Friday, December 19, 2008

The Quest for Crunch to Alleviate Ennui

Now that my husband is a chauffeur instead of a developmental aid (the difference between wiping the backsides of folks with developmental disabilities and kissing the backsides of those with ethical disabilities), I am home again with my children.

Not that I ever ventured far. In the past, my husband and children dropped me off at class then picked me up when I was finished. This semester, I carpooled to the college with my parents and taught four classes (women's history, African American history, United States, and Western Civ.) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Thursdays were my long days. I went in to work at 7:00 a.m. and arrived back home at 10:00 p.m. On all the other days of the week, I was home full time. It was the first time I've ever worked quite so much away from home but conveniently my husband was diagnosed with PTSD and put on a prolonged stress leave from his violent workplace. We always said we would never use daycare. Isn't it wonderful how the universe will provide? In this case, just when we needed a break from our old routine, the universe provided a deranged lunatic who tried to kill my husband. How we are blessed!

But now he's gone back to work and so I have returned to the role of homemaker in a more full-time way. I'll still be teaching three classes this next semester but only on Sundays and online. This means that already there have been some changes in the way the household functions. The floors are cleaner, there is less dust, dinners are more regimented and include more vegetables, and I'm a moody bitch.

I find that there may be some conflicts in my ability to adjust to this role of Hausfrau. For instance, I sometimes question whether or not it makes sense for a person with a PhD to be concerned with cleaning cat vomit off the floor. I also find that laundry is not as glamorous as I remember it. I find that even my Lehmann's catalog natural pine cleaner (not synthetic!) and my Dr. Bronner's are unable to alleviate my feeling that somehow, life could be more exciting.

I've told myself I would begin working on my own writing when I wasn't mired down with my students' lame-ass attempts at writing papers. That hasn't happened yet. In fact, so far, this blog is pretty much it. This, and a couple of angry posts I have erased because they were just so mean-spirited and ornery that even I couldn't stand myself after reading them. On top of feeling generally worthless and unattractive- a complete failure of a human being, I also have lost my faith in "God" (go ahead and read sarcastic dismissal in the quotation marks. It's in there.) and am in a state of unrelenting morbid anxiety punctuated only by groggy depression and hypersomnia.

This is always what happens when I graduate from college. Every frickin' time. I've been a lost soul since I handed in my dissertation. I'd start another degree program to help me shake off this funk but since I'm already a couple hundred thousand dollars in debt, I don't think my husband would approve. (God, I wish that last line was a joke.)

What will save me? I think I need to fashion meaning out of my situation. I maintain that what differentiates us from other creatures is our ability to make meaning out of meaninglessness. (At least that's what I told one of my classes one day and since they wrote it down, it must be true.) To that end, I will joyfully re-embrace my crunchiness which I now merely maintain without enthusiasm and basically as a hedge against the avalanche of guilt and self-loathing I feel whenever I so much as flush a toilet unnecessarily. I will now shift focus to more consciously and conscientiously embrace the Crunchy Earth Mama manifestation of myself. Let us see what comes of it.

(It is unfortunate that I have already had more than my share of offspring. Being pregnant is the most convenient way to move toward smug crunchiness. I could give birth in my living room while suckling my preschooler. Oh well. I guess that's out. I'll have to find some other way to be better than everyone else I know.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008


My grandmother is trying to figure out what I want for Christmas. I guess I haven't been too helpful. "Nothing really. I'm fine." The thing is that I pretty much have all that I need and want. In fact, I'm perpetually purging as I attempt to simplify, simplify, simplify. When pressed, I told her that I could use paper, folders, pens and pencils since I am trying to get back into writing and such things are also quite handy when one is teaching college classes and homeschooling children.

My mother called me up this week and said that my grandmother wants to buy me jewelry. "Oh no! Tell her not to do that!" I almost never wear jewelry except for an occasional paganish pendant (and then mostly just to aggravate conservatives). I don't even wear my wedding band or engagement ring. Jewelry feels just too much. Too heavy. Too enslaving. Ever put a leash on a cat? If you have, you know of what I speak.

Then my mother tells me that my grandmother wants to buy me pretty underpants. What?!!! No! My god in heaven! I urged my mother to make it clear to Grandma that this is not the best choice for me.

Since my teen years I have been militant about this point. There is no reason I can discern (or respect) for wearing frilly underdoddies. Underpants serve a practical function which we needn't elaborate upon in this post. The "other purpose" of underthings I entirely reject. I have always believed that one wears underpants under one's clothes for a reason. When the underwear is visible to others, it should still decently cover one's person. If one's underpants are visible to a loved one with whom one wishes to be uncovered, typically that last remaining garment is on its way off the body and then it hardly matters anymore whether they were cotton briefs or lace whore pants. (Yes. whore pants. Some of you are into this kind of thing and probably think I'm a miserable prude. Well, I am a miserable prude. Don't get your knickers in a twist). I certainly will not spend my day picking a lacy thong out of my nether region so my partner can have a few seconds of thrill (although what is so thrilling about a few scraps of fabric is beyond me). If I can't make him happy with the equipment God gave me, tough shit for him.

In any case, I am just horrified by Grandma's notion that I would want such a garment and that I would want it from her! Ack!

Beyond that, this has taught me something about myself. I dislike the idea of frilliness for its own sake. It makes me physically and psychically uncomfortable to think of spending money on items that are meant only for frivolity or um...enhancement.

The world and its peoples are sliding headlong into a nightmare of poverty, ecological disaster and war. That's all I can think about all the time. I'm all twisted with anxiety for my children's future. Wearing satin on my arse sure as hell isn't going to make those feelings go away. At least with a notebook and a pen, I could write all about it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My hope returns: A letter to Karl

I've been pretty sick the past couple of days. Caught a stomach bug and have a terrific headache but this morning, despite the pain in my body, my heart is light. My four year old son found me crying as I watched Obama's victory speech on YouTube. With his sweet little voice he asked, "Did Barack Obama win?" I answered him "Yes, what do you think?" "Good!" was his response.

It is indeed good. I wrote a letter this morning to my dear friend, Karl, expressing my feelings of last night and this morning. I do not think he will mind if I share it here. With some minor editing for the sake of privacy, my letter follows:

I told my children this morning that Obama won the election. My daughter squealed, "He did?! He did?!" and she jumped up and ran around in celebration. My eleven year old son said, "I am so proud of that guy!"

Last night I lay on the couch as the results came in, occasionally dozing as the pundits droned on. But I was awake when they called the election and I watched the crowds, thousands of people, screaming, and weeping with joy and relief. I saw Jesse Jackson standing there silently with tears streaming down his face. I cried too. But it wasn't until I went into the bathroom to get some tissue to blow my nose that it hit me hard. I looked in the mirror and saw my face, tear-streaked and pale, my hair all awry and thought, very selfishly, how hard these past eight years have been on me and my family. How we lost so much. How our access to health care was eroded and how our kids suffered for that. I thought of how we had to scrape by on beans and rice at several low points. How we accumulated outrageous debt just to pay for our medical bills, groceries and educations but couldn't find decent jobs to pay those bills. I thought of how we lost our home. Most devastatingly, we lost our hope. The nightmare years of my depression coincided with the nightmare years of Bush's administration. I was furious at the hopelessness of the world my children were inheriting and I felt my impotence keenly. It was all just so insane.

So when I looked in the mirror and saw an older face, a more tired and lined face there, I was thinking that maybe now it is over. Maybe now it is finally over and I can dare to hope again. And I kept thinking, I have my country back. I have my country back!

I think the spectacular and momentous reality that we have just elected a black man as president of the United States must be coupled with the reality that most of the people who voted for him were white. We voted for him not to prove a point that the nation was no longer a nation of racists. We didn't vote for him to show how far we've come since Dr. King spoke of reaching the mountaintop. We voted for him because we are weary of the politics of fear. Because all of us have suffered and we are tired of suffering. I know that Obama is a moderate and that I will likely be disappointed many times with his policies and politics. But that's OK. I just hope all the Democrats elected remember their liberal base and give us a way to live out our passion and calling. Let us finally use our gifts without being ridiculed, belittled, and dismissed. Let us serve in a way denied to us for so long. It has been too long.

So now the hard work begins in earnest.

From the blue state of New York to the blue state of Florida, I send you love.

Am I a Christian?

Am I a Christian? I honestly don't know. In the past months I've begun and abandoned multiple posts attempting to answer the question so today I'm just going to recount a story from my girlhood to see where it leads.

My father was a Congregationalist minister. His library was full of bibles and concordances, histories, philosophies, and theological treatises. As a teenager I took to pouring over some of these texts. I must have been reading a book that took a more skeptical approach to Christianity because I found myself in a conversation with my father about whether or not Jesus was real.

He told me that the first thing they told him at seminary was that there was insufficient evidence to indicate the historical reality of Jesus and that even if he did exist, it was almost certainly not in the form now familiar to us through tradition. I remember he used the phrase, "they pulled the rug out from underneath us." Why would they do that, I wondered?

He told me that it was to help the students, who had committed themselves to a life of Christian service, find what they really believed beyond the literalistic idolatry of fundamentalist belief. My father, who always said that doubt was as important as faith, said that a literalistic faith is weak. Because it demands a literal truth, it is easily destroyed by evidence to the contrary. And then he told me that in the end, it did not matter to him whether or not Christ ever lived. The story and the Truth it contained was enough. It is enough to believe that Tenderness, Joy, Mercy, Humility, Passion, and Peace will save the world.

So what if Jesus did not exist? Or what if he did live and teach but his message was not so uncompromisingly beautiful? What if it was all just a hopeful story dreamed up by his sorrowing people long after his death? Dad said it just didn't matter. He said the hope in that story was worth living.

Since that conversation there have been many injuries and disappointments for us within the Church. We came to find in our Protestant tradition a dysfunctional home in which too often a literalist interpretation of the bible led people toward arrogance, intolerance, and even hatred- all in the name of Christ. Twenty years after that conversation, neither Dad nor I call ourselves Christian. I call myself a Pagan and he calls himself an atheist, but when we talk about love, and justice, and joy, the word we most often use to mean all those things is still "Christ-like."

And we still believe.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The rush of life and the fruitlessness of spiritual expectations

I have not been writing in a long time. As so often happens, life has spun me round. In the midst of my melancholy musings and ruminations, we decided to have a bit of a vacation. Actually, it was the first true vacation we've ever taken in twelve years of marriage. We have journeyed to exciting places like Montpelier, Vermont and Cincinnati, Ohio but that was when I had to be there for my graduate work. I tend not to count "vacations" as trips in which I spend eight hours a day in a conference. And of course we've had many day trips. We're big on day trips but that also doesn't count. So this was our first real, honest to God vacation.

We went to Buffalo. Woohoo. Ahem. I mean Woohoo!!!

You may ask yourself, what is in Buffalo? And I say to you, well, what isn't in Buffalo? We went anyway.

The first day of our vacation, we went to Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester(which you will note is not in Buffalo) where my son broke two bones in his left hand. We then came home to spend part of the day in the ER which actually was very nice. There is a lovely garden outside the hospital with a stream, swans and ducks and a labyrinth. While waiting for my husband and son, my other children and I walked around the beautiful campus. I tried to uncover the mystery of my life to no avail. As it turns out, a labyrinth has limited meditative function when explored with a three year old.

On the next day of our trip, we made it all the way to Buffalo where we ate with my sister at a vegetarian/vegan restaurant where I ordered the mushroom burger. It was not cooked and had a large clod of dirt on it. I hated to bother them about this but you know?

We then went to our hotel room which was fantastic because it was so very close to the railroad tracks AND the school bus garage! (Actually, our kids thought this was phenomenally good luck.)

The next day we went to Lily Dale, (also not in Buffalo) a Spiritualist community. I shall have to write about it later because it warrants its own entry. My husband received a reading during one of the Spiritualist services out in the woods by Inspiration Stump but I did not. I did not receive illumination on the Fairy Trail, by the lake, in the Forest Temple, or in their labyrinth. I put a penny on Inspiration Stump and thought spiritual thoughts real hard until I was good and shaky and emotional but no dice.

The following day we went to the Shrine of the Our Lady of Fatima (also not in Buffalo) where again I received no spiritual illumination although I did buy a very disturbing rubber embryo to keep in my purse. We then went to the zoo where I also received no illumination but then I didn't expect it there so that was OK. I did learn that it is not a good idea to put sticky sunscreen on your sweaty kids then send them into the dirt to dig for dinosaurs. You can imagine.

On the way home, I had a stomach ache which turned out to be an appendicitis so the next night, I went to the ER again and then the following day I had surgery. As I was going into the operation room, I thought perhaps I would discover something profound while under anesthesia. When I awoke, I realized that I experienced nothing at all when under anesthesia which led to a crisis of belief. This was to be expected since I had already commented to them that I feared that I was keeping my soul in my appendix. I think it might have been true.

I came home where I had no profound dreams while I recovered. Then two days later I had a faculty meeting and now I'm teaching four classes. Four completely different courses.

And today is my baby's fourth birthday. I'd like to have another baby since this one is frankly getting too big to call a baby anymore. Time for a new model. If I had a spiritual guide, I'd ask for assistance in making this decision but since they removed my soul with my appendix, I'll have to rely on a rational thought process. Damn.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What is the question?

We took our children to our MM today and found that those of us arriving in our minivan were twice the number of all the other Friends present. Apparently there is a Yearly Meeting this weekend. I did not know this but then I've been rather busy these past couple weeks as I have been organizing and promoting a conference and running about in historical costume giving speeches. My teaching and public speaking engagements are not really a part of my blog in a direct way although it feeds into my general anxiety. I'm not at all sure that I'm doing the right things professionally or personally lately. Am I supposed to be teaching? Should I serve on committees? Should I be writing more and for what audience? Does any of what I'm currently doing as historian help the Earth one iota? Am I wasting my time? There is so little time to waste. I'd very much rather everyone would let me put on a cape dress and a bonnet and let me do my laundry. I like to do laundry.

You see, I've been looking for answers lately. Or rather, I've been looking for the question. What the hell is the question? I don't think I've ever had this kind of difficulty before. It disturbs me. It isn't like me to be so unsettled in my thoughts. I feel very much as if I've been asked to write a final essay for a very important test except no one has told me what the question is.

Not that I've had much time in recent days to consider this perpetual state of confusion. This past weekend I was running a two day conference (so many details!). It went tolerably well and would have been a bit less stressful were it not for the fact that I was also asked to lead a march and then do a dramatic reading for another event occurring simultaneously with my own event. Being a very histrionic sort of person, I said "yes." So I entertained a hundred people on Saturday, led a march and gave a speech on Sunday morning, and then sped off to another town to finish a conference and give a speech there that same afternoon. People took pictures and filmed me for a documentary. It was all rather exciting. And meaningless.

"Thank the Goddess for you!" said one organizer as she hugged me. Yuck. What does that even mean? (Is that the question?) I was irritated with her Goddess talk the way only another Goddess woman can be irritated. It was sloppy and drew too much from antiquated Jungian essentialist ideas of gender. She kept talking about how powerful her Baby Boomer generation was and how my generation (but not me of course!) just didn't get it. And wouldn't I come serve on their board of directors and be their "historical and moral compass?" And I'm thinking, "Lady, you don't want to hear what I have to say about history and morality." But I smiled and thought about how very little I can say for certain about my own professional future. What the hell am I doing? I have no career (adjunct work hardly counts) and I have no real prospects. Should I be getting a better job? Should I be jumping at every chance to add something juicy to my cv? Perhaps that is the question.

So there we were at our MM this morning (which is scheduled at an ungodly early hour I might add) and I take the children out to have our First Day school. We'd had some difficulties with remaining quiet so we practiced sitting silently for fifteen minutes before I spoke to them. And then they sat at my feet and I asked the question.

"Do you know why we come here?" This was followed by "Do you know why we are so quiet? Do you know what the Friends are listening for? and What is God?"

As it turns out, my children are very smart people. We had a lovely conversation about these questions. We discussed how God can be a man or a woman and how God is neither a man nor a woman or even a person for that matter. We discussed that God is Mother Earth and Spirit and Light and everywhere and how there is that of God in everyone and how we are all brothers and sisters. We talked about a singular God and plural gods and goddesses and how perhaps they are really all the same. (If children can be so many different people all in one day of play, why cannot God also play?) We discussed peace and compassion and loving our neighbor even when that person is George W. Bush (that's a tough one!). We spoke of the rocks and trees and creatures as our family and how all human beings are related to each other. We talked about having too much and giving too little and how other children don't have toys or food or even parents and how my daughter wakes up and looks at her room and says, "I don't deserve all this." We discussed how God is always speaking to us and all we have to do is to listen. The world is full of messengers like Jesus who tell us to love one another. We are all messengers and we are the hands and eyes and heart of God who loves us because we are Her children. Just as our own mothers hurt when we try to harm our siblings, so too does God hurt when we make war or pollute the Earth. She depends on us to take care of each other. And that is what Friends are doing. We are listening and we are trying to do Her will.

Anyhow, that's how it all came out when I was talking to my children. Rather simplified really and didn't I just say to my husband last night how irritated I have been with Goddess women who simplify feminist thealogy and say goofy things like "thank the Goddess for you" when they haven't done their homework and when they are clearly engaged in essentialist arguments that ignore theory and history and pretend there is no such thing as race, or class, complication, or change over time. Did they sleep in the day our entire society covered postmodernism?

What is the damned question? Why do I sit and stare at tarot cards? Why do I open the bible randomly (God help me) or surf the net for hours. What am I looking for? I received my "calling" many years ago and have been following it the best I know how but today I feel very much like I stand on the edge of a precipice and that I am being asked to jump. Or fly. Or turn right around and run like hell.

I sat there with my children at my feet today. Do you know why we are here? Why must we be so quiet? So what is it that the Friends are doing in there? what are they listening for? What is the calling? What is the question? And how will they know when they have heard it properly?

And what I told my children was that we know we are hearing God's voice when we are being told to love and when our hearts are open to our brothers and sisters (the human ones and the tree ones and the animal ones too). And how do we hear God's voice? My son said that first we must be very still.


Monday, June 9, 2008

On Being a Spiritual Goldilocks

The first Friends' Meeting I attended was in a very small university town neighboring my own rural community. The people meet in a room in one of the university buildings. There are very few members. We sat in a circle and meeting after meeting was completely silent. When people did speak, it was profound and gentle. Almost without fail in these services I was affected so profoundly that tears would roll down my face. I learned to speak in this meeting and found myself spiritually charged and changed by the experience. I relished the "Quakerism 101" classes we shared with this group and felt immediately useful in the business meetings. Because there were so few, I mattered right away.

They are an intimate group, however, and outside of our worship service, I felt like an interloper. My children were the only children present. There was no First Day School and in fact, no room at all where the children could retreat during Meeting. In summer months, either their father or I would take them outside to play on the college campus grounds but in cold weather, we wandered the halls of the college building trying to be very quiet. There were no rooms available to us. We were told that to open a room for First Day School (actually a place where I could read to my older children and nurse my youngest) was an insurance issue for the university. "This meeting is too small," I said and looked for something else.

The next Meetinghouse we tried was in a nearby urban center. These Friends were a far more diverse group. I marveled at their number and at their collective vocal ministry. While weeks could pass in the college town Meeting without a word spoken, each Meeting for Worship in the urban center included several messages. And here too, I felt the Spirit so strongly tears would roll down my face. They had a thriving First Day School and a very active membership.

But it takes almost an hour to travel to this city and it is stressful for us since we are not used to urban settings. Additionally, I felt lost among so large a group. While I could not put my finger on it, I found that I felt like an interloper among them as well. For some reason, although their political and spiritual beliefs were so close to my own, I felt a strong lack of connection. Beyond shared liberal political opinions and an openness to unorthodox spiritual perspectives drawn from indigenous, Eastern and Pagan traditions, we don't have much in common really. They are "city folk" and leave me behind in their conversations that include references to too many things that are well-outside my experience and needs.

My goodness, it is not as if I have never left the farm, why the heck did I feel so uncomfortable? At first I thought it was because they were unfriendly then I realized that the fault was in me. I was prickly and shy in their midst. Two weeks ago, after pulling up in front of the meetinghouse after an hour's drive, we turned right around again as I began to have an anxiety attack at the thought of entering the building. "This Meeting is too big," I decided and looked for something else.

So yesterday I tried out my third congregation. I heard they had a thriving First Day School and a wonderful historical tradition which I find very attractive but I had resisted for some time because it was a Christ-centered and I was afraid they could not accept me. Also, I was hesitant about a programmed service since I have come to deeply love silent worship.

The meetinghouse is not on a college campus or on a city block. It is a plain, white church among farm fields similar to the little rural Methodist and Congregational Churches my father served all through my childhood. We are greeted at the door by an elderly woman with a vase of flowers. We sit down in one of the pews (pews! not chairs) and enjoy the breeze coming through open windows on this hot summer day. As we sit, several other elderly women approach us and shake our hands to welcome us. And I feel welcome. Truly, honestly welcome in this place.

The service is very Christ-centered and at times, I find my intellectual self resentful of what I consider the minister's simplistic interpretation of scripture and wonder if she has ever even bothered considering the rich diversity of spiritual metaphors available to her since the advent of scholarly feminist spirituality. I feel disappointed that the silent periods are so short. There is no time to settle into worship before we have to hop up again to sing a hymn in an impossibly high register. I should be feeling the urge to rush out of this Meeting and never, ever return. And yet, I find myself wanting to come back next week. What is wrong with me? This is a bad fit. I should abort this experiment. Why does this Pagan feminist feel so relentlessly "at home" in what should be a hostile environment?

And then it hits me. Friends in college towns and cities share my educational background and intellectual approach to theology (shall we discuss the merits of non-theistic, heterodox and pagan philosophies anyone? lol), but I do not belong to them. I was reared in the country church and that is where I am comfortable. I love the peonies at the front of the church. I love the elderly women in their pearl earrings. I love the usher in his neat dress pants and shirt and the children who sit quietly in their Sunday best (not dismissed 15 minutes in). I even love the hymns. More than anything, I love how they love each other. As the breeze caressed my face on that hot day, their voices, laughing and loving, caressed my soul. God, how I have missed that sound!

And God, how I have missed the church of my childhood! Missed it so much that as I write this, my eyes well up with tears. As I sat there, I felt such relief. Perhaps this is only nostalgia, merely a yearning for something I can never have again. Could I really stand to be around people who would in all likelihood reject my Pagan panentheistic interpretation of spirituality? As the minister gave the benediction and walked down the aisle, I wondered if I could really tolerate this "high church affectation." Do Friends really need this? If she must talk at all, can't she just sit down when her message reaches its end? Does she honestly need to progress out of the building setting herself so profoundly apart from the ministry of other Friends? Can I really tolerate the fussiness and formality of a church service interrupting the silent gathered worship that has become so powerfully meaningful for me?

Back home, I told my father of my experience and said that at the other meetings, all the beliefs and practices were "right" but it felt all wrong. And here, at this country church, all the beliefs and practices were "wrong" but it felt right. While I was like a scared rabbit in the urban meeting, among these country Friends, I found myself beaming at them and shaking their hands warmly. They said I was welcome and I felt welcome. I could imagine coming back week after week just to see them. I could imagine loving them in their imperfection (as I love my imperfect family) whether or not their theologies match my own. What to do? Where do I belong? I want to fit into an intellectual, liberal congregation comfortable with my intellectual Paganism but"I was socialized for country churches," I said wistfully. This place was too small. This place was too urban. This place was too christocentric. Is no place "just right" for me?

Dad listens but he knows me too well. He raised his intellectual daughter among country folk. These are the communities he loved and the people he served. This is our foundation and our sustenance. More than anyone, he knows what I mean when I, even in my most non-theistic moments, continue to speak of Jesus and Christianity as if I still carried the label. He understands why I still love to study the bible. He knows that despite our leavetaking from orthodox Christian worship, there are still times when "Christian" for us remains a synonym for a disciplined ethics and abiding compassion supporting the highest, deepest, most unconditional love.

I have learned to call this Love, this Spirit, by many other names. As a Neo-Pagan, I am more likely to look to the natural world and to my own woman's body for spiritual inspiration these days. Is that the problem? Are those who continue to call themselves "Christian" missing the benefit of a multiplicity of spiritual metaphors? And how can they still believe in a man-God? I did not use the word "unsophisticated" but I may as well have.

My father, the Always Right Rev. Atheist, cannot resist teasing me. Cutting through my scholarly objection to their "sloppy theology" and with a twinkle in his eye he suggests that maybe I'm just too elitist to allow myself to admit that I feel at home with a group of country Christians.

To this I did not have an answer.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Response to A Plain Life by Scott Savage and to Those Friends Who Wish I Would Go Away.

I recently finished reading A Plain Life by Scott Savage and found it to be a deeply satisfying read that challenged me to continue on the path I have chosen toward simplicity and spiritual integrity. I found his writing stirred me toward deeper contemplation of my commitments to family, community, planet and the Divine and made me feel more deeply that my spiritual home is among the Friends.

Then I read his opinion about universalist and Pagan Quakers on Robin M.'s blog

and was a little shaken. In fact, for a few moments, I was not sure I wanted to finish reading the book. Then I realized that his opinion about people like me had no bearing on the beautiful and powerful message of his book. I would not rob myself of the blessing of his words. I finished the book and now include it as among those that have been most personally powerful for me in recent years. His story of choosing a life of simplicity and integrity resonated with me as I too move toward plain dress, toward deeper engagement with my family, community and environment, and as I more mindfully address the issues of commercialism, technology, and materialism in my life. I take heart from the story of his journey. It serves as a beacon in my own journey.

I cannot say that I do not have sad feelings about his opinion of non-Christian Quakers. I certainly don't expect everyone to be delighted about my heterodox spiritual positions. I think that my sadness came more from my sense of surprise. It is early in the game for me and I did not yet know that it was possible for a Friend to reject me as unqualified. Naive, I know but although I fully understood that many Friends are Christ-centered, I did not know that there are some who consider those of us who are not as unqualified to share in community with them.

I came to spend time with Friends because I wanted a spiritual home where my spiritual vision would be honored even when not shared. I love being around those who can speak the truth in many spiritual languages and who can delight in each other's difference because they know that at the deepest level, we are all of us brothers and sisters. I love being among Friends because they honor the path, the process, and the conversation more than the "answers". It is this that provides form and support to what might otherwise be a spiritual free-for-all. They are a listening people who temper the desire to act, think, and speak brashly within the discipline of Silence. Therefore, I can join them as I too seek to live a more disciplined life and as I continue to listen to the Voice that guides me. What I believe makes sense within a Quaker context. That's exciting for me because I have been without a spiritual community for a long, long time.

When reading A Plain Life, I could see my deeply held values in the personal discipline he described. I seek to honor my spirituality in my everyday activities, to resist being swept away by consumerism, convention, greed, apathy, and self-indulgence, to bring my growing rage and radicalism to the heart of the community where it can be channeled into loving action rather than angry reaction. So while reading A Plain Life, I felt more Quaker. Funny isn't it? A man who said a lack of faith in Christ was "a deal-breaker" made me feel more Quaker. Was my feeling of welcome a misunderstanding? Should I pay more attention to his clearly stated position regarding non-Christians in Robin's blog or was his true spirit calling me to join him through his beautiful book, even while his conscious desire was to dismiss folks like me?

That is so often the way it works. I like to think that sometimes light shines through us despite our stubborn obedience to "truth." When we take it upon ourselves to define the boundaries of "truth" then we are on dangerous ground, strutting about playing at being little gods. When we are defensive, we lash out. When we lash out, we are likely to injure those we were called to love. But when we tell our own sincere stories with passion, faith, and love, we make space for others to grow as human beings especially when we show our eagerness to hear their stories in return. A story honestly told honors and upholds a community. It invites and caresses the "other." On the other hand, when we define the limitations of our tolerance, the boundaries of our faith statements, we exclude those we are called to love. The message that we belong together within the body of the Divine is a message I was taught as a Christian child. It is a message that was reaffirmed by my pagan beliefs. All life has kinship within the Body of the Great Goddess. There are no exceptions. Jesus said "love your neighbor..." He did not list restrictions. So that is how I choose to live even when I am hurt. There are no "deal-breakers" for me. I am called to listen even if others do not want to hear me.

And there have been so many, many times when others have not want to hear me. There was the time I watched a group of fellow students engaged in a theatrical therapy demonstration stomp Goddess worship into the ground while I tried not to cry. There was the time when members of the interfaith group I joined said they didn't think our community could handle community courses that included Neo-Paganism. So wouldn't you think I would stop being surprised when others turn from me even as I eagerly seek them? It certainly is not a new experience. One other incident springs to mind as being particularly painful because it was so personal.

When I was beginning my doctoral work, I met a fellow student at our entry colloquium. He was an older man, a retired minister. I liked being with him since my own father was a minister and I could really identify with him. We sat next to each other and chatted amiably between sessions. When he told us that he had decided to drop out of the program, we shared a tearful hug. In a short time, I had made a good friend. Later I wrote to him telling him how much his presence at that colloquium had enriched the experience for me. He wrote back to me saying that one of the reasons he left the graduate college was because he was disturbed by my desire to obtain a religion studies degree focused on Neo-Paganism and feminist spirituality. He said he did not want to graduate from an institution that would accept me as a student.

Such things happen. And when they do, we are charged with a decision. Do we bitterly reject the human being who excludes us, or do we continue to love them and in so doing, continue to appreciate the blessings only they can contribute? I am beginning to learn that there are far deeper antagonisms among Friends than I imagined. As I immerse myself in published and online literature, I am often taken aback by the negativity, ill-will, and anxiety that whirls dangerously between Christian and universalist Quakers.

No matter. Though my reactive mind stomps and grumbles, "I know when I'm not wanted," my deeper mind tells me to be still and hear what there is to hear. Scott Savage wrote a book that brought grace to my life. His story welcomed me, maybe not the pagan me or the universalist me, but the essence of me that no labels can ever touch. His work helped me look to others with deeper love as my brothers and sisters. And though he may call my non-Christianity, "a deal-breaker," I cannot believe that that which illuminates my heart is any different than that which illuminates his. If he draws a circle that shuts me out, I will merely draw a larger circle that draws him in.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Preacher's Kid Finds a Home Among Friends

I've missed two weeks of meeting for worship due to my sister's visit. I am surprised to find that when I say I've "missed" two weeks, I find that I actually do miss those two weeks! How wonderful it is to miss meeting for worship! It makes me feel as though perhaps there has been some healing of the fracturing of my life when my father left the Church.

In those intervening years, I denied my need for spiritual community. I turned to my intellect to patch myself up. And though I studied spirituality both formally and informally all those years I was away from the church, I denied any true NEED for religion. I made myself believe I had grown beyond it because to acknowledge the pain of that leavetaking felt like a betrayal of my father's decision. So in these years, I have sown bitter herbs and thorns. Religion is abusive. Religious people are parasitic, judgmental ignoramuses who prey on the good men and women who choose to serve them. The entire thing is bullshit, a waste of time, a travesty, an embarassment. But now look at me! I actually missed going to meeting! Perhaps, to use Hildegard of Bingen's term, there has been a "greening" of the arid field of my heart.

It has been a long time since I felt the need to attend a worship service. For some years, Sunday has had no special meaning for me. It was a day like any other. But there was a time, long ago, when being anywhere other than church on a Sunday would have been unthinkable. I was a preacher's kid so when Sunday rolled around, we rose early and dressed in our Sunday best, ate our breakfasts and got in the car to journey to whatever church (or churches) Dad was serving at the time. When we were little, those churches were Methodist and Presbyterian. As teens, after my dad switched denominational affiliation, we spent out Sundays in Congregationalist (United Church of Christ) churches.

Perhaps other church-going children dreaded Sundays. Perhaps they were bored from the forced inactivity of sitting through long sermons. Not us. Sundays were work days for us. We helped fold bulletins. We helped with little housekeeping tasks in the church and listened to our father practice his sermon. Standing at our father's elbow, and subject to the fact that many people cannot distinguish what information should not be shared in the presence of children, we were acquainted with the politics, loyalties, sorrows, and joys of the parishioners. From an early age, we were expected to sit quietly, listen carefully, study thoughtfully, and to speak clearly. Church was more than just a Sunday morning affair. We arrived first and left last. We were the "royal family" at church suppers and fellowship events. We went to preacher exchanges and special holiday events. OH and the holidays were long for us! We had Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter Sunrise service too not to mention the bible study and sermon preparation that preceded it. We had all of Advent, Christmas Eve sermons and concerts and Christmas day services. We had the ridiculously long season of Pentecost. (We used to joke: Today is the 789th week of Pentecost...)

We also had the trials and sorrows of the poor souls who sought my parents' time and attention in the midst of all this.

Phones rang in the middle of the night. People found shelter in our home. Money saved for our vacations was given to families in deeper need. We followed Dad to nursing homes and sick rooms. We saw him at work at baptisms,weddings, funerals, and calling hours. We knew about spousal abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide, rape, poverty, grief, death and mourning at a very young age. Sometimes when we answered the phone we heard the desperately needy voice of a person looking for help from one of our parents. Some of these people were crime victims. Others were drug addicts or were suicidal. We learned to be tactful, discrete, and swift. My parents shielded us as best they could but as PK's we may as well have worn large neon signs on our foreheads advertising that we were good listeners. I learned very early to never show alarm or disgust at any story. I also learned to sense pain beneath a decorous facade. Even today though I have very intentionally avoided any career that would set me up as a counselor or confidant, I find that people often disclose to me.

The paid ministry is a dozen jobs rolled into one. Dad was a therapist. In fact, he did post-graduate work in psychology to handle his congregation's needs. He was an executive officer who must know the church's business affairs. He must be a musician, scholar, teacher and janitor too. And he was a performer. The church is a theater and the pulpit was his stage. We watched him transform himself from "Dad" to a person we jokingly called, "Father Daddy" in his sweeping black robes. He commanded that audience with his deep, resounding voice rising and falling in an enthralling cadence. Gait and gesture, costume and timing were as much a part of the service as were the elements of communion.

I loved to watch him as we sat in the pews with our mother, a regal and poised woman, in the front of the church. We sat quietly and devoutly next to our mother who, with her quiet, reverent dignity was even more imposing than our father. Apart from our parents' high expectations, we also were aware that the congregation watched us and so we behaved accordingly.

We were model children. Had to be. And we knew that after the benediction (which we had memorized, of course) we would rise to take our place next to our father to greet the people.

Learn to smile and nod and laugh appropriately.

Learn how to speak to the elderly men and women clearly and cheerfully.

Learn to keep your head up and your hands and feet from fidgeting.

And so it went from before I have reliable memory until I was college-bound. Every Sunday. Until it was over and my father moved on to a new career. Just. Like. That.

Then I was on my own. I studied religion and spirituality for the next fifteen years but I had no community. I tried a couple UU churches but it never felt right. So strange to go in and sit there. It felt disjointed. I felt disjointed.

I realized this week that one of the reasons I could not feel at home in the Unitarian Universalist churches I have visited was in part because I was there only as a body in the seat. I cannot be a passive participant. I am a preacher's kid and trained to that lifestyle. Religion was not something we did on Sundays. Religion was the essence of who we were. It was the breath in us. So I can't just "go to church." To sit there and listen to a sermon is nothing but a lukewarm version of the vibrant spark of my childhood religious experience.

And so I come to sit among Friends. I came because if I could not be the minister (and I cannot) I wanted to be one of them. I did not want to sit among people going through the motions. I wanted to feel energy crackle around me. I wanted to be surrounded by people whose spiritual voices were deep, resounding, vibrant, electric, devestating. I wanted the hard work. I need the hard work.

But I don't want to shoulder the burden alone. Although I have toyed with the idea of returning to seminary, I know I will not. I have no wish to be all things to all people and I have no desire to return to a religious community that I see as over-reliant on their hired clergy. I saw the church run my father down as they demanded more and more from him and gave little back. I wanted to be around people who were not content to ride on their preacher's coattails, not content to rely on his words or make his human efforts a broken substitute for divine revelation. What I wanted was to be a member of a community of ministers each with a calling toward service to the Divine and to the divine in each other. And on most days,that's what I have found. It is a beginning.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Do Liberal Quakers Quake?

Introduction to an old post revisited:

After several months, I am revisiting this blog entry that describes the first time I felt compelled to speak in meeting. Following this event, I have spoken several other times. Each time was accompanied by these feelings of...well...quaking.

I am universalist with a tendency toward being head-centered and non-theistic. I have heard and read from some that liberal Friends are more head-centered, less spiritually focused and more interested in social justice issues than in spiritual process. Personally, I don't buy that. Now, I'm not saying that I haven't encountered issues and complications among my new friends the Friends. I see with them many of the same challenges faced by my other friends the Unitarian Universalists. We liberals are not perfect people and I think many of us can identify our own eccentricities and weaknesses (anyone up for navel gazing?) But to say that all this intellectual, social justice, peace marching stuff really stands in for true spirituality is really simplifying it. It is uncharitable and ignores our diversity as communities and as individuals.

When I entered the Friends' company, I didn't know the rules and assumptions about FGC or FUM Friends. I didn't know how one was supposed to experience anything. I just sat in the meeting and waited. I knew some of the history but had no particular expectation in meeting. Strike that. I did have the strong expectation that nothing would happen at all. In fact, as I was in a strong non-theist mode at the time, you can imagine my surprise when, in the midst of my not-believing, I received a message to share with the meeting. I find it curious that my reaction to silence should be so physical. Actually, perhaps this physical reaction in a person who lives a bit too much in her head is not really surprising, but it is curious.

I wondered if more liberal Friends from similar intellectual backgrounds could speak of similar experiences. I was hungry to talk about it after it happened to me but also hesitant. Perhaps I'd lost my marbles. My reaction was basically, "What the hell was that all about?!!" I was deeply relieved when other liberal Friends told me they experienced similar feelings and sensations.

Do Liberal Quakers quake? As it turns out, the answer is Yes! Sometimes we do. One can be deeply spiritual without being religious. One's entire body and soul can be engaged in the process. A Neo-Pagan feminist with intellectual preferences for nontheism can quake. Will wonders never cease?

And now the post---

As a general rule, I am a loquacious person and comfortable with public speaking. Still, since I began attending our small monthly meeting this summer, I have felt no desire to speak. I have come to the meetings and studied Quakerism because I am attracted to its principles and discipline...a discipline that closely resembles that which I already practice. However, I have found limited use for the silent waiting. Waiting for what? That's a hard question for someone like me to answer in my current condition- a condition resulting from a period of unprecedented spiritual aridity. In fact, I have been content to usher the children out for First Day school so that I wouldn't have to sit there in that long silence thinking, for the most part, about how pointless it all was given my tendency toward non-theism. For what, exactly, was I listening? Truthfully, I heard very little except others shifting in their seats, (Why did he think nylon was a good fabric to wear to meeting?). I'd sit uncomfortably crossing and uncrossing my ankles and listening in horror as my stomach growled noisily. I could even hear the sound of my own eyes blinking (ch-snick, ch-snick), but I never heard God or any approximation thereof.

But this week, I sat and listened to myself think about the pointlessness of sitting with my eyes closed and wondering how long it had already been and when my stomach would begin its relentless rumblings. Increasingly bored with the back of my eyelids, I looked around the room we occupy. It is a large room with several slender Gothic windows set into walls of white painted brick. The panes of glass are frosted but some of the window panels were pushed open and through them I could feel the breeze and see the still-green maple leaves outside dancing. As I looked at the even rows of white bricks and the repeated pattern of slender windows on the wall, my mind wandered aimlessly around thoughts of symmetry. I recalled the time my artist uncle muttered with disgust, "In the absence of anything better: symmetry." My admiration for my uncle notwithstanding, I am an admirer of symmetry, of plainness, of simplicity, of order and discipline. I suppose, Vulcan-like (excuse the Star Trek reference), I crave order because my most inner nature is violently emotional.

And as I sat there watching the sun and wind dance on the little patch of leaves I could see through one pane of glass, I thought that outside was a "riot of life" and it came to me that the order of our meeting place was made more beautiful by the light and life outside which, in the end, would always be more real than anything we well-intentioned, well-ordered folk could construct. And so it is also true of me. My desire toward plain dress and voluntary simplicity in lifestyle, my academic and spiritual disciplines, my faith and practice are all symmetrical windows and white painted bricks. They are real and solid and even, I hope, useful and beautiful things. They define me, contain me, sustain me, and strengthen me. But the light...the light that illumines me.... comes from a wild place.

So I knew I needed to say that. I didn't particularly want to say it. It scared me to have to say that. We had gone weeks without a word spoken and I am merely a newcomer. I felt I had no right to say anything. If they were content with the silence, these seasoned Friends, then who was I to open my mouth to talk about bricks and breezes? I started to feel shaky. My heart pounded. What was all this about? Was this nerves? I speak publicly for a living for goodness sake!

Then another woman spoke a message about honoring our personalities as well as our bodies. I glanced down at my hands and was surprised to find them drenched in sweat. The words kept repeating themselves in my head and my heart kept pounding and I felt this curious sensation. I felt as though I had been strummed and that a part of me was vibrating with energy. I wanted so much to speak and release this terrible energy. I even parted my lips to do so but pulled myself back again and again.

Then, and I can't quite understand how it finally came to pass, I spoke. My palms dried and my heart ceased its pounding. And that was that. Out of my grumpy, non-theistic silent inner rant arose a truth about wildness that I had to share. It didn't even make much sense (and I so love all that is sensible!) Perhaps I have been clinging too tenaciously to my ability to analyze my own spirituality. I have been troubled by the inconsistencies of my theo/thealogical convictions. I was moved to speak, I say in passive voice. By whom? By whom indeed! Despite my discipline, the light that illumines me comes from a wild place.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dangling on the Edge of Convincement

I hear people say they are convinced Friends. When does this happen? How does that work? I've been waiting for it to happen to me but how will I know? Is there some kind of ecstasy as you realize you are finally home? Is it gradual and comfortable? Perhaps there is some kind of telltale popping sound (ka-plock) as your soul suddenly, for the first time, fits.

I took the goofy Internet test that said I was a Quaker. I have studied the history of Friends seriously for some time now first as a part of my academic work and then privately because I could not get enough. I obsessively read blogs, articles, books, commentaries...I have attended a Friends' meeting for almost a year now. I am ready to concede that intellectally, culturally, behaviorally, I can "pass" as a Friend...

But I resist. "No, no. I'm not falling in love! I'm too sensible a person to leap headlong into a new community, into a faith community (Good God!). This is an academic interest, nothing more." But while my brain spins rationalizations, in my heart I know this is a conversion experience. And I'm terrified that this is a conversion experience because I'm too logical for conversion experiences! So I dangle here on the edge of convincement clinging to my rationalizations with white knuckles.

Sometimes I maintain that I am not convinced because others have not convinced me that this is the best path for me. I tell myself that perhaps my spirituality is too independent, too large to be contained within a "label." But you know, I think that my real fear is that others will see me as a "poser" and that they will laugh me out of the meetinghouse. That is what I fear whenever I speak either when moved to do so in meeting for worship or in meetings for business and Quaker 101 gatherings. I am afraid that others will hear me and say to each other on the way out, "Who the hell does she think she is?"

How can this fear be healthy? Well, I don't know but I know that the fear exists and that something in me has decided that it was time to move beyond my individualistic search for spiritual fulfillment and move toward a community. I am willing to exist with this fear which shows me that I may be ready for a community. But oh! what a pain a community can be! I have ranted all the way home from some meetings, "I don't need this!" But all of us must labor in pain to bring forth new life, right?

I have intellectualized my spirituality in recent years as I have jumped through academic hoops. At some point in that process, I began to objectify the process and to demand that it conform to rational arguments. I learned to discount my experience when I could not explain it (as if I was ever clever enough to truly explain spirituality!)

But now I must ask myself, Who calls this individualistic non-theistic Pagan to meet with Friends? Who calls me to speak? Who gave me my calling when I was a child and has driven me ever since? What Love compels me to move past my fears to share so deeply with these strangers? Do I really have to explain it or justify it? Can't I just let it happen?

Will I continue to be distrustful and suspicious in the midst of this great gift? As the Light shines in my life do I really wish to keep my eyes shut tight muttering, "I don't believe it. I won't believe it! And it is all their fault anyway!"

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Quietly Children

In my last blog posting, I hinted that I am tolerant of discomfort in meeting for my children's sake. I intended to write a post describing this. Then I remembered that I had already written such a post which follows:

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, February 28, 2008

Becoming an Obedient Quaker even though my Meeting openly dislikes the term

This last week in meeting, I was doing my ordinary thing of sitting there trying not to think of anything in particular. I could say that I do this to hear the Voice of God over my own internal chatter but actually, I do this to avoid hearing the Voice of God. As it turns out, when I begin to think, the words shimmy themselves into a message and then I find my palms sweating and my heart beating in my ears and I feel compelled to give that message. Usually, it is a message that I don't want to give and often afterwards, I have a hard time remembering just what I said at least in the particulars. So I was sitting there thinking how I might just get through this meeting without having to embarass myself in front of these people I barely know.

I shudder to think of what they must be thinking of me. They probably think I'm a fruitcake for speaking so frequently. Maybe not a fruitcake...Maybe they just think I'm arrogant. And I am arrogant about a good many things but not about this. I speak publicly as a profession, but I sure as hell don't want to speak in front of them in that context. When I speak in public as a part of my career, I am in charge of what comes out of my mouth. I'm in control. What happens to me in meeting is like losing control and vomiting spirituality on strangers. It sucks. I don't like it at all. And I wouldn't come back if it weren't for my children who I wish to consecrate to the Friends (a story for another post) but I don't need this! I was very happy being a solitary feminist Pagan with a firm background in liberation and feminist Christian theology. That suited me just fine, thank you very much.

I'm not sure what to think about the meeting we attend. We haven't really made friends of the Friends even after these many months of attendance. I smell the vague wafting stench of disapproval among them. I don't know from whence it comes but it is there. This is a tiny group and I cannot get away from the strong sense that we are outsiders. Also, I'm having trouble adjusting to the silent worship thing. The clock on the wall is broken now so I can't even look to that to help me survive the hour of stomach rumbling, thigh-shifting, nasal whistling silence. If they have thoughts in their heads, why don't they share them? Wouldn't the discipline of conversation move them forward more quickly than the discipline of silence?

The other Friends rarely speak in my meeting.They sit there silently week after week (spoken messages are very rare in this group) and then I waltz in and disrupt all their dignified quiet with my ramblings. I honestly don't even remember what I said last week...oh no, wait.. It was about how I want the world to know Friends by their love and not for their words or what they believe or who they worship or why (issues of theology) but that when there is pain in the world, they are there because they are in love with the world. I don't even know if it made sense. I finished and then to my horror realized I wasn't finished because my heart kept pounding in the unpleasant manner and I had to open my mouth and dribble out a few more words. God, how awful.

A few weeks back I tried to explain this to the other Friends in our Quakerism 101 class because I wanted to benefit from their older, more experienced Quakerness. I made the mistake of referring to my reaction to this phenomenon as "obedience." The choice of this word meant a lot to me because I am not known for my obedience. In fact, I am known for being an asshole when it comes to authority figures. Now don't get me wrong. I am not some kind of rule-breaking hellion. I was always a good girl with a firm respect for disciplined behavior. The thing is that I like to be the one who determines the discipline. I wanted to obey my parents but when they gave me direct commands, I had a difficult time with compliance. We got around this problem because I anticipated their requests and fulfilled them before they asked so I wouldn't feel the need to tell them to stuff it. It is a matter of principle with me. I can't even be civil to doctors when they attempt to tell me what to do. I throw away prescriptions just because I won't be bossed. I consciously avoid judges, police officers and others because I would probably go to jail just for being an insufferable ass. So I don't like to be obedient. Well, maybe I'm not really all that unreasonable but you get the idea.

When I used the word "obedience" in reference to speaking in meeting, a Friend said she thought that was an unacceptable word. I forget just how she phrased it but it was clear that she was disturbed by my word choice. She may as well have yelled, "YUCK!" and hit me upside the head. I left that meeting feeling embarassed, unheard, angry and disillusioned.

But you know, I think she was wrong to admonish me. I think it is obedience that I am feeling when I speak in meeting. I think that given my personality and my reluctance to surrender power and authority to another, it may serve the Universe/God/dess/Great Spirit/Beloved to drag me by the short hairs to witness. There is certainly a great deal of literature that suggests that not everyone comes to spiritual message with lots of pleasant feelings. Hildegard of Bingen got migraine headaches. Moses had burning bushes (ouch). I have to try not vomit on my shoes when I open my mouth. Am I comparing myself to Hildegard and Moses? Sure. Why not? We're all of us just people. It is the Divine speaking through us. The message could flow through anyone. It doesn't make me more important. Now Moses and Hildegard did many other things and I wouldn't dare claim I can touch the fringes of their levels in terms of historical and cultural importance. But when it comes to opening your mouth obediently when the Spirit nudges you (hard in my case..."ooomph...Hey!" then we are sharing a common bond of humanity. The Spirit moves us. It shapes us. It surprises us, upholds us, informs us, inspires us. It even pisses us off. Those of us with arrogant souls may just need to learn the lesson of obedience because it does not come naturally to us to speak from spirit instead of power. Call it Divine tough love.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Vegetarianism, Poverty, and Social Identity

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about social class, income, education and becoming a Friend. I'm not done thinking about it and so this does not represent the fullness of my thinking on this topic. What follows is just some stream of consciousness stuff as I work it out in my head. I'm a "Dr." now and I'm finding that it doesn't rest easy on me. Is this really who I am? And when people "look up to me" I feel...well, I don't know how I feel. And when people resent me for this degree or because I eat tofu or because I'm a ecofeminist ("femi-Nazi"), I struggle to understand my ambivalent feelings. While my mother was reared in a family in which college education was the expectation for each child and careers in the sciences and the arts was normal, my father came from a family of factory workers, skilled workers and laborers. All the time I was growing up, my father was in conflict with his family who did not quite understand his liberalism and intellectualism. There were proud of him, I think, as he achieved first an M.Div and then a Ph.D. in history but they also didn't quite get it. His politics and his feminism offended them...or more accurately, they dismissed his politics and feminism as being unnatural, amusing, and a bit delusional. For his part, I realize now that my father was trying to escape from the lifestyle of his childhood. His teachers told him that he wasn't bright enough to graduate from college and his parents expected him to move out and get a job when he was 18. I don't think anyone expected he would become an intellectual. As he took his place among clergy and academics, I know he felt his background keenly. "I can't give you money," he used to say to me, "But I can teach you how to behave so that rich people think you belong with them."

It is kind of funny that while I could have married a college boy from the Ivy League school that neighbored the women's college I attended, I chose to come home to te community college to find my mate. It took my dh a considerably long time to earn his AA and he is just now, after nearly a decade, returning to finish his Bachelor's degree. Until I met him if someone had asked what I was looking for in a spouse, I probably would have said "intelligent" (and would have meant well-educated) every time. Turns out that kindness and steadiness was more important. Weird. Who knew? Being married to this kind-hearted, patient, hard-working but financially-challenged man for twelve years has been its own kind of education.

When my husband worked as a dump truck driver and heavy equipment operator and when he worked plowing the roads for New York State, he had to be really careful in order to avoid injury. You see, he's a vegetarian. Yeah, sure, he had to be vigilant all the time to prevent accidents while working with big, powerful machines. He had to watch for oncoming cars and extreme weather conditions. He got sick with the pollution and the physical stress of the work. But apart from all that stuff, all the danger and fatigue and body-wrecking stress that is a part of a job that requires both heavy manual labor and skill with large machines, he had to watch the men with whom he worked-- because they let him know that they would like to beat the crap out of him for eating tofu.

Eventually, after several years, he was able to leave this line of work and was able to begin working with persons with developmental disability. This was a good move for him and for our entire family. His current job is also stressful and dangerous (especially when working with violently mentally ill clients), but he doesn't have to hide his vegetarianism or his feminism anymore. He gets to be who he is. And we don't have to worry the way we did when he coworkers threatened him with violence or even suggested that they knew where he lived and might threaten his wife and children.

It was never that hard for me to be a vegan. At least no one ever threatened to beat the crap out of me for it. When I decided to give up meat as a teenager, my parents were very supportive and changed the family's diet to accommodate me. My extended family were often amused, but they took it in course and apart from a little teasing, their response was loving and respectful.

When I went away to school after one year at community college, I found that there was often nothing for me to eat unless I was willing to eat steamed vegetables and dry breakfast cereal. For three years I made myself a constant nuisance to the catering service that served my college. By the time I left the school, I had developed a relationship with the managers and cafeteria staff that resulted in change. I was particularly insistent about this change but I was helped by Muslim, Hindu and Jewish students who also were tired of a lack of respect for diverse food needs. Years later when I returned to my Alma Mater, I found that vegetarian and vegan options were included with every meal. So I lost weight and had to bitch and moan and even stomp around a bit when I was a college student--the result was change and respect for those of us who refuse to eat animal products for ethical or religious reasons. With such a result, even the anger I felt at the time, even the hunger I endured for days and weeks takes on a positive meaning in my memory. I am proud of those efforts and grateful that the dining hall management included so many reasonable people willing to educate me about their perspective and their work as I educated them about the needs of vegetarians and vegans. We had tensions, but we also had respect for each other and a sense that we were making progress toward mutual goals.

I do not think I had any real understanding of how difficult change is to achieve until I married my husband and my income was earned not by a man serving a church or seeing clients in a comfortable office but from a guy wearing steel-toed boots with tar stains on his Carhart. My expectation in situations of conflict is that I will apply reason, humor and knowledge to the situation with positive results. I don't hide my position or identity and expect that others will likewise approach me with honesty and respect. I do not tolerate condescension, arrogance, or irrationalism in an other's arguments or approach to me. When I learned that my husband was hiding his identity as a vegetarian, pagan feminist I was pissed. What the hell was wrong with him? When he cringed whenever I told one of his supervisors off, I had a hard time understanding. "No one treats me like his employee!" I said angrily. "No one treats my husband with disrespect." He had to explain to me that the men at work mocked him and told him to keep "his woman" in line. He had to explain that his supervisors would retaliate against him for my behavior.

This reality spun me around backwards. If a doctor treats me with condescension, I make a formal complaint and fire the bastard. If a teacher is incorrect in their analysis, knowledge or assumptions, I correct them. I've been doing it since I was in elementary school. If a policy is inhumane, I protest it and refuse to abide by it. If an administration is corrupt, I march and picket. I always thought that I did these things because I am strong. As it turns out, that was only a part of the story. Turns out that I've always done these things because I am privileged.

When I was living on my husband's working class paycheck and found myself subject to the sometimes violent and often unethical rules that govern these workers' lives, I found myself growing increasingly depressed. I could do nothing to change the fact that his boss would doctor the records so my husband lost his overtime hours or that the men had to pee in bottles because they weren't allowed to take breaks on the job. I could do nothing when the result of my husband becoming a whistle-blower on an issue that was endangering the public as well as breaking the law was a loss of his employment. He worked hard every day and they could still fire him. Nothing I could do about it.

So I began to see doctors to address the depression and found myself immersed in the allopathic nightmare of modern medicine. Weakened by drug therapies, I lost my ability to stand toe to toe with the "body mechanics" and plunged more deeply into a sense of helplessness. Before long, I was deeply depressed to the point where I could barely recognize myself. Where was the fearless young woman who tramped around her college campus in green hair and combat boots? Now I was overwhelmed with maintaining our little house and yard, doing laundry by hand when the machines broke down and doing my best to make a silk purse from a sow's ear. Still fighting to earn my graduate degree while having children, we lived in a trailer and lived day to day off credit cards which we used to pay the rent and buy groceries. Unable to pay our minimum balance on time, we were penalized with higher interest rates. As our debt increased, we were unable to make improvements on our trailer's electrical system which resulted in a small fire and the need to tear it down for scrap leaving us effectively homeless.

During all this, my husband worked. He did not grow bitter or disillusioned. He just kept working. I got my MA and went on for the PhD. He changed jobs and found himself in an environment that appreciated his sense of humor and gentleness, a place where being a feminist vegetarian was at worst a comical quirk of personality. I refused all medication and regained my voice with the body mechanics and found my depression lifted if by magic. We moved into an apartment in my grandmother and parents home where we are quite happy. There are four generations of us living together and helping each other. I can't express what a blessing it is to see my children growing up surrounded by the love and care of their grandparents and 91 year old great-grandmother. My husband and I are able to be there for them when they need the help of younger hands and now my grandmother is able to go on living independently because there are so many of us to ensure her health and safety in her own home. Most importantly, I am again immersed in a family culture of intellectual curiosity, social activism and confidence. None of us has much money but somehow, that all seems less important in this bustling, happy home.

What have I learned from this? I've learned that spunk and grit are products of our cultural setting and that when I was confronted with the realities of my husband's job, our poverty, and the stress of illness, I became a damaged human being. I remember going in to see my doctor after a particularly bad bout of depression and she said how it was hard to believe that I was sick because---get this---I combed my hair! I wanted to slap her. She saw people with depression and people with low incomes as being slobs who can't even manage the most basic level of self-care. I had to deal with this attitude from the social workers who handled our medical coverage and WIC (although I soon rejected both since I would much rather go without at all than deal with such treatment). I learned that the poor are treated reprehensibly and that to survive even two or three years of modest poverty was a giant achievement for me. I learned what it is like to go without food because I've used my credit card for groceries and now we can't buy both groceries and pay the minimum balance...I know what it is like to be in this situation only to hear someone tell me that the reason people are poor is because they buy themselves too many toys. F...that!

So now teaching working class community college students means something to me it could not have meant before. My father's family is solidly working class. In fact, he and his brother were the first to attend college. I was always a little ashamed of that side of the family even to the point of saying that really, only my mother's side counted. They were always so hard on me for being so studious. They maintained that it is a waste for a woman to go to college and that I was driving away the boys. God, how I resented their sexism and their narrow-mindedness! If I had not married a heavy equipment operator, I could not have looked past my resentment of my family's history. I would have judged my students. I would have heard the shaky grammar and noted their missing teeth and dismissed them as beneath me. I would have responded to their suspicion of higher learning as irrelevant with open disgust.

But I did marry a heavy equipment operator. I know about lay-offs and seasonal work. I know about going hungry and going without medical and dental care. I know about living in a ratty old trailer. I know what it is like to have some officious snot sneer at me when I have to ask for help. I've filled out a questionnaire that asked if I understood that alcohol is not good for babies! I think I understand a little better now why my hard-working grandfather would hear grand plans and say, "That's great, but does it put food on the table?" or why my grandmother would say, "Life isn't fair is it?" when as a teenager I squawked against injustice of some kind or another. I used to think they were cowards.

I don't think so anymore.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Rooting Around for my Calling, part I

I've not been writing much here lately. In fact, I don't write much at all these days. After completing my doctorate in December, I've found that I feel lost and angry. In fact, I am embarassed by my degree and discouraged by it as well. I'm teaching four classes now, twice as many as I normally teach and have even been given the long-coveted women's history class. Next semester, they plan to let me teach the African American history class. No one has taught black history in this college for several years and no one has ever been allowed to teach women's history. I should be thrilled. Except I'm not. Not even close. In fact, I'm considering quitting my job despite the fact that to do so would be financial and academic suicide.

Several people in my family, uncles, aunts, and my own father, are college professors. Others work in related fields as administrators and educators. The idea that I would have achieved this educational level without a desire to teach is inconceivable. As my mother drove me in to work today, I mentioned to her that I hated this job. I wanted to feel her out. I told her I was unhappy in what I hoped was a kind of jovial if I only half-meant it. I wanted to feel her out to see if she was ready to hear me this time. I'm not sure what I expected. Maybe I hoped she would stop the car and hold my hand and say, "Honey, you deserve to be happy. Your father and I will support any decison you make. Follow your dreams."

Maybe I just wanted someone else to know that I am unhappy in this work. I feel that I am betraying my calling and that somewhere along the line, I have forgotten that my obligations to the Spirit that called me is deeper than my obligations to pocketbook and family expectation. But she could not hear it. None of them can hear it. Such statements are juvenile, selfish, tempermental, and wrong-headed. How can I hate a job that pays so well for so few hours? How can I hate a job that allows me, as my mother pointed out, to have access to a captive audience? And she's right and my husband' right. Where else can I find a job in which I can work for only a few hours to make as much as my husband does in a day? Where else could I find work that allows me to spend as much time at home with the children?

But I don't want this job. I despise it. Not sure why. I enjoy teaching. I love the animated, enthusiastic exchange of ideas in the classroom. I love watching a kid who never thought he or she could do well in academics discover their passion for learning. Teaching is performance art and I love that too. But then I finish the class and find there is nothing left in me for the rest of the day. As an essentially introverted person, I am emptied rather than filled by these performances. I don't think any of my students would suspect that following a class I suffer from headaches, anxiety and depression. What they see is me hopping around the room, bubbling with enthusiasm, apparently full to brimming with energy. I am fearless. I have developed a reputation as the history prof. who pushes the boundaries. I call myself the "lunatic leftist" and enjoy playing that role.

But I'm terrified. Sometimes, it has stopped me in the midst of teaching. I stand there for a few seconds facing my urge to run out of the room. Now I'm not in the least afraid of public speaking or of my students as a body. I fear other human beings and their violent unpredictability. I find them incomprehensible and dangerous. I avoid malls and shopping centers, large crowds of any kind because I am terrified of that potential for violence. Thankfully, this fear did not stop me from teaching because I have found that while it is emotionally draining, public performance does not scare me as much as merging into a crowd of shoppers. When I'm in front of people, I feel that I command the situation. I feel safe when I am performing.

So I was getting used to the idea of teaching despite my frustrations with administration and grading and the injustices and indignities of adjunct labor... then there was Virginia Tech and now there has been U. of Illinois. My aunt works at the University of Illinois. One of her students was killed this month. My fear of public shootings predates both of these events (my father was working in a hospital when a man came in and opened fire on nurses and my mother worked for an agency where a man walked in and opened fire on social workers), but recent events intensify my fears. No one has any control over such crimes. There is nothing I can do to predict or prevent them. I don't fear public speaking or teaching because I can affect my own success. No amount of research, cleverness, or enthusiastic teaching can protect me from violence.

And I keep asking myself, "Is this it? Is this why I worked my ass off for four years of undergraduate school and then almost twelve years of graduate school? So I can be exhausted and demoralized and angry and depressed and frightened all the time?"

I'm wasting my time. And I want to be left alone. I want to quit. But I can't. Because we need the money. And my parents would be disappointed. And no one would understand. And to quit would be selfish, and juvenile, and incomprehensible.

So I'm stuck.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Meeting with Hel and Ken

I sat in meeting yesterday with tears running down my face for several minutes as one after another Friend mourned a former intellectual adversary/friend just killed in Iraq. Another spoke of our local migrant workers living in hiding and going without needed services and food because they fear deportation and abuse. And in the midst of that, I thought of my father's best friend, a veteran and a peace activist who was killed in a bar four years ago. He was taking his daughter and a friend out for drinks to celebrate the young man's safe return from Iraq. Ken was thrilled the boy was safe home again.

None of us wanted the kid to go in the first place and all of us, and Ken in particular, had marched for peace and to protest the war. Ken was deeply involved in a local peace activism group and I have warm memories of him marching down the middle of Main St. in a village parade carrying a peace sign. This was before public sentiment had swung away from unquestioning support of our President's bellicosity. And this is a small town in which you can count the Democrats on one hand. We were afraid for Ken's safety so we joined him as much to shield him from harm as to share in his mission.

So Ken was overjoyed to have this kid he had helped raise safely home again. To celebrate, they went out to his favorite bar, one of those places where everyone knew his name, to celebrate. Then later the two young people with him wanted to go to another bar to meet someone. They should have gone home,but being an indulgent (and celebrating) Dad, he went with them. It was there, in front of that second bar, that he was killed. Another kid there decided he needed to pick a fight. Why he chose Ken I'll never know. Ken was as gentle and kindhearted as they come. In any case, when Ken's back was turned and his hands in his pockets, the guy punched him in the head stunning him and sending him to the ground. His head injury resulted in death a few hours later. My father says he will never forget his best friend's daughters standing over his bed crying out for him- screaming for him. Dad hasn't been the same since.

I don't know why I saw Ken's face for the entire hour of meeting. I guess hearing Friends talking about the work there is to do, the love there is to give and our responsibility to each other recalled my father's words at Ken's funeral. "He has laid down his burden. Who will pick it up? Who will continue his work?"

And I knew it had to be me...Oh, not all by myself, but I had to play my part. There was such injustice in Ken's death. The boy who killed him was the nephew of a powerful political figure and he was never prosecuted despite the fact that the even was caught on tape and despite the account of several witnesses. Worse than that, it was all so stupid and so very wrong for a man of such firm commitment to peace and gentleness to be killed in some bar. So goddamn stupid. Such an f'ing waste. It always is...such a f'ing waste.

When my parents called to tell me, I was getting ready to go to a wedding. I always heard about people collapsing when they heard bad news but it still surprised me when I realized I had slid down the wall and was weeping. I was brittle and reserved at the wedding and cried for a long time after that. And I am still crying about it these four years later. My father says not a day passes when he doesn't think of his friend who was like his brother. God, you know they did everything together. They were a pair, a couple of aging Baby Boomer hippies--a pair of bearded men with gentle eyes and leftist politics. And his widow and girls? I cannot imagine their grief. Our entire community felt his loss deeply and keenly.

Maybe it isn't coincidental that I write this on Martin Luther King day. There is a relentlessness to the world's willingness to sacrifice its most gentle children for the stupidest reasons. And it is a kind of exquisite cruelty that we are all forced to just keep going. Just keep going. Blinded by pain and tears, just keep going. And why? Because we are in love with the world despite its cruelties. Because we are in love. My father loved Ken because Ken reminded him the world was worth loving. So Dad keeps going, although more bitterly now. And so do I for both their sakes.

It is in these dark memories that I turn to my special Goddess, the image of the image less Divine that comforts me most when I hurt: Hel. Kind of a surprising choice, isn't it? I never expected that I would choose the image of a half-corpse Germanic queen of the Underworld as a comforter. And the truth is, I didn't choose her. She chose me. Don't fuss with the theology of this...I don't. God appears to us in ways mysterious. I've learned to set my rationalism aside when I'm told to Listen.

There is a story of how the darling of the gods, Balder, was killed and brought before Hel. Balder was the son of Odin and of Frigga, the Great Goddess. who had made a deal with all of Creation to spare her child any harm. And all had agreed but Mistletoe who was so insignificant, she hadn't bothered to ask. The trickster god, Loki, took her oversight as his opportunity to create grief. He fashioned an arrow from mistletoe and it was this arrow that pierced the body and ended the life of Balder.

So there Balder stood before Hel, terrible on her throne. The gods and goddesses pleaded for him. He begged to be returned to life. How could he be made to suffer? It was all a mistake! But Hel did not relent. She turned cold eyes on him and told him that all belong to her in death, even the beloved of the gods.

When I rage against the world's injustice, at the world's audacity in dragging me through its dark places, I turn to Hel and plead my case and she speaks to me sternly. "All will suffer and all will die. There are none beyond my realm. You are no different."

"But he fought for years for the government to acknowledge his disability as a veteran! He was finally able to provide enough for his family to be comfortable. You don't understand, he was finally winning!"

And she answers me with Silence.

"But it was in a bar, for Christ's sake! People like us don't die in bars!"

And she answers me with Silence.

"But he was gentle, and vibrant, and beautiful, and.. and we loved him."

And she answers me with Silence.

And so I keep my peace.

I keep my peace. There are no special favors for us because we are a consistently liberal. There are no brownie points that can protect my loved ones from harm just because they march for peace and give to charity and put themselves on the line. Believing in the right things and fighting for the right causes doesn't privilege me or them in any way. If we suffer it is because there is suffering in the world. The politicians, the corporations, the dictators, the stupid kids in bars looking for a fight, they suffer too. We may wish for them to suffer more and leave us alone but that isn't how it works. We're all in this together. We belong to them and they belong to us just as much as Ken and Dad belonged together. Just because it isn't obbious doesn't make it not true. The poor, the sick, the oppressed-- it pleases us to claim common humanity with them. It is harder for us liberals, us progressives to remember the humanity in those who despise us. But they are our brothers and sisters too. They are not less valuable or more deserving of suffering.

The mistakes we all make, the cruelties we all allow belong to all of us. The pain that result belongs to all of us. We are all in this together and suffering is part of the game. Whether we like it or not, we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. All of them. All of them.

My job does not change just because one of my beloved community has fallen. My job, our job, is what it was before-- to love when surrounded by hate, to heal when surrounded by injury, to trust when surrounded by betrayal. I can hear Hel speaking to me in the same firm tones I sometimes use with my own children. "So you have been injured. So what? Are you not human? Do you not share humanity's lot? Get back to work. If you believe that all humanity is equal, you cannot excuse yourself from their pain. You belong to them. You belong to each other."

My father met the young man who killed Ken. I recall hearing all the angry words my father wanted to throw at that boy. He raged and mourned so deeply that I was afraid he would drown it it. I did not know what he would do or say when he encountered the young man and his family in the courthouse,but when the time came, my father, the former U.C.C. minister turned atheist, seemed to fall back on his Christian training. He looked at that kid and did not see a murderer. He saw a boy. So he did not tell him to go to Hell as he had planned to do. Instead, he spoke quietly to the young man and told him to make a good life for himself. He told him to keep growing and become a good man, the kind of man Ken would be proud to know. That's what Ken would have wanted for him and Dad being Ken's brother, found that's what he wanted too. Then he hugged the boy and they cried together.

All of us are hurting, you know? The world makes no exceptions. All of us must walk through Hel's dark halls. It is not in begging for privilege and raging against our luck that we are saved. It is instead in looking in Hel's eyes and receiving her message that we receive our lives again. She is the Life/Death/Life Mother in whom all are dissolved and made new. No one said life was easy or fair. When I see that of God in those before me, I now also see the same pain that rests in my heart. I see Ken's pain. I see my father's pain. I hear his daughters' screaming for a father who could never come back to them. I imagine man who killed him and the horror his mother must have felt as she realized what her child had done. I remember a moment of rage that ended in shattered lives...Ken dead and a young man on suicide watch, desperate in his own guilt. Pain piled on darkness. And nothing any of us can do to make it right.

Except wake up the next day in the midst of it all and continue Ken's journey. It is our journey too. He felt his brotherhood with humanity and asked no special favors. He never had money and he always had to deal with a disabling condition he received fighting a war he didn't support. He spent the rest of his adult life standing for peace. He stood up not because he thought of himself as some savior, some beloved soul who would change the world all by himself, but because he understood that he was just one of us, just one of us poor, blundering, flawed, human souls. He understood that it was because there really are no special favors, no truly elevated stations, no way of escaping the cruelties we hurl at each other. He understood that he must ask a gift not just for himself, but for all of us. And so he asked for peace.

And still he died. Stupid. Cruel. And I rage and question and fight...but then I see his face in meeting and I imagine him in the empty chair beside me... and know that I have work to do. Ken was one of us. He is one of us and we aren't finished yet.

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking ...