Ancestral Gold

by Jeannie Alexander Summer’s crumpled gold into August now, and the evening sky sets a red sun world in which the light has shifted. I have noted the changes of the light for several weeks now, and I am ever aware that I mark the turning of the wheel, the changes in my blood, by the shifting dance of the sun in all of his life drenched glory. At this cusp time of year, I have discovered a new pleasure, the pleasure of raking freshly mown hay beneath an August sun.

This is primal, ancestral, and I relish the red raw blisters on my hands. Like time spent with my camera, there is prayer here in this field, and a future time that I can see so clearly with an orchard of apple and cherry. In this home, we are co-creating a vision of community. I keep planting trees because we are working toward something here. We can create beauty and hope wherever we choose to stand—even in this fledgling-orchard space where a quarter-mile away a developer strives to cut a quarry deep into the earth, one hundred feet from a beach, from great blue herons, from children, from eagles.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if we were too angry to notice God breathing into us?

My beloved lives many miles away. Too much time spent in a large metal box. And yet together we sit within the golden field of the orchard, a bloody rake in my hand.  And we learn time and time again longing knows no boundary, and grief illuminated by hope only deepens affection. This morning I listened to chickens clucking and goats bleating as we embodied prayer through the faithful planting of even more trees: apple and cherry and fig.  An apple outside of our kitchen window and a cherry in the front yard. We pause as the nesting pair of bald eagles circle our home, shrill whistles demanding our attention. As if the eyes of God were not enough.

I step into the cool of the house and my gaze rests upon the cedar chest passed through six generations of my father’s family. And the bed? Five generations. The hand carved wooden biscuit bowl? Who knows, at least four generations of hands mixed the soft cool flour and milk against that smooth wood. Eggs from down the street rest gently against a bleached knitted napkin in the chipped white bowl my grandfather left behind. A home must be fertile ground for old memory, memory displaced outside of time. I am a haunted woman as I nestle into his embrace and breathe wood, and beeswax polish, and flowers from the garden, and most of all his smell and sweat combined with soap. Dare I to say after all of my years of education and advocacy that my faith is simple, my needs few: all l really want is to tend my garden and home and make love to my beloved. But the world will not allow that, will not allow this focus on home and hearth, and so I steal it in moments in battle lulls. Here prayer hits bone deep. God and contentment are flashes of light across my landscape, a shutter snap of a camera, and then they are gone. And every time I think I will be full until the next time, until the hunger pains begin.

Today and yesterday I went out to the Hermitage. At this time of year, I crave haunted places, places of history. The summer wears heavy, and I reach for fall. These places of past and future all at once pull me in. I have been thinking of the photographs of corn that I took two years ago at the Hermitage. Some things, like places, are haunted. Some people too. This year they are growing soy bean not corn. Soy bean is not a haunted crop and so my camera rests. Instead I take photos of reflections in old glass window panes, so much happening all at once in a moment that casts the illusion of stillness, the guise of an idleness. The old glass, my reflection, the reflection of the forest behind me, and the interior of the old building behind the glass; it is that complex layered image that I think is the true image of our existence. We think we live in particular insular moments, but it is not so. Who, I wonder, was looking at me from the other side of the glass window? Does she or he collect bayberry candles like I do at this time of year? Do they remember the smell of wood and boiled tar? And do they still hear the crows cawing and mules braying on the farm? Did they abhor slavery as much as I do, were they a slave? Or did it never occur to them that things were out of order? That it was wrong to own humans? I stand on the grounds of a beautiful farm where human property lived, and worked, was traded, and died too few generations ago, and today I am tortured by this specter of slavery still.  My beloved lives in a metal box, and steals moments on a field between Tennessee hills hearing my voice through blackbirds.

God in us is a God of yeast and fire; not the fire of destruction, and certainly not of damnation (we have that covered all too well ourselves), but a slow burn that leaves the land more fertile than before. I wake back into the August sun and begin to rake again.

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Rev. Jeannie Alexander is the co-founder and director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, a legal and educational advocacy organization on behalf of prisoners and their families, aimed at dismantling the reality of mass incarceration in TN. She served as the Head Chaplain at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for three years until September 2014. Prior to that, she was the volunteer chaplain for two years. As chaplain, she facilitated the creation of an unprecedented number of programs for insiders, both in minimum security and on “death row.” Before this, she worked as an attorney, but left the practice of law to become a community organizer and to complete a graduate degree in Religious Studies with a focus on Mysticism and Christian Ethics. As an educator, she’s been a professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religion. As a pastor, she’s served and developed interfaith communities in prison based on a model of liberation theology, as well as served as co-pastor to Mercy Community Church, a congregation where 85% of the members experience homelessness. She is the co-founder of Amos House and Open Table Nashville and was a writer for and sat on the board of The Contributor for four years. Two of her essays are published in And The Criminals With Him, and she features significantly in the documentary Tent City, U.S.A. She lectures and preaches frequently on the topics of mass incarceration as slavery, economic justice, Christian anarchism, transformative justice, and mysticism. She understands the Gospel as a manifesto for radical liberation now on earth and an invitation to experience God through the living presence of others and creation. She is also a lover of bees, bogs, and all things wild.