Friday, July 14, 2017

Bowen on a Bicycle: Take II

Last night David and I went for a bike ride.  We were most of the way home, having just crossed the Ford Parkway bridge, heading east into Saint Paul.  The path on the St. Paul side is quite steep before it joins the roadway, goes under the bridge, where one can find a curb cut-out to get back onto the recreation trail.  I go down this hill very slowly; in addition to being steep, I have a stop sign at the bottom and there tends to be a lot of cross traffic on Mississippi River Blvd which does not have a stop sign.
 
As I creeped down the hill, I watched for traffic.  There were two cars coming from the south.  Not a big deal.  I was only halfway down the hill, creeping along so slowly I was at a near standstill.  I checked David’s location behind me.  The first car went ROARING by.  The second car reached the intersection a mere second later.  I was still a good 10 feet from the intersection and scarcely moving.
 
The car came to a complete stop.  The driver was attempting to (wrongly) yield the right of way to me.  I was farther from the intersection than this car that had stopped in the middle of it, trying to Minnesota nicely allow me to cross the road without stopping.
 
Except to do so, I would have to release the brakes, fully reengage my down-stroke, enter the roadway, and remain in front of this vehicle for a four-lane-plus stretch of underpass before I could re-enter the bike path on the other side.  I followed the rules of the road and obeyed my stop sign – acting exactly as I had promised to do when I signed a contract committing myself to obeying all traffic, safety, and trail laws, rules, and regulations upon the purchase of my two-wheel, leg-powered vehicle.
 
As I came to a complete stop, and the vehicle still refused to move, I had to dismount, not able to balance on two wheels for longer than a brief second.  I shifted my weight, put out my left foot to catch myself.  The toe of my shoe made contact with the ground and my leg collapsed beneath me as my calf muscle cramped so intensely I end up lying on the ground, shrieking in agony.  David had to dismount his own bicycle and press on the bottom of my foot to help gently stretch my calf and ease the cramp.
 
Another cyclist stopped to inquire if everything was okay, had I crashed, did we need assistance?  “Just a cramp,” David told him.  “Ugh!  Those are the worst!” the other cyclist said with sympathy.  “Sometimes you can’t even move!”  I know this well.  At this point I was moving again, but when the cramp first started, I was immobilized with pain.
 
And this is the shit about “Minnesota Nice” or “Iowa Nice” or niceness in general.  When people stop paying attention to the rules that govern their own lives and start living for the purpose of being “nice” to everyone around them – openly inviting others to violate the rules that govern their lives – the “nice” people are creating a DAMNED hazard for those of us just going about our business, taking care of our own shit.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Murray Bowen on a Bicycle

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

*****

One of the biggest questions we can wrestle with as humans being is, “What is the good life?”  And like it, “How do I live a good life?”  In my work as a hospital chaplain I have the privilege of serving on our hospital’s Ethics Committee.  The opportunity to explore what is ethical in the context of medical care has given me a framework for exploring what is ethical in other contexts.

There are four ethical principles which inform us in our search for the good.  These four principles are:  autonomy (or the right to self-rule), beneficence (or bringing about a good outcome), non-maleficence (or minimizing harm), and justice (fair and equitable distribution of resources).  Ethical dilemmas arise when two or more of these principles are in tension. 

For example:  If a very wealthy patient comes into the hospital and demands to have a procedure done no matter the cost (the patient is willing to pay out of pocket in full), a procedure which the medical staff deems to come with little to no benefit and a high chance of causing significant harm or suffering, we have an ethical dilemma.  In this scenario, the patient autonomy – the right to decide what happens to their body – is at odds with the principles of both beneficence and non-maleficence.  Because the patient is willing and able to pay for any procedure, justice – as an ethical principle – is not at play in obviously significant way.

As an ethicist, if a consult is requested, I get to hear all sides of the debate and make a recommendation for a course of action that is most ethical.  The surgeon then gets to decide whether or not to follow the recommendations offered.

Much of what we hope to discover and create in the context of religious life and community is another path to answer the question, “What is the good life?” and like it, “How do I or we live a good life?”

In seeking the good life, we often create all kinds of rules about what is permissible and what is not permissible, by whom, and where, and when, and how.  And Jesus was born in to a culture that had a LOT of rules, which we sometimes call Commandments.  We all know the big ten, but there are also an additional 613 commandments found in the Torah – what we know as the first five books of the Old Testaments.  These are made of up of positive commandments (“You shall do x, y, and z”) and negative commandments (“You shall NOT do a, b, and c”). 

All in an attempt to codify living a good life – something which probably seems impossible to do 100% of the time.  We’re only human, after all.  We all make mistakes.

In Joseph Keller’s book, Catch-22, we see reality of impossible situations laid bare.  Set in World War II, on an island in the Atlantic, a group of Army airmen try desperately to get out of flying missions, knowing they will be placed on the most dangerous fronts.  And it is possible to get out of flying missions.  Airmen can be grounded if they are crazy.

There was, however, a catch.  Any man who claimed to be crazy and applied to be grounded demonstrated a rational concern for his safety and could not be deemed unfit to fly.  At the same time, any man who expressed the joyful anticipation of these missions – no matter how dangerous the mission and how crazy the man – was deemed fit to fly because they needed airmen willing to fly the missions.

It was this novel from which the phrase “Catch 22” sprang – a type of unsolvable logic problem.  In psychology, this is known as a double-bind; an emotionally distressing situation in which a person receives two or more conflicting messages, each of which nullifies the others, such that the person receiving the messages will be wrong no matter their response.

This is a dynamic clearly seen in our gospel lesson today. 

Listen, I was a Religious Studies major in undergrad; I went to seminary; I was a leader in an ultra-conservative, bible loving, Evangelical student ministry through college and seminary.  I have read the bible in several contexts at various times in its entirety over the course of studies and ministry.  So, it was with a bit of surprise that I read the scriptures for this week and found myself thinking, “No really, what’s the joke?  Jesus didn’t really say that.  I have absolutely no recollection of reading this passage before.”

“But to what will I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11:16-17).

What?  Seriously, I found myself thinking, what does that even mean?  And how have I never read it before!?

I was puzzled by this for a week and as I tried to come up with something relevant to say to all of you today, I just kept coming back to it.  Children.  In the marketplace.  Playing flutes.  No one dancing.  Wailing.  No one mourning.  Something in me couldn’t make sense of it even within the context of the full reading for today.

And then, it struck me.  A double-bind.  A catch-22.  God forgive me the coarseness of the phrase, but I’m sure we’ve all heard it before:  Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed for you, and you did not mourn.”  “John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man [i.e. Jesus] came eating and drinking , and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”  Double-binds.

We do one thing, you call us possessed; we do the opposite thing you call us sinful.  Two conflicting messages, each of which nullifies the other, such that the person receiving the messages will be wrong no matter their response.

This, is perhaps, the most important thing we can learn in life:  When we live our lives, no matter how well intentioned, with the purpose of pleasing or satisfying those around us, we generally end up pleasing no one.  We often find ourselves in impossible situations, acting out of our understanding of someone else’s values, failing to live within our own values – often failing to even define our own values.

When we live according to someone else’s values, we often find ourselves caught between two impossible options.  And Jesus tells us there is perhaps a third way.

Because it was never about playing the flute and it was never about mourning.  It was never about fasting and it was never about eating and drinking.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This strikes me a slight understatement of facts.  Jesus’s personal burden, after all, included crucifixion.   And yet, yokes are created with incredible specificity.  They are not one-size-fits-all.  Yokes, when fitted properly, distribute the weight of the load evenly across the musculature of the wearer and realizes the full potential of the individual to bear the load.  By contrast, a poorly fitted yoke will cause discomfort, open the wearer to potential injury, and limit the potential to bear a load.

I recently experienced this phenomenon myself when buying my first bicycle as an adult.  I found one I liked – the frame material, gearing, and handle bar style all fit what I wanted.  I gave it a test ride and told the salesman it just wasn’t the bike for me.  It wasn’t any fun to ride.  I knew that biking for the first time in 20 years was going to require some effort, and the test ride it was pleasant enough, but it was a lot of work to just scoot down a relatively flat bike path for a quarter mile and back to the shop.

“Let’s give the next size up a try,” the salesman told me.  “Just to make sure.”  I wasn’t sure how I was going to muster the energy for another test ride when the 5 minutes we’d just spent on the first bike had nearly killed me, but I decided to give it a go.

The next size up was a frame that was 2 centimeters larger.  Less than one inch.  Looking at the bikes side-by-side, it was impossible to tell any difference at all.  We jumped headed to the bike path, rode for a mile before he insisted we return to the bike shop.  I felt like I was doing no work whatsoever.  It was amazing.  And it was fun!

And that’s the difference between living according to someone else’s rules and living in accordance with your own values.

To be clear – I am not advocating for throwing out all the rules.  We still have to live with one another.  Basic respect for the dignity of our fellow humans in aspects of life is still a really good thing.  And because we as human beings were created for and must live within communities in order to survive and thrive, being aware, mindful of, and respecting others’ values is pretty important. 

Experts tell us that those who are best at differentiating their selves and their values from the cohesive mindset of group thought are successful only 70% of the time.  We are created for connection – and connection sometimes means watching an action movie on date night when you’d prefer the latest animated Disney film because compromise and a shared experience are more important than getting your own way (which might lead you to sitting in a theater, watching a movie alone).

“To what shall I compare this generation?” Jesus asked.  It pushes and pulls and makes impossible demands.  So, stop working yourselves to death to meet their impossible standards!  Stop.  Rest.  And wear the yoke of your own values – for that will lessen the burden of the load.

And my I suggest today that as we continue in our journeys to live good lives, may we always consider that which:

  • Respects the autonomy of individuals;
  • Seeks to produce a good outcome;
  • Limits the impact of any incidental harm; and
  • Furthers the justice in the fair distribution of God’s resources for all of God’s people

Friday, July 7, 2017

Torture

This is a week that has kind of kicked the shit out of me.
 
I first experienced insomnia at age ten.  Since that time, I have struggled repeatedly – sometimes for days or weeks or even months.  I have come to realize that my insomnia is invariably linked to some experience of boundary violation in the course of relationships.  Today I am unsurprised by the revelation.
 
*****
 
There are the things that bring my ten year old self out around the Fourth of July:
 
When I was ten years old we went on a family vacation some 1,300 miles from home.  It was in the course of this vacation that my father sexually abused me.  We were staying with extended family in various configurations and the night my mother and brothers stayed with her sister, my father stayed with her brother, and my sister and I stayed with our uncle’s estranged wife and two children who were close in age to us.
 
In the late evening, my father made his way to the house where I was staying and had an affair with my uncle’s soon-to-be ex-wife.  He made certain I saw and heard the whole thing.  I was not able to sleep the entire night.
 
I tried desperately to hold it in until I dissolved in an emotional meltdown the following afternoon - tears spilling out of me like a tidal wave of grief.  It was late afternoon when I told my mother, sobbing in the backseat of her sister’s car, what I had seen.  That night we sat as a family on the beach, watching the Independence Day fireworks explode over the ocean.
 
Our vacation was cut short.  The following morning the car was packed with luggage and children.  My parents stood on the front lawn of my grandparents’ house, spitting venom at each other.  “You do know that your daughter saw you, don’t you?” my mother shot at my father.
 
A tone between cool indifference and pride in a hit that landed well, “Why do you think I did it?  I knew that was what was going to hurt you most,” my father retorted.
 
I was filled with intense fear.  My father had never really seen me before.  And now he had seen me and I had told.  What would be the punishment for telling?
 
I was filled with so many feelings.  Horror.  Sadness.  Anger.  Confusion.  What did it all mean?  How does someone do that?
 
*****
 
Later Thursday, I remembered the following:
 
Insult was added to injury when halfway down the Pennsylvania turnpike, my brother grabbed the My Little Pony unicorn toy with which I was playing (Glory – white with purple mane and tail, a shooting star mark on her hindquarters) and threw it out the window.  I screamed for my parents to stop, to go back, to find it.  My father never even tapped the brakes.
 
*****
 
When I got home Thursday night, I lay down to rest for a bit as David ran to the office to collect research materials.  I inadvertently fell asleep.  I woke up remembering the following:
 
Somewhere in Ohio we stopped for dinner.  I slammed the car door in frustration as feelings without names, and too big for my child's body to handle, coursed through me the entire ride home.  The car window slipped off its tracks and fell into the body of the door.  Another layer of protection gone.
 
Early July temperatures in the Midwest can still get down in the 50s overnight.  This feels particularly cold as the wind whipped about at interstate speeds.  We were all dressed for warm weather, sunshine, and light breezes, not anticipating that we wouldn’t have a barrier of glass between us and the world on the ride home.
 
Trying to escape the cold wind, my family, the terribleness of the aftermath, to find a place of safety in the midst of it all, I huddled on the floor of the car behind the front passenger's seat. 
I remember the wet ice cascading down my neck, soaking my t-shirt and leaving me chilled to the bone.  My mother, in retaliation for the window, finished her drink from dinner, took the lid off, reached overhead, and dumped the remaining contents of her cup over me, knowing I was huddled there, trying to stay warm.
 
*****
 
I had one thought in my mind when I awoke from my nap Thursday evening:
 
I do not want to know these people.
 
*****
 
Later in the evening I realized that there is one word that most adequately sums up my childhood: 

Torture.
 
*****
 
Wednesday afternoon, I curled up in a chair at home to read.  I was feeling particularly low already, what with the week I was having.  Lois settled into the arm of chair to keep me company.  She purred and she purred as she looked at me.
 
At the thirty-six, I am treated with more compassion, more kindness, and more tenderness by my cranky elderly cat who’s dying of severe kidney disease than I received from my own parents at the age of ten.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

No Blood Sacrifices Required!

In his excellent book, “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian,” John Dominic Crossan proposes that the Bible tells us about two distinct Gods: 

One…God is a God of non-violent distributive justice [who expects and commands humans to act in similar fashion….]  The other [,] God is a God of violent retributive justice [who expects and commands humans to act in similar fashion] (18).

Original sin, as Crossan sees it, is not sexual impropriety, but rather escalatory violence.  And we see this escalation of violence in the larger text in which Abraham’s relationship to his sons is found.  When Isaac was born, Abraham had already had a child by his wife, Sarah’s, handmaid Hagar.  That’s child’s name was Ishmael. 

Fearing competition between Ishmael and Isaac for the family inheritance, we read last week that Sarah commanded Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their encampment, out of their family, and left them in the wilderness to fend for themselves – the result of which was certain death if not for the intervention of God.  Sarah demanded retributive justice in an effort to protect her son’s inheritance.

From there, the violence escalated.  In today’s text, we read that Abraham took his son Isaac to the land of Moriah where Abraham intended to offer the boy as a burnt offering.  This is the original sin, played out once more, of escalating violence.  We fear scarcity, we cast out that which we find threatening, we seek to destroy that which reminds us of our fears and our failures.

The scriptures record Abraham’s experience – that God spoke to him (without witnesses).  Abraham alone heard God’s call and command for sacrifice.  How often do we hear God’s call in our life?  How often do we explore our experience in the context of God’s non-violent distributive justice and our call to act likewise?

We are given little information in the text as to what is going on for Abraham next.  He is deliberate and methodical in his approach.  He saddles his donkey, he cuts the fire wood, he invites with him two helpers and his son Isaac, and he travels for three days.  These three days are recorded without embellishment or even explanation.  There is no record of conversation or even of Abraham’s thoughts.

Neither are we given the thoughts of his two companions who must recognize wonder what this journey is about.  Neither are we given the thoughts of Isaac who must wonder what is going on.  How far will they travel?  How many days and nights?  What is the purpose of their journey?  Does Isaac know that they will be performing a sacrifice?  If so, has he yet considered the lack of sacrificial animal?  Nothing is given to us as readers.  It is three days of silence – a journey the purpose of which is hidden, kept secret, as though that part of the story was written behind closed doors.

So, they go.  For three days.  This is no accident – that it took three days for Abraham to arrive at the place where he was planning to perform the sacrifice.  Three days is typical motif in the bible and is often a waiting period for the time of appropriate preparation, particularly in Old Testament.

From the beginning, the third day has produced fruit – literally and figuratively.  For on the third day of creation, “The land produced vegetation:  plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.”  Here, on the third day, Abraham’s escalating violence is about to be met with the non-violent distributive justice of a loving God.  Here on the third day we see juxtaposed what Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization” against the “radicality of God.”

Civilization has always been about creating structures and strata between people.  One of the hallmarks of civilizations is the social domination by cultural elites.  Within SΓΈren Kierkegaard’s seminal work “Fear and Trembling” we find this truth played out in the dissection of our Old Testament story:

The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it applies at all times…  As soon as the single individual asserts himself in his singularity before the universal, he sins, and only by acknowledging this can he be reconciled again with the universal (54).  The story of Abraham contains, then, a … suspension of the ethical.  As the single individual he became higher than the universal (66).

Abraham found himself within a culture that privileged some more than others:  stratified, the elite dominated and oppressed the lower classes – even within the family as Sarah dominated and oppressed her handmaid Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael.  The logical extension of a “call” within this stratified context is to normalize this domination and oppression, making violence a matter of divine mandate, believing it just.

This leaves Abraham prey to Original Sin – escalatory violence. 

We humans escalate our violence from ideological through rhetorical to physical violence.  Ideological violence judges certain others to be inhuman, subhuman, and lacking in one’s own humanity.  Rhetorical violence speaks on that presumption by debasing those others with rude names, crude caricatures, and derogatory stereotypes or by excluding them as political “traitors’ or religious “heretics.”  Physical violence, and even lethal violence, acts on those presuppositions either by illegal attack or, if one has attained social power, by official, legal, political action (173).

This is where the radicality of God steps in.  This is where the God of non-violent distributive justice enters the story.  “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him….  And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns.  Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Genesis 22:12-13). 

The biblical God is a god of distributive justice, not a God who calls for the blood sacrifice of children.  The biblical God expects and commands us to act in similar fashion. 

…justice is about the fair distribution of the subject involved.  In the Bible, it is primarily about a fair distribution of God’s world for all of God’s people….  The heart of God’s justice is to make sure that the ‘weak and the orphan’ have received their share of God’s resources for them to live and thrive (17-18).

Ultimately, the story of Abraham and Isaac turned out okay.  For Abraham, it went like gangbusters.  He continued and continues to play a starring role in the Christian faith.  He is mentioned seventy-six times in the New Testament alone – more than half referencing his great faith.  And in Sunday school, generations of kids learn about “Father Abraham” who “had many sons and” the “many sons” who “had Father Abraham.”  God’s non-violent distributive justice will always win out at the end of the day.

Yet, when we decide that some are more worthy than others….  When we hold to ideologies and beliefs that declare some are lacking in our own humanity – that some could not possibly be made in the image of God, like we are….  When we begin to speak from those presumptions and debase with our language those who did not fit our narrative of what it means to be worthy or deserving of the same access to resources that we have….  It is only a matter of time before we enact physical violence.

We fall prey to the same sin that led Abraham to abandon one child to death and to attempt to “sacrifice as a burnt offering” the other.  The God of non-violent distributive justice never demands the blood sacrifice of children.  The Original Sin is the sin of escalatory violence.  Decisions made behind closed doors, decisions which privilege the one over the universal, decisions which demand the blood sacrifice of children – especially by those who proclaim that we are called as a nation by God to live the Christian message – are not of the God of the bible.

Lest we spend or entire sermon today in the New Testament, let us consider for a moment Paul’s reminder to us:  “For the wages of sin is death.”  Escalatory violence always leads to death.

Today then, may we:

Watch our thoughts, for they become words;
Watch our words, for they become actions;
Watch our actions, for they become habits;
Watch our habits, for they become character;
Watch our character; for it becomes our destiny.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Reflections from Santa Fe

During my last individual session with my CPE supervisor, V, we talked about this part of me that feels about 15 years old.  There were a lot of things that got this kid all activated, and I’m not even entirely sure what all of those things were – people who (rightly or wrongly) remind me of my sister, an impending vacation to one of the places D loves most in life, the purchase of a new shirt, an incident at church where they “passed the peace” (seriously, what the fuck is this ridiculous tradition?). 

The church in which I grew up did not “pass the peace” on Sunday morning.  The shaking of hands and a polite word happened in the aisles during the postlude as people made their way to the fellowship hall.  When I happened upon it in my early adult years, it was strange, foreign, awkward, and uncomfortable.  Why was I being forced to interact with total strangers in the middle of a church service, between the Assurance of Pardon and the reading of sacred texts?

A couple months back, I was at church one Sunday morning and feeling particularly anxious.  It was my birthday and I had been feeling burnt out and I needed a break from people but I went to church anyway.  It was Easter, after all.  I was at church for the scripture and the sermons and not much else.  In the weeks before Lent when the peace had been passed, I had politely shaken hands, but this particular Sunday, I knew I did not have the energy to just get through it.  Five minutes of absolute fucking torture is how it read to me in the bulletin.  So, when the Assurance of Pardon had been spoken, I (sitting in the far corner of the back pew) quietly stepped outside and wrapped my arms around myself and tucking my hands into my armpits, protecting myself from the cold. 

One of the greeters, who is a rather lovely man and whom I appreciate(d) greatly, followed me outside.  “Is everything okay?” P asked me. 

“I’m fine.  I just really hate the passing of the peace,” I told him.  “Figured I’d step out and avoid the fray,” I said.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” P asked.

“Yeah.  Everything’s fine,” I said.

“Well, okay.  I just wanted to check and make sure,” P said, before reaching out his hand, touching my arm, looking me in the eye, and saying, “Peace of Christ.”

I went home on a rampage.  Seriously!  What is it with people?  I had clearly stated that I hate the passing of the peace and was seeking to avoid it and then it’s literally forced upon me by a person who just learned that I hate it and want nothing to do with it?  Somehow the coercive nature of the act seemed at direct odds with stated intent of offering “peace.”

And that was the thing that stuck with me and the first time I ever put the pieces together.  Church was the only place in the course of my entire childhood and adolescence where my bodily autonomy was respected.  It somehow seems quite obvious, from this side of the revelation, how and why it is I ended up in seminary getting an MDiv.

*****

Anyway, fast forward to my 15 year old’s conversation with and I remarked that I wish I’d had Harry Potter during my childhood because I feel quite connected to the story and the character.  V encouraged me to write a verbatim between my fifteen year old self and Harry.  This being the play unit and all.

The thing is, I tried.  I really did.  But I came to realize that the adult me connects and responds to Harry Potter and Hermione Grainger.  The fifteen year old me just wasn’t having any of it.  Harry and Hermione and Ron had their group and they were a thing and everyone loved or hated them, but they had each other and did pretty okay.  And there wasn’t room for me in that group.  They didn’t need another Brainiac and they didn’t need another neglected kid and they didn’t need another poor kid in their group.

*****

When we got to Santa Fe Wednesday night we had dinner with B and N and their two kids, H and S.  B and N were classmates of D in undergrad.  After introductions and as we started our meal B asked me, “How did you decide to become a chaplain?”

“After it became obvious that my first career choice was not going to work out, I kind of tripped over my own feet until I landed in it,” I told him.

“And what was your first career choice?” B asked me.

“Well, when I was little, all I really wanted to be when I grew up was a Disney princess,” I replied.

While it is true that as a kid I imagined, A LOT, about how my life might look if I were really a princess who’d been switched at birth or had a spell cast upon her by an evil witch and how much better things would be when my parents or prince charming came to rescue me, on reflection I realize that I didn’t really ever want to be a Disney princess.  I just wanted to live in a home and a family where I didn’t have to pretend to be switched at birth or under a spell just to survive.

*****

On Friday we did the Phaedrus seminar and it was wonderful to be back in an academic setting with a bunch of other people excited to geek out about stuff like Plato.  I had also finished Rousseau’s The Social Contract in preparation for Saturday’s seminar.  During the day on Saturday, D had alumni stuff to take care of, so I went to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum on my own before meeting him on campus for the seminar.

The museum didn’t take as long as I thought it might and having no other plans for the afternoon, I carried my laptop up to campus and failed at numerous attempts to write the first iteration of this reflection, which was intended to be a verbatim with Harry Potter.  Afterward, I sat by the koi pond and watched the fish swim and enjoyed the warmth of the sun.  I started to cry, but got myself mostly put back together before D found me.

“Are you ready for the seminar,” he asked me. 

“Yep.”

“Are you okay?  You look like you have a tear there,” he said, pointing to my lower eyelid.

“I’m fine.  It’s just warm and bright out and I’m sad.”

“I’m sorry it’s warm and bright,” D said.  “Wait!  Why are you sad?”

“It’s nothing,” I told him.  “Just thinking dumb thoughts,” I explained, because my fifteen year old had been pretty present during my efforts to correspond with Harry and shit was just falling apart in my head.

“Let’s skip the seminar,” D said.  “I don’t have the energy in me anyway.”

“But you were looking forward to the seminar,” I argued.  “I’m fine.  I was excited to discuss Rousseau,” I told him.

“Yeah.  I don’t want to.  I’m tired and I don’t have the mental energy for it.  You can go if you want to.  But I’d rather take a walk.”

Preferring to see more of this place D loves, I went with him.  We walked.  D showed me the math hall and the science labs and he asked me why I was sad.  “Sometimes, when we’re in places like this, I don’t know what I bring to the relationship,” I told D.  “I feel like our relationship is lopsided and you have all these things to share with me and I don’t have anything to offer you.  Sometimes when you share these things with me,” I told him, “I feel like you’re trying to fix all of the things in me that you think are broken and unacceptable.”

“I’m not trying to fix you,” D said me.  “This place is important to me.  And you’re important to me.  That’s why I want to share it with you.  This place is my Hogwarts.  I know I’ll never find anyone else like you.”

“I know all of that, it’s just it feels differently and that’s all my stuff.”

“Thanks for talking about it with me,” D said.

We walked and we talked for a bit more.  D showed me the upper dorms and the lower dorms.  We spent some time sitting on one of the second story porches.  As we left campus that evening, I said to D, “The thing is, you have these places that are meaningful and important to you; places you want to go back to; places you want to share with me.  I don’t have that.  I don’t have any place that I want to go back to.  I don’t have any place that I would want to share with you.  I’ve spent my entire life working to get out of and away from the places I’ve known.”

“Not even Union?” D asked.

“Well, maybe Union,” I conceded, “but even when I thought about Union today, I’m not sure if it’s the place or the people, if it wasn’t just Tim, who made if transformative – a place where I really started to create myself.”

*****

Sunday, D took the car to campus again for the Alumni Leadership Board discussion and vote.  I had initially toyed with going to the cathedral for church, but I just wasn’t feeling like being an interloper at Catholic Mass that morning.  The plan became to stay in bed and read for a bit.  But I wanted to go to church.  So, I googled for a UCC in Santa Fe and sure enough the only one in town is also O&A.  I showered and dressed and walked three miles to church.

I took a lot of pictures of the things that captured my attention on my mountainous desert walk to church.  I texted D and asked him to pick me up from church rather than the hotel sometime after noon.  Neville Longbottom and I had a conversation, because I was still feeling very, very fifteen.

“I know what it’s like,” Neville said, “to feel out of place; to want to connect with people but feel more at home with a herbology textbook; to not have much for family and to not be good enough for the family you’ve got.”

“Yeah?” I said.  “It’s really lonely.  And I’m okay with that when I’m left to my own devices, but my parents berate me all the time about the fact that I’m not spending time with people my own age.”

“My gran wants me to have more friends, too,” Neville said.  “I’ve tried.  But I just don’t fit in.  But you do fit in.  People like you well enough.  Your high school classmates don’t remember you as weird or awkward or not fitting in; they all miss you and reach out every time there’s a class reunion.”

And this is true today.  But when you’re in junior high and then high school and you can’t invite friends over, you never get invited over.  And when you’re an introvert and you end up overwhelmed by the noise and the number of people and the gross feeling of the grease paint on your face at the only Halloween party you’re ever invited to, so you sit in the bathroom crying for an hour before you walk home because you’re parents refuse to pick you up until your curfew in three hours, people don’t invite you to another party.  And when you’re in junior high and you sign up for the TAG science fair and speech/performance competition and you win a spot on the spelling bee but you end up missing all of them because your parents separated after you were taken into foster care and your father moved twenty miles away when he finished rehab and your mother is working 80 hours a week to keep a roof over your head so you don’t have a ride to the school some 13 miles away and your teachers don’t care why you missed these things, they just tell you that you’re irresponsible and if you don’t plan to keep your commitments, you shouldn’t participate at all, you just stop trying to do the extra stuff.  And when your parents get back together and you’re moved to yet another school (the sixth school in five years) and you end up walking the three miles on a mid-December night to the school for your winter choir performance because your dad was at an AA meeting and your mom had to pick him up and they didn’t get to the school to see you sing because they only made it in time for the last performance by the jazz singers that you didn’t join because you couldn’t afford the $20.00 rental fee for the stage outfit and the choir director was clear that if you couldn’t come up with the fees you shouldn’t bother trying out, you just stop singing.

And when you’re fifteen and your parents demand that you spend time and socialize with other people because it’s “good” for you, but they’ve moved you around so much and changed school so many times in the formative years of that social development such that you don’t know how and no one wants to hang out with the weird kid who likes to read in a corner by herself and can’t afford to participate in any other school or social activities, your parents are thrilled beyond measure that the twenty-two year college senior whom you met at a reunion is calling you up and taking you out and occasionally getting you home just after curfew.  “It’s good for you,” they say, ignoring the fact that you cry every time you come home and you’re cutting your wrists every time he calls you to takes you out, and you’re spending longer and longer in the shower after you “hang out” with him, and you’ve suddenly developed a panic disorder and you can barely get through the school day without panic attack after panic attack and your parents tell you to just suck it up because there’s nothing to be afraid of, everything is fine, and so you start carrying razor blades to school and cutting in the bathroom between classes because how the hell else are you supposed to get through the day?

“But you have no one to blame but yourself.  You could have stopped it at any time.  Was being punished by your parents for not having a ‘social life’ really so much worse than what he did to you?  God, it’s no wonder you don’t have any place to go back to; you don’t belong anywhere.  You never fit in and you never will.  If you weren’t good enough for your own family (I mean, my God, have you ever considered the low bar they set, and still you couldn’t figure out how to fit in), what makes you think you’ll ever be good enough to fit anywhere else in life?” asks the quiet voice of one of my particularly cruel protectors.

“Shut up!” Neville shouts.  “Just shut up and leave her alone!  I’m here.  I’m her friend and she fits in with me.  You don’t get to talk to her this way.  Not now, not ever!  Come on,” Neville says, taking my hand.  “Let’s go.  She (meaning the adult me) can sort things out later.  Right now, let’s just take care of you.”  And we stop and take pictures of all of the incredible flowers blooming in the middle of the desert – this place where there is little rain and the ground is hard and parched.  So much life in the midst of landscape that looks to promise little but death.

It’s Pentecost Sunday and this church I do not know but which I attend because the UCC is where I grew up sings a few songs not found in the hymnal.  They are songs from other places in the world.  Songs sung in Spanish and Swahili.  They are songs I know because of my time at Union.  In spite of the passing of the peace mid-service and the awkward demand to discuss with the person sitting next to us where our lives intersect with the text, I am there.  It is Communion Sunday, and being in the last row, when I make my way forward, I request a gluten-free wafer, skipping the chalice which has been cross-contaminated by at least fifty people at this point.  In spite of the desert sun and the deadening social engagement and the dry wafer turning to dust in my mouth, I am refreshed.

*****

I got up Monday morning feeling better than I had the entire rest of the vacation.  I still wonder what it means that I have no place to go back to, no place I can share with D.  While the UCC is some of that for me, it is not a place where D will go.  And I still mourn the fact that I don’t have a childhood home or any place that I long for.  Still I mourn that my history is one of brokenness and pain and that I had to create a life for myself entirely out of the barren landscape of my childhood and adolescence.

I think about the fact that D says this kind of terroir makes the best wine.  “Grapes have to struggle to be any good.”

But there is no place and there are no people that I long for or who long for me.

Facebook reminds me that on this day, seven years ago, A and I became friends.  A and I met when we were eleven, the first day of sixth grade, another new school for me.  We went to the same middle school for one year.  Our friendship really started in the talented and gifted class – SAILs (Students Autonomous In Learning).  We had partnered together for a speech/performance competition – a two woman performance of the interaction between Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan when Hellen remembers what water is.  My mother worked the Saturday of the competition and I couldn’t get to the school in time.  A performed a one woman play, acting as both Helen and Annie.  She won first place.  I won the reprimand of my SAILs teacher and never again signed up for any competition at school. 

Of all the people in my Facebook friends list, A is the one I’ve known the longest.  I haven’t seen her in 24 years, but she’s the friend I most often wish I could reconnect with in person.  She’s just the kind of person I like best – she’s a ridiculously liberal atheist with a Master’s of Science in the Evolution of Language and Cognition and she’s pursuing another degree in History and the Philosophy of Science.  A is fiercely passionate about social justice and has a keen interest in human sexuality and power dynamics.  It was hard to lose her friendship after that first year of junior high and I imagine I would enjoy her friendship even more today if circumstances permitted such a connection.

I “shared” the reminder from Facebook commenting, “Facebook friends for 7 years, but I have been richly blessed and incredibly privileged to have known this woman for 25 years.”

A also “shared” the Facebook reminder of our seven years long connection.  I got the notification when our plane landed at MSP.  This is what A had to say about my socially awkward and reasonably inept middle school self:

Brat Disrupted. In middle school I had a friend named MB. She had the qualities that have always drawn me: she walked to her own beat, liked dorky sci-fi lit, was intelligent and wildish. Her spirit was alternative, before being 'alternative' was even a thing. I had one foot on those virtues and the other foot on the virtue of conformity – conforming to be accepted by "the popular girls." Uniform was tight-rolled Z Cavariccis with an oversized college football sweatshirt (liking sport not required).

In English class one day, the ringleader popular girl and her vice ringleader were making fun of MB. As this became slow-motion etched in my memory, I looked from one girl to the other to MB. The girls waited for me to pitch in some mocking, and I did. I was on their team now. I thought maybe MB hadn't heard me, maybe I was able to play my teasing to just the audience I wanted, maybe she'd only be mad at them since they were the real culprits. MB sat silently and fixed on me. Class began and then carried on as usual. Leaving class, my feeling of being a dick and getting away with it was interrupted: "You're my FRIEND. DON'T EVER DO THAT TO ME." My brat face was punched. She's the one who got in trouble.

The next school year I had moved out of state. As the web and social media developed over the next couple decades, I looked her name up many times but never found her. I wondered how she'd turned out; I wanted to tell her how much she stuck with me. Power questions like "what was the most meaningful experience of your childhood?" or "who impacted you the most as a kid?" always had me going back to MB. I can't actually know if her punch to my brat face was the most meaningful or impacting moment of my formative years. It's that I've always wondered who I'd be if she hadn't.

Out of all the folks I'm now connected with from that past life – having never seen again my LaPorte City people since the move after middle school - she's been the most impressive (she's a minister), entertaining, wise and kindred person to stay in orbit with.

I don't know what created her. I grew up with a relative amount of ease. With things like being tracked into the "Talented & Gifted" program which then tracked me for subsequent chains of opportunity and self-development, enriching experiences were handed to me. I created nothing. The only way people like me might ever become genuinely cool and wise is because of people like her. I wasn't special as a kid; she was. I was the type of kid who wanted to be liked by dickheads. She was the type of kid who knew her dignity for herself and who was bold enough to publicly command respect.

Strong live the authentic and disruptive women who wake up an authentic and disruptive nature in other women!

(And with that, MB, I respectfully but resolutely reject your notion of being privileged to know me :) ).

*****

I still don’t really have place to go back to.  I will probably never have a home with roots that call to me.  I’m pretty sure I’m not rooted in anything or any place in the world but my Self.  And I don’t really have a tribe.  But I do have my people, few though they are, spread far and wide.  And I do have my Self.  And I am enough.