A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Sports and Politics

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

Slowing Down

 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
o  Other?
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.

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.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
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.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.
Rumi’s solace is not about life returning to normal. It’s about continuing to move, not becoming frozen in grief.

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 –
Regardless grown,
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.