Bad Ass and Owning It

Here I am, drowning in that ninth-month, hard-to-breathe, always-gotta-pee, can’t-find-a-good-side-to-sleep-on feeling—and all around me, it is the season of strong women kicking ass. From the members of the US soccer team at the World Cup in Canada, to Serena Williams at Wimbledon, it is clear how good strength looks on us as women.

Scratch that.

It is clear how good strength feels.

As a blogger-sermonist, I usually wrestle with a biblical passage or plumb a sacred text I admire from another tradition. This time, however, I do not need an outside text.

My text is everything I have learned from other women—gay and straight, cis and trans—about how tough it can be for us to live our own lives in our own bodies.

My text is the friend who confesses she cried the day she learned she was having a girl—not from joy, but from sadness at how hard it was for girls to just be and do in this world without having to worry about how they look while they are at it.

My text is the friend in advertising who tells me she has had supermodels sob on her shoulder because they are just not “pretty enough.”

My text is the young servicewomen I have counseled who drive boats, fix planes, and patch up wounded bodies on the battlefield—yet are convinced to really get their lives on track they need a boob job or butt lift.

My text is an aging friend who rocks her silver mane like nobody’s business, yet says it has taken 50 years to get to the point where she would not re-make her face or body from scratch if she could.

In short, my text is our very own female bodies—the one thing that is solely ours, yet which we never seem to get to own.

I suspect, though, we are getting closer.

When the New York Times chose the eve of Serena Williams’ record-breaking sixth Wimbledon victory (and fourth grand slam in a row) to run a piece reinforcing every stereotype about women’s bodies in the book, the response was fast and furious.

Times reporter Ben Rothenberg was largely quoting things that a handful of the world’s female tenniseratti had to say about their own body insecurities. Yet there was that magical, journalistic slight of hand at work, making it seem like the hidebound, 1980s-esque ideas of femininity he quoted simply and irrevocably were “the norm.”

Not even a norm, but the norm. As if these few women were confessing for all of us what every woman deep down truly (and logically) must want: to be slender and girly at all costs, all the time. Even when our jobs require us to be some of the toughest people on the planet.

Even, somehow, when we facing the imminent prospect having to birth something that feels more or less like a sentient medicine ball.

But ha! Guess what? It turns out it simply is not true. That just is not the morn anymore, not by a stretch. Everywhere we look these days, there are women busy being and doing—living their lives exactly the way they mean to—without worrying a bit about whether it makes them “cute.”

It is pretty freaking awesome.

And I am not just talking about female athletes.

I am talking about Bree Newsome, who scaled a flagpole at the South Carolina state house and helped bring down the Confederate flag in that state.

I am talking about Malala Yousafzai, who—now well past al Qaeda’s attempted assassination of her in 2012—spent her 18th birthday opening a school for Syrian refugee girls.

I am talking about Janelle Monáe, the brilliant, gravity-defying artist who says she is not interested in exposing skin to sell her music. “People don’t ask Jay-Z to take off his shirt,” she points out, pretty much ending that matter for all time in one phrase. (The one about Janelle Monáe is from 2013, but it just came across my Facebook feed last week.)

I also am talking about my friend, Dr. Joanna Bilancieri, a physical therapist and world-class paddle-boarder, who recently launched a campaign called “Bad Ass, Not Bare Ass.” She is on a mission to shift the representation of women in sports—away from the obsession with whether women athletes are sexy or feminine “enough” and toward the only things that should matter: their talent, their fitness, their prowess, their victories and defeats. July 25, 2015, is her inaugural event: paddling 45 miles around the Bermuda Triangle’s apex.

Joanna Bilancieri paddling in the Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard World Championships. (Ka’iwi Channel, July 2010)

There is no point in history where we have been more blessed with women role models from all walks of life, owning their physical, mental, and spiritual power in magnificent ways; living their truths; getting out in the world to do what they came to; and letting go of that pernicious, bone-deep fear that keeps so many of us in check.

That fear that we cannot be feminine while being who we are.

What hooey! Because being feminine? We own that. Nobody else could.

So let us really own it.

Don’t get me wrong. I will not blame myself or any other woman for giving into the fear. But I am going to celebrate every Serena, Bree, Malala, Janelle, Joanna, and every women who manage to point the past that fear of failing to be feminine while being who we are.

My text is not women’s bodies, it is women’s lives. We are here to live, not to be looked at or objectified. The more we do exactly that—living fully, on our own terms—the more quickly the rest of the world falls in line and realizes nothing could ever be any more or less feminine or womanly than…us.


Veteran’s Day 2014

Q&A with Harvard Divinity School (unedited)

Thursday 06 November 2014

Presenting the national ensign to a Veteran's widow while serving at Arlington National Cemetery. [June 2004]

Presenting the national ensign to a Veteran’s widow while serving at Arlington National Cemetery. [Arlington, VA, June 2004]

HDS:  First, a quick logistical item: Have you been serving as a Navy Chaplain since graduating in 1996?

I was scheduled to attend Naval Chaplaincy School in June 1996, directly upon graduating HDS. Those plans were scuttled by a scene straight from an ABC Movie of the Week: me—an eager 28 year old soon to embark upon her career—waiting for the results of tests done on what appeared to be a cyst, then sitting frozen as my doctor pronounced the words, “non-Hodgkin lymphoma.” So after graduation, instead of reporting to Chaplain School, I directly reported for chemo and radiation for two years.

After being cleared, I continued pursuing Naval Chaplaincy. Finally, in August 2001, I was commissioned and I attended Chaplain School in January 2002. As of 2014, I am 18 years cancer-free—and 13 years into a career that I wouldn’t change for anything.

HDS:  Where have your Naval travels taken you?

My first assignment (2002-2004) was in metropolitan Washington, DC. I served a Naval Base in Indian Head, MD, and the Marine Chemical Biological Incident Response Force unit stationed there. I also performed services at Arlington National Cemetery. Afterward (2004-2006), I served aboard the USS John C Stennis, an aircraft carrier. Travel-wise this was less exotic than you might expect, since the carrier was in dry dock at her homeport in Washington State. During that time (2005-2006), I was sent on an Individual Augmentation to the Joint Detention Center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—an assignment equally challenging and rewarding.

Following the ship, I was stationed in San Diego, CA (2006-2009), where I led programs and retreats on marriage enrichment, spiritual growth, and personal resilience. From there, I moved to Portland, ME (2009-2012), where I served as the Chaplain for Coast Guard Sector Northern New England. I was then selected for Funded Graduate Education and attended the University of San Diego (2012-2013), where I received an MA in Peace and Justice Studies.

Most recently, I came here, Kaneohe, HI, where I now serve a Marine Combat Logistic Battalion. Every morning, my meditation walk on the beach reminds me what a blessing Naval service is. (I promise that’s the only bragging I’ll do about the spectacular view that comes with my current assignment. Actually, I love New England and miss it. Especially this time of year!)

HDS:  Back when you were on campus in 2008, you described yourself as a peace-loving pacifist. So, why did you choose to enter the military? Was there an experience you had while a student at HDS that influenced that decision?

I first experienced the call to ministry when I was eight years old (1975), in a moment that felt like a flash of recognition. It was an image that occurred to me while I was in sitting in the pews during a Sunday morning worship service—I saw myself on chancel, behind the pulpit, staring out at the congregation. Despite the utter illogic of it all (it seemed inconceivable that this skateboarding Tomboy who played drums would ever end up as a minister), I felt that someday, in fact, I would be that person on the chancel. Those moments of calling repeated themselves and matured.

In college (1985), my then boyfriend and I were driving from New Orleans, LA (where we were in school), to Panama City, FL, where he lived, and we stopped at the Naval Base in Pensacola, FL, to visit a classmate who also was in Tulane’s ROTC program. As soon as I stepped on base—which was my first time ever on a military installation—I had another powerful moment of recognition: this is where I am supposed to be. And this was unmistakably the military.

It wasn’t, however, as simple as that—just joining the Navy and being a chaplain. (There is nothing simple about being a peace-loving, conscientiously-objecting pacifist who finds herself called to military ministry!) But when I have felt a call, I know to follow it, and just surrender myself to where it leads.

After the Pensacola trip, I contacted a recruiter who gently pointed me toward Divinity School. After college, I attended HDS. And at HDS, I found my way to Unitarian Universalism, where I realized that this was the faith tradition from which I was meant to minister. But military ministry had been in the picture for a while.

HDS:  As a Navy chaplain, how did you wind up working with Marines in Hawaii? Further to that, what does a day in the life of a military chaplain look like? What does your ministry entail?

I’m in the front row (as usual) on the far left. (Not an intended metaphor.) [Kaneohe Bay, HI, June 2014]

Navy Chaplains serve all the sea services: Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. This is my second Marine tour. Like most Navy chaplains, I love serving the Marines! (Then again, I love being with the Coast Guard and the Navy.)

The job of a Navy chaplain is four-fold. First, we provide, which means we minister directly to service members of our own faith. (There are relatively few servicemembers who identify as UU, though I consider the “nones,” humanists, atheists, agnostics, and “spiritual but not religious” to be mine.)

Second, we facilitate faith-based resources for those to whom we cannot directly minister. So, for instance, when one of my Catholic Marines who was going through a divorce and needed confession, I arranged for a priest to meet with him.

Third, we care for all service members, no matter their faith tradition. Another example, one of my Marines recently received an AMCROSS message (a message from the American Red Cross notifying him of his mother’s death). I delivered the news to him, held him while he cried, and accompanied him along his next steps. That kind of care is non-denominational at its root. That is pure love and compassion.

Finally, we advise. Up and down the Chain of Command. As a military chaplain, I enjoy 100% confidentiality in my pastoral relationships, which is a powerful thing. Even if a service member confesses intent to do harm to self or others, I cannot violate that pastoral bond, and all servicemembers know it. That means they come to me with some of the most searing and difficult issues imaginable, and it means that I often have more access to the “real story” of what’s happening on base than many Commanding Officers, investigators, lawyers, and counselors do.

So, how this relates to advisement then? Another example, one day a Marine comes to my office and describes a hazing incident. Later that week, a second Marine—from a different section—comes to see me and describes a similar story. Then a third. After the third, I thought these three incidents might be the tip of an iceberg, so I immediately brought it to my Commanding Officer (CO).

When I went to my CO, all I had to say was: “I think there might be a problem with hazing in the Battalion.” That was it. No examples of the incidents. No details that might compromise identities. Nothing. As soon as that sentence was out of my mouth, he was on the phone, coordinating with his subordinates, ensuring that anti-hazing policies are reinforced and Company Commanders and Senior Enlisted monitor their Marines more closely on this issue.

As for a typical workday, there is no typical workday. Usually it depends on the assignment. At present, I start my day before sunrise with a half-hour to hour meditation and prayer. At work, I’ll spend about 4-5 hours a day in counseling, an hour in physical training, and an hour on administrative tasks. Most important, I’ll spend 1-2 hours each day devoted to what’s called “deckplate” or “WAB” (Walking around the Battalion).

Deckplate/WAB is really the key. That’s when I get a sense of dynamics in the unit, and it’s how I get to know my Marines and sailors. Forging connections before crises happen is vital to any institutional ministry. It’s particularly vital in the military, where we are working with a young adult population with strong codes of masculinity in place. For them to reach out to me, they have to be comfortable. Getting to know them before the crises strike—that’s the heart of my job.

HDS:  You had mentioned that when it was announced during your HDS Commencement that you were going to pursue chaplaincy in the U.S. Navy, there was a collective gasp from the audience. You’ve even stated that your desire to serve as a military chaplain was “this odd calling that we don’t hear in the hallowed halls of Harvard.” Why do you think that was at the time, and do you have any sense that it’s shifted in the last couple years, especially as more campuses, including Harvard, welcome back certain ROTC programs due to the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law?

It was a challenge for many Unitarian Universalists to understand my call to military ministry. Some would aver that the only role for a spiritual guide in the midst of war is to call on combatants to lay down their arms and seek peace.

Yet, it’s important to consider what it means for the United States to have an all-volunteer service. The majority of enlisted are young adults who find that most roads to the “American Dream” are closed to them. For many who join the military, college is out of reach—and work available to high school graduates is a dirt path that doesn’t necessarily merge onto that American Dream road. Many of my Marines and sailors come from chaotic families, neighborhoods, and/or schools; they’re seeking a safe, orderly environment, a place where the rules are clear, and a place where they can really do their part with honor. Keeping this background in sight is important to understanding our current military.

I love academia, and I have boundless respect for the HDS community. Yet, for me, my big question is not really how prestigious campuses such as my fair Harvard view the military, or even how HDS colleagues view my call and the work I do. My question is, why would anyone want to restrict the kinds and types of ministerial presence available to a “congregation” such as this?

I minister to people, I don’t minister to military policy. I minister to individual servicemembers who are doing what they believe is right for themselves, their families, and their nation. Increasing numbers of servicemembers identify as “nones” or NRPs (“no religious preference”). (Many are even NPRs—National Public Radio-heads.) Increasing numbers are out as gay and lesbian. Increasing numbers are women. Why not have their choices of chaplains include those of us who are not conservative representatives of the Abrahamic faith traditions whose views (we assume) align more easily with military culture?

More often than not, I am the chaplain Marines, sailors, and their dependants come to discuss incidences of sexual assault. I also am the only one on island whose religious tradition allows me to counsel same-sex couples and perform same-sex marriages. And no matter who someone is or what their concerns are, my job is reminding my Marines, sailors, and family members that ours is a benevolent universe, that we belong to it and it belongs to us.

I make things more human for my Marines and sailors, and they make things more human for me: that is what we call fellowship; that’s what we call communion. Why not here? Why not exactly here of all places? Unitarian Universalists should be the first to understand that Spirit is everywhere.

HDS:  What is the single biggest challenge you face as a military chaplain?

For me, that’s not hard to answer: Being a peace-loving, conscientiously-objecting pacifist. I try to honor the complexity of my role and my position. I think of it as being a peace “mole”—a sort of turner of fresh earth, more than a spy.

I focus on the fellowship, companionship, and important ministry work I get to do with amazing young adults. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. There are times that I feel like a cog in the military industrial complex. There are times I feel misunderstood by both the military community and the UU community. But it is possible to build bridges. It’s all about relationships and small steps, there is just no way around that.

One professionally gratifying moment happened very early in my chaplain corps career. My primary instructor at the Naval Chaplain School—a rather intimidating senior ranking Navy chaplain who was a really conservative Southern Baptist and drove a pickup truck with a gun rack back home—said to me at graduation: “Chaplain Kane, I do know you’re a tree hugger and I don’t know what a UU is, but I think we oughta keep you.”

20110327_Cynthia Kane001

With my child, while serving the Coast Guard. [Portland, ME, March 2011]

Other challenges become apparent as I get older. There’s a certain way age makes me look at mortality more squarely than even cancer did. And I’m a mom now. That changes things. CACO calls, for example. (That’s when I as a chaplain accompany a uniformed Navy representative to inform a family member or next-of-kin—in person—about the casualty of their loved one.) This is one of my most sacred duties, and I would never want to opt out of it. Being there is so important. But with parenthood and age, the loss of young lives becomes increasingly intolerable. I get nauseous every time I approach the front door.

HDS: As a chaplain in the armed services, you kind of serve double. (You serve the people who serve.) What is most rewarding aspect of your work? 

Your question relates well to aging—because the older I get, the more I realize serving others defines the quality of our lives. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy yourself, practice compassion.” That could just as easily be: “If you want others to be happy, serve others; if you want to be happy yourself, serve others.”

Right now I’m serving with Marines—and what a crowd they are! Eleanor Roosevelt has this famous line about Marines: “The Marines I have seen around this world have the cleanest bodies, filthiest minds, the highest morale…” The quote goes on from there in a way I don’t particularly agree with, but there is a hilarious truth to that first part. I’m surrounded by fit young adults, clean-shaven, well-groomed, as fond of filthy humor as one might expect a bunch of young adults (mostly male) who are living on their own for the first time to be. And they’re also some of the kindest, most thoughtful, best mannered young men and women anywhere. These Marines and sailors are utterly devoted to completing their missions and bringing each other home safe, whether from a war zone, or a zone of devastation following a natural disaster.

I value my peacenik, hippieish heritage. Though in the world of intellectual endeavor and political protest, there’s a tendency toward terminal uniqueness: defining ourselves in the singularity of our thoughts, opinions, and tastes. In military culture, we define ourselves by our ability to be the same to some extent: to pull together and act as one.

Thanks to the remarkable men and women I serve, I know, on a daily basis, what that feels like to be part of something bigger than myself. So do my Marines and sailors, and our Guardians, soldiers, and airmen and women. No matter one’s goal or mission, this is the essence of service: allowing the quest for uniqueness to cede to the uniquely beautiful quest for a common good.


Offical, edited HDS article appears here.