squishy skin and other unmentionables: a path toward belonging

Sitting on a beach near Miami recently, I was struck by all the beautiful bodies. South Florida: land of sensory overload. Bodies seem sculpted, perfected through multiple interventions. Couples look so perfect, so fashionable, that it is easy to believe every other person must be someone famous, right? In a place like that it is tempting to lose your self in the watching of others.

The striking image of one couple is seared in my mind. I have not forgotten seeing them together, and although we did not speak, they taught me a great deal about how to live a meaningful life. I was not struck by their perfect chin lines, yoga arms, mirrored glasses, bangled wrists, or loafers covered in the sheen of wealth. I was not tempted to think they were famous, and I did not envy the perfection they displayed to those around them.

In fact, they were old and flabby, and our only interaction involved me watching them as they put sunscreen on each other.

The man wore swim trunks, pulled up high, just below his rib cage in the way that elderly gentlemen often do. His wife’s face was framed with white frizzy curls, her body in a floral one piece that had seen many a season. They shuffled onto the pool deck together, like so many other retired couples in South Florida. As they began to settle in to chairs, getting out their books and bottles of water, she seemed struck by the ocean before them, and paused, taking it all in. Meanwhile, he reclined, and soon she sat and began putting sunscreen on. She used the good stuff, thick, and so hard to apply one can only hope it created a formidable block to all those carcinogenic rays. Done with the places she could reach, she handed him the bottle, held up her hair, and, without a word, turned around.

He rose from his chaise lounge, poured sunscreen into his hand, and then began to rub it all over her back. She was chunky, so his fingers squished the skin, pinching and rolling her excess, rubbing every square inch, in full public view. In a place where every body is perfect, such a scene felt almost offensive. How brave she was to stand there with her squishy skin exposed! It was a little gross, but I was mesmerized. They were so clearly comfortable together, so aware of their imperfections and their need for each other just to get through a day at the beach, that the eyeballs of the world were irrelevant to them.

It was ugly, but it was also beautiful. (As life often is).

 Here is what they taught me: if we want to be known, to walk through life growing in meaningful connections with others, we have to expose our ugly parts. Many of us can access our desire to belong, to be in easy community, to be a part of an “us.” When told it will require vulnerability, honesty, and exposure, however, most of us decide to pass. We want the easy comfort of being known and loved despite (or, dare I say, because of?) our infirmities, but we don’t want the daunting challenge of admitting we need another person to get all up in our business in order to do life.

We do though. Watching this anonymous older couple forced me to pose a hard question: If I share a lot of life with someone else but s/he never gets to lay hands on my ugly squishy parts, then what am I doing with my time? Moreover, are meaningful, life giving relationships possible if I am always mindful of how much I share, deciding when to be authentically honest and when to hold back just in case it is not safe to go all in?

If we long to be known, cherished and held onto, we have to expose our vulnerabilities.

The hard to reach places on our backs are small reminders that we were made to depend on others. We thrive when we belong, when we are reachable. Interdependency works best when we are open about the parts of us that aren’t camera ready.

As I often find in the beautiful truth of an image that imprints the soul, I also noticed that when we allow ourselves to be touched in the most embarrassing parts, we might find ourselves helped and even protected. Truth be told, the sweet old man was not particularly loving in his sunscreen application; still, he was willing to get messy, all up in his wife’s business, to protect her. The truth is that we can’t make it on our own. We need each other in ways we can’t even imagine. What a worthy thing to know, to say out loud, and to try to live by.

Of course, the best part about all of this is that those places we love to hide are also the places that long for an embrace. When we are touched there, in the spots we want to ignore, we know, deep in our bones, that we are not alone. Such a connection with others is incredibly beautiful, and worth exposing ourselves for. In ways small and large, I suspect we could all benefit from a little less curated image, a little more here I am, in all my (damaged) glory.

 Believing, as I do, that we all carry the imprint of God in our created selves, I suppose the lesson here for me is that we diminish our capacity to thrive in community when we hide any part of our being. While it is true that it is scary to expose ourselves, I suspect it also feels really lovely to be seen, touched and known.

black history reads!

As the days of our annual effort to celebrate Black History wind down, I offer a reading list derived from my February tweets. Idealist that I am, I suppose I hope you will make a habit of searching for and then relishing the rich cultural traditions that our American educational system has often minimized or erased.

Don’t be the victim of an incomplete education. I spent nearly 24 years getting educated, and I would have missed so much of the literature and history that now shape my vision of community, heighten my awareness of the breadth of human experience, and humble me at the stunning beauty of the resilient human soul, had I not finally, in Graduate School at the University of Miami, been exposed to brilliant voices of color. I fell in love with their words and stories, and I invite you to discover the beauty and brilliance that captured my imagination and respect. These voices have, in fact, shaped the places we call home, and it is time we recognize and delight in them. Enjoy!

#BlackHistoryMonth Reads!

Clair of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Haitian, now Miamian whose poetic prose crafts a story about the devastation of poverty, the trauma and hope of adoption, & the choices we make for the people we love. Gorgeous book!

Omeros by Derek Walcott

Saint Lucian Nobel Prize winning poet who offers a postcolonial, African, diasporic reworking of Homer in this epic poem. Caribbean poetry at its best!


A Gathering of Old Men By Ernest Gaines

Gaines grew up in Louisiana & writes better than anyone about the importance of community in our efforts to tell our own stories. For Gaines, confessing the way we participate in oppression brings healing.


An American Marriage By Tayori Jones

A remarkable novel that tracks the devastation of incarceration on a family system, the conflicting legacies our families leave us, & the ambivalent journey we all must take to claim (or even understand) agency.


I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem By Maryse Conde

Telling the backstory of a West Indian woman mentioned in the historical record & imagined first in Miller’s The Crucible, this novel troubles the history of the Americas from a postcolonial point of view.



Feminist Manifesto By Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

A Nigerian writer who also lives in the US, Adichie offers stunning clarity into how we find our normal, & how we manage our national, class, gendered & political identities.


Passing By Nella Larsen

Written out of the Harlem Renaissance about the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen writes of friendship & loyalty, the temptation to perform our race, and the fluid nature of identity. A beautiful, heartbreaking book.


Feeding the Ghosts By Fred D’Aguiar

A Guyanese poet, novelist and playwright, D’Aguiar’s novel reveals the excruciating acts of resistance that empowered the victims of the middle passage. Haunting & empowering, it stays with you.


The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man By James Weldon Johnson

Johnson captures the rich creativity and cosmopolitanism of the Harlem Renaissance, all on a backdrop of racial ambiguity, power dynamics and cultural appropriation. Fantastic.


To Pimp a Butterfly By Kendrick Lamar

Pulitzer Prize Winning poet who deconstructs the American experience in stunning ways. Lamar elevates and explores the fluid nature of identity construction in the search for agency.


Between the World and Me

Black Panther By Ta-nehisi Coates

Wielding comic book power, long form cultural critique (the Atlantic) & the memoir as a force for contextualizing historical erasure, Toni Morrison calls him “required reading.” So, yeah.


Cane By Jean Toomer

Toomer’s only novel is remarkable for his fearlessness in content & form. He raises questions about the possibilities & realities of black lives in various parts of the country, showing the gap between the dream & the reality.


The Underground Railroad By Colson Whitehead

Whitehead’s novel sears images of abuse and courageous sacrifice into our American collective consciousness, calling us back to a history we erased through his liberal imagination.


I’m Still Here By Austin Channing Brown

A prophetic witness to the indignities of carrying one’s blackness into nearly all-white spaces, Brown narrates her life, revealing deep wells of resistance & calling everyone to sit at a new table.


The Hate U Give By Angie Thomas

Thomas burst onto the literary scene, shaping the shared experience of a generation of young people seeking to reach across lines of difference as they understand what it means to grow up knowing BlackLivesMatter.


Blake, or the Huts of America By Martin Delaney

Written across the African diaspora in the Americas, Delaney articulates a vision for resisting racialized oppression through black nationalism. Politically intuitive, he shapes a generation.


Mama Day  

The Women Of Brewster Place By Gloria Naylor

Naylor describes and celebrates black women, celebrating the places they belong, the homes they create and the power they display. Beautiful texts.


My Brother

See, Now, Then

Autobiography of my Mother By Jamaica Kincaid

Antiguan born, Kincaid writes better than anyone on the ongoing erasure of African diasporic peoples, of the complicated mobilities/voices left in colonialism’s wake.


Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison

Ellison’s iconic text makes room in the American canon for the voices and bodies of those whose presence shape & form a nation who refuses to acknowledge their existence. DuBois’ musings come to life here.


Sing, Unburied, Sing

Salvage the Bones By Jesmyn Ward

Ward crafts tales about generations and the places that shaped them, about families who survive at great cost, about systems that destroy us. She reminds me of Faulkner...



The Bluest Eye


Sula By Toni Morrison

Too many to list & too necessary to describe, Morrison writes so compellingly that literature in America had to readjust, not just to make room, but to place her stories in the center.


The Awkward Thoughts Of W Kamau Bell By Kamau Bell

Hilarious and pitch perfect, Bell describes what it means to create art as a defiant act of communal meaning making in an age of independent arrogance. You will laugh and cry, and wonder.


Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? By Beverly D Tatum

She gave sociological roots to a necessary reality: in the best hope for integration we all have to find a way to belong. The updated introduction is CRUCIAL.


Notes of a Native Son

Go Tell it on the Mountain By James Baldwin

Baldwin epitomized the beauty of Black cosmopolitanism, as black cultural appreciation rose in America, the West Indies, and France among others. Gorgeous writing.


Ordinary Light

Life on Mars By Tracy K Smith

Our National Poet Laureate, Smith is an artist, a mom, a poet, a philosopher, a prophet, and a pro. Her voice is shaping our time, in real time.


On Beauty By Zadie Smith

Everything she writes is worth reading. Her way with words is so gorgeous that one could be forgiven for overlooking the astounding insights about humanity she layers into each page. She is the best writer going...


Selected Poems By Langston Hughes

His way of capturing the angst, the pride, the grief, the beauty, the longing, the being...of black folks in America...simply can't be matched. He's better than you remember.


Homegoing By Yaa Gyasi

Capturing the migratory paths of a family, Gyasi layers intra-African journeys on top of the Middle Passage, then explores diasporic wanderings across America as figures discover & create meaningful contexts for life.


Bonus pics (because February is too short!)!

The Color Purple By Alice Walker

The Dragon Can't Dance By Earl Lovelace

Black Skin, White Masks By Frantz Fanon

Brown Girl, Brownstones and Praisesong for the Widow By Paule Marshall

The Piano Lesson By August Wilson


all is not well: hope and despair in an age of rage

One could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed in this particular American moment. No matter your vantage point, we live in uncertain, hateful times. To quote a local pastor, “All is not well among us.” Each of us has felt the creeping anxiety of uncertainty, or the erasing sadness of marginality, or the confusing alienation from people once trusted, or the ambiguity that comes from no longer knowing who represents what to whom. Perhaps if we contextualize our own frustrations with those of our neighbors we might find that we belong—unsure but hopeful—together.

 If you have children, school shootings, drug use and soaring rates of anxiety and self-harm can be terrifying. If your skin is brown, or you appear ambiguously ethnic to others, you might be reasonably fearful of overt acts of hate or of chronic suspicion from law enforcement. If you advocate for the sanctity of early life, recent laws passed in Virginia and New York can make you question how our society can tolerate such evil. If you love a person with a terrible medical diagnosis, the repetitive trauma of watching them struggle to live is compounded by the fear that lawmakers who “represent” you might eliminate their healthcare. If you think of yourself as a good person who is kind to others, you might feel accosted by the possibility that others might think you bigoted or racist.  If you are wealthy, trade wars and a stock market based on the feelings on investors erodes security. If you are poor, hearing about a strong economy while working full time without access to healthcare or a living wage might feel like slowly drowning. If you believe America should protect its natural resources, and has traded long-term global viability for access to fossil fuels, you are stunned that we seem to be making it worse on purpose. If you believe that black lives often don’t matter in America, hearing about elected officials who thought it was fun to reenact a racist practice from the Jim Crow days likely feels disorienting and demeaning. If you understand the way trauma works in kids, then the idea that our government can’t or won’t reunite children with their families feels like slow motion horror. If you try hard in your life to live at peace, serve others and stay out of trouble, then all the outrage, eye rolling and accusation might feel like an assault.

Nearly everyone has a good reason to feel abused, to be angry or to worry. Many of us seem to think the best path forward is to blame others, to raise hell in an effort to get others to care, or even to try reaching across lines of difference to learn from another perspective. In addition to these, I wonder if it also helps to name our grief? The laundry list above can feel like whining, or worse, like an attack. Those of us who avoid complaining, who take pride in “owning our junk”, who fancy ourselves people of action, likely have trouble sitting with the sadness, pain, anxiety and anger such concerns bring to the surface. Nevertheless, it is good to name our grief.

Our religious traditions would agree. The Jewish people know lamentations usher the lamenter before God, who is the only true source of hope. Islamic tradition makes space for memorializing the hardships and sufferings of the faithful as they seek to end corruption and live generous lives. Christianity offers both worship and lament as viable paths to recognizing the hope of the Messiah. These ancient Abrahamic traditions remind us that uttering the ways that we cause pain—and grieving over the actions of others that cause us pain—are genuine expressions of our humanity and genuine pleas from our humbled states that connect us to one another.

Accusation and guilt often feel like more satisfying alternatives, but they fail to move us toward healing. Accusation keeps our feet planted on the ground while we jab at those around us. Guilt sinks us deep into our souls, paralyzing us and preventing us from looking out or up for the hand of an ally. Naming our grief is different. It allows us to move past both accusation and guilt until we come face to face with our disappointment. It allows us to feel sad without blaming that emotion on ourselves or someone else. When we name the things we have done alongside the things done to us we eventually find our selves.  By this I mean we come to remember we are people whose hearts get broken living around other people whose hearts get broken. This affirming of our humanity, this gazing inward at our sadness instead of pointing outward at our blame, prepares us for gratitude and, finally, for meaningful action.

One of my favorite admonitions in the Bible is when Paul, from prison, reminded friends to be “watchful and thankful.” He knew that if we only watched the world around us we would despair. He knew that paying attention can be dangerous work for the soul. He also knew that if we only focused on our own gratitude we might reduce our ability to see that hurt in others. The antidote for anxiety, selfishness and despair, according to Paul, is to pay attention with gratitude.

 My sister and her husband are living through a type of hell on earth as they love their older son through terminal brain cancer. Coping skills and belief systems tend to fall apart when smashed against the anguish of watching a kid you adore suffer in relentless, soul-crushing ways. They are watchful. They see it all. And it nearly kills them. They speak their grief, naming their suffering until they run out of words. And then they find gratitude even when they don’t want to. When we pay attention, gratitude wells up, and our souls, almost in an act of defiant betrayal, are lifted. Watching and thanking, we find a way to make it through the hour.

As I learn from them, and others I know who have every right to be angry and to despair, I find myself following in their wake. Pay attention to all of it. All is not well. Watch anyway. Name your grief and lament your way into hope before a God who can hold it. And then allow your soul to be lightened by gratitude. Thankfulness lifts us out of ourselves so that we see those around us. We find empathy and connectedness when we notice the many ways we hope in the midst of overwhelming pain. Then, and only then, are we able to take action, to challenge the forces that cause our pain, to speak against systems of unjust power, until we are heard. If we want to find light in the dark, we need to see and name the dark, reach out to hold other reaching hands, and give thanks that we are not alone after all.