It’s been a while. I hate that I even have this piece of writing to post, but I’ll do it anyway. My beloved mother died unexpectedly on June 6, 2022, and I’ve been in deep grief since. But I am also utterly grateful for her life, my 45 years with her, and the four beautiful years that she and my son shared together. And I’m so grateful for all the care and love that have been extended to my family and me. Given the kindred bond between my mother and my son, instead of a traditional eulogy, I decided to write and read a letter to Elliott during her service on July 23, 2022.
My dearest Elliott,
On the eve of your fourth birthday next month, I wanted to bequeath you a little love gift—a letter to you about your beloved Nanna, that I would also share with our dearest friends and family at her Celebration of Life. Kind of a strange gift, I know, but one that my mom, your Nanna, would appreciate. She was the master of little love gifts and she was a letter writer all her life, after all. I’ll keep this letter safe so that you can read it later when you want to remember your Nanna.
We are all heartbroken now, sweet Elliott, and her absence leaves an unfillable gap in all of our hearts, yours, I know. You and I have witnessed one another’s sorrow over these last weeks. She was, after all, just with us, laughing, playing, experimenting, listening, talking, planning, doing the funny things that only Nanna could do. We were just eating swirly frosted pancakes at Kerby Lane café saying at the end that she wanted to spend “just a little bit” longer savoring the last bit of sweet pancake and the ordinary extraordinary moment together.
And of course, she insisted that at the beginning of any meal, we toast, inviting us to speak a loud unison “cheers.” In fact, Elliott, these toasts became a ritual for your Nanna, your grandpa Jim, and your aunt Lisa when I was growing up. We never really prayed before a meal, but these toasts were for us a genuine prayer, a blessing of the ordinary.
She loved the quote from Henry David Thoreau, “I traveled widely in Concord,” which was his own neighborhood. Remember the time that you put on layers and layers of cold winter gear in her living room and she sat watching, engaged in every single moment, laughing in bliss? It’s hard to make sense of how we can’t do these things with her any more, at least not as we used to. But some things, I think, aren’t meant to make sense.
At the same time, you, your daddy and I have talked about how she IS still right here with us and how her love for us and our love for her never ever ends, how when we miss her, we should allow ourselves that, but also remember that her life with us—with your Nanna—continues through the stories we tell, the photos we look at, the songs that we sing, the pictures we draw, the lemonade you drink, which was always waiting for you in her refrigerator.
There are so many things to say about her, my sweet one. I know I don’t need to remind you—or anyone else—of these things, because we’ve all experienced them. The story that I read a few minutes ago is about someone called “Woman Wisdom,” and as her name suggests, she’s wise. And she is also deeply hospitable. She builds a great big beautiful house and she decides that she wants to host a feast—kind of like a big party like the one we’ll have later today—for as many people as she possibly can. She even goes to a high place in the city to announce the feast and invite everyone to come, no matter who they are. I imagine that she uses an enormous megaphone, amplifying her bold and beautiful voice.
This is so much like Nanna, isn’t it? Wasn’t she always, always, setting up a table for us? With all of our favorite foods, favorite plates, favorite silverware. And that ever-present lemonade. But she also set up different kinds of tables for you to enjoy: craft tables, science experiment tables, music tables, repair shop tables, and ones I’m sure I don’t even know about because they only make sense to the two of you. And Elliott, the amazing thing is that she set up tables for other people, too, and invited all of them in.
And did they ever come! Your Nanna was a “collector of people,” as some might say. Wherever she went, she made new friends. As long as I can remember, your Nanna would meet people and within minutes, she formed real, genuine relationships with them. I’ve told you this story, but a few years ago, she and I were at a thrift store (an adventure that you, Nanna, Lisa and I so often embarked on).
That day, I walked away for no more than five minutes and came back to find Nanna in deep conversation with a person who was five minutes before that, a total stranger. I walked up and heard her ask the new friend, “Well, how did you experience that part of your childhood?” I rolled my eyes a bit at the time because I wanted to go home, but I later chuckled at how this was pure Nanna and how unique and beautiful this gift of connection really was.
I cannot express fully enough, Elliott, how after she died, so many people have told me that they had a special connection with your Nanna, that she was their “favorite” person in the world. And what is remarkable, is that this is really true, and likewise her intimate relationships with each of these people was absolutely unique and utterly genuine. She, like Walt Whitman, not only “contained multitudes” within herself, but also held a multitude of humans—and non-human lives–in her heart, her life, and at her table in her living room.
Oh, and Elliott, how can we ever describe the pure joy that Nanna took in the world, even with all the suffering and the hard things? Over and over again, people have said the same thing these last weeks—she was SO vibrant, so full of life, so radiant. She took such pleasure in our loves and joys, too. Until the very end, she told me again and again, that she “loved my life,” even as she knew I had experienced my own pain and grief. Your pleasure of drawing, painting, collecting sunscreens and bug sprays J were her pleasures, too, Elliott. And we felt that deep in our bones, didn’t we?
Her love of life spoke in the language of play, and I’ve often said, Elliott, that while as a young person, that while my parents and I didn’t have a formal “religious” community, play was a spiritual practice for us. Your Nanna’s ability to bring imaginative worlds into being was for me, my first way of being “religious,” of experiencing sacredness in our ordinary lives. This is still the theology that I live by, and I sense that this was also her gift to you. It was gifts like the two of you looking at the moon. I came across an email she had written to her dear friends Ann and Jerry, and I wanted to share parts of it with you:
In future decades, Elliott will have many memories of his Nanna taking him outside and explaining the moon. His own children will be enthralled by his knowledge of its extraordinary recurring journey. I’m not sure if he will use two pieces of paper and a pencil (if such things exit then), but I can just hear him say: “Long, long ago, my Nanna taught me about the moon. His little ones will say, “We like it when you tell those Nanna stories, Daddy.” And he will just smile and look at the moon . . . .
Well, I’ve written more that I’d planned and memorial services aren’t meant to go on forever, Elliott, for future reference. Maybe what I want to end with is to emphasize again how much your Nanna so deeply loved you, and that this love never ever ends. It continues for all of us. When your grandpa died a few years ago, we were so sad, but Nanna herself knew that their love for each other would live on. Nothing can ever change that. If in doubt, my Elliott, we can just take a look together at my tattoo, which she also had on her shoulder: her love for us, and our love for her, will last forever and beyond.
Elliott, let’s toast your Nanna, my mom, our beloved Cathy. Fly high and free, our sweet one. How grateful we are.
I hadn’t intended to write a blog post at all today, but in a moment of longing to put down words “on paper,” I just started writing it this morning during my writing group. I’m practicing releasing my compulsion to prepare and perfect, so I’m posting this without much thought, editing, or fancy blog things that I don’t know how to use in the first place. In addition to the gifts I mention in this little post, I’m grateful to my partner, Jack, for the gift of writing time(and so much more), which I didn’t know I’d need this afternoon.
My old friends, anxiety and mild depression, have come calling these last weeks and months. Anxiety is a nearly-always kind of thing for me, but sometimes it finds new and creative ways to tug at my mind and heart (especially my mind). Depression has been a less frequent visitor since a dark time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during graduate school the first time in my twenties. I know these gentle callers are not mine alone; if the pains of the world didn’t make us all a little anxious and depressed, we likely aren’t paying much attention. My heart breaks daily for all of those people and places who wake up and go to sleep with sounds of war, occupation, and destruction, especially when I wake up so the sound of birds.
My heart breaks for and with others, too. Yesterday on a run in my neighborhood, I came across a tiny little creature–maybe a baby possum–nestled peacefully in some leaves near a curb. At first I thought it was just sleeping, but alas, it was dead, its delicate little ears still pink. I couldn’t keep looking at it, but I also couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t bear it, and I felt such grief that no one else–at least no human–was there to bear witness to its life or its death. I couldn’t control my tears, so I hid my face from the cars going by. I cry a lot on my runs.
In fact, tears feel on the surface of my very being these days; for better or worse, this tinge of depression has made me ultra-sensitive to the obvious reality of finite existence. Or perhaps it is my ongoing life/spiritual/vocational discernment process, which has for the last two years put me in touch with the depths of, well, everything. Or maybe it is teaching a course on Existentialism in the midst of pandemic and war; each week brings questions about anxiety, despair, faith, courage, death, love. This week, we turn to beauty and art, though these, too, are inseparable from all the rest.
Or maybe the reason for my swelling tears–of course–is because of this remarkable gift of being with my son, Elliott, as he grows and moves about the world as his own person. Even with all my economic, racial, and able-bodied privileges, this parenting thing is hard, hard, work. Some moments, when my patience is worn beyond thin and I can’t manage to juggle it all (even with a fantastic partner) I wonder if I’m cut out for it. But in this rawness, there is a feeling that I’m in “it,” really in it. And my depth of love for Elliott–even in the hardest moments–is always paired with the possibility of loss and the awareness that neither of our lives will last forever. Neither will my little Puglet, Bubba (“Buber”) who, at 16.5 years, daily inches toward a new journey where I cannot accompany him. Neither will Jack’s. Neither will my mom’s, Elliott’s beloved Nanna. Tears flow.
But in all of this, what I (also) feel is utter gratitude. Not just thanks, which is important, too, and something I too-often forget to offer, but instead a kind of gratitude that is almost painful because it eludes words to express it. Sometimes I think it can only be felt, maybe through a kind of heart-language. Some of the pain comes from knowing, or at least presuming, that I can never fully communicate my gratitude to the givers. So here I offer just few fragments of what I’m feeling especially grateful for today. I invoke the word “smuler,” my blog’s Danish namesake, here, as these are really just fragments. There are so many threads of gratitude that course through me right now. But one has to start somewhere.
My smuler, my fragments, of gratitude, in this moment:
HonkTX! Band Festival.Last weekend, Elliott, Jack, and I went to the Honk! band festival here in Austin and the first group we stumbled upon was the Austin Samba. Maybe 15-20 percussionists and 10-12 dancers all performing outside right in front of us. We were in the midst of cascading sheer and utter joy. I realized afterward that for 30 minutes, I had felt no anxiety. This is an eternity for hearts and minds which can’t usually find respite. Elliott stood watching and dancing with his own musical instruments (thanks for the ukulele, Julie S.!:), joining in that collective experience of joy that poured out from the hearts and bodies of those artists. For 30 minutes, I felt free. The world was as it should be. Later that day, I got to hear the Yes Ma’am! Brass Band, a fantastic group of musicians whose love for their music is palpable (and there is such cool low brass!). What gratitude I feel for this gift of music, of dance, of artists, and of community gathered to experience it.
My spiritual and religious home, United Christian Church of Austin.Oh the transitions we’ve had in my church community in the last years! But we’ve weathered it and there continues to be this heartbeat of care, vision, and love, that always persists. Each time I go, I am moved by the words and music I hear, the gifts of Communion I receive, and ways in which its leaders and members seek to incarnate the Christian gospel of inclusion and love in their everyday lives. In particular, my gratitude flows for the ways that our ministers, leaders, and volunteers care for the littles among us; this congregation loved Elliott before he was even born and this love seems to know no end. What gratitude I feel for this family and for the care and dedication to our children.
Writing Group. These last two years, I experienced being part of a writing group for the first time through my friend and facilitator, Dr. Beth Godbee. Every Friday morning, we gather on Zoom from places across the country to write together. We’re mostly academics of various kinds and most (though not all) identify as women. We work on writing projects of all kinds–academic books, fiction, dissertations, articles, curriculum, blog posts, emails, you name it. I love the dedicated time to write, for sure, but what I’m perhaps most grateful for is the community that I see every Friday morning. Several of us say that in just the first few minutes of being together, even before a word is written, we feel like things are going to be okay, that we can manage (even enjoy) this thing called life, and that we feel, well, better. We sometimes we show up tired, sometimes excited, sometimes overwhelmed. Sometimes–often–we lament systemic injustice local and global. Sometimes we laugh! But we show up when we can, and we support one another, not just in writing, but again, in life (though are they really that distinct?). I am utterly and truly grateful for these writers, who have become friends, confidants, and mentors.
Naming gifts runs the risk of excluding those unnamed, and that’s what I’ve done here. No doubt I’ll write about some of those other gifts, too. In the meantime, though, in my time of existential and spiritual tender porousness, I will just offer my deep gratitude for all the other gifts in my life in prayer, meditation, and a depth of feeling which (while imperfect) goes beyond even those ways of communicating.
This blog post was published on Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge on October 27, 2021. I’m grateful to my friend and colleague, Dr. Whitney Bauman for the invitation to write! In this piece, I raise questions about what we can learn from our individual and collective grief, and suggest that enlarging our hearts to include grief for marginalized human communities and the earth might encourage steps toward healing and justice.
And–check out the main Counterpoint site for other blogs and resources! Here’s a description on their website: Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge is a global, interdisciplinary research center and information hub. Founded by Whitney A. Bauman and Kocku von Stuckrad in 2018, and supported by an international Advisory Board, Counterpoint organizes events and publishes policy papers and reports, as well as a weekly blog and pieces of art and fiction. The ecological, economic, political, and social challenges of the twenty-first century call for innovative responses and concerted effort. That is why Counterpoint facilitates critical reflection, conversation, and creative solutions to planetary problems. The approach is integrative: to use our various areas of knowledge and expertise to work together to solve today’s problems.
“No, no, no. You’re still looking at Mod Podge!” said Elliott as I was trying to lure him away from the Mod Podge section at Michael’s. My sweet three-year old uses “you” to refer to himself, which actually makes so much sense given that we say things like this to him: “Do you want this leftover sandwich? What are you doing inside the closet? Elliott, why are you trying to vacuum the pug when I asked you not to?”
I honestly don’t think that I’ve forced Elliott into loving some of the same things that I do, but you might not know that if you saw the many ET’s in his room (Elliott from that film is our Elliott’s namesake), or if you knew that his comfort object is a stuffed Piglet—also my favorite Winnie the Pooh character. And lately, Elliott seems as obsessed with Mod Podge as I am. But why wouldn’t he be? Why isn’t everyone?
Mod Podge, created in the 1960s by Jan Wetstone, is, in my opinion, a miracle product; it acts as a glue, glaze, sealant, and more. They even have a glittery version. And I checked, it’s vegan. I have used it for decades to make collages, which I have come to realize is not only my art form of choice (or better yet, the form that chose me), but is also for me a spiritual and contemplative practice, a discernment tool, and a medium through which I come to know myself more deeply. And just as the personal is political, collage opens a space to connect my internal work with political and social resistance.
Still, even with these realizations, the voices of self-doubt and judgment try to tell me that it is frivolous to be writing about –or making–collage specifically, or even art more generally, when the world is burning (literally, in fact, as parts of the Western U.S. are on fire, no doubt exacerbated by climate change) and when my own anger and rage at the long list of current injustices blazes red hot.
Get out into the street. Get on the phone. Organize something. And if you aren’t going to do those things, if not the visible and Facebook-able action things, then get. back. [again] to. the. work. you. are. getting. paid. for. Taking several long and deep breaths, I respond to those voices from a wiser place: Art saves lives, both individual and collective. It always has and it always will. And this is work that needs to be done, not least for my own healing and sustenance as I discern how to live in more sustainable and self-compassionate ways .
In her book, Your Art Will Save Your Life (Feminist Press, 2018), written as a “love letter” to artists during the Trump presidency, author Beth Pickens articulates the need and urgency of making art, regardless of political changes and shifts:
“After the 2016 presidential election, many of my artist clients said things like, ‘Maybe I should quit making art,’ ‘It’s kind of selfish for me to focus on my art now,’ and ‘I should help people in a more effective way.’ These are expected grief responses to the shock and horror of our times, but I beseech you: DO NOT STOP MAKING ART. I need it profoundly. We all do.”
Beth Pickens, Your Art Will Save Your Life
In an FAQ section at the end of the book Pickens responds to a question about whether making art is trite or self-involved in the midst of political oppression. Her answer: “No way!” It helps us process what is going on around us and to continue to live our lives, and it also helps others do the same. “When our culture becomes oppressive and moves toward upholding the white supremacist capitalist militarist patriarchy, we need creative, public forms of dissent to inspire, counter fatigue, rally, instigate, and inform.”
Art offers another form of dissent, even when it is born in private and remains there. Through the very act of claiming space and time to create, the artist takes a stand–saying a “yes” to this something that needs to be born. It’s a “yes” to these words, this idea, this canvas, this project, this vision. In taking this stand, in making this claim, the artist provides their art the opportunity to exist.
Here I can’t help but think of this word in the context of its Latin root, existere–to “stand out.” I’d read twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich’s mention of this decades ago, and it’s stuck with me. “If we say that something exists, we say that it has left the state of mere potentiality and has become actual. It stands out of mere potentiality…” (Systematic Theology Vol. 2)
There is something powerful about the idea of “taking a stand” in order for new creation to “stand out,” to become actual. There are all kinds of ways to play with this image of standing. “Taking a stand” is of course a metaphor for taking a position about an issue, but it’s also literal and fleshy; to stand is to rise to one’s feet.
Wary of ableist metaphors, perhaps we could think about standing as something more physically inclusive–suggesting that this “saying yes” is an embodied movement of whatever kind our particular bodies can and desire to make. We bring art into existence through those bodies, through hands, mouths, eyes, ears, our breath. And while the phrase “taking a stand” suggests movement, it also conveys a sense of stopping, resting, pausing–as in a stanza of poetry defined by its stopping place, being set apart.
Taking a stand, in the way that I’m thinking of it here, is to move, to pause, to move again. Sometimes slowly–very slowly.
Saying yes to our art, then, is simultaneous “no” to forces that seek to nullify, paralyze, or prevent new life from coming into being and flourishing. It’s an intentional and embodied stop to the pressures of speed and rush and production that feed the “white supremacist capitalist militarist patriarchy” which Beth Pickens describes, which has, unfortunately, shaped academia, the institution in which I currently do most of my work.
Of course, there is much to say about the ways that art has been used to serve that capitalist machine, and how artists are not immune from the pressures of productivity. We can’t escape the system entirely. But our art–both as process and product–can provide us with visions, tastes, smells, and sounds of a different way to live individually and together.
And there is something else, too. Art is a “yes” to joy and pleasure; it can make weary (and wary) hearts and bodies feel again, breathe again. I’m currently reading adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (AK Press, 2019), which has heightened my awareness of our need for pleasure and its connection to social activism. I’m thinking about what it means for me, with all my privilege, to claim (take a stand) for my own pleasure and ease as a birthright, while also prioritizing “the pleasure of those most impacted by oppression” (see brown’s introduction to the book).
These are questions that I’ll be dancing with for a while. To do so, I know that I’ve got to honor pleasure, art, and creativity as non-negotiable and essential as food and water. One morning last spring I was on a run when I happened to discover that the Austin Creative Reuse Center less than a mile from my house, was open. It had, I learned, moved to this new location in March of 2020 and 11 days later had to close because of the pandemic. But that morning, the doors were open. I ran home as fast as I could, sweating and hot, I grabbed my wallet and hopped in my car to go check it out.
I didn’t know what to do with myself when I walked in. I couldn’t take it all in. Aisles of paint supplies, fabric, paper of every kind, beads, buckets of plastic jars, tiny dinosaurs, parts of board games. Wood, glue, exquisite bags of miniature somethings. Old photography equipment, some viable, some not. Shelves of National Geographic magazines. I couldn’t have asked for anything more satisfying–more pleasurable–in that moment.
In my efforts to care for my mental health last spring, I’d been making small shadow box displays using “found objects” discovered in my teenage stepson’s bequeathed collection of legos and related associates. I’d thus been on a mission to find small wooden boxes and, in stretch beyond the lego box, I’d been searching for (a lot) of tiny plastic animals.
I found them, alright. And so much more. How did I not know this place existed? ACR was founded in 2009, so they’ve been around for a long time even before they moved to my neighborhood. ACR’s mission is “to foster conservation and reuse through creativity, education, and community building” as they “save the WORLD…one pencil at a time.”
Not only is the Austin Reuse Center a wellspring of affordable recycled resources for creative projects of all kinds, but it’s also a community center for sharing and envisioning art. Each time we go in, we see people inside gathering and sifting through materials for whatever project they are working on. Even when I can’t possibly imagine what that might be (what might they be making with that box of of plastic spools, doll arms, and a half dozen plaster of Paris bears?), I find it so exciting.
Elliott always visits the paint and drawing sections, and we always check to see if new donations of Mod Podge have come in. Last week, our trip yielded five (semi-full) containers! Elliott also wanted to test out whether some plastic storage bins were up to par. They were, so we bought the ones we could fit in our very mini Mini Cooper.
In my next blog, I’ll share some thoughts about why I love the particular art of collage so much and what I’ve learned recently about its rich history and diverse contemporary forms–especially by women. There is, I think, a theology of collaging, and it’s not unconnected to the title of this blog: smuler (“fragments” in Danish). I’m looking forward to sharing much of this soon. In the meantime, I’m going to organize my art supplies, which may not directly counter climate change or white supremacy, yet feels like a small but important movement to take in the service of my own health, healing, and pleasure–and that’s something I’ll take a stand for.
The following is an expanded version of a sermon I gave at United Christian Church of Austin on Sunday, August 22, as part of our “God at the Movies” August film series (I added back in some of the material I cut for time purposes). I offer thanks and credit to the Rev. Anna Kreisle for the opportunity to preach and for choosing the documentary, “Mayor.” Please forgive formatting issues, especially with my photos; I’ve been wrestling mightily with WordPress for weeks.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, Oh God.
Good morning. My name is Jenny Veninga, and while I know many of you here and probably lots of folks online, I haven’t had the chance to meet some of our newer members and guests during these pandemic months of virtual gathering. I’m proud to be a member here at United Christian Church of Austin, and I am consistently grateful for you all, my spiritual family. Rev. Anna asked me if I might be interested in offering reflections based on this week’s film given that Palestine is a place dear to my heart, and working for just peace in that region is an ongoing commitment for me. I’m thankful for this opportunity to be with you all this morning.
In preparing these reflections, some recent personal experiences kept coming to mind. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to serve as a chaplain in a local hospital this past summer through an intensive Clinical Pastoral Education program here in Austin. In some ways, this focus on the spiritual care of individuals and families felt like–and to an extent, was–a narrowing of care and attention to the exclusion of larger global issues and international needs. Yet at the same time, I also felt that those focused and intimate experiences of care and empathy echoed global calls for these same things, and of course, no encounter ever takes place completely outside the larger social and economic systems that shape them.
In this tension between interpersonal and global, I found myself re-asking questions that I’ve been thinking about for quite some time, but now from a new perspective with insights gained from chaplaincy. What, for example, does it mean to witness the pain and suffering of another person, or another people? How are we called to respond? And what does caring really entail in light of that witness? How might compassion and empathy on personal and interpersonal levels connect with calls for social justice?
These are honest and ongoing questions for me, especially as I seek to recognize my own limits and better discern my vocations as a minister, an educator, and a human being. We can’t do it all, a lesson that I struggle with daily. At the same time, I do believe that we as Christians are called to care for our neighbors near and far, and that working toward just peace in Israel and Palestine is a responsibility that belongs to all of us.
But approaching this topic is, well, difficult. The mere phrase “Israel and Palestine,” or the common but inaccurate descriptor, the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” can feel downright overwhelming. The long history of the region and Western involvement in it is complicated and dizzying, and I’m still humbled by my own limited perspective as an American and all that I still have to learn. The topic is also an obvious political lightning rod, which can feel too risky, especially for liberal Christians who are rightly concerned about maintaining relationships with our Jewish partners and decrying the historical—and current—antisemitism of the Christian Church. And today it can also feel strange to focus on such a specific—and tiny—place in the world when our hearts are breaking for so many other people and places, including the Afghan people (especially women there) and those closest to home in the midst of this deadly third surge in Covid-19–and so, so much more.
But feeling deeply about suffering and injustice in one place does not, I believe, preclude us from doing so about another. And despite the risks involved, and the many other peoples and places tugging at our hearts, it’s a topic that we can’t continue to ignore. And my message today, as it relates to both our Scripture reading and the excellent documentary that Rev. Anna has invited us to watch for this week, is that Palestine–and the global struggle for just peace there–matters. It matters because ancient Palestine is the land in which Jesus lived and died and proclaimed his message of liberation for all peoples. It matters because as Americans, billions of our tax dollars go to funding the Israeli military which fuels the Occupation of Palestine. It matters because justice for Palestinians is intersectional, as it is bound up with justice for black, brown, and indigenous peoples here in the United States. It matters because as Christians, we are called to be in right relationship with our interfaith siblings, including both Muslims and Jews. It matters because people like Musa Hadid, the Mayor of Ramallah featured in the film, deserve human dignity.
Indeed, as film critic Carlos Aguilar writes: “‘Mayor’ doesn’t feature an impassioned speech detailing the Palestinian people’s ardent plight for freedom because it doesn’t need one.” The documentary gives us a glimpse into the daily life of Mayor Hadid, a Christian, as he navigates his responsibilities as the leader of a city in the occupied West Bank of Palestine. If you had the chance to watch it, you know that it’s not an ordinary documentary, and it is certainly not an “ordinary” film about the “conflict” between Israelis and Palestinians. American director David Osit follows the mayor over a year, mostly in 2017, and what we see is both mundane and boring, on the one hand, and terrifying and shocking on the other. “How do you run a city when you don’t have a country?” becomes a central question of the film.
While the trauma and the injustice of the situation comes through loud and clear, the film also has a lightness to it, as both Osit and Hadid himself bring humor and even joy into what often feels like a bleak and depressing situation. One can’t help but laugh at the hilarity of the opening scene when Hadid speaks about how the santas will descend down the city’s Christmas tree, or when the city council is trying to decide what a new sign should look like for their new city “brand.” Should it be “We Are Ramallah?” or WeRamallah”? as in ToysRus? Hadid’s response elicits a dry laugh: “What the hell is city branding anyway?”
Ramallah, as is obvious in the film, is a city that has a lot to brag about and is a draw for local and international visitors. It’s home to a mix of notable landmarks: former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum, a giant statue of Nelson Mandela, the memorial site for acclaimed Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, and it’s not far from the distinguished Birzeit University and the Taybeh Brewing Company, the most popular (and excellent) Palestinian beer in the region. Ramallah has a sizable population of Christians—thus the Christmas tree at the beginning of “Mayor.”
As it turns out, I was in Ramallah briefly the same year that Osit was filming, though I was there months before Trump—against all American and international precedent—formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. After a day visit to see a friend that July of 2017, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make it back to my lodging in East Jerusalem that night by bus, even though it is just six miles north of Jerusalem. A crisis had unfolded at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, causing Israeli forces to increase security in the area and close some of roadways out of Jerusalem.
As seen in the film, checkpoints, already a source of humiliation for Palestinians, are often closed when tensions arise, or sometimes because the military just feels like it. I was able to get through the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem that night, but this, and other experiences like it, were poignant glimpses into what life under occupation must feel like. Of course, I always had my pretty blue American passport with me, which unlike for most Palestinians, gave me access to travel through all of the West Bank and Israel freely (barring closed checkpoints).
I didn’t understand this privilege or what “occupation” really meant until I had the opportunity to visit Palestine and Israel for the first time with a group of scholars in 2016. That trip was transformative. I saw with my own eyes what the words “occupation,” “separation wall,” and “settler colonialism” meant in real life there, and I couldn’t “un-see” what I saw. I returned to the region that following year to take a little Arabic through Al-Quds University–which, through no fault of my excellent teacher, I’ve almost completely forgotten by now but hope to study again one day, inshallah. During my second trip, I also spent time researching the ongoing collective trauma caused by the occupation and learning about Palestinian and Israeli movements for just peace.
What I saw on the ground in both of my trips closely corresponds to what the film, “Mayor,” depicts on the screen. The word “conflict” suggests two equal entities, but being on the ground there I immediately understood that there was no equality between Palestine and Israel, or between Palestinians and Israelis. Instead, the reality is an over fifty-year old military occupation which thrives on an imbalance of power.
In the film, for example, we see Hadid scanning the horizon and all he sees are Israeli settlements encroaching all around the city. “Even when they’re not doing anything, it’s suffocating,” he says. These almost exclusively Jewish communities are built on occupied Palestinian land and have been deemed illegal by international law. I had the opportunity to visit an organization called the Tent of Nations located on the Nassar family farm just southwest of Bethlehem, which seeks to build bridges between people, and people with the land. Despite the fact that this has been the Nassars’ registered farm for more than a century, the Israeli military and nearby settlers have harassed the family and repeatedly attacked the land (settlements ringed around the farm can be seen in the horizon in a photo below). Just this past May, around 1,000 fruit trees were destroyed by arson and the military brought bulldozers that destroyed trees in the process. Many settlements also have access to a surplus of water, resources, and exclusive roads, while the Palestinians in the West Bank routinely encounter water shortages.
During my trips, I quickly recognized Palestinian homes by the big black buckets on rooftops designed to collect water in the event that it ran out. Life in Gaza is much worse, as few residents have access to clean water and electricity is often cut off due an ongoing blockade. Not only are resources restricted under the Occupation, but Palestinians often have little control over their own land, as testified by Hadid’s inability to build a sewage plant for his own city.
Building permits can be few and far between, as I heard from so many Palestinians in Jerusalem, so it can take years to construct new homes. The Israeli military also routinely orders the demolition of Palestinian homes, and to add insult to injury, they either have to pay for the military to do the demolition or do it themselves. Many Palestinians have been evicted or live under the threat of being evicted from their homes based on false settler and military claims to their homes and land. Much of the devastating violence between Hamas and Israel this past summer was spurred by the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families in Sheik Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
After seeing this and so much more during my trips, I knew I wanted to continue my involvement in working for just peace in Palestine and Israel, so in 2020, I was grateful to have the opportunity to join the Steering Committee of the Palestine-Israel Network of the United Church of Christ, a group of clergy and lay leaders which advocates for peace and justice in the region. Right after I joined the group, we started working on a Resolution for the UCC General Synod, which took place just last July. I’m so pleased that our Resolution, a “Declaration for a Just Peace between Palestine and Israel,” passed at the General Synod with an 83% majority, and among the endorsers of the Resolution was our own United Christian Church of Austin’s Social Justice Team.
What I, and the group articulate, is that the oppression of the Palestinian people is a matter of theological and political urgency. What I saw there, from checkpoints to miles of separation walls to the Israeli settlements that are encroaching on Palestinian olive groves, are all a sin. Theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer said the same of Nazi racism—it was a status confessionis—a situation in which only one position is in accord with the confession of Christ. In Israel-Palestine, there is also only one situation that is in accord with the Hebrew Prophets and the Gospels: which is to end the occupation and the oppression of Palestinians, now.
At stake, after all, is human dignity. For me, one of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Hadid is meeting with a group of German politicians who are stressing diplomacy and dialogue without recognizing the imbalance of power. Hadid, with his quiet but demanding presence responds: “It’s about dignity. When it comes to the dignity of yourself, it’s not acceptable. . . When we feel that we are not treated as slaves and they are masters, we are ready to do everything. But when I have to take off my clothes in front of everyone…under the threat of [a] weapon, it is about dignity.”
“It’s about dignity.”
Mayor Musa Hadid
Hadid’s quiet determination to maintain his and his city’s dignity even amidst an inhumane system, manifests throughout the film as subtle but powerful acts of creative resistance. The lighting of the Christmas tree, the Easter parade, and Hadid’s ultimate success in getting his lighted fountain to flow, are all acts of freedom and hope. What more powerful gospel is there than Hadid’s call for the residents of Ramallah to “remember to make space for joy until we get freedom and independence.” When I was in Palestine, I learned that samud was central to Palestinian life and future. Often translated as “steadfastness” or “perseverance” in English, samud is a Palestinian way of being, and it is rooted in struggle and dignity. In a place where “existence is resistance,” samud can show up in joy as well as struggle.
The PIN Resolution outlines multiple ways for individuals and churches to take action in the spirit of samud, ranging from listening to Palestinian voices on their situation, examining our interpretations of Scripture and liturgies, supporting American, Palestinian, and Israeli groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights), Rabbis for Human Rights , Churches for Middle East Peace, and other ecumenical and interfaith organizations which work for just peace, to lobbying our own government to restrict military aid to Israel until international law is respected.
There are also many amazing documentaries, accessible resources online, and literature about Palestine—including celebrations of Palestinian culture and identity. When I was in visiting, over and over again, Palestinians said that the most important work we could do was here in the U.S., first through economic boycott and divestment, and second, through simply telling their story. If you’ve learned anything new through watching “Mayor” or through our conversation today, I invite you to simply pass it along to a friend or family member. These simple acts of witnessing can be a powerful catalyst for change.
The prophet Isaiah was writing after the early Jewish community returned from exile in Babylonia, but things were not as they had hoped. Still, they are promised joy and praise rather than despair, cities that are renewed rather than devastated, and inheritance rather than disgrace. In their own land, they will find everlasting joy. This is the promise given by God to all peoples—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Palestinians and Israelis. But is us—all of us—who, in the spirit of Isaiah and Jesus who later echoes the prophet’s message, are anointed to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim freedom for the captives. It’s up us to resist that which prevents this human flourishing and to help bring about the conditions where all peoples can live with freedom and dignity, where Musa Hadid’s blazing fountain flows freely throughout that beautiful and broken land.
I seem to be on a 2-3 year schedule of writing blogs for this site, so it seems about time for a new one. It’s long, but I can’t help myself–there’s some stuff on my mind. If you want to read a bit more about why I’m writing now, check out the brief “About” section here on Veninga’s Smuler. XO
“Do his lips look blue to you?” my partner, Jack, asked me as our two-and-a-half-year-old toddler reached for a package of crayons. My adrenaline spiked as I moved the flashlight closer to Elliott and we both leaned in to take a better look. “No, I don’t think so. It’s just the lighting,” I responded. We looked at each other with momentary relief and I handed Elliott another sheet of paper as I googled “hypothermia” on my phone—just to be sure. He was fine, but it turns out that we were right to be concerned; tragically, multiple people died of hypothermia in Texas last week, including an 11-year-old boy.
When we were inspecting Elliott’s lips, we were about 36 hours into a blackout at our home in Austin, Texas, and at that point, we had no idea when we might get our electricity back. With no source of heat, the inside temperature in our house had dropped into the 40s amidst record-low temperatures for Texas (outside temps hovered around 9-10 degrees F for hours). We put blankets over the windows, dressed Elliott in three layers of clothes, put quilts around our water turtle’s aquarium, and nestled with our dogs to keep them warm. I was utterly grateful for the hand and foot warmers that I’d recently bought for what was supposed to be a cold marathon two Saturdays ago.
We used precious battery power on our phones to watch press conferences with city officials and representatives from the energy companies. We were grateful for the essential workers trying to fix the mess. But no one could tell us when our power might be restored. I know that others around the country dealt with weather challenges this past week, including my family and friends in the Pacific Northwest. I also know that people thrive in very, very cold places and live through very extreme weather. But Texas and Texans are not equipped for this extremity, and for many here it really did become a situation of survival.
In the face of uncertainty, my partner and I faced those critical decisions—the kinds that disasters often call for—that all involved risk. Should we accept a friend’s generous invitation for her to try to pick us up in her four-wheel drive vehicle and take us to her house an hour away? If we did, we’d have heat. But what if we get stranded with a toddler in tow, or my friend gets stranded alone? On the other hand, what if we stay and don’t have heat or water for another three or four days? Should we try to leave for my mother’s house only 13 minutes away, where she has intermittent blackouts with short periods of electricity? But how will my 2005 Mini Cooper possibly travel the icy roads, and what if the power goes off at her house entirely? We finally decided that we would stick with the risks that we knew rather than the ones we didn’t, and just stayed put.
It turns out that we were relatively lucky—our power came back on 48 hours after it had gone off, and we had water all week. And still, those 48 hours and a few that followed, were scary. I love adventure and have certainly chosen the riskier option more than a few times during my solo travels and justice work at home and abroad (and probably will again one day). But with my young child’s wellbeing on the line right in our own home, this felt different. Jack and I took turns doing all the usual toddler activities with him (reading, coloring, playdoh, repeat), and Elliott and I made an outpost “nook” in the closet of his room where we could snuggle, read, and keep warm. We found a box of my old children’s books and read the slim Mrs. Duck’s Lovely Day again and again (which, with a bit of translation for gender inclusivity, is not a bad read).
But if we were lucky, so many more, including our family and friends were not. Some struggled without heat for days after we warmed back up. Even after electricity has returned for most Austinites, water is still unavailable for many and a boil-water order remains in effect for some parts of the city. Food shortages have resulted from stores closing or not receiving deliveries. Reports are starting to come in about how many deaths resulted from this storm, but the grim reality is that we won’t know that number for a while. And though this crisis almost caused me to forget, we are still in a global pandemic.
On Thursday, the day after the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) gods allowed our power to come back on, I ventured out on foot in search of some milk for Elliott. I was surprised to find that our nearby Target was open. I trudged in, unshowered for days, wearing my partner’s enormous ski jacket and a backpack for transporting whatever I could find.
I was taken aback by my own feelings as I walked into Target. Box-store lights blazing, people casually looking at clothes, the corporate capitalist wheels spinning—it all felt surreal after holing up in our living room all week trying to meet our basic needs and keep our family safe. As I stood there looking at the barren shelves, I tried to resist any comparison to the experiences of deep suffering that I study in my research on trauma as a theologian and scholar of religion. But I couldn’t and still can’t let the thought go: we Texans have experienced collective and individual trauma this past week.
Ignoring the reality or the effects of trauma, as psychologists and so many survivors have long told us, doesn’t actually help anyone, and can instead harm survivors and the larger collective. As a white, middle-class woman with a home and a deep network of support, I do not intend to suggest that I somehow know what it feels like to be in a constant state of survival, under long-term immanent threat, or to have personally experienced traumatic violence that cannot be integrated into my understanding of the world. At the same time, I do believe it is possible to use the language of trauma to describe an experience and also place that experience in perspective. Doing the latter can help to ward off slipping into harmful appropriation of others’ deep suffering or exercising hollow empathy that falsely claims to know the pain of another.
The word “trauma” was originally associated with a physical wound caused by an external source, a kind of violent attack upon a vulnerable body. We know now that trauma is not just a physical phenomenon; it can and does affect our emotional, rational, and spiritual selves. The old model of the human being as a composite of disparate, separate parts, furthermore, is inaccurate and has itself blinded us from the real ways that trauma persists through generations, especially through the body. (I’m learning more and more about this lately, especially in relationship to whiteness and racism, as I am reading My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem.) An understanding of trauma as an external force can also be problematic as it can limit us from considering the systems that enable and foster trauma, particularly among those who have historically been marginalized or have been made invisible altogether.
Indeed the wounds—the trauma—in my home state this week reveal larger systems, values, and attitudes at play before the temperature even began to drop last weekend. In his book, Where Is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope, Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrinodescribes the devastating 2001 earthquake in El Salvadorand other similar disasters as “bearers of truth,” and “x-rays” of a society, which bring to light inequities and injustices that were present long before these particular events ever occurred.
In the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic has of course been such an x-ray, revealing with bright, clear light, the undeniable fact that just about all of our institutions and systems rely upon the vicious lie that some lives matter more than others. We needn’t look further than the statistics on how the pandemic has disproportionately affected black and brown people, not only in terms of contracting and dying from the disease, but now also in terms of getting a vaccine.
The x-ray taken while over 4 million Texans huddled in the dark this past week has reminded us of truths that aren’t new, but have appear in new forms. They will continue to reveal themselves in every crisis and every disaster until we can learn to do things differently and to realize the ways in which our priorities are malformed under the influence of white, hetero-normative, patriarchal hyper-capitalism. We should have learned these lessons one year into a global pandemic (if not way sooner), but here we are again. So, here are just a few of the obvious truths that I can think of. There are many more, but this is a start:
The most vulnerable among us are the those most susceptible to trauma. Wounding can and does happen to anyone (my own post-crisis collapse these past days is a case in point). But it is also true that disaster disproportionately affects those who have fewer resources to prepare, respond, and recover. The hardest hit this week are those without home, are housing insecure, or have limited access to stable electricity or clean water to begin with. Every single time there is a “natural” disaster—a fire, an earthquake, a hurricane, a storm, not to mention a pandemic—those who have the fewest resources suffer the most. Shouldn’t we be asking why particular individuals and communities are vulnerable to begin with? We know that racist economic, housing, and health care policies have over time mean that people of color disproportionately experience these realities. But we have to keep asking the questions, and then, act as if the answers actually matter to us.
Climate change is already happening and horrible things will keep happening to us unless we make some really radical changes. Now. While it may not be clear that climate change was “directly” responsible for this particular “extreme weather event,” we know that human-induced climate change has caused unprecedented heat waves, floods, and droughts in recent decades. The first full summer after I moved back to Texas after living in California, we had over 100 days above 100 degrees F. Summers were hot growing up in Central Texas in the 1980s and 90s, but they weren’t like that. And the massive and devastating fires in California and the Western U.S. in recent years can be linked to drought conditions and unseasonably warm temperatures.
As is old news now, my Republican Governor, Greg Abbott, at first blamed this week’s blackouts on frozen wind turbines, though they only comprised a fraction of the energy that Texas had planned to use this winter, and accounted for a small percentage of the power loss. The state typically relies on gas, coal, and nuclear energy for the majority of its winter energy, and none of these sources provided enough resources to keep us warm. And nevermind that wind turbines can operate smoothly in cold climates. I’ve seen them.
Inter-dependence, not independence, is the only way to ensure that this kind of trauma does not happen again. I’m a fifth-generation Texan and I love my state. But the go-it-alone mindset of the Lone Star State is part of what went wrong this past week, as of course it has been for the United States especially under the Trump regime. As I learned last week, our main electric grid basically operates separately from the rest of the country and thus has no oversight from the federal entities.
On Wednesday, when millions of Texans were shut out, former governor Rick Perry said that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” I need not wonder if Governor Perry sat in the cold for three days to be able to make that statement. We now know Senator Ted Cruz certainly did not; he was on his way to vacation in Cancun when I was sitting in a closet with Elliott reading Mrs. Duck’s Lovely Day and patients were being evacuated from Austin’s St. David’s Hospital because they lost water and heat. What we need are systems of mutuality, solidarity, and collaboration locally and nationally–and we need to reject those which operate on isolation and corporate greed. But again, I am stating the obvious.
The real success in this story is the ways in which neighborhoods came together to care for their own needs in the height of crisis. I was absolutely amazed by the creativity, compassion, and generosity extended between neighbors over the course of this week. The Buy Nothing Facebook group in my neighborhood transformed into a vibrant source of mutual aid, starting with the sharing of vital information and developing into a way for individuals and families to voice needs and offer the resources that they could. Diapers, food, tools for turning water meters off, breastmilk, and so much more were offered and received, and others with reliable transportation enabled the sharing of resources. Austin Mutual Aid is doing the incredible and complex work of getting resources to the people who need it most. If our state officials refused the need for, and value of, inter-dependence, the hyper-local has not.
Power is now restored to the majority of Texans and water is slowly starting to drip through faucets again. I’m utterly grateful to have power and running water, and I give thanks for the support of friends and for the tirelessness of all those essential workers who got us back to this place.
The snow has melted, and today the high is 70 degrees (it’s Texas after all). Yesterday I took down the blankets from the windows, hung up my pug’s winter jacket, and put all of our well-worn layers of clothes in piles to be washed (not now, though). It’s easy to collectively forget an experience that no one wants to remember. But the truths revealed by the storms in Texas remain, even when the power is restored and we are back to wearing shorts. We cannot let this happen again.
It’s been almost three years since I wrote my first blog here. Many classes taught, research projects started (some finished, some not!), and one baby later–here we are for a second go. I submitted a simpler version of this commentary to the Austin American-Statesman this week, but it wasn’t published. So why not make it a blog?
Reverberations continue from President Trump’s July 14 tweet calling for four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” At a rally in North Carolina last week, Trump’s supporters chanted “send her back,” after the President criticized Somali-born American citizen, Rep. Ilhan Omar. Trump attempted to disavow the chant by saying that he tried to stop it. The video of the rally, however, clearly shows otherwise. Before the rally, Trump tweeted “Our Country is Free, Beautiful and Very Successful. If you hate our Country, or if you are not happy here, you can leave!”
We’re so used to hearing President Trump utter offensive speech, that I fear most of us with the privilege to do so will forget about this latest episode. Representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley obviously will not forget about it. Neither will Americans of color, women, and other minorities who are inspired by their leadership and their courage, nor will those for whom the words “go back” feel personally violent and exclusionary.
As the Statesman’s Juan Castillo pointed out in a column last week, Trump’s call for these public servants to “go back” evokes painful memories—and current realities—of racism and xenophobia experienced by Mexican Americans in Texas. In reality, the only group of Americans who have authority to ask others to “go back” are indigenous peoples. As Democratic representative Deb Haaland aptly wrote, “My Pueblo ancestors, despite being targeted at every juncture — despite facing famine and drought — still inhabit this country today. But indigenous people aren’t asking anyone to go back to where they came from.”
At the center of this latest debacle, and current debates about immigration—is the question of who “we” are as a nation. This tiny word, “we” has a history of bringing people together to unify, but it has—and continues to—divide and exclude. Where there is a “we,” after all, there is a “they,” and where there is an “us,” there is a “them.”
At various points in our history, Germans, Irish, Catholics, Chinese, Jews, Japanese, and Muslims have all found themselves among the many communities which have been excluded from the “we.” The traumas of slavery and segregation linger, and as author Michelle Alexander reminds us, the “new Jim Crow,” mass incarceration–which disproportionately punishes African Americans–attests to the fact that white America still maintains a hold on who can be a part of the “we.”
Not only is this racism and nativism contrary to American democracy, it also flies in the face of the Gospel of Jesus, which Trump and most of his supporters claim to follow—including the 69% of white evangelical Protestants who approve of the President’s performance. Jesus, a Middle Eastern person of color—and a refugee—taught a message of hospitality and welcome that ran counter to the oppressive political system of the Roman Empire. His own Jewish tradition taught that “You shall not deprive a resident alien . . . of justice” and that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I suspect that Jesus and his contemporary followers would find little room in Donald Trump’s version of the “we.” In fact, I’m fairly certain the President would feel threatened by the brown-skinned Jewish Palestinian prophet who called for a community that sought to bring people in rather than send them out. Christians and Christianity have all too often failed to live up to this inclusive vision by using their (our) texts and traditions to foster subtle and overt anti-Judaism, homophobia, misogyny, and racism. Unfortunately, Trump and some members of his evangelical base also reject legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitism, claiming that they are defending Jews.
This support is, in reality, anti-Jewish, as it relies on a Christian Zionist theology that ultimately regards Jews as pawns in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. And it makes invisible the injustices of the occupation of Palestinian lives and land—practices deemed illegal by international law. Just this week, Israel illegally demolished dozens of Palestinian homes in a Palestinian-controlled neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Yet Trump’s appeal to his base, and the theology that supports it, equates criticism of these injustices with antisemitism. We all—Jews, Palestinians, Christians, and Americans—lose in the end when just criticism of power is silenced.
At its best, however, Christianity repudiates these and other attitudes and practices that diminish human worth, including what evangelical scholar Jim Wallis calls America’s “original sins” of slavery and racism, and what a 2018 pastoral letter by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops calls the “evil of racism” that persist in the U.S. today.
In that letter, the Bishops encourage their readers to take seriously the words of Pope Francis that no one should “think that this invitation is not meant for him or her.” As Americans, our invitation is to speak out against those who seek to make our “we” narrow and exclusive, and to speak for a vision that is pluralistic, expansive, and strong enough for critique. Contrary to what Trump tells us, only then will we be a truly free, beautiful, and successful nation.
I’ve never written a blog post in my life. I’ve thought about it before, but it has always felt overwhelming and a little self-indulgent. But today on a rainy run in the beautiful Texas Hill Country, I decided that now is the time. There are those times, after all, when we don’t feel “ready” to speak, to write, to witness. But in some instances, we just have to do it anyway. This first one is a little long.
For the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of what it means to “witness” and “testify” to an event, an idea, a truth—questions I’ll pursue in “Veninga’s Smuler.” Today I was reading a moving essay by trauma theorist Shoshana Felman on education and crisis, in which she talks about the possibility that all testimony has to be precocious, in that it is always spoken before the testifier is ready. Felman references reflections by nineteenth-century poet Stéphane Mallarmé:
“It is appropriate . . . to talk about it now already, much like an invited traveler who, without delay, in breathless gasps, discharges himself of the testimony of an accident known, and pursuing him . . . Should I stop here, and where do I get the feeling that I have come relatively to a subject vaster and perhaps to myself unknown—vaster than this or that innovation or rites or rhymes; in order to attempt to reach this subject, if not to treat it.”
So I’m talking about things—both brokenness and joy—now, already, before I’ve got it all together and figured out. Chances are, I won’t ever have it all figured out, and maybe that is something to celebrate. The occasion (to use Kierkegaardian language) for this precocious attempt at testimony is a recent trip to Palestine, which was only two weeks but had the impact of a lifetime. I’ve struggled with how to begin to talk about my experience there—how to witness to walls that divide and demean human beings, as well as to resilience of spirit that can and should give us all hope.
What, after all, does it mean to witness to the pain of another? Can we do it justly? How can we offer authentic and constructive testimony when language seems to fall short? What does it mean to stand in solidarity with another?
These are the kinds of questions that I’ve been dreaming of writing about. In this blog, I hope to write about them, and others. Some things might be a bit less intense but not less important: my pug, Bubba/Buber, the most active turtle in the world, Elvis, attempts at a vegan life, the joy of snowcones, the nervousness that ensues every semester when walking into a new classroom.
The title of the blog invokes my beloved Søren Kierkegaard, whose 1844 Philosophiske Smuler (Philosophical Fragments, or Crumbs) was one of the first books I read by the Dane when studying in Copenhagen in 1998. In some ways, we are always thinking and living in fragments. Bits and pieces of insight, love, joy, pain, here and there. Recently, Kierkegaard scholars have been translating smuler as “crumbs” rather than “fragments,” and I like that, too. The crumbs testify to what we leave behind in the wake of our everyday lives—the crumbs of freshly baked bread, of spontaneous thoughts on a notepad, of an argument with a lover. Crumbs come from living.
They also remind me of St. Edward’s dear Ed Shirley, who we said goodbye to almost exactly four years ago. At his wake, his friends and family witnessed to the funny and profound “Ed crumbs” that he always left behind. And thankfully, we keep finding them.
My hope is to blog twice a month, maybe more and maybe less, on these crumbs. One of my favorite jobs was a semester-long stint as a weekly columnist for my alma mater’s newspaper, the SMU Daily Campus. In this blog, I hope to revive something like that. I’m a minister without a regular place to offer sermons, but I’m hoping that writing publicly can also be a kind of pulpit.
There is much to lament in this world of ours. There is much to voice righteous anger about, much that should trouble us and shake us to the core. I feel angry these days. There is also undeniable love, hope and humanity in the midst of all this brokenness. And humor, and funny things.
When I was in Palestine, I had the opportunity to visit the Tent of Nations, a peacebuilding organization affiliated with the Nassar family farm just outside of Bethlehem. The Nassar family has experienced tremendous loss at the hands of the Israeli government, which has destroyed hundreds of trees and repeatedly threatened demolition of the whole farm. But the Nassars, and the land which they tend, remains committed to life and to just peace. A few years ago, virtually all of their trees were destroyed, except one. They called this strong tree the “Steadfast Witness.”
Today I witness to the strength of that one tree, to the enduring spirit of just peace, and to the possibility of testimony, even before one is ready. I invite you to come with me on this journey of reflecting on the fragments and crumbs of our lives. I end with part of one of my favorite poems from Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude,” (1977) which includes an image of weaving together ordinary-sacred “fragments,” that has always given me goosebumps.
Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow- colored shells
sent in cotton-wool from somewhere far away
and skeins of milkweed from the nearest meadow
original domestic silk, the finest findings
and the darkblue petal of the petunia,
and the dry darkbrown face of seaweed;
not forgotten either, the shed silver
whisker of the cat,
the spiral of paper-wasp-nest curling
beside the finch’s yellow feather.
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright; silk against roughness,
putting the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care for the many-lived, unending
forms in which she finds herself,
becoming now the sherd of broken glass
slicing light in a corner, dangerous
to flesh, now the plentiful, soft leaf
that wrapped round the throbbing finger, soothes the wound; and now the stone foundation, rockshelf further forming underneath everything that grows.
Let the turning of the fragments, the crumbs, the scraps begin.