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.




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