Sister Denise Ellen

Long ago in a different time, I served on a board. Part of my charge was to plan a professional education day for a bunch of religious educators but for some reason the budget had been completely cut in the cycle before I came on the board. So, plan a big educational day for 100 people at a convention hotel, but with no funds.

OK.

After some conversation we decided on the theme of “Interfaith Work” and I set about recruiting a panel of experts.

One of the ideas for a speaker was a woman who I could hardly imagine just picking up a phone and calling. She was a powerful woman in this denomination and was a part of the the Interfaith Alliance working on their youth programming (Leadership Education Advancing Democracy and DiversityI knew if I could get her to speak pro bono, our shoestring program would be OK.

She agreed almost before I finished asking and told me she was coming to Seattle, where I lived, and in her words “would have wheels” so could meet with me to talk further about the event.

I assembled a panel and when the day arrived I took the three Interfaith experts out to lunch. No time for chit chat, these three women were off talking about overcoming hegemony to promote peace and justice among people of different faiths over the salad.

As we prepared for the program, the three experts at the front of the room, me in the “Oprah” role wandering the audience with a microphone, I realized that I might have to do the hardest thing of my career and actually interrupt Denny Davidoff.

But the truth was, Denny asked as as many questions of the other two speakers (Hannah McConnaughay from the Interfaith Youth Core and Kathleen Carpenter from Mecklenburg Ministries) as she was asked. She was a force, for sure, but it required no tricky moderating. Denny was more interested in what the others had to share than in what she had to offer.

This was almost a decade ago, but it stuck with me. Denny looked people in the eye, listened. She held back nothing, and moved forward with full faith that the toughest troubles in the world could be overcome if we just kept working on them.

Today I watched Denny’s memorial service on a livestream from Westport, CT.

And then I turned to my homework in Interfaith Studies at The Interfaith Chaplaincy where I am working toward ordination as a community minister and chaplain. If my faith tradition called on me to take the name of beloved saint as a symbol of entering my religious life, I know what I would choose.

Seeds are planted. Ideas stick.

May I remember the moments and the people who change me and move me on to the life I am meant to live. I bless Denny’s spirit as she leaves this world and send her love forward and onward with the very work I do.

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The Architecture of an Apology

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I screwed up. Blew it. Goofed. I made a mistake.

This time it wasn’t a life altering, horrible thing. It was a couple of missed things on a dealie and caused someone else to have to work some hours to fix it. Not great, right? But not a heavy thing that cost someone money or impugned their reputation or caused some kind of lasting damage.

This really got me thinking. I felt bad; not a soul sucking guilt-and-shame bad. But an appropriate amount of “ah, shoot, that’s me, my bad” kind of bad. I apologized and got back a kind and not inappropriate “don’t beat yourself up” reply. This is something I am very good at. I can’t do calculus or a cartwheel, but I am an absolute expert at rolling something around in my mind forever, replaying my mistake and beating myself up.

But this was not one of those times. I truly wanted to own what I messed up and acknowledge it and let this person know I saw that it caused them trouble. Tickety-boo, done.

So then I started thinking about things that have happened that don’t feel resolved; a whole bunch of things from all kinds of sides. What about that time I caused someone to have the worst day of their life? Or the time I felt thrown under the bus and just can’t seem to let it go? What about things that I screwed up in the midst of deep depression and now that I’m on the other side I can see that the harm was way bigger than the pitiful apology I muttered from the dark pit? Should I go back? Should I check in with that awful day person, again? Should I just let that other thing go?

Now I’m totally obsessed with apology. Why do we do it? What is the best way to apologize? How do we accept apologies? Is there a way to reconcile after a nasty wrong? How does relationship play in what works or doesn’t work? What about job vs. personal life offenses?

After long and arduous research, or you know, asking my friends on Facebook here’s what I know:

  • Women are being told to stop apologizing and while many of us do say “sorry” for bumping into inanimate objects, things we are not responsible for and breathing (raises hand) which has GOT to stop, there is still a time to own up to what I’ve screwed up and take steps to not do it again.
  • Work relationships are different than personal life. Moving on can be part of doing your job.
  • People sometimes hang on to offense like a coat of armor. I can’t fix it from here. They need to get out the can opener and peel off the armor so my apology can get in. Painful but true– I can’t always fix it.
  • Saying “here’s what I did, I wish I hadn’t done it, and here’s what I wish I had done” seems to be a simple formula that I think works just about everywhere.
  • “If” and “but” never belong in an apology.
  • Asking for forgiveness can be manipulative. People forgive on their own time (or don’t, see can opener above).

If I step back and look at what is flowing through the whole issue of how we handle screwing up, what seems to matter the most is the relationship. How am I connected to you before the offense, after the offense, during the offense and next to the offense. How we are connected to one another makes a huge impact on how I get back to “all good” or at least “better for now”.

Screwing up, making mistakes, blowing it; it’s all a part of walking around this earth in a human body with a human soul and a human heart. May I learn to do a little less apologizing to a chair for bumping into it, a little more loving people who have done something that deserved an apology to me, and a little more sincere communication that brings me back to “pretty good” after messing up.

May we all keep holding hands and hanging on and moving forward in the best way we can, at least for today.

 

When my mom was a child she was____.

When my oldest son was in 2nd grade he brought home a fill in the blank worksheet he had done in class. One of the questions said “When my mom was a child she was _________.”

He had filled in the blank with “lonely.”

I had probably told him stories about wishing for him to grow up with a whole pile of siblings, maybe as those siblings were joining the family to explain why I was usurping his prime spot as only child or something! But I had also probably told him stories about growing up, yes, a little lonely.

Which is funny, because I did grow up with a whole pile of kids around me at my mom’s daycare center. Kids all day long everywhere, yes, but not at home. Not falling asleep. Not in the early mornings. Not at Christmas. My brothers are a generation older, around yes, but more like uncles than brothers.

So yeah, a little lonely.

I am in the middle of three weeks of what could be lonely. We had a big rush driving up the west coast to deliver my son to his school, the northernmost university in the contiguous US and we live a lazy morning’s drive from the Mexican border. But as soon as my husband and I got home from the drop, he was packing for three weeks in the UK.

Zip the suitcase, climb in the supershuttle and here I am, home alone for weeks.

I’ve been working toward empty-nester status for a few years with fits and starts of schools and jobs for the young men in my life. Last school year was a good 9 month run of all the young people secured in jobs and universities across the country. I can’t say it was awful. Nachos for dinner? Why not! No dinner because we’re too lazy and had a big lunch? Why not? No piles of shoes by the front door or mystery pots and pans in the sink causing a forensic study of “just what on earth did they cook last night” or juice put away with a half a swig left–OK.

So, here I am. Responsible only for my own nutrition and care.

Yes, my husband is a grown-ass adult, and can take care of himself, but I work 30 hours a week, generally, and he works more than those people you read about in Eastern Asia who are at risk of DYING from overwork. No, not kidding. He really does. So OK, I do more dishes, laundry, cooking and general head-space family stuff on a regular basis.

But now, ha! Just me! And yes, it’s the busiest time of year for my work, but it’s my second year, so I know what needs to happen and when. And yes, I was so sick I probably should have gone to the doctor last week, but, you know. All better now.

I can read biographies until late with the lights on or listen to podcasts out loud when I can’t sleep. I eat prepared food way more than I would if someone else was counting on me; did you know that you can totally survive on Trader Joe’s deli and frozen bags of pretty damn healthy food? Totally can!IMG_20170929_184933.jpg

But the funniest thing is that I am enjoying the time with just me. I’m alone. I talk to the dog and the dishes and the damn news. But it’s OK. I don’t feel lonely. It’s a little bit of a surprise. I miss my spouse, he’s my favorite person in the world. But I’m OK. I am thinking my thoughts and writing them down. I am busier than I would have thought and I am finding that there’s nothing wrong with lighting candles just for dinner on my own.

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Calm spirit, heart full. And not lonely at all. Hm! Who knew?

Learning to Listen

I am learning the lesson that I believe my ancestors never had to be taught. Knowing and KNOWING are different things.

Two years ago I moved to Orange County, California where the sun almost always shines and if I open my front door I can usually smell the ocean. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to it.

Yesterday I noticed big, orange clouds gathering in the distance. Odd in the land of sun, but I guess not unheard of. Then I smelled it. Smoke. Fires.

Now that we have instant answers at our fingertips I could learn quickly that a brush fire had started two hours earlier. It was in the canyons in the eastern part of the county, far away, but the winds were sending the smoke and ash my way.

I knew that I was fine, but I packed a little GO bag anyway because being prepared can help relax the belt that tightens around my heart when I’m afraid.

Then my phone alarmed with a notice to evacuate. No, not for me but close enough that my phone alarm blared and bright red flashed across the screen.

It was a long afternoon.

More ash fell and gradually the sky cleared a bit. By the time I walked my dog before bed the air was misty, leaving us a little damp as we walked. Blurry halos formed around the street lights, with a grounding smell of dirt as the dog scratched the grass and when the breeze stirred, a finger of jasmine, too.

I turned on the 11 o’clock news. What a mistake. The fire was so big and so fast. People had lost homes, whole hillsides had burned and sent their embers to the next hillside which then burned.

It was a long night.

I chided myself. This wasn’t a tornado or an earthquake that once enroute was sure to come my way. This was a fire that was many miles away. I live where dry grasses don’t exist! We have landscaping, people, landscaping! But I was still afraid. The smell, the smoke, the ash; some switch inside me had turned on and was flashing DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!

It wasn’t until this morning that I let up on myself a little. No, I wasn’t afraid for no reason.

When I was six weeks old we had a house fire that nearly destroyed our home. I grew up finding broken glass in the front garden from the windows the firefighters broke to get fire hoses in the house, our encyclopedia set had the outline of a bookshelf imprinted on one cover from smoke damage, and there was a clear “before the fire” and “after the fire” in the family stories.

Then when I was five the neighbor’s house burned.  I was with them every morning before Kindergarten while my mom went to work. The babysitter sent me back into the smoke-filled house to pull the baby out of his crib while she called the fire department. I remember having a hard time getting him out. When the fire was out they could see the outline of his body on the sheets. I couldn’t let my mother out of my sight for months.

My body knows, or better said it KNOWS. My body remembers. My body knows when to be afraid, when to prepare, when to run. May I remember to settle in and listen a little more closely when my body calls to me. May I hold the wisdom in my bones as counsel for the future.

Today, may all in the path of this fire be well and whole. And may we all breathe a little easier tomorrow.

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When Hate Came to Laguna Beach

I always wondered what I would have done were I a simple housewife in Germany as the Nazis were rising. Or if I had been a young mother during the American Civil Rights era. Would I have answered the call? Like Unitarian Universalist Viola Liuzzo? Would I have given in to fear? Appeasement? Head down, staying busy with my life?

I’m not sure if this “America Great-ifying” time is comparable to those pivotal moments in history; we probably will not know for a while. But it feels different. The Tuesday after the Women’s March a few of my Indivisible Facebook neighbors and I casually plotted to show up at our congressman’s district office.

“I think at 1pm, that’s over my lunch hour.” “We have to be out by 2 because that’s when they shut down Main Street for Taco Tuesday.” “Oh right, OK, let’s meet at Jack’s at 1.” “OK! See you then!”

40 people showed up.

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Suited up for our weekly protests at Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s office.

We’ve been there every Tuesday since January.

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Indivisible OC 48, August 22nd. Huntington Beach Pier. Photo by Larry Tenney

So after violence by neo-Nazi groups killed a young woman in Charlottesville, I knew I could not stand down from a planned “America First” rally two towns down the coast. The ACLU said “Stay Away.” My Indivisible group said “Stay Away.” People commented on social media “Stay Away.”

Nope.

I needed to face this group even if I was the only person who showed up. I am done. No more. No more standing down from HATE.

Mid-week I heard about a faith based response to the hate rally. There would be a two hour deescalation/ non-violence training followed by an inter-faith worship and then a march down to the beach where the rally was happening. Leading? The local UU and UCC ministers. Yep. Sign me up.

I work in a faith based organization, so sometimes going to church for me still feels like a work day. Not this day. This day we were led by trainers from PICO  and local organizers from OCCCO and then Emma’s Revolution came to sing at our worship. We heard from a pack of leaders of different faiths–blessings, song, some jokes. And then we walked down to the beach where the “America First” rally was taking place.

The winding trail of people headed down through the streets of Laguna Beach were met with cheers, cars honking in support, people even honking in time with our chants: “No Nazis, No KKK, No Racist USA” “When Immigrant rights are under attack what do we do? STAND UP! FIGHT BACK!”

We had a plan to march around the racist rally, linking arms to stay in touch, sending messages back through the lines. But none of that was needed.

As we made the final turn off the Pacific Coast Highway turning toward the beautiful Pacific Ocean we were met by the crowd of people. Tears poured down my face. I came ready to face fists or spitting-mad white men in riot gear, ready to face pepper spray or even a deranged man in a car. But I was met with a crowd of my friends and neighbors saying “NO MORE!”

The official count put the “America First” rally at about 50 participants. Our side? 2,500.

A chant that Rev. Ben McBride from PICO taught us “We! Have Already! WON!”

Yes, there is a lot to be done, this is not a time for rest. But at this rally, this night, this time. We had already won.

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The “America First” rally was cordoned off on a specific part of the beach, but this group stood off from the protected group.
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The “America First” rally in the sandy area.

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Pat and Sandy from Emma’s Revolution marched down with us and led the group in song.

Oh God, Oh God, Oh God! (Or, you know, spirit of life and of love, known by many names…)

Oh God, Oh God, Oh God. I can’t believe what I woke up to this morning. I thought this woman was my friend! Why would she do this to me. I mean, really! Publishing a post to WorshipWeb’s Facebook Page that makes me feel such horrible shame!

Because, you know, submitting a piece for a book and then agreeing to it being published. That’s a good way to hide something. Right?

Yeah. No.

I wrote this piece and submitted it to what has now been published as “To Wake to Rise” from Skinner House. In this piece I tell the story about working in a Unitarian Universalist church with no BA/MA/MS/MDiv/MEd where we might not worship God but we sure do seem to worship advanced education. I was never outwardly shamed, and in fact, the minister I served with was wildly adamant that a degree had nothing at all to do with my worth as a professional religious educator. But still. It was ever present and limited my career in a huge way, not having any letters after my name.

So, I knew people might read this piece. But still, having people, today, this morning, in my daily world, having them KNOW that I didn’t have a degree is a kick in the gut of shame and horror.

I’d love to tell you that shame is just a door to a new awakening and a sense of worth and dignity. But it’s not. It feels like a hangover on top of a panic attack.

OK, OK, the truth is I really do love that WorshipWeb curator, even if she has to go and TELL everyone. And I love the weird life that brought me to this place. And I love the people who are telling their own stories on the WorshipWeb Facebook page that shared my post. Big love.

My story is not over, but there is more. I left that church mentioned in the piece five whole years ago. And while I didn’t talk about it much, the first thing I did after I left was to go and finish that damn degree. My grad ceremony was three days before my oldest son’s college graduation (as well as my middle son’s high school ceremony). Which is neither here nor there.

Except it is. It totally is. 20776442_10155092057369125_6815078458146598201_o.jpg

To Clarify

Last month I wrote a piece about traveling back to the state I come from. I wrote about my experience of hearing the stories from my precious nieces about some of the painful things that have happened to them. Not my stories. Not mine to tell. But mine to hold because I love them.

I wrote about how it reminded me about why we left. I wrote about my regret that over time I wish I would have stopped some of my white relatives with a gentle word when they said something that, in my view, was biased.

After the piece had been out in the little world for a few days I got a phone call from a family member who was upset. They thought I was talking about sitting around a table with them and hearing them be racist. I wasn’t. The stories that made my heart ache were from my family folks who are people of color. Not white folks. The experiences they shared happened because they are not white.

I pulled the piece down, though. Some things aren’t worth a fight. And I apologized. I explained. I shared the words and their context again.

But maybe,  maybe, other folks read it too. And maybe they thought that I was talking about my white family. So I want to be clear. I was not referring to any person at all on my side of the family. I can’t share the stories I heard. They are not mine to share.

Maybe this is still not enough. For that I’m sorry. I wrote about my experience. I wrote about my feelings. But I wasn’t as clear as I should have been.  I’ll share the original words below so there is no confusion about what I’m taking back.

May the healing balm of time help us all move forward.

July 12th

My husband’s family is pretty diverse. His late mom and his dad are both descended from Eastern European folks, but through adoption, marriage/relationships and the children of those folks it’s a pretty mixed group. Somehow sitting around a table after a funeral opens doors for real conversations. My heart is still aching for the stories I heard.

Minnesota nice, the pretense that we are all good people and it’s important to be nice, becomes the cover for some horrible actions. These are not my stories to tell. I wish they were. I wish they’d happened to me and not to these people I love. But, of course, I’m white. They don’t happen to me.

I mourn for missed opportunities to counter things said by some of my white family. I mourn for the missed moments when people might deeply understand one another. I mourn for the time lost fighting this racism we should have destroyed by now. I mourn for lives compressed by bias that is hammered into the walls and stirred into the water.