucket. Afterwards we’d crowd the sidewalk two-steppin’ to No Diggity on our way to brunch. Everyone would get served and be safe.

My unearned whiteness is a blessing: I get to go out the door without rehearsing how to react when Macy’s security guards ask to see my receipt. And a curse: A white woman cried to the police there musta been 40 Black boys down there crowded in the red line and I’m helplessly guilt-ridden when the fact gets reported as 50 later that night. And 60 the next morning.

I’m an old white woman who wants to cuddle and cry with Black children maligned in that subway—not white women’s cries regurgitating Black boy history of false accusations and lynchings. No. No. God-the-Mother cries with tears that seep under my babies’ skin cleansing them of my control, my denial of their equality, my remarks about their hair.

I thought I was once a curious woman simply eavesdropping on human nature’s racial conversations. The constant banged-out message that my beloved Chicago is the most segregated city in the country woke me to know I’ve been a gagged participant all along.

My vow is to be the old white woman waiting in that subway, with you, emancipated from the fear of young Black men.

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CHICAGO (CBS)–An 18-year-old is among four people now charged in a mob attack on the CTA Red Line.

I Want To Be A Sports Fan But Doink!

I Want To Be A Sports Fan But Doink!

I want to be a woman who knows sports. I want to go to football games and know all the players, where they live, their salaries, their stats. I want to insert myself in men-talk, the world of facts and figures, history and strategy.

My hometown brags about her sports. We have the Cubs, the Bears, the White Sox, the Blackhawks and the Bulls. At Midwest Orthopedics in 2015, a year the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, the doctor said, “We do the Blackhawks, you know.” 

I returned in 2016, the year the Cubs won the World Series and someone said, “They do the Cubs, you know.” 

A friend who had her hip replaced said, “My doctor is the Bulls ortho.” 

Another who had shoulder replacement, “My doctor fixed the White Sox pitcher.”

When I was a young professional, my office mate, Patrick, told me I’d never get another man if I didn’t know sports. Every Monday morning he’d grill me. 

“Dodgers?”

“Los Angeles.”

“Packers?”

“Green Bay.” 

Patrick’s weekly quiz schooled me in teams, players, uniforms, stadiums and basic terminology. Osmosis had been my teacher until then. I played team sports as a kid and absorbed recurring words like touchdown, foul ball and goalie. My son, who learned to read looking at baseball scores in the back of the newspaper, played baseball, hockey and basketball. I wasn’t as fully engaged as other Little League mothers but I picked up tufts of jargon in the stands while rooting for his little body to get around the bases.

On a Sunday afternoon in early January 2019, I was on the #36 bus headed north to theth-1.jpeg movie theater to see “Vice” for the second time. Handsome, jovial cool cats at the Clark and Division bus stop grappled with grocery bags full of beer and pretzels. They were in mid conversation as they boarded: 

“…a company game between Bears and Packers, then a guy bought the Bears for $50.” 

“Cubs came after the fire. Always played Wrigley; Bears used to play Wrigley.”

After the fire? Was he referring to the 1871 Chicago fire?

One of the fans shouted out the words on the billboard as we passed the Weiner’s Circle: “It’s The End Of The World As You Know It. So Eat Hot Dogs!”

“Hope that’s not an omen!” shouted a passenger in the back and I realized the NFL wild-card round between the Bears and the underdog Eagles was about to kickoff.

After the movie I boarded the bus with a pack of  jostling men who kept shouting Doink! and fuck Cody! I looked in my iPhone. The Bears lost due to an errant field goal by Cody Parkey. Doink! The boozy herd bobbed and weaved, nearly falling on those of us sitting in the front seats. th

I fear I’ve forgotten most of what I learned from Patrick, since I’ve had no occasion to use the information. I want to be a woman who knows sports but life on the #36 bus confirms what I’ve always known—I don’t want a sports fan for a man.

Sex in the Art Institute

Sex in the Art Institute

On my first visit to “Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces,” I was so mesmerized by the dazzling patterns in the robes of the geishas that I did, indeed, float around the gallery.

R_UP_129R2_85-27_web“My god, a whole exhibit devoted to prostitution,” my companion whispered halfway around the showcased Japanese beauties.

I dragged back-to-back out-of-towners to The Art Institute of Chicago to see the paintings of Japan’s “metropolitan amusements to life,” as the curator describes it. The Weston Collection of concubines and geishas were painted between 1600-1850, the Edo Period, dubbed by the Japanese of the time as the “floating world”. 

My visitors were as entranced as I was with a particular part of the exhibit. Behind Japanese-style slatted-wood walls, long scrolls were rolled out flat in climate-controlled glass-topped tables. Moving sideways foot-by-foot in silent walking meditation, I peered down at the cases to study the painted images: depictions of men and women flirting and kissing, men and women embracing, then men and women in the most preposterous coital positions. Colorful garments wrap around their legs and arms, leaving the genital areas fully exposed. It had been a long time since I’d seen an erect penis. I had no idea there were so many ways to use it. The Manasquan High School gym teacher in New Jersey didn’t cover positions in 1960s sex education. Edo Period Japanese parents, however, bequeathed these scrolls to their newly-wed offspring for their sex education. How grateful I would have been had my mother given me the modern equivalent, The Joy of Sex.

My friend gasped. “I didn’t realize Japanese males were so well-endowed.”

I shrugged. “Well, don’t forget, all the artists were men.”

My cousin Therese came to town for Thanksgiving, and I couldn’t wait to get her to the Art Institute. I resisted briefing her as we ascended the stairs to the exhibit, stopping first to see American Gothic and Georgia O’Keefe. I left her at the Floating World entrance and pointed to the sign for the Member’s Lounge.

“I’ll meet you there. Take your time.”

The Member’s Lounge sets out catalogs for every exhibit. I grabbed a coffee, the Floating World book and settled into a chair at a corner table scrunched up against a wall crammed with dozens of other cafe tables and chairs. I was deep into searching for the scrolls of the erect-penis paintings when I felt the rustling of a neighboring body. A man with Asian features was squeezing himself into the adjacent table. I resumed my search. A jolting woman’s voice interrupted my task asking to sit at the Asian man’s table. I resumed my search.

“What do you think of acupuncture?” The woman asked the Asian man.

“I really don’t know anything about it,” he said.

“You’re kidding?” said the woman.

“I was in Chinatown yesterday for acupuncture,” she said her voice reaching the third octave.

What was going on? Was she so charged up after seeing the erect-penis paintings of Asian men she had to create stupid pick-up lines for this guy? The two of them carried on as if they were in a bar drinking sake. I abandoned my search for photos of the erect-penis scrolls and grabbed my notebook to record their conversation.

Just then Therese came through the door of the Members’ Lounge, caught my eye and burst out laughing.

“Wow. No wonder you left me by myself—so I could blush in secret!”

“Therese,” I mumbled, letting her in on the conversation at the next table, “there’s so much writing material here. I could sit in here every day during this exhibit and come up with a whole book, “The Overheards in the Members Lounge.”

“Overheards?”

“Yes, you know. Things you overhear. Write it all down.”

“Is that legal?” Therese asked.

 

The Gift: World’s Greatest Christmas Song

The Gift: World’s Greatest Christmas Song

Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” 

“In the Bleak Midwinter”, a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti, was published under the title “A Christmas Carol” in the January 1872 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. The poem was set to music by composer Gustav Holst in 1906.

What can I give? 

Christina Rosetti gave us a personal tender poem pouring out her love for the transcendent God and later, in a rush, Gustav Holst vocalized her words with a snowy melody that perfectly acquaints us with her quiet passion. How pleased God must be with the gifts of these two artists whose 19th century lives were crippled by illness, financial despair, loneliness and depression. 

Their living legacy of lyrics and music are sprinkled delicately on the page waiting for me to sing them out from some curious reflexive viscera. As the organ introduces the tune, I nervously set my heart to sing with a childlike exuberance, “Me too! Me! Me! I want to give too.”  But what can I give? I have a terrible voice. Off-key. Tone-deaf. Dissonant. Breathless. Creaking. Croaking. Grating. I will make a mess of this magnificent carol. People will judge me. Shoot me dirty looks. Wish I’d shut it. Hope I choke. Hfullsizeoutput_48e5ate me!

He calls me to stillness. I respond in silence, close my eyes and allow Peace to rule my heart. In one second my transformed heart awakens and shakes off the grumbling in my head. I sing as loud as I can with my whole engaged core. I give God imperfect singing of this perfect song. I set my voice on an imaginary course of graceful, harmonious, angelic melody. This, I believe, is what He hears.

Oh my God, I love that my discordant heart can be stilled by Your Peace. I love that a perfect gift for You is my imperfect singing.

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Dan Fogelberg sings In The Bleak Mid Winter HERE

Blest Be The Ties That Bind

I haven’t seen Rick Ridder in years but loved reading his 2016 book, Looking for Votes in All the Wrong Places. I bought it to add to his sales numbers, support him in my own 81JbkJ1jA8Lsmall way. We both survived the 1980s Gary Hart presidential campaigns. So when it comes to making room on the shelves for other sympathy books, the ties that bind keep Rick’s book in place.

My built-in bookshelf clings to the entire southern wall of my small living-dining room. It’s stuffed. Books, old Vanity Fairs, photos, souvenirs, dog sculptures, used conference binders, scrabble, dominoes, a small portable heater and my writing notebooks all collide on the faded white sagging shelves. 

When the time comes to rack the newer books, stockpiled on all the flat surfaces in my living space, I painstakingly pull the old prisoners from their slots on the shelves. They sit on the floor for hours, days, weeks, awaiting sentencing. I stare at the titles. Agonize over their fate. I wish then, more than at any other time in the hours before twilight, for a piece of someone to discuss the disposition of the hoard and share in my decision-making.

“What about this one? Remember this? Dimitir by William Peter Blatty. Mark suggested it when I told him Blatty named the girl in The Exorcist after me. Did I read it? Should I save it?” 

“Oh, then there’s: Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese. Jeanette gave me that when I turned 70. Maybe there’s something in it I can use for my writing.”

“Oh yeah. Listen to this. Ram Dass: ‘I used to have a sign over my computer that read OLD DOGS CAN LEARN NEW TRICKS, but lately I ask myself how many more new tricks I want to learn—isn’t it better to be outdated.’”

“Outdated! Is that how I should think of these old darlings?”

Oh, I tried long ago to get help with this salvage operation. It broke down, however, when I plunged into the stories behind my keepsake books. No matter how good a friend I netted, my stories bored in the telling and the telling and the telling. I sit alone now on a stool wheeling around the wreckage from title to title. 

“These? Oh no, must save Ian Rankin, my favorite mystery author. Oh, c’mon, Regan. It’s not as if they’re going in the garbage. Put them on the bookshelves in the laundry room. Someone’s bound to enjoy them before they get carted off to the used book sale at the Newberry Library.”

“Ok, these can go—two books by David Ellis. Oh, well, maybe. He’s the lawyer-turned-mystery-writer who prosecuted Rod Blagojevich. A good lawyer. And a good writer.”

“Richard North Patterson’s, Exile, needs to go. It’s old and smells. Musty. But I’m so grateful that it helped me understand the Israel-Palestine mess. Maybe I’ll read it again.”

Loneliness has its price. Out of this last 24-book pile-up, only one goes to the graveyard: The Complete Book of Food Counts.

Wish I’d Saved Those Dead Bodies

I open the drawer to a pile of dead bodies—naked GI Joe and his headless pal, Ken, with his pants around his knees. Small plastic green soldiers had been flung willy-nilly into the drawer’s mass grave. Their weapons, swords and shields, were buried with them, $_3just like their human predecessors in the ancient world. I had not opened my low-slung coffee table drawers since my grandchildren stopped overnighting several years ago. I kept them in tact as a mini-shrine to time standing still.

How I yearn for those little boys to come flying through the door one more time, go straight to the coffee table, plop down on the floor and do battle on the table top with their action figures.

In another drawer I discover my granddaughter’s mini stuffed bear dressed like Betsy Ross, her hat half chewed up by one of my now-dead Scotties; a tiny red plastic car from Monopoly Junior; and, three red plastic cups in the shape of Shriners’ hats. I reach to the back of the drawer and feel around for the little monkey that goes with the cups. All three grandchildren loved this old-fashioned shell game. They set the three hats on the table top, hid the monkey under one and spirited the hats round and round, in and out. I would guess which hat hid the monkey. I always got it wrong. One of them would jump eff347a9d7e47ddeb8669a526ce39fbain to help me, their old grandmother with her limited sense of place. Another would whisper, “pick the left one” knowing the hat on the left was empty. They thought juking me was hilarious. I did too, but for different reasons—my delight was simpler: I loved hearing them laugh.

Perhaps the shell-game scammers on the L trains started with the Shriner monkeys when they were kids. Chicago visitors huddle with their suitcases on the O’Hare Blue Line, get sucked in, throw their dollars down, win once, then lose over and over. The scammer fools them like my grandchildren fooled me. And they all laugh too.

I clean out the drawers and throw all the bits and pieces of remembered joy down the garbage chute. I disinfect the coffee table as if it were a crime scene. This is what we do, after all. Clean things out. Throw them away. To have space for more stuff. I don’t need more space though. If I can’t hang it on the wall, wear it or stuff it into my bookcase, out it goes. So now I have two empty compartments in my small apartment I’ve no use for. Oh, I could store little Christmas ornaments there, but I already have a place for those. One drawer is a perfect place for the two TV remote controllers I all of a sudden need. But I’d never remember I put them there.

I really wish I’d saved that monkey shell game.

For now, these drawers of time past remain empty.

Deut. T-Deut. T-Deut. Deut. Deuteronomy

Deut. T-Deut. T-Deut. Deut. Deuteronomy

Reflection on Deuteronomy?

Every couple of years my church asks me to write something for their Daily Devotions. When the request appeared in my inbox this year, it included the assignment list for the Advent writers. I sent a note to Pastor Rocky, “You get Mark and I get Deuteronomy?”

I’m not sure I have a favorite book in the Old Testament, but I am sure I have a least favorite—Deuteronomy. It has always seemed to me that this book is reserved for scholars; we lay people aren’t supposed to know its secrets.

Deuteronomy 18:15-18: The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from our fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to. That’s exactly what you requested from the Lord your God at Horeb, on the day of the assembly, when you said, “I can’t listen to the Lord my God’s voice any more or look at this great fire any longer. I don’t want to die!” The Lord said to me: What they’ve said is right. I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites—one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.

Reflection. There’s no secret in this passage. Moses tells us we are getting what we asked for, someone we can talk to, who knows what it is to love and suffer and be happy and sad. He’ll be human, a Jew and a Prophet, like Moses. And when He comes, we can trust His words because He’ll be speaking for God.

Watch out if you see a prophet coming your way. They’re not foretellers of the future. They are truthtellers of the present, who expose hidden gracelessness. Jesus is God’s Truthteller. He digs into my dry bones and pulls out the person He wants me to be. I want to be that person too. Sometimes. I often hide from the truth—fearing ridicule and silent scorn because my greatest obsession is to be normal and to fit in.

God’s Truthteller came in the form of a sassy teenager recently: “you think you’re so privileged.” she said when my wrinkled old mouth asked for her seat on the bus. God’s Truthteller told me to love her, to be a Christian, to trust Him with her words.

Prayer. Thank you God, for sending me your Truthteller, a baby I can cherish, a man I can believe, and a friend I can trust. Expose the flimflam thoughts I tell myself and give me courage to have a life of truth and grace.

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See more Daily Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago here.