Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

These extended excerpts are a way to share Kiese Laymon’s beyond powerful and beyond devastating book, Heavy: An American Memoir. It is at least formally addressed to his mother (the “you” in the first quotation).

I understood that day why you and Grandmama were so hungry for black wins, regardless of how tiny those wins were. For Grandmama, those wins were always personal. For you, the wins were always political. Both of y’all knew, and showed me, how we didn’t even have to win for white folk to punish us. All we had to do was not lose the way they wanted us to.

p. 53

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I looked at Grandmama and told her I felt like a nigger, and feeling like a nigger made my heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain feel like they were melting and dripping / out of the ends / of my toenails.

“It ain’t about making white folk feel what you feel,” she said. “It’s about not feeling what they want you to feel. Do you hear me? You better know from whence you came and forget about those folk.”

p. 56

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Before both of us went to sleep, I asked Grandmama if 218 pounds was too fat for twelve years old. “What you weighing yourself for anyway?” she asked me. “Two hundred eighteen pounds is just right, Kie. It’s just heavy enough.”

“Heavy enough for what?”

“Heavy enough for everything you need to be heavy enough for.”

I loved sleeping with Grandmama because that was the only place in the world I slept all the way through the night. But tonight was different.

“Can I ask you one more question before we go to bed?”

“Yes, baby,” Grandmama said, and faced me for the first time since I gave her the notebook.

“What do you think about counting to ten in case of emergencies?”

“Ain’t no emergency God can’t help you forget,” Grandmama told me. “Evil is real, Kie.”

“But what about the emergencies made by folk who say they love you?”

“You forget it all,” she said. “Especially that kind of emergency. Or you go stone crazy. My whole life, it seem like something crazy always happens on Sunday nights in the summer.”

p. 60

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I’d heard Grandmama whimper over the loss of her best friend and her sisters. I’d heard Grandmama yell at Uncle Jimmy for daring to disrespect her in her house. I’d never heard Grandmama scream while begging the Lord to have mercy on her until that night in the hospital…
With one hand in the pockets of my mesh shorts, and one hand holding hers, I told Grandmama it was going to be okay. Grandmama said she had faith in the white doctor who was taking care of her. She kept calling him “the white-man doctor,” though he was really a short, light-complexioned black man with a dry, red Afro.

“The white-man doctor got my best interest at heart,” she said. “Grandmama will be fine directly.”

The black doctor with the dry red Afro asked me to leave the room because they had to do a small procedure. He said the infection was deeper than he thought. It started in the middle of her head and went down the back of her neck. “We’re gonna help her with this pain,” he told me. “The infection is seeping into her bloodstream.”

I walked out of the room but he didn’t close the door behind me. “Lord Jesus,” Grandmama kept saying before she screamed. “Please have mercy. Please have mercy.” I knew, but didn’t want to admit, why Grandmama was screaming, why the black doctor with the dry red Afro didn’t give her enough anesthetic, why he thought cutting a full inch and a half deep into the back of her scalp was for her own good.

Folk always assumed black women would recover but never really cared if black women recovered. I knew Grandmama would act like she recovered before thanking Jesus for keeping her alive. She would never publicly reckon with damage done to her insides and outsides at the hands of people who claimed to have her best interest at heart. She would just thank Jesus for getting through the other side of suffering. Thanking Jesus for getting us through situations we should have never been in was one of our family’s superpowers.

I spent the night in the room sitting in a chair next to Grandmama’s bed and holding her hand. Grandmama didn’t say a word. She just looked out the window of the room, with her cheek pressed into the thin mattress until the sun came up.

pp. 169-170

As you can see, Heavy is a difficult read, likely even re-traumatizing for some readers. That’s part of what the title means. My initial difficulty when finishing the book and attempting to review it was that I worried for its author. I had a similar experience reading Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir last year. A few years before that, it was something by Augusten Burroughs (although this makes me more hopeful). In each of these authors’ works, his or her story has many ups and downs, then things close on an up. In each case, I am left wondering whether this was an editor’s suggestion, whether it was for the purposes of narrative, or whether things really are getting better in some more or less permanent way.

Laymon, who shares his life to the bone and writes like a poet, also reminds me of the confessional poets. This article on that movement names some of its most important figures: John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Silvia Plath, Ann Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass. Of those Berryman, Plath, and Sexton all took their own lives. Lowell (my first favorite poet) was hospitalized multiple times for bipolar disorder. Snodgrass, meanwhile, wrote his first collection out of the experience of being separated from his daughter after his first divorce, and then was married three more times before he died of cancer in 2009. All this frightens me for artists who seem to sweat blood on every page.

It took me two or three days to realize the other piece that unsettles me in Heavy. It’s the same reality I opened with: Is Laymon writing about the 1920s and 1930s or the 1970s and 1980s? Does progress ever come for racial and economic justice? Heavy is not at all a hopeless book, but it makes clear–again back to the meaning of the title–that even to feel hope placed on your shoulders is to bear a heavy load, one which you did not choose, and one which Laymon does not feel free to un-choose.

Read this book, and be disquieted.

Bonus: While you are waiting 38 weeks for your local library hold to bring the book to you, check out this interview with Laymon (beginning at 26:19 with a reading from Heavy) from the always excellent NY Times Book Review Podcast.

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Not a Psalm of Asaph

Psalm LXXXII
And there was December and there was January,
A new year.

And in this new year, I will
I will, I will, I will, I will, I will
I will–

But what will I be?

I will be more beautiful
Than the angels,
Although with regard to me
The answer is zero
Can dance on the head of a pin.

But what shall I be
And what shall be and
What shall be
And what shall I be?

God has said, “You are gods,”
And God meant it.

Visual Aids Using Canva.com

This Productive Pastor episode 19 pointed me to Michael Lucaszewski, who produced this ebook of his favorite apps, among which was Canva.com.

If you already can handle slick-looking visuals (or are on a staff which can), you don’t need this tool. For the rest of us, it’s pretty cool. Easy, free (with paid options), and you can create useful things or make up truthy quotes from famous authors.

Here are my first attempts. (The background on the final one is a photograph of Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani.)

Samwise Gamgee--Is everything sad going to come untrue

Daniel Berrigan quote

Merton Hermitage

I Gave Up Manuscript Preaching for Lent

On Monday mornings, I review my sermon video from the day before. (The churches I serve are 40 and 20 in regular weekly attendance, and I use the Zoom Q2HD in the first service, which is at the larger church. This is not some high-budget televised or even live-streamed thing, so don’t use the excuse that your preaching assignment is too small to be worth recording and reviewing. Regarding expense, the Zoom plus memory card was sub-$200, and I use a free video editor, a free audio editor, a free podcasting service which iTunes picks up and lists for free, and then post the audio on a free Facebook page, so even the smallest church can be sold on this investment in good preaching.)

My notes range from: “good emotions in announcements” to “energy ebbs at…” to “the sermon is too long because…” to “shave your face before next week.” For almost the entire time that I have been doing this (July of last year), I have been annoying myself with lack of eye contact, and months ago I realized that using a manuscript was keeping me from actually learning how to preach.

Transitioning off of manuscripts is a cold turkey process. Knowing that, I kept putting it off until some utopian week when I would have extra time to prepare and then make the jump. (N.B.: Those weeks don’t exist, and somewhere in my heart of hearts, I’ve known that the whole time.)

Finally, I picked up Preaching on Your Feet: Connecting God and the Audience in the Preachable Moment by Fred Lybrand because it was really cheap on Kindle one day. It’s not a great book, but it is a great kick in the pants. And so I decided to give up manuscript preaching for Lent.

The thought of this scared me so much that I started a few weeks early, and I did it not just without manuscript but without notes at all. I hated the results the first week, and it was hard to believe it would improve, but I was committed. Consider how in Mario Kart everyone who is good uses the Manual Mode, but if you start out on Automatic, you will experience a dip in your abilities when you make the switch to Manual. I definitely experienced a dip going from manuscript to no notes. But…no one in my churches noticed (or if they did, it wasn’t any worse than any other dips I’ve had for other reasons).

This week, however, I think I may have preached better than I have ever preached in these two churches. Yes, I went long. (Quick! Can I modify Communion without messing up something important? No. Quick! Which verses of the closing hymn should we cut? The middle ones, for no good reason.) I also was so much more present to the congregation, and I can see it on the video. It was so encouraging, even as I already know enough about preaching that it is never going to be just up-and-up-and-up.

It’s Monday again. Better start sermonizing.

Lecturing vs. Preaching

The Lecture on the Mount.

Yesterday, I visited one of my parishioners and her husband at their home. It was my first time having a conversation with her apart from brief Sunday morning pleasantries, and so I had a lot to learn. For my particular context, place matters a lot. If you weren’t born here, but have only lived here for 50-60 years, then you aren’t from here. So there are those facts of place and the facts of family–kids, grandkids, siblings, parents–including how close they are geographically and emotionally. But I noticed I have to push myself to make that more difficult turn, to guide the conversation toward current life experiences, if the visit is to make it to the level of excellence.

Today, I sat down to watch and listen to my sermon from Sunday. In the course of watching several weeks of sermons, I have noticed that an unhelpful direction my sermons can take is toward the lecture. The problem stems from my approach, which has been (1) to present the information of Scripture in an accessible way through storytelling and through elucidating historical, cultural, religious, anthropological, political, psychological, and other details and then (2) to make the application to the lives of my parishioners today. What I’ve come to realize is that most of my congregation isn’t as interested as I am in Part 1 (nor do they tend to find it as helpful), and that the way that I pursue it can easily make someone exhausted before they get to a more nutritive Part 2, so they aren’t able to receive that either.

I noticed this two-part design at about the same time that I simply Googled, “What is the difference between a lecture and a sermon?” One helpful distinction: a lecture is giving information to an audience, while a sermon is focused on transformation. The second distinction builds from there: in a sermon, all the information should be in service of the application, rather than simply tacking application on to the information (my tendency). What I am attempting to do now is to live this out to the extreme: a sermon doesn’t just need an application piece; a sermon is an application.

This approach to preaching requires that any information that isn’t directed to the application is left on the editing room floor. By information, I mean all that stuff that is interesting to me and could be helpful in a different context, but which is neither interesting nor helpful in this particular context. A different context could be an academic course, or a Bible study, a presentation to other pastors, a blog post, or simply the next time I preach on the same text to the same congregation.

This application-centered approach sounds a lot like topical preaching, but (for me right now) it isn’t. The topic is (I pray) whatever Jesus wanted to say or do in the Gospel lesson assigned to the particular Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary (or whatever is going on in whichever other assigned text). So maybe it’s not that it’s not topical preaching at all, but that it’s good topical preaching. Or maybe it’s good exegetical preaching. Or just good preaching. I’d be happy with that.

Tuesday Reading Roundup

“Dan Wakefield gives a list of Vonnegut readings for making life decisions” (Onion AV Club) by Andrea Battleground. A close friend and editor of Vonnegut gives very specific and entertaining reading recommendations.

“The Debt: When terrible, abusive parents come crawling back, what do their grown children owe them?” (Slate) by Emily Yoffe. An important read as Mother’s Day approaches, especially for pastors. Churches have made (some) progress in becoming more sensitive to those who wish they were mothers, those who have miscarried, and those who have lost children to death, but this article makes me wonder how we are addressing the pain many experience when they think of their own mothers.

Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. Although this is not an “authorized” biography, in this interview on The Nerdist, Jim Henson’s son, Brian, says that even he learned things about his father which he never knew by reading this book. Frank Oz says the same on the book’s cover. I’m no Muppets superfan (although my family’s Christmas movie is A Muppet Christmas Carol), but I am loving this book.

“Literary Style: 15 Writers’ Bedrooms” (Apartment Therapy). Capote, Woolf, Hemingway, and 12 others’ personal (and often professional) space.

On the Trinity by Saint Augustine. I am proud to say that I will finally finish this tonight. Hopefully I’ll also have a post around a lengthy quote up soon too.

“The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease” (WSJ) by Nina Teicholz. The best I’ve read giving a decades-long history of the science and social side of no-fat dieting.

“Republicans and Democrats are more divided on race today than in 1985” (Vox) by Ezra Klein. Lots of helpful visualizations here too.

Sabriel by Garth Nix. Sabriel is a young woman whose father is a necromancer, the good kind, concerned with keeping Death from entering into Life, helping the Dead to find their rest. When something happens to her father, Sabriel is forced to step into his shoes before she is ready. Wonderful, quick read with inventive takes on everything in it. Heck, Lloyd Alexander blurbed for it.

“Stop Calling Clarence Thomas an ‘Uncle Tom'” (Washington Post) by Jonathan Capehart. “Sure, the n-bomb is a kick in the groin. But being called a ‘Tom’ is a kick in the stomach…”

“Zen and the art of keeping the NHS bill under control” (Guardian) by Madeleine Bunting. Jon Kabat-Zinn continues his giant influence as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is weighed in the UK as part of National Health Services.


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.

Tuesday Reading Roundup

 

 

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. When DC was trying to relaunch some classics with 1980s grit and sadness, they turned to Frank Miller, who had already written The Dark Knight Returns. Year One is the story of the rising of James Worthington Gordon and The Batman, who in this telling both arrived to clean up Gotham on the same day. The new show Gotham has to be laboring under Frank Miller’s Batman’s shadow once again, although I’ve not read anything directly connecting the show to this book. At any rate, among the best parts of Year One has to be this.

Benediction by Kent Haruf. A few years ago, I adored Haruf’s Plainsong. Benediction has that earlier novel’s same simplicity, strong characterization, and focus on real story (not plot-drivenness, but story). For one instance that stands out in contemporary fiction, there are very few living novelists who can describe a meeting in a church basement where the basement is real and the people in it are real and the things they talk about and argue about and speak spitefully and speak charitably about are real. Holt, Colorado–where all of Haruf’s novels take place–is a real place.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Mantel’s Wolf Hall was among the best books of 2009, and its sequel is somehow just as good. The two books (and a third in-the-making) follow the life of Thomas Cromwell, who was born a commoner but rose to be a chief adviser to Henry VII (historical spoiler alert: but did not end his life happily). I am not someone who loves every British historical drama that comes along, but this is not just historical fiction. It’s just a great and ambitious novel. Which I’m only 1/4 of the way through.

“A Net, at last, for the Golden Gate Bridge?” by Tad FriendSixteen-hundred suicides in since its opening in 1937, the Golden Gate might finally be getting a net.

“An Open Letter to the Director of Blue Jasmine by Wade Sheeler. Although I’ve closely read most of the articles appearing in the wake of the resurfacing of child sexual abuse allegations, this isn’t one of them. Admittedly that makes it safer to share, but in my defense, it’s just a good article and few of the sex abuse allegation articles are. It’s from August 2013, and it calls Woody Allen to task for refusing to move beyond his long-time soundtrack choices.

Steve Jobs said a thing in an interview once, which was quoted on Twitter. It really reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s word to beginning writers that the most important thing is to actually finish what you’ve started, because the process is so great a teacher.

The Trinity (this ed.) by Saint Augustine. This is going to be on here a while. The introduction by Edmund Hill is fantastic, worth reading on its own for situating Augustine’s work theologically and historically. And then I shared a bit from Augustine himself yesterday.

“‘Tuches Sleeps With the Dictionary!’: Remembering Lester Schonbrun, and the dingy Times Square games parlor where he found a second home” by Stefan Fatsis. In this obituary over at Slate, Fatsis leads the reader into the wild world of boardgame hustlers and champions in 1960s and 1970s New York City.

“Waving to Virginia: Patti Smith Reads Virginia” by Maria Popova. Brain Pickings remembers the death of Virginia Woolf on March 28, 1941 with an archived performance/reading by Patti Smith.


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for a few years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been interesting, thought-provoking, and/or entertaining.