Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Juxtapositions, part deux

Last week I wrote about the surreal juxtapositions of life writ large, the disconnect between the horrific acts of terrorism in Paris with a night on the town, and the disconnect of rabid refugee fear by politicians who don’t see the need to protect US citizens from terrorists due to our obscenely loose gun control laws.
This week I experience juxtapositions of a more personal nature. Even as I gear up for Thanksgiving and the attendant joy that brings, I am reminded by the losses in life. November 20 was the National Transgender Day of Remembrance, and at our annual candle-light service commemorating those lives lost to gender violence, we spoke aloud the names of 71 individuals, ranging in age from 13-66; live cut short because of Transphobia.
On Sunday, during a service entitled “Imagine There’s No Gender,” our Story for All Ages focused on the true story of a child named Jazz and how her family finally understood that, despite biological appearances, Jazz is really a girl, and not a boy. The book ended with an image of a well-loved child, accepted for who she was. As I got up to preach following that story, I said to the congregation, “I don’t know about you, but I got a little verklempt listening to that story and thinking back on the transfolk whose names we called on Thursday, who never experienced that acceptance.” I had to pause to regain my composure as fresh tears gathered in my eyes.
Saturday, November 21, was International Suicide Survivor Day. A day for those of us who have lost a loved one to suicide to gather together for support. Of course, I carry this juxtaposition with me every day. Running the Disneyland Half Marathon in September, I was pulled out of my solitary focus on my breathing, on my sense of wonder as a great throng of us made our way through the streets of Fantasy Land when I pulled up to a woman with a t-shirt bearing a picture of a man on the back and the declaration that she was running in memory of this person-- her son, I think. Above that photo was the logo for the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide. It was a moment of connection, a tangible sense of recognition in a crowd of over 15,000 strangers.
I touched the runner softly on her shoulder as I passed her.
“Nice shirt,” I said. Then, on an impulse, showed her the tattoo on the inside of my left forearm, the
purple and teal Suicide Awareness ribbon plainly visible. “My brother,” I explained, and then ran on, the magic of the race still intact, maybe even more so for that moment of seeing and being seen.
As many of you know, I belong to a Sibling Survivors of Suicide group on Facebook. In this group, we all can share the bright and dark juxtapositions we encounter in our new realities.
On one particularly hard day, just a year shy of the first anniversary of my brother’s suicide I posted this on the wall of that support group:
July 3, 2014
For some reason, this week has been really hard for me. No anniversaries or triggers-- just one second away from crying, every second of the day. I feel like this page is a parallel universe for me. "Out there" in the "real" facebook world, everything is bright and sunny, and my posts are political or funny; then I sneak away and enter here-- it is a darkened room, or cave-- and am drawn to the circle of this group, where there are candles lit and our voices murmur words of anguish and comfort and hope. This is a universe no one knows, except for those of us who live in these shadowlands, and I hope there will be no one else who has to discover it, though I take comfort in knowing we will be there for them, when they stumble through this portal for the first time.
In that group, we can share the hidden juxtaposition of our losses, that the rest of the world, for the most part, doesn't see.
This International Suicide Survivors Day there was an event held locally, but I didn’t go; I chose
My brother, Erik, bib 1517
instead to run a 5K, in honor of my brother who was an avid runner in his young adulthood. I ran the best I’ve run in a long time. I was jubilantly happy, even as I felt the shadow of grief.

That afternoon, I gathered with a large multi-faith group from four downtown churches and we did a hymn-crawl, starting at one church, singing four songs of that particular faith tradition, and then going to the next in line, until we ended up at All Souls. The over-arching theme was “Healing,” and each church had a sub-theme. Those themes were peace, safety, community healing, and love. Each of the songs we sang seemed especially poignant in the wake of the Paris attacks, and each felt personally relevant to me, as well, as I tenderly explored the familiar trappings of grief.

Juxtapositions abound.

And next up is Thanksgiving. Certainly, there is much in my life for which I am grateful: a kind and tender son, my mom and sisters, and the extended family branching out from my particular family tree, chosen family who love and accept me just as I am, a hearth and home that provides shelter and a sense of grounding, possibilities that await me, as yet unseen, mirthfully waiting to jump out and yell, “Surprise!” just as I round the corner where they hide.

I will be preaching on “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” this Sunday, taking a look at how grace, mercy, hope show up in our lives.

Over the next few days I plan to eat too much, and drink wine, and laugh and laugh with friends, and tell stories and reminisce with family. I will raise a toast to my brother, Erik, gone almost 2 ½ years now, and to my step-dad, Jim, and Uncle By—this, our first Thanksgiving without these two men—and feel the sadness mix with joy, the grief with delight, the juxtapositions in this life we lead, knowing both exist fully present in my heart, in my body, and both have shaped me into the person I am today.

As (Saint) Mary Oliver wrote in her poem, We Shake with Joy:
We Shake with Joy

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two housed as
they are in the same body.
(from Evidence, Beacon Press, 2010)

The joy and the grief, we each hold them, tenderly juxtaposed in the chambers of our hearts. And here's what's also true: in the midst of the pleasure and pain, the sorrow and delight, we are, none of us, alone.Perhaps you're experiencing some of these juxtapositions, yourself: the gaiety of holiday parties and the grief of a loss. If this holiday season finds you spending too much time wandering the darkened corridors of despair or depression, if you can't seem to find the way back to the light, reach out; there is help. Here are a few numbers to get you started:

1 (800) 273-8255

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week
Languages: English, Spanish
Crisis Text line: Text START to 741-741

And I am here for you, too. Life is filled with juxtapositions; the trick is to remember, it's a dance.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Juxtapositions-- Musings in the early morning hours

It’s 5:30 in the morning and I have long since given up trying to go back to sleep, having awakened at 2:15. I tried listening to meditative music, and counting backwards from 300, and keeping my mind blank, but nothing has worked. So, instead of fighting this insomnia, I am choosing to look at it as a bonus; I’ve got a few extra hours to be conscious and alert, a few extra hours found tucked away in this deep night which I can use to reflect on the mysteries of life and death and all the ways we dance with these two partners, all the juxtapositions of joie de vivre and the macabre we’re forced to navigate every day.
Like virtually every other person on the planet with access to global media, I’ve been thinking about the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday. When it happened, I was in New York City, ultimately on business, but front-loading pleasure, seeing two Broadway musicals with a friend. I was without a computer, and only had my smartphone as a link to the larger world; it was all I needed, as it turns out. I read reports of bombs and attacks and hostages being held, but it wasn’t until I was going into the theatre for that night’s show that the gravity of the situation began to truly unfold.
I was seated in the Al Hirschfield theatre ready to watch “Kinky Boots,” a mainly light-hearted and
funny take on the true story of a failing shoe company that revitalized itself by making sturdy, fashionable, sexy boots for drag queens. The mood in the theatre was festive; there was lots of sparkly clothing to be seen. I bought a sassy shirt and posted a picture of it on Facebook. On Facebook I saw more of the horror that was going on in Paris. I posted that my thoughts and prayers were with Paris.

Juxtapositions. Terror and death, comedy and theatrics. 129 people were killed and the musical was hilarious


The next evening, after a full day in a leadership training conference put on by the Metro NYC UU chapter, I was seated in JFK airport waiting for my flight home. I was eating dinner in a sports bar where there were several flat screen televisions showing different sporting events; in a nod to current events, one was tuned to non-stop coverage of events in Paris. The whole thing felt so surreal. On three screens, side by side, I was watching a football game, a weight-lifting competition, and scenes from Paris of those wounded, the buildings destroyed, interviews with survivors. As I
unrolled my napkin, the cutlery tumbled to the table: a stainless steel fork and a plastic knife---reminders of another day of terror.

Juxtapositions. Sports and suicide bombers. Commentary on a weight-lifter’s goal and the names of those who were killed.

And of course now, everyone on social media is weighing in--as are leaders of nations, states and countries-- arbitrarily linking the Daesh attacks with the Syrian refugee crisis, calling on the US government to renege on our promise of welcoming 10,000 refugees in. Some of the more obvious bits of irony are memes that say, "If only there were a seasonally appropriate story about a poor Middle Eastern family seeking refuge and being turned away" and the one that asks, "Whatever happened to your demand that #alllivesmatter?" The most curious juxtaposition, though, is the strident cry of many politicians and presidential wannabees, the clamor of over half the governors—all Republicans-- in our country to block Syrian refugees from entering the United States or—worse, really—to only allow “Christian” refugees, while sending “Muslim” refugees away. What I don’t understand is that the vast majority of these governors govern states that get an “F” in gun safety laws and have resisted efforts to put smarter gun control laws into place in the wake of tragic shooting after tragic shooting by predominantly white United States citizens who claim Christianity as their religion; in the face of statistics that tell us we lose 36 people a day to gun violence in this country. If these governors, and presidential wannabees are really concerned about protecting the good people of the 
United States, should they not first look to putting safety guidelines in place that can protect us from the most viable, persistent threat, which is ourselves?

Juxtapositions. Radicals from an extremist group in another country attack venues in Paris, 129 people are killed. Politicians want to ban all Syrians fleeing from those same terrorists while in the United States that many people are killed by guns in just 3 ½ days and those same politicians actively resist smarter gun safety laws.

This is the bizarro world in which we live, in which we try to seek meaning and find our rhythm in this dance of life, which is difficult at best, since we never know when death is going to cut in.  

No wonder I can’t sleep. 

And that’s just covers the main juxtaposition du jour. There are others in my life, as I’m sure there are in yours.

So what’s to be done? We can’t control the racist undertones of much of the rhetoric surrounding the Syrian refugees but we can control our own response to the tragedy in Paris as it continues to unfold, the tragedy of violence in our own country that we continue to ignore, and the tragedy of the deadly war in Syria from which so many are fleeing for their lives.

We can recognize in these multiple tragedies, our own shared humanity. We can pick up trash when we take a walk around the block and buy coffee for the person in line behind us at Starbucks. We can not care about the color of Starbucks holiday cups. We can hold our loved ones tighter, we can reach out to those who look or speak differently than we do. We can make new friends. We can hide the posts of those on Facebook who want to rant about politics in a way that does violence to our spirits; we don’t have to engage them in debate, we don’t have to unfriend them (since many of these people may be much beloved family members and friends) but we don’t have to see those posts come up in our Facebook feed. We can turn off the non-stop coverage of these tragedies. We can see Kinky Boots or the new Peanuts movie. We can read poetry. We can even, as Barbara Brown Taylor tells us, read poetry to trees. We can love, fully and freely and without fear. We can.

We can never guarantee our safety, no matter where we are, or how heavily we arm ourselves or build blockades to keep others out, but we can guarantee our serenity, our peace of mind by choosing to let go of those fears and instead embrace this life, this dance, sometimes leading and sometimes following, but always sure of our own footing, no matter where the dance may take us.

Look at that: it’s 7:00 AM now; I guess I’ll put the coffee on.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Poetry of Possibilities and the Gestational Life of Dreams

Recently I was talking with a friend about Mary Oliver’s latest book of poetry, Felicity. I think this might be my favorite volume of her poetry and, upon receiving it, instantly devoured it, hungrily taking in her rich and evocative images and words. My friend, who has only recently started reading it said, “I am slow reading it, so I don’t become an Oliver glutton.”
Her words got me to thinking about our culture of instant gratification; in an era where we can instantly download the latest book or movie we hear about onto our laptops, or tablets, or phones, taking things slow is almost unheard of. It takes patience and a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to let something unfold slowly—particularly if it’s something as wonderful as a new book of poetry.  There is a frisson of anticipation I get when something good seems to be crackling in the air, as electric as lightning that strikes close enough to thrillingly illuminate without danger of causing harm.
It’s akin to the “quickening” that happens about midway through pregnancy. This is the moment when the mother first feels the stirrings of life inside her. For me, it happened at about the five month mark. I was worried because I thought it should have happened sooner, and I wondered if I, in my lack of knowledge had experienced it and didn’t realize it. Then it happened one night, just as I was drifting off to sleep: a fluttering, as of butterflies--or butterfly kisses-- that elicited an immediate, visceral reaction of exultant joy! There was life in me! There was something new being created within me-though as yet unseen to the world, and felt only by me! And, as excited and impatient as I was for this new life to be revealed, I could only wait, unable to force the process to go faster. I had to “slow read.” I had felt life stirring but it would be months before Sam would be born in his own time. And those months, too, held rich experiences that I’m glad I didn’t miss.
As I reflect on that sense of “quickening” I realized I have experienced that exact same sensation at other seminal moments of my life. I’ve felt that same butterfly sensation in the moment when I realized I was falling in love with someone, I experienced it when I had the epiphany of my sexual orientation and my call to ministry. These, too, are moments of gestation when I suddenly felt the existence of new life and all the possibilities on the horizon—as yet unseen by others. And these, too, required slow reading. These, too, were rich experiences not to be rushed through, but to be savored; to be in the charged atmosphere of change, without hiding in fear of being struck or trying to control where and when the lightning would, indeed, land; to succumb to the delicious, sometimes agonizing unfolding of possibilities, trusting the outcome would be what it was supposed to be.
Or, as Mary Oliver instructs us in her first poem in Felicity:
Don’t Worry
Things take the time they take. Don’t
How many roads did St. Augustine follow
   Before he became St. Augustine.

So, I will try to remember to slow read important parts of my life, experience the quickening with all its excitement and let it be, all the while being open to those times when life and circumstances shout “take risks! Dive in! Be headstrong!” These, Mary also advocates in her new book:
I Did Think, Let’s Go About This Slowly
I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
Some really deep thought. We should
Small thoughtful steps.

But, bless us, we didn’t.
I guess the trick is in knowing when to slow read and when to dive in, and feeling that frisson of anticipation of the new life and possibilities, the new quickenings that await me, still—long past my child-rearing years--if I am open to them.