Saturday, October 13, 2007

birthright reclaimed by rocks and roots

photo by Veronika
I have a college memory of myself on a bright Spring day, unusually warm for the Pacific Northwest, walking through downtown Portland's leafy park blocks toward the Portland State University library. Although I was a student at a university on the other side of the city, I used Portland State's library from time to time and was now returning a number of well-overdue books. The semester was nearing its end, the leaves were emerging on the trees, and the sun was miraculously shining.

As I ambled through the park blocks, I commended myself: "I am one of those people who returns her library books." I recall feeling unusually pleased, joyful even, as I contemplated my efficiency. Never mind that most people return their library books, and many probably do so before they become overdue. But what was important to me then was that I was returning my books. That I'd driven downtown to do so, had found a parking spot near the busy campus, and was now walking under budding trees to drop them into the metal slot at the front of the library--this was the crux of the matter. The fines I may have accrued did not diminish my self-satisfaction.

This memory stands out for me because the sort of self-confidence that proclaims, "This is exactly what I should be doing, and I'm doing it so well!" isn't exactly a birthright of mine. I am prone more often to doubt myself, to overreact to "oughts" and "shoulds", and generally to be running behind while castigating myself for my incessant tardiness.

This memory gave rise to yet another college memory, this time from the slave narrative of Frederick Douglass read in my African-American Literature class. The enslaved Douglass had been hired out by his owner as a farm hand, where he was regularly beaten. One day, after a particularly bad beating, a fellow slave gave him a root and told him always to carry it in his right pocket to ward off beatings by white men. Douglass put the root in his pocket and went back to work, suspecting the root business was nonsense. However, the next day when the slave owner came out to beat him, Douglass fought back. From that moment on, Douglass' courage and faith in himself increased; he was not beaten again. My professor contended that the root was a symbol of Douglass' empowerment, specifically a phallic symbol of his reclaimed manhood. I was a little embarrassed by the phallic reference, but the meaning of the root was not lost on me. In fact, it has remained with me through the years--perhaps because I like natural objects, symbolism, and empowerment.

I carry rocks in my pockets, my purse, my car, my messenger bag. Lately I've been carrying a small white agate, roundish, from the Oregon coast. It is the size of a large pea, and an intricate pattern of opaque white mottles its translucent surface. Sometimes I think of the root in Douglass' pocket when I feel the little rock in mine. My particular agate is a reminder to me of who I am, that the joy of life doesn't reside outside myself but in me: I am the glowing self I carry, I protect, I affirm.

And I do not mean to imply by this that God is in anyway tangential, or to propose carrying roots and rocks as talismans of empowerment. I think you should carry whatever you want in your pocket: because God is in the rock, the root, and in the world all around.

I am the lens through which I experience God, and my rock is a reminder to honor myself, my lens. Self-confidence and joy are not something I will get someday, perhaps, when I become someone impressive who isn’t always late, but is already mine. One could say, in fact, that self-confidence and joy are my birthright. I can be late for things and be happy. And I can be on time too. I can make bad decisions, or good ones, and be happy, confident, walking across the park blocks in the sunlight returning overdue books.

1 comment:

Jenny said...


This is a lovely post. I especially love the second to last paragraph. But I love it all--especially the idea that we can be both empowered and tardy.