Running To and From

Run-fromming. This is a word that Pastor Smith spoke in his message today. He said he mis-spoke it, but I am wondering if God didn’t just “drop that on his spirit,” as he is wont to say. Because, I mean, run-fromming is amazing, and an awfully useful term when you think it about it. It’s a verb, obviously, and one that seems to imply a sort of regular habit of running from things. That’s part of what Pastor was speaking about today; and it is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. As in, when do you fold and when do you hold? When do you insist that your gifts be received, and when do you “shake the dust off your feet?”

Friendship Pasadena Church (MY church now!) chooses a weekly prayer based upon a piece of scripture. This week it comes from Isaiah 43:18-19

“Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

Do you not perceive it? Do you not perceive how badly I want this organization to succeed? How much I want our project to receive support? How vibrant this ministry could be? That you could live a more peaceful life?! Take. My. Gifts! (Does this sound familiar to anyone else)? As Pastor reminded us this morning, we all have gifts (Romans 12:8). And we get told this a lot. Sometimes our parents say so, other times our friends, coworkers — and even once in a while a supervisor tell us that. I guess that’s where the idea of Gifted and Talented Schools came from? Only I always found the idea somewhat confusing because not only did they express that every child was gifted (as in has some gifts) but it always seemed to be that the gifts in question were pretty limited. Like some gifts were more important to nurture than others. Of course (apparently like Pastor Smith) school was not my favorite subject so maybe I’m just being cranky right now.

So what happens when you offer someone what you think is a pretty fabulous gift of yours and they don’t want it? As Jill Scott sings in “Hate On Me,” sometimes folks are just too miserable to accept your offering. As in, one might make someone a peach pie – straight from their own peach tree, no less – and the recipient might just slap them out anyway. (Here’s the fabulous song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qw3Z8Oa7E3Y ). I am guessing we all know some people like that. And we probably even know ourselves to have gone back to some of those people with our peaches anyway. And that’s not always the wrong move. I mean, think of the story of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14. (Shout out to Friendship Pasadena Kitchen Table Bible Study)!

We join Paul and Barnabas preaching in Lystra. Well, let’s just say things got ugly (as they can in the Bible) and Paul was pelted with stones until the assailants figured he was dead. They dragged him out of the the city limits like yesterday’s trash. But other disciples came running to Paul, “gathered around him,” and don’t you know that man got back up and went into that self-same city again, the one where the folks wanted him dead. Turned out that was a good move because, “They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples” (Acts 14:21). That was their goal and they followed the “if at first you don’t succeed” method. They were not afraid, or at least the fear was not strong enough to keep them from marching straight back into the mouth of that proverbial lion. No run-fromming happened there!

What then of the counsel that the twelve disciples received from Jesus in the book of Matthew, when it was time for them to go out and do their rounds, canvass for the Lord? The disciples were tasked with finding “the lost sheep” and preaching and healing and doing all sorts of good stuff for those in need. “Freely you have received, freely give,” Jesus reminded them (10:8). I bet a lot of us could use that reminder, the one about receiving freely. Some of us — and by us maybe I mean just me — have a hard time receiving. I am way better at giving. Ooh, I love giving, and apparently I think I have lots to give. I have, as Pastor Smith encouraged us today, discovered many of my gifts. (I mean I better have, right? This gift-giving gig isn’t going to last forever). I love the act of giving. But receiving? Nah, I’m good. I don’t need that. Find someone more in need. (Or perhaps I mean more deserving)? Maybe I am afraid to receive. Fear is, after all, tied up in this gift thing but I’ll try to stay on point for the moment.

So back to the disciples, the twelve guys are to go out and perform miracles and preach the gospel. They are told to connect quickly with a “worthy person” in each town that they enter. I mean that’s what you do when you’re new in town, you introduce yourself to the folks who seem like they would be on your side, maybe even show you some extra kindness being as how you’re on your own and all. So Coach Jesus tells his team to go in with a positive attitude, to share their gifts of peace — and then some — as long as they are welcomed! But he doesn’t want them spinning their wheels either, following some playbook just for the sake of staying on task. “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town (10:14). I mean this is just about my favorite Bible verse. (And I guess Paul didn’t get the memo either, but we all have different paths to take with our various gifts so he was probably doing the right thing for his own personal journey). The twelve disciples weren’t run-fromming, mind you, they were simply turning on their heels and walking down their proscribed paths. Run-fromming is when you find yourself sprinting away from the scene. It’s when you start tripping over things, getting lost, screaming irrationally at the world because you’re hurt and lost… That’s run-fromming.

But my question remains, how do you know when to walk away and when to stay? When should we persist in offering our pies, and when should we take our beautiful one-of-a kind-baked-good and knock on someone else’s door? It’s about discernment, and that is something that takes a daily practice — and many years of days — to even get the hang of. If you’re me anyway. A lot has to do with the aforementioned fear thing. I am a strong believer that fear is the answer to why we do so many dumb, self-injurious things. I think I’ll probably write about that next week. My friends will recognize this theme immediately, as in there goes Katie with that “everything’s about fear” stuff. But my friends are good people, so they’ll probably listen to it again anyway.

For now I am still puzzling over discernment in terms of giving. I need to learn to recognize when I am withholding gifts for a good and right reason, and when, perhaps, I am simply leaving my gifts up on the shelf so as not to show off or bother anyone. In tandem, one also wants to learn to discern when it’s time to take their ball and go home, because the people they’re playing with aren’t playing with a love for the game. I mean I think we humans shake the dust off our feet prematurely sometimes. But I also think there are occasions when we just keep knocking on the door that’s getting slammed in our faces. Because sometimes it’s easier to receive rejection than approval; sometimes that rejection affirms our unworthiness, confirms our fears. But I’ll leave that for next week. So go give of your gifts. Ask yourself what they are. Tell somebody what they are. Better yet, ask somebody what they see as your gifts. Write them down, if you want. Just know this, we all have way more than we think.

*You may want to watch today’s powerful sermon: https://www.facebook.com/170037199836336/videos/162988782386418

Puzzling Over People

Wouldn’t it be great if there were practice runs for losing loved ones? Like they pass on but just temporarily, so that you can do the work that seems to come out of losing someone close, and then get to use those lessons you’ve gained towards a better relationship. I’ve been doing a lot of work on my relationship with my mom recently, but it seems slightly futile as she is not here for me to practice my newfound relationship skills upon. So I end up just writing down revelations and sighing a lot.

My latest mom-lesson was triggered by a string of things — which is how triggers work after all. I was applying to a writing retreat called Tusen Takk. I applied because of the name. Tusen takk means “thank you” in Norwegian. Here comes the string: I lived in Oslo, Norway for a year (not by myself, precocious as I was); my dad was teaching at the university, so the family accompanied him on his sabbatical. I attended nursery school at what I believe was called (a?) Børnehaven. It rained a lot and I remember a plaid rubber rain coat, how heavy and wet it felt against my little body. Anyway, when we returned home, my mother took to saying tusen takk for a while. You know how we return from big trips and try to hold onto some shred of what we just experienced as long as we possibly can? (Like the last time I was in Paris and I swore I would only wear heels when I went out for the rest of my life. Like French women. Before the pandemic. So, yeah). At any rate, when I saw a retreat with this Norwegian name — located in my home state of Michigan, no less — I felt compelled to apply. (I’ll let you know if I get it).

This all got me to thinking how whimsical my mother could be — and must have been so long ago. The research shows that the manner in which our very first years go can greatly affect the way our lives will progress as we grow older. If there is love to be had at the start, a whole lot can go wrong and yet we can prevail, because we stand upon this little child-size foundation of confidence that says we are worthy of being loved. (And so it goes to the contrary, apparently). I think my mom was pretty loving at the start. I have seen photos where she’s holding me or my sister and looking like a very loving mother, happy to have her children in her arms. I recall funny songs she would sing — mostly to our dogs, but I think to entertain us, as well. Like Popocatepetl. It does not seem to actually exist as a song, but it is most certainly a volcano in Mexico. My mom would sing, “Popocatepetl, Popocatepetl, mountain of looooove…” I can hear her intonation even as I write this. If you read, “The Legend of Popocatepetl & Iztaccíhuatl: A Love Story” you’ll see where the “love” part came from! https://www.inside-mexico.com/the-legend-of-popocatepetl-iztaccihuatl/

Now you might be thinking, So what if your mom sang funny songs. That’s what moms do. But, you see, this particular mom in question soon stopped the “silly love songs,” and in place of that music silence invaded our home. That kind of silence you can slice with a proverbial knife. An angry, resentful kind of hush that made us sure a shoe was going to drop, but of course we never knew when. That silence, that sadness in our home, is what I carried away from it. It is why I took flight as soon as I possibly could, why before that I spent more time at my best friend’s house in a subdivision than our quite charming home located on an acre of land. It’s why I did a whole bunch of other things that did not reflect a whole lot of self-esteem. I just hated the silence.

But now. Now I have had so much time to think over this past, almost three years of time spent far from my mother’s being — and all the varying requirements of those last decades. I am remembering the songs and the quirky art projects and wondering how they vanished so quickly — from our lives, and from the forefront of my memory. And that’s what I mean by suggesting how magic it would be to have a second chance to see my mom. I mean I forgave her all the anger a long time ago, but I did not really engage her as someone who sang songs about Aztec princesses and thought decoupaging kids’ lunchboxes was a fun idea. I responded to her as the woman she had come to be — on the outside anyway. But imagine if I had spoken to the playful, witty mom with a penchant for foreign languages and sword dances — even when the woman in front of me was deeply focused on the inequities of life. Might that have awakened those dormant traits in her? (Traits, I might add, that she shared with her grandchildren now and again. And for that I am so very thankful).

I do not know the answer to this question, of course. And now I cannot experimentally look upon my mom as that young mother, or ask questions about when things all went wrong. I don’t have the opportunity to encourage her to explain feelings, describe the process she engaged in of leaving her children behind in a certain kind of way. I know she knew that’s what she did, but I never gave her the space to say it. I was too busy combatting what was emanating from her spirit at the moment. There is just so much more room to think about people when they are not in your life anymore. Ironic, no? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, yes, and it also makes the mind grow broader. I see my mother — and my father — so much more expansively than before. I just wish I could talk to those expansive figures now, no longer spending time fending off old hurts from days gone by, or explaining my apparently alien self to them. But alas, that will not happen in this realm. And so I pray. And I write in my journal. And I bend the ear of a few good friends, lean on my children now and again, as I slowly put together these puzzle pieces that are producing a picture much more beautiful and radiant than I was able to see in those disarrayed pieces of mom, so many still in the box where she kept them.

Yes, I think we are all puzzles. We are formed with pieces of nature and nurture, jumbled together, ill-fitting at times, fully missing at other times. I have always admired folks who sit down to do a puzzle, impressed by their patience and the focus required. I think I am becoming one of those people in my own way, albeit a bit later in life than I would have liked. And because I cannot use this newfound wisdom on my mother, I am going to put it to use considering the other human beings in my life. I am going to step back and look at them more fully, missing pieces and all, and simply admire their unique images coming slowly to light in front of me. And for that lesson I must say, “tusen takk, Mom.”

Friends? Or Family? What’s it Gonna Be?

“You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”

― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Is it friends ‘n’ family or friends versus family? Do we have to choose to invest in one entity over the other? Does one group take more work than the other, need more of our attention? What, if anything, should we do when family gets in the way of friendship?

Most of my friends care a lot about their families. I have friends who fly across the country — and even across oceans — to visit their parents regularly; I know friends who call their fathers every week, even when it’s often less than pleasant; and I have friends incredibly devoted to ailing parents, caring for them in a myriad of ways. And these people also have good friends.

I certainly care about my family, although it has dwindled these last years with the loss of my parents, and we did not start out with such a large family to begin with. I am quite intentional about keeping in touch with aunts, and cousins, and even an ex-husband — because he is family to my children, and so to me. And my children, well Fuggedabout. They are everything to me. But I still have friends. In fact, all sorts of folks I know stay connected to family — but also stay connected to friends. And that takes a lot of work.

I am thinking of a couple of friends who are so involved with family that keeping up their friendships is not a top priority. I am not saying this is in a critical way either, I am simply wondering about it. These particular people say they are my friend, for example, but I think we have different versions of what it means to be a friend. Maybe that’s the part that confuses me. Maybe what creates friendships is people who “friend” the same way. I truly believe it takes more work to keep a friendship going than a family connection in tact. (If you disagree, I would love to hear that take). Family will always be family. Certainly, there are numerous situations where members disengage from family, but even then that person you choose to remove from your life is still lurking around as your brother, mother, or cousin. But friendships on the other hand, well they can wither, and finally die, when no attention is being paid to them. Friends can disappear.

Probably in large part because I was raised in a small family, I have always relied on friendships as my network, my community. I have had all kinds of different friends: best friends, tennis friends, work friends, party friends… And these relationships have required nurturing from both sides. I could not call someone my best friend and then make a habit of ignoring her communications. That’s not friendly. And my tennis friends need me to ask them to play sometimes — it can’t always be on them to initiate a date. Work friends have to know that they can trust each other, that they can say things to each other that would possibly be used against them if those words fell into the wrong hands. Work friends are really important to cultivate, support, and encourage. My party friends? Well, thank God for them! They are the ones I can invite over for wine (my idea of a party is much broader than it once was), wherein they bring olives and crusty bread and I supply goat brie and a cozy venue for talking, relaxing, and enjoying each other’s company. Ya gotta bring something to the table with party friends, literally.

There are people who I think consider themselves my friends but don’t nurture the friendship. Again, I am not saying this is a wrong, it is simply a choice. But it confuses me as to the definition of friend. Oxford explains that the word’s origins are from “an Indo-European root meaning ‘to love’, shared by free.” Now, if you have ever been to First Baptist Church of Madison, New Jersey, you know that love is an action. Rev. (Dr.!) A. Craig Dunn made a point of saying that, and it has stuck with me. So, if to have a friend is to love someone then it cannot simply be a passive feeling of love, but must be an active show of love. That’s my take anyway. The people who call us friends but who are forever involved in family projects, issues, and events might be confused about the definition — or the requirements — of friendship. Maybe they think you can just entitle someone a friend and poof they are your friend. But, unlike your Uncle Joe who, like it or not, will always be your uncle, a friend can easily stop being a friend.

I’m not proposing anything dramatic here. As a matter of fact, I’m simply observing life and wondering aloud about it. But maybe this will help a few people ask themselves about their friendships — or just give some extra praise for the friendships they cherish. My astrological sign is Cancer, and supposedly that means I am extra emotional about friendship. You know, I have that shell I tend run into and all. And now, get this, I am involved (and looking to join whenever they “open the door of the church”) with Friendship Pasadena Church. And I work at Friends In Deed food pantry, for goodness’ sake! Because friendship!

I guess what I’m saying is that I have witnessed some people lose themselves in family to an extent that they have no real friends, no one who truly feels that they can count on these people. Maybe that’s fine with them, too. But I do think that sometimes we humans can sort of default to family because it’s a lot easier (even when it’s hard) to track with family than to work at getting to know someone whose communication style, background, and even beliefs can be so different from our own. And yet sometimes those can be our best of friends. If we give them a chance.

I’m just going to check myself every once in a while, make sure I’m treating my friends the way I would want to be treated. And I think I’ll stop expecting Family People to be different than they are, even when they call me friend. I am wondering, do you have people in your life that you feel sometimes hide behind “family matters?” Or maybe you know the opposite, those who have abandoned family — for a myriad of reasons — and pour everything they have into friendship. What is a friend to you? In this pandemic that we’ve been living through, friends and family gets bandied about all over the place. But they are not one and the same; they come with different directions, and I’m wondering what your interpersonal recipes might just call for.

“But Girl, Don’t They Warn Ya? It Pours”*

It’s raining in sunny Southern California right now. (And they said it never rains here). I was supposed to play tennis today and it was cancelled! Do you know how few things get cancelled due to weather here? Whereas that was life on the East coast. We even had a phrase for it, weather permitting, an acknowledgment that all plans were contingent upon forces outside our control. Some, like me, might say contingent upon God. (Although I do wonder just how much God really cares about family reunions and soccer games going on as scheduled).

So what does one do in sunny Southern California when the rain falls? Well, here’s what you don’t do:

  1. The weekly plant watering. I have a succulent garden in its infancy, thanks to adopted cuttings from some co-workers at Friends In Deed Food Pantry. (See how I included a plug there? Donations always accepted as I have made mention in other posts). https://friendsindeedpas.org/fid/what-we-do/our-programs/the-food-pantry/ I do not seem to have killed these plants yet, and am hoping that part of my new West Coast life will include a better handle on growing things from the ground. What I do know is my cacti don’t need me to bring the hose out today.
  2. Take my newly discovered ArmorAll cloths to the yellow bird poop on my car. See, I got a new (to me, as they say) car last month and I find myself suddenly concerned with the paint job, small scratches, and errant leaves on the floor mats. I am sure there was also a point in time when I focused such attention on my Toyota Rav4 Sport, but I can’t remember that. What I do remember is hauling kids and their friends, furniture, and pets all around Northern New Jersey. And then, what would end up the Rav 4’s last big haul, driving across the country to my new home in sunny, Southern California. Thanks Rav4, but I have moved on. (If only I could let go of other relationships as cleanly).
  3. Feed the birds. Because who wants wet seed — and who wants to get wet putting bird food on a plate in their backyard when 98% of the time there would be no such risk involved? I can wait, so can the birds. (And yes, I see there may well be a correlation between the need to regularly clean the car and my Mary Poppins-like desire to “feed the birds, tuppence a bag.”
  4. Go for a walk behind the LA River. My usual one-hour loop is a good one, lots of hills and very few people. You would think after all this isolation I would be hungry for humanity, but I still feel pretty selective about human company and don’t think I’m going to make any new best friends in these neighborhoods of gaudy homes and high-end vehicles. Now this is not judgement as much as it’s simply an understanding, based upon over a half century of making friends. My friends have not lived in houses, nor driven cars, like those lining Royal Boulevard. Just saying.
  5. Go to the grocery store. Again, it’ll not be raining very soon and life is just easier running errands when it’s not raining. And, by the way, I noticed only days after bringing my new car home, that the back window has no wiper! It never occurred to me, but I guess when you move into a relatively sporty 2-door Honda Accord — with a V6, mind you! — back window wipers are no longer deemed necessary. So yeah, I’d have to get wet wiping down my back window if I went out now. (See #3).

By now, some of my East Coast friends may be fretting that I have quickly turned soft out here. They would be wrong. That is because I was always soft when it came to weather. Yes, I forced myself to go for long walks in 30 degree temperatures (at least the sun is shining, I would say, pushing myself out the door). I also ran errands in the snow; and swept off wet tennis courts in the spring, hoping that the rain would hold off for even just an hour. I detested those experiences. My dad told me when I was young that I was too sensitive to the weather, that I should not allow what was happening outside to affect my insides essentially. But Dad, science says that our environments shape who we are, so why wouldn’t howling wind or driving rain or pelting hail make me feel some kind of way? (If only I had been able to articulate such an idea back then. Instead I just felt I had let him down again, revealed my to-be-avoided weakness once more).

So until this rain is over, and the ground returns to its normal desert-state, I’m going to do indoor things. And, unlike most days, I will not feel the need to scheme in order to figure out how to get these things done outside, because, well, it’s raining right now in sunny, Southern California. But just for now.

*Albert Hammond – “It Never Rains In Southern California” (1973) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gmq4WIjQxp0

A Day Late: A Dollar Short

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. I want to talk about capitalism. (Might sound like a non-sequitur, but stay with me). Feeling so full today. Full of love — coming in and going out — filled with hope and gratitude and excitement. And a little sorrow. Missing my mother, even as I was so celebrated by my children yesterday. This cycle of life can be a rough one, can’t it? Babies are born, we become mothers, our mothers are grandmothers… Mother’s Day is a funny holiday for many of us. It certainly was for Anna Jarvis.

Anna Maria Jarvis “invented” Mother’s Day in 1908. She wanted something concrete to honor her mother who had died that year. In fact she wanted to honor all mothers, and even identified the white carnation (why is that flower so often reviled? could this be the answer?) as a perfect symbol for the Day. Well, things soon started going awry as far as Miss Jarvis was concerned. The floral and confectionary industries were banking big bucks on the back of her idea. Two years later Hallmark was born — coincidence?! Jarvis had had it:

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”[21][22]

Jarvis had lost control of this idea, she was no longer at the steering wheel of her original idea of mom-commemoration. So she worked to rescind it! How cool is that? She was like, if you’re going to take my idea and commercialize it into something no longer recognizable as mine, then I want take-backs. Well, we all know what happens when women and other power-minorities cry “appropriation”: a smear campaign ensues. Jarvis was eventually placed in a sanitorium, her stay funded by the nice “people connected with the floral and greeting card industries.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Jarvis

So, yeah this is a blog about Mother’s Day, kind of, but it’s more a reminder of how for centuries those who are not at the top of the capitalist (social and economic) food chain have things snatched away from them on the regular. Why only recently did Jack Daniels, the Tennessee whiskey distiller, acknowledge that an enslaved man named Jack Green was the one who taught the good men there to make whiskey in the first place. He was even named “head distiller” for a minute, until the realization that that optic would not sit right with too many of the libation’s consumers. And yes, the man has been acknowledged now, but have his ancestors been paid for his labor? You know, the Reparations word. Doesn’t look like it.

Capitalism is pretty fabulous for those who have money to make money. You might notice that many of us suggesting a more expansive thinking on our country’s economic systems are not the ones at the financial top. (Though not always, thanks Bernie Sanders)! I do understand that I participate in, and benefit from, capitalism in a myriad of ways every day. I’m just saying, imagine if financial power was not our country’s top religion, its measuring stick of success, the lofty goal we have been inculcated with. Maybe Miss Jarvis could have kept her day to commemorate all mothers as a simple ceremony of white carnations. (The flower industry actually ran out of white carnations at one point and so introduced the idea of red ones to compliment the holiday bouquets)! And imagine if Mr. Green had a place at the table from the start of the now billion dollar spirits industry, commensurate with his contributions. His family could have enjoyed the benefits of wealth passed down through generations by now, like so many of the White families associated with this particular industry.

Maybe you have an example wherein the love of money (because the Bible does not say that money is the root of all evil, it specifies, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:10 KJV). Seems like lots of folk get pierced through by money-lovers. Has there been a time that you, someone you know — or know about — has had their humanity removed in the name of capitalism? I’d love it if you shared that story.

Anyway, Happy Mother’s Day to all. (For some of us lucky ones, most every day feels a lot like Mother’s Day anyway). Peace, love, and white carnations.

Ode to Odes

I just need to say some stuff about poetry and what a medicinal cure it can be. It’s holistic, like poets are a fringe society of healers. Many of you have heard a poem — or even written one — and felt transformed. Like your molecules were rearranged. Or put back in order. Or floated to a grounded place. Whatever the experience, someone said something just right and you were seen, heard, and moved to live larger than you were living the moment before. That’s poetry to me.

My amazing daughter and her fabulous friends gave an online reading from her latest collaboration. The book is called b sides: loose translations in English. It is a collection of poems Kayla wrote, alongside her friend and collaborator Cosi Schietekat’s translations of these works — into her home language of Spanish. Buy it now: https://nueoi.com/Kayla-Ephros

An extremely talented poet, Tatiana, started off today’s reading with several poems of her own, and then Cosi read some of Kayla’s poems in English, as well as a few of her own works, both in English and Spanish. Kayla followed suit with several poems from the book (which is just a gorgeous production) and then some select others not included in the book. Sitting back against a pillow, taking in the magic — words painting thoughts and feelings and shadows — was ever so restorative. We could all use some restoring right about now. Here’s one of Kayla’s:

by Kayla Ephros

Lest you think I have tunnel vision when it comes to poetry and this is all just about one of the most talented and beautifully-spirited daughters anyone could ever have, well, there’s more. I read an article in the Los Angeles Times today about Marianne Faithful and the recordings she has made of old-school English poets like Byron and Keats. Who knew? There is this beautiful music by Warren Ellis that accompanies these powerful readings. Check it out: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2021-04-27/marianne-faithfull-courtney-love-poetry-cheating-death-sober-sex

The Bible has poems, too. Lots of them. This can really help us challenge what the definition of a poem even is. Where’s the rhythm and the rhyme, Old Testament!? These devices don’t appear too much in books of poems from the Bible, at least not in the translations we have access to. But oh there is most certainly poetry. Hebrew (the early language of the Bible) poetry is apparently big on parallels and opposites. Ecclesiastes was so poetic in its parallels and opposites that some folks a few thousand years later turned around and wrote a song to it.

Here’s the Bible version:

There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under heaven:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, New International Version

I’m just saying, go find a poem. Or write one. Be one: free verse, sonnet, epic. Look, I know National Poetry Month is over, but just like Black History Month most of us are way behind in the knowledge and experience of the month’s topic. So go for it, extend the month. Extend the months as a matter of fact and read a Black poet. Like this painful beauty right here, which I memorized as a kid:

Incident

BY COUNTEE CULLEN

(For Eric Walrond)

Once riding in old Baltimore,   
   Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,   
I saw a Baltimorean
   Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
   And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
   His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
   From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
   That’s all that I remember.

Destinations and Destiny

I want to write about today’s sermon. (So yeah, God’s gonna show up in this blog). I imagine it’s not easy to give an inspiring sermon from a screen. I mean you are literally flattened as a preacher, expressing ideas and observations through a medium that everyone is tired of looking at. But today “my” Pastor (I haven’t had a chance to officially join this church yet so I have to put that in quotes, I think) Lucious Smith of Friendship Pasadena Church gave a sermon!

Now a lot of times when we hear sermons –or TED Talks, or literary readings, or the like — that speak to us it is because, as much as anything, we were meant to hear it. I mean sometimes it’s a snippet of dialogue on a bus (remember buses?!), or a poem shared on social media, but when a preacher preaches well then it really travels deep inside you. Preaching, really preaching, in my amateur view necessitates humility plus passion. Take a moment to think of how many people you know who walk around with those two characteristics. Pastor Smith seems to be one of those people.

The sermon title today was The Road to Revival. Friendship Pasadena Church apparently has a history that includes a moment where friction turned to faction in the church. Friendship is not alone in this experience, as many churches undergo seasons of change. Pastor was briefly recounting, in his sermon, that particular history while also paralleling the moment with the times we are in now. “From Survival to Revival,” was the theme. As in, we’re not trying to “go back to normal,” but instead to go forward to what is yet to come, what we are yet to do. I love this right here. After all, no one I know really believes we should be going back to much of anything. Logistically, perhaps (like attending concerts), but not socially(racism), culturally(individualism), politically(nationalism), etc. We clearly have far, far to go.

Part of being revived, of participating in a revival, is following visions that we Christians believe emanate from God. It’s so cool to see visions, to imagine what could be. I am sure many of you have had such visions, and followed through on them. You may well be sitting in your vision at this moment. I am in one of mine, for sure: California living with a yard to call my own. I saw that. Thing is, it’s what we do with these visions that really matters, Smith reminds us. Like we need to be patient and not push to make the thing happen immediately. We also have to be faithful, to God, and also to the process, whatever that seems to be looking like. And we have to be diligent. Like you have stuff to do in order to facilitate that vision. As Pastor Smith said, and has repeated in the past several times, sometimes we are waiting around for God to do the thing God’s waiting around for us to do! Crazy to think about, right?

Another component of being revived — individually or collectively — is repentance. You’re about to see one reason I really vibe with this Pastor, because he’s interested in word origins, too! So, repent comes from the Greek for think differently. It’s not necessarily about rending your clothes so much as about changing your mindset. “…rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). And by the way it’s much easier to tear a shirt than change a thought. Just saying. One of the things Smith suggests we might need to repent for? “Small expectations.” Yeah, like if we really want to learn to sew, as a friend revealed to me recently, then make a big plan. Sign up for a class because you have the goal of sewing a dress for your first day back at the office; or making shirts for all the kids on the team you coach. Whatever you do, don’t just say, “I’m going to learn to sew some day.” That’s kind of insulting to God, like going to the ice cream store and exclaiming how good everything looks and then walking out the door. (Top of my head metaphor, c’mon)!

Pastor Smith said that “God gives us everything in seed form.” Wow. I was thinking how impatient I am with planting seeds in my garden. How they just take too long to bear flowers and that I end up buying potted plants and herbs because I don’t want to wait! Yikes. Plant the seeds and do whatever it is you need to be doing while the seed grows. Prepare yourself for the fruit of the seed. For me that might mean learning how to garden in the desert after living for three decades on the East Coast. (Where I wasn’t such a Green Thumb anyway)!

There are things we just might not be able to do. Truth. But God can do anything. If I believed all the people who said I couldn’t do anything, that I was making a mistake, a dumb decision, I would be so far from my revival path. But I had faith that the visions would not have come to me in the first place if I was not supposed to see them, and act upon them. One can be “responsible,” explained Pastor Smith, that’s a good thing to be at times. But, “then there’s God…” That’s the supernatural stuff we don’t have the ability to create, but sure have witnessed in our lives. All I can say is, Can I get a witness?! Seriously, what are you reviving? In yourself? Your family? Your community? This weary world? I’d love to know. And peace be with you as you go.

Ran Out of Words

Once again I am moved not to say much. I am left speechless as I learn of yet another Black American murdered by law enforcement. There are things we can do. Today I have nothing left to say that has not been said by others more qualified.

I share here a blog from public scholar RENÉE ATER. Last year, in May, she wrote about her anger and anguish at the police killings taking place. She made a list of those recently murdered. Unfortunately, she has had to update that list many times since. I’ll paste the beginning of that very long list of lost lives here, and include a link to her blog at the end. Peace, if at all possible.

Daunte Demetrius Wright, October 27, 2000 – April 11, 2021
Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
Shot: Brooklyn Center Police Officer, April 11, 2021

Marvin David Scott III, 1995 – March 14, 2021
McKinney, Texas
Peppered sprayed/Restrained with spit hood/Asphyxiated: 7 Collin County Jail Detention Officers, March 14, 2021

Patrick Lynn Warren Sr., October 7, 1968 – January 10, 2021
Killeen, Texas
Shot: Killeen Police Officer, January 10, 2021

Vincent “Vinny” M. Belmonte, September 14, 2001 – January 5, 2021
Cleveland, Ohio
Shot: Cleveland Police Officer, January 5, 2021

https://www.reneeater.com/on-monuments-blog/tag/list+of+unarmed+black+people+killed+by+police

Still don’t think we need to defund militarized policing? Please consider visiting this ACLU site — or other likeminded sources — to learn, support, act…

https://www.aclu.org/issues/criminal-law-reform/reforming-police

The “Fat Lady” Hasn’t Sung Yet

“We are all in this together.” That hollow phrase has rung throughout the halls of this pandemic. And even if some of us at times were actually with and for others, there were a whole bunch of people that never really felt they were part of that bigger whole — the community’s, the state’s, the nation’s, or the world’s. I am afraid that any semblance of that sentiment is now fading ever quickly, as folks post their “I’m vaccinated” selfies and plan parties in celebration. Meanwhile, shop keepers in East LA, and farmers in India continue to struggle mightily due to this pandemic.

I, for one, never felt “we” were all in this together. I saw my life, one where I could easily choose comfortable isolation, where my children did not have frontline jobs, where my excellent health kept me even further away from the possibilities of contracting COVID, as far removed from so many others’ realities. This year has spanned two coasts for me, and both times spaces of comfort, where walks could be taken free from crowds, and fresh air was plentiful. I am not “in it” with the men and women who clean the hospital rooms of COVID patients, nor the doctors and nurses who approach these bodies daily. I am not in it with the many, many families whose furloughed jobs brought them homelessness. Nor am I in it with my students who continue losing family members to the virus because they belong to at-risk groups of many categories. When folks back East were begging me to be careful during Southern California’s spike last year, I explained that I was, and that, also, I was not living in the same LA as others. Later, when an article in the LA Times covered the glaring differentials of pandemic experience, entitled, “The Two LAs,” I had a catch-phrase to explain what I meant.

Some say we have learned to think more collectively this last year, we Americans. That this has been a year of truly understanding that when our fellow humans are not well, then no one is well. We often quote/post bits and pieces from Dr. King’s letter written in his Birmingham jail cell. For example, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But we tend to neglect the following sentences which project an air of implicit responsibility upon the reader. (This was something King was so good at doing, and thus his words are often truncated in pretty memes before we get to the part where we’re called to action). The Birmingham letter goes on to say, by the way, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Right now, because of the pandemic, which is not over, people are dying from this virus. Countries like Italy and India are dealing with new surges and we have to pay attention. One reason is simply pragmatic, that if people are carrying the virus somewhere in this world then all of us are still at risk. And then there is the affective reason: these people are our brothers and sisters, the ones we watched in videos singing from balconies, or whose food has been a mainstay of our take-out orders this past year. We are all connected. Yes, it feels good to be vaccinated, to have my one body in a sea of so many, allegedly immune to this killer disease. But there are so many at greater risk than I who have yet to receive a vaccine. They are ringing us up at grocery stores, delivering food to our front doors, and living unhoused because they cannot afford shelter due to a waterfall of COVID-related circumstances. I mean, I qualified for the vaccine as early as I did because I volunteer at a food pantry. That is privilege.

So what do we do? We keep paying attention to everyone. For example, after checking in on the bogus trial surrounding the murder of George Floyd, we pay attention to the fact that Minnesota’s COVID cases are rising. We learn more about the lingering effects of this disease so as better to understand our neighbors, students, and friends going forward. We read articles that look at the bigger picture, like one in Medical News Today regarding the inequity in vaccine availability. It reads in part, “Such vaccine nationalism perpetuates the long history of powerful countries securing vaccines and therapeutics at the expense of less-wealthy countries; it is short-sighted, ineffective, and deadly.” https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/herd-immunity-may-take-4-6-years-due-to-vaccine-nationalism#Continuing-the-inequity

It’s not that we cannot celebrate the progress. I, for one, am relieved to have been vaccinated, that my children, and so many friends, have been vaccinated. And I am glad for those small-business owners who somehow survived this catastrophe and are once again serving their communities. I am thrilled at the prospect of students returning to campuses, and eager to return to a physical classroom myself. All that. And yet, we cannot forget this time. Our country has a history of forgetting, of pushing news out of the way because it’s killing our vibe. During the darkest times we pay attention, take solace in the fraternity of people across the land. But now the light is shining again, more brightly on some than others, and we shift to the “hopes and prayers” phase of that inevitable march towards blissful ignorance.

In my religious tradition we are reminded to look to God in all circumstances. Don’t just praise Him because life is going great; and don’t only come to Him when you need help, but be in His presence at all times. (I will at some point write about that He pronoun). If you don’t include a concept of higher power in your life, then consider simply resting in the presence of humanity. Yes, we must all heal, seek shelter and solace and fellowship right now. Those of us fortunate enough to have access to such things must use those gifts — that is how we show gratitude. But then we need to, I believe, duck out of those caves of comfort and step into the glare of reality. Stay informed, send a check, go to a rally, sign a petition, call a representative, write a letter, tell a friend. These are actions that make the air move, that can gather momentum if enough of us are performing them.

According to NASA’s explanation of Newton’s Laws of Motion, “The property that a body has that resists motion if at rest…is called inertia. Inertia is proportional to a body’s mass, or the amount of matter that a body has. The more mass a body has, the more inertia it has.” The United States has a lot of mass. Some of it has been in motion this past year, but a lot has remained inert. Imagine if we created, through collective action and love, a giant body in motion. Like pebbles cast onto still waters, the ripples would multiply and things would change. Change is needed. Big change. Each of us can affect some change. It has never been easy or comfortable or even obvious to do this. It requires consciousness, something I continue to practice and am far from mastering. I remember my dad used to exhort me and my sister to “pay attention to the world around you.” It didn’t really resonate with me much back then. It sure does now.

Hunting for Hope

What an elevated eight days it’s been, from Passover to Easter/Resurrection Sunday. Elevated in that I could clearly see that my life was full of blessings, so much goodness just playing out at eye level.

Last Saturday we had a Seder in the backyard. While I may not worship as a Jew anymore, I certainly embrace the culture and traditions of my late — albeit assimilated — Jewish father, and of a life once lived as an observant Jew, and most importantly of my beautiful children whose identity includes their Jewishness. As well, this time of year opportune for acknowledging the intersections of religious practice, such as Maundy Thursday in the Christian tradition being the day Jesus shares Passover dinner with His disciples. There is so much to celebrate.

Monday my deeply passionate, funny-as-hell, incredibly intelligent, and very good looking (I’m not the only one who thinks so) son returned East. He had been out here for most of March, as we bookended a pandemic year by living together during that month on each end. Along with my beautiful, multi-talented, spiritual and generous daughter we had a blast with each other, with friends, and with my new home of Los Angeles, California. Hikes and thrift shops, beer gardens and picnics highlighted a month that took us just a little bit closer into the world we were forced to abandon a year ago. And let me tell you, it was exhausting! To be so active after a year of relative isolation… But we powered through, all in vacation mode, willingly leaving work by the wayside. What a gift to be a part of this team.

Tuesday I got a new car. New-to-me. My son had accompanied me on the first round of the process the week before. Without inciting suspicion in the reader that I receive any kind of fee for this, CarMax rocks. I traded in my fourteen-year-old Toyota Rav 4, purchased when I was still was driving kids around in the back seat, for a two-door white Honda Accord with very sexy hubcaps. I am still in the process of learning how to use the many bells and whistles included on the dashboard of this thing (is there a class I can take?!) but I did figure out how to tune to my favorite radio stations. The Wave and NPR’s local station, KPCC, are my go-tos. There’s also a great old-school hip-hop station I play when feeling that OG vibe. And I tune in to a reggaetón station once in a while, too, when attempting to catch up with the 21st century.

Wednesday I recovered from Monday and Tuesday — and taught class. Then Thursday came wherein I returned to the parking structure at Pasadena Community College for my second Moderna vaccine. Still worried it would not happen, that I would not have the correct paperwork, that they would run out, or that the sky would fall (because, really, how has it not yet?) I arrived early and cried once again as I got the injection. And not because it hurt. Although maybe, yes, because it hurt — it hurt my heart. I hurt for the year that’s been, and for all those who have suffered so much, and for all things wrong still not righted in this country, and in this world. Like the Passover tradition of removing a drop of wine from your glass to acknowledge the pain that the Egyptians endured during the plagues — and like the drink offering that has gone from Biblical times to urban street corners — I felt sorrow during my joy. I feel sorrow that people are actually being asked if the police officer who murdered George Floyd actually did; sorrow that mass shootings have returned, and yet lawmakers still hold tight to the “right” to own rapid fire weapons; sorrow for the immigrants fleeing violence and pain, only to find that we inflict that pretty well ourselves… Joy. Pain. Sunshine. Rain.

Friday found me continuing work on a book proposal, propped up by a longtime writing buddy via Zoom. She and I wrote dissertations together in various North Jersey libraries a few years back, always breaking after our four-hour stints for wine and gluten-free pizza. We are writing with another woman now who is at the tail-end of her own dissertation work. We encourage her as best we can, but before we know it the post-traumatic stress of graduate school gets a hold and we begin babbling, reciting facts and naming theories so that I’m not sure how much we’re really helping. P.S., My pastor just defended his dissertation last week, so now he’s a Reverend Doctor. School — some of us just can’t get enough.

Saturday I worked my shift at Pasadena’s Friends In Deed food pantry with my daughter. (Meanwhile my son was working at a Lenape community farm in New Jersey — did I mention my children have big hearts, too?). The food pantry has been such a blessing; it is why I qualified for a vaccination when I did, and how I have already met some really cool people in my new home during a pandemic. I am lucky to be associated with this amazing organization and you all are free to donate at any time. I see the work they do, I watch its direct impact on humanity. https://friendsindeedpas.org/fid/what-we-do/our-programs/the-food-pantry/

Mom’s birthday was Saturday, too, and I found myself missing her in fresh ways. A friend told me recently that the three-year mark after a person’s death is unique in its time away from the loss, and time into the realization that that person will not return. It’ll be three years this fall that Mom passed. It seems to me this period also entails forgetting the trying logistics of death and dying, difficult feelings and the like, while recovering happy mental snapshots. Kind of how we forget labor pains and begin to remember only the joy of giving birth, any negativity that arose around mom’s last years is slowly slipping away from me, replaced with images like the Easter baskets she used put together for us when we were very young, replete with malted milk chocolate eggs and cute underwear. Why underwear, I ask now. That was mom.

And then here it is Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday, a day celebrating Spring, renewal and hope. Seems like a good time for all that, doesn’t it? I solemnly and heartily pray for these things for humankind; for our earth that continues to take a beating; for all the animals that bring us unconditional love. Blessed Sunday to everyone, powerful Spring, joyous Resurrection. Here’s hoping that you find happiness staring straight at you. And if that’s not the case, then here’s to seeking it like a child hunting for precious Easter eggs, thrilled at the discovery each and every time.