How are the imaginations of New York City children fostered without the ability to look up and see stars? Perhaps the New York City skyline sufficiently espouses the greatness of man, placing a seed in the mind of its youth that all things are possible; maybe it is the sheer beauty of the lights sustaining the wonder of its children. An island with over eight million people, each containing stardust, provides enough energy to recognize human ability; if one knows the ability of man, shouldn’t one recognize the power of God? And, if one sees a person, is one not seeing a star?
I pondered such while sitting on a blue velvet sofa in my then waterfront apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Versace pillows supporting my back and a wall of books to my left, happy to be free at last of the boxes holding them inside a mouse-infested storage unit in the Bronx for the past four years while my children and I navigated life without a home of our own. I’d pondered how I would get my books back, where they would be housed over the past few years. What a foolish way to waste time, trying to discern God’s methodology.
To my right was a large mounted flat screen television silently reminding me I need only push the menu button to access any number of channels I never watched anyway. Underneath the mounted flat screen a whitewashed, hand carved chest held antique ivory figurines and mercury glass candle holders, toted home from a company gala. Inside the pale hutch a stockpile of haircare, skincare, fingernail polish and other personal care products were stored. I exhaled at the knowledge everything I once prayed for I had.
Still, as majestic as the East river and the Manhattan skyline is from the water walk by that building, as illuminating as the Independence day fireworks viewed right from my bedroom window that first July were, the stars are hidden. As a child blanketed by the Kansas sky, I listened to my mother talk about her own childhood of star gazing from the red dirt grounds of Oakdale, Oklahoma, with her mother, a pale green-eyed woman fluent in five languages and birthing nine children of which seven survived to adulthood. Her name was Alice and she pointed out the constellations to her children, including my mother, Irene, one by one.
But the loss of one generation passed. These constellations were never named when I peered up at the sky with my own red-brown mother; perhaps mom remembered the faces and bodies of the stars, but forgot their names. In fact, my mother forgot lots of names— whatchamacallit was her catchall pronoun.
My mother may not have been big on names, but she knew quite well how the positions, motions, and properties of the stars purportedly affect people—these reports I heard all the time. Perhaps these reports—like the stars—would be trumped by the light polluted sky of New York, the way her memory of all but one language of her mother’s was trumped by her mother’s open-handed slaps.
But the loss of one generation passed.
Maybe it is why my mother claimed to hate the very city I love.
Stars—let my mother tell it, dictate destiny. As she would have it, the stars reveal everything. They tell us about our nature and our path, placing our story neatly in the palm of the hands of a reader to translate for a nominal fee. As an adolescent I accompanied mom to her gypsy palm reader appointments on South Hillside in Wichita, Kansas. What a waste of money, I thought during those visits. How can one know the fate of another when so much of our life is determined by personal choice? Eyeing the gypsy’s kohl-rimmed eyes and the gaudy décor of the home-based business in a less than prime neighborhood, I resented what I recognized as a fallacy of wasting money on psychics; the Bible says it’s wrong and I had better ideas of where mother should spend her money—namely me. The way I figured it, the written in the stars mentality was a blueprint for unaccountability and hopelessness, like wading in stagnant water, neither jumping in, nor removing one’s feet, nor getting completely out. Like being lukewarm, as opposed to being a co-creator with God, as we are directed in 1 Corinthian 3:9.
And this is what the sunflower state is—lukewarm: a middle of the continental U.S. rectangle; flat as a natural Caucasoid ass, a child sandwiched between older and younger siblings, often forgotten, often overlooked. The relevance of its psyche is remembered only when the state’s geographical fact is in queue with its viewpoint on debatable issues endorsed passionately by all sides. From the days of bleeding Kansas to Brown vs. The Board of Education, to boycott signs with suctioned fetuses outside windows of clinics filled with women from across the county waiting to kill third trimester babies, Kansas is a policy defining combat zone. It is a place where an abortionist is murdered while leaving church and his very funeral a pro-life demonstration. It is not the Wild West but it gives one hell of an impersonation; we believe in the right to bear arms; felon-free citizens are permitted to carry guns.
Kansas exists in a state of low simmer, a temperature leading to some ultimate creation usually found in some other life. To young eyes sensitive to the future, it is but a temporary town some unfortunate people stay in because any possibility of greatness has long been dulled by contentment. Such is Kansas. And although I can’t say I like it, I can’t claim to necessarily hate it, either; it is affordable. You get what you pay for. The problem is, like me, it cannot decide upon a fate. The problem is, like me, I’ve always reckoned the end of Kansas implosion rather than explosion.
Wichita, the so-called “air capital of the world” where no large planes (save military) fly in or out (nor anywhere in Kansas for that matter), where the great casino debate and whether or not the aircraft industry will kiss Wichita goodbye once and for all, making way for a crime infested inner city and ghost town outer, are the long-time dominant talk. Upon my return from five years in NYC the only changes were a new grocery store in the hood and Hobby Lobby’s move from Woodlawn to further east.
To avoid stagnation, I’d fled Wichita with my three children a couple of months after graduating with my bachelor’s degree, using graduate studies as my ticket out.
New York would be over the next almost five years a wonderful cocktail of carefree living due to support from a small family trust and barely surviving off of flour, coconut oil, and powdered sugar. Eventually pushed out by a dwindled trust fund and high rents, I left the village of Harlem, then my friend’s apartment in midtown west, and headed back to the Midwest.
I took the train. I wasn’t in a rush. The terrain in suburban New York was mountainous and purple; it was lovely. I had a little money from a life insurance policy my dad left, so I tried to enjoy myself as much as possible; I drank scotch and soda and ate steak; during a layover in Chicago I trusted a very attractive Middle Eastern man to watch my luggage and he trusted me to watch his. I chatted with people from all parts of the country. But the further south we went, the more it began to look more like home and less like home. Home because my children were already in Kansas and had been for over two months, as was mother. Less because New York is my home, even whilst homeless.
Mother picked me up in her money green Mercedes driven by a Mexican man with a thick accent who sometimes did yard work for her and to whom she had progressed his business with referrals. The weather was warm and the cool breeze of night kissed my skin soothingly. Looking out the window I reacquainted myself with the place I’d lived for thirty years: Wichita, Kansas. Nothing had changed; in the night the city was bare. I looked out the windows and wondered how I had lived in the heartland for so long.
When we arrived to my childhood home, I was glad to see the lawn so tenderly cared for—what a struggle cutting the three quarters of an acre of Kentucky Bluegrass had always been. If my oldest brother boasted a life of wrongs, at least in caring for our mother’s lawn he’d been right.
Though the yard was cut, mother’s car was nice, and the weather was good, when I entered into the home the same crowded disaster I’d left behind four years prior greeted me at the door. As my mother directed me to place my luggage in her bedroom I was overwhelmed at the level of filth in both her boudoir and master bath. I accosted my mother, “Dang, mom, you really couldn’t clean the house before I got here?” before scrounging up cleaning supplies and, with my middle daughter, disinfecting the two bathrooms and the primary bedroom until sunrise. Even with all the cleaning, the rooms were still unpleasant. The hallway bathroom door had extension cords connecting to a lamp because the electricity in the bathroom was faulty, which made it difficult to completely shut the doorknob-less door stuffed with plastic bags for privacy. Mom’s bedroom was cluttered with dusty objects, but at least it was only used by her and not the rest of the people residing or visiting her home. Her bedroom had a smell imbedded in both the carpet and clothes in the closet that was bitter and musty all in one.
It had been—and still is at its core—a beautiful, quality home. Well thought-out. Custom. My parents were the second owners. It was, without question, the most impressive house on the block. A mid-century marvel.
The Andersons, my childhood neighbors, had the best lawn, though. Their backyard was made up mostly of a garden, the nicest I’d ever seen, with rows of crops and twelve foot sunflowers at the southern tip, and strawberry vines and bushes just on the other side of their property line. Everyday Mr. Anderson drove his riding lawnmower across his grass, creating perfect lines, one hand holding a can of beer and the other steering the course. If you waved, he’d tip his head and keep moving. They had a big, perfect Old English sheepdog I referenced as “the Sesame Street dog,” and a couple of Weiner dogs. I thought the sheepdog was the most charming dog, his eyes covered by the shag of his fur.
Near the twelve foot sunflowers there was a precarious square maybe four by eight feet wide of what looked like ashes, but known to my brothers, cousins, and I as quicksand that we kids—three boys and three girls—took turns running through. Sometimes the sink was too slow, so some of us—myself included—jumped up and down in an effort to speed the sink up and catch a thrill. One of us ended up losing a shoe in the marshy substance.
During winter break one year, Mr. Anderson’s two grandsons, both a couple of years older than my big brothers, came to visit. On a cold day it came to be we played war against the two boys. I was allowed participation as the tag-along kid sister, and I was excited to see my brothers demolish the two white boys. We went to war cocky; I don’t recall having a strategy. My brothers dominated, with the two boys keeping a steady retreat. We advanced upon their grandpa’s yard into new terrain we’d never seen. The only thing that kept us out the house was our respect for Mr. Anderson.
Finally the two grandsons extended what we perceived to be a surrender, a confirmation of our superiority. They approached slowly, with smiles and a Styrofoam cup in the taller boy’s hand. Once they reached arm’s length, the taller boy jerked the Styrofoam cup and out tossed a large dead mouse. Game over. The Anderson boys won.
I wish I could say I learned pride proceedeth the fall on that cold day when a little mouse caused our defeat. That mouse should have humbled us; all of our presumed glory was inexplicably tied to our brawn, but those boys used their brains. Of course, at the time, I felt Mr. Anderson’s grandsons had crossed the line. A real dead mouse? I’d venture to call their behavior sociopathic. That is, sociopathic and not strategic. Now I see it may have been a bit of both. The boys simply wanted to win, and they did.
I returned to Kansas with that sort of pride; here I was, fresh from having lived in NYC almost five years, with a terminal degree, and a children’s book about to be published. Not the most impressive resume, but pretty damn good by Wichita standards. My narrow path had become skinnier and skinnier and I thought I was traversing it fairly well. My self-righteous meter was off the chart.
TD Jakes has a sermon about coming out of the wilderness in which he talks about the exile of Mephibosheth, the son of a prince, Jonathon, and the grandson of a king, Saul. Mephibosheth is lame on both feet due to being dropped by a caretaker while fleeing from advancing enemies when he was five years old. He had been in Lodebar, a pastureless land in Gilead, many years when David, now the king and newly aware his beloved friend Jonathan had a son in exile, went to find him. David restored the lame Mephibosheth from many years of exile, shame, and bondage into the king’s table in an instant.
For two years, Wichita would become my Lodebar. A great deal of that time was spent looking back at what should have and could have been. I wept endlessly for the fallen heroes rebuking me. Those should haves and could haves manifest not in my quality of life, but in those who were prospering near and far while I slowly died. My oldest addiction, retail therapy, provided little respite from those tears, especially when retail therapy exhausted into an empty checking account and hunger, and the tears collected into puddles, ponds, and then stagnant, muddy bodies of water that would become a swamp from where harmful things formed and festered—bloodsuckers and crocodiles, deadly things that spread disease and death, but from which also things of great value can be found—sunken cypress and other logs preserved from oxidation, found only by those daring enough to dive into the unseen; it’s all in the view. Kansas—mother—certainly spawned both a death and a rebirth in me. I could have died in Kansas. Part of me did. A basketball-size tumor and several smaller tumors grew inside me until I went to the emergency room and ended up on the surgeon’s table, cut open, and, along with the neon and pink jelly-like substance invading my body, declawed of a handful of organs. These cells would later be determined a rare cancer. Through the grace of God, the death of my reproductive abilities birthed a new me.
And the eventual death of the person I’d clung so tightly to all my life—crying from Denver to Kansas until my Uncle Lasha brought me home to mom, ruining the trip for my brothers when we were kids; refusing to leave Kansas because she’d had me going on forty and I didn’t want to abandon her; worrying over her like a mother does her child, some fifteen hundred miles away, set me free to be the person she’d raised me to be.
And isn’t it funny in the heat of pain and discomfort we are forged into something new? I laugh now at the hopelessness of that time, at how I’d forgotten I was always only a prayer away from restoration. But being in the fire hurts, and during the process I adopted the ways of the natives, although with said natives I share blood. Does that make their ways my ways? I sat at tables of enemies I mistook for friends. I ran towards addiction, and presented people who did not like me with gifts. It was akin to eating my own vomit. Is this why my brother once told me speaking in tongues feels like throwing up? Is it the speaking of life and the expulsion of rot all in one?
Frederick Douglass told us there is no progress without struggle. We know there are no diamonds without pressure. Children certainly value not only a good thrill, but also the tension of fear. It’s why they clamor to scary movies. We think about what bad can happen to appreciate what tragedy hasn’t. And when we mature and leave behind such childish sentiments, life hurls enough adversity to teach us to humble us into leaning not on our own understanding, no matter how intelligent or educated we may be, but on the wisdom of God, who is infinite. Getting cancer taught me this: we might know some things, but we really know nothing except for what the good book gives us, which is humility and love.
The value of Lodabar is the humility in which it ushers in—it is where we are brought into a place we appreciate, for we now know what a median is and the dangers such place entails. It is restoration in the joy of Jesus.