Monday, September 01, 2014

Tolerance Means Escaping Ourselves

If it were my decision to make, I’d make my frame a little less broad, a little less prominent. In group pictures, I stick out prominently as the largest person in the frame. In a recent conference photo, I am visible by the space I take up and the peculiar way my head juts out from a row of smiling faces. Locating me is difficult. Shorter people usually have a greater chance of having most of their front side towards the camera. I’m the sort of person who has to be identified as back row, third from right.

And by large, I don’t mean overweight, I mean big. I’m six feet tall, but my shoulders are broad and massive and my feet are like boat paddles. I weigh around 270 pounds but my body type holds it well. I always knew I’d be this size in the end when I was still growing, but it never seemed like a good fit even then. If I could have made the decision myself, I’d be 100 pounds lighter and more average sized in build, but none of us can escape biology.

Let me put it a different way. I've been told that partners past have found me attractive and appealing because, on a subliminal level, they feel safe with me. I can protect them from harm, or at least they hope I can. When my temper flares, however, I’ve produced a consistent response in others I find I can limit with effort but cannot eliminate. My girth and broadness have led some to form automatic erroneous conclusions. 

I assure you that I’m totally harmless, but without knowing me intimately, I can be easily misunderstood. Some years ago I became a feminist because I believed in gender equality. I still do. But I have learned to manage my anger and frustration, in spite of the guilty-before-proven-innocent culture I confront more than I would like. Attitudes like those are a harsh life lesson that none of us can fully escape ourselves. None of us can escape our outsides, our gender, and all that defines our basic identity. What keeps me safe also constantly reminds me that I feel ill-suited to this frame and this weight. That said, we don’t often engage with others, opening a needed conversation about the various ways anger and conflict affects each of us.  

When I lose my temper, I never resort to name-calling or insults. Though I’m not proud of it, I wound with my presentation of the facts. The truth can be more damning than lies and supposition could ever hope to be. In my religious work, the goals of others and behavior patterns are quite different. I notice many people want to be nice, first and foremost.

My feminist friends and fellow writers take the exact opposite approach, feeling that confrontation should be used with reckless abandon. I’m not sure whether there is any middle ground between the two, but I have most certainly sought to straddle the gap between them.

I take no offense if I end up in a vocal argument with either another man or with a woman. In the past, I’ve been dressed down by Sunday School teachers and grade school educators of both sexes. I can curse a blue streak and fight hostility with hostility, but I’d much rather be engaged in conversation without pyrotechnics. I try to be a good ally to those marginalized groups who need allies, but like everyone else, the life I inhabit is not colored black and white alone.

When problems with communication show up, as they always do, I’ve been understood and misunderstood. I’ve been a source of comfort to many but I know I haven’t always been seen fairly on my own terms. It’s easy to make assumptions when facts are not plain to the eye.

My last really serious argument, I am sad to say, concerned myself and a very jealous boyfriend. His wife was forced, at his insistence, to cease being Facebook friends with me and forbidden to communicate with me in any way. I felt this was unfair on his part, but didn’t want to press my luck. Argument isn’t rational, even though we may think we are being rational.

Maybe we don’t like to hear ourselves and our actions when we are angry. I surely don't. I'm sure what I just wrote, on further contemplation, makes me seem about 14 years old. What felt so justified in the moment may need to be looked at differently. Arguments not based on logic can quickly be transformed into violence. Centuries of societal conditioning and hard work can give way when fear wins the day. 

I grew up hearing the stories of my father, who was a Grade A hell raiser before he settled down, deliberately picking fights with those foolish enough to draw his fire. His broad shoulders and build were transferred to me by way of the miracle of simple genetics. I also acquired his temper, though that came from direct experience, not genes.

The funny thing is that I believe in big vocabulary words like Peace and always will. What is ineffectual and weak, however, always gets pushed around by the strong. Whether it be a matter of race or of sexual orientation, familiar old patterns, more often than not, win the day. Bemoan it if you like, but I'd prefer we find a solution than continue to be pushed around and coerced.

This isn’t to say that I believe in survival of the fittest, either. My faith insists upon a persistent belief that conflict can be removed by the assiduous study and practice of conflict resolution. In my family, I was warned repeatedly to avoid people who were so liberal that their brains were coming out their ears. Now I’m a different kind of liberal with my own belief system, seeking never to be the cultural stereotype about which I was warned. I still measure myself constantly against this standard, whether I seek to do it or not.

Our understanding of ourselves as we are is not cut-and-dried. Our ambitions are always held in tension and in sharp contrast with our limitations. And in the end, we are only a combination between our personal aspirations and how we are perceived by others. We can only define ourselves to a degree, and either we embrace other flawed creatures as they are or we live a life stuck entirely inside our heads. We need a combination between our best face and our worst moment. That is how we live with others. That is how we live together.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Quote of the Week

"Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less."-Marie Curie

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saturday Video

When I am sad and weary
When all my hope is gone
And I can't put my finger
On the time things first went wrong

I have a little secret I like to tell myself
And until now I haven't told anybody else
You may not see things my way
Like my methods or my reasons
But you can't tell me that I'm wrong

There's no heart you can't melt
with a certain little smile
No challenge should be faced
without a little charm and a lot of style

So don't put your faith in time
She heals but doesn't change
And only a fool won't take the chance
to stay the same

When I am sad and weary
When all my hope is gone
I walk around my house
and think of you with nothing on

I have a list of things
I go over in my mind

When I can just sit right back
and watch the world unwind

You may not see things my way
I don't care because I'm not asking
But you can't tell me that I'm wrong

Friday, August 29, 2014

Your One True Friend

I'll be honest. The last several days have been rough. I haven't gotten much work done. Some people with bipolar disorder have an easy time of it. They take the same familiar medication cocktail for years, the same three word or three letter sequence that rolls off the tongue like a logic game. They've got it easy.

Though my quality of life has improved over time, I continue to experiment with the most effective combinations of drugs. For reasons unknown, my case is a severe one, one that has required around twenty-five different medications from start to finish. Recently, one drug, since discontinued, caused problems with all the others. I've had to wait for it to make its way out of my system before I make modifications to the rest of my regimen. Such is the life of the manic-depressive.

The other day I spoke to my mother on the phone. After retirement, she became a cause lady and has of late volunteered with the organization NAMI to educate others about mental illness. Mom talked about how close I was to killing myself at my worst times, back when I was in high school. The sad outcome of Robin Williams has stirred the pot once again. This is always what happens when someone very high profile commits suicide. I heard the talking points of her speech by the way she emphasized them in conversation. I could see the bullet point headings of a PowerPoint presentation, line by line, in what she shared with me.

I would have been a dubious distinction to the senior class, the first member to die. As it turns out, credit would be claimed a couple of years later by a pair of fraternal twins who left this life in an East Alabama car accident. Or as the cops so succinctly put it, alcohol was involved.

A couple years after that, a long-time troublemaker and social defective totaled his car and ended up a vegetable on life support. In the game of trees versus cars, trees won. Now he lives, if one can generously put it that way, hooked up to a machine in a perpetual coma. In a cool downstairs bedroom, he exists, barely, though he has not opened his eyes in fifteen years. No one was particularly shocked to hear the news and neither did anyone reach out to his family.

I remember only a hyperactive kid on Ritalin in fifth grade. I recall how we, his classmates, would beg the teacher to momentarily dismiss him long enough to visit the nurse, who would dispense his daily dosage to him. We would sidle up to the teacher's desk, one-by-one, urgently requesting that order be restored. He was always out of order, always crawling over desks or sharpening his pencils down to nubs. Later in life, his behavior reminded me of the schizophrenics I encountered during hospital says, a harm to no one but themselves. Some of them were perpetual children, in and out of the state mental hospital for one three-month stay after another.

In June of last year, I visited a friend who had developed a large brain tumor. The ailment was far more common in men fifty years older than himself, which perplexed the oncologist. Knowing that he was dying, he reached out to me for closure before he passed away. As is true with some friends, he always needed me more than I needed him, a fact which always sat uneasily with me. Prior to being diagnosed with a terminal illness, he had consumed recreational drugs with a ferocity and quantity that frightened me. I'm not sure if that's why he contracted such a severe case of cancer, but it's the best explanation I can formulate.

He was devoted to me and visited me in the hospital when the news of where I'd been for all this time eventually leaked out. I'd been a reliable buffer against an alcoholic father and a dismissive, critical older brother. I didn't have words for it at the time, but dysfunctional is the best adjective to use for what he dealt with and it explains why he clung tenaciously to me. His vociferous drug habit was never criticized by me. I knew he was looking for an escape, much as I was myself in my own ways.

Most people in psych wards have relatively short stays. Insurance companies only want to pay for the minimum, usually long enough to be monitored and to regain most of the zest for life. One is then discharged and set free. For most, it's four days and out. This stay for me was two months in duration, marking me as one of the severe cases. I returned to the ward again a couple of years later because at first I was a danger to myself. Upon arrival, the nursing staff knew me by name, which only increased my mortification at being back there once again.

My life could have been a tragedy to add to this list. During a manic episode, I deliberately crossed the street in front of a speeding car. The jaws of two people on the other side of the street dropped, shocked at what I had just done. Some of us live and some of us die. I no longer ask questions of God and I no longer play chicken with the cars on University Boulevard. If I'm still here, I must have a greater purpose, otherwise I cannot explain it to myself or anyone else.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lookin' Out My Back Door

Just got home from Illinois lock the front door, oh boy!
Got to sit down
take a rest on the porch.
Imagination sets in
pretty soon I'm singin'

Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.

There's a giant doing cartwheels,
a statue wearin' high heels.
Look at all the happy creatures
dancing on the lawn.

A dinosaur Victrola
list'ning to Buck Owens.

Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.

Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band.
Won't you take a ride on the flyin' spoon?
Doo doo doo.
Wond'rous apparition provided by magician.

Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.

Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band.
Won't you take a ride on the flyin' spoon?
Doo doo doo.
Bother me tomorrow, today, I'll buy no sorrows.

Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.

Forward troubles Illinois,
lock the front door oh boy!
Look at all the happy creatures
dancing on the lawn.
Bother me tomorrow, today, I'll buy no sorrows.

Doo doo doo
lookin' out my back door.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An Open Letter to My Meeting

The two hemispheres of my waking life are diametrically opposite. Finding intersection in my work can be managed, even as I notice the contradictions. The feminist and activist side of me wants to shake the world out of its complacency. Feminist discourse can be incredibly forceful, sometimes to the point of being hurtful. My audience is comprised of women who seek to prove that they can be as tough and as flinty as a man. I respect their desire to challenge gender roles and establish an egalitarian society where sex and gender no longer exist in their current form, even when I think that the voices of some are too strident, too quick to find fault.

The peace-loving Quaker side of me could not be more different. My Utopian vision would have us speak to each other with love and compassion, while not reducing these words to a kind of unsatisfying mush. I see the limitations of getting caught up in the moment, feeling that anger is somehow a desired state or is empowering. At the same time, the other half of me sees a potential for complacency in everyone. I’m a relatively young person and I have the temperament and good breeding of a born reformer. I hope I will always be progressive at heart.

My methods and my reasons are mystifying to some. I am a problem, a person who needs to be watched cautiously. My activist streak might take this as a something of a badge of honor. Deviating from the norm is my life’s work, you might say. I’m aware of this disconnect, but offer up my life’s work as evidence. I never believed that any gains made in advancing the world forward would be easy or without hardship. I’d rather stay chronically unsatisfied than be content with a half-baked and half-finished sense of purpose and moral compass.

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.- Matthew 10:22

I have consistently challenged the Meeting to live up to its potential and will continue to do so. It is easy to feel satisfied with the gains one has made, but room for improvement is always present. My own restless spirit cannot be confined and as the Holy Spirit inspires me, I seek for it to guide me. My aim has never been for personal attack, even when I am knee-deep in the middle of it almost every single day. Knife-fighting in the comment section is where I live, for better or for worse, and I will admit that being around it as often as I do does make an impact.

I began this journey and this leading six years ago, and I have never deviated from it. I bow my head to say my prayers at night, as I have done since I was a child. And as I do, I recall my first vocal ministry delivered upon arrival in my new home. It had me say something nebulous and unsatisfactory about hypocrisy. In any case, I’ve forgotten it completely. All I know is that it didn’t seem to make much impact upon presentation.

Even a masterstroke of rhetorical genius like the Gettysburg Address appeared to land with a resounding thud upon first presentation. Abraham Lincoln acknowledged only a smattering of applause after he was finished talking and was seated, remarking to the person next to him that, in his words, “I’m afraid this plow won’t scour.” Or, in other words, he was convinced at first that the speech had not gone well. But upon further consideration, observers saw the brilliant economy of words and simplicity contained therein. Before long, it became a classic.

I don’t, of course, seek to compare myself in any way, shape, or fashion to Lincoln. But I wonder sometimes upon being seated after a vocal ministry whether my own personal plow scours. Total certainty of this fact would not be a true leading. God does not always agree with me but be it know that I do follow God’s will in ways that I know will require a great amount of intestinal fortitude. I am quite serious about this. This is true for every area of the Meeting in which I have involved myself directly, from committee service to Young Adult Friends. I can’t know everyone and wouldn't pretend to, but I do know where I need to be.

It needs to be said that a challenge is not a personal attack. Everyone is sensitive to particular subjects and our buttons can be pushed without much difficulty. If we talked to each other more forthrightly, there would be minimal misunderstandings. I think we can do that. I am appreciative for those who have spoken to me with kindness and who I look forward to speaking with and working with on a regular basis. This is my desire and my constant plea.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Film Review: The Amish, Shunned

A recently released PBS documentary is entitled The Amish: Shunned. Over the course of its nearly two hour long running time, the lives of five or so who have chosen to leave the church are portrayed. They may have departed a year ago or forty, but every person interviewed on camera has had to give up something dear to them. Following their own path can mean never seeing their families again. The anguish of giving up everything they have ever known is enough that most stay where they are.

In some ways, the Amish remind one of other reclusive religious groups, Orthodox Jews being the first that comes to mind. Amish children are minimally educated, only schooled past the eighth grade. Their religious life and time-honored roles is more important. Speaking a native language called Pennsylvania Dutch is emphasized over English, meaning that English language skills are often deficient by most standards. Having left the church, they are refugees and immigrants, having taken perhaps the largest leap of faith possible.

It is a testament to the religious freedom preached by United States that the group immigrated to the New World in the 18th Century. Although the Amish live in states beyond Pennsylvania, Amish numbers and presence are more prominent there. Theirs is a very legalistic faith, full of numerous commandments to obedience and right living. Rules are not to be disobeyed. The nail that sticks up is immediately hammered down. They would prefer to live their own lives as they wish.

We who pride ourselves on our individuality might object to this much of a focus upon regarding personal discipline and correction. Liberals, in particular, believe in an idealistic notion that we are enriched by differing cultural beliefs and multiple points of view. What this perspective leaves out is the human element, a cold intellect rather than warm humanity. In this setting, the personal is political, or at least powerful to contemplate.

The first example that comes to mind is an anecdote about a grief-stricken father. Without prompting, the man sat on the front porch of the house where his recalcitrant teenage son was now living. He stayed for eighteen hours solid, giving up sleep, convinced that if his son left the Amish church, he would go to hell. For those of us who have no notion of what eternal damnation entails beyond the superficial, we lack the understanding at just how much fear four letters produce in the minds of true believers. Evangelical Christians seek to save souls to ensure everyone reaches Heaven.

Another father of a wayward Amish child fasted for a month solid, believing that God was punishing him. The gesture was a sign to his son of the grave importance of staying within the church. If these anecdotes were stripped of their humanity, it would be easier to harshly judge the participants. In an activist setting, fasting for religious reasons might well be a hunger strike. The two activities require only a single-minded belief and purpose. It’s only the variables that change.

Shunning is uniform among the Amish, but the limits and intensity this takes often depend on the family and the community. A woman who had left the church had a family who pushed the envelope. She was allowed to eat dinner with her mother, father, and numerous siblings. Word got back to the elders, and they decided that this practice could not continue. Other former Amish showed years of letters written deliberately by distraught parents in painstaking long-hand, begging their children to return.

One man who lives in a town adjacent to the Amish has made it his business to extend a particular hand to young adults who were raised Amish. He and his wife rent out two rooms and provide a welcoming atmosphere for those desperately seeking how to live on the outside world. They come straggling in, one by one, two by two. As part of their room and board, they perform chores. After getting a toe-hold in what the Amish call English society, they move on to jobs and apartments of their own. As one leaves, another takes his or her place.

Intentional communities and communes have been trendy among progressives for the past few decades. Viewing the prevailing culture of concrete and steel as supremely corrupting is found in all forms. But without conviction, it is difficult not to see the exercise as Ascetic, an empty exercise in self-denial. Most Christians believe that one ought to strive to live in this world and yet not to be of this world. This is a belief I share, though I think it is much more challenging and pleasing to God to engage rather than to withdraw.