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.

Red, White, Black, and Blue: Toward a More Truthful National Narrative

Honolulu Pride 2013. (Honolulu, HI, 01 June 2013)

A fabulous sense of joy came out at Pride celebrations across the nation last week, following SCOTUS’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that individual states can’t legally deny same-sex couples the right to marry. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy said the right to marry was a fundamental one, part of the very fabric of individual liberty. “Under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment,” he reasoned, “couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.

It was a shining moment in the ongoing battle for LGBTQ equality.

Yet, I can’t help but think how the ruling has everything to do with America’s legacy of racism.

After all, the 14th Amendment was hardly the lofty product of a nation seeking to define itself as a shining example to the world. The 14th wasn’t around in 1776. It wasn’t there in 1789, as part of the original Bill of Rights.

Instead, the 14th Amendment—the notion that the states owe Due Process and Equal Protection to all of their citizens—was the product of the Civil War. It was the product of a nation eating itself alive over questions of race. That’s why it comes right after the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of slavery. The 14th is a constitutional backstop—an attempt to ensure the Confederate states could not reenact slavery through other means.

Which makes it all the more poignant that the win for LGBTQ activists in Obergefell came the same week that a hate-fueled white gunman killed nine African American worshipers at an AME bible study meeting in Charleston, South Carolina.

The same week that at least three black churches were torched in what appears to be a wave of racist attacks.

The same week that racist groups across the South rallied to the Confederate flag as a symbol of “white pride.”

In Columbia, South Carolina, Bree Newsome had enough. She scaled the Statehouse flagpole and removed the Confederate flag, that “symbol of white supremacy that inspired the [Charleston] massacre.” State leaders and police responded by arresting Newsome and restoring the flag—just in time for a Statehouse rally by a white supremacist group.

As we saw the circle of protections offered by the 14th Amendment enlarged in a beautiful and meaningful way through Obergefell, we also gained a series of potent reminders that laws are hardly the only thing that count.

What do “Due Process” and “Equal Protection” even mean in a context where there is almost zero legal recourse for the police slayings of unarmed black men and women? Zero recourse for the disproportionate rates at which black and brown people are arrested and convicted? Zero recourse for the fact that they are far more likely than whites to be brutalized or neglected by police or prison workers?

What could they mean in a context where white Americans dismiss the slayings of nine black worshipers as the work of an insane man, rather than a racist one?

What could they possibly mean in the context of a nation where courthouses and statehouses and public schools persist in flying the Confederate flag, that oh-so-galvanizing symbol of “white pride” and black death?

Those famous 14th Amendment guarantees mean something…but not enough. Not even nearly. We can do a certain amount through legislation and litigation. In the long term, however, there can be no justice in a nation where divisiveness and hate are allowed to flourish.

Driving toward an historic victory for equality in the courts begins to look like child’s play compared to the task of changing cultures of hate.

Particularly when we’re not even willing to admit they exist.

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

That’s the maddening part: the incredible mental gyrations that white Americans go through to on a daily basis to disavow the racist implications of…pretty much anything.

An overtly, avowedly racist white man slaughters nine black people in their own house of worship? White Americans talk about how this is the result of mental illness, not racism—and certainly not terrorism.

Police officers gun down yet another, young, unarmed black person, virtually without warning? White Americans latch on to a trumped-up claim of shoplifting to dismiss the racist implications.

The Confederate flag continues to be flown at government buildings across the South as it has since slaveholding times—continues to be flown even as we mourn those slain at Charleston, like a swastika flown at Nuremberg? And still so many white Americans insist they don’t see the problem; they insist the Confederate flag is about southern heritage, not racism—even as groups like the Ku Klux Klan plan rallies in its honor.

All this gives new meaning to the term “crazy making.” How do black Americans survive it? How they can live among so many white people so resolutely not seeing the forces that push so hard against their communities and their lives?

And given how hard it is for white America even to see racism, how can we begin to repair its divides?

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

After Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, Peter Beinart asked why “the American media [has] been so obsessed with his capacity for forgiveness?” Instead, Beinart suggested, we would do well to remember Mandela’s “insistence on truth first.”

Insisting on truth first is important. As Americans we just love stories of quick redemption. We drink in sitcom after sitcom, where a single hug cures decades of family tension. We drink our coffee in mugs with slogans like “Forgiveness isn’t something we do for other people; it’s something we do for ourselves.” Yet in all this rush to the nice and satisfying end, we forget the hard path that leads to true forgiveness, to meaningful reconciliation.

In South Africa, even the saintly Desmond Tutu did not expect black South Africans to forgive without first getting something meaningful from the perpetrators of Apartheid. Instead of blanket forgiveness, on the one hand, or violent retribution on the other, he said, “Our country chose a middle way of individual amnesty for truth.”

Truth is the prerequisite to healing.

I fear in America the truth has fractured. That truth has become whatever story each of us needs to feel we are always in the right. Truth has become whatever story we need to feel we never have to make changes or make sacrifices.

That’s not truth. That’s delusion.

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

Getting our kicks on Route 66. (Eureka, MO, 04 July 2012)

So here we are, right up against the Fourth of July. I am a lover of the Fourth. I love it all. I love the cookouts and cold slabs of watermelon. I love the sparklers. I love the fireworks. I love those miniature American flags. I always have.

This Independence Day, however, I’m worried for my nation. Mandela and Tutu are right: for there to be reconciliation—for us to move forward as a nation, given our deep history of racial injustice—there has to be some actual truth-telling first. It means letting go of some cherished self-concepts and beginning to admit that maybe, just maybe, there are cracks and fissures in our perfect sense of the world.

So this Fourth, I will celebrate the wonderful things this nation represents. And I’ll be praying that instead of reasserting myths and delusions, we might begin the hard process of facing our national truths.

On Men, Male, and Masculinity

Military and ministry: two of the most male-dominated professions. But it’s not only my professional life that forces me to confront issues of masculinity on a daily basis, since I’m also the mother of two sons.

In the wake of the Vanity Fair cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner, we have, collectively, been so caught up in the question of “what makes a woman,” it might be easy to miss the fact that we’re coming up on Father’s Day—a day, for me, that tends to spur reflection on how it is we go about making men.

Every year, I’m stymied by finding an appropriate Father’s Day card. The majority of the cards refer to barbecues, beer, golfing, fishing, sleeping, having the answers, giving advice, or passing gas. How did these things become the image of fathers?

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

When I reflect on issues of masculinity and manhood, I find myself returning, again and again, to the biblical story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22).

Sacrifice of Isaac, by Caravaggio. (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy)

Isaac was Abraham’s only child with his first wife, Sarah. The boy was born to them when the couple was quite old. Isaac was loved and beloved, so it’s to be assumed Abraham finds it very painful when God speaks to him one day, acknowledges Abraham’s great love for Isaac—then orders him to kill the boy and make a “burnt offering” of him.

Abraham binds Isaac and picks up the knife, fully prepared to follow through with God’s commandment, when an angel appears and stays his hand. The angel says (with approval) that Abraham has proved the great depth of his fear for God. So Isaac is released from his bindings, and Abraham is released from his most awful task.

I do not propose to offer here a full or proper biblical exegesis of the Isaac story, or to share a new interpretation I’ve come across (though many wonderful meditations on the story exist). I merely want to share some of the feelings and questions this story raised for me decades ago, when I first really read and tried to absorb it, and the impressions the story leaves with me still.

The binding of Isaac always seemed to be one of the most confounding of biblical passages. And since I was a teen, my questions about the story have revolved around questions of masculinity.

After all, Abraham is the central father figure of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament.

Abraham is The Man.

But passing God’s test in Genesis 22 has nothing to do with Abraham’s strength, leadership, intelligence, or compassion—or even his ability to build a bookcase. Rather, Abraham proves his worthiness by showing such fear, loyalty, obedience to God—The Man higher up—that he is willing even to destroy what is most precious to him.

By implication, Isaac also passes his test as a son. And similarly, Isaac passes not because of any quality of strength, thoughtfulness, or valiance. Almost the opposite. Isaac proves himself by not struggling or fighting back, even when it becomes clear that his father plans to kill him.

Ultimately, an animal is sacrificed in Isaac’s stead, and one message commonly taken from this story is that the Hebrew Scriptures mark a departure from barbaric practices of human sacrifice, that they helped to make a more humane world.

Yet clearly this also is a story about making men.

And the curious thing is, I’m not sure things have changed all that much when it comes to our stories of making good men.

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

Navy Chaplains serving with Marines at Kaneohe Bay. (June 2014, Kaneohe, HI)

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting that masculinity in America means blind obedience to a superior force. It doesn’t even mean that here with the Marines, where I am privileged to work with and mentor so many young men.

The idea that masculinity is best forged through processes of domination is one belief that seems to endure, however. The idea that loyalty should be a man’s highest priority seems to be another.

Most of all, what seems to endure from biblical times is the idea that strength as a man—that honor, goodness, and worthiness as a man—is about swallowing any feelings of fear or grief and forging ahead with the task you were given. Even if it is a calamitous and murderous one that threatens to break your heart. Isaac must swallow even the unimaginable fear and grief of knowing his own father was willing to sacrifice him.

That is what struck me when I first read the story, and it is what shatters me every time I read it again.

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

Daily I talk with young men navigating their way through manhood. Our ministerial conversations usually begin with their explaining why they don’t need help. Often they feel compelled to explain that they are not “weak.” Often they will say they’ve only come to see me because someone higher in their chain of command ordered them to see me. During the first half of our time together, they attempt to fortify their fortresses, though often a Chaplain’s quiet listening presence acts as a deafening ram’s horn, causing their walls to fall.

But how in our wider culture do we make space for men to own their vulnerabilities, to own their feelings of anxiety, fear, grief, and loss? And how can men own their own feelings if, as a society, we continue to ask them to do things in the name of masculinity that their sense of compassion makes them revolt against inside?

How do we break the endless cycle of dominance, of manliness forged through domination that seeks in turn to dominate?

How do we offer solace to the men for whom that urge has gotten out of hand, leading them to hurt the ones they love, with no angel stopping their hand?

I don’t know the full answers to these questions.

I do know that on Father’s Day—along with wishing the fathers in my life a good day off and a blessing on their barbecues—I’ll be reminding my male family members, friends, and colleagues that I love them, that I see them as whole humans, and that I believe as much in their good and generous hearts as I do anything else about them.

My muddy son. (Kailua, HI, April 2015)

Delivering Our Children: A Mothers’ Day Reflection

Bond

Holding Hands. (Portland, ME, 13 September 2010)

Swapping birth stories with a friend (what could be more appropriate for Mother’s Day?), she reported what she calls the “Frogger Effect.” 

The first time she took her infant daughter out in the car, the roadways seemed transformed into a giant video game. Rather than orderly traffic, other cars became massive objects whizzing towards her at unreal speeds. Danger was everywhere.

“I was crouched down over the wheel, checking my mirrors constantly. It felt like the whole world was trying to prevent me from getting this one baby, my baby, safely to the other side of town.”

The image of my friend, her hair all in disarray, her shirt stained with baby spit up, hunched down over the steering wheel of her car, fearing that she and the baby could be flattened at any moment just like the Frogger frog, as she navigated the placid roads of her suburban town, cracked me up and made me feel for her.

But also? The Frogger Effect started me thinking about motherhood can seem like a constant task of delivering one child, your child, to the next point of safety in a dangerous, fast-moving world.

From those first anxiety-filled weeks, from one developmental milestone to the next, making sure your child gets what he needs—the right nutrients, the right toys to stimulate her brain, the safe surfaces to crawl on, the right shoes to support his feet as he starts to wobble and walk. Then into toddlerhood, and gradeschool, and middle school, and beyond… Day by day, year by year, overflowing with love and stress, trying to ensure this child gets to the next secure place. Trying to anticipate and neutralize the unpredictable objects whizzing by on the screen.

There is a way in which motherhood—parenthood—all too often does feel like an extended game of Frogger.

It’s a real frame, but an isolating one.

Motherhood bonds us each to our own. It provokes the deepest sense of commitment many of us will ever feel—a commitment to ensuring our unique, irreplaceable children, make it through the maze of obstacles and threats we understand the world to be.

However, it also has the capacity to bind us to something greater, to universal cycles of birth and love and growth, to the near-universal urgency of wanting one’s children to survive and flourish—and the near-universal sense of pain when they are in jeopardy.

These qualities are not limited to the human world. Elephant babies walk underneath their mothers until they are big enough to walk in the herd without being trampled. Mothers touch their babies over and over with their trunks as they travel, reassuring them, keeping them on track. They nurse their children for several years, and tend them closely until they are teens. The mother-child bond can last for decades, and an elephant mother whose baby dies will trail behind the herd, grieving her loss.

3 Generations. (Mt. Prospect, IL, May 1968)

“Honor thy father and mother” is the Fifth of the Ten Commandments. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am not often caught citing the Book of Exodus. But the Commandments are a fundamental expression of the attempt to order the world—and it is noteworthy that honor thy father and mother takes spot Number 5.

The first four commandments speak to humans’ duties before God: affirming God’s greatness, establishing God’s singularity; forbidding idolatry; and sanctifying the Sabbath.

Commandments six through ten tell us how to behave toward one another: no murdering; no adultery; no stealing; no lying; no coveting.

There in the swing position, in spot number 5, is honor thy father and mother. The implication seems to be that Commandment Five is both about honoring our unique, individual parents, and honoring God as the parent above all parents. It refers to the particular and universal, the earthly and the divine.

This bit of ancient wisdom is worth remembering on Mother’s Day, though perhaps with a more modern, less patriarchal rendering: behind our individual families are infinitely larger forms of connectedness and belonging.

To truly deliver our children to the next safe space, to truly vouchsafe their futures, we need to care for the fates of children in ever wider circles, to build a world where justice and health and safety and opportunity are the norm.

To truly honor our mothers, we need to honor mothers everywhere, to recognize their own hopes for their children and recognize their particular sources of grief.

We need to honor the elemental forces that give life and call out the fiercest feelings of love and devotion that any of the species seem to know.

(Portland, ME, October 2010)

Oppression is a Narrow Space

Heliconia standleyi (Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Papaikou, HI)

 

Just before the start of Passover I called David*, a friend who has been hosting beautiful, magnificent Seders for his friends since he was a teen.

“Tell me something you’ll be bringing up tonight?”

“Well…there’s the frog,” he said. “Do you know about the frog?”

“Sure, I know about the frogs! Second plague!”

“Not frogs-sss,” he said, drawing out the sss. “In the text it’s actually frog-gh. Singular. One frog that descended on Egypt. At least, that’s what Rabbi Akiva thought.”

“One frog?” “One really big frog.”

“Whoa.” I said. “They could be doing a much better job with that in the movies.”

  * * * * *

Judaism is not my tradition, but Passover has never failed to inspire me—thanks in no small part to people like David, who understand the Exodus story as a call to fight inequality and oppression in every place and every era.

“Ok,” I said, “I dig the One Big Frog idea. Now tell me something I can really meditate on? It’s been a tough stretch since my father’s death. I could use some inspiration.”

“How about this: do you know the root of the Hebrew word for Egypt?”

Of course I didn’t. What I do know is that the Hebrew language is based on a relatively small number of roots that take on different shades of meanings as they emerge in various words. By understanding the roots you can see intricate relationships among words and concepts that may not be evident at first.

“Egypt is Mitzraim,” he explained. “Strip it down, and you’ve got tzarar, which means “to bind.” As a noun, it becomes something like “affliction.” As an adjective, it means “narrow.”

So the word for Egypt, Mitzraim, conveys this sense that oppression is a narrow space. Liberation, in other words, is like moving from a narrow space into an open one.”

“It’s like the process of birth.” I suggested.

“You could go there,” David replied.

“Of course I’m going there. I’m five months pregnant.”

 * * * * *

Oppression is a narrow space.

I’ve been meditating on that idea all week, even as the drama over Indiana’s Restoration of Religious Freedoms Act (RFRA) peaked, ending in hasty amendments whose implications are unclear.

As originally proposed, the law would have let Indiana businesses and corporations use religious freedom as a defense against claims of illegal discrimination. Of course, existing State and Federal law would prevent businesses from refusing to serve or hire African Americans or Jews or women “on religious grounds.” But LGBTQ individuals have no similar protections—not in Indiana at least—and, in my opinion, it seems obvious who the bill was targeting. The law would have passed in that form, had it not been for a fierce national boycott action that even threatened Indiana’s ties to the NCAA.

As the debate raged, what surprised me most was how much attention there was to wedding cakes. The “wedding cake effect” owes in part to a couple of recent, high-profile lawsuits against bakeries that refused to sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples. (Maybe after the big gains on same-sex marriage, straight America imagines the only challenge left to LGBTQ folk is how to throw the reception?) But even among critics of the law, the wedding cake scenario often seemed to define the issue.

And seriously: if the big issue were really “freedom of conscience for small business owners” versus the “right to your choice of wedding cake”, the Indiana law might start to look reasonable.

What we’re seeing is the legacy of the closet. Until very recently, LGBTQ people have not been free to speak openly about their lives, and many still put themselves at risk if they do. Because if you actually know this community’s stories, you know that wedding cakes are the least of it. You know how often LGBTQ individuals are shut out of housing by bigoted landlords…refused spots for their kids in day care…asked alarming questions in job interviews…refused employment for inscrutable reasons…relentlessly harassed on the job…denied medical services…treated in degrading ways by medical professionals…

That’s just to name forms of discrimination and degradation that the proposed law would have directly protected.

Even with the bakeries, there’s so much more at stake than wedding cake. When groups of people can legally be excluded from routine business and commerce, they inevitably appear to be less than full citizens.

What of the fact that gay men and lesbians aren’t always “obvious”? Under the law that almost passed, there’s be a subtle pressure to self-identify at every turn, just to ensure that your contracts and working relationships would be honored. (“Your Honor, I had no idea this woman was a lesbian at the time she ordered the cake. She looked so…natural!”) The sense of branding and intrusion could be pervasive.

The debate around RFRA rightfully focused on issues of law. How could the law have been drafted more fairly? What’s the right balance of rights? In the end, the only real question is whether or not we make our nation a more narrow space.

None of these kinds of discrimination I’ve been talking about ever widens the space of religious freedoms. All they do is narrow the space of dignity and equality for LGBTQ people.

  * * * * *

A follow-up call to David revealed that this year’s Seder was, as usual, a smashing success.

The One Big Frog story drew a lot of laughter and Godzilla jokes.

There were vows to continue the struggle to ensure that #Blacklivesmatter.

There were tears of sadness for the students killed in Nigeria.

And there were tears of joy over David’s recent marriage to the man he’s loved for many years. It was, I hear, a shining Passover moment.

Meanwhile, I was home on base. Last Sunday, I celebrated Easter and felt my own spirit renewed. I wait eagerly for our next child to make the passage from a very constricted space to the wide-open promise of becoming exactly who this child is meant to be.

I enter this spring hoping fervently that all of us—gay or straight, believer or nonbeliever—come to realize that we are not diminished by the presence of others. We are only diminished by the narrowness of our hearts and the narrowness of the spaces we create.

There’s no way to flee Mitzraim anymore. No more Promised Lands left to occupy. There are only the places we live and love, and we are the ones who decide how narrow or wide open they will be.

Akaka Falls (Honomu, HI)

Remembering Pop

Eulogy for my father, Lester “Les” Eugene Kane (July 1, 1934 – January 15, 2015). Originally delivered on Saturday 07 February 2015 at Glueckert Funeral Home, Arlington Heights, IL.

kane


My father was hard-working yet easy-going, soft-spoken and an impeccable dresser, fastidious, witty, and handsome. He was born in 1934 in Fairfield, Iowa, the ninth of eleven children. He was referred to as “number 7,” though, since two of his siblings died shortly after their birth.

Pop claimed “little-to-no upbringing” and a “humbling” childhood that was a “lesson in survival”. His father, Earl, was a farmer and alcoholic. His mother, Hazel, was a woman he hardly recalled. His parents divorced when Pop was five (5) years old. Pop and his brother Lee (#6) became a Ward of the State, lived with various foster families, and later stayed with their older sisters and brother through high school and college.

Uncle Lee, who will speak in a moment, undoubtedly will regale us with stories of my father’s earliest years and their shared childhood tales. His humorous and optimistic spin on their adversity is a shared characteristic between him and my father. Yet, unlike Uncle Lee, getting Pop to talk—let alone share emotion—was a Herculean task. So my reflection here, in part, is a pieced together narrative from years of patient (perhaps annoying) prodding.

From 1953 to the mid-1980s, Pop’s late teen and adult years focused on family and career. Pop was an all-star athlete at Fairfield High School and was the third of the Kane brothers to hold the record for the mile. His was smitten with high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Balderson, and shortly after she graduated in 1954, they married and started a family. Speaking about the birth of his first child, Kathryn, in 1957, always brought a tear to his eye. He got equally teary eyed when speaking of his other two daughters, Kristin, born in 1959, and Susan, born in 1960. (In addition to my father not being overtly expressive, his tears were particularly telling since he lost one tear duct after dropping a drill in his eye.)

Before Susan’s birth, all of them moved to suburban Chicago for his job at Bell Telephone Company. That move, according to Pop, was the demise of their marriage—as was him being “from wrong side of the tracks.” By April 1961, his wife took their daughters back to Iowa, and they began divorce proceedings. Pop described that time and experience as his “great heartbreak,” forbade himself from saying anything more about that marriage and his daughters than “the facts,” and had little to no contact with any of them for most of the rest of their lives.

In May 1961, Pop attended a conference for Illinois Bell and, according to him, that “last thing on [his] mind was meeting someone.” At the company pool party, however, there was Pat Gerhart. They were brought together by “accident”—an accident. Pop dove off the diving board, hit the pool floor, broke his nose, and—struggling to the surface—he grabbed on to the first person he found, which turned out to be the woman who became my mother. His injury notwithstanding, Mom maintained she married Pop because he had “potential and a nice nose.” They married on June 8th, 1962—a date forever embedded in my brother’s and my mind, as you will come to understand.

During their first few years of marriage, my parents lived in suburban Chicago and cared for my mother’s nieces and nephew before having children of their own. My brother, Doug, was born in June 1965. I was conceived during the Blizzard of 1967 and born that November.

In 1970, my parents built a home here, in then the newly developing area of Arlington Heights, Illinois. Together they ensured Doug’s and my basic needs were met—as well as a few additional comforts. We had a cocker-poo dog, Patches (named because of his varicolored coat, though after 6 months turned completely white!), a 1973 Pontiac convertible, a batting-cage in the back yard (cause of the earlier mentioned drill accident), and most importantly, family time.

Be it one-on-one or all four of us together, family time was fundamental for Pop. For me, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with family-friends the VanNests are among the most memorable times. Even more memorable are our non-holiday evening meals. Not the beige food part of the family dinner, but the nightly ritual of my father announcing the length of my parents’ marriage. After the four of us said grace, Pop asked Mom to pass the salt and pepper. Mom, genuinely surprised she left the shakers on the stovetop, rose from the table to get them. Pop would then say, “x-number of years we’ve been married, Pat, and x-number of years we have yet to begin dinner with the salt and pepper on the table.” Every June 8th, the year count would increase.

Also fundamental was maintaining close ties with his eight surviving siblings. We made the biannual pilgrimage to southeastern Iowa to be with his brother and sisters, and the sundry in-laws, nieces, nephews, and cousins. And being a telephone executive, he was readily able to and regularly reached-out-and-touched each sibling by phone.

Pop was a devoted father. It still remains a wonder to Doug and me how, for 23 years, he managed to make the 25-mile train commute to and from downtown Chicago, have family dinner, coach Doug’s various sports teams, attend my various music recitals, and never miss an event!?

Nor did he miss a teaching moment. Doug will speak more about our father as coach. As for me, Pop made me his apprentice to his various home improvement projects, and taught me how to use a slide rule, a 3-sided architectural scale, and design templates. To this day, mechanical drawing remains one of my hobbies.

Pop also was fiercely protective. He joked to pull out the Voodoo doll if any boyfriend broke my heart. (We didn’t take him seriously until one day in high school when John Russell showed up to class with a broken leg.) And the only time my father did not spare this child the rod was when I sassed Mom.

Pop worked for Bell until the mid-1980s. In 1984, he was one of the “masterminds” behind the federally mandated break-up of the Bell Telephone monopoly, and promised “nice piece of the corporate pie.” That piece, instead, was a position doing the same thing he had been doing for the 23 years prior, despite a new title and higher salary. Pop thus opted to retire (for the first time) and venture into the new world of digital communications, which eventually brought him to work with former Soviet block governments to upgrade their World War II infrastructure. Pop thrived in this new frontier—and is quietly credited bringing the first cellular technology to Russia.

In the early 1990s, my parents moved to be closer to Mom’s mom and sister in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They bought a home in a quiet, upscale neighborhood where their big community excitement (apart from Mardi Gras) was the announcement of the most recent recipient for Garden of the Month. (Pop won on a few occasions.) Our speculations have never been confirmed or denied, though we believe at this time Pop worked for the CIA. Apart from his occasional, casual mention of being on Air Force One, there was the questionable drive-by shooting that occurred while he was working at his home office. [Maybe you in the back with the sunglasses and earpieces can help solve that mystery?]

Health issues were the theme in Pop’s Golden Years. In the late 1990s, he experienced kidney failure and underwent dialysis for a few years. On my 34th birthday, 2001, Doug donated Pop his kidney and gave all of us the gift of Pop’s life back. Both Kane men were more excited, though, about being roused out of post-operation sedation in time to see the Arizona Diamondbacks win their first World Series.

In 2002, Pop retired again (and for the last time) and my parents moved to a resort retirement community in Surprise, Arizona. They were close to Doug and finally able to live their retirement dreams of travel, leisure, and golf. Two days after moving, however, Mom got sick and Pop became her caretaker while she was in-and-out of the hospital for the next two-and-a-half years until her death in June 2004. A few weeks later was Pop’s 70th birthday. Feeling he had nothing to live for, Pop celebrated the occasion by throwing himself out of a plane skydiving!

Eventually he emerged from his grief (and insanity) to enjoy a few more years of good health and, finally, adventure with a new “lady friend,” Zakea. In 2012, once his health rapidly declined, however, he only was comforted by her memory, spending his waning days writing poetry about her—and the other loves of his life.

Pop died, as he lived: quietly, on his own terms, with a struggle, with integrity, and in the comfort of his own home just a stone’s throw from the 18th hole. In his final hours, the “great heartbreak” from his younger years was healed as his oldest three children from whom he’d been estranged most his life joined my brother at his bedside.

The death certificate said Pop died of heart failure. I think that’s inaccurate. He died from heart success—a heart so full it burst. His heart was filled with the love for all of us gathered here this afternoon, those who’ve gone before, those who are here in spirit, and a life well lived. Thank you who are here for being a part of his journey.

And thank you, Pop, for your elegance, endurance, life, and love. Though your light has been extinguished from this earthly realm, the sparkle in your eye, your adventurous spirit, gentle humor, and fidelity to family lives on in the hearts and minds of all those whose lives you touched and love you well.

I am comforted by an image that came to me in a dream shortly before Pop died: he was in a white dinner jacket, bow tie, black tuxedo pants, in his prime, gracefully dancing cheek-to-cheek with my mother. He was so full of joy and showed me his dance card, which had the names of his parents, sisters, brother, other family and friends…and room for our names when our times come.

Until then, Pop, enjoy the dance.

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My father celebrating his 70th birthday! (Metro Phoenix, AZ, 1 July 2004)

The “Stuff” of Life

January is always a time for taking stock, but this year, the personal pull to reflect has ramped up to the power of a starship-worthy tractor beam. I entered 2015 with the news that I was carrying my second child, due in August, a sibling to my four-year-old child. Then, two weeks into the new year, my father died.

The Universe could not be more in-my-face about the cycles of life, the need to take the bitter with the sweet, the yin and yang of it all.

My father’s death was lingering, and I took nine days’ leave—flying out to Arizona to be with him and my siblings, then staying afterward to begin the process of winding up family affairs. My mother died 10 years ago and there is nowhere left to lodge the remnants of our family home, the accumulated boxes of high school trophies, grade school report cards, Halloween costumes, homemade pot holders.

For several days after my father’s death, sorting, stacking, selling, and casting off became my constant form of meditation.

It is said that few on their deathbed say, “I wish I had spent more time working.” I doubt there are few children after a death who say, “I wish my beloved, departed parent had saved more stuff.” Sorting the remnants of a middle class American life can be enough to transform the most stubborn hoarder into a committed minimalist.

It also pushes me to think hard about what is left that truly matters.

Because that is the bottom line question, isn’t it: what is left that matters, after we go? What is it our lives come down to?

Having just sent decades’ worth of belongings to family, friends, charity, and recycling, I can say for sure it isn’t the stuff.

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Presenting the Next of Kin the National Ensign. (Arlington National Cemetery, 2004)

While serving as the Chaplain at Arlington Cemetery about eleven or twelve years ago, a middle aged man chatted me up in an airport. He had been waiting for someone with “spiritual credentials” to turn up. It wasn’t hard to conclude he was in the thick of a midlife “crisis,” bursting with ideas as to what it all came down to, what would be left after he was gone.

Intriguingly, his personal answer was that it all came down to FUN (and he hinted broadly that the debauched forms of fun can win you something like extra game points at life’s end). “I finally realized that’s all that matters,” he said, then rapidly began to name the exotic travels he’d been having since making this discovery. “Our experiences. That’s what we leave behind.”

“So,” I asked with genuine curiosity, “how is it that we ‘leave behind’ the fun we have? Don’t our experiences more or less die with us?”

He looked at me steadily for a moment, then said, “I’m not a theologian. I’m just telling you what I’ve learned.”

I have nothing against fun. Yet there are good reasons that so few philosophers and theologians have put their money on fun as the measure of a life. Honestly, the man in the airport hardly seemed convinced himself. It felt more like he was desperate to believe that FUN was the answer.

Still, he had an answer. Meanwhile, here I am venturing into my own middle-life. No crisis as such in sight, but a lot of sorting to do, both literal and otherwise.

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Standard experience with all the military moves…

In the process of going through my parents’ accumulated stuff—sorting and stacking, reminiscing and bundling, deciding which things to keep and which things to send on (and where they could find a new home)—I found myself thinking back to the writings of Gershon Scholem, a scholar of Jewish mysticism.

Scholem offered one idea of the purpose of live that I’ve never been able to shake. It has to do with a certain strand of mystical thought, according to which creation of the world was a destructive act that caused vessels of divine light to be shattered. Sparks of divine light scattered everywhere in creation, lodging inside us, inside other animals, in rocks and earth. As humans do good deeds, as they carry out the commandments of the Torah, they help lift these sparks from themselves and the world around them; they liberate sparks to return to the divine source.

On this take, doing good acts restores the Divinity, restores the universe to balance.

My own path never took me further into the study of Kabbalah than reading Scholem, and I have no interest in claiming—or mangling—a tradition that is not my own. But as pure metaphor, as a way of explaining why our wise and loving acts matter, this idea makes sense: creation as destruction with divine sparks awaiting their return.

It isn’t just that God helps us to make good and wise choices.

It’s that our good and wise choices help to make God complete.

Every good act furthers the singular mission of restoring the Universe to peace.

North Beach at sunrise. (MCBH, 2014)

North Beach at sunrise. (Marine Corps Base Hawaii, 2014)

My child and I returned home to Hawaii on a Friday afternoon. In military terms, nine days is a lot of time to take off, no matter what the cause. I was anxious; I planned to drop him at daycare on the way from the airport to my office.

There was just one hitch: Friday is show-and-tell day at the daycare and my child desperately wanted to share his crocodile puppet. The crocodile puppet was at home—which was not en route to the daycare.

“Tick tock,” went the voice inside my head, “time to get back to work.”

Meanwhile, there was my child, in the backseat, not crying, not having a tantrum, just looking sad and tired.

Looking the way I felt.

He hadn’t understood much about my father’s death, though after the last several days in Arizona with no Papa in sight, he had come to sense that a serious wait was involved. That he wouldn’t see his grandfather again for a very long time. Something like resignation had settled in—an adult sort of emotion I’d never seen him register before. It made my own heart heavy to see.

Right or forward when I drive on base?

Right to work.

Forward to home.

The future of the world does not turn on whether toddlers get their prized toys to show off at preschool. Still, like so many things, the show-and-tell puppet wasn’t just about the puppet or about show-and-tell. It was about restoring a sense of joy to my toddler son, reminding him in a visceral way that he always is loved.

It was about choosing who to be at that moment—Captain* or Reverend or Mother. Choosing which “me” could make the most good happen right then, with that one small, choice.

It was about emulating my father, who lived a quiet life but a loving one. Whose constant, daily, loving acts created small ripples of peace within a world that sorely needs more of it.

I went forward to home and got the puppet.

Work could wait another 30 minutes.

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My child, then age 2.5, with his favorite toy: the crocodile puppet. (March 2013)