Going Back to School

USM IDI have a feeling of glee because I am taking a class at the University of Southern Maine.  Well, actually I am auditing it.  I discovered that anyone 65 and over can audit classes almost for free (compared to actual tuition costs).  I had to pay a $55 “transportation” fee, and then learned that with my student ID (I have a student ID!) I can take the metro bus for free.  So many new things, and it reminds me of my excited feelings of going back to school when I was a kid.

But I am especially excited about this class, Wabanaki Languages, taught by Roger Paul, whom I got to know through the Decolonizing Faith project in which I am involved.  Roger is really fun and funny and is a native speaker of the language, and a fountain of history and understanding. We’ll be learning “oral history of Wabanaki languages and stories of Wabanaki elders passed from generation to generation,” along with vocabulary and pronunciation and the like.

For those who are not from this area, the Wabanaki peoples are the Indigenous people of Maine, and there are four distinct modern tribal communities, but as Roger tells us, they are not really so distinct.  It was Europeans who thought of them as different from each other.  The people lived in villages where the food supply would support them (mostly hunting, fishing and gathering) and when the group grew too large for that system, they would start a new village down river or at the next river.  So the languages are variations of the same tongue, and the people were identified by the places they lived, or by characteristics of those places.

Most of the students in the class are Wabanaki tribal members learning to speak their own language, as much was lost during the era of boarding schools.  Now there are efforts among children and adults to revitalize the language while there are still Native speakers.  Roger has been involved in teaching children on the reservation.  But why am I interested, as a white person, to learn this language?  Years ago, when I was first learning about the challenges that face Indigenous people, I got involved in the issue of cultural appropriation–the theft of Native spiritual practices by non-Native peoples, especially in New Age settings. (See more on that at Wanting to Be Indian.)

I remember one Indigenous writer saying, “If you really want to learn about our spirituality, learn our language.” I’ve learned a lot from Native authors such as Robin Wall Kimmerer talking about some of the key differences between Indigenous language and English.  Particularly, Kimmerer speaks about the idea of animacy and inanimacy as embedded in the syntax.  Trees, animals, plants, rivers are never referred to as “objects” or as “it” in her language.  They are alive, animate.  All the verbs and pronouns are organized around whether you are referring to something alive, or inanimate.  The language we speak affects how we think about our world.  The English language has colonized this place, made the land and water and creatures into “its.”

I want to learn Wabanaki Languages to better understand Wabanaki people and culture, and this place in which I live, the language native to this place.  I want to help decolonize my mind, and learn to think in a new way.

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Loving the Body

Sassy and Billy bath

Today is a day when I chose to stop my plans and just love my body and follow what it needed.  My teachers were our cats Billie and Sassy who were having a cuddle and a nap in the sun on the bed, washing each other’s faces.  I lay down next to them, and took a few photos with my phone.  Sometimes, even in this desperately wounded world, we must honor the demands of our bodies, first of all.  This I what I am learning about illness or whatever it is that has taken hold of my body.  My own tendency is to want to figure it out and fix it. But some things can’t be easily figured or fixed.  And so we are faced with other choices.

When my partner Margy and first I got to know each other, she had been dealing with chronic illness for a long time already.  She has been my teacher in what that means, and how to cope, how to live in the midst of it all.  But in that process, I took on the role of the “well” one, the one who would carry things when she could not. But now, I also have some sort of chronic illness, and it’s a new chapter for us, a new chapter for me.  I haven’t really ever identified myself as having a chronic illness, because that was her identity.  I know that sounds a bit illogical, but it never seemed that I had it bad enough to call myself ill.

But then there are these days, more now than before, when I just can’t follow my plans, can’t work in the garden, can’t go to the beach.  When I ache all over, or feel weary and slow.  As I said, mostly my impulse has been to try to figure it out–what did I eat? what did I do?–that might have triggered all this. What can I do to make it better? But today, I thought, just follow the lead of the body, just love the body and do what it wants to do.  Rest, lay in the sun, watch mysteries on the television. No shoulds.

I am remembering Paula Gunn Allen writing about this, and I found the quote, an excerpt from “The Woman I Love Is a Planet; The Planet I Love Is a Tree,” from her book, Off the Reservation.  I love how she links our love of the body to our love of the planet–even when we can’t even go outside.

Our physicality—which always and everywhere includes our spirituality, mentality, emotionality, social institutions, and processes—is a microform of all physicality. Each of us reflects, in our attitudes toward our body and the bodies of other planetary creatures and plants, our inner attitude toward the planet. And, as we believe, so we are. A society that believes that the body is somehow diseased, painful, sinful, or wrong, a people that spends its time trying to deny the body’s needs, aims, goals, and processes—whether these be called health or disease—is going to misunderstand the nature of its existence and of the planet’s and is going to create social institutions out of those body-denying attitudes that wreak destruction not only on human, plant, and other creaturely bodies but on the body of the Earth herself….

Being good, holy, and/or politically responsible means being able to accept whatever life brings—and that includes just about everything you usually think of as unacceptable, like disease, death, and violence. Walking in balance, in harmony, and in a sacred manner requires staying in your body, accepting its discomforts, decayings, witherings, and blossomings and respecting them. Your body is also a planet, replete with creatures that live in and on it. Walking in balance requires knowing that living and dying are two beings, gifts of our mother, the Earth, and honoring her ways does not mean cheating her of your flesh, your pain, your joy, your sensuality, your desires, your frustrations, your unmet and met needs, your emotions, your life.

Sassy and Billy nap

Rainbow Visit

Rainbow in Cushing

Margy and I have been visiting with friends in a cabin on the water in Cushing, Maine. This was the view from the cabin the other day, as a rain shower passed through, quickly followed by bands of sunshine, creating a magnificent full rainbow.  It has also been a “rainbow” visit because we are lesbians of a certain age just hanging out and talking and laughing and sometimes bemoaning the state of the country.  While I would never want to lose the wealth that comes from loving friends of all ages and experiences, I have also been appreciating this time filled with the familiarity of shared life experiences.  It is a sense of being understood and understanding, that we “get” each other, from our coming out stories to the advertising jingles that got stuck in our brains long ago.

What is the role of identity in our social justice struggles?  Maybe too big a question to ponder while on this mini-vacation.  But we got talking about the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which was so empowering and life changing for so many women–including me–but has more recently been the subject of attacks from those who claim it excluded and oppressed Trans women.  And then I also happened to read an article posted yesterday by a friend on Facebook that raised this challenge:

Identity politics have made organizing in social movements almost impossible, as division and suspicion are increasingly encouraged and groups splinter as a result.

That article linked to another, by Lauren Oates, “How Identity Politics is Destroying the Left and Being Used By the ‘Alt-Right.”  I liked some of her points, but I couldn’t rest easy with her concluding question, which seemed to me to misunderstand our struggle to end racism:

It’s about whether you want the world to be perpetually hyper in tune to race — the position identity politics advocates — or whether you want the world to eventually be blind to race.

I don’t think the goal of ending racism is to eventually “be blind to race.”  However, she linked to another article from last year that offered a more nuanced and compelling analysis, Safety Pins and Swastikas by Shuja Haider.  I was particularly drawn in by his critique of the idea of cultural appropriation, since I have been deeply involved in raising that issue in regards to non-Native people’s use of Indigenous spiritual practices.  (In 1995, I first published the essay, Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft.)

He talks about how the Right has mocked it, “Among the many silly ideas of young leftists who want to appear good without the hassle of doing good, ‘cultural appropriation’ stands alone,” quoting the National Review.  But then, of more import, he points out that “the rhetoric of mainstream antiracism is itself susceptible to appropriation by the Right.”

The eligibility of people to make certain kinds of claims is dependent on the set of criteria that fall into the category of “identity.” Your right to political agency is determined by your description.  We’re left with a simple rubric for determining the truth-value of a statement. Who said it, what group do they belong to, and what are members of that group entitled to say?

…It should go without saying that left-liberal identity politics and alt-right white nationalism are not comparable. The problem is that they are compatible.

I am pulling these quotes a bit out of context, and I encourage anyone concerned with the struggle for justice to check out the full articles.  I would be interested in your thoughts in response to them.  I am genuinely curious about the role of identity in liberation struggles–it has been a compelling question throughout my years as an activist.  Hierarchy, power, liberation, alliance…How do we acknowledge our location? How do we come together with those whose struggles are different from our own?

Forgive me for this meandering thought journey, in which I haven’t fully unpacked anything. But before I conclude for now, I want to come back to one of the most hopeful examples of people working together, both acknowledging and moving beyond “identities,” to face the crisis of our country, the moral fusion movement started in North Carolina by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.

Rev. Barber laid the groundwork for a state-by-state movement that unites black, white, and brown, rich and poor, employed and unemployed, gay and straight, documented and undocumented, religious and secular. Only such a diverse fusion movement, Rev. Barber argues, can heal our nation’s wounds and produce public policy that is morally defensible, constitutionally consistent, and economically sane.

This quote is from the description of Barber’s book, The Third Reconstruction:  How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear.  You can find out more about this movement at Repairers of the Breach.  Oh, let’s not forget that a rainbow is a sign of hope!

Keeping Stories

Last week, while cleaning out my files in the office at church, I was remembering so many wonderful stories of the work of this congregation on behalf of social justice.  I found myself wondering, “Who will keep these stories after I am gone?”  After 13 years of ministry here, I have become too much the keeper of institutional memory.  It was hard to recycle or shred old meeting notes and flyers and public witness statements.

Today, though, I am remembering that many of these stories of justice-making found their way into our Annual Reports.  Funny thing, Annual Reports.  I bet for most people, they are glanced at during an annual meeting, and then filed away, or even tossed away.  But they can be a useful tool for keeping stories.  After I had been serving this congregation for about a year, I took a week just to read the annual reports from 1980 up to 2006.  It helped me to understand the journey that the people had traveled, the stories from before I arrived.

So today–probably my last day of cleaning in the office–I am taking some moments to look at old Annual Reports–and share a few tidbits of some of the great activism I have witnessed and participated in here.  In 2005-6, we were part of a “No on One” referendum to prevent a repeal attempt of the state’s new anti-discrimination legislation for GLBTQ people.  Our Social Action committee made 2500 bumper stickers-My Church Believes in Civil Rights for All, and distributed them around the state.  (Thank you, Jim!) Not to mention rallies and forums and so much more–the repeal attempt was defeated!

That year, we also participated in the Giving Winds Campaign, a capital campaign of the Maine Council of Churches for Four Directions Development Corporation, which provides small business and home-owner loans to people on Wabanaki reservations in Maine.  We visited two reservations, hosted Wabanaki representatives during worship, and held a forum on Indian Affairs.  We donated over $2000, and members made loans through the church totalling $12000 that were matched by the UUA and the Federal Government.  Some of that loan money is still being used by FDDC!

In 2006-7, some of our members were on the advisory board for a new Portland Freedom Trail, celebrating the Underground Railroad in Portland, and other sites of importance to African American history in our city.  Other members created a quilt to be used in the unveiling of the first pedestal, and over a dozen people participated as docents for the grand opening event. You can find a self-guided walking tour online.

From 2007-2009, we were involved with work on a campaign for the Freedom to Marry for same-sex couples. We were part of creating the interfaith Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry in Maine, (later it became the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination), and many people testified at a huge public hearing.  The bill was successfully passed by our legislature, a first in the country, but then immediately went to a people’s veto referendum.  Sadly, despite the active involvement of so many, the veto campaign prevailed and marriage rights were not achieved.

But people did not give up, and our church was part of the long attempt to pass the Freedom to Marry by referendum.  Our members were among the many volunteers going door-to-door having conversations with undecided voters, they were phone-bank callers, and they created another great bumper sticker.  Finally, victory was achieved on November 6, 2012.

I like to keep my blog posts to about 600 words, so I am running out of room to add more stories. And I haven’t even mentioned the campaign for Health Care for All, which percolated within our doors, and is now a statewide organization, Maine All Care.  I haven’t mentioned our three-year Environmental Focus, our participation in protesting oil from Tar Sands (see the photo below), work on climate change, and our Permaculture Design course.  And what about work on peace issues, homelessness, anti-racism, immigration, and the latest project, Greater Portland Family Promise?

It will be up to the members of Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church to keep their own stories now.  I hope they will peek into old Annual Reports if they need to remember the old stories, and I hope they will make many new stories as well.Tar Sands Rally

Celebrating Ministry

Diarama of Myke – Version 2

On Sunday, June 17, my congregation celebrated my ministry of thirteen years, upon the occasion of my retirement.  (I will still be working behind the scenes in June and on-call through July, but that was my last Sunday service.)  I was overwhelmed with their expressions of love and appreciation.  I will miss everyone so much.

There were so many amazing touches to the celebration, including this tiny (6 inches across) diorama of my life created by Kathy N. with details including my guitar, a stole I wear when I preach, tiny protest signs, the cover of my actual book, our fire circle, cherry tree, rain barrel and garden tools.  The celebration included a reflection from me and testimonials from a few church members, and a poem and a funny song created for me, and more.  There was a gorgeous rendition of Jeremy Geffen’s song “Mystery,” done by the choir and instrumentalists, along with other beautiful music.  They also honored me with the designation of Minister Emerita, and gave me beautiful gifts.  There was a photo slideshow of moments from my ministry.  We danced around the dawn redwood tree.  And ate delicious food, and I received so many hugs, including from the children.

The ministry relationship is so very deep in a particular way.  Not the same as friendship, but filled with intimacy.  During conversations with people during the meal, I kept remembering the significant moments I had shared with them. I remembered their loved ones who had died during my ministry.  I remembered the joyful weddings, and the painful separations.  I remembered our work together in the community that I helped to hold and cherish.  I felt the blessing of our relationships.

In retirement, I am leaving those relationships behind.  That will be the hardest part.  I am relieved to let go of the work.  My body just can’t do it any longer.  This year has been hard with many auto-immune flare-ups, days of exhaustion, and just barely keeping up with everything.  I am ready to lay that down.  But I will miss the people.  Not that I will never see them again.  I will be in the same city, and our paths will likely cross occasionally.  But in our tradition, the retiring minister disappears for a while, to give people a chance to form a ministry relationship with someone new.  The Interim Minister has already been chosen, and will arrive August 1st.

Meanwhile, I am cleaning out my office, and saying goodbye to staff members, and taking care of transitional details.  But I feel absolutely full of gratitude and amazement for these wonderful people, that I was lucky enough to serve and to love during these past thirteen years.  Just wow!

My Mystic Father

Dad at 48

[My dad at the age of 48.]

My father Richard Johnson’s funeral is today, and one of my family members will read this story I shared in my book:

I grew up with a father who was a mystic. My father didn’t merely believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart too.

My father later described to me his own pivotal experience, which occurred when I was about eight years old. He told me that one day in prayer he had offered his life to God unreservedly. A few days later he was lifted to a state of spiritual bliss that continued for two weeks. During that time, he could feel no pain, and he said if he went walking in the rain, he literally did not get wet. It was during the time when the Russian cosmonauts became the first human beings to leave the earth’s atmosphere, and when he tried to explain what had happened for him, that became his metaphor—he was lifted out of this world. When he read the Christian scriptures, he was struck by the message that Jesus, who had been in glory with God, left that glory to become a human being. He felt then, he too should let go of this heavenly state, and come back into the ordinary human world of suffering and joy, so he could be of service. And so he did.

Living with a mystical father was a powerful gift for me. From my earliest memories, I was familiar with the idea that God could touch our lives. Learning to pray was like learning to talk—there was an expectation someone was listening. God lived in our house like another member of the family. God was talked about as a source of infinite Love. I experienced moments of being held in the care of a strong and cherishing presence.

Fathers

Victor Carpenter

[Rev. Victor Carpenter] 

I learned yesterday morning of the death of my mentor, Rev. Victor Carpenter.  He was my internship supervisor in 1998-99 at the First Church of Belmont, MA, and truly a ministry “father” to me.  He was the same age as my dad, and taught me all the practical ins and outs of life in the ministry, especially a ministry infused with a passion for justice. But the best gift he gave me was his expression of belief and confidence in me–through Victor, I felt I could do everything!

I was ordained at the Belmont church on Fathers Day, June 20 in 1999.  Victor preached the sermon at my ordination, and I was grateful that my dad was also among the many people who participated in the laying on of hands that blessed me for my work in ministry.  That work took me away from the Boston area, so I only saw Victor during occasional visits after that internship year, but his love and belief stayed with me through all the years of my ministry.

I should say a little more about him for those who do not know him.  Victor was a graduate of the Harvard University Divinity School class of 1959.  Along with Belmont, where I knew him, he served churches in Norwell, Massachusetts; Philadelphia; Arlington Street Church in Boston; and The First Church of San Francisco.  He also served The Free Protestant Church of Cape Town, South Africa; perhaps pivotal in shaping his own passion for social justice. After retirement, he was an interim minister in Dorchester, Carlisle, and Hingham, MA.

He received an honorary Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from Starr King School for the Ministry in 1987. In 2011 he received the Unitarian Universalist Association Distinguished Service Award.  (You can read more about his amazing ministries at that website.)  He was active for racial justice, peace in the middle east, access for people with disabilities, and an end to oppressions of all kinds. He was also kind, funny, savvy, and did I say passionate? He was a mentor and support to many others in ministry.

Today I am thinking about his wife Cathe, who herself has been a fierce and loving advocate and educator, and his children and grandchildren, and all of us who were touched by his life and ministry, and feel his loss.  I am also pondering this unlikely juxtaposition for me personally–his death occurring in the very same week as my own dad’s death.  I had known that Victor was terminally ill with cancer, so it wasn’t a complete surprise.  But I feel the double loss of these two father figures in my life, in many ways so different from each other, yet each so pivotal in my spiritual journey. I feel so grateful for the gifts I received through their fathering.