Same Old Story

I wrote this poem for my students before saying goodbye for the summer. A video of my performance for one class can be found here: 

you were born into a story you had no hand in writing
before you got here
people already thought a particular way about
your race
your sex
your potential abilities
the money your parents made: that was part of your story
the way people looked at you when they saw
your clothes
your house
your hygiene
and your education was based on how people predetermined
people like you turn out
they didn’t want to leave you behind
but they didn’t want you to get ahead
so instead they created a home for you inside of a box
and gave you just enough light to make you think you could see
and just enough air to make you believe you were breathing
it wasn’t a scheme
it wasn’t a plot
it was simply a way for them to keep contained what they couldn’t comprehend within their brains
you can blame them
but they, too, were born into stories they had no hand in writing
born into families that raised them to believe, “we are okay,
and everyone else is other.
we are right, and everyone else may be right as well,
but less so.”
instead of blaming them,
ask yourself how well you fit inside the box you’ve been placed in
if you have the audacity,
step outside the box and read the label
and ask yourself, “is this me?”
another way to phrase this is,
“who am I?
and who gets to decide?”
are the names
probably protestant
economically privileged
above any other name?
do societal norms get to dictate who gets to succeed?
and if I am different then that, then it must not be me?
you have been told that you are a product of your environment
but you were also born with feet to walk away from your environment
and create a new one
born with a voice to speak and say who you are not
born with hands to create and point to what you are
and true, there are those will try to silence you
and too often they will succeed
they will block the paths you choose to walk on
cut the mic you wish to speak from
tie the hands you try to create with
and too often the story you had no hand in writing
will end without your pen ever reaching the page
the multiple choice world didn’t like that you couldn’t fit your intelligence
within a, b, c, or d
so they failed you because you are “none of the above”
they gave you 26 lines and said, “write within the box.”
but you have an infinite amount of thoughts that cannot be captured
by factory-processed prompts
so they denied your college apps
your job apps
your improbability didn’t add up
so they kept you inside the box
that they might second guess
that might give them guilt
but it just makes sense
because they, too, were born into stories they were not invited
to edit or throw out
just told, “stick with the status quo.”
so they stuck with it
and stuck you to it
and all of us turn the gears of a machine that manufactures products of
environments we cannot survive in
but one day
while you were on break
at your minimum wage job
after days with no sleep
weeks with no relief
and years with no peace
you found a pen
and you checked your shoulder like you were trained
but for once no one was watching
and you didn’t have paper but you had a handkerchief
that you use to wipe the sweat away
so you used it to wipe the slate
and you wrote a story about a father
who cares for his daughter
despite what the world says about
fathers who look like him
and you couldn’t wait to wake your daughter
and tell her the story
and the next day
she found a paintbrush
and she created something that looks like nothing to no one
but you
and now it hangs in a frame in the hallway
because you said, “the fridge is no place for a masterpiece.”
and the next day she whispered the secret to her friends
about a story we weren’t told
a story so bold
that now they can barely hold their tongues
when handed tests that say nothing about them
and everything about the lie we were handed
and commanded not to change
but the truth finds its way through time
and fights its way through lies
and now there are boys and girls of every
color, shape, and size
age, orientation, and status
who tell the story to each other
and weigh what it means for them
and tell it in a different way
because they are becoming acutely aware of the radical idea
that no one can tell their story who is not holding the pen
one of them is your president
some of them are your teachers
all of them are your children
and all of us
are coming to check our stories out of your library
and never return them
because they were never yours to begin with
right now we are ripping the pages and adding new ones
we are skimming history and laughing at the way things used to be
we are creating entirely new ways of telling the truth that
our story is our story
and the only way to be a part of it is to understand
that before we got here
there was a story we had no hand in writing
but after we leave
it will never be the same

The State Squirrel of Kentucky

The first thing you should know about Kentucky before going there is that it is above Tennessee. Otherwise you will find yourself getting made fun of by people from Georgia.

Tim Bertram’s amazing painting. I had the honor of performing a new poem called “Nails” while he painted this. Very moving experience.

There are a few other things you might want to know about Kentucky, but let me back up for a second. About a year ago I started writing and performing spoken word poetry. I have performed at several events in the DFW area, but one of my mentors and close friends recently set me up with a Disciple Now gig in Kentucky.

Now, I have never been to Kentucky, nor any of its adjacent states. I was worried that my lack of know-how would make me look more Texan than I like to admit (which is very little). So, I spent the week prior to my first touring gig reading up on Kentucky facts on the ever-reliable Wikipedia. Very professional of me, I know.

Did you know that two of the five Backstreet Boys came out of Kentucky? Did you know that the state butterfly is the viceroy butterfly and that the state squirrel is the gray squirrel? Did you know that states have state butterflies and state squirrels? Apparently so.

This is, truthfully, about all I gathered from my extensive research. Impressive, no? I have to admit something though: I was far more worried about something else.

To put it bluntly, I’m not sure who I am. Life has been changing around me very quickly lately. I can tell people what I’m doing with my life for the first time in ever, I can tell them what interests me (sometimes I can’t stop), but I find it impossible to tell people who I am as a person minus the labels one could attach to me.

I have gone through a spiritual drought recently, and unfortunately I chose to go through it privately. Somewhere along the way, I found it harder to talk to God, harder to know what he wants for my life, and harder to know the person who inhabits this body that he created. Just as Kentucky was a foreign land to me, I was a foreigner to myself.

I saw this trip as a great opportunity to find out who I am in a place where no one knows me. You can learn a lot about yourself when surrounded by people who are complete strangers, strangely enough. They have no preconception of you, no reason to love or hate you before you have the chance to prove yourself. A grand adventure was most assuredly in store.

Last Thursday I flew into Paducah, which boasts the largest airport on no side of the Mississippi. They don’t have an airport bookstore; they just give the People magazines away for free. One Kentuckian (Kentuckite?) asked me if they used a flashlight to land the plane. I replied, “No, but the pilot told us to shout if we saw the airport first.”

I learned that if I ever date a quilter, Paducah is the place to take her, where the Quilting Convention will weave romance as complementary as its patterns (I’m clearly not too keen on how quilting—or romance—works).

I found myself in a Comfort Inn on the first night where I could only confirm the existence of myself and a desk receptionist. It had all the makings of a horror movie, so I didn’t even get to feel like a rock star for one minute.

I also spent a good deal of time in the hotel on that first night worrying and doubting myself. I feared what I might learn about myself from this experience if people didn’t like me. It’s a pride thing, I know, but it has taken time for me to grasp that you can be egotistical in a negative way too.

My new friends Crystal, Bonnie, Tim, Chris, Michael, and Tim. We’ve got Tims to spare.

Then Friday came. On the bill with me for the weekend was the Tim Johnson Band, a worship band out of Atlanta (yes, the very ones who picked on my locational ignorance) and Tim Bertram, a painter from the Quilting Capital of the World. These people—the two Tims, Bonnie, Crystal, Michael, and Chris—were so incredible that they deserve a book, not just a few lines in a blog post.

Joining us were 16 local churches in Kentucky as we all filled a fellowship center in Benton, world-famous for nothing. Or perhaps they are world-famous for kindness, which is a lot more than nothing actually.

Spoiler alert: I had one of the most incredible weekends of my life. I felt the worship in my bones for the first time in a long time, I connected with the powerful words of Tim Bertram, I poured my soul into some poems that really seemed to touch people’s hearts, and I made some wonderful new friends.

All weekend I was being asked about my life, about what makes me who I am. But I got so wrapped up in what God was doing in little Benton that I forgot to worry about who I was for just a moment. It’s a great feeling, letting God dwell in the place doubt inhabited just the day prior.

On the last night some teens asked for pictures with me, and some for autographs. I don’t know how to give autographs, so I wrote “thank you” like there’s no tomorrow and drew some pictures because words, oddly enough, don’t always cut it for me. Some teens even told me that I look like Justin Timberlake (I know, I need a moment too). It was all very surreal.

My new friends at Pathway Baptist, who fed me, drove me, and—most importantly—invited me to worship with them.

The Ben I thought I knew would’ve let all these great moments go straight to his ego. I would’ve filledmy holes of self-doubt and deprecation with momentary happiness and praise. But someone else—thankfully—came forward: The moments that filled my heart the most were those when teens told me I spoke to them where they are in life, that I helped them see things in a new light. The moments that meant the most ended up being those when I was laughing with Tim, Tim, and Tim’s band, and hanging out with kids and extremely caring adults (Pathway Baptist, here’s looking at you).

I was humbled, moved, and inspired.

As I spent time with the people around me, I watched the way they embodied Christ and I admired it. Love and humility seeped through their words when they talked about anything; it was nothing short of a miracle to a guy whose passion is his words, but stumbles over statements of faith in regular conversation.

Instead of figuring out who I was, I found out who I want to be. I realized that I wanted to be surrounded by people like this all of the time, because I want to be just like them. They emanate Christ through every word, interaction, and characteristic. The people of Kentucky (and Georgia) know who they are: They are sons and daughters of a God who loves them more than any self-doubt or sin could cripple them.

The people of Kentucky also know who I am: I am a son of a God who loves me more than any self-doubt or sin could cripple me. They saw and graciously pointed out that I possess a gift that can glorify God in spite of myself.

Remember how I said the Kentucky state squirrel is the gray squirrel? I had never seen a gray squirrel, but I did this weekend. One of the band members pointed it out, and I was glad he did. No one in the band thought it was a big deal, as if they expected it to be there. I guess sometimes you just need someone to show you what was there all along.