Monday, June 30, 2014

On General Assembly: Your Love Binds Me Up

This is likely the beginning of a 3-4 part post on my last week.  Honestly, I have so much I need to do right now -- write notes for work that are due tomorrow.  Go grocery shopping since I have no food in the house.  Figure out some specifics of what I'm teaching this fall because I'm meeting with someone about it this afternoon and should probably try to look like I know what I'm doing (spoiler alert: I don't).  I've been gone since Wednesday morning and didn't get back until 11:30 last night, at which point I pretty much just fell into bed.  This transition back to Normal Life is feeling a bit like somebody pushing me into the deep end, even as I try to resist.  Just a couple more minutes, I'm countering.  Just a couple more minutes to sit with and discover and unpack and relish this new, tender being that was birthed inside me this weekend.  Just a little while longer to nurture her quietly and get to know her more fully before we try to enter the world together.

General Assembly (GA) is the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).  From business meetings to workshops to worship services and repelling over the sides of buildings...from discussions about justice and ministry and feminism and equality to composting and gender-neutral bathrooms....from music and singing and community to quiet moments of prayer, reflection, and meditation, GA has it all. I never could have imagined how much of "it all" GA has, actually.  Being only one person, I experienced only a tiny portion of what GA has to offer, and it was huge.  Too big for words.  Too much to put on a piece of paper, even, because I can barely embody it all in my three-dimensional flesh.  In fact, I may still burst open.  It's like I can feel my soul pushing at the edges of my skin, begging for more room.  The love and wonder and amazement I soaked in through being there is filling me so much, it almost hurts as it tries to escape from my body and make its way into the world.

There are so many ways I could write this, and none of them are feeling "right."  I suppose I could start with Wednesday evening worship and write my way through Sunday morning.  I could write about each of the workshops and services and meetings I attended. I could tell you about how mind-blowing it was to see our faith, which I had only ever considered in terms of individual congregations, in the context of a larger denomination.  I could write about watching the democratic process unfold, or about the power of worshipping with 4,600 people.  I could tell you about the simultaneously humbling, overwhelming, and empowering experience of understanding that I have a huge community I can call upon, lean on, and draw from in the justice work I want to do.  I could ramble for hours about what it feels like to have a community behind me that will stand with and behind me, that believe in love and justice, and that truly attempt to live their love in ways I did not know was possible.  I could go through each of our 7 principles and tell you how I saw them each lived into action this weekend.  Or honestly, I could just sit here and write as many synonyms for awesome and inspiring and humbling and energizing as I can generate.

And perhaps I will.  Perhaps I will blog about nothing but GA for the next 3 months.  Goodness knows I'd have more than enough to write about.  But there are two things I learned about most: the power and necessity of personal stories, and love.  So this is where I'm starting, in the knowledge that I'll write more later.  I'm starting with my story about love.

When I told someone close to me that I was going to GA, her response was this: "why would your minister want you to go to something like this?" and "those people must really like you.  What have you done to make people over there like you so much?"

These questions stung.  There aren't answers for them really, and the only answers I could find were "I dunno" and "nothing."  This type of thinking seeps into your consciousness, even if you aren't good at it on your own.  I don't want to brag, but I actually happen to be an expert at this type of thinking.  What do you think you're doing? I asked myself.  What can you possibly gain from this that will benefit anyone but yourself?

All the way to Rhode Island, I kept asking myself those questions.  What do you think you're doing?  Who do you think you are?  I felt unsure.  This thinking was no fault of anyone but my own brain -- but I couldn't reconcile it with myself.  Sure, I'm doing some work in Reproductive Justice within the congregation.  Sure, I consider my faith to be an essential piece of who I am.  Sure, I have ideas about expanding our congregation's acceptance and awareness of people with disabilities...but who did I think I was going to a big event like this, voting on denominational issues, being part of this larger community?

After arriving in Providence on Wednesday, as I walked out of worship that evening, something in me had changed.  The question had changed.  It felt as though something had physically changed inside of me.  A door was unlocked, perhaps, and something hidden and precious was exposed.  The question instead was this: how did you get here?

A year ago, I only attended my congregation sporadically.  I knew almost no one.  For nearly two years, I struggled to attend services.  I saw this vibrant community, and I did not see a way into it.  I believed I was unworthy of being part of it.  I believed I was too broken to join that space.  I worked hard to sit through the sermon and slip out quietly and unobserved.  I got to be an expert at that, too. 

The theme for this year's GA was "Love Reaches Out."  This theme was reflected in the worship services, in the workshops, in the justice work that is being done, in the hearts of the strangers and friends there with me.  Love does reach out.  Love is reaching out.  We are working to reach out in love.

And that, although I could not name it before, is the answer to my question.  I got to the place where I am now because love reached out.  I got here because I was seen.  I was treated as though I mattered.  I was given a space at the table of worth and mattering I thought I had been banished from, and I was permitted to come to that table in any way I was able.  Love reached out.  And it mattered.

Part of the pain of the past several years has been this shame-filled place where worthiness feels elusive: I knew I was capable of so much more, and yet was unable to access that person.  I felt betrayed not only by community and people and life, but also by myself.  I could not reach out in love and be the person I know I am because I did not trust that my light would be seen as valuable.  I did not trust it would be protected.  I did not trust it would be seen as precious.  I could not reach out to love and community, because recent history had told me my light might be snuffed if I did so.  My light might be blown out, or stepped on, or taken from me. 

But here's the thing: love reached out anyway.  Without expectation, love reached out.  My love reached out in return, and it was seen.  It was honored.  It mattered.  When we reach out in love, it matters.  When we allow others to love us, it matters.  When we honor and name what is precious in one another, it matters.  When we do nothing except speak in a way that shows others they have a seat at the table, it matters.  When we do the hard work of walking our talk on issues others hold close to their hearts, it matters.  When we engage in large-scale justice work on big issues that infuriate and sadden us, it matters.  When we listen to just one story, shake one hand, give one hug, it matters.  When love reaches out, it always matters.  I know.  In the deepest place in my soul where these damn tears keep falling from, I know.

There were several speakers who referenced being saved by Unitarian Universalism.  On the one hand, I have a hard time swallowing that language.  Being "saved" is language that seems to already have been cornered by other faiths, and it conjures images that just don't fit for me.  But I do know this: while Unitarian Universalism might not have "saved" me, Unitarian Universalists almost certainly have.  When I was in graduate school, living in another state, attending another congregation, it was the UUs there who kept me afloat.  That group of people reminded me that there is still good in the world.  I have this small group of amazing people, I told myself, and they are good.  As things in my world are crumbling, they are still good.

And then I moved.  Even though people told me "you will find more good people.  You will find more UUs," I didn't believe them.  I thought that, maybe, I had found some little pocket anomaly of good folks who were willing to love me in spite of my brokenness. 

It took me a while.  A long while.  As I started to grow in community, I thought, ahhI have found another pocket of good people.  How fortunate I am to find another little cluster of good folks.  Every time I found another person who reached out in love, I experienced unimaginable gratitude.  How can I possibly be so lucky?

During our worship service on Saturday evening, though, I got it.  Not just an "oh yeah!" type of got it.  Not an "I get it!" type of got it.  Not even an "oh my god, holy cow" type of got it.  This was a run-over-by-a-train type of got it.  A can't-catch-my-breath type of got it.  A descent-into-weeping-in-the-middle-of-worship type of got it.  I, who never cry, just could not stop crying these tears of gratitude and sadness and overwhelm. 

When we say "love reaches out," I realized, we weren't just talking about reaching out to the world.  We weren't just talking about our justice work and activism and reaching out to marginalized communities.  We weren't just talking about loving "people."  It wasn't just about others.  This love could also be for me.  This white, privileged, cis-gender woman?  I could need that love, too.  I could receive that love, too.  My feelings of brokenness are unique, as all of ours are, but also rather universal.  And that love -- that love being generated around me -- it could also be for that broken place in me.  It could start to heal me.

In an arena with 4,600 people, that's a lot of love, y'all.  When that realization hit me, and that love came pouring in...I couldn't breathe.  I couldn't sing or think or do anything but sit there, and cry, and let it happen. 

I realized, finally, that these pockets of a few handfuls of "good people" were not anomalies.  They were not this weird phenomenon I was lucky enough to happen upon.  I realized that in that arena alone, there were 4,600 people who were also Love People.  4,600 people who were trying to live and love reaching out in the only way any of us know how: imperfectly.  Faultily.  Beautifully.  I understood that, as I do my "work" -- be that the work towards Reproductive Justice or disability rights, towards being a person who reaches out in love, or towards being a person who is healing her own brokenness, I am joined by people all over the globe who are doing that same work.  I am joined by people who have that same set of 7 principles guiding them, who sit in their similar-or different-communities, and sing the same hymns, go through the same rituals, with the goal of reaching out to all of us in love.  Even as we are hurt.  Even as we and our loved ones and our world suffer great and horrific losses of faith, friendship, self, and even love.  Even as we hear about and experience tragedies and injustices and things that can never be made right.  Even as we experience and witness pain we did not know was possible, love reaches out.  In ways I forgot I could experience.  In ways I did not remember I deserved.  In ways I did not even know existed, love for you -- for me -- for all of us -- is always and forever reaching out.

So may it ever be.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The thing that needs to be said

Sometimes, my brain is a real jerk. 

Seriously.  I can think of all these really awesome topics I want/need to write about, and even start writing it in my head!  But as soon as those words hit the paper, it all breaks down.  My jerk-brain goes into overdrive: "you can't write that," she says.  "You don't have anything new/valuable to say about that topic."  "Pffft...really?  Come'on now.  Get over yourself."  "You're seriously going to leave that sentence like that?  Seriously?  What makes you think you can write, anyway?"  "Who do you think you are, writing this?" she asks.

Or sometimes, she tricks me, too.  Sometimes, things go like this: "ooooh, there's a nice sentence.  Write it down!  No, not that one.  The other one.  Here's another nice one, but don't write that yet.  Write the first good one.  No, you can't write that, silly.  Write that other sentence.  The good one.  No, that's the bad one.  You know, that awesome thought you had a moment ago.  You used another word.  Find that word you used first.  What do you mean you can't find it?  What do you mean you forget?  How could you forget!  How stupid can you be...I just GAVE you an awesome sentence!  What did you do with the sentence?  Come on and write it.  Now!  WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU'RE SHUTTING DOWN THE COMPUTER!?!"


It's been a week of that.  A full week.  Of torture.  It's like having an itch you can't scratch.  For a week.  A FULL WEEK. 

Stupid jerk-brain.

See, all I want to do is write a thoughtful, angry, cogent response to my frustration surrounding Elliot Rodger, conversations about misogyny, and the attempts at discussion I have seen and heard emerging everywhere from Facebook to my office.  But I can't.  I can't write it.  I can't read about it.  I can't think about it.  I just...I can't.

I thought it was just writer's block.  I thought my stupid jerk-brain was in overdrive, being it's stupid jerk-brain self, and that I just needed to be able to think/focus/concentrate long enough such that, surely, I could find the mental place I needed to be in to write.

On Facebook, as I lamented my writer's block, a beautiful writer friend of mine said that what she does is this: "thank the critic for trying to protect us from being hurt again, and then send them off to play in a safe space -- a treehouse, a castle tower, a peaceful forest.  We tell the critic that we're the ones in charge now, and it's our turn to take care of things -- because we know lots of awesome skills they haven't gotten to yet.  And then we love ourselves up and give ourselves permission to fail AND to succeed, but most of all to have fun experiencing all that we can."

What beautiful advice!  I'm lucky enough to have lots of writer friends.  They're some of the best people on earth, I think.  Recently, another writer friend (who wrote her thoughtful, angry, cogent response to her some of her frustration surrounding Elliot Rodger and misogyny and the developing conversations here) said to me: "I have a right to my stories and I have a right to tell them.  So do you."

And she's right.  They both are.  And together, that's what is making up this block: this desire to tell a story here, in writing, and the fear I experience in doing so that is making writing impossible.

Whenever I feel this old friend of mine named Fear sneaking up on me - which still happens often, but not nearly as often as it used to - I remind it that my intention this year is to be brave.  Brave with a capital-B, even.  In my post on this intention, I wrote: "Bravery is feeling it all and making the choice to do what is right.  To do the thing that needs to be done.  Not the strong thing.  Not the knight in shining armor "brave" thing as we typically think about "bravery."  Not the courageous thing, or the hard thing, or the difficult thing, or even the thing that requires taking the road less traveled by.  It's not the choice to do what should be done.  Being brave is the choice to do what needs to be done."

Being brave is the choice to do what needs to be done. 

And that's just it.  I happened upon this stumbling block a few weeks ago, and it has grown bigger and bigger ever since I had this "a-ha" moment.  I tried shutting it out, tried to yoga it out of myself, tried to just acknowledge it and let it go...but it's something I need to say, y'all.  I just do.

I don't have anything new to say.  There is nothing here that you can't find a million other places on the internet, or in the hearts and minds of a million other women.  But I'm saying it anyway.  Or I'm going to try to, if my jerk-brain and my fingers will cooperate.

(And here is where I get stuck, stuck, stuck.  In spite of all that introduction, this is still where I get caught). 

I've thought a lot about feminism, and rape culture, and misogyny.  I've thought about these issues abstractly, and as they applied to me, and as they have played out in my story, and I really thought I got it.  I thought I understood.  And I did...but there was a piece of it I didn't get. 

I was standing in my kitchen a few weeks ago, chopping zucchini, when I realized it.  I had just read some article on the shooting at UCSB and Elliot Rodger, wherein the author made the point that misogyny was behind the violence.  That somehow, in our culture, we permit or condone or expect a certain level of misogyny, because that shit keeps perpetuating itself, and it's not changing.  It is expected that men hold the power.  It is expected that men have some sort of right to women's bodies. 

Of course I had heard this before.  Of course I had known this was problematic.  Of course I had written this before.  But in that moment, as I was chopping zucchini, I got it.  I mean, I really got it.  Standing there in my kitchen, I heard the voice of the man who sexually assaulted me.  I've heard and re-heard his voice saying these words countless times, but in that moment, they took on a different meaning that let me see the bigger picture.

It's just five words.  He said it 3 times, at different points. 

"Nobody says no to me."

On the rare occasions that I tell my story, this is not a detail I tend to include.  It was just one of many things he said...but it sticks with me.  It's not something I like to remember.  It's not something I want to type, or tell you, or talk about.  In fact, it's really hard to type it out.  But it's also true.  And, perhaps, it's important. 
"Nobody says no to me." 

It was a threat, yes.  And it was also just a statement.  A statement of his power and control and his ultimate sense of entitlement.

"Nobody says no to me."

And that's what I finally understood in my kitchen the other day.  I have understood power and control and entitlement and sexism and violence against women, and how those things are interconnected in a broad sense.  I have understood on a systemic and institutionalized level how all of these things are damaging to women individually and to women on the whole.  I understood how these patterns of behavior exist, and how they hurt men, and how they hurt women.

But I didn't "get" how it hurt me.  In spite of all the thinking and writing and talking I have done, it still felt like my story had to be different.  It was still personal.  There was still something about me that made it happen.  It still had to be my fault somehow, right?  Because all this awfulness that hurts other women and the world...that couldn't have also been what hurt me.  I must have still had some control in making that happen.
And it was personal.  It is personal.  Of course it is.  Because it happened to me. 

But it wasn't different.  That entitlement -- that sense of power and ownership he had over me and my body -- that wasn't personal.  That was the entitlement that is behind street harassment.  The entitlement behind every rape and sexual assault.  The entitlement behind the men who feel they have the right to devalue and diminish women's stories as they speak out as part of the #yesallwomen hashtag.  The entitlement of Elliot Rodger.  The entitlement of men who don't question the power they have, purely because of their chromosomal makeup and their genitalia.

It was personal.  But it wasn't different.  This is, at once, both an incredible relief and incredibly devastating.  Acknowledging that it wasn't personal helps me let go of some of the yuck I've been holding onto.  And it's also devastating, because it actually takes away a little more of that sense of control.  It wasn't because of something I did or didn't do.  It wasn't because of what I was wearing or not wearing or how I was acting or not acting or who I was with or not with -- which means that changing my behavior has little to do with what may happen or not happen, right?  My behavior has nothing to do with that sense of entitlement.  My behavior does not change the fact that some men (largely unconsciously, because it has been fed to them from the time they were babies) feel they own the rights to my body.  Some men.  Not all men.  But some. 

So when men aren't willing to sit with and question that entitlement and the power they are bestowed because of their chromosomes and their genitalia, then they are labeling themselves a threat.  That, then, is all I'm asking: for men to sit with and question the power they have inherited.  Perhaps not even question it-- maybe just acknowledge it.  Maybe just name it.  Maybe just realize that, in spite of being an intelligent, educated woman, it has taken me 4 years to name this for myself.  Maybe just that. 

I don't know how to change the world.  God knows I try, but I don't know how.  But perhaps it starts with this understanding.  Perhaps it starts with naming this for myself.  Perhaps it starts with the immense bravery it has taken for me to write this, and with the struggle I have gone through to get these thoughts onto the paper.  Perhaps it starts with all of us - men and women - just sitting with my thoughts on bravery:

Bravery is doing the thing that needs to be done.

I needed to tell this story...and it is terrifying to think now of sharing it with my small corner of the world.  But perhaps -- perhaps -- it will resonate with someone.  Maybe just one person.  That one person makes it worth it.

What is the thing that you need to do?  Where is that act of bravery living in you?  How can you share it -- whatever it is -- with our world?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

How do I be this person I am?

I can't really say that I have a favorite poem, simply because there are too many amazing poems to have just one.  I'd say, though, that if I were to create an anthology of my favorite poems, this one by Lucille Clifton would definitely be included:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
 What a gorgeous piece of poetry, right? 
I've been thinking about this poem a good bit lately, particularly that question she asks in the middle: "what did i see to be except myself?"  In some ways, I think I have been asking myself the same question. 
My life feels on the cusp of big transitions in so many ways.  Starting in September, I will, for the first time in my life, no longer be a trainee or a student.  I'll also be teaching a college course that is 100% my own...which I have sorta done before...but this is different.  In the past several months, I have grown and changed tremendously.  I am feeling strong and connected, and I feel drawn to speak and act on issues I care about.  I am sharing writing I was previously too embarrassed and scared to share, and I feel I am more "me" than I have ever been.  There are big things happening in and around me, and I am incredibly grateful. 
Even as it is wonderful, though, it is also a little frightening.  And it's confusing, sometimes.  And honestly, it's just a lot to figure out.  To tell the truth, it's also a little...lonely isn't quite the right word, but it's the closest word I know.  A little weighty, perhaps, to feel like I am forging a new path alone.  It's not that I don't have the right tools -- I do.  (*Pause, as I search for the right metaphor here....*)
 (*Right, got it.  Press 'play'*).  It feels like this: I've been on a deserted island for a long, long time.  For a long time, I didn't have the tools I needed to make an effective trip back to the mainland.  I thought I was making progress, thought I was going somewhere when, in reality, I just kept circling the damn island over, and over, and over again.  I found enough to keep me alive, and for a while, that was enough.  Just circling the island was all I could handle...but then, I needed more, and I started making my way back to the mainland.  One by one, I found the tools I needed.  One by one, I found people along the way who walked with me, or gave me a ride in their car or their helicopter or hovercraft or boat before dropping me off at the next point I needed to walk from.  Without them, I could not have made it to this point.  There is so much gratitude here. 
But now, I'm back on the mainland and I'm reintegrating into society.  It's not that we have a Romulus and Remus situation going on...I'm no feral child.  But as I continue re-joining society, I am different than I was before.  I have different knowledge and understanding, different things I need to say, different passions and likes and dislikes and comforts and discomforts. 
 Mostly, though, I find myself hungry for someone who has walked this path.  I'm hungry and wanting someone who knows this journey.  This path that I forged alone -- I am proud for having done so.  I look back now at the blisters from having carved this journey with my own two hands, and I can touch them with a certain gentleness and understanding I hadn't previously been able to reach. 
 But now, I want to be able to look forward to someone who came before me, who can show me that the rocky path is an option, but there is also an easier way.  I want someone who has been where I was to truly understand, in all the ways I understand, exactly what it has meant for me to get to this place.  My soul is hungry for someone to answer the question that is burning in my heart and my mind and my skin: how do I be this person I am becoming?
 I have always been very clear on where I am going and what I am doing.  I mean, when I was 11, I decided that I wanted to teach a dance class to homeschoolers at our homeschooling co-op, and damn if I didn't check books out of the library on teaching creative movement to preschoolers, write out a schedule, lug my Fisher-Price record player into the church, and teach dance after lunch.  Being one of the "first" teenagers in our homeschooling community, I made the road for others to follow. 
 By the time I got to college at 17, this was just how I worked.  Want to graduate in 3 years?  Done. I didn't just volunteer, I was the site coordinator for the volunteer job.  Difficulties with transportation?  No big deal...I just took the drive-the-van safety course so I could drive the 16-passenger van through Baltimore City to the elementary school where we worked at the afterschool program.  Sure, I looked up to the upper-level students, but really, I didn't need models.  I saw the path clearly, and where there wasn't a path...well...I would just make my own.  No big deal.  It's what I had always done.
 In grad school, your steps are slightly locked in as you progress through the program, and I made of those steps what I needed.  For the first part of grad school, I had some mentors that I sincerely looked up to and respected.  I desired to be like them, and learned from their experience and their expertise.  I had thought-provoking discussions with them, and I wanted to emulate them in certain ways.  I took bits and pieces of them, and tried to shape those pieces into a form that most closely represented the type of clinician, researcher, and person I wanted to be.
 And then everything fell apart and, in the scheme of things falling apart, I lost my mentors.  Through no fault of my own, I lost their support.  For the last year and a half I was there, I pretty much felt that I was on my own.  Good thing I had that history of figuring it all out, right?  I tried to tell myself that it was no big deal, and that I could make my own path -- and I did, because I'm good at that, because I've been doing it all my life.
 Now, I have people around me that I respect and trust at work...but I respect them as professionals...but I wouldn't necessarily call them mentors.  We talk work stuff, and we agree and we disagree, and they are wonderful colleagues with experience I can learn from.  But we are just very, very, VERY different in terms of our personal lives.  In terms of this "how do I be this person I'm becoming" question, they aren't the models I'm looking for. 
 My professional life is, clearly, important, but my personal life, and my writing, and my need for activism are also incredibly important pieces of who I am right now.  And the intersection of those pieces?  Whew--that just makes life even more confusing.  It's beautiful, and stressful sometimes, and confusing sometimes, too.  As Lucille Clifton writes, I feel I am standing, "my one hand holding tight / my other hand."
 For the first time in a long time, I like this person I am becoming.  But truth be told, I'm also scared of her.  This person that is blossoming from me is strong.  She's afraid of speaking and using her voice, and she does it anyway.  She writes and she shares her writing.  She is learning to wear her body without shame, and she allows herself to love and to be loved.  This person that I am becoming can feel and channel anger appropriately.  She's passionate.  She's willing to start to believe that she's worthy.  She's connected and connecting, and she knows how fucking hard she had to work to get to this place.  Indeed: "come celebrate/ with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed."
 But how does she do it?  How does this person I'm learning to be learn how to navigate these changes?  How does she balance her work, and her activism, and her writing and her passions and her need for quiet and stillness?  After all, "what did i see to be except myself? / i made it up."  What DID I see to be?  I don't know.  I made it up.  I did.  I have always been clear on where I needed to get to...and now I'm here.  How do I be this person now?  
 Perhaps this is what we all do, no?  Perhaps we are all, each of us, our own mentors and mothers and models.  Perhaps this process of "growing up," whatever that means, involves us all just making it up, and learning from ourselves. 
 But is it wrong to want, sometimes, to look outside yourself to see how other people, who have been in my shoes more or less -- is it wrong to want to see and learn from them?  Is it wrong to reach -- when you're on this cusp of change -- is it wrong to reach out on this bridge "between starshine and clay," and hope you reach someone else's hand, rather than your own? 

How do we -- ANY of us -- become the people that we are as we all make it up together?