Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Paul Simon on a Monday

I'm gonna leave you, and here's the reason why -
I like to sleep with the window open, and you keep the window closed.
So goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Are we really this fickle?
At divinity school, I meet Catholic women who have chosen to stay in the Catholic church, despite the fact that they cannot be ordained. I'm amazed by their strength of character. They claim the tradition, vocally, proudly, but reject the pieces of the tradition that aim to keep them on the margins of leadership and relevance. They battle with traditions that aim to control their lives and bodies in ways that don't respect their autonomy. They argue with historical interpretations of religious truth that make them less sacred than men, less fit to be priests.
In Buddhism, this would be called "staying present to conflict."
For my friend K, this has meant going to her mother's house for Christmas although she is not allowed to make decisions about how the family celebrates, the food they eat, or even what they watch on TV. Evn as some of these activities have conflicted with her values, she says she has learned to be present with the ways the celebration doesn't match her ideal. This year, her mother passed away. She and her siblings recreated her mother's Christmas, the meal her mother would have made. The central relationship that held them all together was wrapped up in a complicated and fraught ritual, made no less important by its immutability and complexity.
Unitarian Universalists are open to searching. We do a lot of it. We create our own rituals, our own ways of celebrating important relationships, our own philosophies a mix of personal experience, old wisdom and fresh perspectives. How many of us have the chance to stick around and try sleeping with the window closed?
Conflict: The Chewy Middle
In many ways our churches present us with this challenge. Our varying backgrounds and ideals mean we may frequently be confronted with a ritual that doesn't resonate or a social justice agenda that leaves us cold. But this is the chewy middle, where church becomes a verb, where fellowship becomes a practice.
The voices of my embattled, centered, visionary Catholic friends are some of the strongest women's voices I know. They have learned to live with conflicting truths, to speak unpopular truth, to confront the imperfection in the party line, as a continual practice. They have learned to face hard-line authority not with a plea for lenience but with two feet planted.
Our more catholic confederates show us clearly the strength that comes when love and vocal resistance travel together.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


I'm listening to an online lecture on the Eightfold Path.

I think it's Ajahn Thanasanti Bhikkhuni speaking. She spoke at Harvard several weeks ago. I missed it. (I'm missing a lot of things lately. Good things, things that I want to be a part of. I did something else that morning. Maybe I shouldn't have. But I remember that morning, and I had a great time.)

There's a lot about internal dialogue in this talk— something that at this point in the semester I have to watch carefully. What is our "background noise" like? Ideally, she says, it will be full of "creation, goodwill, harmlessness to our selves." Yes.

First head-shave, maybe 2009
But the thing that caught my ear, early on in the broadcast (about 8:00?) is when she speaks about renunciation. She talks about fasting and "giving up cuddles," two renunciations I have not tried. She also mentioned ... head-shaving!

I hadn't thought of it this way before. Renunciation?
I shaved my head knowing that it felt freeing in social and aesthetic ways. I did it knowing that it adds an edge to the way I look that is both frightening and illuminating for me. I did it knowing that I fit in better with the people I like to fit in with, and get gawked at less by the people whose eyes I don't want to figure into my daily navigation of the world. I did it knowing that it gives me less to hide behind, but also less topographic space to worry about.

If the hair is there, and I'm in public, it should be intentional and lovely. My hair should be somehow welcoming... It should invite conversation. It should allure.

If the hair is not there, I don't have to worry that it's not perfect. And having a shaved head — I don't think there can be a way in which a shaved head on a white woman is perfect, and not jarring to most people, who might think (and actually sometimes say) "Cancer?" or "Sinead O'Rebellion!" as I walk down the street. In shaving my head, I think I accept this.

Head-shaving feels like some kind of renunciation, yes. And liberation. But not neutrality. It protects me from something. It also isolates me from something. It draws me closer to some people, and creates odd, unspoken chasms with others. What have I renounced? What have I welcomed in its place?

The Universe Machine?
So, I missed Bhikkuni in person. Bummer. Now I'm listening to her online instead, and she's still passing along something powerful. I don't think I "cracked the cosmic egg," as my friend Emma is fond of saying. I didn't break the universe. I sometimes envision a really complex machine, something out of Jules Verne, and I'm this little funny-shaped part, and if I don't do my "supposed to" thing, the alarms and whistles start going off and the entire thing comes to a screeching halt and we lose production time.

Or perhaps the machine just embarks on a slightly different project. Because the machine is organic. Perhaps as I am shaving my head or showing up somewhere other than where I meant to, the machine is growing another arm or gear to allow me to do what I do and still exist within the grand scheme and the productive whole. If that's true, in a universe of interconnectedness, not only can't I break the machine — the springs I picture ricocheting across the room are purely imaginary — I can't do even something so weird/bad that I'm really separate. And neither can you.

So, that's all right then.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

From: Me, To: You, Re: Thanks

“Parents are people, people with children.”
—Harry Belafonte & Marlo Thomas

They always taught me to speak up.
They always said — probably they didn’t even say, it was so obvious that it needed not even to be said — that my voice was worth hearing in the wider world. That I — smart, funny, interesting, well-read — had the tools to create and think, that I had the right and responsibility to exist in public, to speak my mind, to push back in public discourse against those ideas which I thought were wrong-headed, ill-considered or damaging.

It is essential to recover the fundamental ways in which these two people (the same people who bought me the Marlo Thomas record “Free to be You and Me”) taught me to be who I am, in which they REQUIRED it, in which they reveled in my original, thoughtful, active self.

It is essential because I could spend four incalculable eons listing the ways they wanted me to behave which I resisted, ignored, rejected. Maybe the list starts with wearing skirts to church, maybe with some other troublesome thing. Conflicting notions of female desirability without sexuality, perplexing ideas of humans as grasping, flawed and sinful, ideas about pushing yourself even when it doesn’t feel good in the name of commitment.

But these pieces don’t need to be centered today.

The basic truths about my right to be in the world (vocally, publicly and honestly) are direct hand-offs from my parents. I cultivated them, like bonsai, making adjustments for the ways I think it’s important to walk through the world.

For instance, it’s important not only to speak out against things that you believe are unfair, unkind, or unreasonable, but to speak for the things that are dear to your heart — to speak for love and understanding, to speak for people and families who need help, to speak for a higher way of existing in this world, which is so often lived moment-to-moment in a flurry of digitized, consumerized activity.

As a wise woman at UU church said today, there comes a time when you must negotiate a new relationship with the people who raised you: Part of this relationship is that they treat you like a grown-up. The other part is that you get to treat them as people.

I love this idea. Just people, who are allowed to be flawed, who come through when they can, who do care, who may not have given you everything you needed to get by, who may have left you floundering when you could have used a voice of wisdom because they had complicated stuff of their own to deal with.

When I acknowledge the beauty in the basic lessons they taught me, we cannot be enemies. We are at work on the same project. Yes, it’s complicated. Still, the colors are bright — even shadow is usually layered with color if you look. I think my growing understanding of the beautiful things of which I am capable, of which humans are capable if we can find a way past entrenched cultural barriers and our own resistance, is coupled with increased peace with failure, mine and other people’s.

Thank you and namaste. Thank you for being willing to teach me. Thank you for failing and succeeding. I continue your tradition, I work, I love, I fail and I succeed.

“Not to acknowledge any favor is a sign of ignorance.
The knowledge of the Truth and cognizance of God is but to give each man his due.”
—M. Shabistari, “Garden of Mystery”

Love and oatmeal

“Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.” — Marge Piercy
I think a lot about how to love people. What does love look like? How can I best love people, acknowledging their dignity and difference from me? How can I extend that kind, empowering love to my own self?
When I think of treating people with respect and love, no strings attached, I think of my friend R.
R. is abnormally gifted at loving people even when they don’t give her what she wants, when they are demanding or boring, when they don’t make sense or are lazy. She offers friends a love that makes me think of oatmeal (the kind with cinnamon and honey). It’s nourishing and substantive. It’s not particularly fancy — it is homey, warm and full of good humor. She doesn’t have any complicated requirements about how you have to act in order to deserve it, either. There’s no oatmeal-exchange agreement you have to sign, no proof that you’ll return this love in kind. Her friendship is welcoming. I learn, slowly, how to take part in this warm and bracing exchange. 
In the winter in New England, we're forced to move a little bit more slowly. There's ice, and weather that resists your efforts to be out and about. The time we spend inside with warm food is sacred. Warm oatmeal turns into an event, a ritual, a joy. When it's bitterly cold outside, when the wind is blowing every well-defined thought out of my head, I'm thankful for R, who offers me a space of peace, acceptance and warmth.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Texture of wealth and other odd consumer sensations

I went inside in flip-flops, one of those enormous, high-ceilinged shops, for rich people, with recessed lighting and odd displays with elements you might not expect to see in a shop - a disembodied tap with real running water, sepia photographs of somebody's brother and father, hands on hips, standing on a freshly mowed lawn, and in the window long, long strips of newspaper glued together from floor to ceiling. Every so often there were stuffed chairs made of printed canvas that you could sit in for a moment but which were also for sale, so in sitting you felt slightly guilty, as if you were breaking the rules, because the chair cost 1498 dollars.
Shirts with eyelets, pants costing $168 with ridiculously flared bottoms that you know will raise anyone, even you, up to the height of fashion, and tiny - just tiny - pairs of jeans, for girls who never have to ask you to scoot your chair closer to the table so they can squeeze by.
I try the lotion, I turn it upside down to see the price on the bottom, feeling painfully gauche - this is the sort of thing that goes on in other stores, but here, if you have to ask... It was only ten dollars, but smelled to me like somebody's rose-handed grandmother, loose skin, slow moving in the delicate morning in an empty house.
The dresses were all too small, and some designed so short they would barely cover a bottom, but this is the style now.
The textures are inviting - there are woven throws and wall-hangings, thick wool, like I've seen in South America (for less than five dollars U.S.) in muted greens and what here is probably called "creme."
I am drawn to a crinkled skirt, purple the color of raspberry sherbet - surprising but organic, brown undertones,  and I reach out for it, because it looks so soft, and it is - I can't stop touching, I try to look as though I'm browsing, as though I have a right to touch, but really I'm just captivated. I look at the price again - compulsion, apparently - and the skirt is $98. It seems to stand up on its own and I realize it must have a lining, maybe crinoline. I lift up the skirt, feeling as though I am invading its privacy, looking where I shouldn't, like a dirty old man checking out the goods, or a dirty old woman biting the coin with rotted tooth to be sure it's really gold.
The underskirt is soft linen with lace and I touch it too, imagining what it would feel like against my thighs - it would be like floating through the day, like skating. Some things are created for use, some for whimsy, often without regard for comfort, and it occurs to me that luxury is soft against your skin. This is why women pay 98 dollars for a skirt. Some women, but not me. I don't.
I watch the women who shop here. Some leave with very small bags, others come in with teenage daughters, younger children, and I - compulsion - begin to do the calculations in my head - one item for each child... Clothing perhaps as cheap as $50 for a thin, unbearably gossamer t-shirt - you can see your fingers through it - wearing would be like swimming in a cloud - would my whole demeanor change? Would my life be different if the clothing I bought were soft?
I see $6 mugs with the alphabet on them, consider buying one for my brother and one for his fiance, but I feel as if my hands and stomach are full already, with the smells and the canvas and the curtains, newspaper, bell-bottoms and the sweaters with knobby mustard-colored flowers tucked into a corner like a small country, going about its business, propagating its culture, thick and soft.