Methinks the lady doth protest too much

22 Jan

I didn’t join the march with women all over Saturday.  Some may be surprised.  Many assumed I would.  Some asked why.


I just didn’t feel like it.


No, I wasn’t sick.  A little tired, perhaps, but that’s not the reason.


Reason, I guess, was the reason.  I didn’t have a reason to march.


Before I am inundated with everyone else’s “reasons,” let me address a few:


As an American woman who has reached a seasoned “age of reason” herself, I don’t have many complaints.  I have more freedoms than just about anybody ever has had in the history of the world.  I have everything I need and just about everything I want.  In fact, I have more than enough. I am indulged.


I have had more opportunities to fulfill my potential, my curiosity, my ambition beyond my recurring dreams.  I have completed more than one bucket list and still have miles to go before I sleep.  I rarely do anything I don’t want to do and, at the risk of admitting self-centeredness, generally please myself.  All without offending anyone else, at least to my awareness.


I am aware that not everyone is so privileged.  It’s not because I am wealthy—I live barely above the poverty line—just out of reach of all those generous government programs.  It’s not because I am surrounded by love and protection—my husband died when we were but 35 years old, and I’ve never found a replacement for him.  We had no children, either, so I’ve had to work to create any buffer zone of affection I need, either to take or to give.  Students, here and abroad, and rescue shelters have provided plenty.


I didn’t have a reason to protest—at least not mixed in with everyone else’s angry expletives.  It’s not that I like every law upheld or ignored in this land; nor am I blind to injustices.  I know there are women—people—around the world who don’t have the first world freedoms I—and all those protesting women—enjoy.  If that’s what the march had been about, I might have taken the initiative to join.  And though some have been quick to add that “reason” for rioting to the bottom of their laundry list of gripes and disputes, I know that wasn’t the real catalyst for demonstration last weekend.


Mostly, the demonstrators were disgruntled about losing an election.  They don’t like or accept the new president of the United States and, having gotten used to getting whatever they want, they think complaining and whining is their right.  It may be their right, but it really doesn’t enhance their position or their cause.  I have been disgruntled over elections and a lot of other things I’ve lost, either fairly or unfairly, in my life, but I no longer throw temper tantrums or blubber like a baby.  Now that I am an adult, I have put away such childish things.  All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable, the apostle tells us.


That’s not to say I particularly like the new POTUS myself.  He wasn’t my choice, and he has made a lot of bad choices himself—especially in not guarding his tongue or his tweeting finger.  People are criticizing this admitted immaturity by being equally immature.  He is flawed.  No question.  Who isn’t, though, may I ask?  And, it is my belief he is much more bark than he is bite; as one commentator put it, “Don’t take him seriously if you take him literally; don’t take him literally, if you take him seriously.”  Sounds like a plan.   However, he hasn’t been in office a full weekend yet, and these people are already condemning him for things he hasn’t done.  Doesn’t sound like much of a plan. Fed by a dishonest media with an agenda paid for by nefarious sources, these naysayers swallow whatever tastes good on their protesting palates without examining the ingredients or interrogating the chef, all the while condemning anyone who believes—“swallows”—anything else.  Whatever happened to personal tastes and preferences?  What about personal liberties?   And, where’s that tolerance they champion for themselves?  Judge as you would be judged; treat others as you would be treated.  I don’t think that means what they think it means.

I realize there are some feel they have legitimate cause for concern.  I may or may not agree with them, but they have the right to their feelings of anxiety and need for action.  It is a bit early, though, to assume anything.  Supporters of gay marriage, for example, who assume the new president will repeal their newfound liberty should listen to what he has said on the record:  it’s the law of the land and I have no issue with it.  Others who feel they will lose other hard-fought rights, perhaps, should wait and see before they take to the streets.

We’re just making sure our concerns are not overlooked.  That’s fine, but when your concerns are met—or the concerns of others are focused on for a while instead of your own (isn’t turn about fair play?)—how about a little gratitude for everything you already have, a little respect for those who have been heretofore overlooked (as perhaps you were once), a little stepping aside so that others who have been shut out in the cold may be warmed at the home-fires you have so luxuriously enjoyed?  Are you so deprived you demand constant attention and satisfaction?  Is it really all about you?


Because I think that’s what this is about.  I suspect many of the older protesters are marching because it reminds them of their lost youth, a season when they were the center of attention and relished the titillating times in which they marched and shouted and rebelled like the young people they were.  I was afraid this retro behavior would return with paisley, tie-died, and bell bottoms, and sure enough, here it is.  I guess Roethke still resonates:  old age should rage against the dying of the light.  And the young revolutionaries?  The infamous millenials?  Unlike their elders, raised in the laps of luxury, they have never had legitimate causes to demonstrate, and they feel left out.  Like the latest lattes on a Starbucks checklist, it’s the flavor of the month they have to try.


None of that impresses me.  Nor does it invite me to join.  In fact, the only cause I can think of at the moment that would entice me to rally is one that clearly was not welcome this weekend:  the abhorrent slaughter of the unprotected unborn—a “right” most of the rioters were rabid to “protect.”  No thanks.  I’ll just stay home and watch something else on Netflix.   Or read a book.  Or write a blog.  And try to scroll past the smug, self-congratulatory posts of non-fellow protesters on social media who haven’t unfriended me—yet.


Oh, and “don’t confront me with my failures,” as an old rocker reminds, “I have not forgotten them.”




Do Go Set a Watchman

22 Jul

download (1)Just call her the Donald Trump of contemporary literature.  Seems Harper Lee may be the only writer out there with the courage (insert any other applicable noun of choice) to see it and say it like it is.  (Apologies to Lee, of course.)

That’s what she did in 1961 with the publication of her inimitable To Kill a Mockingbird; it may be what she just did (reluctantly or not) with the publication of her Go Set a Watchman, the second novel set in Maycomb, Alabama, with Jean Louise Finch—Scout—as narrator,  twenty years or so later.


It really is too soon to talk about this latest novel, as thinly disguised autobiography as her first one, but first gut reactions are a place to start.  The initial sound bites have not been reticent, so more thoughtful minds may be called upon to prevail if anyone is to give the novel its due and its chance with the American reader.

Whether or not Lee approved of the rush to publication (“rush” being relative in this case:  she presumably wrote it in the 1950s) or whether she was manipulated by advisors once her late body guard sister Alice was out of the picture (supposedly the 90-year-old author isn’t quite in control of her faculties these days) is the subject of another debate.  Whether this second book is as good (“good” always being relative) as her first is still another.  No one will argue the insurmountable task of meeting or surpassing To Kill a Mockingbird’s popularity—not gonna happen.  Ever.  Period.  End of story.

Partly, that is, because it was the first to introduce us to the immortal characters Scout and Jem, Boo Radley and Dill and, of course, Atticus Finch, characters we all wanted to believe existed, to emulate, to say and do the things that needed saying and doing at that time and place in our history.  Lee couldn’t have chosen a better publication date if she’d tried, putting Tom Robinson (and all of us) on trial on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.  And she couldn’t have a chosen a better defender of an innocent black man than Atticus, even if his gargantuan attorney skills still couldn’t get his client justice then.

It’s no wonder the book has been required reading in schools from Alabama to Alaska and beyond—it’s one book whose entire makeup (plot, characters, theme, symbols, setting) meets the “Must Read” standard, even if there are sustainable arguments that a good editor could have streamlined the story, deleting a lot of the Lee’s rambling style without losing any of its charm or vitality.

And it’s no surprise, either, that it’s been on censorship lists for an equal length of time; both sides of the racial divide have been offended or defended it with equal vigor. That’s how dialogue gets opened; dialogue is how things get resolved.  And this is one dialogue every American needs to have at one time or another. To call To Kill a Mockingbird the Great American Novel is without hyperbole, though it may not have topped the 100 list assembled by the ALA at the turn of the last century.  It’s kind of like the popular vote vs. the Electoral College sometimes.  TKAM is without argument “first in the hearts of its countrymen.”

I would be remiss in ignoring the role the award-winning film adaptation played in the novel’s popularity and significance.  Even Lee herself, who refused script responsibilities, acknowledges the importance of screenwriter Horton Foote and his signature perspective that endeared everyone to the memorable characters Lee had created. (Personal note: I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Foote primarily for this reason.)  I don’t recall who cast the 1962 film directed by Robert Mulligan, but can anyone imagine anyone but Gregory Peck or Mary Badham (or any other members of the incredible cast) in these roles?  Lee’s Atticus and Scout are as iconic American figures as those etched into Mt. Rushmore, thanks in particular to Peck’s and Badham’s portrayals. This was one marriage made in Hollywood that should last the test of time.

All that preamble just to open the discussion on Go Set a Watchman.  First, anyone who hasn’t read the first novel needs to take care of that omission before doing anything else.  I tell everyone, all the time, if they haven’t read it, to stop everything and find a copy. Then, one must read the new novel before passing judgment—no quoting reporters or critics or whoever may feel qualified to comment.  Not only is that lazy, poor scholarship, it’s just useless and wrong.  Read it. Think about it. Then respond if so led.

Having met all the above prerequisites I delineated, I will attempt to do just that right now, reserving the right to return to this topic at any later time with additional observations, even if contradictory.  Time can only tell.

Most importantly, the narrator’s voice—Jean Louise “Scout” Finch—is the same, except this time, all grown up at age 26, the vocabulary finally fits the speaker.  (Lee’s Scout of TKAM always spoke from a lexicon far beyond her age, only justified by the manner in which her lawyer father had taught her to read.)  The same feisty personality and quirky persona emerge from the pages, so true to life one feels she is listening to Harper Lee herself and not the thinly masked spokesperson she created to hide behind years ago.  Jem is already dead, astonishingly, and Dill is off somewhere in Europe; Boo Radley isn’t mentioned and other favorite minor characters are barely identified, no longer necessary to the immediate plot.  Jean Louise (as she is now more commonly called), back to Maycomb for a visit from New York City where she has been living, has a bonafide boyfriend, one Henry (Hank) Clinton, who, if he were mentioned as the lifetime friend he has become in the first book, I don’t recall. Clearly Lee’s disposition not to marry guides her protagonist’s decision to turn down his persistent proposals, one of the few actions that occur in the couple of days the narrator shares with the reader.

That short space of time and the lack of any “real” action immediately relegate the latter novel to second place when compared to TKAM’s time span of several years, with multiple sub-plots intertwining beneath the primary spotlight on the Robinson trial. That Lee can depend on her readers to be familiar with her heretofore established setting and characters justifies to some degree the sparseness of the second book, and although she succumbs to some flashbacks to the original story, it is to her credit that she has kept such repetitiveness to a minimum.  (The probability that Watchman was written prior to Mockingbird is immaterial, as the reader’s access to the stories is the only logical consideration here.)

What does happen, though, is as significant to the older protagonist and her readers as were the famous themes derived from the plotline of the first published book.  That these messages are, perhaps, more apropos for today’s audience than even Lee’s initial lessons (so fitting for the 60s) is what makes the timing of publication so canny.  It also allows Go Set a Watchman to take its rightful place beside its famous predecessor as an equally significant contribution to contemporary American literature.

So what happens?  Jean Louise eavesdrops on her saintly Atticus as he attends a local council meeting in which the problem of segregation is being addressed. What makes this surreptitious knowledge so remarkable is that it convinces Scout of her father’s prejudice, a revelation that shocks both her and the reader, having come to believe Atticus Finch is the one white man in the South who is color-blind.  Jumping to angry conclusions of her racist, hypocrite of a father, she eventually confronts Atticus, dragging him down from the marble pedestal on which she placed him long ago and tearing him into bits of human flesh and blood.  He allows her tirade, while trying to reason with her, telling her “plain truths” so she can “see things as they are, as well as they should be” (243).

Reminding Jean Louise of the compatibility Maycomb’s races were accustomed to, he points out the unrest the NAACP is causing, stirring up resentments where there were none, and insisting on immediate advancements the Negro people as a whole are not yet properly prepared to take on.  When she tries to counter that the African-Americans are entitled to these promises, Atticus is astute in informing her of the NAACP’s primary objective:  “The NAACP doesn’t care whether a Negro man owns or rents his land,” he says, “how well he can farm, or whether or not he tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet—oh no, all the NAACP cares about is that man’s vote” (247).

Insert your favorite race-baiter in the public eye today for “NAACP,” and the relevance for today’s society is obvious.  And for those today still fighting over the Confederacy and its flag, Lee (writing in 1950) is clairvoyant in following the trail of bread crumbs  back to the Civil War.  When Scout engages her Uncle Jack in the debate, he cites a similar hastiness on the parts of the abolitionists whose insistence on immediate emancipation pushed a precarious situation prematurely over the brink into utter disaster, a chaos the South had been trying to clean up ever since, all the while forcing their Southern brothers to bear full responsibility for the sin of slavery.

For those who maintain the Civil War was fought over States’ Rights, Lee’s voice is their own, as even Scout comes to admit her reluctance at accepting anything when forced to do so.  Reminds me of a t-shirt I’ve seen recently on sale depicting a Confederate flag with the slogan:  “Just because you said I couldn’t.”  That’s basic human nature: no one wants to be forced to do anything, even if it’s the right thing to do; and no one wants to be told what the right thing is by those who don’t really have a dog in the fight.  The arrogance of the uninvolved and unaffected telling those in the pool how to swim from the safety of the shore is insult to injury.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Lee intimates, especially when such arrogant ignorance results in such damage.

If for no other reason, everyone needs to consider things from the other person’s viewpoint, or, as Lee put it in her first book, “climb in their skin and walk around.”  And if for no other reason than that, one needs to read her second book to hear all sides of the argument.  Maybe then, armed with more information, we can all bring something to the table and respect each other enough to have a conversation that leads to compromise and healing.

The saddest scene in Go Set a Watchman occurs when Jean Louise goes to visit Calpurnia, the elderly black woman who practically raised the motherless Scout.  Jean Louise hardly recognizes her old friend when she realizes Cal barely recognizes her, either, compounded by the interference caused by the current racial unrest.  The confrontation is rescued—barely—when a heartbroken Scout demands if Cal hated them—the white Finch family—and the old woman at last shakes her head “no.”  If situations were left to individuals to personally deal with whatever inequity exists, without the demanding outside interference of, well, outsiders, perhaps the least amount of destruction would take place.  It’s certainly worth trying.  Nothing else seems to be working very well.

I was determined to dislike Lee’s second book, suspecting her reluctance to publish and threaten her literary status as Queen of American literature.  Fortunately, I allowed reason and evidence to dissolve my preconceptions.  I hope other readers will do the same.

–Rebecca Luttrell Briley, Ph.D.


Karma Chameleon, sans Boy George and Culture Club

20 Jul

I’m sort of a chameleon, I guess, though I don’t care for reptiles and I am not really proud to admit I can change my mind, my position, my self so readily, based on my circumstances.  That a lizard can change the color of its skin to protect itself or to impress its lady friend is really quite amazing; just another example of why I believe in a Creator.  But I’m not so sure it’s a positive application when it comes to one’s convictions.

I do have what is known as a “sympathetic accent”:  I easily slip into whatever dialect my dialogue partner may exhibit.  I don’t mean to mock them, and I am always quick to assure them of that, in case they notice that I have suddenly started saying my vowels the same way they do, matching my lilt to theirs, leaving my endings off—or on—depending on their lead.  I don’t consider this necessarily a bad thing, unless someone gets offended.  People are so easily offended these days over lesser things, it seems.

When I lived in England my speech became so camouflaged, even the British weren’t sure of my origin.  “Irish?” they’d quiz, assuming I was from someone else, but not guessing American.  The one word that gave myself away was how I pronounced “water.”  The Brits, regardless of their region, all say “woo-tah” to some degree; my Kentucky accent came through loud and clear with “wadder,” in spite of all the other clipped sounds surrounding it.  That’s one word I never was able to manipulate.

That’s ok, too; I’m certainly not ashamed of my roots or of having them crawl out of my mouth at any given time.  I like being a conundrum, a mystery, an enigma. But as for being a chameleon, maybe not so much.  What it says about me is that I can too easily exchange my feelings, opinions, beliefs for those around me, that I’m pliable or  have a flexible spine.  I’d like to think I am more committed to my causes, have a stronger backbone, deeper convictions in the things I believe; I’d like to insist I do, but there it is.

I blame this inconsistency on the fact that I am ambidextrous.  Probably I was right-handed as a child, but my older sister went to school before I did, came home and insisted I learn to write with my left hand as she naturally did.  Confused, I just decided to use both hands.  That ability has served me well, especially as a teacher writing on the board with either hand to the delight of my students—except with scissors.  I don’t know too many people who can use left-handed scissors; I know I have to have the right-handed ones, the only ones that were available when I was growing up.  Left-handed people had to adapt to the right-handed world (not unlike women to a men’s world, blacks to a white world, Lilliputians to Brobdinagians, etc.) back in the day; this accounted for backward slanted scripts and bodies twisted into seats designed for right-handed writers. I wonder how many counselor’s couches have been filled by these traumatized left-handers.

On the other hand (ha, ha), I find I can see both sides to most situations fairly quickly; this lends itself, I think, to better mediation, compromise that satisfies both parties, fair play, liberty and justice for all, and all that.  The only time I recall my talent causing me real consternation was when I was taking my driver’s test:  I was so afraid the officer would tell me to turn right and I wouldn’t know which direction he meant.  I hadn’t learned the “L” for left with the fingers of my left hand yet.  I really had to stop and think about that one.

I always want to be fair—thus, seeing both sides—and I always want to be sure I have looked at all the evidence before coming to a conclusion.  I don’t like people who say, “Just because I said so” as a reason for obeying or acquiescing to “That’s just the way things are” as an excuse for accepting things that are inequitable or biased or fraudulent.  I hate to think I have based a decision or belief on a logical fallacy or on shallow or even false information.  Maybe that’s why I adamantly teach research and argument:  I want my students to vet their sources, get to the truth of the matter before staking any claim, solidly prove their thesis.  I hope I practice what I teach.

That said, I, again, have to admit a somewhat pathetic propensity for pleasing others, tending to agree rather than to argue, anything to avoid conflict.  When surrounded by like-minded people, it’s not hard to stand up for what one believes; when that circle is broken and infiltrated by other-thinking individuals, the test is harder to pass.  It is easier to think “liberal ideology” as a professor when ensconced in liberal academia, just as it is more comfortable to “amen” fundamentalism when immersed in the Bible Belt.

Maybe this wishy-washy way is not unique to me; I suspect it accounts for most of the creeds and convictions shared by most Americans, if not throughout the world.  We believe what those around us believe, what they tell us to believe, what we want to believe.  We reject Fox News when its conservatism makes us uncomfortable, preferring the soothing mesmerizing tones of NPR as its liberal assurances wash over us, lulling us into a sheep-like sleep.  Or we do the opposite when at home with like-minded listeners.

No wonder we are so confused, so mixed up, so directionless.  What Alices we are, wandering around in an upside-down wonderland.

But we don’t have to settle for such disorganization, such bewilderment, such misleading mantras.  We can escape the tangle of contemporary ambiguity if we exchange our human way of thinking for His omnipotent perspective. Isaiah 55 tells us God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, that his are as high above ours as the heavens are above the oceans.  Of course we’d expect Almighty God’s thoughts to be lofty, loftier than ours, but what should really blow our minds is what Paul tells us later in I Corinthians:  “we have the mind of Christ” (2:16).

Sound arrogant?  Maybe even a little blasphemous?  Only if we separate our self-opinion from who we are when inhabited by the Holy Spirit.  Just a couple of chapters later in his letter to the Corinthians Paul explains, “Don’t you know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own” (I Cor. 6:19).

Paul is referring to something Jesus had already said, and I especially love how he presented it to his disciples as recorded in the 14th chapter of John:   I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. … The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:16-25).

So, we can stay our minds on him and his Spirit—or we can merge and blend in with everyone else with whom we rub elbows.  In other words, we can please everyone around us–or we can please God.  James warns that being double-minded is unstable, not unlike the house built on sand that collapsed in the first storm, and the Gospels are full of references to not serving two masters, even if those two are opposing sides of our own minds.  How is it humanly possible to control such ambiguity?  The point is:  it’s not.

I’ve found that the best way to keep my mind on track and to not veer off onto tangents is to stay as close as possible to whatever source I am trying to emulate.  If I want to speak with an Irish accent, I do it best in Ireland or at least listening to Irish music; if I want an British accent, I watch literary adaptations on BBC.

We’ve all made pink underwear out of washing red pants and white shirts together, though rarely intentionally. If I want to keep my colors true, I need to wash the same colors with each other and not try to crowd them all into the machine just to save a quarter or a quarter of an hour.  To extend the chameleon metaphor, if I want to stay true blue, I need to lounge on a blue blanket and not a multi-colored crazy quilt.

I’m not sure what a chameleon’s true colors are—probably green—but he’s so busy trying to fit into his surroundings, we may never know.  I hope the same won’t be said of me.  I need to find that Holy Spirit-colored blanket and wrap myself in it like a cocoon.  It may sound like a strait-jacket to some, but that’s the only color I want emanating from my habitat.

“Ay, tear her tattered ensign down…”*

27 Jun


Let me be the first to admit it:  I have a Confederate flag at the bottom of my cedar chest;  there, under my once-worn handmade wedding dress, a couple of my late husband’s hand-knit sweaters, and a stack of old concert tees I keep meaning to turn into a quilt someday, hidden from view.  It has always been hidden, except for the one time I dug it out to use as a prop for a silly satirical melodrama my theatre class was performing.  Even then very few beyond the cast saw it—no one else came to the performance anyway. It’s probably still there, though I haven’t seen it for years.

It was just a souvenir a college boy from Louisiana gave me so I wouldn’t forget him or his Southernness, ages ago when we were much younger and didn’t know any better, I guess.  He wasn’t a racist, that Southern boy, at least not to my knowledge; in fact, if I remember correctly, his best friend and roommate was an African guy—not just African-American, but a 100% full-fledged man from Africa.  Recently someone innocently posted a TBT picture of him (my Southern friend, not the African one, though we were friends, too, for the record) and the flag in his dorm window on the college Facebook page and all hell broke loose.  People who didn’t even know him were calling him a racist and insisting the photographer take the picture down.  Guiltily, I felt I had to chime in, to uphold his honor and proclaim he wasn’t a racist, he was just a Southerner—a good ol’ boy from the Bayou—and that he had given that flag to me.  The one I have hidden in my cedar chest.  Much ado about nothing.  Right?  Right?

Well, maybe not.  For starters, that flag was introduced in the Civil War, which wasn’t much ado about nothing.  It was much ado about a lot of somethings.  First and foremost, as a Kentuckian with one foot on either side of the state line, I have to point out the war wasn’t about slavery in the strictest sense; it was about states’ rights and the conviction that a federal government couldn’t—shouldn’t—coerce individual citizens into supporting things they didn’t want to support.  Many of those who fought—and died—for the Southern “cause,” didn’t own slaves, didn’t even believe slavery was right.  But they didn’t think Northern bullies—abolitionists or unionists—who knew very little about the Southern way of life had any right to tell them how to handle their “white man’s burden,” a burden slave traders from the North had actually initiated.  General Robert E. Lee leads the roll call, in more ways than one.  Yes, his family owned slaves, slaves inherited from his wife’s family, descendents of President George Washington, no less.  He, like Thomas Jefferson, believed in systematically freeing his own slaves; unlike the third president, though, who never got around to letting any of his chattel go, even in his will, Lee and his wife were actually in the process of doing just that, following a carefully thought-out program that prepared his former slaves for independent living, something abolitionists did not consider in their horserace to the emancipation finish line.  Even Harriet Beecher Stowe, “the little lady whose book (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) started this great big war,” as President Lincoln supposedly claimed, protested war and abrupt abolition were not her purpose, citing the lack of preparation for immediate freedom could be as destructive as the institution itself.

It did become about slavery, however, when Lincoln realized he had to do something to rally reluctant Northerners to continue fighting for a Union they were beginning to fear was slipping away with Lee’s army.  Lincoln, himself no friend of slavery, had long considered the “African” question primarily from a shrewd political perspective.  If supporting slavery would win him the coveted office, he wasn’t going to speak against it; if emancipation would stuff his ballot box, he wasn’t above climbing on the campaign stump to rail against Southern slavery, either.  There’s a reason the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t proclaimed from the White House until 1863, over two weary years into a seemingly endless conflict: partly because that’s what Lincoln needed to light a fire under his flagging patriots—and partly because he had grown over those debilitating years into someone who didn’t just not own slaves to one who believed no one should.  Frederick Douglass’ persistent arguments had not fallen on deaf presidential ears.  Lincoln proved above all else that he was a man willing to learn, willing to admit when he had been ignorant or just plain wrong—enough to fill a book from which modern presidents might take a chapter or two.

This secondary reason for the war—a cause after the effect, perhaps—became grander than merely whether or not separation between states was sanctioned by the Federal Lord God.  If nothing else, it gave purpose to the growing, growing, always growing piles of corpses carpeting both sides of the Mason-Dixon.  Now Yankees had a principle they could sink their teeth in; now Rebels knew their days were numbered, as even many a slave owner had come to question the righteousness (or profit?) of one man owning another, no matter how many preachers cited chapter and verse in support.  Mary Boykin Chestnut’s Diary From Dixie proves even the staunchest Rebel to the bitter end was more than willing to give up her husband’s plethora of dependents (i.e., slaves) if the North would just grant the divorce the South was seeking.

So the War was and wasn’t about slavery.  And the Confederate flag was and wasn’t a symbol of that way of life.  Like many symbols, what it started out representing and what it ended up standing for in the latter day may—or may not—be entirely different things.  It depends on who is flying it and why.  I used to babysit for a little girl whose entire bedroom was rainbows:  from rainbow-colored bedspread and curtains to a big gaudy multi-colored rainbow arcing from floor to ceiling across one entire wall.  She didn’t know she was proudly flying the colors for Gay Rights; she didn’t even know what homosexuality was.  To her the rainbow flag was pretty and popular.  It created a lovely fairy-tale world she liked to play and pretend in.  For some Southerners, I suspect the flag of the CSA isn’t much different:  it represents a gone-with-the-wind world they like to fantasize about, nothing more.  The fact that that world was held aloft on the whip-scarred backs of millions of slaves likely never enters their heads, or if it does, in only a Disney Song of the South sanitized kind of way.


Contrary to many opinions, the one flying from the capitol building in South Carolina actually isn’t one that represented the Confederate States of America or the fight against Black emancipation.  By now, everyone realizes this particular flag—and the one most commonly associated with the South, the Confederacy, slavery, Dixieland, and the Dukes of Hazard—was merely a battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Lee’s band.  To many a Southerner, it continues to stand as merely a symbol of past sympathies, something to hold onto long after the actual flag was torn from their ancestors’ cold, dead hands.  Something to assuage the shame of defeat no other region of America has been forced to face, a generous concession from the winners to the losers. A  capricious pennant that continues to fly from the turrets of Camelot, reminding Romantics there was, for one brief shining moment…..

Because for many, Romance is really what it’s all about.  Even Southern Civil Rights Activists like me (not trying to wave any bloody shirts, but my husband and I did our bit for the “cause” back in the day…) can understand an ache for a “past that’s not dead, not even past,” as our most articulate spokesman William Faulkner put it.  There’s a reason Gone With the Wind is still one of the most popular movies ever made, and it’s not just Rhett Butler’s looking like he knows what we look like without a chemise.  Romance—that destructive desire for what isn’t, regardless what that “what” is.  To them, those who want to remove the flag are just party poopers, wanting to take the romance out of everything like air from a balloon, forcing the fingers of the blinded down on the red-hot Braille of reality, as another Southern spokesman (Tennessee Williams) so eloquently phrased it.

But this living in a fantasy world really does need to come to an end.  Not only do adults need to face up to realistic responsibilities, they especially need to do so when their whimsical world is propped up by the rotting remnants of an existence that caused and continues to cause great pain to others.  As the adage says, “It’s all fun and games—until somebody gets hurt.”  It may be ok to live in a Romantic daydream, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.  Or maybe it isn’t even ok then.  No one would expect Jews to tolerate others running around dressed like Nazis, for example; in fact, the swastika, purloined insignia of hate and evil, is banned in Germany where its party once ruled with an iron fist.  Had the Nazis won, I’m sure that angry black spider sprawled across its bloody background would continue to intimidate all who cower beneath its arrogance.  Had they won.  But they didn’t.  And their flag has been taken down.  And banned.  No, it isn’t erased from the history books or removed from museum display cases, but it isn’t allowed to flourish from official government buildings or even grace (disgrace?) the fronts of souvenir t-shirts, at least not there.  Even as a Southerner I admit I am amazed we’ve allowed the Confederate flag to fly so long, if for no other reason than the concession that it represents a treasonous act against the united States of America.  That has really been “letting ‘em down easy,” as Lincoln implored, to a fault.

So, in spite of my souvenir Rebel flag (probably moth-eaten by now) and my Kentucky-rooted ambivalence, let me lift up my voice with the others singing out to furl the flag of Southern sympathies.  Misty visions of mint juleps, magnolias, and moonlight can’t hold up against the stark black and white photographs of the Emmitt Tills, Medgar Everses, the four little girls in Birmingham, or, now, the nine dead members of the Charleston Emanuel A.M.E Church.  Not that the flag itself necessarily prompted this massacre of the beautiful and innocent; likely Dylann Roof would have developed and attempted to carry out his evil racist agenda regardless of what flag was flying from his government’s capitol cupola.  But we have to start somewhere, even if it’s as innocuous and symbolic as removing a rag from a pole.  Maybe we didn’t mean anything by it.  Or maybe we did.  Maybe no one cares.  Or maybe someone does. Whatever. We need to grow up, in the South and all over the United States.

Amazingly, Charleston, once the scene of the largest slave assembly, not to mention the opening act of the Civil War, is leading the way by reacting to its recent episode of senseless, deplorable violence, not with more violence as in Ferguson or Baltimore, but by forgiving, praying, and embracing.  And its state’s governor, the political descendent of the first to declare his state’s secession from the Union, has opened the dialogue for change by calling for the removal of that symbol from their government’s official buildings. That’s how adults respond, regardless of their race or sensibilities.  We all look small and childish if we don’t follow suit.

To paraphrase St. Paul’s I Corinthians 13 message, when we are children, maybe it’s ok to think as children; but now we are no longer children, we need to put away our childish things, in a cedar chest or a history museum.  And get on with it.

Rebecca Luttrell Briley, Ph.D.

Midway, Kentucky

June 24, 2015

*Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Old Ironsides”


Bless Me, Father, for I Have Sinned

25 Jun

Bless Me, Father, for I Have Sinned

 I recently attended the wedding of a dear former student.  It was my first all-out, full-blown Catholic service, and I found the liturgy and congregational participation interesting.  When the priest offered communion for all Catholics in good standing, I knew he wasn’t talking about me, though I consider myself a Christian, albeit Protestant, in good standing.  Still, I reasoned there is only one Church and we are all covered equally by the same Blood of Christ, so I followed my pew mates to the front and partook of the bread and the wine.  It wasn’t the first time I had done it, so I actually knew what to do, though my usual custom for communing in my Protestant faith is somewhat different.  No one refused me or shamed me or even noticed; in fact, I would have stood  out more sharply had I not participated.  I might have gotten away with my transgression had I not joked about it later.

That evening at the reception, the priest was making his rounds and came to greet the members at my table. My friends had seated me with family, as I knew no one else at the celebration, and the bride’s uncle and aunt and their family chatted and joked pleasantly with the Father, familiar in their shared experience,  though they had only met the night before at the rehearsal.  When the priest politely included me in the conversation, I felt comfortable enough to “confess” my earlier communion decision, assuming everyone would laugh and assure me it was no big deal.  Wrong.  The startled look on the faces should have prepared me for the stern reprimand the Father felt necessary to deliver:  “This is not allowed.”  He must have noticed my stunned expression because he went on to soften his reproach with, “But as this was a special occasion, it may be overlooked this time.  You are forgiven.”  I guess he knew a command of “Hail Mary’s” and saying the rosary would have little effect on me, so he didn’t bother castigating me further, but my own Protestant guilt immediately began to chastise me for my casual, if not flippant, behavior.  Who knew they took these things so seriously?

The next morning at breakfast, seated with the same lovely people, I thought to joke about my Protestant clumsiness, assuming the family would join me in chuckling over my faux pas, only to have my story interrupted by the uncle’s reminder:  “You have confessed it,” he intoned somberly, “and the Father has forgiven you.”  Silenced, I know he meant to reassure me, but his serious expression did more to imprint on my already sensitive conscience the solemnity of the occasion—and this lesson:  just because their methods weren’t mine didn’t mean I could treat them facetiously.

It’s a lesson I should have remembered from a similar occasion with my dear Muslim friend, another former student.  (I seem to learn as much from my students as they do from me—and that’s ok.)  Teasing her for her modesty and reluctance to try something daring—talking to a handsome stranger, wearing a swimsuit, eating ice cream for breakfast— I often joked if such behavior was actually forbidden in the Q’uran:  “Where does it say you can’t have ice cream for breakfast (or–fill in the blank)?” I’d mock, good-naturedly, only to have her admonish me fervently, “Becky, you must never joke about the Holy Book!” as though a fatwa might be placed on our heads just for laughing.  It wasn’t respectful she implied, though she never countered with her own taunting about my beliefs or practices.  Chagrined, I felt put in my place by someone younger and even less educated than I, as well I should have been.  I should know better.  I do.

For it is about respect.  And respect comes from not assuming an arrogance that my beliefs and practices are superior if they are different from someone else’s.  I realized I did tend to maintain an attitude of superiority:  I was an American, I was a Christian, I had a Ph.D., I, I, I, blah, blah, blah.  I’d be the first to agree we are all created equal, but I might not be above adding, in self-reference, “some are just more equal than others.”  For some, this might translate as a definition of  “white privilege”; for me, it was the result of growing up in a rather homogeneous environment where my approach to all things was the norm and rarely, if ever, questioned and usually respected, if not honored.  Abstractly aware of but concretely cocooned against dissimilarity, it was never climbing into someone else’s skin and walking around to see how they viewed the world or why they reacted to my world as they did.  Such realization is humbling.  Having read and taught Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as much as I have, one would think I would have applied the message more particularly, not just repeated it.  I do.

Today it has become the norm to ridicule those of us who made up the majority just a generation ago:  WASPs, perhaps, for want of a more descriptive term.  Those at whom we looked askance are now turning the stare back at us, and it’s uncomfortable.  However, it is no more acceptable for them to return the glare as it was for us to put it out there in the first place.  We should all realize, accept, and respect—if we cannot embrace—that it’s not all about us, any of us.  It’s about all of us.  At the same time.  It may be an adjustment, but we can do it.

R-e-s-p-e-c-t.  Humility.  We could all use a diet of that right now.  We might find we feel better, behave better, even live longer, as a result if we do.

And that’s my last confession.

–Rebecca Luttrell Briley, Ph.D.

June 25, 2015

Midway, Kentucky

SEX (now that I have your attention)…

18 May

SEX (now that I have your attention)….

SEX (now that I have your attention)…

18 May

All sexuals are equal. Some are just more equal than others.

We are all sexual creatures of some ilk. Male and female created He them. Whether one believes in intelligent design or crazy chaos, that’s the easy part: the black and white, the yin and yang, the yes and no. But nothing’s really that easy. There are more than 50 shades of gray, more maybes than yes and no. At least that’s how it seems to me.

I’m a doctor, but not that kind of doctor. Certainly not a Sex Doctor, and certainly not like Dr. Ruth or Dr. Phil or whoever is in vogue these days. As they say, the higher one climbs the education ladder, the more one knows about less and less. The less and less part is becoming more and more apparent as I get older. But, as I age, the more and more I think I understand about life and living and who I am. Whoever that is. Ok, maybe I don’t know any more, but I’m just more comfortable with not knowing.

I don’t claim to be an expert on very many things and certainly not on the subject of homosexuality. I don’t know if it, like life, begins at conception or if environment plays a role. Probably a little of both. I don’t know if anyone would choose to be gay, if given the choice, or not. I’m not even sure where I slide on the 0 to 6 Kinsey Scale. Probably, like most people, somewhere in between.

I believe that God (yes, God) created male and female primarily for two purposes: 1) procreation (so the Creator wouldn’t have to populate the world by making mud figures every seven days) and 2) companionship—God’s and ours. Those who procreate maybe provide all the companionship they need. Those of us who don’t maybe need to find it somewhere else. Life can certainly provide strange bedfellows, so to speak. Currently, I am content with the furry four-legged kind—for companionship, that is; we certainly don’t even consider procreation (though if I could have kittens, I might have a litter)—but it’s definitely not in our nature.

I also believe what’s natural is generally the best way. If it fits, you must commit (or something like that). As the song says (in spite of its poor grammar), “if it don’t fit, don’t force it; just relax and let it go.” I mean, there’s a reason things are made the way they are. And, yes, I still believe in reasons, in spite of all the inexplicable chaos swirling around us. I have a Touchstone, kind of like “Base” or “Home” when playing Tag or Hide and Seek—a rock, an anchor, if you will, that keeps me centered, (for the most part) calm, primarily positive and optimistic in a way that is even more inexplicable to those around me than the chaos they readily concede. It’s a peace that truly passes understanding.  I like that, because I don’t have to try to figure it out.  I can just Be.

I recognize anomalies. Diversions, perversions, in and out of the box, and all that. Mistakes are made (so I’m told), but one man’s ceiling is another’s floor, so who’s to say which is up and which is down. Alice certainly had a hard time wrapping her elongated head around it. I don’t know if what is normal is just more predictable or probable. For example, I have the most common type of blood—O+ I think—but that doesn’t deny the As and ABs, just because they are more rare; the negatives, just because mine’s positive. I embrace the differences, celebrate multiculturalism, prefer the unique over the commonplace most of the time. I even received a Diversity Award; it’s hanging on my office wall, if anyone needs proof.

I don’t believe the tail should wag the dog, not in a democracy. Majority rules, but it shouldn’t rule with an iron hand. I do believe any percentage of the population deserves the same rights as the rest, regardless of how small or different. That’s America, land that I love, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

But bigger and better than America, land of the free, is the Kingdom of God where there is no male nor female (gay nor straight), black nor white, Jew nor Gentile. We are all equal in the eyes of God: equally sinners, yet equally forgiven. More than equally loved beyond all measure, inexplicably so. That’s certainly worth embracing, even if it passes comprehension.

As an educated scholar, I know what the Bible has to say about homosexuality—I’ve researched it, from Old to New Testament, Greek to English. What is direct and what is interpretation, what is black and white and what is gray, who’s to say—maybe someone else can and will, but not I. I leave that up to the Source itself. When Jesus forgave the woman caught in sin and sent her accusers (who were not without sin) away without throwing a stone, he had a private conversation with her. “Neither do I condemn you,” he said when they were alone, adding, “Go and sin no more.” If gays are sinning, that’s between them and God; if they are to go and sin no more, let them hear it from God themselves. IF they are listening; that effort has to be theirs. Whether or not one can help being the way one is pales, I think, when one considers what pleases Almighty God. That’s a daily task, an individual quest, if we’re really serious about hearing God’s voice and placing priority on following the direction of the Holy Spirit.

But make no mistake (as someone who makes a lot of them is fond of saying): there’s no ambiguity about the Gospel—the Good News for Everyone. As for Christians, gay or straight, if we are listening, then none of us can help but hear the proclamation: “God so loved the world.” And if we continue to listen even with half an ear, the subsequent commandment comes through loud and clear: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” Later, John even reduced the sermon to just three words: “Love one another.”

So this is what I do know for sure: we are all loved. We are, in return, to love everyone else. That’s what makes us all more equal than others.

End of story.