Monday, October 29, 2018

Where is God?

I spent the first eight years of my life as a Catholic. Went to church, learned the hymns and the responses and the stories. Longed to have my first real Communion, marveled at the beautiful robes and pomp and circumstance. Learned about God.

When my parents divorced, even though I didn't understand the circumstances of it at the time, I was told that we were no longer welcome in the church. My parents had been married in the Catholic church and a divorce was not allowed. I went through a period of being unmoored - for a variety of reasons related to my parents' split - and I remember wondering, Where is God?

This morning, as I drove Lola to class, I turned on NPR and heard a rabbi ask that same question. In the wake of the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, so many are trying to fit the events in to some understanding of their framework of faith. So many times over the years, I've done the same. I would get angry with God and turn away, thinking that no real God could ignore me simply because my parents made mistakes. I fought against the notion of any omniscient being, took a comparative religion class in college and learned about the different ideas and iterations of this being throughout the ages, in different cultures. I have called myself an atheist, a "recovering Catholic," agnostic. All of those labels were in reaction to what I absorbed from my years in church and from my mom, who held on to her faith in God with a fierceness and tenacity I never understood.

When I finally stopped reacting and thinking about God intellectually, I was able to recognize what I know as spirit, connection. I don't feel a vertical connection with some other being that exists above all of us. I don't think I ever have. Intellectually, I believed in that for years - relied on it, even. But I don't recall ever feeling it within me. What I do feel is a horizontal connection, a link to each and every other sentient being that reminds me I am part of something bigger, that I am not alone, that I am held and I hold others. I don't have a name for it, and I don't frankly feel the need to.

I understand deeply the question, Where is God. The need to find some meaning or framework for processing the horrific acts we humans perpetrate is visceral and the idea that there is some being out there that can hold us in our grief and pain and provide answers is often central to our ability to move forward in the face of such trauma. For now, I believe that we are it, we are the ones, and it is that connection between us that allows us to continue on. When Jewish people are targeted, those of us who are not Jewish are called upon to hold those who are, we are called upon to acknowledge the pain, feel grief profoundly, and hold tight. We are necessary to lift those who cannot walk on their own right now and carry them with us as we do the work to rebuild, affirm love, create peace. When Muslims or Native Americans or black and brown people or people with disabilities are targeted, we are called to do the same work. My connection with you is not dependent on your religious beliefs or the color of your skin, the language you speak or where you were born or whether you can hear or see or walk. My connection with you is much deeper and is rooted in something that goes beyond physical form, and that connection goes both ways, if I let it. That means that when you are in pain, I can feel it if I choose to, and in doing so, I can help relieve some of your burden. It also means that when I act with love in my heart, it raises me and you, and reaffirms that tie. When I offer to speak on your behalf when you're in pain and you can't, that is "God". When you listen to me with love and care, that is "God". When we come together to spread peace and acknowledge the worth of every sentient being as equal, that is "God".

If the question, Where is God is in service to preventing future massacres like the one that happened in Pittsburgh or the killing of two black people in Kentucky, the only answer I have to offer is this connection, this affirmation of our link to each other. When we turn away and refuse to feel each others' suffering, we deny the existence of this thing that ties us to each other, and we also deny ourselves the support we gain from others around us. We are supposed to live in community with each other, we are supposed to rely on each other, we are supposed to offer each other our unique gifts when we can and draw on the gifts of others as well. Call it what you will, but I think this is what will save us.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A Real Housewarming

One year ago today, I was surrounded by a group of amazing women who helped move Eve and Lola and I in to our new home. They packed boxes, cleaned cupboards, organized movers, found screwdrivers, and held me up during an incredibly difficult time. The transition from a life I loved and knew and assumed I'd always have to a mostly blank canvas felt simultaneously frightening and exciting, awfully sad and tinged with possibility. I was able to experience the full range of emotion precisely because of these women who showed up, who loved me and my daughters, and who helped me feel safe.

I am so incredibly grateful and so lucky to have such people in my life.

In my previous life, there had been lots of dinner parties and events - many occasions to host friends and family and fill the house with laughter and great food.

In the last year, I've hosted scores of the girls' friends for both impromptu study sessions/girls' nights and planned Halloween or New Year's gatherings, but I've not felt like I was quite ready to host something on my own for grown ups. Until now.

It wasn't supposed to be a housewarming party, but it turns out that this morning, my new home feels properly "warmed." Last night, I hosted a house concert as a fund raiser for Eat With Muslims, an organization started by two women in Seattle to try and build community and understanding of Muslim culture and individuals who are Muslim using food (brilliant!). Sheryl Wiser, a local singer-songwriter suggested that we do it as part of her Pies + Persistence project that raises money for nonprofits who are working for social justice and human rights in the face of this current Presidential administration's often horrific policies. She would play music, and Lola (who has been working furiously on her own original music for over a year) would open the performances with three of her songs.

We put out the word on social media and via email and the house filled up with amazing salads, deli trays, the most delicious Somalian chicken and rice dish I have had in my lifetime, and cranberry pie (tart). So many of us didn't know each other when the evening started, but the conversation never lagged and the plates were never empty. We sat and stood around the kitchen island laughing and telling each other about our lives and when it came time to sit for music, my heart was full. My house was full of people ranging in age from teens to 70+, enjoying each others' company with the dogs weaving their way around the room sniffing for scraps.

The music was beautiful and heartfelt and mesmerizing, and people stayed afterward to continue chatting and laughing. When I fell in to bed just before midnight, I was grinning from ear to ear. I can't think of a better way to flood our new home with love and positive energy than by gathering a group of people for food and music to support the hard work of women making a difference one dinner party at a time.

This life, it is a joyful one. There are good people in our midst doing amazing things. I can't wait to throw another party.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Confessions of a Recovering Control Freak

Last weekend I went to visit my mom for the first time since she moved to a memory care facility. It's been a long time coming and while I felt good about this particular place, it was also good to visit a few times over a few days to really absorb the feel of the place, the vibe of the caregivers, understand how it all works.

The first time I went, my dear friend Susan came with me. We've known each other for almost 40 years and she and Mom were friends for a couple decades, so having her there felt really natural.

Without oversharing, I will say that the first ten minutes or so were hard. There were some difficult things to witness and if you've ever spent time with a loved one who has Alzheimer's, you might understand. Knowing this woman who was so independent and capable for most of my life, it is sometimes hard to acknowledge all that she has lost, how reliant she is on others to care for her.

Susan and I sat at her kitchen counter the following morning, talking about it over coffee, and I was reminded of how strong the pull is to DO something when we feel that way. And then, almost immediately, I was reminded of how grateful I am that I've cultivated the ability to not respond to that compulsion in the moment.

If you're like me, you grew up being taught that any time you felt scared or uncertain or really sad, that was a call to action; that the thing to do was to assess the situation and put a plan in place to both alleviate those feelings and prevent them from happening again. Over time, I got really good at doing that - I became a control freak. I prided myself on my ability to anticipate potential disasters and keep them from occurring, mitigate the possibility that I would be blindsided.

When things happened that I couldn't have predicted, I allowed myself a brief moment of intense emotion (flashes of anger, a crying jag, a mini panic attack), steeled myself, and moved on.

Eventually, that did several things:

  • fed the false notion that I am in control (and thus, that when disaster does strike, it's because I am not smart enough to accurately predict or prevent it), 
  • turned me in to a DOING person instead of a FEELING person (which reduced my ability to empathize with others and to feel the full range of emotions human beings are designed to feel), 
  • exhausted my reserves because I was racing around putting out fires all the time - the vast majority of which weren't mine to put out, 
  • reinforced the idea that it's perfectly normal to avoid feeling certain emotions that are uncomfortable (and thus, justified that glass of wine or piece of cake or other unhealthy coping mechanism I utilized when I ran out of ideas about how to eliminate sadness/fear/anger),
  • put me at the center of the situation, as though my feelings were the most important consideration.
I became an alternately frantic and depleted half-person who was ultimately incredibly unhappy, despite all of my efforts to the contrary. 

But as I sat with Mom the other night, I reminded myself that difficult feelings do not compel me to act. Just because something is hard to witness doesn't mean I have to DO anything about it. [Obviously, there are exceptions. If someone is in physical pain or imminent danger - yup, I'm diving in if I can.] And if I can ground myself in that moment enough to just acknowledge that what I'm experiencing is really hard and I'd rather not be feeling it, it helps me to focus my efforts. It may be that an hour or more later I will decide that there's something I can do that will help - but those acts are purposeful, effective, and efficient. The way I used to handle things like that was scattershot - come up with all of the things I could do to cover any potentiality, make lists, call people, insert myself into the situation to "fix" things so that they wouldn't make me uncomfortable. 

For the record, Susan didn't like this conversation at all, and I totally get it. There is something seductive about knowing that we can effect change in any situation, especially ones that make us sad or scared or angry. And often we can be in control. For a while. Until we wear out. For me, learning to sit with painful feelings was a survival mechanism. I wouldn't have lasted long at the pace I was going if I continued to think that I had to address every unpleasant situation I found myself in. I can say that my life isn't any easier now, but I'm a heck of a lot happier and I believe that the things I choose to do are making a much bigger difference than before. 

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Burn. It. Down.

I have felt nauseous for two days, a feeling that's pretty unusual for me since I stopped eating gluten over ten years ago. It's pretty rare that I have any stomach issues, to be honest, and when I first started feeling off, i instantly began running through what I'd eaten in the last 24 hours in an effort to figure it out.

Since a week ago, I've been careful about what I look at on social media. I needed to step back from the Kavanaugh hearings because of some difficulties in my life that were closer, more personal. And frankly, I had noticed that even seeing the ubiquitous photos of his angry, red, yelling face in every other Facebook post made my chest constrict uncomfortably.

Angry men are frightening

I don't know if that's something they know and use as a tool, but for most women and girls, male anger is tremendously upsetting. Men in our culture are taught to translate their anger and frustration in to physical outlets - hitting, throwing, slamming, shooting.

And yesterday, Lola and I got on a plane to fly across the country to visit Eve who is in her first year of college. I couldn't afford to be angry or rage-filled or incapacitated by grief. I was filled with joy at the thought of being in her presence again, the presence of both of these young women who love each other and make each other laugh. We travel together well, easing in to activities and rest with comfort, somehow managing each others' desires without fighting.

I woke up nauseous again, desperately pleading with the Universe to help me be 100%, to feel ok, to be able to enjoy my girls this weekend. Before my feet touched the floor, I took a deep breath and tried to pinpoint the feeling of unease and when it became clear that it wasn't inside me, but surrounding me, I finally acknowledged it. I am receiving the energy of others outside me - the overwhelming despair and rage and fury of women everywhere who know they can't stop this confirmation despite all our efforts.

Lola and Eve politely waited until I'd hugged Eve to fall in to each others' arms and stay there for a minute. Little do they know that while I loved hugging Eve myself, witnessing the two of them resting together, holding each other up, was the biggest gift. My heart is full.

Not far in to the day, things turned. The ride to breakfast was a bumpy one and Lola felt carsick. Eve wanted to know what the plan was after breakfast. The weather forecast was horrid - humid and thunderstorms. The wait for breakfast seemed interminable. They exchanged (quiet) sarcastic words and there were tears. As we sat at the table, the girls ignoring each other on their phones, I remembered family trips where our parents were angry with us for being  "spoiled brats."

We are spending money to bring you to this place and have a vacation, an adventure, and you repay us by bickering and complaining? Knock it off right now or you can forget about us taking you on any more trips.

I nearly laughed out loud, knowing that I could never say something like that to my girls. Not only would they think I'd been inhabited by some alien life form, but I know better. The very air is tainted right now, with anger and frustration and despair. And we are all entitled to feel overwhelmed, sad, confused, upset.

We soldiered on. And many hours later, as we sat eating lunch, our phones all pinged with the notification that Kavanaugh had been confirmed by the Senate. And I was reminded that what we are learning is valuable. We are learning, over and over again, that the solutions we can come up with within the paradigm of the current system are limited.

Had I threatened the girls, made them feel small and embarrassed, it might have made them less likely to express their frustrations outwardly, behave slightly better in public, but it wouldn't have addressed the root of the issues. Had I dug in to the "root" of the issues, things would likely have gotten a lot worse in the short term (and they probably would have both turned on me instead of being angry with each other).  Those were tactics my parents used. My tactic shifted - I created a new system. I decided that since I'm the grownup here, I would trust my girls to let me know if they needed my help sorting out their emotions, and in the meantime, I would forge ahead, doing what I thought would make me happy. We headed to a burgeoning neighborhood and wandered through bookstores, thrift shops, stationery stores. I stopped to pet an adorable puppy, mused about birthday gifts for my nieces, begged Lola to try on an outrageously gorgeous, outrageously tiny pantsuit that she looked phenomenal wearing. By lunch time, we were doing ok. Good, even. And when I suggested we head back to the hotel so Eve could have a hot bath (there's no tub in her dorm, so it's been a long time since she had a therapeutic soak), Lola could chill by herself and watch TV, and I would head to the lobby and write, there were huge smiles all around.

Protesting, signing petitions, calling our representatives, those are all things we do to address the problems within the system. And I'm certainly not saying that those efforts are useless. But it's the system itself that allows for these things to happen. The system that was created by white men for white men will always benefit white men. We need to get rid of that system. We need to dismantle (smash? burn?) the set of rules and mores that keep us small and compliant. We need to get a lot more comfortable imagining what a different paradigm would look like - one that is created for all of us - and work vigorously toward that end. Especially those of us who have benefited a great deal from this system, by playing by the rules and excusing the white men who make those rules.

It won't be easy. And it won't be comfortable. But we can't make substantive changes within this system that will end up benefitting all of us. While I am still furiously angry that Kavanaugh was confirmed, there is a tiny sense of relief in that now I know that this fire will forge steel. Should we still work our asses off to get out the vote in November? Absolutely! When we take back the House, should we start impeachment proceedings on Kavanaugh and Drumpf? First. Fucking. Order. Of. Business.

And then, we should not rest. We should not think we've won. Small victories within this broken, broken system are not enough. We have to burn this SOB down.
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