Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Why we must "confront the unwatchable"

Look me in the eye ... (Paul Godard/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


After the 2016 election, my already scattershot absorption of current events plummeted. I developed the habit of only occasionally scrolling headlines and infrequently scanning my weekly Time magazines. I stopped reading the Washington Post Express during my train commute. I had never watched cable news anyway, but now I avoided online clips too. Even NPR, my primary news source as a car commuter, got the cold shoulder; only recently have I been able to stomach regular news segments again.

My visceral response to our present world lies in that word: "stomach." My gut twists and tightens when I hear our politicians speak. The writer in me is aghast at how events that would be considered major climaxes in novels become mere footnotes in our emerging historical record. I feel nauseous and dizzy when I allow the full reality of our climate crises (political, moral, ecological) to wash over me. The news exhausts me physically and emotionally, to the point where it's easier to hide. And though I know so much around me is just plain wrong, so blindingly un-Christlike, I hesitate to debate it because I don't know enough "facts" (even though the core of most issues is not about statistics, but souls), and I hesitate to act because I feel like the only person against a dystopian world.

That's why this Los Angeles Review of Books article, "Confronting the Unwatchable," struck a deep chord in me. Authors Maggie Hennefeld and Nicholas Baer discuss the "sprawling maelstrom of visual atrocities that we now consume as part of a habitual media diet" and how sustained exposure to those atrocities has dulled our appropriate responses of outrage followed by action. Either we avoid the unwatchable entirely (like I do), or we "hate-watch" to a degree where we're either desensitized or demotivated. Of note:

"While social media users lock into their airtight echo chambers, and white supremacist trolls and conspiracy theorists alike routinely disavow the documentation of homicidal violence, it appears that evidentiary truth has fallen victim to cynical reason. Call it an effect of “fake news,” or simply patent denialism, it is clearly a symptom of the broader decline of belief in traditionally refereed sources of journalistic news and expert knowledge. This is precisely what makes our current moment unwatchable — not just the excess of indigestible images, but the pervasive lack of faith or hope that an encounter with these images will be of any consequence whatsoever. The unwatchable represents the aesthetic condition of a political moment in which the future looks bleak, unavoidably catastrophic, and increasingly uninhabitable."

But as the article's authors explain, our world is better served when we keep our eyes open and train them on that which disturbs us:

"As a political gesture, confronting the unwatchable asks for more from the future than chronic precarity or inescapable cruelty. Instead, it demands that we face Medusa head-on. Only by refusing to misrecognize the unwatchable — as anything other than a dire symptom of our catastrophic times — can we debunk the medusan fallacy and imagine a different way forward. The unwatchable, as both a critical concept and a portent of our future, provokes us to build a transformative new politics in the ruins of liberal optimism." [...]
"Confronting the unwatchable opens up a third way, allowing us to envision new forms of seeing, modes of thinking, and spaces for public collectivity to stake out that vanishing middle ground between personal responsibility and powerful political action."

The idea of a "third way" appeals to me. It captures what has disappeared from our discourse and our actions -- creativity and commitment -- as we move to the poles. But we can only be creative when we know exactly what we're facing, and we can only be committed if we know we are working toward good. At the moment, I am neither because I am hiding from the call.

Ostriches are the popular example of the frightened creature that sticks its head in the same when danger arises. It turns out, however, that this image is a myth. If ostriches actually did that, they wouldn't be able to breathe, plus they'd be vulnerable to whatever was bearing down on them. Rather, ostriches dig holes to lay their eggs, and the mother birds periodically insert their heads to turn the eggs.

Here truth offers a better lesson than myth. I'd rather be alert, aware, eyes on the horizon, ready to respond while needed, while also nurturing in a safe, sacred space a pulsing hope for the future. It is time for me to face Medusa's deadly snakes, or else settle for a world of stone.


Prayer #337: Turn the Eggs

Dirt everywhere. Grating my eyes, filling my ears, plugging my nostrils as I plow my head deeper into the shifting hole. The sensation frightens me; how can I be mere inches from sunlight and fresh air, yet leagues away from comfort and freedom? But I remind myself: I am burrowing with purpose. I am burrowing through the grit and dark to find what I planted at the outset and to remember why I did.

My nose reaches the thin but sturdy shell. I know the egg by its scent -- chalk among earth. And it seems to recognize me, too, though neither of us can see the other. Tap tap. Its greeting comes from within, accompanied by a faint vibration.

Here -- faceless, wordless -- we sense our kindred desire to connect and pass our vulnerability like a basket of fresh bread. But while I remain anxious, the egg waits unperturbed. It is confident it will crack at the exact right moment to gift the prepared with revelation.

Oh, that I had such confidence in my quest to emerge. If only I could swallow the dirt as I burrow and consider it the cost of doing business in a broken world.

I nudge the egg. As it turns, it sighs and hums: Not yet for me. Perhaps, though, for you. And it's right, of course, so I pull my head back, rushing the dirt again over my eyes and ears and nostrils, and squint instead at the garish sun.

God who helps us turn the eggs, remind us that fragility is deceptive; we are all stronger than we think.

Amen.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A reminder that God is

starlen/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

At a lector training this past weekend, as part of our contemplation and immersion in the Word, the facilitator exhorted us to "stop a few times a day" to pray.

"Prayers," she said, "are reminders that God is."

God is. Full stop. No adjective. No noun. No active participle. Just a state of being: is.

At that point, it was 11 a.m. and I was on my second of five activities for the day -- up early with the baby and my visiting parents, lector training in the morning, friend's baby shower in the afternoon, early dinner with my in-laws, food shopping that night. So I was already tired, both from activity and anticipation. Tired enough to want to heed the call to pause, but stretched enough to resent having one more thing to do.

Ever one to encounter revelation through syntax, however, I appreciated this simple sentence because it left God on God's own terms. It did not attempt to ground the divine in human metaphors or place our relationship in earthly frameworks. God just gets to be God, I just get to be me, and somehow we'll meet in the middle for a companionable cup of tea.

How easy then to pray. How easy to ask questions of God, to co-celebrate, to release my grip. How easy to stop in the middle of a teeming sidewalk, spin the opposite direction, and find myself grinning at the sensation of the world rushing past, for in that moment of suspension God joins me, closer than my own breath, happy to be noticed, happy to be.


Prayer #336: A Gentle Reminder

Do stop and rest a moment
not to talk
not to plan
just to be still
just to breathe
for in the space between inhale and exhale,
the catch that signals life suspended,
you'll know me
in my truest way.

Amen.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

What nobody told me about becoming a mother

Mother's Day, 2019.
My first Mother's Day was ... weird. Not in a bad way. Sure, the weather was crap and I experienced the topsy-turvy gift of my mother making me breakfast, but the first was no big deal and the second was quite sweet. Rather, it was strange in that off-kilter, reality-tilts-left-of-expectations way, as I took the opportunity to step back, draw a breath, and acknowledge that -- holy crap -- I am a mother.

Case in point: Our daycare sent home an arts & craft present (my first of one thousand to come), and when the baby "presented" it to me, I had an out-of-body moment. I am a person. A person who is a woman. A woman who is a wife. A wife who is a mother. A mother who is a person. A person who is working very hard to remember that she is a person and to nurture the person she is. And this person is also now holding a finger-painted flower on a decoupage stand with her baby's grinning mug pasted beneath the words "Happy Mother's Day!", and these words apply to her.

It was and is surreal.

When will it truly sink in that this is now my life? Maybe it has and I don't realize it because I'm waiting for a lightning bolt different from the one that's already struck. Maybe I've always felt like a mom, long before biologically becoming one, so the actual transition has been more logistical than mystical. Or -- more likely -- this whole plate shift/sea change/reordering of my existence is a leviathan parked in front of me, and I'm working too hard to wrap my arms all the way around it when I'd be better served to rest my arms, lean my cheek against its leathery skin, and instead listen for its beating heart.

I was prepared for sleep deprivation and breastfeeding learning curves. I was not prepared for the fact that my heart would break every time I regard my child. I did not think I would always see our lives and deaths bound up in him. I did not realize how pure he would be, how essential -- the raw ingredients of a human, the distillation of a soul.

My heart breaks wide open every time I make him laugh with rolling R's and plosive pops, when we lock eyes during feeding, when I glimpse his two sprouting teeth, undeniable reminders of his growth. And my heart breaks when I consider all the discovery ahead of him, all the pain, all the transformation. It's not so much that I want to shield him from pain (probably because I know it's impossible); it's more that I want to help clear his path, hack away the thorniest undergrowth, and guarantee him a successful, rewarding adventure.

But that's not how life works -- it's not life, period -- and thus my heart breaks for who and what I hath wrought, because he is so beautiful and so unaware of all that awaits him. No wonder I weep nearly every day. We parents wade constantly in coursing rivers of love; we overflow with it; we stand in the current saturated and sopping, and the humans we steward absorb it like spiritual Shamwows, full and fulfilled.

This relentless current, the bends in the river, the rapids we've yet to chart -- it all breaks my heart. Nobody told me it always will.


Prayer #335: Chrysalis

My heart breaks when I nurse him. I cuddle his growing body against my skin and listen to his breathy sucking, and my mind wanders down any path that presents itself, always ending at the acknowledgment that such moments will be but a breath themselves in the scheme of our shared lives, and I mourn the passage as I live it.

My heart breaks when I drop him off at daycare. He eagerly leans from my arms to stare at the rambunctious toddlers who race to greet him, and I realize that at this tender age he already has a life distinct from mine, whole days that pass with experiences and interactions and formations I will never fully grasp.

My heart breaks when I am called "Mom." Because how is it possible that I'm a mom, the kisser of boo-boos, the reader of books, the filler of forms, the hug and the scold and the logistician rolled into one? How can I be what my own mother was and is, when all I feel like is a floundering, off-balance, incredulous version of myself?

God, how will I hold this constant heartbreak for the rest of my life on earth? You tell me I won't. Instead, I must let it hold me  -- a cozy shell for my transformation, protection for my bone-deep love, growing clearer every day as I prepare to emerge anew.

Amen.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

What happened when I gave up social media for Lent

Sign off, pause, take a break. Lynn Friedman/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This Lent, I gave up my mobile social media apps for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram -- aka, the Holy Trinity of my time-wasting, soul-shriveling phone usage. And though I still signed onto Facebook and Twitter occasionally via my web browser to keep tabs on work projects (plus, let's be honest, it's hard to quit cold turkey), I held myself to only checking immediate notifications, then closing out.

In deleting the apps and limiting my screen time, I was committing to fasting from distraction with four concrete goals in mind:
  1. to refocus my attention on meaningful interactions and investments of time
  2. to break my addiction to mindless scrolling
  3. to read real, professionally reported news
  4. to learn what I would miss if I wasn't in the mix



The first couple weeks, I was horrified to discover how deep my muscle memory had become. Any time I paused -- be it on the metro platform or at intersections or before bed -- I'd reach for my phone and watch my thumb move of its own accord along familiar routes, only to find its usual destinations removed.

What's more, similar to the year I gave up chocolate (#neveragain), I honored the letter but not the spirit of my sacrifice. Just as I had upped my sugar cookie consumption in response to the absence of chocolately goodness, now I was seeking different feeds to scroll -- for example, A Practical Wedding, which is silly because I'm now married for almost three years. But the content was frothy, fun, and escapist, and it tickled the digital pleasure center of my 21st-century brain.

However, I also discovered what I didn't miss. Strangers' anger, for example. Ignorant commenters. Blurry photos from mere acquaintances. Blatantly biased headlines and memes. Losing 30 minutes of my life before bed every night. Detracting from the precious little time I already have with my child during weekdays. Reciting vacuous online comments out loud to my husband. Putting free and personal information into the ether that allows corporations to profit off me. The subtle but pervasive narrative of comparison and competition that undergirds the whole grasping system.

And I gained a lot, too. A reminder to be intentional, for instance. A step toward breaking the stranglehold my phone has on me. Renewed appreciation for texts, calls, emails, and visits with actual, in-real-life friends. Recommittment to news -- i.e. reading articles in full from legitimate news sources. Catching up on friends' blogs. Sailing through several books. I felt calmer and less wired before bed. And above all, I encountered the humbling but ultimately freeing reality that the world doesn't grind to a halt without my status updates or emoji-laden captions -- and in fact, without the burden of generating them, I am producing more valuable, fulfilling, creative work.

Forty-plus days after I deleted the Holy Trinity, my addiction is far from broken. I have not re-installed Facebook and Twitter (nor will I), but I did add back Instagram, with the goal of monitoring and limiting my usage, for already I feel again the alluring tug of the pretty/fast/fun scroll.

At least now, however, I feel more clear-eyed about my relationship to my device, these apps, and the overall commodity of attention. Each time I take out my phone, I am more likely to think, "What's the best use of my time right now?" And more often than not, this brief pause, this short reflection, is enough to redirect me toward something more restorative like a phone call, a book chapter, or -- heaven help us -- peaceful stillness.


Prayer #334: Attention Span

A bridge is only as useful as the feet that traverse it. Lead me from the bank of mindless ignorance to the far shore of rich contemplation, in ways that both simplify my soul and enrich it. And when I pause to peer into the tranquil water below, may the smooth surface reflect a person present to the moment she's experiencing, at peace with her journey.

Amen.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

How giving birth made me a feminist

"I need feminism because I love." Laura Forest/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Fourteen hours in, and my contractions finally turned from intermediate pain to near-constant pressure. Every sinew in my body screamed "Push!" while my breathing grew more jagged. It wasn't as easy now to huff my way through the intervals, not as easy to concentrate on the paradigm-shifting end game of meeting my child. Sweaty, sore, worn out from watching the too-large hospital wall clock plod along in 20-minute increments, I turned to my mother and said through gritted teeth, "If this experience doesn't turn someone into a feminist, I don't know what will."

After I spent four years at an all-girls' Catholic high school, I would have sworn up and down the Bible that I was a feminist. After I absorbed, aghast, the blatant misogyny laid bare in the 2016 election, I would have sworn up and down my ballot that I was a feminist. After I watched the #MeToo movement unfold with uneven and often dispiriting results, I would have sworn up and down the newspaper that I was a feminist.

Then I gave birth, one of the rawest, most intense experiences a woman can have. It was then that I finally understood on a visceral and corporeal level the power of having chosen this course for myself, and it was then that I questioned if I had ever understood feminism in the first place.

Feminism, as a reminder, is broadly defined as a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. I stand by an even broader definition: that feminism -- and indeed, a commitment to equality everywhere, on all bases -- is about empowering individuals to make the life choices that are right for them.

For me, giving birth sat at the intersection of my personal privilege, individual choice, and access to systems such as decent healthcare, paid parental leave, job security, and flexible work policies. My privileges -- being a white, educated, upper-middle-class employed person -- statistically pointed me toward a safer healthcare experience and greater financial security. As for individual choice, I do not want or need everyone to choose what I chose. What I want, and what I believe society needs to aim for, is the third item I listed -- to develop and promote systems that allow anyone and everyone to make the healthiest, wisest choices for their given situation, without impediment, prejudice, or judgement.

In providing such systems, we acknowledge each person as a human being with inherent worth, and we grant them the dignity of autonomy. This to me is the fundamental promise of feminism -- the desire to stand with and for all people, to see them as fellow cells within the Body of Christ, and to lavish love on them accordingly.

I saw this promise personally fulfilled in my safe and joyful birth experience, and I experience it again every time I adapt a workday to spend time with my little one. I want everybody to feel this empowered, rich with such abundant and varied options that they are always able to pursue the courses of action that lie closest to their hearts. In this way we will help people realize God's vision for them and for our world as a whole.


Prayer #333: Midwife to the World

Mother God,

Make me just. Make me angry. Make me humble. Make me bold. Make me prophetic. Make me warm. Make me clear-eyed. Make me creative. Make me loving. Make me steadfast ... all so I may midwife Your idyllic vision and help deliver the world You long to see.

Amen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The light under the door

fotorita/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When I was growing up and facing a new transition, my mother always said to me, "Just remember: In one month, you'll know where the bathroom is."

I carried that idea forward through college, my first (and second and third) job, grad school, marriage ... the "bathroom" becoming a stand-in for all the unknowns, all the nameless fears, all the "what ifs" that scurried around my brain before I embarked on a new stage. And time consistently proved my mother correct; within a few weeks, I could reliably identify the bathroom's location alongside many other useful lessons and insights.

Now I'm staring down the next logical transition after pregnancy and motherhood: ending maternity leave and returning to work. I already know where the bathroom is at my office. Yet I fear I will need to relearn everything else as I forge my new identity as manager, employee, peer, and parent.

At this point you're probably saying, "Julia, go back and reread your own opening paragraphs." The transition I warily eye will pass. I will be made anew. Until then, however, all I'm seeing is the light under the door -- the sole sign that something else awaits.

What is on this side I know? Un-vacuumed rugs. Scuffed walls. Discarded toys. Crumbs and paperwork spread across the kitchen table. My baby's sleepy head resting on his father's shoulder. That little face pulling back from nursing to regard me. My dwindling personal space. My sacred free time. The life I have created and know so well. Who I used to be.

What is on the side I don't know? The only thing I'm sure of is the light itself. An occasional shadow breaks it, but I don't know yet to what or whom those shadows belong. How big is the new room? What does it hold? Where do its other doorways lead? As a fellow new parent put it, each stage presents different strengths and challenges, and I'm certain the room will hold those. Along with new priorities. New vocabulary. Discoveries about myself and others. A life I will re-create and come to know. Who I will become.

Ultimately, the only answer I need today, right now, in this moment, is to know the light is on. It flickers in mystery. I will learn soon enough what it illuminates.


Prayer #332: Right to Passage

All ye who enter here, take note: The choice to cross this threshold is yours. Your feet on the creaking timber, your fingers on the sticky doorknob, your cheek on the peeling paint -- the movements alone will beget revelation. Thus, proceed with optimism. Simply opening the door is challenge and gift enough.


Amen.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Let the darlings die

jev55/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Commitments
Habits
Activities
Tasks 
Time
Relationships
Opinions
Convictions
Biases
Beliefs
Grudges
Goals
Expectations

No need to outright kill these darlings, but if their number does come up, don't stay the execution. Let them wither and fade into a cloudy past that grows murkier each minute, obscuring why you held the darlings so dear to begin with.

At their wake, honor the value they once held while confessing their ill fit for the present. Where the darlings hold lessons, heed them. Where they brought pain, release it. If needed, mourn their loss. Above all, embrace the fallow field that follows.

But do not think you owe the darlings more. Pat the headstone, leave the flowers, be on your way. A fresh horizon beckons.


Prayer #331: Death Grip

Our panic is understandable. No one likes to forego familiarity, even when the familiar is out to get us. Yet seasons flow, priorities shift, and the landscapes we considered immutable reveal their subtle differences in photos taken then and now, illustrating how both beheld and beholder are bound to change.

God of slippery sands, nudge us toward getting a new grip, one that relaxes our entrenchment and instead fortifies our present lives. Help our most darling selves die natural deaths so that we, renewed, might dance on their graves.

Amen.