The tree in the rock

Spruce in Rock sunny – Version 2Life holds a strength that will not be extinguished, that will crack open the most oppressive of constraints. When I was in Tenant’s Harbor, a few weeks ago, I saw this spruce tree growing out of a huge boulder. Its roots were literally embedded in a crack in the rock itself.  I wondered if a seed had found a tiny patch of soil within a crack, or if in fact, the seed, rooting, had created the crack in the rock. But however it first took hold, the roots were now literally splitting the rock in two.

I don’t mean to reduce a boulder to a metaphor for something bad. I love these boulders that populate our landscape from the time of the ice age. They also harbor all sorts of life in the forms of lichen and moss.  But just for a moment, I do ask its indulgence to borrow a possible metaphor for hope in these times of despair.

There is so much about which to feel despondent right now. Migrant children confined in tent prisons away from family. Trans friends being erased from official acknowledgement or protection. People in Gaza and Yemen being starved and bombarded with weapons made in the U.S.  Misogynists and racists gunning down innocent people in sanctuaries for prayer. Leaders who belittle other people and stir up hate and destroy the earth for profit and greed.  I could go on and on. We are facing dire futures, caught in the grip of suffocating destruction.

Tomorrow there will be a vote in our country. Things will get better or worse.  I will vote.  But I don’t put all my hopes in the vote. As we saw in the election of 2016, elections can be interfered with. (Our own government has also interfered in the elections of other countries.) There has been a concerted effort to suppress the votes of Black citizens in Georgia, Native Americans in North Dakota, others. There are voting machines that cannot be trusted to report votes accurately. I hope that in the vote, things will get better. I hope that so many people vote that we can overcome the suppression.  But my deepest hope is not in the vote.  My deepest hope is in the power of the spruce to crack the boulder, the power of the earth to restore itself, the power of the love we hold in our beating hearts.

There was one more thing about the spruce. It was not alone.  There were two trees growing the crack in that boulder. You can just barely see the second smaller trunk behind the first in the photo above. But here is another photo, a close-up from behind.  Two trees–both of them might be said to be caught in the boulder.  But they are not caught.  They are growing strong, green, full of life and energy. They are cracking that boulder together.  And so we humans, too, must not face these despairs alone, must find each other and join our strengths together.

A boulder seems to be hard and unyielding. Roots seem to be gentle and soft.  But the rock does yield to the tree. Remember that.Spruce in Rock 2

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The Lottery

fallen-needles.jpgI had almost forgotten about the incredible doom of the draft lottery of 1969 and the years following.  But recently, I happened upon two fictional accounts of lives being undone by this lottery, and it all came back to me.  One came in the television drama This Is Us, in an episode about the back story of Jack’s time in Vietnam. (Spoiler alert!) Jack and his younger brother Nicky are at a bar on December 1, 1969, waiting to see what birthdays will be chosen for the draft call-ups. Nicky is portrayed as a gentle, glasses-wearing kid, not tough, not cut out to fight. Jack is his protector. Nicky’s birthday, October 18th, is chosen as number 5, which means he is sure to be inducted. Their dad tells him only, “Make me proud.”  Jack and Nicky consider options, maybe Canada, but Nicky succumbs to the pressure and joins up.  We learn that Jack himself had had a deferment because of a rapid heartbeat condition.  But when Nicky writes from Vietnam that he has gotten himself into trouble, Jack finds a way to enlist, so he can watch over his brother.

I had almost forgotten about the lottery.  The feeling of foreboding, its random terrors.  My own age peers were affected by the lottery of February 2, 1972.  We were freshman in college, then, and my male friends would have received college deferments, but if they dropped out, or when they graduated, they would once again be vulnerable to being called up.  My friend Tom’s birthday was September 16th. He was sorting out what options he might have as a conscientious objector to the war.  When his number was above 200, we all breathed a sigh of relief.

Before watching that episode of This Is Us, I had been reading the novel, The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman.  She introduces us to a family of young witches: two sisters, Franny and Jet, and their younger brother, Vincent.  Their history included an ancestor tried for witchcraft back in the 1600s in Massachusetts, and continuing suspicion towards their magical family.  Vincent is an artist, a singer, and a young playboy, though he eventually comes out as gay and finds true love with a man.  He has eerily known for years that he faced doom: it comes in the form of the number 1 pick in the draft lottery of 1969. His birthday is September 14th.  (The actual number 1)  The family is devastated and knows he cannot serve in the military–a witch must “harm none” lest it come back three-fold.  They try to figure out a way for him to escape, but ultimately it means that he is forever cut off from his family.

Hoffman compares the lottery to the witch hunts of earlier times, and writes the most haunting description of its effects.  Her words stirred that memory in me of our fear and our relief, of the randomness of horror cast upon the lives of young men and those who loved them. How we were divided into the lucky and unlucky. How we almost took it for granted.

It came on the wind, the way wicked things must, for they are most often weighted down with spite and haven’t the strength to lift themselves.  On the first day of December 1969, the lottery was held.  Men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six would be drafted to fight in Vietnam according to their birthdates. Lives were interrupted and fortunes were exchanged. A cold drizzle hung down and flurries of snow fell in swirls. There were no stones thrown or drownings, no pillories or burnings. Those chosen were computerized, their fates picked at random.

Life went on in spite of the lottery: traffic headed down Broadway, men and women showed up for work, children went to play. The world breathed and sighed and people fell in love and got married and fell out of love and never spoke to one another again. Still the numbers drawn had the weight of ruin and sorrow; they turned young men old in an instant. A breath in and a man was chosen to walk on a path he’d never expected to take. A breath out and he must make the decision of a lifetime.  Some would leave the country, some went to jail, some were ready to take up arms and die for the country they loved despite the heartbreak of leaving families and friends.  All were torn apart.  It was said that fate could not be altered, except by one thing, and that was war.

After Vincent watches the lottery, he gets drunk, and is brought home by two veterans, who “pitied him the war of his time. Theirs had been terrible, but it had also been just and worth fighting.”  From Vietnam onward, I believe that none of the wars fought by our country have been just or worth fighting.  In each war, so many were wounded, so many broken in body or spirit.  And always, some resisted.  So strange to recall these old tragedies that linger beneath the surface of so many new tragedies.  And as always, some resist.

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.

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!