Mr. Gotta Body

I have inhabited the space of plus-sized women for many years now.

The woman who raised me is a plus-sized beauty. I have observed the confusing beauty of her. She is graceful. She is tough. And she, the plus-sized woman, will make any thin scrawny individual appear as though he or she is just taking up space. I am always preaching acceptance and compassion of all body types. I habitually tell any woman (no matter what size they are) if I admire a blouse, dress, hairstyle, or ensemble that is a knockout.

I even follow Gavin Queen, a wonderfully kind man who I call my brother. His feature on the BBC documentary, The Naked Truth, allowed me confront my own issues with not feeling “manly” enough or fit enough. Gavin made it okay to acknowledge that even a straight, married man could struggle with body image problems. I believed that if he could love his body and his wife, I had hope.

But let us go back to this complimenting ladies thing.

My efforts to shower awesome females with encouragement often evoked skeptical expressions, upturned faces, and sometimes enmity and hatred. Most women I compliment seem to not know how to take a genuine compliment. I don’t know why. But dresses are never pretty enough. They are just ” this outfit I’ve had for years”. The hair is never “done” enough. Hair is another thing black women cannot accept enough praise about.

Although I’ve spent two-thirds of my life being shamed for wanting compliments from people about anything I wear, say, and or think. I (according to them) can never understand what it’s like for a person ( namely a Woman) to look in the mirror and not feel pretty.

Maybe, many Louisiana women are just under a major amount of pressure. I get it. I know you wear many hats. You’re the soccer mom, the faith leader, the musician, the PTA planner. You’re godmother, provider, businessperson, teacher, cook, boss, therapist, funeral director, and travel agent. Your life is constant teetering between sensuality, nurture, responsibility, leadership, and sacrifice. And that is difficult. You are told by us MEN that you must always look put together.

Being around that aesthetic did nothing but frighten me. Where is the slot for the man who doesn’t need you to be superwoman…. or self conscious about how bloated you feel.

I knew those issues were unique to my mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, daughters.

I was more concerned that people would find out that I was just pretending to have my image problems together, because being honest wasn’t working so great.

School (elementary, middle and high) forced me to manufacture confidence about myself. That adrenaline-peppered confidence, was really fear about appearing to be “other”. My father didn’t want me to be a chump. It was enough to be smart and well-read. I had to be HARD and TOUGH… even though my muscles and limbs were not like that. So I had to feign bravery even if I felt like a clump of dirt tilled into the ground.

I wanted to be ignored about my body because of my unchangeable Cerebral Palsy. I couldn’t pretend to fit into the cliques my school had. And the “otherness” I felt had always been there. And because I could not obscure my condition, I was noticed. People routinely stuck their feet out in front of me just so I’d lose my balance.

And my balance is a very nimble thing. My limbs work to form this delicate cocoon of space. I move within that space. My body was an instrument and as scrawny as I was, I either needed to use it lest make things worse for myself.

Rubber bands were flung into my eyes. I was a light-weight. My scrawny body was not athletic. I wasn’t physically strong. I didn’t believe I was. This was all in my head given the number of involuntary falls I’d have when my feet either missed the floor or failed at sensing the bend in the path ahead of me.

I hated physical education. I did not care for sports. And no one understood why I wasn’t the typical man’s man who could run to the safety of football, basketball, wrestling, and volleyball. “You’re a guy aren’t you” was the continued criticism I received from confused, ignorant people. Men and women alike frowned at my lack of perceived masculinity. Nerd was a bad thing. HARD and rough was the thing to be.

And then I’d soak in all the stories from those around me who obsessed about their feet, hair, jean sizes, blouses, tops, shoes, jerseys, sneakers, etc.

And I’d think: You, for all your complaints about your weight, don’t have to obsesses like I do. From your prospective, you’re trying to be smaller or heavier to fit some self-made expectation of bravery. Maybe, you’re trying to get into your favorite dress again. But I was permanently terrified when my orthopedic told a 12-year-old me: Don’t gain much more weight. Your body is only equipped to support so much weight on your joints.

And while I got made fun of for NEVER being brawny, lashed out at for not being a HUSKY football sized person…

I was holding my breath and stress eating through my teen years… because the women in my life were convinced that I was starving to death.

So I was always skating in between weight classes!

I danced in and out of the boundary between not appearing anorexic and not adding extra stress to joints, arms, and legs that don’t really like me all the time.

Men who have sports as a bedrock are fitting a weight-class. And the weight-class is their gift. Once a team is made, they immediately get a family, a community, a set of guidelines.

But my size seemed to isolate me. Even plus-sized women eventually find other women that they can share their pain, joy, and shame with. I HAD NO PERSON LIKE THIS. For years, there was no one.

Lizzo, Kelly Clarkson, and Ariana Grande have audiences. They have people who are not isolated by their artistry. These women are different… with different stories and sizes but they are not “ISOLATED”. Better yet, none of these woman have Cerebral Palsy.

I have a decent body and it’s not in terrible shape. But I didn’t believe that for several years. And I ate way too much food hoping that I’d change how it looked so that I’d fit some mold. I was WRONG to do that. But when your self-esteem is low and you’re only a buck 50… no one thinks you’ll stress eat. Because “you’re so thin”.

I have never had the constant feedback of being noticed for “my beauty as a person”. Things like my smile, my jokes, or my personality are things no one talks about at length. People just say: ______, you so crazy. Then, I accept their statement and then play “devil’s advocate” to decode what they actually meant.

The answer is always indefinite. So I interpreted these crazy declarations as: Harold, you’re weird. Not Harold, you’re funny or interesting.

When I am animated, I fear that people will see my wobbly body and mis-label my genuine excitement as yet another reason to ridicule and reject me.

So I don’t see how anyone assumed that I was always happy with my body. I always knew how to do that “Mr. America” fake smile because it’s the one non-disabled people expect… because they are uncomfortable with the idea that disabled people go through dark, bitter periods.

I’m just supposed to be the one who is your cheerleader. I can compliment everyone else’s beauty except my own. Women, men… EVERY one. You name it. I am often “the brave cheerleader”. I’ve done this because doing it was “being the bigger man”, being the noble supporter, embodying the graceful counselor.

I have nothing against women and their negative experiences surrounding sexual and emotional objectivity. In an odd way, I am much like these ladies. I have been objectified in different ways as as a man, surely. I do understand in part because I have been the caregiver for the ladies I love. I have shared funny stories. I have dried their tears. I have sometimes been the only person able to bear the mourning within their stories.

But the collective pain we both feel is what draws us together. If I look at television and stare at the ladies with hemiplegia or quadriplegia… the little women.

I stare in disbelief. I don’t think it’s funny that these women are being treated as “caricatures” of the Real Housewives by people without these conditions who just need to laugh. That’s my observation.

I’m hard-pressed to be entertained by the very spectacular fights the “little women” have. Instead, I feel like I want to hug them and be their therapist. I want to ask them if they know the others are watching their show to feel better about their “big-sized” fights.

When I heard Lizzo’s interview on NPR, I was in the passenger seat of my friend’s car on the way to Target. I was struggling to make connections with her struggle about her own body. I was wondering if because I’m a BLACK person from a Southern state I’m supposed to latch on to what I thought was more reinforcement of something foreign to me.

Perhaps, it’s that she’s interfaced with communities that I don’t know about. Maybe she’s experienced a life of setbacks that are reminiscent of Ms. Tiffany Haddish. While listening to her, I heard a resonant pain. This pain is common to many black women I know.

This pain is a deep need to simply tell the truth without worrying about how it is received. I felt concerned for the interviewer. I could understand the interviewers questions better than I handled Melissa Jefferson’s (Lizzo’s government name) answers.

Maybe it’s not meant for me to identify with the trauma of every man, woman, boy and girl. But I can be empathetic. I can power through the cognitive dissonance and accept that as Americans we are still in the midst of understanding the myths of what is sexy, healthy, or even reasonable. My Advanced Writing professor Dr. William Broussard warned me about cognitive dissonance. He told me that acknowledging cognitive dissonance and learning to deal fittingly with it, helps us as writers and scholars move past our prejudices. We acknowledge that to get past the noise of confusing ideas, we must be willing to dialogue in the midst of our emotional hangups.

I’m still lean as a bean pole. I no longer wish to be a beefy person, or a husky guy. I understand that for now that’s not a “regular size” for me. I actually admire anyone who loves his/ her or they (s) body type enough to celebrate it.

I have respect for the women who have inspired me to dream past the nervous “always feeling small” boy I was. I’m better…. but the advent of LIZZO is confusing.

Is there are line of demarcation between tasteful fashion and fashion that feels good? Is the boundary still being set by those “shadow people” who struggle to find the nerve to dress as a reflection of their feelings?

I’ve never been terribly great at dressing to advertise my chest, abs, and buttocks. I tried that when I was in my 20s. It was dismal failure. In the nearly 30 months since joining the library system, I tow a fine, accessible line between comfortable and semi-conservative. Having Cerebral Palsy is not placed in the same circle as feeling beautiful and confident.

Cerebral Palsy is that delicate, intimate thing that I could never make masculine on my own. It’s a first-tier existence that still feels more alien than athletic. Surely, there are disabled athletes that are brick fortresses of bodily vigor vying to use their engineered shoes and specialized appendages to be super-girl and super-man.

But what of the men and women like me that abide in truly customized disabled identities, the ones that aren’t as athletic but live inside wheelchairs alongside gently- used medical walking sticks, and reachy-picker-uppers?

We have a plus-size too… a big truck-sized weight called disability that we can’t always be-dazzle with a representative.

Because sometimes the one that is selected to represent “the disabled” isn’t completely like us. The “other” chosen to be us… is sometimes just another version of other: a square peg in a round hole.

They are “characters” paid to look like us… as if we truly are “portrayed” like them. And the actors cannot always get it right.

The closest actor I’ve seen in recent times that reminded me of myself was the deaf actor in “Baby Driver” CJ Jones is him.

CJ Jones is deaf. But his appearance on W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America allowed me to see a person that places his disability front and center and simultaneously respects himself and his craft as an artist. There is a regal and genteel quality about him I gravitated to. He’s not perfect. But he’s closer to what I see in my future. He inhabits a body that I see later on down the pike.

I started this conversation talking about bodies and body image. And I ended up discussing disability. This to state that maybe loving our bodies is about choosing to see ourselves as more than the outer body others see.

CJ Jones, sharing his story, helped me understand that I cannot value my own body if I cannot see my self as human, first.

We are all humans together in the world. Rather than the different things that make us “fatter, smaller, leaner, and bigger… the things that make us tribal…

We should engage the things that make us more alike. And I understand that’s hard. But that truth is the reason I write. Every story isn’t the same. But every story deserves to be told even if it takes time and patience to uncover that story’s purpose. There will be dissonance. And where there is dissonance… Ceilings can shatter and conversation can start anew.

I D O L S

IDOLS

I had a problem with idol worship. When I was not trumpeting the awesomeness, of computer technology, I was praising the perfection of the people I admired. For years, I adored any person that gave me comfort. When you idolize a person, you make the error of promoting the picture of them. I had forgotten that the problem with idols is: the outer visage. We never see who people truly are if we are using their “public picture”.

Publicly, my friend Stan (not his real name) was a lovable chef and a great “payer of compliments.” And if any person is without positive feedback, Stan was the man. 

It was easy to idolize him because if he tells you, you’re his “world”, and you don’t value yourself enough…you will agree with Stan. 

Stan was a scamp. He was brave enough to know what to say and when to say it. He also knew how to contort his face to con anyone into trusting that he was authentic. 

I adored Stan because I believed he had listened to me complain about my problems. He had been my cheerleader when I had failed at dating someone I liked. He had been the perfect sidekick for my misery loves company charade. Stan had even convinced someone he once dated to do odd little favors for him. 

On the outside, Stan advertised himself as a misunderstood, loveable person. This was only according to him. Over the course of several years, my social circle got bigger. 

I began to discover that nearly every person that knew Stan did not want to see him anymore. 

There was Sandra who revealed through a mutual friend that Stan was a cheater. Sandra told Michael who had worked with Stan, that he always borrowed money. 

This constant need to borrow money would eventually cost me hundreds of dollars over several years. I was like Savannah on “Waiting to Exhale”. I could not look past the image that I believed Stan was. But Stan took advantage of my kindness. 

An idol is a creature designed by any cooperative group of people. We all, with our own blind intentions, sculpt a vision of those we hold affection for. 

In patience and kindness, we forget how warped our understanding gets. We oblige the failed connections, the missed phone calls, manipulative behavior, and the blind trust. And we affix our hopes on the sculptured art we have made on our own. 

But these sculptures are made from the pride and arrogance our own thought. We do not adequately test all things involving the person we admire. We do not readily do the editing. We simply approach the data, the picture, and the feeling without asking questions of discernment. Worst of all, we lose our “spiritual” components because we look only to what friends say. 

And friends are not who “friends” are made to be. I had made Stan into my own object of affection. I had refused to acknowledge Stan’s pathology for loneliness and moreover how my constant contact with him, turned me into a bully among the very people who were trying to impact my life positively. 

When people are on a trajectory of loneliness, they tend to choose the loneliest people to connect with. Tragedy becomes the unseen currency that binds confused individuals. 

Idol worship is a sickness that men and women contract because acknowledging an identity crisis is more painful than emulating Rihanna, Beyoncé, Meek Mill, or Tupac. 

I’m an artist. I know the pain and desperation that occurs when you’re reaching for a dead relic like Kurt Cobain. The lure of a dead musician seems better than looking patiently for a living inspiration. I am not saying that we cannot celebrate the positive strides of dead people. I’m only explaining that there is a difference between acknowledging the past…and trying to create it in real-time. 

There are people that have gone past mourning the dead. It is as though (Stan) — the devoted letter-writer to Eminem and Stan (the swindling Zbornak ex-husband) inspire hurting people so fervently…

They must find their own chaotic, contrived way to recreate the trouble. Idols have never had the power to save us from our pain. In my experience, STAN (and everyone like him) delayed me from facing the pain and promise of my choices. 

In the end, you must free yourself. And you must have faith that you’ll survive until God sends an answer. Years later, I never heard from Stan again. But thankfully, I got myself together. Be careful who your shepherd becomes. The wrong individual can potentially lead you away from a gift that was unique made for you.

Thoughts on Identity and Cerebral Palsy

I write often about identity often because living with Cerebral Palsy, a developmental disability, is a direct window into how people see, understand, and dare I say it, tolerate me. My best friend says often to me: No one wants to be tolerated, Harold.

In recent years, I have been on a collision course with this very statement understanding that despite my best efforts, most people did just what my friend said should not be done.

How do you tackle the complex task of finding your own truth, when those around you have comp-licitly planned to only give you a “tolerant” story-line? If identity is the things that make you similar or the series of quirks that make you, who you are…

How have those who say they “know” me shaped what I am “compared” to? How many other Cerebral Palsy patients have gone to college, survived the conflict of Creole, African-American identity, and mostly survived to tell about it?

You must watch how much power you give people and their opinion…

The first thing I struggled accepting was: People habitually acknowledge only the parts of one’s identity that seem most safe. Once that happens, it is nearly impossible for people change their stubborn self-willed minds.

I had to confront the idea that there are some people who will always see me as some weird, cartoon-character of a person.

I’d like to think that I’ve been a great actor, able to mask a good stage show of the discomfort I have experienced knowing that my Cerebral Palsy is the one thing about me I truly pretend my way out of.

This fact is supported by the thousands of onlookers I encounter on any given day at any grand ole’ time.

These onlookers are defined as: casual people that find it freeing to stare at me, make inappropriate jokes at my expense, don some caricature of me when they think I don’t see them.

Worse yet are the parents of children who come away from my vicinity too afraid to explain to their young ones, that you should not ridicule a disabled person… especially if the disabled person can see you doing such a wretched thing.

Maybe, that onlooker is your six year old kid.

Maybe, it is your eighteen year old daughter who is presently waiting tables at Applebee’s because she is constantly going over that very limited data plan your wireless company made you keep.

Perhaps, it’s you. You were shopping at Walmart and you saw me trying to buy a loaf of bread and thought something is off about that guy buying bread.

You were an on-looker who did not have the heart to dialogue with me about this weirdness between us. So in an effort to be tolerant and a bit evasive, you said it’s better if I ignore that weird look I gave that dude in aisle 4.

When people see me walking, talking, dancing, and interacting, I can imagine they might see some pious know-it-all masking himself as a “special needs” person. I have something I’d like to say to those people. That whole idea that I’m this person trying not to be just like you, is some lie you told yourself to obfuscate the notion that I am okay for living with Cerebral Palsy.

For the record, my mental and physical characteristics have never really fit with that whole “living with Cerebral Palsy thing”. In fact, Cerebral Palsy was for a long time … the condition that had people selling the story that I was mentally retarded, because these people just refused to face that I potentially knew more than my “physical limitations” represented.

For years to combat my knowledge gap, I became a sage or oracle of some sort. Because having arthritis, swollen feet, rock hard hamstrings, and veins full of anxiety medication was too much like failure. And I was determined not to damage my affinity for sarcasm, wit, music, and poetry.

While I built my own knowledge base, I reveled in the idea that although my emotions were driving me nuts, my learning never stopped.

But knowledge without direction is just arrogance and pride. And those two together amped up my anger. I was angry about the missed dialogues that I failed to have with people I loved. I was angry about the missed opportunities to be with people who treated me less like something to fix, and more like something to believe in.

I was angry that I watched the people I had helped abandon me. And more often, I was afraid that I would forever be living my truth dependent solely on the shoulders of other people’s identity. The truth is: I had been a locked away sponge soaking up the thoughts, dreams, fears and strifes of all these complicated people. And that only made me a temperamental, anxious, git of a person.

But no person with Cerebral Palsy lives in a vacuum. We all must take the ashes of a life burned down, the trauma of confused onlookers, the judgments of angry deceivers and decide never again to be tolerated. I needed to find out who I was despite my physical problem.

I finally did go to therapy. I discovered that because I had settled for being tolerated… There were very few people that I truly connected with. And that’s what human beings are looking for. We are built to be connected with.

We are not looking for the person that places us on a pedestal and tells us we’re perfect. If we were looking for perfection, there would not be so many stories of men and women with seemingly perfect lives deciding to kill themselves.


We are looking for at least one person that knows that our favorite TV show is “Absoutely Fabulous”, or that we only like a certain variety of Sara Lee Bread from the supermarket. We are looking for the man that consumed by his girlfriend’s passion for literature, read every book that Toni Morrison wrote just because he knew she admired her.

We are looking for the person that can hear every detail of our tragic lives and say: I’ll help you get through it.

The thing is: Character is more than the set of qualities we pick up from our doting parents. And identity is more than the boxes checked on that form you get while applying for a loan, a doctor, or a license. I wish that someone had told me sooner that having Cerebral Palsy was not the reason people were ugly to me… that Cerebral Palsy was one primary characteristic in a series of other complex parts of my onion.

I wish someone had said to me long before I needed a therapist…that Cerebral Palsy is not a reason for selfishness, pity, or shame. Being viable is not the same as the as being connected.

I used to believe that if I was “proficient” at the game of life, the viable things I offered others would come back to me.

Tolerance cannot heal invisibility. Humans have a very elastic threshold to face things they find intimidating. Being someone’s therapist, mentor, researcher, singer, musician, social worker, publicist, editor, or motivational speaker was the shiny object offered in exchange for the hours of static noise when my own passions were frenetic.

Today. I am better at not reacting to the verbal abuse that plagued me all those years before. I am better facing the idea that I must seek my own purpose. And when I began behaving in relationship to my disability instead of in opposition to it… I learned that I could be fulfilled without being angry and frustrated.

I AM ANGRY.

Why are you doing this? , the frightened victim asked the furious gunman.

The gunman replied: I’m doing this because I am angry. (NBC News, 7/31/2019)

I really do empathize strongly with those who feel that the world continues to cheat them. With tempers like time-bombs and a gun ushering them an illusionary control that seems homely. These jilted people are convinced, justified in murdering the hopes and dreams of the innocent. Mild-tempered decisions and measured choice points mean nothing anymore.

Anger is an emotion that becomes cyclical through generations if left to exist without an unpacking. It takes no time for physical anger to manifest into spiritual anger. The smallest bit of envy can become malice. The tiniest bit of disdain can become rejection.  Many American people treasure their right to kill someone. It is more than just the right to “bear arms”.  

They tell a disabled man like me that having a gun permit and gun access is protection. But I do not really treat gun ownership with the protection blanket that these others trumpet. If it is truly protection, why do some of the angriest, fearful people have guns?

 I want to tell them: If you’re so well-protected, why does someone like me make you so uncomfortable? I think that although not all people use guns to kill innocent people, many people believe that having a gun is some guarantee that they aren’t going to die at the hands of someone stupid.

 I read somewhere that “perfect love has no fear”. It is very possible to publicly declare your love black and brown people and simultaneously mask your fear of them. I also read in that same “somewhere” that faith cometh by hearing… and it does. (I John 4:18a; Romans 10:17a, King James Version)

So if you hear over and over that all African-American people, and all democrats and progressives wish to destroy your “culture” and “way of life”, this is a faith-hearing.  And you will believe it is true even if the facts dictate that it’s a lie. It is possible to have a warped understanding of something based on your cone of influence, to shape your ideals on the word of a single group of people. And it does not matter whether those people are ignorant or well. We all are capable of developing a well of spiritual anger against people whether we are fed lies or truth.  

And many people have a distorted faith that black and brown people are intending to take over the entire country. That fear makes them grab a gun and believe that killing innocents will solve the anger that lodges deep in their spirit. They think: one less person to disrupt my peaceful country. “

 I have never been angry enough to kill. My mother is the sole person responsible for that attitude. She helped realize years ago that I was more than a man with empty knowledge. There is a searing pain that grips me as I share these words. But I must be brave and seek truth.

 Anger of the spirit is a sickness that allows a person with much opportunity— a car with gas, a mother’s love, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, un-fettered support— to feed a searing pain that no physical thing can fix. For some people an anger of the spirit is being ridiculously smart and capable yet never experiencing what “real love is”.

Anger of the spirit is also having doting parents and yet being fearful about admitting that perhaps the people in our relationships are placeholders for the people we truly desire in our lives. Anger of the spirit is attending a church to live the dream of another person, while instinctively realizing in your head that your dream worship place is somewhere much different, much less ritualistic.  Anger of the spirit is that resentment you feel when you are sure you denied yourself inner peace to make someone else feel important.

PAIN LIKE THIS is enough to pick up a gun and kill a person. Lately, I have been listening to Mandisa’s “Bleed the Same” because when it comes to people…all blood is red.

There is a sickness gripping America that became more prominent after Donald Trump became president. In my heart, I have always known it was there. The United States is confronting many angry demons and terms like “conservative” are becoming tepid terms that fail to express the wounded spirit of our people. I am motivated to go back to the beginning of Romans 10.

Paul wrote about people that are angry in their hearts in Romans 10. He said: They are eager about God, but they do not really know him. They want to establish their own idea of righteousness. (Romans 10.2, Romans 10.3, King James Version)

It is like they need for other people to feel the wrath that has been silent in their hearts all this time. And SAUL of TARSUS, knew how to inflict wrath on people. He did it well before he became a Christian.

From my own perspective, that is where we are. No matter your color or status in our beloved United States, we have reached a level of arrogance wherein we all want to be right, and for some the arrogance has been uncovered through a President that can be found out at the frequency he attacks people who do not agree with him wholeheartedly.

I have enough respect to acknowledge he is the President of our nation, while also being moderately concerned about the example he sets. To use a phrase my grandmother says: He gives a good bucket of milk (for some people) and in the same breath kicks it over. I believe he is spiritually angry. If our U.S. President were truly a happy man he would not delight in smearing and attacking so many people.

Spiritual anger has nothing to do with a mental disorder. In fact, a recent PBS report confirms that psychological profiles cannot forecast a mass shooting. (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/why-mental-illness-cant-predict-mass-shootings)

So what is my conclusion? I confess that I am a person that once believed that having Cerebral Palsy protected me from impulsive, unstable people. But I should remember that I literally had to learn how to thrive in an environment that was full of impulsive attitudes and actions.  People tell me that I am brave. But I do not think they truly understand that my bravery was part survival and part the grace of God. Life has always been difficult for me regardless of my opportunities. I’m lucky to have Cerebral Palsy and be college-educated. I’m lucky to read, drive, hold conversation, and be a brilliant speaker. 

The bottom line is: In my experience, anger of the spirit has cut my profits. I have never profited from competing, from the idea that I had to assert dominion over others. I have always had a spiritual price to pay for my own impulses. I do not miss being young and dumb. I do not miss sticking to people like a piece of saltwater taffy.

So if I can teach anyone anything… it’s that spiritual anger should provoke inner questions, questions that demand and require a person to step down and humbly search. My father is a corrections officer and his guns never made me feel “secure”.

It hurts to say that there was a time when I believed a gun protected me. But I’ve experienced more tumultuous pain from the presence of a gun, than I have from its absence. And while I understand that responsible gun ownership has its place. A gun owner does not have the power to “be right” in all circumstances.  

Still Mercy

Fall Out Boy put out a song called “Sunshine Riptide” while I was finishing my undergrad work. I often refer back to it because my classmate Paula and I shared a mutual love for Fall Out Boy’s album, Mania. I do not surf although the song is about a riptide—a strong wave that potentially threatens its prey. The closest I ever came to surfing was the time I ventured to Pensacola, Florida. I was on the beach testing the limits of my balance when the water took me under. Although I was frightened, I found my way back up again, to the surface. Greg had agreed to follow me inside the water because I was worried about keeping my balance. After all, I’m a guy with Cerebral Palsy. My balance is better than it should be. My balance is 60% miracle and 40% exercise. However, I sometimes under-estimate my own ability. I do still have unplanned awkward moments. The water kept moving. Greg turned to me and said: “Hold my hand. Then, wait and listen.”

Greg helped me understand that there was an unspoken rhythm to the water. I just needed to listen with circumspect. We were both quiet at the water together.

See then, that you walk (circumspectly) not as fools, but wisely…redeeming time because the days are evil.

I was able to anticipate when the waves might be overbearing by timing when the current moved.

We had some riptides between us, moments when the water surprised us. People are occasionally like that beach. They threaten like riptides. They will try to test the resolve of our faith and patience even after intentions are clarified.

Patrick Stump sang: “The world tried to burn all the mercy out of me but you know I wouldn’t let it.”

Mercy is burned out of us often a hard test to take. If life is some game of power… I learn each day that people are often waiting to see how you’ll break character. They are waiting to see what it might take for you to abandon your signature…. the virtue that sanctifies you…sets you apart from all the others.

I have been listening to songs about mercy. On the list was: Kenneth Mitchell’s “Mercy Seat” and Tru 4 U’s “Mercy Way”. I even pulled out an old Pebbles song that won a Grammy Award in 1990.

Mercy gets harder to give when people are unwilling to acknowledge its appearance. But I guess I now realize that mercy isn’t this conditional thing that circumstances determine. Mercy must be an act we sow without the limits of rules. Rules say: If I get this, then I’ll do that. But some rules are meant to be broken. For the sake of character development, sometimes a person’s example has to break the script. When it comes to being good… it about fulfilling your promise to yourself.

The call to consistent behavior is not about a personal vendetta. It’s about choosing virtue each time. Like the body has muscles that need use… virtues need an exhaustive amount of practice to become embedded in the heart to stick around.

If you want goodness, it must be sown from a pure place regardless of what happens. It is a sacrifice to approach a person without being hard-heart-ed. We must sacrifice our own ego (willingly and often) to be kind to others. And until we learn to do this, personal deeds to righteous are just motions sown in the hope of a return.

With great power comes great responsibility… it’s not just a Spiderman quote. It’s literally the example Jesus set when he chose to give life to people that plotted his death.

The point in this all, is: If your sense of goodness only comes from what people have done for you, it is not a goodness that can save, protect, or keep your spirit.

I didn’t always see mercy this way and the result was a resentful mind and heart. But I’m glad I finally see that mercy is not a gift that I legislate based on how well my life goes. Mercy is supposed to be sown whether I reap the grace and love I want or not. I have to redeem the limits of time while I have breath knowing that my faults are no bigger or greater than others, knowing that I can never be holy enough. But trusting that my faith is still worth something greater… if I choose onto it consistently.

Introverted Bridges

Sometimes my bed is not homely. I have attempted dressing it up with Mainstays trademarked hand-picked reversible spreads, Dillard’s brand Cremieux plaids, and even an old thrift store Mickey Mouse that I got when I liked shopping in stores that played classic bands like Chicago, Bobby Darin, and Junior Walker. But my bed is never as comfortable as it looks. It ceases to feel like home even after a friend bought me the greatest mattress pad ever invented. For this reason, there are many unplanned nights curled up on the couch with a Kindle Paperwhite in my left hand while CNN’s Don Lemon intonates news on a TV to my right.

 I know what you’re thinking.  But most evenings, that auditory concoction beats going to my own bedroom. Why? Perhaps I had more in common with my introverted Sagittarian uncle (who roomed here with me years ago) than I could accept. My uncle had a best friend that he seemed at home with and before he died they were planning a reconnection I believed he would have appreciated had he lived to see it.   

Home or homeliness is not a linear experience when you live as introverted and curious as I do. How is this for a paradox?

Fact number one: I loathe the majority of Taylor Swift’s songs.

Fact number two:  I admire the versatility of a song like “Style”.

“Style” takes a bluesy guitar riff and a driving bass line, and paints in me a longing I can actually feel. In that space, I immediately overlook her thin voice and her faux “reputation” and actually imagine something pure.

I feel a sense of home, even though Tay-Tay is someone that I do not ooze gratitude for.  When Swift waxes poetic about James Dean daydreams, I drift in retrospect to when I finally used my library card to borrow Rebel without a Cause. I remember thinking: I totally buy that the character James Dean played was some opaque reflection of his real life. What a tragic end for such a convincing actor! And then I picture simultaneously road-tripping in the Oregonian Mountains with a friend or lover with the windows down. In the vision, I am laughing ridiculously as the wind blows my black, curly, semi-matted hair over my face.

The thing about being an introvert is: For many of us there is no guidebook on what “feels like home” I have observed myself and other introverts like me only to conclude that we all sort of inhabit many homes like the anxious connoisseurs of well-stocked Starbucks. We, introverts are often are inspired by the paradoxes of life. We have patterns but those patterns ebb and flow like the rush of the Hoover Dam or the drip of the tap in a bathroom sink. That’s a fact that I, a Creole, black, and disabled adult accept without reservation.   Paradox is any opinion or circumstance that goes against determined facts, and yet is itself true.

Sunday, I told myself that I did not need to go to church. But ironically, I could not decline attendance even though I firmly believed that the quantity of church services attended does not truly represent the quality of one’s relationship with God. And I planned to sleep on the couch while the TV lulled me into dreamland because work was a mere four hours away.

Home, as a word lingered there on my mind again. I felt more at home sleeping than fellowshipping with any pastor. I had been wrestling with a paradox as introverts do often. And the church service somehow inspired the courage to address some grievances openly with the person that had requested my presence there. When I entered the church that has a ceiling very much like a tree trunk, I was rewarded with a sermon about forgiveness.  I found myself singing when I felt compelled. I felt myself praying when the clergy extended the invitation. And although the sermon was a bit more emotional and verbose than I expected, it was a fact that I desired what it taught me.

When the pastor reminded us how Jesus responded to persecution, I mentally revisited the countless times I continually forgive threatening, manipulative people. As a disabled person, I have grown especially sensitive to the anger of people that are pre-disposed to selfishness. And that selfishness has led to many levels of acceptance that I have had to reluctantly call “paradoxes”. The Apostle Paul vehemently was anti-Christian before his conversation to Christianity, and yet he wrote the letters that would bolster the power and longevity of the seven founding Christian churches.  His letter to the Romans was high point during that forgiveness sermon.

Apostle Paul wrote: “Do not repay evil with evil.  Be devoted to each other in love.” (Romans 12:10, 17 New International Version) That is a paradox of Christian faith when noticing the chorus of insults hurled at people who struggle to deliver the truth to liars.  As I listened I thanked God for bring me to hear these words. And then I began a silent prayer for God to move over some spiritual situation that was threatening to take away what little strength I possessed.

And then with supreme clarity I understood that forgiveness as an act is a perpetual choice, a verb of a decision in which results are almost never immediate.  “Forgive” is not a rule-based requirement. We can choose to forgive a person and reap the Christian benefit of being happy-hearted. Or we can behave as though there is a straight line to deliverance and hide behind a cloud of smoke and mirrors.

For someone as dense as I am, I needed that forced confirmation that I was still okay. I needed the pastor to remind me that examples matter, intentions matter and efforts matter.

The biggest paradox of my life is that while I have never been perfect and have wronged many. I do believe in my heart and soul, that spiritual perfection is possible even if you’re as contrary to common sense as I am.

I have great respect for rules now. Rules can protect us. And while I forgive the in-congruence of the counsel I do weather I must trust that my continued introverted, pickiness, has a purpose that I am still discovering. And I am able to forgive myself now. I am no long ashamed of being different. I believe for all my ambiguity, there must be a spiritual purpose. The Christ I serve did not want to think on things that were not honorable, kind, well-intentioned, and from a deeply pure place. So if I can forgive myself for feeling shame about how unique I always was. Surely, I can forgive any set of people when it becomes painfully obvious that they (like Jesus said) “know not what they are doing”.

Self Respect, Paul, Silas, and Kids

As I looked on in the tight hall of the Beech Grove Baptist Church, I believed my lips as I stated these sentences: “Be careful what you listen to. If you’re constantly hearing that stuff, eventually you might do it, too. Be careful. You might imitate what you hear.

Because I had been selected in prior years to teach Sunday school at another church, my aunt asked me to teach a group of children at Beech Grove for Vacation Bible School. It was a Thursday. We were in our fourth night of a five night process. As I looked at the disgust on their faces, I encouraged myself. We had discussed “What music inspires you?”

I gave each student a sheet of printer paper and a pencil. I told them to write down what genre of music they enjoyed. Then, they were to write a song they liked and a short two sentence summary of why they liked that song.

When I collected the papers back and continued conversation, I realized that all but two students had written a rap song down. The tracks I saw scribbled down on each page were either artists I had not heard of, or rappers who cursed openly in many of their compositions.

They are young. And when you are in middle-school (or any school for that matter) you need to fit in. There was one exception, Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road. The person who written it down seemed embarrassed because Lil Nas X had just recently said he was gay. Even that inspired song stirred a debate among us because it was not exactly appropriate for children. Nas’s reference to “sports bras and boobies” is anything but light and angelic. We had been talking all week about stories in the bible that were supposed to encourage these kids to respect and love themselves and one another.

 I was sure they were influenced by their friends. And I wondered with all our talk about “letting our light shine”, did we know what light was?  So I asked them: You all do know that you’re inside a church, right?

Could you try writing down some gospel songs instead? They balked at my suggestion.  It was not an odd question, but I guess no kid wants to look weak in a room full of intimidating personalities. I thought about how many times kids and adults settle for fitting in versus actually respecting themselves and asking deeper questions. Dark energy seemed to pull us apart and stuff us (teachers and students) in corners.

There is an invisible bridge between what we read, hear, and speak. And facts and experience reflect that when we don’t stop and analyze what we are influenced by, we miss the larger goal of respecting ourselves.

I had cancelled important dialogues with a therapist and my best friend to accomplish three goals. I wanted to educate people, tell stories and serve Jesus.

 I surrendered my own selfish plans for a larger goal. I think the group of juniors understood me.  While I am not over the moon for teaching, I am always stoked about learning from other people. I see VBS, the summer school version of “revival”, as another chance to grow my own personal experience by observing others.  So I was distressed when I realized that these kids were not thinking about how their inspirations could lead them away from “light-shining”.

Working with youth, teens, and the larger young adult population is wonderful because I am re-capturing missed chances I passed up in my young adulthood.

I guess as I taught them, I realized that we cannot give away what we don’t do for ourselves.

When you are a worker that never stops to say you are tired, people who exist only to use what you give, will let you work yourself into the ground.  I guess I believed that the kids might have one good gospel song they remembered part of the words to. But maybe I was mistaken. Maybe, the image of the black male rapper is so candy-coated. Maybe it is so enticing and so forced upon young people that we cannot help but see it.

After the tension settled and the kids vented their frustration about the opening exercise, I made some suggestions and began teaching them about Paul and Silas.

Paul and Silas were men who praised God even after being beaten and imprisoned. The students seem shocked when I told them that Paul and Silas lived in a time when acknowledging Jesus meant death and torture. I tried to encourage them that faith is a large part of being a “light.”

I guess educating these children has been its own therapy. Of course, I’ve had to block out many things to see it like that. I’ve had to ignore pockets of selfishness from depressed young adults. I’ve had to ignore triggers from angry siblings. I have had to hold my tongue because I believe that the children are more important than my angry spoiled family members.

God can let you have your own Paul and Silas moment. But I think God is smart enough to know that humans are stubborn enough to choose people and things that deny them self-respect.

If we want our lights to shine, we’ve got to ask questions earlier. I guess I’m thankful that when I was 9, I knew that respecting me meant learning kindness. I wanted to be kind even though I knew early that Cerebral Palsy made me different. I guess I know that letting your light shine is also knowing when people and things are about to punch your “inner light” out.