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27 Jul

After moving out of my parent’s house twelve years ago, my mom finally made me go through my desk, window seat and closet to clean my mementos out.  She laughed as I walked by her in the kitchen on my eighth trip to the recycling bin in the garage with piles of old papers, tests and drawings.  I seemingly saved everything from about fifth grade on—every note passed, every ribbon awarded, every paper graded.  I saved key cards from hotels, movie stubs, brochures from plays, sugar packets from restaurants.  It was phenomenal.  Why did this start?  How did I think this was a good idea?  What kind of time did I waste collecting such odd keepsakes?  When did I stop keeping track?  As I sifted through decades of report cards, birthday cards and awkward pictures, I was struck by how obsessively I hoarded.  It was like I was sitting in a pile of points earned, but years later the competition seemed utterly pointless.  I found a cast from a broken arm, a shoe box full of unmarked medals, a ponytail cut off, every flower given to me at a dance- dry and brittle.  Turns out I was infatuated with documentation.  It seemed I wanted to walk away from each moment with a trophy, something to show from my effort, something that proved my worth as a person.  And for what?  To remind myself at some point that I truly had accomplished something with my life?  To prove to my children that when I was their age I was productive?

Plaques, plaques, plaques–there were oh so many plaques.  I actually started to laugh out loud as I pulled plaque after plaque out of the window seat.  I was awarded plaques for really miniscule things.  At the time, it seems odd to toss them, but a decade later, it was comical how little worth lie in those plaques.  Who was the first to think that a block of wood is the perfect way to commemorate big turning points and goals achieved?  Why do we try to make big moments tangible with plaques?  Can recycled plaques be used for anything interesting?

I had to ask really big, yet somehow bizarre questions.  Do I keep the piece of paper that proves I have my Master’s Degree?  Do I keep sweet notes from guys I dated even though I found a companion that overshadows even the most tender moments with the others?  If we have to be reminded of the big moments, are they really the big moments?  How much does the past hinder us from being fully present?

Do you want to know what I kept?  I brought back to my apartment one card from each dead grandparent, one paper from my favorite high school teacher who died this past fall that had his scribbles all over it, and a note from my college roommate who died of cancer at age twenty-five.  After dumping the last bag of paper reminding me I was an A student when I was twelve (as if that matters now), I walked away with a new resolve to celebrate the people in my life who are still with me and to keep honoring those who are not with how I live my life.  That is all that seems to really matter.

I felt like a liberated woman as I left, sweaty, at the end of the day.  If my worth is not inherent, if I really need a piece of paper or a piece of wood to prove my worth, well, I am in deep trouble.  Cause I got rid of it all.  It felt good to leave the desk, the window seat and the closet empty, knowing I held every memory and every relationship I need to move forward in my being, in my body, mind and soul.  It is much less cluttered that way.

When you get rid of the clutter, the important things get bigger.


The Power of Stuff

3 Jul

There is a scene in one of my favorite moves, The Mission, where Robert DiNero’s character is scaling a waterfall dragging his old armor, seemingly as penance as he transitions from violent solider to peaceful Jesuit.  The scaling itself looks difficult, and his added arsenal of “stuff” makes it nearly impossible.  He slips, and his mentor needs to cut him free of his attached armor to save his life.  As we hear his former belongings clang down the gorgeous waterfall, we are sure the rest of the journey will be trying, but one can sense his instant liberation from his shell.  He continues lighter, dragging less on the journey.

That scene came to mind as comfort when, a week into a joyful vacation, my spouse realized that our camera had been stolen.  Our first reaction was sadness, having lost documented memories and well constructed frames of one of the most beautiful places in the US.  But with time, I also found liberation in our lighter load.  I could not help but notice that our stuff had been weighing me down, and I did not even notice until it had been cut free.  It was an instant refocusing.  It’s just a camera.

Dan and I have studied the art of photography.  Our camera had become a hobby and a ministry.  We became the people at weddings and baptisms and birthdays to snap the precious candid to send it on as gift.  And in that regard, the lost item was one to mourn.  But having it snatched also made me reflect on the hold the camera had on me.  Our remaining days on the trip were not spent looking for the perfect picture, but simply living.  I have a tendency to stop in the middle of a perfect moment to take a picture of it instead of just living it and keeping it for myself.  Our Facebook culture has become a bit obsessed with pictures, almost in a way to prove that we are living, to prove that we are happy, to show others our adventures instead of just having them for the sake of having them.  Now, I think sharing pictures of important people and events, and the community that can be built with that is wonderful.  Don’t misunderstand.  I am just saying that I noticed in myself that I had given an awful lot of power to an object that can be taken away.  And I was slipping into being more preoccupied with taking pictures of my life for the pictures sake, instead of living my life for life’s sake.  As a woman, it was supporting the tendency to worry more about how others are perceiving me from the outside than working on myself from the inside.  It made me wonder how much life I lost in the process.

Dan and I are contemplating whether to buy another camera or not.  I think we will, for the art and hobby of it.  But I am grateful for the perspective it gave me to be cut free from it.  I think it helped me be a more balanced camera owner.  It makes me wonder what other stuff in my life is weighing me down.


27 Jun

Photo of marqueeFriday I turned thirty.

I had been told over and over by other women, young and old, to dread this day with all of my being.   A middle aged woman named Sandy told me a horror story about how she cried for days before, during and after she turned thirty as she thought her life was over.  I watched my friends do odd things when they turned thirty before me over this past year like spend $200 on a high fashion haircut, get ridiculous tattoos or get drunk to the point of vomiting to prove their hip-ness despite their age.

Although I saw no real reason to dread my thirtieth birthday, watching my friends act so oddly did make me curious about if the change of the first digit in my age would push me over the edge of reality to an existential crisis.  And it is undeniable that society subtly and not so subtly tells women that by the time we are thirty are lives are indeed over, which is powerful.  So, I came up with a fool-proof plan.

To work on painful detail and creativity, I often ask my students, no restrictions at all, where and with whom would they have lunch and what would they eat?  Pizza in Italy with the Pope, sushi in Maui with Margaret Thatcher, burgers in New Zealand with Jacob or Edward?  Well, I applied that game to my birthday.  If I could go anywhere and do anything for my thirtieth birthday, what and where and with whom?  Dan and I purchased plane tickets to Napa Valley, and then once in California purchased concert tickets to see Ani DiFranco, a personal hero of mine.  Now, keep in mind that my family did not do birthdays growing up.  I had one birthday party when I turned six, so this was a splurge.  But I was told I need to fight the “turning thirty depression thing” with a full arsenal, so I decided to see my favorite righteous babe in the heart of wine country USA.

The day came with no depression at all.  Granted, I was in sunny California, but I was in tune to my mind, body and heart, and I just did not feel old or worthless or sad.  I think that part of the problem is that society tells women that our stock goes down as we get older.  All we have to offer is our physicality and sexuality.  And using the media’s unattainable standards of sexuality and beauty, the younger the better.  Our very worth as people drops exponentially as gray hair, cellulite and wrinkles appear.  And this is why women spend unimaginable amounts of money and time on things like diets, facial crème, tanning, plastic surgery and the like.   My own mother begged me around my birthday, “You save so much money by buying all your clothes second hand, but please put a little money into a good face crème so you won’t have wrinkles like me!”

But just in case those horrible lies about my self worth as a woman decided to sneak in on my birthday, I had Ani to remind me who I am.  She walked on stage, and I was struck by how small she was.  She was not wearing cute clothes.  Her hair was nothing special.  But then she started to sing.  Ani became larger than life in front of my very eyes with her ability to speak truth and rock out simultaneously.  She was witty, clever, and commanded the entire stage with her guitar.  I was emotional the whole time, truly inspired by her presence.  I have only met a few women who are powerful enough to gracefully stand on their own and insight immediate respect and attention with their fearless messages.  I was drawn to her freedom and her honest struggle at denying the same societal pressure we all feel.  She reminds me of the female poet Ntozake Shange.   Ntozake means “she who comes with her own things,” and Shange means “who walks like a lion.” Ani’s music challenges me to be the type of thirty-year old woman who does not cry as my imagined stock drops, but walks like a lion and comes with my own things.

I do not believe my stock is dropping, in fact, the opposite, although it is not about my stock at all, is it?  My twenties were great, but as I reflect on the decade when every year I was in a new place, studying something new, dating someone new, starting a new adventure, I welcome my thirties, a time to grow roots, to grow a life.  I feel peaceful, relevant and strong.  And my feelings were mirrored in the concert.  Ani played her empowering feminist and political songs, but she also sang about marriage and her three- year old daughter, and talked gently about holding it all in her being.  Her truth resonated in me so strongly that I laughed out loud at one of her last lyrics, “If you are not happier as you get older, than you are fucking up.”

Amen sister.

Who Will I Trip Over While Taking the Long View?

3 May

Where is the balance between charity and justice?  Between thinking big thoughts and hitting the ground running?  Between effort and rest?  Between retreat and engagement?  Are my gifts best used giving fish or teaching to fish or working to change the whole fishing industry?

Ladies and gentlemen, a small sampling of questions that have been plaguing me lately.  In one of my classes, I showed a film that asked the question, “Is aid to Africa doing more harm than good?” Is foreign aid creating dependency and learned helplessness?  How is it that we should more compassionately distribute wealth so that everyone lives with dignity?  Who should receive micro-loans and scholarships? Should generous donations go to governments, NGOs, middle class employers to create jobs, the poorest of the poor?  How can more relationships be built?   In my favorite scene, two brothers grapple with these same questions.  The question is posed, “Is it more helpful to educate powerful people about poverty or cross boundaries and help people experiencing poverty one at a time?”  As I look out into the faces of affluent teenagers I am showing this film to, I admit to them that this is my daily struggle.  I leave my lesson on poverty to return to my comfortable apartment.  Is it making a difference?

This past weekend, I traveled to North Carolina for a gorgeous wedding.  Before the rehearsal, my spouse and I walked to Duke University, saw the chapel and sat down in the sunshine to enjoy an organic, colorful lunch from one of the many cafes.  I love universities, and really, all academic institutions.  They seem like utopias to me.  We sat at lunch listening in to young, vivacious thinkers and old professors in bow ties philosophize about the world.  I found myself at peace and enlivened.  Many religions agree that the path to knowledge is the path to God.  And I believe it.  To have the leisure time to pursue knowledge feels liberating to me.  And I have seen repeatedly that a key to peace is to educate young people, especially women.

Yet there is also something about academia that grates on me.  As I believe that the path to knowledge is the path to God, I also believe that Jesus is the poor.  Literally.  And academia seems so disengaged and distant from people who are experiencing real poverty.  It is a luxury to be able to choose whether to engage in an intellectual conversation about philosophy and theology regarding poverty while other people are living it.  Do I dare analyze aid when people actually need food right now while I am thinking about it?  Is the pursuit of knowledge also running from reality?

I am finding in me more and more a simultaneous desire to be immersed in education and scholarship while living engaged in the world of people experiencing poverty.  Where do I place myself so that the power I have in the world can most effectively be used to transform the hierarchies in our world?  How can I have informed, passionate opinions without living among people who are different from me?  Can I pursue knowledge without fleeing from the world?

Tomorrow morning I will leave my comfortable apartment to teach affluent teenagers about poverty.  I just wonder sometimes who I am tripping over while taking the long view.

The Shower

20 Apr

I began to sense that there was something contagious in the air that made everyone around me wants a baby to call her own.  And there was something in the water making those babies, to the specific joy of their fathers, all boys.  I found myself on support staff for the race for babies.  All the wives of my spouse’s college friends either had babies, were pregnant with babies or where praying unceasingly for babies, wondering what was wrong with them for having to try for so long.  This was not a game I was partaking in.  I love babies.  They are clearly the personification of God’s grace.  They offer love without even realizing it.  They are fascinating to watch as they eagerly learn and change, things adults do not like much.  But my uterus in no way is yearning to be occupied.  Still, when people around you jump on the baby train, somehow the young, waiting, single and barren ones get dragged along for the ride.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and I pulled myself away from my writing to shower and primp.  It was time to go to yet another baby shower.  And it was at said baby shower that I started thinking about what it meant to be a woman, a white woman, a partnered white woman, and a partnered rich white woman in the US.  You see, generations ago, our ancestors came to the US from places like France, Bohemia, Ireland and Germany.  It was the melting pot, and quickly our ancestors learned that to survive here, one must assimilate as quickly as possible.  So they dropped language, religion, food, art and celebrations from their countries of origins to fit in with the other people in power who had white skin as well.  Now, we are left, rich and white, with no sense of what to eat, how to worship or how to celebrate huge rites of passage.  Having a baby is a really big deal.  But we did not take the time to learn ritual surrounding this transition of the Native Americans, and we were told to leave European tradition at the coast and cling to white power.  In 2010, we are striving to make meaning of life, to celebrate it in a significant way, and we have absolutely no idea what to do.

The men in my life do very little to celebrate the baby life mark, but let’s look at other rituals they have created out of thin air.  The twenty-first birthday consists of taking shots until he is unconscious or projectile vomiting.  The initiation into a fraternity may consist of drinking pickle juice with vodka and headcheese, rolling in the mud, carrying blocks of ice for miles or tampering with goats.  A bachelor party calls for golfing, eating barbequed meat, gambling away money and being entertained by a woman who comes to take her clothes off to the beat of their cheering. Now, this is not every man, by any means.  But the above information has come from wonderful men of integrity in my life, so it does happen.

Women tend to mark turning points a little more peacefully.  And although there is less destruction involved, it can also tend to be extremely boring.  And taxing.  And consumer driven. The women throwing this baby shower that I attended on the beautiful Saturday afternoon had difficulty figuring out what to do.  We have no sense or history of ritual.  The thing I find most odd is because we are making this up as we go, the guest always have to be told what to do, what comes next, because it is always different, one of the fundamental problems.  First, we ate.  Now being women, we ate light of course, because God help us if the pregnant woman of honor were to gain too much weight while with child.  So food was light croissants, salads and a fruit dessert.  I kind of wish women would embrace eating food that hits the soul a bit, you know, really celebrating.  Salads just don’t cut it for me. Next, there were games.  There are always games, like dress the bride in toilet paper or unscramble words with a baby theme. The games on this day were a multiple choice quiz about celebrities and their baby’s names followed by a matching of adult animals to what they call their baby counterpart.  A baby hippo is called a calf.  Really?  Then we proceeded to the kitchen table where we all made scrapbook pages for the mother to be so that she could just slip pictures in the pages without worrying about the stickers, crazy scissors or mushy quotes corresponding to the theme of the page.  And finally, like always, there were gifts.  She opened bag after bag of things she had registered for at Target, Babies R Us and the like.  We cooed and mooed as she displayed things like bottles and spoons, burp rags and pumping bags that just did not seem coo worthy at all to me.  I cooed along, even for the little socks and onesies, all pink so we could socialize the baby to her gender as quickly as possible.  Then ice cream was served with cake, defeating the whole idea of the light lunch, pictures were taken, and people headed home. Three hours later, I felt like I wanted to shower, or, I don’t know, take off my baby shower attire and drink a beer with some guys.

I try not to let others in on the internal struggle that happens during these made up rituals that we have.  I am, in fact, as rich and white as they come.  But I can’t help thinking about my ancestors and wishing that they had kept their real last names, stayed bi-lingual and taught each other the old, time-tested celebrations surrounding life’s big moments.  I come back to this so many times a year.  We have no cultural identity, so we just continue to assert our power, our access in our rituals.  When we should be talking about the genocide that happened when the Europeans came to settle in the US, we instead stuff ourselves with food and pass out to big guys tackling each other on our flat screen digital televisions.  To celebrate the fact that Jesus, a man killed because of his radical political and relational power, was born to a poor peasant in a barn we get dressed up and give each other presents from Best Buy.  Birthdays, baptisms and bar mitzvahs all come with gifts and more gifts, a showering of presents.  The average wedding in my state puts the couple and their parents back $20,000.  Graduating from high school?  You guessed it, money, gifts and buffets.  Knowing little else, we lean on what we do know to mark our coming of age.  We eat lots of food and spend a lot of money on stuff.  For me, it is not enough.  It makes me feel empty and sad.

I don’t know what the answer is.  All I know is that I hate going to baby showers.  I think part of it is claiming our ancestry even if it means claiming the ugliness that comes with the history of being white in the US.  It is creating rituals that do not center on consumerism.  We could stop being so self-centered and learn other languages, learn about other religions and rituals and food and art.  We need to decide what we stand for and make sure we stand for something that is life-sustaining.

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