Wednesday, February 6, 2019
Last night, watching the State of the Union address, I felt like I was in a high school sports arena. Congress—Democrats and Republicans, men and women—erupted three times with a U-S-A chant. Trump said he liked the sound of the chant, and its tone and lack of dignity seemed appropriate in a speech weighted with words about “winning” and being the best, “the envy of the world,” with our military the “most powerful on earth.” I did not like the chant. Not at all.
Sports is not an appropriate metaphor for justice, policy or culture. We are not—or should not be—in a win or lose contest with the rest of the world, where we can win while everyone else loses. I don’t think we can prosper because others fail. In fact, it seems to me that in order to live well in the U.S., we need a strong world economy, a world at peace with its neighbors. What happened to “a rising tide lifts all boats”?
These times worry me. They upset me. It’s not like I can look back to an ideal past, a time in this country when all was right and just, but I feel like we’re moving in the wrong direction.
Ann read Michelle Obama’s Becoming to me over the past few weeks. The book was surprisingly well-written. (I’ve been writing a memoir for the last decade. It’s hard to do.) It was frank and hopeful.
But I found it depressing. Sunday after church, I asked a friend, “How did we go from those hopeful years to the last two?” Though I seldom cry, my voice cracked with emotion. And that was before Congress erupted into Friday night football cheers.
I need to say here that I generally hate State of the Union addresses, with manipulative rhetoric and one team’s fans standing and cheering while the other team sits dourly, arms tightly crosses across their chests. I hate these addresses even when I like the president. Maybe I hate them because they show in bright lights our country’s worst blemishes. They expose our nation’s divisiveness. They ignore complexity and nuance, exposing the simplistic duality of our politics: red or blue?
I’m looking for hope, belief in Martin Luther King’s moral arc of the universe bending towards justice. I don’t find that hope in politics or national systems. I do sometimes find it in individual stories of grace, instances of one person helping their neighbor, times when people live through loss and tragedy.
In her book, Michelle Obama writes,“Life was teaching me that progress and change happen slowly. We were planting the seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.”
Her words echo Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw’s words:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us….
We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest….
I’m simply not good at patience when patience means accepting that people are dying and hurting from human causes that could change. I see that Michelle Obama, Martin Luther King, and other wise ones take the long view, and if I were wise, I’m sure I’d do that. This is one way of many I know I’m not yet wise.
But I’m not dead, so there’s hope for me yet.
Tuesday, January 29, 2019
Today is my “day off.” With no commitments, I get to work on my writing, which is my favorite thing to do. The conundrum now is: which project should I work on? I could write a blog entry I’ve been planning called “Solace” about peaceful times in this difficult winter (inspired by Mary Oliver and a church service using her poetry), a blog currently titled “Remembering Hope” (inspired by Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming and a Homecoming celebration for a friend’s teenage child), an essay on Gratitude for an upcoming contest, or another final chapter for my memoir, a chapter I’m excited about. So many excellent choices! Or I could write this blog entry.
With fatigue and my commitment to continue being part of the wider world, I don’t have time to do as much as I’d like to. Actually, I never did.
A week has passed since my last blog entry, and I used to post weekly, so maybe it’s time to do this. Or maybe not. Perhaps you’ve noticed I’m not blogging as much as I used to. Last spring, I consulted my writing teacher about what I should do to move towards publishing my book. (I’ve been working on it for 12 years now, and I think it’s time.) I read her the list of things I thought I needed to do:
o Finish book: Find readers and a writing group
o Publish shorter pieces
o Bulk up blog
o Look for contests
o Read good books, including some related to my theme and/or topic
o Apply for the Tin House conference in the summer and ask for a manuscript review
When I asked her what more I should do, she said I should do less. When I asked her what to cut, she didn’t hesitate: the blog and Tin House.
I thought of the 6thcentury B.C. poet Lao Tsu’s writing. “One must know when to stop,” which has been my mantra for decades, informing my decisions to leave my marriage and my career.
“Perhaps,” I thought, “it’s time to stop writing this blog.” Then I thought, “But I like writing this blog, and readers seem to appreciate it.”
So instead of stopping, I’m slowing down, which is what I’m doing in much of the rest of my life, too. In fact, a draft pitch for my memoir begins, “Anything that slows me down is a gift. Even brain tumors.”
But I wonder if you’ll stay with me in my slowing down. I hope so. You, too, are a gift.
Saturday, January 19, 2019
Early last Monday morning as I lay in the warm bed, I heard Ann talking in the other room. To be on the phone so early was unusual, so I was alert when she came in the room. She was sobbing. When she told me about our friends’ tragic night, I was stunned and just kept saying, “Oh my God.” As torn as my heart was, I didn’t cry. I struggled for a deep breath, and my throat ached because my body wanted to cry but was holding itself still.
This inability to cry has been a lifelong disability. I’ll go months without crying, and when I finally do, I can’t stop. I sob and shake like I have a high fever. I sobbed at my first wedding breakfast and again when I told my parents I’d left my husband. I sobbed when I came out to myself as a lesbian and when a woman going through the coming out process committed suicide. I sobbed again before brain surgery, when Ann said our dinner blessing on her own because I was shaking too hard speak it: “Oh God, Remind me all of life is grace. Let me respond in gratitude.” I didn’t feel grateful, not at all, and I wondered if I ever would again.
There are of course other times when I’ve cried, but not nearly enough of them. At my last meeting with a therapist after I had divorced my husband and come out as a lesbian, my therapist told me, “If ever you haven’t cried in the last few weeks, see a sad movie or do something to make yourself cry.” She told me women cry on average 3 or 4 times a month, and I should strive for that. (The innerwebs agree. For example, according to Psychology Today women cry on average 5.3 times a month.) My therapist said not crying but holding my emotions inside could lead to depression. (The innerwebs also agree crying has significant health advantages. )
Ann, who is emotionally present, cries like a Texas storm. Her skies are blue and sunny. Then suddenly a dark cloud covers the sky and pelts down a waterfall. Then it’s sunny again, and the world is fresher for the wash. I wish I cried like that. But I don’t.
My tears come more like a lid that’s super hard to unscrew. I work and work and work at what seems impossible. If it ever comes loose, I’m relieved. If not, I shrug and go on without it.
Our church and our friends are grieving. Perhaps we need to cry, to sob, to wail, to keen. Pastor Ann’s sermon Sunday was about grief, about the importance of ritual, music, and friendship as we grieve. She and others read poems, music that stirred my tears.
She quoted Judah Halev: “‘Tis a fearful thing / to love what death can touch.” A wise friend quoted Washington Irving: There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.
Our pastor continued by quoting C.S. Lewis after his wife died. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear…. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”
For me, there was solace in these poetics of pain, and from some writers solace in grief, such as in the poet Rumi’s “Birdwings.”
Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you are bravely working.
up to where you are bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralysed.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralysed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
Rumi’s solace is not about life returning to normal. It’s about continuing to move, not becoming frozen in grief.
Jesus’s words, too, offer comfort: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
I don’t think the pastor said much about Job, the Biblical character who honored God and yet lost all that he loved. His story seems to raise the question, “Why do good people suffer?” As I remember (but couldn’t find on the innerwebs), the story originally ended with a man bereft and grieving yet still faithful. Perhaps not satisfied with this ending, someone gave the story a more earthly ending, and that’s the one in the Bible: Job’s family is reunited, his home and health restored, his possessions returned and his wealth multiplied.
The first version seems truer. After loss, it seems to me, we do not return to the same beings we were before. Our previous world is not restored.
Pastor Ann was wise not to go to Job, but to go instead to our poets who teach us, not that pain goes away, but that in pain we deepen. We learn that life goes on, but we live differently than we did before. We are forever different.
This our poets know, so we go to them in times we do not understand. I think of grief as described by the poet Emily Dickinson:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
For me, the ending’s complexity feels true: “– then the letting go –” Letting go of what? Pain? Life? Hope? Despair? Yes, I suppose, all of that. And none of it. It's danger feels true, too: "Remembered, if outlived." We can stop in grief, be mired in it, become concrete, a pillar of salt, a fist.
Grief’s story has no easy ending. No ending really at all. Just change. And to get to that change, I suspect we have to cry as we recognize and grieve our losses. And maybe those tears are where wisdom lies.
Wednesday, December 26, 2018
A few weeks ago, a woman I respect and don’t know well got hot under the collar about churches and hypocrisy. She stopped herself before I could hear enough of what was on her mind to understand her fury, but I notice enough hypocrisy, particularly in the news, to get hot under the collar myself. After all, Trump calls himself a Christian, and so do some people who support him. I think every president and his followers have.
Which brings to mind a question for a later blog entry: Will a non-Christian or a woman be first to assume the US Presidency? (Decades ago, female friends and I wondered aloud if a black man or a woman of any race would become President first. We all thought a Black man would.) If the question were, Will a bully or a woman be first to assume the US Presidency, we now know that answer, too.
Back to the topic at hand: I understand peoples’ anger about church hypocrisy. Lots of folks, some of whom are LGBTQ+, some divorced, some I know and many I don’t, have been hurt by churches. I even experienced a mild version of this hypocrisy when I lived in Dallas and visited 17 churches in search of a good fit. I didn’t find one. First Methodist seemed to me like a social club and the Unitarian church seemed like a college class. The others fell somewhere along that continuum. (Decades later I met a group of people in El Salvador from a small Dallas church that was a few blocks from where I’d lived. If I’d known the term “social justice” at the time, I might have found them.)
Most of my experience in churches, however, has been at Pullen Memorial Baptist in Raleigh, NC, and at Wallingford United Methodist in Seattle, WA. In both of those churches I’ve loved genuine people who recognize all creation (all people, all animals, the trees, the earth…) as from God and of God. These folks ache and celebrate. They have more questions than answers. Some have a lot of money, and some don’t. They seek, and they wonder. Or I should say “we”, not “they”, because these people are my people, and I am theirs.
Monday night, our church had a lovely Christmas Eve service, with the telling of Jesus’s birth story, and an angel always telling folks not to be afraid. Interspersed throughout the story were Christmas carols. When we got to our fourth carol, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” I started noticing the same words kept appearing throughout the hymns. Some I would have predicted because they’re the happy words I hear so often: angels, singing, joy, peace, love, and gold (that last one’s complicated for me).
The word in “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” that got me noticing the patterns, however, is not such a happy word and resonates with me. Weary. I am so often weary and always have been, even before brain radiation. One of my first formal baby photos, perhaps the first, catches me yawning. One nickname in my twenties was “Weary Mary.” I have always loved Tennyson’s lines in his poem “Marianna,”: “’I am a-weary a-weary,’ she said.” (I’ve never continued with the next line, “I would that I were dead.”)
Lately, I am most weary of the daily news about Trump. News of a government shutdown. News of abusive treatment towards immigrants. News about tweets and bigotry. Unkind news about health care and everything else. I find myself beat down by this. And terrified.
The Hitler parallels strike me—all those people in death camps: Jewish, disabled, queer…the list goes on, and it includes me and my ilk. What will we do about this man? What will we do to take back our country? What am I doing?
I’m writing. I’m asking you to notice with me. I do not believe this man and his followers represent us. I do believe we are mostly good people. I hope we will stay good and become aware.
Whatever that means.
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
Today as Ann turned left near the intersection where a speeding SUV sent my little Honda to the junkyard and me to the regional trauma center seven years ago, I felt my breath catch. I squeezed my hands together in my lap, and my fingers turned white with the blood pressed out of them. My feet tingled, and I felt slightly nauseated.
I have felt afraid at this intersection—indeed afraid at any possibility of auto-danger (and possibilities abound)—for the past seven years. Truthfully, though, fear is not new to me. I have long feared walking in dark places, being alone in a house, crossing the street, and spiders, among so many other things.
In my twenties, I told a hiking friend that I clenched my teeth because I always feared falling when I went up and down rocks, and I didn’t want to bite off my tongue.
“That’s psychotic,” he said to me.
Actually, though I didn’t know it at the time, I probably had a brain tumor that made falling more likely for me than for others, so my fear was likely justified.
In the Christmas story, which I keep hearing in this season, fear abounds. An angel keeps telling people—Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men—not to be afraid, and it seems to me every time the angel says, “Be not afraid,” there’s reason for fear. (Mary’s going to be pregnant even though she and her fiancée haven’t had sex; Joseph’s going to marry a woman pregnant with someone else’s child; the shepherds are being called from their solitary work into a revolution; their king wants to kill the wise men). Including this story, “fear not” is used 80 times in the Bible! Call me chicken, but the call not to be afraid makes me afraid.
I suppose the angels didn’t cause scary events, they just appeared for comfort. Seven years ago an angel appeared beside my wrecked car after an SUV had t-boned it, with me in it. My angel, a woman in a pink raincoat with images of giant flowers on it, told me not to worry, emergency vehicles were on the way. Once the emergency responders got there, she disappeared. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her again.
I don’t know where she came from or where she went, and I don’t know her name or her story, but she kept me calm in a chaotic time, and I’ll always be grateful to her. I think of her when I am afraid.
I have been fretting a lot lately about a book I’ve been writing since my first tumor’s diagnosis in 2007. I fear I won’t be able to publish it. If not, I wonder if all these years I’ve invested in it will have been wasted. It is a story of hope and perspective when life doesn’t go as planned (and I’m realizing most of our lives don’t). I believe it’s a story that would give its readers solace, but it won’t if I never publish it.
“Don’t worry,” I hear again my angel saying to me.
“Be not afraid,” I read again and again.
But I insist on worrying and being afraid. There’s so much grief in my world now that my heart can hardly contain it. Personally, friends living with losses from aging, deaths and disease; in the wider world some people living in tents while I sit comfortably at my computer. A quotation from a WWI memorial in Melbourne remains written on the inside of my eyelids, haunting me when I sleep and when I blink: “Fascism is failed democracy.”
Perhaps serendipitously, Ann and I received a card from our friends Stef and Lin today, with this Talmudic quotation: "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Maybe in these words I find a call to act and to be at peace. That word “humbly” seems important.
Maybe, I think as I have thought so many times, I need to be okay with the fact that I’m not in control. Again, I wonder at Rumi’s words:
Perhaps the glass cover on my heart is breaking again, and perhaps I need not be afraid.
Wednesday, December 5, 2018
If you’ve ever been to Skagit Valley’s Tulip Festival, you might have seen me.
You’ll remember the acres of tulips, ribbons of reds, pinks, yellow, purples, and oranges (Can you sing a rainbow, too?) You’ll remember the snowy mountain backdrop and old barns. Do you remember that yellow tulip by itself in the wide swath of red tulips? That was me.
As a child, I never really fit in. When I was growing up, people often told me, a girl born and raised in Raleigh, NC, I didn’t seem like I was from the South. When I asked where I seemed from, I was always told I seemed like a Yankee. Though being called a Yankee in the South is nearly always an insult, they didn’t intend to insult me, and I never took offense. They were merely sharing what they’d observed, and I was glad to hear there might be some place I did belong. In the South, surrounded by a loving family and a clutch of friends, I felt alone.
I don’t know why I was always different. Perhaps that feeling of difference started because I was a red head in a blond world.
Also, I was a young feminist in a culture where “feminist” was the f-word. I loved to play sports in a culture where girls ached to be cheerleaders. I found barbies boring, preferring to ride my Big Wheel. As a teenager, I loved to read and write and never skipped school or smoked a cigarette (or anything else.) Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody, Who are you?" was my favorite poem. I loved to go to church, too, so much that my dad once said, “You’re getting awful churchy.”
Maybe it was that church that made me so different. Though Pullen Memorial Baptist Church was a large church, otherwise it wasn’t like other churches I knew. I wore blue jeans with peach patches to church while other girls wore fluffy dresses with patent leather shoes. My cousins in a different city learned the names of all the books of the Bible in order. We didn’t commit the Bible to memory, and read broadly from other spiritual texts. For example, I remember one youth retreat where we read The Velveteen Rabbit.
As a teenager I attended a Wednesday night youth group that sometimes went to Burger King for dinner. Often, people asked us what we thought of our minister. “He’s boring,” I remember saying. Though I had tried to listen to his sermons for a long time, I never understood them and only focused on the minister’scombover when he got excited and the combover fell into his face. (I finally gave up on his sermons and started sneaking to a nearby park to swing on the swings with a friend before he spoke, returning for the closing hymn.)
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the minister, W.W.Finlator, was a controversial figure in Raleigh, locally famous for Progressive sermons and particularly anti-racism work. Fittingly, he’s listed in the Civil Rights Digital Library. This 1986 interview with him will give you a sense of who he was. As I read it, I notice what a strong influence he must have had on me, even though I skipped so many of his sermons. He was a good man, one of the truest Christians I ever met. (Another was his successor, the Reverend Mahan Siler, perhaps best known in Raleigh for facilitating a church discussion about gay people and then in 1992 conducting the congregation’s first gay union ceremony. A third is Rev. Siler’s successor, the Rev. Nancy Petty, an out lesbian and fighter for justice for all people, particularly LGBT, Black, and Muslim people.)
These people are heroes to me. Perhaps their influence called me to work for social justice as an adult. Perhaps they’re why I feel at home far from the place of my birth. Perhaps they’re why I attend a little Seattle church with a similar passion for justice and inclusivity.
Here in Seattle I’ve found my stream of yellow tulips, and I don’t feel alone anymore.
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
My partner Ann and I spent this Thanksgiving at Little Sister Jen’s (LSJ) home in Pound Ridge, a New York City suburb. Her six-bedroom home is beautiful, on a large plot of land with a tennis court, swimming pool, and family-sized soccer field. (They're selling if you're interested.)
LSJ has a law degree. (My favorite story of hers from law school is about her taking the part of her skull that was removed to a professor when she needed an extension. She’s funny that way.) LSJ now works in risk management (yes, that's funny, too) for an investment firm, and her husband sold his hedge fund in the 1990’s, so they’re doing all right (though they’re building their new home in South Carolina, so contact them if you want their house. If you want to shop around, Little Brother Matt is selling one across the border in Connecticut, and Mom and Dad are selling theirs in North Carolina.)
LSJ lives a suburban life with four beautiful children, a life I thought I might live, but my route through life had some surprising detours, so I’m a disabled, lesbian, Seattle feminist instead.
The day after Thanksgiving, my brother's girlfriend told me about how surprising her adult life has been. Her story resonated with me. She'd thought she'd marry in her twenties, have a few kids and a suburban home, and "
Instead, she's had several serious boyfriends and moved to Colorado for 10 years before returning to her home town in Connecticut. She's also started two successful businesses (interestingly, a candy shop in Colorado and now a health coaching business).
"Life hasn't gone as I planned," she said, "but my life makes sense to me now. Suddenly I have your brother and his kids. And there's a lot more of my life to live. I'm happy about it."
I’m happy about my life, too, so glad it isn’t going as I'd planned. How could I have foreseen such an amazing partner as Ann, our Seattle life with good friends and a delightful puppy, my writing life, and even my brain tumors’ gifts (though I’m not yet embracing my losses.)
Though I studied English literature in college, I didn’t read much poetry there. Much to my surprise, I was assigned to teach poetry my first year in teaching, and in that teaching I learned a passion for poetry, a passion that provides solace in my most difficult times.
As I listened to Jenny, this Stanley Kunitz poem occurred to me, again a gift. Though I don’t believe any part of my life is already written, this poem and Jenny’s story remind me I’m not alone. So many of us took multiple paths as we sought our own, and we have been graced with the journey.
Read it for yourself. Maybe it resonates with you, too.
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.