Friday, April 27, 2007

Musing about Messiness

As we experiment with our new life as a one-income family, we've become mildly addicted to Freecycle and the free section on Craigslist. A week and a half ago I stooped to what Matt regarded as a new low (despite his participation!). We drove across town to collect frozen entrees from a woman who had tried one but hadn't been satisfied. As we splashed our way through the rain to collect our still-frozen treasures, Matt questioned if it just might be possible for us to live fully off of freecycle for any length of time. We haven't yet attempted the experiment, but in the week and a half since, we have happily collected a set of shelves for the garage, a smaller set for the screened-in porch, and tennis rackets for me and the kids. Treasures surface continually.

One such treasure is the book The Sisterhood: The True Story Behind the Women's Movement by Marcia Cohen. Offered at the same address as size 34-34 men's Old Navy pants on craigslist, I decided to claim both....the pants for Matt, the book for me. I've been shuffling through over the past couple of months, fascinated by a read that only benefits from its datedness. Published in the late 1980s, The Sisterhood lacks the unifying gloss of some later accounts of the women's movement, focusing often on the flaws and faultlines within "the movement" and the individuals comprising it.

While I have been well-acquainted with accusations that the primary voices of the women's movement neglected women of color and lesbians, I have never before had a front row seat on the sheer messiness of the conflicts. In striving for a palatable "center"--a set of beliefs and demands that could be embraced by a majority--anyone seemingly on the margins was typically further marginalized by a movement that, in theory, should have represented all. The lesson? We are all simultaneously oppressed and oppressor, silencing some even as we attempt to break silence with and for others. The still photographs depicting women united in seeking abortion rights or equal pay for equal work in no way capture the full picture of that time, just as no movement can fully capture the nuanced expressions of a shared message when it takes root in individuals of such varied identities.

Progress is not a clear, straight-ahead path. And few of us, if we claim our full truth, fit neatly into a community, a movement, or a church. In recent months, I've encountered this messiness in many circles. Dynamic and fascinating when read in a text, the experience of feeling marginalized and "outside the circle" is disconcerting at best, and sometimes quite painful. While it is natural to gravitate toward like-minded communities, and all of us need circles in which we are welcomed fully and whole, there is also something true in sitting on a set of pews that can barely hold together under the weight of our difference and division. We feel the pain. We sit there anyway.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Easing my way back in....

After a week's vacation at home with my family, it's always a transition to come back to work--even if I love the role and the institution. Are we unique in imagining that we could craft a perfectly good life with all four of us at home? I suppose not....but the shared nature of the experience means no less impact. I actually cried last night as I kissed the kids while they slept in their beds. A week with them was a reminder of all I miss each day as I drive over the mountain to work. And health insurance and mortgage payments aside, I do actually believe we could have a blissful life riding our mountain bikes around the yard and cooking colorful, thoughtfully-prepared meals. And blogging....of course there would have to be blogging!

Recognizing that I was dragging my feet a bit today, driving in on a brilliantly bright and sunny day but living elsewhere in my mind, I decided I should start my day with gratitude. So after changing my voicemail and email to say I've checked back in, here I am.

Thank you, God of breath and creation and light....this is surely a day brought into being by You. Remind me that every day is a gift from You, and that I am a being created by choice and with choices. I can view my responsibilities as opportunities, and the conversations I'll have today as a chance to serve as light to the world. I can pause and breathe and look out my window. I can feel my feet on the earth and lower my shoulders, easing out the tension I hold, both imagined and real. I can see You in every encounter.

I am thankful for.... clever, courageous daughter who was weaving her way through a playground thick with bigger kids than she to make her way back to school after her own vacation. usual parking lot being closed this morning. Parking across campus gave me an opportunity to say hello to a dear friend, and to enjoy more of the outside air on my way to the office.

....the gentleman who cleans my building. His wide smile each and every day is a continual reminder that I choose who I am, how I feel and what I present to the world. Enough said.

....all that awaits me at home this evening, made all the more precious by my time away today., the present, this moment.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Blacksburg and Baghdad

I have been uncomfortably silent the last few days, simply because the events in Virginia defy words....and I haven't wanted to fill the silence without acknowledging the Virginia Tech tragedy. I look at the senseless loss through so many lenses; it's difficult to know with which voice to speak. There is Jennifer the mother who already tends toward anxiety when I think of my inability to keep my children safe. There is Jennifer the college administrator who immediately begins playing out the "If this were my institution...." questions. There is Jennifer the believer who tries somehow to find sense or meaning in something that so clearly has none. There is Jennifer the skeptic who finds far more questions than answers. There is Jennifer the pastor's daughter who struggled throughout childhood with a clergy father's commitment to staying close to the grief-stricken, serving primarily in the presence of loss....loss was omnipresent in my growing up years, and my relationship to the dead and their survivors is complex. And there is Jennifer, the citizen of the United States (with noble intentions of being a citizen of the world) who some days is deeply aware of the tremendous privilege of living middle class and white in a country where we presume peace, where violence is hidden on city streets or in far-away countries.

The lens which has struck me most these past few days is this last one. Days after I literally gasped and burst into tears at the early report that 22 people had been killed on a university campus, I clicked on CNN to see the headline for the war in Iraq. The death toll I remember in my mind was something like 178 people, killed primarily in Baghdad. And while I certainly had a moment of pause, there was no kick in the gut--no hand to my mouth in shock and despair. Why? There are some obvious answers--our country's collective apathy and desensitization to a war that seems easy to oppose but much more difficult to end, and my ethnocentric empathy that zeroes in on the losses of people who look and live like me come right to mind. I'm not certain I could open my eyes in the morning and climb out of bed if I absorbed the names, faces and histories of the people lost in the most recent bombing of Baghdad or Fallujah, but I do wonder if I would be a better person. We scroll the local headlines, reading the stories of the hometown fallen heroes, but what of the chaos we've created? If I could look at the Iraqi death toll with an image, a name or a story submitted by his or her childhood best friend, could I honestly watch this war from my living room rather than the streets in protest?

I've been talking to my daughter about war, something I never imagined possible with a five year old. But after her school sent letters to the soldiers ("They keep us safe," I believe was how she understood their job.), and we visited an Air Museum filled with fighter jet relics, it became something I simply had to do. We give the barest of details--people fighting to stop rulers who are out to hurt rather than help people--and share our own conflicted sense of whether it is okay to hurt people in the name of stopping the hurts of others, but it pains me to know that she is growing up with a war abroad that simply must have a wider impact on our conscience, and a war scene at home that seems impossibly close.

God, forgive us. Some days we do know what we do....

Sunday, April 15, 2007

100 Things with the RevGalBlogPals

When I joined the RevGalBlogPals ring, I anticipated an easy link to thought-provoking writers pursuing similar questions. (I absolutely encourage you to click next, previous and random to find women--and the occasional man--pursuing questions of the work of the spirit in this world.) I did not necessarily think I would participate in the group-writing events, but I found people's personal responses to the "100 Things" exercise below so incredibly compelling, I couldn't resist.

Visit here and here to see the original post and the competition which grew out of it. Enjoy, and go forth and create your own 100 Things!

"I have lived…"
1. in the northeast United States for all but one year of college
2. away from my husband and children Monday to Friday as I began a new job and our house sat on a stalled market
3. anxiously, at times, wondering if the too-brief lives of some of my relatives will mean a too-brief life for me
4. in very wealthy communities and very poor, learning that sometimes people are people, no matter the size of the wallet
5. in a house that should have been condemned—with a closet that used to welcome bats to my room each night
6. with plenty, and with want
7. with the same college roommate for three years—I love you, Sue!
8. to regret only a couple of my life’s choices
9. on an island—and was likely too in junior high/high school (gotta get outta here!) mode to really cherish the place and experience
10. to be the first member of my immediate family to own my own home

"I have witnessed..."
1. a young cellist literally merge with the music he was playing during a performance of Holst’s “The Planets”
2. the arrival of a male and female cardinal on the feeder in our backyard
3. an ocean baptism where the waves literally washed people into the water as my father called out “Do you believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?” before the waves came over them
4. the amusing shower-like spray of milk from my ready-to-nurse breasts
5. my daughter’s eyes as she stepped too deeply into a pool and realized she could neither swim nor breathe—and felt that deep lingering panic/relief as my sister leapt in to lift her to the air
6. Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian experiences of worship, prayer and meditation
7. my daughter take her first steps, read her first words, ride her bike without training wheels—and become, day by day, her very own person
8. a decrease in my own tolerance for violent or negative entertainment—having learned that I must metabolize all that enters through my senses, I’m much more selective
9. my own capacity to travel beyond perceived limits as I birthed two perfectly-formed children in two awe-inspiring natural births
10. how great losses can lead to great gains—and yet, the gain does not erase the great pain of the loss

"I have heard..."
1. my grandfather belting out hymns tearfully while surrounded by his family in many a congregation—and now I, too, am a hymn-crier….
2. my children laughing uproariously with one another when absorbed in their own time and space
3. the Indigo Girls many times in concert, and I never tire of the vibration I feel when they hit those perfect moments of harmony
4. my grandmother tell her granddaughters they need to learn to like sex!
5. songs that have, quite literally, saved me—an early Amy Grant concert video was a lifeline in junior high, and I hear Lori McKenna’s “One Man” and know she had a role in preserving my marriage
6. David Sedaris—and think his delightfully nasal voice is as endearing and comic in person as it is via radio
7. news of tragic proportions, and sometimes find myself unable to emotionally respond or react
8. the same piece of music capture both the great loss of my mother at her memorial service, and my children’s inestimable joy as they dance to the piece in our home
9. God’s voice quite literally rising from within me
10. the sweet, sweet sound of my son singing “Silent Night” with me as we snuggle toward sleep

"I have lost..."
1. and gained more pounds than I’d like!
2. the ability to balance on a bike, with some post-pregnancies vertigo
3. the ability to ride a rollercoaster (including the kiddie Polar Coaster at Storyland) due to this same vertigo
4. many, many hours of sleep in caring for a dear son with ear and respiratory infections that meant (and mean) very poor sleep habits!
5. any adolescent myth of immortality I once might have carried
6. a few friends due to our inability to live out a new story of possibility across differences
7. my belief that there are good people and bad, finding instead that we are all a powerful mix of both
8. confidence that right will always prevail—or that there even is a clear “right” to win out
9. some of my desire to travel as an American in foreign countries, wishing we could be a place without borders and biases—not wanting to wear the current reputation of my country on my sleeve as I move about the world
10. any notion that money can buy happiness….but a new roof and a vacation would be nice!

"I have found..."
1. seeking often means not finding, but opening and waiting sometimes means the answer is dropped in my lap
2. my sister and I have a root level of shared understanding from shared living that is irreplaceable
3. my marriage has become more intimate and connected as we’ve uncovered and acknowledged its very fragility
4. few things move me more than music that connects me to a meaningful time and place
5. God is far greater than my current imagination and capacity
6. being a parent can dwell in the “best” and “worst” categories of life within the very same moments
7. friendship sometimes takes great work, and sometimes happens in an instant (with special thoughts of some of my new friends who were an immediate “click” for me!)
8. once fixed ideas of my identity are more fluid than I once could have acknowledged—and the more I grow, the less I believe I truly know with certainty
9. that both women and men can abuse power, or can use it for good
10. energy literally emanates from my body when I see my children in pain or need

"I love..."
1. Matthew and, just as importantly, the partnership we’ve formed
2. the smell of my children’s hair and skin after they’ve emerged fresh from a bath
3. imagining living in every place I visit
4. the radio (and now television) program “This American Life”
5. Pepperidge Farms’ Hearty Wheat crackers (particularly with cinnamon apple sauce on top—a culinary delight from my college roommate, Sue!)
6. Anne Lamott’s brutal honesty, revealing the sacred in some of the least expected places
7. how I feel after practicing yoga—and yet I still resist developing a regular practice!
8. women writers of all sorts (Barbara Kingsolver, Nancy Mairs)
9. memoirs, and the revelation through them that all ordinary people live through extraordinary circumstances
10. the post-Thanksgiving sandwich of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and a little bit of mayonnaise

"I can..."
1. type quickly, despite never learning the proper finger placements
2. play basic tunes on a variety of musical instruments, despite being a student of only piano, clarinet and voice
3. find metaphors for the realm of the spirit in every day living, and tune quickly from the practical to a sense of great truth
4. experience true lapses of self-confidence mingled with a sense that I have the potential to create world-changing effects
5. make conversation with academics in most any discipline—though some are harder than others
6. blog better or more faithfully than I can scrapbook
7. write and deliver a compelling message
8. do more physically than I often give myself credit for
9. easily spend a day with a fire in the fireplace and a book on my lap
10. let go of things more easily than people

"I loathe..."
1. racism, sexism, heterosexism—despite that I’m affected by it inside and out every day
2. cigarette smoke—particularly as it affects my possibly-asthmatic son
3. when negative stereotypes are reinforced by individual behaviors, and I have to work to unlearn them all over again
4. the division of religious communities over the question of who is welcomed through the doors
5. how sometimes I decide I don’t like people who I actually secretly admire and envy
6. war, and weapons turned on one another
7. abuse—of self, other, and the planet (again, despite that I’m often an unconscious or conscious participant)
8. how my resistance to forgiving often keeps ME from feeling free, though I imagine who I’m really chaining is my transgressor
9. pithy sayings designed to make sense or order out of events or moments that truly have no earthly sense or order
10. seeing my children in physical or emotional pain

"I hope..."
1. I’ll be able to come up with 100 things—eek, this is challenging!
2. I will vote for and see a woman president of the United States
3. one day to live in a truly peaceful, gentle day—but perhaps I should first start with an hour!
4. current efforts to save the planet will somehow bring about a new sense of unity and shared humanity
5. my father will find more experiences of pure joy than pure sadness
6. to see my grandparents again while they’re still living
7. to travel soon to the Pacific Northwest to visit our family there
8. to retire in a home that lets me see Otsego Lake every morning, noon and night
9. my dear partner will find that life actually has a calling for him, and that future work will hold true meaning
10. my children find one person in life who truly loves them in the way their parents love one another

"I am trying..."
1. to be more present
2. to breathe consciously for at least a moment each day
3. to give people the benefit of the doubt (hence, the name of the blog!)
4. to try more often to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m satisfied
5. to imagine the possibility that I might live a good, long life—and consider how I make today’s choices differently when I conceive of this as true
6. to eat more vegetables and fewer sweets
7. to skim the few magazines we receive as soon as they come through the door—quick recycling, fewer piles!
8. to feel my feet on the earth, and realize She is holding me up
9. to read, write and study more for love than requirement
10. to dwell in a place of love

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Typoes [sic]

God is a remarkably consistent teacher sometimes, I've found--and She's quite insistent that the lessons continue until the learning catches up. Sometimes this takes a long, long time....

Of late, I've seen how God has been nudging me about my perfectionism. I've been exploring some of the stories I tell myself of who I am--uncovering how the "who" of these stories is rarely the essence of me, but rather something I've concocted to stay afloat in the world. One such story is that I'm valuable and worthy because I'm competent. In and of itself, competence is not a bad thing. I am presently in a brand new position creating a brand new foundation for a mid-sized university. As a one-woman show reporting to the president and the board, my day to day survival in this role depends on my competence. But when my sense of self, rather than my continued employment, begins to depend on doing it all perfectly, I realize it's time to simply chill. Chilling is not something I do naturally, though. And this whole competence/perfectionism thing is a very, very old and finely-crafted habit.

I began to notice not long ago that every time I communicate with my president, my board, the vice presidents, and others I regard as somehow "positionally significant," I give an inordinate amount of time to crafting my message. It might be a simple, "Let's meet on Friday and discuss the following" email, but I review it extensively. I read it aloud, I occasionally call my husband or my board chair and ask for their reactions, I print it and read it--all before hitting send. And invariably, when I'm printing it later for filing, or happen to review my original message as I'm skimming through a reply, I see a typo. Nothing big--but a typo nevertheless. Maybe a stray "g" appears on the end of a word like appreciationg (this obviously happened in this past week!), or perhaps I misuse a tense or pluralize a singular word. Though the errors manage to avoid my glare in my pre-send scrutiny, they leap out at me in this post-send review. After seeing this happen with uncanny consistency, I decided God was speaking.

Yesterday I said, in essence, "I've learned the lesson--enough!" I took my usual time in sending my board and the president a post-meeting review via email. My chair and I discussed the attachments, I made changes while we were on the phone, and I went through my usual routine--make a call, seek an opinion, print it out, read it aloud. Finally, I hit send. As I shared a coffee with a good friend, I described how God has been teaching me, speculating that I would once again find a mysterious typo reminding me that perfection is simply not my business.

After our coffee I returned to my office and opened the email. Scrolling quickly through, there were no obvious errors. Was I off the hook? I sat back in my chair and read again, feeling a bit of relief. For curiosity's sake, I clicked on my attachments--titles looked right. But as I read a description of our most recent grants awarded, I quickly discovered I had attached not the changed, edited copy from my conversation with my chair--I had attached a draft with a hearty handful of typos.

Apparently I'm still learning!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Why benefit of the doubt?

When "Ecotistical" recently invited a small group of thoughtful, spiritual women to her home to discuss our pursuit of the sacred, our conversation quickly turned to the minor (but cumulatively significant) annoyances that keep us from feeling truly alive, present, joyful and generous. Whether a coworker who seems to have claimed "lashing out at the world" as an additional job responsibility, or the car that invariably cuts you off as you're pleasantly minding your business and following the rules of the road, it seems more often than not that the small stuff of daily living is what most keeps us from the holy.

We shared strategies and tips, and at moments it seemed that our women's spirituality group had shifted to a "coping with the workplace" workshop. The strategies are clever, though, and certainly made for entertaining story-telling. Ecotistical has developed a series of mantras that remind her to be calm and kind. She will intone over and over in her mind "BDBDBDBDBD" to remember to give people the benefit of the doubt--to give the coworker a pass, or allow the car to move forward without the customary New England blast of the horn. And though each of us is probably more naturally inclined to righteous indignation when we feel we've been wronged, we've also all had moments where the release of the indignation brought a far sweeter satisfaction.

Since our conversation I've remembered to sing my own "BDBDBDBDBD" as I'm driving in to work (or comparably, to follow my late mother's rule of responding to every horn with an act of road abundance--like unnecessarily letting out a car at an intersection, or stopping for a pedestrian who is trying to cross away from a crosswalk). There are days when I seem to truly resist the kindness required in giving the benefit of the doubt to the people around me. And as I curiously dig to discover just what that's all about, I almost always find some deep-rooted insecurity. I learn that the kindness I'm resisting toward another is often hardest to extend to myself.

Hmmmm.....perhaps those daily annoyances aren't detractions from the realm of the spirit after all. Perhaps they are opportunities of spirit, opening us to acceptance and love.