On the lookout for angels

Since the task of feeding our family of 6 falls to me, I spend a lot of time in grocery stores. For the most part, I’m a Kroger girl and always have been. Other than a few years when my mom tried shopping at Mega Market (the place in 100 Oaks Mall where you had to bag your own groceries), I was raised on Kroger—smiley face stickers and “let’s go krogering” jingle and all. I will sometimes venture into other stores if necessary, but I like knowing where things are in my regular place—start with produce, move on to soups, then pastas, etc.

 

Last week, after dropping my youngest son off at soccer practice, I needed to do my weekly grocery shopping. I was going to pass a Publix to get to a Kroger, so I decided to get crazy and go inside a different store. Sometimes I even surprise myself.

 

Nothing was in the same place. I kept walking past things on my list, and then I had to backtrack (which was made even more difficult by the “do not enter” and “enter here” stickers on the floor). As a rule, I only go to Publix if we’re in Florida, so I kept reminding myself I wasn’t on vacation.

 

To make things even more confusing, when I was finally done shopping and the cashier was ringing up my items, the friendly bagger boy posed a puzzling question through his face mask. “Got big plans for the weekend?” he asked. I paused before answering. So many thoughts swirled in my head.

 

“The weekend?” I stammered through my own face mask. “I have been thinking today was Monday all day. What day is it?”

 

“It is Monday,” he responded. “I just like planning ahead.” I told him that I had no idea what I was doing in five days, but I liked his initiative.

 

As I drove home with my van full of groceries, I thought about my shopping experience and how it’s possible to feel like a stranger even when you’re just a few minutes from home. It can be an unsettling feeling. It’s a good reminder to be on the lookout for actual strangers (not just Kroger shoppers who’ve wandered into Publix) who might need a little help.

 

At the end of the Book of Hebrews, we see a final list of exhortations: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

 

The author is reminding the readers that the best way to love is to share, share their successes and sufferings and suppers. To love each other like we’re family, even if we aren’t related. I can’t imagine a better reward for showing hospitality than to be treated to dinner with an angel.

Shibboleth

In 2007 Columbian artist Doris Salcedo created a temporary installation at the Tate Modern art museum in London. Her crew formed a long, dramatic crack in the concrete floor of the gallery. It started as a thin break at one end of the room that expanded and split like the widening tributaries of a river. During the months it was viewed by the public and in spite of the posted warnings about the nature of the exhibit, some visitors reported injuries due to tripping over the uneven floor where the gash went as deep as two feet. Salcedo named her interactive artwork Shibboleth, a word which calls up the uncomfortable idea of dividing, creating a clear us vs. them.

 

To find the genesis of the word shibboleth, we have to look to the Book of Judges in the first half of the Bible. Here we see a rough man named Jephthah. Born from a prostitute and booted out of his father’s home by his half-brothers, he had made a name for himself among renegades and scoundrels who were searching for a leader just as much as they were itching for a fight. When the Ammonites came to start a war, the very people who had thrown Jephthah out of town begged him to come back home and be their leader. They needed a warrior and this coarse, haggling outcast was just the fella to do the job.

 

Judges 11 gives us a few details about the battle and Jephthah’s foolish vow which resulted in the disgraceful and unnecessary death of his only child. Then we see Jephthah’s predicament with the tribe of Ephraim. (Historical Context: Many generations before Jephthah came on the scene, the leaders of Israel had divided the land between the 12 sons of Jacob. Joseph, Jacob’s most successful and powerful son, wanted his blessing to go to his own sons—Manasseh and Ephraim—creating two half-tribes.) Fast forward to Jephthah, the illegitimate son from Gilead and the tribe of Manasseh, now being hounded by his kinfolk, the Ephraimites, for excluding them from the battle against the Ammonites. The men from the tribe of Ephraim told Jephthah, “How dare you go fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you! We’re going to burn down your house over your head.”

 

Jephthah wouldn’t stand by in the face of this egregious threat. His troops were told to station themselves on the shores of the Jordan River and deny any Ephraimite to cross alive. They’re told to quiz these relative relatives. When someone approached them, they would ask if they were from Ephraim. Then they were supposed to ask them to say, “Shibboleth.” They knew the Ephraimites had a particular pronunciation of this innocuous Hebrew word which meant “an ear of corn.” If they said, “Sibboleth” Jephthah’s men would murder them on the spot. Shibboleth became a password, a means to separate two people groups who should have been allies.

 

Centuries later, the word shibboleth is a stand-in for a custom or phrase which is designed to divide and separate. Author and professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. used the term in a recent article where he answered his own question about the fragile state of our democracy when faced with widespread systematic racism. He said, “The answer to that question will depend, in part, on white America’s willingness to leave the shibboleths of American racism behind…” A willingness to acknowledge that some know (and can say) the correct password to gain passage across the Jordan into privilege and safety and others don’t, and then to be bothered enough by this realization to act.

 

The gallery floor of the Tate still bears the scar of its past art exhibit, though the crack has been filled in. The symbolism of Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth begged people to look down and see the disfigured gap, if for no other reason than to avoid tripping over it or falling into it. Salcedo explained in an interview, “It represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred.”

 

So now that we see the crack, how we help others—or in some cases, stop preventing others—to cross the divide reveals our deepest character. Not because I have anything especially extraordinary to offer and in spite of being utterly flawed and downright clumsy, but if I can be one person standing on the edge of this deep, horrific gash in the ground, staring at tangled rebar and bits of bone and rock revealed by the crevice, waiting to offer a hand to those on the other side, then at least I am one.

Words

I am a logophile, a lover of words. When I’m attempting to write something—fiction or non-fiction—I work diligently to dig up the most perfect word from the disorganized quarry that is my mind (especially lately). When I find that prized word, an amazing feeling washes over me. Instead of a runner’s high, I get a writer’s high. My heart pops and stutters. My breath catches in my chest.

 

On average, the words I love the most aren’t necessarily long ones with complicated origins. Not often choosing lengthy words like perspicacious and parsimonious and preantepenultimate (which, by the way, means third from the end), my preferred words could be easily understood by kindergarteners. Though my favorite words are often only constructed of one or two syllables, they evoke feelings and clearly conjure up a scene for the reader.

 

I love fanciful words that remind me of the magic of nature, like wind and whisper. I think of invisible, curly threads wafting up and down with a backdrop of a brilliant, blue sky. Ungraspable, no matter how many times you reach out, but you smile broadly as you chase after them.

 

I love welcoming words that remind me of rocking my babies, like near and held. There’s a warmth to these words, an invited closeness, a safety. When my husband holds me with his strong arms and I bury my face in his chest, I can feel the tenseness in my shoulders relax and a giant sigh escape from deep inside me.

 

I love lonely words that remind me of ripples in a still pond, like echo and shadow. These words have sound and shape, while holding a certain degree of melancholy. They conjure a vision of a lone hiker on a cliff, shouting his name into an empty canyon as he stares down into the darkness made from the imposing rock faces surrounding it.

 

But the interpretations of these words are based on my own experiences. You could ask a hundred other people what connections these words make for them, and you’d get a hundred different replies. This is the power of words, and what makes them both life-giving and dangerous. It’s impossible to remove ourselves from our own experiences as we look out at the world, and yet it’s a task we must exercise daily.

 

The word wind might mean a pleasant, gentle beachside breeze to me, but if you mention it to someone who’s lost everything in a tornado, that person would have a different reaction.

 

The word shadow might remind me of walking my son to school as we discuss the lengths of our silhouettes, while someone else might interpret shadows to be the presence of overbearing figures in his life.

 

The word held imparts happiness as I am often the giver and receiver of welcomed embraces, but the idea of being restrained evokes only pain for someone who’s freedom and safety is frequently restricted.

 

This is why language is so important. We must find the words to build up and empower others, not destroy them so that we seem elevated. Whether it be a voice shouted in peaceful protest echoing off the boarded-up windows of a business or a whisper of encouragement to those near us, the words must be intentional and designed to edify. As author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “When language fails, violence becomes a language.” So now it’s my turn to listen.