Friday, November 04, 2016

another farewell

Yesterday I lifted Juliet into the car to drive to Waltham, Massachusettes--a suburb of Boston--where we had an appointment to discuss surgical options to address her cancerous tumors. The previous 36 hours had been rough for her: barely able to walk, no appetite, and collapsing hind legs had catalyzed a visit to our own vet the previous morning. A thorough exam didn't indicate anything of specific concern, though it did highlight some anemia. When Juliet clearly had not improved by yesterday morning the veterinary practice at Waltham--specialists, with emergency, 24-hour support--encouraged me to come anyway.

When we left the camper to go to the car, a collection of five turkeys greeted us. In the nearly three months that we have lived in the campground, the only wildlife I had seen were squirrels, chipmunks, and a lone turtle. The turkeys were a surprise, robust and clustered around the back of the car, turning their heads one direction, then another, as though trying to determine their path. On a whim I fished my phone out of my purse while they set out across the road, and took a couple of pictures.

The drive began in dawning light, and I was aware as we got underway of the continuing glow of sunlit color in the remaining leaves that still bore witness to the season on their tree-top perches. It was more color than I would have thought possible for early November, showcasing a darker, richer palette than the bright and showy leaves of early autumn. It struck me that what I was seeing were the elders of fall, the mature stands that remained after the young and energetic leaves had fled the scene, and I welcomed their companionship on this drive weighted by concern and a deepening dread.

The trip to Waltham, a little more than an hour without traffic, proved to be the last that Juliet and I would take together. Recognizing that her condition did not lend itself to a hopeful prognosis, I considered that she was manifesting a response to arthritic pain in her hips and back. I was not expecting the review of her vital signs to reveal an accelerated heartbeat, low blood pressure, or a fever. The moment I had been fearing was before me, and the decision to release her from difficulty and decline was necessary.

On my return home I was grateful for the reception on the radio of one of Boston's public radio stations that still plays classical music. The melodic strains were a balm for the raw grief that began in the vet's office, and continued to flow as I drove. I noticed again the color still clinging to the trees, and saw those mostly-tall sentinels as standing at attention, an honor guard to the life I had just bid farewell, and a show of respect for my loss. I remembered the turkeys, and marveled at their timely appearance, as though to escort Juliet from her earthly abode as she started her final journey as part of this life.

I write this not to chronicle these closing hours of her much-cherished life, but to acknowledge with deep gratitude the presence and comfort that the natural world offered to me on this saddest of mornings. Twenty-four hours later the sun has breached the horizon to bathe my surroundings with glorious light still caught in a few leaves. The sky is blue and the air is crisp. My pain cries out to these signs both of continuity and the shifting reality of all living things: that life begins, blooms, declines, and ceases. I am not expected to celebrate today, or tomorrow, though I can tip my hat to the beauty that surrounds me.

I am forcing myself to get out and walk the roads that I shared with Juliet. It hurts like hell that she is not with me. But these are our roads and our trees and our time together to celebrate the unique last months we shared together. It is what I have, and I will cherish it as a way to honor how much I cherished her.  Death reminds us of the fullness of life we experience, of the joy captured in our hearts, and the love that sings through our days. I feel it all to the marrow of my bones.

Friday, August 26, 2016

farewell, good and faithful friend

In my last post I made mention of some losses over the last year. These fall under a variety of categories, but there's one that cuts so deeply to the bone that I haven't been able to talk about it. It's time, though, in order to tend to my grief and help me navigate toward healing. 

What I have lost is a treasured and cherished place, Melrose. If you've known me any length of time you will know about Melrose primarily as a regular vacation and respite destination. But it was so much more than that.  Its history includes its use as a peach "plantation" by my great-grandfather (distaff side, for what it's worth) in the early years of the 20th century. The story goes that he purchased the property in the cooler hills across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia, to find relief from the oppressive, southern, summer heat in neighboring South Carolina. Peaches ensued, but eventually, as William Maltbie Rowland aged and his declining health limited his ability to manage the plantation, it settled into a state of neglect. 
 peaches ready to ship out
The Rowland women offer hospitality: that's my great-grandmother at the left, 
and my grandmother in the plaid skirt.
Oddly, there are no remnants of the orchards, and in time the native lob-lolly pine of the south took root and became a substantial tree farm that my grandmother managed. She spent roughly six weeks there each spring and fall, traveling from her home in Manhattan to do so. She made these trips in part to oversee what had become the business of the farm, but she likewise found renewed vitality for her spirit in a place that was home to her, and nurtured local and family relationships as an extension of the hospitality for which she was known. 
As a family we spent each spring vacation traveling to Melrose, so it holds distinct memories of a childhood full of climbing rocks, walking through the woods to a favorite swimming and picnic spot, gathering on the lawn to watch the sunset each night, and so much more. During college I managed two trips there on my own to visit my grandmother, and gradually, in adulthood, I claimed my own pattern of regular visits to connect with her, and to establish a bond with that place that has anchored me to the core of my being.

To be at Melrose was to pause time. Its amenities, in the physical sense, were practical and sufficient. The cottage wasn't insulated, so relief from the cold came from fireplaces in the living and dining rooms, and a handful of scattered space heaters. We added ceiling fans to two of the three bedrooms, the living room, and the front porch 10 years ago, and continued to draw on floor and window fans in an attempt to snag a share in whatever cool air might be found on a hot, South Carolina day or evening. Until the later 70's, perhaps even the early 80's, there was no phone service there, and until about the same time the water for use at the cottage was pumped from the ground (it was, at least, an electrical pump!). There was no television, and radio reception was spotty. Although this description sounds primitive, it never felt that way. Care was taken to keep the cottage maintained and hospitable. It was here that I learned how to use a paint brush--a vacation project that tapped into a team of volunteer laborers--to prune trees, bushes and shrubs, recognize bird calls, and make pancakes.  It was here that we spent hours around the dinner table feasting on each others company, playing games, or sitting before a roaring fire on a damp day working jigsaw puzzles.

When various projects didn't beckon, time was spent on the front porch reading, conversing, working crossword puzzles (my particular favorite past time) or simply staring across the front lawn toward the Georgia hills to the west.  There was a hammock in which to stretch out and sway, or a glider for matching the rhythm of the breeze that danced up the lawn. There were walks down old roads to former tenant farmer homes, or what was left of them, or to streams that found their source in springs farther up a hill. There was time, and breath, and the unbearable luxury of letting the gentle magic of nature seep into your pores and keep company with whatever joy or heartbreak arrived with you when you pulled into the drive. At Melrose there really weren't any distractions to lead you away from yourself, or escape pesky concerns. Instead, the time and space to sit with your life brought the opportunity to find clarity of perspective, acceptance away from judgment, and an assurance that whatever woes afflicted one's life, the serenity of this place acted as a balm against the assaults of the world. Its beauty was two-fold: that which was natural, and the way it loved you so fiercely when you came to be in its presence.

Once I moved to Tennessee in 1999 the proximity of Melrose made it possible to make visits there twice a year, as my mother began to do in her retirement, following the pattern of her mother before her. By then my grandmother had died, leaving Melrose's acreage physically divided between Mom and her two nephews. As a way to protect this legacy from the jaws of crushing taxes down the road we established a family partnership, so that in time my brothers and I essentially owned the property as general partners, and Mom managed it. 

I was the only one of my siblings to maintain an attachment to Melrose. After we interred my grandmother's ashes there in a special garden bed, my younger brother and his wife visited once. My older brother and his family came a few times when my nephew was young, but Jesse, soon to be 26, was 14 the last time they were there. As a family we held a collective commitment to practice good stewardship of the gift that was Melrose, both environmentally and financially, with a primary goal being to draw on this asset, as needed, to support my mother's quality of life. It was this latter factor that drove an earlier-than-anticipated decision last year to sell the property.

Through tears I made every possible appeal to find a way to leverage the value of what we owned without having to lose it. Perhaps startled by so much emotion, one brother asked me if I could describe my feelings about parting with what to me was more than a cherished legacy. "Sure," I told him, "it's like a death." And so it has been.

In March an offer to purchase the property came that we decided as a family to accept. In April Ken and I spent the equivalent of a week packing, sorting, and dispersing the contents of the cottage, trying in between phases of emptying cupboards to enjoy this final opportunity to sit on the porch and drink in the view that transcends time and space. It was during one of those last stretches of fixing the view into my memory that I stopped to consider the durability of the physical place that had housed family gatherings and provided a retreat for friends here and there as a getaway.  There is no denying the emotional and psychological benefit of having a place of continuity in life. Melrose had been that for me and for my family. Yet as I looked at the posts reaching between porch railing and roof beams, I saw them suddenly as a standard-bearer of faithfulness. They were always there, greeting us on arrival and bidding us farewell when it was time to load the car and depart. Sentries, if you will, of stability and endurance, and part and parcel of the experience of welcome and acceptance that characterized the heart and soul of what this place had been for me. It is a place that never failed me, but simply let me be, and for that my heart will forever be grateful. 

A few days ago I recalled that experience of acknowledging the witness born by the cottage through the years, and an epiphany followed. That place that I loved, and that loved me in return, is still there. It continues to love me from afar, to rejoice in the time when our lives intersected and our spirits danced together. It remembers my tears and my anguish and rejoices in a heart overflowing with gladness for its very existence. Our connection can never be erased, nor can the power of its beauty ever be extinguished. 

I continue to mourn the loss of this beloved, and will for some time. As I move into a future that doesn't include its real presence, I will treasure the sunbeams it left in my heart. I will find comfort in the knowledge that its springs continue to nourish the earth and fill the river, that its branches offer a landing for the hawks and the wrens, and that the deer and the turkey find refuge in the glens and the broad spaces that make up the tracts of what was our land. I will imagine the rain on the roof and the the light gleaming through the wisteria leaves on the arbor that shaded the porch. Perhaps most importantly, I will draw on the strength within that was nurtured by the peace and beauty of this extraordinary place, and thus honor the legacy that was my privilege to enjoy and love.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

it's a hard knock life

There's a reason I don't post here as frequently as I used to. Sure, Facebook offers a quick and dirty means of sharing salient and silly slices of life, and the ease of that forum has contributed to less frequent appearances here. But the fact is that, over the last five or so years, life has simply been hard. Not just challenging, but gut-punching hard. What has felt like a never-ending assault on my efforts to stand upright and propel myself into a forward-leaning direction has drained me. Though my self-confidence hasn't evaporated it has certainly sought refuge in a place tucked safely away from further injury. The experiences that have led to its removal from the line of fire have also contributed to a soul-piercing isolation. As an introvert I can handle a lot of solitude, but the lack of a sustaining community to which I could turn for relief or solace has simply not existed. Where once I had a robust circle of friends with whom I felt connected there are now a mere handful of souls with whom I feel it is safe to entrust my heart. 

As well, some things simply can't be shared here. Public pages have their limits, and a blog is an inappropriate place to rage against some of the people whose words and deeds are sources of deep pain. Through difficult times hope has been my most faithful companion, but the persistence of difficulty has taken a toll on that relationship, too. God? Let's just say, "it's complicated."

I have not wanted to bring any of this here, to weigh down with woe and heartbreak a place that is intended to be a source of creativity for me and connection with others. But I can no longer afford to be absent from this place of self-expression and sharing.  I need to be able to grieve the losses that have collected, and wonder aloud about the mysteries that get stuck in the crevices of my days. It is critical, as I experience a dearth of community, that I make myself available to find new connections and rekindle old passions. To take the risk of discovering how ignorant I might be as I pick up the shovel to dig into and out of my complicity in the perpetuation of racism. To honor my own peculiar nature even as I come to terms with the deficits in my character that inhibit a fuller life. 

My struggles aren't unique to me. One of the things I have learned through sharing my life and my foibles here over the years is that others sometimes recognize the tune that becomes recognizable between the lines. In the way that music has the power to unite, that place of recognition serves to connect. And connection, after all, is why I started this blog in the first place. 

I need to be here. I need to write, to let what is within flow without. And I need you. There. I've said it. To the extent that you want to be here, you are quite welcome to join the effort to muddle through. My hope (still here) is that renewal will take place, that transformation will occur, and that redemption will lead me into a thriving life. If that sounds like a tribe with which you want to link your arms, your mind, and your heart, I'm blessed to have your company.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

cracking white open

I had a Come to Jesus Meeting the other day. It was one of those stop-dead-in-my-tracks kind of epiphanies that felt more like a gut-punch than an, "oh, now I get it," revelation. Sobering, humbling, disturbing, convicting. 

It began the day after five police officers were shot in Dallas, which in turn followed the shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I am essentially without television these days, so social media (Facebook) is my exposure to what is happening in the world, and in turn my exposure to the reactions to those events as they appear in my news feed.  Rest assured it's not just memes. I follow or read the shared links by others to news sources that I trust to report accurately, and other posts that help me read more widely and probe more deeply.

The political views of my friends and acquaintances on fb cover the spectrum from waayyy to the left, to waayyy to the right. I read the outcry from BLM communities and supporters, and see the Blue Lives Matter posts, too. Related to the latter, I was also seeing posts the day after the Dallas shootings depicting an outpouring of support to law enforcement: pizzas and cookies, hugs and selfies with local police officers, stories of compassion and more about our men and women in blue. I got it. Celebrate the good they do and acknowledge the sacrifices they make. Show the love. We've got your six. What was missing from my feed was any sort of demonstrated support to people of color. 

I was roused from my reflection about this by the sound of a crowd chanting nearby in the neighborhood. I wondered if it was a protest march, since we're not far from the state capitol. It soon became apparent, however, that the gathering was stationery, and I decided to go take a look. 

I went out the front door, noting a couple of police cars parked across from the house and a handful of uniformed officers standing on the sidewalk. I then ventured down the street to the corner where I could see, across the street and up about half a block, a group of people marching in a circle, carrying signs, and being rallied by someone with a bull horn. The words on the signs seemed to indicate an issue related to health care. I wondered about the presence of the police, but imagined that it was related to safety after the events of the week. I turned to head back to the house, and just as I was about to pivot up the steps leading to the house, I felt compelled to go speak to the policemen across the way. Black lives matter to me, and so do blue ones. 

I approached them with a smile and said hello, acknowledged that it had been a tough week, and let them know I was thinking of them. They appreciated the thought. We chatted briefly about the gathering drawing our attention, and I learned that the group was in violation of a noise ordinance. Bullhorn. A little bit of small talk followed, then I waved a farewell and returned to the house. 

While I had been talking to the policemen a woman who lives up the street passed by on the sidewalk. She was Black. I felt awkward. I wondered how she perceived what she saw, and the absence of support to the Black community in my Facebook feed gnawed at me. It's easy to show up to the local precinct with a plate of cookies, but where do you show up for the Black community? I could bake cookies for the kids who play in the park every day, and who get excited when Juliet comes through on her walk. Seriously, though. Cookies? To say I'm sorry for and lament the racism that plagues your life and runs like a toxic stream through our society? Cookies?

For the next few days I stewed about this, feeling utterly helpless to make a difference in stemming and reversing the tide of racism. As more and more of my Facebook page pushed back against the increasing presence of the BLM movement in communities across the country, denying white privilege and asserting All Lives Matter in retort, the truth of my own racism sank like a stone into the depth of my being. It isn't enough to understand how racism permeates our institutions and perpetuates prejudice and injustice. It isn't enough to see the statistics about minority crime and incarceration and know that the context for interpreting them is absent from public discourse. It isn't enough to live in neighborhood where whites are a minority.  My open mind and inclusive heart aren't enough, and the reality that I am part of the problem cuts through me like a knife. I thought I knew about white privilege. Instead I am the face of it.

I feel powerless in the face of this overwhelming sin from which I benefit, and as difficult as it is, it is nothing compared to the powerlessness that people of color feel and face every day. Because of my privilege, I stand a chance to rise above the feeling of powerlessness with relative ease. It's one of the ways that the system can work for me to help dismantle the system that works against others. That is how it starts. Use the tools available to me. Work with what I've got. Step in and do my part. And grasp the reality that my brothers and sisters of color know a whole lot more than I do about the meaning and power of love, forgiveness, and grace. 

I've come to Jesus. I've got such a long way to go.

This post on another blog also addresses this topic in a way that might be helpful if you are struggling with this same issue.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

those were the days

I had dinner the other night with an old high school friend. Connected intermittently through the faith community of our childhood, our paths intersected again in high school, where we developed a deeper bond of friendship our sophomore year. In spite of being thick as thieves in high school we lost touch after I went to college out of state, and where I continued to live for a couple of years more before moving back home.  Meeting up again now, 40 +/- years later, we returned easily to conversation and that magical place of knowing that is an undefinable quality of friendship.

Through Marilyn I met the guy who would become my first boyfriend, and I landed my first job, as a sales clerk at Mayron's Bakery. Mayron's was a bit of a fixture in the local Jewish community, and Mayron himself staked a larger claim to fame by creating the birthday cake for President Kennedy's 44th birthday celebration, an occasion that required closing the bakery for two weeks while the equivalent of five layers of pound cakes were baked and assembled before being shipped off to Washington in an armored car. To be accurate, it wasn't Mayron who did all the work--it was his baker, but Mayron gets the credit. You know how that goes...

In many ways it was the best. job. ever. Mayron's offered a typical range of baked goods: breads, bagels and rolls, danish and coffee cakes, cakes, cookies, and other sweets. There were, additionally, more typically Jewish foods, like challah (the best bread in the world), hamantaschen, rugelach, and a rolled pastry loaf whose name I can't recall.  Our store was one of three or four owned by Mayron, tucked into a strip mall anchored at one end by a grocery store, and the other by Sears. It was open seven days a week, because people like their bread to be fresh.

Marilyn and her sister Martha worked at Mayron's, which is how I found my way there. The shop was managed by a woman named Stella, who at 60+ years of age wore a wig of gray hair more befitting her age than the jet black hair that continued to grow from her head. At least that is what she always told us. Stella loved her soap operas. Her day began at 6 so that she was there when the delivery truck arrived with its load of fresh baked yumminess, then she was gone at 1:00 so she could get home to watch her stories. Her husband had died some years previously, and though she had a regular guy in her life who treated her like a queen, she wouldn't marry him because The Church had taught her that you only marry once in life. That was her story, and she was sticking to it. At the time it seemed a rather sweet, if narrow interpretation of What The Church Says, but upon more recent reflection I think she knew exactly what she was doing by remaining single.

Stella's daughter, Marianne, also worked at Mayron's, and I remember her lovely blond hair swept back away from her face and pinned up in the back to stay out of the way of bakery chores. Two other employees rounded out the crew: Maura, a Nice Catholic Girl (her own description), and Joan, a free spirit Jewish girl who was so short that she was always trying out the latest platform heels as a way to ease into the stratosphere of taller people. I can still hear her laugh, and picture her dancing behind the counter to the radio when there weren't any customers in the store. She called Mayron "Ruby," because he had dyed his hair red, and she was fond of being irreverent about our ultimate boss, who was about as short as she was.  On pay day "Ruby" would come to the store, take cash out of the register, and divide it into manila envelopes with each of our names written on the outside with the amount owed to us contained within. The envelopes then went into a safe, and Stella would deliver each one to its intended recipient. I'll bet Mayron's bookkeeper loved this method of disbursing payroll. Not!

I had great relationships with my co-workers, and adored them tremendously. Though working part time, we found time to share our lives, our struggles, our hopes and our dreams between waiting on customers, consolidating trays of food as the inventory sold and the volume reduced, and keeping the store clean and presentable. We wore blue smocks, a uniform that identified us as employees, and kept our clothes clean from the likes of frosting from cakes and brownies, and the powdered sugar that was kept on hand for the donuts. Jelly and some cake donuts came to the store plain, and if a customer wanted them powdered, we popped them into a bag, added some powdered sugar, folded the top of the bag over a few times and shook with all our might. Voila! I'll be you never thought about how powdered donuts got that way. Now you know! I also learned that the secret to writing on a cake is to do so while it is frozen. We kept several cakes in a freezer at the shop, offering choices of cake (yellow, chocolate, or marble), and colors of flowers and piping on the top. When a customer purchased one we took it out of the freezer, wrote the greeting in the corresponding color, boxed it up and sent it on its way. Cakes thaw in a relatively short period of time, though usually orders were called in ahead of time so that we could ensure a thawed cake, or the main bakery would send one with the particulars already inscribed.

Mayron's was a wonderful introduction to the responsibilities of being a paid employee. At the end of a shift we took turns sweeping the floor, cleaning the glass of the food cabinets and the door into the shop, and washing the food trays that had collected bits of jam, frosting, or crumbs in the course of their utilitiy. We took turns calling special orders into the main store, and notifying customers that their order was ready for pickup. We prepared boxes of food specially ordered so that when a customer came in their order was ready and their needs were met. We assembled boxes so that cakes, coffee cakes, and larger orders could be added to them and secured to be sent home. It wasn't a demanding job, but it required attention, and we had each other for support and laughter, and occasionally, tears.

It was the best of times. And in spite of snacking on brownies and such whenever I wanted, I managed to lose weight. Ah, the metabolism of a teenager. It was a great way to launch into the "real world." It was the best.

Monday, June 13, 2016

blinded by the light

I haven't been in the habit of reading much in recent years. It seems that vacation idling, when the routines of daily life at home are replaced by new a environment and fewer demands, provides the best opportunity for me to fall into the pages of a story or idea. That, or plane travel--captive soul, and all. But I don't fly much.

Now that I'm in a new environment for an extended period, and my days lack routine beyond dog-walking and a few other necessary tasks, reading ought to jump to the fore of how I pass my time. Perhaps soon. I'm still in the process of settling in to a new life, and I don't quite feel the ease of indulging in leisure. 

As it happens, I brought just one book with me on Phase One of The Move, Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark. It was recommended to me by a friend, who in turn loaned it to me. At the time I was hungry to find the resonance in its pages that my friend assured me was there, so I managed to find some time to start it, and then take it along on an expected trip via air travel. My friend was right. Time now to read the last chapters.

Learning to Walk... is a rich offering that I savor as I turn its pages. Through personal stories and reflection Taylor affirms the value of darkness as a companion in life, especially as a spiritual teacher and bestower of unique gifts. Having grown up in a tradition where Light is the primary metaphor for the presence of the divine (the inner Light, holding one in the Light...), and having loved Light as a grounding experience in my own faith journey, I found myself jolted out of the complacency that the "quest" for union with the divine, and spiritual or personal wholeness is found by focusing on the Light. 

My preference for Light shows up in hymns (I want to walk as a child of the light), in poetry ("I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, give me a light that I may find my way in the darkness..."), in photography, and on and on. All of a sudden, through Taylor's writing I am experiencing Light and Darkness not as opposites that serve as object lessons of good versus less good (evil, if you want to go there), but as necessary partners that together expose the beauty of the created order and the extraordinary diversity of that order (sometimes chaos!). Together Light and Darkness have the capacity to elicit from all its creatures the fullness of who we are and who we can be. Learning to Walk... serves to remind me that the blinders that we think protect us from the shadows instead reveal that shadows have as much to teach us as the Light by which they are cast. 

This is an extraordinarily thought-provoking work, and I cannot commend it highly enough.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

facing what lies within

I remember, years ago, attending a talk given by the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark. Now retired, in his active years in ministry Bishop Spong seemed best known for the controversies that surrounded the frankness with which he discussed matters of doubt in the life of faith. He was thoughtful and articulate, and as I recall him telling the audience, his aim was not to espouse what was considered by some to be heresy, but to share every aspect of his faith, including his questions about foundational doctrine, as a way to encourage others to be willing to do the same.

I don't remember the content of his talk that day (I don't really need to, I bought a book and a video to which I can refer), but one thing he said took root for me. He talked about growing up in the south, and the inner work involved in the transformation to overcome racist teachings and beliefs that pervaded his community and the environment in which he lived, worked, and learned. He was white, male, and educationally and economically privileged, and the layers of institutional racism that was the lifeblood of the south took time to peel and discard. It spite of coming to see and advocate against institutional racism, and to spend years seeking justice for persons and communities who suffered as a result of it, Spong confessed that he still had to fight the deeply ingrained teachings from his youth that continued to live subconsciously within him. 

In my first, "real" job as an adult, I was fortunate to work as a program director for a local YWCA. I say fortunate because the national staff and Board of the YW worked hard to train and educate affiliate staff regarding its One Imperative: the elimination of racism wherever it is exists, and by any means necessary (the latter phrase always raised eyebrows, so in case yours just went up, it needs to be understood that "by any means necessary" was grounded in the context of the Mission of the YWCA*). Boiled down, the YW defined racism as the result of power + privilege--in my mind I can still see those words written on a pad of newsprint, propped on an easel. 

The training provided by the YW served to strengthen and solidify the belief system of openness and inclusivity with which I was raised, and that was supported further by the educational environment of a Quaker college.  It gave me a specific foundation for understanding the nature, impact, and consequences of racism. My personality type doesn't lend itself easily to activism, but my time working for the YW served to fortify my desire, at least, to live in whatever way I could as the prophet Micah called his people to do: seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. In spite of the blessing that was my upbringing, the benefit of the education and training received from the YW, and my commitment to recognizing and valuing the dignity of every human being, this week I came to understand afresh the confession shared so long ago by John Shelby Spong: the work to overcome the existence of racism within is an ongoing battle.

The mundane nature of the incident that sparked my thoughts underscores how ever-present the menace of racism is, and how easily it can grow if left unchecked by other means. At the end of my dead-end street is a park, frequented by many who live in my neighborhood, which is predominantly Hispanic and African-American. The park has large trash barrels placed near benches that line a circular walkway that winds around a play area. By and large these barrels are used, but nearly every time I walk through the park I find myself picking up trash and depositing it in the nearest barrel. From the perspective of privilege I wonder why my neighbors don't care about disposing of their trash, but another part of me understands why, and knows better than to wonder, or judge. 

Earlier this week, I saw a young Latino man make his way to one of the barrels and throw away his trash. The thought entered my mind to affirm the behavior and thank him for doing so, and then it hit me that this response was nothing but racism at work. How do I know? Because it would never have occurred to me to thank someone who is White for disposing of their trash. What was revealed to me was that I held an expectation of behavior based on ethnicity (and contextually, fed by the demographic of the neighborhood). Shame on me. 

I can't say that a year ago I would have had a similar response to witnessing the disposal of trash in a city park. I can't say, because a year ago my senses hadn't been saturated with the rhetoric which has come to characterize the expressions of fear from citizens across a variety of spectrums of life in this country. Whether from the lips of a political candidate to the cheers of his supporters, or the fists that make contact as a response to the engorging anger that has been let loose, fear undergirds it all. It's not that I believe those words or condone the actions in any conscious way, but the power of institutionalized racism, or any -ism, is such that it subliminally affects how one may think or act. I'm not afraid of people who look, think, or believe differently than I do. I am afraid of not taking seriously enough the damage being wrought in a climate where hate is acceptable, and disregard for others has become the normative public face of who the citizens of this country are. We cannot, at any level, turn away from what is ugly if for no other reason than to keep the fight alive within, so that it may be effective without.

It is a small thing to worry about trash making its way to a barrel. To ignore my response, however, has implications that I don't want to imagine.

*For many years, this was the historic mission of the YWCA: Young Women’s Christian Association of the United States of America, a movement rooted in the Christian faith as known in Jesus and nourished by the resources of that faith, seeks to respond to the barrier-breaking love of God in this day. The Association draws together into responsible membership women and girls of diverse experiences and faiths, that their lives may be open to new understanding and deeper relationships, and that together they may join in the struggle for peace and justice, freedom and dignity for all people.

Friday, June 03, 2016

big gulp: change is in gear

Did I mention that I was moving? To Connecticut. From Tennessee.

The lapse in writing here has meant that shifts in the landscapes of my life--internal and external--have taken place without the usual signposts along the way that would point this new direction. I guess you could say that a hefty dose of vulnerability was at stake, and caution was the order of the season. Such was the nature of this phase of my life.

That said, there are two motivating factors underlying this move. The first is that my mother had a stroke last fall, and the desire to be nearer to her raised its head in a pressing way. Second, I needed to find more substantive work than what I was enjoying.

I took advantage of a visit to my mother in Connecticut following her stroke to call on the good people at the office of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut (the bishop has chosen to eschew the denominational label "diocese," since he believes that a cumbersome word like diocese serves as a barrier, rather than a bridge, to those who are unfamiliar with the likes of us 'piscies). "There's work here!" I was told, and thus the process of determining what that work might be got underway. In the broad scheme of things it was really as simple as that.

After 21 years spent living in two other states, this is a homecoming for me. Except for the year I spent as a California blond at the tender age of two, Connecticut was home for early and formative years, as well as some "refining" spells in a certain stage of adulthood. As with all places, changes have occurred over time, but much is the same.

This is a phased transition. The simplest explanation is that our house in Tennessee needs some work before it can be put on the market, so Ken stayed behind to tackle that effort while I ventured east with my oldest dog, Juliet, to begin work. We're in temporary quarters, Juliet and I, lodged in a third floor apartment of sorts in an older home in Hartford. As it happens, we're just about a mile from where I bought my first house, so the area is familiar. The immediate neighborhood is charming, ethnically and economically mixed, and full of activity. We're just blocks from the state capitol, the state library and archives, and other downtown treasures are within easy reach. In these early days of settling in, the location of Dunkin' Donuts, three short blocks away, has proven a godsend. I have my priorities!

There are an assortment of layers to this move: location, vocation, family, community, reconnection, and reclamation top the list. In the coming days there is plenty to say about all of it, but for now it's enough to say that I have arrived. Indeed, I have arrived.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

reverend anne goes to washington

I keep deferring writing this post because I fear its length. Ha! Who, me? Run-on sentences? Verbiage? Turn of phrase? Let's just get to it. And don't be put off by its length. It's a decent story and includes some fun stuff. And you'll get to meet Cassie, my sometimes-traveling companion and sheep mascot (that's her in the picture to the right--she worked really hard to stay upright in this picture, taken on a very windy day).

November, 2014. Washington, DC. I joined 400+ citizen advocates from around the country at Quaker Lobby Day, hosted by Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), the Quaker lobby arm of that faith tradition. The focus of Lobby Day on that occasion? The power of diplomacy on the Iran nuclear deal.

I was there as a sort of delegate as a resident of the state of Tennessee, and had been specifically asked to come because I am clergy. I say "sort of" because we weren't there in any official capacity, just volunteers who cared about diplomacy, but by virtue of our residency in the state we formed a kind of delegation. Team Tennessee had a critical role to play, as one of our senators chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

When I first got the email inviting me to participate in this event I thought, "Lord, except that I value diplomacy, I am the last person qualified to talk to a politician on this subject." (Let me mention that I grew up in the Quaker tradition, and embrace fully the spiritual and theological grounding that distinguishes that group.) I try to keep up with what is happening in the political realm, and am a much better informed citizen in mid-life than I ever was in my early days, but things nuclear--and often things scientific or technological--don't my grasp of them doesn't really register on the Richter Scale.  It seemed somehow fraudulent to consider taking part in an effort about which I couldn't even begin to hold my own. I was assured that this would not be an issue. Still...

In the end I said yes because it was an extraordinary opportunity to take part in something that would not likely fall my way again. There was grant money to pay my way there, and I had friends in the area with whom I could stay to minimize burdening the grant pool further. This seemed a rational compromise to accepting the invitation, and doing my part to live up to the confidence being placed in me to attend. It didn't hurt that I knew the Executive Director of FCNL, who upon greeting me when I arrived immediately embraced my presence with encouragement and gratitude.

Day one. I barely had time to grab some coffee and sit in on the first presentation of the day before it was time to hustle over to Capitol Hill for the scheduled appointment with my congresswoman. The FCNL staff had worked hard to arrange a time when I could actually meet with my Rep, rather than one of her staff. They had also secured another citizen advocate  who could "speak nuclear" to join me that morning. It turned out I was a quick study on the mechanics of lobbying, and I felt I could manage the process part of the meeting while my colleague addressed the details of policy and what was at stake regarding the specifics of the deal being advocated.

When he bids farewell to people, Canon Andrew White, the Anglican priest known better as The Vicar of Baghdad, makes a point of saying, "Don't take care--take risks!" During this first meeting, which ended up being taken by an aide in the waiting area of my representative's office for a mere ten minutes, I'm afraid I leaned more into taking care than taking risks. Given that this was my inaugural effort at being a citizen advocate I don't feel terrible about this, but I was disappointed that the encounter didn't inspire confidence in this aspect of the political process: you know, a meeting between a representative and constituent to hear what's on her mind so that said legislator might actually represent me. (I was under no illusion that my congresswoman would do any such thing--we are polar opposites, politically, and she has demonstrated repeatedly that she is deaf to anyone who doesn't agree with her.)

The good news is that things went better after this. After taking a moment to duck into the Library of Congress to see the Magna Carta in the flesh ---> (it was on tour), I grabbed some lunch and headed back to Lobby Central to meet the other members of Team Tennessee. We did some role-playing--something I usually loathe, but in this case found very  helpful--and discovered that each of us (ten, in all) could play to our strengths and be an effective body of advocates. It was a treat to be among such bright, delightful, and interesting people. 

Oh, and another delightful person was there, sitting down the row from me during an afternoon session--actress Judith Light. As we were waiting for the program to begin she scooted past me out of the row to converse briefly with another advocate. When she came back to return to her seat I blurted out, "Can I just tell you that I love you?" She paused and smiled widely, responding with, "Awwwwwwe, thank you!" It was a big moment for me.

picture courtesy of the FCNL facebook page.

Day morphed into dinner time, and afterward a talk by activist and author Parker Palmer, <--- who shared material from his book Healing the Heart of Democracy. Cassie was particularly enthused to meet Parker and have him autograph the copy of the book she suggested I buy.

After the book-signing it was time to head to the Metro and get back to Virginia. On my way to the station I passed several homeless people, one of whom engaged me in conversation. I wanted to help by giving him some cash, but only had a couple of $20's in my wallet. I decided to indulge and give him one, and he was beyond delighted. He stared at the bill in his hand, looked at me, and breaking into a broad grin began to sing, "I wish you a Merry Christmas..." So worth the $20.

Day two. The best day, the Library of  Congress and the view of the Magna Carta the previous day notwithstanding. Team Tennessee gathered over coffee in the cafeteria of the Senate building before heading up for our appointment with Sen. Bob Corker's foreign affairs aide.  We expected 30 minutes of his time, but our conversation lasted an hour. I remember several things distinctly from this meeting, one of which I think is really important to share.  Mike (the aide) made a point to tell us how grateful he was that we were there to share our views, and he communicated to us the value of such meetings to the senator.  He told us that the senators really do want to hear from their constituents. The extreme voices, while their opinions are noted, are more or less tuned out. But it mattered to this senator (and others, I believe) to hear the thoughtfully articulated views of the people he represented. We were also told that our own goals for the Iran nuclear deal, focusing on the value of diplomacy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, were not far from the goals of our senator. So much of what gets released to the press, or reported by them, are statements of posturing, and not by any means a clear indication of the full and nuanced thinking that is taking place behind closed doors.  

On a more personal note, another thing that I remember is that I found my voice. Or rather, I discovered that I had something to contribute to this conversation. My role wasn't to talk about the content of the nuclear deal, it was to emphasize Senator Corker's opportunity to work diplomatically to achieve a peaceful solution to the mutual goals of Iran and the United States.  It was one of those times when I felt that the words, though they came from my mouth, were inspired by greater wisdom than what I had available to me when I got up that morning. I attribute such occasions to the work of the Holy Spirit, and I'm good with that.

Team Tennessee

After a brief break we met with an aide for Sen. Lamar Alexander, but the real joy had already been experienced, and the high from that hour would last for days.

The experience of being a citizen advocate isn't one I would ever have thought to put on my bucket list. I consider myself politically active, but I am a person most comfortable working behind the scenes organizing an event or working on graphics to promote the work with which I am involved.  As an intuitive introvert I have difficulty laying out an argument and drawing facts and scenarios from the pool of information that resides somewhere within my brain. I'm better suited to "behind the scenes." That said, there are moments when the right opportunity presents itself to discover another side of me, to reach through the logjam of data into the core of who I am and what I believe to express those very things. This was such a time.  I am forever grateful that it now stands as a line on my resume.

Oh, and it led to one other opportunity: being part of a conference call with the President of the United States related to the Iran nuclear deal. Yeah, baby. Yeah.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

in which a single word generates a stream of unusual consciousness

Confession. There is a group of bloggers who have committed to resuming the art of writing a blog. For myself, facebook is one of the culprits responsible for my slack, but other factors contributed to my absence from these pages. To help us renew the habit, one of our group offers a prompt on Saturday morning to help get thoughts and writing juices flowing.

Today's prompt is one word: falling. I'm going to go for the free"fall" and do a little word association with this, like a round of "fast money" on Family Feud. It might go something like this: "Name a word or phrase that begins with the word 'Falling.'"

falling in love
falling fast
falling in line
falling apart
falling together
falling short
falling through
falling asleep
falling behind
falling down
falling silent
falling temperatures
falling snow
falling rain

...and I'm sure there are more. Here's the thing. It took me reading down this list a few times before it struck me like a head slap that falling is an active verb. When I first read the word in the prompt my initial thought was of falling down, like a toddler who is working to master the upright position on all twos. Said child might lose his or her balance and teeter a bit before taking a big ol' plop onto the floor. Like the children's song claims, "we all fall down!"

Most of the time, we all get up, too. Sometimes we jump right up and brush off the ol' behunkus and carry on. Other times it may take several moments to consider how we ended up in the down position before getting reoriented and back on our feet. At still other times we are laid out, unable to move for fear that what knocked us down is ready and waiting for another opportunity for an instant replay. And perhaps most debilitating of all are those times when we are so exhausted that when we find ourselves down we have no energy to get ourselves up again. This falling down and getting back up stuff can definitely wear you out. Heck, Brené Brown wrote an entire book on the subject, Rising Strong. Highly recommended.

I don't want to dwell on the falling down action, however. I really like some of the other pairings with the word, like falling together, falling asleep, and falling snow. There are implications of unity, rest, and quiet beauty held in those words, and collectively they suggest a kind of peacefulness that stands in contrast to the more disruptive action of falling down. Can't you just see the gentle swirling of stardust and the hint of harp strings reverberating just a wee bit away? I'll take some of that kind of falling any day.

And then, of course, there is falling in love. Explosive action, that! Gobsmacked, grab your heart by the seat of its luxurious palpitations, take your breath away, transforming love. It can happen so slowly as to tip the scale of your existence when you least expect it, or pull the rug out from under your carefully planned five-year plan. However it comes for you, there's no escaping the life-altering shebang that is love of the falling variety. No siree-bob. Whew!

Which way are you falling today? In? Out? Here? There? Gently? Cataclysmically? 

Tell us all!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

a father's gift

It was worse than a slap in the face.

After some intensive one-on-one vocational and personal counseling as part of the process toward ordination, I made the commitment to work on the problematic relationship I experienced with my father. I attributed issues with self-esteem as stemming from the passive-aggressive criticism he leveled my direction, as well as the lack of affirmation that characterized his apparent view of me. Over dinner a few nights after returning from the combined counseling session, I told my dad that I felt there were issues interfering with a healthy relationship between us, and I wanted to work to address them together. He paused briefly as his fork pushed some food around on his plate. Then he looked at me and said calmly, "I'm not interested in doing that."

I don't remember the rest of that evening, but I do recall that the "dead end" sign planted by my father's words catalyzed a journey of new awareness for me. Though disappointed, and not terribly surprised,  that the hoped-for, tandem effort of father-daughter transformation was not in the offing, I knew that I could undertake my side of the work without his participation. 

In short, what was required of me was to step back from what I needed and wanted from my father and to consider him as an individual. When I did that I was able to consider what I knew of his life and experiences, and his own hopes and heartbreaks.  In doing so, what I saw was a wounded man who embraced blaming others as a way to come to terms with mistakes and poor choices.  No one helped him in his formative years to develop healthy coping skills, and in spite of spending several years in therapy to deal with a divorce, he grabbed onto the idea of the tools and techniques toward healthy relationships to which he was exposed rather than actually integrate them into his being.  

When I stepped back, I saw a man limited in terms of what he could, and would, bring into his relationship with me.  Once I recognized this reality, it freed me from the expectations of who he could be to me as a father. It was a sad realization, but accepting it opened the door to enjoy my father for who he was, rather than be disappointed that he was not who I wanted him to be.  It altered our relationship, at least for me, and probably for him. It also provided for me the tool of learning to step back and take a second look at other relationships in my life. My father's refusal to engage with me at that critical period of growth opened a pathway of compassion and empathy that has made it possible to love and embrace others when their words, actions, or choices made it otherwise difficult to do so. What began as a stinging setback became, instead, a gift that has served me well in ministry, and in my own life. The depth of my gratitude for that cannot be measured.

One of the wisdoms of the world is not to take things personally. Adopting this new paradigm of relating with my father hugged the learning curve of that wisdom. What he did or did not do, said or did not say, was a reflection of him and his world, and not about me. This applies to all of us and to the ways that we interact with and react to the world. 

When my father died, others in his life spoke of him as a kind of hero. I accept, gladly, that he could be that person to them, and that his impact on the world was a positive force that helped shape lives in helpful ways. We never know the fullness of who a person is, even when we share some of the most intimate and battle-tested episodes of their lives. It is part of the joy, frustration, and mystery of life that we are given glimpses into the beauty that is another human being. The challenge to each of us is to work to believe that there is goodness and value in every person, even when the image we see reflects less than that reality. 

My father gave me this gift. It is with a deeply loving heart that I share it every day with others, with gratitude.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

beginning again

Early in the year, with a blank slate of expansive possibility ahead of me, I declared that I would blog more frequently. I haven't. 

I don't think that there is any particular reason for this, but two stand out as contenders. 1) I had fallen out of the habit. During an extended period of recovery from an assortment of difficult, awkward, and painful situations, what yearned for expression from my inner world wasn't really suitable for these pages. That isn't to say that I can't, don't, or won't do such sharing here, but the awkward part of it all just made revelations here unwise. 2) Too much of the rest of what was happening in my life might well have come across as whining. I wanted to spare those who took the time to come here and catch up any sort of litany of woes, no matter how significant. Shit happens, and it was happening at my place. 'Nuff said.

What has changed? Why return now in an effort to reconnect with that dormant writer who succumbed to the temptation to believe that she had nothing to say? Because it's time to reclaim that there is lots to say. It doesn't hurt that there is plenty of activity in my life right now that serves to turn over the earth of my being. You never know what will appear and catch the rays of life's light, causing one to pause and consider--or reconsider--a particular piece of who I am, or some signpost to where I might be headed. But even if my days were following a pattern of familiar comings and goings, the world is full of shenanigans and surprises that evoke all kinds of responses. That alone, makes being here regularly worth the effort of showing up.

So here's to showing up, and having something to say.


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