My Top 5 Books of 2021: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

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Ok. Yes. This book came out in 2020 but what is 2021 without the things from 2020 that survived the pendulum…pandemonium…pantera…you know what I mean. So I brought The Secret Lives of Church Ladies with me into 2021 and I continue(d) to read and refer to it. In hindsight, it wasn’t really the COVID-19 pandemic and lifestyle changes that accompanied it. What kept this collection of spellbinding short stories with me was their timelessness, familiarity, their sense of being and longing as a Black woman. These things were on my mind over the last two years for some very acute reasons. When we started getting our first notifications about the virus and its effects on people around the world, I got first notifications about a new stage in my life. I had no idea what 2020 and 2021 would bring. I only knew that this would be the beginning of an ending as my daughters turned 23, 18 and 17. My rearing and raising girls days were heading into their last act. I am now a mother to young women. And this moment needed The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (SLOCL).

I kept Deesha Philyaw’s masterpiece by my side because one by one those stories confirmed something of which I desperately needed proof. I am not the only Black woman who has been profusely apologetic for not living up to expectations. I am not the only one wrestling with religion. Religion is an interesting word. Its etymology is questionable. It could be that early Romans used the word to talk about things that required a second reading. It could be that they used it to talk about things that tie other things together as in ligare, the same root word in ligament. So while religion is certainly sometimes represented by churches (and in my case mosques too), it is also about feeling like you are part of something. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies felt as though it had been written especially for me. Like it was there to let me know that I was not the only Black woman out here feeling like I had failed at reading some very important how-to manual and certainly not the only one feeling like I had failed at establishing a sense of belonging somewhere. I recognized the taste of the pain and rejection Olivia swallowed. I knew it tasted like peach cobbler that had been waiting for someone to enjoy it for decades. Like peach cobbler that a man ate so regularly that it tasted like nothing really special at all. So much so that not even that which he committed a life to was actually special. And when that man is a pastor, how can you believe that he believes in the things he says are so very special every Sunday or Saturday or Friday? I knew what it tasted like to watch a woman be so incredibly mis-loved. I knew what it looked like to envision more for myself and be disappointed when that didn’t happen. I know what it sounds like when a friend cries because her husband failed to follow the detailed instructions of a serial mistress. I know what it feels like to have sore abs from laughing so hard during a funeral or repast that just moments ago made you sob. I know what it feels like to think you can smell depression in the air of a home and not know exactly where it’s coming from but know that if you don’t leave as soon as you can, the smell might stay with you. Might get into your clothes, might linger. I know what it sounds like to hear the voice of a man who could put me and the whole world together with the flick of his left hand in the air and around my waist. I know what the silence sounds like when you don’t know what to say to him or how to accept his love.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a book that makes so many of us read and say “I know about that” whether we lived it, saw it, tasted it, smelled it or heard it. We read this book and said to ourselves “whew, I know about that.” Or (as was the case in some of my favorite SLOCL stories) we read and gave a head nodding, agreeing, had it up to here, sicka this mess, fuck this closet, fuck these clothes, no more disrespect, (sing it with me if you know this one) held-my-tongue-too-long-I-can’t-do-it-no-more statement saying “whew chile I know THAT’S right.” The Secret Lives of Church Ladies gave me the Waiting To Exhale, Women of Brewster Place, Raisin In The Sun, For Colored Girls, Beloved, Color Purple I needed for this moment in my life. This moment when I can take on reckoning with my girl child nostalgia. This moment when I am trying not to be afraid to unpack disappointments. This moment when I am trying to have the courage I need to embrace real love and real joy. And this moment when I have to do all of this while I watch my little girls become women doing the same. I can’t give my daughters flawless recipes for success. I can’t give them the right words to write to their fathers’ other children. I can’t buy them dresses that will cover the wounds and scars their spirits will have. But I can give them this book. And like the many books my own mother gave me, it can be my way of saying “I know.” I can make the inevitability of being and longing less secret. And maybe, most importantly, I can show them the acknowledgements where Deesha Philyaw reminds us that the list of gratitude to people who walk with you on a host of creative journeys will go on and on. May my daughters know that there will be long lists of “love, friendship, support, pep talks, advice, meals, late-night laughter, technical help, feedback, dance breaks, and unwavering belief in them and their stories.” And that they deserve it. So much.

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