A couple years ago, I took my white family to see the Langston Hughes production Black Nativity in a small church in a historically Black neighborhood in Portland. The pews were packed, and the performance space overflowed into the audience. We were specifically invited to sing and stand and move as we felt led. When, in the telling of Jesus’ birth, the lovingly wrapped black plastic baby doll was carried down the aisle, my four- and six-year-old kids whispered to me in awe “Hey, we know that guy!”
My reactions were mixed. First, I was grateful that they recognized this little baby Black Jesus as the very Jesus they’d been hearing about in First Day School. I’d had some trepidation about what exactly they were being told there, while I worshipped with the adults every Sunday. I did not grow up in a religious tradition, so I have always felt a bit itchy about biblical stuff and can experience a mild Jesus allergy at times. This was the source of the second aspect of my mixed reaction to my daughters’ excitement – it made me wonder: What is it about “That Guy”?
In the years since, I’ve deliberately learned more about Christian theology. Perhaps I’ve learned just enough to appreciate that it has been the “co-opted by Empire” version of Jesus that has been rubbing me the wrong way, the ahistorically white and all-dominating Jesus. The Black Jesus my daughters pointed out to me was easier to recognize as the Jesus of resistance, of liberation, of universal compassion. My allergy has diminished.
That encounter with baby Black Jesus feels further in the past than just a couple years ago. So much about that scene is distant from today: the crowded church, the bodily warmth of strangers, singing together. I miss sitting among people I don’t know, but more specifically, I miss how that pre-pandemic time offered opportunities for communities of different backgrounds to speak truth directly to my children.
When I think about the future – for my kids, the world, the Religious Society of Friends – I find I am not sure at all that “The Future” is a helpful concept to me. At least not from my singular perspective with my individual aspirations and hopes. What feels helpful right now is staying open to a million more moments of meeting Black Jesus, of being able to say, “We know that guy,” wherever we see beauty and strength among us. What feels helpful is holding up the sacred in one another, holding onto solidarity wherever we find it, and creating our story together right here and now.
I realize that sounds almost as impossibly lofty as trying to envision The Future. The reality is, as a parent of school-age kids, my life is fundamentally moment-to-moment. The Future is typically no more distant than the next Zoom meeting. For those of you without kids, I’ll treat you to a time-lapse montage of our living room: It’s a playroom! Shhhh! It’s now a classroom! Quick, move everything because it’s now a ballet studio! Scootch over - this side is my office while that side is your art space. Can you turn the volume down on the TV? It’s still my office. Okay, let’s clean everything up because now it’s dinner!
That’s exhausting just to read, right? If Black Jesus entered my living room, I’d likely ask him to help put away the Legos without even making eye contact. I’m sure he’d graciously help, but I regret that he would feel the continuous distance I am experiencing between my actual self and the truly-present self I’d like to be.
A lot of parents I know find this time of pandemic marked by many tensions: Tensions between our hopes to limit screen time and the reality of online school, between what is expected and what is possible, between what we would like for our kids and what is available to us. Tension between siblings. Tension in our shoulders and necks at the end of another long day.
Then there is another interesting tension. Between recognizing what is broken about the world right now and feeling grateful to have more time with our kids. And time itself is another weird tension. It feels oddly long and short at the same time. Ask any parent at 3:00 PM what is going to happen by the end of their day – Oy!
I can’t look too far into the future right now. When I think about the future, what appears is a messy casserole of vaccine hopes, economic anxiety, anticipation of hugging friends again, and ambivalence about returning to the “normal” pace of our lives.
And I can’t even remember what my “past self” thought a good future might look like for my kids. Care for the earth and for each other. Growing into the best versions of their authentic selves. Learning their own strengths and gifts in relationship with others. Much of this I suppose remains the same. But I feel more uncertain about how this might happen.
Back when time was still working according to the old rules, I experienced the future as a steady and measured progression. I think I viewed it like the text in the opening to Star Wars – a single story being written toward a vanishing point.
I can no longer orient myself that way. I’m not sure what parts of our current story will march off into a singular, purposeful direction. I can’t be the only one feeling like this: finding a really great deal on a pair of used kids’ soccer cleats in next season’s size is a spiritually challenging situation for me. Will soccer be a thing again? What size feet will we all have when we can play on a soccer team again?
My best friend/husband Austin, pointed out that my anxious uncertainty about The Future is a perfect opportunity for me to reach out to the people he calls the “Spiritual Heavyweights” in my life. These are the handful of people whose wisdom I rely on and whose counsel I trust. They orient me.
I called dear friends, mostly women. Some Quaker, some not. Some in my generation, some older. I called a couple of Quakers I admire deeply, women I wanted to know better. Each of these Spiritual Heavyweights said wise things, kind things, helpful things, and funny things. They were universally grounded in hope.
We affirmed the reality that this last year has revealed underlying societal issues that require a dedication to justice and social change. We agreed that addressing climate change was urgent. They echoed many truths I was struggling to articulate, like “individualism is a problem,” “an insistence on linear, mechanistic time is oppressive,” and “we need a more expansive and inclusive grounding in the present.”
These conversations with my Spiritual Heavyweights took place over many days. My friends helped me find my bearings in the specificity of my present life. I could even look at my time warp living room a bit differently. One part of the room changes slowly and there is room enough here for me to invite you, my reader, a little further in. It is a wall called Bunnytown, our seven-year-old’s ongoing art project. It is equal parts mural, performance art, and world creation. She’s been working on this since she was in preschool.
She’s building a world that I would like to live in. No COVID. No climate change. All of the animals get along. Anyone can go to Baker Bear’s Bakery for a treat. Freddy Bob and Sally Bob Jorphins just had a new baby. Mazel tov!
But I can no more live in Bunnytown than I can envision The Future. I worry that if I try to articulate my hopes, they will just sound like descriptions of Bunnytown, framed in fancy vocabulary. Fortunately, our Quaker tradition values sitting with good questions and doesn’t demand fast and concrete answers.
When I think about the conversations I have had with my Spiritual Heavyweights, what sticks with me most isn’t the content, but the energy. Not the specific wise words, but the generosity and solidarity. I’m reminded that we aren’t supposed to do any of this alone. We aren’t meant to project our individual stories onto the future with the goal of envisioning an ideal world; rather, we are meant to muck around in a murky present with good company.
When our family attends Zoom meeting for worship, we sit on the couch in front of Bunnytown. The kids wiggle around and the dog gets up to wag his tail at the camera. I’ve heard from a few Friends that they enjoy our chaotic little Zoom window and the Bunnytown behind us. Our daughter has plans to make pieces of Bunnytown to mail out to other Quakers, so they can put them up behind them and we can all be in Bunnytown together. For now, that may be as helpful a model as any for building a better future together.
Natalie Ramsland is a bike designer by profession and a maker-of-things by nature. She shares a big life in a small house with her two daughters, her husband, and a bouncy dog. She is a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM). Photo is by the author.