I’s the Limit

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THE TITLE SOUNDS A LOT LIKE A MOTIVATIONAL POSTER that might be hanging in a fluorescent-lit office space somewhere. I don’t mean for it to. But I guess motivational posters do have their moments. (I mean the “Hang in There” kitten is a classic, right?). What I wanted to say with this title — and I almost never have a title prior to completing my writing, but this one was buzzing around — is that limits are all in our heads. And I don’t just mean, “we can do anything if we set our minds to it” (another poster). The definition of what a limit even is varies so much from person to person that I am really asking, What does “limit” mean?

I was thinking the other day how limits are necessary in order to live life effectively. Speed limits, age limits, seating capacity limits, and service limits to only those vaccinated, to name a few examples. (If business owners choose to do this, I support it 100%). We are always told to set limits for ourselves. That is unless we are being told that there are no limits. Pretty confusing, if you ask me. So let’s go to the etymology, shall we? (While many of my students tend to head over to Webster’s to commence their essays — even though I forbid dictionaries as a source — I, myself, often fall back on Oxford Languages to get things started). So the word came from the Latin limes, meaning a “boundary” or “frontier.” I mean right there, that sounds like two different things to me. (At first I thought limes, like the things you put in your Gin and Tonic. But no). So those two words — boundary and frontier — conjure up very different visuals for me; a boundary is something you don’t cross, while a frontier holds promise of things to come. Those are my connotative associations. But these conflicting (for me, at least) origin words make sense of my original thesis, that a limit can be many things to many people.

*By the way, Webster’s defines the word as, “bounds, restrains, or confines.” And this, my dear students, is why we don’t use dictionary definitions, because they are concretized in connotations based solely upon present societal thinking. #nodictionaries

This is starting to become a blog on connotations and denotations. Oh well, that’s okay. But I need to interject yesterday’s sermon here; you knew it was coming. (My Sunday blog turned into a Monday blog, by the way, because my daughter and I were putting my new bed together last night. It’s almost done, okay!?). Anyway, Pastor Nick was in for the on-the-mend Pastor Smith. And he shared with us his message entitled, “Growing Up in Love.” Pastor Nick encouraged us to take “ails” as joy. As in, “Count it all joy when you meet various trials” (James 1:2). Because I’m on this limits thing, I was seeing the ails as limits, or what we tend to consider limits until we start counting those things as joy. I came up with some examples pretty quickly, though they are fairly mundane. Like last week I was on my union’s Zoom meeting. Now I have been lamenting the fact that I am still teaching remotely, having yet to secure an on-campus teaching gig this side of the Rio Grande. Well, after listening to the chaos of university mandates, recommendations, and suggestions, and then the confusion and anxiety in the voices of my fellow faculty members heading back to campus, I said a little thank-you prayer. Seems God might just be sparing me from the messiness of yet another school year plagued by the plague. So I am going to take that ail as a joy, for now anyway.

Our relationships can be limiting, too. Maybe we could ask ourselves if they are boundaries or frontiers. Pastor Nick suggested yesterday that God may well limit our contact with certain family members because we are putting them before God. Interesting idea, and tough for some of us to hear. But the Bible says, depending upon translation, that we are supposed to “hate” our family if we are to truly be disciples of Jesus. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Now, again, the connotation of hate is in question here. I don’t think we’re supposed to sit back and talk bad about our kin. We love them — mostly! But the idea, apparently, is that if we get too caught up in all things earthly, including its humans, that we lose sight of the biggest picture, God. We then limit our relationship with God. Now, for some this could sound super harsh, and for others it is actually a watered-down interpretation. I’m still grappling with all sorts of things, so I’m just sharing my thinking process here.

In church yesterday we were also reminded to keep an open heart. (See, we have so much capacity for love that we can be close to man and God)! Even when folks have hurt us Christians — and lots of other people — we believe that we are to keep our hearts “sensitive” as Pastor Nick called it. And I see the limit theme here, too: we limit our vast capacity for love when we harden our hearts. It’s on us. (By the way, I had all these classic rock songs about hard hearts spinning around my brain as I listened to this part of the sermon, but I couldn’t nail down one specific one. Can you?).

The bottom line — right now anyway, because the bottom line is unstable to say the least — is that love has no limits, in its original form. That’s my thought. I mean most everyone knows this scripture in one form or another:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Sounds like love is a straight-up frontier, unless we choose to make it a barrier. Sounds like life is a frontier, too, ready to explore (but not colonize, please). I’m just going to keep on picturing frontiers — which is especially easy to do out here in the wild, weird, west. This won’t be a practice of denying that which is painful, but simply one of seeking out hope in even the darkest of situations. Easier said than done, but I am going to try real hard to start limiting my limits from now on.

Dropping the Bomb

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MY PRACTICE THIS WEEK HAS BEEN ABOUT KEEPING MY MIND STILL ENOUGH, at times anyway, such that God can “drop” His thoughts in there. Like a still pool of water waiting for more rain, if my mind is splashing and sloshing around then that fresh water will have nowhere to rest. Maybe this image could be useful to others as you meditate, pray, or just plain make yourself sit still for a minute in order to breathe in some truth.

Unfortunately, at the same time that I am meditating on this, the image also takes me to another place where things have dropped. This month marks the 77th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in Japan by the United States. It was the first time ever that a nuclear weapon had been used. Fortunately, so far it has been the last. A few days ago I listened to a fascinating interview with the author of a book on the subject:

https://www.npr.org/2021/08/06/1025059199/fallout-tells-the-story-of-the-journalist-who-exposed-the-hiroshima-cover-up

Lesley M.M. Blume wrote about a New Yorker reporter, John Hersey, who basically let the world know what had actually happened to that Japanese city at the time of the bombing, and just as devastatingly in the days, weeks and months to come. See, apparently our country was none too keen on publicizing that event as anything but a victory over the enemy. American soldiers on the ground in Japan saw it as a “win,” revenge against the egregious attack on Pearl Harbor. Hersey’s reporting is credited as one of the reasons that attack was taken as a cautionary tale by so many — because his audience was provided an eye-witness account of the human destruction that ensued.

So yes, you can see why I have to work so hard for my mind to be still. A smooth body of water can quickly turn into a scorched field of radiation in my imagination. Now this may have something to do with my father’s raison d’etre, which was to end of all military conflict, with a focus on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. He published a lot on the subject, if you’re interested:https://www.thriftbooks.com/a/j-david-singer/488600/

Growing up with my father, as I have shared before, was both a blessing and a curse. (There are probably a lot of kids who would say the same thing about their parents — including mine)! I learned some valuable lessons: that truth was crucial if we wanted to right wrongs; that being popular was thoroughly unimportant (that lesson took a little while to sink in); to pay attention to the world around me at all times (which is exhausting but also great practice for writers and activists). But I also learned — because sometimes we learn things, integrate things, take things in that might not be so great for us — that my problems were never commensurate to the world’s. Bad grades, broken friendships, losing seasons were all utterly petty compared to the world’s problems. Of course this is a fact in the deepest sense, but after becoming a parent myself I realized it was really alright to treat the misplacement of a child’s favorite stuffed rabbit, for example, with an urgency equal to what that child is feeling. Otherwise it makes for kids growing up confused by the contradiction between how they are feeling and how the world is reacting to those feelings. Raise your hand if that sounds at all familiar.

I need to take a moment to still my mind, to let some more thoughts drop in. I am feeling the waves starting to crash hard. Inhale, exhale…

The way I chose to treat my child’s lost toy came from inside of me. It came from what in my tradition we call the Holy Spirit — or the Holy Ghost if we’re not trying to be so buttoned up, as Pastor Smith reminded us last week. As Pastor Kevin spoke on today, the “Holy Spirit is the great teacher and interpreter” for so many of us. Anyone who listens for that message from inside, whether we call it God or intuition or whatever, knows that particular feeling when it happens. (Now, the advantage of faith here is that we don’t spend a whole lot of time, hopefully, questioning said message because well, God). So if I am thinking about breakfast and I hear almond butter, then my only question is, “honey or jam?” And if that same spirit says it’s time to move across the country, well the car and cat get packed up, and off we go.

Meals and moves can turn into wrestling matches, or they can simply be calm moments of realization. It all depends upon whether we are willing to be led “beside the still waters” so our souls can be restored (Psalm 23). Too much planning, too much proscribing, and a drought takes place in our mind. Boulders of fear and worry and control take up space where a flowing spring used to be. And when we get to that rocky place, then there are questions that need to be asked. Like, is that diet you decided to follow really the best thing for your body? That schedule you won’t divert from, how is it working for you? That list of things your next partner must have — is that list inviting love?

Some things that fall should be stopped, like the atomic bomb. There is no waiting around for that message. As far as I can see, it’s already arrived loud and clear. But thoughts, well they can sometimes feel scarier than the “faraway” idea of a nuclear attack. It might be easier to escape our thoughts, but that doesn’t mean we should do so. I’m just going to keep stopping throughout the day, laying bare my mind, body, and soul for God’s thoughts and plans and commands to fall. And I am wondering how you clear your mind to receive truth and love. How do you ensure that nothing “drops into your spirit” — as Pastor Smith is wont to say — which is harmful to yourself or those around you? How do you receive those words meant for you and you alone?

Following the Thought Dots

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WHEN I WRITE THIS THING ON SUNDAYS, I usually have a few ideas to begin with. Then I see where they take me, hoping for a single point to eventually show itself. Today I feel as if my ideas are disparate. (Or perhaps desperate)?! So here goes, I’m going to try to connect these ideas — the way we teachers encourage our students to do in the classroom.

Why does our culture value togetherness over aloneness to such a degree? During this pandemic, there has been much discussion of people isolating themselves and suffering because of it. Of course it is not good to cut oneself off from the world. My DailyOm book warns against “disconnecting from the source.” But the world is not the source, God is (for me anyway). The world is simply where our faith plays out, or a site of service, or an opportunity to love. So right, definitely don’t cut yourself off. BUT, being alone is not necessarily bad for one’s mental health.

17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Truth. Many of us are so scared of our thoughts. I have written about this before. And even if we do somehow get caught alone and in public, we busy ourselves looking at our cellphones. Because, God forbid someone thinks we are not engaged in the world.

One of the million reasons I love church is because (mostly) people sit and think and feel and consider — and pray and worship, too. It seems to me that if more of us took the time to sit and think, then maybe there would even be more praise and worship. [Warning, messy transition ahead]. Anyway, I’m tired of hearing things like how social drinking is fine, for example, but drinking alone is a red flag for disaster. Really? I sure have seen a lot of folks drinking alcohol with other people who look like they could really use some help. And I have a sense there are numerous people who have a glass of wine or two all by themselves at night, and then go on to lead productive lives. See, we are told it’s romantic to curl up with someone on the couch and have a drink, watch a movie perhaps, but you’re just plain depressed if you do that same thing all alone. I beg to differ; I’ve curled up with a number of folk who have definitely tested my mental health capacity. Anyway, I could go on, like about being the only single person at a party and receiving looks of pity and confusion, or filling out a form that enquires as to whether one is single, married, divorced, or widowed. (Why does it matter what kind of single I am)?

Okay, here’s another question: why are we so obsessed with saving time? What are we saving it for? To find a solution to homelessness? great; to convince all humans to get vaccinated against the COVID virus? cool. But thing is, most of us are saving time so we can get back onto that aforementioned couch (I did it, I made a connection!) and simply indulge in a little food and drink and TV. I saw a meme recently explaining that those of us who had Pez dispensers back in the day had wasted so much time filling them up one by one with those fruity candies; turns out there is a trick to auto-loading them. It’s CANDY! What is the hurry? What part of the candy experience is supposed to be efficient, I ask you!? If I had a Pez dispenser right now, I would fill it with those little orange-flavored tablets, one by one, just like I used to.

Brian Regan has a hilarious comedy routine about Pop-Tarts and time. He reads the directions on the box and learns that microwaving them is even faster than putting them in the toaster. He contends that if someone is so busy that they don’t have time to toast a Pop-Tart then it might be wise to “loosen up your schedule.” (Please watch if you don’t know his routines, he is way funny)! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6GHPIwkXl0

And speaking of church again (connection #2!), some folks think service is too long — especially Baptist service. I am so used to a hearty two-hour Sunday service that when I visit another church and we are out and in our cars within sixty minutes, well I feel like I didn’t even go to church. I mean, after all, it takes some time to settle in, get right, sing some songs. And what are folks rushing home to do anyway? Their second job? Then I get it. Cooking for the week because they are unable to prepare meals consistently Monday through Friday? Makes sense. But a lot of us are in a hurry to hear that benediction just so we can go out to the diner for eggs and potatoes, or head home, take off our heels and get back on that proverbial couch again. So chill and “know that [He] is God,” y’all!

I could go on about the way our society treats time like a transactional commodity, how Amazon endlessly exploits its workers, for example, by seeking more and more “efficient” ways to get those boxes of stuff most of us don’t really need into our hands ASAP. What, you never saw the film, Sorry to Bother You? Well here’s a preview – hold onto your “horses.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XthLQZWIshQ

Sacrificial Love. That was the first of three points that Pastor Smith used in his sermon today, “The Disciple’s Checklist.” This first point really got to me as I have been thinking a lot this week about people my age and the way in which they hold onto things. These things might be material, or they might be identities, perhaps “principles”… It seems pretty obvious to me that those of us in a place to do so are responsible for making sacrifices for others, for the greater good. Imagine if everyone thought that and then went and got vaccinated (connection) simply to protect someone they don’t even know. Yeah that. The idea, Pastor said, is to ask, “what’s best for others?” Now, a lot of you reading this probably already do that. And we could all do it even more. But some folks just can’t get next to that concept. There’s a song that’s been playing in my head this week after two people I know did/didn’t do something that seemed to me an obvious opportunity for generosity. The song is “Mr. Wendal” by Arrested Development. Check the song out, its music and lyrics are so mighty. It goes in part:

Here, have a dollar
In fact, no brotherman here, have two
Two dollars means a snack for me
But it means a big deal to you

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfxvsHpTZWk

I mean, what’s left to be said? Pastor referenced “the other checklist” that sometimes interferes with the disciple’s checklist — that worldly one. (Oooh a connection again)! You know the list. One: have a lot of stuff; Two: make sure people know you have a lot of stuff; Three: hold on tight to your stuff because people are trying to take your stuff. That list.

Anyway, my brain is in overdrive because I spend a lot of time alone. And I am not in any hurry to change my life, to know what’s next, or even to cook my food. I have been given time today and I will do my best to be present in it. And I will continue to practice some sacrificial love in my comings and goings, so that one day it might just be that it becomes my lifestyle and not just a goal. So thanks for following along with me on these connections today. Here’s to making connections.

Uncluttering the Path

I am back and thinking again. I don’t mean to say I don’t have thoughts when I travel, but the thoughts are traveling, too, so there is not the same kind of time to sit still with them. Perhaps that is one reason so many of us like our getaways — for that getaway from thoughts that are hard, confounding, irritating, or scary. But back home now, with time to read my bible, my daily meditations, and write in my journal, I find my thoughts are landing, and hard. Like planes being directed to circle above the airport due to crowding on the runway, my thoughts have been waiting for sometime to land.

I was reading about a meditation the other day that is supposed to aid in healing from one’s past. After considering who we might need to heal from, we are to envision that someone walking toward us, down a road, at their own pace. We are to ask that person, upon their arrival, if they are willing to heal with us. Now that might sound a bit woo-woo to some of you, but I seriously considered the premise. Who do I need to do that with? What relationships are lingering in my soul, as the Daily Om puts it, that are blocking my best life? I wrote down a list of possibilities, folks who I have experienced pain with, who have lied to me, mistreated me, blamed me, or cheated me. I mean, I’m 60 now, there’s a lot of water under that bridge!

Then I got to thinking — because I can now! — Are these feelings of pain and all memories? Are memories feelings? Just because I remember disappointments does that mean I’m still carrying them around like proverbial baggage? Or are they simply souvenirs of a life long-lived? Are we supposed to forget everything bad that has ever happened? How do we know the difference between forgiving and forgetting?

Well, I could keep all this interpersonal, but I want to zoom out (small-Z zoom) because I was joyfully back at Friendship Pasadena Church today. And church, if you let it, can really get you out of your head — which too often involves navel-gazing (you were right, Dad) — and into your heart, which has a much larger capacity for considering the whole. This has been my underlying goal for some time, considering humanity and not just me. Anyway, we started Praise and Worship with a song that included the words, “I surrender,” a pretty common suggestion when it comes to believing in a higher power. So, still thinking about that baggage question, I asked God to take any stuff from me that I might be carrying unnecessarily. I ask for something like that a lot, actually. As in, “just make me less extra.”

When it was sermon time, Pastor Nick Sherman lit up the scripture — along with some hearts and minds I’m pretty sure. He was reminding us, among many things, that there are certain items and/or people that need to be removed from our lives in order for God to do the things God has in store for us. Like when Judas had to leave the dinner party in order for Jesus to be “glorified.” As in a dark cloud was hanging around with old traitorous Judas in the room. Pastor Nick suggested that we check for any Judas’ we may have hanging around; even if we love them, they may still be in the way. Makes sense to me. Even those who might not believe in God understand that we humans often allow obstacles to block our ways. Fact is, we even build them ourselves sometimes!

I tried to think whether I was keeping any dark clouds around. That same list of names from before came to mind. And then that same question returned: are these just memories or are they truly baggage? Pastor Nick noted that we suffer issues in life sometimes just so God gets highlighted — as in look how I got through that storm, wow! But we could skip a few of those trials and tribulations if only we stayed more focused on God. And again, even if God is not (yet?) on your radar, you have probably looked back on your life and seen some ish that could have been avoided had you stayed true to you.

Oh, by the way, I don’t have a definitive answer to my question. (And they say age makes us wiser)! Have you been able to discern the difference, have you found a formula that helps you discern between the memories that you carry because you are a human being, and those things which are burdens that could be left by the side of the road if only you recognized them as such? The point of this “thought exercise” is to “‘Make straight the way for the Lord” (John 1:23). Thing is, I feel like that path in front of me is so sunny and bright and full of possibilities, uncrowded by brambles of strife and rocks of fear. That’s what I see when I look ahead. So maybe my memories have become reminders for me to stay on that path. I am wondering what the path ahead of you looks like right now. I’d love to know.

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Travel-Log

Because in my recent travels I have been logging miles, and hours, and words, and laughs, and meals. When we last left each other, I had just enjoyed a delightful birthday party Saturday night in the West Orange yard of my dear friend, circe. Well, Sunday came and off I went to visit my New Jersey church family at First Baptist Church of Madison. So much love to Rev. Dunn, Fonda, Mary, Eddie, Jackie, Evelin, Rochelle, Jessica, Natasha, Mrs. Brewster, et al! Evelin and I then enjoyed brunch afterwards wherein I ordered the chicken and waffles.

Monday I taught my last-minute class assignment for Bard Early College: U.S. History 1960s to the Present. Funny thing, that’s my life span. Guess I’m made for the job. Monday night I headed to Newark’s Ironbound for a dinner meeting with the Newark-Scott Cultural and Civic Foundation, at Forno’s of Spain on Ferry Street. Many of us were meeting for the first time in person as we continued our discussions and plans around ensuring that the legacy of Madam Louise Scott, as well as other African-American philanthropists and entrepreneurs, remains at the forefront of Newark’s history — and American History writ large. (Here is our Facebook page — please follow! https://www.facebook.com/newarkscottccf/ Plus there was sangria, and July birthdays and retirements were also celebrated. What a treat. After a vast paella dinner I waddled over to the long, marble bar to meet a wonderful friend for black sambuca and espresso. Thanks for finishing your laundry in time, Mary!

Tuesday, Evelin was kind enough to fetch me once more so we could have lunch with Miss Lottie, the most senior member of First Baptist Church, at age ninety-two. Lottie is one of a handful of women who truly inspire me. She is smart, and funny, and full of faith. We got BLTs and talked everything from church politics to banana pudding. Tuesday night my kids came back over to West Orange and we cooked dinner together and then had a sleepover. Jake made sweet potato gnocchi — from scratch.

Wednesday had me teaching again. Then I went to visit my friend Tammy who hosted me and our way-back friend Donna, who came all the way from Georgia! We drank Chardonnay while Tammy’s wonderful husband Rich cooked up the most delicious spicy chicken tacos for us. I mean who says I have to forego Mexican food just because I came East? We sat outside in their lovely garden (because finally it was not one million degrees outside! I mean was it always this humid out here?!). I returned home, full as usual, and so happy to have caught up with my friends. By this time I had received temporary custody of my son’s elderly Mazda, whose climate control consists of rolling down all the windows and driving very fast. But it saved me from spending major amounts of cash on a rental — have you seen the prices lately?!

Thursday may have been the second major highlight of the trip, my party being the first. Of course they both involved my children. On a warehouse rooftop garden, in Long Island City, I had the pleasure of attending a poetry and performance event organized by my amazing daughter, Kayla. All sorts of young people were there, many whom I call friends. The West Coast was well represented, as a lot of folks apparently make annual summer pilgrimages from the Pacific Ocean over to the Atlantic side. There were gorgeous poetry readings — my daughter’s included — and awesome performances by other artists. I even got to read spontaneously, a short piece I had come across in a literary journal I brought with me for the ride on New Jersey Transit. It was called “The Poets,” by Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri. It’s an allegory about a society vanquishing its artists, a cautionary tale that no one in this group actually needed to hear.

We stayed late that night on the rooftop, drinking beer and eating — you guessed it — tacos. My son and I finally made it back to his apartment only to awake too few hours later for our prospective jobs. And oh, how worthwhile that loss of sleep had been. That next night I was out once again. This time in Montclair, a town which barely resembles the sleepy burg I moved to from Manhattan in 1990. Naomi (my comrade-in-arms from grad school) and I circled the whole of Montclair before finally finding a parking spot in downtown. The parking space chose our destination, not the other way around. A couple of frosés later we called it a night.

Saturday had me heading back to the city. The day started right out of a scene from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I was John Candy! Bus didn’t show, mercurial heat and humidity and then a rainstorm kept me damp most of the day… But I hiked to the Upper East Side to visit my ninety-two year old aunt who just kept saying in disbelief, “Do you know I am 92?” She is looking good, even if she doesn’t think so. After that I was off to Chelsea having been invited by my friends Mark and Robert for what turned out to be one of the most perfectly cooked pieces of salmon I have ever had! (I’ll never make it myself again). More crazy travel ensued — I think the transportation authorities are as out of practice as we travelers are. Finally made it home sometime after two a.m. I think I just sort of stayed on West Coast time during my whole visit.

Sunday was right out of a movie montage. I headed to Jersey City again where I met up with both kids and we walked, and ate pizza, and got ices, and lay on the grass at the Hoboken waterfront. The past rainstorms had broken the smarminess of the air, and it was simply a perfect time to walk the day away. Back to Jake’s apartment for some refreshments and a quick change before returning to the neighborhood for oysters and cocktails. Jersey City. Sunday night. Happenin’!

Last night my son came over and cooked for me: black beans and beet greens that people would give up a limb for if they could. I mean, delicious. Fried yucca and plantains to accompany. Wow. We did some more transporting, once he found a free charging station for his new electric car. And yes, every time I get in The Electric Slide plays in my head. Because of the important work he is doing as a union organizer he had to get up way before dawn cracked today, so we said our goodbyes last night, reluctantly. I am never okay saying goodbye to my kids; they are a major reason I am so happy in this life.

Today I am washing sheets as I put the finishing touches on this 2-day late blog. (I am sure you understand). God-willing, my flight does not get cancelled this time and I get home in due course to my bright, sunny apartment and my fluffy, white cat. (I really miss Skittles and I don’t care who knows it)! This trip was a marker for me of many sorts: the first major travel since the pandemic hit, and the first time as a visitor in a place I lived for so very long. And it is a nice place to visit — but I wouldn’t want to live here, anymore. My heart is in my new home and I am excited to return. And all these wonderful people I have seen over the last 10 days just need to come visit me in LA! It’s a great place to visit, too. Here’s to living where you land.

I Have No More Wishes to Make

This is what I said when my birthday cake was presented to me last night. (Strawberry shortcake, thank you, circe)! People at the party seemed to think that statement was pretty profound, although maybe it sounds like resignation to some who are reading this. I had not meant it to be either. It was just that as I stood, surrounded by a beautiful collection of beautiful people all wishing me love and good life… as I stood, strong and healthy, tired only by a trip across the country that so many folks — for a variety of reasons — will never have the opportunity to take… while I stood, gazing at my fabulous children who are deep and lovely souls, who care and laugh and think and give… as I stood, being asked to make a wish for yet one more thing, no words came.

I believe that people looking at my life from the outside might just be moved to make some wishes for me, might see where there is lack. Perhaps they would wish a fulltime job for me, or a bigger home, or a romantic partner. The way I see it, those will come if they are meant to, but they are not missing. I have no wishes left to make. Of course there are things I imagine for my life (like living by the beach). And even stuff I think I want (some fancy sunglasses). But it seems to me that the more I leave these wishes to God, the better I do. See, God has ideas and an imagination that I cannot even aspire to. God has thought up stuff that I just cannot.

It feels like boasting if I list here all that I believe I “have.” Then again, I am told that I see my life as full no matter where the waterline in my glass is. Gratitude is funny that way, it makes no room for want. Desire, dreams, destinations, yes those all travel across my mind. But I do not await them. I only await the next thing, the next surprise, the next chapter, phase, or moment. I especially like the ones I do not expect (even when they are difficult, because I know I needed that particular challenge).

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not 100% without complaints and criticisms, after all I am very human, fallible, and weak. But this faith thing, man it makes me feel like Superwoman. And that’s how I felt last night, turning, sixty, surrounded by strawberry shortcake, hydrangeas, friends, and champagne — and most of all my beautiful, wonderful children. Like Superwoman. Super glad, super grateful, super happy, super proud, and super excited for whatever is coming next.

So happy birthday to me! And happy birthday to every summer baby (who is just a little extra special because we are born in the season of the hopeful sun)!

What To YOU is the 4th of July?

In between church and Kool and the Gang I want to say a few things about July 4th. It is a holiday that I am most ambivalent about.

“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic,” begins Mr. Frederick Douglass in his famous speech, quoted so often (and sometimes out of context) on this day). https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927t.html

He picked a great way in to reminding the audience that this country has problems. It’s pretty much how I start off every history class that I teach. You see, there’s this suggestion going around that we liberal professors are on campuses across the country extolling the evils of the U.S. of A. I mean, critical race theory and then some! Thing is, this country was built on a lot of really bad things, literally and figuratively. Bringing that perspective into the classroom, and into revered holidays, requires some gentle handling.

Church today was wonderful, as always. Pastor Smith was speaking about sacred symbols, among other things — the way we get so carried away with the symbols that they themselves become sacred, instead of the thing they symbolize — in our case, God. The American flag, he reminded, is a symbol. And it is one that has become sacred for many. So much so, that when folks — following the supposed tenets of American freedom, the way I see it — protest the governing of the country that flag symbolizes, those protestors come under fire. Literally, as well as figuratively. And this got me to wondering, if Frederick Douglass gave that famous speech today, would he even have survived. What with the violent gun culture, White supremacy, and hostility nurtured in this country (and yes, it took all kinds of nurturing; it does not come out of nowhere). I mean Douglass was saying some way-out stuff to a bunch of people who were expecting a polite, gracious — maybe even grateful — oration from this famous Black man. That’s not, in fact, what they got. (Please read the whole speech if you have not yet).

“The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.” That’s what he said. As in, you all celebrate if you like, but there is work to be done. It’s what those of us who feel ambivalent about this holiday, and about this country, are saying. It’s not a bad place, America, I enjoy a lot of things about this country. But there is so much work to be done. Today, while people are dressed up in red, white, and blue, eating burgers, and watching fireworks, there’s a good chance an African American will be murdered by a police officer. There is also a good chance that an immigrant, locked up in a detention center under illegal pretenses, will succumb to COVID. There’s a good chance some family member of a gun owner will accidentally shoot themselves or a loved one with that gun. There’s a good chance a person of Asian descent will be assaulted on an American street today, and also a good chance that another “essential worker” will find out they are no longer so essential. And there’s a really good chance that most of us will forget that the parks in which we celebrate today have a good chance of being stolen indigenous land.

There are a lot of stripes and death still happening in this stars and stripes country. And if we really want to celebrate this country, then let’s celebrate our alleged freedoms: to assemble, to speak freely, to publicize that which we believe to be true… There is so much opportunity to heal this broken place. And yes, it is broken, just look who we voted into the Oval Office last time. Americans have been reaping what we have been sowing for a very long time; some fields are fertile, others are dust. I’d like to think of Independence Day as a day to remember to think independently of others, to act independent of the crowd. This is an individualistic country but that does not necessarily mean independent. We could be independently collective, going out into the vineyards to toil — for ourselves, and for our fellow citizens (and by that I mean anyone living on this soil).

“Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions!” said Douglass. It is lovely to celebrate our freedom, our families, our faith, but it does not mean we need to turn blind eyes to those living here bereft of the same things. Frederick Douglass was not some well-behaved man in a starched collar to be referenced briefly each February and July. He was a trouble maker. So were Harriet, and Martin, and Shirley; and so are Colin, and Stacey. We admire them but can get a little uncomfortable with the activist sides of these icons. America encourages radicalism — for better and worse, let’s not erase that facet of our history.

On this Independence Day, maybe we can declare freedom from caring what others think — and even feel — and just speak truth through love, for humanity’s sake. Like Douglass said, we have a lot of work to do.

“Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival….”

The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume II
Pre-Civil War Decade 1850-1860
Philip S. Foner
International Publishers Co., Inc., New York, 1950

Kissing Frogs Along the Way

Today was an auspicious day: the first time I turned down an invitation since I got to Los Angeles. Why is that auspicious? Because I am in a new city, a place where I have had to start over making friends. I’ve been in this situation before, several times; it is a challenging and also fulfilling place to be. It can be lonely, but it can also be fantastic, because I get to approach each new person with fresh eyes, and hopefully an open heart. Little by little, one makes a few connections, then comes an outing, a dinner, perhaps. And then one day, before you even know it, you have actual plans with a lovely person when another lovely person invites you to a cookout and you have to decline. That feels auspicious to me.

I have had some good training in all of this, as a kid. While not an “army brat,” one might call me an academic brat. My father, whose specialty was international politics, regularly took summers and sabbaticals in foreign countries. And the family went with. From nursery-school on, I lived in neighborhoods and attended schools where I not only knew no one, but often did not understand the language, nor have any familiarity with the customs. You never pay as much attention to the world around you as when everything is unfamiliar. It’s why so many of us love traveling.

What you wear, how you express yourself, the foods you eat, they all stand out when you are from somewhere else. At times you may seem exotic and interesting to people, but other times you are seen as simply alien. In nursery school in Oslo Norway, I may have been too young to know whether I was being ostracized or not. But let me tell you that first grade in Geneva, Switzerland made up for any past blissful ignorance. No, I did not speak French, but my parents chose to enroll me in a French-speaking school all the same. No, I had never used a fountain pen and inkwell to write with, but that was the only option and I made a mess of things. No, I did not get a new dress for the Parade L’Escalade that all the students marched in, while the most popular girl looked at me as though I were dressed in burlap. Yes, I got really used to eating chocolate bars sandwiched between bread for lunch. And yes, there was a really cute boy who carried my books as we walked home from school each day (Those French men start young)! So many stories, a lot of them difficult. And I would not change a thing.

There were many summers abroad of loneliness, alienation, and the overcoming thereof. Then I grew up (somewhat) and went to college, and mid-way through decided I needed to get out of Dodge. And perhaps, because it was more the norm for me than some, I moved to a city where I knew no one again (except my father’s ex-girlfriend who put me up for one night and drove me to the grocery store the next day to buy food for my new apartment I had found that morning). Tucson, Arizona. Capistrano Apartments. I wasn’t back in school yet (another story) so I was an oddball at this complex filled with students. I was very lonely at first, though I remember telling my dad on the phone that everything was great. And it was in a way. I was in a beautiful place, where mountains encircled me. (And I have finally gotten back to that landscape again)! I was far away from my origin story, which was a goal of mine. Plus there was a pool! Little by little I met some folks, even made a few close friends. I loved being just me, not my father’s daughter, nor my high school’s tennis player, nor even my road’s resident. No one knew anything about me, and that helped me re-see me.

I moved to Manhattan next. Lived with my sister. A whole new place. I mean really brand new. Then New Jersey. Made a new set of friends with whom I shared so very many things. What a gift to meet women at a time where we are all newly married and/ or new mothers, wondering what we are doing, and what we will do in the future. I am still close with a number of those women today. In fact, the reason I cannot accept the gracious invitation of my new acquaintance from church to attend his family’s cookout is because my dear New Jersey friend is coming to visit me. I am so excited to share my new world with her; she loves new worlds herself, and seeks them out quite often. We are going to explore my new city, get comfortable in my digs, and talk about things old and new. I even get to take her to church where I will introduce her to my new church family, a most beautiful group of saints that I am blessed to be a part of.

Yesterday I texted my daughter that my newest tennis date — it’s really like a blind date, trying to gather a few good tennis partners! — was a real fail. He was not a very good player, but more importantly to me he was an unpleasant person: a know-it-all, a mansplainer. (After I answered that African-American history was my specialty, he then proceeded to explain to me that African-American history began in the 1600s when the first enslaved Africans were brought over). Anyway, my daughter can’t stand when her mother spends time with anyone unworthy, one of the many things I love about both my children! But I reminded her that one has to kiss some frogs along the way.

I have met — and even kissed — a lot of frogs. That is necessary when you are the new kid in the pond so often. And it is worth the effort. Because what eventually is revealed to me is an intimate community of beautiful humans to share life with, and to love. And when I’ve gotten to the point in my new place where I have to turn down an invitation — a thing I long for so much at the start of each new adventure — I know I am in the right place, building that community slowly and intentionally. For that I am ever so willing to wait. And before I know it, I will have more invitations than time — instead of the other way around.

Legacies of Fathers

“If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.”

Toni Morrison, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir

Writing is the full experience of getting hit with an idea — or image, or sentence — and then getting all the way to the place where you put those items down in some sort of coherent order such that others might also see them. I write every day, if writing is thinking. I think about what I might write in my Sunday blog most every day of the week. And guess what? Just like other plans that we feeble humans make, the plans I have for my blog rarely turn out to be that which ultimately unfolds once I sit down after church to write. And church has a lot to do with that.

We have just started meeting in person at Friendship Pasadena Church. It’s such a gift to assemble again in a sanctuary. But, being a only a humble human being, I am already feeling some kind of way about having to wear a mask in the church. Not because I necessarily think they are wrong for keeping that rule, but just simply because I. Don’t. Want. To. How quickly we can move from gratitude to wanting more. Or at least I find myself doing that. It happens a lot because I have soooooo many things to be grateful for; I can always imagine how things could be even better. Now that could be a positive trait in some fashion, keeping me striving and all that. But if two weeks ago you were praying for a job, or a partner, or a new pair of shoes and then that thing came and you found yourself wanting more money, more attention, or more shoes then maybe you need to stay in Gratitude Arena just a little longer before heading over to Desire Destination.

So what am I writing about today? Well, Father’s Day. And Church. And Legacies. And the Bible. But not necessarily in that order. And as the best Baptist preachers say, I’ll keep it short. (And then they/we don’t). So it’s Father’s Day and some beautiful family portraits are showing up on Facebook and Instagram. There are old-time black and whites, colorful images of recent celebrations, and grainy pictures of loved ones long departed. But what I notice most are the posts that don’t appear today. And this connects to a point Pastor Smith made in today’s sermon, in my opinion anyway. (I have been known to draw connections between things that make some folks wonder what I really think a connection is). Pastor Smith was preaching some “Father’s Day Advice” this morning that included a point on listening to the hearts of our children. As in, look not just at what they do — or don’t do — but also pay attention to what may well be brewing below the surface.

Like jazz music, made up of the spaces between the notes as much as the notes themselves, our lives often speak volumes in that which we refrain from saying and doing. So today I noticed that my friends who usually post quite regularly on social media are not doing so today. And I am one of them. Sure, I thought about sharing another photo of my late, handsome father, but I did that on his birthday in December. I think about him a lot on his birthday. Father’s Day is different. I think of him today, too, but as with so many people, his fathering was a complicated experience. It’s easier for me to think of him as an admirable individual than perhaps that Dad you buy a tie for every year. My friend, Tish Hamilton, wrote a lovely piece about complicated fathering if you’d like to read it. https://anothermotherrunner.com/fathers-day/?inf_contact_key=31c423551adbf3e482f0e29e044bd6dc680f8914173f9191b1c0223e68310bb1&fbclid=IwAR20oVKD43Mfj_9N7LEdE7NqpeqRa4tioD7ihQ0f5OGHPUocBAsRfbh_YPg

There are a lot of fathers in the Bible. Makes sense, of course. And the story featured in today’s sermon, about the prodigal son, reminded me of the story that we looked at last Sunday, that of King David and his son, Adonijah. In 1 Kings 1 it reads, “King David never corrected his son Adonijah, and he never made him explain his actions.” That’s not much of a dad, most of us would agree. While we have to “let them learn,” as Pastor Smith advised us today, kids can’t learn anything if we don’t teach them something in the first place. Well, King David suffered the consequences of his passivity: some of his kids were brats. They lived easy, played hard, and wanted everything. David had a lot of kids (that’s a lot of ties) and didn’t seem to care too much what direction they took. But of course, some children always make it in spite of things: Solomon turned out pretty well, after all.

Now when we look at the father in Luke 15, told as a parable by Jesus (now there’s a man who looked after his “children”), we don’t know exactly how that father raised his kids but we do know he “let them learn” by giving them their inheritance early (their legacy, as per the sermon today). One of them took the money and run. But as most of us know, this son came back, tale between his legs, and was rewarded for his repentance. But his bro got jealous, complained that the squeaky wheel always got the grease whilst he was quietly toiling away in the fields with nary a fatted calf to show for it. His Dad explained the situation to his angry son, and things hopefully fell into place eventually for that family. (We don’t know how it turned out exactly, Jesus kept the disciples in suspense about that). My dad probably would have taken me back had I wanted to return. But I took off (sans monetary legacy) and didn’t look back for quite some time. Sure, I’d go visit now and again, but I was living my life intentionally distanced from family. And I think that served me well at the time.

Now, I said I’d write about Father’s Day, church, legacies and the Bible. Today is as a good a day as any to think about my father, to be grateful for much that he did for me, like keeping a roof over my head, which if you read Tish’s abovementioned piece you’ll see is not to be taken lightly. Dad did not “believe” in church, deriding religious folks in general as weak. But I still went off with the Thompson family each Sunday morning to their toaster-shaped Protestant church downtown. That was actually part of my father’s legacy, that doing of something I believed in no matter what. It’s really the gift I think I am most grateful for from my dad, following and speaking truth. I said as much at his memorial service, between tears. I mean that is really worth more than a financial inheritance — which it did not occur to him to provide. I have invested my legacy of truth, sometimes less wisely than other times, and it has paid off in dividends.

My father’s name was David, and he was probably named after that king in what would have been for his parents the Torah. But this David corrected his children non-stop, and we were made to explain actions we sometimes didn’t even know had been enacted! He was on us —not necessarily gently — but certainly we must have known he cared if he spent all that energy training us up. And believe me, it was a lot of energy. I learned from my father, and my mother, many things not to do as a parent — and a couple of really important things to do. I walk this life with my father’s legacy as a thinker, activist, and truth-teller, and for that I am grateful. And, because I’m growing up a little more every day, I do not even wish for more.

Onion or Fortress?

Last week I said I would write about fear this week. We’ll see what happens…

Most every morning I read the devotional, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence by Sarah Young. https://www.jesuscalling.com/ Last Thursday it read in part, “Let trust and thankfulness stand guard, turning back fear before it can gain a foothold.”

I had an arrogant moment, thinking I didn’t really fear things. I mean people tell me I’m brave a lot, they’ve done so for years. Apparently I have made some decisions in life that others would not have, and that seems to be called bravery. (Or people might just be using it as a euphemism for crazy, stupid, irrational, or irresponsible)! After my arrogant moment passed, however, I did think of a few things that I feared.

Another book I have been looking at recently is DailyOM: Inspirational Thoughts for a Happy, Healthy and Fulfilling Day. https://www.dailyom.com/book/offer.html On that same Thursday, DailyOM was likening the process of moving past fear to the peeling of an onion: one goes through our own layers to find the cause or origin of said fear. I saw those readings as conflicting, if not exactly contradictory. As in, Believers ward off fear, while Spiritual Seekers seek out fear? Which one was I supposed to do?! Was I an onion or a fortress?

I’m going to have to refer once more to the message provided today at Friendship Pasadena Church. Pastor Nick Sherman gave quite the sermon today, braiding together the experience of graduation with the ongoing revival of Friendship. And he differentiated between renewal and revival. Kinda like, are you just trying to extend your stay on the farm team for another season, or are you ready to move on to the majors? (The LA Dodgers fever out here is contagious)! Pastor Nick also reminded us that every era ends. Which can be scary, right? Even — or maybe especially — when something amazing is sitting right ahead of you.

I once learned that runners in a race often slow down once the finish line is in sight. I use this metaphor a lot to encourage my students to keep going at the end of the semester when they — and their professors! — are pretty much over it. Apparently, in the book The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, by Gay Hendricks, he makes reference to this principle. Note that I said “apparently,” which means I did not read the book, which is what I am trying to help my students understand: you can’t say you read a book when you didn’t! But I did find an article that references that book, which references the principle in question, and because this is a blog and not a college paper that will suffice. On a website called 99 Walks, the unnamed author writes:

“…author Gay Hendricks theorizes that we all face what he calls an ‘upper limit problem.’ He believes that each of us has a level of success that feels comfortable and that when we reach that upper limit, we will subconsciously self-sabotage to stay there.”

https://www.99walks.fit/blog/2019/6/23/why-we-slow-down-at-the-finish-line

Whoah. But then think about it. Ever stopped short of some stuff? Maybe you don’t even know what you missed. Or maybe you slowed down in one proverbial race, but the next time you powered through and got that “success.” When it comes to churches — and so many other organizations — there are certainly folks who become more fearful as that finish line approaches. Or should I say that start line. Because, as Pastor Nick reminded us, endings can really be beginnings. So if we are to “live in revival,” as Pastor Smith is exhorting us to do, then there can be no slowing down, but only the speeding up of our commitment, our excitement, and our faith. How are we going to “discover our gifts” if we stop before the race is over and just say, I’m good over here. I don’t really want to know what else I am capable of. Thanks anyway.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”

2 Timothy 1:7 

Even if you don’t think (a) God has provided you with what’s inside you, do you think we humans are on this planet to be afraid? I mean humans created societies, figured out out to hunt so we could eat, even figured out how to have kids so there’d be more humans! There’d be no us if our ancestors had lived with spirits of fear.

And here’s where I’ll finish up, where Pastor Nick really got me. You know those words you hear that kinda shoot right through you? Like, “how’d you know to say that” kind of words? Well he did this great history lesson about Passive King David, his selfish son Adonijah, and finally the wise (and somewhat wistful) Solomon. He summed it up with a great parallel to Pastor Smith as King David, but you really had to be there. More generally, Pastor Nick noted that one generation fights battles so that our next generation does not have to. It’s what we parents tend to do for our children, sometimes without even knowing it. My daughter recently explained to me that the way I handled a particular issue as a woman was why she was able to navigate the same issue she faced in her young life. I was over there apologizing to her that I hadn’t spoken about the subject enough and it turns out that the fact that I fought/was fighting that (inner) battle, provided her a level of peace I had not had. So, yeah, there are a lot of ways to fight a battle it turns out.

Fear. Do we ward it off with faith, or do we look within to see where it came from? I think the important thing is to acknowledge it. We spend too much time trying to avoid fear, performing around it, turning away from it… While fear is there because we are human, also because we are human we have the free will to face it, and to move forward. That’s usually scary. But the pay-offs can be oh so handsome.