Saturday, January 30, 2010

getting active

OK. It's been a bit of a wild week emotionally. Thanks for hanging with me and being so supportive. I've had lots of private emails from people offering words of encouragement and resources and just general niceness. It's been very cool. Thank you.

Last week, maybe a little before that, someone asked me to head up a breakfast for the church's religious education program. We're putting on a before-church meal for the kids, parents, teachers and other church members who want to show up and learn more about the program and what it offers.

We put up sign-up sheets last week and between people who signed and those whom we know will be there but did not sign up, we figured on about 50 people who would be expecting food tomorrow morning. In an effort to make something of an impression, I offered to arrive early and make fresh bagels for the breakfast. Oooooohhhhh! The assembled group gasped. That would be wooooonderful! Flattered and just a little bit stupid, I said sure, great then let's do it.

And then I started to count backward to figure out how much time I would need to have all the bagels out of the oven by, say 8:15 for the 8:30 breakfast. Hmmm... gonna need 50 bagels, so I'll make six batches of 10 each, baking takes this much time, boiling, rising, shaping, rising, mixing, that means I need to start mixing at 5 a.m.

Well fuck me running.

Never one to say "I was an idiot," I forged ahead with my plan. Crazy people around me supported it and said they'd show up early too. One guy even said he'd ride in with me at 4 a.m. Lunatics. We're all lunatics.

Now I know not everybody likes bagels, so I figured I could make a couple of something-nut breads the day before and we'd be good. Maybe a platter of fruit, too. Yeah.

Then someone mentioned gluten-free folks. And that they might want more than an apple for breakfast. Hmm. OK. gluten-free granola, then. And yogurt. Oh, and milk, too, and probably some soy milk as well.

Great. Assignments were made, lists drawn up and everyone confirmed. Early morning kitchen crew of three (including me) ready to go, others to show up later and help with tables and presentation and such, some to do clean-up. Good, good, and good.

Then I talked with someone who mentioned that everybody gets fresh bagels except the gluten-free people, who got a bowl of cold cereal and some fruit. Oh.

Well shit.

Quiches would fix that, if they were the kind with no crust, right? Sure. Great. Oh, and here is another artisan baker who we can get to make something decadent and divine - sticky buns. Goodgodyesletsdothat.

I went grocery shopping and today I cooked. For an army. I baked two cranberry nut breads. And then FOUR crust-less quiches: one with bacon and cheddar, one with mushrooms and three kinds of cheese, one with caramelized onions and cheddar, and one with sun dried tomatoes, Greek olives and feta cheese. Then I baked two more breads -- this time banana nut bread with chocolate chips.

I went over to pick up the cream cheese being provided by some members who were unsure whether they'd make it to church in the morning - two pounds of a lox mix and two pounds of a maple-walnut with golden raisins mix.

We still have volunteers bringing fruit and granola and yogurt and milk and juices, too.

Oh, and I packaged up the necessary ingredients to make 60-plus bagels in the morning.

This is nuts.

Fun, but nuts.

If anyone walks away from this breakfast hungry, they're either stupid, stubborn, or maybe both.

After I go to my municipal democratic party caucus tomorrow afternoon, I fully expect to collapse in a heap and sleep until the sun is well up on Monday. Yurks.

I may have something interesting and spiritual to say when I wind down tomorrow, but I make no promises. But for now, I am headed to bed.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

call drop?


I think I might be experiencing something I can only describe as "call drop."

I'm not talking about poor cell phone reception, I'm talking about the hangover from the euphoria that comes with a revelation, or the call experience I had this weekend.

In the world of bd/sm and power exchange play between dominants and submissives, the sub will often experience a thing called "sub drop" in the day or days following an intense scene. It is sort of like an endorphin hangover, when the brain has to adjust its chemistry to the typical levels that generally get us through our day.

Those chemicals can play hell with the emotions.

That's sort of what I am feeling today.

Sunday's experience was intense and euphoric. It seemed that suddenly a lot of things that had previously been confusing suddenly aligned themselves and came sharply into focus. Aha! I said. NOW I know what to do! And happy chemicals burst forth in my brain.

And Monday and Tuesday, and into Wednesday, that euphoria stayed and I rode it like a wave of happiness. I learned a lot about what lays in front of me, and it's not going to be easy, and I understand that, but the chemicals in my brain made it all OK. I was riding high. I'd figure it out. A way would open and I would be OK.

Today I woke up without the happy chemicals in my brain. Today I woke up with an unsettled feeling about what I might be in for, and it's more than a little bit scary.

I told a friend the news - that I plan to apply to seminary - and that got me a little jolt of the happy juice, but not like the past few days. Not the kind of stuff that made it all manageable.

Ministry is looming large now. Large and scary and intimidating. Like "oh shit, what have I done?" large. Like "why did I have to tell everybody already?" large. Like "oh, god, I hope I can do this" large.

I suppose this all makes sense. I suppose the chemistry explains a great deal and that this is normal, but it is still unnerving.

What have I done? Can I do this? Do I have a choice? It doesn't seem like I do. This thing sits in my lap and won't go away. I know in my gut and my soul and my heart that this is what is meant to be for me, but suddenly it is too big, too scary, too risky, too ... everything.

I'm looking at three years of classroom time, full-time, and a full year of internship somewhere. Tuition is expensive. Housing's gotta be paid somehow. I'm scared. It took me forever to get my four year degree in general trivia, and I have student loans that I can't pay now. Is it even responsible for me to consider such an undertaking?

I have judged people in the past who make what I consider to be foolhardy or irresponsible decisions based on their faith (the Duggars' own personal baby boom, for instance). What makes this decision any different than theirs? I don't know. It is something that is inside me, something that seems to be demanding my attention in a very particular way, something that can be neither ignored nor denied.

So what the hell am I supposed to do now?

Tuesday I got a packet in the mail. It was from AAA, and I was disappointed.

Yesterday I got a packet in the mail from the divinity school of my choice. I have not opened it yet.

I am afraid, as though once I open it, there will be no going back, that I will be locked into something bigger than I can handle, something that requires more brains and money than I've got, something that will require me to learn to be nice and kind to people when I really don't want to.

I am afraid that I will fail.

That's the crux of it. I am afraid that I will fail, nearly to the point where I am paralyzed and unable to make an attempt.

Why do I fear failure? Shame, most likely. I fear being ashamed, being held up as an example of how to fuck things up. I fear being less than. I fear not measuring up. That is the root of my fears, generally; my own insecurity drives them. Can someone this insecure, this scared, be an effective minister? Oh, I can talk a lot of noise and bullshit, but really, when it comes down to brass tacks, can I do what a minister needs to do? Can I treat everyone with dignity? Can I treat everyone with kindness, even when they attack? Can I hold my tongue when morons speak? Can I curb my sarcasm and see the hurt that drives people to make inelegant decisions and statements?

This is too much. I don't know what to do.

The lid is off the jar, it's open and there's no sealing it back up. But now what do I do? I am so scared. This is crazy. No wonder so many ministers seem to be solitary souls. This kind of turmoil is not something too many sane people could hang out with for long. What the hell?

*** Time break of about 1 hour ***

I opened it.

It is scary, but not overwhelmingly so.

There was a nice letter, addressed to me, and signed in real ink by a real person, and while I am sure it is the standard boiler-plate letter they send to everyone who gets an information packet, I liked that they spelled my name correctly and that it carried a real signature and not a computer-generated one.

There were some brochures, nice, clean, simple. Nothing too flashy. I like that. A couple were sort of glossy, but in a non-offensive way. The catalog was good. I got to look at the professors who teach at the school and their credentials, and then a list of classes that are required and offered. I have to say that the classes really looked fascinating. The Old Testament and New Testament ones are intimidating, but the rest looked pretty cool.

There is a number to call to set up an appointment to come tour the campus. I called and spoke to the nice woman who sent me the packet. I told her that I'd like to come see the campus, that I would like to schedule that tour for the last week of February and I'd like to meet with an Admissions person, a Financial Aid person, and a UU student presently studying there. (The Bangor Theological Seminary is a United Church of Christ institution. That means they are Christian, and Unitarian Universalists are not Christian by definition and edict. I want to know what it is like for a non-Christian to study ministry at a Christian Seminary.)

She said she'd set it up and rattled off my phone number to confirm that she had it right from the last time we spoke (again, nice touch) and said she'd get back to me with a date and a schedule for my tour.

I am fighting a kind of panic that seems to be rising in my throat. I am scared. I am so scared. I have no idea if I can do this. So far, all I have committed to is taking a day of my life and driving to Bangor to meet some people and ask some questions. My head is swimming with the details of it all now. What about housing? I need an apartment closer to Bangor. Someplace I can have Kitten and Quinn with me. I wonder if I would qualify for low-income housing? I'm certainly in the low-income range. I'm not nuts about living in Bangor, but that would be closest. I wonder if I can get a job so I can pay my rent while I go to school? I wonder if I'll have time to work with classes and all. I'd like to stay near Ellsworth so I can still come to the church I just joined and where I feel a real sense of belonging. I'm scared. Maybe a mindless job where I don't have to think or anything, so I can just pay some bills and not tax my brain, because I'll need it for all that reading. Oh god. Oh crap. Why couldn't this happen to somebody else? What the hell makes me so special that this thing landed on me? Why not Andrew, the guy sitting next to me in church on Sunday? I could support him through this. Glad to do it. Is it possible that the universe missed? I doubt it. I bet Andrew doubts it, too. And I was sitting on the aisle. There was nobody on my other side that might have been the correct target. It is me, I guess. But why? What the hell have I got to offer? (That is rhetorical, folks, I'm not trolling for affirmation.)

The line popped into my head today "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs."

That's Step 12.

Was that call experience the spiritual awakening I have read about in the literature and heard about in meetings? I don't think so. That was more thunderbolt stuff than the (usually) gradual awakening that happens to people who work the steps. If you work those steps, you will have a spiritual awakening. It may or may not be a call like I felt, but there will be a spiritual awakening.

I don't know what's happening to me. It's scary. It is disorienting. It is confusing. It is overwhelming.

I pray again today for knowledge of god's will for me today and the power to carry it out.

Blessed be. Amen.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

rainbow bath



I just discovered the most wonderful thing.

I am sitting at my new writing space working on a sermon for next weekend, a task that suddenly seems far more serious than it did even a week ago.

It is afternoon, and the sun is streaming in the window to my right, where Quinn's perch is. The sun is not hitting me, precisely, but it is hitting a prism I hung there ages ago and forgot about. And it is throwing a rainbow right into the space where I will rest my chin in my hand on my desktop. My face is bathed in the rainbow of light. I don't know if there is any relevance or anything there, but I like it. If you want to read all kinds of hocus-pocus-it-must-be-a-sign-from-god into it, by all means go ahead. For me, I will accept this little gift of a rainbow bath on my face as just that: a gift.

From nature, if you insist on a source citation.

Amen.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

settling in and an unsettling call

I am at my new writing space this morning.

It is only about two feet from my old writing space, but my old space was really the dining room, and this is my office. The dining area is now part of the living room. Bookshelves have been moved, the pantry cupboard has been moved, file cabinets are rearranged, and the 8-foot piece of Formica counter top that serves as a desk is now 7 feet, 9inches long and fits where I want it to be: up against that nice big window that faces into the back yard.

A full day of rain and warm temperatures has melted that pretty snow I wrote about last week. There are no footprints visible now - just misshapen lumps of snow, with little specks of dirt and the dried bark and crud that blows around during a storm. Crumpled leaves protrude from the snowbank at the end of the driveway. It's all soggy. The thermometer that perpetually registers 40 degrees blew off its peg in the storm is lying face down in the snow, no doubt indicating that the snow pile is a mild 40 degrees.

This was one of those post-break-up rearranging projects. Laura and I had lived here for five years, I think, or something very much like that. It was our space. I needed to make it my space. A friend offered to come help, and bless her heart, she did. Undaunted in the face of too much furniture and stuff in a very small house, she set to moving things around and setting up spaces that would work better for me. My writing area is best right here at this window. The sun rises here. In the warm months, I can hear the brook at the edge of the yard. Hummingbirds come to this window and amuse me with their aeronautic antics and daring-do. It is a writing place. Pretending that it is an eating place for everyone and a place where I also work and write was not working for me, or for the space.

The dining area is now taking up about a third of the living room area. The big pantry shelf I built last summer is also out there. I don't know if I like it there, but that's where it is for now.

The couch moved around to the other side of the living room, the TV is on a small table now, with the wii and associated movie-watching bits of electronics on a shelf underneath. My cookbooks are temporarily on a bookshelf in the bedroom, and one of the bureaus has moved out onto the back porch until I can figure out the rest. I have some boxes of books that I will donate to charity, I cleaned out my closet last week and gave away a ton of dress shirts and fancy clothes that no longer fit me to a couple of guys who can make good use of them.

This is about settling into my space. It is about creating new feelings around and uses for spaces and things that have been part of a joined past and making them my own present and future.

***

I suppose I could read something into this weather we're having. It's an old-fashioned January thaw. Rain is pouring down, snow melting (this makes room for the snows of February and March) and now the sun is peeking through the clouds that are still pouring down rain. The sun through the rain is sort of how I feel lately. It's been an odd weekend. Let me explain.

As you know, I have been doing a lot of spiritual exploration. It is part of the 11th-step work that I am doing, which states: "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out."

I figured that it might not be a bad idea to figure out just what I understood god to be before I tried to improve my conscious contact with him. I dunno. Just seemed polite, I guess.

So I have been doing this exploration of spirituality. It has not happened in a vacuum. I have been learning and actively seeking this kind of awareness for a while. That's part of what this blog was about - to put thoughts and ideas down where I could see them and to get feedback.

Leela, my friend/minister occasionally would suggest a course or two being offered by a seminary - even some on line study places, but it seemed not my thing. I like to preach, I learned that over the course of the campaign and that one time I stood before a congregation in November just before the election, but seminary seemed like an awful lot of work to be a part-time preacher who get called in to rile people up. Somehow, I could not make the mental jump to seeing myself working with a church board of directors or trustees or whatever. Committees have an unpleasant habit of sometimes being quite idiotic, and with my low threshold for bullshit, well, it just didn't seem like that would be a wise career path.

So I kept up this spiritual search - I don't call it theology, although my minister friend does. I read and I write and I pray a little and I don't really know how to meditate, but I try to be quiet sometimes and that kinda works for me.

A few weeks ago, I looked at the website for a seminary here in Maine. Nothing jumped out at me but the $12,000 a year tuition. I already have $30K in student loans, thank you very much, and I shovel snow. No thanks. I can't pay for the education I am not using now.

I mentioned the idea to my aunt - always a reliable source of support and affirmation, particularly when it comes to education and church things - and I got a lukewarm reception at best. Maybe a small church will pay for seminary if you agree to be their minister for a period, she suggested. Translation: she is not going to finance this adventure. She wished me luck, but that was all.

And that's fair. Right now she is helping me out with my old student loans. I can understand her lack of enthusiasm at the idea of me accruing even more debt that I cannot pay for an education I might not use.

But somehow the idea kept hanging out in the back of my mind. Whatever. Can't afford it, can't afford more debt. Story over. Checked in with my new sponsor, and she said that many people doing 11th step work like me often consider the seminary. Doesn't mean I have to go. OK, well, that makes sense.

It seemed to relieve some of the internal pressure. It was logical, then, that I would be thinking about such things while I am doing such heavy spiritual stuff. This train of thought was a natural offshoot of the work I have been doing. Good. Now I can relax a bit.

Sunday was our regular minister's day off, so we had a substitute. Nice guy, Director of the Religious Education program at church. It's got a much longer, very inclusive name, but my brain seems incapable of remembering it all. He's the DRE. I like this guy. Which is weird for me. Straight white male ministers have not ever been a favorite of mine, but I met Tom in a class on the UU principles that some of the members were leading. I found him to be thoughtful and cool, not at all "well I just graduated from seminary, so let me tell you how it is." Not like that at all. He had as many questions about the principles as any of us, and he had some good things to say as well.

So I come to church on Sunday not for the sermon (I had no idea who would be preaching - I forgot to check the email) but for the last of the series of classes on the principles. I figured I'd nap through the service. It's harsh, I know. But that's where my head was.

Tom did a nice job of selecting hymns, although he tried to make us do one with some tricky repeats. That was a bit grim. We were much better with "Come And Go With Me" and "This Little Light Of Mine." The reading was from a guy I had never read, but I kind of liked it. Nothing ground-breaking or earth-shattering there.

Then he began to preach.

Disclaimer here. I may have this all backwards. Tom, if you're reading, I am sorry for any errors or misinterpretations. This is how I remember it. I hope you don't mind.

But it wasn't a sermon so much as it was an introduction to the congregation. This was the new DRE's first chance to be in front of the whole congregation with a microphone and some time to spend. He told us a little about himself, how he grew up Catholic, in a home beset with some of the stuff that besets homes: sickness, addiction, dysfunction, the normal things. He talked about how he had a strong faith in GOD as a child, but how it faded as he grew, eventually setting him adrift spiritually and theologically. He spoke of how he went through life, got an education and a job and how he searched and learned and found his own path spiritually. And how eventually people started mentioning words like "ministry" and "seminary" in his direction.

He spoke of a mentor who asked him directly to think about seminary. I need time, he said, but I do want to talk about it more. So he took some time and went back to her. The time commitment and financial cost and everything were just too much, he told his friend. "I don't see how I could possibly make that choice."

And his friend leaned in close and said, "but I really think you already have."

And right there in a Unitarian-Universalist Church, I cried. Hard.

I took deep breaths. I clenched my hands on the arms of my chair, I stiffened every muscle in my body to stop it, but I could not. I stared at the ceiling and the windows up high where I could see blue sky and bare branches, and the tears fell.

I have no idea how or why or what the hell happened, but it hit me hard. If there is any confusion, UUs are not known for being overwhelmed in church. Sobbing is not our style. Outbursts? We don't do 'em. We can sniff and wipe a tear at funerals or at a particularly beautiful sentiment or piece of music, but being moved to near sobbing by a sermon? Um, no. We don't do that here.

Only in that moment, I could see myself in ministry. In a congregation. Going to board meetings and working with staff and volunteers. Maybe even wearing a collar for fancy dress-up things like weddings, funerals and political protests. And being at peace in that role. And enjoying it.

Well fuck. There's no denying it now. Seems like the choice is made. This is not something I can ignore. And I don't know what the hell it is.

For weeks, indeed for a year or more, I have been asking the god of my misunderstanding to make me open to whatever path my journey leads me to. I have been asking, in my own awkward way, for "knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry it out."

Leela says this is fairly typical of a "call experience" and that I am not, in fact, mad. This is what happens. If I am mad, this is not part of it.

Whenever emotions are so strong that they make me cry when I tell someone what I plan, that is a sign that things are right.

My heart is a jumble right now. It is light and scared at the same time. I am eager and terrified.

Yesterday, I called the local seminary school and asked them to send me a packet of information. I expect it will arrive tomorrow, and that I will take a few days to read it through before I call to make an appointment to tour the place and talk to the financial aid people. I have some paperwork to get in order, but I am not frightened of it like I usually am. More than half the reason I remain self-employed is because I have huge anxiety around filling out forms. Job applications make my chest tight and my head spin. I know what kind of process the financial aid stuff is going to be, but I do not have the fear I once did. I'll be OK.

The woman on the phone asked what program I was interested in, and I found myself saying Masters of Divinity, yes. Goal? Ordination, ministry. What denomination? UU.

I have no idea where this is going. It may well be leading me to a small parish somewhere, and that's fine if it does. It may lead me to a chaplaincy in a hospital or a prison or a community minister in rural Maine or on the streets of Boston, and that's OK too. I am feeling pretty relaxed now. It is as though some kind of wall has been breached. The pressure of trying to fit my world and my life to my will is off and I have opted to accept what is placed before me today and work with it. There is much more to do, I know that. But this feels really, really good. And that can't be bad.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

journey, not destination

Searching for god, or in my case, searching for my own understanding of god, seems to be a thing that is hard-wired into my brain.

I've been reading this Deepak Chopra book, How to Know God, and he says some very interesting things. Like our understanding of god is limited to the things we can think and feel with our brains. And our brains are capable of only so much. We are human. We have a certain set of parameters within which our physical bodies can operate. Like our tongues can only taste certain flavors, and our eyes are limited to seeing colors within a certain spectrum, that does no mean that there are not other flavors to be tasted or colors to be seen, merely that we are not equipped to taste or see them all. We can know and think and feel and experience quite a lot, to be sure, but even then, our brains are in our bodies and we operate in the material world, not the realms of quantum or spiritual existences. I don't know that I can explain it terribly well, but I think I understand the quantum stuff, but the realm of the spirit, as described by Chopra, is thus far beyond my comprehension.

As is typical of modern self-help book authors, Chopra breaks down the human experience into seven discernible sensations or responses. There is fear, as exhibited by the fight or flight response, there is power and order, a kind of "restful awareness" that peeks into the quantum world, creativity and spiritual bliss, a kind of euphoria that has been reported and experienced by seers and prophets and saints down through the ages. There are others, too. They are on a continuum with the spiritual euphoria as the pinnacle, a kind of metaphysical, spiritual at-one-ness with the divine. A rapture of sorts, but without having to go anywhere. That last stage is the goal for spiritual seekers, he says.

I am automatically skeptical when anyone breaks down my existence, in all its history and possibilities into seven easy-to-handle concepts, but I have to say that his words seem to make sense. He also says that most humans are wired to do this thing that I am doing: to search for god, or for some understanding of the universe in which we live.

He describes the seven stages of spiritual development and the kind of god that each stage reveals. Someone who is fearful and wants protection (stage one) will have a god who is a loving father figure, a protector and savior. A person whose world revolves around justice and injustice generally has a god that enforces rules and forgives transgressions. Someone who seeks peace and centered-ness will have god who does just that. Intuitive people have a god that seems to put miracles in his or her path, a creative person has a god who grants wishes and fulfillment through artistic genius and divine inspiration, a person who operates in a visionary world can feel the divine nearby, guiding, participating, healing, and a person living in a sacred response place will have a god that he or she is at one with. Typically these folks are considered prophets, Buddha, Jesus, Lao-Tse.

So already my head says "well hell, if the odds of me achieving the gold star are that long, screw it, why bother?" I guess the point here is that I learn. I have no idea if I will ever achieve the prophetic bliss that Chopra speaks of, but that is no reason for me to give up on my search and journey now. I think the whole point is that I take the journey, that I walk whatever path it is that I seem to be on, to not question the why of it, but to enjoy the now of it. I think I will begin mixing in some reading from my 12-step literature to help me with this quest. That will be for tomorrow. For now, the sun is up and bright and I must eat and prepare for the day.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Saturday morning musings

At first glance, today seems odd. It is Saturday, but my alarm went off at 7 a.m. anyway. When it did, I could not imagine why that had happened and slapped at it angrily. Dumbass thing. It's Saturday. Shaddup. But then I remembered that I have a lot to do today and that I set the alarm to go off at 7. Oh. Hmph. Better get up and get moving, then.

Today is a day of doing things. I have much to do, and it is not just an assortment of things chosen arbitrarily. I have shoveling and clearing work to do before Sunday night's predicted rain storm soaks into all existing snow and freezes it in place until April. I have windows to put plastic over so that once the rain comes, I can hole up inside the garage at this house where I have a little work and remove the windows and get to work stripping and replacing all of the glazing compound. That's good work to do indoors, and I have a couple of heaters to make it comfy in there.

Oh, and I have to do laundry. Because I need socks.

And I kind of want to rearrange the bedroom. Maybe move things around so that I can take better advantage of the natural light from the windows. The sunrise could come streaming in one window if the bed's headboard were not smack up against it. Hmm. Might not be a bad idea to vacuum under the bed and behind some stuff while I'm at it.

So I am not inclined right now to write beautiful things about god and nature and the world and my cat. I am hunkered down over my coffee cup wishing my right forearm and hand were not all pins-and-needles tingly because it would be a lot easier to type if they weren't. That's leftover from yesterday's shoveling effort. What I thought would be a one- or two-hour job turned into a six- or eight-hour job. Ouch.

The Deepak Chopra book is more interesting than I had anticipated. He starts out appealing to my intellect and acknowledging that not everybody believes in god. That's good. So many books about god seem to start from the premise that the reader already has a god, knows him well and now wants to be his best friend. This is not like that, and I am glad.

The sun is coming up just like it did yesterday, cold and bright as it inches up over the horizon. There is no cat here this morning to teach me how to worship properly. He is still cocooned in blankets in some other quiet part of the house. Sausage links are beginning to sizzle on the stove. They went into the pan as frozen little ice-tubes and honestly, I had forgotten that they were even there until I began to smell them cooking. They're on low, so I only have to get up occasionally and shake the pan. They'll be done in a while.

The cat is no under the table, staring intently at the bookshelf, apparently contemplating the single hardcover publishing success of Paula Poundstone. Odd behavior for a religious teacher if you ask me.

I can hear the furnace doing its thing this morning, and the sausages sizzling and smelling wonderful. I wonder if that is where my exploration is meant to take me today: to senses other than my sight. Although the snow is sparkly like it was yesterday, but we've been there, and done that, so perhaps not. I don't know that I have new words to describe the same scene outside my window.

Chopra talks about the search for god being universal, that all cultures and all peoples do it. He also says that the search goes in phases, with people searching god first in the heavens, then in nature, and then in all things, and then they begin to search inside themselves for god. I think that might be where I am.

I don't think I am going to find god outside. I don't see that I will ever have his mailing address or that I will have to go to a certain geographic place to be with the divine. My goal, I think, is to get in touch with god and to be able to be in touch with him (using male pronouns for efficiency, not gender specificity, so just relax, OK?) every day. I would like to have my conversations with god to not be so awkward, so strained. I want to know that I carry some measure of the divine within me and that it is easily accessible to me and to others.

That's a tall order, I know. And I don't think the search is going to be a linear one, as in I learn lesson A, then proceed to lesson B, then C, all in order. I think this is more along the lines of I learn A, but then explore G for a while, look at Z, but decide that maybe 17 is more the line of learning I want to follow at the moment. This is not going to be an orderly thing.

I don't think knowing god can be a straight-line journey. I just don't see that. Everyone I know who has gone through seminary seems to indicate that there are as many ways to know god as there are people who seek that knowledge, and each has his or her own path to get there.

Normally I tend to be a learner who likes linear stuff. I want to learn the easy, basic stuff and then the more difficult stuff in order. But this does not seem to be the kind of thing that lends itself well to that kind of style. There is a lot to learn, and many teachers and resources available to me every day. I guess my prayer for today is that I be open to learn what each thing and each person has to teach me. I want my mind to be open to all input so that I might learn as much as I can.

The sun is full up now and its light in my eyes is making me sneeze. The cat is nowhere to be found, and the sausages smell good enough that a small dog will arise soon and demand some of the pan scrapings in her breakfast. Saturday is upon me. I shall go now and step into the day.

Friday, January 22, 2010

searching, perhaps for certainty

In what concerns divine things, belief is not appropriate.
Only certainty will do.
Anything less than certainty is unworthy of God.

--Simone Weil
I found this quote when I opened this book I nicked (and subsequently asked permission to take) from my aunt's house. The book is How to know God, (subtitled: The soul's journey into the mystery of mysteries) by Deepak Chopra.

Now I have heard a ton of good stuff about Deepak Chopra, and a friend even recently sent me a link to his blog page. Now I have this book, and it seems like something I should take a look at, and I get hit with this quote.

That's the thing I am struggling with. I do not have certainty. I'm pretty sure I have faith some days, but I am not at all certain that I can define, or even describe in the vaguest of terms, my understanding of my higher power.

I am sitting here at my table this morning and the sun has just peeked up over the horizon and is shining on my face. It is not strong enough yet to warm me physically, but it warms me internally. Perhaps that is my understanding of my higher power.

On the other hand, I also have a cup of coffee with me at the table, and it warms my physically. I love the warmth on my hands as I wrap them around the ceramic orb, I love the aroma of fresh brewed coffee, and the taste is wonderful. I can feel the hot liquid warm me from the inside out as I drink it down.

Is not that what I am seeking in a god? Something that I can grasp, that I can feel its form and warmth, and that I can put to my mouth and drink in to nurture my body and soul?

Somehow, I had always imagined god to be something more than my first cup of coffee of the day.

But honestly, that seems to be what I am seeking.

I know that the recent upheaval in my life is probably what is prompting me to crave something solid, something reliable, something that I can hold onto and define and understand, and ideally, physically grasp so that I can feel secure. The rational part of my brain knows that this simply is not going to happen. I am not going to find a walking, talking physical representation of god here on earth.

Now there are some (Quakers, perhaps?) who would argue that the divine exists in all of us, and therefore we are all manifestations of god here on earth. But I don't think it would be cool to just begin praying to the guy across the coffee shop from me. It might make people nervous.

The sun is up beyond the filter of the bare January trees at the edge of the back field now. It is stronger, glinting off my glasses and my eyelashes, affecting my ability to see the screen of my laptop. I am beginning to feel its warmth on my face, even as it obscures my vision.

Is that what god is? A warming force that is overwhelming in its power and scope, making its presence known through both comfort and discomfort? Warming and nurturing, yet so large that it demands attention and drowns out all that would compete with it?

That seems to fall short of my understanding as well. Although I am inclined to put my chin in my hand, close my eyes and feel the sun on my face for a few minutes. The cat is doing his own version of this exercise too, perched blinking on the windowsill.

I have fetched a second cup of coffee. The cat is now lieing down on the sill, soaking in sunlight like a solar panel, his long yellow fur glinting in the light.

He lives an uncomplicated life, this cat of mine. He eats, he uses his litter box, he plays with his catnip mouse, occasionally battles the small bouncy dog, and he lies in the sun. Aside from the intermittent soggy chewings administered by Quinn, it seems like a pretty ideal life. He seems content. We both sit here in the sun this morning, him enjoying the sensation and me trying to understand god.

Silly humans, to think we consider ourselves superior to animals. I'm the only one in the room who is struggling with anything. He's enjoying the sunshine.

The snow in the yard is sparkling like so many diamonds. I have seen that phrase, that cliche, used over and over, but honestly, that's what the snow looks like this morning. It is blue and gray and white and sparkles and textures that look like a fine, fine paintbrush brushed the surface, partly to smooth, and partly to give texture. The empty footprints of a feral cat cut across the yard from the corner of this house to the thicket in the southern corner by the brook.

The snow makes rolling hills and dales, gentle dunes of sparkling white, striped and speckled with the bluish shadows of the naked maple across the yard and the alders o on the other side of the brook. Spikes of tall summer grasses long dead stick up through the drifts, their seed pods now brittle shells that rattle in the wind. Mice burrow at their base, searching for a winter's meal beneath the blanket of snow.

The sun is blinding now, and very warm on my forehead. I write with my eyes nearly closed, feeling the warmth and brightness in its full force. The cat has moved a few inches forward on the sill to improve his view of the yard. He blinks in the sunlight, yellow eyes soaking in the rays, their centers the thinnest of dark vertical slits. He blinks lazily. I envy him his ease. He is content. He does not struggle with the great mysteries and elusive truths of the universe. If he does, he does not mention it to me. His whiskers glow like fiber-optic cable, backlit by the sun. The make a glowing halo as they sprout from his eyebrows and the sides of his muzzle. He gives an enormous yawn, showing all who would look each of his sharp and jagged teeth as if to say "I am the king lion of this window sill! Trespass at your peril!" I heed his warning and stay at my computer.

He is sitting up now, and purring his sun-soaked pleasure so strongly that it rocks his body gently. I can see his sides move as he breathes. We have been together so long, he and I, that I can tell by watching his sides what kind of breathing he is doing: the nearly stop-action in, rest, out, rest when he sleeps; the short in length, but deep in volume breaths that he uses to boost his oxygen and energy levels when playing rough with the dog, the silly little hiccup breaths he gets after supper sometimes, and the distinct breaths that happen only when he purrs.

He is happy, sitting on his windowsill, surveying the outdoors he never visits. I fancy him content in his warm, dry, pampered isolation, but I wonder. He has never been an outdoor cat. He does not know the freedom and dangers of the greater world. He sees members of the feral cat colony that lives in the barn next door, and he watches them keenly, occasionally growling if one gets too close to the house for his comfort, but otherwise he has little comment on their comings and goings. He has already lived longer than the three generations of cats we have seen come and go in the yard, and he will likely outlive many more.

Aha. contemplation is over. Batteries charged, the cat has jumped down from his perch and gone in search of kibble.

I cease and go in search of my own breakfast. I do not know if I am any closer to knowing god than I was an hour ago, but I think both the cat and I got what we needed from the sunrise. This morning's worship is concluded.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

life interrupts, and some food porn

So yesterday was one of those days in which the more mundane parts of my life stand up and demand attention. It was oil delivery day, and the furnace ran out of fuel during the night. So I woke up to a cold house, more snow coming down, and I needed to go shovel. Wah. I trudged off grumbling, shoveled just the bare minimum required and came back to sit shiva while I waited for the oil guy. More grumbling ensued, and even some whining. I was COLD, and I wanted to be warm. The furnace also runs the hot water heater, so there was not even the possibility of a hot shower to ease my cold-inspired funk.

Eventually, I got up and started moving around. I cleaned out my closet and bagged up a bunch of stuff to donate to Goodwill. I sorted out dress shirts that have no chance of fitting me again this decade and set them aside for a couple of guys I know who might be able to use them. I turned on the oven to get a little heat in the house, then decided that making corn bread might be nice. Turns out it was nice, and I had a nice little slab of that with some reheated beef stew for my lunch.


Shortly after my delightful repast, the oil man came, delivered my 100 gallons and helped me to restart the furnace. My hands smelled of Number 2 fuel oil for the afternoon, but the heat was on, so I didn't care. I headed back out into the cold to shovel, secure in the knowledge that my humble abode would be warm(er) when I returned.

I got two places done and then it started to snow again in earnest. I gave up and came home. There is no sense trying to shovel when it's coming down like that, so now I am up at 0-dark-30 in the morning to get out there and get the church cleaned up in time for the kids to get to nursery school. But at least this morning, I am warm as I sit here.

So anyway, I got home last night chilled to the bone. I mean cold. Really cold. The kind of cold that can only be treated with a hot bath and/or some soup or chowder. Well, the hot water was still not entirely hot, and I lacked fish to make chowder, but I did manage to find some interesting things to make a supper. First, I found a pound of sweet Italian sausage meat in the freezer. I thawed it and crumbled it up to cook thusly:


When that was nearly done cooking, I cut up the last eight or nine baby bella mushrooms I had in the fridge and added them:


When they were softened and the sausage was thoroughly cooked, I drained everything, removed the meat and mushrooms and returned the rendered fat to the pan like so:


There was not a lot of fat, so I added a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and then added two cups of Arborio rice like this:


One of the tricks to making risotto is to cook the rice in oil with no other liquid for the first few minutes, until each grain is all shiny and beautiful and you begin to hear the grains go "crack! crack!" in the pan.


I added some chopped sweet onion to give it some depth of flavor:


And when that was cooked down just the tiniest bit, I added some chicken broth:


Yes, that is a name brand, and no, I don't usually use such fancy stuff. But this was on sale for like three bucks a case at Marden's, so I've got a ton of it in the house. The rice drank up that first can pretty quickly, and looked like this:


So I added another can and it looked like this:

When that cooked down some, I added the sausage and mushrooms back in:

I mixed it in and then added a can's worth of water to cook the rice some more:


Then I cooked it down some more, tasted it and found the rice still a little bit firm, so I added another can of water and cooked it until it looked like this:

At which point I took it off the heat, covered it and let it sit for ten minutes. All excess liquid was absorbed by the rice, and it was a thick, creamy, tasty bowl of wonderful at my table.

Oh, and here's the kind of rice I used. I got it at my regular grocery store.

And yes, getting the fancy kind of rice DOES make a difference. Regular rice just cooks down into a starchy paste. Arborio rice releases starch and sugars and becomes very creamy and smooth, and it makes a huge difference.

That's what I have for today. Perhaps more exploration in the spiritual realm tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Lord's Prayer

You all know I go to 12-step meetings. As a standard part of the meeting, we start each one with a moment of silence and the Serenity Prayer:

God Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

**

That's not a bad thing. I don't have any problem with it at all. I know that it is the abbreviated version of a longer prayer, but the longer one includes some stuff about Jesus and I'm just as glad we don't use it. If you want to see the full version, click HERE. I have no idea who that therapist guy is, it was the first site that came up in my google search.

So. That's an easy little prayer that is not terribly loaded with specific religious language or imagery. But then we generally end with The Lord's Prayer, otherwise known as the "Our Father." And that one DOES have a fair amount of Christian imagery and language in it.

A year or more ago, I stopped praying the Lord's Prayer at the end of meetings. I was not Christian, I figured, so it seemed silly for me to be saying "thy kingdom come," if I did not believe in a god that was part monarch. I'd still stand and hold hands around the circle, which is how we do things here, but I would silently offer my own prayer, generally another round of the shortened Serenity Prayer and some gratitude for the fellowship of my program and a request to help me be healthy and sane and helpful to others. It was not always the same, but I figured so long as I was doing something beyond looking at my shoes, it counted for good, right?. If anyone noticed that I was not making any noise, nobody said anything.

But then I met a minister who has become a friend, and as we talk about this and that, I learned that she will pray the Our Father, not necessarily on her own, but with people who ask her to do it - maybe they're in the hospital, or in some kind of need, and they want a minister and they want a familiar, comforting prayer to say. She never learned it until she began her practical experience as part of her seminary studies, but she knows it now and will pray it with people when they ask. Oh, and this minister is not a Christian.

So here is a person who is not Christian, but who can and will pray the Our Father. So what makes me so special that I won't? I don't know. But it seems to be a thing that causes conflict within me. It brings to mind all of that negative, oppressive stuff from my Catholic upbringing, standing in mass, reciting the Lord's Prayer and much more with not much feeling or meaning, but mumbling the words along with the priest. There was a lot we mumbled along with the priest, and a lot of it I do not agree with. A lot of the rituals and language from the Catholic mass are things that I oppose now. I remember the Profession of Faith, which we said after the priest's sermon. I remember the things we said as the priest consecrated the Eucharist and the wine -- things about being unworthy for redemption and asking for forgiveness for our humanity.

Those things go against everything I believe now. I believe now that all humans deserve to have good things happen to them, and if that includes getting into a pleasant place in the afterlife, then so be it. I believe that we ARE all worthy. I do NOT believe in one holy and apostolic church, actually, for those who are unfamiliar (and I am going to bet that most of you do not know the prayer I am talking about) here is the text of the Nicene Creed Profession of Faith.

Nicene Creed - Profession of Faith

We believe in God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
and all that is seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he was born of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered, died, and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in fulfilment of the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and His kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son
he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.

Amen.

***

This prayer is said at every mass, every funeral, every wedding and every baptism. It is an integral part of the Catholic religious experience, and of my childhood. It is the creed of the church, it is the clear enumeration of the beliefs of Catholics, and it is required of them. And it causes tension in my chest to read it silently through. It does not allow for debate, it does not allow for dissent, it does not allow for freedom of thought, or to question or wonder. These are the rules and we believe them. Period.

So with that feeling in my chest, I offer you the prayer that we generally use to close our meetings:

The Lord's Prayer Words


(traditional)


Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,

the power and the glory,

for ever and ever.

Amen

(King James Bible AD 1611)


****

One of the cool things about being friends with a minister is that I can talk about my thoughts and feelings around a prayer or concept and get feedback that is both gentle and challenging, as well as educational. When I told her of my conflict with the above prayer, she sent me a very cool link to a website that explores the origins of the prayer, has an audio clip of the original prayer spoken in Aramaic, and over half a dozen versions and translations. It seems that King James printed something that was not even close to the ancient version. Here's one of my favorites. It is the Nazarene Transliteration, and the audio sound byte you hear on that site is this, spoken in Aramaic:

Oh Thou, from whom the breath of life comes, who fills all realms of sound, light and vibration.
May Your light be experienced in my utmost holiest.
Your Heavenly Domain approaches.
Let Your will come true - in the universe (all that vibrates) just as on earth (that is material and dense).
Give us wisdom (understanding, assistance) for our daily need, detach the fetters of faults that bind us, (karma) like we let go the guilt of others.
Let us not be lost in superficial things (materialism, common temptations), but let us be freed from that what keeps us from our true purpose.
From You comes the all-working will, the lively strength to act, the song that beautifies all and renews itself from age to age.

Sealed in trust, faith and truth.
(I confirm with my entire being)


**

Now THAT is some cool shit. That is ancient and true and it does not feel to me like it carries the weight of oppression that the more modern version does. To me, this is a prayer for strength and forgiveness, asking for wisdom and guidance and offering a promise to try. Isn't that what a prayer is supposed to be?

So as part of this exploration thing I am doing, I have begun saying the Lord's Prayer at the end of meetings again. Just to see what it feels like. Right now it still feels foreign, kind of, and a little strange. It is familiar, but still not comfortable.

I also need to explain here that being different can be very dangerous for an alcoholic. Every one of us can tell stories about how we thought we were different, that rules applied to others but not us, how we believed that nobody knew or could understand our situation. Terminal uniqueness, we call it, and it is a dangerous trap for us. There is a much longer discussion and explanation of that concept than I have time or space for here today, but trust me, please. Being special and unique is great in the regular world, but in the world of 12-step recovery, we need to divest ourselves of all vestiges of our egos. I am no better or worse than the next drunk sitting in a folding chair and drinking coffee. I am not superior, nor am I inferior. I just am. So, within the halls of my meetings, it is best for me to understand that what worked for others in the program will work for me if I knock away the ego stuff and get down to brass tacks. The names and words of the prayers are window dressing. What matters is that I pray. And what matters is that I not make a big fuss about how different I am. Because when it comes down to it, in those rooms, I am just one more alcoholic looking for another day of sobriety.

Somehow I doubt I'll be able to convince my home group to adopt the transliteration from Aramaic, but I think I might be OK with the King James version eventually, knowing the beauty of the prayer from which it originally came. Perhaps the original is the one I need to try praying on my own, at home, alone, the way I pray. I think I will try that for a while and see how I feel about it.

I'm still not 100% cool with the Lord's Prayer at the end of meetings. I live in a community that is decidedly Hetero- and Judeao-Christian-centric. They know other things exist and do not oppose them, necessarily, but it would fuck with them mightily to try to change their traditions. My home group has been in existence since the 1940s. I doubt that it would accept such a radical departure from what has been its way for so very long.

I think I will print out the version I like best and hang onto that to pray each day and see how it fits. I have no idea what I will write about tomorrow - perhaps I will find a native anti-snow prayer.

Stay tuned.

Monday, January 18, 2010

spirituality vs. religion

In the title, the "vs." means "in comparison to" as opposed to "against" or "opposing." My thought today is to compare what the two different things mean to me and how they are applied in my life.

To me, spirituality and religion are often very separate entities from one another. For many years, I did not attend any kind of church. As you know from reading here, I was raised Irish Catholic, which I thought was a more rigid, stringent kind of Catholicism practiced in Rome. Yes, the pope was in charge of everyone, but I got the message early on that the Irish version of anything was bigger, badder and better than the other, more mundane ones. But I digress.

To me, religion is the shared stuff that people do in order (or in an effort) to have a shared spiritual experience. Religion is the church and the altar, the words of familiar prayers and the motions of the rituals. All have some base in history, whether in ancient rituals borrowed from other religions or from the practical realities of the day. Historians tend to agree that Jesus was probably born in the spring, but Christmas happens in December because the early Christians wanted to co-opt the familiar and popular solstice, or yule celebration and they knew that new converts would be more likely to stay if there were some familiar, if not identical, holidays to celebrate. Flowers and incense at funerals were instituted for more practical reasons than spiritual ones. After several days of the mourning of the departed's friends and family, and particularly in the warm middle-eastern clime, well, let's just say that folks were happy for the heady aromas of fresh flowers and burning incense.

In the Old Testament, many of the behavioral prohibitions and Kosher laws were likewise rooted in basic survival. Bowls were made of wood. When you kept meat in one and it turned rancid, bacteria absorbed into the wood and did bad things to the milk you put in that same bowl later. In the times when the OT was being written, there was no anti-bacterial soap, nor was there an understanding of why a lot of things happened. But people learned that if you did the meat/milk/same bowl thing, people got sick and sometimes died, so they made rules against it. Done. Same goes for prohibitions around shellfish. With no refrigeration and with no understanding of bacteria (think Red Tide) people often died if they tried to eat shellfish. So, in Leviticus, it was outlawed.

In early times, Jews were very concerned about survival as a race of people. Anything that did not lead directly to procreation was forbidden. And when you consider what the infant mortality rate must have been for a people wandering in the desert for 40 years, a couple would need to have lots of babies just to ensure that three or four lived to adulthood and would be able to care for their parents as they aged. Children born out of wedlock were "illegitimate" (a horrible term and concept if ever there was one) and not allowed to participate fully in society, so sex outside marriage was forbidden. Gay sex did not lead to babies, so it was forbidden. Not understanding the powers of testes to continually produce sperm and fearing a shortage, masturbation was forbidden.

Religion, thus, is often a strange assortment of rules that may or may not have practical meaning in today's world, but have strong cultural and historical importance to those who practice a particular faith.

In my Catholic world, the fasting period of Lent was to remind us of Jesus' suffering. Fish on Fridays was a construct by a long-ago pope to prop up the Italian fishing industry, but many Catholics today still have fish on Friday (or forgo meat) as a way to do some voluntary suffering to remind themselves of the suffering of their Savior. Purgatory was also a construct - there is no mention of it in the bible that I know of - to raise money. My aunt takes her belief in purgatory to a level that boggles my mind. She will offer up periods of suffering in her life (like a trip to the dentist, sans Novocaine!) for the souls in purgatory. If truth be told, I think she might be trying to pay ahead on my account. I don't get it. Some people just like to suffer for their religion.

I always figured god and religion were supposed to relieve suffering, not heap more on.

And for some, that suffering, and those religious practices are loaded with enormous meaning and spiritual experience. I can remember the feeling of joy in my heart that I would feel on Easter Sunday with the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. What gratitude there was, what joy at being redeemed! My feeling about Christian holidays is muted now. I no longer believe in many of the things dictated by the dogma. I no longer have that faith.

The faith I have now is more nebulous, and while it is disconcerting at times, I like it better than the rigid set of rules and doctrine that many religions require. To me, those rigid rules don't allow for a lot of diversity in how the divine might present itself to us, and I cannot imagine a deity being confined to the rules set out by one faith or another. In bumper sticker language: god is too big to fit in one religion.

The religion I practice today seems to fit best with my rather fluid spirituality. It is not for everyone, but for me, for now, the Unitarian Universalists seem to fit the bill. They (we) have principles we affirm and strive to achieve, not rules we require people to adhere to. I don't know that I have ever heard of anyone being excommunicated from the UUs, although occasionally people are so disruptive that they are asked to leave the sanctuary. That is a rarity, though.

There are some rituals involved in the worship services at my church. A candle (or oil lamp) in a large chalice is lit at the beginning of each service, and extinguished when it is done. There are responsive readings and hymns and people stand and sit at various points. There is a period of silent meditation and there are prayers, but I have not noticed yet if there is a larger formula to how it all works.

When I prepare a service, I compile what is called a "hymn sandwich," meaning there is a standard recipe familiar to each congregation. First there is the welcoming words, the chalice lighting and a hymn, then a kids' story, then another hymn, then a reading, and a prayer and meditation and maybe one more hymn, then the offering and the sermon, then one more hymn to get everybody back on their feet, some closing words, the extinguishing of the chalice and we all go have coffee (and sometimes donuts) in the community room. There is a formula. It varies from church to church, but it is there. And woe to the one who mixes up a church's hymn sandwich!

Religion, I guess, seems more about man and less about god.

Spirituality seems to be more about god and less about man.

Religion is about values and rules and rituals and history and community and shared experience. Religion is about doing good works and supporting charities and being part of a community of souls who bring comfort to one another.

Spirituality, TO ME, is a more personal, contemplative kind of thing. I can go to church and be inspired, yes, but it seems that the majority of what I call "spiritual" time in my life is solitary. It is me alone with my thoughts and my higher power. Sometimes I am working, sometimes I am driving, sometimes I am reading, and sometimes I am still.

Church, or religion, TO ME, is about how all that is wrapped and packaged. It is about putting the truths I know into action. It is about acting out my spiritual path.

I think.

It is all still in process in my head.

I think I will revisit this one later on.

Tomorrow I think I will talk about The Lord's Prayer. I've been doing some interesting reading.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Shameless plug



It being Sunday, I figure I'll take a brief break from the spiritual search and journey for a day, leave the heavy lifting to the trained professionals and attend church to see what I can learn.

That said, I have some pretty cool news.

Last summer, I got interviewed by Curve Magazine, a big-shot lesbian magazine in the US. A really nice woman named Sheryl Kay came to Bar Harbor for something, I don't remember what (travel piece, maybe?), and was interviewing people and somebody said that I was the activist she ought to talk to (apparently she asked about local activists). So anyway, we met, had coffee, I gave her accurate directions (as opposed to the other kind we often give tourists) and I went on about my life. Occasionally I would get an email about when the thing would be published, but the campaign took over my world and eventually I just figured that my profile got tossed to the back of the pile in favor of more interesting or more photogenic subjects.

Then last week I got an email from the publishing people saying I was in the Jan/Feb edition and they'd be sending me a complimentary copy. Well, hot dog! So I put out the word to some friends to keep an eye out for the magazine. The closest place to me that carries it is in Bangor, out by the mall. Next closest would be Augusta, and then probably Portland. So my peeps were on the lookout. I got a call Thursday morning from Louise over at Pam's House Blend. She found a copy at Border's in Augusta and would send it to me directly. She read me a couple quotes, it sounded pretty good, and that was cool.

Well yesterday, I got BOTH copies of this gem in the mail - one from Louise and one from the magazine people. My blurb is on page 18 in a regular feature called "Out In Front." The deal is they profile three activists in each edition, and put a head shot of some kind with it. I was grouped in some pretty elite company: the executive director of a glbt organization in Sri Lanka, where gay stuff is still illegal, and a financial planner who specializes in helping women make and build wealth. I was the lead profile, and I think she did a pretty fair job of it.

I am not technologically advanced enough to scan the page into the computer, so here are a couple pictures -- one of the cover of the magazine so you can find it in your local news/magazine outlet, and one of the page where my little blurb thing is. Oh, and the text of my profile. I'm pretty pleased.



Here is the text of my piece:

Getting Things Done

She describes herself as caustic, grumpy, loud-mouthed, opinionated and leery of any authority. But Dawn Fortune will also tell you she "gets shit done."

Such has been the motto of this self-employed home repair contractor in Mt. Desert Island, Maine, pretty much since she came out in college.

"Coming out and becoming an activist seemed to be a no-brainer for me," recalls Fortune. "I figured out I was queer, moved in with my first girlfriend, then looked around and realized that there was a lot of injustice and a lot of people who wished us harm. Obviously, there was work to be done, so I got started in my little corner of the world and did what I could."

And since then, she hasn't stopped. After successfully founding the gay-straight alliance at the University of Maine at Farmington, Fortune went on to win the Social Issues Certificate of Recognition from the Network on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Concerns of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, followed by the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance Award. Fortune also devoted much of last year to the Freedom to Marry Campaign, in an effort to stop a people's veto of the marriage equality bill signed into law by the governor of Maine.

"Marriage is important because it recognizes our families and relationships, and it protects partners who have been married from the horrible things that can happen after one dies," notes Fortune. "Yes, we can have some paperwork, but not everyone recognizes that paperwork. Married? They don't argue. Besides, it's just fair. Isn't that enough?"

The future, says Fortune, will depend on a new model of activism that empowers the people at the grassroots level to take initiative and get things done in their own. The old guard, she says, is a top-down system.

"If the grassroots volunteers are not valued and are not respected and are not trusted to know their communities, they will lie down and the leaders will have no followers, " she says. But, she says when the leaders listen to the grassroots, "a guy with dark skin and a funny last name [can win] the highest office in America. And this is wonderful."


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fundamentalism is flawed

It is interesting how we all (bloggers) respond to comments left on our sites. I remember once when I asked a guy not to use a term I viewed as culturally insensitive and how his feelings were hurt that I might think him to be less of a good guy than he was. Every now and again we say something that affects people in profound ways that we never intended.

Yesterday I got a comment here indicating that my reasoning in my search to find my own understanding of my higher power was flawed because, said my reader, there is no such thing.

Hmm.

I have had this conversation before, with others. I happen to believe that there is a force for good in the universe, and I happen to believe certain things about that force, as I was outlining yesterday. I hold these beliefs because of things that have happened in my life and because of my own kind of reasoning. Perhaps I am off my nut -- it has certainly happened before -- but this is about me exploring what I believe and how that affects me. This is about my spiritual growth and development, not anyone else's.

A few months ago, I engaged briefly in a discussion with another fundamentalist atheist, and the results were really quite unsatisfactory, at least to me. I find the arguments we had were very similar to those I have had with fundamentalist Christians about my beliefs. My opinion was that everyone should be free to believe what they believed, and my atheist friend was strident in her assertion that any belief in a higher power was inherently flawed and thus faulty. I held that she was welcome to believe that, but I did not, and she again stated, with great conviction, that there was NO god and to even consider such a thing was plain foolishness. It felt very much like arguing with a fundamentalist Christian who insists that I MUST accept Jesus as my personal savior or I will forever be damned to hell, and that my current faith is not enough to prevent it.

I believe that each of us should be free to search and learn and explore all aspects of religion and spirituality without interference from others. Help is fine, discussion is wonderful. Telling me that what I believe is wrong is not. I do not believe I said anything to indicate that I might think that atheists are wrong in their beliefs. What I said was that my belief in a higher power makes my life a happier place. And honestly, I can't see what is wrong with that. I have yet to sell off my belongings to give to a televangelist with a shiny suit and bad toupee. I am just exploring what spirituality means to me in my life. I have never said that anyone should believe what I believe or practice what I do. I'm just trying to define what it is that I believe.

So, if I am to make any blanket statement of any kind with regards to the discussion of religion and spirituality -- and those are two very different things -- then this is it: Everybody has a right to believe what they want, without interference or judgement from others, so long as their beliefs and practices to not interfere with the freedoms and practices enjoyed by others. People should be allowed to search and learn what they want at whatever rate they want to do it.

That's my blanket statement. Be nice. Be polite. Do your own thing. Let others do theirs. Don't piss on their parades.

OK, maybe that last line was a little bit harsh, but still. We don't get to tell people that their beliefs about the divine are stupid, wrong, or the wrong kind.

The thing that burns my ass the most in this whole arena is this: I have never asked anyone to believe what I believe. I have never said "you need to worship a god that does x, y, and z and looks like such-and-thus." All I have said is "this is what I think I believe. It's evolving, so bear with me."

I recently joined a church. Now that statement might send my atheist friends into spasms of "see? she's nuts!" but bear with me. I joined a Unitarian Universalist church. A belief in god, specific or otherwise, is not required. There are several atheists in the congregation I joined. There are several pagans, a gaggle of recovering Catholics and a couple (or more) former Jews. There are a few people, including the minister, for whom the UU church is the one they grew up in, but as happens often at UU churches, those are the minority.

We come from all kinds of faith traditions, and we get together on Sunday mornings to attend a worship service in each other's company. That is not to say that everyone worships, because there are some who do not believe in a higher power of any kind, but we share a time and space in which we all seek to be a little bit more than we are, to open our hearts to each other and to whatever growth might happen for each of us there.

The UU church doesn't have a creed or a list of things that its members must believe. There is no test. But one of the principles that guides us is that we affirm and promote "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregation." Another principle that we affirm and promote is "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning."

That means that the atheists are free (and encouraged) to prove that god does not exist, and I am free (and likewise encouraged) to believe that he/she/it does and that we each don't get to tell the other that she's nuts. Well, I mean we are free to say what we like, but it's pretty not cool to be judgmental. That's just good manners.

Once again I wonder at the wisdom of writing for public consumption before I have finished my first cup of coffee, but honestly, it seems to be when the words are closest to my heart and my truth. If I have offended anyone here, I apologize. My intent was not to offend. My intent is to explore what I think and feel and believe, to firm it up for myself. I have invited my readers here to watch and listen, and to participate at whatever level works in a blog forum, but truly this journey is my own.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The purpose of god

So I met with my sponsor yesterday and had lunch. We talked about all manner of things, including some spiritual stuff. After the usual niceties, she looked at me and asked, "What do you need?"

What do I need from my spiritual life? What is it that I expect, or want, from the ethereal side of my existence?

What I came up with for this moment in my life is a need for my god to be a little better defined than the foggy, nebulous sort of force of nature/force for kindness and good in the universe. I want something a little more tangible, something I can hold on to.

Hmmm.

What is it that makes me yearn for a tangible god at this moment? Probably the life transitions that I am going through right now: end of a relationship, considering some kind of change in careers, assorted people muttering things in my ear about what they think I might be suited to do, and me trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

It makes sense, then, that I'd like some part of my life to be a little more tangible than all of the uncertainty that swirls around me at present. My little dog is pretty solid, as is the cat, and my tools, but it seems like so much else in my life is just, well, not really firm. I'd like to set my feet down on something that feels solid.

So, I want a god I can rely on. A god I can understand. A god I can cling to, perhaps. A source of comfort and security when my world is uncomfortable and insecure.

Do I want a god, or a security blanket? A god or some kind of physical, emotional and spiritual bodyguard?

Is god supposed to be those things? I don't remember seeing anything about that in any of the books I have read on god and spirituality over the years. I have read plenty that said that god will sustain us in times of trouble or need, that it was god's job to keep us safe, or to give us the strength to endure what we must, but I am not sure exactly what that means.

I heard growing up that god was kind and loving, not vengeful and mean. I heard that if I wanted or needed something, I was to pray for what it was I felt I lacked, and god would provide.

As I aged, that message was modified some. God was still kind and loving, for certain, but he was no longer some kind of cosmic Santa Claus, granting wishes from petitioners. Pray for what you want or need, I was told, but know that there are a variety of answers available to you: Yes. No. Wait.

Oh. That sounded more and more like a public relations statement from an organization or entity that does not want to be pinned down for promising anything. Sometimes you get a yes, sometimes you get a no, and sometimes, well, sometimes you can't tell what you've got, and that's what we call a Wait answer.

Sorry, whatever theologians came up with that, it does not pass my sniff test. That's using language to explain what happens naturally in a way that shores up what you would have me believe. There is no way to prove or disprove it, so you're left standing there saying, "see? Its just like I said!" Nope. No dice.

In my 12-step recovery program, we talk often about god. People have all colors of beliefs about the divine, but most believe in something. Most use the masculine pronoun "he" to refer to god, and I tend to as well, but not because I believe (or want to believe) that god has testicles and a penis. I use "he" because it is convenient.Truth be told, I do not think that god has any use for a sex or gender, never mind reproductive organs, but then again, I'm not sure what all I believe, so there's that.

So I come back now to discussion of what is it that I believe. I wish I had a better grasp on this. I believe in something, I'm not sure what, exactly, but I believe in it. I do believe that there is some force that runs things and keeps the planets spinning where they are supposed to go and makes sure gravity works and that the tides go in and out so we can have great seafood. I also believe that that entity has a subtle sense of humor, and that he/she/it will sometimes intercede in the affairs of we meager earth creatures and put shit in our paths for us to learn from. Sometimes it is a difficult thing that we otherwise would never have faced that teaches us humility, and strength and faith, and sometimes it is just the help and kindness we needed when we had no idea we needed it.

We all have stories like that. The guy who stopped to help change a flat who turns out to be the cousin of you're mother's uncle's brother-in-law from your home town back east, just when you're feeling homesick. The impossible situation that hits you at work after you've aced everything else you've tried and suddenly you're in over your head and you have to ask for help.

Some people write such things off to coincidence or fate, but I don't know. Like the "yes, no, or wait" people I mentioned earlier, there is no way to prove that an omnipotent, interceding god did not arrange that shit for the parties so involved to get what they needed. But there is no way to prove that it was not the handiwork of such a being. Somehow, thinking that a god of some kind arranged such things makes my head hurt less than the thought that all of life and its experiences are simply the results of the random acts of atoms colliding with each other in a huge chemistry experiment.

I'm not sure that Hollywood is an ideal place to search for theological or spiritual development, but I keep remembering a scene from a Whoopi Goldberg movie, Corinna, Corinna. For those who have not seen the movie, it involves a widowed man, Manny (Ray Liotta) his daughter Molly (Tina Majorino) and the housekeeper/nanny Corinna (Whoopi Goldberg). Manny must find someone to keep house and care for his daughter after his wife's death, which has so devastated the little girl that she is non-communicative and nearly catatonic. Corinna and Molly bond and the little girl begins to flourish again under her care, but there are some distinct cultural and racial tensions among the adults that make the film worth what people paid to see it.

The scene I remember is when Molly and her father have the following exchange:

Manny: Molly, I told you. God is just a story people tell to make themselves feel better.
Molly: What's wrong with that?

Indeed.

What's wrong with people creating an all-powerful entity, even an imaginary such entity, to make themselves feel better? What is wrong with people providing themselves with a method by which to seek and find relief from what can be a grueling existence? When we have a head ache, we rub our temples. When our back hurts, we stretch and find a heating pad. Why then, when our hearts and souls hurt, is it wrong for us to seek something that will ease our suffering?

Of course I understand all of the problems that come when one group has a god that they think is better than everyone else's god. Conflict ensues. Much like a kid on a playground who says that his big brother can beat up your big brother, the argument is silly. What makes us think that an entity such as god could be squashed into a box of definitions made by man? But true believers are not to be swayed. Like so many other things, no amount of logic, reason or compassionate pleading will allow them to budge from their dogma, be it theological or political.

I don't understand the notion of a god who could be so insecure that he/she/it would get bent out of shape if people are worshiping according to a different plan. Jews don't think what Catholics do is exactly right, and Muslims think both of them have it all wrong. Mormons have one way of being, Pentecostals another, Episcopalians something different, pagans dance and sing in harmony with and in celebration of nature, Hindus, scads of Eastern religions I can neither name nor pronounce each has their own way of worshiping, and the Quakers sit quietly until the spirit moves them to speak or act.

Which is right? I happen to think they all are, to some extent. If each practice brings some kind of comfort to its members, then it has done some of what it is meant to do. I do NOT believe that any practice, or group of practitioners has the right -- or even the obligation -- to force their method on others. I know this causes problems, because some religions make it a tenet of their faith that it is required that followers proselytize.

I tend to think that sort of thing is a bad idea, sort of like interfering with some one's cultural identity. Your god is good, but mine is better, let me show you how and change you from you into me, but maybe with a different shade of skin. Bad news.

I also have problems with religions that say it is acceptable to oppress people. Like women. Or non-believers. Or anyone. That's not cool.

Perhaps it is my New England roots that make me think this way, or maybe it is my AA background, but I tend to think that any faith organization ought to attract new members rather than go out and drag them in. In AA we talk about a public relations policy "based on attraction rather than promotion," meaning that we live the kinds of lives that others see and would like to have. They ask how we do it, we show how. As a rule (and there are very few hard and fast rules in AA) we don't go out and beat people over the head with our Big Books. Occasionally, I have given a book to someone who I think might be interested in it, but as for going into a bar, finding the two or three worst sots in the place and dragging them off to a church basement to drink bad coffee? Well, it's just not our style. Which is not to say it hasn't been tried. It has. It does not work terribly well and only offends people who might otherwise be open to the idea of recovery, for themselves or others.

People have to want to get sober in AA, and I would hazard a guess that people must likewise be seeking a spiritual path in order to enter into a faith tradition or get some powerful meaning from the one they're in. Recruiting works to some extent, but I do not respect or trust the methods and thus, am skeptical of the results. To me it seems much like a fad diet. Sure it works, but for how long?

So where does this leave me in my search for a tangible god? I have no idea.

I think it helps to get the words down on the page (or screen, as it may be) to look at them. Please know that this is not a thesis. This is what I wrote before and during my first cup of coffee this morning. This is where my brain flowed and what came out of it. Comments might be nice, but I think I wrote this more for the exercise than for the feedback. Perhaps I'll write more tomorrow.

Stay tuned.