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DianeUlliusHear Diane’s answers to these questions!

  1. If you could switch places with someone for a day, who would it be and why?
  2. What’s the most significant way you’ve changed over time?
  3. What can’t you live without?
  4. If you could replace any part of your body with an artificial part guaranteed to never fail, what would you choose?
  5. If you wrote a book, what would it be about?

    Listen here:
    https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/five-questions-with-diane-ullius/id1241840881?i=1000385908462&mt=2

I had the privilege of leading the service this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, in a fabulous collaboration with Ashley Greve and Bob Blinn. Our wonderful artist in residence Maya Rogers led the music.

You can watch the service here!

I included this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye as part of my prayer and meditation.

Different Ways to Pray

There was the method of kneeling,
a fine method, if you lived in a country
where stones were smooth.
The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,
hidden corners where knee fit rock.
Their prayers were weathered rib bones,
small calcium words uttered in sequence,
as if this shedding of syllables could somehow
fuse them to the sky.

There were the men who had been shepherds so long
they walked like sheep.
Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olives bobbed peacefully
in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,
and were happy in spite of the pain,
because there was also happiness.

Some prized the pilgrimage,
wrapping themselves in new white linen
to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.
When they arrived at Mecca
they would circle the holy places,
on foot, many times,
they would bend to kiss the earth
and return, their lean faces housing mystery.

While for certain cousins and grandmothers
the pilgrimage occurred daily,
lugging water from the spring
or balancing the baskets of grapes.
These were the ones present at births,
humming quietly to perspiring mothers.
The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,
forgetting how easily children soil clothes.

There were those who didn’t care about praying.
The young ones. The ones who had been to America.
They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.
Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.
They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,
for the twig, the round moon,
to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.

And occasionally there would be one
who did none of this,
the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,
who beat everyone at dominoes,
insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,
and was famous for his laugh.

Here’s my reflection: The New Kid

The New Kid

Picture me, age 7, wearing a sunshine yellow Izod shirt and matching cotton shorts, missing a couple teeth, cruising down the sidewalk in blue and white roller skates. I would happily skate up people’s driveways to see who was available to play. Some days we watched monster movies with Geoff and David, some days we twirled batons with Amy and Karen, some days we played king of the hill on the pile of mulch in the Perrys’ driveway. It was all very suburban and lovely. Until…

After I finished second grade, our neighborhood elementary school closed and became a police station. The kids in our neighborhood were sent to two different schools, one of which included the gifted program that I had been assigned to. I was nervous about going to a new school, but then third grade started, and I found my people, and absolutely loved my new school. One of my best friends from third grade remains one of my best friends today.

Meanwhile, back in my neighborhood, something strange was happening. When the kids I used to play with in the cul-de-sac realized I wasn’t going to school with them anymore, they stopped playing with me. Or speaking to me. Somehow, they got this idea, whether it was from their parents or each other or who knows where, that I thought I was better than them. I didn’t. I wasn’t. Just because I was going to a different school with a different program did not mean I didn’t still want to ride bikes and play tag with them. I did. But I wasn’t allowed to anymore. They unceremoniously unwelcomed me from their midst. It was awkward and painful. They assumed something about me that wasn’t true—that I was suddenly arrogant, or a snob, even though I wasn’t behaving any differently than I had when we were hanging out in their basements. But that was that.

Fast forward a few years to ninth grade and another fork in the academic road. My friends from junior high were scattering to different high schools. My neighborhood school did not have a stellar reputation. I had heard rumors of chain-wielding gangs of immigrants roaming the hallways. Somehow, I bought into some bizarre stereotypes. I assumed the worst. So, I found a math class I could take at another, allegedly better, high school, and transferred. And I had the absolute worst year of my entire public education career. At this school, which was much richer and much whiter than my neighborhood school, people were mean to me. I was turned away from activities I wanted to do. Hardly anyone in my classes spoke to me. I was miserable. I made a handful of friends who sustained me that year, mostly people from the literary magazine who considered themselves willing outcasts of the school’s elitist culture. By the end of the year I was willing to face the prospect of roving gangs at my neighborhood school because I figured they couldn’t possibly be more unkind than the privileged white kids I’d been surrounded by all year.

First period in 10th grade I walked into Mr. Lunsford’s biology class at my neighborhood school and a whole bunch of people, most of whom I had never met, seemed surprisingly, genuinely happy to see me. As the days and weeks went on I was warmly greeted by familiar faces from elementary school and total strangers. I felt at home instantly. And guess what? No threatening thugs anywhere. Whatever I had assumed turned out not to be true. Surprise!

Recently I’ve been reading this book—Wonder by RJ Palacio—with my daughter at bedtime. I read it originally when it came out in 2012, and it’s one of my favorite books. Wonder is about a boy named August Pullman who is starting middle school and he’s nervous. Not just because he’s been homeschooled his whole life, or because it’s middle school, but also because he has a severe craniofacial anomaly. Genetics conspired to make Auggie’s face startlingly different from typical faces. By age 10 he has already undergone dozens of surgeries. When Auggie introduces himself at the beginning of the book, he says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Our only insight into Auggie’s appearance comes from his description of people’s reactions to him. Stares, gasps, kids running away on the playground. At his new school, all but a couple kids give him a wide berth. They cover their mouths when they whisper about him, but he knows exactly what they’re saying. Many of them play a cruel game they call the Plague, where they try not to touch Auggie, even in passing, and if they do they have to immediately wash their hands to prevent catching what they somehow imagine is the disease that caused Auggie’s facial differences.

The few kids who actually get to know Auggie discover that he’s awesome. He’s funny, he’s smart, he’s kind. He loves all things Star Wars, and playing video games, and when his dog Daisy licks his face. But because he looks so different, most kids, and many parents, don’t give him a chance. They make assumptions, such as that the school made an exception to admit a student with special needs who requires extra accommodations, none of which is true. One mom goes so far as to Photoshop Auggie’s face out of the class picture, saying he just doesn’t fit in.

Later in the book we do read a detailed description of Auggie’s looks from the point of view of his big sister, Olivia. She is realizing that there’s the Auggie she sees, of whom she has always been fiercely protective, and the Auggie that other people see. She is candid about the effects that having a little brother who looks so shockingly different has had on her life. She is loving, and patient, but also weary. And honest.

Olivia’s voice is one of several we hear in Wonder, in addition to August’s, which is one of the reasons I love this book so much. Mr. Tushman, the director of August’s school, says at one point, “there are almost always more than two sides to every story,” and RJ Palacio offers us windows into the many facets of this story. She wrote a companion book in 2014 called Auggie & Me, which tells the same story through the lens of three other characters, including Julian, who is Auggie’s greatest antagonist in Wonder. Just as so many kids make assumptions about Auggie based on his looks, the reader makes assumptions about Julian based on his behavior. Clearly, he’s just a jerk, right? But there are, as Mr. Tushman points out, almost always more than two sides to every story.

Our brains are hardwired to categorize for survival—is this creature friendly or likely to eat me? Is this food edible or poisonous? But what happens when that desire to classify everything you see gets out of control? I struggle with this constantly. Is that person thinner than me or fatter than me? Does that person have holes in her clothes because she can’t afford better clothes or because she’s trying to be fashionable? Why is it fashionable to have holes in your clothes? My brain goes into overdrive. So while I want to be welcoming, while I aspire to be friendly, while I deeply wish I were the person who goes over and sits down at the lunch table where the different looking new kid is sitting all alone on the first day of school, I don’t know if I really am. I am convinced that sometimes my assumptions—about someone else or myself—get in the way. What if that person who is crying just wants to be left alone? What if I am insensitive because of my white privilege? What if I ask an intrusive question because I am curious?

Sometimes this interrogation of myself keeps me from being welcoming, inclusive, or brave. Our theme here at UUCA for September is welcome. So today I’m making a commitment to be more welcoming, everywhere I go, whether I am greeting the new kid or I am the new kid. I’m making a commitment to not let those questions and assumptions ricocheting around my head get in the way of reaching out to someone. I’m making a commitment to remember that there are almost always more than two sides to every story, and to do what I can to listen to all the sides.

One of the great characters in Wonder is Auggie’s English teacher, Mr. Browne, who teaches his students about precepts—words to live by—and encourages them to come up with their own. I’ll leave you with Mr. Browne’s precept for September, a quote from Dr. Wayne Dyer: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

May it be so. May it be so. May it be so. Amen.

marchsigns1

Photos by my cousin Lauren. Thanks, Lauren!

I have never seen so many pictures of and words for and references to vaginas, vulvas, ovaries, and uteruses in my entire life.

At the Women’s March in Washington, DC yesterday, of the half-million plus people gathered, thousands of them were holding up signs protesting Donald Trump’s vulgar description of his proclivity for sexual assault, and advocating for women’s reproductive rights.

It’s a good thing we talked to our nine-year-old daughter the night before about why everyone was wearing those pink knit hats. I’ve never been a fan of the word pussy, but I’ve become pretty comfortable saying it lately as feminists have reclaimed the word in recent months with images of angry cats saying “PUSSY GRABS BACK.” So we explained to Zoe what Trump had said and done. We told her no one has a right to touch her or any other girl or woman in a way they don’t want to be touched. We told her that, sadly, that doesn’t stop some men from doing it anyway. We explained that’s one reason we were marching.

I decided we needed to go step by step about everything the Women’s March represented, so I read Zoe the unity principles of the movement. If you discuss reproductive rights, you have to explain what birth control is. When kids have pretty much been taught that sex is for making babies, you have to explain that people also have sex for fun, and sometimes even when they’re not married, and sometimes when they’re teenagers. By this point she was kind of burying her face in a pillow but still listening. Every once in a while I would ask if she had any questions and she would shake her head. I would also ask if she was ok learning all this and she would nod.

We talked about disability rights and how some of her friends wouldn’t have been able to attend public school or easily go to public places before the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were passed. We talked about our friends who live in this country but who the government hasn’t given legal status to even though they work hard and contribute to the economy and pay taxes and are good people. We talked about our friends who are gay and married and how that wasn’t allowed until very recently. Zoe was a little kid when she watched one of our best friends marry her wife, so in her mind marriage has always been between any two people who love each other. We talked about how some people–including parents of her classmates–can’t get good-paying jobs so they have to work multiple jobs and they can’t leave their jobs to come to school whenever they want or they’d be fired.

It was a lot to process.

But then Saturday night when we were all home from the march, I asked her if she saw or heard anything that was confusing or she didn’t understand, and she said no. She said, “if we hadn’t had that talk I wouldn’t have understood most of it, but I did. I’m glad you told me that stuff.”

marchsigns2

Photos by my cousin Lauren. Thanks, Lauren!

What we heard:

TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE! THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!

***

Men: HER BODY, HER CHOICE!

Women: MY BODY, MY CHOICE!

***

WE WANT A LEADER, NOT A CREEPY TWEETER! WE WANT A LEADER, NOT A CREEPY TWEETER!

***

WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS! WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS!

***

NO HATE! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA!

***

WE ARE THE POPULAR VOTE! WE ARE THE POPULAR VOTE!

***

NO HATE! NO FEAR! IMMIGRANTS ARE WELCOME HERE!

***

HEY HO! DONALD TRUMP HAS GOT TO GO!

***

YOU CAN’T BUILD A WALL! YOUR HANDS ARE TOO SMALL!

People led chants from the crowd, from trees, from the top of traffic poles.

You’ve probably seen pictures by now and heard that there were way way way more people there than were expected, so the plans for where the rally and march were supposed to take place quickly went out the window. So for the first several hours we were there, it was a little disorganized and chaotic. But it was the friendliest, most polite chaos I’ve ever experienced. Even during the hour we spent waiting to get on the metro, people were so pleasant. When the Metro employee took the microphone to update us on the wait situation, everyone got quiet. I mean silent. I have never heard people be so respectful to a Metro employee. After he made his announcement everyone said thank you. Seriously. One female Metro employee was wearing a pink pussy hat which she told us a marcher had given her earlier. She was pumping her fist in the air and people were high fiving her and cheering for her.

And everywhere we went downtown, everyone was nice. People shared snacks. People said, “excuse me,” when they tried to get by. We weren’t anywhere near the stage and we couldn’t hear or see anything official that was going on. But we were definitely in the midst of thousands of people who were excited to be there–people wearing pink hats and fabulous shirts and suffragette sashes and all manner of activist accessories. We just enjoyed reading the signs for a while.

After a couple hours my sister and my daughter decided to head home. The rest of our group attempted to make our way closer to Independence Avenue in hopes of joining the march as it went by. We ended up trapped in a throng of people who had the same idea, but we were all stopped before we made it to the street. We were standing extremely close to each other. For over an hour. Finally we got word from a march volunteer perched on something high that the reason we couldn’t move is that the street was completely packed with people. And in fact, all the streets were completely packed with people. We didn’t learn until we got home that the entire route that the march was supposed to take was totally full of people, so there was nowhere to march. But people stayed calm. They passed out chocolate. A guy next to us laughed at my husband’s joke and told him he got an A+. Someone told me she liked me Unitarian Universalist shirt and had gone to UU summer camp in the midwest. Anytime someone felt ill in the crowd, everyone shouted “medical” and people moved out of the way to let the person get to the street where there was a police officer on hand to help. When we heard cheering from the general direction of the stage, we cheered. We read each other the signs we spotted in the distance.

marchsigns3

Photos by my cousin Lauren. Thanks Lau

Eventually the woman on the perch instructed us to turn around and head to the mall, so we did. Soon we found ourselves enveloped by the march, which was exciting. I don’t even know if we were on the planned route or if there were multiple routes at that point. In every direction there were marchers as far as we could see. It was incredible. Not only were we in the largest group of people we’d ever experienced, but with all these people who shared our core values. If this is a bubble, it was a freaking enormous bubble that I was happy to live in.

As we approached the Washington Monument, a woman asked if she could take a picture

oursign

Our sign: the slogan was Randy’s idea, inspired by the book Old Turtle and the Broken Truth by Douglas Wood.

of our sign with the monument in the background. There was more chanting, more singing (mostly “This Land Is Your Land”) and a drum line somewhere nearby helping us keep the beat. There was a topless woman astride the shoulders of a topless man. Her nipples had black tape across them and she and her partner were shouting “FREE THE NIPPLE” and holding a sign saying “DESEXUALIZE WOMEN’S BODIES.”

When we first got there, Randy asked how many people I thought we would see who we knew. I guessed 50. He said five. He ended up being closer, as we actually only spotted two of his co-workers and the reading teacher from Zoe’s school who I sometimes substitute for. In my head I’d been thinking about the Arlington County Fair, where we always see lots of people we know, because there are only a few hundred people there and we know a lot of people in Arlington. But when you’re in the midst of more than half a million people, it’s statistically unlikely you will unexpectedly wind up marching next to your friends. Thanks to Facebook, I realized later that there had actually been hundreds of our friends and co-workers there. People from our preschool (including the director); our current UU church, previous UU church, and previous Presbyterian church; Zoe’s school; my elementary, middle, and high schools and William and Mary; work; martial arts; my soccer team; and basically any other group I can think of that I was every a part of. I feel like virtually everyone I know was there, although I didn’t see them. I saw the photos and there were those same signs behind them! I also had friends who marched in cities around the country and around the world. The word solidarity has never meant so much to me before.

When we finally decided to head home to see our kids, many marchers were headed to the White House to deliver their message more directly to Trump. I understand that many of them left their signs on the White House lawn as calling cards. It took us a long time to get home, but as we walked through the city people were still chanting, smiling, singing, wearing their pink hats. Everyone was exhausted but inspired.

Rev. Aaron’s sermon today at church reminded us that yesterday was just day 1. It wasn’t the end of the world, but the beginning of our revolution (my word, not his). He talked about how we need to treat Trump’s absurdity like the weather, just be prepared and dress accordingly, but don’t let it stand in the way of doing what we need to do. We can just say, “Oh it’s tweeting outside” and move along.

I have felt better the past two days than I had in a long while, thanks to the friends and family who came over to our house to celebrate kindness so we could forget about the atrocity happening across the river for a few hours, and because we spent the day with more than half a million like-minded strangers yesterday who are willing to fight for what they believe in. Cynics are asking, “but what happens now?” And I know what will happen now. We keep raising our voices.

TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE! THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!

16142375_10155563196822908_2813492193303340328_n

Photo from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Facebook page

 

 

This came out of an exercise from my UUCA covenant group. My co-facilitator D suggested, shortly after the election, that she felt motivated to affirm where she stood, in order to be better able to stand up in the face of the insanity we felt was crashing down all around us. At our December meeting we took the opportunity to write statements of belief. I found it surprisingly empowering to do this. 

road

I believe in always going the extra mile. I may get there late, but I’ll always stay until the end, after all the work is done.

I believe in asking good questions, because people are almost always grateful for the chance to tell their stories.

I believe in being generous because why not? Even if I don’t have much I will always share it with you, or with whoever needs it.

I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intentions. Despite recent evidence, I have to believe that most people are doing the best they can with what they know and what they have.

I believe in saying yes. I’m going to learn from doing something new. I’m going to push myself. I’m going to make life a little easier for someone else.

I believe in community. I am a better person when I surround myself with good people and I give myself to the whole.

I believe in the necessity of loving yourself and taking care of yourself. You’re the only one who truly knows what you need.

I believe in asking for and accepting help. Everyone can do something and I definitely can’t do it alone.

I believe people know more than they think they do.

I believe in the power of music and words to inspire, to heal, and to make meaning in a chaotic world.

I believe that words always matter and I choose them with care and attention.

I believe that sometimes the wisest and kindest thing to say is nothing.

I believe that it’s never too late to try again and you’re never too old to learn.

I believe kindness is most important of all.

Bluesfest Music Festival - Day 3This poem came out of an exercise from the covenant group that I am co-facilitating at UUCA with my friend D. The theme for December is presence, and we were discussing and writing about when we have felt the presence of the holy. 

 

 

What Holy Is

unfettered, your heart leaps and bursts
your self melts away

unexpected moments of peace, ephemeral

laughter that makes your eyes stream, face wrinkle, belly ache–surrendering to silliness

joining the seven thousand-heart choir on melody or harmony or something else entirely as Emily and Amy sing out

–any music that covers you so completely that you have to close your eyes and dance with your whole body or your two hands or your fluttering soul

reading a book whose wondrous, unforeseen rearrangement of words tears your heart to shreds and tenderly mends it back together

genuine, inspired hugs, even when they are awkward
–maybe especially then

intimate, startling vulnerability–locking eyes, witnessing tears, being understood

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 10.41.31 PMUsually I use this space to share my own experiences. Right now my experiences are not the most important ones to share. Instead I want to share some other voices that everyone needs to hear.

This is a letter to four-year-old Dae’Anna Reynolds, who was in the back seat of the car when her mother’s boyfriend, Philando Castille, was murdered by a police officer.

Dear Dae’Anna:

You and I have never met, but I know your little Soul. It is one of bravery, courage, and wisdom – an old Soul, really. I suspect that you get these qualities from your Mommy, Diamond, who displayed such calm and composure when her fiancé, Philando, was killed earlier this week. I watched the video your Mommy recorded, and I was so scared. But it was not as scary as it must have been for you, sitting in the backseat, watching it all happen. I continue to keep Philando, and you, and your Mommy in my prayers. I hope that whatever sadness you feel goes away quickly, so that you can get back to being the kid that you are who loves fireworks!

When I heard you comforting your Mommy in the video while in the back of the police car, letting her know that you were there, and that everything was going to be OK, I wept. I wept for many reasons all at once. First, you were so strong. Second, you knew exactly what to say; I was in awe of your ability to console your Mommy in such a loving way – the way she would console you. Third (and this made me cry a little harder), in that moment, I watched you step into your birthright as an African American female, taking on inherited responsibilities that are often a cross to bear. You had to be strong in the midst of hatred directed toward our people. You could not be the child that you are; you had to grow a little faster than most girls. You bore witness to what enslaved women of our ancestry bore witness to – the murder of our black men. At only 4 years old, you experienced what it is like to be a black woman in this country.

Now that you have been initiated, I want you to know that being a black woman is awesome! We come from descendants who were pharaohs, queens, peace activists, tribal leaders and more, with origins from our motherland, Africa. Our history is made up of rituals, customs, and traditions that center on the family unit, spiritual growth, pride for where we come from, strength, and resilience. My favorite thing about being a black woman is that I am supported in our community, and encouraged to be all that I can be. It is also nice to have so many options on ways to style our hair!

I want you to know these things because being a black woman can sometimes be difficult in the country where we live. The oppression our ancestors experienced in the United States has been deeply internalized, so much so that we unconsciously become slaves to this society, by feeding into stereotypes, denying our wellness, degrading our bodies, and working harder to reach a white-Americanized standard of success. We forget to be and live free, because for so long we were never free. We take on the mindset that we must struggle to survive, instead of thriving. We often forget that we are women of worth.

What happened to Philando is something that you will never forget, and I beg you not to let this traumatic experience lead you to believe that because you are a person of color, your value is diminished. Remember what I said above? You are strong, courageous, brave and wise. These are qualities you also inherited, and I encourage you to use them for good in this world. I encourage you to use your gifts to build a life for yourself that reflects your biggest dreams. I encourage you to tap into your wisdom when the racists sentiments that still exist in our society today, lead you to doubt that you are deserving of a life well lived – you are deserving, Dae’Anna. I encourage you to embrace your black skin because it is beautiful; because you are good, and because you are a human being with inalienable rights to all that is good in this world. Remember this, sweetheart. Remember when people look down at you as inferior because of your dark skin, that you can be anything you want – you come from royalty. And know that you are loved by so many people – your Mommy, Philando, me – everyone, because you are you.

You can read the original post here: http://www.traceylrogers.com/empowerment-blog/to-the-little-girl-in-the-backseat. This was written by my friend Tracey Rogers. She has a perspective I do not. Tracey’s letter was read in church today.

The other words I want to share are, in part, those of my pastor, Rev. Aaron McEmrys, but mostly he is using the pulpit to share the words of Black Americans who have the courage to continue to speak out about how our country is not going to treat them like their lives matter until we all wake up.

Today’s sermon was called “Red Rain.” If you don’t feel like watching the whole service, you can skip to around minute 38 to hear Rev. Aaron speak hard and necessary truths.

If the video doesn’t work for you here, you can visit http://unitarianuniversalistchurchofarlingtonva.yourstreamlive.com and click on the archived service from July 17, 2016.

I urge you to learn more. Especially if you are white.

http://blacklivesmatter.com/guiding-principles

http://www.joincampaignzero.org/#vision

It is not an unreasonable demand to be treated as if your life matters.

One of the many online memes says, “Black people are literally saying, ‘stop killing us,’ and there are people saying, ‘but…'”

None of us can let this go on.

This is some of what Lavish Reynolds, Philando Castille’s girlfriend, was saying in the moments after he was shot.

[To police] Please don’t tell me my boyfriend’s gone. He don’t deserve this. Please. He’s a good man he works for St. Paul Public school. He doesn’t have no record of anything. He’s never been in jail anything. He’s not a gang member anything.

[Praying] Cover him Lord. That you allow him to still be here with us Lord. Still with me Lord. Please Lord wrap your arms around him. Please Lord make sure that he’s OK, breathing Lord. Please Lord you know our rights Lord you know we are innocent people Lord. We are innocent people. We are innocent.

Today our church service was led by members of our worship team, including me. I had the opportunity to share a reflection–like a sermon but shorter. Here’s what I said. If you want to watch, the archived video will be posted here shortly. 

juicy-fruit-gum-stick-i12Think about Juicy Fruit gum. Do you remember what it smells like? To me it smells like the small Methodist church where my Nana and Papa worshiped in High Point, North Carolina. Everyone knew my grandparents—so everyone knew me—and welcomed me warmly when we visited during every school holiday. Mr. McSwain always gave me a piece of Juicy Fruit gum after Sunday school. That gum, my Nana’s white shawl wrapped around me in the pew, her smooth black patent leather pocketbook, from which she extracted a dollar bill for me to put in the offering plate, my great Aunt Millie singing soprano in the choir, and my mom’s favorite cousin Rhonda playing the organ, not to mention my Nana’s rock solid devotion to Jesus, made me feel at home. I belonged.

For me, church and Christianity had everything to do with those warm, comforting feelings and nothing whatsoever to do with theology.

Meanwhile, back at home, my dad was—and still is—Jewish, and we enjoyed celebrating Hanukkah and Passover as a family. But our annual forays to synagogue for high holy days left me confused. I didn’t understand Hebrew and I didn’t know anyone besides my dad. Judaism seemed remote, whereas Christianity was intimate.

So when I was 12, I became Presbyterian. I helped build houses in West Virginia, and taught Vacation Bible School to four-year-olds. For my first college spring break I went to Florida with my Presbyterian fellowship group, not to lie on the beach, but to build a tent city for migrant workers after Hurricane Andrew devastated the town where they lived. After college, when I moved to Arlington, I joined a wonderful Presbyterian church here and met people who I now know are my friends for life. I was chosen to be an elder—even though I was only in my 20s—the equivalent of a member of the board. In all of these churches, I loved the people, the music, and the opportunity to serve. I admit I glossed over some of the words of the traditional prayers, and didn’t dwell on the scripture. I convinced myself it didn’t really matter if I didn’t believe what everyone else did, as long as I felt at home. Then, when I met my husband in 2003, he asked me a lot of tough questions about my theology, and I realized it did matter.

After a bit of searching, I started attending a Unitarian Universalist church—not this one. I was excited to finally find a church whose theology matched mine. Yet, in the middle of that large congregation, I still felt alone. I struggled to find community and a sense of belonging. I made a few friends there, and improbably sang in one of the choirs, but most of the time I came and went on Sunday morning unrecognized, and the big events in our family were dealt with impersonally or went unnoticed by the church.

In January 2015 my friend Dana Cook, who I’ve known since our now nine-year-old daughters attended preschool here together, invited us to UUCA. I told myself I didn’t have to come back if I didn’t like the service, because I was feeling a little down on church, and braced for disappointment.

But leaving worship that morning I was blown away—completely surprised and thrilled by Rev. Aaron’s thoughtful and challenging sermon, and by the warm welcome I had received here. I knew I would return the next Sunday.

In the year and a half since my kids and I started coming to UUCA, we have been fully embraced by the congregation. Here, I can honor my Christian and Jewish roots but still nurture my own theology. I feel confident that what my kids learn here is in keeping with our family’s values and beliefs and that all of us will be enriched by the variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences that members of our community bring with them.

Brené Brown, a researcher and author whose books and TED talk I highly recommend, wrote, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

What’s been transformative about being my whole self here has been the unexpected opportunities I’ve found to be with your whole selves, when you’re making that choice to show up and be real, creating space for the kind of conversations you don’t usually have with strangers.

The first opportunity I found here to cultivate those connections was with the covenant group I agreed to co-facilitate with Mary Pike last fall. I had only met Mary a couple times when she taught my daughter’s RE class. I had no idea how cool or what an intuitive leader she was. I had never even been in a covenant group before. All but one member of the group were strangers to me in October.

But then we spent time together. Exploring what matters to us and why we matter. Sharing our insecurities, fears, hopes, and joys. Revealing our true selves, knowing that we would be fully listened to and heard, and never judged. If you haven’t been part of a covenant group, this might sound ridiculous to you, or even terrifying. But actually, this kind of openness is a balm for the soul.

At our last meeting, we talked about how often we would rush to church for our meetings after a long day, feeling preoccupied or stressed out. But always by the end of our time together, the feeling was relief. Like sinking into your favorite armchair. It is a relief to be able to bring your true self into the room and be seen and loved. Stone by stone, we were dismantling those walls we usually fortify between strangers and ourselves. The walls around our deep truths crumbled, as we felt safe to share with the group.

Another transformative experience I’ve had here has been in the circles of trust retreat series that Rev. Aaron brought to UUCA last fall. Based on the work of Quaker author and activist Parker Palmer, the premise of circles of trust is that everyone has an inner teacher. Whether you call that your heart, soul, spirit, or some other name, it is the source of strength within. As we all know, however, sometimes the noise of our lives can drown out the still, small voice of that inner teacher. Or sometimes we know exactly what our inner teacher is trying to say but we want to cover our ears and squeeze our eyes shut because we don’t want to hear what we know is the truth. So in circles of trust, you spend time reading, writing, thinking, and talking to enable your inner teacher to find its clear, strong voice. Sometimes this requires the help of others.

To help each other hear the inner teacher with greater clarity, what we practice in circles of trust is asking open, honest questions. When someone is brave enough to share a challenge he is facing, we help him find new ways of understanding or looking at the problem without offering advice, trying to fix his problem ourselves, or telling him about when that same thing happened to us. Instead we ask questions that require him to look within. Questions that don’t have yes or no answers. Questions that use metaphors to help him visualize himself and his dilemma in a new way.

The result of this process is we learn about ourselves. We learn what shadows lurk in our spirits and how we can channel our shadow sides, because they are part of who we are. We can’t ignore or deny them. For me, one of those shadows is the need for control. My internal struggle when things don’t go as planned can be intense, but I have come to understand the silver lining of this shadow is a gift for taking care of business. I’ve also learned that, even if I can’t—and shouldn’t—eliminate my shadow, I can work to modulate it. Fortunately I have the opportunity to do that many times a day as a parent, because there’s a lot about raising kids that you can’t control.

We learn about the ways we stand in what Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap—the space between what is and what could be, and how to hold that tension with as much grace as we can muster, even though we might be tempted to just run away. For me the tragic gap appears both locally and globally. I stand in the tragic gap whenever I don’t talk to my kids the way I should. This often happens in those moments I mentioned earlier when I cannot control their behavior, which is to say, most moments.

I stand in the tragic gap when I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. I am angry about the innocent people whose lives have been destroyed by our broken justice system, uncertain if creating a fair justice system is even possible, yet still inspired by the dedication of Stevenson and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative.

Exploring ways to handle these tensions and contradictions, and even simply learning the vocabulary to identify them, has been transformative. When was the last time you faced a problem at home, at school, at work, or at church that had a quick and easy answer? To reach real and thoughtful solutions we have to ask good questions. Open, honest questions. Of ourselves and each other.

Not surprisingly, in the course of asking these open, honest questions, we learn about each other. Really learn about each other. We see each other’s true selves and hear each other’s truths. And just as the members of my covenant group experienced, it brings a feeling of relief. Your problems may not be solved. The world’s problems are definitely not solved. But you are not alone. You are held, accepted, and loved for who you are. You belong. That sense of belonging, the profound comfort in a world that can be so uncomfortable, is transformative. When I am truly seen and heard, I am vastly more capable of truly seeing and hearing you. Then I can share with you a measure of that comfort and that belonging.

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Where I’m From

(After George Ella Lyon)

I am from newspapers, from Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies, and garage sale treasures.

I am from the copycat suburbs: nondescript, comfortable, safe for roller skating around the cul-de-sac.

I am from the dogwoods and azaleas, uneven lawns decorated with dandelions.

I am from board games and stubbornness, from Myrtle and Milton Jennings and Rosenblatt.

I am from the bakers and bringers of cakes and the suppressors of strong feelings.

From you can figure it outs and keep your chin ups.

I am from old hymns whistled in the kitchen, Nana’s white shawl over my shoulders in the pew, a dollar from her black patent leather pocketbook for the offering plate, from matzoh, and colored wax melting into the menorah.

I’m from Santa Monica, and a village in Romania that no longer exists, and Hungary and Scotland and Ireland, from deviled eggs and chicken salad and Kraft macaroni and cheese.

From the chewing gum Papa gave Nana as an enticement, which she washed off in case of “love powders,” the trains Papa rode as a child after his mother died and he was unwanted, and the dance in Yonkers where Max first laid eyes on Sally, with her red hair and green dress.

I am from trunks and thick albums and framed, fading collages documenting all the moments from all the decades, and the people who we hardly recognize now.

Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
May 3, 2016

 

How it came to be:

Because blessing is the theme for May at my church and because he is awesome, Rev. Aaron reminded us that the greatest blessing we can give to others is our whole selves.

At our worship team meeting last week, he shared with us this poem by Kentucky poet George Ella Lyon.

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins, 
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride. 
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening, 
it tasted like beets.) 
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own. 

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses, 
          from Imogene and Alafair. 
I’m from the know-it-alls
          and the pass-it-ons, 
from Perk up! and Pipe down! 
I’m from He restoreth my soul
          with a cottonball lamb
          and ten verses I can say myself. 

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch, 
fried corn and strong coffee. 
From the finger my grandfather lost 
          to the auger, 
the eye my father shut to keep his sight. 

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures, 
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams. 
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Then Rev. Aaron handed this out–like a mad lib for spiritual history.

I am from _______ (specific ordinary item), from _______ (product name) and _______.

I am from the _______ (home description… adjective, adjective, sensory detail).

I am from the _______ (plant, flower, natural item), the _______ (plant, flower, natural detail)

I am from _______ (family tradition) and _______ (family trait), from _______ (name of family member) and _______ (another family name) and _______ (family name). 

I am from the _______ (description of family tendency) and _______ (another one).

From _______ (something you were told as a child) and _______ (another).

I am from (representation of religion, or lack of it). Further description.

I’m from _______ (place of birth and family ancestry), _______ (two food items representing your family).

From the _______ (specific family story about a specific person and detail), the _______ (another detail, and the _______ (another detail about another family member). 

I am from _______ (location of family pictures, mementos, archives and several more lines indicating their worth).

 

All of us filled in the blanks, and then we shared a glimpse of our histories and our souls, visualizing the house on top of the mountain in China where you could watch the storms roll in, tasting the grilled cheese like mom learned to make in the orphanage, hearing the crack of baseballs.

Rev. Aaron invited us to share our poems with the congregation as the call to worship in the service. Also he gave us handmade Bhutanese paper to hand write our poems on. For some reason this was the hardest part of the whole thing–overcoming my feeling that my words were somehow unworthy of the paper. He convinced me that the paper was waiting for my words.

When we give ourselves as blessings, we invite others to do the same. So today I read my poem and I shared my blessing, with people I love, friends and acquaintances, and total strangers, seen and unseen.

You can watch the service here. (Click on Archives, then on Sunday worship 11:15am Sunday, May 8, 2016–you’re welcome to watch the whole service, or you can skip to around 8minutes 30 seconds to find my poem)

If you write your own version of “Where I’m From,” I’d love to read it. Share your blessing!

 

mousetrapLast night while Zoe was having a sleepover with her grandparents, I was hoping Randy and I could do some grown-up thing like watch an R-rated movie or play Bananagrams. Or if Randy had to do work, I would, say, read a book. Instead I had to guiltily dispose of one dead and two distressed mice.

After my last post about the mouse I saw in the bathroom in the middle of the night, several friends offered to loan me humane mousetraps. Those people perhaps are better people than I am. In fact after reading this you may think less of me, but I am what I am at this point. I’m not going to change. Anyway, I had already called Phil, our exterminator, with whom we have an annual contract because we have had many unwelcome small creatures in our house over the past decade. He comes whenever we call because I don’t like the thought of tiny things attacking us or our children as we sleep, or infiltrating our food, or pooping on our stuff. So Phil had come earlier this week and discovered a mouse hole behind my desk and set several traps around the house. He said he thought there was only one mouse, and he didn’t see any signs of the mouse in the kitchen, although in past months and years the mice have definitely been in the kitchen. We thought maybe they wanted to check out the upstairs just for fun.

Then last night while Zeke and I were hanging out making block towers and kind of watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, while Randy went to pick up Vietnamese food from Four Sisters Grill for our dinner, I heard a squeak. You know when you read a book about a mouse or sing “Old MacDonald” and you say “squeak! squeak!” but that’s actually what I heard. It’s much more literal than when you say, “oink” for what a pig says, because if you listen to pigs they don’t really say, “oink.”

Anyway, I sneaked away and checked one of the traps and saw a very dead mouse. It was not squeaking. I did not want to attract Zeke’s attention to the dead mouse, so I moved an easel in front of it. But I still heard squeaking. Clearly it was not coming from the dead mouse. I couldn’t see any other traps. I texted Phil to ask where the other traps were, but he did not answer.

I resumed building and knocking down towers with Zeke. Actually he was doing the knocking down, but we were both building, and I was really impressed by his fine motor skills when he would carefully add blocks to the top of my already tall tower.

Eventually Randy got home and we ate dinner and he put Zeke to bed. While they were upstairs, I gingerly picked up the trap with the dead mouse and put it inside a large plastic cup from a restaurant, and put the cup inside a gift bag decorated with poinsettias left over from last Christmas which was inexplicably in the kitchen in that little space between a cabinet and a kitchen cart where we keep grocery bags. I threw it in the trash and tied up the trash bag and took it outside even though we’re not supposed to put trash outside until the morning when the garbagemen come, because I didn’t want the dead mouse in my house anymore.

I continued to hear intermittent squeaks, which seemed to be coming from the stove. I armed myself with a large metal steamer pot and a plastic plate in case the mice came darting out from under the stove and I was quick enough to catch them. I pulled out the drawer underneath the stove, where we keep pyrex dishes, and saw several glue traps that Phil had left, which are usually for ants or roaches. But stuck in one of the glue traps were not one but two mice, squeaking and immobilized. Great. They’re not dead, but they’re stuck.

I used a paper towel to pick up the trap and put it in the steamer pot and covered it with the plate, just in case they could escape. I went outside and crossed the street and tried to shake the mice out of the trap into the snowy grass by the sidewalk. They would not come out. I did not want to touch the mice. Then I did something I now regret, but I honestly didn’t know what else to do. I just threw the whole thing down in the grass and hoped that the mice would either miraculously escape or mercifully die quickly. I just didn’t know what else to do.

I went back inside feeling terrible about the mice, but also relieved that they were out of my house and at least three fewer mice would be threatening my family with their toxic poop.

Then, since I had found two mice in the kitchen where we didn’t think there were any, I did some investigating. I pulled out the kitchen cart and discovered a great deal of the aforementioned toxic poop. I started to cry, but I stopped because the vent in the kitchen is connected directly to the vent in the kids’ room and the last thing I needed was to wake Zeke up.

So Randy and I spent a good deal of the rest of the evening cleaning up toxic mouse poop and sanitizing the surfaces of the kitchen.

Then today I was moving things around in our minivan so I could give one of Zoe’s friends a ride home from Brownies. I had to clean out all the junk in the back to put up the third row of seats. In so doing, I found a bag containing two gourds leftover from Halloween which I had intended to bring to my sister’s house to compost. Then I found a third gourd decomposing underneath Zoe’s seat. It may or may not have eaten a hole in the rug. I was able to remove much, but not all, of the gourd. I’m not even sure what tool I need to remove the rest. And I had to go in to the Brownie meeting, where we made art, so that was lovely and it took my mind off the rotting vegetation in my car. I don’t know how it didn’t smell, but it didn’t. Maybe because it’s been so cold.

One highlight of the past week has been that we were lucky enough to win tickets to the White House Easter Egg Roll for the first time. I am excited and I know the kids will have a great time even though they don’t really know what it is. Zeke doesn’t even know what Easter is. But Zeke has consistently said Daddy in reference to Randy, and he can breathe like Darth Vader (on purpose) and he said POP when we were making popcorn. And he said “I love you” to my mom.

But I could do without the rodent defecation or vegetation decomposition. And also it would be nice if Zeke would go to sleep. It’s 11:19 and he’s still awake. We saw comedian Maz Jobrani perform on Friday night and he described the tribulations of getting his daughter to bed. he said by the end of it he would be saying, “‘Lord Jesus please make her go to sleep!’ And I’m not even Christian! Moses! Mohammed! Buddha! Bahai! The first God who gets her to go to sleep, I’ll convert!” It’s a good thing we’re already Unitarians.

2014-04-20 12.49.09Since my last post I got the stomach bug. Then my mom got it because she and my dad generously agreed to watch Zeke for the day after we got home so we could all take it easy. Then I had a birthday, which was lovely. Then we had Easter, which had some good moments but was also exhausting, perhaps because Zeke has not slept normally in 10 days or perhaps because he is teething or perhaps because we’ve just had a rough week.

But we did make it to church this morning and here’s the poem I wrote during the sermon.

 

Many Daddies are standing
in doorways at the edges of the sanctuary, holding their
restless babies and toddlers.

Perhaps they are giving the Mommies a break or at least
enabling the Mommies tosit and listen with one ear to the preaching and the singing,
while listening with the other to the child who is coloring and asking
“Is this almost over?” or sleeping and stirring lightly.

During the quiet of the prayer,
the not so quiet undercurrent of
baby babble is heard. Little people wander
off and are quickly retrieved.

We were late, arriving after
one of my favorite processionals,
in the middle of the first hymn.

But others arrived later. I wonder what their stories are, but
I realize I already know.

 

This is the song that’s been in my head today. Because we are Unitarian, they didn’t sing it today at church, but instead sang different lyrics to the same tune. The Unitarian philosophy is what I believe, and I love the music at our church 51 Sundays a year, but sometimes I miss the hymns I grew up with. This is Easter.

 

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