Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Looking for home: (feeling sorry for myself.)

I have never fit in anywhere except perhaps in my own family. Some people are completely content with being a misfit. Others try all their lives to conform. I don't want to conform (perish the thought!) but I want to be at home among the people in my community. I guess I'm looking for "You're a real dork but we love you anyway."

Many years ago, I left the UCC when my clergyman father had a run-in with his congregation. They were angry with his pro-gay rights position and his decision to marry a lesbian couple. At the same time, he asked the congregation to support one of their members, a young man who was reared in the church, now dying of AIDS. Our entire family was thrown into one of the worst experiences of our lives. There were vicious attacks and rumours about my dad, false accusations, back-stabbing and bitterness. Those who supported him (people who came from the lower-income bracket of the church) were also alienated from the church. It was awful and humiliating. We were severed from our community.

I had grown up in the church in a very real sense. As the minister's family, we'd served several congregations of Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. We'd been the first to arrive and the last to leave. We visited parishioners with our dad and had to go to all the dinners and events. I remember watching him put on his robes and I recall leafing through Cokesbury catalogs and trying on his clerical collar. We folded bulletins, listened to him practice his sermons, acted in all the Sunday school plays and taught Sunday school ourselves when we were older. We suffered through meetings and late nights and fielded calls from bewildered, hurt, depressed and even suicidal congregants who were not able to distinguish between my father's professional role and his family's need for privacy. We had poor people and drug addicted people live in our homes. Days would pass without our seeing our dad because he was counselling, advocating, assisting. He was with people when they were baptized and married, grieving and dying. And we were there with him most of the time. We didn't go to church. We LIVED the church.

Meanwhile, he was instructing us in liberation and feminist theology. I was reading his grad school books. As a teenager, I was reading Paul Tillich and about the Nag Hammadi library. I kept a postcard of Colgate Rochester Divinity school/Crozier Theological seminary with me because that was where I most wanted to be. It was Martin Luther King Jr.'s alma mater and his nephew graduated with my dad. (I did end up going there for one semester.) My great-grandfathers were ministers. We were descended from Jonathan Edward's brother. My Cousin Emily was one of the first women ordained in the Methodist Church in England. She preached in country churches in the United States back in the 1920's. It seemed like it was my destiny to become a minister and to follow in my father's footsteps. Indeed, I received my calling when I was thirteen years old.

So it was terrible when our church rejected us. I have never felt so betrayed and bewildered in all my life. This was around the same time, probably not coincidentally, that I was becoming a Neo-Pagan. By the time I reached college, I was pretty well on that path. My father was becoming a secular humanist and my mother and sister were becoming very unorthodox in their spirituality as well. Actually, this process was probably initiated two decades earlier when my father began seminary. His tendency thereafter was toward an extremely liberal interpretation of the faith and he taught us that responsible biblical criticism rejects fundamentalism. So, it wasn't that I was abandoning Christianity at all. I was abandoning it as an orthodoxy. To me, the bible was a collection of occasionally poignant and useful illustrations interspersed with a great deal of hateful text. Jesus was a nice guy but I'd read enough to know that his ideas were not unique and are not unique now. I don't see him as any more or less divine than any other human being. Love him still. But I don't worship him. I had to honor my calling so after I dropped out of Colgate Divinity school where surprisingly enough they weren't tolerant of pagans, lol, I moved onto Antioch U. and got my grad degree in Women's Spirituality, focusing much of my attention on Christian feminist theology which I studied alongside pagan Thealogy. I like liberal Christian theology. I respect it. I just like TheAlogy better.

In any case, I was content to lead the life a spiritual individualist, a solitary practitioner. Lately, however, I have begun to crave belonging to a group of people who share my values. I'm getting tired of living in what seems like a twilight zone in which no one seems to be concerned about animal rights, or child labor, or environmental degradation and endless wars. I want to be with people who think that feminist, vegan, pagan people are good people and not nutcases. I want to be among people who share my love of "discipline" as a spiritual concept. I want a spirituality with a focus in practice rather than in doctrine. I want to be among people who are excited by history and thea/olgical concepts and willing to kick these ideas around as equals.

Most importantly, I want a place where my children can grow, a refuge in an angry world where they won't have to be "weird" or where "weird" is a good thing. I can't be with them forever and I can't guarantee that they will have the support of long-lived spouses, friends and partners. I want to provide them with an opportunity to have a community to hold them up when they are weak, to bring them solace and comfort, acceptance and challenge when I cannot do it anymore.

My research drew me, over several years time, to the Quakers. First I did lots of historical research as I initially explored their relationship to Spiritualism and the current Goddess women's culture. I read lots of material about contemporary Quakers and their diversity of beliefs. I was thrilled to find that there are non-theistic and pagan Quakers! Hurray! Then I began reading blogs and delighted in the thoughtfulness and engagement I found there. In the Protestant churches, it was like pulling teeth to get the people to actually THINK about their faith. They wanted to leave that to their minister.

Finally, we began attending a meeting. We've been there some months and we're still feeling it out. My husband feels very much at home but I am still cautious. Sometimes I think they don't know what to do about my kids. Other times I sense that they pity me. I don't always get the point of the extended silences since I find so much spirit in conversation and it frustrates me that they don't talk to each other more. I get irritated with them for being so much older, and more financially comfortable than I am. When my kids are running around, I'm scattered and unfocused and I'm afraid I'm bringing the spirit of the whole meeting down. What if they think being a SAHM is a cop-out? What if they think I'm too bold or aggressive. I believe in standing up and fighting for my causes. What if this offends? If I have to pretend that I am placid, I'll feel all scrunched and miserable. what if, what if, what if...?

More recently, I began to participate in Quaker blogs. That has been almost entirely a failure in the sense that I find myself very bewildered by people's reactions to me. I don't speak much after meeting during the social time. I'm glad I don't. What if people reacted to me there in the same way? (I get really excited about dorky things like history and theory and then when I share my excitement, people think I'm being an ass.) Could I handle that in front of people. Would I cry or say something dumb? We have to take a long break from meeting because of scheduling so this will be a time of soul-searching for me. If anyplace shares my values, especially peace and simplicity, it is the Quakers. But maybe I can't fit in in with them just because I don't fit in anywhere. Maybe I will have to pack up my spiritual backpack and move on. But oh, I don't want to. I want to be home. I really want to be home.

Friday, October 12, 2007

lusting after my own cuteness

This semester was the first semester that I have taught in consciously modern plain clothing. Although I set aside two skirts that hit above the knee, my closet is purged of all but long, plain-colored skirts, practical pants and plain-colored tops in practical colors. I have purchased sensible shoes to replace my cute high heels and wear black stockings rather than the cute pattern print or fish nets that used to spice up my outfits.

This hasn't been enough. I'm looking to get rid of collars and buttons next. They are impractical and require fussing which I don't want anymore. I know that when people see me, they don't think of me as a spiritual person. They don't want to share their own spiritual stories with me. They probably look at me and think, "What a frumpy woman." I'm not obvious enough. When out in the world, I often wish I could dress more plainly and admire the local Mennonite women. I even bought a Mennonite dress on ebay but found that it was made of an artificial material that would surely make me feel all smelly and icky if I were to wear it and do anything other than sit perfectly still all day. Also, after putting it on, I just didn't look like myself. I looked like a Mennonite. I'm not a Mennonite. I'm not even a Christian. I want to be a plain woman whose garments speak a silent testimony about the rejection of capitalism and about deep respect for the environment. I don't want people to think that I'm submissive to my husband. Oh well.

What would a plain Pagan Quaker look like? I continue to go over this as I try to answer this call. I'm thinking that she would wear long skirts not necessarily for modesty but because they allow a person to move freely and comfortably. It would help me give up shaving my legs (at least most of the time) and would satisfy my love of historical costume. A plain Pagan would wear sensible trousers but would not likely wear clothing marketing her sexuality. Sexuality is too sacred for pagans to peddle. A person who sees herself as a manifestation of the Great Mother Goddess doesn't wear a push-up bra or pants that say, "Cutie" across the ass. A Pagan Quaker would probably only wear humanely, sustainably produced garments made with organic fabrics dyed with low-impact dyes. Or she would choose undyed organic fabrics. Alternatively, she may buy her clothes in a second-hand store to avoid consumerism in general.

She would cover her hair with a hat or a kerchief not to show submission to men or even to God but to the power of the Sun which will give you cancer if you don't watch out. The kerchief, made of organic fabric, would link her to her peasant pagan ancestors and remind her that there is good honest work on the land. They would also keep the hair out of her face while engaged in green homemaking, gardening, or scholarly work.

And that's all cool but I find that when I'm teaching, I feel frumpy. I'm not much older than my students so (Hail, Vanity) I like to look like I'm not much older than my students. I like the idea that my male students might be tempted to give me a chilly pepper rating on the Rate my Professor website. I like having the edge that a cute pair of boots gives me. I'm surprised by my shallow feelings. I'm not a teenager anymore. I've had three kids and "the boobies" are not as pert. That's life. Why should I care? The thing is that I do care. I want strange men to inwardly say, "Damn!" when they see me. How ridiculous and un-feminist of me. But there it is. When I wear sensible plain clothes, my vanity makes me feel sick, depressed, and worthless. When I wear adorable, fashionable clothes, my spirituality makes me feel sick, depressed, and worthless. It is amazing to me that rationalism does not help me here. They're just clothes for goodness sake! It disgusts me that I am so easily manipulated by the threat that in my 30's, I will no longer be interesting to men that don't interest me. Absurd.

So that's where I am today. Life is a process. Thought is a prayer. I'm still learning who I am. We'll see.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Quietly, children.

Yesterday, we attended our meeting with all of our children. As we settled into silent worship, I began my work. My daughter sits across the circle from me. My older son sits beside me and my baby is on my lap. This week was my turn to mind the children so there was little chance of a repetition of the conditions that inspired me to speak at the last meeting. Instead, I spent my time observing my little ones. It is amazing how much a mother can say without saying a word. I look across the room to my daughter and with subtle nods or shakes of my head, with small, silent gestures and facial expressions, I tell her that she must be still, that she is doing well, that she must sit for just a little longer. Meanwhile, I hold my ten year son's hand squeezing it to show him I appreciate his patience or that I wish him to stop wiggling. As I monitor the older two, I breastfeed the toddler, shifting my own body to support his weight, watching him to see that he is content. I watch their bodies and faces to judge how much longer they can stand being so still. I can see what is stirring in their young souls. I know when they are restless and when they are at peace. I find joy when they answer my questioning smile with gentle little smiles of their own.

Time passes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, and we are still still. My daughter has left her chair to fetch a straw from the coffee table across the room. Later she tells me she just had to move because without her crocheting, she felt restless. My son yawns a little too loudly a little too often. So far, the toddler is content but shows signs that he may soon tire of the breast. I shift my weight to better support his head. I shake my head and my fidgeting son and motion for my daughter to sit. But I'm proud of them. These are minor interruptions. In earlier weeks, we lasted hardly five minutes before I had to usher them out. They are learning to BE. This is what I hoped. After half an hour, I decide to take them out of the room for our First Day School. We discuss Judaism and chase squirrels in the yard.

Throughout my worship service, I do not hear from God what I cannot see in my children's faces. This week, there are no lofty messages, no revelations. Motherhood ties me to the earth. Some would say that it interrupts my channels to the sacred. In fact, well-meaning brothers and sisters in my meeting express concern for me that I must spend so much time with the children and so little time in waiting worship. But I do not need to wait. I am living in the midst of sacred energy. I see God all around me. I am a Pagan Mother. I draw Her down into my body as I sit with child at my breast, as my daughter looks at me with her large, wise eyes and signs, "Mother." I draw God down when my son, ten years old and nearly as tall as I am, squeezes my hand reassuringly and shows me a glimpse of the man who is emerging from the boy I bore.

They sit because I ask them to. They do not yet understand but for me, they will do this next to impossible thing. They are there for me. And I am there for them. ----Because I want my children to grow in a community committed to peace. Because I want them to find a quiet space in their souls beyond the snares of corruption and fear. Because I want them to find solace in joyful silence when I cannot protect them from pain. They do not understand these things but they quietly wait with me, full of trust and love. And so, as I watch and shepherd them, they lead me closer to God.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Quakers and class: A response to Jeanne's post

What interests me, and always has, is the way that social class, education level, and political perspective relate to religious orientation/denominational loyalty. It is interesting that those very groups that you mention as being among the wealthiest, the Quakers and UU's, are also among the most progressive. Such people are wary of religious hierarchy and dogma. The Unitarians, Universalists, and Quakers were a refuge for suffragists and abolitionists in the nineteenth-century. Likewise, today those who are drawn toward liberal politics are also drawn toward higher education and heterodox spirituality. This is, as you suggest, in part a product of their middle-class and owning class upbringing which emphasizes individuality and leadership skills and which promotes a sense of entitlement in the child.

Also, I would be interested to find out what percentage of UU congregants and Friends are convinced or "recovering" from other religious communities. I imagine that in the last thirty years, that number is increasing as the mainline Protestant Church begins to lose its appeal with liberals disenchanted with Protestantism's rightward swing. If that is the case, we may be looking at a phenomenon in which well-educated liberals are fleeing toward spiritual communities that provide refuge from fundamentalism and its encroachment upon the formerly liberal seminaries and congregations.

I grew up as a PK with a very liberal, feminist preacher Dad who has since fled the church to become an atheist. He and I went to the same seminary twenty years apart. In that short time, the Protestant seminary's emphasis on intellectual rigor and social justice was replaced by a creeping fundamentalism and intolerance.Well-educated folks have a difficult time tolerating that perspective. I know that I found it unbearable enough that it necessitated withdrawal from seminary and from the faith of my childhood. I'm a Neo-Pagan and attend a Quaker meeting. I also attend a UU church. Most everyone I know there came from some other denomination that let them down.

I don't deny that I'm also irritated with unconscious privilege among (white), well-to-do Friends. However, I feel that we should further explore the issue of wealth and education among Friends to determine exactly what's going on here. Is there a difference between convinced and birthright Friends related to this issue? Are we intentionally excluding working people without advanced degrees or are we failing to attract them? Why don't we appeal to working people? (I ask the same question as an educator, a feminist, and a person).I think for me the issue remains with the question of ignorance and how the wealthy manipulate it consciously and unconsciously. As an educator, I believe that a liberal education that exposes the individual to the complexity and diversity of her/his brothers and sisters is critical to the process of empowerment. Education is, in many ways, the opposite of indoctrination. Fundamentalist, Mainline, and Charismatic congregations are full of working class folks which the leadership manipulate easily and often cruelly. Watching these congregations and studying their theology also leads me to conclude that they are growing in power in numbers because we have a dangerous anti-intellectual bias in this nation among working people. This bias is not accidental and its development can be traced as a historical phenomenon. Likewise, Quakers and UU's have long been associated with the middle-classes, especially the well-educated middle-classes. They also have a long tradition within the United States of being the greatest advocates of social justice.