KANSAS SUNRISE (I)
Kansas sunrise happening to me,
What a slow rising you seem to be;
Half a Sunkist submerged in grey;
Winter that loathes to let go of the day.
Now you’re hot, now you’re cold,
Dubious rays of folly’s gold.
A bit more light, a bit more heat
Would make the fruit of your rising sweet.
How tempted am I to spew you out,
Corn syrup in my Carib mouth.
Oh! for a draught that sparkles, stings
Like juice of tropic fields and springs!
And yet, I’m told, you have your day
To truly reign in a tropic way.
They say that you can make men thirst,
Make temperate humours flare and burst.
But a-cooling is what you’ve been to me
Since I travelled across my Carib sea.
Now, like a mango half-ripe, half-sweet,
I hang in limbo, unfit to eat.
Denise Stair-Armstrong © 1992
These words of my younger self were my first efforts at creatively processing my sense of displacement in America. They now make me smile, in mercy, at the recent graduate, young wife, new migrant that was me, being thankfully aware of the mercy shown by a patient God who keeps giving us opportunities to choose life. I see in the verses and attitude of this early poem, my discomfort but also my contempt for that which I did not yet know well enough to dislike. I was hastily, even disdainfully, casting away from me, with an angry, “Not mine!” that which I had not yet taken an honest bite of, in my new world.
Thirty years later, in answer to my “Not mine!” I finally grasp the message the Great Shepherd must have spoken then to younger me— “Not yet; but it’s all Mine and so are you. Choose to receive it as a gift from My hands; stand and start to live.”
Too often, it is with the brash boldness of youthful zeal that we snatch what we want of the Father’s goods and head off towards the far country. We think we will be able to “Bruk dung foreign”—that is, tame whatever life unleashes at us and turn it, Ninja-style, to our advantage. Cast far from the stabilizing handles of familiar terrain, ‘foreign’ breaks us down instead, as a gracious Father allows us to be winnowed and sifted, to show us that, of ourselves, we are not enough. But wait, He does more; He also sends a loving Big Brother to seek us out and save us; plus, He gives us the Holy Spirit to carry out the renovation of our wayward hearts.
I would not have so characterized my entry to life in America. After all, I came on the gilded wings of love and marriage. But now, through the lens of hindsight, crystalline clarified by God’s Word, I see that, to have assumed the capability to take life in America ‘at the flood’, was to gamble with folly’s gold.
At the same time that I was wrestling to adjust to the Mid-Western landscape (No Blue Mountains!), we suffered typical young married’s struggles and had relational challenges in a church community filled with people who appeared as we did but who were yet ‘other.’ I reeled, grasping for something to steady me, ordinals by which to locate myself, a cultural garden in which to plant my transported values and norms. Enter electronics. Hallelujah! God is in the circuits! On our small T.V. I discovered a minister who was cut from the same cloth as my Jamaican pastor—preaching from a father’s heart; A simple phrase on the radio from the voice of a mother in the faith, Elizabeth Elliot, cast a lifeline: “Just take the next step”, and I literally did just that. Donning my tropically colored sweat suit and my too-clean sneakers I stepped out of our studio apartment and took the short jaunt into downtown Leavenworth, Kansas.
KANSAS SUNRISE (II)
‘The Next Step’
Kansas sunrise, misty grey
Night that loathes to give way to day;
Earthbound water and heavenly fire
Tussling to rule, cloud the new day’s desire
To break forth upon the night of man;
So crawling we go to catch-as-catch-can.
Striving we go to discern the intangible;
Loathing to take the one step that is possible;
Doubting that in ‘the next step’ we find
The way that is open to sighted or blind.
Focusing on the grey swirl that is seen
We reach forth our arms and embrace the screen.
But earth takes its axis so soon night and day
Make clear to the faithful plodder the way
With light from above he’ll steward the earth
For the Creator’s nature is shouting forth
The Truth that draws the final line
That determines our rise or vain decline
So Kansas sunrise, your cover is blown
Your bushel of doubt is overthrown
‘The next step’ brings the piercing ray
That scatters your shades and brings forth the day
And now through the dark like an arrow true
Comes word by the songbird: the day’s broken through!
Denise Stair-Armstrong © July 20, 1993
I stepped out into the unfamiliar places of my displacement: Despite all the messaging about a racist past, old town Leavenworth had pockets of interaction that were comfortingly familiar. My second trip to buy fabric and thread for early decorating projects took me to a tiny store-front fabric shop run by a grand-motherly Caucasian. At the cash register, I hastened to pull out my ID to allay possible concerns about my check; after all, I was an unfamiliar Black woman. She warmly dismissed my efforts, stating with a smile as she rang up my payment, “I have no doubts about taking a check from someone who would be so meticulous about the right color thread.” Wow! Trust of neighbor like Dr. MLK dreamed!
Following my husband’s lead, I stepped further out. He was quite used to pushing out into unfamiliar waters—after all, he did court a foreigner long-distance, and married her, having seen her in person only once! When he participated in the nearby elementary school’s careers day, to envision minority youth for a career in his field of architecture, I stepped over to the school on international day, and also to the local AME church, during Black history month, to do costumed presentations about Jamaican history and culture.
Before long I was also established in a fellowship of that unsung breed of heroine’s—the military wife—on Fort Leavenworth. The Protestant Women of the Chapel (PWOC) became a sisterhood of encouragement, advice and practical help, equipping me to raise a family: from tips on weaning a child, establishing family traditions, home-education, and even on deciding family size!
And so began our family’s unique nine-years of ‘placement’, orientation, or location, in a cultural land of Oz. We did not find home on the range, we had to build it prayerfully, one pleasant or unsettling experience at a time. We grew to realize that as a family traversing so many areas of difference or division—you could pick a side and make your stand there or make a different choice. We chose the latter and reached across the divide, seeking to bring understanding in both directions. Often that meant letting go of old paradigms, even dearly loved and familiar ones, to make the reach. And at other times you had to admit, like Tevye, “If I reach that far I’ll break”, and choose to look for another place to cross.
KANSAS SUNRISE (III)
‘To Go Home’
I tried to go back home today
But found I did not know the way-
The hills too green or else too brown
Smiles too wide, too severe the frown.
Prepare the way for going back?
With pen and sword there was a lack.
A lack within a severed soul;
Island adrift without a pole.
A sea of grass, the biggest sky;
Must learn to fish or else I’ll die.
Must find home in another’s sea;
‘Lone on the range’s no place to be.
To be’s to find my family’s face
Within the wider human race;
For e’en this temperamental clime
Can’t keep sunflower from her time
Or place in the sun, if only she
Knows facing up’s the way to be.
To be’s to catch an island dawn
Upon a continental morn,
Then cast it back, its scales and all;
Those rosy frames now way too small.
To be’s to look with naked eyes
And thus to catch a new sunrise—
Sunrise which shows new sunny ways
To wield new lines, new temperate rays,
Which just as well dispel the dark,
In foreign or familiar park;
Capt’ring what’s been hidden there
From hasty hands or eyes of fear.
Fear’s not the fare to feed the soul
That needs an anchor or a pole;
But lines that send roots deeper still,
Beyond one’s private sea or hill;
That open up the Great Front Door
That say here’s Home, and so much more.
Denise Stair-Armstrong © Jan. 28, 1995
I never thought I could live happily anywhere but on my tropic island home. But the One who declared the earth and its fullness His, has shown me otherwise. I have learned the vital part I have to play if I am to “stand steady” wherever I find myself. I must understand my purpose as His own and be planted in His house. Even the swallow and the sparrow of the Psalmist’s day knew that the courts of the altar of the Lord was the place to establish a house and a nest for their young.
‘Put or placed’
The one who places faith in Jesus gets to choose whether her existence will be as one merely put somewhere, or as one placed there in God’s purpose. Sarah was put in a very dangerous place by her fearful husband Abraham, not once, but twice. God covered her in that dis-placement and twice returned her to her husband’s tent unscathed. Similarly, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, each resisted the destabilization of migration and the often-cruel vicissitudes of life by choosing to locate herself in right relation to the God of Israel, Creator of the universe.
Joseph was placed several times in situations of severe dislocation far away from his earthly father’s and his own dreams for himself. The spirit he showed was called ‘excellent’. It was reflected in His God-oriented choices, though the ground kept shifting under his feet. God demonstrated amazing sovereign grace and kept him, throughout kidnapping, slavery, character assassination, defamation, and unjust imprisonment… Oh, and also through promotion and exaltation beyond his wildest dreams, or in fulfillment of them.
A study of the life of Moses, and of the children of Israel, whom God helped him shape into a nation, is a comprehensive study in handling the disorienting vicissitudes of life; whether in cooperation with God or in resistance to Him. The message of ancient Israel’s history is clear; with God in the camp, you are always well-placed—whether ensconced as a prince in the palace or as a shepherd among nomads. ‘Displaced’ need not be your label whether you are trudging thru a dry and thirsty land or crossing a river into the promised one.
‘Breaking beautiful ties’
There is a psychological, even a spiritual bonding that can happen as we are imprinted by our native locale. I experienced an unusual sense of disorientation when I visited my homeland in 2018, after a couple decades living abroad. As my senses were bombarded by the vivid orange and green of the poinciana blooms among the leaves of the trees that luxuriated the St. Andrew hills, and the early morning mist tinted the Liguanea Plains below in light blue, I experienced an ecstatic displacement of a whole other type; I loved that land!
The rush of familiar scenes and settings brought a flood of emotions and responses that were more than I could handle. But no matter how much it was a part of me, I came to realize that a more overarching reality, even an eternal one had seized me—a True North to which every human being must choose, in his day, to orient himself or experience a displacement and disorientation that will be eternity long. The same grace that enabled me to leave that land three decades earlier, now also bound me to another land, where God’s purposes held me steady in relationships forged by a vow that ‘Your people will be my people and your God my God.’
‘A place to stand in ongoing displacement’
Two years after that visit, as the whole world reeled under a myriad of displacements spawned by the Covid pandemic, our personal world again rocked. A necessary career move was launched requiring another major geographical uprooting for a few years. Our children, now nest-flown, would be more far-flung from us than ever before, as well as our parents and extended family . As the plane taxied, following landing at the Frankfurt Airport in Germany, the words of the Psalmist filled my mind, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it’s fullness, The world and those who dwell therein.’ (Ps. 24:1) He is Shammah, the One who is here, there, and everywhere.
As my husband and I sat through our two weeks of required quarantine, I felt the threat of displacement afresh; the mist of the unfamiliar beginning to swirl. I knew, generally, why we were there but personally I felt I was walking on shifting sand again. Again, there was so much that was ‘other’; perhaps the reach was too far this time. I am not as young as I used to be nor as bold and brash as the younger me of my poems. I am likely more breakable too. But the answer to displacement remained a singular choice: “live as one merely put here until… or else choose to be God’s servant placed here for such a time as this.” Abraham, Sarah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna…, all full of years, chose well and served God’s purpose in their time despite the curveballs of the ages.
And even now as I write, the horrendous realities of war play out, one nation over; and our host nation, in response, multiplies its war budget to an extent that will make it the world’s third super-power. I hear the news and I feel and weep and pray for the little, the least, the helpless and the Bride of Christ in both nations directly involved. I also prepare to do my cooking for the ‘Meal Train’ arranged for Ukrainian refugees who have made it to friends and family from our church. If this message of the God who is the stability of our times is not real to me, I have nothing to say to them, in our time. But I do!
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”
Psalms 139:7-10 NIV
The featured image of the Lake District Gate is (c) of Lancia E. Smith and used with her glad permission for Cultivating.
The illustration of the oak leaf is courtesy of Jordan Durbin and used with her generous permission for Cultivating.
I am Denise Stair Armstrong; born and raised Jamaican. I received all my formal academic education in the land of my birth at Shortwood Teachers’ College and the University of the West Indies, specializing in English Language & Literatures in English. The remainder I’ve gained home educating our three wonderful children – Joseph, Charis and Timothy, parenting them with my husband Claude, and in caring for my wheel-chair bound mother. I enjoy reading, cooking, gardening, theatre and ballroom dancing with Claude (only!) and digging into the Word of God.
My passion is worship expressed primarily through writing inspirational pieces that urge readers not to miss how much the Lord has “cramm’d earth with heaven”. My heart is to encourage them to traverse the gap between all our hearts and the cultures that shape them, via the Bridge that is Calvary’s cross.
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