Wednesday, June 03, 2020

How I'm transforming my lament into commitment

This blog entry is not for art or contemplation (though I do have a prayer, because really, how can I not?). It is not for applause or commendation, though I welcome discussion. It is for accountability, and for moving forward with intention.

For a week I've watched public outrage grow online and in the streets against the most recent senseless killings of black men and women (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, countless others spanning centuries), and through my despair I've prayed: What can I do?

But my question is not new. I've been asking it of myself consciously for four years, taking the safest of baby steps toward answering it—reading books about racism, seeking out black authors, following a wider and more diverse circle of people on my social channels—yet only now am I internalizing the crucial distinction that thinking myself not racist is not the same as being actively anti-racist.

Only now am I accepting that I need to confront the waters I have swam in since birth, the air I have breathed, the miasma of white supremacy that has instilled in me expectations and afforded me privileges based simply on the color of my skin.

Only now am I understanding that I am not embarking on this journey for a semester or year or a decade, but for a lifetime. As agent Rachelle Gardner put it on Instagram, "As a white person, I know I can never be other than a recovering racist but I will do my best to keep recovering, keep listening, keep learning, and keep speaking up."

My goals right now are two-fold:
  1. To move from decrying racism in the abstract to understanding its roots, acknowledging its presence in my thoughts and actions, recognizing the implications and consequences in American society at large, and intentionally working to dismantle this great sin wherever I encounter it.
  2. To become a more conscious and informed parent who creates a diverse and inclusive community that my family and I can experience, contribute to, and learn from together.
To start moving toward these goals, I've identified six concrete strategies that stem from who I am and where I am at this moment:
  1. I will read at least one book connected to anti-racism every 4-6 weeks. If you want to swap notes or suggestions, I invite you to check out my rapidly growing anti-racism book list on Goodreads. (Not captured here, but related documentaries, podcasts, and fiction will be part of my expanded media diet.)
  2. I will continue participating in my parish's Minkisi Ministry, an interracial prayer group whose name means "healing objects" in Swahili, where I will nurture my faith with prayer, reflection, and active listening.
  3. I will also commit to a regular independent prayer practice (something I've always been embarrassingly spotty at) that I hope will root my interior work in God-given love and a God-driven thirst for justice.
  4. I will research and identify 1-2 organizations that promote racial justice and support them financially. (Exact angles to be determined after more reading and prayer. But I do commit to putting my money where my mouth is.)
  5. I will practice speaking out against racist, prejudiced, and biased comments when I encounter them in the conversations that make me most inclined to remain silent—within my extended family. I want to, as author and speaker Austin Channing Brown says, "trouble the narrative."
  6. I will research formal anti-racism programs and commit to completing at least one of them (for example, Be the Bridge) within the next two years. I will also invite white friends to join me to help expand the circle of education and commitment.
And then, in six months, I will report back here on my progress and share what I've learned thus far.

So where do I hope to end up? As a lifelong student. As a useful advocate. As a deeper storyteller. As a child of God seeking to realize God's kingdom on earth. All on the right side of history.

But mainly, I want to fulfill these lines from this call-and-response prayer, Touch Me with Truth that Burns Like Fire by Ted Loder, that we recite regularly in our Minkisi group:

[...] set me free, Lord,
free to try new ways of living;
free to forgive myself and others;
free to love and laugh and sing;
free to lay aside my burden of security;
free to join the battle for justice and peace;
free to see and listen and wonder again
at the gracious mystery of things and persons [...]

May we all find such freedom.

Prayer #357: The Wound Reopens

Clench my fist so I might grasp what's at stake. Release my grip on what I think is true. Lift my palms in supplication for what the world desperately needs.

Make me vulnerable, exposed, unguarded. Let the blows land true on my softest flesh. For the wound is Love; its cure, the same.


Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Easter bread

Appearances can be deceiving.

The Easter bread, as my family recipe indicated, was supposed to rise "like our Lord." The dough was not supposed to stay the same height despite hours of cajoling rest, nor was it supposed to remain as dense as the rock guarding the aforementioned Lord's tomb. Yet there I was on Holy Saturday, observing with dismay a long-awaited loaf that stood only two inches high and weighed 1,000 pounds.

To be honest, I wasn't completely surprised. How could this finicky dough avoid absorbing the unusual stress of this year's "holiday" -- the rush of baking with a toddler underfoot, the poignant loss of a long-anticipated family visit, the pervasive, pandemic-created existential dread that felt at exact odds with resurrection. Previous success with this recipe guaranteed nothing in our new reality. Adapt or die, the dough seemed to tell me, and it illustrated its advice by dying.

In a way, though, the bread's failure was the perfect invitation to submerge myself in the fatigue, grief, and fear not just of our current boundless crisis, but of Holy Week itself. As this moving reflection from Lyz Lenz about Holy Saturday put it, "We want to skip to life, without sitting with death. We want resurrection without sitting with the grave."

Here was my moment to acknowledge all the deaths, great and small, that had dogged me for weeks and were continuing unabated. So I leaned in. I wept. I journaled. I blasted the soundtrack of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and keened from Judas' betrayal onward. I allowed my bone-deep sorrow to fully surface, and I laid it out like a sheet on the clothesline, letting it billow and swell in the prevailing winds, allowing the sun to bleach it.

By the time my husband and I tuned into our parish's livestreamed Easter Vigil service that evening, I was wrung out. But my annihilated defenses also made me more drawn to the candle flame flickering in our home votives, more invested in the psalms, more receptive to this promise in the Exsultet:

This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me,
and full of gladness.

On Easter Sunday, I cut into my Easter bread to find it ... not half bad. The consistency was off and some parts weren't totally baked, but there was nothing a light toasting and dollops of butter couldn't address. And though imperfect, the taste was acceptable enough to convince me to reinvent the failure, to make sure its precious yeast, eggs, and embodied energy did not go to waste: I cubed the remainder and improvised a caramelized onion strata topped with melted Gouda.

It was delicious and unexpected, not at all the flavors I associate with the Easter holiday, yet exactly what this year's rare circumstances required. From disappointment came nourishment; from failure, inspiration; a timely reminder that we have many ways to rise.

Prayer #356: Catch the Wild Yeast

Pervasive God,

At present, I do not have the will to expend energy on anything beyond survival. So leave me on Your counter draped in soft cloth (whether blankie or shroud, I leave to the eye of the moody beholder), and help me grow comfortable with accepting the mysterious transformation rippling through me.

Eventually, under Your nurturing care, I will activate, bubble, and metabolize again. Just not yet. For now, You are starting me for ends unknown.


Thursday, March 26, 2020

My season of anger

Angry bird. hms831/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

When I learned our local farmers' market was "closing indefinitely" -- the latest community COVID-19 casualty, following in-person work, social gatherings, and church services -- I took to bed. At 9:30 am. On a Sunday.

The market closure was not surprising, and I agreed with the action, but the news capped off one of the most anxious, overwhelming weeks of my life as the coronavirus pandemic took root in the United States. This latest blow to "daily life as I know it" switched my beleageured body to "off," effective immediately. I went upstairs, laid down, and passed two hours in a fitful, unhappy sleep. And when I woke up, what I felt most keenly was ... anger.

Anger that our federal government's response is insufficient, inept, and ignorant.

Anger that humans of all ages and backgrounds will die as a result of this incompetence.

Anger that the groups most harmed by this crisis will be those who already live on the razor's edge.

Anger that our country's most pervasive and critical underlying systems -- healthcare, politics, economics, education -- have been built on sand rather than rock.

Anger that many caregivers are forced to handle what is essentially two full-time jobs at a time of great mental, physical, and financial stress -- or worse, forced to choose between caring for their loved ones or remaining employed.

Anger that some people think this global event is a conspiracy or, worse, a lark.

Anger that many people (myself included) keep forgetting to keep six feet of distance at the grocery store or the park.

Anger that I didn't take the threat seriously enough to stock up on more frozen vegetables.

Anger that I can't see my extended family or my friends.

Anger that I feel I can no longer unplug from my devices.

Anger that my toddler won't nap on the precise day I desperately need personal downtime to recharge.

From the national to the personal, the philosophical to the mundane, the anger roils through me in fresh waves at unpredictable moments. (Well, not totally unpredictable; reading the news is a known trigger.) I am not a fundamentally angry person, so steeping in this emotion for three days going on who knows how many is neither comfortable nor comforting. I find value in self-reflection and seek to solve problems. But right now, because all I see before me is a wash of glaring red, I cannot carve out the brain- or heart-space to cultivate hope.

What's more, this unprecedented crisis is occurring smack dab in the middle of Lent, a season explicitly designated for spiritual reflection and preparation. As my mother said a couple weeks ago before ish really hit the fan, "Maybe this [referring to the extreme nature of our present moment] is Lent." Yet I can't help but feel I'm also falling short there. Not only am I an inadequate employee, spouse, parent, and global citizen, I'm a poor Catholic whose intended Lenten practice -- to eat less meat out of concern for the environment -- has come about mainly because all we can consistently find at the grocery store are non-perishable lentils.

In these strange times, however, reassurance surfaces in surprising places. I felt some measure of comfort when I read this Harvard Business Review article, a Q&A with grief expert David Kessler, about the non-linear cycles of grief and the value of naming your emotion for what it is (emphasis mine):
When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-help movement is we’re the first generation to have feelings about our feelings. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. I feel sad. Let me go for five minutes to feel sad. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.

Maybe my mother was onto something. Maybe my work right now -- the work of the pandemic, the work of Lent -- is to allow denial/anger/bargaining/sadness/acceptance/joy/relief/hope to unfold, circulate, germinate, and bloom whenever, however they choose. For feeling takes effort, not just in the noticing and naming, but in the experiencing. Feeling can make us sympathetic and empathetic; it draws us closer to our fellow humans, and thus closer to God -- the express purpose of Lent.

Before this pandemic ends, I would love to achieve the space and peace to contemplate: What might be different when this has passed? What will I do to ensure that the world is different in the most right, just, and humane ways? Then again, that might not happen. All I might learn is how much I can hold. Perhaps I'll discover that what I already hold is enough.

Prayer #355: Rage Against the Machine(s)

Outbursting God,

Direct my anger at the things that deserve it.

Aim it at systems (broken, insidious); institutions (peculiar, too big to fail); and attitudes (isolationist, selfish) that perpetuate harm.

And when the white-hot rage flames out, leaving behind a despondent and sputtering ash, mold my despair into true empathy, a moral golem that protects the downtrodden and fights for the oppressed.

May I wait with the imprisoned. Dine with the hungry. Huddle with the refugee. Shelter the homeless. Welcome the lonely. Heed the prophets.

In this way anger becomes action, and action bears Your love.


Wednesday, February 26, 2020

On death, in fragments

James Marvin Phelps/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Corvid, corvid hop
Corvid, corvid flap
Corvid, corvid, feeling morbid
Snap, snap, snap!

― a dark ditty Nature Boy and I composed during a stroll with our child, set to the rhythm of Llama Llama Hoppity-Hop

“The fear of death is why we build cathedrals, have children, declare war, and watch cat videos online at three a.m.”

― Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.

 ―Hebrews 2:14-15

The loss, from brain cancer, of a joy-filled, gratitude-pouring, life-affirming improv comedian and poet. She was one year younger than me. I question what makes us, us. Neurons? Pulses? Art?

"'Risorgimento,' as I understand it, refers to the massive unification effort for Italy in the 19th century. In many inelegant ways, it brought together a number of diverse and potentially conflicting mindsets in order to create a singular identity. Rome, in its messiness of parking hell and zillions of people like me, serve as a modern-day example of risorgimento. But also, within this definition of holistic complexity, we also must accept the unifying experience that is living and dying."

Il Risorgimento, Megan Hallinan

The random memory that Rachel Held Evans' final blog post before her sudden death last year was titled "Lent for the Lamenting," and that she had this to say:

It strikes me today that the liturgy of Ash Wednesday teaches something that nearly everyone can agree on. Whether you are part of a church or not, whether you believe today or your doubt, whether you are a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic or a so-called “none” (whose faith experiences far transcend the limits of that label) you know this truth deep in your bones: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Then suddenly, on a misty, chilly late-winter walk, the shock of early pink blossoms against the gray, and I am reminded that all is never lost.

Prayer #344: Fragment

not whole

what remains

ashes to ashes

love, shattering

pieces at peace in You


Wednesday, January 29, 2020

How to reflect on your marriage (and still stay married)

The first "I do." July 23, 2016. Photo by Kelly Prizel Photography

Julia: I was never a firm believer in the folk wisdom that “opposites attract.” But then I married M, and then we sat down to prepare this talk.

M: When we saw our notes for this presentation, we thought, “Are we really so night and day?” Our differences suddenly seemed more drastic than they feel on a day-to-day basis.

Julia: Which then made us wonder … After three years of marriage, are we growing in different directions? Are we doubling down on our natural tendencies? And how on earth are we making it through our daily lives intact?

Being married has been one of the greatest joys and greatest lessons of my life. At times I feel I live on the learning curve with nary a plateau in sight. But once in a while, an opportunity arises to hit "pause" on learning and press "play" on reflection -- which Nature Boy and I get to do as part of the team for our church's marriage preparation program.

In its unabashedly loving and welcoming way, my parish does Pre-Cana (the Catholic Church's colloquial term for its marriage prep programs) a little differently. Besides our pastor's brief opening remarks at the start of the day-and-a-half event, the program is led entirely by married couples of different ages, stages, and backgrounds. The intent is to give the participating engaged couples an opportunity to focus on what they want out of their new, shared life; quiet time and space to reflect on big questions away from wedding planning stress; and insight into discoveries and approaches that have helped other married couples fully live out their sacramental vows. It's inspiring, thought-provoking, encouraging, sobering, and emotional -- much like marriage itself.

For the most recent session, Nature Boy and I were called upon to present our first talk. The topic: "Daily Living." Just as you're not advised to perform surgery on yourself, sitting down as a couple to dissect your day-to-day rhythms did not immediately seem wise. My husband was tense. I was overbearing. We were writing in a shared Google doc, and it took every ounce of my willpower and knowledge of the creative process to let him put down a rough first draft in the faith that we'd revise later.

Basically, our process to create this talk mirrored the point of the talk, which was how our personalities and habits permeate and shape our domestic life. We ended up covering such topics as energy (introvert/extrovert), environment (natural/urban), diurnal rhythms (night owl/early bird), levels of tidiness (eh/yes please), approaches to conflict (we both avoid it), desire for control (pretty much all me), and so on. We ended on a story that regular IMS readers might recognize (an adapted version of "The lesson of the table") and closed with an alternating recitation building off the phrase, "This is the person who...".

That's when I lost it.

I was doing SO WELL during our actual talk, hitting laugh lines, patting Nature Boy's back affectionately, pausing after important takeaways. But then I got to the last line I'd drafted, and when I said it out loud in front of a roomful of relative strangers, every moment of joy, every shared sorrow, every disagreement, every wordless hug, every act of service, every discovery welled up within me. Here was the enormity of lifelong commitment. Here was our vow, which we choose to affirm each day. Here was our marriage's raison d'ĂȘtre:

"This is the person who always reminds me that though the world can be harsh, it is also beautiful, and we get to experience it together."

It's not a flashy sentence or even a particularly eloquent one. But it is heartfelt and  -- more importantly --true. Which is why my voice cracked and my tears leaked. Because partnership is not for the faint of heart; it is for the whole-hearted.

Prayer #343: How to Do "I Do"

Set "I do" on endless loop, because it's the soundtrack of a marriage.

You'll say "I do" to mistakes and misunderstandings. You'll say "I do" to celebrations and silence. You'll say "I do" to being wrong, being right, and being somewhere in the middle that neither of you finds comfortable but does admit is necessary.

Most of all, you'll say "I do" each night to an entirely new person who has been transformed by the catastrophes, triumphs, and lessons of their day. And this person will say "I do" to the new you too, each night, until the nights run out.

God who gifted us free will, help us say these words with hope (if not always with conviction). We may voice them with a whoop, a mutter, or a sigh, but we are voicing them nonetheless. Be with us in this commitment -- a practice built on loving choice.


Monday, December 30, 2019

"One day your life won't be like this" (A revelation revisited)

SpaceShoe/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Close to seven years ago, when I was in the thick of my late-20s lifestyle -- full social calendar, regular cultural activities, a respectable level of "adulting" -- I paused in my hither-and-titherness with a blunt thought:

One day my life won't be like this.

At the time, my reflection featured the (assumed) differences between living life as a single, childless woman versus as a married parent. But now I am a married parent, and as my first full year of motherhood draws to a close, the blunt thought has resurfaced, bubbling just beneath my consciousness as I strive to make it to midnight on December 31 with all three members of my family unit healthy, happy, and more or less intact.

One day my life won't be like this.

When I mull over this phrase today in the post-holiday quiet of my house, with my husband at work and my child at daycare, with my brain and body under my sole discretion for eight blissful hours, I appreciate anew its lack of judgment. The revelation didn't say my life would become better or worse, stronger or weaker, richer or fainter. It simply pointed out that my life was destined to change -- that where one lever would push up, another switch might flip, and all manner of proverbial doors and windows would disregard their latches and flap indiscriminately in the shifting breezes of time and circumstance.

One day my life won't be like this.

In one respect, my revelation has become a mantra. I whispered it under my breath during midnight nursing sessions and long hours of maternity leave. I shouted it from rooftops when a particularly hard period resolved. I have cried over it each time I recognize that habits or traditions I held dear are quietly evolving. I sigh it whenever, for the 8 millionth time, I wash a small plastic object festooned with my child's drool.

One day my life won't be like this.

But in another respect, my revelation has become a reminder. The words call me to remain present and aware, to participate in my life as it's currently shaped rather than reach for a shadow existence that may or may not gain form. And rather than repeat the sentence, I pray it, rolling each word through my heart like a bead -- smooth, warm, pliant -- to impart those same qualities to myself.

One day, my life won't be like this. Or this. Or this. It will simply be life, and it will be mine, to make of it what I will.

Prayer #342: Going, Going, Back Again

God of constant re-discovery,

I think I've learned something, only to lose the lesson amid life's daily push and pull, and then when I learn it again, I renew my delight and awe with the slobbery joy of an infant discovering her hand is attached to her.

As I absorb anew a revelation long known to me, I call on Your profound patience to ask once more: Ground me in my current dreams and frustrations, as well as in the wisdom that every personal epoch has benefits and drawbacks. And douse me not only in the grace of perspective, but also of presence -- the breath between words, the rests within music, the sight before waking.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The thirst to rejoice

Leaping for joy. Art-Hax/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"... Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you."

—Philippians 4:8-9, NAB

I've been grouchy for a fair bit of 2019. Not deeply, not irrevocably, but more frequently than I have been in other years, almost certainly due to learning how to be a parent and enduring sleep deprivation and questioning my career path and inching toward my writing goals and feeling less than awesome in whatever I pursue and wondering if my hair is finally turning gray and did I mention sleep deprivation.

Oh, and the world continues to be on fire. That too.

So when I attended my church's annual Minkisi Ministry retreat earlier this month, I did not walk in immediately connected to its buoyant theme "In Total Praise." That is, until the gospel music began, and the congregation engaged in call and response, and I tuned into the fact that I haven't attended any retreat in god knows how long. And the combination of those things illuminated that the next eight hours were holding space for me to be with God, so I let my body release its omnipresent tension, loosening me enough to sing, to breathe, to weep.

Celebrant Fr. Robert Boxie said in his homily that day, "The sure sign that God is alive in you is joy." Until he said it aloud, I didn't realize how thirsty I was to rejoice. For all the emotions roiling through me in this past year of constant change, I have rarely wallowed in joy, even though -- or perhaps because -- it has often been the most intense experience.

But as Fr. Boxie went on to explain, joy is not "reasonable," nor does it mean "to cheer up or be positive." At many points this year, joy has felt akin to pain for me -- a bone-deep, heart-twisting, breath-stealing sensation, one I'm afraid to repeat for fear it will break me. So to hear that joy does not mean happy was to relieve myself of a limited human concept and embrace a mystical one -- the promise that we can access, in the words of Paul's letter to the Philippians (aka, "the letter of joy"), "the peace of God that surpasses all understanding."

The onslaught of joy left me wrung out by day's end, like I'd run a spiritual marathon without proper interval training. But I also experienced the physical peace that comes from honest exertion, which signals to me that the effort was well placed. As retreat leader Therese Wilson-Favors said, "Praise tunes us into God's sufficiency." In a year when I have often felt incapable or inadequate, how glorious to remember that I am enough. That God is enough. That our union is joy itself.

So with all this in mind, allow me to flip my usual script of gratitude during Thanksgiving season and emphasize joy instead -- the ultimate prayer of thanks.

Prayer #341: Exult

To exult once meant to spring or leap up, to leap for joy. Yet somewhere in English's shifting sands we lost this visceral meaning and now use the word to signify rejoicing, elation, triumph.

Powerful words to be sure, but part of me grieves the original definition. Its active focus would help me remember -- simply by speaking it -- that my very body is built for praise. I am meant to leave the ground, to suspend myself mid-air, to stretch toward the firmament, when I remember how I'm loved.

God who leaps and bounds toward me, put this word on my lips and its energy in my limbs. May I reach for You with my whole being. May I embody worship.