Curb Your Adrenaline, Change The World

One of the things I do a lot these days is teach women how to heal conflict. One of the hallmarks of conflict in relationships is that we start from a place of being triggered, which leads to words and actions that we will indeed regret later. Those reactions can be hurtful, self-sabotaging, and deeply damage relationships, sometimes immediately, sometimes over time.

Why does this happen? It happens because of a little part of your brain called the Amygdala. That part of your brain is the one responsible for keeping you alive. Yes, that’s right. What happens when we get triggered is our brains get ready for action. Your body is flooded with adrenaline (and some other stuff,) and your brain thinks you are dealing with a life-threatening event. Even if the stimulus (a partner’s comment, an action or inaction, a Facebook Post) is relatively innocuous, your brain decides it’s a life-or-death situation. And then, the Amygdala does something really interesting. It hijacks traffic to your neocortex (that is, the thinking, wise part of your brain.) So when you are triggered, you actually aren’t thinking. And your actions and words are not rational, and likely to be destructive, or at least not constructive.

I was boiling in the soup of my own triggers in dealing with Facebook over the last few days, and I realized that our methodology to heal conflict within couples might actually be useful in a much broader context. So I figured I’d outline it, and you can try it out, and see what you think.

The process is called “SCORE”. It has 5 steps:

S: Step back into yourself. Breathe. Notice the feelings in your body. Breathe some more. Disconnect from the story (she said… he did…) and focus on how your body is feeling.

C: Connect with yourself with compassion. The feelings you are feeling (hurt, fear, anger, sadness, guilt) are OK. They are really fine, and you are fine, no matter what you are feeling. You are loved and lovable, no matter what you are feeling.

O: Observe the feeling. Investigate the Origin of the feeling. What’s happening in your body? What body sensations are there. Can you name the feeling? Does it feel familiar? Get to know it a little.

R: Remember your Responsibility for the feeling. Relinquish responsibility for other’s feelings. This feeling you are feeling is yours. It was triggered by something someone else did or said, but it is your feeling – it is a response of your brain and body. It is within you. And, you need to relinquish responsibility for anyone else’s feelings – those feelings are theirs, a response of their brains and bodies, within them.

E: Experience Empowerment. If you’ve gone through these steps, you have undone your Amygdala hijack, and so your neocortex is back online. And you are holding yourself with compassion, and have a better understanding of the feeling that got triggered. Perhaps you remember that it reminded you of something from childhood, or a past event. When you’ve gone through this process, you can decide what, if any, action needs to be taken. Your words and actions are much more likely to be compassionate and constructive.

I know this is probably kinda “touchy feely” for a lot of activist folks, but it’s actually based on science (with a bit of scientifically-validated Buddhism thrown in.) I think it could be really helpful, whatever your work in the world is. Whether you are triggered by an experience of racism, or you are triggered by an experience of being called out on something you said or did, this can be really helpful. And I bet the “R” step will be hard for some people to swallow. I know, because I often feel at the mercy of external events, until I remember that I’m actually not.

And the “C” step, self-compassion, is way more important than you think. Cultivating self-compassion is actually one highway to being able to feel more compassion for others. And lots of people feeling more compassion for others… well, that’s when the world changes.


UNITED STATES - JANUARY 16: Senate Budget Committee ranking member Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. holds a news conference on the budget on Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Bernie Sanders and Me

I grew up in a household of politically active people. Both of my parents were involved in politics and cared about politics. Local and national politics were dinner table conversation. It still is when see each other. As I was growing up, politics was seen as a reasonable avenue to real change, and in fact, certainly in the 60s, for African Americans, it was. But the game is, and, in a sense, has always been, rigged. There have been moments when the control of the government wasn’t quite fully in the hands of the elite, but largely, it has been, since our founding, and is increasingly so. The Citizens United decision made much more real and open what had been going on for many years more in the background.

When the health care bill passed, even though I was thankful it gave me health insurance I’d not been able to get, it was utterly clear that it was designed as a boon for health insurers and big pharma. It was not the single-payer system many of us had hoped and fought for. For a while now, I have been disillusioned that national politics is any force for real change that will actually help non-rich Americans.

In my life, I’ve done my share of volunteering for presidential candidates. In the fall of 1972, at the tender age of 13, I sold buttons for McGovern. I volunteered for the Mondale/Ferraro campaign in the 80s, volunteered for Al Gore in 2000, and Obama in 2008. I sat out 2012, and I assumed I was going to sit 2016, and every election afterwards. Hillary Clinton, fed and watered by Wall Street, might be mouthing populist rhetoric, but she was likely going to be even less able and willing to change anything for the better than Obama is. Elizabeth Warren intelligently decided to sit this out, and no other Democrats seemed to be much different than Hillary. Let’s not even talk about the Republican field, there is no point, except to make fun of them.

But then along comes Bernie. I’ve followed him ever since he was the first socialist U.S. Representative from Vermont, my second favorite state (after California, of course.) I’ve followed him because I’m basically a socialist, too (well on the borderline of democratic socialist and social libertarian, for what it’s worth.) He’s one of the very few politicians I actually respect. You always know where he stands, and he never dissembles. Rambles, OK, yeah, but he’s a truth-teller. And his very, very long history speaks for itself in it’s consistency.

I’ve been helping to facilitate national conference calls for the nascent “African Americans for Bernie Sanders” group. The goal of this group is to educate African Americans about him and his positions (most African Americans are supporting Hillary,) as well as show that there are people in our community supporting him because of those positions.

There is a lot going on now around his campaign and issues of race. He’s gotten into tough spots with #Blacklivesmatter  protesters.  I have to admit that I have been feeling torn because of my wholehearted support for his candidacy. #Blacklivesmatter is a movement I care about, and a movement I respect. And it’s been a little strange to see Bernie, who is really the candidate who is most likely to actually do something about the extreme over-use of deadly force by police than any other candidate, be the first target of the #Blacklivesmatter movement. My colleague in the African Americans for Bernie group wrote a strongly worded blog post about the whole issue. I don’t agree with all of it, and it comes from a particular perspective, but it’s worth reading. I’m glad to see #Blacklivesmatter move on to targets I think are a lot more appropriate.

And of course, Bernie is not perfect. He has an unfortunate record on gun control. (Although, honestly, I have yet to figure out a way to square my own anti-authoritarian, libertarian notions with my abhorrence for the manufacture of weapons.) And he’s a long shot. Long shot to win the primaries, and a long shot to win the election. And, finally, of course, he is not going to bring our patriarchal, white supremacist, voracious, earth-consuming capitalist system down. That’s going to happen anyway – it will fall under it’s own weight–it’s already falling. But at least in the meantime, we can support someone who isn’t beholden to the oligarchs, and has a real record about doing things for people who aren’t rich, and easing the lives of those who’s lives are most difficult.



Doing our Jobs

As a black, female-bodied, queer, non-cis, big person, I’m getting pretty darn close to winning the “oppression olympics.” But, I have class privilege, and I (mostly) have ability privilege. I’ve been aware of the role of privilege for most of my life.

In 1984, in graduate school, at the tender age of 24, I wanted to volunteer to do something good in the world. So I got involved in this literacy organization in Cleveland, OH, and I taught a black man in Hough, a poor, black neighborhood in east Cleveland. I’d never visited a neighborhood like it before. The public housing was dilapidated, and the empty apartments were boarded up. I never felt unsafe going there and teaching him, and I learned something really important about the lived experience of people who didn’t have the class privilege I had grown up with.

I think it was that experience, more than any, that solidified for me what my job is in this society of layered oppressions. My job in listening to people who are oppressed in the ways that I am not, is really hearing what they say, and altering my worldview, and correcting my speech and behavior as needed based upon what they say. It seems pretty simple and obvious to me. I can’t begin to know what it’s like to grow up without the kind of privileges that I did. I can’t begin to imagine it – but if people tell me, I can change my own attitudes.

So this is my job: when someone without the class or ability privilege I hold tells me something, I listen. I make sure that I spend time looking deeply and my own perspective in the light of this new information. I don’t hold on to my preconceived notions, but I open myself up to understanding more about what it must be like to have that history and experience. And there is a kind of grace in it, really – it’s not just work. It opens to door to love and understanding in a way that nothing else can. And it’s like sowing seeds of justice. And I also know I can’t be perfect at it, and that’s OK too – I allow myself to make mistakes.

I am very lucky to not have been the object of a whole lot of overt racism in my life, except for my brief stint in living in Colorado in the 80’s, where there were two particular incidents where I actually was concerned for my physical safety. One was accidentally running into a post-church breakfast meeting of the Laporte Church of Christ (a white supremacist church) while I was picking up cinnamon rolls for my housemates and friends. (Of course, I’ve been followed in stores, heard car doors lock while I walked by, etc. I tend to ignore those, because it’s healthier for me.)

But over the course of the past week, with the incident at the Charleston church, and the conversations that have followed, I have run into a lot of something else, which has been more painful than I expected. It’s not really racism – it’s certainly not overt racism. I think if you asked these people whether or not they think that everyone should have the same rights and chances, they would say , “Of course, yes.” But they have a kind of complete tone-deafness to the experience of oppressed people (namely, in this case, African-Americans.) They are unwilling to do their job. They are unwilling to listen to the lived and historical experience of people who don’t have the privilege that they do (in this case, white privilege) and have it change their perspectives.

No amount of speaking about loving your enemy, or practicing non-violence, or marching, protesting, vigils, even changing the law, will change the status quo around oppression in our country without all of us doing our jobs. I think that the sea change in the gay rights movement came by people doing their jobs – they finally saw and understood what it meant to be gay in our society, and a lot of them changed their perspectives.

And as I look back on my life, I realize that there have been, and are, a few people in it, acquaintances and friends, who couldn’t, or wouldn’t do their jobs. And I’ve come to the point where I’m really clear that it’s just not acceptable to me anymore.


Screenshot 2015-06-13 12.33.40

What Does it Mean to Be Black?

According to 23andme.com, I have 71.3% Sub-Saharan African DNA, and most of that is West African. This is, of course no surprise, as most of my ancestors on both sides of the family were brought to the New World on slave ships.

But am I black? What does that even mean? I’m asking this question today, in light of the recent events around Rachel Dolezal. I have a lot to say, and this might be kinda long. I generally don’t like to talk about race. You might notice that the vast majority of posts on this blog are not about race. There are several reasons I don’t like to talk about race, and all of the reasons I don’t like to talk about race are going to be in this post.

Let me get one thing out of the way, first. This post isn’t really about Rachel. It’s about race. Rachel, for reasons that only she knows, chose to pass herself off as black for many years, deceiving many people she worked with. Deception of any sort is problematic behavior, and she definitely needs to be held accountable for this deception. And, likely, this deception came of some suffering and pain in her life – and for that, she deserves compassion, and likely needs some psychological/emotional support to make it through what must be an extremely difficult time right now.

Further, I understand why so many people feel betrayed, given the way racial dynamics play out in this country. I don’t actually know if she ended up going further in her life being deceptive as she would have if she actually used her white privilege. I don’t know if it is possible to know, and I don’t know that it matters. What matters is that she betrayed the trust of people who are already the victims of white privilege.

It’s important to reiterate that race doesn’t exist biologically. It is a social construct, largely created from the process of colonialism and the slave trade. There is no such thing as “black” or “white” in terms of biology. The human species is incredibly varied, and some characteristics, such as skin color, eye color, hair, shape of the eyes, etc. vary due to the environmental factors present in those people who lived in certain places for a long period of time. People belonging to one “race” have more genetic variability than people of different “races.”

However, race as a social construct in the United States is extremely powerful, and its power has not diminished since the end of the Civil War. This construct is why some people die at the hands  of police. Why some people can’t get jobs. It creates stark economic inequalities. It is at the core of a system that keeps some people well-fed and in power, while others languish, virtually powerless. It is a construct that is socially pathological, and creates great suffering.

For many years, the “one drop rule” was what governed the decision about whether or not one was black. Rachel seems to come from relatively recent immigrants, but many, many people in the US who identify as white have enough African ancestry to have been in Rachel’s place, and not really be lying. For a thought experiment, let’s take someone who is genetically the reverse of me: who is 71% European, and 27% Sub-Saharan African. It’s quite likely this person could be as blond, light, and straight-haired as Rachel is, and because of that, would be granted white privilege. Would this person be lying, then? What would that be like?

And the cultural construct of “blackness” is, frankly, not entirely imposed from without. It is also imposed from within. The #AskRachel hashtag is a compendium of multiple choice questions about black culture with the idea that because Rachel is really white, she’d fail them. Well, guess what? I can’t answer most of them! She might actually be able to answer more of them than I can.

It may be that most mainstream (read:white) culture can’t quite imagine a black, geeky, Buddhist-leaning scientist/science-fiction writer/theologian who likes to build circuits and help women with relationships. But the truth is, it’s mostly unimaginable inside of black culture, too. One of the most fabulous things that has arisen out of the age of the internet are websites like “Black Girl Nerds.” When I was a black, geeky girl and young adult, I was bullied incessantly (both physically and verbally) for not being “black enough.” It even went on later – I remember with some clarity an event that happened 20 years ago when I was a professor. There was a black student I had talked to in depth over the phone about a program I was helping to run. When I finally met her in person, she looked at me with some disdain, and said, “I was sure you were white.” It stung. The #AskRachel hashtag is an unfortunate reminder of that side of my history.

Just because race is meaningless in a biological sense, doesn’t seem to change anyone’s mind about its cultural significance. As a resident of the United States, and having the skin color, body, and hair that I have, I am labeled “black.” I can’t choose anything else. I don’t get to define myself. I think I’ve done pretty well being able to be who I am, but it doesn’t mean it has been easy.

There has also been a fair amount of talk comparing Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner. It is such an interesting question to me, because there are many levels to look at that issue. The first, most obvious, is, well, no, they are nothing alike. Based on varied reporting, Rachel knew she was being deceptive. It wasn’t a matter of who she really felt she authentically was.

But go just a little deeper. Race, like gender and sexuality, is a cultural construct. How fluid do we get to be? How much do we get to define ourselves? Some feminists (not me) feel that trans women are just men pretending to be women, and don’t deserve to call themselves women. Back to that thought experiment – does someone with 27% Sub-Saharan African descent get to call themselves black? Is what matters that you can’t pass? What about appropriation? Many people have pointed to Rachel as an extreme example of cultural appropriation. Is there such a thing as gender appropriation?

Ultimately, the most important things to me around self-definition are honesty, integrity, and self-examination. If you have the honesty to speak your own truth, the integrity to take responsibility for the deep and wide social implications of your self-definitions, the self-examination to really look at what’s going on emotionally and psychologically underneath self-definition, then, yeah, you get to define yourself however you damn well please. Rachel certainly didn’t pass that test.



Beyond Gender Essentialism

556cd6644ae56e586e4588d8_caitlyn-jenner-bruce-jenner-july-2015-vfI’ve been thinking and reading about gender issues a lot in the last few weeks. Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about gender since I was five years old, wearing a dress that didn’t feel right to me. Today, I read an op-ed in the New York Times, by Elinor Burkett, called “What Makes a Woman?” This basically internecine warfare between some feminists and some trans advocates is sad, unfortunate, and, extremely understandable.

First off, feminists have been fighting for as long as feminism has existed for women especially to have a chance to live whatever lives they want to live, wear whatever they want to wear, and take whatever role, be however it is they want to be. Men have been implicitly (or, for some feminist theorists, explicitly) included in that idea as well. Men should also get to play the roles they want to play, and live the lives they want to live. Men are as bound by our culture’s gender divide as women are.

The rub has come when some folks who were raised as one gender feel deeply (and authentically) like they belong to the other gender. The most recent group of famous trans women, including Janet Mock, Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, have, for their own reasons, chosen a particularly feminine presentation. Presentation is not necessarily related to role, but it is, in our society, a proxy. When you see a woman dressed like Caitlyn Jenner, your enculturated brain thinks about traditional female roles, not male roles, even though dress really has nothing to do with behavior.

And there is the sense that when people feel that they are one gender trapped in a different gender’s body, it somehow reifies the idea that there are only two genders (with their attendant roles), and you have to choose one. And that is an idea that most feminists, for good reason, abhor.

I’m not saying that trans people are actually saying this- in fact, I think it’s likely that most don’t agree with that statement aboveBut that doesn’t change the perception, and it is a part of the conflict.

The deepest part of the conflict, explored in that op-ed, is the idea that the experience of being born a woman is essentially different than being born male and given male privilege. And that even if you become a woman later, it doesn’t change the essential role that a gendered environment plays. She said:

“You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain’ or ‘that’s a boy’s brain,’ ” Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Britain’s Aston University, told The Telegraph last year. The differences between male and female brains are caused by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment, she said.

THE drip, drip, drip of Ms. Jenner’s experience included a hefty dose of male privilege few women could possibly imagine. While young “Bruiser,” as Bruce Jenner was called as a child, was being cheered on toward a university athletic scholarship, few female athletes could dare hope for such largess since universities offered little funding for women’s sports. When Mr. Jenner looked for a job to support himself during his training for the 1976 Olympics, he didn’t have to turn to the meager “Help Wanted – Female” ads in the newspapers, and he could get by on the $9,000 he earned annually, unlike young women whose median pay was little more than half that of men. Tall and strong, he never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night.

Those are realities that shape women’s brains.

Of course, this is all true. However, what the article didn’t say is that the drip, drip, drip of trying to fit into a gender you don’t think matches who you are affects your brain, too.  The experience of not fitting in to gender expectations is as important as the experience of being oppressed for being female. Different, but as important. (And although I don’t identify as trans, that drip, drip, drip has had far more influence on me than the experience of being oppressed because I was born female.)

Ultimately, though, there is this sense of losing something. Another quote from the op-ed:

But as the movement becomes mainstream, it’s growing harder to avoid asking pointed questions about the frequent attacks by some trans leaders on women’s right to define ourselves, our discourse and our bodies. After all, the trans movement isn’t simply echoing African-Americans, Chicanos, gays or women by demanding an end to the violence and discrimination, and to be treated with a full measure of respect. It’s demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves.

Actually, that’s the point, right? Now that men (who were born as women and still have all the equipment) can have babies, it is time to reconceptualize gender. The advance of science means that it may well be that in 50 or 100 years, the chromosomes or genitalia you were born with will have no bearing on your reproductive role or capacity.

Maybe it feels like it’s somehow too soon. Women haven’t fully become equal in our society, so maybe it feels like we’re giving something up. But giving up gender as static, binary, and essential is, in my opinion, the point of feminism, and the only way for everyone regardless of gender to get full inclusion. That probably feels really hard to some feminists, who have fought long and hard for women’s autonomy, agency, and safe space. But I think it’s the only way forward.




The Adversary

Between the Western separation of body and mind (and spirit,) the American fetish of thinness, and my own experiences with varied ailments and trauma, over my lifetime, my body became my adversary. When there was pain, or a new something to deal with, the thought “why is my body doing this to me?” was the automatic refrain.

I have been befriending my body slowly, carefully, steadily, deliberately, over the past several years. And although that process is far from complete, that refrain no longer has teeth. With this journey into this new territory called cancer, some clarity has come to me about how this journey is to be embarked on – how this new territory is meant to be discovered.

“Fighting” cancer, “beating” cancer, is the most common metaphor I’ve come across. “It’s me or the cancer” this metaphor seems to say. But, in reality, the cancer cells are mine – they are of my body. They are acting in ways that are consistent with their own instructions, even as they get in the way of other processes in my body.

I don’t want to take away the metaphor of the “fight” for others on this journey – we must all choose the metaphors that work best for each of us. But for me, this will not be a “fight.” There is no winner and loser. I will do what I can (including Western medical treatments) to heal, to diminish the cancer’s growth and effects, maximize my body’s vitality. But really, there is just me, the cells inside me, and death, which will come, sooner or later.  (By the way, it is unlikely this particular bout of cancer will cause my death – among cancers, it’s fairly low-risk.)

I had a conversation with a friend this morning about the healing available in being able to face the uncertainty of death, to embrace our fear, embrace how we wish to look away, to deny, to deflect its reality. That is also part of this journey into this territory called cancer. I will see how fear peeks out behind a bush as I round a corner, notice where it arises from the mists in front of me.

I happen to be reading a great book by Cynthia Bourgeault about the Gospel of Mary Magdelene. In that gospel, Jesus said:

Attachment to matter gives birth to passion without an Image of itself because it is drawn from that which is contrary to its higher nature. The result is that confusion and disturbance resonates throughout one’s whole being. It is for this reason I told you to find contentment at the level of the heart, and if you are discouraged, take heart in the presence of the Image of your true nature. Those with ears, let them hear this.

I’m sitting with the notion that attachment to matter is my true adversary. Attachment to matter brings judgement – judgement of my body, my condition, of myself, of others. Right now, I’m looking for contentment at the level of my heart.


“Food Babe” vs. “Science Babe”

lh6dpf6ihthiuqnlqogxThere was an article in Gawker, titled, “The Food Babe is Full of Shit,” written by The Science Babe. It brutally takes down Vani Hari as someone who peddles pseudo-science. The Food Babe responded.

So what to believe? What’s true? They are both right and wrong.

Yvette d’Entremont, aka “Science Babe” says, in reference to Hari’s suggestion that a certain Starbuck’s drink had a ‘toxic’ dose of sugar: “The word ‘toxic’ has a meaning, and that is “having the effect of a poison.” Anything can be poisonous depending on the dose.”

Then there is this quote:

According to Hari, the problem with most of them, including Girl Scout Cookies: GMOs and pesticides. She’s even alleged that an apple can be worse for you than a hot fudge sundae, if it’s not organic.

The basic problem with this whole debate is that it’s about acute (and sometimes carcinogenic) effects of certain chemical additives in food in individual people. Yvette focuses entirely on that aspect of this argument, and, frankly, that is Hari’s focus mostly as well. But the argument is much, much bigger.

First, there is the difference between acute toxicity – something that an amount of sugar in even the most sweet of drinks most certainly does not have, and chronic toxicity. Most scientists who study this stuff agree that excess sugar over time has very deleterious health effects, and is also addictive. And yes, Hari is wrong about the apple. A non-organic, GMO apple is a lot better for you than a hot fudge sundae.

But the real argument, the one we should be having, is about our food system – how food is grown, how large companies control it, how companies add ingredients (mostly sugar) to make processed food tasty and addictive. (As well as look  good and last long.)

Also very important are the ecosystem questions – d’Entremont doesn’t address the massive problems our modern food system (including GMOs.) In fact, although I try my best not to buy non-organic or GMO food if I can help it,  I don’t really worry so much about the effect of those foods food on me. I worry about the effect of those crops on the ecosystem.

I will not defend Vani Hari’s psuedo-science – there is plenty of it. That said, people that question the food system are needed, because the food system is broken, and d’Entremont’s takedown of Hari doesn’t really substantively help the debate.


To Vax or Not To Vax is NOT the Question

Screenshot 2015-02-03 15.43.40Scientific medicine (I mean of the particular western variety practiced in the US) has a short history, less than 150 years. Scientific medicine without the overwhelming influence of profit had an even shorter history, and it’s been over for a while now.

The reason that the now shown to be fraudulent study in 1998 still provokes enough concern among parents to prevent them from getting their children vaccinated, even in the face of massive evidence that there is no link between vaccines and autism, is because many people simply don’t trust medical science.

Why don’t people trust medical science? One basic reason: medical science is corrupted by the pursuit of profit, and people know it. One fascinating study showed a bias in the publication of research that put into question the efficacy of depression pharmaceuticals. Drug companies (and device manufacturers) are most often the sponsor of research, as our government and institutional research budgets dwindle. (But we get a lot of fighter planes and big university stadiums, instead.)

Things that happen when research is corrupted by the influence of profit: Diseases that don’t have treatments that can be profitable (mostly because not enough people have them) simply aren’t researched. Bias means the efficacy of a (sometimes expensive) treatment is overestimated, certainly in comparison to a treatment that is not profitable. Alternative treatment methodologies (chinese medicine and ayurveda, in particular, which have long histories) are not researched, and not covered by insurance.  Treatments, vaccines and devices get put together in the cheapest ways possible, which can lead to unintended consequences. Medical care becomes impersonal and prone to error.

Basically, we’ve broken health care because we’ve allowed profit-making entities to warp it. And nothing short of a 100% government funded research program, and a single-payer health care system is going to change it.

Based on evidence, if I were a parent, I would vaccinate my kids. And I do wish that more parents would talk to older people about what it was like before vaccines. But really, I don’t blame people who don’t trust medical science and/or our health care system. Because despite some true breakthroughs, they just aren’t trustworthy.





There and Back Again

UU Chalice

From UU Falmouth Mass.

In 2000, my first foray back into the organizations vaguely known as “church,” 20 years after leaving Christian fundamentalism behind, was the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. It was enough of the familiar “churchy” stuff, but lacked the stuff that made me uncomfortable. I was a member for several years, and, interestingly enough, it was my membership and involvement in that community that stirred my call to ministry. Those years were deeply influential to me, and as I traveled my way across country to go to seminary at PSR in 2005, I fully expected to join the ranks of UU ministers.

Although ordained ministry in any denomination was not my path, I left the UU before I left the ministry path. Two different threads caused this. First, I re-discovered my attachment to Christianity, in particular, the teachings of Jesus, and I also discovered this enormous queer-friendly, progressive Christian community I had no idea existed. As well, during the summer of 2005, I spent several sessions on the phone with a great group of UU seminarians of color. And I heard their struggles and the realities facing prospective UU ministers of color. At one point, we had some number of folks on the phone – I don’t remember how many – all UU seminarians of color. And I learned that there were more of us on the phone at that moment as there had ever been ordained UU ministers of color. I saw the writing on the wall. Black, queer, Jesus-following, Buddha-professing theist wasn’t likely to get a job (actually, the Budda-professing theist wouldn’t have been a problem.) So I switched teams, and decided on the United Church of Christ (UCC.)

Interestingly enough, I have really always been a unitarian theologically, although while in seminary I didn’t want to answer that question definitively, but I have since. That is, I believe Jesus was a great, wise, compassionate and conscious teacher, inspired by the divine, but just a guy born out of wedlock, who died being a revolutionary. It was his followers that created a new religion, something he probably didn’t intend. That said, I felt a kinship to the Christian mystics, and I grew up Presbyterian, so Christianity had formative authority for me. So I decided to call myself a Christian, even though I could not recite the Nicene Creed with a straight face. There was, it seemed, room in the UCC for folks of this ilk, and I slipped in. I left seminary early, and the ministry track for varied reasons, my unitarianism among them.

I’ve belonged to two UCC congregations. New Spirit Community Church, which no longer exists, and was an interesting experiment in multi-denominational congregation (UCC/MCC/DOC,) and First Congregational Church of Oakland, which has been my home church since 2009 (I served as Moderator for a year.)  I spent a wonderful year at Haydenville Congregational Church in Haydenville, MA, when I went back to the East Coast for a bit in 2007-8.

Given that history, when I moved up here to Sonoma County, I church-shopped, expecting to land at the UCC church in Santa Rosa. I checked out the Quakers, the Episcopals, and went to the UCC church twice. But, in fact, the UU church in Santa Rosa is a much better fit. The minister of the UCC, to his credit, is a serious Buddhist (as is the minister of the UU, interestingly enough.) But the UCC church is small, extremely homogeneous, and, well, just not right for me. The UU church is large, vibrant, growing, and has more diversity (particularly age diversity, but there are a few people of color, and plenty of queer folk.) And, interestingly enough (and to my great relief) the congregation doesn’t seem to have the same allergy to language of reverence that the UU congregation in Northampton did when I was there.

Of course, living in Sonoma County, I will never find a community like my still-beloved First Congo. But the worship style at First Congo was always a big stretch for me, and when I returned for a visit last week, I was reminded of that stretch. I’ve always been one for quiet contemplation, for slow, easy, apophatic worship. Exuberant, expressive and loud worship is fun, but generally doesn’t feel like it brings me closer to God. Times of quiet, or low-key singing or music, especially in community, does that better for me.

I still don’t know if it’s right enough for me to get involved, and become a member. Time will only tell. But it’s kinda fun to be back again. I do rather like UUs–always have.




Reflections on the New Year

I was going to write one of those more personal blog entries about my year, and what I was looking forward to next year. But this morning, I have some different things on my mind.

I fully realized sometime early in 2014 that I didn’t identify as an activist anymore. It was sort of a rude awakening, as I have thought of myself as an activist since 1972, when I was 12. I’ve been involved in anti-war, reproductive justice, anti-apartheid, anti-death penalty, and environmental causes since I was young. There is a shaping of my life that activism made, a way of thinking about the world, and how the world can be changed.

But in the last few years, perhaps part of it is getting older, part just simply accepting what is, I’ve stopped all but the most trivial activist activities (I still sign a petition now and again, and I like/share/retweet things – those don’t really count.) What has struck me so forcefully lately is the juxtaposition of changes that have happened, steps that have been made forward, along with an incredible slide backwards. MLK did say the arc of history is long, and perhaps it does bend toward justice, but it can also be forceably shaped.

police-state-1We are, frankly, running headlong into two inexorable, and in my opinion, virtually unstoppable trends: 1) Police state oligarchy/fascism. 2) Environmental and economic collapse.

I was reading an article recently (worth watching the video – militarized police in action) where this random gamer dude (white) got “swatted” (which means some person maliciously called the police to suggest something horrible, like a hostage situation, was happening.) There are other instances when this has turned fatal. Then there’s the dude who got horribly harassed for simply dancing in the street.  And then there is what’s happening with the NYPD. I have fully realized that no one is safe. Black men are, by far, the least safe.  That said, I have no real assurance for myself, or for anyone I know, that any situation with the police will necessarily end well. And don’t get me started on the issue of asset seizures. And worse, police increasingly seem to act as if they are above the law, and the law has seemed to agree.  This is not to say that all police are bad – I know there are people who have chosen this profession with good intentions, and behave well, and in the real interest of the people. But the institution is the problem.

It’s already been proven that we are no longer a democracy. And for the most part, the mainstream press does the oligarchy’s bidding (because they are part of it.)  And one of the things the mainstream press does a terrible job of covering is what’s coming with climate change.

There are a lot of differing opinions about how fast changes will happen, and how bad the effects of climate change will be. But it is true that have been on track for the worst-case scenarios that more mainstream climate scientists have predicted. And renewable energy is not likely to be our savior.

The California drought, which I am witnessing first hand, is still dire, and there is no forecasts that suggest that it’s going to not stay that way. California produces an insane amount of food for US consumption. If things keep going the way they do, food is going to get more expensive. Getting good, healthy food is already a struggle for so many people. This will only make it worse.

So what does one do given all of this? The only answer to both of these trends is to radically change how we live our lives. But that is impossible to do alone, or even as couples or families. We are embedded in a system which requires our participation, and not participating is extremely difficult.

What am I doing in the face of it? I don’t have a good answer for myself. I do my best to remember that love is the most important thing, and that I need to keep treating everyone I meet with compassion and respect. I’m thinking about community a lot, and thinking about what it might be like to live in community again, somehow, somewhere. A community that is interested in grappling with how we live in the face of all of this.

For your nostalgia – “For What it’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, written in 1966. That’s right, 1966, when I was six years old. It’s just as salient now as it was then.

There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking’ their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, “hooray for our side”

It’s time we stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away

We better stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

We better stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

We better stop
Now, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

We better stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?