Friday, December 31, 2010

new year reflection

I asked my wife earlier today what her favorite event or situation from 2010 was and after she told me she asked me the same question and I realized I didn't have one. or not simply one. this has been a good year, not as good perhaps as some years, but better than others. like with everything else, moderation, even in moderation.

but her question got me thinking about what my favorite new year experience was and that I have an answer to. I've been thinking of it ever since. new year's eve of 1989-90 I spent at a dance retreat at a commune outside amherst, ma, with my friend mia and a couple dozen other people. I was deeply into contact improvisation back then, although I didn't do it much after that retreat, and the retreat wasn't especially for c-iers but there were a lot of us there. we'd spent the week between xmas and the new year dancing and being with one another. it was important to me then to have sex as often as possible, and while I slept with a couple people there, and that was fun, I was determined that this new year's eve would be the 1st since I'd turned 18 that I wouldn't.

instead, after dancing and a sauna and singing around a group of candles stuck in the snow I headed back into the half-finished house on whose floors a number of us were sleeping. I sat up with a candle and some tea and wrote in my journal for hours. I don't need to look up what I wrote since it wasn't very important, at least it isn't now, but I remember what that new year meant to me. it was the end of one decade which had started with me married unhappily and struggling to come to terms with my life and ended with me living in my car. in the preceeding decade I'd divorced, dropped 50 pounds, started to dance, quit my plans to be a teacher, started drinking and taking as many drugs as I could, slept with as many women and men as I could, graduated undergraduate school, spent days and weeks in the mountains, lost my home and lived on the streets and then into a car and traveled the country. in 89 I'd decamped to the midwest and started graduate school, moved out of my car, and began looking at my life as if it would continue beyond my 30th birthday.

there weren't any great insights that came from this reflection. as with most of the best meditations I simply found myself thinking about the twists my life had taken, some for the better, some for the worse, and where I was then. it was a good new year's eve, the sort I think everyone ought to experience each new decade. I suppose I am looking forward to doing so tonight as well, except with peppermint schnapps rather than tea. and a wife.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

thursday's reading

"as the rest of my colleagues emerge from their rapture and gather up their belongings, I'm thinking of the last patient I saw before I flew to anaheim. she was telling me that every time she contemplated breaking it off with her junkie husband, she became paralyzed with fear. she described what the dread felt like in her body, what thoughts and fantasies it brought to mind, and soon we were talking about he father, also an addict, whom her mother finally kicked out and who then turned up dead in a snowbank. 'I never put that together before. I'm afraid I'll kill him if I end it,' she said. she gave a little laugh. 'probably only because of how much I want to.'

"she gathered her jacket around her like a carapace. after a short silence, she said, 'how did you get us there?'

"'I didn't,' I replied. 'I didn't know where we would end up.' it's an answer I'm regretting now. not because it pushed away her admiration (which, of course, I crave) or because it was disingenuous (after a quarter century of delivering the talking cure, you have some idea about where these excursions will end up), but because I see now that she was asking me what made me believe it would be worthwhile to have the conversation that we had, rather than all the others we could have had. she was asking after my faith, and I had handed her only my doubt."
--from "the war on unhappiness: goodbye freud, hello positive thinking" by gary greenberg in the september 2010 issue of harper's magazine.
do we do people a favor by affirmatively answering their requests for faith, rather than expressing our doubt? greenberg's ultimate answer is perhaps not, but I would argue further: we do them a disservice by pretending to have an answer to something for which there isn't an answer, or at least not one we know now. when a junkie going through withdrawal asks us for a hit, is it going to be better for him to say "you don't really want a hit, you're better off without it" or to say "no"? it's similar to what a minister experiences (or should experience) when someone asks him if there's a heaven and hell; he must say, honestly, "I don't know. and neither does anyone else." it won't leave the asker any happier but should leave her more trusting of the answerer.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

today's reading

"the chief executive of a large company was greatly admired for his energy and drive. but he suffered from one embarrassing weakness: each time he entered the president's office to make his weekly report, he would wet his pants!

"the kindly president advised him to see a urologist, at company expense. but when he appeared before the president the following week, his pants were again wet! 'didn't you see the urologist?' asked the president.

"'no, he was out. I saw a psychiatrist instead, and I'm cured,' the executive replied. 'I no longer feel embarrassed!'"

Monday, December 27, 2010

liberation bibliography

"the problem with scholarly publishing is that the business model it has adopted generates so much income that it has to be protected against the danger posed by scholarship being shared freely. the only way the business model can survive is for information to be scarce, an expensive commodity available only to those who can afford it."

--from "liberating knowledge: a librarian's manifesto for change" by barbara fister in the number 26, fall 2010 issue of thought & action

I'm not entirely certain I buy fister's target for blame: researchers themselves who have "outsourced the evaluation of faculty value to publishers" and who "instead of learning how to contribute to knowledge for the greater good, [coach] graduate how to play the game and compete successfully"--as if academic publishers hadn't priced themselves out of the market generations ago and as if search and tenure review committees weren't openly hostile to publication in any form that isn't bookended by covers. (and now I suspect I have a better idea of where the hostility of so many of my colleagues to research from wikipedia comes from.)

but I can't take issue with her conclusion: "the library is conceptually the commons of the university. in recent years, it has been enclosed and exploited by corporations, and individual scholars have been schooled to be grateful to those corporations for claiming the copyright over their work in exchange for career advancement. but we don't have to do it this way."

finster's solution, modeled on liberation theology (!), is an inspired bit she calls liberation bibliography. it is as follows:

  • liberation bibliography arises out of outrage at the injustice of the current system. it's not about saving money, it's about the empowering nature of knowledge and the belief that it shouldn't be a luxury good for the few.

  • liberation bibliography must emerge out of a sense of solidarity with communities struggling for liberation. it's not just a matter of a few academics and librarians tinkering under the hood of the scholarly communication system to improve conditions for scholars; it's about action for the public good.

  • liberation bibliography recognizes that the world is not separated into the scholarly and the ordinary. if knowledge matters, it must matter beyond the boundaries of our campuses...

  • liberation bibliography recornizes that we are implicated in systems that personally benefit us, even when we recognize those systems to be unjust. whenever we publish in a journal that will resell our work for a profit and withhold it from those who can't pay, we have put our self-interest before social justice.

  • liberation bibliography takes seriously the slogan...that the truth shall set us free--and that means freedom should extend to all of us, not just to a select class of employed academics and currently enrolled tuition-paying students.

  • liberation bibliography recognizes that the liberal learning we promote must be beneficial to all people. as a consequence, our libraries should not serve our institutions' immediate needs but rather their higher ideals. toward that end, libraries and scholars need to remind our institutions of those ideals which still form the material for countless mission statements and taglines but are ignored in daily institutional practice. and...we must act on them.

take confidence in gratitude-4

the finale of my day-after-xmas video sermon. it was a good experiment but I learned there are non-technological elements that also need to be considered, such as against what is such a sermon being projected (a white wall that bright sunlight reflects against is not a good choice), as well as how enlarging a video clip can slow it down considerably so dancers look like they have st. vitus.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

take confidence in gratitude-3

part 3 of today's day-after-xmas multimedia presentation (that went over very well, thank you: attendance was always down, I was told, on the service after xmas, so there were "only" 50 or so people; but when I preach out on the rim I would kill for an attendance of 50, so I'm not complaining).

Friday, December 24, 2010

take confidence in gratitude-1

I'm in charge of the sunday-after-xmas service at one of the churches where I'm interning, and as I'm told it's a traditionally less-attended service, I decided to try some technological experimentation. in this instance, doing a 20 minute multimedia presentation rather than the traditional sermon. I've been working at it for several weeks and kept running into the same difficulty: too large to keep track of and something somewhere ended up unravelling. finally I've just sliced it into fourths and and publishing them here as 4 separate videos over the next 4 days.
(if I need to mention it: the photograph is not a spiritual comment, but I used it in the course of the work and I really, really like the blissful look on her face.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

conversations we have on the rim

people tell me things. the other night, coming home from picking up gas and beer, I was going over the back roads home and at a crossroad came across a fellow in complete snowmobile gear walking down the road. I pulled up and hailed him. "run out of gas?"

he pulled off his helmet to talk. "nope. just got stopped at the corner by a car and the snow's so soft my machine sank right down. I'm heading home to get a truck and some rope."

"y'want a ride?"

"I only live a quarter mile this way."

"get in. I'm just going home anyway."

so he folded himself up into my little car. snowmobile outfits aren't made for manueverability but for warmth which is why I'm not surprised no one ever thought of creating a superhero who wore one: all the action would be him grunting and trying to get his costume to flex enough for him to get through a door. when he was settled in--he wasn't that tall but the suit puffed him up so he sat about a head taller than me--we took off down the crossroad.

we nattered a little and in the course of the quarter mile drive I found out his name was doug and he was a retired farmer. "all this used to be my land, bob. I had cows and pigs and crops. and then, well, everyone left. my kids didn't want to farm and the money got too tight and I just plain got old. we put up this modular place where everything's on one level and I got a shed for my toys and that's about it."

he was in good health it seemed but his spirits were beat. "I just got old," he said when I asked him if he missed farming. "I just got too old."

he got out and took off a big glove to shake my hand wearing a little glove and then he tromped on into his house and I did a 180 and headed out the driveway. I'd got no more than back on my regular road when this song came on the radio. sometimes people tell me things and sometimes things get told me.

Monday, December 13, 2010

monday's reading

"it may seem perverse for [lionel] trilling to insist on a resemblance between...quasi-pantheism and the faith of the rabbis, which is aggressively uninterested in nature. in chapter three of pirke aboth, rabbi yaakov is quoted as saying: 'one who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, "how beautiful is this tree!" "how beautiful is this ploughed field!"--the torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life.' how to reconcile this with [wordsworth] who wrote, 'one impulse from a vernal wood / may teach you more of man, / of moral evil and of good, / than all the sages can'?

"what they have in the sensibility wordsworth captured in the phrase 'wise passiveness.' such passiveness is not resignation or apathy, but rather a faith that the world has been ordered to man's good, so that we do not have to conquer our place in it, but simply accept the place we have been given...

"what breathes in the aboth is the rabbi's absolute certainty that a life devoted to torah is the best life. 'exile yourself to a place of torah,' advises one of them, 'do not say that it will come after you.' the rabbis are aware that the life of study has its own pitfalls, and they warn against intellectual vanity, quarrelsomeness, and the temptation to elevate theory over practice. but they have no doubt that no worldly activity can rival the study of the law, and they warn against every kind of distraction: 'one who speaks excessively brings on sin'; 'one who excessively converses with a woman [a euphemism for sex] causes evil to himself, neglects the study of torah, and in the end inherits purgatory'; 'desire not the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs.' the whole ethos of pirke aboth is encapsulated in its very first line, which advises: 'be careful in judgement; raise up many disciples; and make a fence around the torah.'"

--from "trilling, babel, and the rabbis" by adam kirsch in the jewish review of books, fall 2010

[I had nearly forgotten that my habit of reading and walking came out of my appreciation of what torah students are expected to do.]

Sunday, December 12, 2010

snow like butterflies

a day such as this, when the weather gets to a high of 4 degrees and we have been snowed in for 2 days and something like this makes the news over and over, it is good to be reminded of summer and warmth and butterflies landing on you...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

potential MLK day service

the assignment for class today was to create and comment on a service for a secular holiday and I enjoyed the work so much I've decided to post it.

Order of Service
Sunday, January --, 2011

Processional: Recorded excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, 1963 March on Washington (1)
Welcome and Announcements
Lighting the Chalice: (in unison) Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
[James Vila Blake]
Opening Words: From Virtual Faith by Tom Beaudoin (2)
First Hymn: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” number 149 (3)
First Reading: From The Spirituals and the Blues by James Cone (4)
Time for All Ages: My Dream of Martin Luther King by Faith Ringgold (5)
Sing children to Religious Education with “Go Now in Peace,” number 413
Community Sharing: This is the time we give to voice those things that give us pause, events that make us smile or make us cry, situations that lift us up or drop us down. We sit in respectful silence of others. Please be brief.
Second Reading: From “Only Justice can Stop a Curse” by Alice Walker (6)
Offering: We give willingly of the bounty of our lives to help this congregation.
“From You I Receive,” number 402 (7)
Third Reading: “The Network of Mutuality” by Martin Luther King, Jr., number 584 (8)
Homily: “Everywhere We Look, There is Work to be Done” (9)
Congregational Dialogue
Final Hymn: “We Shall Overcome,” number 169 (10)
Benediction: From “For MLK” by Toni Vincent (11)
Extinguishing the Chalice: (in unison) “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith; be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
[1 Corinthians 16] (12)

My first memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., is of my parents’ response to his death. They weren’t a part of the Civil Rights movement but they had friends who were black and on what must have been April 5, 1968, I remember a conversation they had at breakfast centering on the reactions of some of those friends to “The News.” I didn’t quite get what had gone on but I understood that Someone Important had been killed and that a lot of people were as upset and angry about it as when John Kennedy had been killed five years before. Prior to that I think MLK had been pretty far under the radar for me, which wouldn’t have been unusual for a small white boy in industrial New York.

But my mother told me to watch his funeral as it was “history.” I remember little of it beyond the grainy films and somber mood and weeping and the many, many, many black faces congregated together. I don’t think I’d ever seen that many black people before or been more than peripherally aware there were that many in the country. It was something of a revelation that there was that much going on with that many people outside my experience.

I think my experience was, if not indicative, then similar to that of a lot of white folks in the late 60s. We were suddenly brought face to face with the grief and pain of a large number of our neighbors and friends that previous to that we could choose whether we recognized. Since his death MLK has become the patron saint of both What is Wrong with America—the repercussions and towering injustices of slavery and its aftermath—and What is Right with America—the willingness to stand up in opposition to that overwhelming injustice with nothing more than a voice—and it is in the spirit of the latter role that we celebrate his birthday.

1. I think it’s important that people be reminded of that voice and its power. There is nothing better for doing this than MLK’s words themselves.
2. Beaudoin relates a remarkable story from his undergraduate days when a professor breaks down in class after playing a short excerpt of MLK’s March on Washington (“I Have a Dream”) speech. The professor had been a marcher years before with King in Birmingham.
3. This familiar work both relates MLK to the previous generation’s Worker’s Rights movement (which was the focus of the March on Washington) and features the words of James Weldon Johnson whose 1922 collection The Book of American Negro Poetry introduced many early black poets to American literature.
4. Last year I was introduced to the theology of James Cone which was in some ways inspired by MLK. Much of his work is a bit heady for reading on a morning of celebration but his evocation of what it means to people to hear their own experiences reflected in song is inspiring.
5. Ringgold’s short children’s picture book is a good introduction to who MLK was, what he was fighting against, and what he means for many people who aren’t black but benefit from his work. The pictures ought to be projected onto a screen so everyone in the congregation can experience them.
6. Alice Walker’s essay is a meditation on the experiences of one teenage black girl in the Civil Rights movement of the Deep South. This selection focuses on the epiphany she received when a young white man whose presence she’d previously been cool to places his body and the protection it suggests literally on the line with her.
7. At the congregation I served in Menomonie I started a tradition of this being sung during the offering. I think it’s especially apt for a day celebrating MLK.
8. One can’t celebrate the man without taking note of some of the incredible words the man wrote. This selection, from the UU hymnal, is meant as a call-and-response in the manner of black church tradition and the congregation can use it in that way, but it’s also powerful given a single, clear voice.
9. I like homilies, opportunities to tie up the loose ends of a message, and I thought this title, from a sermon I wrote in 2009 after Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, was appropriate.
10. The tune everyone associates with MLK and his movement, it is no less necessary for current generations to experience its power and message, as it remains relevant in the contemporary world.
11. A brief reiteration of MLK and his impact on people and what his message means for those born after his death but whose lives were touched by him and his work nonetheless. Its invocation also charges us as we leave with the sense that we need to remember the lessons this celebration of his life may have given us.
12. This admonition from 1st Corinthians has always struck me as an accurate encapsulation of the lessons MLK tried to teach us.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

today's netiquette question

I'm teaching a class on research and one of our topics is technology and the book we're reading for that is steve johnson's everything bad is good for you. johnson has an excellent, if dated, take on the changes the internet and technology is pressing on us, not all of them bad, and it's a refreshingly positive view of my students' generation.

one of the things we're renegotiating as a culture is netiquette (if that term hasn't already fallen out of use), how we behave when we're no longer face-to-face or one-on-one but interacting with multiple others and sometimes not interacting but expounding into the ether. the question I'm wondering about at the moment is this: do we say something to a blogger whose posts we read and generally agree with; but then there's that one post that goes beyond the pale and whose something we simply can't abide. do we call him on it? does it matter that she won't know us except as one of dozens or hundreds or thousands of readers? what if everyone chooses not to call the blogger on this post and as a result he or she never knows that at least one person found its message callous?

I want to give the example in as vague a way as possible since I don't want to either direct traffic to the offending post or single that person out as if he or she is the worst example. this person relates his experience with a homeless person asking for a handout and turns the handout request back on the homeless guy in a glib, albeit clever, way that refuses to take into account the power dynamic of the response. at the end of the anecdote nothing is different: the blogger has learned nothing new, the homeless guy is still homeless. if anything the blogger's self-regard is greater than it was because he's managed to make a homeless guy feel guilty (at least so he imagines) for asking for a handout.

I've got a lot to say about that, having been on both sides of that equation. what I might say about it isn't in question. what is in question is, do I say anything about it? and if I did, would it make a difference beyond, maybe, leaving me feeling a little better about myself?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

today's words to live by

a conversation this morning in the car

me: I'd like you to look at a video I'm thinking of using as part of my day-after-xmas multimedia sermon.

my wife: why?

me: well, the service will be intergenerational and you're more in tune with kids and I wonder if it would be scary for them. there's no violence but there are frightening images.

my wife: [after an uncomfortable pause] you have a pretty high tolerance for violent videos. [another, longer, more uncomfortable pause] I'd say as a general rule, if you question it, the answer should be "no."


The worship experience that most resonated for me was one in which I wasn’t present, at first. Decades ago, while I was homeless, I was invited to take meals with a Hare Krishna group that met around Newburgh, New York, and because I was hungry I took them up on it. A part of the understanding, not uncommon among religious charities that provide food for people, was that I would take part in one of their services.

A Krishna service is a misnomer. It’s more like a short, extemporaneous lecture punctuated by ecstatic dancing and chanting, very similar to Sufi celebration. The way this particular group operated was that individuals were invited to the house its members communed in, sat in a large room listening to one essentially tell the story of his conversion to Krishna or his recognition of Krishna’s influence on his life, then be invited to eat of the prana or gift that Krishna had for us, have short conversation for digestion, and then dance and sing to celebrate our acceptance of Krishna’s prana.

All I wanted was to eat. Having spent the previous days subsisting primarily on peanut butter and crackers, I had been lured by the promise of mounds of hot rice and raisins, dates, oranges, and of course the eyes of the shave-headed girl who’d invited me. I certainly wasn’t interested in a lecture, although the nascent anthropologist in me was open to experiencing it. Still, when the time came for the lecture/personal tribute, I managed to excuse myself to the bathroom and remained there for about 15 minutes, which seemed like the right amount of time.

It was an old house, one of those hundred year and older grand family mansions of the Hudson Valley burghers that had been subdivided and made into apartment housing over the decades and eventually remade back into spaces for family-type living. It had a large bathroom on the first floor, which was where we visitors were relegated to, with plants and guest towels and white walls (the Krishnas fetishize the color white) but it was also drafty and unheated. It was set up with books and pamphlets and I knew I could pass time there painlessly.

I sat on the floor and started paging through a book. Several rooms over, the personal testament of some gawky middle class suburban kid began and occasionally sounds came in under the door that I identified as his voice getting louder and then softer and then people muttering appreciatively.

The illustrations in the book were captivating. Nearly 30 years on and I wish I’d noted the title of the book or even snuck it out with me. They were old Hindu woodcuts and paintings of pilgrims and ascetics, monkeys and housewives, merchants and jaguars. I was lost among those illustrations, lingering on page after page, trying to drink in every element of every picture as if it was the dinner I was waiting for.

Eventually the murmuring outside the room grew quieter with a few scattered single loud words. I grew more transfixed by the pictures and then by the silence I experienced in the room. And it dawned on me, this was the prana I was receiving. The food was nice, the food was what I needed, but equally necessary was this silence and meditation I was allowed in the hundred year old bathroom of a Hare Krishna commune. I had been invited to share time and food with them and all they’d asked for in return was a little of my time to listen to them. I had that time to give; it wasn’t as if my life was going anywhere fast anyway.

I jumped up and put the book back on the stack next to the toilet and hurried back out to rejoin the group as the Krishna convert finished his narrative. There were appreciative mutters from people gathered in the room. The eyes of the shave-headed girl were on me as I returned to my place on the floor next to her: she had seen people hide in the bathroom before, I knew, people for whom the only prana was food and someplace warm, and my epiphany was that I wasn’t there only for that. I was also there to be given space to develop into something or someone I needed to become and the immediate path was to take me through these people.

I tried to explain that to her during the conversation after we ate. It wasn’t nearly as well-articulated as it may seem now. She smiled and nodded as if she understood but I had no doubt she’d heard something like that before too. But it was real, I assured both her and me; I wouldn’t join them but I’d like to remain near them, learning what I could. (And, I admitted, seeing her and eating on a regular basis.)

When we stood to chant I chanted and then danced with abandon. That summer I returned to the commune for days at a time, staying in my car and studying with the ascetics there. The girl, whose name I’ve forgotten, eventually left to seed another commune in New Jersey. I was asked to join the group moving there but said no. I hadn’t found a home but I had found one of the landmarks I recognized on the way there.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

we have achieved kafka-hood

"for [zadie] smith, what makes kafka universal is that he captured quotidian experience. his ability to speak to us all has to do with how well he conveyed the very local alienation of being an assimilated german-speaking jew in prague, who didn't fully 'belong' anywhere, rather than with his evocation of some vague modern existential malaise. making much of kafka's famous image of german-jewish writers sticking 'with their back legs' to judaism and reaching 'no new ground' with their front ones,...smith concludes: 'for there is a sense in which kafka's jewish question ("what have I in common with the jews?") has become everybody's question, jewish alienation is the template for all our doubts...these days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. we're all insects, all ungeziefer now.'

"never mind that kafka didn't include himself among those german-jewish authors whom he saw as flailing about with their anterior legs...smith's essay is primarily an appreciative review of louis begley's...the tremendous world I have inside my head...begley's work also relies on some dubious generalizations to make a case for its own importance. one notable instance comes in the middle of its chapter on kafka's jewish identity. begley writes that kafka's 'intermittent self-lacerating and provocative pronouncements,' as well as his oft-mentioned 'qualms' about the ability of jews to write effectively in german, 'have been used by scholars to buttress the argument that kafka was himself a jewish anti-semite, a self-hating jew.'

"begley...wants us to see kafka's response to the jewish questions of his day as commenting on kafka's fantasy of stuffing all jews (himself included) 'into the drawer of the laundry chest' and 'suffocating' them, begley writes that the 'outburst' was probably just a function of the 'fatigue' that stems from living with anti-semitism. such exhaustion might account for a desire to achieve individual release, but kafka is dreaming of genocide, which, obviously, is something else."

--from "misreading kafka" by paul reitter in the fall 2010 edition of the jewish review of books

this question, "what have I in common with the jews?", was asked in not so many words and not about the jews in a discussion I had with some friends from seminary on sunday. they are also uu ministerial students studying for ministry--although both are more interested in chaplaincy--and we were planning the order of service for an advent worship we're leading on thursday.

perhaps it is one of our ways of honoring the jewish tradition we spring out of or perhaps it's just the natural human tendency to kvetch, but when 2 or more uus gather invariably we end up talking about what's wrong with uuism, or more specifically what's wrong with uu congregations. having just come from a service at the congregation where I'm interning, whose minister is a retired english professor and whose intern is still one, and most of whose congregation is made up, like many uu congregations, of lawyers and doctors and teachers and artists and executives and engineers, we naturally fell into the common complaint uus have of the swimming-upstreamness of our tendency to gather in elite enclaves.

one, born and raised in the faith, said it might be very elitist, but she liked that there was a haven to which she could retreat on certain days to have conversations about big ideas and topics that she couldn't have the rest of the week with other people she knows. that resonates with me, as well: most of my intellectual conversations during my workweek exist because of my work as a teacher and by their nature they have to have an outcome, and invariably consist of my explaining a term or idea and requesting feedback on it. they're good conversations, mind you, and I like having them, but it's rare that they evolve on their own or continue for more than a couple minutes without my introducing something new, and because of the constraints of time I have to bring them back to the topic we're studying.

the other, like me born in a trailer but unlike me to parents in the religious mainstream, said that she was at times dismayed to hear people like her dissed. "the people we look down on, the songs we make fun of, those are my people, and it sometimes feels like I am being repudiated; not me personally, but where I come from and my experiences." I appreciate that as well--I am prime religious conservative stock (although my parents never took the more outthere tenets of 7th day adventism at anything other than face value), bred to want more out of life and for my life, who knows the difference between a fiddle and a squawkbox and cognizant of the full dolly parton back catalogue, who knows that you make do with what you have.

the conversation rambled on for a couple hours, and we never got around to diagnosing what the problem was, let alone come up with a solution. it was, in itself, an example of the worst sort of thing uus do when they get together, a curious sort of anti-uuism practiced by, devout (?) uus. but as in kafka's answer to his question what the jews are to him, it's also an example of the strength of uus to straightforwardly confront a problem and talk it to death.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

the apple from the tree

I've spent much of the past couple days visiting family that I'm unlikely to hear from except when I'm here. it's been really good: I saw my dad's younger brother and his family, including his daughter who I remember as a 4 or 5 year old and who's now celebrating her 17th year in the air force; spent time seeing his elder sister who's 90-something and has dementia and who thought I was her dead brother-in-law; ran into my cousin who works for the post office in vegas; we stopped at the longterm care facility my dad's surviving sister-in-law lives at and spent time with her (when she was still alive my mom visited her every other day and my dad drives up to feed her twice a week); and today we picked up my cousin who lives in wellsville and the 3 of us had thanksgiving dinner at a tiny restaurant in genesee, pa.

I want to talk about that place for a moment. it's called the genesee hometown restaurant and has been there about 3 years, but the woman who owns the place and does the cooking says she has been a restauranteur since she was 6. her name is audrey kio and her place doesn't have a spot on the internet (except this listing) and it's likely that when she dies, which won't be that long since she's in her 90s, the place and her name will disappear, be subsumed by the weight of everyday life of everyday people. the place is staffed mostly by family and they had set up a buffet of turkey and ham and potatoes and salads and pies and such, mostly for her family to come by to eat since she didn't advertise. the food wasn't exceptional but there was plenty of it and the dinner plates were the size of some towns. genesee itself is a little pimple on the raised back of the pa-ny border with a gas station and a post office and a library open 3 days a week. but we were there and in my sweater and black sneaks I was probably the best-dressed. mostly the people there were farmers and hunters in bibs and boots and caps, people who smelled and spend their lives sweating.

audrey sat down and like it was the most natural thing in the world talked to us about her childhood and her upbringing and her family. her husband died some 6 years back and her family is all she has left now (which is true for most people, I guess) and her granddaughter is in jail and her greatgrandchildren want to stay with her but they can't for some reason I never heard. my dad sat there and listened and commisserated. this is what most of our week has been was him sitting on someone's couch or on the edge of a chair and listening to her pour out her life in spurts and fits and I realized this is where I get my sense of ministerial calm. I haven't felt bored and I suspect if he hadn't been a banker my dad would have been a preacher in some postage stamp town. I suppose I'd known that but it was brought more forcefully to me the past few days. my wife made a comment to me earlier today on a different topic that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. I guess not, although I hope I don't end my days in the thick.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"beating the gre 2010"

my wife will not be happy to read this, convinced as she is of the rightness of any attempt to better one's chances--specifically, my chances--at improving scores on tests, but the sad, simple truth is that the unabridged "beating the gre 2010," the online advertisement of which reads like it was cut-and-pasted by a committee for which english was not its native language and the audiobook of which she gave me to listen to while in the thick, is a tremendous waste of time. I know she won't believe me but I really did give it a try. I have listened to its 1st 2 hours--well, all right, I have skimmed through the 1st 2 hours--with the intent of finding anything worth listening to for more than a minute at a time while I was out walking and I must say I was more inclined to listen to the dogs barking in the distance and the nearer whine of chainsaws.

between being condescended to ("we know most of you would rather be at the beach, reading a good novel [?], or playing a video game than studying for the gre"--no, anyone who would rather do those things is doing them; anyone listening to this perky chippity voice regurgitating blase information from various websites devoted to "beating" the exam is presumably doing so because his school has been convinced of the fictions that the gre is an important test and that the better he does on it the better his chances of grad school success, so accord us the respect of listening because we want to) and being given the brushoff that "later on...later on...later on..." the service will tell us something important, there is absolutely nothing important to hear and no new information to be given.

I am not some neophyte bedazzled by the notion of the mysteries of graduate school. I took the gre nearly 30 years ago, having been driven to the testsite in connecticut by my parents because I couldn't sober up enough to leave on time and without having studied for it, and I passed it with a slightly above-average verbal score and a slightly below-average analytical score. a week ago I took a practice swipe at it again and had almost the same scores. in each case I did no figuring for any of the math, simply guessing at answers; if anything, my verbal scores have improved. trying to improve on simply passing is a waste of my time.

there are legitimate questions about the accuracy of the gre in predicting either success or scholarship potential, and at the very least there is great reason to suspect that pigeonholing students using quantitative measures is ineffective. I refuse to work myself into a lather about taking the exam. my wife is convinced that our doing well on the gre will increase the likelihood of our receiving scholarships for seminary. that may be so. as I see it, doing well may be a good thing and it may make no difference at all (friends report their gre scores having no effect on their scholarship monies). at best I am in no worse place than I am now; taking the practice exam cold after 30 years of having not thought about any of this and guessing shows me passing. doing poorly on the exam will be a button off my shirt.

perhaps most telling: I stopped listening after the perky voice switched a number used in an example from "720" to "702" between the beginning and the end of the sentence. the answer might be the same--that "702 [or 720] is divisible by 9"--or it may not. but if it wasn't important enough for someone at the company to listen to for errors before it was released, it isn't important enough for me either. I echo frank's opinion.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"flying is not a right"

yesterday through mostly my own fault (although I think continental airlines ought to own up to its part by closing its doors earlier than advertised, stranding 3 of us) I missed my connecting flight between cleveland and bradford, and so I sat for 4 hours at the terminal, contemplating. well, in between naps. my own experience in passing through security did not involve either a bodyscan or patdown, so I can't speak to the potential humiliation of either; but what I ended up thinking about was the inefficiency and inconvenience of airplane travel.

it seems that requiring people to go through bottlenecks in order to make their way to gates where they can sit for hours in drafty areas where the only entertainment is fox news on the televisions and christmas songs on the public address system is not either the most relaxing nor the most sanguine of ways to have people relax. I watched many, many people get more and more upset and less inclined to let one another be during my own attempts at keeping my blood pressure low enough to drop off (which honestly isn't very hard; it's the rare place I can't fall asleep). I haven't a clue what the answer might be, I am only convinced that the current solution isn't the right one.

on the other hand, as tsa chief john pistole points out, flying is a privilege and not a right. and it is this truth that makes me wonder if, when it comes to airplane travel, we have been too anxious to make it as pleasant an experience as possible. it's expensive and in some cases almost mandatory for something we want to do: but with very few exceptions, it's not the only option available. more importantly, perhaps we ought not to make it a pleasant experience. while I've always lived my life under the motto that the journey is the goal, I've never believed that the journey had to be comfortable. indeed, I've often lived it as quite the opposite.

perhaps we ought to allow the casual flying experience to die the same deaths as the transcontinental train trip and state-to-state greyhound trip. that is, only the people who most need them use them, and the rest of us simply stay at home (or, god help us, drive, bike, or even walk).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

back into the thick

heading back into the thick for my dad's first holiday after my mom died. since the 80s I've appreciated listening, like millions of other freaks, to arlo every thanksgiving and I suspect this one won't be any different. I grew up not far from stockbridge, massachusetts, and have fond memories of places where cops take foot dog-smellin prints, and while I'm not heading back there I am looking forward to hanging out with my dad for the week, so much so I'm awake at 430 in the morning listening to "alice." see you on the other side of the country.

Friday, November 19, 2010


this is a follow-up written for my class in uu worship to my previous post about my impromptu dia de los muertos ceremony from late october. most people may find it uninteresting but it's a good example of the sort of self-contextualizing reflection you're expected to do in seminary, and as such is a peek into the mindset of a minister-in-training. the difference is that, as a uu, what would be for others a theological reflection becomes in our hands more a behind-the-scenes examination of intent in developing such a service.


Dakota UU Church in Burnsville, one of the two congregations where I’m interning, does not have an order of service. Actually, it does in the sense that it has a single order of service used for every service. The church is small—its membership is in the low 20s—and often relies on visiting speakers to provide nearly every element of a service. Any visiting speaker is automatically accorded authority by virtue of his having been asked to appear. There is a printed pamphlet available on entering although the members have its order memorized. It tells the history of the congregation, the composition of the church board and its current membership, has the congregation’s website URL, and includes a brief outline their worship services follow:

Chalice Lighting
Joys and Concerns
Extinguishing the Chalice

A given Sunday’s speaker can mix up the order, add to it or subtract from it as she wishes. Nothing in the service is written on stone. Even joys and concerns, both the life’s blood and bane of many congregations, is an optional element left to the caprices of today’s speaker. The hymns often depend on what Chuck, the congregation’s most musical member, feels like singing that day and whether he can find a CD with an accompanying instrumental: there is no organ or any other instrument kept in the building (although once a month there is a Saturday night drumming circle).

I’ve got a history with this congregation, having been a guest speaker when the congregation was larger, and now that I’m their minister on a once-a-month basis, I’m developing their service beyond the outline into a more experiential, less sermon-centered experience. For my October 31st service I prepared a combination extemporaneous lecture and ceremony-creation for which Bruce, the congregation’s chair, welcomed everyone and introduced me. Then I led an a capella version of McDade’s “Spirit of Life,” a reading from Singing the Living Tradition, my ceremony, an opportunity for reflections, a second singing of “Spirit of Life,” and a benediction. This is my outline:

Performed at Dakota UU, Burnsville, MN
October 31, 2010
• Music (“L’Autunno” by Vivaldi)
• Light herbs
• Introduction to Dia de los Muertos
o Halloween
o All Saint’s Day
o All Soul’s Day
o Samhain
o Yom Kippur
o Thanksgiving
• Introduction to altars
o Rich
o “I have no altars”
• Introduction to altar objects
o My mother
o My animals
o Who I was
• Poem (“My November Guest” by Frost)
• Guided meditation
• Shared smudging / “You are Loved”
• Responses/Sharing

In order of use, the resources were: a smudge stick and a bowl to collect ashes in; copies of Singing the Living Tradition; a CD of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons whose “L’Autunno” was played softly during the ceremony; various referential objects from my home that I placed on the worship table in a makeshift shrine; and the Collected Poems of Robert Frost.
I think one of the sources of tension involved in every service at DUUC is the uncertainty whether a given service will work or not, and I don’t think this willed blindness to a service’s workability is an unwelcome aspect for this congregation: I think the members have become so accustomed to the hit-or-miss-ness of guest speakers that they’re no longer anxious about an individual service. Indeed, I’ve often heard members joke that a successful service is one in which the guest shows up. In the case of my Dia de los Muertos ceremony, I wanted tension to build throughout the service to crest during Shared Smudging (which was exactly like my recent class water-sharing ritual except using ashes) and then allowed to remain level, dipping a little during shared reflections but remaining relatively high, so attendees left the service more invigorated than they’d entered.

The focus began outwardly, beginning with the welcome, and then gradually became more inward as the ceremony progressed, culminating in each congregant concentrating on himself during the guided meditation, accepting another person’s attention when receiving the smudged affirmation, and then refocusing his attention onto his neighbor while passing the bowl and affirmation. I wanted congregants to receive the affirmation as a declaration and to pass it as an invitation.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

johnny thunders died for your sins!

someone, I don't remember who, once said to me, in parody of jeff foxworthy, "if your idea of gospel music is the velvet underground, you might be a punk." well, the answer seems clear...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


"confession is a practice not often found in our churches. unitarian universalists have long rejected the notion of original sin, so the idea of confessing our sins publicly or through the act of prayer seems outdated. for some who grew up in churches where confession was a regular practice, being free of it is a relief. there is generally only one time during our liturgical church year that unitarian universalists will engage with a liturgical act of confession--the jewish high holy days, including yom is our belief that it's time for unitarian universalists to reclaim the act of confession. confessing does not make one inherently bad; it simply means acknowledging that we, too, are part of the brokenness of the world and that it is our responsibility to be in right relationship with self, others, and the larger world. being in right relationship means that we make amends when necessary, and we ask for forgiveness or we offer forgiveness when it is asked for. to confess as part of our prayer life is a humbling experience that provides a counterbalance to our often heady insistence on our inherent worth and dignity. confession is a spiritual discipline and should be incorporated into our private and public prayer life."

I'm not entirely clear how I feel about this declaration. on the one hand I can agree with the authors that refiguring how something is done is revitalizing, but on the other I am fervently against the notion that we are necessarily in need of confession (it being good for the soul and all that). and my reasoning isn't caught up in being anti-dogmatic or dropping the trappings of a religious trouseau that no longer fits. my ambivalence comes from a sense that admitting guilt, while good for one's humility, does nothing to correct errors or mistakes or trespasses, and in fact admitting it more than once simply inures one from feeling obligated to do anything about them.

the topic requires more thought.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"transformative worship should be understood as the primary common spiritual practice of unitarian universalists, and as a critical engine that can drive unitarian universalist growth. this cannot happen unless this common spiritual practice also starts to affect the ways that unitarian universalists lead their lives outside of church...although it is true that unitarian universalists don't share a common theology of the divine, we share a passion for apprehending the holy and celebrating the mystery in which we live. this is what we must invoke when we gather for our common worship each week: the recognition and creation of holy time and space, where we can encounter the spirit of life, that invisible fountain which bubbles up within our lives and in the world around us, quenching our thirst for beauty and meaning."

--from worship the works: theory and practice for unitarian universalists, by wayne arneson and kathleen rolenz

"[fringe dorwalk] was moved to attempt explanation. 'it''s like sort of secret,' she said. 'or like the shrines. sort of like me too.' struggling to understand the nature of the swale, she had come up with amorphous concepts of taboo and sacred things...she shrugged. what she meant was, special. what she meant was, holy, but she didn't even have that word. what had occured to her was that perhaps the reason she was here alone and not with other people was that she was different. destined for something extraordinary. the idea had come from nowhere, sneaking into her mind bit by bit, like a little warm breeze, thawing her chilly heart...she wasn't sure she really believed the idea, even though it was comforting. comforting ideas didn't always--or even very often--work out, either, so she hadn't dwelt on it much. still, she didn't disbelieve it, not yet."

--from sideshow by sheri s. tepper

"all that we own, at least for the short time we have it, is our life."

--from "only justice can stop a curse" by alice walker

Friday, November 12, 2010

hope is a life preserver

this fascinates me, as does this. in each instance, what does hope do? it floats!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

my world city, my manhattan

tony judt was a hell of a writer and even dead he remains a talent worth wrangling. this is an essay about new york published in the times yesterday. it takes me back to the time when that place was a force on the landscape, a world unto its own. and in this, it also brings me forward to recognize what is happening today, on a less grand scale, even out in the hinterland:

"Today I drop my cleaning off with Joseph the tailor and we exchange Yiddishisms and reminiscences (his) of Jewish Russia. Two blocks south I lunch at a place whose Florentine owner disdains credit cards and prepares the best Tuscan food in New York. In a hurry, I can opt instead for a falafel from the Israelis on the next block; I might do even better with the sizzling lamb from the Arab at the corner.

"Fifty yards away are my barbers: Giuseppe, Franco and Salvatore, all from Sicily — their “English” echoing Chico Marx. They have been in Greenwich Village forever but never really settled: how should they? They shout at one another all day in Sicilian dialect, drowning out their main source of entertainment and information: a 24-hour Italian-language radio station. On my way home, I enjoy a mille-feuille from a surly Breton p√Ętissier who has put his daughter through the London School of Economics, one exquisite √©clair at a time.

"All this within two square blocks of my apartment — and I am neglecting the Sikh newsstand, the Hungarian bakery and the Greek diner (actually Albanian but we pretend otherwise). Three streets east and I have Little Hapsburgia: Ukrainian restaurant, Uniate church, Polish grocery and, of course, the long-established Jewish deli serving Eastern European staples under kosher labels. All that is missing is a Viennese cafe — for this, symptomatically, you must go uptown to the wealthy quarters of the city."

true, I have no dry cleaning and I haven't been in need of a barber for years, but all the rest is a panegyric to what surrounds me, to greater or lesser extent, even on the rim. there is the 24 hour truckstop down the road that serves indian dishes to the people speaking hindi and bengali on their weekly pilgrimage between chicago and minneapolis. there is the hispanic aisle in the local grocery where I can buy extra-sugarpacked coca cola directly from mexico--or I could if they weren't all snapped up on arrival by the vacqueros just coming off their shifts at the dairy farm. if I get a little dyspeptic I can be treated by any of the pakistani and iranian and chinese doctors at the local hospital; there is even a specialist from iceland if I'm willing to wait around for the once a week he comes by. if I get a little homesick I can go to the little mogadishu or little saigon areas of minneapolis, a mere hour's drive away, to listen to the cadence of lilting somali or amharic or the singsong of hmong. and of course with my dsl connection I can get immediate access to anything I want in any language or from any perspective I choose.

the rim has now become cosmopolitan in its own right and I don't know if cities are necessary any longer for what they used to provide and judt hearkens back to: an opportunity for different people to rub shoulders with people they wouldn't otherwise encounter. many of our children still grow up in ethnic enclaves but that's becoming less and less the case, and they're experiencing strange people earlier and earlier. it used to be you had to go to college in a big city to meet anyone openly gay or who grew up in africa. now you can befriend them in middle school.

still there will always be a place for new york,"a city more at home in the world than in its home country" as judt notes. could I live in The City again? no. I'm a product of new york in the 70s, of discos and 24-hour bookstores and a chorus line and chock full o nuts and plato's retreat (even if I never went there I always knew I could, it was there and open to me). I'm one of the last people for whom woody allen's joke about dissent and commentary becoming dysentary rings true from experience and not from nostalgia. the new york I belong to started to drop dead when jerry ford told it to.

that's okay. I got my new york right here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"everything you did today was important"

this must be what it is to be a religious leader in the 21st century: to be dog tired. I began my day at 8 with driving from the rim into the hub to lead services and preach a new sermon at the uu fellowship where I'm interning. my wife and mother-in-law were guests there today too. it went very well, I think, and I was told by several people that my sermon was dense with information and left people thinking. my topic was feeling fear and acting anyway and last night I blogged a bit about the takeaway I wanted people to get from it.

after service and an hour or so of schmoozing I left for new richmond, which is also on the rim and is where my wife's family lives. one of my nephews has joined the marines and leaves soon for basic training and we had a party to wish him well. all my wife's siblings were there and their families and many of my nephew's friends and we had a good time trying to forget that he is placing himself in the way of harm soon.

then I left there and drove another 45 minutes east to menomonie where the family of friends was holding another get-together to say goodbye to the child they had adopted for a short while. the birth mother, who had initially given up her rights to him, changed her mind about a year ago and halted the procedure. the judge determined that he benefitted from continuing to see his adoptive family until the case was complete, and the decision came down this month that his birth mother will have sole custody. this was a chance for everyone in that extended family to say goodbye to him, and while it's true he's still a tyke less than 3 years old who doesn't speak, it was, like a memorial, more for the people he leaves behind than for him. one of my friends who had been his grandmother wrote a short ceremony in which we all took part, surrounding him as he played in a circle and while she read a list of things he would do without them--learning to use the potty himself, losing teeth, getting a job--we intoned "we will be with you in spirit." it was very affecting. and while I don't "get" the whole child thing, my friends do, and that is enough for me.
I got home after 7, exhausted and in my jammies in minutes. my wife put it all in perspective, however, by saying, "everything you did today was important. not everyone can say that." and I do feel I've done the right things today. yes, it was a good day.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


william f. buckley famously declared in the premier issue of national review that conservatism
"stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." no one ever pointed out to mr. buckley or any of his successors that this only works so long as history is a mule plodding along a path. history and progress were that a thousand years ago. but today progress pulses along a thread whose diameter is thinner than a single hair strand. you can stand athwart it all you like, yell as loud as you can, legislate as you will, it is not even aware of you. the desperation of their parlous attempts to "take back the country"--note they never say it's to advance it--is the reaction of conservatives to their own irrelevance. make no mistake, they are dangerous and can hurt us, but they are a dying species. let them realize it on their own. in the meantime, huddle together and keep each other warm. the snows are coming.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

dear mr. president

the chances of your reading this are very slim. but that's okay since, despite it's being addressed to you, it really isn't intended for you but for the many, many people who still believe in what you hope to accomplish.

our party really took, as you called it, a "shellacking" in yesterday's elections and I know a lot of people are saying it's your fault. perhaps, some suggest, if you'd only compromised more or spent a little less money on the stimulus or found a way to end the war or at least to shut down gitmo. but sir, it really isn't your fault. some of those possibilities might have had a little effect, but the plain truth is that the people who saw this election as a referendum on you would not have voted for democrats anyway and were certainly not the people who voted you into office.
your enemies, mr. president--and by that I really do mean they are your enemies, not the opposition and not the party out of power, sir, they are truly dead set against you--do not see you as legitimate in any way. your election, sir, is frankly an embarrassment to them for reasons you and I both know have to do with the color of your father's skin, and like a team of drunken softball players with a sober ump they simply will not accept your authority.

you are only a year younger than I am, mr. president, and so I know you're aware how important and earth-shattering your election was. within our lifetimes, sir, black people sat in the back seats of busses or made to stand, were made to use separate water fountains and restrooms and pools and schools, were not allowed to vote or be employed or live where they wanted to. in our lifetimes, mr. president, black people were lynched.

black people are not being lynched any more, mr. president.

when I say that, sir, I don't mean to suggest that there was anything you or I did that changed that fact. there was nothing our generation did that changed it. and it was not as if the enemies of black people suddenly woke up one day and said, "you know, lynching is wrong and I shouldn't do it any longer."

what changed that fact, sir, is a lot of black people and white people and people of other colors getting together and recognizing that the people who wanted to lynch black people were not simply people with another agenda who could be reasoned with or placated through compromise. they were the enemy, sir, and they were wrong and they had to be told, once and for all, that what they did and said and thought was wrong and if they continued to do it they would pay a penalty. they would not be rewarded for cutting the body down but leaving the rope up. the rope and the tree and the whole idea had to be done away with. the body could stay.

mr. president, I believe you are right about hope, that it is an audacious thing. I don't have a good answer for you why the democrats took the losses they did yesterday and why our enemies did as well as they did, but I'm sure you have a lot of other people who are willing to tell you that. I can tell you that if we must hope, sir, we must have someone to hope in. we voted for you because we were convinced, and many of us still are, that you are that person. there is a time and a place for compromise but while someone is beating on you is neither. in that iconographic image from your campaign poster, hope is not the symbol for you. you are the symbol for hope. stand up for hope, sir.

bobby sneakers

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

hope remains

some of the victors are howling already. it's been a slow, at times painful trudge through the murk of electoral politics this season, and as usual the question is, can liberals face one another tomorrow feeling, as most of us do, like we have a chunk of flesh ripped from our sides?

it's been a mixed bag of results. the house has been lost to democrats and the most powerful woman in american political history is hitting the showers. christine o'donnell was beaten like a red-headed stepchild. rand paul was not. andy cuomo was elected; michelle bachman probably was too. russ feingold was defeated. my friend liz was defeated. so many liberals, defeated; so many self-described tea partiers, victorious.

in the long run of course it means nothing. but like john maynard keynes pointed out, in the long run we're all dead, and that's just as depressing. it's a time I want to crawl into bed and not pop out until the country has caught up with its better angels, which is to say never. but that's not going to effect any sort of change and it's certainly not going to make my life any better. years ago, when john kerry was defeated by george w. bush, I prided myself that, had he won, I wouldn't have said, "well, that's that," and left the heavy lifting for others to do. I remind myself that that's even more the case now. we can feel badly--we fought a hard battle against a sometimes dishonorable foe and won in some places, lost in others, some of the losses more galling because the winners were unwilling to play by accepted rules--and that and $1.50 will get you bad coffee.

if there is a bright spot to much of this it's the realization that tomorrow the cold water of reality will hit many of the tea partiers who've been elected as they will discover that their theories about both fiscal responsibility and low taxes are lovely theories and nothing more. it will be a fine thing to watch john boehner's face as he tries to convince the rest of the house to cut spending without actually cutting anything, or watching eric cantor as he finds that the government really does have a revenue problem, especially after so many years of tax cuts for the wealthiest 5%.

but while those bright spots feel good they aren't worthy of what's best about us, which is the ability to get back outside in the sunshine and continue. we will drag our bloody stumps along behind us because that's what people do, and despite what our enemies say, we are very much human. but the fact remains, bloody stump and all, we need to do. at the risk of sounding a stereotype, I will quote chairman mao: "in times of difficulty we must not lose sight of our achievements, must see the bright future and must pluck up our courage."

in the midst of despair, hope remains. what must we do? keep an eye to our achievements, which are many, watch the horizon for our next opportunity, and stand in the wind. decades ago, my favorite tv show was dr. who, specifically the ones starring peter davison. I was reminded this morning of the farewell line given by one of his companions. "brave heart, tegan."

brave hearts, all.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

today's service

I work in words. I'm comfortable there since it's been my method for dealing with reality since the drugs wore off. as a preacher I've scripted out nearly every word I've said, even down to side comments and asides.

so I was really taken aback when my computer ate the sermon I'd been working on friday night and the other sermons in the same file.

oh, I ranted and raved, if primarily inwardly. one of the great effects prozac has had on me is to mute much of my ranting and raving and keeping the lightning indoors. but my wife, who was good enough to help me try to recover the lost files, had a headache and the beginning of a sinus infection, and heard a tone in my voice suggesting I blamed her for the loss. that of course was not good or right. even I couldn't see how I could blame her but I apologized anyway since I'd rather be happy than right.

after I calmed I realized I'd been offered a gift. (I'm hesitant to put it that way since a gift implies a giver as well as a recipient, but leave that: being offered a gift sounds like the right wording.) I had the opportunity to create, from whole or nearly whole cloth, a new ceremony. my text had been about el dia de los muertos, the day of the dead, and its significance. I talked about the recent suicides of gay teens and the nasty words of clint mccance and the proximity of the day to yom kippur, all soul's and all saint's days, samhain, halloween, and thanksgiving, and was in the process of tying those spirtitual conversations and forgiveness together. there were observations about the saw and halloween movies and the george romero day of the dead and even a shoutout to tonight's premiere of amc's the walking dead series. it was shaping up nicely and who knows, maybe I'll still find it and resurrect it.

but my opportunity was to do something I've been loathe to do. to speak extemporaneously, from notes or an outline. I teach that way, but I've got the time and the space to do that in a classroom, where a written lecture seems out of place to me (and dull to my class). and for a moment I reflected that maybe such a thing is out of place and dull in church too.

THAT is an overwhelming thought. I haven't dared explore it any further, but I have totted up a series of bulleted doings for a new ceremony for the dead which include music, candles and herbs, constructing a tiny altar, and a guided meditation and room for response. will this work? I haven't a clue.

Performed at Dakota UU, Burnsville, MN
October 31, 2010

• Music (“L’Autunno” by Vivaldi)
• Light herbs
• Introduction to Dia de los Muertos
o Halloween
o All Saint’s Day
o All Soul’s Day
o Yom Kippur
o Thanksgiving
• Introduction to altars
o Rich
o “I have no altars”
• My experiences with Santarians
• Introduction to altar objects
o My mother
o My animals
o Who I was
• Poem (“My November Guest” by Robert Frost)
• Guided meditation
• Responses/Sharing

the introductions and meditation are all intended for extemporaneous speech. I've a rough idea what I'll say for each. the whole thing ought to last 20 minutes and I'll have to watch my clock assiduously since I'm only guessing. one or 2 elements can be dumped at the last moment, and I'm comfortable with that. we'll see how she goes.

Friday, October 29, 2010

friday night reading

"we are on that holy day [yom kippur] like the dry bones of ezekiel, knowing that we are frail, knowing that we are finite. it is as if we were given a reprieve. we may be dying, but we are not dead yet! in that sense, the philosopher hans jonas teaches that mortality is the gift the living give to the future. the wonder of life, awesome and terrible, is that it renews itself constantly by sloughing off the old and by embracing the new. just as we thrill that infants and children refuse to do things the way they have always been done, bringing a relentless energy to their lives and to ours, so too do we know that what is old breaks down and gives way before the young. life is this cascading process of endless renewal splashing across the millenia toward greater diversity, greater experience, greater relationship, and greater connection."

--from "ever dying, never dead--that's life!" by rabbi bradley shavit artson in the september/october tikkun

Monday, October 25, 2010

my book collection

Some Fiction

in the case of fiction I often have to fudge the years I collect since it often took years either for a novel to be embraced by the counterculture or for a member of the counterculture to get it together enough to write a novel. one of the novels I'm especially sorry to have lost over the years is applegather by john bart gerald, not because it's now so rare and relatively costly, but because it was probably the first novel to give me the idea it would be worthwhile to collect these books.

  • Jean Genet. Our Lady of the Flowers. Bantam. 1964. (first bantam paperback; no ISBN or lib of congress number; I bought it at manny's, given the distinctive penned price)

  • Gino Sky. Appaloosa Rising: The Legend of the Cowboy Buddha. Doubleday. 1980. ISBN 0385153872. (spent a few years cooped up in one of those milk crates in the back of the bloodmobile, hence its sorry state)

  • Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Lippincott. 1959. First edition. Lib of congress number 605735.

  • John Kennedy Toole. A Confederacy of Dunces. Louisiana State University Press. 1980. Third printing. ISBN 0807106577. (another library copy)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

johnny thunders died for your sins!

I'm tempted to write something like "it's a month of deaths," but it's always a month of deaths, isn't it? some months are just longer or shorter than others. ari up died last thursday, and while her name won't be known well to modern punks, her group ought to be. of the slits and their initial offering, "a boring life," greil marcus famously wrote

"Nothing could keep up with it. Shouting and shrieking, out of guitar flailings the group finds a beat, makes a rhythm, begins to shape it; the rhythm gets away and they chase it down, overtake it, and keep going. Squeaks, squeals, snarls, and whines--unmediated female noises never before heard as pop music--course through the air as the Slits march hand in hand through a storm they themselves have created. It's a performance of joy and revenge, an armed playground chant; every musical chance is taken, and for these women playing the simplest chord was taking a chance: their amateurism was not enlightened."

we tend to overbow much to the god of professionalism and I'm as guilty of doing that as anyone, and in my professional (irony intended) life as a teacher I may even be guiltier than most--but as I've tried to argue here there is much to be said for enthusiasm and the sheer gutsiness of doing something you've never tried and don't know how to do and making a message with it. that's the essence of both punk and of spirituality: few of us are professional singers but we sing hymns every sunday or when the spirit moves us. arianna forster at 14 was a prime and cogent example of the drive of that, even before johnny rotten became her stepdad. “You cannot be a female artist on the wild side, very passionate and self-expressive, without being formed at least in part by Ari,” [Vivien] Goldman said. “In her feral 14-year-old way, she did represent a new archetype of womanhood.”

requiescat in pace, ari up. now let's get happy.