Wednesday, March 31, 2010

fear and loathing in Americka

It will come as no surprise to many of you that there seems to be a real push-back kind of thing going on with President Obama.

I'd like to delve deeply into the reasons for this push back stuff, and write eloquently about how it affects out country. We are divided. We are polarized. The conservatives have been taken over by the wide-eyed crazy wing of their party, and compromise is out of the question.

On the other hand, I felt a lot like that after 8 years of the shrub. But then that's because he was an idiot and his policies were hateful, stupid, short-sighted and favored the greedy bullies that were his friends.

This guy is smart. He can speak and write in complete sentences. His spelling is probably very good. He's looking at the long-term and trying to find solutions that are not fad diets.

Among the knuckle-draggers, he is very unpopular.

Check out THIS SITE for pictures of these teabaggers and their protest signs. Honestly, it's like a train wreck of language, grammar and spelling.

I think there are a lot of things going on in this phenomenon. For one thing, America is changing.

In the coming decades, white people will become the minority. And that scares the shit out of some of them.

I would argue that anyone who has not behaved as a bully has no reason to fear retribution. If you've been an asshole to those with less power than you and then they get the power you once held, well, I don't think there are a lot of people who would blame the new top dog for kicking you around a little bit. Not for ever, but just for a bit. So you know what it's like to be at the receiving end of your version of the American dream.

This is the same kind of fear I see from some straight men when they are faced with being in close quarters with gay men. When you treat all potential sexual partners as prey to be overcome, and then find yourself in a position of possibly being someone else's prey, well then, that's just scary.

Insecure people often engage in behavior identical to that of their oppressors. It is sad. But it is true.

So now the uneducated, lazy swath of white Americka is faced with the prospect that they might not be the schoolyard bullies any more and it scares the piss right out of them.

I am concerned that I might get painted with that same brush because of my skin color, which is decidedly pink and pale. I tend to have more faith in our friends of color than some white folks.

We have a black president and that freaks a lot of people out. Not only is he black, but he is very, very smart. Very smart. Harvard Law smart. And again, when you operate from a system that understands only power and the balance of it, having an adversary who is smarter than you is a scary thing. The thought of working with that very smart person instead of as an adversary does not come into consideration when your world is small and binary. I remember an old bumper sticker from the Women's Liberation movement years ago: "Men of quality are not threatened by Women's Equality."

And that's the deal. That's the whole business in a nutshell. People are afraid of losing what they've got. They don't understand that knowledge is a thing that grows as it is shared, that education is not to be feared, and that the world won't end of you re-evaluate what you believe and make changes to it. Growth is OK, folks. Or you can stagnate and become a dinosaur. Your choice.

There is so much more to write about this subject. I have not the time nor the brainpower this morning. Let's revisit it later, though.

Monday, March 29, 2010

weekend in the big city

I went to Portland Saturday for a big fancy awards banquet put on by Equality Maine. It was indeed a big, fancy event. There were some 660 people there, including the honorees. My State Senator, Dennis Damon got the super-duper political award because he was the guy who sponsored the marriage equality bill, and a guy named Jimmy who does AIDS outreach got an award, and the Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality got an award. One of the people who made a speech accepting that award is a faculty member at the seminary where I hope to begin classes. He was very inspiring, even to the non-religious in the room. I think some of my friends got a clearer understanding of why I want to go into ministry now after hearing Marvin Ellison speak.

I got to accept an award on behalf of the volunteers of Hancock County. My friend Kay is still recovering from back surgery and could not make the trip, so I got the honor. I marched up on the stage with about 10 other similar honorees, the executive director said some nice things about each of us and what we'd done, we got a framed award and a hug from Dee and filed off the stage on the other side. The lights were blinding, but it was nice to be recognized for the hard work we did.

It was also nice to be among the politicians and political hacks that make the process of democracy work. There were Congresspeople (both of Maine's reps were there. I refrained from insulting Mike, and thanked Chellie for all her work), state senators and representatives, mayors, city councilors, lobbyists, candidates, and the people who work for and against them all. I got to see some old friends, was introduced to some key people who I will want/need to know in my future in ministry, and generally had a good time. When it was over, the EQME leadership retired to the hotel bar, and I was invited to join them. That was neat. Later I headed down the street to the local gay bar with some friends and we hung around there feeling very, very old until last call, at which point a friend gave me a ride back to my friend's house where I lay myself down on the couch and collapsed.

I remember a time when I could have done that stuff every night of the week. Or every weekend. I woke up feeling like I'd been dragged behind some large piece of equipment along a bumpy road. I was exhausted all day. I drove myself home and crawled into bed. This morning I am not sure if I am recovered. I am up, I am drinking coffee, and I plan to get dressed and go to work, but oof. I have officially reached the status of "old fart" I think. Damn.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Personal Statement

I mailed out the last part of my application to seminary this week. On Wednesday, I think. I was unaware of the process of applying to graduate school before this started. I have friends who have had to take GREs and LSEs and some other nasty-sounding exams, but apparently divinity school does not require such things. I am glad.

But the application did require a certain amount of hoop-jumping. I had to request a transcript from the state U where I got my undergraduate degree (BA in General Studies with heavy concentrations in Psychology, Writing and Social Studies). I had to ask four people to write letters of recommendation for me to the school, and they had to be four people with specific roles in my life: a teacher or mentor, a minister, an employer or close work associate, and a friend. Oh, and I had to sign a cover letter waiving my right to see what they wrote. That's to encourage them to be as honest and forthright as they want without fear of reprisal or that maybe I'd stalk them or something creepy like that. I had to fill out the standard application kind of form. Address, personal info, employer, etc. And then I had to include a personal statement.

A which?

A "personal statement."

They wanted three to five typed, double-spaced pages about why I want to go to divinity school and/or become a minister.

"Beats the hell out of me" was neither appropriate nor did it last for three pages.

But really. A personal statement? Is this like that lame essay I had to write when I applied to college back during my senior year of high school and I had to write about how I wanted to be a teacher and to change the world? Dear god. It really kind of is like that statement.

A friend suggested that maybe the people at the school want to know how I came to be where I am - applying to seminary. Another suggested that a personal statement would help them to place me with the best advisor to suit my personality and program desires. Both made sense.

So I sat down and wrote a statement. It was pretty good. I considered who would be reading it and what kind of people they might be and what would appeal to them. I want to get in, so I was catering to my audience. I showed it to a handful of friend and got some supportive feedback. Then I showed it to my minister, who read it and proclaimed it lame and limp. Or something like that. "Where are YOU in this thing?" she asked. Oh. Well. Um. Yeah.

I had written what I thought my audience wanted to hear, not what was really going on inside me. I tucked the first version aside, opened up a new document and began typing. I got it to the approximate right number of words, then rearranged some of the paragraphs, and printed it out. This I can be proud of. This speaks in my voice. This is not namby-pamby bullshit. This is me. If they reject me because of this statement, then I would not have fared well at the school. Better to learn that now than after two semesters of hell.

So here is what I sent. I'll let you know what happens with regards to interviews and such. Stay tuned.

Personal Statement
Dawn F
22 March 2010

I want to live life like my dog – at the very end of her leash and straining to reach more. I want to get everything I can out of life, to suck out the marrow, to get at the pith like Thoreau, to reduce it all to its basest elements and dwell there at its roots.

I write and I speak and I preach and I organize and I rouse rabble and motivate people and inspire them to action. On my best days, I can march them in the direction of justice, and together we can accomplish great things. On my worst days they storm the castle with torches and pitchforks.

I am a political activist and organizer. I am driven (some would say pushy) and I like to get things done. I work for justice in the many forms that takes and I expect that whatever ministry presents itself to me will incorporate those things into the work I am to do.

I feel things with intensity that others somehow do not. I crave to understand how things operate and why and I strive to develop methods to make them work better. I was the kid who took apart toys and clocks and machines to see how they worked. I was the one who understood the psychology behind the team mentality in high school sports. And rejected that mentality as flawed.

I am the sixth of my mother’s eight surviving children, born illegitimate in a time and place when that status mattered a great deal to a lot of people. That label framed what I learned and how I felt about myself and the world as I developed. I grew up Catholic and Irish in a small Massachusetts town where everyone knew everyone’s secrets and shame was considered a valid behavior modifier employed by teachers and parents alike. I developed a keen sense of outrage at injustice and hypocrisy early on and as a young adult became involved in activist work that solidified my feelings into deeply held personal philosophies. I have little patience for models and systems that perpetuate oppression – of any kind -- particularly out of duty or habit or tradition. If a philosophy or policy cannot be defended in a rational and humane argument, then it has no moral weight and ought to be abandoned for more useful pursuits.

I approach things head-on. I throw myself whole-heartedly into the things I attempt. I don’t know how to do anything 90 percent. Some people are said to wear their hearts on their sleeves. I wear my heart on my whole outside. I feel every sting and ding and scratch and scuff, but I believe that Nietzsche was correct when he said “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Each hurt adds a layer of strength externally and a layer of empathy internally. I know what it means to be vulnerable, to get hurt, to lose. I also know what it means to survive in spite of hurt, and to sometimes win. I see seminary as a crucible of sorts, a thing that will forge me into a minister and teach me what I need to know, or it will flush me out with the slag.

I do not understand how some cannot care about injustices in the world. I cannot wrap my head around the thought that a person can say “oh well, not my problem” when faced with poverty, hunger, ignorance, suffering, prejudice, hate, and violence. We are each a part of this huge global community. What affects one affects us all. When one is hungry, we all suffer. When one is bound, we are all imprisoned. Is it not the job of ministry to comfort the afflicted? And occasionally to afflict the comfortable?

My heart is in the fringe elements of society. I suspect my ministry will include populations that polite society rejects: queerfolk, glbti folk, poly, trans, kinky, the folks who express their gender and sexuality in ways that make others uncomfortable. I don’t know what shape my ministry will take, but I know it will involve these souls.

I know that my interest in areas of sexuality and ministry might require me to take some courses at another campus and transfer my credits in to my program, and I accept that. I plan to attend General Assembly this year in part to make the necessary connections so that I can do that kind of work and study. I also know that Bangor Theological Seminary will offer me a solid foundation upon which to build a ministry, no matter what shape that ministry might take.

I hold myself and the world to extremely high standards. Both often disappoint. But I would rather aim for perfection and achieve above-average work than aim for above average and achieve mediocrity.

I could be your ideal student or your worst nightmare. Instinct tells me that I will be neither, but somewhere in the middle. Wherever I land, I will give all that I have to this endeavor.

Submitted this 22nd day of March 2010
By Dawn F.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

New day

It is a new day. Yesterday was rough. I got through it, but felt beat up by the end. I had good people around me to help ease things along. I am grateful for them.

*** BREAK HERE ***

OK, I wrote a short piece about it being a new day, but I was not honest about just how bad yesterday was. It was OK for the morning. My feelings are always a little raw on St. Patrick's Day, but that's to be expected, I have learned. Lunch at the church was good. Corned beef, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, good Irish bread, it was great stuff. But then the little band got ready to play and I made my escape.

I was sitting at the table closest to the guys with the instruments, so nobody questioned when I said it would be too loud for me. It would have. What I knew somewhere in the back of my head but not anywhere up in the conscious part, was that the music was going to trigger me. I had no idea how or why, but I knew I had to get out of there. I took refuge in the sanctuary where I could sit and cry in peace.

The tears really surprised me. I tried to fight them at first -- I did not understand them, I did not authorize them. They confused and scared me and I didn't want to deal with them. Eventually I was able to understand that I was feeling hurt, that it was old hurt, hurt that I have never fully addressed or felt, and I made the decision to let it be. Go ahead and feel the hurt, I said to myself. It will not kill me. Feelings that are stifled smolder and do unpleasant things over time. So I felt it. I let the hurt wash over me, not trying to understand, not trying to figure it out, just feeling it. It sucked, but only because it hurt, not because I was giving myself a hard time for feeling hurt. Yes, it hurt. But that's a legitimate feeling and I allowed it, and I won't have to feel that exact pain again. Feel it and let it go. That's what I did.

Did I get it all out? Nah. But I released some of that old hurt, that old shame, that old stuff that isn't really mine, but got stuck to me anyway. I released a little bit of the pressure and did a little healing. More healing will come in time. That's OK.

So, when I say I had a rough day, that's what I mean. Not just that I was tired or cranky.

*** Now back to your regular programming ***

Today is a new day. I am awake and still a little tired, but breakfast is cooking and dinner is in the crock pot for when I get home. I am grateful for a lot these days. I am grateful that the worst day I've had recently was about old stuff, not new hurts or issues.

I am grateful that I can cook -- and fairly well -- and that I can feed myself pretty well, even when times are tight. I am grateful that I have this little house of mine and that I can sit and watch the sun come up as I write and eat my breakfast. I think my next place will allow me to do that too, and I am glad for that.

I could blather on for a while to put more words down, but I don't have them this morning. I mean, I could spin some fluff out of nothing, but it would be fluff - that stuff you stuck into papers in high school that needed to be at least five pages long and you only had four. Yeah. So I'm going to stop now and go to work.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day

Today is the day that is marked worldwide with green beer and unnaturally-colored other things in celebration of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. It was not until I was in high school that I realized that Ireland does, indeed, have snakes. That the "snakes" St. Pat drove out of Ireland were the pagans. Oh. And in the times of the middle ages, "drove out" means evicted from traditional homelands or killed. Suddenly this is not such a happy holiday. But there's green beer, right?

St. Patrick taught the pagans about the holy trinity of father, son and holy spirit by using the shamrock's three leaves. I guess it was just dumb luck that the Celts already had the Celtic Cross as part of their symbolism. The Catholic Church simply adapted what was already there and used it to represent their god instead of the four directions of the earth and sky as the pagans had. Talk about appropriation of cultural stuff. You'll hear my lecture on druids and yule trees and the appropriation of those traditions in December.

So this is also the day that I was brought home to live with my family from my birth family. I was 8 months old. It was 1966. My birth mother was living with her six children (two other fathers) and she left to go find a better opportunity and then planned to come back and move the whole crew. I think it was Rhode Island where she went. Anyway, she did not leave us in adequate care, and the child welfare people came in and made ready to scoop the kids all off to foster care. Somebody knew somebody who knew my father's family, a call was made and he came and snatched me away home before the others were seized and split up.

I arrived wearing nothing but the diaper on my bottom and whatever clothes I had on me. My father turned me over to his sister and his parents and went out. It was St. Patrick's Day, after all. There was serious drinking to be done.

So my aunt watched me while Nana and Grandpa went shopping. They got a crib and a high chair, a baby spoon and cup and some bottles and 10 dozen diapers and some clothes and some jars of baby food, and the new washer and dryer arrived from Sears in the morning.

My aunt was in her first year of teaching, maybe. That or her student teaching year. She called her friends to come over and see the surprise she had. "We get to keep her" she told them.

Um, babies don't usually work that way, they cautioned. Well, this one's going to.

And through some minor subterfuge, class warfare and bullying, they did get to keep me. My father's family knew lawyers and were better educated than my mother's family, and were better educated. She did not know what her rights were with regards to me, and when my grandmother stood blocking the entrance to the door and said she needed a court order to see her daughter, my mother believed her and went away. Whatever legal advice she was able to get encouraged her not to fight my (marginally) more affluent, better educated, better connected father's family. My mother did not see me again until I was 29 and I went looking for her.

So St. Pat's is a time of weird emotions for me. There is the long-seated, cultural history of oppression of my Irish forbears by just about everybody who ever marched across that patch of green earth, and there is the clusterfuck that is my own personal history. At 8 months old, I was a pawn, or maybe a treasure, but either way, I was a thing, a possession, a not entirely pleasant (although not entirely unpleasant) bundle of needs. I was the first grandchild, which helped enormously in my new home, but I was the bastard child of the no-good eldest son and a low-class woman of loose morals. She was married, you see, but her husband ran off. Then she had two other children with another man, then he went to jail. Then my father came along and she had me.

In a small town, everyone knew my story, and I am sure it was a source of enormous shame for my grandmother. But I was the first grandchild, so I think I got a pass. Dad, however, did not.

But that is another story.

So today I feel ghosts. Ghosts of Ireland, ghosts of shame, ghosts of families lost, connections severed in infancy that were never able to fully mend in adulthood. I suppose if I think about it enough, it explains a lot of my current mental and emotional stuff as well as the stuff I have worked through in the past couple of decades. I've done a bunch of work, but some hurts leave scars that will only fade, but never disappear. Today is one of those days when those scars ache and burn. I am reminded of what was, what happened, and what a long tough road it has been.

Do not get me wrong. I know others who had longer and tougher roads than mine. I am not interested in pity, from myself or from anyone else. It's sort of like Veteran's day. Every soldier is a veteran. None of their experiences was good, but nobody compares who had it worse. They all just acknowledge each other. This is what today feels like for me. It is the day when I am most aware of the battles I went through.

But. I have much to be grateful for this morning.

The sun is shining, I am awake and almost ready to go to work. I have a truck that will take me there, and a body that will do what needs doing today. There is a corned beef dinner at my church at noontime, and I will go there and be among people who are happy and who care about me, and that is a wonderful feeling. I have been in much worse situations over the years. Where I am here and now is really quite wonderful.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Gratitude, entry two

I am grateful today.

I am grateful that it is not raining, that it is not snowing and that I have work that pays me well and keeps me challenged all day.

I am grateful that I have kind and healthy people around me each day - smart and decent people to work with who compliment what I know by filling in the bits that I don't know, and who are enthusiastic about the job.

I am grateful that I have a place to live and that I have found another place to live that is going to be more convenient for me in the coming months and years.

I am grateful that I have received a call to ministry, even though it scares the hell out of me. Suddenly a lot of my life makes sense now. All those classes in unrelated things, a lifetime spent acquiring diverse experiences and skills. Now it makes sense.

I am grateful for corned beef hash and poached eggs for breakfast. I am grateful that I have ample food and the skills to prepare it. I am grateful that I have skills and energy to nurture those around me when they need it.

I am grateful for my sobriety and what it means for me. There is nothing in my life that I would have now if I were drinking. I am grateful for the tools I have to do life that I have learned through my 12-step recovery program. How to be a responsible adult. How to own what is mine and let go of what is not. How to have empathy without interfering or trying to rescue.

I am grateful for the robin in my yard this morning and the crocuses I saw at church on Sunday. Spring is coming.

I am grateful for my family, the cobbled-together crew of friends and relations that let me know that I am loved and important. Some members are bigger fans than others, but that's OK.

I am grateful that I have a vehicle that does most of what I need it to do (I'd really like it to get better gas mileage, but I understand that is not likely to happen.)

I am grateful for my pets who are glad to see me when I get home. Their love in unconditional in a way I can only dream of achieving.

I am grateful for this aging laptop computer. It allows me to connect with the world and to lots of people and it allows me to learn so many things.

I am grateful for my Internet friends. There are so many people whom I have met through this space and not in person, but whose lives they share with me as I share with them. We fuss about each other's jobs and families and children and pets and cars and we watch the news and weather in other parts of the country with an eye for the places where our blog buddies live.

I am grateful for the people who visit this blog. I am curious as to how and why they found me and what brings them back. I am curious to know who visits regularly from Helsinki, and who checks in from Australia. How did you find me? What keeps you coming back? If you don't want to leave a comment where others can see it, drop me a note at bbginanp AT roadrunner DOT com. I'd love to hear it.

I am grateful for so much in my life today. It's really not a bad life. It's more exciting than I would like some days, but all things considered, it really ain't that bad.

Thanks for listening this morning. Care to share what you're grateful for?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Gratitude, day one

I need to start thinking about gratitude. Yesterday's post had a lot of anger in it, and I think that is what happens when I get stuck with writing for a while. Anger has to get out of the way before I can get to the tender bits inside. Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, Newton said. Anger and gratitude cannot coexist.

I started off 2010 with some heavy stuff. I ended a relationship, got a new sponsor, and began some heavy-duty 11th step work within a week. Then, in two weeks, I got a call to ministry that was clearer than anything I have ever experienced. That freaked me out a bit. So I stopped with the spiritual development stuff. If a call to ministry is what I get after two weeks, I don't know if I want what might happen after three or four weeks of that stuff. Know what I mean?

So I have not been doing the serious exploratory work I was doing before, and I feel kinda wonky now. Like I'm not adjusted quite right. Like I need a trip to my spiritual chiropractor. So last night, my sponsor suggested I start with gratitude. Gratitude is always a good place to start when I need to get in touch with spiritual things. Gratitude forces me to set aside the petty crap that can fill a day with aggravation and look at the real important things that make my day worth getting through that petty crap.

I am grateful for a lot of things today. I am grateful for my sobriety and the program that keeps me healthy and mostly sane in that regard. I am grateful for the people around me who love me and care for me and nurture me, even when I don't realize that's what I need or that's what they're doing. I am grateful that I can work, that I have talents and gifts that I can use to be productive and support myself. I am grateful that I have a couple jobs right now that will do that for me. And I am grateful that I have a great place to live and a great place that I am moving to, and that I have a bouncy little dog and a large not so bouncy cat. And now I have to run out the door to work. Blessed be. Stay tuned for further exploration around gratitude.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

slumming? and a pending move

It's that time of the year again: amateur hour. When stupid people put plastic green Derby hats on their heads and drink Guinness or green beer until they stagger around and puke in the street.


Real Irish drinkers learn to no throw up and waste the good alcohol. And we have no need for those stupid hats.

I just saw a newspaper article outlining the various options available for people who want to celebrate St. Patrick's Day next Wednesday. Corned Beef and cabbage were high on the list, as were Guinness, green beer and the rest. Also listed were a 5K run and leg wrestling with local roller derby stars.

That's Irish?

Roller Derby?

Leg wrestling?

Huh. Must be a different kind of Irish than where my family came from

This is the time of year when I get frustrated by the appropriation of my culture by idiots who want to use it as an excuse to get drunk and act silly. People put an O' in front of their names and stagger around affecting bad imitations of an Irish brogue. I know from brogues, kids. When I was a wee lass, I was cared for by Gram Bashaw, who came over on the boat from the old country. I probably had a brogue of my own when I went into nursery school. I don't know that I ever knew Gram's real name, but we all called her Gram. She was a formidable woman, accustomed to hard work and raising children and she accepted very little nonsense in her world. Children play and frolic, yes, but no nonsense in the form of whining or complaining. People did not leave the Emerald Isle for America because times there were good there. She didn't see anything here worth complaining about, so just hush, dear. It could be a lot worse.

I get frustrated with the misappropriation of my culture by stupid people who think they can drink like the pros in much the same way I get frustrated when I have to explain yet again that there is a real difference between rural culture and urban culture. I get frustrated when tourists come to my town and call it quaint and say all it needs is a Starbucks. Gah. Our town is not quaint. Our town is our home, not a natural habitat exhibit at the zoo. The people who live here are not creatures to be studied with fascination, we are humans who like where we live thank you, and have no desire to be plugged in in a hundred different ways.

There is a t-shirt I have seen with a pen and ink cartoon drawing of a long, gangly moose relaxing in a hammock. The caption reads: "Maine. Life in the slow lane." And really? That's a lot like what we've got. At least it is here. Lots of people have cell phones, but like me, they resent them at least some of the time. I don't like having an electronic leash that anyone with my number can yank any time they like. I have a computer, and I use it to write here and to correspond with friends and to learn about the world. It is both educator and entertainer in my world. I can't remember the last time I turned the TV on. Yes I do. It was for the overtime period of the Olympic gold medal hockey game. Before that, I think it was back in January. When I move next month, I might think about re-negotiating my cable package. But I digress. This is about culture and respect and slumming.

I remember I had a writing professor in college who had published some short stories or essays about this and that. He wrote about how he grew up in a pretty affluent suburb, how his parents expected him to go to college, and how he managed to convince his guidance counselor at school to let him take four years of wood shop. He loved to work with his hands. He loved the guys in that class, the voc-tech guys, the ones who drank and partied on weekends, but at very different parties than the ones the football stars went to.

He wrote about working in construction all through college, and then working in construction after college, even getting to the point where he had a staff of full-timers that he paid on the books and everything and then he got scared that he might have to do it all his life so he scampered back to graduate school and eventually became a college instructor.

It was a great story.

But it irritated me.

I live among guys who took four years of wood shop in high school, but not because it was fun. They took shop because they were being trained by the system to have a useful trade to use in society. They had been judged not adequate for college prep track, but smart enough for skilled labor, and that's what they were being trained to do. Other kids were not smart enough for that and were simply funneled into the "general" track, hustled through, given a diploma and sent to work at the local paper mill or shoe factory.

These were kids. Kids whose lives had been decided and planned out for them early on. They didn't have any choices. The couldn't take wood shop because it was fun, they took it because it would make them a living for the next 50 years and that was important. Fun was tinkering with the engine of your car. Fun might be sketching on a doodle pad, or going fishing, but it wasn't wood shop. They knew they'd never get to college, and they knew that they'd almost always end up working for someone who did.

See, rural life combined with the poverty that often accompanies it puts limits on us. It forces people to make hard decisions early on. Like which kid is going to go to college and which kid is going to fix cars for a living. This is hard reality for us. It is not quaint. I met a guy yesterday who probably never finished high school. He runs a junk yard and a low-budget car dealership. He buys junkers at auction and fixes them up and resells them for cheap. He's got no teeth, but he knows everybody on this island, and their friends and relations and neighbors and histories. He asked where I lived, then where in that village I lived. I had to explain who my landlords were and he exactly knew the house. And the guy who used to own it, now long since departed. Guy hasn't got a tooth in his head, but he does have an oral history of the community stored in there. Somehow, city folks don't seem to know their neighbors that well. I only gave him my first name, but mentioned a mutual friend/acquaintance who had referred me. If and when he has something I might want to look at, he'll give her husband a yell at the town garage and she'll drop me a note on facebook to go take a look at the junkyard. That's how things work here. He doesn't need my last name. He knows how to get in touch with me.

I grew up in rural Maine. But my DNA was issued in the white-collar(ish) world of northeastern Massachusetts. I can function well enough down there for a while, but not for long. I need to be in the country to be comfortable. I need to be around people who will stop to help when your car is broken down beside the road. I need to be where people know how to raise a vegetable garden and how to keep deer out of the beans and woodchucks out of the rest. Without making a trip to the hardware store to do it. I tread the line between the working poor and middle class. I worry that the working poor might think I am "slumming" like those tourists I so resent. I don't care much what the middle class folks think. Just so long as they don't ask me to give them a tour of my world. Like I said, we're not an exhibit at a zoo. We've got as much dignity as we can muster and we'll keep it, thank you.

This is all going to play a role in my ministry, I think. I have no idea how, but it will factor into the equation. I may end up doing rural outreach. I may end up doing something with glbt people. I may end up doing something with other forms of minorities, or I may end up in a suburban congregation doing ministry there. I can't tell. That unknowing is a little unsettling still. I expect I will learn to flow with it, but for now it still makes me a little seasick when the boat rocks and pitches so.

It is morning. The cat has abandoned his perch on the windowsill since I moved my writing space up against it and has now taken over the dog's bed, which has the benefit of being soft, and in a window in the sun. The dog, sensibly, is still in bed beneath the covers. The sun it up long before me these days and spring approaches. This weekend we put the clocks ahead an hour, so maybe I'll see some more sunrises for a little while before summer arrives.

I have found a new place to live, off island. I will move house and household and cat and dog by May 1 to a tiny little trailer in Surry, Maine. Go look that up on the map if you will. It's smaller than Mount Desert, with a lot less tax base, and it's not on an island. But it IS much closer to the school I hope to attend this fall, and closer to my church and to the job where I am working now.
Please be patient with me as I muddle through this time of additional transition. I have no idea what my writing will do in the new place, but I know I will have a small room just for my study. It has a south-facing window so I can watch the sunrise and the sunset and room for bookshelves and all the things I need in an office. The kitchen and living rooms each have windows suitable for a cat or a dog. I'll let them work out who gets which. The kitchen has counter space that goes on for M-I-L-E-S and a nice new stove and fridge. The colors are rough right now, but the landlord is a friend and he's letting me paint them all whatever colors I'd like. This weekend I plan to go in and prime it all, and then paint the rooms over the course of the next couple weeks. It's close enough to where my job site is that I can bring a load of boxes or what have you to work with me each day and just drop them off. That's going to be nice. I won't have to rent a truck or organize a huge work party. I mean, I can still organize a work party, but it will be less traumatic this way. Anyway. I'll take some pictures and share them as progress is made. Thanks for tagging along on this adventure.

Monday, March 8, 2010

sermon: gifts

What is a gift?

The first thing many of us thing of when we hear the word is a package, a three-dimensional object, generally decorated in festive wrapping denoting some kind of special occasion.

Our second thought is often of the more nebulous “gift” – a seemingly effortless, natural ability to play the piano, to paint, to nurture those in need. People with these talents are often referred to as being “gifted” or “having a gift.” Wayne has a gift of languages, or instance.

We think about gifts and giving and all that generally in December. March is not known by the folks at Hallmark Cards as a big giving month. Not many people buy St. Patrick’s Day cards. There is no major holiday in March that requires us to purchase presents for our loved ones or our co-workers. It’s just March. That long, desolate place between Valentine’s Day and Easter in the gift-giving calendar.

But I want to talk about the gifts we encounter every day.

What makes a thing a gift? Must it be something unexpected? That seems more the definition of “surprise” than gift. I think a gift is a thing that have, or perhaps receive, and we are glad for it. That can mean a gift of a new sweater or an ability to do a particular thing. The term “gift” indicates that he thing carries with it some positive emotion, that we are pleased to have this gift. If we are displeased, then it is a curse and not a gift. The status of “gift” then, is within us.

I am reminded of a story told by my Italian-American godfather. He was a construction worker, a proud member of Local 3, the Laborer’s Union in Boston. And he had been hurt. He lived with chronic and debilitating back pain, and he had to go to court to secure the benefits that were his. The opposing lawyer was casting aspersions about the legitimacy of Carlos’ injury, when my godfather told him “I am gonna give you a gift. I am going to put a hurt on you so that you can know what it is to feel what I feel. I am going to give you that gift of empathy.”

Now, in the true spirit of that exchange, my godfather was not promising that lawyer a gift. He was threatening to beat and cripple him so that he could know what it was to live with chronic and debilitating pain. I am sure the lawyer did not think Carl was offering a gift. The judge did not think that Carl was offering a gift, either, but Carl had couched his language so carefully that he could not be charged with threatening assault on an officer of the court because, technically, what he had promised to do was “give a gift.” He was duly warned by the magistrate not to actually “give that gift” to the opposition’s attorney.

I don’t think that really counts in the world of gift-giving. Nasty or unpleasant things are not generally considered gifts. By the same token, we must be careful about giving gifts and make sure that the person we wish to give to actually wants what we have to offer.
I am told that I give good hugs. Many of us are proud of our hugging skills and would like to share our gift with others. But we cannot simply approach someone whom we think needs a hug and embrace them. That is the kind of thing that requires the consent of the recipient, the hug-ee, if you will. Otherwise, it is being done to meet our own needs and not the needs of the person we purport to give the hug to. Then it is assault, or touch without consent, and not a gift at all.

Not everybody wants the gifts that we have to offer. Sometimes that can be difficult to hear. We are so happy about the gifts we have and want to share them with people we care about, but not everyone is always pleased with our gifts. My family recipe for creamed salt cod comes to mind. For me, it is wonderful food. For some, it is delicious. For others, not so much.

Let me tell you about a job I have been doing recently and some of the gifts that it has involved. Many of you remember David and Bill who first visited us here a couple weeks ago. Nice guys. They’ve bought a house in Ellsworth and have hired me to do some renovations. Well, the house was not lived in for a long time, at least by people, that is. A local population of raccoons did move in and seem to have lived pretty comfortably there for several years. It is quite possible that the raccoons thought the house to be a gift from whatever rodent gods there are – a sheltered, large place to live with relatively easy access and no humans to pester them, good neighborhood, hospital and restaurants nearby, plenty of foraging opportunities -- – truly, what more could a raccoon desire? See? Gifts are what we make of them.

So anyway, when Bill and David bought the house, the raccoons had to find other places to live, and they did. I came in with my tools and saws and a heater and lots of noise and proceeded to tear apart some portions of the house. Codes require certain kinds of construction in apartments, so that’s what I am doing.

When I tore down the ceiling though, in the upstairs apartment, along with the petrified remains of many years’ accumulated litterbox leavings, down came a petrified raccoon. CLUNK. On my head. And then onto the scaffold where I was standing.

The raccoon was petrified and hardened like an oversized rawhide dog chewie. Upon closer inspection, we discovered that he was in fact inside out. His head was on backwards. There was much speculation about how he came to be inside out, and none of it was pleasant. It is still relatively early on Sunday morning. I will spare you the details of that conversation. Suffice it to say, we had one very dead, very inside-out raccoon carcass on our hands.

I looked at Bill.

“This is gonna cost you extra,” I said.

He nodded.

Then I got out my cell phone.

“I know someone who’s gonna want this.”

Bill’s eyes grew wide. “Leave it to the lesbian to know someone who wants a dead raccoon.”

The person I called was not home, so I left a message. We named our new friend Rocky, of course: Rocky Raccoon in tribute to the popular Beatles song – and I protected him from being tossed unceremoniously into the Dumpster by either my employer or my helper.

The next day, my helper found suspicious bits of fur in a pile of litter mouldering behind the chimney. She pulled out a bone. And called for me to come inspect what she had found. Firmly wedged in an impossible spot was what remained of another unfortunate creature. I extracted him from his (to this point) final resting place from below, resulting in my second shower in dead rodent parts in two days. I called Bill and explained that there would be further adjustments in the week’s charges.

This guy had not had the opportunity yet to dry out and become rawhide like his peer. He was still composting. Ahem. I believe the term that most adequately describes the aroma is “cloying.” It is the kind of smell that gets into the sinuses and simply will not leave. Oh, it was bad.

BUT, the skeleton was in tip-top shape. The skull was perfect, the teeth all intact, and there was even enough of the pelt left to show the raccoon’s mask and some whiskers. It just looked like it was attached to a carpet that had been through the Boer War. This lamentable collection of degrading parts was dubbed “Rocky II” in homage to that regrettable series of boxing movies featuring Sylvester Stallone.

Cell phone came out again. This time I called our own Toby Alley Manring. See? I actually know MORE than one person likely to be interested in receiving a dead raccoon. In fact, the more I tell this story, the longer the list becomes of women (indeed – all women) who would like to receive a dead raccoon when next I find one.

So. Toby came and collected the raccoons with much appreciation and delight. I was nearly as happy to be rid of them as she was to receive them. We parted, both feeling as though we had received gifts. Toby got two cool raccoon carcasses that she will render (that’s a poor word here, isn’t it?) at some future date into beautiful art, and I got to get to know Toby just a little bit better, and that was very cool indeed.

We have since discovered Rocky III, and the body count seems to have stopped there. A friend from Portland has speculated that one more could make the Four Raccoons of the Apocalypse, but then I have very odd friends.

So this is where I talk again about how not everyone is going to be excited to receive the gifts we have to offer. Not everyone is going to be thrilled and excited to receive an inside-out raccoon carcass. Go figure. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.

Emerson spoke of giving of ourselves, and truly that is the best gift we can offer. We can give of something that is inherently ours. We are often unaware of our own gifts, of what we have to offer. I am blessed to have an aunt who reminds me often of how fortunate I am. I can write. I can do a little public speaking. I can do a little organizing, I can rouse some rabble on occasion. I can tell stories. I am generous with my time and energy and my spirit. These are my gifts. They are as much a part of me as my pale Irish skin and my gray hair.

“You have so many gifts,” my aunt says to me “it’s a shame you can’t get someone to pay you to use them.”

It seems I may have found that vocation in ministry. But that is another story for another day.

Today we are talking about sharing our gifts, and I – and many others – would argue that the best gift we can give is that of ourselves. Like the little drummer boy in the children’s Christmas story, we can give of what we have. The kings brought gifts to the Christ child, gifts that were made by others, as Emerson described “ a cold, lifeless business when you go to the goldsmith’s. This is fit for kings, and rich men who represent kings, and a false state of property, to make presents of gold and silver stuffs, as a kind of symbolic sin-offering, or a payment of black mail.”

The drummer boy had no material wealth to share, but he had his drum and his hands and the music in his heart, and he shared that, without reservation. Who gave the greater gift in that story? The three men with enormous wealth who went to the equivalent of the Hallmark Store or the Middle Eastern Jewelers? Or the boy who had nothing but himself, which he offered completely?

Our hearts and our love can only grow as we share them. When love flows without interruption or impediment, we can feel the divine in it, in us, and in our works. When we give for the sake of giving, sharing of our hearts for the joy of the sharing and for no other reason, it is the work of the divine and worship in its purest form.

It is a delicate dance that we must do to know how and when to share of ourselves. We have to first recognize our gifts. We need to acknowledge that we have worth and that we are a blessing in our own right. We spend a lot of time fretting about affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every (other) person, but how much time do we spend affirming and promoting our own inherent worth and dignity? I suggest that such an effort would do us no harm. We are as worthy as any we seek to affirm. We each have our gifts. We each have something to offer of ourselves to our fellows.

The trick, of course, is that balance. How to give of ourselves without becoming a doormat? How to share of ourselves without becoming that unfortunate (and I would argue terribly codependent) Giving Tree so lauded by Shel Silverstein. The trick, I think, is to learn to be present with ourselves, and to be open to the opportunities that the world lays before us. To be ready with our drum to play from the heart, as the situation requires.

My gift to you this morning has been my storytelling, and your gift to me was your patience and attentive ear. It is not everywhere, I know, that I can tell a story of dead raccoons and make worship out of it, but this sacred space, and this community of souls makes it possible. This is our gift to each other and to ourselves.

Blessed be. Amen.


It is thanks – gratitude – that makes gift-giving and gift-receiving run smoothly. Gratitude is of course, and inside operation. We can choose to be thankful for the things around us and count them as gifts, or we can bewail our circumstances as not being ideal. As we leave here this morning, as we retire to the sumptuous repast that is made up of the many gifts of the many hearts and hands of the people in this room and others who could not join us for whatever reason, let us be grateful for the gift of self that each represents and receive it as the work of the divine in each of us. Let us breathe our own gifts into the air like the a flower offers its sweet smell to any who pass close enough to smell, and to the air when no one is around.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Rocky I, II, and III

I have a sermon to write for Sunday morning, and I was planning to write about gifts and the giving and receiving thereof, but apparently what I really I need to write about is raccoons. Specifically, dead raccoons. More specifically, dead raccoons that I have found and had to - um - "deal with."

See, I have that sermon to write. And Sunday is looming closer and closer. And I can't seem to get out of my own way. The words of the sermon simply won't come. They're jammed up, stuck, blocked, perhaps. But every time I talk to people, I have to tell the story of the three raccoons I have found/unearthed/discovered/stepped on/in during the past nine days. It seems that the raccoon stuff is in the way of the sermon stuff, so it must be purged before I can write the sermon and have the words work. "Purged" is literary foreshadowing. You have been warned.


I have a friend who starts all of her adventure stories with the words "there I was, at the Renaissance Fair..." or some such thing. So I shall give it a try.

So there I was, up on staging in what will be the master bedroom of a second-floor apartment in a small three-unit house. I was taking down the matched pine boards that used to be the ceiling. The room is built into the top of the house, with walls that come up about six or seven feet before they meet the slope of the inside of the roof, so it has the effect of a very tall room with a ceiling (meaning the bit actually parallel to the floor) that is only about six or seven feet wide by about 12 feet long. The boards I was tearing down were nailed to joists that created a wee little crawlspace at the peak of the roof. There was insulation up there.

And a raccoon.

Well, he once was a raccoon. But he had long ago parted this mortal coil. His petrified remains tumbled down from between the rafters, among approximately 80 pounds of accumulated dried and equally petrified raccoon poop, and shredded insulation. Rocky, as we named him, was flat and dried and hard as a piece of old leather that had been soaked then left in the sun. He was disfigured in a grotesque way. His skull looked weird, his spine was detached from the rest of him, and his pelt looked like that stuff they make dog rawhide chewy bones out of. It was nasty. It was only a day later, or maybe two days later, that I realized that Rocky was inside out. No kidding. Here's the picture:

See? He's inside-out. His head is in the lower right corner, and his jaw is pointed back in toward the rest of him. There was a fair amount of speculation with regards to how he came to be inside out, and the consensus, grim as it was, was that raccoons do not have the emotional attachment to family members that we human have, and well, protein is protein, and if uncle Charlie is going to chew through the wires and short himself out like that, who are we to turn down something already cooked? Yeah. I have some pretty grim (and amusing) friends.

That was on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, my helper was cleaning packed and nasty shreds of fiberglass insulation from around the chimney when she found some tufts of fur. Gentle pulling yielded a bone. And then another. I put on my little LL Bean headlamp and peeked in there. It was tight quarters all around, and there was no good way to get a grip on him, so I went downstairs, got up on a stepladder, reached around behind the chimney, found enough solid stuff to get a handful, and gently pulled. A mass of carcass, insulation, poop and mouldering I-don't-care-to-know-what came down in a shower. On me. Again. Did I mention that Rocky I fell out of the ceiling onto my head? Yeah. Now this guy. Named, obviously, Rocky II.

I sorted through the pile of nastiness that had fallen out of the chimney chase and discovered that this was a far more recent edition of raccoon. Indeed, he was still composting and was quite pungent. I believe the term used in such situations is cloying. Honestly, it was a stench that got into my sinuses and would not leave. I tried to drink coffee, it tasted of that smell. My clothes, my hair, my hands (even though I wore gloves) all smelled of decaying rodent. Ugh.

When I could get past the smell, I noticed that aside from being moth-eaten, Rocky II's face was fairly intact. Indeed, we could still see a mask and even some whiskers. His skull and teeth were nearly perfect.

Here's what he looked like:

My duty was utterly clear. I called a friend from church.

"Hi, T? It's Dawn. From church. Yeah. Hey, I've got a couple very dead raccoons. Their skulls and bones and stuff are in really great shape. You want them? Great. Tomorrow? Afternoon? You know the address? (I gave it to her.) Cool. We'll see you then."

The guy I am working for? The one who's house this is? Very nice gay man. Was ASTOUNDED that I knew within 30 seconds of discovering the carcass a person who would be interested in getting it. When I told him I knew at least two such people, he just shook his head in disbelief.

T is one of our pagan members, and she does cool and funky art. I don't know if her particular brand of pagan might involve some Wicca as well, but in any case, she is thrilled, I tell you, just THRILLED to have a couple of dead raccoons.

She came by the next day with a plastic tote to haul away her treasures. She was astounded to see that Rocky I was indeed inside out, and declared Rocky II to be "quite woofy" ("smelly") but treasures all the same. She said she was going to put them in an organic "cooker" of sorts that would rot away the flesh and fur and other stuff and leave the bones, then she'd bleach the bones and make beautiful things from them. I have no doubt.

I have to tell you that dead raccoons was the topic of conversation at coffee hour after church on Sunday.

And today, when that pile of rotted rags and newspapers in the basement turned out to be Rocky III, my phone was out and dialing while my helper was trying to collect bone shards and teeth and ribs and bits from the litter on the floor. The collection from Rocky III might be done in a paper coffee cup, but T will be thrilled again. She'll be over tomorrow after work. She's a school lunch lady.

No shit. If only the kids knew.

My life is so great. I couldn't make up fiction this good.

Stay tuned.