Stories of My Grandmother

Vials of Oil for Anointing & Souls Behind the Eyes: Exploring Spirit*

This biographical essay is written for the #52essays2017 challenge by Vanessa Martir.

I.  It is a brave thing to write about Spirit. It is much easier to write, solely, about God, or colonial Christianity, or even decolonizing Christianity. Yet, matters of Spirit are often unwieldy. We can theorize them, but even that comes with its risks. Keating’s exploration of the spiritual work of Gloria Anzaldúa notes:

After all, those of us working in academic settings are trained to rely almost exclusively on rational thought, anti-spiritual forms of logical reasoning….

We might admire Anzaldúa’s bold spirit vision yet fear that if we explore it in our work, we will harm our careers. Not only will our colleagues scoff at us, but we will have difficulty publishing such explorations. As Lara (2005) suggests, these fears can be intensified for Chicanas and other women of colors who are often already viewed as interlopers in the academy. (Keating, 2008, p. 55)

However, matters of Spirit are often unrelenting. They show up, most often, when I want to write fluffy, easily-shareable pieces. They are determined.

Whenever we speak of Spirit, or spirits, we are both aided and blocked by our language. “What do you mean by Spirit”? In the past few months, I’ve been asked this question in so many different ways. I never give specifics because it’s typically already been decided I’m in need of re-Evangelizing.

The women in my family are always negotiating spirit*. For the purposes of this piece, I define it as the essences / life forces which we cannot always understand… yet find ourselves either intrigued or repelled by.

The women in my family are brilliant and can intellectualize most things. Yet, I often hear behind the words, because I came from them. And there is much concern about holy & good spirits – “wait, do you believe in one Holy Spirit or many other spirits” – staying away from evil spirits. But then there are the metaphorical spirits* – the energies & memories of the things we’d rather forget or leave alone. There is always the risk of being blocked by language, of being misunderstood, of being seen as “at-(spiritual)-risk”. It is a brave thing to write about Spirit*.

II. My Gramma was always intrigued with the concept of exorcism. She chased the next revival services, healing events, and traveling “prophets” like ones who would chase a storm. Seeing where it began. Seeing how it ended.

She had a library of books on methods to keep evil spirits away. A hobby? A passion? A fear? All three?

As a child, she would tell me about these excursions of spirit. Sometimes, I could travel along to a service – if she felt it was safe enough. She kept a vial of oil, anointed for the task of both blessing and protecting – warding off evil & inviting in good. “Spirits ain’t nothing to play with”. She told me, “You’ll know when it’s a bad one. Your stomach turns. Your throat feels like it’s hot and dry. Look into the eyes. See if it looks like a soul is behind there“.

She often retired to the back room to pray. It used to be my play room, but I grew too big for the walls. I grew too big for the house, itself. I grew too big for the entire state, I suppose. Years later, she asked me to mind my size – and help her clear out that back room.

I spent hours on the dusty pink carpet, eating home cooked meals, pausing to look up at the sparkly popcorn ceiling, and sneaking journals full of Bible study notes from 1985 into the garbage bin. She would catch me, occasionally. “Grandma, I can type these up for you”. But she preferred the hard copies all around her like a shield. So, in one month, I could only clear one chest. After she passed, there was so much more clearing to do.

III.
“Mother, are spirits real?”
“Why are you worried about this?”
“I just am…”
“You’ve got God inside. You have nothing to fear”.

My mother’s jaw clenches when she is trying very hard to be patient. My Gramma often regaled her with stories about faith healers, far and wide. How much she was intrigued by them. My mother is a medical professional with complicated thoughts around faith healing (life sets up the most beautifully ironic situations). She listened carefully, because this was her Mother, and they were good friends. Only I could see, standing underneath her with my childhood body, that her jaws were clenched & her smile required effort.

IV.
I began getting bored with my church at 16 years old. How many more Sundays could I watch the parishioners march up to the altar, seeking more deliverance from the spirits which were real, imagined, a mix of both, who knows? I craved “something intellectual”. I was young and wanted more of everything, really. So, I took a sharp turn, tried out Reformed Calvinism. I was intrigued by their use of the word “eschatological”  , the thought that perhaps life could be figured out by a few “simple” tenets, and the added surprise of walking in to church with multitudes of handsome brown men. I was young and thought I knew everything.

I theorized everything then – the life of “spirits” didn’t seem to be worth as much exploration as the “doctrine of election”. I stopped dancing at religious services. I kept up with the rhetoric – until I realized that believing in “totally depravity”  left my soul dank & depressed. Until I saw how much violence it did. Until I realized that beyond my Black church, most of the prominent scholars in the denomination were White. They believed & taught that a spiritually elected-somewhat-Divinely-yet-arbitrarily-decided group would access heaven. The implications of that horrified me. I was young, and old enough to know I needed to get out.

V.
One of my favorite tarot cards is “The Hermit”.

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The Hermit, Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck

In the dark, deep, blue glow, the Hermit carries one single light and walking stick. They are walking across the cold, craggy mountains. They are looking down, inward. They are reaching deeper spirituality. Some people feel this card is a bit obscure (and sometimes, I agree haha). However, the Hermit is a guide – that sense of “knowing” inside of ourselves when we need a “container”, a “cocoon”, somewhere dark, quiet, and even a bit windy to shake up our previous understandings. A figure, resembling a Hermit, found me in a church in the middle of Nowheresville, Pennsylvania (population 50,000). I was living in the LITERAL, actual mountains during this time. “The Hermit” showed me that there was a healthier way of Christianity & of spirituality, itself.

Then, I moved to Smalltownsville, SC (population 9,000) to continue my journey in further shades of solitude. I spent time with myself. I didn’t write.

VI. It is now 2017 & a few conversations with friends have turned into a nonprofit organization which “centers the voices, teaching, practices, and wisdom of People of Color at the intersections of mysticism and activism”. It is interesting that it is built on Christian contemplative tradition, deconstructing what this means, and breaking open space to include indigineity & diasporic religious traditions – a chance to bring our ancestral knowledge out of “hiding”. Equal parts Howard Thurman, Barbara Holmes, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, the saints, the Christian mystics, and our Grand-ancestors teaching us prayers, songs, and ways to invite God in. Equal parts “what we know” and “what we’re open to discover”. Someone inboxes and says it sounds like potential to the slippery slopes of “idolatry”.

I wish I could explain how western colonization has prompted us to see these practices as “idolatrous”. I wish I could explain how it was demonized… not inherently, demonic. I wish I could read them the quote I read today – from the long process of resource sharing we’ve undertaken. I would read slowly:

“Ostensibly, all women in colonial Mexico and Latin America, like their counterparts throughout the Christian world, were suspected of being witches on the basis of gender, but women of colonized groups were suspect on multiple grounds. Indian women, African-origin women, and racially mixed women—whether Indo-mestiza or Afro-mestiza—were suspect by virtue of being female, by virtue of deriving from non-Christian, or “diabolic” religions and cultures, and by virtue of being colonized or enslaved people who might rebel and use their alleged magical power at any moment. —Antonia Castañeda, “Engendering the History of Alta California, 1769–1848, as seen in Lara’s 2005 work.

Most of all, I wish I could explain that I see this as “spiritual activism” (Keating, 2008) – a way forward that allows us to get into deeper touch with God, self, & others, as we fight for social justice in this world.

But I sense their fear. I’m close to them. And I swallow these words with my morning tea. Perhaps, another time. Perhaps, never.

VII. 
The next night, I dreamed of my Gramma. First, I described the dream on Facebook (because #millenial). In this dream, I was preparing for my meditation practice. I wore bright yellow.

My Grandmother sat where my teacher usually sits. She wore white and gold. She said to me: “I want you to meditate on this mantra ‘I ain’t got time’.
(Let me pause here to say that everyone who is familiar with AAVE / African American vernacular English understands all of the nuances of that statement. It is not concretely translatable in Standard American English. ‘I ain’t got time’ means something between “I have time, but refuse to engage something”, and “Something is distasteful to me and / or hazardous to my health, so I will reserve my time for the things that help me to thrive”. This is a loose translation).

I cackled, as per usual. She smiled and said, “Yepp, say it, ‘I ain’t got time”.  Sometimes in your life, there will be giant pizzas rolling toward you – moving fast…”

This was very typical of her – to take a somewhat random object & work it into a life lesson.

“In that moment, you have to decide. Do I want to take a bite out of that? You can only take a bite with it moving that fast. Do I want to knock it down and share it with friends? That’s an option too. And sometimes, you’ll say to yourself, “I don’t even WANT pizza” & just let it roll by. That’s when you say to yourself, “I ain’t got time”.

I woke up to the Twitter-news that Mercury was in Pisces & that my dreams might hold some keys for deep learning at this time (@starheal). It’s funny how that works.

VIII. 
I believe that art allows us forms of exorcism – appeasing the spirits of things our families, sociocultural histories, and personal journeys leave us with. Moreover, it invites us to welcome in all that is “true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious” (Phil. 4:8-9, The Bible).

My Gramma’s lived in enough awareness of what could be bad. These days, she’s telling me “She / we / I ain’t got time”. And the only spirits* I deal with are good ones.

Resources & Further Reading

Keating, AL (2008). “” I’m a citizen of the universe”: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Spiritual Activism as Catalyst for Social Change”. Feminist studies (0046-3663), 34(1/2), p. 53.

Lara, I. (2005). BRUJA POSITIONALITIES: Toward a Chicana/Latina Spiritual Activism. Chicana/Latina Studies, 4(2), 10-45. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23014464

Image Credit: Createherstock.com

Story Time – Family Vacations, Healing Services, & Smoke Machines

What I’m about to tell you is certified “family business”.

For the sake of context, you should know that for the past few months I have been doing some emotional and spiritual work in the areas of familial relationships. It’s been equal parts exhilarating and tiring – charting out the emotional / spiritual histories of family members (for as much as I know). This year, I’ve realized that family & ancestor dynamics shape us in deep ways – some we see readily, even written in the features of our face! However, uncovering other inherited traits, dynamics, spiritual practices, and emotional ‘fallbacks’ can take a bit more work.

The fun part about all of this is that I’ve been re-acquainting myself with some very colorful family stories that we share. In the past, I’ve written quite a bit about my family (it may or may not be fodder for our ‘family meetings’. I’m not sure if they would ever tell me that. Ha)! However, these stories have mostly been serious in nature – the time my Mother ‘stuck it to the man’ in a sacred space, the very deep and multifaceted levels of my Gramma’s spirituality [I’ve written about that twice, actually].

So, this tale is a light-hearted family account that includes smoke machines, driving all across Florida, healing services, and shenanigans. If you’re looking for something a bit more serious, look here. If you’re game for this, come sit with me while I share! (Be careful about drinking water during the tale; you just might spit it out a few times and Mercury is in Retrograde. No one has times for those kind of technology-games).

My Gramma taught me a lot about the mystical side of life – the things that could not be seen. We often disagreed often on the details of these things, but nevertheless, she’s gotten me familiar with a very interesting view of the world.

One year, my family decided to change up their approach to ‘family vacation’. Each member would choose an activity for every day of our trip. The other family members… well, we would deal. This sounds mildly stressful but it was actually quite enjoyable since, generally, I trust them to not have me “out here”. We spent the week going to parks, doing mini golf, riding on jet skis, exploring new restaurants, and more. All the things you think of when you consider those fancy-schmancy vacation and travel blogs.

Then, it was my Gramma’s turn to choose her activity for the day.

We would be going to The Holy Land Experience, which – for those who dont’ know – is described as “a Christian theme park”. (No, I’m not making this up. The hyperlink is there so feel free to explore… Also know, I’m REALLY fighting with myself to refrain from unpacking all of the dynamics of the fact that this is a thing… oh the bed mates that are White Evangelical Christianity and Capitalism… I’m stopping here. The point is that my Gramma wanted to see it… because ‘Christian theme park’… and what Gramma wants, Gramma gets. Who gone argue with my ancestor? Nobody).

It was also decided that we would be going to a healing service afterward. In Tampa. We were going to drive. From Orlando. To Tampa. Gramma’s excited smile was the gavel slam. We were doing this.

I’m going to take a moment here to shout out my Father. Dad was the one doing most of the driving for the entire trip. This morning, he woke up to find that he was driving us about an hour and a half away from the resort space and back. After the theme park. I can remember catching his eye and learning a valuable lesson: Sometimes, in order to keep peace and show love, you gotta drive an hour and a half away from the pools you thought you’d be swimming in by sun down.

It would take an obscene word count to explain the theme park. So, if you are able, I suggest that you go, then call me, we’ll both pour a really big glass of wine, and compare notes. I’m going to focus here on our time in Tampa.

Here is what I was expecting from “healing service”:

It seemed like a logical conclusion, given the strong data from our collected familial, cultural, and spiritual backgrounds. At about 8 pm, I woke up from my car-nap, to my Dad saying, “This looks like… was this maybe a supermarket before… are we in the right place?”

Here’s the picture:
Four family members (myself, Mom, Pops, & bro) are hanging back trying to figure out where in the ham-sandwich we’ve landed. We were also trying to figure out how Gramma heard about a healing service in this church, at this time. She wasn’t on social media. Perhaps, a friend told her. Perhaps, she saw it on tv. Perhaps, it was an unction. I’ll have to consult other family members to get their working theories.

Nevertheless, we were there and in front of us, I think Gramma was enclosed in a ray of metaphysical light. She smiled as she pushed the door open. Everyone else looked around – possibly hoping that one of us would suddenly feel queasy and we’d have to go home. That didn’t happen.

We were greeted by the sounds of heavy metal worship. This is not hyperbole. I am not kidding. And it sounds exactly how you imagine it sounds.

Everyone meets new experiences in different ways. My mother is the most logical person I’ve ever known. I could see her mental wheels spinning in this moment – perhaps, recounting the decisions that got us here. My brother attended to his physical health, as his asthma made itself known – given all of the smoke machines that surrounded the pulpit space. I’m sure I texted a friend – I don’t remember, but it sounds about right. My father chose to count all of the congregants there who had on matching camouflage outfits.

My Gramma was certain that some powerful healing was going to take place. So, as a note for those who aren’t up on the general charismatic church order of services:

  • ‘Healings’ typically happen during altar call
  • Many times, altar call is at the end (after worship, tithes & offerings, announcements, any additional sermonic selections, preaching)
  • Guess how long we were staying…

The preaching started approximately 30 minutes after the heavy metal worship set. My family tends to have a natural aptitude for music. So, after a few measures of each song, my Gramma could get the melody. She sang along during the entire set – a consummate cultural anthropologist.

This next part will be hard to describe in words – which, is ironic, because I’m using a print medium to tell this story. However, I called my brother, and he agrees with me. This experience… words will fall short and that’s where I need you to use your imagination at some pretty epic levels.

The minister / healer approached the pulpit (I use both minister & healer loosely here). I’m hesitant to describe her in too much detail, but the image of a shiny green skirt suit with a brooch, hair that was whiteish-grey yet dyed in pale blue and secured into a bouffant ought to suffice.

After her brief sermon (approx 15 minutes), she introduced us to her practice of “prophetic rapping” (approx 2 hours). The practice (and some people would say ‘gift’) of prophecy entails some sort of divine insight into a situation partnered with the ability to speak on it with clarity and conviction. Prophetic rapping… well I’ve seen it, obviously… but I’m still unclear on the details. It sounded a lot like… well, regular rapping. Key words like Jesus, God, healed, Bible, holiness, were placed into the lyrics as well.

Soooo… I’m going to steer clear of making value statements on that. But I will open an invitation to my religious-scholar-friends (and by religious scholar, I mean… actual religious scholars): Is this a part of a larger charismatic movement? What religious studies classes do I need to understand this? Who has receipts? I need answers. 😉

Meanwhile, back to Gramma…

At this point, it was about 10:30 pm, and we had an hour and a half left to travel back to the hotel resort. My Dad was asleep with his arms folded in his chest (to his credit, again, he was doing all of the driving). My brother’s head was on my shoulder. My mother was trying to reason with Gramma that perhaps it was time to make our exit. My little brother piped in with a performance of Grandson-Charm that I will never forget. We were out within 2 minutes.

We left and debriefed – leaving the actual ending of this encounter still unknown. But it’s a story that my brother and I still recount. It’s one of my favorites and here’s why:

Besides the fact that it’s just a good story and these types of shenanigans follow me around…

I learned a lot that day from my Gramma. We never practiced faith in the same ways. However, she taught me an openness to at least see and bear witness other people’s expressions of the Divine. In the midst of our side eyes, she was game to see whatever that encounter might bring.

I remember her posture whenever I’m invited into a new sacred space – and to be clear, that doesn’t automatically mean “a church”. Since then, I’ve found myself in all kinds of spaces – places I never thought I would get to see. I’ve been in labyrinths, temples, and edifices with a host of different customs and scenery – all with the intention of touching the Intangible.

So, I learned about my capacity to stretch, suspend, and reserve judgment for the things that my ancestors thought were important to watch. Even if I found them to completely unexpected and different. ESPECIALLY if I found them to be completely unexpected and different. I was a teenager at the time this story occurred, so trust, that was a big lesson. I also learned about the allowances we make for love’s sake. (Because if it was anyone other than my Gramma making the request…)

I miss my Gramma’s physical presence on earth. Yet, I also understand her better now. Small annoyances become life lessons. I’m grateful for each one now… even the ones that involve smoke machines and camouflage church-wear.

Image Credit: Isha Gaines, Createherstock.com

 

 

 

I Didn’t Choose Mystic Life, It Chose Me! (Also titled: Inheriting Mysticism from Other-mothers)

Monday – Group Meditation and affirmations
Tuesday – Chat – “Sounds like your sacral chakra might be out of balance. Let’s see if there are any exercises we can do to help with that”
Wednesday – Too-good-to-be-true coworkers lovingly refer to me as “The Apothecary” – known for having an assortment of herbal teas at the ready to ease things like stomach discomfort, lack of focus, headaches, and so on. 
Thursday – Text from friend: “Thanks for letting me know about the sage! It seems like things are looking up”
Friday – *Research on contemplative practices rooted in my cultural heritage

Many of my friends refer to me as “mystical”. I grew up in a pretty theologically conservative (yet, sometimes subversive) place for most of my childhood. In that space, we were discouraged from that which we could not easily understand through literal readings of Biblical text.

Yet… at the same time…

My other-mothers, who are now my ancestors, taught me to have a life filled with mysticism.

My godmother, Lynette, was one of the joys in my world. She became my mother’s best friend when they were both in the fourth grade. She was a consistent force of love in my life. She passed when I was 12 years old. For years, after my dear Mother woke up early, kissed my forehead, and set off on her long commute to work, I spent the remaining hours before school at my godmom’s house. She made sure I was washed, dressed, fed, and that my hair was neatly arranged before I went out.

She lit a candle for me everyday, so that I would have something delicious to smell, first thing in the morning. She regularly brewed me cups of Lemon Zinger and Raspberry tea, and introduced me to new blends when she could. I learned mindfulness from her as we sat at her dining room table, slowly sipping, sometimes listening to music – mostly, just being present.

My godmother believed that what the earth offered us was good. My mother, a medical professional, taught me about biology, different types of medicines, and their effects on the body. Simultaneously, my godmother, a children’s occupational therapist, took me to orchards to pick fruit and taught me their properties. She explained the usages of tea and the benefits of the probiotics in yogurt. She made things from scratch and believed in the healing of laughter.

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Circa Age 5-6 at Net’s Home

My grandmother was serious about God. She grew up in the Baptist church, in the lineage of the Reverend Lewis Rice, who helped to form  African Zion Baptist Church,  with “a group of free Black families” in 1852. She would often tell the story of how she was “born again” in her 40’s – converted towards a charismatic, nondenominational, Evangelical display of belief in God. When I wasn’t home, I accompanied her almost everywhere – to her home town of Charleston, West Virginia, in the summer, through her everyday errands, and to countless tent services and churches during their Revivals and Healings.

My grandmother believed in God and in spirits -in benevolent angels and vicious demons. She believed in the power of anointing with oil and the symbolic protection of a Cross drawn on the foreheads of her grandchildren. She believed that healing could happen through prayer and “laying on of hands”. She took me to places where I might encounter healing energy. She hid me in her car, armed with snacks and a coloring book, during services that intimated that an evil spirit might be nearby. She would stand watch and pray.

Afterward, she told me that when I’d encounter an evil spirit, I would know it by my “gut” and by the Spirit. She gave me rides through our city, casually making conversation about where she believed the warlocks and haints might be. She taught me to be vigilant against that which would steal my joy and peace.

When I got older, when I learned more, when I started using “big girl” words like hermeneutics and epistemological, I found a great deal of her expression of belief to be a bit odd and a bit “problematic”. I craved and loved the intellectual rigor and on visits home, I would share what I’d learned with my Gramma. She would smile deeply and genuinely, saying:

“Jadey-Mae, sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking, but you sure are talkin’ it good”. 

For a long time, I distanced myself from this type of faith and mysticism… for so many reasons. It took me a while to see the deep spirituality in what my Grandmother and Godmother were offering me – even if we didn’t verbalize these things in the same way.

As I grew older, I began making my own tea blends to assist with some of my ailments (ginger/licorice root/cinnamon & clove for stomach upset, chamomile and lavender for sleep), and I thought of my Godmother. I learned about chakras and practice of reiki – energy healing – by the hovering or laying on of hands and I thought about my Grandmother. I recalled the way she would whisper prayers and rub our backs, lingering on those places where she felt a bit  of tension. She was the first person to verbalize the importance of regarding our bodies with loving and healing touch.

I learned about mindful meditation, and then, circled back to the shared moments at the dining room table with my Godmom. I made decisions and reflected on my Gramma’s lesson that I’d know what would serve me well “from my gut’s response” to a person, place, thing, energy, spirit. I began buying essential oils for varied reasons (eucalyptus for cold / flu season, lavender for calm) and mapped it with my Gramma’s Christocentric understanding of “The Oil”. What I gained from Gramma’s impartation is that not all energies are good ones, and that I must be vigilant against that which would harm me. What I gained from Lynette’s impartation is that slowing down, meditating, stretching, brewing, were all gifts that could center me throughout my life.

In the year 2016, I opened up a chat with my good friend and asked, “Gurl, people swear I’m mystical. They might be right”. Her response told me that I was probably the only one still working through this fact (lol)! I responded offhandedly, “I didn’t choose the mystic life – the mystic life chose me” and then I realized what I said was true.

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Delivering the Invocation at Princeton’s Black Theology & Leadership Institute – Photo Credit, Dr. Regina Langley


I talked about these experiences with Ebony Janice of the Free People Project on her vlog. You can view that here!

Featured Image Credit: Createherstock.com

 

 

 

Gramma & Me: A Re-Telling of Religion & ‘Right Minds’

“(God) woke me up this morning, (I was) clothed in my right mind” – based on Mark 5:15

I. My Grandmother (Gramma) is the most sophisticated and complicated woman I’ve known. She was known for her quick wit, generous heart, impeccable sense of style, and solid taste in music. She’d thrown out most of her ‘secular’ records after what she referred to as ‘getting saved’. But it was still my favorite thing to sing a few bars, watch her face light up, and hear her say, “Whatchu’ know about Sarah Vaughn?!”

Recently, my Gramma transitioned from this life. The calendar tells me there are only 29 days left until the anniversary of her passing. I’ve struggled to find my words for 1 year.

As Gramma grew older and she took on leadership positions in our family church, I think that folk glazed over her complexities to see only the service, just the love for God, only the way she rocked their babies to sleep in the nursery, only her encouragement, just the times she’d play piano and organize a service for those in the nursing home.

These things have a deep impact and should be remembered. However, my Gramma was a full person. Although I could only see fractals, I know that those fractals are “infinitely complex patterns, self-similar across different scales”(1). I knew her as a woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South and found ways to survive and thrive. I knew her through the stories that my mother and I shared.  I realized that through her relationship with my siblings. I realized that when I went back to Pennsylvania to help clean her home. Re-telling a life is complicated.  To present her as one dimensional seemed dehumanizing.

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Source: Family photo albums, College graduation at PSU

II. We sat in an office and sipped filtered water as the sun went down. A researcher and I were discussing equity for LGBTQI* persons within a Christian context along with some of our personal experiences. However, the conversation wound around a few sub-topics as we began to share. “I’ve noticed a trend of deep anxiety in these stories about religion…”

Anxiety about hell. Anxiety about punishment. Anxiety about being unloved / unwanted. Anxiety about being attacked by spirits. Anxiety about just… not getting things “right”.

I think about that conversation often. Because I know, from watching my Gramma… from knowing my ‘ownself’… of the delicate dance: the balance between religion (at least, the type my Gramma and I knew, the kind I detached from in some respects, the kind she leaned into) as both a coping mechanism and a source of stress.

My Gramma sung hymns when she was stressed and overwhelmed. This got her through an incredibly difficult relationship. She recited Scriptures from moment to moment. I’d catch her mumbling prayers on our many trips to West Virginia together. She carried anointing oil in her bag – for commemorating new beginnings, for healing sick grandchildren, for warding off spiritual darkness. For managing anxieties about the things that could and could not be seen.

III. My Gramma and I had a lot of things in common. She would often take me with her on her shopping trips. This was where my love of sequins, furs, and fabulous-ness was perfected. I would accompany her as an assistant; helping to choose Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday’s best. I’d go with her to the nailery (as we say in Philadelphia). I watched her long nails shaped into almonds and painted mauve. I hated the smell of the chemicals in the shop… but I loved the glamour.

Gramma and I both shared somewhat complicated relationships with the Divine. Where she leaned in, I critiqued. What I critiqued, she often would not understand. But we both knew it was complicated. It was the complication of temporal and divine relationships marked by love and disappointment.

Gramma and I placed a high importance on ‘safety’. These days, I open my mouth and it’s uncanny how quickly I find one of her key phrases: “That’s risky!” She played movies about being safe from temporal dangers: strangers, getting lost, falling down, being poisoned, etc. She watched shows about being safe from “spiritual dangers”: hexes, (certain) secular music, the Seven Deadly Sins, and more. I didn’t know there was so much to be afraid of. Though her face didn’t show it… I often wondered, “Is Gramma scared, too?”

IV. We were between declarations of ‘clothed in my right mind’ and profound internal anxieties. We were between the salves of whispered prayers and travails of ‘warfare prayers’. It was her house that told me that. It was cleaning her house that reminded me of my own need to let fear subside.

V. My Gramma had a deep interior world, of which I will never fully know. Yet, there are times when I see its connections through our ancestry. There are times when I see it through the presence and brilliant testimonies of her neighbors, students she taught, children she’d soothed (now-grown), women she’d mentored.

What I wish is that she could see this for herself.  Cleaning her house was discovering her psyche. Journals holding pages full of desires to get closer to the Divine – feeling that she had fallen short. I learned that in my adult years, she had given up understanding me (especially my spirituality). So, she decided to love me instead.

I realized how much we were alike – in complexity, beauty, and humanity.

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