catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 6 :: 2014.03.21 — 2014.04.03


Learning to belong

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.  

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

I have looked often at large, extended families from Mexico recently come to the country I love with all of their abuelitas and barbacoas, quinceañeras and te amos in tow. I have stood and watched homogeneous ethnic communities bravely carving out stakes in our nation’s urban centers; women hidden in scarves proud of their names and of where they were born; close-knit branches of my own family familiar with foods I know only from movies; and communities that seem so certain of who they are and who they were and why they are here that it seems almost like natural law; and I have wondered. As one who has always felt like an outsider, I am caught between a feeling that is at once a hymn of overwhelming envy and a tenuous waltz, a great liberation.

I am five and I am feeding ducks by the Main with my brother. My parents are telling me I am American even though I was born in a place called Okinawa that is not quite Japan and I have no memory of either place, but feel it does not matter because I love the ducks and I have not yet learned how different we all are. I am ten and my grandmother is asking me if my friend Danny is white or black; the question confuses me. I am fifteen and my church is almost all white and I am thinking: in spite of all their love, if I emptied every ounce of blood running through my heart, I would only have a few ounces of Scotch Irish blood. I am twenty, struggling to stay conscious, and while liquor-induced hazes make me feel like I belong, others do not agree.

My father inspected embassies when I was a child. Travel and change were a part of how I breathed; by the time I was six, the number of times I had relocated myself outweighed the number of years I had drawn breath. The name “Frankfurt” was the first place that I remember identifying as a home. I loved the bees that burrowed in the ground and the calculated optimism of the West Germans. I loved Herr Becker who taught me about German fiefdoms and I loved the unlocked doors of the government neighborhood. I loved the Marines from the embassy who dressed up like pilgrims and turkeys but, for all the sense it made to me, could have been dressed as warlocks and dragons. When the plane took off to take me across the ocean to a home I had never been to, my mother tells me I wrapped the flight attendant’s hand around mine, and never looked back.

We are at the Louvre and my mother is showing me colors that appear to me as if they had just happened and I am feeling that they are already a part of me and I am not caring if the artist painted in Alexandria or Venice because, my God, it is beautiful. My mother, oft off key, is singing “the hills are alive…” and I feel like the song will carry me wherever I am and wherever I am going; I am the eighth Von Trap, “I am the darker brother.” They are holding my hand and we are walking through the main gates of Dachau, a decommissioned concentration camp, and I am loving them for it. Though the nightmares of the place are lingering things, I am having the feeling that I know the children who died there. I am waking up afraid of the sound of trains and I hear the sound of boxcars echoing in my pillow; my brother is forever understanding. I am not belonging with the Jews, exactly, but in that place, the Holocaust is my national tragedy and, as much as a child of six can, I feel like I could have belonged there. I am seeing the words “remember not to forget, remember not to forget, remember not to forget…” and, how could I?

My family taught me the art of belonging, all of them disciples of hospitality and adaptation. My mother would devote herself to knowing the tastes of wherever we were and to wielding pot and pan in ways that astounded the locals. My father taught me that a dozen honestly learned words in another’s tongue could change hearts and open doors and, though it was not a perfect algorithm, it was not for naught. We listened to the legends of Motown and Sergei Prokofiev. They taught me to eat collards with chopsticks and called me Boy San. I was quite young when I memorized “I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes and I read it at our community center and everyone was proud and clapping. What is darker? What is America? Am I beautiful? I thought later. At night, after I said Amen, I didn’t know which one of these things we had done was actually mine.

There is a boy named Teddy and he is hiding under the trampoline. The other children do not want to play with him as he cannot speak English. I do not know my friends in this moment, but I make Teddy laugh and he comes out, so I am okay. My grandmother tells me to be proud to be black, but she is a proud English teacher, and I am in her home speaking like the darker children in the neighborhood who do not know the piano. She tells me my words are not right, so what is there to be proud of, I think? My father puts on a uniform and it was time for work, “oorah”–it is a strange word, but it is a place he belongs. He is home and undressing, and we are biking through pristine paths saying “guten tag” to those we passed, and I saw no difference. It is all very simple and it is natural for him; he is Mozart and I am his apprentice. 

I have felt forever caught between loving people very intensely and loving solitude very deeply. The woods were always a home to me and sometimes I would just walk and walk and walk, but I never became a pine or an owl. The Church was filled with a hundred parents and brothers and sisters and I count myself incredibly fortunate to have been adopted into dozens of loving communities of the faithful around the world. I have worked with broken youth in rural America that have marveled at my hair and at my skin, and I have worked with others who looked much more like me who have cursed my name and race, but I love them both and, blessedly, we have more or less found that we were made for one another.

The sisters are from Medellin, Nairobi, Harlem and Calcutta. Whatever passes as wagering for nuns, they are doing, and half of them are sure I am from Iran while the others swear I am from Egypt. O, to be able to trace one’s roots back and back and back and to know where your fathers fell after Babel…I want to tell them that I know which part of Africa my ancestors came from, but instead I tell the truth, and then I tell them they are my sisters, and I mean it. They giggle, they pray for me and ask that I reciprocate and now they are begging me to stay for Mass. They are singin — I immediately think of Maria von Trapp and my mother — everything feels alive with the sound of music, I laugh, and I am shocked to find my eyes are wet. For one who once thought himself to have nothing, I open my eyes and I see that I have everything. 

A simple woman from Albania is beloved by forgotten children in India and resonates with the whole world. Why? How? I have built my belonging by the respect and love I have been shown and by that which I invest in those around me. I have broken it by the wrongs I have done to those who loved me, to those who depended on me; in their grace, they have forgiven me and entrusted themselves to me again and again and again. For me I have wondered at how it always feels like meeting lost family when I have worshiped in ancient monasteries in Romania, in Coptic churches in America, in black churches in D.C., and in Mennonite house churches in New York. It is always this feeling of reunion.

I am meeting my grandmother for the first time and I am told that once we were Seminoles; I wonder what this means or what it changes. I am closing a book and wondering if the author knew me. I am standing in Macondo before it is swept away and I am being amazed sitting by wells in Samaria. I am learning what it is to be a daughter born of rape in the Congo and what it is like to grow up without a father in Appalachia. I am watching a man go willingly toward the report of small arms in Fallujah and I am watching what could have been my family forced from their homes in Florida toward Indian Territory.  I am none of these things or places or times but I plant them inside of me and they sprout, often when I need them.

I have found myself blooming in falling apart books and in the homes of refugees from Burundi, in coal country and beside the Black Sea. I thank God for everything that is in my soul and in my blood. The Son of Man Is Truth, but in this moment He Is His Father’s Lingua Franca. Light itself was made through Him, and He Is Condescending to speak Greek. He Is Forgiving centurions with admirable faith that might have happily followed orders to tear down His Own Father’s temple, and He Is Offering Himself to a Samaritan woman with bad theology. Many in His Church are happy to be alive another day but will be glad when their race is over and they can go to their real home. I believe He Is Walking in halls beside the giggling sisters and, presently, He Is Finding His Way into my paragraphs. In light of all His Happening, I do not feel that I will ever truly fear for my children pressing one for English or seeing rebel flags flung proudly from the backs of pick ups. I would learn these things if there is a willing teacher. Now when I say Amen and all things from the day begin to fade, I feel that I love my roots and they stretch down deeper and deeper and deeper; but in a world of absolute truths where gravity will certainly pull down all but the most faithful of mustard seeds, I still wonder what it means to be all things to all men

I am rounding 25 hopefully and gracefully and my identity is as confused as it has ever been. I let go of the feeling that embracing and expressing one identity would alienate the other. I let go of the feeling that eating collards would break communion with my friends that hang Old Dixie in their homes; that playing Mozart would break communion with my darker brothers; that worshiping here would break communion with my family that worships there. More and more, I have found that reunion — within and without — is a choice, and it is not always an easy one. More and more, I have found that being honest with myself and others about what I love is hard, but it is good. More and more, I have found that loving who I am is not mutually exclusive with loving who they are.

These days I find that, more often than not, I am loving myself and letting myself go. I am breathing in their dreams and tasting their spices. I am fumbling with their customs and offending their grandfathers — I am not deceiving myself into thinking that all men will return the kindness I try to show or that I am always kind. But in this moment, we are laughing and falling back to the commonalities we are all trying our best to know more and more: I open my heart, and I can almost feel the country that gave me my blood. I open my eyes, and I can see these children who are not so different from me. I breathe, and I can almost catch my own breath filling their lungs.  I listen, and I hear a good song:

My sweat belongs to your hood, 
my body belongs to His dust. 
My heart! - written in your poems -
I thank God He Does Know our souls.
I open my eyes and I am five,
and I find that I belong.

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