Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Spirituality of Rest

I was having one of those low energy afternoons where I was feeling sleepy and vague, but pushed onward because there’s so much to do. I looked at the clock and realized that for the last 30 minutes or so I had, though sitting dutifully at my desk, not really accomplished anything. I thought “you know, I might as well have taken a nap since I didn’t get anything done anyway” Since then I’ve tested that theory and learned that if I am fading and unfocused and struggling to get anything done, a 20 minute nap can make a huge difference in how I feel and what I can accomplish the rest of the afternoon. I resisted this for a long time, because naps seem the height of decadence, and that’s what I want to talk about today: why is the human need for rest, well documented by science and common sense, something we resist, something we suppress? Could allowing ourselves and others to rest be exactly what our bodies, our spirits and our whole society needs right now?

Since 2020 I’m hearing more people tell me day to day that they are exhausted. The emotional work of grief, of uncertainty of making plans and then remaking them and then remaking them is exhausting. It has taken a toll on our bodies and spirits. My minister groups are full of colleagues wondering “how come I just can’t seem to get as much done as I used to?” They feel guilty and worried. But the body can only do what it can do. Our expectations of what our bodies SHOULD do, cultural norms about what we should be able to do, those are just ideas. The reality is what this body, your body, is doing and feeling in this very moment.

Unless you were on a total news break this summer, you probably heard stories about 6 time gold medal gymnast Simone Biles. She was the favorite going into the Olympics, and then in the warmups, she experienced something gymnasts call “the twisties” where you can’t tell up from down in the middle of a flip. She withdrew from the team event saying:

“…put mental health first. Because if you don't, then you're not going to enjoy your sport and you're not going to succeed as much as you want to. So it's OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.”[i]
At the press conference, Biles talked about plans to take a mindfulness day of rest before deciding whether to continue.[ii] I was shocked, in my whole life I’d never heard of a top athlete pulling out of a huge competition like the Olympics before on account of mental health. (Well, actually, we did, earlier this summer, hear about top ranked tennis athlete Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French open to take care of her mental health.) As Biles said in an interview: [we’re] “not just athletes, we’re people at the end of the day.” “There’s more to life than just gymnastics,” [iii]

And if you were watching the news this summer, or social media, you heard people adamantly attack both these athletes in a way that revealed something about our values and our assumptions. Embedded in their critique was the idea that a person’s performance at their job is without question more important than their physical or mental health.

As I listened to the these stories, and Biles’ statements to the press it dawned on me how radical Biles’ choice was, and how brave, and that ultimately it was her choice to make. The backlash against her choice shows us how entrenched in our society is the belief that we don’t have inherent worth, but earn our worth through our job performance, at any cost to our bodies and spirits. How radical it is to say: “my need for rest is real, and I can’t take care of my responsibilities to myself and others without it.”

Since the start of this pandemic, cracks have started to show in the system. We are hearing from nurses, teachers, restaurant workers, parents, that with the added emotional stress of the pandemic, risks to their physical health, and the relentless demands of their work, they have hit the breaking point. Even ministers are showing the stress. In 2020 after a demanding spring of trying to get their congregations online, perhaps while parenting children full time at home, I heard more than one minister remark: “I guess I will not take my leave this summer, there’s too much to do; I’m exhausted but how can I step away now when my congregation needs so much?”

But our bodies, our spirits need rest now more than ever. We know that getting enough sleep is at the top of the list on web MD for things you can do to strengthen your immune response[iv], it’s also on every list I’ve found for supporting mental health.[v]

Yet we routinely expect our essential workers to go without the basic rest their bodies need. Tacey Rychter writes in her article for the New York Times: “In interviews with more than a dozen attendants from major and regional carriers, crew members … described regularly working shifts of more than 14 hours, being assigned up to four or five flights a day, not being given sufficient time to sleep and being deterred from taking leave if fatigued or unwell.”[vi] As I read that article, I wondered what would happen if we changed thing so that the flight staff was allowed full night of sleep every night, and realized how disruptive this would be to the industry- not everyone would be able to fly where they wanted to go. But wait, I thought with a jolt, why is it more important that I can fly to Disney World for my vacation, than that the pilots and flight attendants get a safe amount of rest? As a culture we are accustomed to starting with “how many tickets can we sell” and not “how many flights can our staff safely manage, allowing them enough sleep to protect their own mental and physical health?”

There is a grassroots movement growing around the world, of folks from Gymnastic super stars to tech workers to flight attendants pushed to the breaking point, who are making the radical decision to rest when they need to. In China there is a movement that started this summer called “lying flat[vii] One participant said “’Many people want to lie down because 996 is too tiring,’ … referring to the notorious hours common in China’s tech industry, where staff are expected to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.” The Lying Flat social media campaign quickly ran into government censors who removed every trace of it from the internet. Lying flat seemed dangerously radical, a threat to basic assumptions underlying the nation’s economy that workers can and should work twelve hour days.

Obviously, a balance is needed. If you are sleeping too much, that’s not good for your health either. The body needs a balance of challenge and ease, activity and rest. Obviously, society needs everyone to pitch in as they are able to make the world work- someone needs to prepare food, take care of patients in the ER, teach our children, repair our roads. But working a 14 hour shift does not make you a better nurse[viii], or a better flight attendant. It certainly doesn’t make you a better human. So why shouldn’t our culture be structured to allow and encourage rest?

A Resting Place by The Nap Ministry from Helen Hale on Vimeo.

In 2016 Tricia Hersey founded  the Nap Ministry which “examines the liberating power of naps” though public art, events and community organizing. She says of this ministry “We facilitate immersive workshops and curate performance art that examines rest as a radical tool for community healing. We believe rest is a form of resistance and name sleep deprivation as a racial and social justice issue. “[ix] Hersey he came to this work after studying the details of the lives of her enslaved ancestors, who were routinely deprived of basic ordinary rest. Where did this idea that we should go without rest come from? Surely not from those who study physical and mental health. Its roots are in the idea that our bodies are not our own, they belong to those who profit from our labor.

Hersey, in the essay "Naps as a VISION Space for Healing", grieved that her ancestors were denied the opportunity for basic rest, and restorative dreaming. [x] She writes that during this time of intense study of the lives of her ancestors:

“I would go to bed dreaming of them. One night while sleeping, I felt like my body was sinking into the bed. I felt like I was floating. I imagined that if I could connect with them in the spiritual realm, I could rest for all the centuries they couldn’t. I was desperate to provide a form of reparations for them. I will never forget the DREAM SPACE that was stolen. The Nap Ministry is for remembrance.”
We know how much better we feel when we are fully rested. We are more mentally and physically healthy, more resilient, more productive, more creative. A few years back a friend decided to take a medical leave while undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. She had gone back and forth trying to decide whether to go part time during the treatment or take the whole time off. A friend told her “you only get one chance to do this treatment, why not put all your energy into healing, into beating this cancer?” Our bodies, minds and spirits have been through a lot, and perhaps this grassroots uprising of “lying flat” comes from our bodies’ wisdom that we are in need of healing, and rest is one of the best things we can do to promote that healing.

As we enter into the fall season, which is traditionally a busy one, I invite you to check in with yourself throughout the day and notice when your body is asking for rest. Jut check in and notice. And if you notice that your energy is low, ask yourself how you could give yourself some rest? If you are in the middle of teaching a class, or seeing a patient, rest will have to wait at least a little while, but it still a worthwhile practice to pay attention. Notice if there is some resistance to that idea of resting: “It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, not time to rest” or “I have so much to do I couldn’t possibly rest” Just notice that resistance. And when you do get a chance to rest, notice how that feels too.

We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and built right into that is our need for rest. Being tired, slowing down and resting are natural parts of life, part of living in a body. Our bodies evolved to rest, so that too must have worth. As life continues to change so dramatically, people of all walks of life are noticing that a slower pace feels right, and that the pace our culture demands is one our bodies just can’t continue without a cost. In this moment, something as simple as a nap can be an act of ministry, a spiritual practice, an act of revolutionary change.


Notes

[i] https://www.npr.org/sections/tokyo-olympics-live-updates/2021/07/28/1021683296/in-her-words-what-simone-biles-said-after-her-withdrawal

[ii] https://www.elle.com/culture/a37144217/simone-biles-tokyo-olympics-what-happened/

[iii] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/simone-biles-naomi-osaka-mental-health-olympics_n_61001bdae4b00fa7af7c385b

[iv] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-boost-your-immune-system
https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-strengthen-immunity

[v] https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/resilience-training/in-depth/resilience/art-20046311

[vi] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/26/travel/flight-attendant-burnout.html?

[vii] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/22/opinion/lying-flat-work-rest.html?

[viii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3608421/

[ix] https://thenapministry.wordpress.com/about/

[x] https://thenapministry.wordpress.com/2018/01/


Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Which Resilience Practice Is Right for You In This Moment?

Early Monday morning, I took my dog Trey in for x-rays to see what was wrong with his heart. I had been warned that x-rays might be stressful for him, and the vet came out to the parking lot to tell me they were worried about his open mouth breathing - that maybe he was not getting enough oxygen. After we got home, Trey was restless, and could not stop open mouth breathing. I was also anxious and restless.

Later, when my dog was settled at home my friend and I decided to walk into town for lunch. I liked this idea, because I know that sometimes a physical activity helps me settle when I’ve been anxious. As we were walking, she asked me to slow down- I apologized and explained I was anxious. She said “remember to slow your breathing” and pantomimed what slow breathing would look like. I suddenly felt full of anger, but I knew what that was about.

Imagine a ladder representing our nervous system. (The fancy name for this is the Autonomic Ladder.) At the bottom of the ladder is "freeze"; when animals, including us, are very fearful, they freeze up. When we feel safe enough to unfreeze, we don’t just go back to our peaceful lives -- we might need to run to a safe place, so the next stop up the ladder is fight/flight.

(Another way to think about it is that the anxiety builds up a charge in our nervous system, we need a way to discharge it before we can calm down.)

Sure enough, my friend and I walked, slower now, all over the commons doing errands and eventually finding a spot for lunch. By the time we sat down for lunch I felt like my regular self again, my heart had slowed, my breathing had slowed. I knew my dog was safe, and I felt safe with my friend. That’s the state at the top of the ladder, where we feel safe and calm.

For me this past Monday, a long brisk walk all over town was just the right practice to shift me to a state where I could enjoy lunch with my friend.

Sometimes when we gather in worship we offer practices, like silent meditation, or the meditation on breathing. Notice how you feel when you try them.

For some people meditating on breathing is very peaceful, like in the Children's story: Peaceful Piggy Mediation.

But every time I’ve ever invited folks into a time of silent stillness there is always someone who definitely feels worse.

Mindfulness, silent meditation, meditation on breathing are some of the oldest resilience practices. They work for a lot of people, but not for everyone, and can be particularly hard, and sometimes even contraindicated for folks with PTSD.

In the past few decades there has been illuminating new research about the nervous system that helps us understand why that not every practice works for everyone. We’ve learned it’s not really helpful to push yourself to do something that makes you feel more stressed.[i]

If someone suggests a resilience practice to you that doesn’t feel right to you, I encourage you to honor that inner wisdom. Finding ways to support our nervous system when we are frozen, when we want to fight or run away, and when we feel safe and social, this is an important part of growing resilience.


Notes:

1) Here's a great podcast on the topic of Trauma and Mindfulness if you want to learn more:
https://www.liberatedbeing.community/podcast/episode/1b83492c/ep-100-trauma-sensitive-mindfulness-with-david-treleaven

2) If you are looking for practices that specifically are designed to take into account all parts of the ladder, I can recommend the "resilience Toolkit" https://theresiliencetoolkit.co/ I've taken the intro class and found some great practices that have been useful in my own life..

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Feeding our Spirits, Nourishing Souls

 To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: [Ecclesiastes 3:1]

Summer is the season that calls us to lay down our spreadsheets, our work, our concerns, and go out into the world. This summer, I’m noticing that call is louder than ever. For some of us, going outside is just the medicine we need, others need something different. But all of us, after the trauma of this past 15 months, all of us are soul weary to a greater or lesser extent. So I’d like to encourage us to devote this summer to restoring, renewing, healing our spirits, our bodies, our hearts, our souls.

I suggested to Renee Ruchotzke that it was time to just let our fields lay fallow, as they mention in the bible, but she is a permaculture gardener, and she reminded me that when you let a field go fallow, just let anything grow, sometimes opportunist plants and critters will come fill in the vacuum left by our usual crops. She reminded me that wise farmers use cover crops- things like clover or rye that bring nutrients back into the soil, and yet protect the soil from erosion, from invasive things.

I immediately saw the wisdom this garden metaphor in my own life. Sometimes when I just “do nothing” I find myself playing some game on my phone, or doom scrolling Facebook, and find when I look up the afternoon is gone and I don’t actually feel rested. So today I’d like to ask you to consider “what is the cover crop I need for my spirit?”

Some folks know right away- sailing, gardening, just sitting and watching the wind in the trees or the birds at the feeder. Some of you pick up a guitar, or a paint brush, or a good book. This season when we have been so physically distant for so long, reconnected with old friends, playing Candyland 100 times with a preschooler may be just the thing. Let’s take a moment for each of us to reflect, what are the things you have done in the past summers that have helped you renew your heart and spirit? Take a moment now for your own reflection...

 

Sometimes I am so depleted, I can’t even thing of a single thing that would help. And, in fact, we have been changed by the events of the past year, and it’s possible that things that worked before may not work now. I have found that when I am stumped about what my spirit might need, this is the perfect time for what Ian Frasier called “higher sort of un-purpose,” I have found that if I can make it to the front porch and just sit, eventually my attention will be captured by the twitter of the birds, or the antics of the squirrels, and somehow I can (as Berry says) “rest in the grace of the world.” 



Other times my spirit needs a container, something with a beginning, middle and end. Sometimes just going for a walk and coming back can be enough. For those of us who have a preference or a need to stay inside -- from a comfy chair one can journey through a handheld labyrinth, or listen to a favorite album, or enjoy the quiet repetition of knitting. Lately, I like to color mandalas and listening to music. Sometimes even washing the dishes can be restorative and grounding.

 

 

Some of us get time off in the summer, for others it is their busiest season. All of us need time for our spirits, whether a week of vacation or just a few moments on the porch with our morning coffee. This summer I encourage you to experiment, play, explore, try stuff- Dance in your kitchen, splash in puddles, sing old camp songs, or crank your speakers loud. Notice what nourishes and restores you. Ask your spirit what it needs next and listen when it answers. This summer is the season to rejoice that you are alive, to heal whatever needs healing. May this summer be the season seeking whatever subtle medicine your spirit needs.








Coming Full Cycle

 

This year I have been collecting Touchstones...

 

Our Sundays together on Zoom have been a touchstone. Each week we are invited to light our own chalice in our own space to remind us of our intention to make space for the sacred, and to remind us of our UU faith tradition. 



This year, like every other, we started with the water communion, reminding us that no matter how far we are apart, we are all connected to one another both symbolically and materially through the water system we share with the web of life.

It was a challenging fall, as the covid numbers rose, as the election grew closer, as we tried to make our vision of an anti-racist world a reality. I invited you all to hold an actual stone, to remind us that our values were the rock, the touchstone that would ground us through this tumultuous time. 



As divisions depend, and conversations became fraught, as many of us faced holidays at home without family as the virus spread, we remembered that sometimes we can choose to unhook ourselves from conflict when we have become hooked.

 

Our holiday rituals were held on zoom, as we were invited to put our wishes and hopes into a ribbon and tie it to a tree. 

  

As we gathered on Christmas eve in our traditional candle light ritual, I was amazed how moving and magical the ritual could be here alone in my office, and yet united with all of you in spirit and ritual.

 

We were nourished again and again by cookies and tea and treats from the goodie bag team, a physical reminder that our community cares about us, is thinking about us, is there for us in a real way when we need them.


This spring we played with listening stones, noticing how you can tell many different stories with the same images, encouraging us to shape our stories well.

 

We blessed seeds of hope and renewal, as the earth came back to life, as the vaccines began to spread. 

 

And we shared the unique beauty of flowers, proof of the fruition of life’s cycle- even after the hardest times, beauty and renewal blooms.

Finally, summer is come again- tomorrow is the summer solstice, when the days are at their longest. We enter the growing season of our food system, and begin to enjoy all those delicious fruits of that season. (I know this is true because there were strawberries in my csa box this week!) And here in Tompkins County this week we had multiple days with no new positive cases.

This summer we will be “going visiting” other congregations worship services online, so we won’t be together like this again for a while. In fact, when we resume services in September, we are hoping it will be a bit different, with at least some folks in the church buildings and some folks online. But one way or another we will gather on September 12, time to start the church cycle all over again with the water communion.

Remember, we began this time together back in march of 2020 with the life saving practice of washing our hands. Herbalist, activist, poet Dori Midnight, wrote, back then:

“We are humans relearning to wash our hands.
Washing our hands is an act of love
Washing our hands is an act of care
Washing our hands is an act that puts the hypervigilant body at ease
Washing our hands helps us return to ourselves by washing away what does not serve.

Wash your hands
like you are washing the only teacup left that your great grandmother carried across the ocean, like you are washing the hair of a beloved who is dying, like you are washing the feet of Grace Lee Boggs, Beyonce, Jesus, your auntie, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver- you get the picture.
Like this water is poured from a jug your best friend just carried for three miles from the spring they had to climb a mountain to reach.
Like water is a precious resource
made from time and miracle”


This summer encourage you to use this simple act as a touchstone, one time or all summer long, to find a moment that is quiet and feels right, and wash your hands in the water of that place, whether it is a lake, a stream, a garden hose or a kitchen sink. To just wash your hands or immerse your whole self. Use this practice to “return to yourself by washing away what does not serve” and to feel your connection to all beings everywhere who are part of the water cycle.  

 

And if it’s possible, bring a bit of that water, a bit of that spirit back to us for our water communion next fall.

Each year the cycle is different, but our tradition grounds us, through cold and grey times, through dark and scary times, through colorful growing times.

I am so grateful to each of you for being this touchstone community for me and for one another this year when we needed it the most.






Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Many Heroes, Many Stories, Many Stripes in an Ever Evolving Flag

The pride flag is a rainbow, because it represents a coalition. It represents unity amid diversity. The perspectives and life experience of those of us who are gay, is just not the same as those of us who are transgender, or those who are asexual or bisexual or intersex. The flag says “we will have your back whether you wear lipstick or flannel, whether you are married to someone of the same gender, a different gender, or think marriage is an institution of the patriarchy that needs to be dismantled.

When I as a young adult and coming out to myself as bisexual, I heard about Kinsey’s spectrum- do you know about this? The idea that on one end of a spectrum are straight people and on the other end folks who are just gay, and then there are folks all the way in between. I really identified with that in between place, and I wondered if maybe everyone felt that way, and just didn’t know how to explain it, just like me. So I asked a group of friends one day “do you think that everyone is actually bisexual?” my bi friends gave it some thought, but a straight friend said- no I am definitely just straight. A gay friend said “no, I am definitely just gay.”

We all move through this world looking through one set of eyes, thinking with one brain, moving in one body. It’s easy to imagine that life for other people is pretty much like life is for us. I falsely concluded from my own experience that all people were attracted to all genders to a greater or lesser degree. When my friends set me right, I chose to believe them. I chose to believe that what they reported of their own experience of the world was valid, and I enlarged my world view accordingly. I could have rejected what they told me, because it was different from my experience- I could have assumed that because I haven’t experienced something it doesn’t really exist. That’s not a big deal, unless I’m someone’s parent, teacher, lawmaker, minister. If I’m making decisions, judging others in ways that impact lives and spirits based on my limited view of the world, that is a big deal.

Clearly the scientists who came up with the Kinsey scale back in 1948 experienced gender in a binary way. Even the word bisexual assumes there are 2. A newer word, Pansexual, breaks down the binary notion of gender, honoring greater possibility of attraction. But that doesn’t include the rainbow of folks who identify as asexual and many other folks[i]. The Kinsey spectrum that was taught to medical students and therapists for decades, even though it was ground breaking thinking at the time, still has a limited point of view.

As a cis woman, I always felt my body was a reasonable fit for my sense of gender. I often felt like the laws and social norms about who women are and what they could or couldn’t do, were not always a great fit for me. I’m kind of femme, I loved dressing up in frilly dresses as a child, and I still think they are fun today. This scandalized my mom, a feminist who felt kind of trapped by all that. She told me when she was little that she was given dolls, when what she really wanted was an erector set. She was kind of mystified with I kept asking for dolls. Even among 2 cis women who identify as feminists, with very similar genes, our inner experience of gender is very different.

In our history of becoming this rainbow coalition, we have sometimes not listened to one another, we have not understood how radically different our perspectives across that flag have been. As we have begun to understand and center the experience of the true diversity of our community, the flag has changed. “In 2017 under the leadership of American civil rights activist Amber Hikes, Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs developed the rainbow flag to incorporate black and brown stripes to include black, brown, and people of color”. “Building on that in 2018 Daniel Quasar redesigned the flag to include trans people, creating the Pride Progress flag.”[ii]

Today this evolving flag centers the unique experience of queer people of color, of trans people, and this year some will wave the
flag that includes the experience of those of us who are intersex. It’s not enough for me to hang a rainbow flag and tell my own story of being queer, but to remember that I am just one stripe, one thread in the flag, and to give space for all the other heroes to be heroes, to live their story, and to tell their story, and to let our shared flag evolve to reflect the living evolving relationships it represents.

There is a fancy word for this- “intersubjectivity.” I think is very helpful concept. In psychology. It refers to common understandings between different people. In a story about me, a story I tell, I am the subject. In a novel about the heroine, she meets folks that help her on her journey, folks who get in her way, dangers she faces, things that bring her joy. The heroine is the subject, and everything else, including the people she meets are objects. Hence phrases like “the object of my affections” “the object of my desire.” I’ve been noticing this in the grocery store. When I go in, I have a goal, a direction in mind, and a point of view. I am a tired working mom, just trying to bring home food for my family. My goal is to try to do this as efficiently as possible, to save time and energy for my other responsibilities and plans -- finishing a workday, making dinner, or just relaxing on the sofa with my dog and husband.

When I am solidly inside that story, the store is an obstacle course on my grocery journey- anything that speeds me up or gives me energy is a helper, anything that slows me down or thwarts me is an obstacle, a frustration. When I am able to remember that each and every person in that store is living their own story, similar in some ways, different in others, that the two people who have stopped in the middle of the aisle to talk are not ONLY the obstacles preventing me from getting to the much needed box of pasta, they are also the subjects in their own stories- perhaps they haven’t seen each other since covid began. Perhaps there is some great drama afoot in their lives, and this is an important moment of connection and support. Perhaps they are just having a normal ordinary day, living out their own stories, and just didn’t notice the short lady trying to get to the pasta.

I think one of the most important things we can work on to become an anti oppressive people is to realize that every person in the world experiences life differently, is like the hero in their own story. When cis male politicians make bathroom laws, it seems to me that they are imagining that everyone experiences the world as a cis man- what it feels like to have a room that clearly matches your gender- how easy it would be to use that room, and to feel safe doing it. That they can’t even hear someone say “there is no bathroom at my school that I can use safely” That is what Poet Theresa I Soto shows us in their challenging poem "Notes on a Napkin (White Supremacy)":

    “you tend to think that
     the place from which you
     view the world is common.”

     …“here at the top we have traditions,
     customs. And why are you yelling?
     that is not the way we do it here,”
It might be easy for me, as a bi woman, to imagine that people really could choose who they loved, who they were attracted to, to make laws or preach sermons or teach my son that everyone could or should choose, unless I really listen when someone says “that’s not my lived experience.”

German theologian Martin Buber described two types of relationships- “I-it” a relationship between a person and an object that is separate from us that we either use or experience, and “I Thou” a living relationship with another self, similar to our relationship with the divine. By practicing “I Thou” relationship is not only helping us become anti-oppressive, but a spiritual practice bringing us closer to life itself and with the divine.

There are a million opportunities, every day, to practice listening for those differences of perspective, of purpose. I live with 2 other humans and a dog, and so home is a good place for me to practice. Our lives are very similar, same house- same food in the fridge- same family routine, and yet even so we often talk at cross purposes, we often have different goals and directions and perspectives. For example, I’m about a foot shorter than the guys I live with, so there are things they see that I don’t see. I’m also the only woman in my household, so sometimes I have to say “it’s not like that for me.” I’ve learned to recognize that moment, when another person will say something totally unexpected, nonsensical or otherwise baffling, to remember “Oh, right, they are a totally different person from me, seeing the world from a completely unique perspective.” Our family life goes so much more smoothly when we remember to start with “I think I have a different perspective on this, tell me about where you are coming from” instead of “well I know what I know so you must be wrong.”

The world is so much bigger than we can see, experience, even imagine. When we run into these moments of disagreement, or even just notice a discrepancy between my point of view and yours, it is like finding a little door into another world, a wardrobe into Narnia. This is the magic of the I-Thou relationship. We have stumbled into another person’s story, and we can choose whether to go through, and try to imagine the story, to hear the story, that another is living, or whether we will shut the door, because it does not match our own story. This year at pride, let us celebrate our own stories of identity, of love, of overcoming obstacles, and let us also take time to listen to the stories of others, noticing the differences in what they have experienced in how they see the world, heroes in their own story.


Notes:
[i] There is an “x for “No socio-sexual contacts or reactions” which is assumed to refer to Asexual folks, but the ACE community is also a complex rainbow that is not adequately represented by that x. For more info check this out: https://www.asexuality.org/?q=overview.html
[ii] https://www.lgbtqnation.com/2021/06/theres-update-updated-update-pride-flag-better-include-intersex-people/

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Full Grown!

 There was a sit com a few years back called Suburgatory which no one watched except us. One of the supporting characters, Dallas Royce, whose life has been embodying the perfect wife, mom, and PTA chair, finally gets fed up with her husband and tells him to move out. And while she is sad and confused and angry, she has some sort of inner reorientation; she is shaken awake, she becomes conscious of her own needs, her own gifts even when those are not what her husband, her daughter, her community assume. Standing in that shaky new place of self knowledge, she declares- “I am a full grown woman. Full grown!” Eric and I thought that this was, first of all, hilarious, and also perfectly summed up some inner knowing of who you are, and what you need and what you desire, even when it is out of alignment with the expectations of the folks around you. This is a knowing that comes with the weight of decades of life experience behind it. We use this all the time at my house nowadays, when we make a decision that comes from our own inner authority, our own inner knowing. “full grown!” one of us will declare.

When I was getting ready to turn 50, I asked a lot of people what they thought were important gifts of the 50s, and the answer often was “you know yourself better.” One friend said “gravitas.” 


When we are little, experts tell us it’s important to use the body and mind in lots of ways while they are still flexible, to give yourself a wide range of possibilities when you grow up. Our schools are set up so that 30 totally different children in a classroom get the exact same lesson, then sit down to take the same test, as if each of these totally unique beings have the same capacities and gifts and challenges. We are told that our low scores tell us “where we need to work harder” or “where we need to improve.” “You’ll need this when you are older” they say. Well, now I’m older. A young yoga teacher told me recently “stick with it, it will come eventually” and I thought, no-- I’ve been doing yoga for 20 years, my body is 50, that ship has sailed. I am no longer a clump of clay that can be formed into anything, I’m this, I’m me. I’m full grown. As John Wellwod wrote:
Forget about enlightenment...
Open your heart to who you are, right now,
Not who you would like to be,
Not the saint you are striving to become,
But the being right here before you, inside you, around you.

There has to be a time in our lives when we are no longer waiting for someone’s approval, we are not waiting for someone to certify and sign off that we are finally and completely ready to begin. Perhaps this is the initiation to being fully grown. No one else can tell you that you are full grown, we have to see it, we have to claim it for ourselves. Perhaps we make our own graduation cap to fit, and write our own diploma, and claim who we are right now as “good enough.”

I was trying to explain this to my sister and she said “so does that mean you are done changing?” It was a good clarifying question. "Heavens no" I thought. Life is growth and change. But I’m done waiting for and working for some full final form when I will finally be perfect, when I will finally be someone else. I am full grown.

Jung called it individuation, the journey to know who you are, even when it is different than what the people or society around you expect. It’s okay to have a different opinion than others in your community. It’s okay to have different needs. My husband likes to watch almost every game of his beloved Oakland A’s. I like to sit on the porch and watch the squirrels and maybe read a book, even when it’s cold or rainy. I don’t need him to love the outdoors, he doesn’t need me to love baseball. Sometimes I choose to sit and read my book on the sofa during the game because I love him and it’s companionable and it sounds like you are at an outdoor party even if you don’t follow the game. But I know that I am choosing to do it not because I feel I SHOULD like baseball, or because he won’t love me if I don’t, but I am making a choice knowing fully who I am. Sometimes he joins me on the porch if the day is lovely. He even noticed that the trees were that exact shade of spring green I love. Then he heads back inside. “I think I’ll stay out here” I say “full grown!” he replies. Whenever we realize that Eric and I want something different I’ll say “would you mind if I…” or “I don’t think I want to…” and he’ll say “full grown” “full grown!” I reply.

Individuation means we can be in community without sacrificing, or repressing our true self. Healthy communities are made up of people who know who they are or are discovering who they are. A healthy community encourages people to figure that out. When someone leaves this church community because they realize “actually, I need different ritual, I need to connect to the divine in a different way” I know we are doing our job. I am sad to see them go, it’s okay for me to feel sad, and proud that their time with us helped them discern that truth about themselves.

Our 3rd UU principle is “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregation.” We delight as each of us grows into ourselves. We ask clarifying questions, we hear each other’s journeys. Our listening circle has been meeting for years, and the longer we meet, the more we notice the shape of our individual journeys, how we are different, where our paths are similar. We notice how each of us is growing and changing. We witness that, and honor that. Breyn Marr, in her piece “second dancer” offers these words, written specifically toward women, but believe crosses all gender:
Women, when you sense another woman approaching the edge of jus the “right kind of madness,” gearing up to say or do something that could change her life forever …
Women. When you see that look in her eyes, and she swallows hard – the moment when she digs, one more time. Digs. Way. Down. Deep inside. Reaching some primal reserve of wild courage she didn’t yet know was there… and you are there when she ACTS on that wild courage, by SPEAKING her truth. .., yes, I’m talking to YOU, for Goddess’ sake, BACK HER.

That is one way “encourage one another to spiritual growth;” When we come to the scary edge of speaking or acting our own deep truth, you know your community has your back, even if your truth is not ours, we honor your truth anyway.

This claiming of who we are right now in the present moment is psychological, it is personal, it is communal, and it is also spiritual. If what we seek is enlightenment, it can’t be found out there in some Holy Grail it can only be found in the moment we are living. As meditation teacher Dorothy Hunt writes in her book Ending The Search "The spiritual search is a call to remember who or what you essentially are. What ends the search is actually present from the very beginning, beckoning you to come Home. In truth, you are what you seek, yet you must make the discovery for yourself."

If what we seek is the divine, the holy, that too can be reached only in this present moment. I believe that God is available to all of us in every moment, even when we have not become that “saint we are striving to become”. When the scripture says “the kingdom of God is at hand” mystics interpret this to mean that the most sacred is already here, right now in this moment, not after some final apocalypse.

If what you seek is actualization as a human, it will not be found following the whims of fashion, the requirements of society, which seem to change month to month. Being fully who we are starts with you, where you are in this very moment. With all your wrinkles and lumps, your inability to catch a softball or your passion for quilting. Those are not the things keeping you from being your true self, because you are already full grown.

And if what we seek is community, bringing your true, authentic, full grown self, and encouraging others to do the same is critical. Because the great end of this exploration is not our own happiness, our own actualization, but a better world for everyone. By being who we fully, finally are, not someday but now, we are of greater use to one another and to the divine. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes Writes:
“One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these -- to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”
Your soul can only shine through you- your gifts, your struggles, your knowing. Your unique experiences, both fruitful and disappointing, beautiful and strange, these have formed you into exactly who you are in this moment, with a unique perspective and a unique voice the world needs. Full grown!

 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

What Mothers Really Want

Most people are unaware that the founder of Mother’s Day was a Unitarian[i]. Julia Ward Howe, mother of 6, was an abolitionist, co-founder the American Woman Suffrage Association, and peace activist. During the Civil War, she nursed and tended the wounded and worked with the widows and orphans of soldiers on both sides of the war. She saw first-hand the devastating impact on the bodies of soldiers on the battlefield, and on their families[ii]. In 1870, when the Franco-Prussian war was raging in Europe, she was disturbed by “"the cruel and unnecessary character of the contest. . .. a return to barbarism, the issue having been one which might easily have been settled without bloodshed" And invited “mothers of all nationalities to band together to promote the “amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”[iii] in the Mother’s day proclamation Susan read for us. She encouraged folks to come together one day each year dedicated to the work of peace.

She wrote 30 years later in a speech she gave called “The development of the peace ideal”:
“I bethought me of the sacred right vested in the women of civilized communities to keep the bond of Peace and to protect the lives bought by their bitter pain, and fashioned by their endless labor.”[iv]
In her time, of course, it was common to conflate women and mothers, but let’s set aside the gender binary, and focus on her conviction that those who had labored to bring each child into the world, and those who labored to raise them, would have a special motivation to keep them safe, to protect them from the violence of war.

In Boston, where she lived, she initiated a Mothers' Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June and held a Mother’s Day meeting for a number of years. For the rest of her long life she lectured widely, particularly for the Unitarian Church, founding clubs wherever she went.”[v]

The Peace Alliance tells us that “As the call for a Mother’s Day carried on, it gained new momentum and finally became a national holiday in the early 1900’s with the lead of Anna Jarvis, who had been inspired by her mother, also named Anna Jarvis, who had worked with Julia Ward Howe in earlier efforts for a Mother’s Day.”[vi]

Activism for peace is deep in the roots of Unitarian Universalism, like abolition, like women’s suffrage. Not every Unitarian of Julia Ward Howe’s time was convinced -- her ideas were often considered ahead of her time, and her calls for peace were often dismissed, just as such calls are often dismissed in modern times.

This year at Mother’s day, I invite us to take up the challenge she issued back in 1870, and see how we feel called today. Her challenge that "The sword of murder is not the balance of justice! Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.” In 2021 I see her challenge in our militarized police system.

Howe stood up against the use of violence and bloodshed to resolve conflict, creates neither justice nor peace. I would argue that what we are protecting with all our military, and police forces should be peace. But the way we use our military, our police force seems to be in service of defending territory, defending property, rather than peace. Violence creates violence, Violence creates trauma not peace. And when folks return from war, we see that the ripples of that trauma take generations to be healed. We see those same ripples of violence and trauma in the policing of communities of color. Protecting peace is not the same as defending territory.

Howe calls us to turn our attention to the “means Whereby the great human family can live in peace.” Peace is not merely the absence of war, but a proactive way of being that holds space for healing and growing and creativity. Peace must be cultivated, nurtured so that it can to spread and establish peaceful spaces. Not spaces that avoid conflict, but “braver spaces” where we have the courage to speak truthfully and compassionately to one another about those things which concern us most. Cultivating peace is not about avoiding conflict. It requires that we teach and practice non-violent conflict resolution. It is about finding ways to hold the forces which deny and oppress life accountable in a way that avoids adding to the harm being done.

I think Su’s thoughtful reflection today "Being True to UU Ideals" is a challenge to practice peace, particularly at this time when our country is so divided. Lao Tzu, (Chinese Philosopher, author of the Toa Te Ching wrote:
If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
These words are encouraging to me when I feel too small to make a difference in national or global politics. It reminds me that cultivating peace in my own city, in my own home, in my own heart is important. Perhaps you have been in a room with someone whose peaceful presence has affected your own heart? I have seen people leading with peace turn an embattled situation into one where solutions are possible in all kinds of situations, large and small. Imagine cultivating peace on social media!

Cultivating peace, embodying peace is not easy. It requires intention and practice and courage. We become angry, we are imperfect. We may never live up to the example of great peace activists we admire, but we can challenge ourselves by asking: how can we cultivate a more peaceful response as we move through our days, enjoying with appreciation the life giving things we encounter, and naming with clarity, and working to change the things that diminish or oppress life? How can we restore peace where it has been interrupted with violence?

There is an important critique of those who call for peace; peace is easy to confuse with quietism, it is easy to mistake with conflict avoidance. It is not true peace when we endure injustice, or encourage others who bear the brunt of injustice or violence to endure it peacefully without resistance, to avoid upsetting the status quo. Consider Colin Kaepernick, the first to take a knee on the football field to protest police violence. His quiet peaceful action disturbed many people. Calling for justice is by its nature disturbing, because we must first see the injustice, and that should disturb us. The chant we hear in many protests is “no justice no peace” – and this is important. Our work for justice is part of our work for peace.

Photo from NBC News
One mother who is in my heart today, who embodies the ideals of that original Mother’s day proclamation is Gwen Carr. After her son, Eric Garner, was killed by police, she has worked for years to make sure that the men who killed her son, the system that killed her son would be held accountable. She said in an MSNBC interview
"We have to go further, as mothers, as families, we have to go further. And that's the only way that we are going to push them to do the right thing."

At the same time Carr is also reaching out to other mothers who lost their children to police violence to support them in their grief. Gwen Carr embodies those words spoken by Julia Ward Howe 150 years ago:
“Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace,”
Gwen Carr is my mother’s day hero this year, a modern role model of a mother’s wisdom and compassion, and the urgency of her call for peace. She embodies for me what Howe called: “the sacred right vested in the women of civilized communities to keep the bond of Peace and to protect the lives bought by their bitter pain, and fashioned by their endless labor.”

This Mother’s Day I propose that what those who mother really want, is to know that their children will live in peace, will be safe from violence. That they will see their children grow to be adults. This year at Mother’s Day we recommit ourselves, each in our own way, to work for peace, whether that means an end to foreign wars, or a demilitarizing of our police here at home, calling for accountability when sons and daughters are killed by police, working towards nonviolent resolution in the everyday conflicts and disagreements, or cultivating peace in our own hearts.



[i] Later she wrote, "I studied my way out of all the mental agonies which Calvinism can engender and became a Unitarian." https://uudb.org/articles/juliawardhowe.html

[ii] https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/julia-ward-howe

[iii] https://peacealliance.org/history-of-mothers-day-as-a-day-of-peace-julia-ward-howe/

[iv] https://rickrozoff.wordpress.com/2021/04/19/julia-ward-howe-the-development-of-the-peace-ideal/

[v] https://uudb.org/articles/juliawardhowe.html

[vi] https://peacealliance.org/history-of-mothers-day-as-a-day-of-peace-julia-ward-howe/