Friday, December 26, 2008

My brother owns a Snowplow

Portland is snowed in right now and my brother just sent me an e-mail saying he owned a snowplow, but had to use it at night so his whole neighborhood wouldn't require free service.

Here is my reply:

Indeed. We in Portland salute you, you are our God, by the way do you want to stop by and um, plow my driveway.

Yesterday I went starkers and made Michael take me out shopping just to get out of the house. He pretended to be concerned with my welfare so he agreed, but he had that gleam in his eye. I knew it wasn't for me when we went rocketing out of the carport at 30 mph! That is apparently how they do it in Anchorage (where he grew up). It has something to do with the laws of physics, the faster you go the more you can fake the laws out. These Anchorage physicists probably also get stuck in a big hump of snow like we did.

We finally made it past that impediment using shovels and old rubber mats laid down for traction. The worst part of the drive, was of course, our street. After that it was physical interaction with the world, oh baby! Ah Fred Meyer's my other God. Such friendly hubbub and and many treats and things to buy. We were able to pick up Scott (our 22 year old son), who was hibernating in his apartment and bring him home for a birthday dinner. We had Fred Meyer carrot cake and salmon and I gave him practical gifts like a coat and gloves which he promptly put on. He owned neither article. Poor, young men are so easy to buy for!

I am in the middled of writing a paper for my MDiv about my personal theology. Its due the first week-end in January. I keep telling my teachers, they don't want to know! Does He exist, oh wait, not He. Does It exist, hmm, that is kind of cold. Ah the Force, wasn't that in some movie? Ah -- the Force must be with my teachers because I am stuck in a snowstorm with nothing else to do but work on this paper and ponder the existence of God. I really wish it would stop snowing. Not a bad subject for the season however.

May the Force be with you!!

Monday, October 20, 2008

My Life as a Dog

For my M Div program I need to do a lot of navel gazing. Over the next week or two I am writing a 20 page paper on myself!!!

It makes you kind of gag but its also satisfying in ways good and bad. Usually when I am obsessing about 'why I am the way I am'. I feel a little guilty about it. Not that again, I think. It's more of an adventure when you are a young-un and you first realize that yeah! mom screwed me up. Its really not so interesting when you are over fifty. Yeah, yeah, she screwed me up, the way every mother EVER screwed up their children. Like I undoubtedly screwed-up my children. She also turned me on to libraries and reading, politics and cooking and was a pretty good role model on how to be a bossy woman. The bossy woman training I have put to some very good use.

So what is good about it. Well there are new insights. Writing also clarifies the mind and deepens the thought. I am forced to put a narrative spin on my life, find connections where I haven't before. Sometimes I even appreciate myself more, I certainly understand myself more than I ever have.

So what is bad? I am not sure if bad is the right word. It is still sometimes occasionally hard to look at parts of my life. It seems as if the bad emotions, resentment, hurt feelings, heartbreak are in some special timeless place. Some fade but others take you right back, like a smell, homing back to the feeling. And you feel it all over again.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Generic Religion

I have begun my Master of Divinity program at Marylhurst University. It has me hyper stimulated and happy to be thinking!

Unfortunately, while it gives me great ideas for blogging, it also brings on a case of that old familiar student's guilt when doing anything, ANYTHING, other than writing my papers. Expect slower posts.

While reading for my class on western mysticism, I read these words by Reb Zalman, a living Kabbalah mystic, "I see myself as a Jewish practitioner of generic religion." Those words knocked my socks off. They startle for a lot of reasons. For one thing generic isn't what most people aspire to. We all want unique expression, or deep expression, or perfect expression. Generic! who wants that? To hear such words from a deeply learned Rabbi is odd.

I picked him to write a paper on though, based on those words. I believe he is saying something important here. For one, he is expressing an appreciation for the oneness of all religions. We are all responding to the same phenomena. We all have the same questions. All religions are aimed at the same heart. He is basically saying, 'I use the Jewish Kabbala to see God. What do you use?' While the Fundamentalist have noticed that there are other religions and see them as misguided at best, and in some very well known sad examples, see others as evil even worth killing, the Mystics have been looking around the world and going 'huh -- you guys are doing the same thing as me. We are all alike.' The Dali Lama and Reb Zalman would have a gay old time together, if they haven't already.

Ok, that is fun, nice, interesting. But it also has meaning for me. As a Unitarian Universalist I belong, essentially to a 'generic religion.' Our lack of creed and our culture of inclusion makes us kind of generic. I have often felt ashamed of that. Is there any 'there' there? That is the question the rest of the religious world asks us. I may start proudly proclaiming it as Reb Zalman does "I am a practitioner of a Generic Religion!" Maybe not -- however there are still questions I want to explore.

Reb Zalman says he is a Jewish practitioner. Can UU's be a religious people without some practice. I imagine Zalman would say no. So should we all be triple hyphenated? Jewish Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist Unitarian Universalist, Wicckan Unitarian Universalist. It still leaves me with questions but I liked the feeling of recognition when I saw Reb Zalman's words.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

testimonial time

I was asked to do a testimonial for the service this Sunday. I don't want to 'waste' any UU writing so here it is:

Why do I come to Eastrose? What do I 'get' from Eastrose?

The simple answer is that I like church. I like being involved in an institution that is about community, about values, about caring, even sometimes about the mysteries of our existence on earth.

It is an extra institution in all of our lives. Everything else we do has an easy utilitarian explanation. We work for money and identity. We marry and socialize with our families for love, protection, and nurture. We have friends for entertainment and out of affection. We even join organizations, like my kayak club, for entertainment. While these all make sense from a utilitarian point of view, church doesn't.

Being involved with Eastrose connects me to the world and mystery through public worship with a community. For me the community creates meaning. Unitarian Universalists, you and I, all of us together, we create meaning here in our little fellowship. We say, by sharing our lives, that human life is important.

Our human lives are important and complicated. Sometimes sad, sometimes filled with joy. All of it, the births, deaths, marriages, defeats and joys is intensified by sharing. Even the most pragmatic, prosaic person cannot explain the pain and joy of being human. We make meaning out of that experience by gathering here.

Well that is all very high falutin! but true. When I think about why I am at Eastrose that IS the reason. I am also a logical sort of person and If I believe something is important I support it. Because of that Michael and I give generously to Eastrose. Because of that I find myself putting together the budget for Eastrose last year and this year, even though financial matters don't interest me much.

Generosity is the theme, topic, consuming passion of the canvass this year. Generosity too is one of those extras that show up in human culture. Why church? Why generosity? They are both about meaning. Giving yourself to something in an open ungrudging way gives it meaning. Generosity is a choice you make about what is important in your life. As part of the canvass I've been almost forced to think about generosity and I've decided that this year I am going to try and do all my giving to Eastrose in a generous spirit. That means money giving, that means putting on the Strategic Planning meetings, that means putting together the budget in a generous spirit. It should be an interesting year.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Emotion breaks out

My parents took my sibs, my in-laws and me on a cruise to Alaska. It was a preemptive move of generosity. They were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary and I guess they didn't want to do a reception. Didn't want it real bad!

We had fun of course. I knew we would -- a bunch of middle-aged people with a shared wit and one older couple looking on and joining in. But I was a bit leery too. My family is allergic to emotion and the whole idea of 60 years together is dripping with emotion. Celebrating a good marriage is an emotional thing especially when you are looking at its end.

My parents are finally old. They weren't old at 60, or very much at 70 but now at 80 they are old. They don't walk as well, they don't even think as well. I could see the change on this cruise and it was hard for this middle-aged lady to see.

They have been the kind of steady, capable people we all relied on. Sure, we are independent with our own homes and families but when you needed a hand it was always there. And never with an "I told you so", always gladly.

Still the cruise seemed like a huge distraction. Don't think, don't feel, enjoy, make a joke.

I don't always want to live out the family mythos, even as benign as it is.

Therefore, I was glad emotion broke out on fore deck 12, in the Port room on Thursday at 2:00pm on their actual anniversary. We had reserved the room and gathered the family. NCL wanted to know if we wanted cake and balloons. No, we said, we have eaten enough. We did buy a bottle of champagne. While we drank the champagne we read poems of our own creation. They were all different. One came from my sister in-law about the impact Joan and Dave's easy, loving marriage had had on her when she was a girl and first met my mother. Her parents were not like that. We started to leak. We turned away so we could finish our awkwardly rhymed sentences. We knew we loved each other. We knew we loved these old people who were our parents.

Brother David brought out his guitar and we sang "What a wonderful world." It was a perfect moment, if not a perfect chorus.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

"like they just walked away for a moment"

Eastrose loses its members the hard way some times. People die.

Michael and I went to church this morning in the car. I turned on a tape I had been playing on my own. I wanted Michael to hear it. It was Ava's man by Rick Bragg and also read by the author in a soft, sexy southern voice. It is some of the greatest southern writing you can read or listen to. Almost every sentence has some phrase or image that makes your ears lift with happiness.

We were going to church for the second time in a three day week-end and knew we would go again on the third day. We might not have gone today, there being only so much church a person should go to, but Lee's ashes were going into the ground after the service.

I turn on Rick Bragg and he reads about how his people, hill people from the border of Alabama, Georgia, have the intelligence to forget funerals. He is writing a book about his grandfather and can't get anyone to tell him about the funeral. He says they don't want to remember the funeral and the pale bodies in open caskets. They want to imagine that person is just in the next field, gone for a little walk or drive. It's better that way.

I feel that about Lee. He was a gentle presence at Eastrose. Quiet and good natured, getting quieter every year. He paid attention though, surprising me recently by knowing the year my oldest son graduated from college. Underestimated (perhaps) by all the bright wits we have hanging around our little fellowship. He hunched over more and more leaning on a cane. Maybe he just went down the street, to see a man about a dog. He'll be back later.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Relax, Just Say It: Part 2

In my last post I wrote about meditating on passages that do not completely conform to my own theology. How it was intellectually odd, but quite comfortable, even joyous. Some of that comfort comes from my Enneagram point. I am a Nine, happy as a clam to hold two, three or four competing ideas in my mind at the same time.

Here is Part 2 of Relax, Just Say It:

Another odd thing is the comfort I experience in my meditation and the discomfort I sense in my fellow UU's (Unitarian Universalists) each time the GOD word comes up.

UU's are some of the most tolerant, intolerant folks you will find. They are pretty darn tolerant of exotic religions. Anything that is not Christian is fascinating and important. Our openness to a variety of faith traditions is one of our strong points.

We have trouble with Christianity for two reasons. Reason one, Christianity is where most of us came from, we got shaken out of that tradition, unwilling to say a creed, unable to believe in God or at least THAT God and we are mad about it. Mad the way we are mad at our parents because they didn't love us perfectly. This reason is painful and personal. The anger we feel varies in intensity depending on if our religious training was just wrong for us or actually abusive.

The second reason is because we pride ourselves on tolerance of belief and lifestyle and some brands of Christianity are intolerant. We doubly feel the sting of Christian intolerance because it is against our UU religion and because it is against our liberal political principles. We are mortal enemies of the beliefs of the Christian right. Its hard to separate the religion of the Christian right from its political beliefs. UU's don't always make the effort and neither does the Christian right.

At the heart of all this anger is the God word. Even if you believed in God as a UU you might object to the God word in worship. You might feel it forces people who do not believe in God to worship a God. Saying God, in the context of the traditions many UU's came from, the anger and pain some UU's feel, is tantamount to saying a Creed. UU's can end up in a circle of flight from others anticipated hurt feelings so that they never say God, never come close.

I wonder how good it is for us to have this prohibition. Will we ever be truly tolerant if we cannot say GOD? The fact that anger and pain are so much a part of this prohibition against the word, that we are re-acting against childhood practices makes me think we should be taking a different path. Instead of avoiding it we should move right into it and desensitize ourselves so that we can be religious people and live in the whole landscape of religion.

We should have God training. When my son's were going through sex education one of their teachers had them chant the 'giggle' making words until all the charge went out of them. If you walked by their class during sex ed you would hear 30 sixth graders chanting in unison Vulva or Penis until they were bored with it. We should ask each other 'What do you mean when you say God?' Do you mean, Light, Love, the World, Nature, the Planet, Gaea, a Being that watches over all of us, Truth, Buddha, Tao or Jesus? Its a big word with lots of meanings and I wonder when we are going to get it back?

We should chant it out loud and all together until it becomes our word again and loses the charge of anger and pain that makes us shy away from it.

Relax, Just Say it: Part 1

I've written that I do daily passage meditation. It's now my spiritual practice. I haven't been doing it very long, but its power and sturdy compassion, make me think I will do it my whole life.

The passages I meditate on come from all the worlds great religious traditions: Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Islam and Earth-based. They don't always conform to my own beliefs. The old testament God is not my Lord really, but when I am meditating on Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd I say each word of that Psalm.

I'm meditating not evaluating. I say in my mind "the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." I try not to have side conversations in my mind or any kind of cross talk.

I remember that there were some rebellious thoughts generated at first, especially when I would meditate on the passage "He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies." What is that all about, why is the Lord concerned with my enemies? It reminded me of the irony of two football teams praying for victory from the same God. And more tragically about the war in Iraq with Christian and Islam soldiers praying in competing forums to the same compassionate Lord.

I'm uneasy with the idea of a personal God but the Sages are not. God weaves in and out of the passages I meditate on; sometimes He/She is very clearly a being to adore while in other passages They/He/She/It are portrayed as an intrinsic quality as austere as my pantheistic faith. The God talk makes me uneasy while at the same time I feel utterly at peace and at home.

It's what the soul wants really. It wants to adore, it wants to let go, it wants to fly into ecstasy. The soul, our psyche, understands the language of relationship intimately, and knows what it means to cleave, to bind, to connect with another. The soul is not a theologian! The soul is more like a drunken teenager dancing with a cute stranger on a Saturday night!

A friend of mine who maybe does, maybe doesn't, believe in God, told me "I started praying. It just works better if I talk to God as if he is there. I don't know if he is, but I calm right down. I pray regularly."

Monday, August 11, 2008

Faith Journal: Epiphanies

What do you believe if you are a Unitarian Universalist? The usual, sloppy UU answer is that you can believe anything you want. Well, let's hope not. You don't have to believe in a creed, thank goodness, or Jesus Christ is Lord of All, or even that there is any Lord of All. That leaves a big wide field to walk around in. Its no wonder that UU's want some kind of short cut when talking to others in this culture of the sound bite. They may even want a sound bite for themselves!

It's work to put together your own theology. Please forgive me and other UU's like me, if we haven't always done as much work as we should.

One of the pieces of my personal spiritual philosophy, is a belief in the importance of epiphanies.

I cultivate epiphanies because they are my version of a primary, spiritual experience.

An epiphany is when your world looks different after you have had an insight. A whole area of your personal world view that stood straight up before now is toppled over and points in another direction. An epiphany is Urban renewal of the soul.

Epiphanies can be dramatic. When I had the epiphany that I didn't believe in a personal God, the world was suddenly a very different place. And not necessarily a better place. In fact it was colder and lonelier. There was no going back on it though. It was a true epiphany.

In college I took a class on Existentialism and it fit my new thinking about God. I read Albert Camus's The Stranger and the Myth of Sisyphus. I learned more about this territory of no God. It was exciting, but it filled out the contours of my mind without changing it. Existentialism is pretty grim stuff but I took it in and accepted it. What else was there if there was no God?

It was another class, a hybrid English class called "What is Man?", that gave me my next epiphany.

This time we read more Camus, a book of short stories called Exile and the Kingdom. We also read Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. I don't remember the stories well or much about Hero with a Thousand Faces. I do remember them transforming the scraped earth landscape of Existentialism into some kind of garden. I didn't return to a personal God but I did, through these wonderful stories begin to see the richness of interconnection.

The epiphany I had was that Existentialism looked at the world as if there was nothing human but individual existence. If you run a buldozer over a forest you don't have a forest anymore. The forest existed though, even if it's now destroyed. Just because you CAN get down to bare earth doesn't mean you should or that bare earth is any more real than the forest that was there originally.

I developed the conviction that the connections we have with others are real and holy even if they end, break, sometimes are false, or superficial. The sum of them hold the world together. Not only are these connections holy but we can chose them, we can increase them or we ignore or deny them.

It's a choice, like the Existentialist said, they just didn't believe that you could choose a world with color, sound and a thrumming heart.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Connections to Random Events

Summertime and the living is easy, except that the news is full of random death and madness. Yes, it's random, but there are connections to me.

It starts with a UU church in Knoxville invaded by a madman with a gun shooting parishioners attending a children's theater production. I hear it on the radio and start the rationalization process, the distancing process, before I even get all the facts.

He is mad, I think, the same thing happens in post offices -- its just chance that its a UU church. But I am a UU, and I can't imagine a safer place than my church.

Next a terrible plane crash on the Oregon coast where a light plane crashes into a home filled with a vacationing, extended family. Its bad enough the empathy I feel because of the entire innocence of the victims. They aren't taking risks by playing on logs in the surf. They are sleeping in vacation bedrooms, eating breakfast and getting shoes on for a walk on the beach. It turns out that I have a long ago connection to the family. I knew their brother, a beautiful young man who died twenty-five years ago in a climbing accident. The facts and the sorrow of it just sit in my mind, unexplained and terrible.

Then another crash, a helicopter crash taking down nine summer firefighters. They are young and vital men with their whole lives ahead of them. They have no direct connection to me this time except they are from Oregon, but it echos and amplifies the earlier tragedies.

I meditate this morning saying a passage I've been using from the Tao te ching. While I meditate I am aware of my mind trying to find an explanation for all this random death and violence. I also know its a cheat. Meditation isn't the same as thinking. Rumination is a classic distraction.

There is a line in my passage about how a being "takes on a physical body, let's circumstances complete it." Although the Tao is full of compassion for the whole world, it feels remote and not a comfort. I can't reconcile this old wisdom about the cycle of life with the immediacy and lose of all that young life. Sometimes there is no explaination.


I've been meditating daily with ony a few slip ups for a couple of months. I have a meditation group to keep me motivated (Eastrose on Tuesday nights). We do Easwaran's passage meditation. Easwaran gives a pretty indepth discussion of how we avoid going deep into meditation and allow distractions. There are lots of ways.

My typical distraction is to fall asleep. The passage I am meditating on often appears in my mind as it does on the page. As I go through the passage the words light up one at a time. When I start to fall asleep the lines reassemble in different order. They dangle like melted clocks in a surealist painting or end abruptly. These are all signals that its time for me to breath deeper and sit up straighter before I start to snore.

But yesterday morning the mind did something charming to distract me. A Hummingbird swooped right in through my passage. It hovered, as hummingbirds will, in the center of my mind allowing me to admire its brilliant blue and green colors. And then, when I regretfully realized that it was a distraction, it darted away.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Faith Journal: the Creed

I haven't had many psychic experiences. This might not be one, but it felt like one.

When my son's were 6 and 8, Michael and I took them to a Smith family reunion in Ohio.

We had a good time. It was a bit more stressful for me than Michael because I was meeting a lot of new people. The Smith's were welcoming, though, and I enjoyed myself. The boys were about as cute as they could be. I was proud to show them off to this family of strangers.

Still I was starting to look forward to going home. We had one more event, a Catholic mass that was being put on for the Smiths. They were a pretty religious family. They had nuns in the family. Michael was from the 'fallen away' side but everyone else was still very Catholic. This particular mass was in honor of Michael's Aunt and Uncle and their marriage of 50 years. The family whispered that they weren't doing so well. Indeed, they only lived a few more years.

I felt snappish and a little false in my nice clothes. What is the difference between honoring another's traditions or smothering your own feelings? Attitude, I guess, and mine was deteriorating in spite of my best intentions. The idea of sitting through a mass finally gave shape to my own suppressed feelings of rebellion. It had been a long vacation spent in small talk, in group settings with new people, in projecting my own booster feelings of pride in my small family. I was starting to wear out.

The chapel filled with the Smith clan.

The mass began, and the old ritual took hold of me. I know the mass. A childhood of Sundays puts it at the synapse level. I started to relax. I marveled at my good memory. Since this was a special family Mass for older Catholics, part of it was in Latin. The Catholic church stopped doing the Latin Mass when I was six years old and yet I can still remember the words. I said all the words to all the prayers, trying not to think too much, as if they were mantras, or nursery rhymes.

My mind drifted while we said the creed. ‘I believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ A jarring thought jumped into my head, without any invitation, "The Creed is a test. In the old days if you didn’t say it you were killed!’’ The thought came in with full force and I was stunned to silence.

I stopped my simple recitation. I had never thought of it before; they put the Creed in the mass long ago so the priests could check on the faithful. People have probably died because they wouldn’t say these words.

Right in the middle of this lovely Catholic ceremony I began to shake. I vividly saw, the people burning. I smelled the fear and the smoke. I sat down and grab my husband’s hand. "The creed's a loyalty test! How can they have something like that in worship". He turned and smiled at me, not hearing a word.

Even if he had heard me, how could I have explain such a peculiar vision.

I sat through the rest of the service quietly not moving with the service or saying the words. What had taken place? The Catholic church is so old that even the shaggiest old horror can mellow and lighten with time. The creed doesn't have power anymore except as an element of worship, but at one time it did. For a few moments I had felt the church’s bloody history.

After the Mass we went to a party for Michael's aunt and uncle. I shook Uncles’s hand and he smiled vacantly at me. It was all a bit much for him, poor old man.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Pantheist or religious Naturalist

Yeah, I am such a reader these days. I just finished Standing in the Light, My Life as a Pantheist by Sharman Apt Russell. Its a spiritual biography that I bought from the author at a reading at Powells. I couldn't stay away when I read about it in the Oregonian.

My life as a pantheist, I thought, maybe that is me! Indeed. It seems to be. A pantheist believes that God can be found in the world and only in the whole of the world. Russell considers herself a scientific pantheist in that her understanding of science gives her a greater feeling for the intricate ways that the world connects.

Standing in the Light is a pretty good book. Beautifully written by a careful writer who admires and often writes about science. She alternates chapters on her own life living in rural New Mexico on the Gila River, with very informative chapters on Quakerism, the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza, the Transcendentalists, Taoism. The chapter notes alone are worth the price of the book with its list of books I should read and now want to.

Her presence in the book is rather restrained as if she wasn't quite willing to be the center of attention. If I have a criticism, and I don't really, it would be say more about you Sharman! Still, since I have met her, I can see her walking on a mountain mesa road, reading Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. (Yes, she walks and reads at the same time).

She mentions two websites I plan on checking out: (the Institute of Religion in the Age of Science) and (The World Patheist Movement).

Oh, what the heck! -- here is a list of books that Russell inspires me to want to read:

The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance by Anthony Gottlieb. This is one I wouldn't normally even consider but Russell calls it "engaging and stimulating " in her chapter notes. Really!

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. trans. Gregory Hays. I will read it in bed however. It must be good because Russell confesses a crush on Aurelius.

Drawing down the Moon by Margot Adler

Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio or Spinoza: A Life by Steven Nadler. Well, it is a stretch that I would ever read a biography of Spinoza, but if I do, I will for sure brag about it here.

Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildland Living and a Quest for the Peaceable Kingdom by Jim Corbett. This sounds wonderfully strange.

Upheavals of Thought: the Intelligence of Emotion by Martha C. Nussbaum. Another one to brag on if I read it.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I've read this but not since I was in my teens. It has to read differently now.

Deep Ecology by Bill Duval and George Sessions

The Dream of Earth by Thomas Berry or his The Great Work: Our Way into the Future

Buddha by Karen Armstrong and The great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions also by Karen Armstrong

The Tao of the West by J. J. Clarke

Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia by Stephan Harding

Books by James Lovelock -- the founder of the Gaia theory

The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough. Who has, by the way, a name that I envy. She calls herself a religious naturalist, not a pantheist. It kind of goes with her name. Religious naturalist is good enough, I don't need some fancy unusual title for my religious impulses, I can imagine her thinking.

More from Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, maybe The Essential Transcendentalists ed by Richard Geldard

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Machine

"I'm just a cog in the machine!" I've protested after a lousy day of work. Its a modern complaint and words like 'dehumanize' and 'alienation' were invented to express being treated like a machine. The protest comes as I feel edges being shaved off my unique, organically shaped persona so that it fits into the small square space that the world sometimes gives me.

I can also feel dehumanized when I go too long without feeling alive. Or, when I try performing for someone else's expectations. Or, I act in the grip of a compulsion without apparent volition. Again, the feeling is of taking complex behavior and simplifying it and repeating it like a machine does--only in this case its me thats allowing it!

So why is it that I get so much comfort from all the machine metaphors in Eknath Easwaran's book "Meditation". Its a lovely little treatise full of wisdom about how to grow in spirit. Easwaran taught at Berkeley for many years. He is full of cute stories of his American students and how to meditate and live a more spiritual life.

He treats the mind as if it is car being driven by unruly desires. Or a coat that you put on or take off. He has no compunction in thinking of a part of himself that many of us view as our self, our mind and emotions, as something mechanical. Its an idea I've run into before in psychology and counselling and I found it a comfort there also.

In counselling I was told to treat my emotions -- at least the hot emotions that run through your mind in the middle of a fight -- as an interesting phenomena, like lighting. Lightening flashes through and then is gone and so too are these hotter emotions. Yes, they are real, but do they reflect any particular truth? I'd watched so many Hollywood movies where the heroine realizes that her fiance is a jerk in a flash of sudden insight. I was relieved to findthat just because I had thought someone was a jerk during a fight didn't mean that he was one.

The mechanical metaphor is soothing when Easwaran uses it and soul sucking when we experience it in the world. So what is the difference? Easwaran and my counsellor are giving me control of my mind and emotions by pointing out that these parts of me are not my essential self. When the world acts on you or you allow others to control you then you have lost control.

If the mind is a car then it seems to matter who is driving.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Shadow Children

Everyone who has had children knows some shadow children. They are the playmates of your own children that didn't make it. They got cancer, drowned or, now, as my boys have grown, were killed in Iraq or Afganistan.

They don't have to be very close to your children for you to remember them forever. They play along side your children, staying the same age while your own children grow up.

The shadow children made me sad and scared when they died. Of course, they reminded me that my own perfect children were mortal and could be taken away. They raised theological questions. The real questions. Not, why do bad things happen to good people? That question has never bothered me very much. 'What, you think if you are good, you are exempt from the laws of chance?' The question I've never been able to answer is, what does a Unitarian Universalist say to a dying child? I mean a UU like me, who believes that it matters how we live, but doesn't believe in a personal God, and doesn't believe in heaven.

One of my shadow children died of brain cancer at seven years of age. He had time to know that he was dying. His parents are strong Christians and do believe in heaven. It made it easier. Not easy, don't get me wrong. They went through hell, knew it, and didn't have any false piety about it. However, they could say to their son 'you are going to Jesus in Heaven. We will join you later.' in full serenity and belief. I was just glad I never had to come up with such a strong, story for my children.

The wars in Iraq and Afganistan are adding to my shadow children. For years, I had only two, that's how safe our world is in Portland, Oregon.

I've added two in the last two years. One young man, went to school with my oldest son, but in the stratified world of high school, my oldest says 'didn't know him mom' with relief. Well, they are MY shadow children after all. I claim him because the school community I am a board member for had a memorial service for him after he was killed in Afganistan. He was in the HS video production program and was a newscaster for the internal news service the students put on. He was such a recent graduate that they still had all his footage where he was the star. On the montage they put together he was funny, bright, everything. He joined up because of 9/11 and, probably, a lack of cash for college.

Alex Funcheon is another shadow child. He died in Iraq from an IED blast. He had been there for two months. His mother was my friend and babysitter when we lived in Tempe, Arizona. My oldest son and Alex were best friends in diapers and training pants, running around the back yard together on short, stubby legs. We moved away when they were four and the two families became Christmas card friends. I hadn't talked to Karen in fifteen years when she called out of the blue. 'Alex is dead.' she told me. ' I just wanted to talk to someone who knew him as a baby.'

Shadow children reflect the worst of what could happen to your child. Our children are all marching toward the future together and then death steps in, here and there. Before the war deaths, it had just seemed like cosmic bad luck. The war deaths hit me in a different way. They bring up questions of class and culpability. I feel equal parts anger and sadness, with some guilt thrown in, because these boys died when mine didn't. My family never voluntarily joins military service. We are polite enough not to bad-mouth the military in that careful way of respecting others choices. I can't think of a single cousin, niece or nephew that has joined. I am glad of that frankly, but it doesn't make me feel good. It's something I would like to keep in the shadows.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

How it feels

More Oregonian newspaper reactions, this time to an opinion piece published by a black woman living in Oregon and feeling alone and misunderstood. It was called 'What it feels like to be Black in Oregon".

Race is on my mind with Obama's race speech so recently given.

I was hoping that her words would give me some insight but instead they reminding me, yet again, that its all so particular and subject to the 'eyes of the beholder'.

It didn't help that the piece was all about feeling and not hung on specific details. However, I do admire the writer for giving voice to her reactions to us white Oregonians.

We white Oregonians have to be odd to watch. When I was growing up, Oregon had very few African Americans, I remember when my entirely white, and fairly upper-income, high school was integrated. The black kids that were bused to our school where very different then I was expecting. I was expecting white people with black skin. I though the only difference would be the skin color.

Well they were quite different at least in the superficial ways that high schoolers notice. They were poorer and tougher than we were. I can't say I connected with any of them and it was a shock. Now looking back, I can't imagine what a shock it must have been to them.

I am a little more sophisticated now. I live in a multicultural neighborhood and for a while I flirted with the idea that racism was basically over. I saw how common and matter of fact my kids were around people of other ethnic backgrounds. They didn't ignore race but it was no big deal. Racism is over, the kids will make it go away, I thought. Plus the sheer number of different races was diluting the intensity of Black and White interaction. It isn't all about that old history of slavery I thought.

But I had an epiphany at church brought on by a story from an older white woman. She stood up and told about getting on a bus in Washington DC during world war II and having the bus driver order some black kids off the bus. They wouldn't sit in the back.

It hit my liberal phantasy about the end of racism, pretty hard. This woman is still alive and she has this memory of active institutional racism. These stories are still in peoples heads, in their memories. Even the young ones have heard the stories. And unfortunately, they probably have a few of their own.

I do believe it is better. I do believe that the young ones are the way. But it isn't going away in a generation. Maybe not in two, three or four. Racism is real if you have seen it or your father or grandfather have felt it. Its not a paranoid fantasy of black people. It should not be treated as such.

Whiny Women

Guys aren't the only humans who don't like the whiny women.

Marie Cocco just had a column in the Oregonian that is a classic example of why you will sometimes find women running, screaming holding their ears when a full-on feminist starts to wind it up.

I am a feminist and proud of it, so my complaint is more about the style rather than the substance of Marie's argument.

Is there something to what Marie Cocco says -- that Hilary Clinton is being asked to be a 'good women' and bow out of the democratic race by the men of the party. There might be.

I wonder though if it does any good to point it out especially in that plaintive angry tone. The accusation is so far inside the territory of unconscious bias that one would have to be a scientist with a probe in your brain to know if the request was sincere or just a ploy. It certainly is an easy one to deny.

It also reminds me that any president is going to have to deal with more than a little gender bias. How about wrong headedness, veniality, psychopathology, hyperpartisanship and plain, old common-as-dirt-stupidity. He or she had better be ready for these and more. If she is not, if she is going to get all whiney about it -- I really don't want her to be my president --because she will be whining all of the time!

Being asked to be high-minded and step down for the good of the party is an almost charming, rather old fashioned, piece of bias. The very idea that women are better than men and more interested in the common welfare! Only in America is this an insult. Only in America are women eager to disprove it.

Seriously though, when should feminists complain? I think those idiots yelling 'clean my shirts' at her rally's are over the line and should be chucked out of any venue they attend. In a just world they would be cleaning her shirts.

I was offended when Hilary was accused of 'pimping' her daughter out because Chelsea was campaigning for her. I was glad that provoked outrage and backlash.

There are enough real instances of bias and prejudice that we don't need to drag out the maybe its bias arguement.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Logic Feeler meets dream time

I've been seeing a career counselor and as a result of some non-enneagram personality profiling I now think of myself as a 'logical feeler' (Myers Briggs). I like it. If I had known the expression earlier I might have used it as my blog name.

So if I am all logical in my feelings, how to explain my recent dreams? Dreams really are the anti logic.

About three weeks ago I had a dream that would have been worthy of the old testament in its command and specificity. It was a voice that said clearly to me "you will have a going away party for your son". Well it didn't tell me to take the people of Israel anywhere, but it did concern the Old Testament obsessions with lineage and journeys. My son is going to Bulgaria as a Peace Corp volunteer. He will be gone for two years, an almost biblical amount of time (seven years is the Biblical unit). I tend to blither and worry about whether to party or not to party. No problem with this one, we are having it.

Then yesterday I took a short nap and my sister-in-law called me. I didn't get up but I could kind of hear her answering me with her reasons for not coming tothe party and making some kind of request. I have good ears and I heard 1:30 and knew I would have to listen and answer.

This morning I remembered about the message. I checked the machine. No message. I queried my husband in an imperious manner. Well there are only two of us so one of us must have deleted it. I called Heidi and found out she hadn't called.

It must have been a dream, but a dream that mimicked reality in all its mundane details.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ingathering of new members

We have a ceremony at Eastrose welcoming new members. They stand in front of the congregation and the membership committee chair says something, then the president, then the minister, then the Congregation, then the new members and then everyone says something together. Usually the new members get a candle (our symbol is a flaming chalice) or a flower. Its welcoming, friendly and fun to see the new folk coming into the church.

But there is a one thing that it isn't, and that is inspiring. The words we use to welcome new members thud into the room (see below). We have a Membership Covenant with too many multi-syllabic Latin rooted words . Welcoming words should ring with poetry and power.

Ah those Latin rooted words like 'congregation', 'inspiration' and 'individuality'. Say one out loud and you're on a roller coaster and you have to ride it to the end. I don't have a classical education so I am winging it a bit here, but you can see how the word is constructed. Look at 'individuality', with its original word sitting somewhere in the middle. Who knows what 'divid' alone means, but it has all these mumbly syllables packed on the front and the back like pillows piled around a man on a couch. Like pillows they muffle.

The Latin isn't the only problem with the Membership Covenant -- there are also run on sentences and poorly chosen words. My favorite (as in hardest to say) is this sentences inflicted on our poor new members who must say "We join you with eager anticipation, understanding the responsibilities of membership, and aware that we are choosing this as our church home." It doesn't exactly trip off the tongue does it.

What else? It seems to be avoiding some issue -- it is so careful and abstract. If it was a body part it would definitely be a head, not a heart.

So here is the whole thing for you to read. I am going to play around with it a bit and see if I can improve it in future blogs. Join in if you want. Give it your own go, or if you want send me a link to an existing Membership Covenant you like better.

Membership Covenant

President: We welcome you with joy and pride as members of Eastrose Fellowship. We place our hands in yours, offering you our friendship and support, and receiving you as new companions on our journey.

Minister: may you find within these sheltering walls both inspiration and wisdom for daily living. May you also find here the strength and courage to go beyond these walls to serve the needs of others.

Congregation: we welcome your choice to join us in the search for truth and meaning in our lives. We celebrate your newfound commitment to this Unitarian Universalist congregation. We pledge to honor your individuality and freedom ,and we look forward to the new insight and vitality you bring.

New Members: We join you with eager anticipation, understanding the responsibilities of membership, and aware that we are chosing this as our church home. We bring to eastrose Fellowship our talents and energy, our doubts and concerns and our willingness to serve the needs of this community as we are able.

All: Let us build together a community of celebration, inspiration, sustenance, welcome, and service. In this spirit,we renew our commitment to seek the truth in love, to answer the call of justice, and to help one another. so may it be.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Crying in Church

As an adult I find myself crying in church and I never have a handkerchief. Neither does my husband. (I confess I have a weakness for men who can easily tie things on the tops of cars and hand me a clean handkerchief when I need one -- maybe I will marry one of those guys in my next life).

Other than church I hardly ever cry, but crying got me started going back to church (Faith Journal: First Entry) and it has followed me into my pew.

At first I though it was just the stress of being mother to a growing family. When I came to church in those early years I would sit in a grateful daze. It was just so peaceful -- just sitting -- with the two little lala's in the back somewhere playing with the other baby Unitarians. The words and songs would just wash over me.

If I shut my eyes I got the same feeling I had when I was a child and we used to drive to Mt. Hood to go skiing. The car would be packed with gear and family, with parents, sibs and me there were eight. If I was lucky I would get a seat near a window and lean against my puffy ski jacket wadded up against the door as a pillow. I would be in and out of sleep, listening to the conversations in the car while the Oregon woods flashed by on either side. Every once in a while a vine maple would fill the window with a green, clean light as it fluttered in unselfconscious beauty. Those vine maples gave me a shiver; on a sunny day they glowed in among the dark woods.

The crying would come because I would relax into the space of church and then something would reach me like those vine maples. A story of pain would make it to my heart, and as open as I was, I would cry.

It still happens all the time. Now it is often a story about someone in my church community who I've known for a long time. Or maybe the choir sings a song that reminds me of something. There are a million different triggers but they reach me because of a certain receptivity that I have when I am there. The same story or song doesn't have the same power anywhere else.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

It happened at 12

What is it about twelve years old that brings such insights. At twelve, your brain must grow like a son-of-a-gun. You look like a kid. All the nobs and bumps on your face grow at different rates. Maybe you have braces and you don't make easy eye contact with adults. Adults still talk around you as if you don't understand them but now you suddenly do.

Twelve was when I stopped believing in God. I used to remember the moment but I don't anymore. Just that it happened at twelve and it was a reverse of Saul on the road to Damascus, one minute I believed and the next I did not. I doubt there was a blinding light just a feeling of emptiness and the click of the world making more sense.

I remember a year later spending the night with my best friend Sidney. Her Dad was on a date so we were alone in a house out in the woods. We were in bed telling stories when someone started walking around the house shining a flashlight in. We were terrified. The light from the flashlight swung wildly around the living room. We were in a loft bed-room looking down.

Sidney clutched my hand and started praying wildly out-loud. "Oh Jesus, Jesus, save us." Even in my terror, maybe because of my terror, I thought how wonderful it would be to cry out to the Lord with that sincerity. If we were murdered she would be praying to God while I would be looking directly into the eyes of my murderer. I had God envy and decided to start believing again.

For about two weeks I held belief in my mind while my heart really saw Sidney clutching my hand and praying. It was her faith that had touched me and gave me the strength to hold off my own reality for that length of time. I couldn't do it for longer than two weeks though -- hard as I tried.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Fantasy read

One of my guilty pleasures is Science Fiction and Fantasy--

If I want to sound intellectual I can call it speculative fiction. It started when I was a kid and my brother introduced me to the books of Robert Heinlein. I read all the Robert Heinlein in the Youth fiction area of the Library.

I love Ursula LeGuin, The Tolkien Ring Series, the Phillip Pullman trilogy His Dark Materials, Garth Nix who wrote a wonderful trilogy called the Abhorsen Trilogy.

That out-of-body sensation you get when reading is even more intense with good speculative fiction. You are not just out-of-body you are out of the universe!

The trouble with Speculative fiction is that the bar isn't set very high for publishing, and there are a lot of so-so books out there. I don't even find a good one once a year, while good fiction, biography, and history is everywhere.

So I loved discovering The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. Its beautifully written with a world that makes sense even if its not verifiable.

Laura is the heroine of the story. Stationed in Antarctica on a corporate sponsored science trip when a plague hits the earth, she lives but everyone else around her dies. The book follows her as she tries to find her way out of Antarctica. Brockmeier also keeps giving scenes from a city in flux, but it isn't a city that any of us know, it's the City of Remembered Dead.

You may have had the almost logical thought that someone isn't dead until all the people who remember them have died. This book imagines such a world actually exists. Its based on an African belief that there are three states of being: living, dead but remembered by the living, and no longer remembered.

People arrive in the City of Remembered Dead in some confusion but settle down into a different life. No one seems to need to work there although some do anyway. There's a lot of cafe sitting and coffee drinking. Life is real, with relationships sometimes extending from the old life, and sometimes with new relationships starting up.

But the plague is also throwing this world into confusion. The City is filling up with the new dead and long time residents are disappearing.

And then it begins to empty out and we realize that Laura is the last person left on earth.

The still remembered dead start to figure things out but there is nothing they can do. They even figure out that it is Laura that is holding them in place and that Laura is in trouble.

I don't want to give to much away -- but it doesn't exactly have a happy ending.

Its a book that makes you think in a humanistic spiritual way. Its really about what is lost when a person dies.

We tend to think of the world moving on after we die and we get some comfort from that. This story turns that on its head and points out, not that the world goes on without us, but that in some ways it doesn't. Its dizzying the way it makes you aware of the multiple connections we each carry around inside our memories.

When I finished this novel I didn't feel like crying but I had to sit and be quiet for a while. I let the story rumble around in my head and thought about it for days.