Thursday, November 20, 2014


Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could. -- Louise Erdich.

Tonight, at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church we will once again be hosting the Transgender Day of Remembrance Candlelight Vigil to honor those who were murdered in the past year due to transphobia. The list is long. Tonight 81 names will be read, with ages ranging from age 8 (Alex Medeiros, who was beaten to death by his father, on February 18, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for refusing to cut his hair, liking women’s clothes, and dancing) to age 55 (Mary Joy AƱonuevo who was stabbed 33 times in Lucena, Quezon, Philippines on October 21st, 2014.

Of the names that will be read, 16 were killed in the United States; 10 of those were Trans women of color. Of the names that will be read, many will be listed only as unknown woman or man, lives lost tragically with no identity by which we can remember them. Of the names that will be read, virtually all of them were killed in extremely violent manners, showing the level of hatred and rage these killers had toward their victims.

As the above case of Alex Medeiros illustrates, transphobia isn’t exclusively about transgender people, but about fear of those who are different, who color outside the norms of societal restrictions on gender performance. We will never know if little Alex would have grown up to be gay, transgender, or straight; his father took his son’s future away based on his own transphobia and fear of difference.

Why is there such a disturbing level of violence towards Transfolk and those perceived as gender-non-conforming? What lurks in the unconscious that would cause a father to beat his son to death for dancing? And what can we do, besides light candles once a year to create a safer world for our
Transgender kin?

For one thing, we can tell the truth. We can tell the truth to our children who ask us about bodies and genders. We can say there is a wonderful diversity of combinations of bodies and souls and sometimes they match what culture wants to see and sometimes they don’t, but we’re all uniquely wonderful and cherished; we are all of inherent worth and dignity, as we Unitarian Universalists like to say. We can insist on the overthrow of the pink aisles and the blue aisles that exists in toy stores, that continue the lie that there are "boy" toys and girl "toys." For that matter, we can begin campaigns against department stores who insist on "gendering" clothing. As if a few pieces of fabric stitched together is somehow meant for a boy or a girl just because of how it’s designed. We can speak to the managers of our local restaurants who have restrooms designated for "men" or "women" and ask that they consider making them gender neutral. I mean seriously, who of us has gender separate bathrooms in our homes? And yet, this is a fear Transfolk navigate in their daily lives: do I risk using the bathroom that fits me most and possibly get beaten up or worse, or do I try to hold it until I get home? We can check out the non-discrimination policies where we work and, if they don’t include transgender employees, advocate for that change. And, for that matter, why not talk to the boss about the bathrooms at work, too?

We can come to events like tonight’s candle-light vigil and listen to the names being called, see the pictures of those no longer with us. We can feel the weight of their loss, the sorrow of their tragic deaths, and we can also remember the joy they held in their lives, the ways in which they lived authentically in a world that holds no space for them, and realize how, at the end of the day, they tasted the sweetness of as many apples as they could; we can be grateful for their lives, and their legacy, and we can carry forth their memories into our communities, so that the sweetness of their lives will not be forgotten.

A friend of mine posted this on her Facebook wall today:
A quote from the Amazon show Transparent to honor this years Transgender Day of Remembrance.
"Are you saying you're going to start dressing up like a lady?"
"No. All of my life I have been dressing up like a man. This is me."

Let's light candles and pray for a day when everyone can truly go through this life as they are.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that [you] can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding [you.] In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."

-- Albert Camus

Every time I watch the above video I get verklempt. ( in case your tablet or phone doesn't load the link) There is something about the joy of the flash mob providing a spontaneous commentary on people connecting. The video’s tag line of life’s for sharing is perfect for this type of shared celebration: life, connections, hugs, complete strangers applauding you, telling your story of coming home, or being so far away from home and all the hope and angst and triumph and arrivals and departures inherent in an international terminal in the airport.

And doesn’t it seem that life is sometimes a series of airport arrivals and departures? Where we are in a state of flux, ending a journey and coming home to loving arms, or leaving loving arms to head to ports unknown. And wouldn’t it be grand if we actually could see and touch and feel the love and support of a cast of thousands on our journey through life? A great cloud of witnesses as the Christian scripture (Hebrews 12) tells us surrounds us, encouraging us to throw aside everything that hinders us in our race, in our epic journey?

Most of the time, however, we feel as if we’re on our journey alone; as if there is no one to see
our lonely struggles or homesickness or even applaud our happy homecomings.

How would it change us, change our journeys, our pit stops and detours if we realized we weren’t alone? That there were others cheering us on, waiting for us, ready to give us high fives as we pass by on wherever our journey is leading?

And how can we be the flash mob that greets other travelers on their journeys? What would happen if we remembered we’re all in the international terminal and it’s our vocation to awaken that light of joy, of connection, of encouragement to those we pass who we might, in another time and space, simply pass by, unseeing and uncaring.

My hope is that each of us will feel, in the coming days and weeks, that sense of being welcomed, wherever we are on our journeys, of being celebrated as we continue on our path, regardless of where it might lead, and that we would joyously go up to others, even those whom this world would define as strangers and say to them (particularly the ones who seem lost, or travel-stained or bone-weary) that they are not alone, and give them a flower or a hug or a brilliant smile and tell them you’re with them, you’re proud of them and that, whether they’re coming home or leaving it for the first time, whether they’re escaping something or running joyously toward something, that we are there for them, that they are not alone, and that we really are all connected. There, no matter how cloudy the sky or cold the night, is where our invincible summer lies.



Saturday, November 8, 2014

I would not tell anyone else that he or she should choose death with dignity. My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don't deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me? – Brittany Maynard


Last week, 29 year old Brittany Maynard quietly took a lethal dose of barbiturates and ended her life; her husband and mother were by her side. This was not a suicide caused by depression or despair, but rather a thoughtful and anguished decision made after Brittany had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer early this year. Although there were treatments such as radiation offered, the reality is that the tumor was of such a size and was so invasive, that though the treatment might have extended Brittany’s life by a few months, it could not save or heal her. So she, along with her family, made the decision to take advantage of Oregon’s death with dignity law that allows people with less than six months to live to take a prescription overdose and die peacefully.

Because Brittany made her decision public in an attempt to advocate for greater awareness of the realities of living with a terminal illness there has been much debate in the public square on whether she should have been allowed to choose how her life ended.

She writes that she thought about just not doing the radiation treatment and dying in hospice, naturally, as the cancer consumed her brain but said the emotional and financial toll on her and her family made that a non-option. Instead, she chose to deal with the growing complications of the cancer until after her husband’s birthday and then, on Saturday, November 1, choose her time and manner of death.

According to the organization where Brittany volunteered, only five states currently offer death with dignity options for those dealing with a terminal illness. Montana is the most recent state to join the ranks. There are active campaigns in several states, including Colorado, where Charles Selsberg is working with the state Attorney General to get legislation on the books allowing death with dignity here. You can read his story  in an open letter to the state legislature published in the Denver Post.
Reading the comments on articles regarding Brittany’s choice, I’m dismayed, though not necessarily shocked, by the degree of judgment leveled at Brittany and her family for choosing to have control over her death. Some suggested she acted cowardly, others stated that she’s burning in hell, and still others told stories of their own or of their family members who suffered similarly but chose to fight to the end.

What is so frightening about death that we, as a society, can compassionately put our pets "out of their misery" but don’t allow the same generosity to humans? When did we allow the medical profession to take measures into their own hands that prolong the quantity of life, if not the quality.

My own father, Odd, suffered from lung cancer that had spread into his brain. Although they did brain surgery to remove that tumor, they could not remove the tumors in his lung and soon enough it would travel back to the brain. The solution, although there was minimal chance of survival for my dad, was to use directed radiation on his chest and brain. Although he had recovered from the brain surgery remarkably well, the radiation wore him down, made him lose some of his capacity for language (he couldn’t recall words easily any more, which frustrated him greatly) and ultimately died, six months after his diagnosis, after lingering near death for several days. In retrospect I would have advocated for no treatment, at the minimum. In fact, even the doctors who treat us, often refuse that same treatment when faced with a terminal illness, as reported in  this Guardian article because of the debilitating side effects with no real hope for a cure.

So why the resistance to allowing people the same dignity and comfort we offer our pets? Surely, much of this antipathy is based in ancient texts and religions where ending one’s life is forbidden, regardless of the death sentence already given by a person’s body. And maybe there is an innate revulsion at the thought of intentionally ending a life that is encoded in our evolutionary DNA that compels us to strive to survive. Definitely there is a fear surrounding the mystery of death that makes some people want to hold on to this body and this life for as long as possible. And, as Brittany says in the above quote, that is a personal choice to make, no one– not the government or church– should get to make that decision for you.

As someone who has seen friends diagnosed with cancer that is successfully treated I understand and am grateful that in many cases, a disease can be successfully treated with radiation and chemo-therapy allowing the person to live a long and healthy life, although they had to deal with a great degree of discomfort and pain caused by the treatment. The difference is in the diagnosis and the chance of success.

As someone who has experienced first hand the devastating grief and trauma of a suicide I can clearly see the differences between choosing your own manner of death in the face of a terminal diagnosis of cancer or ALS or other fatal illnesses, and the anguished, often violent killing of one’s self in a moment or season of depression, mental illness, bullying. In those cases, there is help available to the person who is contemplating suicide. In those cases suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary, solvable problem and the damage done to the families and loved ones in the wake of such a desperate act is immeasurable.

That’s not what Brittany did. Brittany, with the full support of her husband and family, chose to end her life with dignity, in peace and comfort. It was a selfless act of utmost bravery and love for her own life. As a minister who has sat at the death beds of more people than I care to count, I can understand the sacredness of slipping away into death with or without the aid of medication. Her death was no less sacred or meaningful because she chose not to suffer undue pain and agony first.

At the end of the day, what is important to me, is that the person who is facing a certain death within a short span of time has the choice to take that decision away from the cancer or other illness taking over their body and make their own peace with their living and their dying.

This past February, my frail, elderly cat Nala went rapidly downhill in terms of her health. After consulting with my veterinarian, I called an organization that euthanizes pets in their home. I sat with Nala on my lap in our favorite spot and held her and stroked her while the vet administered the drugs that would cause her heart to stop beating. She died in the home she loved, in my arms; she died with dignity, knowing she was loved.

If the time ever comes when I’m in a similar situation, I hope I will be afforded the same dignity.