Sexuality and Softball: Living in a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Culture

I played softball my whole life. It was my identity, my passion, my classroom, and my counseling sessions. I threw a ball, swung a bat, and knew exactly who I was, where I was going, and what I needed to do to get there.

Throughout my successful career, from five years old to twenty-two, I was always surrounded by strong, passionate women, both as teammates and as coaches.  I had the privilege to learn softball skills, social skills, and leadership skills from national champions and gold medalists. On the field, we were women who were able to break records, compete, and overcome. 

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, though, that I was confronted with the reality that this sport that I loved was shrouded in a silent but many times overt cloud of discrimination. The strong, passionate women that taught me as coaches and teammates lived within this stifling cloud.

I remember the day when someone first called me gay and hoped it would hurt me. Maybe it was because I was too close to my best friend, maybe it was because I didn’t like to wear what the other girls wore, but it was definitely because I played softball. It was one of my teammates.  She carefully chose this word too, because that was the worst thing you could call a high school girl in our town – not whore, not slut, not bitch- gay.  In a panic of self-preservation, I, of course, denied it and continued to deny it for the next seven years of my life.

I knew the stereotype-you know, lesbian softball player. I heard my teammates joke about it in the locker room in a tone of assumptive privilege because they knew no one here would ever be that. We were the pretty, athletic girls.  And lesbian meant not pretty, manly, weird, and gross. The word became a common, laughable insult when a teammate would hug another girl.  Unfortunately, the result was then having to hear details of this teammates recent date with the boy from her Algebra class, so that she could prove that these rumors were false.

My teammates would wear ribbons, bows, and makeup while we ran shuttle sprints and, between strained breaths, talked about Jennie Finch being their favorite softball player and that she was “so pretty,” not that she is one of the best pitchers and players of all time. And I joined in because I was an immature high school girl afraid that I could possibly be that stereotype, praying every night that I wasn’t.

I tell my story because, unfortunately, it is not unique within women’s athletics-a place that should be open to all ways of expressing diverse femininity. Softball pushes young women to compete when society often urges us to settle.  Softball tells young women they can accomplish great things when society often reminds us that we can only do certain things.  Softball allows us to get dirty and mess our hair up but still feel great about ourselves when society unfortunately still forces one idea of beauty and self-confidence onto us. Therefore, these injustices and inequalities of society often creep into the sacredness of sport implanting fear and discrimination and impacting the developing self-image of young women.

I proudly came out a year and a half ago after a seven year silent battle against these stereotypes and negative messages.  The feeling of fear that I felt in my bedroom that night in high school never leaves, though. Sometimes I still hear that teammate in my ear and wonder if I should really be who I know I am. I met many beautiful teammates and coaches in my seven year journey that have this same fear.

We have been witness to the cloud of discrimination in softball that allows jokes to be made about teammates being gay, whispers to be shared about the woman our coach spends time with, and vacuums of silence to be formed keeping anyone unsure of their identity silent. We have been friends with the girls that love bows and makeup but also those who wore them only to end the rumors after practice. We have abided by the unspoken don’t ask, don’t tell rule within many college softball programs. We have labeled her a roommate, friend, or fan when we knew and they knew she was more.

We have been afraid. Afraid that our identity would somehow take away from the accomplishments we had in our sport.  Afraid that a teammate would feel uncomfortable just because of our presence in the women’s locker room. Afraid that our careers, built on success and confidence, would end because of who we love. Afraid that we would have to choose love or our sport.  Afraid of being known. Afraid of what parents might think of us coaching their daughters. Afraid of being just another stereotype. 

I now coach my own softball team, empowering young women to experience all the lessons, accomplishments, and successes that I was able to in my life.  I see the cycle continue, though, and often feel powerless to stop it. Young softball players listening more to the lessons of society than of their sport.  Defining womanhood in a small, narrow box of limitations instead of inclusion. Choosing bows because they like them, but also because it is what they are told is better. Exchanging jokes and whispers at the expense of a possible silent minority.

And I’m afraid. Afraid for them. Afraid for myself. But, in my fear, I remember the courageous women that taught me, even in their forced silence, that change is not easy but it is necessary.  Even in my fear I am confident that things can change.  We change the culture of softball when we choose to focus on an athlete’s ability not her image.  We change the culture of softball when we refuse to talk about a person’s sexual orientation without their permission.  We change the culture of softball when we see playing and succeeding as an expression of femininity. We change the culture of softball when we are allowed to talk about and be open about our entire identity without the fear of repercussions. We change the culture of softball when we are able to compete, succeed, accomplish, and love whoever we want without feeling the need to apologize about it.

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To the Boy that Killed My Friend

To the boy that killed my friend,
I don’t hate you.
For months, yes, I did in my anger and grief.
I yelled at you, cursed you, sometimes I still do
when I cross that fateful Marshfield street.
For a year I tried to understand you,
I tried to imagine your grip on that trigger
and how you slept that night with sounds of sirens
rushing past to clean up your mess.

But whenever I imagined
all I could see is him.
A kid.
Facing the barrel of a gun
held by another kid.
Not in this country, you’d think…
not here, you’d think.

To the boy that killed my friend,
I don’t pity you.
For months, I wished his same
lonely, fate upon you
hoping you get what you “deserve”
but who truly deserves that?
Through eyes engulfed by tears,
I’d cry aloud for vengeance, for answers.
Yet, silence remained.

But then I remembered
that blood
that blood that now has been washed
clean from the street
will remain with you,
stained into your conscience.
For you must now live regretfully with something
more painful than death’s immediate relief.

To the boy that killed my friend
I do not fear you.
Maybe once I shivered at the dream
of your all-too-steady trigger finger
pressing again, again, again.
And then silence.

But that has stopped and all I can see
is you, or how I imagine you
a trembling child as fearful as he is feared
holding a gun bigger than his own hand
hoping his purpose, his meaning, his life
will come with each consecutive shot.

To the boy that killed my friend
I do not know you.
Maybe I could assume or guess
that you didn’t look much different than him
but I don’t know that.
You live only as an idea, a representation
of life’s quick cruelty and evil, uncontrolled.

But that’s not who you are.
And I don’t know who you are.
I know you have a mother.
I know you have a name.
I must believe you have experienced love.
And for a year I have tried to see you,
understand you as more than just this choice.

To the boy that killed my friend,
I don’t blame you.
For too long I have hated you.
I have seen you as other, evil, worthless
but I can no longer hold that excruciating hate within me.
But instead each day I must let go
and live forever in his memory instead of my pain.
I hope that this moment has defined your life
not so you live in fear and shame
but that you hold precious each breath and hope for change.
For you deserve this hope, this chance
because my friend can never have it again.

To the boy that killed my friend,
I love you.
Not out of my own will or choice
for with those alone I have hated you
but because in moments like this there’s nothing left
nothing left but to recklessly love in hope’s that
things will change and that you will be the
last
the only
boy that will ever kill my friend.


Please read my original poem dedicated to Omar here: https://mackenseycarter.com/2013/09/04/omar/

The Way of Freedom

There once was a small, unassuming gazelle that never knew her parents. She remembered something of them… a scent, a vision… but knew nothing of who they were. At a young age she had been kept caged as a spectacle. Her beauty and grace alone brought her these many strange admirers that she would glance at through her metal bars. Other animals didn’t seem to understand. Other animals knew no other reality but the bars, the people, the prison of this place. But the gazelle had dreams, or maybe they were memories, of a different place. A free place where she would one day live.


The other animals would talk about the safety they found behind these bars, the protection and provision that this place gave them.  Whispers could be heard about the dangers and risks outside the zoo.  “One cannot trust another when one is completely free.  At least here we are safe and comfortable,” a peacock announced as he strutted for the crowd.  But the gazelle wasn’t satisfied.  She wanted more.  She wanted freedom even if it came with risk and pain.


A few years passed and the gazelle grew older, but no less hungry for that familiar yet distant idea of freedom.   Every waking and sleeping moment found her dreaming of wide open fields and unending waters.  Her desire grew stronger as rumors spread of the zoo closing its doors.  Maybe I’ll be sent where I belong, she thought. She didn’t really know where that was, but she knew she needed to be there.  She started seeing other animals shoved into crates and cages and carted off into large moving trucks.  Maybe those bring the way to freedom.


It was finally the gazelle’s turn to be packed away and for some time her prison became even smaller as she leapt into the open cage meant for her.  Freedom was close.  She could feel it.   After a long journey, the cage was flung open and the gazelle slowly, hesitantly inched her way out.  Everything shone with an intensity that she had never experienced before.  She closed her gentle eyes for relief from the radiance and commotion around her.  When she was finally able to open them again, though, the land that lay before her was her freedom.  And she leapt and ran for joy in this new, exciting world.


The gazelle learned many things about this new world in just a short time.  She learned that food was no longer scheduled and provided for her, but that she was suppose to find it herself.  She learned that water came out of lakes, rivers, and puddles instead of plastic.  She learned that sometimes there was no relief from her thirst, hunger or fatigue.  And she learned that freedom is often lonely. 


She was busy and excited for a month or so.  Finding new birds to watch or new places to eat or ponds to lay by.  Life was exactly how she knew it was meant to be.  She had the feeling this is how her parents lived.  But soon the young gazelle grew tired of this new place.  Every day there was so much responsibility, so much work, so many choices.  And every day she was alone.  Until that fateful day.


It seemed like a normal day.  The gazelle did her usual routine, by herself.  But as she was grazing in a new field, she noticed something out of the corner of her eye.  She had learned that the rumors about danger in freedom were true so this new presence made her uneasy.  She tried to casually walk away from it but something about its movement drew her gaze.  She had yet to see the full figure but she knew it was another animal.  An animal she had never seen before.  She was fascinated and excited by the prospect of a companion.


She knew enough not to approach this strange creature but still found herself moving closer and closer to it until its full figure was in her view.  Never before had she seen such a beautiful, sleek and majestic thing.  Even though something inside of seemed to hold her back.. warn her, she moved even closer.  Finally she could no longer be ignored, but instead of a normal welcome the stranger began coming toward her with increased speed.  Such a moment of intensity left the gazelle frozen, unable to move, though her own danger now seemed apparent.  After what seemed like hours, but was only a few seconds, the gazelle started running away.  Heart-pounding.  Not knowing if what she felt was fear or attraction.  But, after being in a cage for years, she was no match for this stranger.


Once this cat-like creature caught the gazelle, there was a single moment, a choice, a connection between the two animals.  The gazelle helpless in the grips of this immense creature but the creature loosened its grip, let the gazelle step back and chose something different.  The gazelle could barely breathe, knowing her innocence got her in this danger.  For she had never known that cheetahs and gazelles were not meant to live in the closeness, the intimacy that she so desired. But, why, why did the cheetah stop?


The cheetah, as shocked by his decision as the shaking gazelle, paused for another second feeling a sort of pity for this new animal.  Pity is not a feeling he was use to feeling at the top of the food chain and he didn’t like it.   So to break the silence and confusion he told the gazelle who he was, he told her his story.  The gazelle didn’t know what to say, she felt powerless in front of this predator but loved the way he spoke, with passion, commitment, determination.  She felt like she could trust him, despite his teeth, which were a constant reminder of the risk to choose to be close to him.


That day was the day that changed everything.  The gazelle and the cheetah were inseparable.  The danger, the excitement, the attraction between these two unlikely partners was intoxicating drawing each of them closer and closer.  Now the gazelle had someone to protect her, to play with her, to be with her.  Now the cheetah had a partner that forced him to slow down, to feel, to remember.  The gazelle just kept thinking, I knew freedom was worth the risk.


But after a while, the cheetah started hearing his friends talk about his new friend.  He knew that they were disappointed, confused, upset.  Why would a cheetah need or want a gazelle? He must be weak, they would taunt.  The cheetah sulked.  No one calls me weak, he thought. And the next day he would show them, he would show himself that he was strong. That he didn’t need anyone else.


So the gazelle and the cheetah met at their normal spot.  The gazelle excited to tell the cheetah all about the beautiful things she dreamt of last night, but the moment the connection between them was made, the gazelle knew something was wrong.  This was the first time since their meeting she saw a fear, yet an anger in his eyes.  She moved away but not quick enough.  The cheetah in one motion clawed his friend.  The gazelle let out a yell of pain loud enough for the cheetah’s friends to hear, but the cheetah showed no remorse.


The gazelle stayed away from the cheetah, healing her wounds both from his claws and from his detachment.  What had happened? I thought we were friends?  Did I do something wrong?, the gazelle obsessed.  She replayed every conversation, every touch, every look they had shared hoping to find an answer to this burst of hurt, of anger, of pain.  But she couldn’t find any so she started blaming herself… I knew I wouldn’t be good enough for him.  He is bored of me.  I don’t excite him anymore.  And suddenly the gazelle’s freedom became another prison.


Meanwhile, the cheetah came home proud to his friends.  He had proved them wrong.  He was strong.  He was a true predator.  But when his friends were gone.  He was left alone.  And in that space of self-reflection, the truth lay exposed.  What have I done? he thought.  She was my friend and I hurt her for no reason but to feel better about myself?  I am worthless.  She should get as far away from me as possible.  But how do I go on without her?


The next day the gazelle, hoping to make things right with her friend, wandered over to their meeting place, head down, cautiously waiting.  The cheetah saw her and ran to her, but in that moment the gazelle thought he came to finish what he had started and began to run away.  Before she got far, though, the cheetah gasped, “I’m sorry, you’re perfect, what would my life be without you?” And the gazelle was stopped in her tracks. Without turning around she said, “How can you say that? Do you know how bad you hurt me?”  The cheetah fell to the ground in remorse begging for the gazelle to forgive him.  He needed her, in that moment, and she liked that.


Things went back to normal after that.  In fact, their intimacy increased after sharing such an intense experience and they grew closer and more entangle in each others lives, but every few days that cheetah would claw at her once more opening afresh old wounds and scars.  And every few days the cheetah would apologize and the gazelle would build him back up again.  The cheetah would say, “Only with you can I learn to be better, to think before I act, to see things differently.” And the gazelle would be drawn even further into her need for him. 


 

But she started hurting all the time.  Wounds wouldn’t heal and more would appear.  She knew she could no longer love this cheetah.  For his very survival depended on her destruction.  For she noticed that every day with him her glittering world of freedom became a little more like the cage she use to know.  Slowly the cheetah began convincing her that he was all she needed.  That the birds and the sun and the ponds and the grass were all meaningless without him for he could save her.  But even his intimate touch felt like a sharp pain to her badly scarred body.


One day the cheetah showed up at their normal meeting place ready to play this day’s game of chase, but the gazelle was no where to be found.  He searched, frantically, but there was no sign of her presence around him.  The gazelle had left.  She had remembered.  She had recaptured freedom, the freedom she once knew.  For she learned that even without bars, even without cages, freedom is elusive.  Freedom is not something to be obtained, owned or held on to.  The gazelle now saw freedom as knowing, in the deepest parts of yourself, that you deserve to be whole, to be alive, to be healed.  And the gazelle chose that freedom.

 

On That Roosevelt Bus or My First ‘Short’ Story

Thud. The weight of the rush hour bus hurdling over the pothole-dotted Roosevelt Road threw Damarion up in the air then harshly back to his seat.  He hated taking the bus. His mom’s car had been in the shop for months now. He missed that car, a well-worn Toyota Corolla in a shade of deep blue that had chipped in places, exposing the familiar rust caused by the brutal Chicago winter.  Damarion called it his “bat-mobile”.  His mother would smirk at him and talk about his extensive imagination…whatever that meant, Damarion thought.  For him, that car was his escape. And after two months of riding the bus, Damarion was starting to wonder if his beloved car was actually at the repair shop.

In fact, his mom had only told Damarion this in order to quell the inevitable battle that was sure to rage when the truth was finally told.  His father had taken the car.  Marcus, Damarion’s father, showed up at the house in early October begging to see his son.  Damarion’s mother could tell by the sacks of sleeplessness under his eyes and unshaven scruff around his mouth that it had happened once again.  Marcus had failed at whatever new business venture he had begun this month and was clutching the remains of the savings that he hadn’t already spent drowning his sorrows at whatever local waterhole suited his fancy this week.

She couldn’t remember what this exact business plan had entailed but she had learned to ignore the details for they never seemed to matter.  After only a couple weeks, Marcus would be back at her door asking for something.  And here he was again.

She pushed the screen door open, which had been protecting her from the stench wafting from Marcus’s matted hair.

“Ay, babe,” mumbled Marcus as he cautiously inched toward her.

“Babe! Who you talkin’ to, Marcus. I damn sure ain’t your babe.”

It had been four years since she had loved Marcus. Lured by his light brown eyes and unbeatable ambition she had fallen…fallen too hard. Within a year of meeting him, Damarion was on the way and she was left nursing Marcus’ hangovers and his all too fragile ego.

“Ah, you know what I mean. Let me see my son. It’s been a long week.”

Every week was a long week for Marcus.

“He’s at his piano lessons, Mar. And no need for him to see you like this anyway.”

“Whatchu mean? He’s my son, he can see me any damn time.”

“Alright. You gotta leave.”

“Wait! If I can’t see him, can I at least borrow the car for the night. I got this new business deal comin’ and I gotta drive down south to meet up with one of my guys ‘bout it.”

You would think after knowing Marcus all this time she would have learned the ability to say no to these frequent requests. But after a pause she shrunk back into the house and appeared a few minutes later with a key chain jangling in her right hand.

“Now, you lucky Damarion is getting a ride back from his lesson tonight. Boy, you betta be back in the morning. I gotta work the afternoon shift and get Damarion to school.”

“Yeah, no worries. Your car will be back. Man, always naggin’ me. No wonder I ain’t with yo ass anymore.”

And with that less than endearing goodbye, Marcus turned and marched to the car.

It’s been two months and no word from him.


Thump. The bus ran over yet another pothole jostling Damarion out of his blissful thoughts of the “bat-mobile.”  He shot a hostile glance at his mother hoping that in that single look he could show his complete disdain for this form of transportation.  To his dismay, though, his mother, Rose, issued a graceful smile back in his direction.

She always seemed to be teaching Damarion about the importance of being grateful in any situation.  He almost expected his mother to start clamoring on about the importance of experiencing potholes, somehow relating it to the “long, hard road of life.”  Luckily Damarion had learned how to distract himself during these sermons by watching each new passenger ascend the buses steps.

Mostly the passengers formed a predictable parade. Young mothers with distraught babies in tow, commuters traveling to and from their downtown jobs, food service employees with exhausted stares out the large rectangular windows, and kids Damarion’s age with see-through backpacks, which had become an identification badge for all Chicago Public School students.

Softening his glance back to his mother, Damarion asked, “Ma, when am I gonna get to go back to school? It’s been a long time.”

Rose worked full time so without the car it had been hard to get Damarion to school consistently. The past few weeks he had to skipped school and travel with Rose on her commute to work. Even though Damarion thought his seven-year-old self could handle a two-bus route to his school, Rose knew differently.

“I’m working on it, babe. I told you the car is in the shop. Once it’s done you’ll get to school every day. Lemme see if Auntie can pick you up this next week. Alright?”

Rose had worked out a system with Damarion’s school. They knew the situation with his dad and were pretty lenient about his attendance when events like this happened. David, his cousin, had been picking up homework for Damarion to do for the days that he had missed.

“Ah, alright,” Damarion surrendered and returned to watching people ascend the front stairs of the bus.

Mom and her toddler-aged son. Man in an oversized business suit. Teenage boy with short braids. Damarion liked the consistency of the parade. He had gotten pretty good at guessing the people that would join the ride at the different stops. A game that passed the time on these never-ending commutes. His dad had taught him this game.


Damarion remembered Marcus as well as any six year old can remember an important person in his life. It had been almost a whole year since his dad had come to visit him—Rose hadn’t told him about Marcus visiting a couple months ago. She worked hard to allow Damarion to have some type of relationship with Marcus without bringing her own baggage into it. Damarion was getting old enough, though, that he knew he didn’t have a father…Well at least not a father like some of his friends had.

One of his most vivid memories of Marcus, though, happened on this very bus route when Damarion was four. Marcus wanted to spend some time with Damarion so he decided to take him to the Shedd Aquarium because he knew that Finding Nemo had instilled in Damarion an obsession with sea turtles. After the trip, Damarion was tired and hungry so, in order to distract him, Marcus thought up this game.

“Mar.” Marcus enjoyed calling his son by the same nickname that he had acquired as a young kid mostly because it reminded him that Damarion was his. Reminded him that despite his many failures he had created something.

“Mar. Look, look. Daddy’s got a game for you. Now watch. Hear that dinging sound? That means that the bus is gonna stop. So you gotta pay attention.”

Damarion stared into his dad’s eyes motivated partly by amusement and partly by a heavy exhaustion that had settled into his eyelids.

“When the bus stops, see, people get off and new people get on. Ain’t that cool?” Silence. Marcus hurriedly continued, worried that the short attention span of his four year old was wearing thin.

“Yeah, so new people come on and each one is different. See, there’s a momma with her baby. Oh wow there’s a soldier, you know, like your G.I. Joe action figure? Whatchu think? Fun to watch right?”

Damarion had yet to grasp an appreciation for differences and was not gonna be fooled by his dad’s poor attempt to distract him from his growling belly and sleep-deprived body. He answered with a swift head swing away from Marcus and toward the bus window, finding the progressing darkness outside much more entertaining than the people on the bus.


Excuse me. An elderly woman next to him gently nudge Damarion’s shoulder in an attempt to get him to stand up and let her out from the window seat.

Only a few stops away and Damarion could not wait to get out of this packed bus. The seat near his mom opened up so he scurried over there before another passenger could snatch the coveted real estate.

“Hey, boo.” His mom greeted her with her beautiful smile gleaming in his direction.

“Hey, ma. We’re almost home, right?”

“Yup. Only a few more stops. Whatchu been thinkin’ about over there mister?”

Damarion hated that his mom could always tell when he had something on his mind. He could never keep a secret from her because she always knew.

“Ah, it was nothin’.”

“Oh yeah? It didn’t look like nothin’. That vein in your forehead look like it was ‘bout to pop out.”

“Pshh. Ma, why you gotta be like that? Can’t a man have his own life?”

“Oh you think you a man do ya? Alright little man, whatcha makin’ for dinner tonight.”

“…you know what I mean, though.”

“That’s fine.” His mother pouted. “Don’t tell me then. You all grown over there.” Rose always had a way of guilting him into divulging the exact thing he worked so hard to keep to him self.

“Uhh, fine. I was just thinkin’ ‘bout Dad.” Damarion sheepishly admitted.

“Oh yeah, hun? What were you thinkin’ about him? You know it’s okay to talk to me about him. Your father and I have our differences, but he is still your father.”

“Yeah, yeah I know but it’s gotta be weird for you to talk about him with me right?”

“Not really.” Rose held back even though she knew he was right. She hated the subject. “So go on.”

“Naw, I was just playing this little game in my head that I remember he taught me on the bus a few years ago. Not really a game…even though he tried to act like it was. You just watch the different people come and go on the bus.”

Rose laughed. And whenever she laughed it was impossible to not laugh with her. “See that wasn’t too hard now was it?”

“No. I guess it wasn’t. I just… Oh, nevermind.” Damarion didn’t really feel like talking about it anymore so he hoped she’d be satisfied with that one confession.

“Okay, baby. You can always talk to me.” As she said this, she reached her arm up and yanked the thick wire that hung from above the bus window.


Ding! The firm pull his mother had dealt the wire issued forth that most familiar sound. Damarion was relieved they were finally home but that sound brought his mind back to that bittersweet memory of his dad on the bus.

After Marcus realized from Damarion’s less than enthusiastic response that his son was not enjoying the ride, he would have Damarion guess when the bell would ring next. Some stops no one wanted to get off so the bus continued its forward journey uninterrupted.   Marcus made it Damarion’s job to guess these stops.

That first ride, Damarion was not good at anticipating these stops. He would randomly pick and choose the stops and he maybe chose correctly once. Now that he was a veteran bus rider, he knew that the stops near the shopping centers, movie theater, and train stops were automatically requested but the ones in between were always a crapshoot.

Obviously, Marcus was pleased that this last minute addition to his “game” succeeded in distracting Damarion enough to get them to their stop.

Something about that bell, though, stuck with Damarion. He was so young but had already experienced his father leaving late at night and not returning until the next evening. He knew he didn’t have a father…well he didn’t have one like his friends had.

Even after this bus ride with his father he remembered getting home and being told to go to sleep immediately. His parents hoped that the thin door separating him from the living room would keep out the noise of their argument. But it didn’t.

“Whatchu thinkin’ keepin’ him out this late. It’s a school night.” Rose exclaimed.

“He’s fine. We were having a good time. I didn’t wanna ruin the day by telling him we had to go home.”

“Yeah cuz you are the fun guy. Why don’t you try taking care of him every hour of the day sometime, huh? Instead of just picking him up here and there and taking him on these trips you like to do.”

Damarion wished he could force himself to sleep, but even the weight of two pillows didn’t block out the words that his parents hurled at each other. He doesn’t remember falling asleep that night but he’s sure he did because he always did at some point.

That bell. That bell haunted him, which is another reason he hated the bus. That bell reminded him of his father and his father’s game that Damarion kept playing on every bus trip.


Have a good day, son! The overly-friendly bus drive smirked as Damarion followed his mother down the stairs of the bus. He had become one of the leaving passengers. He quietly wondered if there was some other kid bored on the bus watching him as he left.

Probably not, he thought. Because most kids have dads that teach them real games like Checkers and baseball…not this weird bus game.

As they walked the mile more to their house, Damarion thought more about his dad and about this game. He even found himself chuckling to himself about the game. Luckily it wasn’t loud enough for his mother to hear. Lord knows she would interrogate him like always.

He laughed at the game because his dad wanted him to watch people coming and going. His dad was teaching him that people come and go. God. What a fucking brilliant plan! Damarion was only seven so he wasn’t allowed to curse so he took great pride in cursing in his thoughts sometimes. He thought it made him seem more like a man…whatever that meant.

That’s why he couldn’t stop playing that childish game that his dad had taught him because every day with each annoying bell ding that echoed through the bus he hoped that one of the men climbing the front stairs was Marcus.

He had gotten so use to his dad coming and going from his life. Leaving without telling him. Showing up for Christmas with a brand new PlayStation game. Calling in the middle of the night even though he knew Damarion was asleep. Marcus was always entering Damarion’s life and then pulling the string to make a quick exit. Just like that shitty bus, Damarion thought.

While he was arriving at that conclusion, their house was in sight. Something was different though. Parked in front of their stone two-flat was that blue car, chipped paint and all. And leaning on the back bumper was Marcus, looking much better than when Rose had last seen him.

Damarion could see the frustration on his mother’s face. She looked like she could cry. He had inherited his mom’s peculiar talent for reading people…she couldn’t hide much from him either, even though she tried.

Marcus rose from his makeshift seat and yelled down the sidewalk toward them. “Hey, fam!”

The words met Damarion’s ears with a sweet sting. Rose let an audible sign of disbelief escape from her pursed lips as they both made their way toward him. Damarion wished he didn’t miss his dad. But he did.

Before he knew it, his scrawny legs had picked up a great amount of speed. He began to run toward his dad with outstretched arms choosing to ignore that persistent bell ding in his mind reminding him of his dad’s inevitable exit. Because in that moment he had a dad… not a dad like his friends had. But a dad that always taught him that life is often a shitty, long ride and people will come and go quickly, but the best you can do is notice them, enjoy them, and join them in the ride while they are there. And that was a good enough lesson for right now.


 

Image credit to Transit Chicago.

Life Around a Table: Part Four

“These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Come to the table.”  Two simple sentences that transformed my understanding and practice of the sacred communion.  Transformed from a simple wafer and mini shot glass full of grape juice passed from pew to pew on oddly-shaped, stackable, saucers into a tangible experience, a communal gathering and a transcendent reality.  A reality, lived and partaken in around a table that calls us into a dysfunctional family, an on-going justice, and, for me most importantly, an inclusive community.

Before hearing those two sentences, my thoughts of this sacrament were wholly separate from my life outside of Sunday mornings.  But these statements made sense to me.  These statements reminded me of the warm, intense, and often challenging times that I experienced around a number of different tables. Tables around which I was welcomed, invited, nourished, and accepted regardless of my imperfections or differences. Hence, why I decided to write this blog series about such experiences in hopes to explain both my fear and my love of this particular Communion table.

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My Nana’s Table

“These are the gifts of God…” Nana knew that everything on her table from the food people enjoyed to the imported china was a gift.  She intimately knew what it meant to have nothing but through this knowledge she learned how to cherish every good thing.  She prepared her food as if it was a spiritual exercise and for her it was.  For what she knew even more than the gifts of such precious physical nourishment was the irreplaceable gift of those around the table through which her soul was nourished.

Thinking of this image of my Nana’s joy in preparing her table brings a new depth to the image of Jesus around the table at his final meal.  A meal with imminent importance and unimaginable finality.  Yet this meal was most likely seen as a rather ordinary Passover celebration to those others around the table.  Many meals had been shared between Jesus and his apostles, many blessings and most likely they didn’t realize the extreme importance of this final meal.

Thinking about this, though, I wonder if part of that was because Jesus was present this meal in the same way he had been present his entire relationship with them.  I imagine that Jesus saw each meal, each gathering around a table as a important ritual.  One where those present found nourishment both in body and in soul.

This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said as he broke the bread before them.  My body is for you.  My body is broken for you.  I am for you.  I live and I will die for you.  Through me the spiritual is made tangible, as tangible as this bread.  And just as I have shown you complete sacrificial love and selfless giving, you too must sacrifice and give in order to nourish your souls and through that refresh in them my spirit.

That’s what I see when I partake of this sacred gift: a more perfect version of how my Nana cared for her table and those around it with an unassuming, selfless offering of her love and soul.  When the meal was complete, she would sit silently, lovingly and be nourished by the love shared through the breaking of bread.  For as we partake of the gifts of God around the table, our souls and bodies are meant to be nourished both by the sacrificial love of the incarnate God but also that same love alive in all those around us that are welcomed at the table.

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My Family’s Table

“…for the people of God…” My family never really agrees on much.  Maybe a sports team here and there but often any table with all of us around it carries only a mere semblance of harmony.  In fact, shallow table conversations between my family members often carry the depth of past wrongdoings, painful words, or disappointing choices that are present in most significant relationships.  And yet the table remains our table and we are welcomed however we are.

Hearing “…for the people of God…” for the first time in reference to communion frightened me.  Ringing in my ears were the arguments from each side of the never-ending debate among churches, sects, denominations, or religions over who God’s “people” really are.  ‘Yeah, because, yah know, sure they are Christians or spiritual people or humans, but obviously we are the real Christians…you know, the enlightened truth-telling ones.  And, let me tell you, what a burden that is…’  Does that illustrate my fear well enough?

In the midst of my minor panic attack over the complicated debate my mind had just witnessed,I returned to Jesus around a table with his disciples, his family.  Something that had always seemed significant to me when I heard this story is when Jesus points out that one of the men around this sacred, communal table would betray him and another would deny him.  In fact, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus even says “one who is eating with me” will betray me.  Someone around this celebration table.

But Jesus goes on to break the bread and share such a meal with the man that will go out and betray him later that night.  This is a meal for the people of God. So what does it mean for our communion sacrament that even a denier and a betrayer shared in this gathering? What does it mean for our communion practice that even after this betrayal was announced, Jesus chose not to withhold the nourishment of this meal and blessing from this man?

I think that it means that this act must offer individuals hope and mercy, even if they are not ready to accept or fully understand it.  I think it means that the definition of “the people of God” must be all that are called to the table.  I think it means that even though my family is not the perfect family and is sometimes not even the family I wish they could be, they are always my family.  The mess and the resentments,  the hurts and the apologies, the uncomfortable silences and the inaudible whispers do not change the transcendent power of belonging to a family.

If we had to make amends, confess our sins, and right our wrongs before gathering around our table and receiving nourishment, then we would never come to the table.  I think this is the beauty of the communion table.  We trust in the sacrificial love of that it represents to be real and present regardless of our own heart and wrongs.  Our imperfections, our mess could never decrease the spiritual presence and power of this sacred meal.

While this meal did not reconcile Judas to his community or change his decision to betray Jesus, it presented him with the mercy of still being a part of this gathering and the choice to seek reconciliation through the love experienced around the table.  Sometimes I choose to not forgive my family members, I choose to intentionally hurt them, or I choose to disassociate myself with them. In those moments I reject the opportunity or the moment to create reconciliation. But sometimes I ignore the burning pride within me and ask for help or forgiveness.  Sometimes I choose the reconciliation against all human odds and it’s in those moments that I see importance of always being welcomed at the table just as I am in that moment.  For only at the table am I present to the hope of possible redemption within my messy existence.

While this suggestion in particular is a controversial one, it is one that I hold strongly to because I believe that if one is never welcomed or accepted at the communion table, the sacred gathering, the experience of sacrificial love, one would never see the opportunity for reconciliation and redemption, let alone choose such spiritual hopes.  Judas was given the vision, the opportunity for reconciliation and even though he chose not to embrace it, he was still radically welcomed at this communion, celebration table.

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My Community’s Table

“Come to the table.”  An announcement that, in my Amate House community, could mean a variety of different gatherings from an actual meal to a house meeting to a skit video-taping.  But such an announcement never failed to invite us all to gather together after long, exhausting days at our individual volunteer placements.  A repeated invitation to be refreshed and remember each other.

Another reason why these words, “Come to the table,” uttered by a pastor at LaSalle Street Church before communion one Sunday, still echo within my mind is that they were accompanied by a movement by the congregation to approach the alter.  While I had been to many churches where the congregation approach the front of the church to receive the elements, never had I seen it done quite like this.  Instead of individually receiving the bread and the wine and then moving quietly back to your seat, we stood in a line probably ten or so people long and we each partook of the meal, waited for each other to be finished, and then the individual that gave us the bread and wine blessed us saying, “Go now in peace to love and serve the world.”

Come to the table.  Come to the table together to be nourished.  Come to the table together to be nourished so that you are reminded that you are not alone.  So that you are reminded that you have a community.  So that you are reminded that you do not bear the burdens of injustice, disappointment and pain on your weak, frail shoulders.  So that you are reminded that people that may not even know you are united in love to you through this table.

Amate House taught me more about the communion table than any church service or minister could teach me.  My community taught me how to come to the table without fear that I would destroy the bonds of our community with my own struggles and mistakes.  My community taught me how to come to the table daily despite my desire to isolate myself and bear the burden on my own.  My community taught me to come to the table so that I could finally be nourished instead of worrying about nourishing others.  My community taught me to come to the table so that I would have the courage and strength to face the next work day full of injustice.

I came to the communion table every night around my Amate House table for I was surrounded by sacrificial love, offered the opportunity for reconciliation with others and redemption of my own story, and reminded of the presence of a community around me.

No wonder Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”  For only through being surrounded by a community, by being nourished along side someone that is as desperate for nourishment as you are, by celebrating small mercies around a table, would even the son of God, Jesus, have been ready to endure future suffering.  Suffering increases our desire to be alone but it increases our need to be with each other.  We come together weekly, daily, hourly, to remind each other that we are safe to take risks even if we fail, suffer, or make a fool of ourselves because we are sure of the community waiting to celebrate with us regardless of the result.

Communion must be about nourishment for both body and soul, but it must always be an act of unity and community.  Only around the table, any loving community table, can I muster the strength to do the work of justice every day.  And on the days that I’m unable to see the hope and promise of redemption, the community that gathers with me at the table is living proof of the reality of this promise.  We must always respond to the call of community, which we most frequently hear during this call to communion, but is also present around other tables.  Responding to the call means giving up the crushing weight of the whole burden to instead carry your portion arm in arm with the person next to you.

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I have not explained nearly half of my thoughts about this all important topic, but I have given you a glimpse into the tables of my life and how they inform my understanding of communion.  May we never forget that despite our beautiful, human imperfections the power and the sanctity of this communal meal never changes.  Each gathering brings a new experience, insight, and understanding.  And through this we are changed by it.

“These are the gifts of God, for the people of God.  Come to the table.”


If you missed this blog series, you can find the other posts here:
https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/09/life-around-a-table-part-three/

https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/07/life-around-a-table-part-two/

https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/05/life-around-a-table-part-one/

Picture from: By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Life Around a Table: Part Three

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Clang, clang, clang. The familiar noise rang through the converted convent on S. Seeley Ave. Clang clang clang. The dinner bell: dilapidated from many years of Amate House volunteers beckoning each other to the dinner table.

Slowly all 12 of us would emerge from our post-work activities and gather around a splintered, worn table.  We called it a table, but in reality it was three tables.  Three rectangles pushed together.  It was a makeshift eating arrangement, but most things were makeshift in our lives that year.

After a few minutes of conversation while awkwardly standing in a large circle, which encompassed this beloved table, we clasped each other’s hands and blessed the food.  This was our routine and we never strayed from it.  With a glorious announcement of what the two cooks for the night had prepared for us, we all eagerly rushed into our often crowded kitchen and returned to our seats with our mismatched plates filled to capacity.

I’ve always wondered what this scene would look like from a passerby wandering down the streets of McKinley Park.  Twelve people around a over-sized table talking rather loudly to each about anything you could imagine.  When I imagine such a passerby peering into our dimly lit dining room, I usually imagine them thinking: wow, what a crazy bunch. There’s too many of them to be a family.  I wonder what they are all doing there? 

Ah, but see, they would be mistaken.  We were a family. A crazy family crowded around a huge, unattractive group of tables with a unusual-looking Swan/Santa object standing in as the centerpiece.  We were a family and this was our table.

The food on our table never lasted too long, especially if it was what we affectionately called a “solidarity meal,” which usually meant the cooks had miscalculated the correct portions for a group of twelve and everyone better be happy with what they have, goddammit. But we always had more than enough.

See, the food never lasted too long, but we didn’t come to the table for the food.  No, this table was so much more than a holder of meals and physical sustenance.  We came to the table for each other.  We came to the table to be reunited and re-centered every evening.  We came to the table to lift each other up, challenge each other, and truly know each other.  We came to the table for communion.

We made this table our sacred place.  We laughed, cried, shared, fought, debated, disagreed, rejoiced, and shouted around this table.  More than anything this table represented our lives together.  I remember many nights when I rushed through the front door at 7:30 after being called a motherf… I’ll let you fill in the rest… by one of the teenagers at my worksite or after a day when every kid decided to dump their “hot chips,” which is an enticing combination of Flaming Hot Cheetos and bagged nacho cheese, on the library carpet or a day when the guys had made yet another hole in the Swiss-cheese-like drywall with their soccer antics. I remember many nights when the last place I wanted to be was around a twelve person table.

But I came to the table.  Those nights, I came to the table with the worst attitude.  Those nights, I came to the table in hopes of finishing my food as quickly as possible so that I could escape to my room for the rest of the evening.  Those nights, I came to the table exhausted, burnt out, defeated, and frustrated.  Those nights, I probably didn’t deserve to come to that sacred table.

Yet despite my greatest efforts to remain in a terrible, self-pitying mood, something always happened.  To this day I’m still not sure how, but it happened after every crappy day.  I would come to the table miserable and leave in a much different place.  Let’s get this straight, though, this table had no special powers that zapped bad moods out of you after a “Bless Us Oh Lord.”  No.  Usually I would bring my crappy day to the table and like any normal human being try to spread my crappy day to others…I’d complain about the kids, I’d be a little snippy when the Costco-size bucket of butter took a few minutes too long to get to my side of the table, I’d ignore the glorious details of my housemates’ days.

See that would only last so long, though, because I would always realize that I could never disrupt the joy that lived constantly around this table.  When four of us had bad days, there were eight others to remind us of ourselves.  To remind us of the strength that we all had, to remind us of the importance of what we were doing, to tell their own stories of victory and encouragement from their day.  We were never alone. We were never alone in our misery or our triumph.  And that’s what we learned around the table.

While every night was sacred around that chipped and uneven table, Thursdays seemed to hold an even deeper significance.  I learned everything that I now know and believe about communion around that table on Thursday nights.  Thankful Thursday began the first week we started our year in Amate House.  We would take turns sharing a person, event, or story that we were thankful for that week.  We shared everything from supportive families to health to cheese pizza.  And every week we would pause in a not-so-silent meditation around this table.

Our thankfulness grew throughout the night since Thankful Thursday also happened to be Thursday wine nights.  We would enjoy our community meal with boatloads of cheap red and white wine.   Every Thursday was our celebration. Every Thursday we paused to remember that there is always something to celebrate, to be grateful for, to drink to.  We celebrated each other.  We celebrated our life around the table.  We celebrated together. We celebrated community.

Each day we would travel to our respective work sites.  Bearing the weight of social injustice, non-profit dysfunction and the suffering of the individuals we served on our own.  But we always did so with the hopeful knowledge that each evening we would share that burden together around our table.  No matter the defeats or victories of the day, the table was a constant reminder.  A reminder that we are in this together.  A reminder that we will all join in communion once again.  A reminder that we are one crazy, huge, dysfunctional family that shouts, cries, laughs, and shares with each other.   A reminder that when ever the twelve of us gather around this table, life is sacred and our community is one.


 

If you missed the first two posts of this blog series, you can find them here:

https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/07/life-around-a-table-part-two/

https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/05/life-around-a-table-part-one/