Monday, December 14, 2015

remember you too were strangers

"The central insight at Sinai is this: the God of the universe is the God of freedom and transcendence; the God that has made possible the liberation from Egypt; the God that ensures that the way things will be need not be the way they have been; the God that enables us to break the chain of negativity and pain that links the generations.
"The specific way Torah insists that human beings can break the chain of cruelty is in our treatment of the powerless, the widow, the orphan, and most particularly the stranger...Why would we be tempted to oppress the stranger? Precisely because the children of Israel function psychologically like all other human beings, by repeating the behavior generated by earlier traumatic events, but now from the position of being the agent who is inflicting it rather than suffering from it.
"But...Torah says, 'No! don't do it! You don't have to do it. You can break the chain of suffering, you can transcend it. You do not have to pass on the pain that was delivered to you to the next generation, or to the people over whom you [currently] have power, or to the people with whom you have contact. You do not have to recreate Egypt! The logic of oppression that has ruled every society is not the only possible way things could be. In fact, the universe is governed by another logic. And so, you must not oppress the powerless; one standard of behavior must be adopted for you and for the powerless; not two.'"
--from Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation by Michael Lerner

Friday, December 4, 2015

it may have always been so but it won't always be so

This morning as I read a review of the newest novel by Milan Kundera I had a comforting thought. It is this: For a long while in our recent history (nearly fifty years) and not so long ago (within the life of nearly everyone reading this), the Soviet Union, however one wanted to think of it, was a given of the future. For people, like Kundera and his audiences of the time, there was a certain comfort in recognizing the USSR would always exist and provide a certain consistency that no matter what vagaries the future held, the bureaucracy and the politboro and der kommissars would always, always, be a force with which they would daily reckon. And then, suddenly, it wasn't.

Whether you subscribe to the theory that it died a death by a thousand cuts or it overextended itself like all empires do or that Mikhail Gorbachev somehow retained his compassion as he worked his way to the Supreme Soviet, the fact remains that, as one of Kundera's characters explains, "We've known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush." But then, so suddenly that to many of us outside it took place overnight, that was no longer the case. For good and bad, the Soviet Union was proven not the omnipotent, omnipresent, unassailable monolith it had seemed.

And so, I'm certain, the nation's unwillingness to face head-on its ineffective gun laws. The US is not the wild west and to allow our laws to reflect the wrong idea that the only safe citizen is an armed one puts us all at risk. We wail and grieve after every massacre and swear, "Surely, this time it must change," only to find that the money and influence of the NRA have been there before us and stacked the deck so that, not only will restrictions fail to be tightened they will actually be loosened. And we lose heart and get better accustomed to piles of dead children.

But just as the arc of justice does eventually bend, despite its looking from our perspective like a long cutting blade of indifference, so will the battle to resurrect some sanity to the Second Amendment someday seem preordained. Have faith.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

le mot juste is passe?

Something which troubles me and lies in the background of my posts since roughly May is that there are so many events that I have an opinion on and that I ought to comment on. But I have let so much time go by and new troubles happen I feel I should comment on. And while I am formulating my response to them new situations happen. Ad infinitum.

The Chinese curse is that one's enemy will live in interesting times. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Umpqua Community College. Paris. BLM. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton. So much depends on being current and yet being thoughtful. In the end one ends up saying nothing at all.

It's a sense, totally justified, of being overwhelmed. Of the tide of history rising and swamping the observer. I know my regular readers of this blog number no more than in the tens but I also like to think I am writing for some future audience. I have often dreamed of being a flaneur, a Baudelaire or Benjamin, drinking Brulot Charentais at that little cafe in Montparnasse, noting comings and goings and taking the time to come up with le mot juste. Today, between sips, by the time one sets down and takes up the cup again, something new and more pressing has occurred.

Perhaps the time for le mot juste is gone and the time for le mot vitesse is here.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

on being a shit-stirrer

This morning I was engaged in an argument with someone on Facebook about my stance on Black Lives Matter, and at the end she called me just a person "stirring the shit pot." At first I was taken aback. We were having an argument about things that have an answer-does BLM have a right to protest (of course it does); has the leadership disavowed violence that was done during its protest (yes, it has); is there an objective study suggesting young black men are likelier to be recipients of police violence (yes, there is)?

After reflection I told her she is right. I am a shit-stirrer. Shit doesn't just hop out of the pot on its own. It settles at the bottom where it poisons everyone. Stirring the pot brings it to the surface, where someone can scoop it out.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Johnny Thunders died for your sins!

Like my wife, I was astonished at how much I enjoyed giving out candy last night for Halloween. We have only this year moved into a hub, and while we're no mistake on the far edge of it-the city limits sign is roughly six blocks to our south-we are also no mistake part of a neighborhood. There are a couple bars, an auto repair shop, many single story homes with immaculate, manicured lawns, and the wide great inland sea just a few yards to our east. And last night we partook, for a couple hours, in one of the last surviving community regular events. Giving out candy to children who come to the door and ask for it.

In trying to explain my glee to her last night, I made reference to the change of perspective I got when I interned with a kindergarten class. But that's not what I want to write about.

 A friend wrote a Facebook post about watching some 17 year olds walking through her neighborhood and going up to doors to trick or treat. They carried a pillowcase for their loot. None wore anything she recognized as a costume. Her response, she reported, was to switch off her lights and ignore their ringing her doorbell.

"At least make a pretence," she told them via her friends on Facebook.

I noted that I was giving candy out to similar groups at my door; but as I thought about it, I started articulating a more complicated idea. In my childhood in the 60s and early 70s, trick or treating was something you did in an area you were already familiar with, with groups of kids you spent your days with (although some, like me, did it with siblings and a parent in tow). But the point was it was in an area and among people you already knew and were comfortable among. This accounted for the frisson of excitement that even in the familiar there could be deliciously spooky surprises.

No mistake, we were acting out a then-comfortably stereotypical American childhood event in which we were safe, no matter how we might enjoy feeling otherwise. For our parents, children themselves of the Depression or the War Years, it was a chance to see their kids enact something that they might have only seen in magazines or heard about from other kids or imagined staring at costumes available in stores.

All this changed because of fears real and imagined, as well as the shrinking and then eradication of neighborhoods and what people thought of as safe. Now younger kids are driven to approved Halloween events at malls. The younger we are the more time we spend online and less among people we might otherwise come to know from playing and exploring together.

Enter a feeling of having missed out on something. Maybe the delightful scare at being at someone's door and your parent absent or more than a short scamper away. Maybe the same parent's reminiscences about when he was young. Maybe even the uncertainty of what candy you might get from stores not sponsoring the mall event: unfamiliar wrapped sweetstuff or homemade candy apples (with or without razor blades) or anything other than that nasty candy corn filler. You're old enough now that your parents feel or you've told them you're too mature for costuming up.

But you're hanging out with friends and in between times or slugs of cheap beer one of them mentions the brother or sister going out in costume that night. And it wakens some urge in you, mixing with the crisp air and early darkness and driving you and the friend out to the street. Maybe you run home to slap some makeup on and rip some old clothes and become a couple zombies, but maybe you don't, you grab a pillowcase or a plastic bag and you say, "Let's get treats"-because you still think of them as treats-and you and the friends go out to explore the neighborhoods that are usually just background to wherever else you're going.

Maybe you're tipsy or a little buzzed because it's the only way you've got to make facing people you don't know, or will be surprised you do know, and asking them to reenact with you a ritual neither one is sure the other understands. Some of us leave the lights on and give them an extra handful because we remember what it is to be 17.

And ultimately, is this really any difference in force and effect from the spiritual impulse that leads people to approach other doors where unfamiliar neighbors might turn them away? And are they treated any differently, especially if they stink of booze or the street? Give them the damn candy.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

who expects 30 year old wishes to be granted?

I had an epiphany recently about a wish I'd forgotten about. Some 30 years ago, unattached, lonely, desperate to be somewhere I could think about my life and where it might be headed, I longed for the opportunity to housesit someone's home on a beach, preferably on the Atlantic, where I could winter taking long solitary walks among the scrub, maybe with a dog (not necessarily mine), reading difficult books, and writing, writing, writing.

My epiphany, of course, and it came as I was on a deep and solitary walk without even benefit of dog, was that wholly sans realizing it's what I was doing I have stepped into that wish. The fact it isn't an ocean I live on is more than compensated by the fact I'm not housesitting or even renting but own this Great Lake beach home. I don't even need to borrow the dog.

Monday, October 12, 2015

reposted eulogy to a homeless man

[In the five years I've blogged here I haven't reposted anything I printed (or if I have I'm not aware of it). But I'm breaking this today because I don't have better words to offer some friends.
These friends are currently visiting my wife and I. Yesterday they heard that another friend of theirs had died, apparently as a result of tainted heroin. While, yes, it's true heroin is itself tainted, to put one thing into your body expecting it's something else is an act none of us, despite however wearied we are by the world, intends. But to pretend (as most responders to the above article have) that such death is just desserts to someone poisoning himself slowly is despicable. It is to suggest that some lives (non-addicts) are more important than others (addicts). That's a determination none of us gets to make.
Almost exactly a year ago I penned a eulogy for a homeless man found in St. Paul and I posted it here. I repost it now as I'm reminded of the message I tried to impart of hopefulness and dignity for a member of a group that too often is not granted either.]

About a week ago I was contacted by a friend on behalf of his friend whose homeless father's body had been found in a park in the hub. Both his death and his homelessness was a surprise to the two families he had left behind: other than sporadic phone calls, no one had heard from him in fifteen years and had no idea where he was. His son had contacted my friend, a Lutheran minister, for a suggestion of someone to perform the funeral who was "not too religious." My friend suggested me because of my own bout of homelessness.

After a couple meetings, we held the memorial yesterday in the son's apartment. The two families--a first wife and her adult children, and a second and her teenage children--came together for the first time in a decade and a half to mourn the death and celebrate the life of a man none of them knew what had become of.

I'm not only a minister but also a member of several online homeless and vagabond Facebook groups. I put to their members what they, as people for whom exactly this situation might happen, thought I should tell the families. Their responses, numbering a couple hundred, inform the following eulogy.

We don’t know what the last hours or days or even years of [his] life was like. We do know some things. That he had multiple health problems, including heart and lung issues, that he was addicted, at least for a while, to alcohol, that he was fending for himself in a losing battle against the entropy all of us are heir to, to the extent that this man, a mere 49 years old, could be discovered dead and that it could be considered a natural death. It is fitting that the person who discovered [his] body was also probably homeless. In the final analysis, each of us has only each other.
It’s easy to mistake pride for self-sufficiency. As most of you are aware, I was myself homeless for several years, so I feel comfortable telling you that while it might be tempting to think of [his] last years in terms of unremitting pain, depression, and desperation, that isn’t all there was to it. Those elements were there, certainly, but just like we can’t subsist entirely on a diet of charred toast, his life was undoubtedly leavened by the sweetness of life. Gratitude at the kiss of warm sunlight on his face when he least expected it. Appreciation at the gifts of money and food and shelter offered him. Warmth in his belly at the taste of liquor or cigarettes, the delicious succulence of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The sweet release of lying down to rest, the wonder of dreams. He felt love, perhaps a little ashamed at the families he left behind, but also perhaps relief in, in his mind, rescuing them from the burden of his deterioration.
Enough with idle speculation. What we do know is this: he was ill his last years, he lived on the streets here and maybe spent time in shelters, he died from the combination of his diseases and exposure, and he did not reach out to anyone here for help. Those are hard, uncomfortable truths. Perhaps they should be. Not that anyone should feel bad at not having provided help or feel anger with [him] because he didn’t ask for it. They’re hard because people, like life itself, are complicated. For whatever reasons, to conquer whatever demons, [he] made the decisions he did and accepting them and him is the final dignity we can give him.
Loving him in death is the best we can hope for. Or, if not love, acceptance of the way he chose to live his last years. We are all each other has got, and trying to change anyone, in death as in life, only leads to frustration. [His] life and death, for all the ways it hurts us, has dignity to it, as all life has dignity. We are born, we live, and we die. A single known sandwiched between two portals to the unknown. Buddhists tell the story that the earth is made up of ocean and a single ring floats on it. Every thousand years an ancient tortoise crawls from the bottom mud and rises achingly for a breath of fresh air. He breaks free of his resting place, journeys to where the sky can be seen, gulps a single lungful of air, and descends rest again in the mud. They say as often as that tortoise crests the surface with his head in that ring during each thousand year event, just as often are we born. To be born is rare and lucky. It must be honored. [His] life was no more or less dignified than any of ours. You are lucky to have known him, to have loved him.
In my faith there’s a ritual we sometimes perform at the death of a member of our community. Will you gather in a ring and take hold of the hand of the persons next to you. We sing the words but since you don't know the tune, we'll just say them together. Please repeat after me: “Spirit of Life, come unto me. Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea; move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close, wings set me free. Spirit of Life, come to me. Come to me.”
[Prayer] God of tears and the mysterious silence, God of suffering and God of hope, you have made for everything a season. This is the season of our sorrow, of our grief, and we pray for grace to deal with what seems impossible to deal with. We remember the promise made to those who mourn, yet too often it seems that comfort is beyond our grasp. We know that we cannot bear this burden alone. Should we pray for our grief to be transformed or, is the purpose of our grief to transform us? Will our sorrow lead somewhere unexpected? Might it lead us back to life if we follow it? Is it a reminder of the precious reality of life and love? The death of Jonathon has created a vast, empty space within our lives, a great longing within our hearts. Can it ever be filled? Can it be healed by the sacred memory that makes [him]forever a part of us?
So many questions, O God, and so much silence. May we be patient toward all that is unanswered in our hearts. And may others be patient with us, with our sorrow, our anger, our fear and our questions. We are those who mourn. We seek the comfort that we can offer each other and the blessings of divine love and grace. Amen.

[Benediction] Take courage, friends. The path is never clear, the end is always in doubt, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. Deep down, there is a greater truth: you are not alone.

Monday, September 14, 2015

the same stream of life

[I was asked to conduct the water ceremony for Unitarian Church North, the congregation I've been attending south of here in Mequon. This is the script I wrote.]
I want to be with people who submerge in the task, the task of living full lives. Today we celebrate both those who keep warm the hearth of our common home and those who have journeyed far from their homes as each brings to us a deeper understanding, renewed commitment, and ampler hope. Will those of you who have brought water from your homes, oceans, fields, streams, puddles, and those who will pour from this symbolic pitcher of water come forward now to merge the water of the world at this time of reunion.
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and death, in ebb and flow. I feel my limbs made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride comes from the life throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

[Rabindranath Tagore]
I want to tell you at story. This was from 1987 one of my first Rainbow Gatherings in Nantehala National Park in western North Carolina.  I was hiking back into the site and I passed a pickup truck whose bed was filled with a series of huge, multiple-gallon plastic water jugs.
            Someone yelled, “Hey, brother, can you lend us a hand?”  There’s an unwritten understanding at the Gathering that, if you’re asked for help, and you’re not doing anything else, you’ll help.  This is not, I might add, a bad way to behave in general society. I said sure and stepped up.
            Eventually about ten of us lined up to help, including one fellow who was naked except for his shoes.  Let me explain a little here about the dress code at the Gathering—there is none.  It’s not unusual for most everyone to wander the trails naked at one point or another.  There’s something freeing about dropping trou and letting everything air out, and it genuinely feels good.  After about a day, you stop noticing the nakedness of other people.  Still, at least this guy had on sneakers. I was barefoot.
            We got all the water jugs off the truck—there must have been two, maybe three dozen—and then we split into several groups and plunged wooden poles through the handles of maybe fifteen or sixteen jugs spaced out at intervals and then we ranged alongside the poles and hoisted.  I don’t know if you’ve ever tried lifting water.  It doesn’t stay still like something solid.  It sloshes and heaves like a thing alive.  With ten of us in teams of two and the poles on our shoulders we still needed to shuffle under the weight and stop about every dozen feet to flex our hands and shift position.  Let me tell you a little about the layout of the  Gathering—once you’re past the barriers keeping people from driving in and most of the alcohol out, you still need to hike another three, sometimes five miles to achieve main camp, which of course was where the water was headed.  I don’t know how far it was that year, but if you told me it was ten miles, I wouldn’t dispute it.  And I spent the entire trip behind the naked guy wearing only shoes.
            So we started off.  Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.  “Wait a minute!”  Rest.  Hoist.  Grunt.  Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.  “Wait a minute!”  It went like that for almost the entire hike to main camp, and I will tell you, it may be true that hippie men are more in touch with their feminine side, but it’s also nonetheless the case that not one of us was willing to admit he was ready to quit.  A number of people passed us going the same way on our route but no one asked for a replacement.
            Much of the way was dry road but it was straight up.  There were deep gouges on either side—it was a ranger’s access road—so we were limited to going down the center along a narrow band about six feet across. This may not sound very hard, but imagine it while lugging slippery, sloshing, slithery plastic jugs of water with nine other hippies, none of whom were really paying attention to where he was going.  There was much swearing when we’d veer toward one of the ruts on the side and on occasion we had to stop and back up a couple feet to avoid a gash that had opened out of one of the ruts.  And it seemed like no matter how much I tried to concentrate on my bare toes kicking up pebbles below me, I focused instead on the very naked hippie bobbing directly in front of me.
            Then of course there was the mud.  A part of the road was skirted by a stream that crossed the road, making a mud bog about twenty feet across.  This bog was further softened and widened by thousands of feet tramping through it for a few days, extending and deepening it so that walking through it was like walking through a deep layer of frosting, complete with little flourishes where our feet broke free and left tall whippets.  This was the point at which my bare feet probably came into their own, since it’s easier to slog through such stuff unencumbered by the worry that your shoe will be sucked into the earth’s core forever. 
            We started out joking and laughing and one or two guys were singing, but all that stopped after about the first half mile.  I stopped carrying a watch in 1983 so I have no idea how long it took us to carry that water to main camp but I can vouch that the sun, which was high overhead when we started was hovering somewhere on the horizon.  We were dirtier, sweatier, smellier and a lot less companionable than when we’d started.  But I can also tell you that it felt really, really good to finally drop those jugs into place by Main Circle.  People cheered us and lined up for some life.

There is a direct line between the things we do and the lives we touch.  Carry the water, drink the water.  Water, like help freely given by people who wear more than just shoes, is something we often take for granted.  But it’s as alive as we are. 

To take a for-instance: the water we use in the pitcher symbolizing other waters comes from the tap here at UCN. The water comes from our own well which is a part of the aquifer making up the Lake Michigan Basin, a great underground sponge that sops up water from as far east as Lansing, Michigan, and South Bend, Indiana, and as far west as the headwaters of the Fox, the Wolf, the Brule, and the Mishigamme Rivers. The Lake with its forests to the north and  the world’s largest freshwater dunes to the south acts as a giant  filter. It is so large it has exhibited small lunar tidal effects. Because of its cul-de-sac formation the water in it is in constant circulation, and the amount of time that it takes for water entering the lake to exit the lake is ninety-nine years. If you were fifty and could somehow mark the water you pour into the lake at St Ignace, your great-grandchildren could stand with their children at the port in Mackinaw City to watch it flow back out.

After our service, our children will pour the collected water into our gardens here at the church, but it doesn’t simply end there. It will join the waters of the basin and when it emerges through the Straits of Mackinaw into Lake Huron, it joins the Great Lakes Flow where it merges with water from Lake Superior to pour into the comparatively shallow shells of Lake Erie and then crash over the boulders and bleached bones of failed aquanauts at the base of Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario from which, by the St Lawrence Seaway, from which it will eventually spew through the Gulf of St Lawrence  between the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick to merge with the glacial currents of the northern Atlantic.

But as we speak in our seventh principle, it does not end there. The web of interdependent existence demands that from the Atlantic, you may remember from your sixth grade science class, the water evaporates in the sun, condenses as it rises, forms clouds.  The clouds move across the land, across Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, meet with the freshwater condensation over Lake Superior, form larger, heavier clouds, drop their loads of precipitation on the fields of Manitoba and Ontario.  The runoff from the fields flow south, meet in creeks and streams and small rivers.  Science has explained that there is exactly as much matter in the universe today as there was several seconds after the Big Bang.  An altogether efficient system.
Another, final metaphor of living water.  Take the hand of the person next to you.  Get a good, solid grip.  Note the jump and flutter of that person’s pulse.  The thrum of what lies just beneath the skin.  This water that lives within us calls us to come together to feel the life’s blood under the skin.  This is why we come to this place. 


Sunday, August 30, 2015

being governor of India

As might be noted from the paucity of posts since the first of the year, 2015 has been a busy one for me. While I'd like to lay the blame on not having much to say or write, the truth is more complicated and involves my work.

I really enjoy what I do, a sentiment I think nearly anyone involved in hospice work would echo. It's challenging and necessary and I often find I'm overwhelmed by what I do and how little I know. That is the background to my post today. Why do I have this job?

The question is more complicated than you might think. What I mean is, Why do I have a job doing work that sometimes requires extensive clinical experience when I could not get accepted into the training? Most people in my position and in my company have four units, or one year, of advanced Clinical Pastoral Experience, or are in the process of getting it. I couldn't find a program that would accept me, or even interview me, but was hired as a chaplain, first with teens in recovery, and then with people who are dying, on the strength (I guess) of the talent my references say I have.

I'm left to wonder where the talent lies. I know it's not in my abilities as a team player. Currently, my management is more a suggestion than a presence, and that suits me fine. I often compare my solo work to my years teaching in prison. It was like being governor of a small state in India where, so long as the locals didn't riot, no one cared what you did. Or I think of it like contact improvisation, a dance form I studied in the 80s, that even untrained dancers can make beautiful.

It may lie in my patience with people. I don't need to talk with them each time and sometimes never. I feel I'm doing good work by sitting quietly while they sleep or watching TV with them. It may lie in my patience with myself. I spend time relaxing and meditating before going anywhere so I'm at my least anxious.

Or it may lie in my simple acceptance that they and I and everyone we know and love will die and the best we can hope to do is to meet death with a steady, if unsure, gaze. I have long come to terms with my own imminent death, and while I don't look forward to it, I don't begrudge it either. Live while alive, I say, you'll get used to being dead.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

what we talk about when we talk about death

"Ultimately, the human being is designed for dying." --paraphrase of Joan Halifax

I've been wanting to write for weeks about an experience I underwent almost a month ago, but which both circumstances and my inability to articulate it has kept me from examining too closely. This was the death of one of my patients.

A few weeks ago psychiatrist Robin Weiss published an interesting essay in the New York Times called "How Therapists Mourn." It's a good read, well-written, thought through, and full of life and death. He comes to a conclusion that holds as well for chaplains I think as for psychiatric professionals: "Therapists mourn alone."

It's not that we don't want others to share our sadness as that they are probably unable to understand it. I don't mean they don't understand the general sense of loss we feel when a patient dies so much as I think they can't understand the specific loss that patient's death means to us. We've come, through sitting and listening to them, or just sitting quietly with them, to see them in ways that others, who may know them better or more intimately, are unable to.

A month ago I visited a patient whose decline was dramatic after a period of relative energy. Inside a week she had gone from sitting in a wheelchair and actively participating in life to being bed-bound and sleeping nearly all the time. She was unconscious when I arrived so I took her hand while the RN who'd got there before I had went through her paces. She said over her prone body, after her visitor had gone, "I'll be surprised if she lasts the day."

The nurse left about 20 minutes later. We were waiting for one of her daughters to arrive and as I had no other visits that day I said I'd stay with her until she came. But a half hour after the nurse left she became agitated, having difficulty breathing, and opening and closing her eyes without seeing. Her dyspnea, called Chayne-Stokes breathing, is a series of quick, almost urgent, shallow breaths, as is she can't catch it. While I didn't know then what it was called, I was aware she was near her death.

I talked to her, letting her know I was there with her and she wasn't alone. She could be scared, I said, but I was with her and wouldn't be leaving until she was finished. She lay on her back, swallowing great gulps of nothing. I held her hand more tightly and reminded her of my presence.

There was no great shudder. No death rattle. No final words of wisdom. One moment she was breathing, which I could see from the gentle rise and fall of her chest. Then she stopped. But then she started again. This went on a few times, the shallow intake, the rise, the wheeze out, the fall. Until finally, she stopped. From my seat I could see the flutter of her carotid artery. I watched that pulse slower, until it too stopped. I touched my fingers to it but couldn't be positive if I felt it still or if it was the throb of my own pulse. After about a minute I pressed her eyelids closed and they stayed that way and I stepped out to ask a nurse to check her.

I have seen other people die, but it was always with the safety of distance. This time I had held her hand and felt her life slow until I couldn't feel it at all. I don't know exactly what I felt. It wasn't fear or anxiety or even relief at its conclusion. What comes nearest I think is humility. I felt humble in the face of what happened, struggling to hold her one hand while she held a stuffed chipmunk in the other, and keeping the live flower her daughter had placed in her hair from tipping and rolling off her pillow. My entire role came to, "I'm here." There seemed nothing else that needed to be done.

Monday, June 22, 2015

prayer for Dylann Roof

Spirit of Life,
People are angry. They should be angry.
People feel guilty. They should feel guilty.
But people are scared and they shouldn't be, not when we have so much possibility.
Help us crack open our hearts and let that in.
Dylann Roof, I lit a candle for you today.
You've seen the pain and the fear you brought people
And they forgive you anyway. May that split your heart.
Spirit of Life,
Help the rest of us, if not to forgive, then not to hate so much.
Allow the righteous anger at injustice
And the palliative of understanding to do our public talking
And bring us some peace. People want some peace.
Not the false peace of the way things are but the real peace of how they should be.
Bring us shoulder to shoulder in building the life we know we're capable of.
Remind us, in the midst of our fear, that we're better than our fear.
Spirit of Life,
We are the children of this world and we are the only ones
Standing between us and beloved community. Help us
Get out of our own way.

Friday, June 19, 2015

another list that tears my heart

I am becoming tired of writing about these things, these public murders that lacerate our discourse and give a lie to the belief that we can improve and we can love one another. This short essay, by Charles Pierce, appearing in the online version of a magazine I've long presumed irrelevant, says something I wish I could. I can only grieve. Again.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

would Jesus eat with Josh Duggar?

This is not an attempt to investigate or even to come to grips with what Josh Duggar has done. I am not a person who watches reality shows, let alone watches religious reality shows--with the exception of early episodes of Amish Mafia; that shit was dope--and I have no dog in the fight over whether companies should or should not continue to sponsor their show. If they do, it will make absolutely no difference to anyone; if they don't, the show will fade from memory and, again, make absolutely no difference to anyone.

What this is is an attempt to answer a question I came across on the Facebook page of a progressive religious group I belong to. A correspondent wrote that he had been reading 1 Corinthians and quoted from it: "But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sisterc but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people." Then the poster asked for people's thoughts on the passage in relation to the disclosures about Josh Duggar.

There were many thoughtful and considered responses, most of them very long and complex. But it struck me that, in its refutation of most of the synoptic messages of Jesus, Paul was denying one of the very things that made the synoptic Jesus so different: that is, that he would associate with people who were, exactly as Paul describes, "sexually immoral, or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, [or] a drunkard or swindler." The Jesus we read about in the gospels, whether he is the historical Jesus or a composite of many Jesus-figures or the creation of an especially gifted writer, is unique among the religous people we know of at that time and place, not only allowing these sinners to eat and be with him, but in some cases actively seeking them out, and in the case of the woman caught in adultery putting himself at risk to save her.

Now the traditional theological response in favor of keeping this division, thereby accepting and building upon the Paul command, is that the difference is that the people Jesus associated with had repented of their sinful lives and so were "worthy" of being with him. But that certainly isn't the case with, for instance, the woman caught in adultery: she's had no prior association with Jesus we're told of, and while it's possible in the small world of First Century Jerusalem that the woman knew of Jesus' reputation, he wouldn't have known her. And while it's also true she repents of her past at the end of the tale, that is after Jesus places his own reputaiton, and possibly his life, in question by responding as he does.

So it doesn't matter, in this reading, whether Josh Duggar repents his actions. The Jesus of the gospel stories, if he were asked to sit and eat with him, would have done so. Like Jesus, I also believe in the essential dignity of every person, and while I haven't been asked, I could do no less.

Monday, May 11, 2015

when we are most ourselves

My interest and faith in punk and punks is a theme on this blog, as is my attempts to articulate a definition of a punk spirituality. This musician/teacher, Miguel Chen of Teenage Bottlerockets, has gone me one better by creating this short documentary about the interconnectivity of punk and yoga. And while yoga is not my practice, I recognize, in the same way Christianity is for others, it is a potent path. To say I'm in awe of this motherfucker is to downplay the jealousy I feel.

Monday, May 4, 2015

as we watch Baltimore burn

I have been in Baltimore a handful of times, usually on my way somewhere else. I don't think I've spent more than a day there. Most everything I know about the city comes from the novels of Anne Tyler. And the Baltimore she writes about, needless to say, is not the Baltimore of Freddie Gray.

But I'm not an impartial third party either, insofar as I believe we can and should live in a single, worldwide beloved community. My recognition that we don't isn't an admission to the impossibility of the dream, only of our unwillingness to accomplish it. And I know if my city was aflame, I'd certainly want other people caring about it.

I read this essay by Brittney Cooper several days ago and it won't let me go. Try as will to understand the positions of the three black women who are the official faces of Baltimore-Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, it's mayor; General Linda Singh, of the Maryland National Guard; and just-confirmed Attorney General Loretta Lynch-indeed, even to commiserate with them (as she writes, "Not one of these women stands in the place of power she stands in without having battled for it"), she ends up recognizing that "American empire, in its most democratic iteration, is no respecter of persons. Any person willing to do the state's bidding can have a role to play." Cooper locates the sound of the shattering of the peace among the poor and disenfranchised of Baltimore in the sound of the snapping of Freddie Gray' s neck.

That is a horrible metaphor. It is also resolutely true and it's in the truth of it that the horror lies. No one in my community ought to be familiar with that sound.

More troubling has been the response of strangers, and even some people I know, to the riot in Baltimore as if Freddie Gray's death is excused because of the reactions to it. As if Baltimore police were somehow punishing him in advance for the temerity to ignite the CVS with his death.

The simple truth of the situation is that Freddie Gray should not have died. I contend he should not have been arrested in the first place, but even if we grant he had committed a crime, including murder, there is no reason for any person to die in police custody. To quote the character ML from the great Do the Right Thing, a film whose subject, the death of a young black man while being arrested, should not be nearly as contemporary twenty-five years later as it is: "It's as plain as day. They didn't have to kill the boy."

But most troubling is the epiphany I have come to. If I was in Baltimore would I join the riots and looting? And the answer is yes. Yes, I would. Not because there are things I want but that there are things I don't want. I don't want predatory lending in my neighborhood. I don't want a military presence in my neighborhood. I don't want to be called a thug when I strike back against a system that threatens me and my future. I don't want police killing anyone whose most criminal act is running away from them. And because of where I live and who I am, or specifically who I am not, I don't experience any of that.

Neither should anyone else. It's as plain as day.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

alternatives to church, part multiple

To the extent that I think of myself as a Christian, I don't accept a literal resurrection; so, like my wife, Easter isn't that big in my calendar year. But I still like to go to service if for the bells and smells, and I am especially taken with the practice of washing a stranger's feet. But I had filled in the Sunday before for my ailing wife, and then attended Maundy Thursday communion, and felt a little Christian-ed out. I expected to go to my UU congregation. But at the last minute I decided to stay home, have a relaxing stretch and tai chi practice, and walk my new neighborhood.

I've written before
of some of the charms of the hub I now orbit but there are other things I like. That I am so close to Lake Michigan I could piss in it from my upper window. That it has a working-class feel and look to it. That the local daily paper costs a dollar and is about 40 pages (although it doesn't carry the NYTimes crossword) so I often read it at the library. That the locals describe us as living in the [arm motion suggesting a ramp going down], meant to convey our basement garage. That weather reports sometimes include gale warnings. That at least three semi-feral cats live on our block and I watch them as I stretch in the early morning.

It's about a 45 minute walk from our house to the main drag in the city, and I still think of traveling anywhere in terms of an hour to get there, while the drive is more usually 5 or 10 minutes. The office out of which I'll work is less than that. I've thought about biking there now the spring's here but come to realize I need to be available to drive to someone's home on a moment's notice. But on my days off and after I come home my walks are pleasant, and there is even a fenced-in dog park about a mile away.

Monday, March 23, 2015

what I do

Yesterday, during service, I remembered a service a couple decades ago, in the late 90s. A woman, local high school teacher as I remember, was giving a solo as part of the service. It was the Louis Armstrong classic, "Wonderful World." And there was a guy, I think his name was Dan, who had joined her onstage but who didn't sing or play anything. He just sat on a folding chair on the other side of the stage with his hands folded, watching the performance, and enjoying it with us. After a few minutes I forgot he was there, and then was reminded as I'd see him out of the corner of my eye. He did nothing to draw attention but at the end of the song he walked over to the mic the teacher had backed away from and sang into it Louis' immortal closing,"Oh, yeah."

That, I realized, is my analogy for what I do as a hospice chaplain.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

an almost empty house

I'm beginning a new job in a new hub city in two weeks and toward that end, and because my employer gave me a month to prepare, I've been reading essays, articles, listicles and books about my new profession: chaplaincy to the dying.

One book I've struggled with the entire time but stuck with because I'm determined to get through it all, is The Grace of Dying: A Message of Hope, Comfort, and Spiritual Transformation by Kathleen Dowling Singh. I've noted many passages that I've thought to mark or write down, but they were portions of thoughts, ideas, parts of sentences, and sometimes a full sentence. Until today I haven't seen a full passage speaking enough to me to merit putting here. At this point, Singh is writing about Kubler-Ross' famous stages of death and explaining how even the most advanced among them are a part of Chaos, "what is experienced when an accustomed order is first suspended or destroyed." Lately, I've been thinking about what it is a hospice chaplain goes through when she herself is in the dying process. I suspect it will be something like this:

It was once my privilege to know a woman who had been uncommonly raised, in the Theosophical tradition. This tradition, sprinkled with names like Leadbeater and Blavatsky, attempts to outline the special conditions that engender consciousness evolution. This woman was disappointed in herself when she found herself caught in the powerful emotional undertows of the period of Chaos. She "would have hoped to have been a bit father along than that," she said. She thought perhaps she had already evolved to the point where she could have "given up the body more easily." She entered a profound depression. My visual memory of Geneva is of a woman of dignity sitting alone in a recliner in her living room surrounded by meaningful mementos of her travels: woven tapestries from Tibet, Japanese screens depicting Zen teaching stories, shamanic masks from New Guinea. As the weeks went by and her depression wore on, she began giving all these things away, piece by piece, to relatives and old friends from the Theosophical community. Eventually she sat in an almost empty house. Her depression lifted and she proclaimed, "I've come out the other side." She surrendered to the process of dying and died with great openness and courage. Indeed, she was an inspiration.

Friday, February 13, 2015

"the music you grew up with"

Since moving to a new hub, one on a lake rather than a prairie, I've needed to come up with new entertainments. In a sense, this is similar to the move I made in the late 70s from upstate New York to Boston: in that pre-McDonaldsation of media time, there were new radio stations playing unheard music and TV stations-more than three!-some devoted to showing old movies or those new technological marvels, music videos.

Television here is mostly unexplorable as we rarely hold a solid signal for long, and having recently lived in an area where we only got variants of public TV, so we aren't much interested in what might be there. But I must have music, and as nearly every station here either plays "Jesus loves me" music or a rotation of hyper-modulated American Idols trying hard to be the worst of this year's boy band/Miley Cyrus mix up, my options seemed extraordinarily limited. But I have discovered an oldies station playing mostly mid-70s to early-80s tunes. And while it's true I often have to slog through Journey yelling "Separate Ways" prior to yet another Bee Gees slice of disco DOA in order to hear Al Green wailing "Let's Stay Together," I don't deny it's more often worth it than not. The station, out of Manitowoc, bills itself as playing "the music you grew up with," and as I liken listening to it to listening to a commercial MOR station in 1983, that's at least somewhat accurate.

A more interesting entertainment, incorporating modern tech, is the Twitter feed Sheboygan Scanner. This is, apparently, someone listening to his police/fire/EMT scanner and transcribing what he (or she) hears. And the transcriber is a stickler for accuracy, often correcting previous misunderstandings of roads or injuries, and enclosing words he doesn't hear quite right in a pair of brackets with a question mark. This person is enamored of the word "bonk", using it for head injuries of the elderly, as in "older woman slipped on patch of ice and bonked her head" and "elderly man in car accident no injuries except for bonking his head on exiting the vehicle." He also, this winter of sudden freezing snow, elides many accidents into a phrase beginning "car vs"-"car vs snowflake," "car vs sign," "car vs house" and the frightening "car vs kid." Small, heartbreaking stories can come across in these short, nearly poetic peeks into other people's lives, as in this from a post about an hour ago: "24th st & Indiana ave - male pushed female, then they held hands." How can I possibly be unhappy to have moved where such an incident is worth reporting?

Monday, February 2, 2015

teach naked!

Most writers have accepted, not without questions, but with few alternatives, the basic format of the fiction workshop, and the collective standards that are apt to prevail there, emphasizing, in the case of fiction, the short story...The writing seminar itself has developed a specific, venerated, and almost inviolable format...A work will be read by the class, and perhaps a few passages read aloud by its writer, who is then forced to be quiet while others talk about it. Experienced participants will begin by saying something nice about the writing, something they liked, something that works. This is positive and also has the virtue of softening the next phase, the criticism. Fellow seminarians will try to confine their remarks to technique and not judgment of the writer's character or ability--nothing to suggest "you must be a horrible person to have written such a disgusting piece..." If you have to criticize, instead say, "the clumsiness of that passage may distract from you interesting theme of universal brotherly love," or something else genial.
--From "They'll Make You a Writer!: [A Review of] The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl" by Diane Johnson in the November 7, 2013, issue of New York Review of Books

As a recipient of what, elsewhere in her essay, Johnson calls "the ubiquitous and valued MFA," and a member of many workshops, I can vouch for the veracity of the description above. And as someone who's taught a couple undergraduate creative writing courses myself--which were, above all else, a lot of fun--I can also admit to the supposition of the first sentence: I tried to break the format in my first class but found it nearly impossible to do so. So like the proverbial American lit professor who includes the execrable Sister Carrie in his syllabus because it was part of his studies, I taught exactly the way I was taught, and in some instances in much the same way.

But this isn't to dis the teaching of creative writing in contemporary American schools or the subject of studying creative techniques because, the truth is, I had a lot of fun taking workshops. I loved the arguing, the overlapping elements of narrative and plot and authorial intent (my own favorite, and true, explanation for why it doesn't matter what the author intended: "I won't have you to explain this to me when I'm reading it alone."), the all-night drives to other towns to take part in joint readings, the drinking and bullshit sessions with visiting writers. The acting as if writing really mattered. And it was also true what I told my students: if focusing on writing interested them, then by all means go study it because they would have a focus and concentration and comment on their art that they will never have otherwise in their lives.

And while it's true that, as McGurl points out, the holy triumvirate of finding your voice, writing what you know, and showing rather than telling, tends to produce cookie-cutter small-magazine voices talking about their own special hyphenate problems (in my experience, we often slapped down genre writing in class because "no one," meaning "no one in this class," "reads it," denying the prime real estate devoted in any sized bookstore to the sales of exactly that kind of writing about what no one, whether classified as science fiction, mystery, fantasy, action or romance, has ever experienced), Johnson touches on a truth here when she quotes Elif Batuman in The London Review of Books: "We have to stop being ashamed that 'literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn't directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims,' except in the case of Dave Eggars. But we can still proudly practice it."

This, by the way, remains my favorite workshop-related piece in any media:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


This past Sunday I visited the Unitarian Univer-salist church in Mequon, the nearest congre-gation to our new home in a new hub. I have been processing-although that word is overused in my profession it still means something important-my experience since then.

I struggle in some ways to articulate it. It was uniformly positive and I am certain I will join the church. But it was also disturbing in some ways, how comfortable and peaceful I found it. This is the part I have difficulty articulating.

I arrived early, earlier than anyone else except the member and her daughter responsible for preparing the sanctuary. I talked with them a while and then with an older woman who was chief greeter for the day, then with one of the church's two (!) ministers, then with several others as they walked in. My wife refers to this as my funeral director mode, when I wander around introducing myself to people, sometimes introducing them to each other.

So I was at ease when I sat in the sanctuary to listen to the pianist and watch the bulk of people filter in. It's a UU church, after all, so most of them showed up at 9:56 for a 10 o'clock service, with another 30 or so arriving after the welcome and first hymn. The second part of that sentence carries a measure of something that surprised me. Although there is another, larger congregation in Milwaukee, the church has a couple hundred members, probably 25 of them black or Latino, and nearly 125 to 150 were there that day. The speaker was the retired minister from the Milwaukee church so some were undoubtedly visitors from there to hear him; but at 100 were congregation members who generally showed, I figure.

The retired minister was a good speaker and had a good sermon about UU beliefs I couldn't argue with. But what I was most absorbed by was the feeling I had surrounded by the people. I felt outside myself, emptied into the sea around me. I loved the image from Star Trek: Deep Space 9 of one character's people as an ocean (beginning about 6:40 in) into which they subsume, every particle mixing, and what I felt was something like that. To call it feeling "at home" seems banal but nonetheless accurate.

Here is the best I can say: I felt as in family, as among my tribe, as comfortable as I do in my best times with the Rainbow Family or with vagabonds. A friend of mine calls it being accepted in one's integrity, a statement I think is good as any and more accurate than most. I was taken in not only for who I am, but given my anonymity, in spite of who I may be. As if all my sins, rather than being washed clean, simply have no place there. Unconditional love. Acceptance without boundaries. I felt comfortable leaving because I know it will be similar when I come back.

Friday, January 16, 2015

you might need someone to hold onto when the answers don't amount to much

The past two evenings have been my final worknights as a chaplain for kids at connected residential treatment facilities, one for teen boys and one for girls. I only began there in May but I feel as if I've been there for years. And in a good way, because while the kids change, each one discharging either positively or negatively, so that only three boys remain of the large group I began with, I have shifted in the ways both that I see them and work with them. Improving, I like to think.

Perhaps the greatest change I've experienced is my belief in the necessity of touch in their treatment lives. There is, of course, great potential for abuse by both staff and other kids in this, which is why it's so strenuously forbidden by policy. But these programs are six to nine months long. If a kid is having a particularly bad experience with his treatment and isn't allowed home visits for the course of treatment, or worse, has no home or family to visit st all, she can go through the entire program without a single hug. Can anyone feature how that feels, to go through the better part of a year not experiencing human contact? Two kids who had both had rough but separate experiences that day flaunted the major consequences staff told them they'd receive, including loss of privileges, in order to hug each other for comfort in the hallway. We expert somehow that a kid will become more humane in that period.

The girls especially are so starved for contact they developed "boundary hugs," folding their arms across their chest and bumping elbows together, for congratulating each other or for expressing grief. Last night one girl returned from a home visit during which she attended her grandmother's funeral, and sat on the floor and cried. Girls walked around her and surreptitiously brushed the top of her head or shoulders, an act of community, of concern, and of desperation.

For my part, I hugged freely for my last nights, hoping to make up in some way for not having done so the previous eight months. My position, as chaplain, allows for some leeway, for one-on-one conversations, for sitting quietly beside the kid (as I did with the girl last night), and for full-body hugs when a kid discharges. Every child the past two nights who requested a hug goodbye snuggled against me like the kids, below the fronting and the anger and the trauma, they still are.

My position is simple: in treatment programs there is the need for human touch. Between staff and residents, between residents, even between staff. We are so afraid of how our actions might be misinterpreted we withhold something important and life-giving. This isn't to say touch shouldn't be regulated. Too much abuse is possible. But it should be consensual, open (in full view of others and the ubiquitous cameras), and healthy in the best sense. There's a reason touch is a part of all religions, from the laying on of hands to pranam. Skin is the largest organ of our bodies, the method by which we make the most contact with the world. It makes no more sense to shut it down while in treatment than it would to be blindfolded or wear earplugs.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

80s memories

Recently, as I was filling my gas tank at one of those stations that play a little video of some gas-related "news" on a small screen so you have something to watch, I got to thinking about things we had in the 80s that, somehow, disappeared. Before they vanish completely down the memory hole I'd just like to note them.