Resurrection… Now what?

The spring holidays are such a time of preparation.

Though Passover is still several weeks away, many Jews are cleaning their houses of the forbidden chametz—grains and leavened breads considered unkosher for the duration of the holiday. One friend recalls the tremendous efforts her otherwise secular family would undertake each year—religious ritual fused with the itch for spring cleaning—so that by the time the Pesach table was laid, everything gleamed, everything felt lovely and fresh in their home.

Christians of all denominations are preparing for Easter, in ways both somber and spectacular. Rafts of daily pleasures have been forgone for Lent. Meditation and reflection—and even, in a newer variation, yoga and tai chi—are being renewed and embraced for Lenten practices. Families busily are planning Easter Sunday gatherings and meals, pulling out favorite recipes and testing new ones from local papers or recipe sites. Many of us embark on a purposeful shopping spree, so come Easter morning, our children are outfitted in dresses or suits befitting a meeting with royalty (and we ourselves will be feeling regal and remade in our new Sunday best).

On or about March 21st, Iranians worldwide will celebrate Nowruz, the New Year (or, literally, “New Day”). This Muslim holiday layered over ancient rites of venerating light and welcoming the vernal equinox. We recognize this holiday in our household, as my spouse was born and raised in Tehran. Last week, we began the khaneh tekani (spring cleaning), stocking up on Rose water, and preparing for the Haft Seen with sabzeh (growing sprouts).

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Haft Seen (image from US Institute of Peace)

So after all this preparation, “Now what?” I wonder…

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Modern life proceeds, for the most part, in linear fashion—a steady and ceaseless ticking off of moments and days in a way that is supposed to always lead forward, always on to new and (hopefully) better things.

The seasons incessantly circle round, bringing more light after less, warm air after colder, new growth after dormancy. Year after year, we spin through the cycles, imagining that each year pushed us further along—or further ahead—and often failing to notice the ways we wind up, time and time again, exactly where we started.

Not just according to the weather or the length of days, but according to the state of our hearts and spirits. According to the state of our love.

We feel high, then low, at work. We resolve old family feuds, swing through a season of enjoying each other’s company, then lock down in our battle positions once more. We pull ahead in our budgets only to have a life-changing roll of the dice move us back to “Go” and not collecting $200.

We fight for and win new rights, then watch them become embattled and erode. We fight harder, inch further along, then wonder what has been gained. We rise and fall, by turns, in states of promise and despair.

We put (we think) whole rhetorics of hate away for good, mark them as unwelcome and forbidden to the public sphere, only to watch them reemerge with startling clarity—and to find ourselves, once again, baffled by the plus ça change of human affairs.

 

 

 

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Back yard at spring. (Portland, ME, May 2011)

Whatever the name, whatever their vision—of resurrection or liberation or newness or fecundity or forgiveness or light—I believe there is deep and universal human need embedded in the holidays of spring.

These holidays are moments of pause, moments of possibility, studded like little gems in the ceaseless, grinding calendar of modernity.

Each one offering the opportunity to begin anew—and to get it right this time.

A savior is risen to eternal life.

A people are freed from slavery.

Spring has come.

But again, I wonder:

Now what?

After all, few among my friends or fellow Unitarian Universalists (or, for that matter, among the folks who might take time to read this blog) truly believe in a sentient God who dictates the course of our lives and world events. Most of us take a decidedly modern/postmodern approach to spirit and faith. We view scriptures not as books handed down by God(s), but as repositories of human wisdom, sources of inspiration, essential points of access to symbol and myth. We engage in continual acts of translation, seeking to understand the relevance of ancient teachings to our contemporary lives.

Personally, I am rooted in the Christian scriptures, and the Easter story holds a particular power for me. But it is not, for me, a literal account. Each year I read:

“The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.  When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’”—Matthew 27:52-54

But I do not imagine the saints, brought back to life in their caskets, clawing their way out of ground to speak to the people of the holy land!

Instead, each year I see and feel the overwhelming promise that a better world is possible. One where the most righteous among us finally becomes the ones most listened to. Where the quality of love gains so much strength, it seems as real as anything we can touch. Where the warriors of the world are shaken to the core by something like compassion.

I also know, though, it is no good marking time at Easter basking in the promise of a better world unless it is something we are willing to build ourselves.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

So, what is the one thing you will do to make good on the spring holidays’ promise of a better life and world?

For Valentine’s Day: A Love Letter to My Friend

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Love leaf. (Oahu, Hawaii, May 2014)

 

My dear friend, colleague, and comrade,

I have been thinking about you. I was in a drugstore a few weeks ago and saw it festooned with Valentine’s Day items. When did that happen?!

Ever since our New Year’s move to the east coast, I have been feeling like I need a seasonal-holiday reboot. Like I have a sort of jet lag that put me off by months instead of hours. We all but missed Christmas and New Year’s entirely. We were so mired in lists of Things to Do, and pretty much just drowning in stress. (Did I tell you how I nearly lost all of the boys’ Christmas gifts?)

Now, suddenly, the drugstore aisles are chock full of red hearts and white doilies and the worst candies known to creation…

In short, the gods of the drugstore say it is time to think about love.

And I have been thinking of you.

It was a few months ago the last time we really talked. You confessed how deeply lonely you feel, how terribly you have been wishing for the presence of a partner. Someone to come home to. Someone to face all the craziness with. Someone to embrace you after a tolling day, horrible commute, or wondrous occurrence.

I felt the pain of your loneliness myself. That specific, empty ache, as if something essential were missing from inside my own chest.

You spoke of leaving your ministry path in hopes that a more reasonable setting might leave space for finding love. I doubt I gave you even half the friendship you needed at that moment. I admit I was a little paralyzed. All I could think is how much wonderful, world-healing work you do in your current ministry. How desperately I need you as a colleague, here in the spiritual trenches. The selfish part of me was locked in combat with the nurturer. At best, I probably mumbled something as useless as the Indigo Girls song promising how love would come when the time was right, and yada yada yada.

Now Valentine’s Day is upon us. And really, I have to wonder: whose miserable idea for a holiday was this? Don’t get me wrong—I am right there with you in loving love. I can be an absolute, love-struck sap. But A Day? For lovers to prove to themselves and the world how positively freaking love-besotted they are? For roses to double in price and suitors to compete tooth-and-claw for table reservations?

A day for all who are uncoupled to feel less than?

Did you know the Catholics have a patron saint of the lonely: St. Rita of Casica. Poor Rita wanted to be a nun from the time she was a little girl, but it being the 14th century and all, her family married her off to an abusive brute. Eventually he was killed in a fight, freeing her to live out her life as an Augustine sister and work wonders of healing and peace.

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Rita of Cascia: saint of lost causes, widows, and lonely hearts.

Her day is May 22. Do you think we could market that?

In all earnestness, I have been thinking how helpless I feel when it comes to loneliness. Helpless to proffer advice, helpless to offer comfort that works. Mourning the death of a loved one is tough. Yet when I minister to someone grieving, I can directly look into their eyes and say with absolute certainty that time will ease their grief and make their losses easier to bear.

Not so with loneliness. Especially not the romantic sort. Who can say when that tall, dark stranger (or short, fair one) will stumble into one’s life? Time doesn’t heal when one is hoping for love. Often, time feels like the enemy.

I see this too even among married folks. Recently, another dear colleague/friend shared with me his loneliness in heart-breaking terms. His marriage is hollowed out; he and his spouse resigned themselves to a sort of relationship limbo. They forge on as a couple, as a family, but unable to reach one other anymore. In many ways, he is very much like you: intelligent, successful, kind, admired by all of us who know or have met him. Yet beneath his full, productive life, there is a constant, gnawing sense of being-all-alone that he fears will never end.

Not too long ago, I was where you are, feeling so alone that every night in bed it felt like I had to nurse my loneliness to sleep before I could drift off. The absence was so acute it seemed like a whole, demanding being of its own. During the day, I could send it off to forage for itself. At night, though, there was no way out: loneliness was my insistent partner.

During that period, a spiritual mentor asked me, “How is your prayer life?”

The hurting part of me resented her at that moment. I wanted to bonk her right on her caring, pastoral nose. Here I was, trapped in one of the most profoundly human dilemmas—a human aching for human comfort—and she was talking to me about God and prayer.

“Not very good at this time.” I said. “Sun-up to sun-down is so busy, most days I just make it through.”

“Then,” she said, “this is a time you need others to pray for you.”

Huh?

I don’t know if you know this about me, but back in divinity school, I wrote my thesis on the healing power of prayer—in particular, praying for others. Might sound like a wacky choice for a Unitarian Universalist, who at that point in my life, hesitated even to use the word “God” in my ministry, let alone arrange for intercessory prayer. Many of us UUs, to whatever extent we do believe in a higher power, believe in some sort of force or Spirit. Nothing like a man with a beard and an omniscient brain. (I have since evolved, or more accurately, revolved, and fully embrace traditional theistic language and call that “force” God.)

Many of us UUs also are firmly rooted in science and, as you probably well know in your own ministry practice, the science of prayer is intriguing. There is evidence that patients heal more quickly when others pray for their wellbeing. In some studies this holds true, even when the prayer is remote and patients have no idea whether or not they are in the “prayed-for” group. Other studies suggest that even remotely prayed-for plants more readily flourish.

Despite the skeptics of such studies, I wondered, “What could make this so?” I didn’t then and don’t now believe in the kind of God that helps football teams win games. I imagine prayer’s efficacy has something to do with the essential ways we are all, cosmically, connected. After all, the presence of others is healing, even for creatures as small and blissfully unphilosophical as mice. (Researchers found that mice experience pain more readily when they see their mouse friends in pain—and they experience pain less acutely when surrounded by healthy, happy mice!)

Perhaps this same kind of empathy and connection flows along quantum, quizzical routes. I am fully willing to believe there are levels of reality that connect us across vast distances, through love and thought. And maybe in the end this is what I most mean when I speak of God.

Which is not to say to you, with an obligatory pastoral head-tile, “My friend, I’m praying for you!” (Though I genuinely do lift you up in my prayers at times.)

It is to say that the mysteries of love are manifold, as are the forms it comes in.

I know friends cannot fill the role a lover does. And as for God? My aunt used to say, “Sometimes you just need God with skin on it.” I love that description. Sometimes we need that mystical reassurance that comes from being so close and quiet with another human being, we can listen to their beating heart and feel time slow down around us.

As for your career discernment, I support you fully, whatever life choices you make. Remaining here in the spiritual trenches or getting out to find other forms of fulfillment and joy. Whatever your choices, whatever your path, please know—if not remember—that you are, already, well and truly loved, by friends near and far. We see you for who you are: an extraordinarily beautiful and gifted person. We may not be able to fill completely that aching, empty space you talk about…but please do take our love to heart.

You need not feel more alone than you are.

It seemed that is what my spiritual mentor addressed in her own canny way, by suggesting she would have strangers pray for me.

I think she was telling me, really: “Let your heart feel every beautiful strand of love and care that travels to it, even from odd or far off destinations.”

Maybe, in a better world, that is what Valentine’s Day would be about? Not celebrating romantic love with awful candies, but remembering love in all its forms—remembering to send and share it in ever wider and widening circles.

Because, with all due respect to the vocal stylings of Whitney H., I am not one bit sure that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. I am still stuck on the idea that learning to love one another is. And learning to hold our hearts open, to really feel and collect all the love and Spirit that travel our way.

So whether we are looking at our own face in the mirror—or into the face of our One True Beloved—we see reflected there all the strength and love and care that fill us from so many different quarters.

Yours lovingly, at Valentine’s Day,

Cynthia

 

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My first born, then 6 months, naturally understands. (Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, NV, April 2011)

The Move: Making Big Change with Less than Perfect Grace

pcs-tape-600Dear Tina Fey, why haven’t you made this movie yet?

I call it, The Move.

Loving, middle class couple makes big cross-country move with two kids—let’s say, ohhh, a 5-year-old and an infant… Every Single Freaking Thing that could possibly go wrong goes wrong. And despite truly exceptional communication skills (ahem), the couple spirals into a kind of seething hostility until, on the first night in their brand-new home, their brand-new neighbors feel compelled to call the police.

The police arrive to find the couple in the kitchen, ankle-deep in packing peanuts, looking as disheveled and sleep-deprived as war refugees. One is using a stained pizza box as a shield, while the other brandishes an industrial packing-tape dispenser as if were a gun.

(Coda during closing credits: it is one week later; the books are on the shelves; the kitchen is spotless; soup is bubbling on the stove. The couple has resumed life as loving partners and parents—all acrimony forgotten. The camera pulls back from their new home to a great height, rapidly pans across the country, and zooms into another kitchen, where another loving couple has started to argue about how to pack the silverware…)

* * * * * * * * * * *

You got it. For the New Year we made The Move: Oceania to US East Coast.

New house, new schools, new jobs, new community, new life.

And yes, save for acute danger to life or limb, Every Single Freaking Thing that could go wrong…did.

So, ok, no one had to call the police on us. Count us one step ahead of the movie plot? But we did have to call the EMT our first night here, which made for an interesting introduction to our new neighbors the next day…

We were, to put it mildly, forcefully reminded how tough a family move can be. All the personal angst and uncertainty of starting over, distilled into arguments over how to label boxes and handle the pets. Anyone who has lived through a move with a spouse and children knows how stupidly fast even the most trivial of disagreements can escalate.

I leave it to the psychologists to figure out how to strengthen your marriage while moving cross country.

But I can share the thing that (more or less) saved me from unraveling.

And why it didn’t, not completely.

And what I learned.

* * * * * * * * * * *

For a couple dozen years I’ve been an ardent fan of this bit of Taoist wisdom:

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

fire

Every fire consumes its fuel and burns itself out. Every flood abates as water settles and seeks its own level. Calm always returns. Equilibrium is always restored.

So for the past two and a half months—as we sorted and packed and planned (and planned and planned) and argued—I sat dutifully every night, meditating to the phrase:

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

My orders change the very day we ship our car from Hawaii to the mainland?

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

The movers botch the paperwork and send all our worldly possessions to some guy in Seattle?

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

Our very first night in Virginia, both kids fall ill at once, and we find ourselves headed to the ER at 0-dark-30 in a time zone our bodies have yet to comprehend?

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

You get the idea.

Moving Van

But the more the move went on, the less it helped. After decades of practice, meditation became an exercise in mind frenzy. Lists, complaints, barriers, missteps, frustrations…none of these were willing to step aside while I breathed.

     Fire cools; water levels. Fire cools; water levels. Fire cools; water levels. Fire cools; water levels.

“QUIET DOWN ALREADY!” screamed my brain, which wasn’t buying the Taoist line, not for a second.

I called one of my bluntest but most unflaggingly supportive friends for a little advice. “‘Fire cools; water settles.’ What’s that supposed to mean?” I could hear her rolling her eyes. “It sounds like a fancy-schmancy way of saying, ‘This too shall pass.’ How’s that going to help you now when you’re right in the middle of all the sh*t?”

As I say: blunt.

But helpful. She made me realize that I’d been treating this piece of Taoist wisdom in the most superficial of ways. I wanted my “this too shall pass.” I wanted to squelch all the disorientation of moving cross-country with my family—and jump ahead to the part with the tunnel’s end and all the happy, reassuring light.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what the Taoist passage is supposed to suggest.

Fire and flood aren’t just events that pass. They are events that burn and roil and rush and take their toll before equilibrium is restored. They change the landscape, sometimes beyond recognition.

But they do abate, leaving a new kind of peacefulness in their wake.

They give rise to something new.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Here in American, we talk about “newness” as if it were the same thing as “escape.” As if every new job and new address offered a fresh start, a blank slate.

In reality there’s never a brand new start—only cycles of transformation. Cycles of loss and resilience and renewal.

We don’t begin again with something brand spanking new: we begin with something changed.

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

In the military we’re used to movement and change. It comes with the territory (and our territory is, as I’ve blogged, wherever the military decides to send us).

Nor was this move about hardship. So, ok, maybe I left a few claw marks on the Gate 6 jet bridge at the Honolulu United Terminal as we departed? But we looked forward to my new assignment and our new home. We are grateful to be back on the East Coast, closer to friends and family. We are grateful for the chance to embrace a new community. I am grateful for the chance to minister in new ways.

Still, leaving a place where I’ve put down roots feels a good bit like watching a fire rage. The sense of being there, of having my bearings, of being in a community—all suddenly curling into smoke and rising away, never to be recaptured in the same way. Like a forest fire, a serious move leaves the ground fertile and ready for something new, but it also leaves the landscape barren-seeming and forlorn.

No wonder packing the boxes becomes such an issue.

Moving Box

* * * * * * * * * * *

There are things we could have done differently on this move. There are ideas I’d like to try next time.

One friend suggests “adult milk and cookies”—20 minutes every night, after the kids have gone to bed, to relax with your spouse, eat some cookies, and laugh about the day.

Another friend suggests taking “meltdown turns”: every time a new hurdle arises, one partner gets to freak out, the other has got to hold it together. Come the next crisis, you switch.

Mostly, however, I think I need to give up on the fantasy that we can rip up our lives and start again and make it look like a video by Martha Stewart. The fantasy that this could have been easy if we’d just planned hard enough…or meditated hard enough…or labeled the boxes ourselves…or kept the right perspective all the damn time.

Before it burns out, fire burns.

Before they find their level, floodwaters wreak havoc.

To put it in Old Testament terms: the Children of Israel had to wander in the desert before they reached the Promised Land. And despite all the manna and tambourines, that desert period was a total mess.

But deep down I suspect that when I give up the fantasy of making life transitions easy, I am not left with something less fantastic.

I’m simply left with my one true—and wild and precious—life.

Tina+Leaves+Admission+Set+Jdnyzg1gmBclMade even more wild the day Tina Fey calls to say she’d like to interview me for inspiration for this lead role in which she recently was cast for a movie about a loving, middle-class couple making another big cross-country move with two kids…

 

Let There Be Light

Winter 2015 is a season of gathering darkness in far more than the customary sense of shorter days.

It is everywhere.

Mass shootings in our places of study and work and play. Terror attacks abroad, terror attacks at home. Wars that are underway—and wars that seem impending but only dimly understood, so that we barely know how to protest or avert them.

Then there are the mounting choruses of hate.

Slurs about Syrians and Muslims. Fears of allowing refugees and immigrants into the US. Supporters of an US Presidential candidate shouting “Sieg Heil! ” as security dragged off a Black Lives Matter protester.

This last one—Americans parroting the slogans of a fascist regime my parents’ generation sacrificed so much to defeat—is horrifying.

Yet, according to traditions old and young, this season is one for festivals of light. Christmas. Chanukah. Kwanzaa. Diwali. Loi Krathong. And the varied pagan and solstice traditions—observed in their own right, or mixed and blended with more recent ones.

Having been born and raised Christian in the US, I am aware how easy it is to run roughshod over other people’s winter celebrations, flattening them into our Christmas preoccupations. (“Yeah, but you light those candles for the baby Jesus!” I once heard a Christian child inform a Jewish one at Chanukah!)

Still, there is a reason so many peoples and cultures celebrate a world of light as darkness gathers.

At the best, most meaningful margins, we learn and grow stronger by tending to the light that other customs spread.

Last week, when I passed those few homes with lit Chanukah candles in the window, I felt warmed and fortified. The Chanukah story is a tale of triumph by an oppressed and outnumbered group. It also is a story of hope, community, faith, and the triumph of light—light that lasted much longer than the Jews of Assyria had fuel to burn.

From “the other side,” a Jewish friend recalls the sense of joy he gained from belting out Christmas songs in grade school. He honored his roots the best way he knew how, going silent on words like “Savior” and “Christ. ” Still, he says, the music filled him with authentic wonder; to this day, O Holy Night moves him to tears.

We are not “all the same.” But we recognize the sameness of the light within one other and in each other’s winter rites.

The light of compassion and love.

The strength to persist in dark times, which is itself an eternal human flame.

* * *

The first time I had to respond as a religious leader to a mass shooting was here in Hawaii on November 2, 1999.

Early that morning, a worker at the Xerox offices opened fire and killed seven coworkers. He fled the scene, then staged a standoff with police outside a nature center just mountainside of Waikiki. School children were effectively trapped inside until his surrender. The entire island was affected, whether we knew the victims or not.

I reached out to other Unitarian Universalist ministers around the nation, seeking advice and solace. But at the time, only one colleague had experience with such an event. His name was Joel Miller, who served as minister to the UU congregation in Columbine, Colorado.

Now, 16 years later, many of my colleagues have responded to school or workplace killings. They responded to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and to the destruction of lives and families wrought by the wars that followed. They responded to police shootings and to the shooting of protestors speaking against police brutality.

It makes me realize what a funny relationship to violence we have in the US. There are so many kinds of violence we refuse to see or feel touched by. Rape is treated as a source of shame, a prod to silence. We turn away from domestic violence and child abuse, as if we were made safer by not noticing. And for decades, white communities have chosen not to notice the systemic violence brought against people of color by the very institutions meant to keep us safe.

Many in this country glut themselves on violent television shows, violent movies, violent music, violent games, then easily speak of how all that violence is mere fantasy. Meanwhile, for so many years, we have dwelled in a bubble of seeming national invulnerability, believing that war and terrorism are things that happen elsewhere.

Perhaps that is why we find it so difficult to cope with our new realities?

We are not simply scared that we (or loved ones) could fall prey to acts of random barbarity. We are scared that our sense of safety was never as secure as we made it out to be.

And the response? Somehow, instead of pulling together, Americans are turning on each other with a terrifying ferocity. Sometime “just” with words—but also, increasingly, with fists or knives or guns.

It is a season of eating our own.

* * *

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy,” wrote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

These last words have been passed around so often as meme, it can be easy to overlook their awesome might.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Light preached as the only response to encroaching darkness. By a man who was called to understand the darkness of hate better than any of us should ever be.

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Christmas Eve 2013

* * *

We speak of light as a force for good so often and so casually, I fear we forget to wonder what is special about that feeling of light in the first place.

Perhaps that is the universal reminder the winter holidays bring?

Light is special because when we locate that spark of love and hope within ourselves, we feel stronger. We feel steadier. We see the future more clearly by its glow. And we feel more clearly our power to shape it.

Light is special because, when we nurture that spark within our own selves, we see it more readily in others. Sometimes in quick and fleeting ways: that brief smile shared with a stranger that communicates more goodwill than eons of sermonizing could ever do. Sometimes in more durable ones: the knowledge that we can return to friends and family and be embraced, be made stronger, be rekindled.

And light is special because it connects to a force beyond us. Whether we call it God or Goddess or Nature or Creation or the Divine—there is a force that magnifies the light we find within ourselves.

That force is the star in the sky so bright that it draws people of light and goodwill to one another in a sacred space. It is the candles of pagan ritual that make a brilliant place of wonder and delight within the darkest and most precarious corners of life. It is the unseen energy that lets oil enough to burn for one night instead burn strong and steady for eight.

This is a time of darkness in the world, though it need not be a season of despair.

May this year’s season be one of connection and magnification. A time we locate again the spark within ourselves, no matter how fragile. A time we recognize the flame of every courageous heart, of every beautiful and ennobling rite, and feel our own hope grow stronger by their lights.

A season when we welcome in anew the force that carries light into existence, allowing it to fan our collective sense of will, making it stronger than we thought possible—and letting love and hope prevail against the growing human night.

Honolulu Christmas Lights

Out of This Nettle…

Beirut. Chicago. Minneapolis. Paris.

Recent headlines and this season of increasing darkness magnify fears. And I find myself thinking about parenting in today’s world. Specifically, how do we raise children and instill in them a sense of safety?

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Marine Corps Birthday Celebration. (MCBH Kaneohe, HI, November 2015)

Helicopter parenting is one way to shield children from risk and harm. (So much so that children cannot grow into confident, competent adults.) This parenting style seems to have emerged during my childhood, in part, from a series of public scares—jagged little encroachments on the belief that American middle-class life was always and everywhere safe for children.

One instance hit close to home, literally: the Tylenol poisonings, which caused seven deaths from Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. It was September 1982, early in my sophomore year of high school. I was sitting in Spanish class when the announcement came overhead instructing anyone who took the medication within the past 24 hours to report to the nurse’s office.

The first victim was from a neighboring town—a girl with a sore throat. Her parents gave her a Tylenol, and within hours she died. The next three victims who died shortly thereafter purchased the medication at my local Osco Drugs. A stranger—dubbed the Tylenol Terrorist—injected danger into the heart of family life.

Safety measures were enacted, and panic soon died down. But the event left a cloud of safety measures and parental anxiety in its wake. That Halloween, I noticed a shift in trick-or-treating. No more bright-colored popcorn balls or candied apples. No more roaming the neighborhood unchaperoned after dark. Homemade goodies and being out at night were objects of fear.

Curiously, Halloween candy poisonings are almost entirely the stuff of myth. In 1974, a man killed his own son at Halloween by filling Pixie Stix with cyanide. (He wanted the insurance money.) He tried to cover his tracks by slipping tainted candy into other children’s trick-or-treat bags, but no one else was hurt.

That is the only case on modern record of a child eating poisoned Halloween treats. It had nothing to do with strangers or homemade goodies. Yet somehow, it has become a fixed, yearly ritual for parents to sort the stuff children get on Halloween and throw out anything odd-looking or homemade.

During this same time, fears of kidnapping grew exponentially, sparked by the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz. In actuality, stranger abductions are exceedingly rare events. Yet our fear of them has curtailed the freedom my generation had to run around outside, play, and explore.

Holding on so tightly to our children—controlling their environments so closely and intervening so frequently on their behalf—cause psychologists and educators to believe our children’s transition to adulthood is being compromised. That many college-aged student now have trouble acting independently. That they seek safety rather than showing boldness. That they meet risk with overblown anxiety.

As a parent, I see a cautionary tale in helicopter parenting. I want to keep my children safe. Yet I also want to not get bogged down in sensationalized threats and miss the obvious ones. Traffic. Hot things on the stove. Wet bathroom floors.

I choose not to get bogged down in fears and I strive to teach my children not to either.

I want my children—all children—to travel down a path where they claim independence, competence, and joy in ever-widening circles. I want them to learn to assess their risks with sober calm, so that they will not sit out the swimming pool for fear of sharks or help cause a stampede when a fire alarm goes off.

I cannot make a risk-free world for my children or for the young adults to whom I minister in the military. I can only help them nurture the inner strength that lets people act with integrity and calm, even when danger is close and very real.

Which relates to questions I have, specifically, concerning refugees in the wake of the Paris bombings.

Do those people loudly bemoaning this generation’s “overly soft” and anxious children realize the same rules apply to adults? That by dwelling on the worst, most spectacular fears we take our eyes off the ball and miss the bigger picture? That by failing to weigh risks with a measure of objective calm, we drive to tragically flawed results?

Why is it we rightly want our children to be so practical, competent, and brave, yet we ourselves are exempt from the same when it comes to adult-sized problems and risks?

The facts of refugees and terrorism are something like the facts on Halloween candy poisonings. Since September 11, 2001, many Muslims have sought asylum in the US. None of the asylum seekers permitted to enter our country committed a terrorist act. Though the risk exists that a terrorist could infiltrate streams of refugees, the screening process for asylum seekers is far more rigorous than the one for tourists.

Refugeeism is just not the logical way for ISIL to arrive. Statistically speaking, Americans are more likely to die from falling furniture than from a terrorist strike. And terrorism experts are confident on the point that refugee camps (i.e., where refugees go if we do not let them in) are prime sites of extremist recruitment. Resettlement tends, just the opposite, to lead to…settling in.

Yet we fear the specter of Syrian refugees in tragically outsized and neurotic ways.

Every piece of Halloween candy could be poisoned.

Every refugee could be a terrorist.

As a parent, I wish for a world of children strong enough not to lose their sense of perspective and cool with every new experience that masquerades as risk.

A world of children strong enough to embrace ever-widening worlds of joy and knowledge and competence, rather than retreating to ever smaller and seemingly safer spaces.

As a minister, I wish the same for the world of adults.

During this season of days growing darker, may we be mindful not to give in to outsized fears of the dark. May this season where so many cultures celebrate light be one not simply about lighting the darkness, but substantively be one about bringing light into our reasoning.

Stop Being Afraid

 

Home as a Transitive Verb

Home is where the Navy sends us“Home is where the Navy sends us.” So it is said within my military world.

Yet, I prefer the better known cliché: “Home is where the heart is.”

Home and heart go together. As a military mom raising two beautiful children, that’s a comforting message.

Home is where the people we love most are. It is the place we most want to be. The place we long for most when we are away from it.

By the time my oldest child turned three, he had lived in three different states. Yet, I’d like to think that “home” will always be a robust notion for him and his baby brother—that they will always feel home instinctively, always find their way back to it, even if the list of consecutive new home addresses becomes a little dizzying…

But in this season of displacement, with millions of refugees surging out of the Middle East, I can’t help but recognize it is a privilege to believe in the existence of a heart-shaped GPS.

Pictures of destruction from Syria suggest that, even if it were safe to return, many refugees would find it impossible to locate the walls of the homes from which they have fled.

And what of those millions consigned to refugee camps, often in the wake of staggering personal loss? Should we assume that they have brought their hearts with them? Should we assume their sense of being home will catch up with them at these tough new addresses, sort of like forwarded mail?

Or will the very idea of home be, for them, trapped in a nostalgic past—home as a scent, an image, an elusive slip of memory that cannot be made flesh?

It is a privilege to believe heart and home share the same address.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I have been thinking of home too, in connection with our military veterans, particularly those sent into conflict.

Thankfully, most combat veterans do come home, after surviving the depredations of war. Yet, once home, many find they cannot feel home anymore.

The recently departed Oliver Sacks told of patients who, due to stroke or brain injury, could no longer feel the authentic presence of loved ones. They could recognize people they cared about, but they did not believe they really were them. In some cases, they concluded that aliens had taken over the bodies of friends and relatives. For these rare sufferers, an essential ingredient of presence and recognition had gone missing.

At times, this feels to me like a metaphor for what so many combat veterans suffer with regard to the presence of home. They return to the places they most longed to return to. They return to people who shout, “Welcome home!” with hearts brimming over.

Yet many veterans find that “home” now lacks the flavor of comfort. It has been hollowed out. They cannot connect to their old lives or routines.

An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day in the US, often right in their own homes, or in places near them. They leave messages like, “I can’t go on like this,” and “There’s nothing here for me anymore.” My heart breaks.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Home has been on my mind a great deal lately, not only because the Navy will be moving us to a new “home” again in a few months. But also because of the recent birth of my second child—and because of my father’s death earlier in the year.

“Remember your roots,” my father said to me in his sage, soft-spoken way, just before I went off to college, leaving home.

I think he really meant, “Remember us.”

Remember the people you have loved here. Remember where your heart has been.

Prom 1985

My senior prom. (Suburban Chicago, IL, June 1985)

And now, on top of everything, the mother of all homecomings is nearly upon me: the high school reunion. (30 years!?!)

I will be there. I need that reminder.

I haven’t stayed close to my high school crowd, even though it was a wonderful time, with wonderful camaraderie. People move on, they drift apart.

Yet, the older I grow—the more I move on and move around—the more I realize how much of my sense of home, how much of my heart, will always be rooted there, in that cornfield-turned-Chicago-suburb where I was born and raised.

This past January, an old friend attended my father’s memorial service. We were never particularly close, even though we went to school with one another from kindergarten through high school. We were on swim team together; we dated the same boy in junior high; our older brothers were close. Our roots are entwined, and that is a powerful bond.

That she came to my father’s memorial service meant so much to me. Her presence helped bring me home.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

All this makes me realize that, just as with the word “house,” we need to begin thinking of “home” as a transitive verb. We don’t just have homes or build or buy them. We home one another. We create for one another that essential spark of presence and recognition that allows our brains to know: this is where my heart is; this is where I belong; this is home.

Childhood home

My childhood house…and home. (Arlington Heights, IL)

I don’t know precisely how we begin to home one another actively, the way I believe scriptures and conscience call us to.

When it comes to combat veterans, I know in part it means we must do a better job at reaching out—long after their first homecomings. Letting them know we are here, that we will listen…or simply sit with them in silence. Go for a drive, shoot some pool…

We need to advocate for better care, so that when veterans take that first tough step of seeking help, they are greeted by caring professionals who really see them, who recognize their ghosts, but do not make them feel like ghosts.

We need to find ways to allow combat veterans to spend time with their former comrades in arms, because—in the crucible of war—they come to know one another in ways that friends and family back home can only struggle to understand. We need to help them help each other home.

When it comes to refugees, I find it far more difficult to know what homing our fellow humans might mean. Certainly, it means ensuring they are treated with dignity wherever they arrive, ensuring they are not jailed, ensuring they are made to feel safe. (Homing and making safe—these seem like concepts that implicitly belong together.)

The people of Iceland helped us to begin to recognize the contours of homing when, several weeks ago, they offered to open their own homes to people fleeing war in Syria. As a nation, Iceland offered to take in 50 Syrians. Then an Icelandic writer set up a Facebook page dedicated to the crisis. Almost overnight, 12,000 Icelandic citizens signed on and personally offered to take in refugees.

Twelve thousand people, mind you, out of a population of 323,000. That’s like 12 million US citizens spontaneously offering to share their homes.

Still, I think of refugees who may be taken in by well-meaning families, and I wonder—even for those relatively lucky few, how does the feeling of home settle in again? I imagine them tiptoeing around at night, not wanting to wake their sponsors. Finding alien foods in an alien fridge. Everything not right, not familiar. A deep sense of absence haunting them. The absence of those left behind. The absence of those lost along the way.

How very odd that, in the end, the combat veteran and the war refugee are un-homed in ways that mirror one another. Each unable, wherever they are, to return to where the heart is.

Each unable to make home and heart coincide.

It makes me think that ultimately, if we want to make home a transitive verb, if we want to home one other and ourselves—if we want to home the world—there is no other option but to build peace.

So that for each and every one of us, irrespective of our roots and histories, home and heart can truly stay together. Wherever it is life sends us.

Remembering Mom

Eulogy for my mother, Patricia Ferne Gerhart Kane (September 10, 1929 – June 19, 2004). Originally delivered on Tuesday, June 29, 2004, at Glueckert Funeral Home, Arlington Heights, IL.


J1893x2386-06019My colleague tells a story of being in a cemetery one day and happening across a curious gravestone. The wind and rain worn away the name of the deceased and the dates, and what remained was an inscription: “She attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things.”

Such a suiting epitaph for my mother. Indeed, she attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things.

In our home, Mom will be remembered not for her cooking. Not until my first year in college did I discover that “well done” was her euphemism for “burnt,” and a world a spices and herbs beyond salt and pepper existed.

The basic salt and pepper, however, do hold a special memory for us. It was the impetus for the evening ritual of the nuptial notification. Each might, we ate dinner together. Following grace, Pop asked for the salt and pepper to be passed. Mom—with genuine surprise—would say how she forgot to put the shakers on the table. As she got up to get them, Pop chuckled while saying, “[x-number-of] years we have been married, Pat, and for [x-number-of] years we have yet to being dinner with salt and pepper on the table.”

My mother is remembered, instead, for her soul food. Twice a year, she had our teachers over for lunch at the 1217 South Patton Avenue home. (I sense this is how she was able to arrange those mini-birthday parties my brother and I celebrated in class—with homemade cup cakes for our classmates—during the Juliette Low school day!)

Throughout my brother’s and my childhood and adolescence, she and Pop attended all of our games, tournaments, recitals, and concerts. Though usually an unassuming presence, Mom’s sideline cheer, “Be there!” echoed throughout the gymnasiums and areas.

Special moments for me were when Pop cooked. Not so much because the steaks would be medium rare. Rather, Mom would play piano while I would accompany her on whatever musical instrument I was practicing at the time. Our favorite duet was to Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You,” which I was blessed to have sun with her one last time just hours before she died.

Family time was fundamental to her, and in turn, to us. After dinner, we had an hour of TV-time together. On weekends, we often danced in the living room. Doug and I learned the basic ballroom steps from our parents, as they did their award winning swing to “Mack the Knife” or something from the Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

At bedtime, the four of us lined up in a row to take the “Good Night Choo-Choo,” chugging our way upstairs. After brushing our teeth, Mom and Pop tucked us into bed. Even as we grew older, there were there as we said our prayers, then kissed us goodnight.

As young adults, our Christmas stockings were weighed down with a year’s worth of change she saved—nickels and dimes for Doug’s commute along the toll-roads, and quarters for my laundry. My mother was a thought and detailed C.H.O. (Chief Home Officer), making ours a stable home and family. In it, there was much love, fond memories and moments, and a lot of beige food.

Mom also tended well and faithfully to extended family and friends: attending church; sharing Thanksgivings and Christmases with the VanNests; her mother, Weezie, staying with us during the warmer months; visiting relatives for family vacations; attending her high school class reunion in Canton, IL, every five years.

Last week, I poured through thousands of photographs throughout her life, depicting various events with all of you. (And my, those big-hair days of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s were good to many of you!) The two constants were that (1) these photos were from some gathering and she was pictured with someone, and (2) except for three photos when her lips were pursed mid-sentence, she was smiling.

You loved her well, and brought her such joy and happiness. She, likewise, loved all of you.

Despite her protests otherwise, my mother was hilarious! Her subtle sense of humor remained with her to the end. Mom never had seen me in uniform, so just last week when I visited her in the hospital, I wore my dress whites. When I walked into the room, her face lit up. I thought to myself, “she must be thinking, “how proud I am of baby girl all grown up.” Instead, she asked, “when did you get married?”

A woman of faith, Mom remains my greatest spiritual teacher. “The Lord will provide,” she always said. Regardless of my vocation, it took until recently for me to live those words. During her last few years, with failing memory and tapering grasp of past and future, she achieved an ability to be wholly and completely in the present.

She delighted in the here and now of what was immediately before her. Her smile exuded such a love of life. May we be so blessed to someday know that inner peace and happiness.

While she was no saint, I liken my mother to Mother Teresa. Except for the bits about working with the poor, having a Nobel Prize, and my mom’s penchant for a 5:00 martini (vodka with a hint of vermouth and three olives—which she would lick before giving them to Doug, Godforbid he have a drop of alcohol before his 21st birthday), my mother was a caring and hospitable woman with a genuinely kind, glad, and extremely generous heart.

My mother was born on the eve of a day in modern history that haunts our memory. A “wake-up call” that leaves all of us, every day, standing in danger of being struck by something far worse than lightening. And lest, as my colleague cautions, yours or my obituary read, “She attended frantically and ineffectually to a great many unimportant, meaningless details,” I pray we remember my mother’s example, and attend well and faithfully to a few worthy things.

It is said that the only measure of our words and our deeds is the love we leave behind when we are done. Mom—as evidenced by this gathering, the flowers and cards sent, all who are with us here, those who are here in spirit—you are leaving a lot of love behind. Thank you.

And God, thank you for blessing us with her. Right now, I’m having a hard time smiling without her. Though I remain grateful for all the smiles we had graced by her song.

Before my ordination. (Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA. 03 May 1997.)