A Life Lived Well

October 22, 2012

When I was in Kindergarten, I had a bit of a breakdown. I felt like I was not moving through my letter books fast enough. The other children were slow to learn the ABCs and I already knew them and we needed to move it along. I dropped out of Girl Scouts in third grade because I got so preoccupied with getting as.many.badges.as.possible as fast as possible that I could not enjoy it. Or get anything out of it.

It goes on. In seventh grade, it was getting to be the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. As fast as possible. And making them better. Fast. By high school, it was starting to take college classes. Filling out the resume for college. After a full scholarship to my undergraduate school, it was getting more majors. And more awards. So I could go to the best graduate school. After getting into a graduate program at Harvard, it was getting into the doctoral program at Harvard. Then passing exams. With distinction. Then writing a dissertation. I wouldn’t just be spiritual or religious or involved in my church, I would be ordained. Soon it was getting a job. After getting a tenure track job, the big concern has been the getting a book contract. And being the.best.professor possible. I want my students to love learning, love the class, love me, become good citizens, become good thinkers. Somewhere in there: Get married. Buy a house. Have a baby.

I am tired. If I stop to think about what a good life looks like, I hardly know. When I am with my son, who I want more time with, I am worried about when I can clean the house. Or get back to grading. As the trees change and the air is perfect, I look out the window from Starbucks with my overly sweet drink and write more comments on the papers that my students will probably never read. As I apply for grants and funding, my screen blurs together and I wonder what I am doing. I pour over our budget and wonder how we can make what we do and still come up short at the end of every month. What are we doing all of this for if not to be able to pay our bills and have a good, peaceful life, right? A PEACEFUL LIFE, goddammit.

Sometimes it can feel like we are caught in a hologram… but there is no red pill, no way to step out of it, to snap out of it. I think about what I should do to get out – meditate, go to yoga, take time to be present, make better plans, manage time better, get therapy, read more books or better books, and I just add these things onto my to do list and run from meeting to class to meeting, somehow feeling good about myself as I ease the pain with the balm of doing.

I tell my students there are few important easy choices in our lives – as individuals, as citizens. And there may not even be a choice. We are formed over time and our brains develop little pathways and we do not undo this in a day or a night or by getting saved or by making definitive decisions that we really mean this time. We undo or redo this slowly, the way that we have been done up by our universe. Moment by moment. Dragging ourselves back from the chaos into the memory of what we all long for, aware of the cliche and the unoriginality of our desires.

These things are not changed by quotes we tape to our computer screen or put on our pinterest wall, we know, as we hurriedly find better pithy and inspirational quotes and clearer places to post them.

Perhaps this is my draw to God and grace. The idea that we are loved and ok always. From before time and until after time. No matter what we do. We want to believe it, but like the alcoholic who just has one more drink, and feels that emptiness and pain melting away, we put one more good line on our resume. One more grant or book or job or success. And we are good, right? Doing the right things. Right?

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Still here

September 7, 2010

Even though my blogging has slowed from a trickle to little, rare droplets, I still write posts in my head and long to reenter blogging both to have a place to work out my own thoughts and to rejoin the rich conversations of the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere. I am at South Station preparing to take the commuter train home after my first full day of teaching where I rambled rambled rambled. I so much prefer working all of my thoughts out in written form, reorganizing, editing, and proof reading again, sending out in a careful and safe email where at least my attempts at humor fall flat later, where I do not have to see the lack of laughter.

I am several months into being the president of our congregation, a role that I treasure and, at the same time, wonder what exactly I was thinking in terms of time management. Such is life though, ehh? We follow our callings and our passions and try to fit as much into  life as we can. I am lucky in that our congregation is gracious and supportive, and amazing in that there is minimal bickering, so I am learning a lot, and loving church life even if it was not the wisest choice in terms of being careful not to over-commit.

And, painfully, my general exams for my doctorate are coming up in October. It is my hope, at this point, that I am prepared enough not to fail or at least almost prepared enough not to fail. But I wish I felt solid about them rather than sickly and worried.

And our boy. He is a little person now, not a bundle of baby. He has is own baby doll which we have creatively named Baby. He loves his frog boots and insists on listening to Fat Boy Slim all. the. time. Which was cute, but now I am tired of Rockafeller Skank and Not From Brighton. When I try to put on Natalie Merchant he says no no no nonononono. It is such a joy, though, that he can say what he wants. Cracker. Baby. Mama. Dada and so on. He is at a daycare with goats and chickens, several bunnies, cats and a dog, and he loves loves loves the animals. And there are five other children that love him and rub his head and say Eli Eli Eli Eli. Which still scares him, but it is sweet none-the-less.

My parents, who are now, primarily, The Grand Parents, visited and doted on our boy and cuddled him and read him endless books and put the rocks in the bowl and out of the bowl and in the bowl with him 201,883 times. He ran to the guest room this morning and said, “Where go?” So we miss them.

I have more thoughts. I think about vegetarianism and animals and our recently rescued cat that I don’t really want, and how to handle/think about our fish tank at church and our mouse problem at church, and then more generally, about the 1001 moth larvae I recently killed in my pantry and the ants I kill that crawl around our living room and the spiders that live in our house that I want to move out but I feel really bad smooshing yet I do not have the time to lovingly transport each one of them outside. How to love the earth’s creatures, even little tiny ones that seem gross to me, and still have a house and church that does not crawl with such creatures. How to balance the beautiful look of a fish tank and swimming little magic animals, with the fact that I think they really don’t like it in there and would be happier in the ocean or a lake. I think about the exceptions I make when I eat eggs and the little chickens that suffer quite the life of misery for my breakfast sandwich. I want to do less harm in the world. But it is hard.

I think about how sad I am about all the fear and unkindness and hurt and harm and injustice expressed around the Muslim Community Center near the site of 9/11… How naive I was about the public’s understanding of Islam. And how easy it is to express outrage at such things from my comfortable little life – how little it costs to feel bad about such things and how I somehow probably think that Feeling Bad and Knowing Better somehow at least a little bit absolves me from my complicity with the injustice in our world. It is so easy to write blog posts of lament, preach to the choir, sign petitions and repost things to facebook…. Yet, my middle class, pretty-easy-relative-to-most-lives is contingent on cheap oil, using too much of my share of the world’s resources, and accessing my white, class, pass-as-heterosexual, have-a-Christian-heritage privilege which is all wrapped up in the U.S.’s history and present that produces/reinforces the sort of hysteria we see around Islam, immigration, and race politics around the presidency. I don’t write this to be all dramatic – oh what shall we ever do – but simply to put it out there. I struggle with it. It seems to easy to let me off by just saying we can’t solve everything and do everything, even though I know we can’t, I guess I still feel called to be with the impossibility of living a life of comfort that I want while it does violence, albeit pretty indirectly. My partner and I talk about this all the time – if you are somehow more removed from the harm you cause, are you better than those closer? Or just more easily able to distance yourself from seeing and doing with your own hands the harm that is done for you, from a distance, for a price. I’m not sure there is a terribly good answer. I was touched by someone in one of my classes who is writing a paper and he wrote that he would like to explore thinking about humanity “in ways the depend less on ‘agency,’ ‘autonomy,’…and more on malleability and incomprehensibility – a wounded soul that is also the site where God works.” Maybe I just want to make sense of my profound sense of woundedness and all the woundedness I see, but somehow it feels like a relief to me to give in to the incomprehensibility of it all and hope that God can work there.

This is not meant to be a “downer” post. My life is so wonderful and so rich in so many ways. But I sit with these questions a lot. Especially as I lead in my congregation and in teaching and in raising our little cuddle bug, I am even more aware that my responses to these struggles aren’t just for me, but that they will influence others. I want my life to match my desires for love and justice. It is so much harder than it seems.


What are we to do?

May 7, 2009

My partner is German, and he and his generation dealt with the question of what to say to their parents and grandparents who knew what was happening during the war, but didn’t do anything. How to understand that? What to do with that?

What are we to do with this?

In all, 98 detainees have died while in U.S. hands, with 34 identified as homicides, at least eight of which were tortured to death….

I fear that these numbers are too low, but even if they are exaggerated, one death by torture is too much. How will I respond to my little one, who sleeps on my chest as I write this, when he grows up and asks if I knew of the torture my country was committing? When he asks me what I did? Blogging and sermon-giving and voting and going to a protest and praying all feel woefully inadequate, yet it is about all I can think of. I am so disappointed with my country of citizenship and residence. I have never identified strongly with my country, yet I don’t think that somehow relieves me of guilt by association when terrible things are done by the U.S. government.

I knew of so many bad things in our past… yet somehow for me, systematic torture during my lifetime seems so clear… so obvious… so much like something that I feel we should be able to stop. If this is okay, what is not okay? If this doesn’t provoke outrage… and legal action agianst those responsible, what possibly could?

I find myself increasingly questioning what a democracy is. At what point is a country no longer a democracy? How many human rights and international laws must be violated before a country gives up the right to claim noble values and good intentions and such things as rule of law? I know this is not a well-thought out or well-articulated post. Mostly I just feel despair and sickness and a deep sadness about this. I wanted this nation to do better. To live up to its best self instead of confirming the worst.


Hating Conflict Too Much

January 6, 2009

When I was a little girl and teenager, I fancied myself tough, willing to tell you what you need to know. Somehow in my mind, this was what it meant to be smart or good or the best. Or something.

My dad, on the other hand, would rather eat live mice than confront someone. I remember a particularly dramatic incident when McDonald’s forgot the ketchup for my french fries and my dad thought we should just make do and I thought we needed to DEMAND our ketchup.

But around about age 17, I started to understand where he was coming from. It was often easier and more practical just to agree with someone, or follow the stupid rule than to argue and point out the rule’s stupidity. In a sense, it was a humbling of my own heart. Maybe I don’t have all the answers. Also, I am sure it was part of me being chronically ill for many years – learning how to conserve my energy for the most important things. All sorts of things.

But, it has gotten out of hand. I realize this now. I have known it. It is why I sit in my apartment in Somerville right now at 2:21 a.m. with a heater that doesn’t work correctly, costing us HUNDREDS of dollars each month, yet is not fixed because after several very difficult encounters with the landlords, it has just seemed easier to pay an OUTRAGEOUS heating bill rather than go to court or knock on their door and harass them or to hire a lawyer or whatever it would take to get it fixed. And, the reason I am up at this hour is because our neighbors below us are listening to music on their new stereo drunkenly singing along, and interspersing the sing-alongs with stories that use the word fuck way more than Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone put together. The music is loud enough and has gone on long enough and it is late enough and this sort of thing is frequent enough that it would really be very reasonable to go down and politely ask them to turn the music down. Or the more cowardly version of writing a letter kindly requesting that they don’t play music loudly after midnight.

Of course, they have habitually stolen our mail until we got a P.O. Box (no we did not confront them on this either) and seem capable of at least minor violence and property damage, so maybe not confronting them is the wiser thing.

Still. It is one thing to be kind, gentle, flexible, and easy going.

It is another to put up with very unreasonable behavior over a long period of time.

But the threat of confrontation with really nasty people just seems not worth it. Finding the right balance for all of this is hard.

And I just thought I would write this because I am up anyway and contemplating what I should do about this.

At least they aren’t singing along with the songs as loudly now. Maybe soon they will sleep.

Or not (she writes as the bass is turned up and the transition is made from Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock’s duet to Eminem).

I can’t wait to move to the country. Where there are crickets. And no neighbors below you.

Amen and goodnight.


Thought for the New Year

December 31, 2008

From the essay “Do Not Lose Heart”, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by persevering on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails….

We are needed, that is all we can know….

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.  Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.  It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.  What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing…

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul.  Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.  The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire.  To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both, are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.  Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.  If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

And, I believe, this is all we can do. What we can. Our best. Pushing ourselves to love when it is hard, to be kind, to try to be just, to speak up when we feel called. And to encourage each other in this, with understanding and strength.

On to 2009.

Much peace,
Elizabeth


When there is not a thing you can do

January 19, 2008

The mother of one of the boys I mentor has had a stroke. I have known her for 13 years. Her health has never been good, but it doesn’t make it any easier for anyone. There is no one there to be her advocate – to manage things. When someone in my family is hospitalized, there are enough of us to hold vigil – drinking coffee from the coffee vending machine, telling stories, sitting in silence together – whatever it is we do when we wait and hope together. And always someone who works closely with the doctors – explores the options, makes sure the person is comfortable, attended to. In the case this lovely woman – all of her family has children, no one else to watch the children because everyone works so much, precarious jobs, no car, no money, etc. Just getting to the hospital is an ordeal, much less staying there, going back and forth, negotiating with intimidating white doctors. I HATE living so far away and there is nothing I can do. She is in the ICU and there are blood pressure issues involved on top of the stroke. She has no minister to attend to her either. Sigh. I know that her family is doing all that they can. I know that the young man I mentor is scared and hurting. Sometimes there is just no good way to make things better. And we can only do what we can do. Which isn’t very damn much.


On Kindness, Mindfulness, and Coping With Difficult Situations

January 4, 2008

It is no secret to my friends and family that living in the Northeast has been difficult for me. The weather doesn’t help, but the most difficult thing has been dealing with people being unkind, difficult, impatient, rude, and just downright mean. Let me be clear: I have met MANY wonderful, kind, generous, loving, selfless people here. I am not talking about the absence of amazing people. Rather, the culture of politeness, gentleness, kindness, and patience in everyday situations is just very different from what I have experienced in the Midwest and South, the areas of the country where I am from. I am talking about the general level of kindness, politeness, and respect that I encounter on a daily basis – professional situations, landlords, neighbors, random people I encounter at the store, etc.* Some people think that the kindness and friendliness people find in places like the South is fake or somehow inauthentic. Not me. Give me “fake” friendliness any day over “authentic” rudeness.

But this is not a lament about the culture of everyday politeness and warmth in the Northeast. It is about how we learn to cope with situations that we are not used to and that make us feel bad. Clearly, lots of people find the Northeast/Boston to have a perfectly fine culture of politeness and everyday friendliness and patience (my mom being one of them who is always telling me, “Gosh, I just don’t know what you are talking about, Elizabeth,”when she visits). While it is very hard, I have been trying to practice mindfulness and non-attachment related to these sorts of situations, but in the last few days, they have been accumulating. I find that all my thinking and reminding myself of how want to react to these situations and how I want to feel about these situations doesn’t quite work. My stomach still feels queasy, and it is all I can do not to burst into tears when I think about difficult situation x, y, and z involving unkindness, gruffness, lack of empathy, and selfishness. Like I told my partner today, my zen is being sapped.

What are we to do when we know how we should feel and act about a particular situation, yet we just can’t bring ourselves to feel that way? I tell myself to be mindful, non-attached, calm, to be in the moment, to realize that I cannot control how others treat me, rather only how I react to them. And, I tell myself that all I can do is show the kindness that I seek in my own life, hoping that the anger, or lack of patience, or resentment that people show me, might be gently eased by the understanding and patience I show to them. I work to practice non-attachment – letting go of my need to be treated a certain way, or letting go of my own desire to have others validate or be understanding of me (my driving habits, my work habits, my shopping habits, my mere presence, etc.).

Yet, the last few days have been a good lesson about the ongoing nature of becoming who we want to be. We must also be gentle with ourselves, understanding that we have developed structures of understanding and life-practice that have taken many years to form and, likewise, take many years to un-form. This helps me remember that just as my structures of sensitivity, desire for kindness and gentleness and understanding have developed over many years, so have the structures of impatience, anger, gruffness, and unkindness that cause people to, for instance, yell at me because they think I am putting snow on their sidewalk when shoveling out my car. Perhaps their anger and screaming is okay with them and doesn’t represent any sort of underlying pain or struggle. Or perhaps it does, but they do not yet know where that anger comes from or how to ease it. Either way, learning how to detach from these things that hurt us, and show the sort of understanding and kindness that we would like shown toward us, is a process that cannot take place overnight. It is a journey, something that we must continually be attentive to, understanding that suffering due to attachment to our desires and wants is not something we can or should totally avoid, rather something we can seek to ease with our mindfullness practices, and with time.

May we be gentle on ourselves and gentle with others as we all try to make our way in a very difficult world.

*Please understand that I know that there are plenty of problems with the Midwest and South. I am talking about one particular area that I struggle with and deal with. Of course there are mean, rude, impolite people in the South and Midwest. I am just talking about overall culture here. Also, the difficult professional situations I refer to do not, to this point, include my ministerial ones. In that area, I have been very blessed.