shawn, part 1

I didn't know until we moved to downtown Memphis that I could really love a homeless person. I had never seen homelessness up close. I had been annoyed by panhandlers, afraid of being followed, and resistant to engaging in conversation. It wasn't that I was aloof or felt myself above these folks. I was just scared. Intimidated. In the same way that you might be uncomfortable with the elderly or disabled; what do I say? What shouldn't I say? What if I can't understand them? What if they won't understand me?

And then God showed me Shawn.

Shawn is a big ol' black man. The first time I saw him, he had laid down on the backless park bench by the trolley stop in Court Square. It was perhaps 11pm; July, if I recall, and hot and miserable in that wet way that only Memphis can be. I looked down from my ninth floor apartment and saw him lying there in a light-colored shirt, his body flowing off the bench on both sides. "Oh," I thought, "poor man."

I saw Shawn for the second time sometime in the quiet middle-of-night hours that night. He slept, still, on the bench. I couldn't stop watching him. As the minutes ticked by, I began to wonder if I was watching over him.

The third time I saw Shawn was at 6am. I awoke, looked down from the window, and saw that he had shifted to a bench with a back and was sitting up as best he could. The downtown cops will let homeless folk stay overnight in the park as long as they keep their feet on the ground and don't lay down on the benches. Clearly someone had come along and asked Shawn to be more presentable.

"Talk to him."

I felt the impetus of my faith move me. Nervous, I awoke my husband and told him we were going down to talk to the homeless man. When we got to him, we discovered that Shawn had a difficult time speaking, not from drug use or intoxication, but simply from exhaustion. I had no idea what to say to him. I don't remember what I said to him.

I do remember asking how he got on the streets. He told me; I couldn't understand him. Something about his sister. I felt completely foolish asking him this question when he was clearly in so much immediate need: his shirt and sweat pants barely fit and were filthy; his left foot was encased in bandages which clearly needed to have been changed days ago; he was downcast. Besides, what business was it of mine what landed him on the street?

He was in trouble. How could we help? We went and got breakfast for him; McDonald's sausage biscuits and orange juice. We went and purchased a couple of nights for him at the local rescue mission. We went back to the park to take him to the mission.

He couldn't put his medical boot on--he was too big to reach it. As I knelt down to put his boot on his foot--a kind action I realized was probably a rare sight on the streets of Memphis--the homeless men sitting on the next bench down all leaned forward to watch what was happening. I wondered what they must be thinking, and then realized I had no idea whether we would anger them or whether they would think we were busybodies, or do-gooders. Mostly, I just felt stupid.

We finally helped Shawn lift his mass upward and slowly limp over to the car. I hadn't realized how large he really was until we tried to put him in our element, and had to push the seat all the way back, and then push the seat back nearly all the way back. I hopped in the backseat. All I could think was, 'I wonder how long it's been since he's been touched by another human?'

I reached out my hand to touch his shoulder. His smell filled the car.

When we reached the shelter, Shawn would not allow us to help him from the car. I couldn't tell whether he was embarrassed by our charity, wanted a fellow homeless man to assist him, or was too proud to let the white couple help him.

He stumbled in to the shelter with Dave tagging along behind, looking every bit the apprehensive middle-class white guy that he was. I sat in the car and watched any number of homeless guys roam up and down the street, and wondered what their lives were really like. I felt angry that they let this happen to them; I felt unsafe; I felt dejected at the loss of human potential.

I felt helpless in the face of the massive human catastrophe that is homelessness.



Review of "Like Molasses in the Wintertime" by Eunice Hargett

I wanted to love this book!...but I couldn't. I love Southern fiction and African-American fiction, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the first third or so of this novel, it seemed to unravel into a disjointed collection of platitudes; where I was expecting poignant revelation, the story fell flat. Such interesting themes--racism, sexuality, and religion--are simply not explored to the level of promise of the beginning of the book. Neither is the story rescued by the charm of the South. Finally, and sadly, the kindle edition is riddled with typos, from stray apostrophes and quotation marks to words like "every" instead of "ever," and these were not verbiage and voice choices made by the author. In short, it's an OK book if you only spend six bucks for the kindle version, but I would recommend "The Help," "Rush Home Road," "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," or "The Year of Jubilo" instead.

Review of "Midwife of the Blue Ridge" by Christine Blevins

This was an entertaining read. I agree with several other reviewers who mentioned that the book lacked a bit of depth, and it definitely depicts graphic violence. The kindle book setting was generally very good with few typos; my only beef was that the usual white space between changes of time and/or setting have been omitted. This made for some startling and sometimes confusing transitions.

I enjoyed the dialect and folksy feel of the book. It's an interesting look at frontier life. I felt the "romance novel" portions of the book were a little heavy-handed, and Maggie, the protagonist, became more unbelievable as a character as the story moved along. Though I appreciate the author's intent, I think the epilogue could have been omitted.

All in all, a good "popcorn read," and an entertaining story.

Maddy's First Day

I was just wracking my brain to find something to blog about, and I thought of one of our cats, Madison. Maddy was found by some of our students, a tiny kitten lost and homeless on a busy downtown Memphis street. They took her in, fed and "clothed" her with warm blankets, and gave her all the cuddles she needed. Then one day, they brought her to Visible, desperate to find her a good home. I love cats, so of course she wound up in my office. And even though my husband, Dave, had previously declared, "No more cats!" at our house, he melted when I put that tiny ball of fluff in his hands. What a charmer!

Yes, we adopted her. Yes, we love her completely. Yes, God made her for us. Yes, she is the luckiest kitty in the world, and is permanently grafted into our hearts and home.

You see, she was lost, and hungry, and dying. But now she is found, and fed, and living, and so, so loved.

And so are we.

Ephesians 1: In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ...

At Least I'm Not Lost

I had an interesting revelation last week. A couple, really. As a scrolled through my archives here, I noticed that the first time I mentioned being exhausted was way back on New Year's Eve, 2005. OK, so that's been going a while. Not constant, mind you, but percolating in the background perhaps. There was that amazing time between officially becoming head of the music department and becoming Dean (1 semester? 1 year? I can't remember) and that was really really good. Then I wrote last week that I'm lost. Then realized within a few hours that I was completely wrong. I'm not lost. I'm angry! It all made so much sense! I mean, I don't know why I'm angry, but at least I can recognize that the reason I get furiously indignant at every little email--even the most innocuous requests--is not because of the email itself but because I'm just flipping angry all the time.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. How did I figure this out? Well, I did something healthy. Stupid me! I went to the season premier of one of our favorite shows at a friend's house. We used to all watch this all together every week. That was fun. We eventually stopped going--got too big, no place to sit, times didn't work out, whatever. So it was nice to be re-invited and since we've been wanting to reconnect with people, I thought it good and healthy and a positive step to say yes. I was really, really wrong!

I think it started when I had to ask for an extension of the starting time because my evening doctoral class was going to go long (and by long, I mean the allotted time for the class, rather than ending early). Dave had already driven from midtown to home out in Cordova. Everyone readily agreed to wait. So that's good. And healthy. Then I iChatted my friend who I hadn't seen in a while to say that I was going to be happy to see her. Yay. Good. Healthy. We talked for a moment and then she said she was going to eat dinner (maybe 7pm). What's wrong with that? Unfortunately it made me realize that all the other folks who were going to be present at the TV viewing had already been home from work, had their comfy clothes on, had dinner, had a moment to talk through their day, and here Dave and I come, ragged, bedraggled, tired, hungry. I started to get mad but was not yet angry.

I got there around 9, was greeted and sat down and started the show. I spoke to almost no one--didn't have time, really--but a couple of our friends were really great to us and offered us chocolate and gave up their seats for us. How lovely. Healthy. Right?

Show's over, it's nearly 11pm, and we have to jet fast because it's a freaking 25 minute drive home. Now I'm really irritated. Scrounge for food, hit the sack, no life, no talking, no nothing.

Get up the next morning and in class less than 10 hours later. Now I'm angry. Seethingly, viscreally, frustratingly, dangerously angry. Went to Panera after class to chill and have breakfast. There sit normal people, living their lives. I hate them all. I feel my blood pressure skyrocket. I can feel the anger, turbulent in my chest. Why are all these people here? Why do they have free time? Why are they so relaxed?

I am so angry all the time. It shows itself in my blowups to Dave about students expecting me to solve their problems. It shows itself in my short temper. But I never ever let it show itself to other people.

Why am I so angry? I don't know yet, though I hope to someday. Here are my initial thoughts, as honest and raw as I know how to make them. I am angry because I work so damned hard all the time. I am angry because other people don't. I am angry because I don't feel like I have any choices. I am angry because for the past year, I've had to to only what other people tell me. I am angry because I have stopped doing things that I think are fun. I am angry because I feel taken advantage of. I am angry because I don't make more money. I am angry because I get a pay cut. I am angry because we can't live on just Dave's salary. I am angry because I have to solve everybody's problems. I am angry because my own life has been neglected for so long. I am angry because God chose this for me. I am angry because my life is not easy. I am angry because I am so damned nice to people that they don't know that anything is wrong with me. I am angry because there are no options for me but to keep doing these things over and over and over. I am angry because none of my friends have stuck with me. I am angry for paying such a high price for success. I am angry because I am angry.

Of course there are a thousand finer points in this. The reality is that I need some freedom and I need to re-establish myself. I have more to write but I'm out of gas at the moment. As I told Dave at the end of last week, I'd just like to have fun, cute, ballsy Shannon back. At least I'm not lost.

Well, then.

Time to put pen to paper, metaphorically speaking, to clear my head a bit.

Where am I? Well, I'm just not sure, really. I think I've lost myself. Taking a couple of weeks to find the map. I run the danger of goofing off or playing games or watching TV or staring into space long enough to just go back to being lost again when it's all over. So, paper. Pen.

To whom am I writing? Not you, dear reader, though I do hope you take some comfort here, recognizing some struggle of our common humanity. Not God, for that relationship has been difficult lately. Not my husband Dave, though he is the human who understands me best of all. He already knows, so there's no point in that. Not my employer/ministry, for that relationship is wonderful and honest and complex and challenging and part of the problem and part of the solution, and the closest people to me there already know my crisis. Not my students, for I have stopped being vulnerable with them. Not my friends, as I don't have a many left. Not even my family, because they have their own stuff and I'm not completely sure anyone can understand the spiritual trauma (not to sound too dramatic) of my current condition unless you've lived it. Who does that leave? Me. I'm writing to me.

I'm writing to me because I have the propensity toward the creation of my own 12-step program, a sure-fire way to tackle my problem. I can clearly see all the things I should do to fix myself--busy, busy, busy--but I have the feeling that I need time. Space. Freedom. I hope to write myself a trail of stream-of-conscience bread crumbs which circles back to myself. Because somewhere along this way, I have lost something significant. But I don't know where, and I'm not really sure what.

So this is my 2-step program. Think, and write. And maybe shop.

A Note

My greatest memory of personal music moments hovers with a single note. Every musician plays thousands upon thousands of notes in a lifetime; for me, this note resonates more loudly than all the rest. It sings of discipline, of talent, of tenacity, and of inspiration. A single note defines a lifetime of artistry. This note sprung upon me the summer preceding my senior year in high school. I was a flutist, and following a grueling audition I was chosen for North Carolina’s Governor’s School, a six-week summer program for gifted students. The palpable excitement of being away from home for so extended a period heightened my awareness and lent a sense of adventure to music.

In the auditorium, the environment that would become a familiar and welcome part of my life enveloped me for the first time. I breathed in the slightly musty smell of a public place which was not used everyday, and while my eyes adjusted to the yellow light that played across our music, I thrilled to hear the cacophonous sound of seventy instrumentalists warming up together. How could order come from this writhing, living, feral sound? Then, at the conductor’s bidding, the first notes of unified music drifted upward from our instruments. Having only played in wind bands previously, the rich and resonant sound of strings surrounding me was shocking. The vibrations of the music pulsed through me and changed me fundamentally and permanently.

It was here that the note was etched into my character. While reading a Mahler symphony, I stumbled upon a lengthy tone perched two octaves above middle C. It sprawled across several measures of the page. I eyed it nervously, and as it approached, I realized that it was not supported by the safety of section upon section of foundation. Instead, it rode freely above a passage of music that was sparse, with only flitting woodwind accompaniment reminiscent of tranquil pastoral scenes. I dug in and played the note. Its lifelessness belied the serene and sparkling movement beneath it. The conductor asked for more animation. How could I give more life to a single note whose length tested endurance and whose register challenged intonation?

I worked harder on that single note than on many of the difficult passages I undertook that summer. I defeated the trial of intonation by mastering the subtleties of my instrument. I gained endurance by playing this single note again and again, each time broadening the capacity of my lungs. Most of all, I learned the difference between playing a note and performing it; I discovered the soul of an artist. Happily, that soul was mine.

The evening of performance arrived. People and perfume modified the musty smell of the auditorium. The dark void in front of the stage was filled with light and audience. The adrenaline usually reserved for sports or fear coursed through me. The note haunted me. As it drew nearer, I could feel my stomach tighten.

It arrived. Following a deep breath, I released the note. It hovered there, a living thing, floating gingerly above the wind section before gliding to the ears of the audience. As my lungs began to deflate, I grappled with intonation and won. The note soared to its conclusion. As the rest of the movement unwound around me, I realized that I had accomplished the making of music, and joy bubbled up in me and nearly spilled over in happy laughter. I channeled that energy into a wonderful performance. I treasure the memory of a single note that defined my musicianship.


The chief problem with engaging in one's own winter of discontent is that one never sees the leaves falling.

I dream of Tuscan skies I haven't seen, of catalog-perfect cocoons of warmth that have yet to materialize; where is my peaceful gray-blue wall with perfect view framed by vases of gently blooming hibiscus to perfume the breeze, and in what fiction-life will I have time to enjoy it? Is it possible to de-busy, to embrace the doing as well as the outcome? Can one re-engage one's own heart after so long an abesence, or like a lover forgotten, is one's own humanity as unfamiliar as the winding streets of an unkown village?

The winter of our discontent. The cold breeze of loneliness, the chill of having devoted many of the best years to something other than self. Is this to die righteously or to be blinded to the simplicity of the reverse of loving neighbor as self? To neglect to warm oneself with heart pleasures is only to loathe the cold, the neigbor, and the self. Has the fire spun out for good? How to rekindle the loveliness? How to shut out the cold?