They were there again today

They were there again today, across the street near an empty recycling bin. They are there every morning, this well-groomed dust-mop of a dog and the perpetually bewildered old man holding the leash. They must be out for their morning walk, but they do not ever seem to walk. Mostly they stand: peacefully in the first-fallen sycamore leaves, or smiling inanely at the end of the neighbors’ driveway by the crepe myrtles.

One morning they were at the end of Maryl’s driveway. The old man grinned while he held up a hand in greeting, palm facing away from his chest. The dog sniffed around the neatly arranged river stones in the ditch. They shuffled out of the way just in time.

The dog is as white as the old man’s goatee, the sort of docile and unintelligent dog bred to sit on the laps of aristocracy. Her flowing white fur hides her eyes and legs and drags the pavement when she walks. Her nose is pink, like the wad of bubblegum you find stuck to the bottom of a desk.

The old man wears his white tube socks pulled up neatly and as high as they’ll reach. Some days a car stops to talk to him, and he leans in the passenger window the way southern folks of a certain generation always do. When he steps away the dark and freshly waxed cars speed out of the neighborhood, rolling up electric windows as they go.

“Yea, I’ve seen them,” Maryl said, “it’s really sad actually. Cecily told me his wife used to always walk the dog, but she died.”

He raises his hand at each car that drives by, and he smiles. It is not the brief cordial nod that the power walker in her well coordinated active wear gives, nor is it the impartial two fingers lifted from the steering wheel by the drivers of those freshly waxed cars not obligated by politeness. His smile is wide open and honest, and his hand stays there at heart level until the car is out of sight. Once, he even gave a thumbs up.

The gesture wraps itself around you, gives you the kind of safety and warmth that you felt before you learned that safety doesn’t really exist, and at the same time the gesture is so honest and inarguable that it is almost confrontational. It demands a choice, and no matter how fast we drive away or how half-heartedly we lift our fingers from the steering wheel, this man and his dog will be there each morning, standing by the park, smiling.

 

Practicing Community as Spiritual Discipline

This is a sermon that I delivered at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (where I keep my day job as Membership and Communications Coordinator) on Sunday, September 18. Following the transcript are the readings referenced throughout the sermon.

When Chris asked me to give today’s sermon, it didn’t take me long to decide what I should talk about. Recently, I moved into a collective house where we deliberately share the work of living and seek to strengthen our community at large and my day-to-day thoughts and conversations are largely consumed with how to make community work in a society that almost prevents the possibility. On review, community has been the unifying theme for most of the work I’ve done in my life so far – in Montessori classrooms (explicitly named “communities” by Maria Montessori herself), my work as an activist and here in this church, as an artist with an interest in collaboration – in fact, the first time I was in this pulpit talking to you all I was in the Youth Group giving a homily on community building through collaborative mural project.

We know that community, and more broadly, human connection, is necessary to our survival – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. We know that a human baby cannot live if she is not held, even if all her bodily needs are otherwise met. Brene Brown, the researcher/author famous for her work on vulnerability and connection, says “Connection, along with love and belonging, is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” I came to community building naturally and selfishly early on in my life, because conscious of it or not, I need community and it has not always come easily to me. Growing up in this church, beloved community has always been a value and an aspiration, but with the birth of my son, the need for community has been transformed from the purely emotional-spiritual, to a very concrete reality. It’s become a practical lifeline and also my most constant and important spiritual practice. At this point, there is practically no sector of Joseph and I’s life that doesn’t rely on a strong and supportive community – our housing, our food security, Joseph’s care while I am at work, and on and on. I see this as a great blessing.

We know that we need connection and yet when I look around at the world we live in, I see everywhere structures that create and maintain disconnection and isolation. It is in the external – the single-family house with a yard and a fence, the single-person vehicle as primary means of transportation, the commute to work outside of our neighborhoods, but these structures also exist in ways we cannot as easily see – it’s the way we as a culture prioritize independence and privacy, self-sufficiency, the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality “I got where I am through my own hard work, I don’t need anybody and I don’t owe anybody anything.” We associate self-sufficiency with strength, and needing or accepting help is seen as weakness.

I grew up here in Bearden, and sometime around age 11 shortly after a visit to New York City I proclaimed definitively to my parents that I planned to move there as soon as possible. The main reasoning behind this decision was that NYC has art museums, and more importantly, sidewalks. The neighborhoods where I grew up (while I understand their other values as a place to raise a family) had no sidewalks. I never did move to New York City, but when I eventually moved into my first rental house with four friends in Old North Knoxville, I discovered with great joy that there are sidewalks here too. This was revelatory for me. I told my parents “You can walk places, and you see people that you know. Like, when they’re also walking, or sitting on their porches, or at the coffee shop. You don’t even have to plan to meet up, you just run into each other. Isn’t that cool?” I thought I had stumbled upon an anomaly; the experience of living there was so different from that of growing up in the suburbs. This ability to see and be seen, to know and be known, was so exciting to me and I would later understand it as the first step towards community.

One of my most powerful experiences of community was on a three-week long bike tour six years ago. Me and three of my friends packed our camping gear and food stash onto our bicycles and rode them all the way down to Savannah, Georgia, and back. Previous to this I’d never ridden a bicycle further than my daily commute across town. Setting out on our first 50-mile day, I wasn’t even sure I could actually ride a bike 50 miles in one day, but I set out anyways. We are often more able than we know especially when we have the constant presence and support of people that we love, and this proved true in this case as well. This was such a powerful community experience because in this situation we were forced to rely on one another for our basic material survival. The tent, our food, everything was split between bicycles. If someone got a flat, we all worked together to fix it. One of us making it relied on all of us making it.

One morning we packed up our camp site and had been riding for about 30 minutes when Bob suddenly announced y’all, I think I left the tent poles. There was nothing to be gained from any of us getting upset or frustrated – we just sat in the shade with his stuff while he rode his unloaded bike back to retrieve the poles, and when he returned we just kept going.

For these two-and-a-half weeks we were incredibly connected. I was valued and necessary, we were in this together, and no one was going to walk away if the situation became inconvenient or unpleasant (and trust me, it did). These were very grounded and safe-feeling days. Anytime I felt tired, there was at least one other person who was feeling excited, and I could soak up a little of their energy. When I wanted to stop, I found the energy to keep going because that’s what the group needed me to do. I always felt safe, because no matter what I had this community to rely on, who would stand behind me. I had a purpose, I had meaning, and I had acceptance without conditions.

Several years later, I took a trip to England to visit my good friend and past TVUUC Religious Education Intern Lizzie Roper. I stayed for 5 weeks, and during one of those weeks I planned another bike tour along the coast at the southern tip of the island. Lizzie was still working, so this time I would ride alone.

The experience was no less beautiful and no less powerful, but I found I had a complete lack of the emotional groundedness that was so present when I was traveling in community. When I wanted to stop, it was hard to find a really good reason to keep going instead. When I was tired, I was just tired. When I felt unsafe, I just felt unsafe. I was plagued by thoughts like Whose idea was this, anyways? Oh, right, it was my idea. Needless to say, I covered a lot less ground, and I slept restlessly.

While there is a different and equally powerful kind of connection resulting from being alone and very small in the wildness of the natural world, the moments of this trip that brought me the most joy were the moments of human connection, the random kindness of strangers which occasionally reminded me that we’re never alone, after all, we’re always a part of everything.

There was a train employee who stopped his work to draw me a map by hand on a scrap of paper, there was a woman who ran a coffee shop in a small town where I stayed for a few days and whom, after scolding me properly for applying my jam and clotted cream to my scone in the improper order, eventually divulged to me stories of growing up in Liverpool, her concerns about her adult daughter’s boyfriend, and her dreams of being a watercolor artist.

These are all moments in which I could viscerally feel the existence of our seventh principle: The interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. As Unitarian Universalists, we have plenty of different ideas about what spirituality is and means, but to me, this 7th principle is at the core. To me a spiritual practice is anything that helps you feel part-of that interconnected web of existence, to feel the sense of wonder at our connectedness to everything. We could name an endless list of potential spiritual practices: Meditation, hiking, roller derby, running, music, but also – choosing to deliberately practice loving community.

Through my experiences bike touring, I managed to stumble upon a profound manifestation of inter-reliant community quite by accident, and since then I have continued to ask: how can we build loving inter-reliant deliberate communities in a world where all the forces at hand are working to drive us apart? Bike touring was a great experience, but I’m not dying to take it up as a lifestyle.

Love is the force that moves us from isolation to connection, from individual to community, but to choose love, means going against the prevailing values of [our] culture. We live in a capitalist society which we see time and time again prioritizing economic gain above human life: I am thinking of the Native People who right now are fighting to protect their water and their sacred places, I am thinking of the recent price hike for the lifesaving EpiPen, I am thinking we could sit in this room for the rest of the day and not run out of things to put on this list. And no matter how consciously we reject these profits-before-people ethics, we often show up to community carrying an internalized version of the commodity based exchange-economy.

Most of us want this to be a fair trade. We want the good that we know community can give us, but we don’t want to give up too much for it, and we certainly don’t want to give any more than we’ll be getting back. But if we want true community, we have to make a conscious choice to make the radical shift to a love ethic.

Before the sermon we heard words from bell hooks on love ethics. She reminds us, “Living by a love ethic we learn to value loyalty and a commitment to sustained bonds over material advancement. While careers and making money remain important agendas, they never take precedence over valuing and nurturing human life and well-being.” Sometimes a love ethic means moving to a town you don’t love to be close to your family. Sometimes a love ethic means not taking the better paying job that also means more time away from your loved ones. Sometimes a love ethic means spending a whole weekend helping a friend move or going to a two year old’s birthday party even though you’d really rather not.

The first time I encountered this idea of love ethics was in reading bell hooks’ book All About Love several years ago and in the time since this book has become my Love Textbook. It has been an important book for me precisely for the reasons that bell hooks testifies: we are not born inherently gifted at the skill of loving well, and our culture so often fails to teach us, therefore we must consciously make ourselves students.

Coming to loving community, we may be able to imagine what we are seeking, but have no idea where to begin to create it. I certainly find myself in this position often. Earlier, we also heard bell hooks’ argument for a common definition of love, and the definition she proposes from M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled: Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

Perhaps the most important part of this definition is the word will. Will implies choice. Love is a choice we make, so is community, and it is not a one-time choice. In racial justice work, you might hear the phrase “you can’t be passive on a moving train,” used to explain the idea that in a society with such profound structural inequality, it is not enough to think simply well, I believe in equality and justice, and sit still. We’re all on a moving train, and if we’re passive then we are perpetuating injustice. We must deliberately and daily choose to fight against the forces that perpetuate violence in injustice in our world.

The same is true of love, and of community: it’s not a one-time choice. We can’t simply say “Well I believe in community,” or “Wow, I found this great community,” and then sit still on a train that’s driving us away from each other. We must make a practice of choosing community, and of choosing love. We must do it deliberately and every day.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a friend say “I’m looking for community and I just can’t seem to find it,” as though a community were some sort of lovely treasure that we’re going to stumble upon one day while we’re out walking the dog. I have often myself wished that community was something more like this, something permanent and solid, like a silver pocket watch or a stone that fits in the palm of your hand. We like to talk about love and community as a noun, I propose that we must consider community as a verb. Community is something that we do. If running is our spiritual practice, we know that we have to put on our running shoes and go to the trail and run not just once, but every day. Likewise, we have to continue to show up and practice community if we are going experience this interconnectedness that we all desire.

I’m not blind to the fact that being in community is sometimes unpleasant and often inconvenient: In the time since I chose this topic for this sermon, the collective house where I live experienced a week so difficult that I questioned whether I am even qualified to be talking about community at all. But if we look at any other spiritual practice – running, meditation, hiking – we know that the good part only comes if you stick through the part that’s terrible. Meditation doesn’t work if you get up the first time you feel bored, and any runner can tell you that you get the runner’s high until you’ve slogged for just a little bit longer than you thought you could bear.

One of the major historical conflicts of human communities worldwide is nicely summed up by a sign that hung for a time above the sink in the kitchen of the Birdhouse Community Center in 4th and Gill. It read: Are you leaving your dirty dish here? That’s fine! Just write the name of the person whose job it is to wash it for you in this blank. I am very familiar to the experience of walking into a community kitchen and thinking I will not continue to live if I have to wash one more dish.

This is when our capitalist ethic is quick to provide a convenient alternative: You’d be better off without those other people. You should purchase a house with a dishwasher, and then you won’t even have to wash your own dishes. Your life will be so convenient and you will finally be happy. It is a very tempting sales pitch, especially when you are looking at a sink full of dirty dishes for the 52nd time this month. It can be very tempting to throw in the towel, and walk away.

These are the moments when our practice becomes meaningful, when we are frustrated and fed up and we want to quit. This is when the responsibility is ours to create the lived reality of the values we aspire to. And while I have nothing against convenience, it is important to notice what we give up in exchange for it. We have to recognize that like any practice, a practice of loving community does not become meaningful until we have stuck with it when it got hard, which in some cases is every day.

Tomorrow night we welcome Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost on their #ReviveLove tour, a collaboration with the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, Black Lives Matter, and Showing Up for Racial Justice. The concert promises a powerful musical experience as well as political and spiritual sustenance for Movement. Caitlin Breedlove, the campaign director at Standing on the Side of Love, recently wrote an article called “Why Movements need to Revive Love” in which she speaks to the hard work of loving in community: “In my own life, loving has not been a set of syrupy experiences. Loving has been the hardest work of my life […] Love has asked me to stay in it with someone or something: to do things that are scary or boring. It has asked me to intervene or interrupt broken patterns in personal and movement relationships. It has made me come back after making humiliating mistakes. Love has made me more faithful to what I believe in word and deed […] Sometimes when I talk to groups about Movement Building and Love I ask: ‘Who here has ever really loved someone? Changed a million diapers or spent long nights by a hospital bed in the name of that love? Who here is a better person because of loving another that way? What if we loved our movements that way?”

This community that is TVUUC knows a lot about love. Many of us have loved this church through some of the hardest times a community can face. When I was most of the way through with this sermon, it occurred to me I ought to re-read our church covenant, which is if you ask me the cornerstone of deliberate community, and my thesis was right there in the last line: we covenant […] to understand that building our beloved community requires ongoing learning and practice of courageous acts of love and reconciliation.

I’m not saying you have to wash the dishes. I’m just saying we have to keep practicing. As uncomfortable as our conflicts can be, as frustrated and fed up and burnt out and tired as we get, I know that the best moments, the moments when I feel most loved and connected to my community and Creation, are the moments when we wanted to give up but we didn’t. When all we had to offer was showing up, and we showed up hungry, but we showed up anyways.

Readings:

From All About Love, bell hooks

Our confusion about what we mean when we use the word “love” is the source of our difficulty in loving. If our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of loving would not be so mystifying. […] The word “love” is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb. I spent years searching for a meaningful definition of the word love, and was deeply relieved when I found one in the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s classic self-help book The Road Less Traveled […] he defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Explaining further, he continues: “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

TVUUC  Congregational Covenant  

We covenant with each other, promising our goodwill and honest effort, pledging our care and support to one another and to our church community, challenging one another to live in accord with our Unitarian Universalist principles.

With this common purpose as our source, we covenant:

to welcome all who come to us with acceptance and respect for the differences among us, and to remain open to the richness and discomforts of diversity;

 to listen with sincerity and love;

to foster trust, practice patience and speak one’s truth directly and with compassion;

to reflect carefully about the potential results of our words and actions before we speak or act;

to assume the positive intent of others and keep our discussions to topics and issues rather than personalities;

 to acknowledge that we may not always agree with the group decisions, but we will support and participate in decision-making processes that are collaborative and democratic; and be open to compromise;

to pursue mutually satisfying resolution when there is disagreement, and seek help when needed;

to speak directly to those with whom we have disagreements and encourage others to do the same;

to speak out with loving kindness when we witness disrespectful interactions, acknowledging our fallibility and practicing forgiveness;

to act with loving kindness, seeking to promote justice, equity, and compassion;

to understand that building our beloved community requires ongoing learning and practice of courageous acts of love and reconciliation.

From All About Love, bell hooks (on love ethics)

Commitment to a love ethic transforms our lives by offering us a different set of values to live by. In large and small ways, we make choices based on a belief that honesty, openness, and personal integrity need to be expressed in public and private decisions. I chose to move to a small city so I could live in the same area as family even though it was not as culturally desirable as the place I left. […] Living by a love ethic we learn to value loyalty and a commitment to sustained bonds over material advancement. While careers and making money remain important agendas, they never take precedence over valuing and nurturing human life and well-being.

I know no one who has embraced a love ethic whose life has not become joyous and more fulfilling. The wide-spread assumption that ethical behavior takes the fun out of life is false, in actuality; living ethically ensures that relationships in our lives, including encounters with strangers, nurture our spiritual growth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Bad

Frequently, I find myself walking past the lit up display of movie posters on the side of the theater downtown. While I haven’t been to see a movie since my son was born (a year ago), I didn’t really go to see movies before that, and even when I did it was generally at the theater that favors independent film and documentary. Blockbusters have rarely had any appeal to me.

But one day a few weeks ago I was walking down this familiar stretch of sidewalk, one of the lit-up posters was for “Bad Moms.” The poster shows Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell & Kathryn Hahn with their hands in the air in a gesture of alcohol-induced abandon, at the center of what appears to be a house party in someone’s straight middle class home (white walls, crisp beige curtains, etc.). The image is full of half-drunk beers & open liquor bottles, and one of them even holds a can of whipped cream.

I laughed out loud. That looks like a movie I need to see.

For months I had walked past these billboards without seeing a single film I could even basically relate to, but this image of three moms getting wasted in the name of independence and freedom hooked me immediately. Bad Moms, that’s me.

A few days ago, I got a babysitter for Joseph and my friend took me out on his motorcycle for the evening. Even though I know that I am a steady and responsible mother who works an office job at a church (the least bad job I can think of) and spends her evenings scrubbing crusted over pureed peaches off the high chair, it’s impossible not to feel like a rampant badass on a motorcycle.

Riding down the road next to the river, the sun setting behind the city on the horizon, the wind just warm enough on your skin, the engine rumbling – it’s every bit as exhilarating and romantic as my fifteen-year-old-girl self fantasized. We stopped in the middle of downtown and I had to try really hard not to look around to make sure someone saw how cool I looked getting off the back of this vintage motorcycle, taking the helmet off and shaking out my hair, walking across the street like we own the place. We bought some beers and drank them in a park after dark, an act which has a delicious resonance of non-legality, but which really lacks any quality of meaningful disobedience.

Recently I’ve been wondering what this is, this desire to be bad. What is this glorification of badness about?

Raised in a white middle-class home, I was afforded every comfort, convenience, and opportunity. For as long as I can remember, it was taken as fact that I would finish High School, go on to college, choose a career, and produce for myself a stable and comfortable lifestyle like my parents had.

This is, I think, the standard of excellence that our culture offers us. The American Dream, as they call it. A good single-family home and a good job and a good husband and two cars and two kids and a labrador retriever, and if you can manage to be a good citizen and volunteer a few hours for some uncontroversial local charity on the weekends then you get a gold star.

The only alternative presented to us is to be bad. Being bad means primarily, as far as I can discern through my (albeit somewhat limited) observation of mainstream media: staying out late partying, indulging in as many vices as you can lay your hands on, practicing recklessness and abandon. It means shucking off security and stability, not giving a shit, generally doing whatever you want whenever you want, and making sure to never grow up.

I have heard people call this freedom. We don’t want to get tied down to a job/house/partner/kid, because what if we want to travel/move/sleep with someone else someday?

To be clear, I don’t have anything against practicing a bit of recklessness and doing what you want. There’s a lot of good to be had from those things when they’re done well. I think good vs. bad is a false choice. If we don’t want to accept outright the values and expectations of our culture, we don’t need to be bad, we just need to invent a new definition of good.

To me, one of the most radical things we can do in our world is fight to create a happy life for ourselves, one where we feel safe and secure and stable and loved, to take care of ourselves, to be good. To me, this is freedom.

This lesson took me about 15 years to learn. From the first moments I was able to look critically at the world we live in, I knew my path would run counter to the mainstream and my nature is such that I have taken this to the limits of my imagination.

I have been as bad as I could manage, in as many different ways as I could invent. I have stayed out until the bar closed only to ride my bike home, sleep for three hours, get up and go to work. I have chosen to sleep in a tent or a barn, to spend winter with no heat, to eat only what I could scavenge. I have not taken care of myself. I have cultivated a lack of stability in my material life and my emotional life, I have chosen partners who cannot or will not commit to me or love me, I have systematically sabotaged my ability to excel at my work and my creative pursuits.

I have made meaningful choices as well. I have organized and protested, I have grown food and commuted on a bicycle, I have painted murals and worked to build community. But somehow I have always chosen to leave out the part where I also take care of myself. The part where it’s okay to be happy.

There’s something else at play here, and it turns up most often and most profoundly in my choice of partnerships. I choose people who treat me badly, who cannot commit to me, who are unstable and needy and struggling. There is more than one reason that I do this, but one of them is that I have internalized badness. I believe that I am bad, and when a person believes that they are bad there is a certain kind of pleasure when that idea is reinforced.

When a child in a school system is labeled as a “bad kid” they almost always internalize this message, even if it is never explicitly stated. When everyone always anticipates you behaving badly, it’s hard to imagine anything else. So you keep behaving badly, and the self-image continues to be reinforced and your understanding of reality is maintained. Likewise, I tend to believe that I am bad, so when I find someone who treats me that way I get a certain satisfaction, a certain level of comfort when my negative self-image is reflected back at me. In my life, this has presented itself in a string of partnerships that run the gamut from just-not-knowing-how-to-love-somebody all the way to domestic abuse.

What I’m describing is that old adage You get the love you think you deserve. And while I resist the way this statement puts the responsibility for abuse on the shoulders of those being abused and the responsibility for mistreatment on the shoulders of those being mistreated, I’ve seen the truth of it in my own experience. I’d even extrapolate to say that in some cases (like those in which folks who were raised in privilege choose to instead create instability and suffering): We get the life we think we deserve.  

There’s a certain kind of safety in not trying too hard at happiness. If you set out to fail then it’s not so bad when you fail. If you set out to be good and you fail at it, then you’re faced with your inadequacy.

So let’s create a new definition of good.

Being good is different for me than it is for you, but at the heart being good means self-care. Too much of the time we dilute this idea of self-care to mean splurging on a $4 bottle of kombucha every now and then or maybe taking a hot bath when we’re worn down. Those are fine and good things to do, but what I’m talking about is a radical restructuring of our priorities in the way we create our lives.

It is not a new idea that if what we want is a more just and loving world, we have to learn first how to be just and loving to ourselves, and that means rejecting our culture’s versions of good and bad both and instead forging a path straight through the middle – following what’s in our heart to live a life that makes us happy.

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