Standing Right In Front of Love

20140628_205710I draw the title of this post with great appreciation for and no offense meant to Jason Shelton who wrote the song “Standing On the Side of Love” or to the hallmark social action program of the same name in the Unitarian Universalist denomination that is currently celebrating 5 years of bearing witness as part of our faith.

Last night, I had the accidental fortune to be right in the thick of the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly “Worship, Witness and Waterfire” event that was the centerpiece of the Saturday happenings.  I say accidental because I hadn’t intended to go.  I had a dreadful headache that kicked in during an incredible late afternoon presentation by Sister Simone Campbell as the Ware Lecturer for this year’s general assembly. Despite my headache, I was completely blown away by her commitment.  I’ve followed her and the Nuns on the Bus for a while and have regularly looked to Catholic nuns as some of the deepest inspiration as a group of people who genuinely “bear witness” in so many different ways.  I think of my friend Sr. Joann Heinritz who is committed to body work and sharing the need for human contact with people who are denied touch through her own hands-on work as a massage therapist, working with people from all walks of life, doing footwashing and healing with homeless people, simply because it needs to be done.

Following, Sr. Campbell’s beautiful talk that included her reflections on bearing witness of people in real pain both in traditional war zones and the war zone of the United States southern border, I took some time to tend to my headache in a dark room that was just in earshot of the “worship” portion of last nights festivities.  I heard spirited singing and the word love bandied about with abandon.  My head was swimming with Sr. Campbell’s words “walk willing toward trouble” and I found myself questioning how easily Unitarian Universalists are talking about love at this General Assembly.  What does the word “love” mean?  I’ve spoken with many people at this gathering (both young and old) who are questioning what feels like a surface engagement of the love ethic.  The singers and musicians in the service are all extremely talented good friends and I don’t mean to take anything away from their gifts or their efforts, but for me and many of the others who are questioning how this has all landed, “love” is always a verb; it means nothing outside of action: where you choose to live, what you say and do, who you support, how you engage your community and those around you…even how you exist in your own body.  Evangelicals who preach “good news” praise-type worship always include a call to action or a challenge as to whether one has been living the word of Christ good enough.  You will never see a congregation of that kind simply singing about love to itself; it is always about love focused with a purpose, usually outward.  We may not follow Christ, but we also want to be challenged.  We want to be called to action…every single time.  As another attendee mentioned, you can’t just make the announcement about letting the people with mobility issues leave the arena once at the beginning of the conference…you have to do it every time.  Although singing about love is good, the real “witness” always depends upon where one is actually willing to stand. 

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Street Dancers…amazing!

I eventually took myself out of the stadium and made my bleary eyed way toward the busses back to my dorm.  As it would happen, the busses were running only sporadically.  Long story short, I realized that it would be better for me to just stay put until after the Waterfire event that would be happening nearby on the river.  This was to be the “witness” portion of the activities and I realized that I had the opportunity to actually witness, the witness.  I readied my camera and walked toward the event.  As I arrived I noticed a broad range of locals gathering.  There were young and old, black and white, different languages…it reminded me in some ways of the block parties we used to have in New York in the early 70’s.  There was a very real innocence to those parties where everyone from every walk of life came together without biases or bigotry, just to enjoy being in community.  And everyone was equal.

As I arrived at the main basin where the event was happening where there would be fire accompanied by music right on the water (hence the name ‘Waterfire’) I noticed that the front of the area closest to the water was cordoned off.  I thought at first that this was for safety.  The ‘braziers’ where the fire would be lit were large and when lit would probably send up a fairly huge conflagration.  But I soon realized that this was actually a “reserved” standing area and that it was for the Unitarian Universalists.  As I watched, this empty area closest to the action steadily filled with yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” shirts with the help of security and ushers who moved non-UUs out and moved credentialed UUs in.  I watched yellow shirts push past, walk around and yes, even climb over residents who had been waiting for up to 2 hours to see this event.  From my vantage point among the local crowd, what was intended to be a “witness” turned into more of a “display” and somewhat of a distraction.

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One of the “viewing” areas before the UUs showed up…

I believe that our organizers had the best of intentions.  They were aware of a local event that is unique and beautiful and they wished to find a way for the denomination to show up in force to affirm this gathering of a community.  We are often reminded that “just showing up” is the first and most important step to offering solidarity. But one must also be mindful of how one shows up.  Sr. Simone, as with many Sisters, does not wear a habit.  Traditional garb can be a useful tool, both for safety and for sending an important message, so not wearing the habit is not only personally liberating, but it is situationally liberating.  However, I’ve been told by Sisters that when they wear the habit, there is also an expectation of behavior that goes with it that can become a distraction and hindrance to their work when they are pushing the boundaries of love in which they believe.  I was shown another example in a lecture earlier this year with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence where I heard them make this same important claim.  Their “battle drag” is part shock value, part theater and part toolkit.  It is intentional and never taken for granted in the many privileges (and vulnerabilities) it brings them in their work.  When I see Unitarian Universalists show up at a local event in bright goldenrod t-shirts, I question how well we’ve thought out the “how” behind the way we are showing up?  At the Waterfire event, were we showing up because we want to be with the people of Providence or are we showing up because we want to be seen and get a good seat?

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The same area after the UUs showed up.

In order to ‘walk willing toward trouble,’ I think it is important for Unitarian Universalists to understand first that we don’t always need a banner to tell everyone.  Certainly it is useful when marching on Washington, supporting Moral Mondays, gathering in solidarity with local hotel workers protesting union policies…places where our visible presence makes a difference to media and people who aren’t engaged looking on.  But when “witness” is asking a community to welcome our support of their efforts, it is easy to stumble over the line of show boating.  One of the great lessons I learned as a massage therapist and that continues to be important for me in ministry is the ability to simply be present with people.  As an organization, we could learn more about this delicate balance.  We need to always show up, but without an agenda, and instead with open hands that say to those who have asked us, “please use me as you most need, I am willing to walk with you toward trouble.” That is love.

Breathing Deeply

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This poem was presented as part of the Love and Change: A Journey of the Spirit session at UUA General Assembly on June 27, 2014

No one needs to tell you to breathe.

You don’t need permission,

For you are already breathing.

You have been breathing your entire life outside of the womb.

You know very well how do to it without instruction,

You will continue to breathe until it is time to stop.

You may naturally have short breaths,

Or long and slow.

They may be uneven

Or ragged.

But you are already breathing…

And you can journey back with that breath

Before you had that head cold,

Or bronchitis.

Before being out of breath from a run or trying to catch a bus or train,

Before the breathing as you gave birth,

Or the gasps and sobs of joy or sorrow.

Journey back to your first breath,

Back to that first rush of air,

Maybe sudden, maybe gradual…

But back to that first moment, 

That affirmed your presence in the physical world.

Inspired by something divine, unimaginable,

Scientific, profound.

Accompanied by a giggle or a gurgle or a cry.

Your first breath.

It was sweet and fragrant,

With all the smells of fertility and life unleashed,

Burning with anticipation of all that future breaths would bring.

Because each breath was sure to bring change.

Your first breath.

Let your next breath bring you back

To your first breath,

When the world became new.

Let your next breath

Be your first breath

Full of joy and pain.

Let the next breath

Be the first breath.

Let it change with you.

Let the next breath

Be the breath of your world still becoming new.

Let Him Cry

Another shooting.

100_8700While I was waiting for my laundry to finish this morning, I sat in my car writing.  Across the street from the laundromat is a residential care facility.  I’ve often sat in this spot and I watched as women, who I will assume are mostly Muslim (by their headgear) and possibly immigrants, walk in to this facility also wearing the typical care facility garb of scrubs and comfortable shoes.  This morning, I realized that in all the time I’ve looked at this place, it hadn’t registered in me that there are people living there, and possibly living out the end of their lives there.  I thought of the vibrant world around this place: gentrifying hipsters, long time black, Latino and Asian families, young people on skateboards, politics, street fairs, muggings, joggers, commuters, busses, bikes, all literally passing this place by and with it the people inside.  The women in scrubs, caring for each, maybe doing their jobs well, maybe not
, but doing what they can to both earn a living and to actually accomplish some small part of caring for someone who cannot care for themselves.  And it made me cry.

There was a recent article (PolicyMic, May 15 2014 – Eileen Shim) that looked at the quality of tears based on why they were being shed.  Rose-Lynn Fisher goes into wonderful detail of this phenomenon on her website. As I recall there were several types that were easily identifiable, but never did it mention the tears of mixed emotions.  My tears would have been a good sample for this.  Seeing this care facility, my tears were angry…that there weren’t bigger windows or more family visiting; my tears were touched by the dedication of the staff who may not be making more than minimum wage to deal with the messy bodies and emotions of the sick and dying; my tears were filled with sadness…for the families that had been lost by the people inside, whether physically or lost in the lack of commitment from others for their care; and my tears were the memories of having seen my own mother in such a care facility.

The first shooting death of 2014 in Oakland was a 13 year old boy.

When I was a little boy, I was a “cry baby.”  I was constantly criticized for responding to every challenge and every confrontation no matter how small, with tears.  It was eventually impressed upon me that this was inappropriate behavior for a “man” and I remember consciously turning off that part of my reaction and suppressing my tears, adding a healthy dose of guilt and shame to my natural reaction.  Nevertheless, I learned how to be remote and stoic.  Never mind that I also became an enormously angry teenager who channelled that anger into compulsive and destructive levels of over achievement, often pushing himself well beyond his physical limits.  Never mind too that I developed esophagitis and the early stages of an ulcer.  

All of this changed a few years later one day in college when the movie Diva was shown on campus.  In the scene where “La Diva” and the young man walk around Paris to the haunting melody by Vladimir Cosma (Sentimental Walk) there was something triggered in me; the combination of the tune, with the lonely light and the two characters in their shared isolation…it made me bust out sobbing.  It was the first time I had really cried in 7 or 8 years and something in me said that I shouldn’t let it be the last.

Having so consciously cut this part of myself off  and then just as consciously reclaiming it, I have thought a great deal about what happens inside me when I cry ever since.  Something happens within all of us when we cry.  I suppose we try to hide it because it can be as intimate yet universal as a sexual orgasm.  It bubbles to the surface, it swells and wells up until it bursts in us and we can’t and don’t want to stop it.  Yet, terrifyingly, it can also feel so much like falling.  There is an uncontrollable feeling of cascading that comes with surrendering to the emotions that bring tears.  But where do we land?  This is the trouble for men.  Our culture doesn’t tell boys and men that it will catch them when they fall down this well of tears.  In so many ways, men are asked to bargain with society in order to justify their emotions and that bargain rarely includes tears. 

Tears for Western men are a sign of weakness; that is, not being physically strong enough to overcome the emotional tide of tears is contradictory to our misshapen male identity.  With the extreme emphasis put on men to have a monosyllabic physical strength, there is no place for that strength to be vulnerable.  Be strong = hit, push, run, jump, lift.  But if that physicality shows any opening to the inner world (dance, sway, rock, hug, kiss) our culture looks at it as a hole that should be plugged, like an opening in the hull of a boat.

74 school shootings in 18 months; almost all young white males; mostly teenagers; We are training killers.

I remember well the feeling I had in high school before my Diva moment.  I used the word “trapped” to describe it.  I felt as if there was no way out, that even once I graduated, I would be stuck in a way of living, on a path that I hadn’t chosen.  Always, I had this feeling as if I was supposed to be living up to an ideal “male” pattern that I increasingly didn’t fit within/live up to.  I hated that feeling.  I imagine that with all of the images of “ideal” men with all of the talk about what men are supposed to be and with all the competition for increasingly fewer resources of all kinds, young men today must be in a constant dance between devastation and desperation.  I can’t imagine being told to not cry in those circumstances.

But, we are too familiar now with the images of fathers crying on newscasts; the fathers of teenage boys who have been existing in today’s pressure cooker of a world, being told to “suck it up” and “man up”, not maybe in so many words, but in the shape of a world that still looks to Superman as the male ideal.  We are all guilty of creating this generation of murderers.  Every time we defend a classic “strong silent” type or tell a boy to be a “man” and assume that that means somehow acting less vulnerable.  Every time we look the other way when a parent puts a tool instead of an experience in a boys hands….a bat instead of a flower.  Every time we joke with our teenage boys about objectifying girls and women.  Every time we use the word “fag” as a term of derision; and definitely every time we tell a boy or a man either through our own embarrassment or actual words to stop crying.

1 Samuel 20:41 – After the boy had gone, David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together – but David wept the most.

The Bible is full of men crying and expressing themselves.  I don’t recall a single passage where the Bible says “thou shalt not show emotion if you have a penis.”  Quite the opposite.  Men express joy and love (even for one another) and frequently cry to God, to Christ, with other men with women…

How can we re-imagine a male equation that no longer holds on to emotion?  Like canned goods in the sun, boys and men without emotional outlets (beyond anger) are bound to explode some day: maybe in dangerous behavior, or in aggression toward those who are weaker, or in a career spent proving ones “manhood” over and over and over again.  Or maybe they will literally explode in the chamber of a gun.

For God’s sake, why can’t we just let him cry.