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.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Plain Life

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 necessarily 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.

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 incident springs to mind. 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 studied 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.

Friday, January 4, 2008

My Results from the Belief-o-Matic Test

I take this test periodically. Each time, Neo-Pagan and Quaker come up in the top three. Other high scoring traditions for me are New Age (yuck...what's wrong with me?) and Unitarian Universalism. I took this quiz and had Neo-Pagan at 11% with UUism and Liberal Quakers following with 90% then I realized I had not bothered to indicate how seriously I took my responses. I went back in and indicated that I take pacifism and women's equality very seriously but my perception of the nature of "God" far less seriously. I know women and homosexual people deserve justice and dignity. I'm also pretty sure I don't have the ultimate answers to the nature of the Divine. So that changed my score to what you see below. It is a fun quiz and is one of the multiple things that led me to the Friends.

Check it out.

1. Liberal Quakers (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (98%)
3. Neo-Pagan (96%)
4. New Age (90%)
5. Reform Judaism (82%)
6. Mahayana Buddhism (80%)
7. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (80%)
8. Bahá'í Faith (73%)
9. Theravada Buddhism (70%)
10. Secular Humanism (69%)
11. Jainism (69%)
12. Sikhism (65%)
13. Orthodox Quaker (60%)
14. Taoism (57%)
15. New Thought (55%)
16. Hinduism (52%)
17. Scientology (51%)
18. Orthodox Judaism (49%)
19. Islam (43%)
20. Nontheist (39%)
21. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (34%)
22. Seventh Day Adventist (29%)
23. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (25%)
24. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (24%)
25. Eastern Orthodox (20%)
26. Roman Catholic (20%)
27. Jehovah's Witness (18%)

Tuesday, January 1, 2008


Yesterday was my official graduation date. Although I still need to deal with the paperwork, I'm finished with my degree program. So wow. Yeah. Ph.D. How am I supposed to feel? Woohoo? People keep asking me how I will celebrate. Celebrate? Celebrate what? My father says it took him a year before he actually believed he had the degree. Maybe I'll be excited a year from now. Now I'm just tired and a little disappointed. Wasn't this supposed to make me smart? Why then do I still have to think hard when determining my left from my right? Why do I keep trying to pull on doors clearly marked "Push"?

Since I was a very small child, I expected this of myself and have pushed myself toward it relentlessly. I used to have a rule that each chapter in my text books must be read ten times. I studied for six hours for every test and three hours for a quiz. For me any grade lower than 100 was a disappointment and any grade lower than 96 would cause my teachers to ask me, "What went wrong?" I pushed through that performance-based academic interest into a passion for the knowledge itself. I expected to earn the doctorate despite the fact that I have no business with it. I can't afford it and will probably sink in debt. But I wanted it. Badly. And now I've finished it.

One of the problems with this kind of goal is that it is so often based on the false assumption that those who have achieved it are somehow better than oneself and that by achieving the goal one will join their elevated ranks. The thing is, now that I've spent more time with people with doctorates as a peer rather than as a student, I realize that lots of them are just like me. Lots of time we're just winging it and hopng no one calls us out as impostors. I am far more impressed by native intelligence and basic kindness than with credentials now.

Still, I guess I really hoped that earning this degree would make me feel different. But I'm not any different. That's not true. I am different. But I'm not different because of the degree. That was just a stubborn refusal to give up. What changed me was the people who loved me while I worked, who lifted me up, held me close and yanked me back. An entire community of people nurtured me throughout these years of study. I can't repay them. That has changed me.

What changed me was running out of money and falling apart while trying to follow the rules...which kept changing. Learning that no matter how much my parents and husband love me, bureaucracy will still stomp on me hard changed me. Learning that depression doesn't stop papers from being due and that I CAN write in the midst of grief changed me.

Having my children while working on my graduate and doctoral degrees changed me. Bringing my readings to my birthing rooms, breastfeeding while typing my dissertation, or while giving a graduate seminar speech...these changed me. The solid, uncompromising,lavish reality of my maternal body and my primal, unreasoning response to my children provided the context and foundation of my intellectual work. Adding passion to reason changed me.

Depression, grief, poverty, joy, self-reliance, dependence, perseverence, want, desire, rage, humility...I learned about all of these in the seventeen years between my first day at community college and my last day in my Ph.D. program. I wished I'd mastered at least one or two of them.

Wouldn't it be funny if people started to take me seriously just because of this degree? God, that would be really funny-- and just so wrong.

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 ...