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A Minnesota mother mourns her 10-year-old son making the transition from Black boy to Black man

August, 2020

I love William … still. His laugh that fills a room, his smile that tickles your toes. He gives these full body hugs, cradling the back of my head, then kisses me and says, “I love you so much.”

He still wants to sit on my lap, all 4 feet 9 of him with his size 7 shoes. But at 10 years old the world is loving him less, and he is taking notes. He sees what this world does to Black bodies. He’s been to the site of George Floyd’s killing. He saw the list of the dead in bold letters on the sidewalk. He understands his mortality.

“I don’t want to be an adult,” he tells me.

I sit back and let those words sink in. He’s figured it out. That to be like him, to look like him, to be full-grown could spell death. The transition has happened. It took place without my knowing. I, in the swirl of an adult’s daily life, did not see the mask he was putting on. As my baby became a boy, he could see the facial expressions and the body language of others shift. The assumptions of wrongdoings at school. The seeing and unseeing of him.

At school, when there was still school, he would huddle with friends who mirror his reflection. They would trade not only in basketball stories and bad jokes but in lifesaving strategies to keep them safe from the boys in blue. William would make choices not to join white friends in their mischief, knowing that mischief could be deadly for him. His light was dimmed, while I wasn’t watching.

This year he turned 10 and I turned 50 and the world was turned upside down. From school to home he’s been full of anger, stress and frustration. He’s a beautiful mess. It’s being 10, it’s this moment, and it’s his Blackness catching up to him.

These past few months have been illuminating. This is the gift of having a son who can freely articulate his feelings. He opens the window to his world, and I lean in and wait for the breeze.

He says he pretends to be happy because that’s what he knows people want to see. He says he changes the pitch of his voice, so people don’t think he sounds angry. Police scare him. He knows there are good ones … it’s just how can you tell the difference? He says he’s angry all the time and doesn’t know why or what to do.

The light is not gone. William loves fiercely. He still runs and bikes around our neighborhood, carefree and unafraid, the wind in his face. Neighbors still greet him, some with love.

But the world has come for him. You can see it in the slump of his shoulders.

I knew this was inevitable, but I still cry and feel helpless. How do I make this OK? How do I fix it? Then I take a deep breath and realize that I can only do what I have been doing. Love him fiercely. Tell him what I know to be true. Give him space to be emotional, to be angry. Listen and love him again.

If only I can get him through this moment … what a beautiful, caring human being he will be. He was made to make this world a better place. He just needs to survive us.

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Raising a black boy: Why I need to talk to my 5-year-old about race

Feb-2016

I love my son.

He is not of me. Born of African parents. Birthed in Bemidji, a tiny thing, barely able to see.

I held him as soon as he came into the world. Perfect and beautiful. Curled up on my chest, fingers outstretched. Dreaming the dreams that sprinkle smiles on his face.

Ever since I was small, I collected ideas and stories to help me raise the child I knew I’d some day have. I learned the most from my mentor, a kindergarten teacher from my hometown of Roosevelt Island, N.Y. Her name was Pat Semenza.

Semenza taught me the importance of engaging young people as full humans. To treat children with respect and empower them to make their own decisions. To love them and see them for who they really are.

So with that tiny baby boy in my arms I thought of my mentor’s words. I remembered her graceful presence in my young life as I looked at my son.

As soon as that boy could walk, he ran. Family members and friends chased William in a constant loop around our block. Neighbors and strangers stopped and gushed over him. It was a stream of smiles and hi fives as he made his way around our Minneapolis neighborhood again and again.

I watched him toddle, walk and run, always stretching out the space between us. I thought how free he must feel. As he ran farther and farther, I thought how free he must feel, how open his world must be.

He loved the world and the world loved him back.

But for how long?

Even as I marveled at his joyous freedom, a dark sadness crept in. When will it happen? When will the world stop loving him?

He is a black boy. There is no hiding from it. His reality will change, and I am dreading that day because with it comes the death of his innocence.

His love of the world will be buried with one racist word or act. There is no escape. It’s going to happen.

For me as a black girl walking down the streets of New York City it was the sea of clutched purses and wide berths that changed me. The looks on faces telling me my presence was not welcomed.

Even when he was a baby, I wrung my hands in worry about how to best protect him from this. Not his spirit; there is nothing that can save the pieces that will be taken from him. This is just about keeping him alive.

He was still an infant when I started planning the conversations I will some day, maybe before middle school, need to have with him. I will have to look that boy in the eye and explain why it isn’t safe for him to wear the hood on his hoodie sweatshirt even though it makes him feel cozy.

That he will have to be careful walking around his neighbors’ yards even though right now they delight in his surprise visits.

That sometimes it will not be safe for him to run, the one thing he has done since he could walk.

Why? Because he will grow to be a tall, strong, black man and people who don’t know him might fear him.

I will tell him these things, and he will not understand. He is a boy who cares for his neighbors as much as they care for him. He is a 5-year-old who helps the seniors with small tasks and holds the hands of the younger kids to help them down the street.

This won’t possibly make sense.

Perception. Assumption. Fear. It’s the cloud that will engulf him and poison him if those of us who know and love him can’t help him navigate.

With every child comes a loss of innocence. That’s a part of growing up. A part of stepping into the world. The child must make mistakes, pick himself up and try again.

This is different. This is trying to save my son from people who only see him as a towering black man and all the assumptions that go with it.

I think of my neighbors and their son. He is six months younger than William with blond hair and blue eyes. Lovely boy, lovely family.

They do not have to think about how to protect their son from assumptions or perceptions. There’s a good chance they will never have to have these conversations. That’s a privilege.

What do I do? I do what all mothers try to do. Give him as much information as I can to prepare him. Help him become mentally, physically and emotionally strong. And love him as much as I possibly can.

And then I hope and pray for more people in the world like Pat Semenza, treating all people with respect no matter how tall or small, no matter how fast they run or how slowly they walk, no matter how dark their skin or blond their hair.

I pray that William can continue loving the world with the fullness he does now. And I pray that the world will recognize this quality and love him back

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Reunited

William had been asking to meet his birth mom for some time. She was never far away from his thoughts. When counting all of his moms, she was always included. Sometimes he would rate us. On some occasions, she would come first. “She made me!” he’d say. William understood that without her he wouldn’t exist and loved her for that. We reached out and decided to meet at Minnehaha Park. Leah greeted us all with hugs. She was gracious, easy to smile and easy to laugh. William impressed her with his NBA knowledge and his sense of humor. The rest of us just watched and enjoyed. We left promising to meet again. I can’t be happier for the two of them.
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Vocalessence

I’ve really enjoyed photographing the work this choral group does. The collaborations and partnerships that they make with community members and singers across the country is special. They make music and artistic expression accessible and attainable for all. It’s lovely.

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Twin Cities Young Black Leaders

leaders011516 from Kyndell Harkness on Vimeo.

Brittany Lynch ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com In the studio in Minneapolis Min., June and July 2015. ORG XMIT: MIN1601062101491361

Brittany Lynch “I’m very much so an advocate of speaking your truth”

Jobi Adams ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com In the studio in Minneapolis Min., June and July 2015.

Jobi Adams “I don’t really consider myself a leader. I’m just doing the work.”

Shawntera Hardy ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com In the studio in Minneapolis Min., June and July 2015. ORG XMIT: MIN1601062100441353

Shawntera Hardy “I think we are in this situation where all hands need to be on deck if we really, truly have that goal of improving black lives and actually making them matter.”

Jason Sole "You might see me, but there's a whole lot of people that stand behind me."

Jason Sole “You might see me, but there’s a whole lot of people that stand behind me.”

Chaun Webster " I manifest my politics in my art."

Chaun Webster ” I manifest my politics in my art.”

Lena Gardner “I’m just paying it forward, and I’m just continuing the legacy in the shadows of my ancestors.”

Lena Gardner “I’m just paying it forward, and I’m just continuing the legacy in the shadows of my ancestors.”

 

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BLM Occupation

A community member held up his sign in front of the Fourth Precinct before heading down to the federal court house. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters at the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Saturday November 24, 2015. ORG XMIT: MIN1511241940380214

A community member held up his sign in front of the Fourth Precinct before heading down to the federal court house. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters at the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Saturday November 24, 2015.

Community members and protesters warmed themselves by the fire during BlackGiving event in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com BlackGiving event on Plymouth Ave in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Thursday November 26, 2015.

Community members and protesters warmed themselves by the fire during BlackGiving event in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com BlackGiving event on Plymouth Ave in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Thursday November 26, 2015.

Neighborhood members watched as protesters walked passed their homes as they marched around the Fourth Precinct before heading to the federal court house. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters at the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Saturday November 24, 2015.

Neighborhood members watched as protesters walked passed their homes as they marched around the Fourth Precinct before heading to the federal court house. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters at the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Saturday November 24, 2015.

Alexander Clark lead the chants as more than 1000 protesters headed to the federal court house. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters at the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Saturday November 24, 2015.

Alexander Clark lead the chants as more than 1000 protesters headed to the federal court house. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters at the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Saturday November 24, 2015.

Protesters danced to music as they headed to the federal court house. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters at the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Saturday November 24, 2015.

Protesters danced to music as they headed to the federal court house. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters at the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Saturday November 24, 2015.

Protesters held up tarps against gated parking lot of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct and chanted during their outside occupation outside surrounding area. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Black Lives Matter protested in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Wednesday November 18, 2015.

Protesters held up tarps against gated parking lot of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct and chanted during their outside occupation outside surrounding area. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Black Lives Matter protested in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Wednesday November 18, 2015.

Protesters moved to the gated parking lot of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct to chant during their outside occupation outside surrounding area. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Black Lives Matter protested in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Wednesday November 18, 2015. ORG XMIT: MIN1511182028020664

Protesters moved to the gated parking lot of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct to chant during their outside occupation outside surrounding area. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Black Lives Matter protested in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Wednesday November 18, 2015.

Police in riot gear watched the crowd of protesters after they drove near the front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Black Lives Matter protested in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Wednesday November 18, 2015. ORG XMIT: MIN1511182040500681

Police in riot gear watched the crowd of protesters after they drove near the front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Black Lives Matter protested in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Wednesday November 18, 2015.

Jason Sole, of the NAACP lead the crowd in chanting and keep them at a safe distance after police in riot gear drove near the front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Black Lives Matter protested in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Wednesday November 18, 2015. ORG XMIT: MIN1511182040320678

Jason Sole, of the NAACP lead the crowd in chanting and keep them at a safe distance after police in riot gear drove near the front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Black Lives Matter protested in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Wednesday November 18, 2015.

Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau was asked a flood a questions from protesters in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Friday November 20, 2015.

Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau was asked a flood a questions from protesters in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Friday November 20, 2015.

Angry community members loudly questioned officers standing guard about their actions in north Minneapolis. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Black Lives Matter protested in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Wednesday November 18, 2015.

Angry community members loudly questioned officers standing guard about their actions in north Minneapolis. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Black Lives Matter protested in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Wednesday November 18, 2015.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges got peppered with questions from protestors about police violence. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Thursday November 19, 2015. ORG XMIT: MIN1511192119441166

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges got peppered with questions from protestors about police violence. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Thursday November 19, 2015.

Crowd members held up cellphones as lights in honor of Jamar Clark during a vigil held in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Friday November 20, 2015.

Crowd members held up cellphones as lights in honor of Jamar Clark during a vigil held in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Friday November 20, 2015.

Josie Johsnon listened to speakers during a vigil held in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Friday November 20, 2015. ORG XMIT: MIN1511201912230205

Josie Johsnon listened to speakers during a vigil held in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Friday November 20, 2015.

Demonstrators outside the Minneapolis Police Department's 4th Precinct split off and walk to the site where Jamar Clark was shot by police, on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. (Kyndell Harkness/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS) ORG XMIT: 1176971

Demonstrators outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct split off and walk to the site where Jamar Clark was shot by police, on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. (Kyndell Harkness/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Rev Richard Coleman lead a group of protesters in prayer on the five day of protesting in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Thursday November 19, 2015. ORG XMIT: MIN1511192154151179

Rev Richard Coleman lead a group of protesters in prayer on the five day of protesting in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Thursday November 19, 2015.

Andrew Bickford helped start a fire in one of the several fire pits on the five day of protesting in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Thursday November 19, 2015.

Andrew Bickford helped start a fire in one of the several fire pits on the five day of protesting in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Protesters in front of Minneapolis Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis Min., Thursday November 19, 2015.

 

Minnesota Lynx guard Seimone Augustus (33), right, and Minnesota Lynx forward Devereaux Peters (14) celebrate winning the WNBA title.   ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com  Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14,  2015. ORG XMIT: MIN1510142135070441

Minnesota Lynx guard Seimone Augustus (33), right, and Minnesota Lynx forward Devereaux Peters (14) celebrate winning the WNBA title. Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14, 2015.

Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson (32) and Indiana Fever forward Erlana Larkins (2) fought for the ball during the second half.   ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com  Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14,  2015. ORG XMIT: MIN1510142239290521

Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson (32) and Indiana Fever forward Erlana Larkins (2) fought for the ball during the second half. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14, 2015. 

Jiggles danced it up for Prowl during a time out during the first half.   ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com  Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14,  2015.

Jiggles danced it up for Prowl during a time out during the first half. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14, 2015.

The Minnesota Lynx celebrate winning the WNBA title.   ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com  Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14,  2015.

The Minnesota Lynx celebrate winning the WNBA title. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14, 2015.

Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles (34) congratulates Minnesota Lynx guard Renee Montgomery (21) during the second half.   ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com  Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14,  2015.

Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles (34) congratulates Minnesota Lynx guard Renee Montgomery (21) during the second half. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14, 2015.

The Minnesota Lynx celebrate winning the WNBA title.   ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com  Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14,  2015.

The Minnesota Lynx celebrate winning the WNBA title. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Game 5 of the WNBA finals Lynx vs Indiana at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Min., Wednesday October 14, 2015.

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Thoughts on the way home.

Warmed by the seat of my car. The date julip drink in my tummy. Grounded by the sound of my wiped blades I started the pod cast again.
An Alan Ginsberg phrase rolled over me like disappearing shade in the 3 o’clock sun. “The dearness of the vanishing moment”
“The dearness of the vanishing moment”
I rewound and played it again and again.
Watching between beat of the wipe blades all of the vanishing moments of the night.
Stopped at a red light. Hum of perfection in its imperfection stepped off the bus.
Elderly woman. Bent over by life. Fighting against gravity by shear will and a four footed silver cane. Black rubber boots that had trouble finding the ground with certainty. Gray puffy overcoat that nearly swallowed her whole. Nearly… The gray and black did not consume all of her. Hot pink volour pants were neatly tucked into those boots. And a beautiful red and white Santa hat topped it all off.
“The dearness of the vanishing moment” was my mantra as she labored passed my car. Her strides were so unsure. So unstable. The cacophony of motion was hard to watch. For a moment I thought Gravity was going to win this one. But with a brief pause…balance was regained.
“The dearness of the vanishing moment”
In the crazy clothes that we cover ourselves with. We walk. Never truly certain. Always on uneven ground. But we continue to walk. Because it the crazy uncertainty that actually keeps us balanced.

Walk in the prairie

May 23rd- During Rona times it’s good to get out. So many hours hunched over a computer. Everything seizes up. It was time to stretch ourselves out along the prairie.

Hear the swish of rainfall-covered earth under our feet.

See the clouds and light dance across the sky.

Feel the birds song tickle the back of your neck.

It was a lovely time to let go of what was and what will be and sit with this moment.

MLK visit

Melissa and I sat in the sanctuary for a while. I watched as tourists walked the aisles. Taking selfies. There presence is white noise. I gripped the arm of the pew and looked beyond them. It felt like hope and longing wrapped in sadness. So much loss there. But the haze is always forward.