What Would Jesus Do? On Faith and Marriage Equality

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I am a Christian. Do you know what that means? But before you judge me, know that I fully support marriage equality.

When I first declared my support for marriage equality, other “Christians” professing the Faith looked at me with sudden scorn, a visceral kind of hatred concealed in judgment and in other cloaked sentiments not worthy of discussion.

Over the past few days, I have been accused of apostasy, of promoting/endorsing sin, of being a fraud, and so on. I have been called cruel-and-unusual names and condemned by so-called “friends” and by others who consider themselves faithful. And yet I’m not fazed because Jesus foretold of these events. “As they persecuted Me,” He warned, “will they also persecute you.”

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But today’s blog post isn’t personal. It’s about resurrecting the spark now fallen, raising a light in the darkened skies; it’s about promoting a vision of faith based on Love.

Sometimes people with good intentions, very good intentions actually, approach me. They are stargazers and light-seekers, friends and family members and even strangers who genuinely pursue relief from splintered eyes, clarity from the murky darkness of confusion. They want to see as I see, or at least they want to know why and how I see as I do.

Ever since June 26, 2015, the day the U.S. Supreme Court decided marriage equality would be the law of the land, these light-seekers, these stargazers have questioned. One genuinely wanted to know why I supported marriage equality. She wrote:

I read your article “in defense of love.”  While we all have a right to choose whom we will serve, I’m curious as to how you came to your position given the fact that you love God.  

Putting feelings aside, did you use the Bible in any of your research for this article? If so, what did you find? If not, why didn’t you?

An inquiring mind just wants to understand.

I haven’t responded to her until now. It has taken me a few days to digest her question I guess because my perspectives on politics and faith are personal. However I do think that I merit some responsibility should my explanation serve to enlighten—for one of the chief miracles of Christ was restoring sight to the blind. Having received deliverance of the plank from my eye, I hope my explanation and Biblical defense of marriage equality sheds spiritual light on some.

The Darkness in Light

My faith does, in fact, inform my politics. Indeed, in my decision to fully support marriage equality, the lamp of my faith has guided me. Christianity and many of the other major faiths (e.g., Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Atheism) center values of peace abiding through hope. However, the main premise of Christianity adds to hope, Love.

Love is the final yet enduring element, eternal and imperishable, giving life to the Faith. It is the totality of the Law and all other just laws. It keeps the most holy sacraments of the Faith untraceable, resolved and sustained undeniable.

There is nothing that a person can do to earn this Love. It is given freely, extended by Grace as grace to us. We don’t earn it. We are all sinners, but God grants it to us anyway.

However, those blinded by fictions of faith—the practices that belie Love—believe that they have purchased heaven, that in some meritocratic way, they can own bliss—having rights to include and exclude as by lottery, but in accordance only with the stubborn stirrings of ethnocentrism and hegemonic conceit. They believe that they can negotiate with God—haggle wages not promised to them while denying others God’s enduring generosities.

I believe in marriage equality because those who oppose it also oppose light and yet cling to darkness.

The Dead Word

The clingers of darkness, lost in the seductive obscurity of the night, abide by a doctrine of darkness, and in the spirit of hate-filled intolerance, they persist. These so-called believers, in their exaggerated zeal and with their pompous authority, work as extremists themselves, exalting their domain above righteousness to our collective peril. Their mission is to be right instead of getting it right. They become the worst kinds of believers—fundamentalists who are more-or-less pimps of faith overly eager to use the bondage of people’s devotion to God to control, manipulate, divide and impart hatred.

These are instructed by doctrines of darkness, and their word is dead. Their dead word is, also, often dated. Regrettably, it romanticizes a bygone era, and postures itself along some fixed continuum of history locked in the bronze age—where women and men portray puppets on a stage of strings, outfitted in the drag of gods pretending to be kings.

Moreover, attending faith gatherings (in churches, mosques, and temples) in this historical occult is like moving in and out of a dream or a nightmare (rarely is there a difference). In this space, people masquerade as true believers but through a carnival of medieval compliance lived with an enthusiasm and unrelenting recital of an overly religious Renaissance festival. To practice modern faith, in so many situations, requires this slip in time, a digression to a place where people are actualized uneven—some as peasantry and others as nobility. It is in this disturbing liturgy of people equally born of the common pains, that we, at the whims of power and control, are given titles as inhumane as master and slave. The dead word’s fixation on this oppressive praxis is both sad and laughable.

Perhaps worst is the dead word’s reliance on metaphors of war and devastation. That is, the dead word abides by linguistic systems of pillaging and lexicons of oppression. Its meanings survive through a factory of fears, each foreshadowing mass devastation and destruction, each appealing to perilous pathologies made real by our darkest dreams and nightmares (rarely is there a difference).

The faith of the dead word, too, is lifeless because it is based on contracts of hate, whose only evidence of vigor abounds in clusterings of non-believers (or so-called “saints”) who dine on the promises of scorched flesh. (One would never believe how many so-called Christians demand hell stones to rain from heaven as vengeance for the Supreme Courts marriage equality decision.) Because Love does not discriminate, the “saints” have called on their gods to kill to justify their cause. And this sacrifice of flesh is idolatry, a high sin in most modern faiths.

I believe in marriage equality because the doctrinal principles that oppose it are dead, not living.

The Living Word

The faith that led me to support marriage equality is alive. It survives through the Living Word, and the Living Word, like other living documents that govern and give freedom (i.e., the Constitution of the United States), must be understood in context and in its complexity, but also in the situations of real people. In this sense, the Living Word assumes a dynamic quality, possessing the resplendent prosperities of a flexibility fitted to the changing times and the unpredictable eddies that flow freely from human existence.

Insomuch as it retains relevance today, the Living Word moves and abounds with the people and culture, with love and in the pursuit of life. For this reason, true and lasting faiths boast a kind of resilience, capable of adapting to meet the ever-evolving needs and circumstances of people.

The Living Word doesn’t relinquish the doctrinal rites—i.e., the commandments of God. Rather, it interprets and refashions them in keeping with the greater designs of God. Love God, and in doing so, love others as you love yourself.

These commandments are summed up by Jesus, who said, “I have come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” Moreover, Paul continues, giving testament of Jesus: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Paul maintains in The Book of Romans that Love, as in Christ, “is the fulfillment of the law.”

So why am I now focusing on the Law–or what can be otherwise understood as the legislated word? The legislated word, if lacking life, is also the dead word. Then, it has little authority over true believers, for such a law is perishable. For example, it was once common (and lawful) for a man to marry a sister, for a man of wealth to take many wives (and perhaps even a few concubines). It has been common (though corruptible) in the histories of humanity for the young to be betrothed to the old, for masters to make of servants vessels of sex. The examples of historical/Biblical revision are many.

I believe in marriage equality because my faith is not static, stuck in the past, nor immutable, captive to inevitability.

The Christian Case for Marriage Equality

On the question of marriage equality, Christianity occupies a peculiar space. In the beginning, it fought an exclusive cult(ure) to include the excluded. And like those who persecute us now for advocating marriage equality, followers of that cult(ure), who lived the dead word, persecuted Jesus for resisting their embrace of intolerance. And so they tried to kill Him. They attempted to bury Him but didn’t know He was seed.

The Bible speaks of these, the Pharisees and the scribes who advanced to kill Christ. The point I’m trying to make is that the persecutors of Christ are still with us, for the persecutors of Christ are little different than those who persecute us today for advocating marriage equality. Thus, having a form of the faith, they are faithless–hypocrites who, in the words of Christ, are merely “a brood of vipers.”

This brood claims to know the mind of God, though filled with conceit and faithless arrogance. When they pray they boast, while also accusing us—we who pray more sincerely—of crimes that they themselves have conjured, of which they themselves are not cured.

Their accusations are pitiful but familiar: “How could You sit with sinners?” they ask while they themselves sit in sin. They falsely declare that we (and our Christ) are devils and deceivers because we refuse the tainted cup from which they drink.

They did not know Him, and they do not know us though they profess Him and condemn us. Yet in their pitiful panics and boastful feats (both equally evil), they often judge, and without love, they have judged too harshly. In so doing, they harm both Him and His people—those of us He loves and sits with, heals and extends unearned Grace, tender Mercies, and the forgiveness of sins.

One can see the darkness in these so-called Christians now given the light that marriage equality has shed. Living in darkness, they do not abide by the Living Word. Hence, they can only oppose marriage equality because they maintain a darkness obscured to the Love that wills it.

Toward a New Light

Indeed, in darkness, we are all victims. For instance, I have a friend who has a son who was born gay. For most of his life, she sequestered him in a secret kind of shame. Her “faith,” which endures in darkness, for years has led her to loathe her son. However, his only fault has been not fitting the fictions of her faith. Of course, she would never admit that her beliefs could be wrong. Instead, she imposes on her son undue blame for being the son whom she bore.

The dead word that stifles relationships like my friend and her son’s and makes rational its own deceits has given us a history of religious persecutions—the Inquisitions and crusades, the jihads and Bibighar massacre, to name a few. The dead word has long waged war against good sense—demanded a stilted solar system that held earth at its center instead of the sun, a patriarchy that maintains a woman’s right to be seen yet unheard. History has proven this dead word wrong time and again.

The Living Word, however, endures because it evolves. In its evolution, it moves humanity forward and closer to God. In so doing, it allows each of us to love a little more and, with that, a little better. It frees us from the tangles of unnecessary religious burdens.

The Living Word—which gives me defense in supporting marriage equality—appreciates marriage, a union of Love affirmed by God and contracted by His love. The marriage bed is undefiled; thus, the covenant of marriage, gay or straight or otherwise, promises a treaty of Life against the thousand daily deaths dealt by loneliness and the anguish of a life lived uncommitted.

If two people love each other, then let them marry, the Bible says. For what God has joined together let no man or woman put asunder.

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David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

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IN DEFENSE OF LOVE

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. . . the purpose of being here, wherever we are, is to increase the durability and the occasions of love among and between peoples. Love, as the concentration of tender caring and tender excitement, or love as the reasons for joy. I believe that love is the single, true prosperity of any moment and that whatever and whoever impedes, diminishes, ridicules, opposes the development of loving spirit is “wrong”/hateful.

—June Jordan

I am not sure when it happened. I am not sure why it happened. All I know is that today we find ourselves grappling with the untenable truth that love is in danger.

I first recognized this reality recently when I met Justin and his longtime partner Jack. Justin and Jack epitomized the power of the heart’s good intentions. Their love was storied through thoughtful conversations and laughter, sullen hands clasped and whispers, a sincere and genuine concern for one another, and an invincible bond that would make super glue look lax.

Justin held Jack’s endearing eyes in his own, held them with the strength and blind fascinations of seriousness and faith. He held them tightly with the frank qualities of delight, those existential yearnings that twin the dawn of gravity and pretend the draw of magnetism. Jack said that he loved the way Justin first “saw” him. He said that he had never been gazed upon with such beauty and depth, such steadiness and care, that no one had ever humanized him so fully with only a stare. Not only did he feel human in Justin’s ocular embrace; he felt loved.

For their love, the two young men dedicated the promise of a life together, a life that made sense to them, to be led on their terms between the ironies of false abominations and above the lucidity of empty accusations and the revulsions of ignorance and judgment. Their nuptials, however, would be made in secret. They would have to settle for an unspoken ceremony because in Michigan and 37 other states in our country two men cannot marry—at least not legally. If marriage is meant to perform an open act of love, then in 38 states, two men, two people of the same sex, cannot legally stage their love in public. And this is appalling!

Some might think that marriage between one woman and one man is the issue. However, the mere suggestion privileges a definition of marriage that confines love to sets of forced dualities, of conventional commitments that license the heterosexual “norm” over all other possible love configurations. Too often this confining of marriage to one woman and one man restricts the freedom for which love strives.

Others have argued that love in marriage doesn’t exist, only a complex play of interests that wears the disguise of love, the patriarchal masks of tradition and convenience, of woman given to man to leverage personal gain in an otherwise treacherous sea of inopportunity and misogynistic thirsts. Here, love becomes a possession, somewhat of a toy, disposed in random fits, handled with carelessness, like the disheveled certainty of those who feel they own love in ways that permit them to exploit it without exploring its hidden, more illustrious and transformational depths.

Still others have blamed faith, which abides with Love, suggesting that the dogma of entrenched beliefs tied to the morsel of “god” to which their bigotries cling demands that love as expressed through marriage be “pure” and “protected,” unsullied and preserved for some righteous elect for whom, in the name of “love,” they get to bear witness and define.

In all honesty, I don’t know who to blame for this current crusade against love in our country nor am I interested in blaming anyone. However, I do want to make a case in defense of love—the kind of love that Justin and Jack share. In so doing, I hope that we might recall the inspiration to save love and, in the process, save ourselves.

In the coming weeks the U.S. Supreme Court will decide on the constitutionality of two related matters: California’s Proposition 8 (2008), which banned same-sex marriage (the proposal was later overturned by the State’s Supreme Court not long after its adoption), and Congress’s use of the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) to withhold federal benefits from same-sex couples who are legally married in the states where they reside. The impeding decisions have been viewed by some gay-rights advocates as a historic opportunity to establish same-sex marriage (or what I have called non-discriminatory marriage) nationwide. Whether this is true or not, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling will require us to look deeply into the core of our national soul and define its location with respect to love.

Regardless of what it decides, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision promises to be groundbreaking because, in many ways, marriage as a legal/civil issue, in the face of love’s danger, has become a moral and personal one. Hence, at issue here are great philosophical concerns with which we must grapple. These concerns go beyond debates about who has the right to propose to whom. At the heart of the issues is a single, crucial question: Who has the right to love?

In both instances referred to above, the U.S. Supreme court will be deciding an issue far bigger than that of marriage rights. As the modern marriage has become merely a ceremonial expression of the heart’s tastes, the decisions will spell out the conditions of our rights as citizens, as human entities, to practice love and have that practice affirmed openly and civically by contracts of the State. The decision will also speak to an issue of governance: Does the State have the right to govern the heart? Here, my hope is that the Court decides to pull away from fear and intolerance, which have led the steady push to legislate the terms of love and the conditions upon which that love might be declared.

Still, in this current cultural struggle, fear seems to be triumphing over freedom. With the passage of the heavy-handed and limited Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), marriage was explicitly defined in federal law as a union of one man and one woman. Enacted in 1996, DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions and allows each state to reject same-sex marriages performed in other states. While over a dozen jurisdictions have legalized same-sex marriage through court rulings, legal actions, and the vote, seven states have prohibited it by statue and 30 other states prohibit it in their constitutions.

Indeed, this outlawing of same-sex marriage across the U.S. is an act of fear (if not terror)—a fear that suggests that our children and we need fences surrounding our hearts not to protect the heart, but insidiously to protect us against the outer limits of love. This fear suggests that we cannot and should not have the freedom to choose who to love, and if we do, that freedom must be limited by gender and number thus making it not a freedom at all, but a farce. Of course, the messinesses of moral dalliance and corruptible beliefs inform such fear, but it is fear, and fear alone, that is the impetus driving our war against love.

In this light, love is revealed threatened by our fear of it. And also in this light, the Court’s decisions concerning love will reverberate through the bend of history, which seems always strained between two impulses: the impulse to affirm our freedoms or hold fast to our fears. As I have suggested, fear has legislated against love that through our laws we might inoculate the heart and the hearts of our children against certain types of love that we deem inappropriate or, worst, “different.”

History has also taught us that, in defense of freedom, our best laws privilege rights over restrictions. These rights, as opposed to restrictions, have made our democracy possible and durable. If you are arrested in this country, you have the right to remain silent and given due process in a court of your peers. You also have the freedom of speech against tyrannical forms of censorship and, yes, the right to bear arms. Given all our rights, given all our “freedoms,” doesn’t it seem ironic that absent from the list is perhaps the most basic of human liberties: the right to love?

Some heterosexual couples who enjoy fruitful marriages might argue that we (as in one man and one woman) do have the right to love. For them, this illusion plays out as true because they ever feel free to stage the scenes of their acknowledged bonds openly. But this play of freedoms is merely a hopeful fiction. Until all people have the right to love whomever they choose, then we all shall be restricted from the right to love freely.

It is this restriction that Justin and Jack has dealt with daily, for daily they must fit their love in a box, restrict it to the shadows away from our most indecent fears so that people afraid of their kind of love won’t be offended. Perhaps Jack put it best: “It’s easy to love Justin, but it’s not easy to show that I love him when everyone’s looking.”

Yet, if we ever truly looked at them should we ever choose to stare at their secret expressions of love, we might understand how tragically insecure we are. Why else would we fence love behind the gates of heteronormativity? But even bound, love is resilient, and it persists. This is true for Justin and Jack. Love found them and many others like them in earnest even while we were writing laws and silent treaties to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

I last saw Justin in a room at a workshop. He said to me that he dreamed to one day marry Jack, to share their kind of love with the world. And looking into his eyes as they leapt across the room to greet Jack, I became convinced that no one has the right to deny Justin this dream, to deny him love. While his dream remains deferred, his love remains alive. You could feel it as Justin’s and Jack’s eyes kiss with an intensity that only true lovers know.

The Night I Heard the Walls Cry

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As a little boy, I grew up inhaling the sun-kissed, muggy air of an old gutted out flat. We called it a Pentecostal church. Back then my yearning ears would recline in the breaths, the heavy plumes of sound, cadence, and echo, that ushered laboriously beneath the Preacher’s raspy hum:

“If these walls  . . . uh . . . could talk . . . they would tell you . . . they would tell you, uh . . . there is nothing new . . . under the Sun.”

After the Preacher would labor through his burdened breaths, Grandma, sitting next to me, would shake her head, her round body mimicking its motion, affirming the Preacher’s statement up and down: “A-men Pastor!”

This interchange of calls and responses would play back beat to more burdens and breaths, punctuating the Preacher’s ecumenical statements with voiced exclamation points that rippled through air like floating ellipses.

Grandma, rocking back and forth, up and down, would sink into the timeworn divots of the long wooden pew and fan herself vigorously in wait of some ill-reserved breeze that might air-condition the perspiration casing her melting flesh. She would agree that there is nothing new under sun: “I done seen it all honey, but there is new life on the other side of the sun.”

Sister Cadwell, seated not too far away from us, would shout in a key of her own: “HA-LLEL-LU-AH, Thank you JE-SUS!” And while unexpected, her sudden burst of conviction would evoke no one’s response. It was part of the natural jazz of the space, part of its music of strength overcoming sorrow, part of the enduring song that stretched above the sun where new things are possible. It was the echo of life that grandma would speak of when talking about heaven, suns, and new things.

I would hear this same music years later when I returned to the church to bury my grandmother.

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Sitting at the church today, I notice the hush of progress. Not much has changed. The long curtains flung against the buried windows still drag low just above the surface of the floor. Divoted wooden pews still line the surface of the sanctuary in receptive rows all pointed at the pulpit. There are still noises sequestered in the walls, whispers that hold onto the secrets of what’s not new under the sun.

Sitting there, I am taken by the blossoming of remembrances, of old small things hidden under the sun. There is the memory of Grandma’s heavy hands uplifted toward the ceiling of the church. Her face is folded into a less than subtle expression of her thousand agonies ascending from her orbed-shaped body to the four celestial winds of unseen things. This sculpture of pain gives art but decadence to her soul, its tragedies and weakening sorrows, the very essence of whom she had stubbornly resisted.

Seeing her in my mental periphery—eyes tightly pressed with fixed lids so closely milled as to deny even the shadows of light—I recall the reclusive tear, which struggled down her blazoned cheek. It looks a lot like the tears that drenched my face that day, and the tears of many others who have flooded the space to pay their respects to Mother Johnson, my grandmother.

I wipe my tears away. I don’t want her to see me cry. Instead, I want to see her more clearly.

*

Church was asylum for a blues people at a time when their sorrow songs were sang out of Eden, while they labored hungry in the wilderness passing time picking apples until they, like grandma had, reached the Promised Land. For cherished people like grandma, church was an orchard for naked souls to bathe drunk in the cider of God’s deferred graces until God granted them permission to pick up last (-ing) apples and leave the Forrest of forbidden fruits fulfilled.

When she left, new leaves petalled on grandma’s ripened apple tree. And somewhere, between shades of fallen apples and new petals blossoming, I could hear the Preacher hum:

“If these walls, uh, could talk . . . they would tell you . . . uh . . . there is nothing new under the Sun.”

The Preacher didn’t realize that the walls were much like my grandmother; they could talk. Like my grandmother, they were wise though reserved. They preferred to listen and sing to themselves whispers and songs of truth, of leaf-clothed apple trees withering un-freely beneath the naked sun.

*

Eddie Kirkland strolls into the church, singing my grandmother’s song. Her soul, in harmony with his guitar, jazzes into the  inner courts of carnal heaven much like the Spirit of the wind dancing secretly in the celestial meadows of deferred dreams.

Even the creases at the corners of the walls hear and begin to echo Eddie Kirkland’s song. And his blues revives her, if only for a moment. She lies in front of the room as still as the walls surrounding her doing what she and they often do: She listens.

“I am so tired,” Eddie Kirkland’s fifth daughter says just before the shades close their eyes. The moan of the blues man slumbers into the ancient aura of apple-fattened walls. And grandma looks dead again.

I am sitting, staring at the man with the dark coat standing over grandma’s frozen body. I ask momma, Eddie Kirkland’s fifth daughter, who is the man with the dark coat?  She isn’t quite sure, but she says, “Maybe one of grandma’s friends.” I think to myself, grandma’s friends never wore dark coats. It would ruin their wings.

A host of other people enters the church quietly like entering a library. (The unspoken soul is a curious thing. People say so much when they say nothing.) Interrupted. Ms. Ann, my grandmother’s other friend—the one without wings—screams into the quiet room, upsetting the ether, bending the silence, but not reviving the dead. I once heard the Preacher instruct, “For everything, there is a season.”  I think to myself: maybe this is the season for granny’s friends—even the ones without wings—to make loud, sudden noises.

“Don’t look so down,” momma says. She sounds a lot like grandma now.

“There go the Caldwells,” she notices.

The Caldwells notice her too. After visiting grandma’s frozen body, which is in the front of the room, the Caldwells make their way to where we are. They sit behind us.

“How you doing, Mul-lean?”

“As good as to be expected.”

“I understand honey. You remind me so much of Dixie. Your grandmother meant so much to us, dear. We have to get together sometime soon. I know that’s what Dixie would want.”

“Ok,” my mother says just before the walls squeal. Am I the only one in the room, besides my grandmother, who can hear them?

*

My mother and the Caldwells never got together. Despite the fact, I never will understand why the seasoned take so kindly to the young. Maybe we remind them of steps once taken—better yet of steps that should never be taken or steps that could still be taken. Whatever the case, I remembered at that moment while listening to the lament of walls my grandmother’s incredible love, particularly her love for me.

Gazing at my grandmother’s crestfallen face peeking out the open casket, I remembered how she loved me and told me that her love for me would endure forever. And if there is anything common beneath the sun, indeed it is this thing we call love, yet the ways of love seemed, to me then as they do now, to be quite unique, so utterly personal and new that when hearing the Preacher say, “There is nothing new under the Sun,” I instantly questioned his truth.

Love is erected like walls. On one side it contains intentions of the heart. On the other side it leaves open vast space for new intentions to emerge.

Love grows old like walls. Listens like walls. And is sturdy within its own walls. It eclipses the space between old and new. Though flesh decays and lives pass on, Love is eternal like the whispers of walls, which speak of the secrets of new things.

Love echoes the forgotten voices and sometimes sings the remembered blues. But under the sun, it’s eclipsing beyond its own walls. In this space—the space of the heart, the space of a grandmother’s love, Love inspires not only new music, but also new life.

For a while, long after she had left life’s orchard, I could still hear Eddie Kirkland out there, singing my grandmother’s song, telling her secrets. Unfortunately, we listeners are usually too clumsy, too casual, and too busy moaning to our own blues to hear to the song of walls or the passing truths that resound silently in their cries.

I heard the walls cry one night, and, listening, my ears faintly glimpsed the sound of new stars shining on the other side of the sun.