New Advent Season, Familiar Questions

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This Advent season the overwhelming theme has been injustice. Living in the city where Mike Brown was shot, I’ve been working hard to understand more and more fully all the aspects of injustice at work as events unfold around me. I’ve been challenging myself to try to have difficult conversations with people about it. As a member of the white community that has been so problematic here, I have no right to just give up and walk away. White people have been doing that collectively here for a very long time, and that, among other things, needs to stop. In the midst of a heated group argument about racism recently, a friend described how seeing the depth and breadth of it is like seeing the image in a magic eye picture. Once you see it, it seems so obvious it’s difficult to imagine how people can not see it. And you yourself can never choose not to see it again. For some people, that picture still has not come into focus, and even after all these years and a lot of work, I have no idea what to say to people for whom that is the case. I feel utterly useless.

In the midst of that uselessness, my brother, the Deacon, shared something a friend of his had written about the song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” She imagined “home” in the song as a feeling of truly being at home, safe and cozy, pre-trauma. If only we could go back to that feeling. I suspect that has a lot to do with why we don’t want to allow that magic eye picture to come into focus. If we are fortunate enough to live in a safe, cozy, pre-trauma world, where we can still imagine that the world is just, of course we want to stay there. Who wouldn’t? A wise friend of mine who engages deeply with difficulty spiritual questions and knows the sense of loss one encounters upon realizing the answers we once held to no longer work, “I really envy people who have never left the garden. For me, it wasn’t a choice. I wasn’t able to stay.”

Advent is about asking ourselves once again, for another year, what it is of the Divine that wants to be born in (or through) us. It’s about waiting in the dark, and saying yes to the incarnation. That is more difficult to do once we’ve seen the magic eye picture, experienced real loss, or trauma. I have a vague kind of faith that it is possible to find a new sense of “home” again, even from this place of such difficult awareness. I’ve seen glimpses of it. In the meantime, there is something meaningful about waiting in this particular darkness, in the aftermath of death and of riots, calling out for the Divine.

For No Reason

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My alchemy group reconvened recently, for no particular reason. It had been two years since our last meeting, and we took a few moments to catch up on what had been happening. Four of us had gotten married since our last meeting (two to one other). Others had weathered health issues, career challenges, and various other things. Some of us talked about poetry. One member shared a poem she had memorized, “And for No Reason,” by Hafiz:

And
For no reason
I start skipping like a child.

And
For no reason
I turn into a leaf
That is carried so high
I kiss the Sun’s mouth
And dissolve.

And
For no reason
A thousand birds
Choose my head for a conference table,
Start passing their
Cups of wine
And their wild songbooks all around.

And
For every reason in existence
I begin to eternally,
To eternally laugh and love!

When I turn into a leaf
And start dancing,
I run to kiss our beautiful Friend
And I dissolve in the Truth
That I Am.

There was silence for awhile after this poem was recited as we allowed it to set the tone for the evening.

We were asked to comment, also, on where we felt stuck or what felt challenging for us right now. As you can likely tell from the infrequency of posts on this blog, I have not been feeling too productive. I have been productive, but it feels like my energy is going in so many different directions, to so many demands and passions, that I am not feeling quite satisfied with my efforts in any area. I feel scattered and out of focus. (I have written about this problem before.)

When we began the image making, I fell right back into the familiar process, surveying materials, picking up what called to me. As is often the case, I had no plan. I started putting things together and let them become whatever they seemed to want to become. I quickly came to feel like nothing was really coming together. There were objects I knew I wanted to use and was not willing to put down, but I could not bring them together into any one vision that seemed to cohere. As things were winding down, I was tired and felt my project was unfinished, but I lacked the energy to take it any further.

As everyone presented their work and invited comment, I was amazed at the vast difference between how I viewed my work and how the group viewed it. “You made three different things! That’s amazing! How did find time to make three things when I barely finished one?” What looked to me like one fragmented idea that had never came together was actually reading to others as prolific and varied. What if I shifted my picture of other areas of my life this way? What if, instead of one grand idea called my life that is harried and fragmented and not quite coming together to form a big picture there are many different ideas at once: practicing therapy, renovating a house, spiritual practice? What if each aspect is its own work of art that doesn’t need to be part of a bigger picture?

Perhaps it’s time to understand that feeling pulled in many different directions at once is just part of the way my psyche operates. Perhaps, like getting lost, this is just how I move through the world, uncomfortable though it may sometimes be. Perhaps this is what my psyche needs in order to flourish. Perhaps this is true, and for no reason.

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On Ferguson and Taking the Red Pill

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I was out of town for the weekend when Michael Brown was shot and protests started up in Ferguson, very close to where I attended graduate school to study counseling. But when I heard on the news what was happening, it made sense to me. Something that had been brewing for a long time was clearly boiling over. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. But in the weeks that followed, it became clear to me from talking to people who don’t live in my city (and even some who do) that what was happening seemed completely surprising and incomprehensible. How could we have this much race-related conflict, in this day and age, not even in LA or New York but in a midwestern suburb?

As a white, middle class person, I could pretty easily live my life with the belief that the civil rights struggle ended a long time ago. I could assume that, apart from a few extremist types, we are largely done, as culture, with racism. I could choose to think that I, personally, don’t see race when I look at people, that I am just in my judgements and not influenced by any sort of race-based assumptions. I could make those choices because there is nothing in my life circumstance that forces me to confront some difficult truths. So, if I am really going to live my values, I have to choose to confront those truths. And let me be clear: To get to choose is a privilege. Plenty of other people are smacked in the face with difficult truths every day of their lives.

If you are also a person with the privilege to choose, I ask you to make the same choice. Remember The Matrix, when Neo is confronted with the choice of taking the blue pill, which allows him to wake up in his comfortable bed, believing what he wants to be believe, or the red pill, which will open his eyes to some harsh realities but give him a chance to fight back against an ugly and exploitative system? When you saw the movie, did you tell yourself that, of course, you would be a person who takes the red pill? 

 

Some difficult, “red pill” truths:

1. Racism is a force that can influence any person and any institution. It’s no longer segregated buses and water fountains. It’s lurking in seemingly acceptable assumptions, beliefs, policies, and attitudes. It’s in truck commercials where “real American” is presented as young, strong white men in cowboy boots and “family values” is often a phrase associated with images of white suburban families.

I have heard people in St. Louis, my own age and younger, voice their belief that when African Americans move into a white neighborhood, property values will go down, that this is “just the way it is.” Recently a local filmmaker made a documentary about Spanish Lake, a nearby suburb that has seen better days. He talked about how real estate companies in the 1970s perpetuated fears among white residents that an influx of African Americans into their community was going to wreck their home values. This tactic allowed them to buy up homes at low cost for resale at a higher value, and it perpetuated the “white flight” into western suburbs that are, to this day, mostly white. This idea, that property values depend in part on the racial makeup of a neighborhood, that this is “just how it is,” is still very much alive and well in this city, and it is predicated on the idea that having African American residents in one’s neighborhood is not going to be a desirable thing to the majority of home buyers. People still act on this belief, thinking that they themselves are not racist, of course. But this is racism, friends. I have also encountered a lot of people here who truly value and would like more diversity in their neighborhoods, and it can be hard to come by. If racism were no longer a factor, it would not be so. Well meaning people can be and are influenced by racism, and unknowingly perpetuate the problem. 

2. We cannot assume that what we’ve concluded about the world based on our own experience is universal truth. We all tend to generalize our personal experience and make conclusions about the world based on that experience. That’s human. I’ve been stopped by the police because I was speeding, because my tags had been stolen, and once by a very courteous officer who merely wanted to make sure I knew one of my brake lights was out but had no intention of citing me for anything. Based on that experience alone, it would seem reasonable for me to assume that the police are largely fair, just, and there to serve. If they stop people, it’s because they have good reason. Unfortunately, this is demonstrably untrue in plenty of cases. I know people who have been stopped, questioned and even frisked simply because they looked “out of place” in a given neighborhood. A friend’s Mexican neighbor had police come onto his property because they drove by and saw him replacing the lock on the front door of his own home. (They had assumed he was a thief breaking in.) All sorts of writers are sharing experiences, in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, about their own experiences with racial profiling or frightening and humiliating run-ins with police officers who stopped them with no discernible cause. I doubt most of the police officers involved in these incidents consider themselves racist. Perhaps they see themselves as merely protecting the neighborhood, acting on a hunch, etc. But what role do race-based assumptions play in that “hunch?” Statistics indicate that African American drivers are five times more likely to have their car searched during an investigative traffic stop (where there is no alleged violation of the law) than white drivers. What assumptions and beliefs underlie that statistic?

There seems to be a tendency among affluent white people who have not experienced this directly to think that these accounts are not true, that they are blown out of proportion, or that there must be some other explanation. We have no reason to disbelieve these accounts other than simply because it’s uncomfortable to believe them. Terribly uncomfortable. We don’t want to think that this is going on. Yet, the evidence is clear. When we discredit people who share their stories, tell them they are jumping to conclusions or imaging things, we perpetuate the trauma and unfairness of those experiences, and we send the message that we, as white people, know more about the world and about the experiences of racial minorities, than they do. This is patently demeaning.

3. Institutional racism is real. When a significant number of people who have drawn similar conclusions about the world based on similar experiences have the power to form rules and policies, institutional racism (and/or sexism, or ageism) is a strong possibility. This is why diversity in organizations and in government is desirable. It is not about individual people being racist; it is about lack of awareness. If I have never been the subject of racial profiling, for instance, and am not aware of that possibility in my day to day life, I am not likely to be able to imagine how to enact policies that can prevent it, or even to be aware that such policies need to be enacted. I may even unknowingly enact policies that perpetuate the problem. This is how we get situations like the Mayor of Ferguson claiming that there is no race relations problem in Ferguson, even as massive protests break out on the streets. It’s why the fact that Ferguson’s police force is almost overwhelmingly white is such a problem. We need voices and influences from people of a variety of different ethnicities, genders, ages and cultural backgrounds in order to effectively govern a multicultural society. 

This is scratching the surface at best, and there is so much more that can be talked about. Other people have spelled out possible actions better than I could, most notably Sarah Milstein who asks us to consider, among other things, “When did you first become aware you were white?”  and Janee Woods, who suggests 12 Ways to be a White Ally to Black People.

You may notice, I have not said anything about the actual events leading up to Michael Brown’s death, or the possible culpability of the officer involved. Those things deserve to be investigated and talked about, but that is not the purpose of this post. I’m talking about looking at how race relations impact the lives of everyone rather than viewing this as a minority problem. I’m talking about understanding how and why things escalated in Ferguson in the aftermath of this incident, and what might have been under the surface long before turmoil erupted. I’m advocating for using events in Ferguson as an opportunity to take the red pill.

Coagulatio, Part II

DSC_2915The Photographer and I are working on a house that we expect to move into soon. As anyone who has ever done any sort of home improvement project can tell you, no matter how carefully you plan, everything takes longer and costs more than you would think.

This is not an easy process for me, and coming across something I wrote years ago about the alchemical process Coagulatio gave me some clues as to why. Coagulatio is about coming down to earth, and setting things in stone. I am much better at the abstract – ideas, words, theories, intuition. The concrete scares me. I wrote, “I wondered what in my life I could possibly want to make that permanent and how I could trust my artistic skill enough to make this work.” 

Working on this house, I find that that is still the question. I have rented the entirety of my adult life, yet here we are moving our lives (and a large chunk of our savings) into a very particular little bit of stone that we are working to fully inhabit. I don’t know if I have the artistic skill, or the comfort with the physical world, to make this home. The Photographer is very at home in the physical world, taking things apart, putting things together, making things work according to his vision. His innate understanding of power tools never ceases to amaze me.

As I read what I wrote years ago about the value of bringing ideas down to earth so that new steps can be taken, and the concept of stepping stones as an antidote to being lost, it occurs to me that some part of me keeps making these choices of permanence, and earthiness, in spite of all my hesitation. I wonder what she knows that I keep forgetting. 

Mistakes

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I had an almost-dream just upon waking this morning. I saw these words written as though on a screen behind my eyes: “You are going to make a big mistake.”

Yikes. My first thought was that perhaps I had already overslept and missed something important, but I hadn’t. My second thought was, when has this not been true? I made a pretty big mistake just yesterday when I accidentally misscheduled a client. I feel bad about that one.

No doubt I am far from done making big mistakes. I can only hope the next one will be a necessary mistake, one that puts me in the path of something (or on the path to something) I could not have come to any other way.

Blog Tour: Reflections on a Changing Writing Process

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I got a call from my friend Rebecca, who I had not heard from in person in quite some time. As we caught up, she asked if she could tag me for the Blog Tour. I had no idea what this meant, but as she explained a little more I said sure, ok, I have not been so great about writing blog posts in awhile, so yes, by all means, tag away.

When I saw that this would involve answering some questions about my writing process, I cringed a little. I have not been so good about writing for at least the past year, maybe longer. You can tell by how scattered these posts have become, but even apart from that, I’ve been far too sporadic about writing. Rather than shying away from the subject altogether, I decided it was time to embrace it, perhaps by way of writing about it. So here goes.

1. What am I working on now?

The biggest thing I am working on is buying a house, packing stuff, and planning some renovations. This is a big and overwhelming job. I wrote in April about how we were looking for something along the lines of Mrs. Marker’s house, and I think we finally found it, which is excellent news. But I am also realizing that the big difference between moving into another rental space and moving into a house like this is the huge amount of transitional work that has to be done. At a certain point, I took one look at it and felt like going back to bed, and I’ve been fighting that ever since.

I’m also working on getting the word out about an essay contest, planning a study group on poetry for late August, learning Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and in general finding something resembling balance between all these different demands. Writing wise, it feels like the job is to try to find bits of time here and there for the practice.

2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?

What genre might that be, exactly? I really don’t know. Several years ago, I wrote about my irritation with a lot of online writing and promised my readers this blog would contain no lists of tips, no round ups, no best-ofs and no five-steps-to types of posts. None of that stuff that’s supposed to make for successful blogging, in other words. That is probably the single biggest difference.

3. Why do I write what I do?

That one is easy. I write not to get lost.

4. How does my writing process work?

To be honest, lately it doesn’t. Perhaps I’ve reached a transitional point where the process needs to change. I count this about item number five hundred in my mental list of things you don’t learn in arts education programs: Your creative process (or meditative process, or any other kind of process) is not something to make an identity of. The path changes sometimes. Sometimes the trail you are following through the woods disappears and you have to find (or forge) a new one. That’s all part of the deal. It’s not a failure. I’m not lost, but I’m in a bit of uncharted territory right now, creative process wise. I’ll let you know what I find from here!

On that note, I have to confess I can’t bring myself to “tag” anyone, at least not directly. So how about we do this a bit non-traditionally: If you feel moved to write a post on the subject of creative process, whether or not you want to specifically answer the three questions above, consider yourself officially tagged. And if you are further compelled, leave me a comment so I can read what you have to say!

 

Enzymes

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Some time ago, I wrote a post about a former teacher of mine who was facing some adversity. Actually, that may be an understatement. She was essentially fired. I found this upsetting for a variety of reasons, but as I expected, she landed in a good place, teaching a different subject in a different school. And while I’m sure that would not have been a career move she would have chosen otherwise, I have no doubt that it benefitted a lot of students.

Recently, I found out she decided to leave public education altogether. This news actually made the local newspaper in my hometown, which cited standardized testing as the reason for the decision.

I’ve only loosely followed the debate over the past decade about standardized testing, and more recently, common core. I have friends whose opinions I respect who are very passionate about it, many of them parents and/or teachers who are, as a result of their roles, far more invested than I. I am not terribly well informed about this myself. However, as I’ve followed the debate, a story I heard a long time ago keeps bubbling to the surface.

The Artist once took a course in herbal healing from a wilderness school known for teaching a variety of indigenous skills. Her teacher told a story of one plant that was scientifically studied and its benefits debunked. The study involved analysis of the chemical compounds in the plant itself, as it grew in the wild. What the researchers failed to realize was that indigenous healers would actually chew the plant before using it. Enzymes in their human saliva broke the plant down in a certain way, transformed it, and made it of use, unlocked the healing power, as it were, made it biologically available to the human body. Thus the debunking was itself debunked, for anyone who cared to pay attention and consider the human factor and the training and skill of the healer.

In healing and teaching (closely allied professions), we are in an era in which we seem to collectively discount the most important factors. We are obsessed with knowing “what works,” as if there is a set of actions any automaton could perform that will teach, or heal, a standardized person in a standardized way, with standard and measurable effects. After all this time, we really ought to know better. We have somehow failed to consider the human factor, the training, skill and intuition of healers and teachers, the human relationship, the enzymes in the saliva that bring about real change. How limited and small. How very sad.

 

Being There

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Most of us at one time or another indulge in consideration of what we might do if we suddenly came into a large amount of money, say, by winning the lottery. What would it be like to be able to do anything, money being no issue? Recently I’ve talked with several friends going through life changing experiences, and yesterday, having just gotten off the phone with one of them, I had the thought that if I won the lottery, I might like to stop working and just be there for my friends and family. For instance, if someone had surgery, I’d be able to go and wait with the family in the waiting room, run errands and cook meals. If someone lost a loved one, I’d be able to drop everything to go to the funeral, even in a distant city. I think I could really appreciate the job of being there for the people I love professionally. I hate it when something major is happening and I’m not able to be present for it.

In a way, I kind of have that job already, though the people I get to be there for are my therapy clients, and I don’t typically get to know them before they’re struggling, since they come to me often when things have reached some sort of tipping point, and we dive in together. Often when I ask clients about their social supports, they talk about their hesitance to talk to friends and family or ask for help because, after all, no one wants to be a burden. Usually when this comes up, I ask them to recall a time they were there for someone else in a time of need, and what that felt like. It’s generally a very good memory, often something that led to a closer relationship with that person, or something that called them to delve a little deeper into themselves and find something really valuable they didn’t know they possessed. I have never once had anyone talk about what a pain it was, or how it required them to leave work early, or how they didn’t get as much sleep that night because of it.

I want to say this clearly because it’s easy to forget: It’s a privilege to be able to be there for the people we love. It’s an absolute privilege.

Mrs. Marker’s House

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WP_000489When I was young, we lived next door to a woman named Mrs. Marker, who I remember as having been very old. When we are four or five, of course, everyone seems very old. My older brother and I would walk over and visit Mrs. Marker occasionally, and she was always happy to see us. A very generous woman, she gave us a radio that I listened to while falling asleep throughout most of my childhood. Mrs. Marker died when I was in the first grade, and hers was the first funeral I ever attended. I don’t remember being particularly sad. I’m sure it was explained to me that people die, and I’m sure that I accepted that Mrs. Marker had lived a lot of life and that things were as they should be.

When I got older, my mother told me stories about her that I remember to this day. Apparently when Mrs. Marker’s husband died, she went into a deep depression. One day she woke up and saw Jesus sitting at the foot of her bed. He told her to get up. She replied that she didn’t feel like living. He told her that he understood, but that one day she would, and she needed to get out of bed now. My mother also told me Mrs. Marker used to chase the devil out of her house with a broom. This may sound odd to those not raised in the Bible Belt, but to me, it has always sounded like a perfectly valid way to deal with depression.

The Engineer sent the above picture today and told me that her house (we still think of it as Mrs. Marker’s house even though a steady stream of people have lived there over the last 30 years) was sold to a development company and torn down to make way for new construction. It’s happening a lot in my old neighborhood. Dad’s house is now surrounded by new, monstrously large houses, and it being on the corner lot, I’m sure that as soon as he decides to leave, it too will be replaced with something massive.

Meanwhile in the Midwest, the Photographer and I are doing some house hunting, and we would love to find something along the lines of Mrs. Marker’s house – not too big, in a good neighborhood, on a nice sized lot. It’s proving hard to come by. There seem to be very small houses and very big houses, but finding the in between is not so easy. I love older homes and have always missed the fireplace in the house I grew up in. We’ve seen a lot of homes with the fireplace bricked up, for energy efficiency of course, but it’s hard not to think of that as a real shame. The Photographer grew up on land where they raised sheep and chickens, and while we don’t aspire to farm life, he finds the many backyards in our area with no more than five square feet of green rather sad. It’s hard not to feel like something we care about – a picture, our history, something unnamable – is disappearing. And yet today when I saw this photo, what came to mind was the image of Mrs. Marker in her bed, feeling that the future she was in was not one she wanted to be a part of, and Jesus, at the foot of it, saying that one day, things will feel different.

Promises to Jim

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A few years ago, I had a dream that the Nurse and the Artist had a baby, and it was a boy who had a very particular name. I dreamed the full name, first and middle. Several years later, when the Artist was pregnant with her second child, their first boy, they had several possible names picked out, including the one I had dreamed. They asked soon to be big sister Nora what her favorite was. She said the baby’s name was Jim, and she never wavered. Every time someone asked her about the baby sibling she was going to have, it was, “I’m having a brother, and his name’s Jim!” And so, Jim it is. In fact, his full name is the exact name I dreamed several years ago, before Nora was even here.

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It could be that I was dreaming all those years ago about the Jim that would be born this year. Or it could be that the Nurse and the Artist, people wise enough to take both dreams and the pronouncements of children seriously, made a conscious decision to name their second child in just such a way. It could be that the idea of us is fully formed before we are born, and it could be that we create ourselves and are created, simultaneously and perpetually. I prefer to think it’s the latter, and if that is the case, then I have a sense of responsibility to those I love to participate in their self-creation. In the service of that, I have a few promises for you, Jim:

I promise to keep dreaming for you, to listen to the wisdom of those dreams, and to be there to listen when you want to tell someone about the dreams you have. I promise to ask great questions. I promise to tell you lots of excellent stories about your grandmother. I promise to help you find your own space and shape in the midst of your wonderful and raucous cousins and your playful and wise sister. I promise to remind your Dad about the roundabout and sometimes dangerous paths we took to becoming who we are the minute he starts saying anything that sounds like “Kids these days…” in your general direction.

 

 

 

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