Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times [re-covenant in a museum]

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I spent much of this week in a city I deeply love, which is also a place with which I am in the process of becoming something else.  “Visitor” doesn’t quite get there, and “stranger” never will . . .  but I’m learning the balancing act of living in, and loving, two places, while in some cases un-living and perhaps even un-loving.

It’s tough, and I’m doing it unevenly, unequally, and sometimes ungracefully.  And I’m persuaded that there’s no other way; we create and negotiate relationship, and do change rather than cut-off, by feeling our way through.  It’s a challenging thing for humans to straddle the canyons dividing “I” from “thou,” “this” from “that,”; “here” from “there” while maintaining a sense of balance and selfhood.

We simply move forward in trust, and hope that our mistakes might be small and not harmful. 

I could write a lot of words about that, simply from a personal perspective.  But what occurred to me on this particular visit is that in some way, we’re all here together.  Not in Kansas City, of course, though I’m sure the visitor’s bureau would love that.

I mean that we are ALL strangers living in a strange land right now, trying to maintain communion with what is important and beautiful from “before” even as we reach and lean and lurch our way toward an as-yet unknown “after.”

And meanwhile, we live in neither of those places—we instead exist in a “now” that is present, but undefinable.  And in this landscape, it’s hard to know how to balance the ordinariness of life—the tasks, the priorities, the conversations–with the urgent call to push back against what is changing.  And let’s be clear: what’s happening in our nation is not just change—it’s rupture.  Breakage.  It’s a negation of much of what has come before, including values.  Including lives.

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How do we continue to weave with the threads of “any given Friday” when we know that in the background, damage is being done?

How do we go on, having arrived at a place in which it is normal to eat a four dollar cupcake while reading entertainment on one’s phone, and where it is simultaneously only reasonable to be screaming in the streets and demanding change and answers in the halls of power.

If there are answers to be had to these questions, they will come through our wrestling with and bridging two realities, in those moments when we find ourselves standing atop a widening canyon, a foot on both sides.  And we will do the real work of keeping our balance, first and finally, in the ways we always have: through art—word, image, song, act—, through religion (in churches and before the altars of our own hearts), and through human encounter.

And I thus think it’s not only relevant, but perhaps imperative, to tell you that in Kansas City, right this minute, it is possible to physically weave yourself between the threads of a very old song.  Janet Cardiff’s “Motet” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is exploration of public space, of art and musical harmony, of closeness to one another and to God, of sacred music and the secular curation of culture.

And not unlike custom cupcakes and all varieties of screaming in the streets, it is a product of our social and spiritual hunger.

“Motet” is 14 minutes long.  The room contains 40 speakers, some sound panels, tall white walls, leather benches . . . and a polyphonic memory sung, dissected, reconstructed, and explored.

Though removed in time, space, and cultural context, the song is powerful.  Listeners lean in.  They pause, and then linger.  They close their eyes.  Some cry.

And meanwhile, we do the same, trying to understand what is becoming of our nation.

Writing for NPR, Alva Noë reveals his discomfort with public religion and performance art, both, asserting that “There [is] actually something creepy about [Motet]. A room full of robotlike speakers going proxy for absent singers . . . and a museum or gallery is not a sacred space. There was something almost chilling about the performance of such a spiritual offering in such a secular context.”

This same week for Breitbart, Daniel Nussbaum asserted that the National Endowment for the Arts “has become a controversial agency over time . . . [because] taxpayers should not have to fund art they consider to be against their values, or obscene.”

And simultaneously, writing for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and for Unitarian Universalism as a movement, Rev. Meg Riley said of covenant:  “I wake up in the morning feeling discouraged by the news of the day before…entire pieces of government being eliminated with no sense that anything of value will be lost; many people I know and love scared for their very lives with the new “health care plan,” news media that focuses on the ins and outs of party politics as if that is what I care most about, rather than focusing on how we are to be together and take care of one another in this time.  So our theme of the month, covenant, feels more and more relevant to me . . . [because it means] that we are all responsible to and for one another; that no one is free when others are oppressed.”

We cannot, in short, be separated from one another.  Cause cannot be separated from effect.  And none of us can be cut off from the context from which we hail—not really.  We are a people who cross borders all our lives, in our hearts if not with our very bodies.

And this is precisely the thing.  “Motet” is powerful because it isn’t separated from context.  It is in fact not divorced from anything that has come before—because it cannot be.

And this, wandering through a place that used to be my home but no longer is, is a revelation I can use.

Janet Cardiff’s exposition on infinite loop lays a song in our laps, parsed to be intimately accessible at the same time that it builds and crescendos to something that cannot be held by walls.  It has the audacity to be both right-sized for our ears and much too big to keep or categorize.

And this, friends, is not what religion has finally been brought to by secular culture.  It is, instead, precisely what we’re all achieving together, in the best moments: a faith that meets us where we are, in the confusion and fragility and human scale of “now,” which then carries us, soaring and together, into something more.

“Motet” is a recognition of all the history we have held, and it’s a simultaneous assurance for the next leg of a journey.  That the ancient song continues even amid displacement, that God may be found amid technological advances, that manna falls even amid changing invitations and varying hungers, and is here for us. still

Not unlike our covenants with one another.

That dusty word–covenant–speaks of the promises that return us to one another, and to ourselves.  The kind that are so strong that they can be redeemed even when broken.  The kind that allow us to straddle, sure of balance, the canyon between “here” and “there.”

In covenant, in “Motet,” in Kansas City: we tread familiar paths equipped with different tools, find ourselves returned to the start of all our wanderings and seeing the place with new eyes, and. know in deeper ways than we were able to before.

Sacred song in secular space is not a break.  It’s a return.

And here is its promise as best I know it:

What has come before is not gone.  It is here with us, here for us, still.  Here for the asking, for the hearing, for the singing.

This is what a sacred motet in a heartland museum can mean.  It is what the institution of church, keeping the songs of the people for millennia, can mean.  It is every cathedral with its sermon in stones, every poem, every protest, every hymn trying to name God by tugging the vibrating violin strings of our hearts.

In two days, “Motet” will close.  The song will once again fall silent.

 

But my people: it is nevertheless not too late.

It is not, yet, too late. 

j

we the people

 

Dear white girl from Kansas: I choose them

Wow, it’s been a few years.  More than that, actually—time flies, right?  We don’t keep in touch, and even though we lived and worked less than 30 miles from each other for the last six years, I haven’t seen you.  We don’t send birthday greetings.  I don’t know that I even understood you to be part of my village.

Until now.  By which I mean last week, when you sent me that message, and invoked the “friend” card.

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Don’t worry; you’re not alone.  I know this story.  It happens every now and again.

While we lack anything that might be taken for a relationship, we have a friendship, and you’re invoking it now to let me know I have put it on the line.

For being out of touch? 

For not knowing your kids’ names? 

For forgetting your birthday?

Nope.

For talking about racism. 

See, we can go a long time without talking, but there are some things friends just don’t do.  And I need to know that.  So you’re telling me.

Here’s the post that crossed that friend line:

“If you voted for Trump, and are also “not a racist,” this might be an important thing for you to read. And reflect on. And speak out about.

If this sort of thing is ok with you, well, you’re entitled to your prejudices. And also: we have a word for them.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-attorney-general-jeff-sessions-racist-remarks_us_582cd73ae4b099512f80c0c2

And here’s part of your response:

“I know I am a sensitive person, but when I see that in the title of your post you mention things like “not a racist”, I really feel bothered. Things aren’t always so black and white. I do think it’s possible to identify more with one party- even while not completely loving your candidate- and not be generalized as a racist. I did read [the article about Sessions] and am intrigued by the choice.

I am worried about President Elect Trump and his choices, however I am hoping and praying too and giving him my hope and optimism. I really am trying to be inclusive and forgiving and allowing people a chance, even if they’ve said and done things that they shouldn’t have. . . . “

You go on to remind me to be tolerant, and, above all, that you are not a racist.

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Dear Facebook friend.

Here are some things I value:

Civil discourse

Dialogue, and the magic I have sometimes found in the midst of it

Learning

Relationships

But we are not having a leveled conversation here. 

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And aside from the things listed above—things that I actually do value—you’re making a strong implicit ask for me to prioritize a couple of things that I do not, in fact, value:

“Friendships” with people I’m not really friends with.

Dialogue about two things (potential of hurt feelings; potential of persecution, harassment, and unequal treatment based on skin color) that are categorically, exponentially different, carried on with “pretend like all concerns are equal” as a ground rule.

“Be nice*” as the fundamental edict of white womanhood.

And friend, there’s also something here about honor.  About respectability as a white woman.  About what we believe, but mostly do not say, about “decency” and “playing by The Rules.”

It’s been impossible not to notice—in fact, I think this is one of the great and unwelcome shocks to upper middle class white America during these last few years—that “don’t be racist” is no longer a rule.  It is my experience that it was a rule, at least out loud, for more than a generation and a half.  But it’s clearly not a rule now.

And yet, don’t be mean to other white women is TOTALLY a rule.  Also: don’t talk about hard stuff.  Don’t say what you’re thinking or wondering or worrying about, unless it happens to be birthday party décor.  Don’t you dare—ever— say something that might indirectly call anyone to account.

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Sister, you’re intrigued?

And you’re asking me to be silent in the face of that?

I am not going to play nice with your casual racism, just because the world we have inherited says that “play nice” is in the honor code, and “check your freaking white privilege” is not.

My reality as a minister in a progressive, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and multiculturalist faith tradition is that I’m standing atop a widening chasm in maintaining my various relationships.  And I’m not sure how much longer I can do it.

I am no longer sure how to occupy space where I give the same amount of energy—more energy, honestly—to dialoguing about your “a little hurt” feelings than to being physically present with those who are afraid for their marriage rights, for their trans child’s ability to use the bathroom without being beaten or intimidated or psychologically and physically brutalized, for their humanity, for their lives.

I can’t play by white girl rules anymore.  They make real conversation, and underneath that, real movement, impossible.

And I don’t think that’s an accident.  I don’t think my complicity with your comfort is value-neutral.

Thus, as to your implicit threats and explicit invitations: I’m trying to imagine the person you think I might be, the one you’re trying to pull me toward becoming.

I don’t think she’s someone I could live with.

And so, when it turns out I can’t bridge the gap anymore, I will have to make a move.  And the truth is, my choice is already made.

If being in relationship with you means preserving your comfort, keeping your thoughts pure and your cheeks tear-stain free …   if to be “friends,” I must choose silence, over and against solidarity with people whose concerns have never been about comfort—who are acting in a hierarchy of needs that doesn’t get past the physical and psychological safety pieces–

Friend, I choose them.

I choose my humanity.

I choose my soul.

Sound stark?  Feel problematic for your sense of hope, or your understanding of, yes, the magic power of dialogue?

It is.  That’s why it’s taken me this long to say this thing, even to myself.  It violates every “nice girl” norm I know.

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But there is indeed an alternative.  And it looks like you doing some work—to get courageous rather than comfortable.  It looks like you living in flexible, contested space for awhile.

Truly, you want to stay in relationship?  Or establish something deeper?  Or simply read my FB public ministry and not feel personally affronted in considering my words to the world?

That would look like you not expecting me to choose silence as a package deal with “friendship.”

Can you do that?  Are you inclined to?

I don’t know.

What I’m sure of: no one will make you.

And that, friend, is what we call privilege.

j

 

*to those who have social value.  Obvs.

**I’m going, now, to humanize this person.  I’m doing it because humanity and complexity are the deepest call of my faith, and I truly believe that we gain nothing—in any conception of “We” worth having—without that generous willingness.  But before I do that, I want to ask you for a favor.  All of you.  Every single person reading this.

Take a moment, and consider who we are not willing to humanize in our narratives.  To whom do we not offer this gift—this sacred responsibility belonging not to the people we choose to talk about, but to ourselves, as story-tellers?  Who are “thugs” in our narratives, rather than sons, scholars, dads, grads, promise, potential, our future?  Who are “illegal,” in your story, instead of brilliant daughters, future doctors, terrorized toddlers, and the many-centuried hope not just of American shores, but the hope of our nation itself?

I will show you the fuller humanity of this white woman, because we all deserve it.  But remember this: we all deserve it.  And the next time you want someone to look upon you positively in your own story, I invite you to work twice as hard to reframe your internal narrative about someone else.  Especially when it’s challenging.  You’ll know you’re on the right track when you surprise yourself.

So:  this open letter is part of a real exchange, with a real person.  I don’t know if we’re friends now, or if we will be in the future.  I do know that she’s stayed in dialogue as our conversation has continued beyond this point.  I know that she’s been courageous and willing to listen.  I know that she’s working hard to open her heart and hear other, larger stories—and that we can receive that as a gift, because although it is a bullshit way to allocate resources, privilege is real, and it makes willingness optional.  Call-in helps.  So does a willingness to answer when called.

In short, “White girl from Kansas” just might be more impressive than you give her credit for.  May that possibility mean something when it matters.

When freedom’s just another word

Two Sundays ago, I attended St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago. It’s the home of the Episcopal Archdiocese of Chicago, and delivers the full smells-and-bells liturgical worship—so give it a miss if you don’t like incense, kneeling communion, or a sung (Latin) liturgy. From start to finish, modernist entry plaza to soaring cathedral ceiling, the experience is intended to get your attention.

And yet, the thing about well-executed liturgy, be it humble or spectacular, is that it creates a container that’s reliable enough to hold us and predictable enough to fade from view. Because then we are free to go deep into a heart experience as a complement to our head truths.

It is a sign of ritual efficacy, then, that the most searing moment of my Sunday worship experience was not being spritzed with holy water or choked with frankincense; it was hearing the full import of an offhand remark from the priest.

“We remember the promises of baptism,” she intoned, “as we deepen our faith journey in these days—and there are 50 of them; did you know that?— of Easter.”

Me, dreamily: Yes, we remember the . . .

Wait, what!?

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(Do Lutherans also observe this? Have I missed a key feature of the church year for the entirety of my life so far? WHY would Easter need to continue for FIFTY DAYS?)

I probably have missed this, friends. Willfully. Joyfully.

Because here’s a fun fact: I don’t want 50 days of Easter.

Not at all. I have a hard time with one day of Easter, quite honestly, between the too-bright promises of the heaven not in keeping with my theology, and the too-sugary substitutes of the secular YAY SPRING alternative. It’s sleight of hand, all of it, and it leaves me nothing for the tricks and reversals of the rest of the season. Candy wrappers and an empty tomb for the long slog through April.

And a slog it has been.

Practice resurrection, instructs a Wendell Berry poem favored by UUs this time of year.

And I have been. But friends, resurrection kind of sucks.  It’s not pretty. And we think of it in terms of continuity, but it doesn’t work that way. First, you die. And then things are different. Jesus doesn’t get to live among us anymore. Lazarus ends up exiled from his people. Resurrection is active and demanding, and not a continuation so much as a starting over—one that leaves us holding, even as we begin a new life, the broken or bloody pieces of whatever came before.

In fact, I am pretty sure that practicing resurrection is more work than simply dying.

Endings, however terrible, break over us with the force of a tidal wave. We need do nothing. They just come for us. Reemergence, on the other hand,requires effort. Which asks energy. Which we may not have in those first squinting moments.

Here on earth, a rebirth may look like wiggling a pinky finger and calling it movement. It might mean trudging and calling it hope.

Meanwhile, our monthly worship theme is “Freedom,” and it feels purely incongruous. That word, made of stars and stripes, of watermelon, of soaring birds and open highways, it has crash landed in Chicago in April.  Freedom picks itself up, tries to unfold its wings, but finds only gray skies and dampness everywhere.  The brown puddles gather on the sidewalks, flow over manhole covers, slosh into the gutters.

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One evening, I begin the walk home from the store just as drizzle turns to downpour.  I couldn’t have hailed a cab that night with a hundred dollar bill in my hand, much less three soaked bags of groceries. I try anyway, as the rain makes creekbeds of the streets, soaks my hat and hair, and flows, impossibly, from the top of my head to the inside of my coat.

Water runs down the back of my neck and under my shirt and into my boots and I am drenched and miserable to my skin.

To my soul.

It remains unclear, days later, whether this was a low point of my life or merely of my week, but I am quite certain that I require no further weeks of this celebration.

Party over. Goodbye Easter. Take your drizzly and disappointing friends with you.

And take your resurrections as well. You know what the tomb stands for, actually? Certainty. Closure. And above all, rest.

I’m supposed to forsake all those for the neverending vulnerability of It might be so? For the messy ambiguities of living, for the certain heartbreak of loving?

Friends, I have always been a crappy disciple. I betray. I doubt. I’d trade my dreams for a handful of beans every week if the exchange of “possibility” took its friend “ambiguity” with it.

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And I don’t want 50 days of Easter because the truth is that I’d cut and run from even one of those days if I could. Whether it’s the holy hopes of Jesus or the humus-centered humanism of Wendell Berry, resurrection asks too much of me. I know what’s under that shiny second chance: obligation as far as the eye can see.

It is, in short, the opposite of freedom.

And there is truth in that. I didn’t know there was a particular label for this gathering of spring days, but a season is a season whether we name it so or not. Easter. Search. Spring. Thirty-something angst. Name them as you will; the fact is that is easier to hail a cab in the Chicago Loop in the rain than to escape from any season prematurely.

And there are so many seasons in our lives, and we may not initially recognize them for what they are. Would that the hardest things we deal with be calendar or weather related. How much easier if the great intractable wrestling match of this spring truly involved the Easter bunny. Indeed, I would prefer to choose my seasons, to hand-pick my struggles.

The truth: things unasked for take hold and wrap their arms around us for a time, and we are helpless.

It is hard.  And the sole escape from the work is the tomb, whether we seek it bodily or spiritually. That has always been the alternative to trudging up that hill. Again. In the rain.  To painful growth.  To the expectations that lead, inevitably, to obligation.

And so, “freedom.”

Ha.

I guess it looks like walking, friends.

Trudging. Dog paddling, if needed, through the puddles.

And then we stop to rest, find that yes, this day too has an end, and believe that someday the season will, too. These must be enough for this moment: the stopping points, and the beginnings that lie just beyond.  Enough that they will come. Enough that we will move toward them. Enough that we will keep breathing in the meantime.

For the crappy disciples among us, the freedom may lie in surrender. Not to the tomb, but to this time. To this season. To these 50 days of whatever . . .

To be followed, again, by ordinary time.

j

 

yes, mothers, somebody needs you: to be YOU.

This past week I’ve seen this post again and again.  It seems to strike a needed nerve with some of my facebook friends, and so they share, often with a personal testimonial.

The sharers are some of the weariest among us, the dead-on-their feet mamas of newborns, the waiters-out of nighttime tantrums, the second (or third) shift of a job that never ends.  And what they say is that these words really resonate.

-I was in tears this morning, I felt like I couldn’t do it for one more hour, and then I read this.  

-This is so beautiful.

-This is so true.

As it happens, this post struck a nerve with me, too.  And I can see the beauty in it—I can—but my response came from a different place.  A nuanced place.  A frustrated place.

And so, I shared it with a friend, trying to find words for why those words make the bile rise in my throat every time I see them.  My friend is a mother, and a minister, and someone committed to living life as her full self rather than as the caricature that so often appears as we try to romanticize a “biblical womanhood” for the modern era.

And her response was:  Do you notice that Daddy is nowhere in this reflection?  And also, that fathers never write this?  Why is that, do you suppose?

And why, indeed?  Why is crawling on our knees across the guilt-laden minefields of early parenthood a uniquely feminine pursuit?

I can hear a whisper between the lines of this post: this is what Jesus would do.  And perhaps it is, but I would like to point out to you that Jesus is a man.  Framing self-sacrifice as a uniquely feminine calling thus isn’t inherently Christian—it’s inherently patriarchal.  It demands that women, and women alone, deny not just our bodily needs, but any deep spiritual gift that transcends our parental role.

That demand, my friends, is not beauty.  It’s also not love.  I deeply believe in, and have experienced the love of, a God who sees, holds and accepts me as me—as my beautiful, whole, female self.  A self which is not only or even first or foremost a parent, but also a noticer, a writer, a thinker, a doubter, and a lover.

And these physical parental sufferings, these sleepless nights and tired footsteps that we would hold up as the unique burden of motherhood: It’s not that men don’t experience them.  My husband, God bless him, has been the night ranger at our house for the past two years.  I personally know other men, including at least one of my seminary classmates, who do the same.

And it’s not that men don’t struggle with it.  Parenting, if you’re paying a whit of attention, is really, really hard.  And early parenting, in particular, is also physically exhausting—a marathon run one tiptoed trip down the hallway at a time.

No, friends: it’s that men don’t romanticize the physical exhaustion.  It’s that they don’t define their entire identities based on it, and then pressure one another to do likewise.  And they don’t, so far as I can tell, expect—no, demand—to go it alone, without help, without rest, without question, stopping only after the night ends to pen a ladylike missive about the honor and grace inherent in the soul-crushing demands of early motherhood.

The difference between the male and female approach to parenthood is real–and it matters, particularly for those of us fighting hard to have our words heard, our talents recognized, our lives valued as something meaningful unto themselves.

More women are actively working while parenting.  More fathers are actively parenting while working.  And yet, in 2014, we remain content to leave the emotional side of parenting, and particularly the ravages thereof, as a woman’s burden to bear.  Joy?  Dads will take that.  Guilt?  That’s all you, moms.  And survey says: men are content with this arrangement–and why shouldn’t they be?

What we’re sparing the men isn’t merely responsibility—it’s shame.  It’s the constant self-doubt, analysis, questioning of the long-term outcomes of the smallest possible choices.  It’s the crippling doubt of never-doing-it-well-enough.

What do we get in return?  Why would any of us women voluntarily take this deal?  The answers to this question are complicated and varied, but I think there may be a piece of insight in this story:

I used to work with parents of infants and toddlers as an early childhood educator. I made home visits; my caseload was particularly focused on new babies and working-but-involved fathers.  And one day one of the mothers I worked with told me a very simple story–one I came to hear repeated, in one way or another, several times in the next few years–that both surprised me and chilled my blood.

I went to the grocery store, said Amy, alone for the very first time since Tessa was born.  Jeremy stayed with her, and I knew they’d be ok, but Tessa cried the entire time I was gone!

This story isn’t unusual.  The situation isn’t extraordinary.  What is remarkable, however, is what this mom said next.

-I was glad.  

Seriously.  I smiled gently, used my “go on, please” eyebrows, and Amy added, with touching honesty:

I love it that she needs me.  

My friends, it is so beautifully human to need one another.

But what is it to need to be needed?

And what could help us feel secure enough in our own innate value that we could drop the need-to-be-needed where it exists to the exclusion of another willing and capable parent?

Remember how hard it was to get into a rhythm with breastfeeding?  Or perhaps you were one of the many, many mothers for whom it wasn’t overwhelming love at first sight when you were handed your tiny baby.

If that was you, the odds are you worked together, you and that baby, because that’s what was expected.  You had faith, and the faith of your family and community, of the hospital staff, of your friends, of your parent educator—it surrounded you.  You had all the time in the world, and you bonded.

How much of that time and patience and faith do we lavish upon a new father?  How much tolerance for what initially looks—and feels, to him—like failure?

How much do we want his success if we’re going to define this as “our” arena?

And how is this related to the story we tell ourselves about the sleepless nights of early parenthood?  How does this frame the conversation three years from now when someone needs to choose a preschool?  When someone needs to flex time to make drop off and pick up work?  When someone is pulled to leave a job that s/he loves as the reality of a two-career household begins to cause nerves, and relationships, to fray?

Without a look at what we women expect to own, exclusively, in that beloved title of Mommy, we don’t get to freely discuss any of those things, not really.  In fact, it may not occur to us to even ask for what we need.  For more than we’re getting.  For anything that might make us feel like we’re letting the side down.

The deeper story here isn’t Mommy, Someone Needs You.  

It’s Women, Suck It Up.

That’s an old story, friends, and a tired one.  Personally, I think we can collectively access a bit more creativity here.  In fact, I think we need to.

Without it, whether you’re the parent of a newborn or the writer trying to make sense of the exhaustion–or just struggling to make sense– or a mid-career executive mama whose heart is with a child she’d like to be making cupcakes with, or me: trying to follow a spark of true love through seminary, with the full knowledge that my precious baby nearly died last week while I was down the hall reading, the only answers we hear are echoes of this:

Stay home.  Keep the hall light on.  Keep pacing that floor.

But truly, unfortunately, heartbreakingly, even this small box of an answer won’t protect them.

It feels, though, like it might protect you—if the unthinkable happens, at least we’ll all know it wasn’t your fault.  You were where you were supposed to be.

Alone.  In the nursery.  On your knees.  

I’ve been on my knees, too, for too much of this past week . . . and I am getting back up now.

Yes, somebody needs me. Lots of people, every day.

They need the adult me.  The responsible me.  The vulnerable me.  The honest me.

I have worked too hard, for too long–and standing on the shoulders of my mother and my grandmothers and of their mothers–to deny all that I am.

I contain multitudes.  You do, too.

And don’t you dare call me Mommy.

j

As long as you can get yourself down: the argument for an UNsafe childhood

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Two years ago, our sons’ preschool brought in writer and consultant Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.  The purpose, amid a capital campaign for a natural playscape, was to educate us about the importance of allowing risks and exploration while enjoying nature with our children.

In this spirit, the school allowed its students to climb the trees bordering the three-acre playground.  “As long as you can get yourself down” was the rule for tree-climbing—until the day our older son fell out of one.

Soeren’s scrapes required no medical attention; he healed completely within a week.  It may sound odd, but I was delighted to learn that the abrasions to the side of my son’s face were not from falling, but from catching himself on a low branch.  Soeren has always been a reluctant physical risk-taker, constrained by an anxiety about “what if” that is uncomfortably familiar.  My parental pride and the exhortations of the nature consultant aside, however, the trees were declared off limits for the rest of the year.

Several months later, a different child fell from a metal climbing structure, breaking his arm.  In my own school experience, it was at least a yearly rite of passage for the ambulance to come and take an arm-breaker to the hospital.  The child came back the next day to much fanfare; we all signed her cast, and life continued as before.  What happened in this case was an ambulance ride, a hushed apology to the family, and the near-immediate dismantling of the offending piece of playground equipment.  The entire set was taken down and hauled away; the children played in a yard of flat grass with balls and trucks for the rest of the year.

What these events meant for our obligation as parents to “take risks” and “explore nature” was never made clear.  I still wonder, but in reality, this particular school’s interpretations are unimportant.  The larger principles at work are what is noteworthy—and concerning.

An emphasis on safety above all things as a response to competing values (Get back into nature! Without anyone becoming hurt, or frightened, or dirty!) has redefined the parental obligations for an entire generation.

Unfortunately, this emphasis encourages fear rather than eliminating it, and inflicts collateral damage in the process. Were we to truly examine what it means to expect accidents not to happen, we might realize that what we have come to expect from ourselves and each other is not just safety, but control.  Possibly absolute control—over our own thoughts and actions, over those of our children, over environments, over weather, over chance.

This expectation of control stands in stark contrast to how I was raised.  I grew up in Wyoming and experienced a childhood that, admittedly, fell at the far “free range” end of the parenting spectrum.  However,  the facebook memes making the rounds—you know, the ones listing all the things we’re “the last generation to ___”– seem to strike a nerve with my generation of parents. I’m guessing it’s because those lists acknowledge that things today are different from how any of us were raised, and those days now seem simpler and also far out of reach.

How can I keep my sons free from significant harm, yet allow them to have access to a childhood of hard-won discoveries, unsupervised explorations, and the power to invent worlds, destroy them, and start over the next day?  Most times, this might be left an idle question, read about in somebody else’s blog post, pondered briefly, forgotten by dinner.  Later that same year, however, I experienced a recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder.  This affected my own parental perceptions of danger quite acutely; suddenly it became important to find answers to these questions, or at least strategies for wrestling with them, stat.

In desperation or habit or deep ancient wisdom, I felt a pull toward Wyoming, scene of my own childhood, to look for those answers.  To Vedauwoo, specifically—a series of tall granite outcroppings rising out of the high plains between Cheyenne and Laramie, and the natural heritage and birthright of southeastern Wyoming kids.  Vedauwoo means picnics, campouts, family hikes and wiener roasts, and later hooky days from school, stargazing, college keg parties.  And, unavoidably, it also means danger.

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Here amid the echoes and the rocks (and in this part of Wyoming, even the dirt isn’t far removed from rock; Si falls down and we spend five minutes removing tiny shards of granite from his shin), parenting initially appears harder than ever.  Risk looms larger here; what I barely noticed as a child is inescapable in watching my sons scramble delightedly across the rocks.  Danger—the real kind—beckons like the pied piper from all directions.   The boys could fall from a cliff.  They could drown in the pond.  They could lose the trail.  They could cross paths with a bear or a wildcat, be struck by lightning, or, in the particular case of my two-year-old, eat poisonous mushrooms, climb into the latrine, or cut your wrists on any of the jagged pieces of glass from the beer bottles that come here to die each weekend.  This place has been called a playground for those who love nature, but it’s a playground likely to give my generation of parents headaches, if not actual nightmares.  Gymboree it is not.

It’s overwhelming.  Or at least, I am overwhelmed.  And so, in full sun next to a wall of rock my children have just disappeared behind, with Daddy following along as spotter, I set my pack in the gravel and lie down with my head upon it.  I give up, for a bit, on vigilance.  Lying there, I also give up on trying to understand.  I ask myself if I’m also planning to give up on thinking, or breathing, or being, as I stare upward from the ground.

The patch of earth on which I’m lying slopes down a bit from my back to my head.  I wonder vaguely if I’m falling off the world or held tighter to it, and as I lie there I realize I’m facing a rock formation that I have climbed many times.

Gazing up at the granite, I am speechless, taking it in as though for the first time.  The sun feels both far away and uncomfortably intense, the light unique to clear days at high altitude.  The rocks reflect the light brightly in some places, and glow softly in pink and orange in others.  The sky surrounding the cliffs is cloudless, a color that instantly evokes a hundred memories but defies naming.   It is beautiful.  It is forceful.  It is sharp, and hard, and angular and, just . . . undeniably there.

This place is a physical representation of the phrase “It is what it is,” words that irritate and even provoke me in nearly every context.  Here, though, in the face of so much unyielding rock, they are comforting.  As I have known you, so you are.  Even now.  Even still.

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As befits a person on the edge of crazy, I talk to these rocks, asking, “If you are the same, and I am the same, why can’t I keep my children safe here when my parents could?  How were they calm in the face of your danger?  How did they know that things would be ok?”

I try to remember how my parents acted.  What strategies they used to calm or caution us.  But as I think about it, what I remember most is being left to our own devices.  We played; the grownups sat, fire blazing, at a neighboring campsite and talked.  We climbed trees and explored caves; they climbed rocks and whistled down to us.  This is confusing—how could they have made sure that we were safe if they weren’t there?  How could they have known at which moment we might get into danger, and prevent it?  How could they have looked away while we climbed surrounded by only hard landings?  In my own life as a parent, I feel affronted when a playground has soft-form asphalt rather than mulch under the climbing equipment.

We yearn for control and we imagine that we wield it—but ultimately, we cannot ignore the tension created where our theories and the world-in-practice do not match up.  When accidents do happen—to someone else’s child or our own—how do we react, emotionally? With guilt?  With shame?  With condemnation?

Outwardly, we place added pressure on ourselves, on other parents, or on laws to do what the world itself refuses to—protect us at all costs.  The concept of “accident” has itself changed in the years since we were children—what once, in one sense, applied to a great mystery of life—sometimes bad things happen and we don’t know why—now indicates only negligence, whether or not we can immediately pinpoint the source.

In this context, failing to protect a child from harm is unforgiveable. We look immediately and mercilessly for someone to hold responsible when a child is hurt in any way.  As for ourselves, we believe that we simply won’t make those bad choices, and accidents will therefore never happen to us.

This attitude is a mistake, and not just because it stigmatizes those to whom bad things happen, or because places an impossible weight upon our shoulders.  It is mistaken because it cuts us off from growth.  Writing now, later, I can share that in coping with PTSD symptoms, I have had to learn two things: to see and evaluate risk more objectively, even in the face of a strong emotional response, and to accept with serenity the knowledge that there is true danger simply in being alive.  I will posit that these are the same tasks we must take on as parents guiding our children through a frightening world.

First, we must strive to see risk for what it is, and to acknowledge it where we find it.  Some things simply are too potentially damaging to allow a child to do so long as we are the ones responsible for her safety—though these determinations may vary by child, by parent, by family.  Other things, however, are not nearly so dangerous as we believe them to be, and have benefits that far outweigh the risks.  For our family, playing outside with minimal supervision fits into this second category; riding bikes without helmets into the first.

Next—and this one is the nailbiter—we must accept that it is not possible to make the world “safe.”  Dangers, known and unknown, are part of the bargain we make in living.  Our task, then, is to accept, and then move beyond acceptance to embracing the way that risk and challenge shape our lives.

In the end, whether we are willing to see it or not, our children are all climbing dangerously.  And so are we.  Maybe what they need—what we each need—isn’t a bigger safety net.  Maybe it’s actually a bigger rock, or the experience to know that the climb itself is its own reward.  The view from the top isn’t too shabby either, but the real reason we need to do it is because risk is part of what makes us human. It’s part of what makes us real.

Let’s not focus on making the world risk-free, then.  Let us instead climb to the high places, and in so doing, tap into the great pride of human accomplishment.  And let’s look to our children as we climb.  It is up to us to protect them—but they are the ones who can show us how to get ourselves back down again, and to do it with joy and grace.

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when the time comes to let it go

butterfly in child hands

I’ve been thinking a lot about this post.  I wrote it last December, contemplating a time (an as yet undefined, hopefully very “future” time) when my congregation’s minister will leave our church.

That reflection was about living in peace with what you know will leave you, and about figuring out how to do the work required to live into a personal commitment to stay.  And it was about realizing that building relationships with my fellow congregants, and then expanding the circle to make room for the stranger, was what mattered in both of these contexts.

Friends, all of that may be true.  It probably is.  It sounds good, anyway.

And yet, the joke’s on me.  Note: when worrying about anticipated grief, consider also “denial”– it’s a treasonous thing, and its reversal packs a stunning wallop.

I hoped, last winter, that I was working on identifying and hanging onto what stays, and gracefully accepting the impending departure of what does not.  Looking back at my collected work, what I think I’ve actually written is “How to lose a lot of what you thought you needed, including your money and possibly your mind, in 11 short months.”

These days my blog is showing up in Google searches from potential UU seminarians (halloo, there!), and in helpful response, I have considered writing an actual “how to” post, as a step-by-step list.  (Step one: Tell the story of your life.  Tell it again.  Now again.  When the person listening has either literally perished from boredom, or attempted to slap you senseless, proceed to the next step.  Step two: Gather all of the financial resources you have available.  Seriously, all of them; if you can liquidate some assets, even better.  Place them in the center of a large circle.  Light them on fire.  Dance around them, singing “We are the flow, we are the ebb,” or another Pagan chant of your choice, while filling out form RSCC-6 detailing your financial plans for your future ministry.  . . . )

I could go on from there, and I’m sure my fellow seminarians could, too . . . the thing is, it probably doesn’t matter.  There is so much I didn’t know, consent I wasn’t informed enough to give, losses I wasn’t prepared to incur.  Maybe a step-by-step list, even a silly one, would be a move in the right direction . . . but for many of us, I suspect it would change nothing.  If the number one value were doing something that clearly made sense from the ouside, “rational” perspective, who in this time and place would prepare for a life of religious leadership?

No, this is a path for people who are drawn by something else, something so compelling that we’re willing to grope in the dark where needed or stretch a foot out toward a path that does not yet exist.

It takes much trust—so much trust—to keep moving forward when you can’t see where you’re going to put your feet next; in doing this, you will feel quite acutely the weight of what is riding on your every move.  Because it’s not just about you.  It never is.  It’s lifelong friendship and the tiny fingerprints that have been born of it.  It’s the ridges and contours of this place where we grew into a family.

And, of course, this doesn’t stop with my family.  Part of the path that is missing, or at least missing significant signage and guideposts, is in the saying goodbye to my home congregation.

There are a few recommendations here and some vague admonitions there, but really, we’re all just feeling our way through.  Sometimes, I’m leading that feeling-out process; that can be more of an adventure than a person who hates awkwardness—hates it more even than raisins—can gracefully handle.

And I’m starting to wish, in this weird, in-between time, that I had a sign.

It should read:

I can’t be your friend

(and soon I can’t be your “friend,” either)

The time is coming when we will let all these things go.

But that time is not now.  Not yet.  So for now, I just grit my teeth through the awkwardness.  For now, I just imagine saying goodbye.  And the moment seems unthinkable.  Huge.  Unbelievably sad.

But then I realize: “huge” is not how goodbyes like this happen.  I sit, lately, in the spaces that used to feel like home, the ones that for years have been comfortable like a favorite pair of jeans.  And I notice that it doesn’t feel the same anymore, in subtle but definite ways.  There is a gradual slipping away of some things, and, at the same time, a slow dawn of others.

There is truth here: this is how it will happen.  This is how it will be.  As an icicle melts, as a pathway is etched, as a child grows.  Each new day is a goodbye, and a new arrival, as I gradually become someone else.

The one who will go.

And, then, someday . . . the one who lets go for a living.

-j

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things we lost in the fire

 

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The formation process, year 1.

It’s educational.  It’s beautiful.

It’s really damned hard.

There is something different, challenging, not what I expected every single day.

Often that something is small.

Wow, I wrote about religious community last fall from that perspective . . . but now I wonder if it looks more like this.

Or, hmm, I notice that I would dearly love to tell this person off.  Previous response: do it.  More likely current response: I wonder if I can sit with this feeling . . .

Occasionally, there are bigger issues.  My community ministry internship just started, and we’re not on campus again until January, so these come up most often in my connections with my home congregation.  They are issues along the lines of what Rev. Patrick McLaughlin referred to in this post about the bumps on the road from “congregant” to “seminarian.”  This can be a challenging path to navigate, and with two new seminarians—my congregation’s first, ever—it looks like we’re all in for an interesting church year.

And then, every once in awhile, there are Other Things.  Really Big Things.  They are things unanticipated—or worse, feared—that mean real sacrifice.  These things aren’t merely interesting, or uncomfortable, or even humbling and embarrassing—they are true gamechangers.  They are shifts so big that they affect not just me but my whole family–our daily lives, our friends, our support system, and our plans for the future.

After the latest earthquake, one that rates at least a 7 on the richter scale of unpleasant seminary-related adjustments, I had a realization.  It was horrifying.

My God.  This process is going to take everything.  There will be nothing left.

The words came, unbidden, into my head, in a moment that felt a bit like despair.  And yet my tendency, in times of fear and uncertainty, is to consider the worst case scenario and work backward from that, and I felt sure that I’d soon realize that “everything” is a an overstatement.

I will tell you, friends: I haven’t realized that, at least not in any way that offers solace to my scared self.  Instead, the words–and the changing reality behind them–have settled into my stomach with the weight of truth.

This calling—this process of being made and remade—it’s going to lay claim to everything that isn’t tied down.  Perhaps it will take even more than that—I am starting to picture a wave of flames washing over me, over my family, consuming whatever isn’t fireproof.  It will change our relationships.  It will alter the way we live.

I’m not worried for our lives, themselves.  The flames are intimidating, but they are truly scary only where I’m wrestling with them to hang on to all that is now.  This fire won’t harm us . . . but it is intent on consuming some things that feel very important to me.

And, get this: I’m just supposed to watch.  No, that’s not right.  I’m supposed to offer, willingly.  Take them.  Take this, and that . . . take everything holding me back, everything tying us to this place, everything standing between now and the future into which we must walk.

And it is so very hard.

It is hard to stop wrestling.  It is hard not to fight for the Things and all that they stand for—hard not to yell “MINE!” and cling to what I’ve earned, or paid for, or helped create.  It’s hard to let go of the dreams that are attached to those things, balloons of my hopes tethered to what are now someone else’s shiny prizes.

It is hard—it’s extraordinarily hard—to relinquish the “me” that I have been.  And it is hard—stunningly, choking-back-tears and struggling-to-inhale hard—to let go also of the things I thought I was going to be in the future.  To watch my family—to watch my husband—let go of those things, too.

What can you do when the fire comes?  Not beforehand, but now, in this moment, when it is too late for extinguishers or insurance, when it is too late to change anything that matters?

This question, of course, isn’t just about the formation process.  A congregation I know recently received the news that their minister is leaving at the end of this church year.  The announcement has caught them by surprise, and on one level, they’re scrambling to get ready.  On another, deeper level, they know that there is not enough time—perhaps you can save the family pictures, but not the cherished furniture.  On a deeper level, they know that there are some things for which you cannot truly prepare . . . and changes that you cannot hope to prevent.

Outside of congregational life, the fire awaits us, too.  An unexpected death.  A serious illness.  An adaptive challenge that gives us no real choice but to stand and face it, breathing and hoping and taking one more step until the smoke has cleared and we can count the costs.

So what does one do?

Here is my family’s answer: we will hold tight to each other, release everything else, and lean into the flames.  We will find out what is fireproof.  We will find out what is made to stay, what will be forever changed, and what will live only in our memories.

And we will remind ourselves of what we know . . . what we learned in the kind of community so special that it made firewalkers of us:

We have what we need.  We will have what we need.

We see it coming over the horizon, bright, hot, bigger than we imagined.  We do not run.

Instead, we take one more step.  We crouch low.  We hold hands.

Welcome, fire.  

parenting . . . on the edge

What happens when parenting isn’t perfect?  When life isn’t what you expected?  When things get hard in mommyland?  I wrote this a year ago, after discovering that my own answer is “Keep running.”  What’s yours, friends?

-j

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Maybe somebody has to explore what happens 
when one of us wanders over near the edge 
and falls for awhile. Maybe it was your turn.

–William Stafford, “Afterwards”

Recently, it was my turn.  As Stafford’s poem suggests, you can ask, but there’s no telling why, exactly.  My personal cocktail of despair involved leaving my job to be a stay-at-home mother, a mass shooting that felt a little too close to home, and—oddly—a spiritual shift so fast and ferocious that it seemed likely to upend my tidy life entirely.  Welcome to life on the edge.

Anxiety comes with a whole goody bag of possible symptoms.  For me, however, it’s just one thing– the sense of danger around every corner–that has made day to day life challenging; that has, in fact, led to episodes both comical and worrisome.  A car backfires in an alley; I jump.  A teenager misfires with a water cannon at a pool party and everyone around me gets wet—I get grass stains, because I drop instantly to my knees on the lawn, a crazed ninja in a twinset.

Overall, I feel vulnerable, exposed, in harm’s way.  And the fear is particularly gripping where my children are concerned.

As it happens, I have plenty of opportunities to reflect on this: my younger son is a climber.  Silas climbs fearlessly and constantly.  At two he has had falls, stitches, and, once, after discovering that lamps do not make good handholds, surgery.  After Silas-proofing to the best of our abilities, we take the inevitable in stride.  We sigh.  We laugh.  We make “as long as you can get yourself down” the cardinal rule of our home.

And yet now I am so worried about what might happen—what could happen—what probably will happen if I’m not careful enough—that I start to feel incapable of parenting him.  Worry leads to fixation.  Fixation turns into paralysis.

This comes horribly to life one afternoon; the boys are in their rooms for what used to be called naptime, but which is actually, unofficially “mommy needs a break time, whether you sleep or rest or simply spend an hour picking your nose.”  I might use these precious minutes to read, write, or check Facebook; sometimes I sit and stare at a wall in silence.  On this day, though, I take a shower.  I am shaving my legs when I hear a crash.  A spectacular sort of crash.  Seconds later, my older son propels himself through the door and into the bathroom, talking in an excited jumble, “SilasfellandcrashedIthinkhe’shurtcomefast!”

At one point—in “the normal days”—I might have run, blindly, instinctively, or at the very least, swiftly, to the scene, mom-as-rescuer ready to do her thing.  I’d appear out of nowhere, cape trailing behind me, to snatch my child from the jaws of danger.  I think I would have, anyway.  On this day, what I do is: nothing.  Or nothing effectual, at least.  I switch off the water, grab a towel, stand dripping onto the shower floor, stare at Soeren.  He is nearly hopping with anxiety and excitement, chattering a stream of words in my direction, but I am looking through him, listening beyond him.  And what I hear is silence.

That silence—an empty nothing that echoes down the hallway—expands until I feel a terror that seizes my heart and kicks the backs of my knees.  I see pictures: Silas crushed by furniture.  Silas dangling from the cord of his window blinds, pinned in the space next to his bed, broken or bleeding on his floor.  I feel sick, guilty, terrified, each image worse than the one before.  And still I stand there.  I don’t make myself move.  I can’t make myself move.  I might be standing there still, I tell you truly, except that finally, miraculously—thank you, God—I hear Silas begin to cry.

This particular bogeyman disappears, a figment of my imagination after all.  I attend to Silas, we work together to clean up his room, and we move on with the day.  Later, though, I hear the quiet whisper of fear, and this time, it’s questioning me. My focus.  My dedication.  My abilities.  And honestly, I have to agree with it.

I’ve been spending time wresting with the dangers inside my head, but I wonder who my children might look to when the danger is real.  Increasingly, scarily, it seems like the answer is, “Someone else.” I don’t know how to keep my children safe.  I don’t know how to keep myself safe.  I’m not even sure I remember what “safe” feels like.

I talk with my therapist, my minister, my mother.  And they all say: Keep walking.  Trust yourself.  Trust the Process.  I picture that capital-P Process, an unbroken string stretching across a white background, and me, blind despite the brightness, grappling awkwardly toward it.  Feeling my way, step by lurching step, across the unknown.

Outside of my imagination, “keeping walking” looks like this: I stare into space; I wander, as if lost, through familiar rooms; I look down to see that I’m holding items I don’t remember picking up.  Homeschool papers and workbooks pile up untouched, shaming me; we don’t have a television, but we have Netflix, and soon my children memorize the theme song to the Backyardigans.  I do load after load of laundry, a task so discrete that it cannot intimidate, but I cannot make a dent on the mess in the kitchen.

Through all of this, my husband—acknowledged by both of us to be the more dramatic personality in our relationship—is strangely placid.  Why aren’t you worried, I ask.  He looks mildly amused.  He reads my drafts, takes my arm in crowds, catches my eye and smiles when the children are being maddening.  Mostly, though, he stands back.  Craig handles the tasks of everyday life and waits, the very image of Keep Calm and Carry On.  He has something, my husband.  I think it’s called faith.

And eventually, I do, too.  Not the kind I imagined, the unshakeable certainty you carry with you at the core of your being.  This is a faith you consider the existence of, a half-believed rumor, then crawl toward, grasp for and ultimately stumble into.  The kind you skin your knees tripping over and arrive, finally, splayed out on the floor but grateful in the knowledge that Things Will Be Okay.

That happens on a trip back home to Wyoming, in a sharp experience of clarity on a hike with the boys.  In an afternoon, I come face to face with my childhood and also with my powerlessness to protect my children—to protect myself—offered as a lesson by one of the most beautiful and hard-edged places I know.

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The truth I come back with, the only truth I know, goes like this: you can climb, and you might fall.  You can try, and you might fail.  You can live, unsafely . . . or you can die.

The acceptance comes in a moment, but the shift back to normalcy happens only gradually.  In the meantime, I take up running and move with a dogged devotion that my sale-rack athletic shoes cannot match.  I try ellipticals, treadmills and sidewalks before meeting, finally, the wooded trails on the edge of town.  We are matched, that patch of woods and I, not quite wild but definitely not fully civilized.  A little messy.  Too steep in places.

I run, and I breathe, and I come back to myself, but as the days grow shorter and the shadows longer, I feel a wistfulness tinged with fear for all the moments I cannot keep.  Under this worry might be nothing.  Or, it might be everything.

Am I losing this season?  Can I hang onto myself?  Is this my last chance to run this year?

Without ever consciously acknowledging them, I keep the questions on heavy repeat in my mind. As I wonder and I worry, I do what comes without questioning: I keep running.   And eventually I come to understand that there is only this.  Hot weather: keep running.  Cool weather: keep running.  Leaves turn: keep running.  Leaves fall: keep running.  Darkness settling in, the ground a changeable surface of debris over mud: walk, gingerly—but continue to put one foot in front of the other.

Finally, the return to rhythm touches the other parts of my life.  My cheeks hurt and I realize I have been smiling as I listen to my sons explain a game to one other, each playing by rules of his own making.  I kick through leaves alongside Silas, holding his hand, and find myself walking happily at half-height, that I might better hear his two-year-old observations on the world.  My husband and I reclaim our evening ritual of regaling each other with the three best parts of the day; we laugh so loudly that Soeren emerges from his room and demands that we stop waking him up.

It is fall, and it is beautiful.  I notice, and celebrate a spectrum of colors, and of feelings, that I had forgotten existed.  I label them as they come.  Ochre.  Ruby.  Anticipation.  Excitement. Joy.

And yet.  The edges of my life don’t fit together quite like they did before.  The frayed and knitted-together places remain invisible to most everyone else, but I can see the seams.  And I know.  I am choosing.  To engage with life means deciding, sometimes daily, to step away from the edge of risk—or not.  It is choosing whether to pull my children back from their own falls—the ones that life brings to each of us and the ones they create for themselves in climbing, pushing, experimenting.

We are all wandering out near the edge of falling.  It is also the edge of learning—the edge of flying.  But it’s a cliff.  It’s a canyon.  It’s a place without railings.

And still, we live here.

of friendship, worship, and the bravery of storytelling

Very early Monday morning, I returned home, bleary and beat, from 2013 General Assembly in Louisville.  I attended Ministry Days as well (thanks again, UUMA, for including aspirants this year), and so spent seven straight days in the hum and hustle of what I will call LUUieville.  This six-block section of downtown, centered around the Convention Center on 4th St., included the Marriott, Fairfield Inn, Springhill Suites, and the truly megalithic Galt House Hotel, where many of us stayed.  (It also included the Hyatt, which to my knowledge all 4000 of us pretended did not exist.  Get with the program, Hyatt . . . and while you’re at it, stop air conditioning the sidewalk. UPDATE: As of July 1, Hyatt Hotels has reached a collective bargaining agreement and the global boycott led by UniteHere has been lifted.)

In LUUieville, one might observe tie dye, chalice jewelry, deep conversations about covenant and social witness, prolonged interactions with those asking for money, people strolling casually and people hurrying, and nearly everyone, young, old, well-dressed or completely casual, wearing large nametags around their necks.  It was, to say the least, an interesting week–a time of friends and fellowship, of renewal and discovery, and of sharing stories and creating new ones.  Perhaps most of all, it was a time for talking about when and where and how we tell those stories, and what our storytelling might mean for our movement.  From Lillian Daniel to Eboo Patel to Bill Schulz, we heard the case, again and again, for stating our case as a people of faith.

Unsurprisingly, I came away with a few stories of my own . . . and also, a thought about that larger question of storytelling.

The idea with storytelling is that if we each speak from “I,” and from the heart, walls will fall down.  And sometimes, they will–with a willing listener, brave and open storytelling may result in a long and enjoyable conversation, in which beautiful differences and lovely commonalities are discovered.  I tell my own story, and then I respectfully make space for you to do the same.  Then in sharing, we are transformed.

Cool, huh?  (Everybody say, “aww . . .”)

I wish that were my message.  It’s simple.  It’s to-the-point.  It’s warm and fuzzy.

Unfortunately, though, working across the lines of difference–across conflict–is more complicated than that.  As a movement, we need not just to think about storytelling, but to challenge ourselves to go deeper with it.  It is a powerful tool, but using it to bring love and wholeness to our communities is going to require more than our narratives and our mouths.  Why?  Because, for one thing, it turns out that story-driven interactions can  entrench conflict rather than solving it.

Stories can help us to see one another .  . . but our own stories, held too closely, serve only to blind us.  (As I type this, Patrick Park is singing “Here We Are”—“We can’t see past our own sad stories/and forget how to listen.”)  Case in point: one of my new friends, a fellow seminarian, and I began to talk together about a very knotty issue, and quickly found ourselves knee-deep in disagreement.  The issue was close to each of our hearts, and felt tied to call, to authority, and in some ways, to identity.  We started by trying to parse the issue itself . . . that was like digging a hole.  Two holes.  And not the kind that intersect in the middle in some sort of tunnel of love.

I have a story—my story—about this conflict.  It is a true story, as best I know it—a relation of events that takes into account my own faults and foibles, and one that strives to be fair.  And Sarah has her own story—a story which is also compelling, also full of emotion . . . and also, to the best of her knowledge, factually accurate.  Again, what we have here is one situation.  Two people.  Two stories.  And both are true.

Both contain lessons, demand action, even inspire outrage.  Viewed from either side, the issues themselves become blurred, muddled and half-obscured by the strength of emotions involved.  This is true because this particular conflict isn’t actually issue-driven; it is story-driven.  Our own stories—the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell each other—can drive us deep into uncompromising territory.  Into the place where battle lines are drawn, because they seem like the only rational option.

Fortunately for our budding friendship, Sarah and I recognized this.  Later in the week, I saw Amy Carol Webb sing a song in which I recognized myself—here it is.

We both laid our shovels down, and started again, and this time we didn’t talk about “issues” or “truth” or try to label what “we” believe.  We started somewhere else: with the hard work of attempting to put ourselves in the other’s shoes.

To really build relationships—to forge community across entrenched lines of difference–we need to have not just the passion and energy to tell our own story, but the compassion and creativity to tell another’s.  Even when we have to really reach for it.  Even when we don’t quite get there.  I tried this, last week, with Sarah–tried sitting silently, eyes closed, to see the situation as she does, to feel what she feels, to tell a story from a different place.

In one sense, this failed—I didn’t fully enter Sarah’s story; I couldn’t even fully speak to her pain.  It was enough to broaden my view and open my heart, however.  It was enough to help my clenched fingers and clenched jaw turn loose of the “truth” they’d been harboring.  It was enough to open my heart to whatever comes next.

Being ready to tell another’s story takes guts.  If we don’t take this leap, though, it is likely that in those situations where difference is what we perceive most acutely, we will end up with a heart problem.  We can speak, but without truly listening.  We can act, but not in partnership with those who disagree with us.  We can share who we are, where we come from, and what we feel, but to stop there is to insist that our own perspective be heard and honored even where others’ are not.  Perhaps, then, the most important question we might ask isn’t, “how can I tell my story,” but “how else could I tell this story?”  Perhaps not, “what is the truth,” but “how might [this crazy-sounding thing that I’m hearing] make sense?”

In this week of lessons, there proved plenty of time to think about these questions, including on Saturday, when I attended a rare UU communion service.  Late in the worship, during a silent, standing ritual in which we received bread and wine with only a shared gaze, a man began to talk.  He had been talking for most of the service, turning the sermon into a sort of call-and-response routine, but I wasn’t aware of him during the communion–I was deep in reflection.  A woman stepped forward, quietly requesting that the man refrain from talking during the ritual (I didn’t hear her, either).

The man became angry, struggled to gather his belongings, and left the room in a dramatic scene, as the officiant bearing wine passed by.  Another minister began to sing.  The assembled body of people began to sing, too.  The door swung closed behind the man.  Nobody spoke.  Nobody moved.  Eventually the service ended, closing the book on assembled UU Christianity for another year.

That of course isn ‘t the end of the story, however.  It turns out that people are angry.  Complaints have been directed every which way.  This is completely unacceptable, not UU . . . not Christian.  What we need is a takeover of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF).  What we need is an alternative to the UUCF.

Um . . . maybe.  But how else could we tell this story?

The man has a mental illness, behaves differently, and should be met with love where he is. 

The woman is grieving a loss and had hoped to find peace and solace amid the quiet reflection of the communion ritual.  

The service was an example of our UU failure to live into the beloved community in the spirit of Christ.  

The service was an example of a beautiful ritual that doesn’t fit all needs of all people at all times.  

The service was simply what it was, and we are called to respond as we will, searching our hearts, bidding our hands, our feet, our mouths to do the work of love.  

The man was unfairly persecuted during the service.  

The woman was unfairly persecuted after the service.  

No one was persecuted; sometimes it is painful to live within the confines of community.

Any of us could have done something.  

We each could have done more.

On this day we failed.  

On this day we triumphed.  

On this day, we did both, and everything in between, and hopefully learned something that will allow us to live more fully, and to tread more gently, tomorrow.  

This is a small example, but that’s exactly the point: we each deal with countless opportunities every day to challenge and change the narratives in our heads.  Large or small, the questions we might ask are the same: How brave are we?  How creative are we willing to get?  How uncomfortable can we allow ourselves to be?  Whose story is missing here, and how can we tell it?  How else might we tell the story?

We must become storytellers, all right.  Not autobiographers, but narrators and sharers of that vast rainbow of experience—the minority perspective, the voice of the one who angers us.  Using not just our mouths, but our ears and perhaps above all, our hearts, our movement might dream to tell a tale not just of ourselves . . . but of what is possible.

Checkmate!

It has recently come to my attention that I might not know anything.

This is confusing.  It’s potentially embarrassing.

And also, it presents problems.

For one thing, I have completed years of grad school.  I have degrees.  If those mean nothing specific in a practical sense (besides debt), they should at least signify some accumulated knowledge.  Right?

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“First Year of Seminary,” everydayimpastoring.com

Beyond that, I have a larger problem: this discovery is challenging to my narrative about beginning seminary.  In fact, it’s challenging to framing the call to ministry—the rationalization of which has been a key part of being brave enough to embark on this adventure in the first place.

A short version of that story: A little over a year ago, I started to hear a vague internal whisper about ministry.  It wasn’t unsettling—I didn’t think it meant me, exactly, or  becoming a minister.  I wondered why it was so curious, and what it wanted me to learn . . . and, amused, I tried to humor it.  Then, last summer, someone gave that whisper a voice—to me, about me . . . or some version of me that he thought he saw.

At first, I was more amused than ever; in fact, this was hilarious.  Then I discovered that the internal whisper was no longer whispering, and that I couldn’t turn it off.  In the eternal words of Paul Simon: I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore.

I have wondered sometimes how one ought to distinguish between an internal voice that indicates a calling to ministry and an internal voice that suggests mental illness.  Frankly, I’m still not always certain that I have made the distinction appropriately . . . and, during the past year, I have felt something akin to panic trying to figure it out.

In the midst of these questions, and determined to reign in my bizarre “church issue,” I hatched a plan: I would simply go back to work.  Probably my mind—and my hands—just needed to be kept busier.  It speaks to my desperation that despite the fact that I was already at-home parenting two small children and engaged in a raft of volunteer activities, this seemed totally reasonable.  At least, it seemed worth a shot—and critically important to try. Soon.  Before the voice got any louder.  If I could just hang on until January, I thought, when I could be back in the classroom . . .

My therapist, however, was dubious, and suggested that I take a career assessment and consider the results carefully.  This seemed unnecessary—I had taken career assessments and aptitude tests; I knew my Myers-Briggs and my Enneagram types.  By late October, though, I couldn’t wait any longer.  I  guiltily watched all the UUA videos on Becoming a Unitarian Universalist Minister; I felt like I’d gone on a crack bender.  Insufficiently deterred, I approached the MFC reading list as a potential “scared straight” program.  I selected Congregational Polity as my first text, reasoning that I’d be bored to tears almost instantly—only to acknowledge, 60 pages in, that I was fascinated.  Beguiled.  In love.

Horrorstruck, I knew it was time for the big guns.  Bring on the career assessment.  I caved and took it online the week of an extended family trip to Florida.

The MAPP Assessment is a strange test.  It has 70 questions, each with three potential answers, which in my memory are things like “sort mail” “drive snowplow” and “teach math class.”  You mark one “most preferred,” one “least preferred,” and leave the third choice blank.  Truly, I do not believe there was a single question about spiritual preferences.  There were a lot of questions about heavy machinery.

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Despite this apparent imbalance, and the lack of any narrative responses whatsoever, this assessment feels free to draw conclusions about you, your passions, interests, abilities, and suitability to various types of work.  It’s like the Ouija board of career counseling, and honestly, I probably did it wrong—I was so distracted by the bizarre choices offered that my main objective while taking it was to emphasize my lack of facility with things with gears.

Results are delivered in a top-twenty fashion.  In some ways–in retrospect, at least–the results were both interesting and affirming.  Public interest legal practice was #14.  That made sense.  Numbers 12 through 5 were mostly various forms of teaching, with college at the far end and kindergarten and special education closer to the top.  Perfect.  Number four, and a few other random items were things focused on writing.  That was understandable, too.  Three and several others were in the area of guidance or career counseling—helping people achieve their goals.  Slightly off the beaten track, but fine.  And then, my top two.  The first was “columnist or correspondent,” with a note appended that “this job may be a component of other employment rather than an independent occupation.”  Ok, got it.  On to item the second.  Which was, as you may have anticipated, effing, I kid you not, minister.

This freaked me out, friends.  So much so, that it is only after the fact that I learned these interesting details about my other matches.  It was literally months later that I actually read any of the narrative descriptions.  What I did in that particular moment was slam my computer shut, grab my shoes, and go for a long, long, long run down the beach.

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I ran to the pier.  I ran past the pier.  I ran until the sun was setting and I couldn’t run anymore.  And then I did what I do when I have a problem I can’t outrun: call someone who can help.  In this case, my mom.  And for the first time outside of my therapist’s office I said those scary words, the ones that felt like they had the power to rock the ground under my feet: I think I’m feeling a call to ministry.

I don’t remember a lot of that conversation.  I know there was surprise (her) and listening (also her) and tears (only me, I think) . . . but I mostly just remember the end.  I had flopped down rather dramatically, as I am wont to do while talking to my mom, and was lying on my back on the beach.  The end of the conversation went as follows:

My mom: So you don’t really want to be a minister?

Me, sobbing: I don’t think so.

Mom: So . . . why can’t you just NOT?

Me: I don’t know! I feel like I’m saying no to God!

Mom: Well, if you don’t want to, say no to God.

Me:

Actually, before I say any more, let me just say that my level of mental trauma around what happened next is such that I have residual fear of typing it.  I tell this story only Inshallah.  Amen.

Me: How do I say no to God?

Mom: Just . . . say ‘No!’

Me: Like . . . ‘Screw you, God!?”

Mom: Yep.

Me: [unto the heavens, the sand, and the assembled universe] Screw you, God!

And then, friends, I screamed.  Because, just like that, I was IN. THE. OCEAN.

And the ocean was cold.  And wet.  And . . . not where it was supposed to be.

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And then the water left—it had been a wave, of course, and not, as my baffled brain had initially informed me, the ocean itself—and I was once again on the beach, drenched and stammering.

As rude awakenings go, the experience was surprisingly gentle.  I had been lying in dry sand up a steep incline from the surf, and the suddenly-present ocean surrounded me from underneath rather than washing over my face.  My phone was ok.  My mom was still on the line.  I was, however, cold, confused, and more freaked out than ever (I also had the particular pleasure of washing sand from my hair for the next three days).

“I think,” said my mom, “You should probably talk to your minister.”

This seemed reasonable.  I said I would, meaning in, say, a year.  (I made it three more months . . . )

In the meantime, though, something else happened: I started this blog.  I found a place to put some of my thoughts, and discovered I had more to say, and in so doing, I found a small glimmer of hope.  This glimmer eventually got bigger: it became the idea that, just maybe, I have something to say.

This was an incredible relief.  Frankly, there is nothing about the call to ministry that makes sense to me, not on its face.  I have another career, one that I believe in and am good at.  I have never considered leading a church—and in fact, my initial response to the soul-provocation I have felt in the last year was to consider leaving my church.  And I have spent most of my life assiduously avoiding public speaking of any kind.  The only thing I could vaguely link between my background and ministry was chaplaincy, and even that seemed like quite a reach.  But—but!—perhaps my call was to be a Sayer of Profound Things.

Of course, I envisioned this not just a random something-or-other that I might pick up along the way, but as deep Truth from my inner being.  And I didn’t have to look far for subjects.  I’ve been gathering up Somethings nearly from the day I first set foot in a UU church.  Thoughts.  Suggestions.  And, increasingly, ideas that I’d like our movement to consider.  Like . . . NOW.

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When I think about this in context . . . as a new seminarian . . . a convert to UU . . . a young adult . . . that small ocean wave seems a bit subtle.  Much more subtle than I have been with some of my own words.  God just might overestimate my receptiveness.

These days, however, I’m finding that God can be both subtle and firm.  And what I am firmly hearing, again and again, everywhere I turn, is that I do not in fact have things to say.  That my job at this point is to be quiet.  To be still.  To seek to understand.  (Not to seek first to understand, with the assumption that then I get to talk.  Simply to understand.)  And so, I am wondering, again, what it is that I have that’s solid.

Not my congregation.  Not stability.  Not any clear answers.  Not Truth or Something to Say.  Not an answer to the “why” or the “when” or the “how.”  Not a guarantee.  And not a promise of another moment beyond this, the full and beautiful present.

 But, thanks to the poet Hafiz, via the Rev. Chris Holton Jablonski, I do have some words.  They’re not mine.  They’re not something to say.  They’re something to be listened to, now and going forward.

What is the difference

Between your experience of Existence

And that of a saint?

g

The saint knows

That the spiritual path

Is a sublime chess game with God

 

And that the Beloved

Has just made such a Fantastic Move

 

That the saint is now continually

Tripping over Joy

And bursting out in Laughter

And saying, “I Surrender!”

    f

Whereas, my dear,
I’m afraid you still think

You have a thousand serious moves.

jChess

I have hands.  I have ears.  I have an insistent inner voice that might indicate a tendency toward insanity.

 And, maybe . . . again, Inshallah . . . I have a starting place.

Checkmate.

I should be so lucky.