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

We’re continuing with the second part of the conversation with Cole Arthur Riley, author of This Here Flesh, co-hosted by Rachael Clinton Chen and Linda Royster from The Allender Center. We’ll drop back into the discussion as Rachael asks Cole about the ways she has encountered God in the midst of encountering the trauma and horrors of her own story.

If you missed the first part, we invite you to go to the previous episode entitled, “This Here Flesh with Cole Arthur Riley, Part One” to hear Cole speak about the impact of her family of origin on her life. You can listen to part one of this conversation here.

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: Part of why I, I really am so excited that you and Linda are getting to have this conversation together is Linda is one of my favorite people in how she talks about Shalom. And so when I saw your like, line very early on in, in dignity about, you know, what is Shalom, but dignity stretched out like a blanket over the cosmos, I just thought. And then shortly after that, this sense of a God becoming a seamstress like on the day, the world began to die. That sense of when really trauma and harm and like severing and brokenness entered our reality, that God became a seamstress. And so I’m just so curious, what you, how have you encountered God in new ways through this writing, which gets real close to, yeah, both that sense of horror and beauty.

Cole: I think, yeah, more than ever before, I became really interested in the kind of familial character of the Divine and the, and I think that’s why there’s a, I mean, it’s probably because I’m going into these stories of my family and I needed that. Um, but yeah, I think that’s why you see this kind of parental language a lot when I’m talking about the Divine, a mother kind of cradling the child in, in the middle of the night and these, um, yeah. Real acts of, of tenderness and, and also, you know, the divine as a child and, and playful in all of these things. Um, I have been in spiritual spaces where, and have celebrated them, you know, I’ve participated in them, I’ve perpetuated them spiritual spaces that had such a kind of narrow, um, a narrow presentation of God to kind of placate everyone’s uncertainty. Like everyone’s terrified. So it’s like, we need to name this and we need to be clear and it needs to be decided, um, because that makes it feel safe and, you know, get controllable. And, um, yeah, I think as I wrote this book and getting close to your stories, you have to become really honest, really honest about what you actually think, what I, what I actually believed. And when I did that, I, I found this kind of like opening. I felt kind of my experience of God and the Divine just expand. And then I could just breathe a little bit and the, the fluidity and to allow it to change and not be static. And to have these, you know, I, I go into scripture at different points and every time I did, I’m like, how can I really read this in a way that, that feels true to me and, you know, true to what was happening in the story, as opposed to kind of what maybe I’ve been indoctrinated to pay attention to. And so that you reference that moment in, in Genesis where I call God a seamstress and, you know, we’ve all heard about the kind of punishment, you know,

Rachael: We’ve heard a lot haven’t we. We’ve heard a lot.

Cole: Yeah. And we have, and it’s like, but there’s this beautiful line that, you know, I’d never paid attention to of, you know, and God made them clothes out of skin. And it brings all of these questions to your mind about it. Oh, it, it expands the who you expect the divine to be, how you expect the divine to operate in the world, like, okay, did, did God kneel in the dirt? You know, what, what did it, how, how did he make this? Does that mean that God made the first kill? Hmm. If he made the clothes out of animal skins, it brings all this complexity and emotion and in practice into the person of God when you kind of view these specific moments and allow them to take up space.

Linda: Yeah. That’s, that’s the theology that I mentioned earlier that I get to see, I think something of your theology in this book, and, and I don’t know if it’s on the one hand, it feels bold to call God her or she, um, and it feels right. And so on the one hand it’s, it can be normative for us to see God in the feminine and not only in masculine father God, but mothering God or mother God as well. So I think that’s something that I, I was very clear to me, is your freedom to use language, to expand our understanding or imagination of how, who God is and how God may manifest and show up, uh, and the sense that it gives you, it gave you more freedom. Um, I think as you became more embodied in the storytelling and listening to the story and writing the story, it sounds like it was, it was a pathway into your own body, into your own self and being, as well as an opening up of your understanding of how God manifests and presents God’s self.

Cole: Yes. Yeah. That, I mean, that was so beautifully said, I don’t even wanna add to it. I’m like, whoa, that’s I wish I had a pen. If you’re listening, just rewind what Linda just said. Cause that is, I mean, I did experience, I, this kind of, as I liberated the image of God and allowed it to present in different ways, I felt I did feel liberated. I felt more free, you know, that’s not to say it’s not all, it’s not costly. You know, it comes with costs and, uh, not everyone is prepared to kind of experience God in that way. And they might feel threatened by, you know, a maternal expression of God. And I, knew, okay, that’s the cost and it’s worth it to me because I’m experiencing this kind of connection. I finish writing and I can truly say, I felt so near to myself if that makes sense, I felt so close to like my own soul. But even if I knew that if people read this book and, you know, saw the different ways I, I talked about God and they, they disagreed or disliked it. I knew I could be proud because I honored, you know, what was actually occurring in my interior world, as opposed to just constantly adapting, which I, you know, do a lot, not in writing thankfully. So yeah, everything you just said is what I hope that I’ve experienced and that reader’s experience.

Rachael: Well, one of the things I really appreciate too, and we talk a lot about this at the Allender Center, you lean into like our, our response and our, our participation with God. Like, you know, you name lament as a form of hope, a language of hope. You talk about anger as like a necessary important, and even faithful response to injustice in the world. Um, and again, those are also, you know, lament is this like marriage of grief and anger, this kind of protest cry. That actually is incredibly faithful. If we if we say, God is who God says, God is who the Divine, you know, this, this love, this eminent, pervasive love, one who creates indignity and flourishing when we look around and see, that does not feel does not feel true. Um, and I’m just curious for you, has that always has that sense of lament, um, as a really a holy form of hope, a, a language of hope, has that always felt true for you? Or is that something that’s been emerging?

Cole: You know it hasn’t. Sadly. Um, so, you know, we talked about my little girl self and this moment of crying in the car and I, I couldn’t, I didn’t understand why I was crying. I couldn’t explain why that was happening. I had, I was a, I had a very rich emotional range as a child. I just did. And, um, but I received the message in whatever ways that that’s not okay. And so, as I grew up, you know, that’s the part of my child self that I kind of left behind that I, um, disconnected from, because it felt like a risk to my belonging or whatever. Um, you know, internally I’ve, I’m depressed. I have been depressed for over a decade and, but I, um, kind of have disconnected from my emotional experiences. So to my friends, you know, reading that I was an emotional little girl, they’re just kind of puzzled, you know, like Cole doesn’t do that. You know, you know, Cole is logical and analytical, which of course we put in, um, yeah, contrast to emotion, which is just sad. Um, so anyways, I learned to kind of disconnect from my anger, from, from my sadness for a long time. And it’s only in the, the past five or five to six years that I’ve really started to yeah, allow myself, allow myself to, to feel deeply and not be ashamed of it. And it’s taken people, their handful of people that I’ve encountered actually, Rachael being one of them. Um, I journaled about Rachael, the day after I met her, I journaled about her, she seemed like this mystery to me. And like, how can someone hold so much? And it, it, I’ve, I’ve, I’ve encountered a handful of people that really have such a kind of fierce commitment to their emotional experience and in protection over, you know, creation in protection over people, they love that it almost felt like a memory, you know, like it felt like it was taking me to places in my story that I’d forgotten about. And I’m like, oh, that, that feels familiar to me when I encounter it in, in these people. When I, when I encountered it in, in Rachael and, and others, that commitment. And so it it’s helped me to start to kind of approach, approach my sadness and my anger in a different way. I write about it, probably because I’m, I’m so desperate for it, I’m desperate for people to continue to tell me it’s okay. It’s okay to cry. You know, your belonging’s not at stake. You don’t, you don’t need to be happy. You don’t need to be positive. Yeah.

Rachael: Well, you, you mentioned this, I’ll say this, Linda, then I will definitely make space for you, but you just, you have this line when you’re talking about fear, um, find those who tell you do not be afraid yet stay close enough. Um, like stay close enough to like tremble with you. This is love and it seems like that’s also what you’re saying. Like in order for us to really have the courage to step into these places, you know, where there is just heartache and sorrow and anger, um, and fear that it certainly helps when we encounter those. Mm. Who like can hold hope for us, but not in a way that asks us to deny what’s there can kind of be with us and suffer with us something of what is real and true, and how that, that, that does change us, because it is really hard to enter those waters alone.

Linda: As I hear you talk about your meeting, Rachel, and, um, what she sparked in you, um, and, and kind of helping you reconnect to some of your emotions that maybe have been suppressed. Uh, I tend to think of it as, as that being a way of, of coming back to your body or embodiment, right and I think embodiment is one of the holiest acts of what it means to be human is to be embodied. I don’t, I don’t get the sense that there is much more that’s holier than that as human beings. I think some of the most wicked acts done to us like trauma is it works to separate us from ourselves, which fundamentally I think is like some of the most satanic things that ever can ever be done to a human being. So embodiment coming home to yourself, being in your body and comfortable in your body. I think that’s holy. Uh, and when I think of the way that, and I see the way that you laid out the chapters and the title of the chapter, my soul says to me, there is something going on in this dance and the way you laid out the chapter, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it seems like there’s something like, it tugs at my heart when I think about not only the title of each chapter, but the way you placed each chapter, it’s like this intermingling or this interplay or dance, if you will, with how you laid out chapters one through 15. So I’m, I’m wondering what was that process like for you? Um, we spent a lot of time talking about embodiment and being in touch with your emotions or not. And I’m just very aware of the title of each chapter. So I would love for you to put words to your process of naming the chapters and the laying and how you laid out each chapter or ordered them.

Cole: Well, first I’ll say to the, to the, what you’ve said about embodiment, I actually, I went back and forth for a long time about whether or not to give body its own chapter. Cause I thought, oh I want to make sure it’s communicated in, in, in each chapter. So should it be its own? And eventually I did make it its own. Um, cause I felt like to understand me, I needed to share my experience with chronic illness, but, um, yeah, that, that chapter outline it was intentional. I mean, I, I wanted, I knew that I wanted to begin at dignity because I’ve known, you know, what it is to have your story reduced to pain and reduced to trauma. And I knew the places I was going and my grandma’s story and my father’s story, and I just felt very protective over them. And I didn’t want them to be reduced, you know, to chapter six and 7, 6, 7, 8, whatever they are. Um, and so I wanted to start with, with dignity because I think so often, you know, marginalized people, oppressed people, neglected people, you know, they’re told that the most important thing is, you know, what’s happened to them and the oppression that’s happened to them. And I thought let’s start with something inherent and was lucky enough to be in community with people who really helped to show me dignity as inherent and not as something worked toward or proven, but just this mysterious kind of origin story. Um, and then from there, I kind of take time getting to the sadness, getting to the fear, getting to the anger, because I wanna establish this connection, this connection with the self and dignity, this connection with the earth and, um, the earth and your location and place, this sense of wonder and this sense of beauty and miracle that’s in the world. You know, that I talk about in, in, in the wonder chapter, I really wanted to ground us there. You know, um, before I kind of asked people to go to the basement, you know, those go to the, those places I wanted to ground them and you know, where they could breathe and um, and, and there’s, there’s sadness in those early chapters for sure, but it’s kind of a slow entrance, so it doesn’t feel so disorienting. And then after, you know, rage and we start to kind of, I don’t wanna say, get a downward hill, but this kind of, uh, that this story I think becomes more restful, it’s asking less of you as the, as the book ends, you know, it’s asking less and less and drawing you more and more into rest. At least I hope, you know, in repair and in memory and in liberation. Um, so yeah, that, that, that was kind of my thinking, you know, I think about the, you know, I, I was a part of this Christian organization, sorry, I’m trying to remember. Oh, so there are people who have, you know, this theology of the kind of trajectory of the world being kind of creation, the fall, redemption, restoration. I think maybe that was in me on some level, because when I look at the chapters, now you can kind of see that, you know, as much as I’m was like trying to escape those places, I think there’s something kind of good and true in that kind of story. Um, it’s not completely isolated to those things. Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, but that general trajectory, um, I think I ended up mirroring, mirroring. Yeah. I don’t know if there’s a name for that but…

Linda: Yeah. So, so essentially, you know, what, what comes to mind is what came to mind as you were talking just now, is that it sounds like the framework of good therapy and good story work is that there is a gentle entry into the harder parts of the story. There’s a kind of pacing that, that you can begin with kindness and kind of a kind foundation as you enter into the more difficult parts of the story. So as you’re talking and, and letting us know kind of the layout of the book, that’s the sense that I get as well. It’s like there was a gentle entry into the more heartbreaking parts of the story, which I think also feels like a reflection or mirroring of the story of the gospel, um, that it, it takes us on, on this trajectory of the entry and then gradually getting into more and more heartache and the depth of the heartache until it gets to a resurrection and then something beyond the resurrection. Right? So I, sense too, that, that was also being reflected in the way you laid out the book is that you, you took us on a journey, um, and that journey was beautiful and, um, heartbreaking and hopeful and agonizing. And I could tell that it cost you something to tell the stories that you were telling, to write the stories that you were writing. Um, and, and that it was not only for your benefit, but it was for us as well, was for the reader too. And so I get the sense that it was this interplay between you’re writing for yourself, you’re writing for your grandmom, you’re writing for your father, but you’re also writing for all of us who will lay eyes and engage and journey through this book that we would, we would experience a kind of resurrection of our own because of how you’ve laid your life bare for us to kind of experience and to lean into so deep gratitude for what you opened yourself up to on your own behalf, but on our behalf as well, um, kind of modeling for us and a sense of what it might look like to, to, to give oneself over to the deeper story and the wider story with kindness, with patience, with generosity.

Cole: Thank you. Thank you.

Rachael: I wanna honor our time cuz I feel like Cole, we could definitely just keep engaging you and have so many more questions and just so many more things to make note of for the gift that you’ve given us. Um, you know, one thing I’ll say as we come to a close is, um, even as you’re talking about the trajectory of the book, I’m so struck by and I, I don’t wanna give anything away ’cause I, those who haven’t read it, I want them to have their own encounter, but even your notion of what it means to come to a place of joy and repair and rest is where some of your most honest utterances of, of your body and what you’ve known and where you can connect with the stories in your family, both in really painful ways. Um, and in deeply knowing ways. And I just think so many people who, like you’re saying Linda, who bear some of that reality in their own bodies will find tremendous hope in that that rest doesn’t mean we have to split off or eradicate the painful stories that there can be a kind of integration and holiness and hope and rest that comes even when we’re uttering truth that maybe we haven’t uttered before. And I just so deeply appreciated your courage there. Um, your courage to name what it is, um, to live in your body with kindness and with honesty. Um, so I, again, I also echo a deep, thank you, um, it’s such a labor of love to write from your own story. Yeah. So if people were interested and finding access to This Here Flesh, where can they, where can they find it? I mean, obviously we know like the big bookstores, but where would you hope they would find it?

Cole: Yes. You can buy it anywhere books are sold, but you know, local, independent bookstores, it’s always better. Yeah. So.

Rachael: Well, I hope if you’re listening and you have found this conversation to be life giving, and I would say for myself, just such a, um, such a robust and life giving conversation, I hope you will go and get Cole’s book and you will spend time with it. Um, and that you will, um, if you find her voice to be one that just brings a lot of encouragement to you, you can become a supporter of her on Patreon. And, um, she writes incredible liturgy. You get access to, if you’re a part of that community, she had incredible enten liturgy. That was very, um, beautiful to journey with. So again, Cole, thank you, Linda. Thank you. It’s so good to be with you all today.

Cole: Thank you.

Linda: Thank you. Thank you, Cole. Thank you, Rachael.