by Jeannie Alexander I remember my grandfather’s smell. It is my first memory. My second memory is of being carried by my grandfather through his backyard. So carefully we considered the apple trees, muscadines, figs, and plums, but far back in my memory we first considered the mud puddles. My grandfather was a brick mason and he and my grandmother made their home in Stone Mountain, GA, where both of their families for several generations before had planted their homestead; the modest dreams of sharecroppers. Their plots of land were stitched together like a quilt: my great grandmother Annie-Bell’s home, my great aunt Irene’s home, my great grandfather Doc’s home, my grandparent’s home, my great uncle R.L’s home, and Uncle Pete’s home. One winding twisting piece of property divided into artificial plots. A geography of tragedy, toil, love, and grace. Why is it that we think the modest dreams of the poor are any less grand than those of the wealthy? Surely they are no less holy.
When my parents were first married, they lived in a small trailer that my grandparents had moved to the back of their property behind the main house. When I was two, I would kneel on the bed, my face pressed against the window screen of my parent’s bedroom window each afternoon, waiting for my grandfather to return. His old burgundy car would pull in and, before his feet could hit the deeply rutted dirt path, I would begin shouting, “Papa come saaavvveee me!” This was our daily game. He taught me how to unlatch the screen and push it out so that he could then lift me through the window. This is where my first memory erupts, the smell of sweat, and the taste of masonry dust stuck to the roof of my mouth as I pressed my nose against his neck to identify his scent every afternoon. His hands were the roughest, gentlest hands I have ever known. And each evening, as he pulled me from the window, he did so with the purpose of connecting me to the earth in the daily ritual of dunking me into the dirty muddy water that always seemed to pool in the large rut in the middle of the driveway. It was a child’s ecstasy that I experienced in those moments; a baptism that awoke in me a deep knowing of God’s presence as it may only be encountered through an immersion of the senses. God awakens in us.
As a teenager embarrassed by rural ways and honest poverty, I immersed myself in the alternative political and drug culture of Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood, which ironically threw me into the intellectually bourgeoisie disaffected punk rock culture of angry youth, often from wealthy families, supposedly fighting for the rise of the proletariat peasant class—a birthright I had abandoned.
But in the early hours of barely light mornings following nights of insanity, I would pull myself together and return bruised and disoriented to the gardens of healing, the waters of remembrance, my grandfather’s section of plowed earth. I was 19, hungover, and standing by my grandfather’s side, a cup of coffee in my hand, watching his honeybees swarm in and out of the hive in the already hot, humid air. “Aren’t you afraid of getting stung?” I asked. “No never,” he replied. “You just have to learn to think like a bee.” As we moved from bees to fig trees to chickens, I knew to my shame the truth: the sacredness of connection was to be found here or nowhere on this earth, and all of my endeavors to find truth through separation would lead me back to this yard.
My grandfather died while I was in law school and I was so furious with grief that I refused to leave New York and go home to Georgia to attend his funeral. The fury has long since turned to peace and gratitude, and my grandfather keeps speaking to me, slowly, softly tracking my often tumultuous life. My friend Bill has bee hives now. A few weeks ago, he removed the top of the hive so I could look inside the secret world into the feeding tray on top. The bees are fed sugar water. They moved slowly in the cold wet morning air and most stayed inside the wooden hive box, but a few came cautiously out of the small entrance hole in front and moved slowly, their thick stout golden honey bee bodies covered with fine hair—so very beautiful. I hear my grandfather’s voice: “The entire source of food for the whole world rests on the backs of these bees. All of this, everything around you is connected so you can’t do nothing to these bees, this land that don’t affect you. These bees are you, and you are the bees.” I think about this when Bill shows me the old feeding trays that he had discarded because they were death traps for bees; too deep, the bees drown caught between metal screen and water. A simple mistake but the cost was dear, and I ran my finger over the screen and over the tiny hairy corpse bodies trapped inside.
One of my last conversations with my grandfather was about bees. We stood staring at the hives while I ate a fig pulled from the tree. I had focused on the bees to avoid the truth that his once robust body was being wasted by the cancer growing inside of him. “Pa-pa, what do bees dream? Do they dream together as one, a collective sigh? What happens when the light goes out inside of a bee? Do they have souls, and if so, are they little golden sparks of light that make a snapping pop noise. Do trees breathe in the souls of bees?” He put his arm around me, pulled me to him, and I kissed his cool cheek. I still do not know these things.
I am buying a house, planting a fig tree, and setting up my own bee hives. All acts of faith, every day sacraments. Wendell Berry writes that “[t]he relentlessness of the tragedy is redeemed by the persistence of grace.” I am no longer afraid of being stung; what is holy is present in the sting and in the heartbreak, but also in the way light changes slowly through the progression of a year, in the sounds of birds and bells, in the way the smell and taste of lake water and river clings to the air and shrouds us after a storm. Our imaginations, tended properly, are the keepers of old memory. It is what is meant by living a good life. Its roots plunge deep into the waters of love, and nurture within us an affection and tenderness that I think perhaps can only be lived not described; one can only point and nod and say “Ah yes, that.”
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.