Monday, December 20, 2010

(en)gendering dialogue

The latest post from the State of Formation project:

A colleague of mine recently shared a hard-to-find video relating the work of linguist Deborah Tannen to children's communication styles in same-sex pairs and groups. (If anyone discovers the link, let me know--I'll happily include it here!) While I have mixed feelings about any work that runs the risk of being interpreted as biological determinism, I had to laugh outloud as one little girl leaned in to the other and cried, "Same!" as they were comparing notes on their families. The boys at a similar age were engaged in classic one-upmanship behavior, declaring how far they could each hit a baseball until the final child had hit the ball all the way to God, while the girls were seeking to find points of similarity--even to the point of creating new details about their lives in order to connect.

I believe we human beings are a unique mix of feminine and masculine energies, the gift of both nature and nurture. In my experience, this mix of gendered elements, both fixed and continually shaped by environment, is key in how we approach dialogue--what draws us in, and what turns us away. As we State of Formation authors were introducing ourselves via short email messages to the group, I was a classic female Tannen subject. I'd scan messages for a point of connection and then send an email to say, in essence, "Same!" Whether it was to mention a shared institution, region of the world, experience, or to offer a resource that links the author's viewpoint to mine, I was looking to connect--it is where the path to dialogue begins for me, and I'm not terribly interested in projects or places where this step is skipped. If this is indeed my feminine energy leading the way, how about others? What gender-spirit brings you to dialogue? What are the essential experiences for your particular mix of feminine and masculine?

I'll readily admit to steering away from more controversial topics until I've established a relationship with someone, and I likely shy away from people who make clear their intention is to convince me of something or hold their views over mine. The "one over" stance is one I've held at many points in my life, both consciously and unconsciously, so I will not pretend this energy isn't in my make-up, but it's less and less dominant--and less and less useful for me, I've found. If I know what you think about when you're alone--what scares you when you think about those you love moving through an uncertain world--what generates pride in who you are and where you've come from, I can wade in to the conversation with comfort. Typically, any potential defense is set aside. I can be curious about how you think as you do, and the experiences that have shaped your ideas that are both like and unlike mine. We are in a relationship--the home of dialogue, for me. And, sometimes, if we enter that home in just the right way, or we share it for just the right amount of time, a miracle takes place--the relationship becomes what is real, and any conflicts or controversies that might have previously framed our coming together suddenly cease to matter. In essence, I find more I can say, "Same!" to than I find that sets us apart.

As I was contemplating this post, I was trying to uncover in my own mind what value there might be in the "one over" perspective in dialogue. If I am truly aiming to ask an authentic question about our gendered spirits, what are the gifts brought by the Tannen-defined masculine spirit in dialogue? I'm hoping you all will shine a light for me--this is a complementary question to my work in women's leadership and in dialogue--but know that a bright light already appeared as I remembered one of my many thoughtful Muslim classmates and a comment he made in one shared dialogue experience. "Let us outdo one another in acts of loving kindness," he said. "Same!" I say to that.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The path of no more resistance

I am honored and awestruck to be writing as a contributing scholar for the "State of Formation" project--link to be added once we're live! Here's my first post--the state of my formation!

For years I was both drawn toward and resistant to the notion of seminary. I was resistant because, in my mind, seminary was something that led absolutely and necessarily to ministry in the church (Christian church, that is)—an occupational fearzone for me after years in the “fish bowl” of church life as the child and grandchild of American Baptist pastors. I’d tell my husband that I was born doomed with pastoral gifts—I love public speaking, connecting every day experiences to spiritual questions, journeying with people through transitions, and I even know a few guitar chords. Occasionally I’d read through course descriptions for Introductory Hebrew or Christian Education at the nearest theological institution, but the inquiry would end as I shut down the computer, declaring emphatically, “There’s not a single course I’d choose to take!” Satisfied that no “inward sign of an external call” or “outward sign of an internal call” (however that is supposed to go…) had yet appeared, I’d move on, always taking with me a sense of both dread and possibility.

The dread was easy for me to identify and articulate. The ministry is not an easy life, and to this day I am highly suspicious of anyone who suggests otherwise. While I didn’t walk in my father’s ministerial shoes, and I’m not certain I ever will, I lived near enough to see the toll it can take to feel called by God to be present for people in their suffering. There’s a personal toll, there’s a family toll, and, for his generation, there were few mentors who modeled a way to set boundaries and care for one’s own fragile spirit.

The possibility I felt was more nebulous and hard to define. As much as I had lived the ugliness of church life (I am old and wise enough now to recognize that ugliness is a likely guest in every human community from time to time.), I also knew…and know…the gifts. I love being part of an experience of communal singing each week, and I participate with the gusto of my father’s father, my paternal grandfather. I have come to admire many gentle, humble men in the church—people like my mother’s father, my maternal grandfather. I have benefitted from the legacies of my grandmothers as well, and the wisdom of women has shaped my life personally, professionally, and spiritually. I now think of a shared experience of worship as the setting in which I reset my compass each week. I gaze on my husband with greater tenderness. I watch my children grow to be more fully themselves as they engage with a community of people pledged to care for them. Though my mother died nearly eighteen years ago, it can feel as though she is beside me in the pew, and when I hear a thought-provoking sermon, I hear in my mind the resonance of my father’s preaching voice and the well-considered silences that created space for questions to sink in.

As I write now, it is easy to contemplate the sense of possibility. I have developed an appreciative eye for what it is to claim a set of beliefs and practices within a community, and an even more appreciative eye for what it is to read about, write about, wrestle with, create for, criticize, and rest into a tradition that is explored in the company of “the other.” The dread that once sucked the air out of my lungs feels distant, a black and white photograph of a time when I naively believed a theological education would narrow the world instead of open it. The first step led to the next, and the next, and the next, and I am astonished all the time to see how different this experience is from what I imagined it would be. Where I expected separation, I have found integration; where I expected a single path, I have found many; where I expected a sentence to a life I didn’t want, I have found the privilege of the life that I am in and that is in me.

I’ll save the stories of those first few steps for another day, and close now with gratitude for the privilege of being on this journey. I am awed by each of the writers and the varied paths we have taken to this time and place, and eager to “meet” the readers who will give this dialogue meaning and purpose. Peace.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Room cleaning

The kids were away this week with Matt, and it was apparent when I returned from work the evening of their departure that they had left in a rush. Bedclothes were sitting next to unmade beds, toys were stretched from the closet toy bins to the window across the room. I sighed deeply, contemplating that I could teach them responsibility by leaving the room as is--"They will know when they get back that they should have taken care of this before they went away."

That word "should" caught in my heart a bit, though, and I realized just as quickly that I could teach them responsibility, or I could teach them mercy. In five minutes the toys were collected, beds made, and bedclothes deposited in the laundry basket. How like our lives....we create in our hearts a bit of a mess, and return home to find them miraculously clean. Thank God for forgiveness, grace, mercy....

Monday, March 29, 2010

What Wondrous Love is This

On the journey that is my life, I often look to the external structures to find a sense of Being. Am I my work? Is my sense of Being found in the day to day realities of a paycheck-earning position? Am I my marriage? Is "who I am" someone in relationship to one specific other? Am I the mother of my children? Do I find myself in the rises and falls of my patience with them each day?

My therapist and spiritual director has been subtly, gently, insistently encouraging me to look to inner experiences rather than outer realities for the wellspring of Being. It is quite possible that I understandably, but perhaps incorrectly, assume that experiences of inner resonance find their meaning in the details of the moment outside of me. If I lean in at night and smell the sweet scent of a child's freshly washed hair, I might be transported--or transformed--to the place of connection and wholeness. But it's not necessarily the hair or the scent that matters--it is the energy that springs forth within.

As I ride the most recent wave of questions about vocation (my most contemplated outer reality), this same therapist has suggested that I look to my day-to-day experiences of love and joy and awe....and watch what happens inside when I notice them. Do I cut off my breath--and thus the breath of the moment as well? Do the experiences lose their energy in comparison to another's? Do I share them or ponder them quietly? She asked for examples of love in my life--rapturous, glad to be alive love--that I might focus on and expand. A single image came to mind--I am at home, and I look out the window and unexpectedly catch sight of a bird flying across the yard....a common bird, a robin or bluejay. In brightest moments, perhaps a cardinal. As I described to her my image, I sighed with deep contentment.

Days later I arrived home later than usual from work, and Matt and the kids were already eating at the dining room table. I tossed my coat into the closet and dropped my keys in the drawer, rushing into the bathroom before joining my family for dinner. In the bathroom, I lifted the curtain for a quick glance at our backyard, and gasped as the brown and white feathered underside of a hawk passed right in front of me, momentarily taking my breath away. It lifted off from the ground as quickly as it landed, and settled on the branch of a tree on the edge of our yard. I called to the kids to come and see, and for minutes that stood beyond time, our entire family was gathered at east-facing windows watching the preening of our unexpected visitor. It flew from one tree to the next, and finally to the broken branch of a long-ago fallen tree before taking off for new feeding grounds.

Sacred scriptures have foretold this story in a hundred different verses, in a hundred different ways:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." Matthew 7:7

"...For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord,
"Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future..." Jeremiah 29:11

"Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these stars, The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, Not one of them is missing." Isaiah 40:26

The source of Being--my being--is the Maker of Heaven and Earth, God, who intends far more for me than I imagine for myself.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Emptying the "God Box"

When my grandmother was a young mother, she noted that she would fret over things for which she had no control--worries about work, about her children, about the ministry she and her husband fulfilled. Somewhere in her younger years, she grabbed an empty cookie jar, wrote her worries on slips of paper, and placed them in the jar. She symbolically and literally "handed them over to God," and let them go at that time.

In a few weeks or months she would peer back into the jar to assess just what had happened with her worries. If they were still unresolved, back to the jar they would go. If they were taken care of, she would say a prayer of gratitude and toss those slips away....another set of prayers answered. It was particularly moving for all of us at her memorial service to see a cookie jar beside her picture--the perfect symbol of how she lived her life.

A couple of years ago, at a period when my own work was growing exponentially, I grabbed an empty tissue box at work, wrote a few concerns on post-it notes, and placed them in the box. I'm sure I once or twice checked back in on those worries, but I hadn't in quite sometime. As I'm here early on the day before Thanksgiving, it seemed the perfect time to empty the box and see what worries are continuing, and what concerns have already been addressed. To my happy surprise, all three of those post-it notes have been answered in some way.

*The Laura Johnson Institute--coordinating the pieces; getting things off the ground

"LJI," as the program is affectionately referred to by participants, is now in its second year, and just yesterday I sat with a group of women creating plans for a reunion for the year one group. The first cohort is about to launch a program for women graduate students--a program of their own design modeled after their own leadership development experience. Not only did we get things off the ground, we are soaring. In fact, the creation of this program is reshaping the board's conceptions of the future of WELFund. Was my prayer answered? Resoundingly, yes!

*Awaiting on external mark of a call...recognition of what is happening within

I can count a number of times recently when people have indicated they can see the minister within me emerging. When I shared my "faith story" during church this fall, I felt deeply moved by my own message "of the Spirit," and it was apparent that others were moved, too. While sometimes the response was simply words of thanks and praise, one woman looked me in the eye and said, "You know--YOU would make a great minister." When I was on a retreat with a group of women pastors, one of them commented that I have a strong voice for preaching. I was invited by the president of Hartford Seminary to say the Christian prayer at the dedication of their new interfaith building, and received a strong, positive response to my participation. Little bits and pieces...words of encouragement. Exactly where this "ministry" will be, I have no idea--as I also get a lot of feedback about my own calling to this place and this point in time, but I know it is within me, and I'm grateful for all those outside of me who have recognized it.

*Seminary--to go? how? where? how to pay? Help me, God, to hear your call....

I am now happily enrolled in the Master of Arts in Spirituality program at Hartford Seminary, after a great deal of soul-searching, seminary-visiting, and family considerations. It became such an obvious answer that it's a wonder I even had to search for it. I feel the world evolving to greater attention to "the space between," and Hartford's history and emphasis on interfaith engagement is particularly powerful. The program echoes of some of my prior experiences in dialogue, and feels like a fit for me and some of the alternative ministries I might create--including at a college or university. I receive one free course a semester, and I am stepping forward in the spring to take two, requesting funds of work, church, family, and anyone who will sit still long enough to listen to my plans. Despite Matt not working for the past year, I trust that the money will be there, one course at a time. Whether or not I will go further, seeking a Master of Divinity in the future, remains to be seen, but the answer for this moment is resoundingly clear, once again.

Thank you, Nana, and God, for the God-Box. I added two new post-its this morning--can't wait to see how they will be answered!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dreaming big dreams....

I've been thinking lately about dreams--those goals and desires around which we shape our choices, our resources, our time. At a very young age, I sought to capture the joy of any single moment with a long-term plan--a compulsion natural to my personality, I suspect, and one I have been struggling to shake since then. I can still recall being eight or so years old, swimming lap after lap in the pool of a family friend. I would beg her and my mom to time me, certain that if I could continue to shave seconds off with each successive lap, I could somehow prove that I was a future Olympic athlete! If you love it, might as well make a life out of it--and be the best, performing at the pinnacle of possibility.

In truth, I haven't entirely lost this drive to somehow be "best" at whatever it is I am doing. In fact, part of my present job is to challenge more women to contemplate "the pinnacle of possibility." As I work in higher education, this takes the form of urging them to consider being a college or university president. I'm willing to accept that not all will choose the path, but I want every single one of them to believe that it is possible and make an honest, reflective choice. But do I honestly wish to be best, or somehow climb to the top, and would I wish this for my children?

I've been thinking it just might be time to make a new list of dreams. I sense this every time I pick up my guitar, and I form the earliest version of callouses that would suggest I am ready to become a serious player. I'll never receive a dime for playing the guitar, but gosh, do I love it. I'd like for my kids to one day remember me giving myself over to these kinds of passions. Matt and I are movie-obsessed--he more than I, but both of us have dedicated countless hours to independent films. (Last night was "Man on a Wire" about the French wirewalker who graced NYC with a walk amongst the clouds between the World Trade Center towers--surely this film in part inspired this post....) I love to think in the future that our children will remember us as curled around one another on the love seat downstairs, exploring the world and its possibilities through the lens of some cultural creative. I want them to know that I loved to dance--and though my public dancing days are likely over, it's time we revive our family "dance party" tradition we used to maintain each evening before bed.

What other dreams have we already fulfilled, or might we fulfill now--no future schooling needed, no funds stored up in the bank? Matt makes a mean margharita, and we have certainly been enjoying this talent over the last couple of weeks. I can manage to look in the refrigerator most any evening and create a decent meal out of leftovers. We've picked up a new bedtime routine--spontaneous song-writing, where the kids provide me with 3,4,5,20 seemingly unlike concepts, and I weave them all together into a bedtime song. Potty humor abounds, given that the kids are five and eight, but these precious moments are certainly fulfilling the dream of helping my children to smile just a little bit more each day.

I dreamt for me--and I dream for them--that I would live my life with a companion who would love me deeply and welcome all of me....and this dream is fulfilled each and every day. I want to soak up these moments more, be present for all of them. I'm not terribly concerned if people can say of me that I was the best at any one thing I did--but please, God, let it be said that I was the best at living my life, moment by moment, laid out before me as only I can notice, receive, and acknowledge.

Can you imagine a dream bigger than this? I surely can't....

Saturday, January 10, 2009


When we first brought a dog into the family this summer, the walking was a treasured addition to our daily routine. My shift was the morning; Matt's at night. While there were days when it was hard to wake to an earlier alarm, the reward was always so rich, I'd come home filled with gratitude that the responsibility of Ty was bringing me more fully into the natural world surrounding our home.

Our street is set just above the Farmington River, and the bend below our neighborhood leads into a section of rapids suitable for Olympic training. We see enough calm in the water to have our own hearts stilled, but enough action brewing to know that the river is powerful and swift--not for the faint of heart by kayak, canoe or on foot.

Whether climbing over fallen tree limbs beside the river, or hiking up the "mountainside" roads, we knew the summer walks were a gift that winter walks might not be. We celebrated wisely claiming the dog while it was still easy...when the difficult "Please don't make me go out there in that" weather was still months off.

Winter is upon us, and we have seen plenty of New England winter weather to remind us. Two snowstorms sandwiched Christmas in a world of white, and ice kept our kids out of school for some part of nearly every day this past week. There have indeed been mornings and evenings when the wind whips so strong and cold around the corners of our little Cape, neither of us is eager to venture out with the dog. But, oh, the reward when we rich as the summer walks, if not more.

The bare trees leave us exposed to the neighbors, yes (something Matt typically detests), but down near the river, the world is raw and exposed to our eyes. This morning Matt saw a large tree gnawed to its core by a beaver only moments before. The waters swirl around ice formations that are dangerous, yes, but glorious, too. And while Matt has been the morning walker this week, I've had the privilege of the night--with nearly full and full moon guiding me along the ice-covered sidewalks of our still, silent village.

Last night I braved a night walk through a nearby cemetery. I typically adhere to a "don't do anything you wouldn't want your daughter to do" set of rules for where to walk and under what conditions, and on most nights this puts the darkened cemetery well out of my limits, but the moon was full last night and so light, the walk through the centuries-old stones was nearly as bright as day.
Having lived all my life in the northeast, I have seen tree branches after an ice storm before--the distinct, glassy coating that surrounds and separates every tiny branch (and can break off the largest of limbs if thick and heavy enough). I'm not certain I've ever seen the same under the light of a full moon, though. As I moved from the cemetery past the liquor store and pub (the local economy is thriving under the current economic conditions), I decided to extend my sojourn with the night sky with time in our backyard.

Walking circles around the heaven that is our yard, I was astounded at the trees. From just the right angle, every single ice-coated branch reflected the brightness of the moon in a dazzling shimmer of light that seemed a reflection of God Herself. I wondered at the metaphor of this display--do we show God's glory most when we are stripped bare, coated in an icy shield of doubt, questions, anger, authenticity? Is nature yet again teaching me that the cycle of budding new life, growth, and inevitable death and loss yields a glory not yet known or seen? Or was it simply a reminder that even the trees cry out in glory?

In the end, the lesson hardly mattered. I was simply glad for a dog named Ty, the privilege of the walk, and the gift of noticing what was and is and is to be....