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When a tickle in your throat strikes terror in your heart, it’s hard to act like everything is normal. When you wonder every single time you wash your hands, which seems to be in the high dozens every day, if there was any virus on your hands and if you washed it off enough or if you left some on the faucet handle, it’s hard to return to what you were doing with your full attention. When you already personally know two people who have lost loved ones to this virus but you know there will be many more, it’s hard to concentrate on anything.

You can distract yourself for a little while at a time. I finished a great YA novel last night and started another one today. I cleaned the kitchen and planned meals for the week. Zeke and I played Uno. I started studying A Little Bit of Tarot along with the cards in the deck my friend Tracey gave me before she moved away. Our family watched a sweet and funny movie–The Unicorn Store, starring Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson like you’ve never seen him before. Tomorrow we’re going to watch online church and take the kids and their bikes to an empty parking lot to practice riding.

Of course you have to live your life, because that’s how it works. And when you have kids, you have to keep things moving so they don’t absorb all your anxiety, because they will if you aren’t careful. And right now I have a lot of anxiety, and I am notoriously bad at hiding my feelings.

I’ve been through difficult situations before when people told me I had to keep it together for the kids, and not cry in front of them. I understand the need to be strong and reassuring for your kids, but I also believe kids learn from their parents that it’s ok to have feelings, and it’s ok to have negative feelings, and that they’re part of life and you have to figure out how to handle them. Life isn’t always pretty or easy, and if you don’t have a model for how to face the hard times, sometimes you refuse to face them, or you fall apart. I know there are lots of ways to be a parent, and this isn’t a subject covered in the instruction manual. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here. Parenting is already fraught with uncertainty, and living through a pandemic unsettles everything that much more.

I’ve been taking for granted all the things I love to do that involve being surrounded by strangers. Hearing live music and singing along with people you’ve never met but who find meaning in the same songs that you do. Seeing a movie and laughing or crying along with everyone else who is laughing or crying. Eating delicious food at your favorite restaurant, noticing everyone else satisfying their craving for that same food. Exploring a museum, learning something new, being inspired, wondering how the exhibit is speaking to those around you. Going to the beach and watching people fly kites and build sandcastles and splash and swim and throw frisbees and soak up vitamin D. Being at church and listening to a sermon that might be preached just for you and also for hundreds of other souls searching for ways to make sense of the world, and lighting candles, and praying and meditating together, and holding hands and agreeing to help each other be a force for good in the world.

Even reading, which you might think of as a solitary activity, often involves strangers. I love going to the library–helping my kids pick out books and finding something for myself. And in Arlington I almost always run into someone I know at any library. Browsing in bookstores, which is as much a sensory experience as an intellectual one. I’m one of those people who likes to feel the covers of the books and inhale the scent of paper and ink. At my favorite bookstores there are post-it notes or little notecards taped to the shelves explaining which books are recommended by which of their booksellers and why. I love discovering wonderful things to read thanks to mysterious other readers who are humans rather than algorithms. This month I had planned to go with three good friends to hear Glennon Doyle read from and talk about her new book, Untamed. I would’ve been in the audience at the Lisner Auditorium with thousands of other fans, mostly middle-aged moms like me, feeling intense sisterly solidarity. I was also excited to go with one of my best friends to see one of my all-time favorite authors Ann Patchett speak at a local middle school. Being in a room with strangers and knowing they have all read the same books you’ve read and have been moved by them too is heady.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the past 13 years at playgrounds, which are usually lively and well-populated. Around here, if you spend more than 10 minutes at a playground, you’re likely to hear families speaking in at least a couple languages besides English. It’s always fun for me to guess what language they’re speaking and where they might be from. I haven’t heard any languages besides English (random French, Spanish, or German phrases thrown around by my family notwithstanding) in a couple weeks now. Even when we’ve been out on hiking trails in Northern Virginia, I feel like I hear mostly English. We see a lot of white guys in their teens and 20s, some of them talking on their bluetooth earpieces, looking like they’re training for something big.

Just before coronavirus exploded in the US (fortuitously), I had the opportunity to be part of literacy activities at both my kids’ schools. At Zoe’s middle school, I coordinated Booktopia, where invited all 1,100 students to come to the gym (not all at once) to pick out a book to keep. Any book they wanted (that we had)! This involved a lot of volunteers who helped me sort, organize, and restock the books, then sell the leftovers at the used book sale at the school a few days later. Booktopia involved conversations with students and teachers and touching a lot of books that a lot of people had touched. I didn’t think too much about that at the time. The book fair at Zeke’s school was held the same week. This year the book fair was presented by one of my new favorite Arlington organizations–READ (Read Early and Daily). READ’s mission is “ensuring babies and young children have new, quality, culturally relevant books of their own that are mirrors and windows into their everyday lives and communities.” One of the ways READ funds its book giveaways is by running school book fairs. One of the best things about this set-up is that our school book fair had the most spectacular selection of books with diverse characters by diverse authors that I have ever encountered. And since I had just spent several months ordering books for Booktopia that featured diverse (in every possible way) characters written by diverse authors, I was super impressed. The point here is that book fairs are another occasion where many kids and teachers and parents are swirling around. I love helping kids pick out books. I love reading with kids. Now when I think about that I just think about all the possibility for transmission of germs.

Then there’s substituting as a co-oper at Arlington Unitarian Cooperative Preschool, which I have enjoyed doing on occasion since my kids graduated from there. Turns out it’s much less stressful to co-op when A) you’re not required to do it but you’re getting paid for it and B) your own child is not demanding your attention when you’re supposed to be helping with the whole class. The bad news is that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are pretty indiscriminate about who or what they touch and when and it doesn’t matter where their hands have been. The good news is that AUCP is really into good handwashing. Every kid and every adult washes their hands before snack and after snack and after the playground and before lunch and after lunch and of course after diaper changes and using the potty. One of the lines I always remember from the many parent orientation sessions we attended there was the preschool’s fabulous director Susan Parker saying, “I suggest you invest in a good hand cream because you will be washing your hands all day long.” All that hand washing practice has paid off! So many adults have had to come up with creative ways to remember how to wash their hands properly, but I guarantee you that the five and under set at AUCP have it down already.

Next Monday would’ve been the first game of the soccer season with my amazing women’s team Ice & Ibuprofen. We have cool new jerseys for the season, with a new logo. I don’t know when we’ll have a chance to wear them. Soccer involves a lot of contact with other people. You could kick a ball back and forth while standing six feet apart, but you couldn’t play a game. I know a lot of my teammates know each other because they live in the same neighborhood and their kids go to school together, but I only see them on the field. We had tickets for our family to see the Washington Spirit play their season opener at Audi Field for my birthday. Randy has season tickets to DC United. There are few things as thrilling as cheering on your favorite players and teams in a stadium filled with tens of thousands of other fans. No matter how big your TV is, it’s not the same watching from your couch.

Even though we’re going a little stir-crazy, my family is fine. We have more than enough stimulating and fun activities to do in the house. And we’ve been hiking. We’ve been FaceTiming and Zooming with friends and family. All that is absolutely saving our sanity and keeping our brains engaged. But there’s something about being out in the world, surrounded by strangers, doing something you love and they love too, that I am missing deeply.

Last Sunday my friend D and I led the service at UUCA, on the theme of Embracing the Mess. D wrote a great scene in which our kids (and one bonus kids) demonstrated how to make a mess and we figured out how to deal with it. This was not much of a stretch for any of us.

A moment from our “Embracing the Mess” service on July 14.

If you’d like to watch the service, visit http://www.uucava.org/livestream/ and click on archives and click on the July 14, 2019 service.

Here’s my reflection from Sunday:

One of the reasons I became a Unitarian Universalist after spending many formative years as a Presbyterian was that I wanted more variety than the Bible seemed to offer. When I discovered that UUs looked to many sacred and secular texts as sources of inspiration, I was delighted. As a writer and reader, I love discovering wisdom from new people and places.

That said, I acknowledge that the Bible includes some great stories. They’re not always easy to understand, universal truths are embedded in those parables. My perspective on Jesus is that he was a kind, compassionate, and generous person and a powerful teacher. When I think about embracing the mess, I keep coming back to this story from the book of Luke, chapter 10, verses 38-42.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Picture the scene. You have an unexpected celebrity guest—plus his entourage—and you’re working frantically in the kitchen to find something suitable to serve. You’re pouring chips and salsa into your best bowls. You’re searching for the corkscrew to open a bottle of sauvignon blanc. You’re preheating the oven to pop in some Trader Joe’s appetizers. 

And you’re doing it all by yourself, while your sister is in the other room laughing at your guest’s amusing anecdotes and not lifting a finger to help you. Maybe it’s not your sister, but your significant other or your roommate. Regardless, you’re growing increasingly frustrated at them for having a good time while you’re working your tush off.

I have a question for you. How many of are familiar with the enneagram? How many of you are type 2?

For those of you who don’t know the enneagram, it’s an ancient tool used to help us understand motivations and behaviors. The enneagram can be a useful way to examine the choices we make and help us to become emotionally healthier. 

Type 2 is known as the helper or the giver. Martha was likely a type 2. A bunch of guys show up on her doorstep and she immediately gets to work making dinner. There is a need to be met, and she assumes it is her responsibility to meet it. She does not understand why no one else is helping, because it is so obvious to herthat there is work to be done. 

I will confess that I am also a type 2. After years of emotional work, however, I would like to think I am a healthy 2. This means I would probably head to the kitchen to get snacks for Jesus and his friends, but then I would order pizza so I could join in the conversation sooner. I might ask the apostles to take everyone’s drink orders. 

Unhealthy 2s plow ahead with all the work themselves, becoming increasingly resentful. Healthy 2s will ask for help when they need it, or even decline a request that someone makes of them. My spiritual director calls this “the holy freedom to say no.” The enneagram provides a direction for each type to move toward in order to balance out unhealthy tendencies. For type 2s, we are guided toward 4, known as the romantic or the individualist. I suspect Mary in this story was a 4. When Jesus showed up at her house, she knew exactly what she wanted to do, which was sit and hang out with him. What could possibly be more important?

I can’t count the number of times when I was younger that I cleared the table and started doing dishes when I had friends over just to get the mess out of the way. And then missed out on time I could have spent having fun and laughing with people I loved. The dishes will always be there. I have learned that community, conversation, and connection are much more important. 

A couple months ago, a friend of mine from college emailed me to say he and family were going to be in town and wanted to get together. He asked if we wanted to meet at a restaurant, but I suggested they come to our house, knowing it would be more relaxing, and that the kids could play, and we would have more time to talk. He agreed, although he suggested we get takeout and he offered to bring wine and dessert. I ordered dinner from Bangkok 54 and we had a fabulous time, and I did very little work.   

Of course, I’m not saying you never have to clean your house, but that embracing the mess provides an opportunity to cultivate both connection and creativity. 

How many of you have ever lived in a house overrun by Legos?

This has been my house for the past decade. 

We have built Lego sets of a lunar lander, Hogwarts, the Millennium Falcon, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, countless superheroes and villains and their vehicles, and many more. We have thousands of Legos that have been used to build fabulous creations even more imaginative than the sets you buy at the store. Everyone at our house is a builder, but Zeke in particular is on his way to becoming a master builder. Where I see Legos scattered all over the coffee table and the floor, he sees superhero hideouts and innovative spaceships and cars that can dive and fly and so many technologies that might actually come to fruition someday. I have no doubt that he could become an engineer and design the prototype for an actual car that flies.

Our house is also littered with overflowing bins of art supplies, books piled up next to densely packed bookshelves, and magazines with ideas for making new stuff out of old stuff you have lying around. Sure, sometimes I wish my house looked like something out of a magazine, where you’re sure no one actually lives there because there’s no stuff. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to give up the time our family spends making art, reading, and creating with everything that surrounds us. 

Embracing the mess opens up possibilities and allows for freedom. This can be risky. And liberating.

Both my kids attended AUCP, the phenomenal preschool located here at UUCA. After Zoe graduated and before Zeke started, AUCP launched a program called Timber Tuesday, where, every other week, a class spends the entire three-hour school day in the woods near Long Branch Nature Center. Rain or shine. I have never been an outdoorsy person, and I was skeptical about this at first, but AUCP’s director Susan Parker quickly sold me on the value of spending this time outside. Kids who struggled to conform to classroom expectations thrived outside when given plenty of space to explore. Kids with sensory or motor challenges pushed themselves to climb rocks and touch trees and splash in the creek. As a parent, one of the most important lessons I learned was that it’s ok to get messy. Just bring a change of clothes. Or be prepared to ride home in your underwear. 

I remember sometime after I had become a Timber Tuesday convert that my kids and I were out after a rainstorm. Instead of instructing my kids to avoid a puddle, I encouraged them to jump in it. They were astonished. 

They have certainly taken that encouragement to heart. Two weeks ago, our family was on vacation in Lewes, Delaware. One evening we went to the beach to watch the sunset. One minute we were walking with our toes in the water, and next thing I knew both of my kids were laughing and splashing, submerged up to their chests in the Delaware Bay, fully clothed. Then we went to get ice cream. Because why not?

My amazing friends Gay Gibson Cima and Kristin Keller led worship with me this morning at UUCA. We talked about the blessings of discomfort. This was my reflection:

On the wall behind the cash register at One More Page, my favorite local bookstore, is a sign. The sign says, “WRAPPING PAPER HAS NO GENDER.”

Below the sign are three lovely rolls of wrapping paper, featuring dinosaurs, polka dots, and a shiny solid green.

I immediately understood that the bookstore had posted that sign because of customers who asked for “girl wrapping paper,” thinking that any female to whom they were giving a book as a present would rather receive it wrapped in pink or flowered paper than dinosaurs or polka dots or green. Everyone knows girls don’t like green, right?

Next, I thought about twin boys who attended my son’s preschool. One of them often wore pink, or patterned leggings I knew were from the “girls” department. Every time I saw him I thought, why is he wearing girls’ leggings? And every time this question crossed my mind, I thought, why not? He is three. He is probably wearing those because he picked them out and he likes how they look and how they feel. Why are leggings supposed to be for girls? Why is there even a girls department? Why aren’t there just clothes for kids?

This internal conversation quickly got old, yet I had it again and again. Why? Because that’s how we are socialized in this country. Certain styles and colors are arbitrarily feminine, and others are deemed masculine. There is absolutely no good reason for this distinction. And yet, even though we understand this intellectually, often our reflexive reaction to something we perceive as incongruous, is that it’s wrong. It’s inappropriate. It’s confusing. It’s uncomfortable.

I recently read an excellent young adult book called Lily and Dunkin, about two kids who are beginning eighth grade. Lily was born Timothy, but she knows she is Lily. She has come out to her family, but her dad will not accept her as a girl and insists that she not wear dresses outside the house. Her dad still calls her Tim. A group of boys at school, who Lily refers to as the Neanderthals, bully her. Lily is still known as Tim at school and dresses “like a boy,” but the Neanderthals hurl anti-gay epithets at her. At one point the main bully accuses Tim of being a girl, intending it as a cruel insult. But Lily thinks, yes, yes, I am a girl! Ardently wishing she could reveal her true self.

Dunkin has just moved to their South Florida town, and he is on his way to buy a Boston crème donut and an iced coffee when he walks by Lily’s house. She happens to be in the yard, wearing one of her mom’s dresses. Dunkin thinks she is beautiful. Dunkin sees a girl. Later, when Dunkin encounters Lily again, she is dressed as Tim. Lily tells Dunkin that she was dressed as a girl because her sister had dared her to do so. Dunkin eventually finds out the truth, but only after saying and doing some pretty mean things to Lily.

Unfortunately, I can identify too easily with Dunkin’s bewilderment. It’s so easy to see someone whose appearance doesn’t quite fit with what we’re expecting, and wonder, “Who are you? What are you? Why are you dressed like that? What does it mean? How should I react to you? How should I treat you?” Our brains automatically seek categorization. We think if we can classify someone, we will know all about them, and we can instantly decide how we feel about them, what they might mean to us, and whether to say hello or keep on walking.

When we allow someone’s appearance to shape this snap judgment, however, we do ourselves and others a real disservice. Instead of creating opportunities for connection or building relationships with potentially amazing human beings, we build walls and collapse bridges if we don’t understand why someone looks the way they look. What if it’s too hard to relate to this person? What if we say the wrong thing? What if this person judges us? It’s uncomfortable.

So what if we don’t know if someone is a boy or a girl or non-binary or gay or straight or bi or pan or queer? We can safely bet that they’re human. The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is that we value the inherent worth and dignity of every person. As Kristin mentioned earlier, we have to embody our principles—or walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

One of my daughter’s best friends recently came out to her as pansexual. It’s ok if you have never heard this word. I hadn’t either. I had to look it up. I learned that actress and singer Janelle Monae and actress and singer Miley Cyrus both identify as pansexual. Pansexual means that who you are attracted to is not limited by gender. My daughter’s friend said she doesn’t see gender, but she is attracted to someone’s heart and mind and soul. My first thought when I heard that was, “shouldn’t all of us feel that way?” It sounds like a beautiful way to live your life—looking at someone’s heart and mind and soul instead of their gender attributes.

This brave 11-year-old made a YouTube video about discovering her sexual identity, in which she describes the process of coming out to her mom and a few of her friends and offers tips to viewers about how they can come out if they’re struggling to do so. I was so impressed by the courage and confidence of her revelation.

I was equally impressed by my daughter’s reaction to her friend’s news. Zoe congratulated her friend on coming out and said that she understood. Her friend’s pansexuality didn’t faze her at all. She told me that, if anything, the news had a positive impact on their relationship because Zoe understood her friend better now, and they could become closer friends. The next thing I knew, we were in the dollar aisle at Target and Zoe was shopping for LGBTQ+ pride accessories for her friend.

A common reaction I’ve heard, even from very supportive adults, to young people coming out is, “isn’t that a little young to be coming out? How do they know already?” To which I respond, “they know.” I definitely knew I was straight when I was eight years old and first watched Pierce Brosnan as Remington Steele. I had crushes on boys in my class starting early in elementary school. I think if someone knows how they feel when they’re 11 and they’re prepared to tell the world, more power to them.

In the allyship training I’ve participated in at UUCA, I’ve been reminded that I will never truly understand what it’s like to be LGBTQ+, because I am cisgender and straight. I will never know what it’s like to be a person of color, because I’m white. But I know what it’s like to be human. And I know what it’s like to make a connection with another human, and to have someone deny a connection. I know what it’s like to be uncomfortable, and that discomfort can be a blessing.

May we be blessed with a restless discomfort
about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
so that we may seek truth boldly and love deep within our hearts.

I invite you to watch the whole service here:

or visit http://www.uucava.org/livestream/ Click on archives and click on June 24.

Today was the final Sunday of our November theme of abundance at UUCA. I led worship, along with my friends Bob and Kendra. You can watch a video of the service here: http://www.uucava.org/livestream/.

You can read my meditation and prayer here:

I encourage you to put your feet on the floor. Feel your seat beneath you and observe the presence beside you of caring people, whether they are friends or family or strangers. Notice your breath. Breathe in peace. Breathe out love. Breathe in comfort. Breathe out compassion. Breathe in strength. Breathe out generosity. Whatever you need right now, feel it filling your body every time you inhale. Whatever you wish to share with the world, feel it gliding into the atmosphere on your breath.

Spirit of life, we come together here today after having been scattered near and far during the past week. Some of us are refreshed and rejuvenated by time off from work and reunions with beloved family and friends. Some of us are weary from tense and difficult moments and feelings of obligation rather than joy. Some of us labored, some of us were served. Some of us were surrounded by love, some of us were lonely.

Whoever we are, may we find refuge here.

Spirit of life, as we begin again today, we ask for another chance. An opportunity to be kind to ourselves. To truly love ourselves so we can better love others. We seek relief and ease because some of us are Just. So. Tired. We seek clarity when facing an uncertain diagnosis, or no diagnosis at all, in the midst of debilitating symptoms. We seek reassurance as we endeavor to do right by our children when parenting can be so stressful. When we are young and when we are old, we seek acknowledgment. We want to know that we matter. At every age, we wish to be heard and understood. We seek grace along the path that is littered with our mistakes. We seek courage to be bold and step onto a new, unfamiliar path. We wish for the strength to unclench our fists and let the anxieties, the fears, the old hurts be carried away on the winds, leaving our hands and our hearts free. We long for the freedom to laugh and to cry with abandon. We seek release.

Whatever we seek, may we glimpse it today in this place, and claim it for our own.

 

And here’s my reflection:

FINDING YOUR ABUNDANCE

I have a contentious relationship with time. I am always running late, always composing an apology in my head. I promise it’s not because I don’t respect you or value our relationship. It’s because I am overly optimistic. I always think I have time to do one more thing before I go. Write one more sentence, put away one more load of laundry, cross one more thing off my to-do list. I am wildly unrealistic about how much time something is going to take. You would think that by this point in my life I would’ve figured this out, but no.

My family is so often late that we’ve invented a game called the good excuse bad excuse game. Note that we do not play this in the exact moment when we’re tumbling out of the house and into the minivan, because I would be way too flustered. But in a moment of calm, we can play. Here’s how it works. One person says, “sorry I was late, I decided I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, but eventually I did.” Everyone responds, BAD EXCUSE! Another person says, “Sorry I was late, I was rescuing 100 puppies from a burning building.” GOOD EXCUSE! And we continue to come up with the most pathetic or most heroic excuses we can think of.

As silly as this might seem, the good excuse bad excuse game points to an unspoken truth. The most valuable use of your time is often when you are helping someone else, when you are sharing your abundance, just like in the story Kendra read earlier. But what are the abundances we have to share? How can we find them when we so often focus on what’s scarce in our lives?

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you may have sorted yourself into one of the Hogwarts houses. Is your abundance bravery, loyalty, intelligence, or ambition? Do you possess an abundance of patience in a world that prioritizes speed and multitasking? Are you able to bring presence into a culture of preoccupation? I know that I am awed by people who are able to be fully present with me, to make me feel like I am the only person in the world who matters at that moment. Yet this quality is not one of my abundances. For better or for worse, my mind is always tuned in to several channels at once. I can’t NOT hear a conversation happening across the room, or the oven timer going off, or notice that someone in the vicinity needs something. One of my abundances is an astute power of observation, but not focused presence.

Maybe your abundance is more practical, like agility with numbers and the ability to manage or make money. I interview a lot of people on behalf of one of my clients who say they became budget counselors because they always loved numbers. I have always felt like I am allergic to numbers. At the annual meeting at church, my eyes glaze over when they talk about the budget. I am terrible with money. I sometimes wish our currency were only in words instead of numbers. Then I could understand. This trouble with numbers often comes into conflict with another of my abundances, which is generosity. Are you raising money for Multiple Sclerosis research, or orphans in Haiti, or school supplies for girls in Nigeria? I am guaranteed to donate, whether or not I can afford it.

In fact, one of my favorite holiday traditions, for the past 10 or 15 years, has been giving alternative gifts to nonprofits that I hand pick—and now my husband and children help choose—for all of our family members. We do this at an alternative gift fair, like those sponsored by Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington, or in Arlington, Gifts that Give Hope—which is hosting this year’s event on December 9 at Discovery Elementary. Or online through the Catalogue for Philanthropy. What these organizations do is bring together wonderful charitable groups and tell you what exactly your $10 or $20 or $50 donation would do for their beneficiaries. For example, a $5 donation to your local animal shelter would buy chew toys for a dog waiting to be adopted. A $25 donation to a nonprofit that serves single moms who are survivors of domestic violence would buy a week’s worth of diapers. A $50 donation would buy a bike for a young person in an African village to have the transportation needed to start a business. We take time to think about what kind of donations would be meaningful to each family member. Like the dog toys for Uncle Larry and Aunt Susan who have loved dozens of dogs and cats over the years. Cooking classes in honor of my aunt who taught me to make delicious food from scratch. You get the idea. On Christmas morning, we open these gifts along with all the others and read out loud where the charitable gift will be going. My family’s goal on Christmas morning is to make people laugh or cry, and often these gifts elicit tears. And they don’t take up room on anyone’s shelf, and they’re making the world a better place. These gifts also remind us of just how much abundance we have in our family and our community.

Going for the laugh is also fun, like when I got my mom an autographed 8×10 photo of Adam Levine because she’s a huge fan of the Voice. You have to balance things out.

The paradox about my contentious relationship with time is that time is what people want most from me. Time is what my kids want, time is what my parents want. My husband, my dog, my friends, my clients, the church. Even though it doesn’t feel like I have a lot of it, time is my most valuable abundance to give.

My parents have everything they could possibly want, and more. But my mom is thrilled if I give her a Christmas gift of a day where I help her clean out her closet and go to lunch. We take each other to concerts and plays and readings, where we share the gift of time spent together, sharing an experience. Seeing and hearing live music is one of the great joys that my husband and I share. When we devote so many hours to working and managing the house and taking care of our children and our dog, the simple act of making the time to be together and do something we both love can seem monumental, but it’s so important.

What Facebook has abundance of is memes, and many of them are silly, and some are annoying, and some are offensive. But some are really good reminders of what matters. One I remember said something like, “if you have a stack of dishes in your sink, it means you have enough food to eat. If you have a pile of laundry to fold, it means you have enough clothes to wear.” It’s easy in Arlington, or in Northern Virginia, or Greater Washington, to feel like we don’t have enough. We have plenty of first world problems. But we also have plenty of abundance. Abundant opportunities, abundant amusements, abundant things to see and people to meet. Abundant chances to serve. Abundant ways to receive.

As we close out our month of abundance, and our weekend of abundant food and company, and we look ahead to a month that may be filled with hope or anxiety, love or loneliness, generosity or uncertainty, or maybe all of these. Remember to take with you this month your inner abundance. Is it compassion? Vision? Wit? Steadiness? Creativity? Maybe you can’t name your inner abundance right now. If that’s the case, give yourself time to find it. And when you find it, give it away.

May it be so, may it be so, may it be so.

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

 

 

betsy-art

Some of my art

I cannot shake this feeling that what’s happening tomorrow is apocalyptic.

Throughout my 42 years many world events have caused me to worry that the world as I knew and loved it would somehow end, but all those scenarios began with bad guys from some other part of the world coming in and taking over, attacking us, poisoning our air or water, and taking away our freedoms.

I never imagined that an orange-haired guy from Queens and his idiotic henchmen would be the culprits.

I can no longer listen to NPR on weekdays because anything I hear about the incoming regime makes my stomach clench. I can’t read the paper. My news is nicely distilled for me on Facebook, which gathers a wide variety of sources, and every time I check my feed my chest tightens and I have to squeeze my eyes shut and turn it off.

I am making calls to legislators when I can, although I’m still not clear about whether that’s effective, especially since I am fortunate to have a Congressman and Senators who hold the same views as I do. I’m giving to organizations that I know are fighting to protect people who need protection and safeguard our rights. I am committed to my church’s movement to live the pledge to end racism and I am facilitating reflection sessions. And of course I’m going to march on Saturday.

But still.

And yet.

I keep thinking about Elizabeth Gilbert’s post the day after the election encouraging us to choose who we want to be, even and especially in the most challenging situations we face. I know she’s right. But it is so hard to feel open-minded and curious and loving and calm and hopeful when these tsunami-sized waves of dread crash over you again and again and again.

Lately I’ve been making a lot of art. I am not an artist, really. I like to glue things together. My kids and I bring home bags overflowing with recycled materials from UpCycle Creative Reuse Center and we create. When I am gluing small things onto other things, no bad thoughts can penetrate my brain. Making art creates a force field around my spirit. I am running out of space to put my art.

Tomorrow I’m going to celebrate kindness with friends and family. We’re going to make art and eat delicious food and listen to music and focus on how we can offer kindness to the world. At least for tomorrow I will put up that little force field around my family and friends. And they will give me strength. We will be kind and we will survive. And the next day we will wake up and march. And those hundreds of thousands of people who will be marching with us, in DC or in other cities, or in spirit, they will give me strength. Maybe I will give them strength too. Maybe our presence and our voices will be art, and all that beauty will sustain us over the next four years.

Maybe we will learn how to live and be brave in a post-apocalyptic world.

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.

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