Shame on Me

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SANDRA CISNEROS RECENTLY SAID in an interview, “I just wanted to write down the things I think. And not be ashamed.” She was discussing her new book of poems, Woman Without Shame , which I desperately need to read for a number of reasons. (Fan girl and poetry nerd are two of them).

I was/am/always will be a romantic.

Which is the same as saying: I fall in love all by myself.

Sandra Cisneros, Woman Without Shame

I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately. I did the enneagram test, for one thing. I’m not sure how much more effective it is than any of those quizzes we used to do in Cosmopolitan magazine. Like, “Is Your BFF Really On Your Side?” or “Can You Keep a Guy Intrigued?” (Oh, it was just me? Okay.) So my enneagram results said I was a 2, and begin by explaining that 2s, “… stand out for their personal warmth, strong relational skills, selflessness, and eagerness to support people in their time of need.” Well, shucks. But then it also said, “types 2, 3, and 4 are in the shame triad which means the core emotion you struggle with is shame. People in this triad feel unworthy…” Oh, um, can we go back to my personal warmth and selflessness, please? Anyway, I took this all with a grain of salt and moved along. Then came Pastor Tiana with a little message from the pulpit Sunday morning.

Now, I will preface this by saying I was still recovering from a pretty hearty cold and was probably extra vulnerable on Sunday. I hadn’t had a chance to put on my Cancerian shell quite yet. So here comes Pastor Tiana, talking about Nehemiah and revival, and joy and I’m feeling in the spirit. Then she starts referencing issues of repentance, but not your typical admonishments of, “Go and repent,” or anything like that. No, Pastor Tiana was saying that in this world repentance often leads us to shame, that instead of following God’s will…

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

…we just self-flagellate, like in the ancient olden days. In fact, shame “can be our constant companion” wherein “we feel the antidote [to sinning, or just plain messing up] is no joy.” In other words, shame. All this even though the Bible reminds us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), which is after all a pretty big plank in the platform of our faith. All this got me to thinking, as so often happens in church, “Am I denying myself joy? Not just regular happiness, but J-O-Y joy?!” And because that was the second time in a short while that the word shame had entered my sphere, I thought I’d better pay attention. And I started wondering if maybe shame was more expansive than I had first thought of it as.

Like there are definitely a few things I wish I had not done in my life, and I do feel ashamed of them. But that got me to wondering if maybe we carry shame about things that are not even wrongdoings, or things we even had no control over. And my answer was, “Yes, I believe we do.” Well, once I let that expanded definition into my head, the gates opened up! I started writing a list, and not being as brave as Cisneros, I ain’t sharing much. But suffice it to say that my list was 24 items long – and I keep thinking of more things I could add! This list includes things that other people have openly admired me for; things that other people would not even define as wrong; and things that folks have assured me were not issues for them personally at all. But apparently I have chosen not to believe anybody, just my shame.

So now what? No answers up in here. But I guess I would encourage you to write down a list for yourself. According to the Oxford online dictionary shame is, “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” I guess key here is what we deem wrong and foolish. If you look at the list list you made, you might discover you’re ashamed of some stuff that is neither wrong (even maybe quite the opposite) or foolish (because it was not a choice on your part). This might be useful, it might not. But it seems like especially women of a certain age are working hard to shed their shit right now. Like, we are not going to wrestle with the vagaries of aging AND keep carrying society’s baggage, too.

So, make your own quiz, “What Do You Feel Ashamed Of?” Then look at that list from the perspective of just about anybody else other than you, and see how fabulous you are. Then maybe go have some tea, or a glass of wine, or take a walk, or do a mud mask. I don’t know, just do something for YOU that you wouldn’t do for someone you were ashamed of. And Happy International Women’s Day!

Care Enough to Run Up the Hill*

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JUSTICE AND MERCY, SO THE STORY GOES, WERE SITTING BY THE SIDE OF A RIVER TOGETHER. Suddenly a body came floating downstream. They run out to rescue the person, bringing them to shore. Taking a moment to relax after the dramatic experience, they see another body coming towards them. They launch another rescue. At the end of that day, the sun beginning to set, they are just about to depart when yet a third body comes floating downstream. Mercy rushes out into the water again, only to look back to see Justice running up the hill alongside the riverbank. “Where are you going?!” yelled Mercy over the rushing waters, “We have to rescue this person!” Justice yelled back, “I’m going to go find out where all these bodies are coming from!”

This was the story Pastor Tate told in church last Sunday. And as they say in our faith tradition, “If you get it early…” (I won’t have to keep preaching). As in, mercy is fabulous, but justice is action. And justice, quite often, is sought out by those who have been wronged, who are have been in pain. And Pastor Tate says God does not waste pain, that there are positives that can come from it. Well, that got me to thinking about African-American history (something I do a lot), and how the pain of enslavement quickly brought on the demand for justice. And we’re not just talking Harriet Tubman, anti-segregationists, and Dr. King. From the minute so many Africans were kidnapped on their own land, justice was sought – in a variety of ways. And that is reason 5,978 that we need Black History Month; and African-American History taught from an early age; and even the dreaded Critical Race Theory, as a framework for cultural and historical discourse.

Most everyone is familiar with the resistance by some to the teaching of Black history in our schools of late. Well, at least the teaching of any kind of meaningful lessons regarding what actually happened on United States soil since this place first became a nation. And then before that. The College Board’s proposed African-American History Advanced Placement courses have recently been ripped to shreds, becoming not much more than a review of the few iconic writers and over-emphasized events that have already been approved for our consumption. Some of the modifications include The Black Lives Matter Movement being an optional subject. I can just imagine the Civil Rights Movement gaining that kind of status. The College Board (a whole ‘nother discussion!) also nixed Kimberlé W. Crenshaw who began using the term “intersectionality,” a crucial facet of identity discourse. bell hooks is out, in all probability because of her writings on Queer Studies. Thus film students will not get to read one of the best books ever, Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies. Ta-Nehisi Coates has also been ejected, perhaps due to his call for reparations. Meanwhile young students will miss out on a poignant letter from father to son in the fabulous book, Between the World and Me.

Critical Race Theory has been characterized by this particular group of zealots as an approach to cultural discourse that blames white people for everything, and ignores the myriad contributions that said white people have made to this country. (Because we don’t already talk about that enough apparently). And the 1619 Project might as well have been the Communist Manifesto (not that there’s anything wrong with that) the way folks were/are up in arms at the project – and it’s not just the usual suspects either.

This crusade is much more important than the anti-lynching movement,
because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.

Carter G. Woodson

Back in 1926 Carter G. Woodson chose February for the original Negro History Week, in part because it held the birthdays of two men considered champions of the Black American: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The latter’s narrative is a bit up for debate – as Woodson noted at the time – but no one will be having that nuanced discussion in a classroom anytime soon.

Scholars, educators, and artists are working for justice because mercy isn’t enough at this point. A lot of us teachers are in pain as we watch the hostile takeover of the free-speech classroom. Most Americans wince at the shackles of rules and regulations immobilizing educators around this country. People of color are continually forced to witness their stories bandied about like fairy tales. Students feel betrayed when they discover what they have been taught is only a tip of an iceberg at best. Academics suffer job loss when they challenge the McCarthy-like stances of their institutions. And all this pain in order to appease the discomfort of a small group of people who fear this world that no longer looks or sounds like the world they are familiar with.

Dr. Cornel West – who I am sure is not included in any of the “updated” African-American curricula – said many years ago, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” God knows we need mercy in this world – always. But we also need justice. And if enough of us are willing to run up the hill and see where all the bodies are coming from in the first place, then maybe mercy won’t have to be quite so busy tending to all this pain.

*Borrowed from Pastor Tate’s sermon framework: Care Enough to 1)be curious; 2)pray; 3)go

On the Edge

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ABRAHAM AND ISAAC, SHEESH. I mean everyone knows the Bible can be a scary place, but reading a story about a man getting ready to light his kid on fire is next level. Tiana Spencer preached at Fellowship Sunday, and as always made most everybody cry. In a good way. Church a wonderful opportunity to let it all hang out – if your church is that kind of church, of course. For me, one thing these Sundays are about is regrouping from the week. And that is what sabbath is about, too, and something that no one doesn’t need: a refresh from the previous six days.

But now getting back to Abraham, his story is used in Jewish and Christian faiths as an illustration of full-on trust in God. I mean he had the knife raised and ready to go before God told him it was all good, and that there was some poor ram caught in the bushes that he could kill instead of his son. (Animal sacrifice being a thing at the time). (If you don’t know this story, you can read about it here). I remember one preacher that said that lots of people say they trust in something, are fully committed to someone – God, partner, process, etc. and that these folks try to prove their claim by holding the proverbial knife over their metaphorical child’s body. BUT, said this preacher, they are only holding rubber knives. Oh snap, that’s deep.

A lot of us say we have faith or trust in something but we’re not really willing to make the big sacrifice in the name of that trust. This reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which occurred a week ago Monday. This day irks the heck out of me. All sorts of people (and companies, and institutions, and…) claiming their deep commitment to the pursuit of civil rights. And of course some folks really are committed – though they aren’t usually the ones posting graphically appealing quotes and selfies of their annual volunteer shifts online. These are the rubber knives, a safe way to go while still looking like you’re following the leader.

Pastor Tiana pointed out that Abraham knew something that a lot of us don’t. See, one reason his faith was so unwavering is because he had already seen evidence of God in action. Like, Abe was going to trust anybody who said to him and his old wife that they were going to have a baby and then made it happen. And now he was walking with that miracle child. He was looking at his “receipt” as Pastor Tate might say. That sure got me thinking how many times I have wondered if anybody was ever going to help me with this or that, while all the time walking right next to all sorts of help already. This reminds me of one of my favorite parables:

A storm descends on a small town, and the downpour soon turns into a flood. As the waters rise, the local preacher kneels in prayer on the church porch, surrounded by water. By and by, one of the townsfolk comes up the street in a canoe.

“Better get in, Preacher. The waters are rising fast.”

“No,” says the preacher. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.”

Still the waters rise. Now the preacher is up on the balcony, wringing his hands in supplication, when another guy zips up in a motorboat.

“Come on, Preacher. We need to get you out of here. The levee’s gonna break any minute.”

Once again, the preacher is unmoved. “I shall remain. The Lord will see me through.”

After a while the levee breaks, and the flood rushes over the church until only the steeple remains above water. The preacher is up there, clinging to the cross, when a helicopter descends out of the clouds, and a state trooper calls down to him through a megaphone.

“Grab the ladder, Preacher. This is your last chance.”

Once again, the preacher insists the Lord will deliver him.

And, predictably, he drowns.

A pious man, the preacher goes to heaven. After a while he gets an interview with God, and he asks the Almighty, “Lord, I had unwavering faith in you. Why didn’t you deliver me from that flood?”

God shakes his head. “What did you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

I’m thinking about the Sabbath, about resting, about renewing, and this week of making sure I see my blessings around me. Not just being grateful, but actually looking at them and thinking about how they got there. And I am going to keep the faith and do the hard work that that requires. And I’ll carry a sharp knife to illustrate that faith, and just hope I won’t have to use it.

To Be a Sheep

SHEEP ARE CUTE. Their wool makes clothing. Some of us eat them. And they are one of the most prominent images used in religion since forever. Dr. King was all about sheep, and lambs. In March of 1968 he preached a sermon entitled, “Unfulfilled Dreams” at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. (The same pulpit from which President Biden spoke yesterday, by the way. Not sure how I feel about that one). In his sermon, Dr. King referenced the parable of the lost sheep, and just why that sheep may have gotten lost in the first place. And, lest we forget, Dr. King had jokes. Talking about, “Now, the terrible thing in life is to be trying to get to Los Angeles on Highway 78.”

Yesterday, Fellowship Monrovia’s Pastor Albert Tate continued the monthly series on the Sabbath. I wrote about that last week, about the resting. This week’s message was about delight, a word that delights me just by saying it. Its origins come from other words, like charming and alluring. Tate used Psalm 23 as the framework for the sermon, calling the Psalms “David’s journal,” which I thought was a pretty cool way to look at that book. Tate asked us to delight in God’s “Is-ness” (and not Satan’s “bizness” – ’cause Tate has jokes, too – so, so many jokes). Turns out that Dr. King also talked about is-ness, but the is-ness of people. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 he said, “I refuse to accept that the ‘is-ness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.” So what is we and what ought we to do?

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23

We is sheep, if we accept the premise of most of the Abrahamic religions. That’s supposed to be a good thing; we have a shepherd to care for us, and we get directed to yummy green grass and nice quiet water. It’s the ultimate hook-up. BUT, culturally we all know that being called a sheep is a baaaaad thing. (I got jokes, too). For example, throughout this pandemic, some of us who have chosen to wear masks in certain circumstances have been referred to as sheep, animals uncritically following the lead of a shepherd — in the form of the CDC or Dr. Fauci, I guess.

“Desperately dependent,” is what we want to be according to Pastor Tate – but not on man. Woops, wrong shepherd? Then again, aren’t some people worthy of leading us? Oh say, Dr. King who everybody and their cousin is quoting today. (I pray that most of those folks are also walking King’s walk throughout the year, too). So how do we know when something is good for us, and when it’s not? When should we follow?

Tate refences the line in the Psalm where it says “He maketh” me lie down in those green pastures. He maketh us because we don’t know enough to chill out once every seven days (if that’s available to us). So we have to be made to lie down. But we all know what it means to be told we “lied down” — it’s an insult, like you aren’t thinking for yourself. Rest or work? Mask or don’t? Move to Los Angeles or stay put? Say what I’m thinking or keep my mouth closed? We are faced with quandaries umpteen times a day. So how do we decide what’s best? It depends upon who our shepherd is, I think. My tradition says it’s God. Others might call it a Higher Power, or may simply name their shepherd as morality. You know who a lousy shepherd is though? Our ego (fear, pride, envy being the herder dogs). I mean you ever follow your ego? You’re going to end up in some arid land with no water to drink, I can almost guarantee that.

I remember one time years ago when I was able to drag my mother to my little church in Madison, New Jersey. So my pastor is talking about shepherds and sheep, and specifically about the characteristics of sheep. Well, my mother – who grew up on a farm in Indiana – was huffing, puffing, tsking, and talking under her breath about how this man did not know a thing about sheep. He made the usual reference to their ignorance, for example, to which mom responded something to the effect that the sheep she grew up with seemed smarter than most people she knew. Fact is, it’s a bad rap that sheep get in this category. Anecdotal studies show that they can do all sorts of things that pigs (apparently the valedictorian of the farm animal) can do. So that takes me back to this cultural question: is it baaaad to be a sheep, or good?

Nobody really wants to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but I am guessing we all have. That’s the dark, cold, place where you feel pretty much alone. It’s not a favorite season for anyone. But we can contend with those seasons, argues Pastor Tate, by finding delight somewhere somehow in them. For most of us, a ray of hope is available even in times of despair. And (not or) we can also do as Dr. King called us to do in his speech at the March on Washington: “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

So let’s be sheep (maybe even black sheep if your circle is not one of activism). Follow that inclination to seek out greener pastures for you and your fellow human, even if you don’t get all the way to that verdant mountain top yourself. King said in his “Unfulfilled Dream” sermon, “Thank God this morning that we do have hearts to put something meaningful in.” And that is where we are different from sheep, we can be moved by a spirit (The Spirit) to follow through on our dreams. So say amen, somebody, say amen.

Photo by Jesus Solana from Madrid, Spain – Black sheep . Do u also feel different? // la Oveja negra. Tambien te sientes diferente?, CC BY 2.0,

Sit. Stay.

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Mon·day morn·ing quar·ter·back: “a person who passes judgment on and criticizes something after the event,” according to Oxford. Well, what I’d like to do here, as a Monday Morning Preacher, is simply review the event – which in this case is Pastor Albert Tate’s wonderful sermon at the fabulous Fellowship Monrovia Church. (I don’t even watch pro football anymore, and not just because my ex-team the New York Giants made it so painful for me for so long).

I have no judgment or criticism to offer about the sermon. Rather I have some thoughts, lots and lots of thoughts. And one thought is that others might be interested in these thoughts. Also, if you want to hear the original message, then go to Fellowship Monrovia’s site and listen for yourself. You’ll be glad you did, because this man preeeches!

So I hope these thoughts speak to a variety of people, no matter where upon the spiritual path – or which spiritual path – you might be on.

My Church is reviewing the idea of the sabbath right now, or as I always think about it, shabbat – because, you know, my Jewish past and the ways in which that observance is very much proscribed in Jewish tradition. Last week’s sermon was about stopping; this week we looked at resting. Pastor Tate used the term “cultural current,” as in we tend to be carried away by our cultural currents. I imagine us as attractive pieces of driftwood, just floating downstream. Resting is not a part of that current, so we need to grab hold of a spiritual branch, if you will, if we’d like to stay in one place for a minute. In the French language, the infinitive verb rester means to stay. As in, Je reste ici, I’m staying here. So to me, to rest is to stay. Kind of like when we demand that our dog – or kid – stay by our side on a walk.

So, some reasons offered yesterday for staying include the fact that we miss things when we “disobey.” Again, think of the dog and the kid; they will miss the treat (bribe) they would have received if only they had remained in place long enough. And, just as when a parent tells a child what to do, the sabbath is not a suggestion, according to Pastor Tate. We need to not take it as such. He argues that having six days “on” and one day “off” is actually a natural human rhythm. God started that rhythm after all.

But why did God rest, asks the Pastor. God rested because He was done working. Like He drew a line in the sand – or put a bow on it, or whatever visual helps you – and then said, I did what I planned to do. As in, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God’s like, That’s enough for now, I’m gonna chill. This is a model we are asked to follow: finish up your work and then rest – every week. Rest needs to become “more than a response to being tired,” exhorts Tate. “Work from rest, not for it,” he advises. The latter is so very American, isn’t it? Those of us who have traveled overseas know that not every other culture believes in powering though the day just so that one can get home – or to happy hour – and collapse. #siesta

But our culture does little to support or match that natural rhythm of six-on, one-off. We know we have things to do, and work gets in the way of those things, so we have to do more work, even after working. Yesterday we were encouraged to make a To-Be list as opposed to a To-Do list. Like, what will your self-assigned tasks help you be. That’s a hard one for me because I loooove my to-do lists. I feel oh-so productive as I make my way through them. I was raised that way, by an ex-Navy lieutenant who called the places you missed when waxing the car, “holidays.” So, I knew from an early age that holidays, rest, vacation, checking out – all that – was not good!

The hardest part for some of us in this resting is that we might just find out that the world will go on without us. Whether we are telling our employer we can’t answer emails on the weekend, or a friend that we don’t go out Sunday nights, it might just be that our organization does not shut down, nor does our friend perish due to a night without us. But the biggest point of rest, in terms of spiritual growth, is to connect with God – a Higher Power for some folks. There we are faced with our thoughts and our feelings. We may even be asked to “give an account,” as Pastor says, reminding us that accounts come with a cost. (Which is why some of us shy away from being at rest in order to avoid paying that price of solitude).

For many Christians, we have to remind ourselves that we are worthy of approaching God (through prayer, reflection, what have you), because it’s not about what we have/haven’t done, it’s about God. We are mandated to surrender, which is actually a very strong position to take in the big picture. It’s a position of humility, and an acknowledgement that “we’ll have more to bring next week,” as Tate reminds us. We had better unload while we can before getting back on the to-do hamster wheel that our culture encourages in so very many ways. So, if possible, on Sunday – or another day that works better with your particular schedule – stay. “Be still, and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10). Or at least, for now, just try to be still.

Trading in Tradition

I DON’T LIKE ICEBREAKERS ANYWAY, but this time of year they seem even more irksome than usual. Like, how many times — at various meetings and such — will I be asked what my favorite holiday tradition is? I mean for one thing, I just think the Holidays-with-a-capital-H are a bit overwhelming anyway. So coming up with my favorite moment within this miasma that is December-in-America kind of puts me over the edge. Not to mention, for a lot of people that question can be downright triggering; there may well have been some favorite traditions no longer upholdable due to death, or estrangement, or other life situations. Also, sorry, but a lot of the responses that ensue are super boring: I like to decorate the tree and listen to Christmas music; I always bake frosted sugar cookies; I see the Nutcracker every year… I mean great, have fun, but nothing new to see here. You know? My question is, what’s so great about tradition anyway?

When I was asked this tradition question most recently (at a Diversity Committee meeting of all places where we are supposedly tasked to consider inclusivity, as in this question just might be exclusionary for some), I said I like to figure out new things to do each year. Fact is, this will only be my third Christmas in Los Angeles, so not a lot of “usually” has even taken place yet. And I love it this way, because it makes it so easy to change things up — even if it’s just where I buy the ingredients for my grandmother’s Cinnamon Flop. (A tradition: I bake a coffee cake. Not interesting). Also, just like with Thanksgiving, I do feel a slight desire to question most anything people do by rote. The word tradition has its origins in the words deliver and transmit. This makes me think of how actively tradition gets handed down, like “take this damn tradition!” Traditions have to start somewhere, however, in order for them to be handed down in the first place.

So here I just want posit a few thoughts on how cool it is not to have traditions, to try new things without the pressure of coronating them as traditions. Putting aside our map of traditions reveals a bevy of new possibilities. Our little holiday boats can float all over the place, discovering new lands — or foods, or music, or… And just like life in general, some of these explorations are going to yield fantastic discoveries, while others will fall flat, at best. That’s why so many of us are fearful of going off-script, whether we’re talking about holiday traditions, religious ideologies, or career trajectories.

Let me be clear now, if you saw my apartment you would not think I was an off-scripter when it came to the holidays. There are the heirloom wooden figures from Norway, circa 1965, set up on my windowsill; the Christmas tree — which I was really on the fence about, but this week brought news of the passing of an acquaintance and a tree sounded like a happy distraction; the papier-mâché Mexican doll named Lencha, that my mother had on the top of every Christmas tree since I can recall; even some stockings hanging, although just for show now. (They used to be my favorite part of opening gifts, but assorted adults got tired of the labor of stuffing and started bringing gift bags with “stocking stuffers” in them and well, that really set me off. So yeah, no more stocking stuffers – just stockings. Harumph). Also, because of my immediate family’s mixed religious history, I have some fabulous homemade Hanukkah decorations from when my kids were young and making things like that. So, as you can see, lots of traditions here –which is mostly Christmas for me, with a little Hanukkah thrown in, and an inner yearning for Kwanzaa which just seems too appropriative for me to consider celebrating.

In church last Sunday Pastor Tate was asking people in the congregation what their favorite thing was about Christmas. Once again the usual answers abounded. And of course Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas Is You” made numerous appearances. But then one person hollered from the back (we’re in a giant high school auditorium) that they liked the “feel” of the holiday. And yeah, that resonated. Plus it works with the going off-script thing, too. Because some holiday feelings — like stress, anxiety, exhaustion — need to be put out to pasture. But, oh, those other feelings that somehow manage to battle their way through the commercial mania of the time — like generosity, gaiety, whimsy, and hopefulness, to name a few, yeah I like that. Especially the hopeful thing. Because I always think if people can be a little kinder, a little more generous, a little more open-hearted just because the calendar has flipped to December, then maybe there is hope for sustaining those kinds of feelings throughout the year. I mean humans don’t actually run out of feelings, they just get pushed aside by other feelings sometimes. It’s a tradition.

So maybe instead of us all asking each other what we’re doing “for the holidays,” we could just ask people how they’re feeling. We all know this is an exceptionally difficult time for so many of us, made only worse by the constant blaring command to be giddy with joy over presents, groaning tables of food, and scads of friends and family. That’s just not a lot of people’s lives. So, as they say, check on your friends. Check on your coworkers. Check on the cashier at the store where you’re buying your Secret Santa gifts. And maybe we can all just buck tradition a little bit and keep the old holiday spirit alive throughout the year. Maybe that could be a new tradition.

Alihelisdi Iga*

AROUND THIS TIME OF YEAR ON TWITTER (MAY IT REST IN PEACE), you see lots of us historians preparing to ruin Thanksgiving en masse. These folks are fanning out far and wide to dinners where no one wants to hear about Indian massacres and syphilis. Can you believe? It turns out that some people would just like to eat their turkey, stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce (the only pop of color in an otherwise monochromatic meal) and maybe watch a little football. (Of course the NFL is its own can of worms…). And these ruiners of all things light and breezy? Well, they might say something like, Did you know there are only TWO actual primary sources upon which we base this whole holiday tradition?! I, myself, only just learned that the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit (see photo above), was basically the guest of honor at the original shindig. In fact, research shows that this whole event was much more like a catered tête-à-tête than a family get together. Makes sense to me.

I remember as a kid I wanted us to go around our small family table of four — plus maybe an errant graduate student or two — and have people say what they were thankful for. Well, you’d have thought I’d asked my family to strip naked and dance. I’ve always been a sap, and then once I learned about our country’s actual history (not the one purported to be the full story in those ratty textbooks we had in school) I was in my feelings all the more. Only I was mad, as well as sad. What the – ?! So my ancestors (on my mother’s side; my father’s side was secretly practicing their Jewish religion and basically keeping their heads down) rolled up onto the shores of New England and did a land grab as if there were no other humans already living there? It was urban renewal, old-school style. I have since felt funny — as many do — about this Thanksgiving holiday.

Now, once I became a vegetarian… I was never especially radical about my vegetarian-ess, but I thought it odd that some people (my kids’ friends’ parents, for example) considered it outrageous that we did not include a crispy, dead bird in the middle of our Thanksgiving table. Like somehow the holiday wouldn’t take or something. Anyone who knows me knows this kind if reaction only stoked my contrariness. I made sure to have a most lavish pescatarian dinner (because Kosher — another story). Flounder Florentine with Pistachios was my specialty. I even wrote a children’s book (self-published on my Epson home copier) that I read at my kids’ pre-school each year. Fishy Turkey Day, it was called. I’m still not sure if my kids thought it was actually cool that mommy was coming in to school and reading her handmade book. It may have been totally embarrassing and they were just kind of polite about it.

Anyway, that all ended when I started eating meat again. Now sometimes my mother would host the Thanksgiving meal, and she would lay out a most beautiful table, that was for sure. But mom liked to experiment, never quite content with how things were as initially presented. (This was actually a personality trait that I think got in the way of her living her best life). So, out would come a lovely main meat course, and perhaps some type of potatoes, and a vegetable. We had been making what we called Aunt Flora’s Broccoli Casserole since forever. We thought it was kitschy, what with Velveeta cheese and Ritz crackers as the main ingredients. It was only decades later that I realized that Aunt Flora’s recipe was literally on the side of the Velveeta cheese box.

Adding to Mom’s feast, my son would often make the cranberry sauce and my daughter usually had a hand in dessert. But there would always be that one outlier dish, the Experiment. Mom would kind of laugh as she brought it out. “I’m trying something new,” she might say, “but the recipe called for raisins and all I had were capers…” Sometimes it was good, but most of the time not so much. My polite kids (man, come to think of it Thanksgiving must have been a tough time for them) would say they liked it — or at least try it and not spit it out. “Interesting” was a word we often used on those occasions.

Well, what I started to say is that Thanksgiving is a pretty complicated holiday. We are supposedly celebrating fellowship with the indigenous peoples of this land — the Tongva where I am now, and the Chumash where I’ll be spending Thanksgiving, for example. But it’s kinda like celebrating an abundant cotton harvest on the plantation and telling a magical tale of how enslaved people “helped” us reap the benefits. Smithsonian Magazine has a great article from 2020 that features a bit of history, lots of cool hyperlinks, and some original recipes from Native chefs. It’s worth a read for those interested in digging a little deeper into this fraught occasion.

The fact is, most people who I know are thankful for so many things on the regular, they live a life of gratitude. And Thanksgiving, if simply a tradition of seeking out family and friends and then cooking together, is a fabulous idea. But I wouldn’t be the villainous historian that I am (you should see me bursting bubbles in the classroom) if I didn’t simply ask that folks look for a moment into their own land’s indigenous origins. I really like how so many of the activist/advocacy groups I participate in begin events with acknowledgment of whose land they are speaking from. So maybe that could be a little something added to the dinner — if you don’t do such a thing already. And, as many also do already, donations to food pantries — now and throughout the year — is a great move.

Anyway, I think that’s enough from the dark side for now. Happy Day of Giving Thanks to all, and to all a good feast. Here’s a Commanche-style Corn recipe, in the native language (from Smithsonian article).

Numu Atakwasʉ Kuʔinarʉ

Wahatʉ nakooʔipʉ̠ha nʉmʉ kutsu taʔoo
Sʉmʉ moʔobekatʉ kʉʉka (ma hʉnʉkooʔi)
Wahatʉ nakooʔipʉ̠ha kukʉmepʉ̠
Paa (tʉtsituka tʉbinaawekiti pawʉ̠saʔnai)
Paaki saawhi tuakupa ma noyaikʉ̠.

Kukʉmepʉ̠ tsa yʉʔyʉkaruʔi.

Subetʉ ma.

*Happy Thanksgiving in Cherokee.

Mind Fields

Photo by Diana Dypvik on

I’VE BEEN THINKING OF THE WORD “GLEAN” LATELY. I was reminded in a recent sermon about the book of Ruth and how she went into Boaz’s fields to glean what was left after the harvest. The leftovers. She asked if she could follow behind the harvesters and pick up what fell to the ground. That got me thinking how we use that word glean in conversation. As in, you can glean something from talking to someone, or hearing a lecture… The etymology of the word comes from the 14th century, originally meaning to gather reaped corn. Reaping is the act of cutting grain(e.g.) for harvest. That got me to wondering then, when we glean something are we receiving the leftovers provided us, or are we picking and choosing that which we want to take? Is gleaning active or passive?

Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, was down on her luck right about then. Ruth was determined to help her, dead husband and all. Back then (oh, and for centuries thereafter) no man in a woman’s life meant no money in a woman’s life. So Ruth was taking what she could glean from the field so that she and Naomi would have something to eat. Well, it turns out that she was in the field of Boaz, a man related to Naomi on her also dead husband’s side. Boaz meets her in the field and — in caretaking fashion circa Biblical times — tells the other workers to keep their hands off her and to let her work in the field as long as she wants. Ruth wonders why the man is being so generous and he says he heard tell of her good deeds as a daughter-in-law.

Well things get even better after snack time wherein Boaz tells the other workers to actually leave some stalks of wheat out of their bundles so that Ruth can take those home, too. (Like when we give our cats a full spoonful of tuna salad instead of just letting them lick our finger, I guess). One Bible commentary reads, “According to the Mosaic law, when the Israelites harvested crops from their fields, they were to leave some plants at the edges and some of the gleanings, the bits of grain that the harvesters would drop or otherwise miss as they went through the fields. The purpose for this legislation was so that the poor and the sojourners traveling through the land could eat from what was left in the fields (Lev. 19:9–10).” So what was gleaned was charity; folks were even gleaning the gleanings sometimes.

I learned, in researching this word, that many different companies are named Glean. There is an electronic note-taking platform, a “work assistant” for finding info on your own company, a “self-service data visualization” company, and a collection of artisanal bath and body products. (Quotes in this case mean I don’t have the foggiest idea what those things actually are). So, clearly a lot of us are taking major poetic license with this word. What I also gleaned is that the majority of people see gleaning as an act of picking through fields of stuff — information, apps, toiletries — and collecting what is needed in the given moment. So that got me to thinking how when I read a book or an article or such, am I simply collecting what is needed in the moment? Like, consider the way we might watch a film one time and get a particular message or feeling from it, and then return to that field of creativity on a different occasion only to gather a whole different armful of thoughts.

So then it seems that what might be important about gleaning is what it is we do with the stuff we have gathered. Whether we were meant to have it through someone else’s doing, or we just stumbled upon the stuff and took it for our own, how will we make the most of that which we have gleaned? Ruth, for one, “threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah” (Ruth 2:17). In other words, she brought a bunch of food home to her mother-in-law. Do we share our food for thought with others, even if it might seem insignificant at the time? Are we actually just a bunch of gleaners going through our days, collecting things only in the way that we can and then sharing our bounty with others? Teachers, authors, scientists… I mean it’s basically what I just did here. I picked through the fields of my mind — and the internet — then threshed all those thoughts and offered them up on this page. Not sure if it even amounts to a bushel (ephah), but just in case you might be hungry for some freshly gleaned thoughts, here you are.

Make Room(s)

I WAS WATCHING THE WATCHER THE OTHER NIGHT, because a lot of people I like said they liked it. By the time the ferret met its violent death in episode one, I was done. But, before I freaked out I was thinking about how big that family’s house was. And that got me to wondering why they wanted such a big house for only four people (I think four, I had my hands over my eyes a lot). And then that got me thinking about some of the big houses back in New Jersey. Some of my kids’ friends had big ol’ houses, yet few of the parents were home enough to really make them feel lived in. No shame, I am simply wondering, Why don’t we use all the rooms in our house?

This can be a literal or metaphorical question, of course. Like I think about my faith tradition and the discourse around using one’s gifts, the things God has provided. There is much admonition, in all sorts of fashions, not to leave our gifts up on the proverbial shelf. (Or under the tree, perhaps, what with the Holidays-writ-large upon us). We are, instead, to accept those gifts — things like Prophecy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Giving, Leadership, and Mercy according to Romans 12:6–8 — and then unwrap those gifts and put them to use, by serving others. But we don’t always do that, do we? Or maybe sometimes we think we tried to use one of our gifts, but then decided it wasn’t really ours to use — or not actually a gift at all. Or perhaps that gift caused just a little too much commotion and we hurriedly put it back on the shelf before people started noticing.

I was an actor for a number of years in New York City. I don’t know that I thought I was especially gifted then, I just really wanted to do it. When I think of actors today who blow me away — like Wendell Pierce or Viola Davis — it occurs to me I really did not have a gift for acting. But what I think I might have is an acting-adjacent gift! I mean I’m pretty good at public speaking, whether in the classroom, at a professional conference, or during a community meeting. I think that means I just didn’t read the directions carefully on that particular gift after I opened it. No regrets though because, well, how many people can say they were a body double for Ally Sheedy and then met Alan Alda all in one day?!

In scripture, Jesus is to have said to his disciples, “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” (John 14:1). Bible commentaries often explain these mansions as abiding-places, homes of rest, sites of peace. As in, there will likely be lots of space for chilling in the hereafter, and it will probably not be related to square footage. So I’m thinking, when people desire homes with lots of rooms, lots of floor space, are they thinking these places will offer them multiple opportunities for relaxing, playing, fellowshipping with friends and family? Do some simply want a big house because of investment purposes? And are there a few mansion-owners who just enjoy the appearance of big-house ownership? I’m trying to figure out, when folks don’t use all the rooms in their house, then what are those rooms there for?

My mother had extra rooms in her last home. And I really wish I had asked her, when she first bought the house, what her intentions for those rooms were. How did she foresee them being used? Why were they there? Was what eventually became a guest room intended for scads of friends visiting from out of state, or her grandchildren’s regular sleepovers? Because neither of those events were especially common occurrences. And what about that room next to it, the one you could only enter sideways because the door wouldn’t open all the way due to all that stuff stored in there. Was it, perhaps, going to be an art studio? Did my mom envision getting back to her painting, having a dedicated space just for that? Because that did not really happen either. And what about that finished attic? Do we have plans for our rooms — our gifts — but then sometimes just start piling things on top of them such that we end up forgetting our intentions, no longer able to see the possibilities in front of us?

There are so very many humans on this earth who have fewer rooms than the number of people living under that roof. When I think of my apartment it seems majestic, the way I can glide from room to room, undeterred by any other human. I grew up in a medium sized, rambling home. Rooms were plentiful but their uses changed a lot. Like just when I thought a room was my bedroom, it was turned into my father’s study; and then the bedroom that I subsequently shared with my sister became the guest room, and so we were moved upstairs to the attic. Maybe our family was searching for our gifts in these rooms, shaking the packaging to find out just what they were. At any rate, I was convinced I had no gifts for a while. But I’m glad to report that is not the case anymore.

The Netflix description of The Watcher is, “A family moves into their dream home, only to be plagued by ominous letters, strange neighbors and sinister threats.” Apparently this is based on a true story that took place in Westfield, New Jersey. I know that town well, and I can see how scary stuff would happen there. But I wonder if maybe that family was put through the ringer because they didn’t use their rooms, didn’t employ their gifts. Or maybe they were using other people’s gifts and calling them their own. We know that never ends well. I have no intention of watching the rest of the series, so I won’t learn how the story ends. But I am pretty sure it’s not happily. On the flipside, I have come to understand that when folks use what they have, when they take advantage of their gifts and notice the possibilities presented to them, then their stories end up scary-good.

Eyes Off the Prize

Kayla Ephros, “Poem 5”

IT REALLY IS ABOUT THE PROCESS. ISN’T IT?! I was just texting with my artist-daughter, talking about shows, presentations, and publications. How we (meaning, society) get so wound up about these result-oriented moments. And it reminded me of what my gym teacher, Mrs. Krauder, taught us in 3rd grade when we were playing Bombardment — which is apparently no longer allowed in school gyms across America: You are never winning, only leading; never losing, only trailing. I mean that really stuck with me (obviously, since 3rd grade was a very long time ago). It seems like Mrs. Krauder was talking about process there. So then my question is, when we are writing or painting or teaching or learning or competing, “When can we say we are we done?”

Steve Harvey and a whole bunch of other Christians like to say, “He ain’t through with me yet.” It attempts to explain why we consider ourselves followers and emulators of an exceptionally good person yet are far from that ourselves. It’s a process, we’re saying. A procedure. We have been proceeding on a long (read infinite) path in order to walk through life a certain kind of way. We are in a procession. And really anyone who considers that there is a power or entity or such outside this world believes they are living a process, being in the moment, acknowledging the here and the now. Right? Yet — we are still so excited about getting the flowers. You’ve done it! Congratulations! You won! Nothing wrong with all this, in and of itself. But I’m just thinking that these rituals and traditions may stop us short of our path’s direction. Or, maybe just throw us into confusion as to where we meant to go in the first place.

I have a book coming out. Right now I am working on final edits. The editor has made very reasonable suggestions and observations that will in all likelihood make this book better. And I worked very hard to get someone to publish this book, to have a book to even publish. When I first heard the news last December that I was being offered a book contract, well, I sure felt like I had won. All those years, all that time at my desk, the research… Turns out I’m still only leading. Because there is so much work to do just to garner this prize. And I realize, as I revise every day, that I could change the sentence I just changed another five times at least. So each sentence, revised five times, multiplied by three hundred pages. Well, you can do the math, but it sounds infinite to me.

When my daughter first started having gallery shows, I was giddy. Finally, people would see how amazing her art was, how she expresses ideas and feelings in a way no one else does — and how her work can resonate so much with so very many people. (Take a gander for yourself). She, on the other hand, was never quite as excited as I was about the show. (Of course, is anyone ever as excited for anything as the mom of the kid doing the thing)?! Now, it’s not to say that my daughter didn’t work very hard to get these shows, to have representation by a gallery and all those things, but the show itself wasn’t her goal I don’t think. Only now am I starting to understand that. Her art is her path, and it does look infinite from where I stand. The shows are like little rest stops along the way, and I do not think these events will ever throw my daughter off her own track. Certainly we want our work out there; we writers and artists and musicians and all desire to communicate with people through that work. But does the publication/show/concert signal some kind of finish line? Maybe not.

I’m starting to think of all these events as simply small achievements along a big procession, mile markers where you grab a Dixie cup of water out of a volunteer’s hand as you continue on your marathon. But I am also thinking that sometimes we spend so much energy and resource on these mile markers that we might diminish our strength and commitment to the long run. Imagine, for example, if our political leaders all kept their eyes on that road ahead, the long haul, the big picture. That thing. Not the I’m up in the polls; I was on some jenky TV news show; I got to fly in a private jet. Imagine, if after all those years since they first launched their career as a civil servant (yeah, that’s what they’re supposed to be) they are still laboring towards their initial goals of human dignity and equity. (I mean for those whose goals were ever that anyway). Cough cough, Bernie Sanders.

I am really writing this to myself. Even though I have known intellectually — through sport and faith, among other things — that winning isn’t everything, I think I am only now figuring out that there just might not be such a thing as winning at all. Or maybe we have won just by being here, and all the rest is just that proverbial frosting (not icing, ick) on the cake (carrot, please). It really is about the journey, isn’t it? In fact, what else could it even be about? See, I’m going to finish revising this book, and it will probably get published as planned. And I will be thrilled that the stories I share in it will have made their way into the light of a more public space. But that all is really just a nice drink of water along the way. I am not going to forget to admire the scenery and enjoy the proceedings along this path called life. Maybe that would make me a winner already.