Sunday, June 30, 2013

2013.06.30 Writing In The Dark

"The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis, and we'd have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads." William Styron

Don’t be afraid of the dark spots in your life. Let them be visible. The author of the above quote,  William Styron, suffered from clinical depression for years. Out of its depths he wrote with profound empathy for human flawedness and human grandeur, even in himself when he wrote his book on his own depression, called Darkness Visible.

Most famous for Sophie’s Choice Styron wrote from the interstices of what classical theology called experimentum crucis, the experience of the cross, the matter of hideous choices.

We all have such times of despair and loneliness and fear that now, and ultimately, there is nothing. It is often the very place where we find something more, something mysterious, something impossible that allow us to enter the paradox of hope against hope.

One of my own such moments came when I’d been rejected twice for ordination. Delusionally, I thought I was nothing, God was nothing, and the Church was definitely nothing. And from somewhere deep inside me or outside me, I couldn’t tell which and it could have been both, I heard something: No one can take this away from you. Truth.

And that kind of truth is what we write about—always and repeatedly. It’s not the drama of the dilemma nor the triumph of new life, but the in between process of bearing up no matter what until your inner eyes can actually see luminosity in the darkness itself. 

And that is what we write—over and over, this theme with endless individual variations.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

2013.06.26 There's Nothing Like a Neighbor

There’s probably nothing more precious than a real neighbor, by which I mean someone who literally lives next door, not the figurative far-off neighbor we are all invited to love, but secretly fear.

I grew up on biblical food, the most frequently served up was: Love your neighbor as yourself, that is, in the same way you love yourself—an obviously specious commandment—deceptively easy, and taking a lifetime to get half right.

Still, try it out.

Our literal neighbor recently bought a basil plant for herself. It needed some sun that day so she put it over on our stoop. When we came home there it was. But was it ours? Did we forget we bought it? Or maybe it was hers and she forgot it? Or perhaps she bought it for us as a gift?  What do do with a lost basil?

We claimed it; Dick, while I cheered from the sidelines, repotted it and put it back on our stoop.  The next day it was gone. 

After a flurry of emails filled with: “I thought you...” “And then we...” “If you love it keep it...” and “Oh we couldn’t do that, it’s yours...”, a conclusion was reached, and a mystery solved.

Resolution happened in person over the hose. Our neighbor watered and Dick pressed for details and facts like the good lawyer he’s become. Laughter sealed the deal: it was her plant repotted by her neighbor...therefore..............

We will share the basil and its savory gifts.

There’s nothing more precious than a neighbor even if you seldom speak or see each other. Because when you do, it feels as if you’ve always known each other well simply because you live next door and provide a mutual neighborly cushion of care.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

2013.06.23 Who Remembers Bad People?

Who remembers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? For some odd reason I do—not a lot but some.

I recall being shocked at a rather snarky Boston Globe commentary by Kevin Cullen who declared boldly that he would remember and honor the names of the wounded in the Boston marathon bombings but he did not want to remember the names of the perpetrators. These he wanted to forget, forever.
I bet his name is not on any prayers lists in any churches.

Why do we want to remember only the good, the heroes, the ones who are courageous and loving? Would we remember Jesus if there were not the grand idea of resurrection attached to his name?

I understand the feeling and its vehemence in the wake of such a tragedy.  Perhaps if I had a loved one who lost a leg I’d feel the same. But I wasn’t.

In the traumatic transition we call high school I recall my heart aching for the unpopular, the odd balls, the misfits. I tried desperately to fit in so I could shelter any defects, like flat-chestedness or shyness, in some tight-knit clique. I needed a category and a group.

When I was in grade school in NYC there was a girl who moved to NY from Russia. Her name was Olga.  She spoke broken English but enough to get along. She wasn’t pretty and wore odd clothes. I was among a group of girls who bullied her. We used to chase her down the sidewalks calling whatever nasty names that came to mind. She ran faster than we did and disappeared around the corner. I remember Olga. I do not remember my bullying companions, not even their names. Strange.

But Dzokhar was “bad”—a murderer, perpetrator of senseless violence. Yet I remember him and his name. Is anyone “bad”?  I don’t think so.  Everyone has a story and everyone does bad things, even evil things.

I remember the Tsarnaev brothers in part because I know I’m not perfect; in part because probably no one else remembers them (well maybe a parent); in part because one is dead and the other has lost his life whether he gets executed or not; and in part because I think Godde sees into their hearts and God remembers them by name, resurrection-like.  

I’m not God or a spiritual hero. I just try to copy along when I can.   

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

2013.06.19 Dear Dad

My father, McDonald Gillespie, grew up in Morristown NJ. After college Dad moved to New York City and went into advertising. Yes, he was a “Mad Man.” I watched the popular contemporary soap of that name, twice and never again. It was all too familiar: the 3-martini lunches, the mutual flirtations with secretaries, a shallow and competitive culture with rigid gender roles: Dad went to his office and advertised soups and Mom stayed home and advertised me. Their generation was full of anxious men and women using all their smarts to make money and ward off fearful memories of the 1929 depression.

My father imbibed his share of martinis, had one flirtation (I learned this from my mother) and also worked hard and with integrity at what he did. He never represented a product he didn’t believe in and use himself. We ate plenty of Campbell’s Soup (especially the tomato, so MmmMmmgood) and we never drank Coca Cola, only Pepsi.  Dad, naturally, smoked Lucky Strikes for a bullseye.

Dad rose to executive VP status in spite of it all. He didn’t like the exaggerated advertising trend, embellishments to sell the product for profit. In fact, when television ads came in, he fumed when his agency decided to put marbles in the bowl of Campbell’s vegetable soup to make it look rich in edibles. Marbles didn’t sink to the bottom like all the real veggies and pasta products. My father thought that was dishonest and unnecessary.  It was. He was a very honest man whose natural reserve commanded respect—well deserved.  I loved him and never said it enough. So..................

Dear Dad,

2013 marks the 30th anniversary of your death at 71, an age far too young for the length of our love.

We first met when I was born of course and you named me. Naming is a big deal you know, at least it is in the biblical tradition where God names people and gives them gifts. You weren’t God, although sometimes I thought Mom thought so, but you named me Lynda, with a “y” to call me Lyn. You gave me your good looks, your serious-sided personality, and your appreciation for sacramental liturgy. Or did I give you that? 

Two memories stand out for me, Dad. They’re not martini memories though I have a few of those too. As I grew up and got to know you I knew that you drank to relieve the silent soft ache of shyness. I have it too. And we both overdid the drinking, or let it overdo us—until we both stopped, you because of pancreatitis, and me because I came to myself.

My childhood stand-out memory is a summer one. We spent time on a farm in upstate NY  and every so often we’d go on riding breakfasts with Farmer Kurtie and his daughter Bella. Remember? This was a special father/daughter adventure, just for the oldest daughters, before we hit our teens. We packed food and headed out into the open country at pre-dawn. The image engraved on my heart is this: In the pre-dawn we sat still and quiet, I on my small pony and you on your big horse, which is to say we were together like one, our souls riveted as we watched the globe of orange sun rise and take over the earth for a new day. After that we ate breakfast sandwiches made of bacon slathered with mayo and maybe lettuce too— unhealthfully delicious.

My adult memory of you was your last Christmas. You’d had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from your esophagus. You had a feeding tube for nutrition but couldn’t eat or drink. You mustered all your strength and all your soul to make it in your wheelchair to the family table for the Christmas meal, which you couldn’t eat. You lifted a cup of coffee, took a deep whiff but no sip, grinned and toasted, “Merry Christmas everyone.”

You did it for us and you did it for Christmas. It was the most beautiful “eucharist” I’d ever seen.

Thanks Dad.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

2013.06.16 Stuck With God? OK, But Not Godde's Pronouns

We may have thrown the baby out with the bath water. In this case the “baby” is God. The bath water I suppose is all the dirty sins—against God and humanity— of the many patriarchal religions.

Out, out damn sins, but save the "baby."  I’m stuck with God. I just can’t find a way around God. I’ve tried to use other names and  alternative spelling like Godde. I’ve experimented with various alternatives like Upholder, Source of Life, Creator, Shepherd, Holy One, Light, even Love— but these are all descriptives, not names.

I need a name! God is a name, not a gender.

There is something unrelinquishable about a name!—if you’re going to be calling on someone or addressing them as if they count. And God knows we call on God enough!—just in case if nothing else. Naming is an important tradition in families, in the Bible, and in religions. G-d names people.

The other issue for me is plain courtesy.  I was first introduced to divinity as God. I wouldn’t normally change the name I first knew anyone by, would I? Not. 

My one time Jesuit spiritual director once suggested I find a name for God that was a term of endearment, something like I'd use with my spouse—when I found him endearing. But hon just didn’t do it. 

I am a woman who fought passionately to get ordained a priest. As a woman, feminist, and priest I lobby for my conviction: God is not a boy's name.

Lots of Latino boys are named Jesus, Jewish boys named Moses, Muslim boys, Mohammed, but really! . . . Do you know anyone named God?  Can you imagine it?  “Mom, Dad, I’d like you to meet the man I love and plan to marry. His name is God.”  It’s more traumatic than, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?”

When I was a child I thought of God as an old bearded man in the sky full of winks and wonders. and love for every ounce of creation. Then I was violated by an old man with a long white beard like God’s and after that I was pretty sure God was no man, even though the Church, all the prayers, the Bible, and everyone I knew called God He, Him, His, Himself.

I notice that traditional gendered language about God traps God in manhood and holy manhood at that—patriarchal images and theologies of omnipotence.  Language that deifies transcendent manhood is a constant thorn in the side of the freedom of God to be God. It’s God-abuse! 

It's also not good for us humans. We waste time and energy on gender-bound argumentation, all the while knowing that Divinity is not tied to a gender. It’s exhausting and personally it makes me furious and want to gnash my teeth. I do not feel loved and included in God who is only He. I'm a She. Divinity consistently clothed in such garb is NOT good for women, period.

So can keep God's name and get rid of the darn pronouns? It's possible.

At a retreat homily for seminarians I thought would be, well, liberal,  I suggested that, although Jesus the earthly man of Nazareth, was a man, Christ taken up into the godhead was a messianic title that no longer required masculinization. And further, the Incarnation was not restricted to Jesus’ flesh but was for all flesh, over half of it female.  N.B. The male seminarians freaked out; the women seminarians were moved and excited—but secretly.  One calling me a "trailblazer."

Why couldn’t we say in our liturgy, “By Christ and with Christ and in Christ” instead of him when we elevate the elements?   We have easily changed “It is right to give him thanks and praise” to  “It is right to give God (or our) thanks and praise.”  It’s not hard and it’s about Love.

Christians say God is unconditional love. Then why do we set conditions on that love by giving it a gender?

For Godde’s sake, literally, and before we know it some boy will be named God.  Poor kid.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

2013.06.12 FLOTUS Take a Risk

Warning: it’s my soap box again!—one of them anyway.

Michelle Obama was heckled by an activist woman at a private Democratic fund-raising event just last Tuesday. 

Heckling is not unusual. What was unusual was the way Mrs. Obama handled the harassment by heckling, a tactic I personally think is not only discourteous but rather effete in its ability to persuade or advance a cause, express views, or even to simply create flack.

What impressed me was that our FLOTUS came down from the podium and went straight up to the woman activist, got in her face and personal space, and said: “Listen to me or you can take the mike, but I’m leaving,” daring the stranger to own her rude behavior and daring the crowd to choose between them.

The First Lady won the standoff, but Globe editorial writer Joanna Weiss wrote on June 9, 2013, that reactions were mixed. "Some people will always accuse her of being “angry,” a word loaded with coded meaning.  Even some fans thought she was impolitic here, too quick to show her temper, especially in contrast to her glacier-cool husband.”

Myself, I found it refreshing. This was not from afar, cyber-anger online where we don’t need to see people’s reactions, but a face-to-face confrontation—far from anonymous. 

What are the “coded meanings” in “anger?”  Is it the old fear of a woman scorned in love or politics?  Is it any anger? Is it loaded with racist/sexist/heterosexist/ableist subliminality? If a woman’s anger, is it a violation of gender role stereotype, politically incorrect, or just recalcitrant sexism?

I recall some years ago when I expressed anger. I was trying to get ordained priest in the Episcopal Church just after the Church had voted (1976) that women could be ordained. I was among the first group of women to enter the ordination process in Connecticut.  We were “legal” so the bishop and committees had to receive our applications, but we were hardly welcome in the face of naked sexism in a patriarchal institution. 

The committee turned me down saying that it would be a “dual vocation”—that I would not be able to be a mother and a priest.

After fuming and self-denigrating for a while I, with the encouragement of my therapist, wrote a letter to the bishop, sent also to every member of the committee. I expressed my anger at the injustice and advocated for myself in what I thought was a healthy manner.

Guess what?  My anger was labelled naive, aggressive, hostile, immature, defensive, and, yes, unbecoming for a woman.  My anger was called anything but anger, a quite normal feeling in response to an injury, or for the sake of justice. 

That was 35 years ago.  And the condemnation of female anger is still with us, although much of the condemnation goes underground—along with the anger I would add.

I’m proud of Mrs. Obama. Her action gives us pause. I hope it will be instrumental in breaking down the rigidities of our patriarchal system. When we dare to go face to face and into another’s personal space, we risk rejection AND we also risk establishing a damn good relationship of truth. Heaven forfend. Is that what we’re afraid of?

And for Christians (and other religions too, men and women alike) who are supposed to live respecting the dignity of every human person, it’s time to get a grip and take some risks for the sake of connection.   Anger-in-truth is no sin.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

2013.06.09 Books We Hear

You can tell a lot about yourself by noticing what your favorite book was as a young child. Often there’s one favorite, one that stands out, one that touched your imagination in provocative ways. It would be the one you requested and loved to skim when no one was available to read it to you. It would be the one your mother or father got sick of. It would be the one whose plot somehow mysteriously told you who you are and where you wanted to go, if life afforded the opportunities and you had enough health and chutzpah to follow them.

I remember the Dick and Jane readers, full of boring repetitions: Run. Run Run. See Dick run—going nowhere fast! Baby Sally and Puff the kitten had promise, but the rest of those plodders killed any possibility of plot or excitement. If that was the spice of reading it was not for me.  Bad writing did, however, motivate me to learn to read so I could move on from these primers.  They weren’t spiritual. They didn’t enliven me.

Thanks God for Dr. Seuss who came along and, by writing a good read, made learning to read enticing.  

My favorite pre-reading book engaged me in a life, an image, and a story fraught with meaning I would come to love and remember. It was called The Little Book About God, published just four years before I was born. It’s small and not full of colorful illustrations to attract a young child. My mother must have picked it out for me at one of our annual book-buying trips to Macys in NYC.  The book spree was almost more exciting to me as the clothes-buying jaunt, also at Macys.

Why my mother thought I’d love this book is uncertain. Perhaps it had something to do with her own yearnings and the fact that she thought I was a gift from God born after several miscarriages and lots of anguish. And maybe I told her I’d met God under the table. I don’t know but God was an early mental preoccupation for me—a Mystery I still ponder and have come to love beyond love.

My younger sister’s favorite book was The Little House. She grew up to live in a little house and be a champion of justice for little people, who, like the book’s little house, got overpowered by big city growth and other oppressions.


My children's books of choice told me a lot about them, their souls: wild things, things that moved fast like planes, trains and automobiles, little houses and family love, searching and finding the right mother.

My husband’s favorite, one of them at least, was The Little Engine That Could.  No wonder. He still is one. 

What was yours?  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

2013.06.05 Women and Violence—Again and Forever?

I’ve just read The Anglican Journal’s small report on a meeting held on March 1-3, 2013, sponsored by Anglican Women’s Empowerment (AWE, nice acronym!). The meeting was held in Manhattan, New York and was attended by eleven women who traveled from Africa and America to have conversations.

Conversations took place in small groups with the goal of breaking the silence about violence against women.  The groups had the topic and the structure and, as the Indaba model encourages, each group established its own focus and process.

Indaba is a South African term that basically means meeting. The just retired Archbishop of Canterbury appropriated the term for the Lambeth Conference of Anglican clergy in 2008. The idea is that medium-sized groups (not plenaries) come together to converse about large, even global, issues and problems. Call it a family meeting.

Here’s an eye-opener that shot my eyes nearly out of my head.

A youngest woman participant  at the AWE gathering, Faith Meitiaki from Kenya, expressed surprise that women in the developed world struggle with life challenges and sexual abuse and domestic violence in the same way women in less privileged circumstances do.

She said: “For me it was an eye-opener: that, as long as you are a woman, you will always face violence. That was the common denominator between the women from Africa and America.”

As long as you are a woman. So why have I and so many other women continued to write, work and preach against violence against women?  Are we hopeless cases because of our gender? Is there safety for women without a man to protect her? 

I have no good answers but I will think and pray about this “eye-opener.”  The only one thing I am completely sure of is that this painful common denominator, which I suspect is no different for women in general than it was for those women at the AWE meeting, is not God’s will, God’s desire, God’s dream, or whatever else you want to attribute to a power greater than human power, a power more loving than human power—even if you don’t believe in God.

We earthlings with our free will and the best of our good will just aren’t doing very well with justice, compassion, truth and love.  Simply so.

But is it because we are godless or humanless?  Or both?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

2013.06.02 Hooking a Soul

I’ve always thought that the arts offer a special perspective, somehow able to transcend in-your-face reality without discounting or prettying it. All great arts transmit faith, hope and love, these three—and the greatest of these is hope, light as a feather and just as profound.   

But shouldn't the greatest be love as St. Paul said in I Corinthians 13?  Only if that love is God's.

Poet Frank Bidart, according to a Poets and Writers (May/June, 2013) interview, admits to a potent distrust of love, as if it would win out in the end. A quote from his 2013 book Metaphysical Dog, describes his disillusion, and has been true of his own life:

    “As a boy you despised the world for replacing
    God with another addiction, love.”

Bidart is “skeptical” that romantic love can validate one’s life but admits that all love is saying yes to something.  He says yes to art.  “It’s the closest thing to God I have found. Art is the way I have survived.”

Here is one of Bidart's poems that exemplifies the saving power of the art of poetry and acting: (Ennis Del Mar is the main character in Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” and Heath Ledger is the actor who so superbly played Del Mar in the movie.)

“Poem Ending With a Sentence by Heath Ledger”

Each grinding flattened American vowel smashed to
centerlessness, his glee that whatever long ago mutilated his

mouth, he mastered to mutilate

you: the Joker’s voice so unlike
the bruised, withheld, wounded voice of Ennis Del Mar.

Once I have the voice

that’s the line

and at

the end
of the line

is a hook

and attached
to that

is the soul.