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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.

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.

 

questionsI haven’t been blogging as much in recent weeks as I would like, not because I don’t have plenty I want to write about–I do–but because much of my creative energy has been devoted to my Five Questions podcast.

The podcast started as a fun project suggested by a friend after she watched videos of me interviewing Zeke. I’m having a great time coming up with the right questions for each guest and conducting the actual interviews, but I recently had an epiphany about the higher purpose of the podcast.

At the crux of our society’s crises right now is extraordinarily deep disconnection. We are disconnected from each other in terms of politics, religion, race, economics, sexuality, ethnicity, etc etc etc. We are afraid of each other. We feel contempt for each other. Maybe this doesn’t describe you exactly. Maybe you are confident that you’re one of the good ones, and you try to do the right thing and treat others with kindness and respect. But chances are there are some people or groups or ideologies you are averse to and afraid of. Am I saying you should rush out and try to befriend a gang of white supremacists? No. But I am saying that if we were able to have conversations with each other as human beings, you might find some common ground with those people it is easier and more palatable to distance yourself from. You might understand them, or they might understand you. At least a little.

I am not claiming that my podcast is going to lead to world peace. That would be nice, sure. But I feel strongly that any efforts to connect with others are worthwhile and usually bear positive fruit. So far I’ve produced (with the help of my sound engineer Chris Salazar) 14 episodes of Five Questions. I’ve recorded nine interviews that will air this summer and fall. And I have more than half a dozen guests lined up to interview. (I’m always looking for more guests! Sign up here!) Making this podcast has given me a great reason to talk with friends I haven’t talked with in years or even decades. My most recent interview was with someone who I went to writers camp with in 1989 and I have not seen or spoken with him since, but I do follow his life and creative genius on social media. Other guests have been people I see nearly every day. But whether I know the guests well or only a little–or I knew them well once upon a time–I find out something new about them in every episode. Their answers surprise and delight me and give me glimpses into ideas I would never have come up with on my own.

I’ve learned about how Harry Potter is used as a tool for faith formation for Episcopal youth. I’ve learned about how the decision to travel from a remote mountain village in China to the nearest big city two hours away to take a test changed someone’s life. I’ve imagined one person’s vision for a museum honoring the unsung Black women who take care of business behind the scenes. I’ve been inspired by another person’s dedication to daily artistic endeavor, including sculpting self-portraits out of food that quickly melt away. It is a privilege to hear these stories and to share them with others.

Another realization I’ve had during this project is that some people don’t think they’re interesting enough to interview. This baffles me. I’m not asking people to describe feats of daring or record-setting achievements or their road to fame. I’m simply asking what they think, feel, remember, wish, or desire. Anyone with a heart and soul can answer these kinds of questions, and every single answer is worth listening to and savoring. As Glennon Doyle Melton frequently reminds us, “We belong to each other.” Asking my five questions and soaking up and sharing their answers is an essential illustration of that belonging. We have to start understanding that we all belong to each other, and make those connections that lead to belonging. Five Questions is my small way of doing just that.

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

 

 

 

 

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!

 

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 11.43.42 AMI’ve been volunteering once a week in Zoe’s class this year to help kids with reading and writing. Next week is my last time in the classroom for the year. As I’ve written here before, it’s been a wonderful experience. Recently the class has been working on writing letters, so I wrote them one of my own. 

May 29, 2015

Dear Zoe, Zain, Ryan, Parin, Morgan, Madeleine, Lillian, Kevin, Kari, José, Jonathan, Jon, Jeremy, Jackson, Isabel, Hannah, Denis, Clare, Christopher, Bryant, Brenda, Ben, Angela, and Ms. deOlazo,

Thank you so much for welcoming me into your classroom as a volunteer this year! I have really enjoyed getting to know all of you and working with you to strengthen your writing and reading skills.

I have been impressed by how hard you have worked, how creative you have been, and all the great questions you have asked. I’ve seen your reading and writing grow so much throughout the year and I am so proud of you! You’ve written beautiful haikus, funny limericks, lovely letters, bold book reviews, and more. I’m always interested to know what you’re reading and I love seeing it when you get really wrapped up in a book. I love your enthusiasm for the stories that Ms. D reads to the class and how you can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Just as much as you’ve improved your reading and writing, you’ve also grown as people. I like how you are so generous in helping each other when your friends get stuck or need to know how a word is spelled. I like how engaged you are in the games and activities that Ms. deOlazo comes up with, like the concentration exercises, stretching and meditation, and even four corners. I know that the abilities you are developing now will be incredibly useful to you as you move through school and into life. It’s wonderful that Ms. D is teaching you how to work together, how to solve problems in interesting ways, and how to be flexible and imaginative. Those are important skills for everyone to have.

I will miss spending time with your class so much! I hope you have a wonderful summer and that I will see you all next fall.

Yours,

Ms. Rosso

marineopium05I should have changed the station when I heard Terry Gross say that her guest on Fresh Air was going to be the New York Times reporter covering Ukraine who was one of the first people on the scene of the wreckage of the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane that was shot down by some evil and selfish people over there. But somehow I didn’t, and so I listened while she described what it looked like when she was walking through the rubble and how some people’s bodies were completely intact, still buckled into their seats, because the plane had exploded in the air instead of just crashing into the ground. When she said, “especially the children,” I had to change the station. And it was too late, because now that image is in my brain and won’t go away.

Yesterday, immediately after hearing the fragment of that story on NPR, I conducted a phone interview with a medically retired Marine. As part of my contract work as a writer for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, it is a privilege for me to interview many former Marines and Sailors and their families about their involvement with the Society, as well as interviewing the staff members and volunteers who work with clients. I have no military background so these conversations are usually fascinating and revelatory to me.

Many of the retired Marines and Sailors I speak with were severely wounded while deployed. At a minimum, they have post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Many also have a variety of severe physical issues as well. Many have struggled with addiction since returning to civilian life and trying to deal with the mental and physical anguish they returned to in the States. Typically I ask about their service–when they joined, where they served, what caused the injury that sent them home. Typically they give me the highlights. “I was blown up during my second deployment in Afghanistan.” Or “I was on patrol in Fallujah when we hit an IED.”

Yesterday the Marine I spoke with took me almost minute by minute through the day when he was hit multiple times by Taliban attacks while on a rescue mission. He just kept talking and I kept listening and writing down everything he said. It seems like the least I can do to listen to his story. And my job is to share his story–chiefly the part where he gets connected with a Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society visiting combat casualty assistance nurse–so other servicemembers like him, or their spouses or moms or siblings can find out there’s another way to get help. So these guys feel less alone.

I am thankful that this is part of my work and it is an honor to do this very small thing to help. But it is hard to hear. It is hard to hear horrible things on the news. It is hard to hear tragedies that strike people I know or the friends or family members of people I know. It is hard to understand why our military is sent out to do unbelievably dangerous work that changes their lives not usually for the better, and for questionable reasons when you hear the news today and know that militants in Iraq are forcing innocent families to die by starvation and no one is able to stop it. Hearing these things just crushes my heart. But I cannot ignore them, and part of me feels responsible for being a witness to the suffering. Still, it crushes my heart.

 

When I’m driving and am powerless to harness them, the ideas and deliberations zoom in and out of my head. Sometimes I feel like my brain actually hurts because of the volume and velocity of thoughts. I had a conversation recently over milkshakes with a friend who is an excellent writer but that’s not what he does chiefly at his job. He is trying to figure out how much of a creative writer is in him, waiting to emerge. He said he doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s one of those people who is compelled to write.

I am one of those people, but so often I hold myself back. My overdeveloped sense of empathy serves as an effective censor. I am frozen by my concern for how others might feel about what I have to say, even strangers. This temperance toward my writing makes me feel like less of a writer. I’ve heard that the thing you love most about your significant other can also become the thing you most despise. I suspect this is also true about yourself.

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