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Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Sherlockian New Year

"... my vocation, at last I have found it ... My vocation is Love!"
— Thérèse of Lisieux

As many of you know, I received my Christmas present a bit early this year. I became the “Mommy” of a new puppy named Sherlock. He will be 3 months old when you are reading this, and is half lhasa apso and half dachsund. Of course we all believe he is the cutest, smartest, best puppy ever. We are thrilled with the new “member” of our family.

Although my husband has, the children and I have never had the opportunity to raise a puppy to adult doghood. We knew going into it that we were taking on a job, and quite possibly a challenging job. But we find that Sherlock is more joy than job! What you learn about puppies quickly is how spontaneously and completely they fulfill our Christian “vocation” quoted from St. Thérèse, above.

Sherlock is devoted to me with a kind of devotion that is seldom found in the human species. I can accidentally bang him with my foot when I walk past him, and he will look up at me with the same joy that he had the moment before, hoping that I am showing him some attention instead of an accidental nudge. When I let him out of his kennel in the morning, you’d think I was the savior of his small world, letting him out of a lifetime of imprisonment. As he waits while I fill his food dish, he seems just plain grateful that I’ve taken the effort to fix HIM a meal. When I come home from work, or come out of a room when he hasn’t seen me for a few moments, he greets me with purest joy, as if my existence is all he needs in the world to be happy. He falls asleep at my feet, and follows me from room to room just so he can be near to me. Love is the definition of a puppy, (or at least of our puppy, Sherlock).

Love is intended to be the definition of a Christian as well. What our puppy came filled with, it seems that humans have to discover (or perhaps it is re-discover). Love may have been basic to our personality when we were born, or when we were young, but in the course of growing up, so many of us have been allowed to, or in some cases, bred not to love. Humans have opted for many other choices of survival and found other ways to manage the challenges of life besides love. We have culturally determined that love is a weaker stance than power and aggression when it comes to managing conflict and stress. We have culturally determined that the individual should have priority over the interests of the greatest good for all. We have culturally determined that when we can’t have what we think we need, it is better to compete for it than to compromise for it.

But “competition”, “the individual”, “power” and “aggression” are about as far from the list in First Corinthians 13 as possible. First Corinthians’ love moves us on a path towards “patience”, “kindness”, “not enviousness or boastfulness or arrogance or rudeness”, “does not insist on its own way”, “is not irritable or resentful”, “does not rejoice in wrongdoing”. Maybe we all should be taking puppy classes?

Puppies have got naturally what humans have to work toward. But ironically, there is no greater need in any human being than to love and be loved. I have therefore made my New Year’s resolution, to the glory of God, and in honor of my new puppy, to being recommitted to the vocation of love! It's a first for me. I've never set such a commitment for myself before. I am going to be intentional this year about doing all things in love.

Think with me just a moment about what a a world full (a church full) of people like myself (puppy lovers, cat lovers, fast-car lovers, trout-fishing lovers, etc.) committing themselves in Jesus Christ who is love, the only PERFECT love...would look like. Think about every decision coming out of a loving center in you, every action being based on love, every word being formed in love before it leaves your mouth. Think about how you would live with your family differently, how you would relate to others at work differently, how the world would be different and you would be different in the world if you lived in love with Jesus, and lived that out in the world.

Sound wimpy? No way! Love is the most challenging and hardest of all things to maintain faithfully. It takes the strongest of all people to live in a culture dead-set on changing all of our love into anger and hatred, to stand unswervingly on the foundation of love in all things. Love is guaranteed to be challenging, is guaranteed to break your heart at times, is guaranteed to cause you to suffer for the sake of someone else’s good. But love is also the puppy-like ability to always confidently, no matter what happens to you, come back again with joy (found in Christ) and the complete belief that love will win the day.

Let no darkness into your life this deep wintertime. Dwell in the warm glow of the fire of love! Be filled with love! Be passionate in all loving! Be hope-filled that love in all things will create a way to produce loving responses in others. It’s a challenge that Sherlock has placed before me, and I in turn invite you to join in. Love one another as Christ has loved modeled to me this winter, in the love of a puppy.

Friday, October 1, 2010

What Has Happened to Feminism and Does it Matter that it is Gone?

I read an article today that has given me the reason I was looking for to write about my deep anguish over the demise of feminism. Jessica Valenti's article, "Who Stole Feminism?" in the September 29, 2010 The Nation magazine opened my path. So, what has happened to feminism? Does it matter that it has disappeared from mainstream culture? Should we allow the erasure of feminist principles continue in our nation and culture? What difference does it make?

This is opening the can on a huge bunch of worms for most people, I realize, but I'm going there because I think it's essential for our future in every arena of life. Today is my son's 17th birthday. I choose to open this can for his sake, for the sake of the women he will know, will work with, possibly marry, and perhaps father someday. I open this can of worms for my daughters, for their friends, for all my female friends, their husbands and children, and for my own self, who was reborn a feminist in a period shortly after my rebirth as a Christian, and for whom the two are inextricably linked. This is the biggest issue that I face every day of my life as a woman in a "man's" profession, and the issue is getting more pronounced, not less.

I believe our culture, our nation, the church and society are losing ground rapidly because we have stopped inviting the unique wisdom of women into all discourse, and have stopped realizing what a treasure we have to yet learn from women's ways of knowing, doing and thinking. I am deeply concerned that my daughters will be unable to achieve even as much as I have, and that in fact they might not even want to try as the costs personally are too high. This is why I go walking in this fire pit that no one else wants to walk in.

As I see it, generally, feminists really stopped active discourse in approximately the year 2000. I haven't yet figured out why that year particularly marked a sort of the demise of feminist conversation, other than to suspect that the "old line" feminists had gotten to an age when they retired from lecturing and teaching or just left the fight. I have tracked the publications of feminist literature to that time, and then a huge void occurs. Consequentially, I believe, everyone thinks the feminist conversation is over, the issues have all been settled and equality between the sexes has been satisfactorily achieved. That is miserably incorrect. I am as reasonable as they come, and I want no priority over men, but I have to tell you, my voice is not valued, nor are my sister's voices valued in the leadership of our culture. We permit some women "in", but having done that, we think the equality issue is resolved. It's not a question of "ceilings" at all, but a question of who gets listened to. All voices dominating all discourse in this country, with very, very few exceptions are male, or male coming out of female mouths. For me this has really nothing to do with Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton or anyone political at all. They are just the form of the argument that most people are familiar with. I'm concerned about much more than one or two political races. I'm concerned about the very soul of our nation, the church and our future.

Essentially since September 11, 2001 every aspect of our culture has taken a huge step backward and towards more conservative thinking. For some reason, the form this giant step backward has taken has led to the disappearance of dialog in virtually every arena of our culture. Instead of dialog we now have shouting, finger-pointing, and hated. The news industry has simultaneously become another source of entertainment, and does little legitimate news analysis that might lead to questioning of current cultural systems, it instead fans the flames of disrespect and anger as the latest form of entertainment. Add to this the extreme sexualization of women by the advertising industry in this same period, and the increase in poverty for a tremendous segment of Americans which tends to neutralize philosophical conversations even taking place, and we have all the makings for a real crisis.

I wouldn't necessarily say that feminism has been stolen as this article does, but I do believe that feminism has stopped being a significant factor in the public debate. My sense is that we need to reclaim it before we lose all the progress we have made as a nation that values all of its citizens of every age, race, gender, sexual-orientation, religion, color or creed.

This is just the first chapter of a lot of chapters that need to be written, sort of an introduction to the topic, but I cannot write them alone. I am looking for other women and men who feel that there is something that needs to be said, or done, or written, or spoken about, or just share their stories. Join me, if you will, in beginning again to rewrite the book that moves the course of our history forward as a shared work by both women and men alike.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fixing Barbies, Sand Ceremonies, and 9/11

I spent the day with my two daughters, ages 13 and 10 today. It was a perfect early fall day, and very poignant, not only because it is the 9th anniversary of September 11th, not only because we seldom have an all-girls day, and not only because we bought two new goldfish today, Hagrid and Hedwig. Today was also poignant because we visited the pink aisle (read Barbie aisle) of Wal-Mart.

In order to understand what that means, you have to know something about me. I was of the late 60s, early 70s Barbie generation. We didn’t have a pink aisle, nor did we have Wal-Mart for that matter. Barbies were a doll for “older” girls, came from the Sears catalog for Christmas, and were played with into our early teens. We were each happy to have a Barbie, maybe a Ken, and a sister or friend of Barbie like Tutti, Francie or Skipper. We weren’t poor, we just thought that was enough, and we played with, dressed and redressed the same dolls from 1st grade on.

Now, of course, the Barbie age is much younger, starting approximately at age 2. Barbies are typically completely passe now by age six or so. But today we were shopping for the birthday of a nine-year-old, who was reported to “like Barbies.” So Barbie it was, a pleasure for sure, since it allowed us to skip the struggle of what else to buy, since I’m slightly averse to make-up, a tattoo gift certificate, or lingerie for 9-year-olds. (I’m kidding...I think.)

We waded in to carefully scrutinize the selection in the pink aisle. There we encountered “Barbie Fashionistas Glam” dolls, not to be confused with “Barbie Fashionistas Wild” dolls, or “Barbie Fashionistas Girly” dolls,“Barbie Fab Girl” dolls, or “Barbie Superstar” dolls. The selection of a “Fashionista Glam” Barbie was satisfactory to the selectee, so with Ms. Glam in tow, we headed for the checkout. It was there, somewhere between the pink aisle and the checkout register, that it dawned on me how much I’d changed. I am just not the mom I used to be. When had this happened?

I, a conscientious, thoughtful, well-informed, dyed-in-the-wool feminist mom, with naked-female-form-earrings to prove it, have become something close to enthralled with Barbie again, after all these years.

Barbie is fun. Barbie has a silly plastic figure and a penchant for over-the-top clothes, but Barbie is a girl who is out there, doing her thing, and not too darned concerned if she has the approval of me and my “educated” crowd of overly-concerned parents or not. Barbie has been strutting her stuff in everything from nurse to dance instructor, firefighter to astronaut garb, and has been anything from an Air Force Thunderbird, a paleontologist, a NASCAR driver, to an Olympic athlete without ever devaluing the traditional lives of women as cooks, childcare providers or homemakers. Barbie is a liberated young woman, who can wear 4-inch heels without whining, pack up her scuba gear, get married, star in rock band, buy the groceries, deliver a baby on Safari, and be the U.S. President or an World Ambassador for Peace all in a day’s play. Barbie has also been loyal to Ken since 1961, and seemingly him to her. While we can’t be absolutely sure, it appears they have maintained a long-term relationship while she’s pursued her life and multiple careers.

Who cares if she is built like “Barbie”? I had the old model Malibu Barbie with the impossible proportions, and it wasn’t her that made me believe that I lacked a bosom as a young thing. It was my lack of a bosom! Barbie and her bosom has been a butterfly, a mermaid, a bride more times than she can count, a thousand princess transformations and has spent more time comfortably nude in more places than any mother can count. She has been pals with G.I. Joe, shared space with 60 years of other trendy toys coming and going, and has kept her wits despite losing many hairdos to overzealous safety scissors over the years. Barbie is amazing! In fact, I actually reasoned today, there are a whole lot worse things for a 10-year-old to give for a birthday gift, and a 9-year-old to receive. Barbie somehow feels safe amidst Hannah Montana’s that have turned into pole dancers, Katy Perry’s that wear plastic/latex clothes, Britney’s, Paris’, Kim’s, Kristen’s (Breaking Dawn is coming folks) and all the rest that have snuck into our daughter’s little worlds.

Barbie is just one images that I believe our culture has gotten wrong, and needs to seriously reconsider. Though it is not a serious problem that you may elect to avoid all experience of Barbie in your own daughter's life to keep her untainted from her plastic sexuality, it probably isn't a big deal either, if your daughter or son does happen across Barbie in her "birthday suit" and ask you a question or two about human anatomy. There are, however, more serious consequences that come from misinterpreting some symbols.

As a pastor of a church that has more than it’s fair share of weddings, I have lots of personal experience with couples approaching the altar of marriage. (Clergy made their living doing weddings instead of being paid a salary as late as the 1960s in my congregation.) Lots can be said about the inanities of the wedding day practices of our culture which I get to enjoy up close and personally, but the latest one to have arrived in popular usage and push the boundaries of sensibility, is the sand ceremony.

A sand ceremony is a recent, circa late 1990s adaptation of the unity candle ceremony. While I have found the unity candle ceremony to have a modest amount of appeal as a moment in which all talking stops and the marrying couple are transported to an actual moment of quiet contemplation about the act in which they are engaged; marriage. As they stand, holding hands after the moment of lighting the candle symbolizing their new unity, they look into each other’s eyes for the first time as husband and wife. Providing the music for the moment lends itself to thoughtfulness, a couple in the midst of their wedding, might actually breathe a breath of contemplation of the magnitude of their actions for those few moments, and might, in some way non-verbal, actually commit their lives and love to each other eternally. At least that is my hope.

Not so with the sand ceremony. Sand ceremonies are all verbal, because they lack the ability to be understood without considerable explanation. No limit to the variations on sand ceremonies exist. Moms and dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, past lovers, her children, his children, even God can participate in pouring a personally selected color of sand into the glass vase in an effort to artistically and meaningfully depict the significance of the wedding day. I have played the role of God, with my white sand being poured in, followed by an assemblage of persons, all using different colors and amounts, some pouring simultaneously, some pouring separately, to create a montage of colored sands in a clear glass recepticle. Each person’s role in this act has to be described; each color of sand, symbolizing much more than the poor sap who had to spend his day coloring the sand, could have ever imagined. At the end, there is a vase filled with colored sand, much like our mothers and Girl Scout leaders had us make when we were children back in the 1970s for an afternoon or 10 minutes of "craft time".

The sarcasm I display here is not kind I realize, but I don’t feel kindly about sand ceremonies, because I believe they are a folly of missed purpose and misunderstood symbolism. There is little about colored sand that actually describes a person’s existence. Blue sand says nothing more about me than does yellow, and in fact, if you wanted to actually say something meaningful about me, then you would have to mix at least 50 or 75 different colors of sand together to begin to describe the complexity of personality and interests I possess. Have you ever seen a jar full of 75 different colors of sand mixed together? It’s not a pretty thing. No one would want such a jar decorating their mantle at their home.

Add to that, the final significance attributed to sand ceremonies is the fact that the blending of the sands symbolize a blending of two (or two hundred) lives in this marriage in such a way that they can never be un-entangled. Baloney! Divorce attorneys do the job every day. Add to that the fact that, in the first really good fight of a new marriage, what do you think will be the most likely object that a frustrated and overwhelmed new husband is apt to grab to throw across the floor of the apartment? Anyone every tried to reassemble the pieces of a broken sand ceremony vase before morning while sitting locked out of the bedroom all night? Take my advice. Avoid a sand ceremony at all costs in your upcoming wedding planning.

So there you have it, my contribution to improving the well-being of our culture. I have "fixed" sand ceremonies and Barbies for you and you will never get them wrong again. If only it were so easy to do with something really important, say our national interpretation of the events of September 11, 2001?

I tuned into the tragedy unfolding before our transfixed eyes nine years ago today, shortly after the first plane had struck the first tower. I immediately called my husband home from the church office to see what was unfolding. It was a horror of the most unbelievable proportions. Every ounce of the tragic realities of that day in New York City in Washington D.C., and in Pennsylvania, were relayed to every fiber of our national consciousness as if we were each there in that instant, inside the lives of those terrifyingly living through the events themselves. I have never gone through anything like it and would pray to God never to have to again.

But that is precisely why I now agonize over what the symbols of 9/11 and the following days have become in our nation. We seem to have made a choice as a nation, via the cameras of our media, to celebrate the horrors and atrocities of those days, rather than using the symbols of the rubble piles and lists of names, as a call to rebuild a more tolerant, more compassionate and more sensitive culture in which we might live and hope NEVER to have another 9/11 happen again.

Our 9/11 remembrances have become more than a somber reflection on the day that changed our lives and understanding of our vulnerabilities as a nation. They have become a day to wave the flags of misconceived self-righteousness as a nation and a culture. Our failure as a nation to have created a society that truly provides opportunity to countless of its citizens; to manage our national debt; to provide meaningful employment and healthcare for a high percentage of its citizenry; and which celebrates the traditional immoralities of greed, lust, power and gluttony, not to mention corporate and personal deceit and lawlessness, and the decimation of our planet as national pastimes, should have us cowering in shame, not flaunting our intolerance of religious difference.

We have made the poignant memories of 9/11 the symbol of our wanton self-indulgence, committed to personal privilege instead of national well-being. It’s a terrifying choice to this mother of three children, this lover of other people’s children, and this representative of a faith who watched a madman this past week threaten to burn the Koran as an expression of his delight in being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Christ weeps at the folly of his children this week.

We need to teach better understanding of the power of symbols and the terrific errors that can be perpetuated when we misinterpret those symbols. We need to teach our children to use intellect and curiosity to search out the meanings of symbols that our culture values, and to research and determine for themselves whether the cultural definitions of those symbols are worthy of our valuing.

The symbols of our nation can be powerful tools for the passing on of our national heritage, pride, gratitude and honor, or they can communicate our worst motives and practices. We are confronted by a choice today. Will we teach our nation and especially our children to repeat the errors I have seen this week in our media, turning national symbols into propaganda tools for evilly-intentioned madmen? Or will be teach our children not to repeat our errors, to revalue the higher aspirations and values of our society, and learn to interpret the symbols of our nation responsibly, and with the intention of valuing all people, regardless of religion, race, color, ethnicity, gender, social class, national origin, political affiliation or sexual preference?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

If You Can't Say Something Nice...

It was often a phrase administered over the back of the station wagon seat,
and I hated it.

I mean, sometimes you just really want to let your dumb little sister know how stupid she is! I tried, "But she started it, Mom!" I tried repetitious huffing and puffing and glaring "hideously threateningly" at her. I tried staring out the window and refusing to be a part of the family. (I was not one of THEM. They were all so stupid!) But nothing fixed it. Absolutely nothing fixed the need to cover my little sister with the liberally applied slime-coat of poisonous, absolutely factual and completely deserved, verbal diminishment of "YOU'RE SO STUPID!" delivered with all the vehemence I could posses.

I never got the chance.
We didn't say such things in our family.

I mean, she was just SO annoying! She sat there on her side of the car, cherubic, sweet as a gumdrop, without a mean bone in her body while I was mustering up every Wile E. Coyote caper I could think of that might assist me in producing her demise...or at least wipe that sweet, top of the pecking-order grin off her face. She was the good one. She knew it. I knew it. Everyone knew it. We lived a childhood of smiles at the Olan Mills man proving it. She was the good one, the easy one to raise, the YOUNGEST...

And I adored her.

We were genuinely closer than most sisters as we grew up. We really were. And in absolute fact, we seldom argued. Strange as it may seem, we just liked each other. Those few moments when I might have wished to blast her with a familial "you're stupid" or some other equally sentimental phrase, I was chastened by family law, and my own genuine admiration for her. She really was a great little sister. I liked her.

So, what ever happened to that particular phrase in public discourse? "If you can't say something nice, just don't say anything at all." Annoying little phrase that it is, it served our generation well. It certainly saved me from the horror of having blurted out those things I sometimes thought at my sister, and then having to live with them forever. I know other's moms used the old addendum to the Golden Rule too, because in the years before I reached adulthood, being polite was still a virtue. Being thoughtful about what you said before you said it, was encouraged. Why, I can even remember when men were expected to take their hats off before going into a building! That's how old I am! But not anymore. At least not anymore, for those above the age of two. Once the broadcast gurus plug our children in for us to a cosmos of caustic disrespect, it's all over. No one has any obligation to be polite to anyone ever again. (Watch a half hour of Nick and see what I mean.) Even the human characters of Sesame Street are not infrequent practitioners of the "oh, puleeze" eye roll directed at their furry counterparts. Catch on people, we're all lots STUPIDER than we used to be! At least that's impression we are all being given.

I am increasingly amazed, and I know you've had this conversation too, by the appallingly coarse, disgraceful, foul, humiliating, indelicate, loathsome, mean, obnoxious, offensive, repugnant, shocking, sordid, vicious, wretched discourse our culture has claimed as acceptable. No one seems to be the slightest bit discomforted by following the impulse to out the worst vile-filled comeuppance that they can muster, regardless of circumstance or the recipient. ("Anyway, anyhow, anywhere I choose" to quote a famous phrase from The Who.) Everyone is a candidate. No one is free from the honor of being formally dissed on a frequent basis. Not the President. Not the Pope. Not God Him/Herself. It's an active contagion, and we've all caught the bug.

I cannot plead innocence myself. I've had a problem with "taming the tongue" on more occasions that I prefer to mention here. But I also have a thought, that maybe, just maybe, if we chose to clear a space, a time, an occasion, a screen, a bit of air and electrons, and claimed that THIS would be the space, where gentleness of spirit would prevail... This would be the space where word choice would matter, and sarcasm would be at no one's expense... This would be the time for sharing a better word, with more patience and more sensitivity than the rest of the world demands of us...I think a person or two might just like to be in this place with me. I think that maybe we might even start sewing patches on some worn-out souls with threads of grace.

That's the thought I have anyway.

I would like this blog to be less about me and more about the little things of the world that are truly valuable and wise. I would like to have dialogues here that are free from condescension, full of opportunity to try a different way to be, and provide space for everyone who wants to gather in a genuine place to be together. I'm not much of a lemming-thinker, and I don't think that you should feel required of anyone to think or act in a culturally proscribed way. I would much prefer you brought the real you, the created, creative, creator-you to the airspace and opened that with us gently... for your sake as well as for all of ours. As I am the maker of this blog, I will take the responsibility to do the hopefully unnecessary violent thing if it is called for, and delete conversation that is disrespectful in any way to the thoughts and feelings of those gathered here. That's the extent of what I have to say about that. No apologies.

My grandmother's homes were full of good things to eat. I seldom cook. My grandmother's chores were wholesome and repetitive. I seldom have two days alike. My grandmother's dreams were real, and they stitched them into everything they sewed. I have dreams, and have no idea if I will ever live to achieve them, but if I can create a space here, like a grandmother's home where the cookies taste better, the smells are sweeter, and the routines are more familiar, then I will feel I have done at least one thing good for you and for me. I welcome you. Shalom.

A Labor of Love

Building this blog has been a labor of love and is dedicated to my two grandmothers, Eleanor and Lorraine, who both were unparalleled seamstresses and quilters, cooks and caretakers.