With Sorrow … We Dissent

One of the things I have learned to grapple with as I have aged is the realization that I am, at heart, an institutionalist. Me, the girl who was granted the “Campus Radical” moniker in 6th grade because, among other views, stated that Nixon was, in fact, a crook and that the 6th grade classroom was not the place for racist jokes. Radical, right?

As my own radical daughters have grown into their own understandings of the world, I have grown into something else. I’ve held that our government is flawed but stood by the two-party system. I voted for the party that was in many ways like me: flawed in word and deed but with a basis of progress for the people, not the corporation-people, but the people who try to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness even when to do so requires two or three jobs.

I voted for the party who has a platform of hope, of purpose, of vision. I voted for the party that has shown it is not afraid to evolve. Period.

I voted for the party who allows me my right to religious freedom and understands that that right means I get to choose for myself what that means and is not dictated by what the state.

I voted for the party that agonizes over the best ways to proceed for all Americans and does not mandate for everyone based on a narrow understanding of an ancient document.

I voted.

And it didn’t change a damn thing.

So, I’m sorry, Joe. When you say you can’t do anything but encourage people to vote in the right people, I say: I’m tired of waiting.

I’m tired of voting and waiting and agonizing and watching children be slaughtered in schools by guns that shouldn’t be sold to anyone not being tightly monitored.

I’m tired of voting and waiting and Black Lives still don’t Matter.

I’m tired of voting and waiting for a system that is fundamentally broken to do any damn work at all.

I’m wrestling with how to find hope in all this, but damn it, I’m tired of waiting. And, I realize that that’s my white lady privilege rearing her pink-pussy-hat head and I have to stop whining about waiting and do the damn things. Yes, I will continue to vote. And I will continue to support the voices of marginalized folk of many races and genders and I will scream into the void that is the Republican well of integrity. But I am ready to burn it all down, folks. To dismantle a democracy that is not one.

I’ve had nothing but time to watch the January 6 hearings and to see how close we came to losing our Democracy and then see that 6 people in black robes can just junk up what was “saved” is what is galling me now.

I’m tired of voting and waiting and watching the Democrats allow a racist piece of nothing like McConnell to run rough over the system to deny one candidate and shove through three more who have not a shred of worthiness to sit on that bench.

The institution is doing exactly what it was designed to do: serve power to the wealthy white men. And if you aren’t a wealthy white man and you (yes, you, Justice Thomas) don’t see this as clearly as this particular table has been set, you are being used by a system that thinks of you as fodder for their power and not as the people who are trying to form this more perfect union.

The system is working as designed and the Democrats (and Susan Collins) can wring our hands ad infinitum and, still, change will happen in fits and starts, and, still, I will grind my thoughts and scream in the void, and still, I will go back to the well that keeps me sane — my religious people who always remind me to flip those tables set unfairly by the system.

And still, I will be an institutionalist because, goddamnit, at the base of all my damn anger, I have hope. I have vision for who we can be and I will refuse to let them take that from me. Because that is the right I have with or without a Constitution.

My God is a God of hope; my faith is a faith of agitation and change; the ground of my being is a fucking tenderness that sometimes leaves me weeping when I want to yell AND it is the soft voice that reminds me that the work will never be finished until all are set free.

So, Joe, I’ll fucking vote like I fucking always do. But I need you and your Senators to show some strong moral leadership to remind me why.

So here it is: my note to myself. Take a breath and scream it out. Then get to work. The world isn’t going to fix itself when wealthy white men have no incentive to make it so. Be the change, and all that.

Also, if no one has told you so today: Anger is a valid emotion.

Also: White Ladies–we got so much work to do. So. Much. Work. To. Do. (more on that soon)

Bittersweet: A sermon inspired by Susan Cain’s Book on Melancholy

On Sunday, May 22, I shared my thoughts after reading Susan Cain’s book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make us Whole.

You can view the sermon here (fast forward to 1:11:23–sermon is really on 16 minutes or so), but it may be easier to read it so the text is below. Please note this was delivered before Uvalde and all the other shootings that have happened since Buffalo. Please also note, I don’t dwell too long on the shootings.

Bittersweet

As happens with worship preparation, the world today is different than the day when I proposed this topic of melancholy. On the larger, shared level, a racist shooter took the lives of ten black people because they were black, and the lives of hundreds connected to those ten have been altered forever. But how many more lives are currently being impacted by this act of terror and by the whitewashing of it by leaders in our communities both local and federal. How real the fear of black, brown and indigenous people right now. How real for Jewish folk. Melancholy doesn’t touch the level of fear, anger, and grief from an event such as this. I want you to engage with the topic at hand, but lets keep its place in check as we honor the lives lost last weekend and all the lives lost past and current to the nature of our American way. We have work to do, and maybe looking at a framing of melancholy, of sorrow and longing, will help us as we encounter this work.

On a personal level, the times have changed as well. We are in the midst of experiencing death in our extended family and I had the opportunity to be with one of the people most impacted by this loss. “Is it wrong,” she asked, “that I feel angry?”

There’s no right or wrong emotion, I told her. Best advice I can give you is just to feel what you feel and don’t let it get away from you. Feel what you feel, she said. What a healthy concept. And not one that is readily available to most of us, as Americans.

For her, for me, and for all the others who have spent a lifetime hiding from or behind feelings that seem to be out of sorts with the wider zeit geist, I wanted to share this work by Susan Cain this morning. Reading it and listening to her discuss her research on sorrow and longing on a couple of podcasts provided me with a new framework for viewing the emotion I hold so close to my heart at all times.

My mother was a school teacher. She always had papers to correct, every night, every weekend. When I was older, she would often employ me to help her grade papers. She’d hand me the “key” with the rectangular cutouts that showed where the right answer should be circled. With Cain’s book, I feel like I’ve been handed a key to understanding the sorrow and longing that live within me, even when I am happy, even when I am content.

Cain started her research with one premise—she wanted to understand why the beauty of music, specifically, but art and nature also, caused her to cry AND, she wanted to know, why did she find joy in that?

Anyone who has sat within a pew or three of me over the last 20 years knows that I am a music crier. Sometimes Jeremy will barely utter two words and I’m a bawling mess. So believe me when I say that I was all over wanting to learn what her research showed.

But like most things, where she started was not where she ended. Cain’s book looks at the melancholic nature, a common way of being for many of the humans who live on this earth, but also a way of being that makes most of American culture uncomfortable. I have a melancholic nature. It’s probably why I write poetry and make things and cry at tv commercials not to mention lose my stuff over the tv show This is Us, which is, now that I think of it, a melancholic ode to the life we live and the losses we must endure.

The late Rev. Forrest Church has said that “Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die.” The melancholic heart is the lived understanding of being alive and having to die. Or as Cain writes, What once was, will never be again.

There’s a likelihood you have heard me say this before, but I had a boss who one day asked me, “why do you always look like you are waiting for the other shoe to drop?” and I said, “Because I am!” This, I’ve come to realize, is part of that melancholic nature—that you know what is to come, that joy and woe are woven fine (as Blake said), but also that joy and woe are fleeting. It is not that I, and other melancholics, are in a perpetual state of Debbie Downer, but that we are in the moment feeling the ecstasy of the beauty of the thing we are experiencing AND anticipating being without that thing in the very near future AT THE SAME TIME.

It’s enough to make you drink. Or make art. And maybe sometimes both.

This is melancholy on the personal level. And it has given us VanGogh and Sylvia Plath and Jane Austen and Toni Morrison and Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary and any artist who has brought you to the brink of and well into exhaustion with their renditions of human life. This is why writers and artists are the first to go in an authoritarian regime. The last thing an autocrat wants is for people to feel not just the emotions, but the connection that those emotions create. You physically cannot dehumanize someone with whom you share an emotional connection. Hence the call to ban books that acknowledge the lived history of black Americans, and portray the depravity of those who would not/do not see the humanity of nonwhite people.

In her book, Cain asks the question, How did a nation founded on so much heartache turn into a culture of normative smiles. Why, she asks, is our society so afraid of the hidden riches of sorrow and longing? She introduces us to Susan David,, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and leading management thinker, whose own story of loss informs her research. Cain uses David’s phrase the “tyranny of positivity” to discuss our American way of believing that positive thought is enough to help us survive and thrive, and our American way of identifying people as winners and losers, with praise for the former and shame on the latter and no room for people to simply be human facing good or hard times, or both.

Is any of this sounding familiar?

One discussion I want to highlight is the force this positive thinking had on real human lives throughout our American history. How many people died from the shame in the immediate and prolonged aftermath of the crash of 1929? How many thought themselves losers and could not fathom the difference for their family between losing an income and losing a father?

I don’t want to dwell on this; I think we can all relate to the very American way of the winner/loser dichotomy and all the humanity it leaves out in its wake. Cain’s book and David’s work allow us to find ways to first understand the falseness of this viewpoint, but also the way it has warped our American psyche to the point that some of us would rather whitewash our discomfort with the reality of our American history of violence and genocide than deal with the healing that can only come from addressing it with honesty and, yes, critical thinking.

In the last section of the book, Cain looks at mortality and epigenetics, the scienctific study of our genes and how they are impacted by our parent’s trauma. The studies look at the genetic difference of descendants of holocaust survivors, how the holding of trauma affects one generation actually changing the genetic makeup and how that shows up in generations that follow. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it. The science was introduced with much journalistic interest, then the size of the study was called into question, but the continued research bears up the original thesis. And, science just does its thing, you know, evolving with the data.

But, I think as we look at melancholy on the personal and public levels, we have to pause on this very real phenomena: that we are impacted by traumas we didn’t even experience first hand.

Cain’s own family story is a testament to this. Her maternal grandfather was a Polish Jew who came to America before the rest of his family perished in the Nazi death camps. Her grandfather became an American Rabbi and while he was revered as a kind and supportive leader, his conversations with his daughter in front of his granddaughter were always laced with the lament that he could not save his family. The effects of that relationship and a rocky one with her own mother are more likely than not the catalyst for this book on longing and sorrow. True to the name chosen for the work, her relationship has come to a  bittersweet turn with her mother who now lives with Alzheimers and has forgotten that their relationship fractured and lives in the moments of their bliss-filled relationship when Cain was a child. She gets her mother back, but she also has to live, alone, in the pain caused by their broken times.

How do we live in that? How do we live in a moment when what we recognize to be true is not acknowledged by people we need to rely on. Whether they be mothers or doctors or church friends or Senators. How do we hold the sorrows of our parents, of our children, of our own aching hearts and still manage to put ourselves into the world to be a part of a saving message?

We sing, dear friends. We sing with tears rolling down like waters, while holding our hearts open

to the lasting and the fleeting

to the joy and the woe

and we lean on each other when we need support carrying the load.

But lets also do one more thing, it’s a hard thing for those of us born into this American culture, but let’s remember to feel what we feel and let others do the same. Let’s break the tyranny of positivity that makes anything other than happiness and success work us into feeling like losers. Let us support each other’s humanity, our true, multi-layered, overwhelming and overstimulating emotional landscape, and all the wonders that live there in.

Unwinding

Green macrame piece hanging on a wooden rod with dried flowers.

I wrote “unwinding” with one thought in mind and realized I missed the common thought: unwinding, settling down and into a slower, mindful pace at the end of a hectic period. But what I’m thinking of is the physical motion of taking thread off a bobbin or pulling the air compressor’s red rubber hose from the bushel basket where it coils within and upon itself.

Un-winding. Un-spooling. Drawing out.

Yesterday as I was ripping out the stitches of an abandoned knitting project (also known as frogging, but also another kind of unwinding before the rewinding), I was listening to the Fiber Artist Podcast with Cindy Hwang Bokser because she was talking with Meg Spitzer, a fiber artist I follow on Instagram. They talked about Spitzer’s history as an artist and then as a mother. And then the question came as to her recent entre into fiber art with macrame. It was a cute story about how she wanted to create a soft piece of art to hang over her daughter’s bed because she now lives in California and feared earthquakes and sharp-cornered things falling on her baby.

Turns out she couldn’t think of the word macrame so she turned to her mother who said “you mean macrame?” There was then a back and forth about the mom’s reaction that ended with “well, she was born in 1962, so yeah” or something like that. I would go back and listen to it, but I’m still slightly mortified by the moment.

Because … I was born in 1962.

This is why I’m thinking of unwinding. This is what I have been doing since I listened to that podcast (the rest of which I must say was quite good even though I haven’t the slightest idea what was said after born in 1962)–I’ve been unwinding my life. It took me right back to the 1970s when I made plant hangers and swore to my mother I loved it enough for her to invest a shit-ton of money in rope for a grand piece I was going to make that I stored in a heap of rubberband-wrapped coils for several years, unfinished, until I went away to college and the macrame trend ended.

I was the problem child in our house. Not in that I caused problems, but in that no one quite knew what to do with me. My oldest sister was an artist as well as the oldest sister, whose main job is to tell everyone else what to do. My brother was a gifted athlete and a mechanical genius so when he wasn’t playing baseball or creating mischief with the neighbors, he was under the hood of a car with my dad, or taking something apart so he could put it back together. My next sister was also a natural athlete who couldn’t sit still and my mom sang hallelujah when she was invited to join an amateur athletic track and field team which kept her physically and mentally engaged.

And then there was me. I read. I watched TV. I was as bright as my siblings, but I didn’t “do” anything and that was problematic because, I guess, I often needed to be entertained. I was my mom’s buddy on the bleachers every weekend my sister had a track meet where my event was always “can I go to the snack bar now?”

I tried swimming, but I didn’t like water in my face. I tried gymnastics but couldn’t quite get my body to do what my mind envisioned for it. The only thing I had any proficiency for was holding one side of the skip tape while a chair held the other and my sister jumped easily and readily over and over and over again. Athletically, I was a chair.

My mother had exhausted her list of things she thought would hold my interest so I suppose when I showed an interest in macrame, she didn’t fight me.

What neither of us knew then, couldn’t have known then, was that my brain was going to fight me on everything. Girls weren’t diagnosed with attention deficit disorders then. Especially girls who were academically proficient and socially obedient. Girls who could sit in the sun and read every single Little House On The Prairie book and watch every episode on TV were not diagnosed with an attention disorder because, back then, they were looking for hyperactivity and lack of attention, not the hyper attention that could keep a person situated and still with the same thing for hours at a time.

When I found macrame in the 1970s, I was certain it was something I could do. I learned a few simple knots and I applied them to plant hangers. Many plant hangers. And then I decided I was ready to tackle a project with a pattern I would have to follow if the project was going to work. I honestly don’t remember what the project was. It may have been a hanging chair, but probably was an oversized plant holder. I just know that half way through, I stopped being able to translate the pattern into something tangible. Or, now that I understand my brain and the symptoms of ADD, it is more likely the repetitive nature of macrame wore me down.

Maybe if there had been podcasts back then, or books on tape, something that would have kept one part of my brain busy while another one kept my hands doing the motions, I would have finished that chair/hanger/whatever. Maybe I would have found value in the work, value in myself.

But instead, as I unwind the story, I remember staring at those yards and yards of rope hanging up in my closet that eventually ended up in a landfill and felt the failure of one more thing I could not do. One more thing I did not finish.

My husband and I are contemplating a move and so have begun the process of cleaning out a house we have lived in for more than a quarter of a century. In doing so, I unearthed pieces of a ghost project. The project itself brings me to a place of deep shame because I thought it was something I could do but also, deep down I doubted if I actually could do it, but agreed to do it anyway. I took this project on after a huge professional failure and thought it would be my way of clawing out of the pain of that and into a new understanding of myself. But, of course, the project did not interest me as much as I had hoped it would and, in the end, I disappointed someone who is important to me. As much as that disappoint hurt me, I also crushed myself under the weight of being incapable. Of giving in to the story I had told myself over and over and over again: I’m bad. I’m lazy. I have no worth.

This is the story I unwound from that little phrase “born in 1962.”

But there is another story, too. Isn’t there always?

It is the story of how macrame came back to me as it resurged in popular culture. It is the story of learning new old skills, of persevering, and of working with the brain I have and not the one I wished I had.

In the time since that last failed project, I have been diagnosed with ADD and while I tried medicine for it, my psychiatrist warned me that it wouldn’t rewrite all the previous years of my life (because I was, you know, born in 1962), but it could help me focus enough to change things that were habits of living with undiagnosed ADD rather than actual symptoms of the disorder. Eventually, I stopped taking the drugs and I still live with some of the habits, but I’m now able to decipher the difference between habits and disorder and that makes a huge difference for my mental health.

And this brings me back to fiber. To knitting, knotting, and weaving. I started knitting about 15 years ago and never gained much proficiency in reading patterns. I got better at stitches and once I understood the structure of stitches, I got brave enough to make a few garments that weren’t basically tubes or squares. But then a few years ago I found macrame again and found there was something in the motion, something in the structure, something in the symmetry that soothed me in a way knitting never did. I started incorporating weaving techniques I saw on Instagram into my work.

In the time before fiber, my writing had stagnated. I became a writer who didn’t write. Worse, I became a writer who didn’t read. But when I started working with fiber, I started listening to books while I knotted. I started with non-fiction, mostly the work of Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ strong women series, all so rich with stories and fables and, to my surprise, a lot of knitting and knotting and weaving. And even a little unwinding.

Maybe it is weird that an old lady like me has taken up macrame, but what I’ve unwound for myself here is that it came along when I needed it. Back in the 70s and again just now. It came as therapy for my arthritic hands and my stunted creativity. It came at a time of psychic and spiritual unravelling, which is different than an unwinding. When I was unravelling, I couldn’t see what I had been nor what I could be. I was simply coming apart, becoming unconnected from my origins.

Unwinding requires a thing to be whole, to wholly reveal all that has come before and to stay connected to it.

What takes a practiced heart is the ability to not attempt to alter what was, to not make it smaller, or larger, or sparklier or dustier, but simply to honor it for being. Like I said, it takes a practiced heart and mine has been out of practice for far too long. How I’ve let the past failures follow me around like the cat who must sleep on my chest each night, with all her weight on her pointed little paws as she settles in to sleep and wakes me in the process.

In every minute of every day, I am back to some version of the girl with the closet full of rope that won’t ever become a chair or planter or whatever. In every minute of every day I am the one-book wonder who couldn’t even get that one book published. In every moment of every day, I am the woman who lost her job and failed her friend and everyone else in her life who is exasperated by her squandered potential.

The practiced heart will honor that girl, as well as the girl who did things, made things, and gave her daughters a raft of memories on which to sail into therapy. The girl who married and made a home (albeit messy) and who loved to live in the land of “what if we try…?” at church, at work, and in other organizations. The girl who knows her brain works more like that coiled hose on the air compressor, always sproinging in seven directions at once, and likes it that way, even when it makes her sound like she’s full of nonsense and fairy dust.

What this unwinding has done for me, has given to me is the realization that the practices of knotting and weaving have given my brain and my fingers something to do while my heart keeps practicing the art of honoring what is. Not what isn’t. Not what I perceive. Not what I wish. Not what I hope. What is.

I came unwound at “born in 1962,” slowly, deliberately and with a bit of self-effacing humor. But I did not become undone.

…..

If you are interested in fiber art, please be sure to give The Fiber Artist podcast a listen or follow the hashtag #fiberart on Instagram.

When Hope is Hard to Find*

Spirit wouldn’t let me sleep any longer, though I tried. I tried in bed, but the covers kept strangling me. I tried on the brand new couch, but the un-pedicured roughness of a not-so-well-turned heel kept scraping and catching as I tossed and flopped about and I worried about ruffing up the fabric.

I did not go to my office to get my computer to write. I went to get my computer because I was worried about an upcoming appointment that was not on my calendar and I feared a conflict. So in the darkness of 4:48 a.m., I flipped the computer on and felt the assault of the bright white screen as it woke me, finally, and truly, and resolutely. Almost to the point of making the coffee. Almost.

I found the appointment in my email, added it to my calendar, and somehow ended up here, on my dusty old blog. I read the two latest entries–did not look at the dates, did not want to consider how long it has been since I wrote a thing. I don’t remember writing the last entry, the one about the rocking chair and many other things. I mean, I remember writing about the chair, but I didn’t remember weaving it into a charge to white folk to wake the fuck up.

View of a battlefield in Gettysburg, PA. Stone fence in the foreground. This has nothing to do with the text of this post, other than a reminder of the cost to human life and to national identity by harmful, extremist views.

But that was written 500,000 lives lost to Covid ago. At that point, “only” 180,000 people had died and we were still under the rule of an administration that found those numbers acceptable and that could see and appreciate and even foment the violence of a crowd as long as it was majority white and angry at all the trite needs of a confused people. I remember people screaming about a hair cut and wondering what in the everlovin name of Jesus was wrong with them. But let a majority black group march and protest without violence to bring attention to the execution of black people and that administration was able to rally the gas and the National Guard.

In that last piece I asked the question, “are you tired yet?”

I didn’t come to the page this morning to rehash that message that I don’t entirely remember writing. I came to the page because someone I love is hurting and I thought maybe, just maybe, I could write myself back into the world that still, as I said in that last post, needs me.

There have been too many losses these last two years, and so many assaults on what should be our common decency,–our collective common decency (I suppose that is redundant, but the combination of the early hour, the lack of coffee, and the uncertainty of what needs to be said outloud and repeatedly leads me to leave the redundancy alone, for now),

Yes, am tired yet, to answer my own question. I’m tired of trying to get people to think about others, whether it be about vaccines and masks, or about the skewed history we have taught ourselves and each others about race in America. I’m tired of the lack of humility in the public sphere, from those who claim to follow Jesus and especially those who say they don’t follow Trump but they have to remain loyal to their conservative values and couldn’t possibly vote for a Democrat who is a socialist and wants all my money.

I’m tired of the cruelty we inflict on each other in the name of personal freedom, as if that is the arbiter of a good and decent life. My grandparents, my parents, my friends, and my daughters have all taught me something else. They’ve shown me, when I could not raise my head to see it myself, they showed me how we are each others better angels. We are better physically, emotionally, and spiritually when we are in the game for others, not just for ourselves. We find joy easier when we seek it. We find love easier, when we recognize it. We find gratitude there on the breakfast plate when we see the hands that prepared not just the toast, but the bread and the wheat and the soil that brought it to us. We find freedom for ourselves when we use it to find freedom for others. We find liberty in the collective uplift of all of our people. When hope is hard to find, we stumble upon it as we tie the shoes of an elder or of a child.

We find, my teachings tell me, what we look for.

And me? I’ve decided to look for a world that gives a fucking damn about each other again. I want you to get vaccinated because I love the hell out of you. I want you to wear a mask because I love the hell out of the people in your life. I want you to pay attention to the evening sky because it is fucking fabulous–even when it is dark and stormy, it is fucking fabulous. It’s a fucking miracle that you get to view it every night, and our job, our collective job is to make sure that as many people can see that miracle as fucking possible.

Whether it is by being present for the grief of another or voicing your support for more humane policing or by equalizing opportunities through social programs that help the poor and hungry, you are making the miracle possible. But if helping others through political mechanisms as well as by personal choices seems like a slippery slope toward socialism to you, I’d offer that that is because that is what you are looking for.

But if you tip your head to one side and close one eye, you might see that the people who need help are also, in fact, you.

It would be great if we all had huge families and truckloads of support so that we could rely only on ourselves and our families to make it through the tough times. It would be great if all families had not been torn asunder by war, by famine, by the institution of slavery, by the salvation offered by migration , by poverty wages, by death, by drink, by drugs, by violence inflicted by the state or the person who says they love you. But families, faith, and charity will not fix the problems in the systems that keep people in one form of bondage or another. This is what we need political systems for, to plan for the good and fix the broken and help us all when help is hard to find.

That’s a world view. One world view. And I plant my flag in the side with hope and a plan, flawed though it probably will be, but a plan nonetheless that focuses on people in their current situation rather than in a nebulous and reductive screed of “FREEDOM!”

I recognize that there are many more places to plant oneself as life itself is not a false binary choice, and so I ask you: Where do you plant your flag?

*The title comes from one of my favorite hymns, “Come Sing A Song With Me” by Carolyn McDade.

You Are Needed; but, first, a story

I’ve read all the pandemic advice (although not my own lately, I guess), about giving ourselves permission to be rather than to do, and I have said, “Sure, I can do that.”

And, oh, how I have been. I have been sleepy; I have been sotted with drink and food; I have been famished for content and overloaded with content; I have been angry to the point of rage that no longer seethes; and I have been … happy.

I have also been a whirlwind, on occasion. A whirlwind of doing. I completely refinished and reupholstered a rocking chair. I’d been looking for a mid-century, platform rocker for years that was in my budget. I’d had one when my daughters were babies. It had been my grandparents’, and then my parents’, and when I moved out, my parents gave it to me. I also refurbished that one. Stripping off the brown peeling paint revealing the avocado green (helloooo 1970s), and absolutely beautiful mid-tone wood beneath.

The good story about the chair is that when my husband and I lived in Arizona, I did the original refinishing of the wood parts. I had been telling my husband that I cherished the chair because my grandfather had built this very rocker. And there I was, on the back porch, scraping the stripping solution and the now very gooey paint away only to reveal … a Sears label. Still, I loved it. I loved it’s lines and the beauty of the wood, and the little tiny creaking rhythm that often lulled baby and me to sleep.

Alas, sometime after the last baby was done being rocked to sleep in it, a heart-wrenching crack rang out when a visitor stood up from the chair. When I later inspected the chair, I found the brace connecting the arm to the body gave way along the grain–a long, jagged break that broke something in me, too.

We held on to the chair for years, in the garage, waiting for manna from heaven or from a source unknown to in the midst of shelling out for unexpected expense after unexpected expense that happens when you are raising three children. One day, we were cleaning out the garage so we could get the cars back in it for the winter when I finally said, Enough! Get rid of it.

And I’ve been searching for it’s equal ever since.

I know what I’ve actually been searching for are the memories of waking up in the chair with a baby draped on my shoulder, puffing sweet breath onto my neck, my arms dead asleep from resting heavily at length on the wooden arms. I know I’ve been searching for the one piece of furniture I took with me when I left California for the last time as a resident of the state, that tethered me to my parents and my grandparents in such a sturdy way. I know I’ve been searching for the sentimentality of it all, angry with myself for giving up on the chair instead of saving up the $600 (in early 2000 dollars) to repair and reupholster it.

Instead, I found another chair for $40, and used some fabric I picked up at an estate sale a year ago, even though I had no idea what I was going to use it for. I paid the $20, knowing it would do some good down the road. And then I found the energy to sand down the awful stain that had been haphazardly applied to the frame of the new/old chair. Fixed the weird rocking motion by simply putting the base on in the right direction and without all the weird paper shims that had been used as attempts at fixing it. And then I re-learned how to sew a zipper–something I don’t think I’ve attempted since my original rocker was painted avocado green–and made a box cushion (badly, but I did it), and flipped all the original stuffing onto the box springs and stapled the hell out of so many, many layers.

This, and many other crafty projects–things to flip and sell, or things to cover the faces of people I love, or things that just fancy my creative spirit–have kept me busy and made me tired and helped me forget that a pandemic has killed 180,000 Americans because, apparently, ‘merica’s got to ‘merica.

And, of course, it isn’t just the pandemic.

Loving your country is hard. Loving anything is hard, but loving your country while it kills people through negligence (see above) or through what can only be seen as a brutality toward dark-skinned people that is our original sin. Not slavery. But a brutality and self-regard by white people that made slavery last centuries, Jim Crow and lynching last decades longer, and a continued over-policing of black and brown people that allows the beatings, unlawful arrests, and straight-up murder by police officers to continue today.

American patriotism has been co-opted by the love-it-or-leave-it, gun-toting, face-screaming, unthinking people who follow instincts they don’t even realize have been ingrained in them by the well-heeled who knew that they would be vastly outnumbered and stripped of power if the poor white and black citizens voted together. Poor white people have been voting against their own interests since the end of the civil war because they did not want to be lumped in with blacks, who they had been taught to believe were not even people. I’m not talking about Southern gentry only. Look to the north, too. And look to the Midwest now, where the killings of unarmed (and sleeping) black people are creating the protests, and where you have that couple who stood on their porch and pointed loaded guns at peaceful protesters because … ‘merica?

How did I get here? I was talking about a rocking chair, wasn’t I?

The thing is, I’ve also been spending a lot of my time this pandemic relearning the history of America, or ‘merica. I’ve been reading or listening to history, as well as fiction and memoirs written by black people while I sanded that chair or made those facemasks. I’ve listened to books like Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Say it Louder by Tiffany D. Cross, and Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi (which I had to return before I could finish), as well as essays from writers I’ve been reading my whole adult life, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. And I’ve been following Black creators on Instagram by following #amplifymelanatedvoices.

All of this was a choice. I made a conscious decision to use my time to educate myself and to push myself to listen to the voices of people who live a different life than mine because they have to.

But back to the rocking chair, sort of. My white grandparents moved from Kansas to Los Angeles, California when my father was ten–in 1939. In California, they worked as educators, and retired with a pension and a house they owned out-right. My father served in Korea, too. So he had opportunities in housing and education because of his service and his skin color.

My family has survived and thrived since they arrived in Los Angeles in the midst of the Great Depression. You would not think of them as gentry as they were not wealthy. But they were able to generate wealth over time. They were, in my mind, solidly middle class. Even my mother’s father and step-mother who lived a working class existence were able to generate wealth through land ownership and union protections for health care and pensions lived, if not a grand life, a life they appreciated well into their 90s.

I was raised in a household that was unapologetically liberal. My father, I recently learned, left ministry because the bishop he reported to did not condone the social justice bent of my father’s ministry. And even with his rabid rebellion and his public displays against the racist and anti-Christian policies of our government in the 1960s and beyond, he outlived many in that movement and his whiteness had much to do with it.

My father wasn’t a national leader. I’m not being specific about the deaths of Malcolm X and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m talking about the up-and-comers in the anti-racist movement, often killed before they could be national leaders because the FBI had targeted them, killed them, and created plausible stories to justify the killings–at least plausible to white Americans who then felt safer because these “insurgents” were dead. I’m talking about Fred Hampton and the many others who never had a chance to become national leaders of a movement to change this country for the better.

And white America ate it up with a soup ladle.

Are you tired yet?

Are you exhausted yet?

Have you had enough yet?

If you are white, take a minute to ask yourself what it is you are tired of, exhausted from, had enough of. I’ll wait.

I could tell you more about the rocking chair and the different houses it was allowed to dwell in because it’s owners were white, while you think. Because if you aren’t tired of being lied to, aren’t exhausted by the extent of the manipulation perpetrated upon you, or had enough of the death of American citizens at the hands of police or by the policies of people who are interested more in power than in life, liberty and the pursuit of justice, then you just aren’t listening and I should go back to the sentimental story of my grandparent’s rocking chair.

People need you.

People need you to look deeper than you have and to reconcile for yourself why you are meeting this moment with anger at Black and Brown and Indigenous people who are asking you to stand with their humanity.

What in your upbringing makes you say stuff like “well if they just complied” or “why don’t they protest peacefully” or “just get a drivers license if you want to vote”? What in your upbringing makes you think America is actually fair and that we all have access to boots, let alone bootstraps? Why are you unwilling to dig deeper into understanding that America is not America for everyone. Not even, maybe, for you.

People beyond your family, your church, your book club need you. People who don’t look like you, who don’t pray like you, who don’t dance like you, who don’t dress like you, who don’t even know who you are–they need you. This is a moral moment. We cannot look away anymore from the trauma inflicted on our black brothers and sisters by a policing system who does not believe their lives matter.

It is time to make choices, friends.

It is time to educate ourselves from sources outside our circles. It is time to start loving our country with the depth it takes to require change where change is long overdue.

Centuries overdue.

So, here’s your pandemic advice: be. Be able to tell your grandchildren that when you were needed, you did your homework and showed up. You used this time to do good for others because it was the moral thing to do.

#blacklivesmatter

If depression comes, try this

I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who said to be an expert at something you have to put in at least 10,000 hours. If that’s the case, after three-plus years of couch time in the last decade, I declare myself the expert on couch time and mental health. So I have some things for people to consider as they face big stretches of time in solitude or restricted society.

I don’t mean this post to be funny; I mean it to be helpful for the many who, like me, suffer in “normal” times from depression and/or anxiety that can be debilitating. I mean it also to be helpful for people, like me, for whom “normal” times includes not only a chronic mental health diagnosis, but a chronic physical health diagnosis that depresses the immune system.

This morning I posted a check in for community on Facebook: Have you brushed your teeth today? Maybe I meant that as funny, but the more the responses rolled in with laugh emojis and a question about bras, I realized I did not, in fact, mean for it to be a joke. I meant for it to be a real check in for people who may not be used to sitting around their house for hours on end and might forget to do the very basic and usual hygiene even while scrubbing their hands and singing “Stairway to Heaven” a hundred times a day.

Some of the things I have tried to incorporate into my daily life since saying farewell to the couch (though there are still days when my brain and my body insist on a couch day and I find I have not yet done one or any of these) include:

  • Brushing my teeth after breakfast whether I want to or not.
  • Getting dressed, especially in jeans that make lounging on the couch less comfortable.
  • Making a list for the day and adding “Brush Teeth” to it, so I can cross it off because I have already done it or remember to do it if I haven’t.
  • Reviewing the list in silence and for some time. Some might even call this meditation. While I review the list, I look for things I can accomplish easily and quickly (like brush my teeth), but also things that will make me feel more comfortable in the space I’m spending my day in. My husband will laugh at this last phrase, because right now, there is no space in our house that is untouched by the renovation to our living space that was started in January, before “shelter in place” became a possibility. But, still, I try. I make the bed by pulling up the covers, though I am usually doing so while a big hairy cat reclines on said covers and the attempt is neither complete nor neat. I try by putting dishes in the dishwasher and towels in the washing machine and changing the cat box with some regularity.
  • I also look for things on the list that will bring me joy or create beauty. And, if there isn’t one, I add it. It might be as simple as “replant succulents” or “read a poem,” and sometimes I never actually get to that item, but I know it’s there so I don’t feel like my day is full of drudgery and nothingness.

I think that is my best advice from the depths of my understanding of despair. Remind yourself that whatever is in front of you is not forever. Of course, chronic illness (mental or otherwise) is forever, but the moment you are in is not. This is true of the tortured moments as well as the joy-filled ones, as well as those that seem endlessly full of nothing.

As people become less physically interactive, depression is likely, and if you don’t “normally*” experience depression, it may come on gradually and you will suddenly find yourself not doing things like, I don’t know, brushing your teeth. A day of this is not depression. Two days, though, starts a trend you don’t want to extend.

I joked with my boss the other day, as I was saying goodbye until “whenever” as she and her husband made the hard but right decision to close the antique mall, that maybe this will bring back “over the fence” neighborly conversations again. That’s a good social distance, don’t you think?

And I joked last night, as I realized I had NOT brushed my teeth all day, that not doing so was MY social distancing practice.

Truth is, I don’t need any help with social distancing. I am the kind of person who has enough to do around me at all times (cleaning, making, reading, cleaning, de-cluttering, re-cluttering, and cleaning), that I don’t generally get bored by being stranded to my home. If the weather warms up or if I learn how to use my garage propane heater without fear of demolishing the neighborhood, I will gladly spend the next month in our garage, attempting to complete all the projects stored up in there. The opportunity to be at home with no pressing appointments is this home-body’s idea of a good holiday. But you are not me, and these coming weeks and/or months may be difficult for you.

And, even with all the things around me that could be done, I’m also the kind of person who can spend a solid afternoon in my head, plotting and planning things I could make from the piles in the garage.

A few years ago, my mother chose to move into an assisted living space and yesterday the news came down that she will be in “lock down” mode for the foreseeable future. The residents had been able to visit with each other, just not outsiders, for the last week or so, but now they are to stay in their rooms, with meals being delivered to them.

This will be hard for my mother, who moved to this place because she felt socially isolated in her house. Here, she has friends just a few doors down and they aren’t able to play cards or share meals any longer, or gather for book club. This is necessary and gives us (my siblings and I), peace that precautions are being taken to keep her and her friends healthy, and, yet, I feel so sad when I think of her in isolation like this–away from everybody.

But this also provides me an opportunity to become creative again in ways to keep connected to her with the things she likes that I can share via text or phone call. Things I was a slacker at pre-pandemic because her life seemed so busy with friends and cards and all those doctor appointments. I already see my Facebook feed filled with people finding new and fun ways to stay connected as well as share ideas for creative adventures in social distancing.

It may feel like we are living in a petrie dish right now, but the one thing we know about petrie dishes is that they grow things. See what you can grow, what you can create, what story you can tell your grandchildren about the great pandemic one day. May your isolation mean good health for you and yours.

And, if you are one of the helpers who does not get to self-isolate because your ability to heal, feed, or protect others keeps you in the bottom of the petrie dish: thank you. May you be well.

To all who are doing what they can to flatten the curve and reduce the number of people who will die because of this disease, thank you. This is holy work.

Oh, and thank you all for brushing your teeth.


*I keep putting the word normal in quotes because each day I find it harder and harder to define it.

 

 

Yellow

Here’s a poem I wrote the other day. The sunflower reminded me I should put it up here.

cropped-napaflower.jpg

February begs for
yellow
for the daffodil,
the tulip,
and the rebellion of
the dandelion.

It sings to the
unseen stirring
below ground,
the signal,
the shift
from the dirge
of gray and grayer white

to tempt
the tendrils of warmth
in Spring

Begin Again in Love

Note: This was originally published on the now defunct TinaLBPorter website on 2/23/2018. I’m working on filling in some of the spaces between the beginnings of this blog and the jump to writing new content here. So her’s a rerun, of sorts. –Tina

Way back in January, when I offered to fill the pulpit at my congregation on March 11, I had no clue I would be preaching on Daylight Saving day. But I did it.

I preached about beginning again, in love, after the Litany of Atonement reading by Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, which is included in the back of Singing the Living Tradition, our UU Hymnal. And now that I have had the after sermon naps, and powered through the day after the harsh removal of a single hour, I google the reading and come across a Church of the Larger Fellowship video of the Rev. Eller-Isaacs reading his original version, prefaced by his explanation for the difference. I wish that I had found this before the service. I wish I had thought to google it rather than just read it in the back of the hymnal. If you have a few minutes, listen to him read it.

Like Rev. Eller-Isaacs, I, too, prefer his original version, where it reads “I forgive myself, I forgive you, We begin again in love.”

If I were able to go back and redo the sermon to read it this way, I would. Because that is exactly what I wanted to say to my home community, the community I left several years ago when I felt overwhelmed by life and disappointed in not only the way other people were pursuing the stated goals of our congregation, but the way I was doing so, as well.

So the homily I preached on Sunday was one where, in the midst of it, I said “I feel like Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, when she says to Hugh Grant, “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

The sermon was years in the making, but I only knew it a few weeks ago. I had a different piece of my mind to give the congregation when I volunteered, but wisdom struck at some point reminding me that I needed to ask to be back before I could waltz in and say “You’re Doing It Wrong!” which was the sermon I was going to give, kind of.

But as I was cleaning up my office one day, I found the notes for a UU World article I wrote about the fires in California last spring and fall. Rev. Jan Christian’s words leapt off the page at me, as I was readying to toss them in the recycle bin. “It is a reminder that we belong to each other,” she said. And I remembered how it was to talk to all those ministers who were holding people who had lost so much, if not everything, who were living in communities that disappeared into ash. How they talked, with the exhaustion etching their words so that I felt them, rather than heard them. Each one echoing some sentiment of Rev. Christian, echoing how the church was a place to go when there was no home. The congregation was the people who were, as Rev. Christian also said, “present in the loss.”

And as I looked at those last words, I realized my own loss in my willingness to walk away from a congregation that had, as Dr. Mark Hicks says, “loved us into being.” We grew up in this church. One story I didn’t tell is that my youngest daughter actually lost her umbilical stump somewhere between the nursery and the minister’s office on the day we signed the membership book. And I mean LOST, as in I couldn’t find it. (I kept trying slyly to fish through the cushions of the couch in the office, hoping to find it before anyone else did, but no luck.) And that baby is nearly 20 years old. (Now 21!)

Walking away from love is sometimes necessary. I get that. It was for us at that time in our life, in the church’s life. And one of the lessons I learned is that the church is not me anymore than it is anyone in particular that attends. The world spun on. No one is indispensable and the church stayed afloat.

It is nice to know that when the time comes and you have to stand before the crowd and ask them to love you, you can get the forgiveness you seek, not only from others, but from yourself, as Rev. Eller-Isaacs’ reading suggests.

It’s been way too long. And I’m not ready to jump into a leadership role at the church, I’m ready to get in and roll around in the messy way of living and loving that happens when well-meaning people rub up against each other for the common good.

Onward, dear friends. Onward we go, remembering that good old saw: love thy neighbor as they self. And also, love thyself as you would love thy neighbor.

Final note: “not ready to jump into a leadership role” — Hah! I have been serving as the Ministerial Search Committee Chair for more than a year. 

Emergency Music: Or, How I got out of “The Game”

Yesterday I posted this on my Facebook page:

So, there’s this thing going on where people want to know when it is okay to play Christmas music. And I have decided, in the spirit of all things not within my realm, that today marks the opening day of ” Josh Groban Season.” So, y’all, feel comfortable belting out that Ava Maria or, Heaven forbid, Little Drummer Boy. But for *&^%’s sake, enjoy what you enjoy when you enjoy it and don’t let anyone tell you it is too early, too late, too almost or whatever. Enjoy your dang life, y’all. (So I’m enjoying life so much I decided to go Texan on all y’all.)

And I have to admit that I am the one who may have actually started this thing, earlier in the week when I posted on a friend’s wall:

6:58 am, October 28. I’m officially out of the game.

Which referred to a “game” last year where you try to avoid hearing The Little Drummer Boy as long as  you can.  I didn’t last long last year, either.

After that post, many people chimed in and another friend (who is also now out of the game) asked for people to take a poll on when it is appropriate to start listening to Christmas music.  And that’s when I went all Texan.

In the post where I outted myself from the game, I told people who were incredulous that I was already out that I would blog the circumstances because I didn’t have time to write it all then.  So here is my really boring yet true accounting of how I came to be listening to The Little Drummer Boy at 6:58 in the morning on October 28:

I have had the same 6 CDs in my car’s player for the last two years, I think. Maybe longer. Two of them are holiday-themed CDs.  One is Peter Mayer’s Midwinter, and the other is Josh Groban’s Noel. The other four CDs are your every-day kind of music. Lately, when I drive, I am either listening to NPR or my iPhone. I keep the CD player loaded up with emergency music–music that has accompanied me through most of my adult life and will follow me to my grave: REM, Indigo Girls, Bonnie Raitt.

Somehow, over the last two years, Josh Groban’s Noel was added to the Emergency Music rotation. Maybe out of sheer slothfulness on my part (it’ll be Christmas music time in another 10 months, I might as well leave it in), or maybe out of the fact that I just love his voice. It soothes me. It’s like audible chocolate.

And so, there it was, in the CD player, in the rotation. I got in my car at 7:15 pm on October 27th, after 2+ hours on the commuter bus that takes me from Chicago to my home town. It is a 4-minute drive from the bus to my home, and when I got in the car, the CD-player kicked over to the Josh Groban CD, having just finished up the REM greatest hits CD.

My first instinct was to skip the disc and get to the next one.  But there it was, “Silent Night” and I had had a long day and had just a short drive home and I thought, “this is really pretty,” and so I let it go.  I got home, parked my car, went in to spend what was left of the evening with my family and The Blacklist and didn’t think another thing of it.

Next morning, I get in my car, turn it on and Silent Night ends and … Little Drummer Boy begins.  And you know what?  I laughed.  I thought of my friend who doesn’t ever want to hear it and I thought of my daughters who had, I was quite certain, already started listening to Christmas music, and I thought to myself, dang it all if it ain’t time for a little bit of Christmas.

And so, that’s my story of sound and sloth. And joy.

I don’t ask you to listen to music if you don’t want to, I just ask you not to poop on my party in the meantime.

Blessings to you–and Merry Christmas music season (whenever that starts for you).