Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Even as times change and private details become public domain (whether we want them to or not), we still assume that entrusting our most hidden secrets with someone else implies a sort of emotional intimacy only present within a romantic relationship. This proves problematic, however, when not revealing crucial bits of information makes it very easy to be misunderstood or to have one’s motives called into question.
Some criticize those who over-share, often with good reason, but I find the details that are loudly volunteered for all who might hear them aren’t necessarily shameful secrets, but rather a litany of poor decisions and often destructive behaviors that are shockingly hedonistic. While riding public transportation, I might overhear the sordid details of a random stranger’s alcohol-drenched one-night-stand, but I’m certainly not likely to hear about their struggles with body image or an eating disorder. Some topics are off-limits, even in a culture that is at times inclined towards narcissistic boasting.
The sort of honesty, by contrast, that I ascribe to is very different. As I’ve talked about before, I keep primarily female company. My friends are almost entirely female and I’m far more comfortable around women than I ever have been around men. Though therapy has been helping me work through my trust issues with men, the progress I have made is measured in inches, not miles. The going is slow, and frequently painful. It is my hope that someday I will be able to have friends who are male who I won’t feel compelled to keep at arm’s length from me, but in the meantime I have to work with where I am right now.
Recently I ran into an issue with a female friend whose religious beliefs are far more conservative than my own. In her own worship service, for example, men and women still sit separately from one another. Even outside of worship, men mostly keep male company and women mostly keep female company. She shared a story with me recently about how she once invited a man she had known for years and years, one significantly older than herself and very married, to her new apartment to show him around. He refused to enter the front door for fear that someone might assume that the two of them were up there purely to have sex or to engage in "evil", as he put it, and used a scriptural citation as justification.
Even while we were talking in person, I noticed very subtle but very deliberate ways in which she implied that all she wanted from me was friendship. I noticed these, of course, and tried not to seem as though I didn’t understand what she was very delicately stating. As she explained it to me, men who seek close bonds with women, particularly close emotional bonds usually desire a relationship. To her, I suppose, she thought I was trying to court her, and she was not interested in that at all. I had no interests beyond the platonic myself, but by the very fact that I opened up and shared large parts of myself with her very quickly into our friendship, she assumed my designs were romantic rather than friendly.
We eventually came to a mutual understanding, whereby she explained her reasons for setting sharp boundaries. After some initial discomfort, we are now the best of friends and stay in contact frequently. Yet, I also had to explain once more about the abuse and its impact upon me. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to come clean with something capable of making another person really uncomfortable for the sake of clearing up a misunderstanding. Though most people these days are okay with having opposite-sex friends, I wonder if there will ever come a time where our openness gives people the freedom to talk openly about that which makes them vulnerable and that which they are easily ashamed. If we did this, we’d certainly cut down on the problems caused by just not getting each other and we might even find that we have more in common than we’d ever dreamed. This is my hope for the future.
I've been reflecting recently on the nature of conferences, gatherings, retreats, or camps. Roughly a month ago I returned from the Young Adult Friend 2010 conference held in Wichita, Kansas. In a month, I will attend Baltimore Yearly Meeting's Annual Session for the first time ever. For non-Quaker readers, a monthly meeting is where one attends worship every Sunday. A yearly meeting, by contrast, is a regional grouping of monthly meetings.
For me, at least, attending such functions almost always proves fruitful in all sorts of ways. Making deep, emotionally satisfying connections with other Friends is always welcome. After arriving home, I feel charged and driven, even ready to run through a brick wall if necessary to accomplish the aims and goals I have set for myself. Such spaces are a bit of a sustained pep talk of sorts, a call to action, if you will.
The YAF 2010 gathering in Kansas provided me the ability to experience a near-Utopia for three powerful days. The intensity, the fellowship, and the presence of the Spirit were present in proportions I have experienced very rarely in my own life. God's presence in my life was no abstraction, nor something frustratingly imperceptible. In my exuberance and joy, I expressed these feelings to a Friend, and his response was cautious and measured. He told me that any function this concentrated could never be replicated in day-to-day life and that, furthermore, we should take what we learned and apply it to our monthly meetings and be sure not to leave it all there.
It is certainly true that many Young Friends and Young Adult Friends live only for conferences and gatherings while ignoring their monthly meetings. Even so, one cannot discount the powerful and renewing experiences produced there. They may be only for the short-term, but even something so time-limited I believe needs to be enjoyed without caveats. Our much less exciting daily lives will always be there upon our return. Why not enjoy oneself as best one can?
Many groups, movements, or organizations, be they religious or secular put on some version or another of a gathering or conference. Those fortunate enough to attend find themselves riding a high of good feeling. With it comes a hard-charging idealism and restored sense of focus. This degree of energy or purpose may not be sustainable, but one cannot discount the impression they make upon those in attendance. I might not be able to remember where my cars keys are on my way out the door, but I will never forget the connections I made, the people I met, and the shared experience of togetherness produced as we shared space with one another. Those who I have spoken to upon return feel relaxed and at peace, as though they had been on a leisurely and badly needed vacation.
I met a Young Adult Friend while in Kansas who is part of a small intentional community under the care of her monthly meeting. I mention this to underscore a very common current among many participants; they feel as though they are in a place where they are finally understood, loved, accepted, and taken seriously. They have, in effect, found their tribe and their people, and are reluctant to part ways with them. Several of us have at least contemplated a desire to live together away from the demoralizing, hurtful aspects of the world, and though one might easily assign that to wishful thinking, it has nonetheless crossed the minds of more than a few.
As tempting as this is, I do know that there's a lot of hard work to be done out in the greater world. My hope upon leaving any gathering this profound and moving is that I might not see the experiences of true community slip away from me like sand in an hour glass, a little bit at a time. I may not be able to grasp hold to all of it, but my fond memories remain, and they persist. Science has taught us that the more intense an experience, the more likely it is for it to be indelibly burned into our memories. No matter what might face me, if I need to be reminded of what really matters in life, all I need to do is invoke those times. Some of what I experienced might be short-lived, but I take back much of value with me. If these gatherings are artificial and unreal, then here's to artifice and unreality!
Monday, June 28, 2010
Time has told me
You're a rare rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind.
And time has told me
Not to ask for more
Someday our ocean
Will find its shore.
So I`ll leave the ways that are making me be
What I really don't want to be
Leave the ways that are making me love
What I really don't want to love.
Time has told me
You came with the dawn
A soul with no footprint
A rose with no thorn.
Your tears they tell me
There's really no way
Of ending your troubles
With things you can say.
And time will tell you
To stay by my side
To keep on trying
'til there's no more to hide.
So leave the ways that are making you be
What you really don't want to be
Leave the ways that are making you love
What you really don't want to love.
Time has told me
You're a rare rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind.
And time has told me
Not to ask for more
For some day our ocean
Will find its shore.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Friday, June 25, 2010
I usually don't provide much in the way of commentary for my performance videos, but I figured I would today. Some performances are easy to record and can be managed in only two or three takes. This was not the case here today. I did close to ten takes in a row before eliminating minor, but still significant errors that would have detracted from the entire performance itself. My patience usually wears thin around the seventh or eighth take. Furthermore, any song that is particularly barre-intensive like this one can only be played a certain number of times before I have to stop. There is a reason for that, of course, and hopefully you'll find the story behind it interesting.
Roughly a decade ago, I was out driving one rainy November morning, and ended up hydroplaning into the back of the car in front of me. People drive very indecisively and at time irrationally when it's raining, so I was forced to apply the brakes rather abruptly when the whole chain of cars in front of me decided to come to a complete stop at a red light. My car had an unfortunate tendency to lack roadway traction in crucial situations. As I plowed into the bumper of what turned out to be a Jaguar, the airbag inflated.
My left thumb happened to be grasping the steering wheel rather aggressively before impact, and somehow the airbag was in its direct path. It was bent sideways and badly dislocated. Suffice it to say that it's never quite been the same since. Barring forces one to push hard against the underside of the neck with the fretting hand; the thumb is the crucial digit to accomplish this successfully. My left thumb doesn't have the range of motion it once did and bends very awkwardly and stiffly at the joint. When I write my own stuff, I have to be careful to mix up barre chords with open chords, since a song with 100% barring I'll only be able to manage about three or four times through. I've often wondered if I could have surgery on it.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
This post was not published on that site, perhaps because of how easily it could be misinterpreted. No matter. I managed to reach many people with these words through other conduits.
Two specific stories from two specific people have broadened my understanding in the past few days. As a bit of prelude, I recognize that I was socialized as a male, so I know that it is from that reference point that I form all my judgments and observations. In particular, two very intense experiences I've had recently brought quite a bit into focus for me. I'm always very glad for desired insight and always hope to receive more of it.
With my first anecdote, I'm going to be a good bit vague regarding specific details for the sake of my friend's privacy. To begin, I suppose one never understands sexual assault completely until it happens to them personally or when it happens to someone one knows well. When any tragedy moves from the abstract to the real, real learning commences. And on that note, here is just what I mean.
A friend, clearly in a place of pain, recounted to me something that had happened to her the prior week before at a conference. While there, she told me that she had been fondled against her will by a fellow attender. To add insult to injury, after the incident, the man in question then proceeded to shadow her movements and in so doing make it known to her that he fully intended to stay within her eyesight at all times.
This behavior constituted stalking and of course it totally freaked her out. From then on she made a point to place herself directly in the middle of large groups of people for protection's sake and to never go anywhere by herself. I'm glad she had enough foresight to protect herself in this way, though of course I would have rather none of this happened at all. Her copious tears and fear showed plainly on her face as she talked and I could tell just how upset all this had made her. After she finished speaking and I began to process what I had just been told, I think it was at that exact moment that I developed a deeper understanding I never would have managed prior to then.
I've mentioned a few times in other spaces my own childhood experiences with sexual assault and the damage done, so I note it here only to provide a bit of context. Still, I think it's a bit different when it happens in adulthood and particularly when it happens to a man, rather than a woman. This is confirmed when, in my online Feminist activism, a woman puts up a post or starts a thread regarding the subject of rape or sexual assault, especially when it arrives in the form of personal anecdote. So many people relate deeply and personally to that which has been said on the matter and we can talk of nothing else for a long while afterward.
I've always found it interesting to observe how one post inspires others and leads others to write their own post. It's also fascinating to contemplate the ways in which one particular piece on any topic, regardless of what it may be, will give readers an opening to speak about something very important to them. Sometimes written replies to previous posts revolve around one sentence out of fifty in the piece that has moved them in some way, shape, or fashion. Sometimes they are a drafted response to one whole post in totality. Sometimes one word alone is dynamic enough to be a conduit for someone's further exploration. But what cannot be denied is that all our stories do have a common thread.
I observe this same phenomenon in unprogrammed worship. Sometimes one can tell how one message leads to another, though not always. My interest in how it all fits together isn't purely just an intellectual pursuit. Sometimes meetings turn out to be very gathered and very logical. Sometimes they are asymmetric and perplexing, but I still look for the Light within each person's contribution. To me, that's part of spiritual discipline and part of knocking on the door, knowing that by the end, the door will be opened and I will find that which I have been seeking.
Next, the second anecdote. A fellow Quaker sat across the room from me during a worship group. We had yet to begin and were simply having pleasant conversation with each other before getting started. She told a story about a man in her own meeting, who, at some point during service, had attempted to kiss the woman sitting next to him. The assumption was that the two of them were strangers, or at least that they didn't know each other very well, though I don't know the details well enough to be any authority on the matter.
Whether the kiss was meant in a spirit of purely platonic fellowship or overt sexual desire was unclear, but in any case, the woman had not wanted it. In response to her actions, the man proceeded to rise to speak and in so doing chastised the woman for her behavior. Shaming other Friends in meeting is not acceptable, but in addition to that, it nearly went without saying that his message was clearly not Spirit-led and was meant only for he himself. This resulted, as you might anticipate, in a very heated, intense situation as meeting concluded. It was thus necessary to set firm parameters, boundaries, and consequences for the man if he ever acted the same way again during worship.
The fellow Friend telling the story put herself in a pastoral care role as she talked to him, walking a delicate tightrope she sought to base purely in love while at the same time knowing she needed to be constantly vigilant to not let her temper lead her towards directions that would only have exacerbated the situation further. Was it fair that she had to do this? Certainly not, but that's unfortunately part of living in a world that is unequal and unjust. I myself have learned over the years that word selection and tone are as important, if not more so, than intent alone. How we say it often supersedes what we say.
As she finished the story, she noted, with some bitterness, that even when she was absolutely furious, people often thought that she looked cute. As a result, they had a hard time taking her seriously. I recall that this was one of my mother's pet peeves, as well. Without knowing better, years and years ago, I fought back against my latest disciplinary tongue-lashing by telling Mom that, You look cute when you get angry. I was all of nine or ten at the time. I must have picked it up from somewhere and assumed only that it was a kind of clever smart-assed retort, but the ferocity of my Mother's anger at that statement really surprised me. Later, of course, I understood why it had set her off so much. This idea of being consistently belittled and infantilized by men in ways few men would treat another man took a while for me to fully understand and take into account.
The boundaries that prevent women from reaching their own freedom are often the very same ones that keep men from understanding how to be good allies. This deeply complicates how they ought to aid them in that struggle. Additionally, I have come to understand how women are told to be people-pleasers first and foremost and in so doing warned to not rock the boat for any reason. This is something else the Friend spoke about, and though I do not doubt what she said, I have to say that this particular cultural expectation runs contrary with how I was brought up.
I myself came from a family of people with flashpoint tempers, regardless of sex. Anger is something I'm used to, in other words, and in my family, it was something of a simultaneous means of attack and a means of defense. Though I try to keep my own temper under wraps, if I'm upset enough for long enough, what comes out of me is so intense as to be frightening. This is why I try as best I can to not lose my cool. I certainly have listened to close female friends, partners, and lovers talk about the societal pressure to be calm and deferential at all cost and I acknowledge that those experiences were very real for them.
That, however, was not my experience growing up. My mother was never exactly the sort of person to restrain her passions. I can still remember some of the decibel-splitting lectures I received as a boy which could have peeled the paint off of walls. Both of my sisters have angry streaks as well, and this has regrettably led to more than a few verbal fights among us I'd rather not contemplate. We might have repressed certain things about ourselves, but conflict was not one of them.
I used to be very angry myself and I have only recently set it aside. Because of my own struggles and because of the nature of how I grew up, I don't usually feel threatened by people whose default setting is anger. Instead, I feel sorrow and compassion for them. Anger stems from a sense of brokenness and I wish for it to be healed and put aside. My own father's anger didn't really subside until recently when he began to have major health problems. My grandfather, my mother's father, was someone who was also very fiery and explosive. He did not let go of his quick temper until the cancer that would eventually take his life took with it his strength and will to keep struggling.
His behavior, those ghastly last months, was thoroughly out of character. My mother mentions how distressing it was to see someone who was a ball of energy become lethargic and non-committal. And it's probably not surprising that I've been attracted to people who do possess anger to some degree or another, though I have also discovered that these sorts of desires are unhealthy. We all have fatal attractions and mine is to anger, whether within myself or another person.
And, to conclude, we know the world we live in has significant problems and so we speak out against them. I'm glad we do. It's easy for me to feel outraged. That outrage is often effective in getting myself fired up and ready to go. But when I can make a personal connection to a situation based on someone I know in real life, I see a more complete picture. I see the ironies. I see the humanity. I see the tragedy. I see the human frailties we all possess to some degree. And when that happens, the nature of my anger changes. Feeling love for someone who has wronged you does not mean accepting one's fate or condoning what has happened. But it does mean that we take into account something beyond just our own individual response and try to entertain someone else's thought process, too.
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Monday, June 21, 2010
Today I scheduled an appointment with a GP for my yearly checkup. I'm not physically sick or injured at the moment, but I figured it would be worthwhile setting up an appointment anyway. While on Medicaid here in the District, an insured person is required to establish a particular primary case physician. This PCP is based at a specific location and is, of course, the person one sees in the event of a serious illness. I had meant to do this long before now and finally got around to it.
While on the phone with the scheduler I was asked a series of very rudimentary questions, as is typical. However, I have to say I was a bit blindsided by one of them, which I never would have expected in any context, for any reason. Do you identify as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual?
At first I thought the person on the line surely was joking, but he was quite serious. Of course I responded truthfully, but the request seemed more than a bit invasive. Don't get me wrong. I wish we could all be completely honest with ourselves, but providing what has been a very damning bit of my identity to a complete stranger for the sake of statistical analysis seems a bit forward. While part of me was relieved to note that bisexuality was being taken seriously---in that it was actually listed as a available answer choice, another part of me felt it severely inappropriate to even be asked such a thing.
At what point does our sexual orientation need to be anyone's public domain? Like many people, I've certainly often wondered what a truly accurate count of LGBTs would look like if fear and stigma were not an complicating factor. I myself have tried over time to give people the freedom and courage to come out. Still, I don't think I personally would ever feel comfortable confronting someone with such a bold request, especially a total stranger, in effect putting them on the spot. I've never been asked to state my sexual orientation before for any reason, and I can't help but think that those with a higher standard and quality of care are never asked such things.
The clinic that was closest to my home was one of the few sites in the District to take Medicaid patients. I'm sure that those with private plans likely don't have to take what they can get as I do. And I'm also sure if I dug deep enough into the matter or did my research I could find out the reasons why low-income residents are solicited for their sexual orientation. I do, however, worry that the information collected could be used in improper ways. Even in this day and age, they could be used for purposes of blackmail, regardless of how many times one is assured that the data collected is confidential.
The District has an unusually high number of residents who are HIV+ and live below the poverty line so perhaps this rather unorthodox request was put in place to best assist those who wish to prevent its spread. Yet, we seem to have no issue taking liberties that may compromise basic rights of privacy for those who don't have the same material and intellectual advantages that we do.
This country has a history of treating those at the bottom like guinea pigs. The most prominent example I can think of is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, but the sheer magnitude of unethical human experimentation in this country alone is absolutely staggering. I am not implying that the information collected from me was taken in a spirit of medical sadism, but rather to note that it is often exceptionally easy to disregard freedom of choice in a rush to solve a problem. Manipulation of this sort is a slippery slope and while most practitioners stay within an ethical grey area, there are always a few here and there who take liberties.
As for me, I would have preferred to have been told upfront, before a single question had been asked, that I would be solicited for my sexual orientation. It's not so much the question itself I object to as the way it was presented and the lack of adequate methodology. I was not told how my answer would be recorded, what it was to be used for, that I was under no obligation to answer the question, and how my privacy was to be protected. In situations like these, careless record keeping easily ends up with personal information being compromised. We've all read about what happens when potentially sensitive personal data ends up being tossed into dumpsters without being shredded, or how easy it is for hackers to compromise even protected computer systems. Though it may be impossible to have a truly impenetrable system of defense, organizations and entities can still take safeguards to limit potential breaches.
sound over of conversation
lips smacking against cigarette filters. giggles. rustling of plastic bags full of pills. childish needless flinty flicks of lighters. all culminating in squeals of girls who saunter up to the bathroom with their lovers to dose, to swallow the necessary amount of water in the cheap plastic cups and upon doing so collapse onto sofas together in a heap of hair and rumpled clothing.
then fade in on where I’m sitting alone.
she has witch tits emily and jessica say. they’ve been inseparable for as long as I’ve been a part of this group of friends. two years or more. I say what do you mean by that? they say well they’re all pointy and you know like cone shaped and I say ewwww gross
the lead girl the one who has been in charge of distributing the beans and will later implore me to rub her head once the drugs kick in is named Maggie. the woman in question is a short order cook at the local bar and grille and wears jeans that smell of the residue of the trade hot grease warm toast fried anything. so Maggie is saying that I’m glad we’re all together tonight at my place and make yourself at home. though I really don’t know anyone don’t even really know why I’m even here tonight just that I didn’t have much else to do on a Friday night.
I’m self conscious about most things about myself including the black hair around my nipples and my arms and my knuckles that I used to shave away out of shame and now just let grow to spite my mother when she visits. when I was in high school she’d often say I don’t know why anyone so pretty would ever leave the house looking so ugly. not that I was ever the epitome of beautiful even when I tried to be fluffy and dainty. I’m rough as a board and as plain as one but I was never content to completely bull-dyke out and buzz my head and wear some hideously lopsided visor.
camera pulls out centering on the black light meant to accentuate the drug being taken. the lights dimmed now. nearly ten o’clock in the evening. the stale stench of charred tobacco wafting in now and then as it is a perfectly still night with no wind.
camera pulls overhead to me sitting alone solitary on the couch
I dosed nearly an hour ago and I can’t say I know exactly what these pills contain other than I manage to catch the strains of other peoples’ conversations as though they were my own thoughts. for instance the pair next to me is currently vying for the title of world’s most annoying couple. loud and all over each other and cooing to each other about promises made of ultimate fidelity you remember hun that when we get older we’re going to China to adopt a baby
one of the couple the brunette one with eyes like a doe dislodges, obviously intoxicated, slinks across the floor and asks me abruptly to guess one of her secrets
your secrets? I ask perplexed yes, my secrets sweetie she slurs and brushes a finger against one of my lips. well I say thinking I bet that you almost died when you were a child and instead of the intended or expected reaction to something that outlandish she grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me
how did you know that? who told you that? I’ve never told anyone that before tell me what powers you possess and quickly her partner drags her back from the issue with a deep kiss and everyone goes back to what they were doing. so I resume staring at the ceiling.
the ceiling is a high A frame that reminds me of the small baptist church mom dragged me along to when I was a little girl. I would lie in her lap and lie across one of the uncomfortable un-padded wooden pews and stare at the majesty of the rough pine planks that seemed to tower towards heaven while at the same time smarting from the scrapes and scabs that inevitable crisscrossed both knees as a result of another Saturday spent outside playing in the woods.
camera focuses squarely on the center of the room
Maggie claims that one of the group must be rescued. Maggie is always rescuing someone. usually it’s whomever she wants to sleep with but you don’t ask questions of Maggie. this is Maggie’s place, and her drugs and her food that she has thoughtfully prepared for the occasion
technically this is her grandfather’s place who few of us has ever seen he is apparently an eccentric old reclusive transvestite who just wants to be left alone. he scarcely leaves his bedroom and his only condition with Maggie is that she not let guys sleep over. this is hardly a problem.
I hear the loud rumbling of Maggie’s car departing the car has a broken muffler that she refuses to get fixed so as a result it is about as subtle upon entrance as she is.
multiple camera shots of women leading women hand by hand into bedrooms it is the time of night where the true meaning of this party becomes evident. there was a time I once defended Maggie you know she’s bouncy they’d said and I like a fool would deny it time and time again. you want to trust her everyone’s slightly in love with her and so I am I suppose. once this girl I barely knew threw herself upon Maggie. deep down inside I’m sure the snake-charmer does have a heart so she did take the opportunity to remove her bra one handed I haven’t lost my touch Maggie said satisfied but then quickly fell asleep next to the poor girl.
but at this moment camera zooms towards door the aforementioned dream goddess enters with a girl around her waist. Maggie surely does like the young ones this one can’t be more than seventeen at best and makes herself at home in front of the big screen television. flips on MTV.
I just ate another bean on the way over Maggie says so what do you want me to do about it? rub my head she says I thought that’s what you got her for I say gesticulating towards the tiny body with eyeballs now glued to the screen.
nah she’s not my type she bores me so who is your type I ask skeptically well, maybe you tonight she says and without thinking I take her hand and walk into the bedroom the teen sensation scarcely notices we’ve left.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Friday, June 18, 2010
Thursday, June 17, 2010
A Quaker minister recently spoke my mind and, as it turned out, the minds of many. The thrust of his message asserted that we who are people of faith (and even those who do not identify as such) have over the years split into two camps. One of them seeks to love his or her neighbor by means of social justice and direct service. Some build houses for the poor. Others seek to educate and empower those who live in Third World countries. Still others take jobs in helping professions or non-profits designed to assist the less fortunate and the needy. It is this aspect that is emphasized most heavily in progressive faiths and certainly by liberal unprogrammed Friends.
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right.
I write seeking not to criticize those who do such things. It is my opinion that they are doing God's work here on Earth. I believe that we exist for a reason and though the Spirit may do the heavy lifting, I doubt not at all that its purpose is to use us to enrich and improve the lives of those around us. Even those who trend more towards the humanistic side or do not believe in God at all have nonetheless taken this law to heart. We who are born into privilege have material and financial advantages not granted to many, of course. That we would use our awareness of inequality for the betterment of others is touching and noble. This same devotion to a greater good is the motivation of many who live here in Washington, DC, and I am fortunate to call a few of them both Friends and friends.
To continue, another camp has focused more on inner salvation and spiritual purity. This attitude requires a kind of weighty introspection that, properly channeled, brings clarity, focus, and unity while growing community in the process. This was my spiritual background, growing up Methodist as I did. Though I certainly contributed to the construction of more than one Habitat for Humanity project on humid Saturday mornings during the summertime, such tasks were scheduled sporadically rather than frequently. Though it was never spelled out in detail, the implied emphasis was that our thoughts and deeds ought to be inwardly channeled towards ourselves or towards the church community as a whole. To be perfectly honest, I find a strict orientation towards social justice alone somewhat lacking.
My discomfort stems not from the nature of the work done, nor in doubting its effectiveness, but purely from personal bias. My religious upbringing did not emphasize activism and to me, at least, grabbing a hammer and a nail never felt especially spiritual. While I never doubted that I was doing beneficial labor for someone other than myself, I suppose I associated the task at hand with doing routine household chores on weekends. The familiar never seemed especially holy or satisfying, whereas the mystical feeling of renewal I experienced every Sunday morning certainly spurred me to action. Though I would have never used this phrase at the time, worship centered me and allowed me to commune with the Holy Spirit.
And, not only that, it was a special time neither present nor available in my day to day existence. I could paint a shutter or repair a broken window at home at any point, but even when in the presence of others, such tasks always seemed solitary and sterile. And yet, for an hour every Sunday, while gathered together with the community, I experienced a sense of powerful personal revelation that was both highly individual and thoroughly communal all at once.
James' relatively short epistle, one verse of which I have quoted above, does nonetheless contain much wisdom despite its length.
My brothers and sisters, what good does it do if someone claims to have faith but doesn't do any good things? Can this kind of faith save him? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, "Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well"--but then you don't give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?
So you see, faith by itself isn't enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, "Some people have faith; others have good deeds." But I say, "How can you show me your faith if you don't have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds."
Yet, what good deeds are these? I would not deign to say I know God's plan for anyone other than myself, and even then the message is often confusing and difficult to discern. What I will argue, however, is that if we seek to unify both camps, we should also acknowledge that each of us have different strengths and weaknesses. My own leading compels me to write and create from within myself, for as I do so, even writing these words to you right now, I find connection with God. The minister's message encourages me to be more well-rounded, certainly, but I know it will be a challenge for me to seek the Divine within the sublime. My greater goal is to cease to place strict distinctions upon that which is holy and that which is not. It has been my experience that even those who are not Theists or not Theists in the conventional sense still retain a sense of that which is sacred and moving.
I conclude with a passage of scripture, also from James, which underscores where we all often go astray. Life is far too short for destructive disagreements and open hostility. I recognize in including this passage that some may have issue with the concept of "law". Law, literally speaking, connotes a restrictive measure that punishes those who transgress. My hope is that you might see "law" instead in less human terms, as a way by which we might all live together in some semblance of peace. Division and factionalism are commonplace everywhere, not just within religious groups.
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
Don't speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God's law. But your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you. Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog--it's here a little while, then it's gone.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
In the meantime, I leave you with this. I only wish I could find a version where the poet herself reads. This particular reading is stuffy and does the somber beauty of the words no justice. There was a time where I felt much this way. Now it reminds me of earlier days, but a trip back home often brings back such memories. I post this here in part dedicated to a dear professor friend whose favorite poet was Edna St. Vincent Millay.
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply;
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands a lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet know its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone;
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Monday, June 14, 2010
Friday, June 11, 2010
I'm headed off to the mountains to camp and generally get away from it all. The park has free wifi, but I think I'm going to temporarily cut the umbilical chord in the hopes I might be able to reach a more restful state without my laptop.
Copious pictures will be taken, of course.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Do pardon this brief post. I'd like to return once more to the recent Young Adult Friends gathering I attended in Kansas by sharing a particularly pertinent anecdote. While in a small group one day, a Friend, as was her wont, told a compelling story. I've mentioned her once before and will yet again use one of her anecdotes to base this post. She, as you may recall, is part of a small minority of Quakers who still keep plain dress. She was also heavily involved in getting the gathering together and making sure everything ran smoothly.
As part of her role in supervising the preparation of meals, she awoke early one morning and entered the kitchen. Much to her dismay, she discovered that the gathering was low on cereal for breakfast. Unless a last-minute grocery store run was undertaken, there would not be enough food to feed those in attendance. So, she and another Friend thus quickly headed to the closest supermarket.
While there, she noticed German Brethren and Mennonites, two groups with members who dress plainly in their own particular fashion for religious reasons. Rather ironically, she instantly placed them and recognized who they were, yet they were unable to do the same. While telling the story, she stressed how one woman kept staring and staring at her, trying desperately to determine to whom she belonged. After a while, the woman gave up, conceding that she was a huge mystery. I found this story fascinating on all sorts of levels. This, to a very large extent, is to me a useful metaphor that shows how others perceive us, regardless of whether we are Quakers or liberal/progressive people of faith.
For my fellow Friends, I pose a query. Most of us may not keep plain dress anymore, but what in particular about that which we display externally to others allows others to know we are Friends? For those who are people of faith, regardless of allegiance, I ask the same question in a slightly different way. In our daily lives, what that we show to the world shows the depths and the plain proof of our belief? We seem to be good at spiritually enriching ourselves internally, but we are often much more private about how we seem in front of others.
I think part of taking a greater role in shaping religious/spiritual discourse requires us to be more open with that which we believe. This starts with us being unafraid to show physical proof to all, not as a means of necessarily seeking to separate ourselves, but certainly not having reservations about how we may or may not be perceived in public. Though some might seek to shame us, we cannot let the fear of being somehow rejected or misunderstood paint us into a corner.
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
A Year of the Woman, again?
In Arkansas, being a woman helped Sen. Blanche Lincoln pull off a huge upset in a runoff over challenger Bill Halter, who led by a comfortable margin in almost all pre-primary polls. Bill Clinton campaigned for Lincoln, which no doubt helped, and Lincoln’s anti-derivatives amendment in the Senate gave her some populist cred. But I’d argue that she won as much because she’s a woman as anything else.
As much as I'd like to celebrate this landmark event, I'd like to know WHY being a woman made such a dramatic difference. Every minority or marginalized group has been told that THIS is their year, but without any evidence to support it, this pronouncement sounds like the latest in a series of empty platitudes. Forgive my skepticism, but I think when true gender parity in politics or otherwise is established, few will feel the need to proclaim it to the heavens.
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
I didn't get as many as I wanted because the camera died the morning of the second day I was there. Still, here are at least some of them.
YAF Gathering 2010
In other news, I will be headed back home to Alabama for a week starting tomorrow through next Wednesday. Posting here will be sparse or at least inconsequential during that time.
Sunday, June 06, 2010
Saturday, June 05, 2010
This morning, as an observer rather than a participant, I witnessed the annual Race for the Cure event here in DC. It is, for those who may be unaware, a charity run/walk that has served as an effective means of raising funds to combat breast cancer. It also memorializes those who have tragically perished from the disease and celebrates those who have survived. Before I begin, I certainly do appreciate the sentiment and the work that goes into it putting it on, but there's a certain sort of commercialized, jocular, self-congratulatory aspect to the gathering that frequently makes me uncomfortable. At times this morning I felt as though I was in some sort of motivational seminar, the kind that businesses often mandate that their employees must attend. What I experienced firsthand today was a kind of glossy artifice when nothing could be more devastatingly real or raw than any person who finds herself or himself with a diagnosis of malignancy.
While on the subject, I'm also a bit unsure of how I feel about the assigned color to be worn to the event--pink. Since most breast cancer patients and survivors are female, I'm sure someone with good intentions decided that selecting that particular color would work best. My personal reservations stem from recognizing that in assigning one particular default color to one sex while assigning another proscribed shade to the other sex only reinforces the gender binary. To wit, not all women are extremely feminine, nor are all men extremely masculine. I never had any particular fondness for blue myself.
While at the recent Kansas gathering of fellow Quakers I attended, I met a woman who kept plain dress. At one time, most Friends dressed plainly in ways that the Amish and some Mennonites still do today. Now, only a small minority maintain that tradition. After we got to know each other, she talked at length about how her branch of Friends aren't the most demonstrative of people, nor the most outwardly affectionate. They don't hug or tell each other "I love you". A handshake is about the most can ever expect to receive, and yet, they share love for each other in different ways. Sometimes, however, this proves problematic.
That is to say, she is a vegetarian and most people with whom she worships are not. A frequent way in which her particular gathering of Quakers display affection towards each other is often through the medium of gifts of food. Many times she cannot accept these particular gifts, and that understandable fact notwithstanding, hurt feelings as well as pained expressions of rejection have been commonplace. There is much confusion and misunderstanding present, since, to most, a rejection of food is frequently perceived to be a rejection of love and fellowship. Of course, that's not how she intends it to come across, but that's often how it appears.
A woman from my own meeting tells a story about her late husband. Every time she was sick, he would bring her a particular kind of flavored tea. She absolutely hated the taste and surely the husband was well aware of it after a while, but nonetheless each time she was ailing, the same sort of tea was provided. Eventually she came to understand that her husband's mother had given him this same sort of tea when he was ill, and as such he associated the gesture with love and concern. And, understanding this, finally, she came to see it as a statement of unconditional love and less as an annoyance. Sometimes I think it might be worthwhile for us to examine how receptive we are to all gifts of love, regardless of their package, and in so doing question how we might not invalidate anyone else's good intention or present.
...Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on a mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, "Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." (He did not know what he was saying.)
Those of you who have studied the Gospels at any length know that Peter sometimes can be a bit of a lunkhead. He always means well, but he doesn't always think before he speaks. He has a genius for completely missing the point in lots of crucial situations, and yet Jesus loves him anyway. Here, in this situation, Peter wanted to act, when the moment called for worship and adoration instead. We need times of retreat and renewal, but only so we can return to minister to the world. If we stayed on top of a mountain, we might soon be changed from spiritual giants to giants of self-centeredness. We cannot escape the reality and problems of our daily lives, but perhaps we can take with us what we have learned in those moments of intensity and transformative power.
The writer Robert Fulgum wrote about how one of his children brought him a paper bag full of random items. He took it to work with him, saw nothing much of value in its contents, then promptly threw it away. After arriving home later that evening, the child came to him and asked for the bag back. You see, what had been shared were the child's most important possessions, and in lending them to the father, the intention had been an unselfish display of love and deep affection. Fulgum described this situation by use of a phrase that an associate of his often voiced. He called it "standing knee deep in a river and dying of thirst".
The tokens of esteem or affection we receive from others may not be comprehensible to us at the time. They may be perplexing or perhaps even unintentionally offensive. But underneath it all, we do have a desire to let others who we deeply care about know the depths of our love for them. Sometimes they are present in unusual ways. At times, we may misinterpret them, or even invalidate them without even meaning to do so. In my own life, I have known many people who, metaphorically speaking, craved the approval of a parent-figure so that they might feel worthy and accepted. One of the basic facts about humans is that we have a need to belong and to be a part of whichever group, tribe, or gathering of which we identify. That we may at times go a bit overboard should be excused as simply part of our fallibility. We have all been Peter before. We have all been Fulgum's child. We have all been Fulgum himself. We have all been the plain dress Quaker. And we have all been the organizer of Race for the Cure.
Friday, June 04, 2010
The lyrics are a bit different than the way I've sung it. I chose to focus on the negative end of the spectrum, but I don't neglect the positive, either.
Also, I'm not sure where those annoying lines across the video came from. Please overlook.
It's a fallen situation
When all eyes are turned in
And love isn't flowing
The way it could have been.
You brought it all on
Oh, but it feels so wrong
You brought it all on
I don't believe this song
You brought it all on.
It's a sad communication
With little reason to believe
When one isn't giving
And one pretends to receive.
You brought it all on
Oh, but it feels so wrong
You brought it all on
I don't believe this song
You brought it all on.
Pardon my heart
If I showed that I cared
But I love you
more than moments
We have or have not shared.
You brought it all on
Oh, and it feels so good
You brought it all on
When love flows
the way that it should
You brought it all on.
Thursday, June 03, 2010
I'd rather not entertain current events for a while, and instead tell you a bit more about the Quaker Young Adult gathering I recently attended. Primarily this is because it is supremely depressing to contemplate the oil spill. The beaches on Alabama's Gulf Coast that I visited every summer as a child and young teen might be forever changed as wave after wave of oil washes ashore. I may return to that at another time, but right now I am avoiding even thinking about it because it hits so close to home. Returning to my original point, there are so many stories to share I hardly know where to begin, but I'll start with one and go from there.
Returning to my original point, there are so many stories to share I hardly know where to begin, but I'll start with one and go from there. In a small group, a Friend talked about the difficulty of embracing a love for God when one's friends are skeptical or even hostile towards theists and a belief in a higher power. The way she put it was, in her words, "coming out as a believer." I certainly understand what she meant and think it is an apt term. The hostility I faced from some as a person of faith when I was in my teens and early twenties led me to be reluctant or even unwilling to share a very important part of myself. Though I was not yet ready then to embrace a Christ-centered identity, my faith in God nonetheless never wavered.
Those who push away from religion as a means of establishing a firm sense of self often begin, I find, with an all-out rejection phase, one that as I noted above I held myself to some degree. Now that I am nearly 30 what I hear from those who are not people of faith is, more often than not, "I wish I had what you have." Talking with older adults about this subject since I have returned has been enlightening and instructive. To a person, they have vocalized that they themselves are seeking a kind of spiritual connection and renewal for themselves. I think with time we recognize how desperately we look for peace of mind and a loving community. The pressure of a demanding job, plus the responsibilities of adulthood, as well as being a parent if we have children changes our priorities and way of looking at the greater world.
To return to the idea of "coming out as religious", often one cannot share one's faith around certain others because some assume that self-identifying as "religious", "spiritual", and/or "Christian" means that an automatic kind of silent or vocal rejection of them as they are will be imposed. I cannot emphasize enough that liberal Christianity, in particular, is much different than conservative Christianity, and that I find it highly prideful and unfair to make judgments of people based on a minimum of information. Where they might end up after they die or what I might think they need to have in their life is not exactly my call to make. That, in my opinion, is God's role alone. Judge not, lest ye be judged. I merely show and share that which I believe, and if that speaks to someone else, then I rejoice in the knowledge.
One Friend, a college professor, mentioned that he uses profanity on occasion around his students so that those who are not people of faith will not feel restrained to share all of themselves around him. It is vitally important to what he does for a living to make a positive impression upon those who he teaches, and he has developed his own strategies to put people at ease. Sharing information with people requires a kind of mutual trust and respect between professor and student. If it is not present, then a student is not inclined to absorb that which is being taught.
Many of us sequester our true selves. Other Friends noted that close friends and acquaintances have come to them and mentioned that they dislike almost all other Christians except, of course, for they themselves. This has been my experience too, and it puts one in a particularly awkward situation. What does that say about me? That I must adhere to an impossible standard of perfection? Am I being compared and held to that standard whether I like it or not? After all, there is only one who is perfect, and it is certainly not me.
Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand. It's not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth." Then the disciples came to him and asked, "Do you realize you offended the Pharisees by what you just said?"
Jesus replied, "Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be uprooted, so ignore them. They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch."
Then Peter said to Jesus, "Explain to us the parable that says people aren't defiled by what they eat."
"Don't you understand yet?" Jesus asked. "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and it is those things that make a person unclean.
My other identities place me in this same situation. I find myself being a Christian apologist, a Feminist apologist, and a mental illness/brain disorder apologist. Convincing the skeptical is a Herculean task at times, but it is one that I embrace with a kind of dogged determination that at times astonishes me. For some reason, God has always placed me in situations where I am vastly in the minority. As a Quaker, I am a member of a small faith group, albeit one with a rich history. As a Feminist, I am a member of an often stigmatized group, but I am also one of the few men within the movement itself. As someone with a chronic illness, my desire to be open with my disease is motivated by an effort to take on the vast amount of misinformation that still circulates about it.
In each of these situations, I am different from the norm and thus I stand out. Standing out is good in some ways because I draw instant attention and with it an instant audience by my very existence. This makes the experience often trying and highly pressurized for the same reason. As a male Feminist, I am frequently, and quite unintentionally presumed to speak for all men. I know that I honestly can't do that and certainly wouldn't try even if I could. But, on the other hand, if what I can provide increases understanding and decreases fear and negativity, I will gladly continue to voice my opinions.
As a Progressive, I feel this same tension. The sense of isolation we experience both motivates us to move forward to make needed reforms, but it can also be turned inward, dividing us in the process. The deepest challenge of all might be to let our anger and indignation push us in helpful, not destructive directions.
Circling back around, I have found that certain people have an axe to grind against organized religion and identity groups. And to reiterate, I do understand from whence such attitudes stem. Unfortunately, the bitterness and resentment felt leads some to expect or demand complete flawlessness from those who are believers, and once very human limitations are detected, these people quickly lash out, seeking to prove again that an an entire system of belief is hypocritical and worthless. Though such people are challenging, to put it lightly, I do try to keep in mind the pain they are experiencing and I hold them in the Light, hoping that they will process their discomfort in constructive ways.
A personal note: when I left the Unitarian Universalist church some years ago, I am ashamed to reflect upon how long it took me to get over my own feelings of betrayal and disappointment. What I felt was akin to a bad divorce, and I am not especially proud to contemplate what I said and how I acted then. My hope is that those I offended know now or even knew then that I was processing through what had been a emotionally wrenching experience. The experience was bookended by an awful manic episode followed by an equally awful depressive episode and my hope will always be that those who knew me then could separate me from my illness. I am so glad to be through with it and would eagerly grant a humble apology to anyone who had to see me at my worst.
If I can keep in mind my own past behavior, then I can empathize with those who sow seeds of discord and disunity, while also not allowing them the ability to divide and foment disunity. My own story is that of the Prodigal son. For reasons I cannot understand and may never, God told me that I had a purpose and a role to serve. My belief has never been stronger and with that belief comes a joy that is difficult to express in words alone. Perhaps it is more important to focus upon my present than dwell upon my past. I know now where I need to focus my efforts, and I know that a multitude of good things lay ahead of me. I urge those who feel so led to come out as religious, regardless of how you may define it, and to seek peace within yourself and with everyone.
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Enclosed is a message I sent to all Friends in my Monthly Meeting here in DC.
From Friday of last week until Monday I was in Wichita, Kansas, attending the Young Adult Friends 2010 gathering. While there I was one of roughly 80 YAFs who hailed from almost every Yearly Meeting in the United States, and present also was a Friend from Canada who
represented Canadian Yearly Meeting. Also in attendance were Spanish-speaking Friends from Central and South America. Representatives from every branch of Quakerism were in attendance as well.
The diversity I saw deeply enriched my understanding of Quakerism. I learned the most from listening to the testimonies and stories of others. What has stayed with me most is the passion and devotion that all brought with them that enriched this gathering in ways difficult to express in words alone. A universality in thought and expression, regardless of our superficial differences, characterized that which I spoke, experienced, and heard.
I write to you for many reasons, but foremost I desire to share with you my joy. Worship services were intensely moving and powerful but so too was every other scheduled event. Though some minor friction was present at times, I am pleased to report that even momentary
periods of discomfort were met with a compelling desire to confront them and in so doing seek to heal what which was broken. We were not afraid to challenge ourselves and admit our own human limitations. We were not averse to be tender and vulnerable, knowing that if we did so that we could find the solution through our trust in the Spirit and its guidance.
Friends, my faith has been renewed, and I find myself at peace.