“This Here Flesh” with Cole Arthur Riley, Part One

Rachael Clinton Chen is joined by Linda Royster from The Allender Center as they co-host this conversation with a very special guest. Cole Arthur Riley is the creator of Black Liturgies, a space for Black spiritual words of liberation, lament, rage, and rest; and a project of The Center for Dignity and Contemplation where she serves as Executive Curator. She is the author of the New York Times best-selling book, This Here Flesh.

In the first part of this conversation, Cole talks about the impact of her family of origin and how she came to tell her story. You can listen to the conclusion of this conversation here, in which Cole shares how her story led her to a new understanding of the Divine.

About Our Guest:

Cole Arthur Riley is the creator of Black Liturgies, a space for Black spiritual words of liberation, lament, rage, and rest; and a project of The Center for Dignity and Contemplation where she serves as Executive Curator. Born and for the most part raised in Pittsburgh, Cole studied Writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She once took a professor’s advice very seriously to begin writing a little every day, and has followed it for nearly a decade. She is the author of the New York Times best-selling book, This Here Flesh. You can follow Cole and Black Liturgies on Instagram and Twitter.

Episode Transcript:

Rachael: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m really looking forward to this conversation and I’m so delighted to be joined by a guest cohost today, my friend and colleague Linda Royster. You’ve had the opportunity to hear from Linda before on the Allender Center podcast, but she’s a therapist in North Carolina, as well as a part of the Allender Center leadership team. She’s also a brilliant teacher, writer, facilitator and supervisor extraordinaire. Linda, thank you so much for joining me.

Linda: Well, thank you for such a kind intro. Thank you, Rachael. And it’s a privilege to join this time, in this conversation with you and with Cole. Um, I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you Cole, so it’s a privilege to be here with you.

Rachael: So as Linda has said, we are very privileged to be joined by Cole Arthur Riley. Who’s joining us for this conversation. You may remember hearing from Cole, uh, I think Cole, you joined me for advent of 2020, which yes was crazy cause I thought it was like this advent. And then I was like, no, that was over a year ago. Um, and so you may remember hearing from Cole, she is the creator of Black liturgies, a space for Black spiritual words of liberation, lament rage, and rest. You may have encountered her work on Instagram or you may even be a part of her Patreon community. She’s also the Executive Curator of the Center for Dignity and Contemplation and she is most definitely a writer and has recently published a book called This Here Flesh: Spirituality, liberation and the stories that make us. Cole. We are so thrilled that you’re here. Welcome.

Cole: Thanks for having me, I’m glad to be with you.

Rachael: We’re gonna talk a lot about your book today, but one of the things I love just about the way you write, um, not only your book, but also the way you have crafted liturgy on Black liturgies. Um, the way you bring your presence is you really are such an embodied storyteller. And I mean, you are certainly a writer. There are lots of different ways to write and um, you, I just feel like engaging your work. You hold the tension of our beauty and brokenness so well and making space for like our full humanity. Um, and the ways in which God meets us there, longs to meet us there. Um, I think in your book and in your writing, the way you wave, like past present and future in such a non-linear way, it like it takes you to another dimension almost. And some of my favorite writers, I think have that capacity to call you into a place where like the past, present and future are meeting. And I just think that’s such a profound gift. I love how you are such a sensual writer. Um, you know, when we’re doing story work at the Allender Center, that’s so much what we invite people to is to write from their bodies and to pay attention. And you talk a lot in your book about like the sacred act of paying attention and noticing, but like that, it’s just reading your words and seeing how you see the world, like invites me to actually be in my body and take breath and like pay attention to the world around me. I just think you are, you know, I know I’m giving you a bunch of words that are probably hard to take in. But I think you are such a deeply faithful woman and you’re contemplative kind of you, you are a contemplative, you’re a mystic, you’re a very prophetic priest, like the way in which I feel like through Black liturgies, you’ve pastored people and you’ve centered Black people and pastored Black people. So well, but like I can say even as a white woman, I have, I have felt deeply pastored and invited deeper into my personhood and identity and the larger story. Um, because you also have that prophetic, provocative… Hey, there’s more we’re meant for, and there’s something at play here that we’re not meant for and we need to pay attention to it. Um, and so I have just loved witnessing you like coming more fully into this part of yourself as you share it with the world, right? Because you’ve been writing for a long time.

Cole: Yes, yes. Since I was a little girl, I think writing, it was just my earliest, my earliest form of true communication with the exterior world. I wasn’t incredibly verbal. And um, my father knew that and kind of gently nudged me toward writing as a kind of ritual and really made our whole household kind of step into that ritual as well. Because I mean, if you’re, if you’re not a very verbal child, that’s alienating and I don’t know if my father could articulate this, but I think he knew, like it couldn’t just be my thing in order to kind of bring me into my family or kind of bridge the, what felt like a chasm between how I was presenting in the world and how most of the people in my house and in my extended family present in the world, he like made it this household of culture writing. And so everyone would write poems. You know, when he said, I’ll give you a color and you can write a poem. It wasn’t just me sitting alone. It was, um, a way to also kind of, yeah. Make a bridge between me and my siblings. Um, which I think is really beautiful. So yeah, I mean, fast forward, it feels really natural now to, you know, if I was going to do a public kind of project related to spirituality, it made sense that that would be through written liturgy, um, feels, yeah. Feels like home in ways.

Linda: Yeah Cole, you, it’s, you’ve written a book that’s, that’s beautiful. It reveals something your, of your theology. You tell stories of how really trauma is intergenerational, gets passed from generation to generation. If it’s not interrupted or disrupted, uh, it’s a book about beauty and the beauty of being embodied and the terror of being embodied. Um, I read it and, and saw that it’s also a book about resilience. Um, and so among many things. So I, I just felt that I was taken on a journey as I stepped into your book. And there were places where I felt the intersection with my story. And so many other stories of women of color, particularly Black women. Um, there were moments where I felt like, oh my gosh, Cole is almost writing my story in parts word for word. And it would take me back to a scene in my childhood that felt so familiar and similar to what you were naming. So again, just to reiterate, I thought you wrote this book so beautifully part of what I’m curious about for you, um, is what was it like for you to you talk about writing this book in the midst of a pandemic? So what was it like for you to write this book?

Cole: Yeah. Um, I am chronically ill and so our house has been really restrictive in terms of what we’ve done and the ways we’ve been outside in public places. So I’ve, I wrote in a time of kind of extreme isolation, you know, me and my husband. Um, and so it required a lot of work ’cause I knew I didn’t want it to be this purely solitary project. So I had to make a lot of phone calls, you know, um, I would, a lot of the stories in the book I’d kind of heard before I’d begun writing, I’d started this just a personal family project, year, a handful of years back of collecting stories in my family. So I’d interviewed my father and my grandma before and had recorded it. But while I was writing, I would kind of revisit those stories and I’d call them, you know, usually on Saturdays. And I’ just have a list of questions to try to draw out specificity in, in the stories and um, yeah, travel into the particulars. And it’s, it’s hard to do with that, that distance, the lack of physical proximity, but yeah, I think, think we were able to go there, there, I, I learned a lot of beauty and just the voice and storytelling, when I was interviewing them. I was really concerned with the video and, you know, capturing their gestures and the way their hands moved and something about during the writing process and just hearing usually their voice through a phone that yeah, was special in a different way. But in, but yeah, all that to say it was hard. It was terrifying. I mean, there are things you just don’t wanna… I think every family has stories that somehow everyone knows, but no one has spoken. like, how does this story exist? And we all kind of share it and have some awareness of it, but it’s like, when did we first know it and to actually ask and confront, you know, our elders and say, I wanna hear it from your own lips, you know, there’s something really, yeah, terrifying about that.

Linda: I hear that. And it takes me back to, um, I think it’s toward the latter part of your book where you talk about the scene of being in the car with your family. And, um, I think one of your family members notice noticed that there are tears kind of running down your face. And that was one of the scenes that I, I felt connected to ’cause I, it took me back to a moment in my childhood, but, but it caused me to wonder for you, what did your little body know that it was holding that maybe you couldn’t put words to you as you know, you think back to the little girl who’s crying, but maybe doesn’t realize it or then have words to put to it at that moment of why she’s crying.

Cole: Yeah. That’s a good question. I, I think back to that, I’ve been thinking back to that season a lot lately, because I’ve been talking about selective mutism, which I had as a child, it’s an anxiety disorder. And I think that as, you know, having selective mutism, which, which essentially just means you, you feel unable to speak in the presence of usually strangers or everyone except a really small number of people. But even in my own family, I was very shy and kind of withdrawn. And I think, you know, children, I don’t think I’m alone in those children who experience that alienation really early. They kind of make sense of the world as an outsider looking in and, you know, as a observer. And I think in that observation, maybe I was, I wonder, you know, if I was seeing things that other people weren’t, you know, um, not seeing you describe when I was in the car, I’m like, I wonder, did I see something out out of the car window? You know, that stirred me that maybe no one else was really paying attention to. Or was I thinking of my body in a particular way? I think, you know, your voice, that’s a, that’s a part of, that’s an, that’s an embodied thing that’s coming from you and to feel really restricted in your body and you know, what does that do to a little girl? And did she, did I have something to say that I couldn’t articulate, you know, was the music too loud and I was overwhelmed and I didn’t have the words to communicate that. I, um, yeah, I, I wonder about all these things, but I think it all traces back to the fact that, you know, when you’re quiet or when you maybe feel alienated, you, you become aware, yeah. You become aware of the, the world that maybe you don’t feel like you’re fully in.

Linda: Yeah. Yeah. And I see that, um, in chapter one, when you talk about dignity and it seems to me within the first maybe three or four paragraphs, it feels like it’s the layout of the book captured in those three or four paragraphs. When you describe your father, um, as having been born smooth. And then in the next paragraph, you named that you were an anxious and insecure child, and I see that contrast there of your father having been born smooth, but you knew a world of anxiety and insecurity. And it seems in, please tell me differently if, if I’m misinterpreting your book, but it seems like the large part of the book is talking about that contrast or that juxtaposition, if you will, um, and your world versus his world and how the worlds maybe collided, how they beautifully merged. Um, but I, I see the unfolding of that over the course of the book.

Cole: Yeah, I definitely think that’s there. I don’t think I understood it would be there, you know, when I was writing, I didn’t, I don’t think I, you know, ever actively had those thoughts of, you know, that level of distinction in terms of yeah. That level of contrast, but I wrote it and as I wrote, it just became clear and clear, you know, my, my father he’s just so, he’s so smooth. He seems so comfortable. You know, he, he walks with his chin up. He, I mean, if you meet him, he just has this kind of, um, this stability, this kind of groundedness in his body, in, you know, his language, um, that I had so much admiration for other people in my family, I think possess it, but my father has just, has always just been magical to me in that way. And I watched him kind of shape shift throughout my childhood into these different situations. And he’d pick up a phone and he’d sound one way and then he’d, you know, pick up a work call and he’d sound a completely different way. And I was just, yeah, very kind of mystified and, um, yeah, captivated by him still, still a bit of a hero to me. But I think that as I, you know, write the story, I hope what, well, what I also found is kind of, I don’t know, a intimacy with his, his interior world, you know, his, to me, he was presenting as this really polished, you know, confident, healed self, but, you know, as the story goes on, you know, I, and I share about his addiction and, you know, coping patterns of his own, you realize, you know, no hero is fully hero and he, he was complicated too, but he was, he, he was dealing with those things in a different way. That really weren’t all that distinct, you know, the than how I have come to deal with them, the, the numbing, the dissociation, you know, what is he really in his body if he doesn’t shed, if he can’t shed a tear, you know? I don’t know.

Linda: Yeah. And that, that kind of prompted this question in my mind, as I read, um, what your, what your, your naming there is, um, the sense that, how did it come to be that he was born smooth and that you were a child that held so much anxiety, but what you’re naming is that perhaps you two had different ways of addressing the heartache, the sense of, um, trauma or terror. You two held it differently, but it was still present for both of you that he presented one way and you presented, uh, something that seemed different, but essentially at the root, it was harm or a sense of wounding or heartache. Um, um, and then you talk about your grandma, and that was the other place in the book where I kind of felt the connection, your beloved grandma, um, and your grandma’s, it felt like war stories, the severe, severe, severe trauma, but the deeply ferocious way that she loved you and showed up for you. Um, again, the question that lingers from me is how did that come to be? How did it come to be that a woman who held so much horror and terror and trauma could show up so beautifully on your behalf and for you?

Cole: Yeah. And, and create this family become this matriarch in so many her wounds, you know, were grounded in family. The, she left home at a very early age, you know, had to leave because her mom was, um, not, not present, not, not mentally present was dealing with some mental health issues and ends up in this place with family. That’s not really her family that are, you know, abusive in all kinds of ways. And I just hearing her story and she talks about the day I was married a lot. Um, and this, this, this kind of moment of, like, um, this moment of recognition that she, the, this table, we were sitting at this long, like banquet table, this table of faces, smiling and happy and like safe. Like she created them. She became this matriarch of this new family system. And I mean, I can’t say it was perfect, you know, that obviously no family system is, but you just think what a miracle, like how you ask how I, I don’t know, you know, I don’t, I, I truly don’t know. I have suspicions, um, that, you know, hope had something to do with it, having an imagination. You know, she, she’s a very active imagination. She was a writer herself having an imagination for a new way. Um, I think absolutely helped. You hear a little bit about my, my father’s kind of interesting parenting techniques, like having you write poems to get out of chores, you know, he had to have an imagination for that. I think he learned that from her. I also I’ve wondered the role of regret, you know, um, when she left that farm, that, that place of abuse, you know, her sister remained and in This Here Flesh, I don’t, I don’t speak much about my, my great aunt. Um, but yeah, she, she, she left this sibling that, um, she loves dearly. And I think, um, I, I just didn’t have room to honor that part of the story in the book, but something she really struggled with was the regret of leaving and like, what could I have done? What could I have transformed? And I think that regret for better or worse also fueled the desire to kind of create something new and healing and try to bring her sister into it as adults, you know, what they weren’t, um, permitted to have as children.

Rachael: I think your, your way and your language of talking about hope and seeing that in your family is not often a way, you know, one of the things I love about you Cole is you, you push into these kind of spiritually bypassing places that we’ve inherited a lot, so much of Christianity where it’s fused with other systems, but, um, you, you, I think you really capture that on behalf of your family. Well, and it’s, this is something kind of in our work here at the Allender Center that we have deep convictions about too, that sense of like, God is like a lover and in the dirt with us, there’s not this sense of like, oh, you know, where we struggle, how we cope, how we survive, like the trauma of our life, um, is somehow gets to be like the final word or the final statement on us. And I love how you’re just, you, you so honor your father and your grandma in their fight to live like their fight for life and how that’s something you’ve really held onto. And I find myself just so curious how storytelling and getting in the dirt of your own story and the story of the, of your family and the people you love and how that intersects with collective stories, but where I’m going is like, we so often feel like we can’t get close to our stories because they reveal too much with regard to our faith and our hope, because if we get too close, then what do we do with these complexities? What do we do with these mysteries? What do we do with the horror? What do we, you know, how can we protect God almost from like our humanity so that we can still be loved?


This episode will be continued in Part Two next week.