Thursday, October 29, 2009

Diary of a Mad Housewife: Micah and the New Normal (or: William and His Doll are So Yesterday!)

Wednesday was a bit of a comedy of errors.

I decided earlier in the week to finally paint the living room, after living for many months with a big red test swatch on one wall. I had bought a gallon of this test-swatch color, a slightly orangy-red that is very pretty, but not exactly what I want, as it turns out. It makes me feel like I'm in a fun, funky Indian restaurant -- exactly the right color for eating Indian food, but not exactly the right color for doing all the other things I do in my living room. Having already purchased a gallon of it, and knowing that red takes at least three, sometimes four coats to cover, I decided to use the wrong red as a base coat, and then get a gallon of the right red later to finish the job.

So I made Trixie fix herself a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner (meal planning and preparation in the midst of home renovation is not my forte), and then after dropping her off at swim practice, Micah and I headed up Rising Sun Boulevard to my friendly, not-quite-in-my-neighborhood paint store to get that gallon of the right red. We also planned to go to the Wawa for hot dogs. Julie was still at school grading papers, which is pretty much what she does these days, like a machine.

About two blocks from the paint store, it occurred to me for the very first time that it might not be open, and that I really should have checked before driving all the way up there. It was after six, and getting dark, but when we pulled into the lot, the lights were all on, and the door was open! But no, they were about to close. The very nice lady at the counter said I could buy a brush or something small, but I knew there was no chance she was going to mix up two gallons of paint for me (Michael needs another gallon of the special-order lime green I used to paint his living room in the parsonage this past summer.)

I was feeling pretty impressed with myself that I didn't just collapse into a puddle on the floor, and instead decided to make the best of a stupid situation. I picked up a few color chips that I needed, and Micah and I headed across the parking lot to Wawa, where we got hot dogs and chips, and I got a diet Pepsi and he got a strawberry milk.

Now before I can finish this story, there's something you need know about my family that is utterly absurd: we own three cars. Not only that, but two of them are vans. Yes, for all our eco-crunchiness, we are really just a mean, carbon-spitting machine of a family. And we are NOT proud of it. It is utterly stupid. But let me explain.

When Micah was a toddler, I took care of a lot of kids, one baby about twenty hours a week, and several more neighborhood kids before and after school. My natural tendency to righteousness has, in general over the years, melted more and more into humility, and one of the most humbling moments in my life was when we purchased a mini-van. I was humble, but boy was I happy. I loved my mini-van! I loved, and still do love, being the mom who could haul lots of kids around safely, who could pick up other folks' kids from school in a pinch, who could make last-minute plans because there was room, who could take a van-load of kids to the zoo or the aquarium on days when there was an early dismissal. I still love nothing more than a van full of kids, a bag of snacks and a knitting project or a book so I can ignore the kids whenever we arrive at our destination. My silvery-blue Honda Odyssey has a big spooge of yellow and green gunk on the carpet in the back that I think was once silly putty; it's always really really messy, even though I clean and vacuum it pretty regularly; it's scratched and nicked and dented all over the place, especially the back bumper because I'm a terrible parallel parker. That bumper has three bumper stickers on it, all faded and nicked up: "Lactavist," "God Bless the Whole World, No Exceptions," and "I Believe in the Separation of Church and Hate." Yes, I love my van. It has made me humble but oh-so-happy.

We tried being a one-car family for awhile, but we just failed. It's really stupid too, because Julie works just four miles from our house. But there's no reliably safe way to get there by bike, it's just a little too far to commit to walking every day, and she would spend an hour on three busses to get there by public transportation. There's no one in our neighborhood to car-pool with, and it was a lot of extra driving and time and coordination for me to drop her off and pick her up, especially since she generally tries to get to work pretty early. So several years ago we bought the "new" car, as Micah still calls it, a 1989 boxy silver Toyota Camry. Our friends thought we were nuts, and being taken for a ride by a smarmy used car salesman, but as it turns out, it really was the dreamed-of little-old-lady car -- you know, the one that the little-old-lady drives to church and the grocery store once a week and that's it? It had something like 50,000 miles on it, and the little-old-lady was the mom of the car dealer, so it had been meticulously maintained, with the whole maintenance history faithfully recorded and tucked in the glove box. We got it for something like $3500, and it was the best car buy ever. We've put a little bit of money into it, but it is an utterly reliable around-town vehicle, and we love it.

And then about a year ago, Julie inherited a 1989 VW Westfalia camper van from her aunt and uncle. Auntie and Uncle Bill took this van on one trip through Canada and then parked it in their garage, where it was used only by squirrels for fifteen years. We've had our eyes on it forever. It has a pop top and the back seats fold down into another bed. There's a stove and a fridge and little closets and cupboards and it's all very Euro-sleek but in a late-80's sort of way. When Uncle Bill died and Auntie went into a retirement home, their three vehicles got divvied up among their two nieces and their nephew, since they were childless. Without really thinking it all through, we jumped at the VW. Julie,especially, became completely enamored of it. She would come out of stores to find people peering into the windows. Men would stop her in parking lots to ask questions about it and regale her with stories of their own beloved VW's. And there was even a tow-truck driver who took a call for a flat tire after he was technically off duty just because he loves VW's so much.

The plan was to sell the Honda as soon as we got the VW in good working order, which shouldn't have taken very long, because it was actually in pretty good shape. But after years of sitting in the garage, a few things needed tending to. I also demanded that a second bench seat be installed because without it the van only had four seat belts, which made me no longer the mom who can haul lots of kids around. As it turns out, the tending of a 1989 VW camper van can take awhile (and, ahem, a bit more money that we intended), but it was all good, and by this past summer, we did all of our considerable summer travels in the camper van.

But we just keep not getting around to selling the Honda. Which is just profoundly stupid. What is even more stupid is that I keep driving it, because the VW just feels so big and clunky, and it's not my natural inclination to get in it if the Honda is right there too. But the other day when I drove the kids (including several neighbor kids) to school because it was raining, the battery on the Honda was dead. So I took the camper van, like I should have any way, and just left the Honda there for a few days. Until the Toyota started acting a little weird, and needed to go into the shop. Julie took the VW to school, and I called our good friends at AAA, who have never made a single penny on our family, despite the fact that we have the totally top-shelf premier membership. The battery was jumped and I let it run for a long time and much later in the day when I got into the Honda to take Trixie to swimming and then headed up to the paint store, it started like a charm.

But when we got out of the Wawa with our hot dogs and chips? Not so much. This time I really did almost collapse in a puddle on the floor. But Julie talked me down, and then I called AAA again, and this time they just changed the damn battery while Micah and I played "Rock, Paper Scissors" and "One Two Three Four, I Declare a Thumb War" in the parking lot while we watched. And finally, considerably past Micah's bedtime, we headed home with our hot dogs and our new battery, which we had driven all the way up the boulevard to get. But no paint.

On our drive home, apropos of nothing, Micah asked, "Mom, do you like boys or girls better?"

"Hmmm," I thought. "I don't think I could really say, categorically, that I like girls or boys better. There are some things I like girls better for, and some things I like boys better for. For example, I like girls better for marrying, so that's why I'm married to Mama Julie. But for having sons, I like boys better, like you. And for being friends, I really like both boys and girls. So I love being friends with Jennie and Pat and Kate and Jen and Suzanne and Cassie, for example, but I also love being friends with Woody and Joey and Tim and Dan and Pete and Michael and Mark. So I guess I couldn't really say if I like boys or girls better. I guess it just depends."

Micah thought about this for a minute. And then I asked, "How 'bout you? Do you like boys or girls better?"

"Boys!" he declared, without hesitation.

"Oh," I said, "That's interesting. Because Ada and Meg are two of your very best friends."

"Yeah, I like them, but I still like boys better. Nial and Jasper and Ian are my best friends."

"Yeah, they're pretty good friends, aren't they? I'm glad you have such nice friends." And then, just out of curiosity, I asked, "How about for marrying? Do you think you would rather marry a girl or a boy?"

And again, without any hesitation, Micah declared: "A boy!"

And here's the thing: I believe, more and more, that human sexuality is a very fluid thing, and that it's usually not useful to put labels on people until they are ready to put them on themselves, and even then they can change, and that's not only good, it's a beautiful thing. But right now, if you really pushed me, I would probably put money on the chances that Micah will, in fact, marry a girl. But I just couldn't be happier that at six and a half, it still seems perfectly normal and even likely to Micah that he might marry a boy someday. We are so blessed and I am so grateful to live in communities -- neighborhood, church, school -- where boys marrying boys and girls marrying girls is just the new "normal."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Coming Attractions

Last Sunday Michael preached a sermon on James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples who, with a stunning lack of humility, conspired to reserve for themselves the seats of honor on Jesus’ right and on his left in his coming glory. Can you imagine? Wanting to be special like that? Sheesh.

Of course, as Michael suggested in his sermon, we probably all have a bit of that – ambition, a drive to be successful, to be great even – or at the very least, a need to be recognized, affirmed. In its most basic form, it seems to me, this is really just another way of saying that we all need to be loved.

Of course, our need to be loved can play itself out in many ways, some of them not so humble. Often, our need to be loved plays itself out as a need to be loved over and above everyone else, to be greater, better, more special. I mean really, James and John were already Jesus’ disciples for crying out loud! What more could you want?

I doubt Jesus’ response was all that satisfying to James and John, and it can be hard medicine for most of us still today: “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve…” (Mark 10: 43-45) Jesus doesn’t say that we can’t be special, that we can’t be great, but he redefines greatness. As Michael put it, Jesus asks not that we give up our drive to be first, but rather that we turn our drive to be “first in love … first in service.” Michael suggested that Jesus “democratizes ‘greatness’ if you will. Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve…. Beloved," Michael continued, "Service is the rent we pay for the room we take up in this world. Not something we do in our spare time, with what’s left over. But our purpose in life. Everyone can be great. And it’s one of the most beautiful compensations in life that no one can sincerely try and help another without helping himself. The best way to become yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. Everyone can be great. ‘We cannot truly live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a 1000 invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run first as causes and then return as results’ (Herman Melville). Everyone can be great. We can’t foresee our lives’ twists and turns, but one thing we can know: the ones who live best will be those who’ve sought and found how to serve. Everyone can be great. Children of God, Disciples of Christ, find your real job, and do it. Understand real success and go for it. Everyone can be great. Amen.” (Michael Ward Caine, sermon to Old First Reformed United Church of Christ, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 18, 2009)

I agree with Michael that everyone can be great. I agree that Jesus calls us to a different standard of greatness than the world calls us to, and that Jesus’ standard is how well we love and serve one another.

I agree, wholeheartedly, indeed this is at the heart of my faith as a Christian … and yet, and yet … that doesn’t feel like the whole story to me. Or rather, I should say, that’s not my whole story. And I want to tell you my whole story about service and greatness and my need to be loved. I want to tell you because I think it is sort of easy to be a little polly-anna about how nice and good and right it is to serve others, but I am here to tell you it can be pretty fucking hard too. And our actions, that “run first as causes and then return as results”? Sometimes the results aren’t what you’d expect. And you still find yourself yearning for a pat on the back, to be special, to be loved.

A couple of years ago I stopped blogging at the wide tent for several reasons. One was that I found myself starting to feel ambitious as a writer, wanting to be read, and recognized, to be one of the important and successful bloggers – but I didn’t like the writer I became when I was motivated by ambition. I felt that my words, in my mouth, on my fingertips, that they were often righteous, and lacked humility, that I was trying to bring craft to my work not so that it would serve others but so that it would reflect well on me. And when I did try to approach my writing with humility, I would just be left wondering, “Who the hell am I anyway? Why do I think I have anything so special to say?” Either way, it was sort of paralyzing.

Another reason I stopped blogging was that I had hit a wall when it came to writing about race and poverty. I was and still am pretty in awe of Dawn’s writing about adoption, and as I have said before, I felt, and still feel, like I don’t have a whole lot to add. But poverty and racism – I felt like I actually did have something to say, and I was tired of the same old predictable white liberal script -- I wanted to break out, and talk about these things in new ways … but again, I just felt paralyzed.

Most importantly, though, I stopped blogging because I took a job, and I just really didn’t have any time. For almost two years, from early in 2007 until late fall of 2008, I became very involved in directing my church’s summer and after school programs for children and youth living in poverty in a neighborhood of Philadelphia called Kensington. By the end of 2008, I had burned through just about everything I thought I knew about myself, and I just collapsed.

Writing again here at my goodly heritage has been wildly theraputic, and while I don’t have all the answers about why I write, and how I write, and what it all means, I do know that I don’t feel so paralyzed any more. I feel like I have emerged with a new voice, and I will admit I like it. I also will admit that I like getting nice comments from all of you. I don’t know if I have more ambition than that right now, but I’m also pretty sure that if I do, it’s okay. And, I think, maybe I’m ready to tell you my story, my complicated story about service and greatness and needing to be loved.

This story is long, and it will most likely unfold over many months. So stay tuned. If you feel so moved, drop me a comment now and again and let me know what you think. I’m not too proud to tell you that it really does make my day!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Some Thoughts on Poverty, Coercion and Adoption

If you haven’t given much thought to adoption ethics and reform (and there’s no judgment in that – most people haven’t), this is probably not the best place to start, because you might feel like you've walked in on the middle of a conversation you don't really understand. Instead, you should pour yourself a strong cup of coffee, say a little prayer (you might need both), and head on over to This Woman’s Work where Dawn writes tirelessly and honestly and personally about adoption. One of several reasons I don’t write about adoption much is that Dawn does it so damn well, and I have little to add. But it’s probably not fair to sit back and let Dawn do all the heavy hitting, and maybe I do have a few things of my own to say. So here I go, dipping my toes in….

The central paradox of adoption, it seems to me, is that it is a joyful and awesome thing that happens, by definition, in a context of profound loss and sorrow. But this alone does not make it problematic; indeed, much of life, it seems to me, is like that. Perhaps slightly more problematic is that the joy and awesomeness on the one hand, and the loss and sorrow, on the other, are pretty lop-sided: adoptive parents get most of the former, first parents get mostly the latter, and adoptive children are stuck in the middle trying to synthesize the two. But even this does not seem to me intrinsically problematic, especially if everyone is doing their work with honesty and integrity.

By which I mean that adoptive parents owe it to themselves and their children to lift up and celebrate the profound and beautiful experience of creating a family through adoption, because it IS beautiful and profound. There is something just extravagantly hopeful and glorious and absurdly against-the-odds about forging bonds that usually begin with DNA, but, as it turns out, don’t have to. But this is only part of the story, and it’s a story that easily sinks into sentimentality and, ultimately, heartbreak, if it can’t exist along side the other story, the story of what was first lost, which is also profound and real and beautiful. Adoptive parents also have an obligation to make room for that other story, and to let it be part of their family’s story, and to give their children tools for coping with that loss.

Likewise, first parents owe it to themselves and their children to, as best they can, find ways to heal their broken hearts and celebrate the families they have helped their children become part of. Under the best of circumstances, in an open adoption, first parents remain part of those families. And if all the grown-ups are doing their work as best they can given the resources they have available to them – in other words, if everyone is doing their work with integrity -- it seems to me that adoption becomes just one of life’s many crucibles, and that it is at least possible for everyone to come out whole on the other side.

I guess what I’m saying is this: adoption is full of joy, and it’s full of pain, and the joy and the pain are not evenly distributed, and that sucks, but none of that, it seems to me, makes adoption intrinsically problematic. That’s just life: it’s full of joy and it’s full of pain, and the joy and the pain are not evenly distributed, and we all have to do the best we can, with honesty and integrity, to, well, do the best we can. And some of us will get wounded along the way even so, and some of us will come out relatively unscathed, and life is just like that.

No, it’s not pain and sorrow and grief that make adoption problematic, it’s that the pain and the sorrow and the grief are all-too-often the result of coercion.

Now, some folks will argue that adoption is, by its very definition, coercive, and that I’m just splitting hairs, but I actually can imagine a scenario in which a first mother truly and freely chooses adoption for her child. It seems to me that it is patronizing and offensive to say that no woman with real agency would ever choose to place her baby for adoption. It strikes me that insisting otherwise is to insist that there is no better life for all women who find themselves pregnant than to raise children, which, it strikes me, is simply absurd. Not all women are meant to raise children, and certainly even women who are meant to raise children are not always meant to raise them at the moment they find themselves pregnant, and while the choice to place a baby for adoption will most likely have serious and life-long implications for any woman faced with that choice, implications she is probably incapable of fully understanding at that moment, nonetheless, to suggest that she should not have adoption as an option as she tries to make the best choice for herself and her baby in that moment …. well, I find that problematic. I believe strongly that adoption free of coercion, just like abortion free of coercion, should be one choice among many for any woman faced with a crisis pregnancy.

But there’s the rub: adoption free of coercion? That, it seems to me, is a rare thing indeed. There’s so much coercion in adoption, and so many others, especially first mothers, have written so much more knowledgeably and eloquently about that than I can. So I just want to think for a little bit specifically about the coercion of poverty. Dawn has suggested, wisely (as always), that a first step to getting coercion out of adoption is to get the money out of the equation, and certainly I agree that if money were less a part of the actual transactions that result in adoption, that would be A Good Thing. I’m not an adoption reform activist, and I can’t promise that I’m going to become one any time soon, but I will certainly throw my voice and my prayers and even my money behind the good folks who are doing this important work.

The problem, though, as I see it, is that even if those good folks are successful and we get the money out of adoption transactions … it still seems to me that whenever poverty is part of the adoption equation, there’s going to be coercion involved. Because poverty is intrinsically coercive. One of my pet peeves is people who claim to be living lives of “voluntary poverty” because one of the hallmarks of poverty is that it’s sticky and profoundly restrictive. Intrinsically involuntary. If you can chose poverty, then you can un-choose it, which means that it’s not really poverty in the first place.

Real poverty? No one chooses that. Because let’s be clear, poverty is ugly and brutal and violent and soul-squashing. And it is not good for children, not good at all. Does this mean that children living in poverty would always be better off living with affluent families? Of course not, because many, many parents living in poverty are able, against so many odds, to be good parents (also, it’s because affluence can be likewise ugly and brutal and violent and soul-squashing, but that’s another rant altogether). But does it mean that some children born into poverty would be better off adopted by more affluent families? Yes, I do believe so.

Of course the best solution would be to end poverty. Of course. Then the coercion of poverty could be totally taken out of the adoption equation. And working to end brutalizing poverty is at the heart of my faith and informs all of my life-style and political choices (so maybe I am an adoption advocate?) But, you know, good luck with that and all, right? Even Jesus said the poor will always be with us, and while I try to do my part, I’m sure not holding my breath. In the meantime, there are families right here, right now, in this “mean time,” families who are stuck in poverty, and the only choices they have are choices that are overshadowed by poverty’s inherent coercion. That’s just the reality of their lives. To suggest that their children are always better off with them is to romanticize poverty and to patronize them. When poverty is your context, often the only choices you have are the best among a lot of bad options. When poverty’s coercion pervades your life, the amount of agency left to you is really small, but it’s what you have, and to exercise it is to exercise the only power you have. To take away that power in the interests of eliminating coercion is itself coercive. That’s what I mean about poverty: coercion is just the sea you swim in. There is no being free from it, there is just doing the best you can to stay afloat. For some women living in poverty, the best choice they can make for their children is to place them for adoption.

There’s so much coercion in adoption, and adoptive parents are responsible for a lot of it. We who adopt have an awesome responsibility to speak out, as Dawn says, to use our privileged place in the adoption triad as a bully pulpit for those who are structurally less powerful. I believe that, and I thank Dawn for being so relentless in reminding me of it.

But the coercion in adoption that stems from poverty? All of us, all of us who don’t live in poverty, aren’t we all party to that? Aren’t we all responsible for that? Well, that's probably a whole other debate, but as for me, I'm pretty sure when it comes to poverty, pretty much we're all implicated (present company most certainly included).

Poverty is one of the hardest things for me to write about. I have tried and failed, tried and failed, over and over and over for several years now. It is one of the reasons I stopped blogging at my first blog, the wide tent – it was time to write honestly about poverty and race, but I just didn’t have it in me. And I’m not sure I do even now. As I read back over this piece, I’m not happy at all – this is exactly the sort of writing I go out of my way these days to avoid: argumentative, righteous, entirely lacking in personal narrative. But to write well – to be vulnerable enough to tell the truth as I live it about poverty and race, much less poverty and race and adoption – I still haven’t figured out how to do that. So I leave you here with this, the best I could do with the resources I have at hand right now.

And really, you should go on over to This Woman’s Work because she’s just fearless.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Cost and Joy of Discipleship: My Resurrection "Problem"

Is it just me, or do you have conversations in your head too? I do this all the time, “talk” to people in my head about all sorts of things. When I’m thinking something through, I guess I need an audience, even if it’s just an imaginary one. That’s the reason I started this blog, really: I love to write, I need to write, but I could never make myself do it just for me, in a journal. But I also have never felt that fire in my belly to get published. Oh, it would be nice, I’m sure, and if someone out of the blue asked me to submit something to a magazine, or offered me a book contract, I would surely say “Yes!” and be thrilled. But that’s not how it happens, and I have never had the stomach for the sort of self-promotion and marketing it takes to be a successful writer. Still, I need to write, and a blog seemed like a way to gather around me a little bit of an audience to make me actually get words on a page now and then. (And as it turns out you, my dear little group of readers, are everything I need and I totally adore you, by the way!)

My friend Gordon says that reading, like writing, is communal, that we always read with someone, even if they don’t know that we are reading with them. I never thought about it that way, but instantly I knew what he meant – I’m always reading with someone or other, a friend who loves this author, or someone who reminds me of a character in the book I’m reading, or a loved one who has sewn themes into my life related to the themes in the book I’m reading. Since I joined Gordon’s book review group, affectionately know as the “Booksters,” I now read just about everything with Gordon, in addition to the other folks I’m reading “with,” because I know at the end of my book I will write a review for him. I love that, having him and all those other folks with me as I read.

My solitude is much like that, very much animated by souls who don’t even know they are with me. As an introvert, I need solitude to stay healthy and whole, but I’m also really a relationship-hound. I love people. I just adore them. I treasure relationships and crave intimacy and am promiscuously affectionate. And though I need to be alone a lot, I find that even in my solitude, I gather my dear ones around me in the form of imaginary conversations. I carry on conversations in my head with just about anybody, whether I’ve met them or not. I can “talk” to my loved ones, of course, but also to authors of books I’m reading, famous people I admire, “friends” on Facebook whom I’ve never even met – it’s how I flesh out ideas, ideas that often make their way here in written form, ideas that are influenced along the way by books I’m reading – it’s all very dynamic, my reading, talking, and writing. (Of course in my imaginary conversations, I’m always incredibly articulate and wise and quite attractively clever and witty, so maybe they also serve a therapeutic purpose, to perk me up when I’m down!)

At any rate, what I realized recently is that I don’t “talk” to people who aren’t alive. My imaginary conversations are really rehearsals, fantasy conversations that I’m imagining, at least theoretically, could really happen. I realized this recently when I was thinking (having a conversation, actually, in my head with someone I don’t even really know) about why prayer is so hard for me. The prayer that works best for me is liturgical, praying the Psalms, even praying the Rosary (though I pray it in a very modified way that would probably horrify orthodox Catholics … though just the thought of me praying the Rosary in any way would probably horrify orthodox Catholics, now that I think about it, so what are you going to do?) But I’m terribly undisciplined about any of that, which, combined with my complete inability to pray meaningful in a “talking to God” sort of way, leaves me without the rich prayer life that I really crave. Okay, so yes, I could just get some discipline about the sort of prayer life that actually does work for me (why is it so hard to just pray the Psalms every freakin day, when I love them so much? Go figure.). But still, this “talking to God” sort of prayer is fascinating to me, but ultimately elusive. Entirely elusive. Which doesn’t really make sense, right, if I’m all about imaginary conversations with folks.

Yesterday after church a small group of us gathered over lunch (broccoli and cheddar quiche made by yours truly and a lovely fall salad from Jane) in the parsonage to brainstorm topics for the adult Sunday school series, and George suggested a series called something like, “What’s Jesus Got to Do With It?” He speculated that there are some folks outside the church who are maybe craving something we have, but can’t quite get themselves to join us because while they sort of get God, they’re just not sure what Jesus adds. What’s he got to do with it anyway? I thought that was interesting, because for me, it’s just the opposite: I’m all about Jesus. Truth be told, I’m kind of crazy about Jesus. But God? I really, honestly can’t wrap my mind around God. No, that’s not right -- I can wrap my mind around God, and I really do believe in and experience God, all the time. But the problem is, I can’t wrap my arms around God – I can’t animate God enough to give God personality and the sort of presence that I can be in relationship with, that I can talk to. So when people try to reassure me that really, prayer is easy! It’s just talking to God! That doesn’t help. Not even a little.

But if you have been reading me even for a little while, you know that Incarnation is central to my faith. I just really love the notion that in Jesus, God shares God’s Godness (I was going to say Self, but like I said, I can’t really imagine God as having a Self) with us all in such a physical, earthy, intimate, bodily way. If you’re a relationship-hound like me, who loves the way we can touch one another not just with our heads and our hearts but literally by touching each other, holding hands, kissing and laughing and laying our hands on one another in gestures of love and healing – if you love all that, well then, Jesus is your boy, right? And eating! Have you ever noticed how central eating is to our Incarnational faith? That’s because bodies need to eat, and it is sacred and good to eat together. It’s no accident that Jesus left us with a meal to recreate himself among us. It’s no accident that Jesus revealed himself in Emmaus through the breaking of bread. So, yeah, I’m all about the Incarnation. (I should note here that none of this about the centrality of bodies and food to faith – not one single bit of it – is unique to Christianity; I just happen to be Christian so that’s the tradition out of which I write.)

So the other day, as I was driving past the Art Museum on my way home from a meeting at church, I was thinking about prayer and why it is so hard for me (okay, again, I was actually having a conversation with one of you! In my head…. all the time, I’m telling you, these conversations are going on in my head). I thought, okay, it makes sense that I can’t “talk” to God, but why can’t I “talk” to Jesus? If Incarnation is really so central to my faith, and I’ve got this man, Jesus, whom I adore, and he’s perfectly embodying God, then why can’t I “talk” to him? At first I worried that I had an Incarnation problem, which would be a real crisis of faith, let me tell you. And then I realized what it was: I don’t talk to dead people. I don’t “talk” to my mom, much as I wish I could, and I don’t “talk” to Thomas Merton, even though I call him my patron saint. I don’t talk to historical figures, and, as I realized winding my way past boat house row, I don’t talk to Jesus. At least not unselfconsciously, not in the way that I can lose myself in imaginary conversations with people who are alive.

I realized then, on Kelly Drive, that my problem with prayer is not an Incarnation problem, but a Resurrection problem. And I will admit that I realized this with some relief. Not because Resurrection is not central to my faith: it is, actually. But, I will confess, I don’t “believe in the resurrection of the body,” much as I love to say the Apostles Creed, and I don’t “look for the resurrection of the dead” even though I love saying the Nicene Creed. I believe in, and experience, the Resurrection of Christ all the time, every day, but not in a way that manifests one body, in the person of Jesus, who is alive in a way that I can “talk” to.

Last night another group of folks from church met for dinner at Bob and Joanna’s house. (I brought salad this time, and there was also chili and baked lentils and awesome chocolate chip-raisin muffins for dessert; and always, with that bunch, good wine and beer). We were there as part of our covenant ministry with Michael, with whom we are embarking on a period of revitalization during which we hope to share our good news with others who need it and are seeking it, but aren’t sure where to find it. Michael asked us a series of questions and we shared around the living room, a wacky diverse group of folks. Among the questions Michael asked us was, What is a central way that we as a church experience Jesus? The discussion was thoughtful and moving and just lovely. Dorothy told the story of coming to the United States as a refugee from Liberia, and against all odds finding a church home with us. Laura told of how difficult for her is Jesus’ challenge that we must become like children to enter the Kingdom, yet when a pack of kids, led by Micah and Meg, randomly and very noisily flew through our discussion, there he was for her. Joe, a long-time UCC pastor, spoke of meeting Jesus in Buddhist practices such as meditation, and Bob spoke of meeting Jesus in the homeless men he works with at our food and clothing cupboard. Bobbie noted that because of her work in the HIV/AIDS community, she could only join her husband’s church after we became Open and Affirming, because acceptance of gay and lesbian people was so central to her experience of Christ. And on and on, one gorgeous story after another.

I was sitting in a chair, with Michael on the floor next to me on one side, and Dorothy in a chair on the other, and for a brief moment I had one of those “movie” experiences – you know, when there’s a sequence in a film where the music rises over the dialogue, and usually the camera does something clever, like zooms out or spins round the circle, and you are meant to experience with the character a transcendent moment? That’s what it was for a moment: pure transcendence. I resisted an urge to reach down and take Michael’s hand, to reach over and put my other hand on Dorothy’s back. And I looked around, as the camera would, not really hearing the sounds of voices for a moment, but seeing these faces of all these people that I just love so very much. And they were shining, I’m telling you. Transfigured. And I actually thought right then about all the petty ways that we can be annoying to one another, and let each other down, and be, well, human, you know? I was acutely aware of that, that these were human people, with very real human foibles, many of which I am well aware, having loved them and struggled in community with them now for over a decade. But in that moment they were all shining and perfect and utterly beautiful. And I thought this! This is it, this is the Body of Christ, this is the Resurrection: all these people I’m talking to all the time in my head.

And I realized then that maybe I don’t have a Resurrection problem at all. And maybe, just maybe, all those conversations I have in my head with all of you, my dearest ones, maybe those conversations are my prayer?

continuing the conversation: on bodies

I'm so not done with this conversation [edited to add link]! But I'm also not sure the best way to keep it rolling ... well, of course, the BEST way would be if everyone could come over for homemade pizza and home brew -- you know, real, live BODIES in a room, eating, drinking, talking, maybe even kissing each other good bye at the end of the evening (have I ever mentioned that eating and kissing are two of my all-time favorite things? Recently I was remembering the very first time I kissed Julie -- it was at the feminist Seder at Earlham in 1987, shortly before we actually started dating, but I'm pretty sure I already had my eye on her. Anyway, it was an all-women's Seder with a feminist Haggadah, and when it was time to hide the afikomen no one was sure what the prize for finding it should be. I suggested that the one who found it got to kiss everyone there, which probably excited the lesbians in the group more than the straight girls, but they cheerfully played along. And of course, I found the afikomen, because really, there was a room full of gorgeous women, and on top of that, one of them was Julie. So what else was I going to do but find it, right?)

Sigh. In the meantime, I thought I would put some of the terrific comments on my last post up and see if that can generate any more of this conversation. I'm also contemplating another post about Jesus, and the problem of resurrection (or at least my problem, it's probably not yours, but when I get my thoughts in a coherent enough fashion to share, I'd love to know what you think.)

So, here's some excerpts with my thoughts in italics below. Feel free to comment further in the comments (and please do email me if you're having trouble with comments; many of you have mention it, and I'd like to help you figure it out. marta(dot)bloem(dot)rose(at)gmail(dot)com.)

From Patrick:

I'm sure I'll be back with more specific responses, but my first reaction is yes, that mind/body split is one I've been thinking about a lot recently as well (and I wonder how much Descartes has to do with the split as we see it now, between mind and body; I would assume Paul saw it as between soul and body, ie. the eternal and the temporal/irrelevant, but I'm shooting in the dark with both of them)... what was I talking about? Oh yeah, as I age, and notice things my body can't do as a performer that it could once, the connection between it and ME is an interesting question. How much am I my body, and how much is my selfness (selfdom? selfitude?) something distinct from my body, or at least from my body as it changes? I could lose a limb (knock wood) and still be ME, I know. Losing my mental capacity in key ways, would that have more of an effect? The people I've met suffering from dementia do seem to be losing themselves in certain ways, but how does that relate to the body? And here I get into my own confusion about the difference between the mind and the brain, and whether there is some part of us that can only be called a soul, and does IT exist separate from my corporeal self... Hmm.

marta: patrick, i hadn't thought about the distinction between "mind/body" and "soul/body" -- in other words, what was i talking about when i set up the distinction as "Self/body," -- is Self mind or soul or both? i'm not sure actually. i will admit that i too can more imagine still being ME in some essential way if i lost a limb than if i lost my mind to dementia. but lately i've been thinking a fair amount about dementia, because julie's aunt is suffering from it and we are pretty involved in caring for her, and while her Self is quite different than it was before, we still feel love toward her -- a sort of fierce love, in fact -- that seems to recognize some very essential part of HER, her Self, that is very much still there. part of it is that her body is still very much with us, but also something else too .... maybe it's not a duality, but a trinity -- mind/body/soul? don't you like how i bring everything back to faith? ;-)

but actually, as i'm writing i'm thinking that in infancy and in very old age, maybe the distinction between/among those elements of our Selves is more blurred than at other times. precisely at the times that we have less control over our bodies, it is at those times that our bodies become more integrated with, more identified with, our Selves. i don't know if that makes sense. i'll think more on that....

From Jeff:

The way I see it, most of human intelligence and understanding comes of an ability to differentiate. I'm fascinated by the evolution that preceded the modern mind (talk about writing out of MY depth) and I keep coming back to our tendency to divide in pursuit of understanding -- letting go for a moment here the issue of "intelligence" and "understanding" being two totally different things (which they TOTALLY are). I think the ability to think, which eventually led to the possibility for self-awareness, began as a very binary function. At some point we figured out how to differentiate between 0 and 1 (or, Fellow Tribesman and Sabre-Toothed Tiger) and, seeing as how useful that turned out to be, we've been applying it ever since. Don't you find that a lot people define what they believe and who they are by what they DON'T believe, by who they AREN'T?

In many ways, I think approaching an understanding of ourselves and the world through an appreciation of the truth of oneness is a pretty good general description of religion. But there I go: separating myself from the world, if only syntactically.

I came to an appreciation of my own body rather late, not until I was an adult, and then I started exploiting it like mad, especially with regard to theatre and circus work. I still suffer from that strange subjectivity that makes us see abundant flaws and often blinds us to the glorious beauty of this corporeal form, but I try to counsel myself with this mantra: It's not about how you look, but what you can do. I realize even this idea will be tested by aging and may not hold for the rest of my bodily rental; still, I find a lot of understanding through it. We are not only our bodies and our souls or intellect, but also our actions. Energy. It's a lifetime of dancing, really -- some of it's just more choreographed than the rest.

marta: jeff, i'm so glad you stopped by, and i really appreciate your kind words. "In many ways, I think approaching an understanding of ourselves and the world through an appreciation of the truth of oneness is a pretty good general description of religion." -- i'm gonna be chewing on this for awhile, i love it so much. "not about how you look but what you can do" -- i'm chewing on that too. i just told jen (my yogini) that what i think is most beautiful about bodies is their functionality -- what they can do. it's just so awesome. but for me, there's this dynamic interplay between bodies and selves -- the more i love someone, the more their body becomes attractive to me, regardless of it's "objective" beauty (whatever that is, because that's just a social construct right?) but i guess what i mean is that i don't really see a distinction between "how you look" and "what you do" because if "what you do" is awesome and beautiful, then it makes "how you look" awesome and beautiful. at least it does for me. lots to think about, thanks!

From Greg:

Bless you, Marta, for making me realize for the first time (maybe ever) that my body's been a pretty amazing friend to me, in gardens, on dancefloors, on stages, bike trails, the workplace and hundreds of other unsung locations throughout our years together.

I really should be kinder to it. After all, it's hardly my body that says, "
Oh, wouldn't you rather sit around and eat fatty foods instead of going out there and getting some exercise?", is it? Thanks for that.

There IS lots in this post to think and write and talk about, so my response is necessarily incomplete, but I'm quite grateful for the thoughts you put in my head...and to our mutual PAL for sending me back to drink of your blog cup again! I really
mustFavorite you this time.

I just love the way you think when you imagine Jesus. He sounds a lot like the guy I've thought he was, too. : )

(PS: My faithful, under-valued bod wants to know why we enjoyed yogurt and dry cereal while reading about you and your cheese steaks. I tried to explain you just put that in there for local color.)

marta: greg: oh, wow, thanks right back to you, because you just made my day! but i think there's just one thing you might be wrong about -- i don't think fatty foods and cheese steaks ought to be set in opposition to getting exercise and being good to our bodies. our bodies love fatty food and cheese steaks. they also love to move. they also love kale salad right from the garden, and running by the river, and warm bread with butter, and hip-hop dancing, and bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, and yoga, and ice cream, and sex!, and steamed broccoli .... and and and ... our bodies love it all, right? and it seems that we should totally indulge our bodies in all of it, all in enough moderation that we're being healthy ... because we LOVE our bodies. and if our bodies hate yogurt and dry cereal, we should NEVER NEVER NEVER eat it, that's what i say!

From Sara:

*I have zilch to say about the Christian/theological part of it all b/c I just don't speak that language or even have any sort of mindframe to tackle it. But it intrigues, so keep talking.

marta: sara, stay posted, more coming soon!

Sara: *What's my body dooooo - oh my goodness, why do you think I skate?? I used to run - I wasn't fast by any stretch of the imagination, and in large part it was my big dissertation avoidance tactic. I highly recommend training for and running a marathon or two as dissertation avoidance. Highly effective, highly self-rewarding, and highly conducive to letting ideas gel and percolate in your head. Skating is different though - it's like there's an endless amount of "skill" to be learned - I work and struggle and expend huge amounts of effort at mastering something, and once I do, poof, there's something new to figure out. My body does that. With a little help from my brain, but really, it's my body. Isn't it awesome?

marta: i ran a marathon for very different reasons -- for me it was about integrating my body back into my Self after infertility (i highly recommend it too -- did the trick beautifully!), but i can see how it would also be just the thing for both thinking about and avoiding a dissertation, lol! but i hear you about how skating is different -- i still run, but only a few miles several times a week, mostly as an alternative to pharmacological mood stabilization. but recently i've taken up yoga again in a new way that might be similar, and i'm getting very interested in dance for exactly the reasons you note -- that there's endless skill to learn, and it's all just so amazing that my body might do that!

Sara: *and eating. I resist *utterly* the massive efforts women (and some men) exert for virtually their entire lives (except perhaps for the pre-puberty years) on restricting their food intake. It drives me insane and it's really rather sad. I eat. Pretty much whatever I want to eat. Beyond the point of satiety often, but not b/c I like to feel uncomfortable, but b/c a little extra of something yummy - is just so yummy.

marta: oh sara, in this regard we are soul sistahs! eating is one of god's greatest gifts (that and kissing, see above!) descartes had it all wrong: i eat, therefore i am. this is actually pretty central to my faith. more on that too.

Sara: *the juxtaposition of skating and that food thing? Really rather wild at times. Few and far between are the skaters who totally love food and go at it with abandon.

*CP. See this:
LOVE love love the "I can do anything" thing. I can't promise that Toby won't have a level of grief (?) about his body's shortcomings. There are times that are incredibly frustrating, and there are times where I just wish some things were easier for him. But all in all? He's very comfortable in his own skin. He prefers to crawl around the house? So what as far as he's concerned. It works. And the biggest irk I have in interacting with the General Public (of the variety where I'm actually conversating with them - not random folks I'm not interacting with) is when they get stuck on the label of CP and presumed limitations, rather than focusing all the awesomeness that is Toby. Like we're advocating like the dickens these days for a wheelchair for Toby - precisely b/c it'll *open* up stuff for him - but what folks see? Is that it's a limitation. Really, in the end only he can tell his body story - but so far? I don't sense a lot of loss/limitation about it in his head. He does notice difference - but it's not a grieving thing for him largely. He is frustrated at not being able to participate in some stuff (gym at school? Kids run away and he with his walker just can't keep up. See back to the wheelchair note...). But it's not negatively directed at his body.

marta: i think that toby's experience of himself and his body in the world is just an awesome testament to the family that is raising him. you rock.

i know this is also an area of expertise for you, sara, so i'm not telling you anything new (and i'm sure your involvement in the deaf community has helped you to raise toby to see his cp as difference/possibility, not limitation) -- but for me it was such an eye-opening experience when i became friends in law school with someone who was deaf, and for awhile had the honor of being part of a small deaf community. i became a little obsessed -- read everything in sight about being deaf -- and grew so much to appreciate that deafness is mostly viewed as a loss/limitation by the ignorant hearing world. many deaf folks think of themselves as a language minority, not a disabled community -- to me that was a profound and beautiful distinction.

Sara: *More re what my body does - I've been doing this Rolfing stuff since this spring - and it's just incredible. I no longer get really painful back spasms, I am more grounded and centered and *present* in my own body - rather than sort of "hovering" over it. It's really a mind-boggling re-orientation to my body. I feel like I can tackle the world and be as large a presence as I need to be or something - rather than more or less skirting around the edges trying to squeeze myself in. I've been reading this book while in the waiting room heh - It's the most body/mind/emotional/spiritual experience I have ever had - and for me? Spiritual? Again, not a framework I have well-built in my head to hang much on. But in the end - it has been awesomely positive - not just in the physical "stuff works better" way, but in the whole being way - daily, hourly, every minute.... Stuff does work better too - I can do stuff on the ice that I was never able to do before. But more than that, I can just "be" better too.

marta: wow, sara, i really get this. don't know much about rolfing, though am eager to learn more, but my yoga practice is so so much more than a physical experience for me. it's prayer, it's therapy, it's sensuous, it's such a powerfully integrated mind/body/soul experience. i'd love to know more about rolfing as an entry-point to spiritual experience/practice/community for you. powerful stuff.

Sara: Mostly - I would adore having this conversation with the lot of folks commenting here - can we set up a bulletin board like the old Parents Place ? !

marta: yes yes yes. let's see if the comments here are enough, but otherwise maybe we need to find another venue. seems lots of folks want to talk about this.