Sunday, July 27, 2014

On Bravery and Connection

This year, if you'll remember from this post, I set the intention to be brave.  In some situations, it's easy to say, "oh's the thing I'm afraid to do.  Let's be brave and do it, Self!"  And then I do it, or I don't, and I feel all sorts of awesome about it, or not.

I'm realizing, though, that it's easy to overlook the fact that you have been brave.  I've been sucked back into that old thinking that bravery only occurs when you do something without fear.  Doing something alongside the fear?  That's not bravery.  That's...being scared and doing it anyway because you have no choice.  Right?

It's been a rough few weeks.  Really rough, actually.  And I've done what I typically do when things get really rough: I smile a lot.  I express a lot of gratitude.  I ask how YOU'RE doing.  And I get really quiet.  I go inward.  I feel like I need to do it On My Own.  I start to discount the stressors as "silly."  I beat myself up for stressing about it, and for not being Brave, and for not Having It All Together.

And then, inevitably, I fall apart.  Typically over something ridiculous.

This happened on Tuesday.  It was a bad day.  A really bad day.  As I was driving home from work, fighting my way through city traffic, I was arguing with myself in my mind, and I. Was. Stressed.  Heart racing, elevated blood pressure, thoughts-on-repeat sort of stress.  The speed my body wanted to go increased in direct proportion to the decreasing speed of the traffic.  Finally, there was an opening in the traffic.  I was about to make a left, the left arrow was turning yellow.  I tried to make the light...and halfway through the light, I had to slam on my brakes, in the rain, with cars behind me also trying to make the light.  And of course, the people in the cars behind me were the sort of good people that lay on their horns in the mean way so you know they're also giving you the finger.

Why did I have to slam on my brakes, you ask?  Because there was a man in a wheelchair with one leg crossing the road on the "Don't Walk" sign.  I'm not even kidding.  And that was it.  I lost it.  I yelled, "OF COURSE THERE'S A MAN WITH ONE LEG IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD RIGHT NOW," and then I burst into tears at the awfulness of it all.  The traffic, the stress of the day, the stress of everything beyond the day, and the fact that I was yelling at a man with one leg who was trying to get across the street in the rain.

After I cried, I laughed about the fact that I was crying, because really?  OF COURSE there was a man with one leg in the middle of the road.  Of course there was. 

At this point in the story, I feel like I should say, "and that's when I realized that things weren't so bad after all.  After seeing that homeless man with one leg crossing the road with the flashing red hand signaling "Don't Walk" in front of him, I realized that my struggles are small and I am blessed beyond measure."

But that's not what happened.  I laughed at the irony, and I'm sure someone wiser than myself could find a better metaphor there...but there was none for me, if I'm honest.  It was just another obstacle in a day, and a week, and a month full of stress that has been overwhelming.

What I have realized, though, is this: there is bravery in the living through the hard thing, absolutely.  There is bravery in getting up, getting it done, seeing it through.  But there is also bravery -- so much bravery -- in telling about it.  There is, perhaps, more bravery in that act of vulnerability that follows the doing in which you say, " here's what happened."  In that act of coming clean, of wiping off the make-up and the mask, of taking down those walls you erected and stood behind -- that's where the bravery lives, sometimes.  It takes a brave person to survive it.  It takes more bravery still to walk through the shame, the vulnerability, the sadness and disappointment and anger and say, "here is my truth today.  This is where my heart is.  This is how she is feeling."

And that's where I lose it a bit.  Bravery, I mean.  I'm really good at Living Through It.  I'm not so good at telling about it, at reaching out, at being brave enough to be vulnerable.

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes, " the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone; and many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another."

For a long time, I believed this to be unequivocally true.  We are, in our deepest and most closely held fears and hopes and circumstances, unspeakably alone. 

Many years ago, a friend of mine and I exchanged emails about this quote.  "'In the deepest and most important matters,'" he wrote, "we are unspeakably connected.  Don't give up on this.  This to be imagined, and to be treated as your birthright."

Connection is our birthright.  We are unspeakably connected.  It is our birthright.  Our birthright.

Here is what I know: this is what I fight to believe.  This is what I struggle to really, wholeheartedly embrace.  When I am struggling, I don't believe it.  "Where's the evidence?" I ask.  "Where's the evidence that connection is not only something I need, but something I deserve....something that is my birthright?"

And the answer is: there is none, except for the fact that it is True.  Capital-T True.  Of course it is.  You just have to be brave enough to claim it.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

On General Assembly: Justice as a Faith Practice

(This is part 3 of my posts on General Assembly.  You can read part one here and part two here if you want/need to catch up).

One of my favorite spoken word poets, Staceyann Chin, writes in her poem "Feminist or Womanist:"

"God is that place between belief and what you name it.
I believe holy is what you do
when there is nothing between your actions and the truth."

This has been one of my favorite lines for a long time.  While I currently fall staunchly in the "not so sure how I feel about god" category, this sentiment rings so true.  Whatever I believe about big-or-little-G-god, I feel there is something very human and earthly about holiness.  God is, perhaps, that thing that happens when love is realized.  When hope is put into action.  Whatever it is, I believe it is created here, among us, between us, and because of us.  Holy is that place where things align.  When what is right is put into action.  When truest intentions are felt and realized.  When love is felt directly from the heart.  When that which is good is set in motion, moving squarely towards the thing that is right -- the thing that uplifts, empowers, embraces and holds others.  Holy is what you do. 

I attended a number of amazing workshops while at GA.  However, the one that really left me wowed -- left me with an entirely new way of thinking I had never before encountered (I LOVE when that happens!!!) -- was the one entitled "Theologies for Multicultural Justice Making."  Like...oh my goodness.  How amazing is that, right?  I geek out talking about multicultural/diversity issues, and I get super passionate talking about justice work, AND I get to include religion in that!?!  Holy cow.  That's like nerdy nirvana for me.
In this workshop, they asked us big questions: How do you balance truth, humility, and unknowing in your justice work?  How will we be together in our work for justice when things get messy?  How will we forgive one another when we fall out of relationship?  How do we work towards building power with love at the center?  How do we honor the stories of people oppressed by systems, and also honor the stories of the people benefitting from them?  How do we empower one another to speak truth and make change?

The panel provided personal definitions that resonated in my heart.  Humility is being open to listening and allowing the truth to be revealed to us.  God is people moving from a place of despair to a place of hope.  They spoke about the importance of helping people discover their own power.  They spoke about the importance of bearing witness.

And this -- this process of knowing, and loving, and being with, and witnessing -- this is the most deeply spiritual practice I know.  I dislike the idea of "serving" others as being a tenet of a faith practice.  I know most (all?) religions have some sort of practice of helping or serving others, but the idea of being a church or faith community setting out into the world to go help those less just strikes me as artificial.  Like you're doing it to earn Karma Points or the next Good Person Badge to sew on your Person of Faith vest.  It seems inextricably tied with charity and turning the people you are helping into the "other."  I'm not going to poo-poo the giving of financial gifts -- this is absolutely necessary and should be done through religious organizations or whatever other way you see fit.  But it needs to be more than that.  It needs to be more than money.  More than "helping."  More than service.  After all, why stop there?  Why stop at "helping?"  Why stop at "serving?"  Why not shoot for justice?

If I believe in a little-g-god, I believe in a Big-J-Justice.  Working towards Justice is something that binds us in community, and community is that which binds us to something that is larger than ourselves.  How can that not be a spiritual practice?  How can that not be holy?  When we "help" or "serve," we are maintaining an illusion of separateness.  We maintain a sense that we, as "helpers," are somehow better than those we are helping.  We are the knight in shining armor that comes in to save The Other from their plight. 

But there is only one way of working towards Justice.  We work towards Justice by joining with.  By looking the people or being or issue or the problem itself straight in the eye and not looking away when we see the injustice staring back at us.  We are not afraid of acknowledging the ways in which we have wittingly or unwittingly benefitted from or collaborated with systems that kept that injustice in place.  Or if we are the ones facing the injustice, we name the injustice, or name the fear of naming the injustice.  And then we allow ourselves to dream that there may be a better way.  Maybe, we ask to enter the fight as an ally.  We gather strength, and courage, and numbers in our naming and facing of the problem, and we find ways of lifting up one another in the struggle. 

And that's the way we fight, isn't it?  That's the way we walk towards Justice: we lift one another up in the struggle.  We allow ourselves to be lifted.  We sit together in the heartbreak.  We listen to one another's anger and rage, and we listen for the hope and healing.  We stick with one another as we mess up.  And we try to figure out how to walk forward together.

In a talk at GA on Reproductive Justice, one of the presenters said, "Reproductive Justice is about learning to live in the messy in-between without clear answers."  And isn't that true of all Justice work?  Isn't it about how we learn to live in that messy in-between in which there are no black-and-white answers?  In which there are so many right-and-wrongs that it fades into only shades of gray?

In the same talk, the presenter was asked the question, "What is the role of faith communities in Reproductive Justice work?"

The response was one that made a big lightbulb go off in my mind.  I'm paraphrasing here, because I'm good at taking notes, but don't have a transcript...but it was something like this:

Church is a safe place.  It is a place where we have the privilege to lift up voices and send them out into the world.  It is a place where we do spiritual work, and we focus on people as being whole beings.   The work towards Reproductive Justice comes naturally out of that framework.

And of course, with my interest in Reproductive Justice, this makes perfect sense.  But it also makes sense for any Justice work.  We work for Justice as people of faith because we are part of a community in which we can move towards wholeness.  We can lift up voices and send them out into the world.  And if they come back tired and broken, we can lift them up again.  And if they come back with love and energy to share, they lift up others.  Where else is that done?  Nowhere, that I can see -- and I work in a helping profession. 

So how do we get to that place?  How do we walk towards Big-J-Justice?  We make this work our spiritual practice.  We love the hell out of this world by living our values.  It is living such that there is nothing between our actions and the truth.  It is witnessing the struggle.  It is listening to the quiet.  It is being loud.  It is lifting one another up.  It is allowing ourselves to be lifted.

I know it's hard to believe, but I really do have a favorite poem above all my other favorite poems (it's like a tiered system of favorites, okay?  Don't judge).  Andrea Gibson's "Say Yes" is one I have listened to more times than I can count, and it still makes me cry.  It's that good.  In it, she writes:

"this is for doubt becoming faith
for falling from grace and climbing back up
for trading our silver platters for something that matters
like the gold that shines from our hands when we hold each other."

So let's let that gold shine from our hands and hold each other, y'all.  Let's do that deeply spiritual work for Justice.  Let us be a people of faith who make holiness by aligning our actions and the truth.  Let's sit, and stand, and walk in that messy in-between together.

Will you join me?

Friday, July 11, 2014


This poem isn't very good.  You can't try to flatter me and tell me otherwise.

But I'm sharing it here for a reason.  I can't write the poem I want to write.  I can't.  

I was reading a blog of spoken word artist Desiree Dallagiacomo the other day.  This woman writes raw truth.  RAW truth.  On her blog, someone asked her, "how do you write so well about things that hurt?"

She replied: "Writing poetry is like archaeology.  You've got to dig and dig through all the dirt before you find that one, gleaming, tiny treasure...

It's really wait until you are ready to write what you want to write.  There are hundreds of things that I am not ready to write, so I don't write them.  There are also things that I wrote that I wasn't ready to write, and I paid for it emotionally.

Don't pull them out of your head until you're ready to look them in the eye.  The day that happens may never come, but if/when it does -- you're going to be the most honest being you've ever been."

So this poem is archaeology.  It's what I was ready to pull out of my head.  I spent a good bit of time cursing my muse on this one...but then I realized that I'm not yet able to look this in the eye.

So this is all I have right now.  And it's enough.  

This poem wants a metaphor. 
A dramatic image of mother bear claws.
Penguin daddies incubating eggs on feet.
Momma birds regurgitating food in the name of love.

I want this poem to be my whole-heart warrior strength.
Want to watch that shit envelop pain and swallow it whole--
unhinge its jaw like a snake, see that bulge slide all the way down:
that's how it feels to swallow this.
This animal of burden I was never meant to carry,
was taught not to shoulder in case someone noticed -
we don't shoulder and carry, we swallow to bury
I told you:
there are no metaphors here.
Each word is truth that slashes my stomach like claws,
beats my heart faster than hummingbird wings
these words are not hyperbole
this is the reality that is living my skin into hopeful tourniquets
just trying to hold me together.

So hold me together. 

This story is not storybook:
no bear families on picnics telling tales of big love like mountains.
Not mother rabbits rescuing babies from the monsters in the dark,
it is not pastel pictures with gentle rhyme schemes
or bright primary colors with lilting prose.
Fuck metaphors.  
They are all broken.
I am not your mother,
and this page in our storybook is the one where you call me, 
laughing, till your voice trembles and breaks.
You ignore it.
And I let you.

There is no metaphor for the panes of glass you've built.
The way you've closed that hollow chamber you smile from,
let us watch the violence you pretend to be hiding:
my heart is bleeding from breaking down the glass you keep building.
I speak in measured phrases of love and practicality.
It's all I can find as the hourglass ticks away time, in my mind
I see you rosy cheeked at 5 years old  
and all I want is to ask you if you realize
life wasn't supposed to go this way
but I swallow questions.
My voice breaks.
I ignore it.
And you let me.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

On General Assembly: Me? A Person of Faith?

I told you I would have more to say on General Assembly.  I've got a bunch more to say, actually.  Here goes.

Growing up, religion was a weird thing.  My dad and his family are Jewish, which meant I was raised eating bagels, white fish, and lox; sitting through long family seders with 42 relatives; going to my Hasidic cousins' weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs; sometimes lighting candles for shabbat; celebrating Chanukah; and learning key words in Hebrew and Yiddish.  I had a basic understanding of Judaism, but mostly I just knew the rules: you don't touch Uncle Yeheskal or any of your male relatives if they're wearing a yarmulke or a hat.  You don't eat bread on Passover.  You wear long sleeves when you go to Bubby's house and your cousins are there.  Your cousins can't play animal bingo with you because it has a picture of a pig on it and pigs are unclean.  The sculpture of the naked lady at Bubby's house has to be covered when your cousins come over, because she's naked and that's bad, but only bad when your boy cousins are there.  Gefilte fish is gross.  Don't mention church.  Your mother is a goy.  Your aunt and uncle pray a lot when your family is around. 

My mother was raised Christian, which meant I also was baptized Presbyterian, attended church intermittently, learned to sing "Jesus Loves Me," had a children's Bible with scary pictures of floods and people killing each other, searched for Easter eggs and waited for Santa.  I had a basic understanding of Christianity, but mostly I just knew the rules: you don't complain about wearing the white shoes that are too small at Easter.  You eat Grandmother's mushy green peas at Christmas.  Dad stays home and watches Christmas movies while everybody else goes to church.  You wear your St. Christopher necklace when you travel because it makes Grandmother happy.  Pews are hard and uncomfortable.  Mom talks to God when your sister has cardiology appointments and when crossing the Bay Bridge.  In Sunday School, you have to color lots of pictures of some guy named Jesus, but you get those crackers with the fake cheese that mom never lets you buy.

I was pretty sure I had it all figured out.

When I was 8 or 9, a girl in my dance class asked me my religion.  I answered her honestly: "I'm Christian and Jewish."  She laughed. 

"You can't be BOTH," she told me.

I was confused.  Of course I could!  I was!  I am!  "I am," I told her.  "Really.  I celebrate Christmas AND Chanukah."  She laughed, knowingly, and told me again that this was just not possible.  I was hurt.  How can she not get that I can be both?  I felt embarrassed -- like everybody knew something I was missing. 

As I got older, I figured out the confusion, of course, and came up with better answers.  For a short while, we went to synagogue with mom instead of to church, but dad never came to that, so it was weird.  We went intermittently to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship for a few years between the time I was 11 and 14.  This was the longest amount of time we went anywhere, but it wasn't quite the fit I needed it to be.  In early middle school, I remember completing a whole lot of lessons on urban legends, and talking a lot about Big Foot during Religious Education.  I never quite trusted Scott, our teacher, because he really thought Big Foot was real, and I thought he was a fool.  He scared the crap out of me to the point of nightmares telling ghost stories one Sunday, and I was completely terrified to fly after he talked about the Bermuda Triangle...but I still got the crackers with the fake cheese, and fellow homeschooler Chris was a year older, had jet-black hair, and taught me how to do tricks with his yo-yo, so I was able to see past Scott's short-comings.

I completed a haphazardly put together 8th grade "Coming of Age" type curriculum with the middle school youth when I was 12-13, and then was supposed to move into the high school class.  The high school class, however, consisted of 17 and 18 year olds.  One of them came to church in fishnets and a shirt that said "I fucked your boyfriend," while another wore a cow pelvis on his head (I'm not kidding.  An actual cow pelvis.  I couldn't make this up).  John and I sat and burned goldfish crackers in the chalice while the guy who only wore trench coats took up-the-skirt pictures of the girl in the fishnets.  The minister's daughter was supposed to move up to this class with me, but she stopped coming to church that summer.  I suppose there was a teacher, but I don't remember who it was or what we were supposed to be doing.  Given the circumstances, burning goldfish crackers seemed like the least offensive option in my 13-year-old opinion and, while John didn't say much, he had really adorable red hair, and at least he never said anything offensive.

After a few weeks of that, I helped in the nursery.

At 13, though, we stopped going regularly to the UU Fellowship and started attending the local Quaker Meeting House instead.  There, I learned to sing about George Fox and got good at sitting quietly.  There was a youth group there, but the teens almost never came.  I got really good at helping in the nursery.

For a while, it wasn't so much about if we were going to go to church on Sunday, but where we were going to church.  Maybe we would go to the UU Fellowship.  Maybe to the Quaker Meeting House.  Maybe to the Unity church, where we also went intermittently.  Maybe mom would make us go in the woods and try to have quiet spiritual experiences there.  My sisters and I got good at standing in the cold for long outdoor rituals my mother put together involving making cranberry and corn mandalas in the snow for the deer.  For a while, we didn't do anything except maybe go back to the UU Fellowship for Christmas, and then my mom decided to become Buddhist.  I learned to say the mantra to Chenrezig, and to sit on uncomfortable cushions.  I became comfortable in the brightly colored Tibetan Meditation Center, learned to identify White Tara, memorized the chant for the Medicine Buddha, and had tea with Most Venerable Khenchen Rinpoch√©.

And then, thank Whatever, I went to college. 

In spite of all the urban legends and the cow pelvis, I always considered myself Unitarian Universalist.  In all the eclecticism that was my religious upbringing, I always felt that I could safely say I was UU and, while I wasn't necessarily able to say what that meant (who knew we had principles and stuff!?!), I knew that my Jewish-Christian-Quaker-Buddhist roots could somehow find some ground there. 

However, given that my UU education consisted of urban legends and cow pelvises, and my Coming of Age class consisted of reading Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist and Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, and answering several questions for a belief statement, I didn't have a good grasp -- or really any grasp -- on what Unitarian Universalism meant.  Quite honestly, between the weird Religious Education, singing Kermit the Frog's version of "The Rainbow Connection" at least 5 times with the children's choir, and listening to How The Grinch Stole Christmas at the Christmas Eve service while sitting behind someone in reindeer antlers that pissed off my grandfather, I really thought that Unitarian Universalists were the Church-Of-People-Who-Don't-Have-Someplace-To-Go-On-Sundays.  The misfit church, kinda.  After all, my models were my family with its mixed up version of Jewish-Christian-Quaker-Buddhist; Scott, the teacher who believed in Big Foot; and the girl in the fishnets who sat in sexy poses during RE, right?

While I had certainly come a long way in understanding Unitarian Universalism (thank you, "Articulating Your UU Faith" class!), had become invested in educating middle and high school youth about UUism (there was no burning-of-goldfish-crackers in my youth groups, thank you very much!), it -- for some reason -- still surprised me while attending General Assembly to hear people refer to us -- to me -- as a "person of faith."  To see this religion, my religion, as having a place in the world of religion.  We are a small denomination, but gathered there, with all those people, who knew the same hymns, lit the same chalice, try to live those same principles into action -- that felt big.

I have known, of course, that one of our principles is the "Free and responsible search for truth and meaning."  This -- by my interpretation -- means that we are required as Unitarian Universalists to make our own religious path, based on what is right and true for us as individuals.  And yet, that very struggle is the one that binds us in community.  That very search is what moves us forward on the path of love.  That responsibility is what makes us a people of faith, a people of action, a people who live on the side of love. 

"Love is the spirit of this church," we sing.  "And service is its law."  We are a people whose faith is love, and freedom, and responsibility, and personal truth. 

Given the religious upbringing that I had, I learned from a very young age that the making of faith and religion is up to me.  I knew early on that if I wanted to identify one way or another, or hold onto one element of a faith as we sampled it, I was going to have to learn it, grab it, hold it tight, and find a way of incorporating it into myself.  And I also knew this could change.  Religion was such a fluid thing in my life, I could change my beliefs whenever.  I never really discussed what my beliefs were with anyone: it was more like I collected experiences in different religions like some kids collected pogs. 

The word faith, though, is not one I ever remember hearing or using.  When I hear it, actually, the first image that comes to mind is that of a priest, and the second is my friend from high school who asked me if my dad made animal sacrifices in the backyard.  Apparently, she had never known a Jew before, and that was what she thought they did.  (She was in 11th grade and went to an Ivy League school, by the way.  Yeah).

If I sit with the word, though, and I let my images of white collars and pissed off 11th grade me fade away, I actually really like this image of myself as being a person of faith.  It makes me feel like my religion, my beliefs, the way I try to live my life are legitimate.  Like it's not just some haphazard thing I pieced together somewhere between reading Siddhartha and having tea with Khenchen Rinpoch√©.  It matters, this faith of mine, and it is real.  It is important.  It is something I practice in the way that is right for me, and also in community.  And that is beautiful.  It is important.  It is real.

"Come, come, whoever you are," we sing.  "Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving..."  And even the Jewish-Christian-Quaker-Buddhist- Snow-Mandala-Makers among you, I would add.  And even Scott who believed in Big Foot.  And even the teenager with the cow pelvis on his head.  Come, come, whoever you are.  We are a people of a faith that is beautiful, that is important, that is personal, and that is real.

(Coming up next is Part 3: Justice as a Faith Practice.  I was writing it in my head at 2:30 this morning.  It's gonna be awesome).