Winning His Battle with Brain Cancer: A Good Man Has Died

Mark Green

Mark Green

Yesterday, my friend Mark Green died.  We knew each other in college.  In our first year, we narrowly avoided a one-night stand without loss of dignity or friendship.  In later years, at mutual friends’ wedding, our girls turned out to love to play together.  I last spoke to him in December, as his mind turned toward his own memorial service.

As someone more intimate with Mark wrote, he “won” his battle with brain cancer.

Clearly, this definition of winning is different than what we usually hear. It is, I believe, a much braver one.

This tumor-thing, once it fully insinuated itself, always meant the end of body sensations: the circulation of blood, the exhalation and inhalation of breath, the prickle of goose bumps, the voluntary and involuntary shedding of tears, the under-production of saliva, the what-have-you. The when and the where were unknown, though as February arrived, it became clearer.

Yet winning did not mean staying alive in body. That would have been magnificent, but strangely, secondary.

It meant staying alive in spirit.

Not ceding humor, or kindness, or playfulness, or generosity.

That would have been the more tragic death.

It meant facing death, not turning away. For Mark, this meant blogging with courage, humor, and a frank quality that only those facing death can articulate.  He wrote about the utter inconvenience of seizures when it comes to writing.  Learning the fine art of keening as only wailing could approach the grief and lament this disease brought.  How he chose laughter in the face of his muddled brain misleading him to destroy the door to his garage.  Plus, usually some video clip of music without which the message would not have been whole.  He even wrote for Huffington Post.

It meant gathering people together, seeking them out or bringing them together.  Taking joy and delight in their company, accepting their support and their presence, and I imagine, sharing each others’ grief for the muddled, pained thing it was.

It meant opening to whatever might be the unexpected company of this cancer.   Opening to insights – old or new or ones that didn’t use to be true, but are now. Truths against which one need no longer defend; now an appreciative eye and a gesture that says, “Sure, you can sit here with me. I don’t mind. Tell me what you have to say. I’m listening.”  Seeing gifts where others might see tragedy.

It meant casting his fiercely loving lot with the organization, Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, working not only for his own benefit, but also for the treatment and survival of others facing similar versions of this disease.

There is a concert happening March 28, 2015, to raise money to support funding research for brain tumors, which gets little to no public funding. Organized by Karen Mallory, it is a community effort and a community response. A band called the Steel Wheels will be performing, along with others. The concert will take place in Bellows Falls, Vermont but you don’t need to be there. It will be livestreamed so you can watch, rock out, and most importantly, DONATE.

Watch the video below to learn more (and to see Ken Burns, and Carly Simon, and Tom Bodet, and a host of other folks who want you to see this concert and support this cause). Mark is the devilishly handsome, utterly-kind bald guy with the round glasses at about 1:40.

Mark’s Facebook wall has become a community of grief and celebration.  There, I found this quote from Mark, which came from this interview, recorded in August, 2014.  I think this is yet another way that Mark redefined what it means to win:

thanks, Alex Case (source)

thanks, Alex Case (source)

May we all know what it is to win in the way that Mark has shown us in life and in death.

Posted in Death | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Reading Life Into Failing Bodies: The Chaplaincy of Eros and Thanatos

A third of my summer chaplaincy internship was spent at a nursing home. It was quite a contrast from the pace of chaplaincy work at the hospital, each with much to commend it.

At the hospital, I liked the pastoral-care-as-extreme-sport, the showing up at the ER in the middle of the night because someone really, really needed you. I discovered that I have a gift for ministering to angry-men-about-to-explode-from-grief. Most relationships were short in duration and yet, I was still able to develop genuine affection for real people I will likely never see again.

At the nursing home, the pace was much slower. Much. Instead of a pager blaring the need for middle-of-the-night be-here-a-minute-ago, at the nursing home there was the announcement over the P.A. system a full half hour in advance of Bingo starting, because it took  t  h  a  t     l  o  n  g  for the residents to walk the hallway.

At the nursing home, I was able to develop longer-term relationships, ones filled with appreciation, curiosity, delight, and affection:

The woman with early-onset Alzheimers who blasted music in her room.

The woman whose body folded in upon itself.

The woman whose stroke left her communicating by pointing to a letter board, often ignored due to the effort it took to communicate with her.

The man who gave me his Tehillim (Jewish book of psalms), which I cherish to this day.

The woman who was so so lonely, wishing to be at the end of her life, but resigned that it was not yet time.

The one who had not yet given up that her chronic pain might one day cease.

“Bart” was literally twice my age. Plus one year. I cannot tell his story here to protect his confidentiality, but it is a particularly poignant one, which added to my intrigue and enjoyment of our visits together.

Bart flirted shamelessly with me. All the time. Every pastoral visit.

I didn’t quite know what to do with this flirting. It left me flustered. Surprised. Unsure. Uncentered. Not sure what to do with this particularly strong energy.

Now, being an Our Whole Lives trainer, I know that…

…”old people” are sexual beings…

…”old people” have sexual feelings…

…”old people have sex”…

(…and not necessarily safer sex, as it turns out: the rates of sexually transmitted infections among our elders are high and growing.)

Not that long ago, the Daily Beast published an article titled, “Sex and the Senior Citizen: How the Elderly Get it On,” by Barbie Latza Nadeau. In it, the author notes a British study that reveals that nearly one third of men aged 80-90 are still masturbating or having sex (compare this to 14% of women in the same age range).

For Americans, the numbers are slightly different, but we are still getting some action:

https://i2.wp.com/flowingdata.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Sexual-health-table.png

from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior

I just learned about Unitarian Univeralist minister, Rev. Hugo “Holly” Holleroth who recently published a book, called “The Naked Truth about Aging.”  Worth a look?  I’m certainly going to check it out.

Even though I knew that we all are sexual beings our whole lives;

Even though I knew there is a strong connection between Thanatos (death, and in this case, aging) and Eros (erotic love, life force);

Even though I knew nothing inappropriate or untoward was going to happen;

It’s something to “know” a thing and it’s something different to experience that energy focused insistently, if respectfully, on me. Bart’s flirting rattled me.

I was out of my depth. So I explored these pastoral visits frankly with my supervisor — after an initial bout of timidity, our discussions flourished with spiritual and intellectual curiosity about this powerful dynamic. I reflected on transference and counter-transference; on the emotional and spiritual power that elderly Bart might be experiencing as he expressed this part of himself often is often invisible or unrecognized, perhaps even discouraged; on my discomfort, on my own sexual powers, and on pastoral authority that might be derived from that source. I was deeply thankful for a supervisor and a level of trust strong enough that we could do this depth of supervision.

As a chaplain, I wanted to honor this natural, beautiful, primal, essential impulse in this awesome human being as best as I could and as much as my role as a chaplain would allow. It was not easy. I leaned heavily on those supervision sessions.

In the end, I chose to ignore some flirtations, redirect others as necessary, and without shaming him or feeling embarrassment myself, engage some — as appropriate, even trying to use them as a way to get at deeper, existential questions for this man. Meeting him where he was at – a cardinal rule of chaplaincy.

Life.

Aging.

Sex and life.

Sex and aging.

Sex and edging toward death.

Sex and life and aging and death.

One gorgeous, edgy, voluptuous cloth.

Bart asked me, and I chose, to step outside any box of comfort previously known to me. I’d like to think that I am a better person and better minister because of it.

Thank you, Bart.

P.S. The title of this post comes from a line of one of my poems, which you can find here.

Unitarian Universalists have a long history of courage in tackling issues around human sexuality—from campaigning for human rights, to pioneering innovative work in the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum… join #UUs this month for a discussion of sex–the challenging parts, the beautiful parts, the spiritual parts, and even the downright goofy parts. UU or not, everyone is welcome to join in the conversation this month at #sexUUality

Posted in Chaplaincy, OWL, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Choosing Open Eyes (sermon)

This sermon was delivered on February 22, 2015 at First Parish Church of Groton, MA.

Somewhere in Asia – Japan or Malaysia or some other country – there is a picture on a Buddhist monk’s smart phone. It is of the dining hall at Changmyay Meditation Center just outside of Yangon, Myanmar, where everyone is eating mindfully, heads bent with attention to each aspect of eating: reaching the spoon, carrying the food, opening the mouth, chewing, placing the spoon down. Reaching, carrying, opening, chewing, placing down.

IMG_0185 In this picture floating on the iCloud of the universe, everyone’s head is bowed in proper posture as befitting mindful eating in Noble Silence at a Buddhist monastery…everyone’s head, except mine.

My head is upright, my eyes surveying this new experience – the men sitting at the front and the women at the back; all of us sitting at low tables while our bodies are not on chairs, but on mats on the floor. There I am, taking in the bowing monks and nuns and earnest laypeople who prostrate in place to the big Buddha statue by bowing, hands placed together at the heart, three times, forehead to ground, offering gratitude and humility before partaking in the meal.

There is photographic evidence of my dilemma, which, it turns out, is a dilemma we all face: do I focus inward or do I focus outward?

As I watched this monk – who, I would like the record to note, was also not eating mindfully – take this picture, I realized just what it depicted – me, head held high, probably smiling from ear to ear in delight. I had to laugh at myself. No need for judgment. A beautiful quote from Tagore Rabindrinath, 20th century poetic father of India (and Nobel laureate), rang in my ears:

Whoever wishes to, may sit in meditation with eyes closed, to know if the world be true or false. I, meanwhile, shall sit with hungry eyes, to see the world while the light lasts.

There I was, with my hungry eyes, seeing that little compelling bit of the world while the light lasted.

It reminds me of the quote from E. B. White, famous for Charlotte’s Web which I hold, like many of you, in very high regard. I also love his book of essays, The Points of My Compass, from which this gem comes:

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” 

It reminds me of choices we all face every day, all the time.  It reminds me of choices our congregation faces as we continue with our clumsy, well-intentioned, muddled, idealistic, noble, pragmatic, worthy attempts to actively bend the arc of the universe towards racial justice – a metaphor sp01-29-13-theodore-parker-bend-the-arc-email1oken by Dr. King, but the origin of which actually belongs to our own Unitarian Theodore Parker.

Do we focus inside of our church? Or outside? Do we develop our own sense of purpose, examine our own racial privileges, clarify how we might grow ourselves and our children into more multi-culturally competent persons in the world?

Or do we leave these walls, lend our bodies and hearts to the social action and civic duties outside this predominantly (but not solely – let me not make anyone invisible) white congregation?

Do we do this work individually? Or do we find a way to respond collectively?

Do we focus on our intentions? Or do we focus on the impact of our actions?

 So many choices, as if they are mutually exclusive or somehow contradictory.

As if. But not so.

As E.B. White said, it does make it hard – or let’s call it complex — to plan the day, or engage in the life of a congregation wanting to be our better selves. But this is the blessing of doing this work in a religious community, rather than a secular one: Spirit and Hope call on us to use our open eyes to see these as paradoxical, rather than contradictory.   Complex, but not impossible.

Yes, we have choices to make and they aren’t easy, they won’t be easy, and already they have not been easy.

And there are mistakes to be made along the way. I say that, saying at the same time an echo from prayer: we commit, as always, to forgive ourselves and each other, to begin again in love.

~~

A few weeks ago I offered some reflections on my travels in Myanmar and I started by noticing the abundance of ethnic groups there. You might remember that it was the amazingly high number of 135. It’s an unusual way to talk about a place, but it turns out that it is elemental.

While visiting the seminary hosting us, as part of a lecture, we were invited to sit in the front row of a large academic hall, honored guests, with about 300 students. The president welcomed our group warmly, then proceeded to introduce the student body. He began, “If you are Chin, stand up.” A fair number of students stood up. “If you are Shan, stand up…” and another sizeable group stood without surprise, resentment, or fear. The president continued like this, “Kachin,” and “Kayin,” “Burmese,” “Rakhine,” and so on.

It was nothing unusual…for them. It was nothing out of the ordinary, except our small group of Americans was feeling culturally allergic, even possibly itchy: in a large group of people, calling out folks by their ethnicity or race? For many of us, maybe even all of us, we were curious, but definitely out of our element and various degrees of discomfort.

As we swam more in those cultural waters, the discomfort eased. That experience has led to curiosity and wondering about how we – we Americans of all ethnicities and race, and especially those of us who identify as white, and how we Unitarian Universalists of all ethnicities and race, especially those of us who identify as white – are socialized to talk — or not talk — about ethnicity and race.

For there is discomfort here …because there are unspoken, confusing, and often contradictory “rules” about when and where and how and with whom and these “rules” are laced with a long history of racism in our nation, as well as its many present-day expressions. So when we try to cross invisible barriers, or just try to connect with someone different than we are, until we are quite practiced at it, we tend to be clumsy and unskillful, can be defensive or guarded, and so often, just plain awkward.

Foot-and-Mouth-200x150And we make mistakes. Practiced or not, we make mistakes. And sometimes, we put our foot in our mouth.

That is me. Maybe it is you, too, but it is definitely me. I have placed my foot in my mouth. More than once. And given the odds, it’s likely I will do it again.

Let me tell you a true story.

I have a friend and long-time colleague in my other work. We have worked together in one way or another for nearly a decade; we are just about to embark on our next shared project this spring. He is an African American man, more or less my age, smart, funny, and spiritual. One day, a few years ago, I made a comment about his boss, who used to also be my boss.  We have a history of bonding over our exasperation about some of her choices.

My comment was meant to be about her, about how she was bringing him to some important meeting to show off how diversity-friendly the organization was. My intention was to be snarky, was to cast aspersions on her efforts which I thought smacked of tokenism. My intention was to join with my friend.

The impact was quite different. The impact was that I cast aspersions on the quality and substance of my friend’s work as if it were not worthy of recognition. The impact was to sound too much like someone else saying that affirmative action was the reason for a person of color to be at college or in a particular job. The impact was to offend my friend and create a painful distance between us.  The impact was racist.

Ouch.

In moments like this, my Unitarian Universalist faith, my belonging to and with you, saves me. In moments like these, I hear the calling of our second principle — Justice, equity and compassion in human relations – and I feel both its burden and its inspiration.

I feel that foot in my mouth and I know I must do more than just remove it. I must find compassion for myself – we forgive ourselves and each other and begin again in love – and I must also seek justice for my friend, even if it is as small – and as immense – as acknowledgement, apology, and accountability.

My heart searches for the compassion and courage to do these things in this prayer from Rev. Joseph Cherry, one that Elea spoke from this pulpit in early December, and will no doubt, find its way here again.

If we have any hope of transforming the world and changing ourselves,
we must be bold enough to step into our discomfort,
brave enough to be clumsy there,
loving enough to forgive ourselves and others.
May we, as a people of faith, be granted the strength to be
so bold, so brave, and so loving.

When we can take into our hearts the wisdom of that prayer, see with open eyes in a way that makes us very vulnerable, we can move from ouch to thank you.

Thank you for the gift of being called out on the impact of our words or actions.

Thank you for being given the gift of knowing that we presented ourselves in a way that we do not intend. How many times have we acted thusly and not been made aware – someone has not taken the time to let us know, just has blown us off?

Thank you for being called out to be our better selves.

(Of course, it is up to us to hear this as a call to be our better selves. It is a choice.  Not one we always make, but one available to us.)

I do believe it is what our faith calls us to — the holy work of choosing to look with open eyes not only at the intentions of our actions, but their impact:

a sorrow, yours or someone else’s, fully realized and received, not denied, not covered up, not justified or explained away, ignored — some sorrow clearly, previously seen is taken in, absorbed and felt, and reemerges, bent now into compassion. To see clearly is an act of will and conscience. It will make you very vulnerable. It is persistent, holy, world transforming work. (Open Eyes, Rev. Victoria Safford)

I share with you these experiences not to admonish myself or anyone else, but to remember, with compassion, the ways it can be any one of us and probably, given the odds, has been.

I share this with you because I do believe it is a blessing to be told that our foot is in our mouth, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time – our own embarrassment, or vulnerability, or feelings of misunderstanding weighting the blessing with an opaque curtain of anguish.

I share this with you because our faith calls us to pay attention to such choices.

I share this with you because our faith calls us to this persistent, holy, world-transforming work.

May it be so. Amen.

References

  • Joseph M. Cherry, “Prayer for Living in Tension,” in Voices from the Margins, Skinner House, 2012
  • Victoria Safford, “Open Eyes,” in  Walking Toward Morning, Skinner House, 2003
  • E. B. White, The Points of My Compass, Harper & Row, 1962
Posted in Hope, Justice, Prayers, Sermons, Standing on the Side of Love, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Memento Mori (poem – video)

If all you do with this post is spend 4:15 minutes watching this clip, that is enough.  But there is a bit of (con)text below…

Memento Mori is a Latin term. It has multiple translations, all approaching a concept not easily rendered. If you consult the Oracle of Wikipedia, they say

“Remember that you must die.”

I first encountered the term on Star Island, sometime in the mid-oughts (2006?), while listening to a sermon by the Rev. Victoria Safford at the International Affairs Conference. She introduced the concept of spiritual intelligence that Rev. Kendyl Gibbons was developing. At that time, the definition was

the constant awareness of death; acceptance of mortality and dedication to life regardless”

It’s my understanding that this is a work in process, as there has been movement from calling this “spiritual intelligence” to “spiritual maturity.” So, if you ask the Rev. Kent Hemmen Saleska, who preached on this topic in 2012, memento mori is not all that different, but enough to merit a mention:

“practicing consistent awareness of inevitable death of self and all beings, while not seeking escape from eventual mortality.”

This wording may well be Kendyl’s – I can’t tell from the document if it’s hers or Kent’s. Praise to them both.

I don’t have much refinement to add to the definition. I do hope that my poem – some call it my signature poem – adds to texture, particularly of an erotic nature, of our engagement with this awareness of our human condition.

Memento Mori by Karen G. Johnston (cc)

We all wonder whether
tonight’s scalpel will ease the fluid
building on his brain
or be metaphorically dull,
offering neither relief nor reprieve
for this man laying dying.

Well, not dying today —
(pray not today) —
but dying more quickly
or at least more evidently
than the rest of us in the room.

This formidable man, formerly with silver mane of hair;
This man of four successive wives,
the last fiercely attending,
sleeping beside him each night in hospital room;
This man whose days & nights once teemed with jazz,
international travel, political organizing, philosophical meandering
& (I’m guessing) the company of smart, sexy women.

His mind now foggy, his memory a blur,
I offer to read poetry aloud.
Pick one, I say, not handing him the book of
pastoral contemplation I brought
(it turns out those pages are full of death,
the possibility so palpable in the room
I don’t want to lend my tongue to that theme,
not for a man doggedly clinging to life.)

Instead, I hand him the only other book of poems
in the room: his dog-eared copy of Sharon Olds.

He lingers as he chooses: I am not sure if
he is dazed or intent.
He hands back the book: an exhausting effort,
pointing to a poem entitled “Sex without Love.”

This man, thirty years my senior, is flirting
from the bed that cannot cure his cancer!

Flirting? Perhaps.

But more likely: declaring life, not death.
His selection double-dog dares me & I accept.
I want him to believe that I am worldly & brazen
& can read life into his failing body.

Squirming in the chair beside him,
I can’t quite believe I am reading an erotic poem
to a dying man who is neither my husband nor my lover.

I’m wondering how it is I got here,
on this day & in this way
& if his wife hadn’t just stepped out of the room,
wouldn’t she wonder the same thing, too?

Yet this may be
(I pray it is not)
this may be the last thing
I do for this friend.
Who can deny a dying man his last wish?
Even if it turns out to be one of a thousand last wishes,
or just the one of one?

Like him, I refuse to take the easy way out.

Blushing, I read the poem first to myself, then to him.
Involuntarily grimacing, I am not offended,
but embarrassed and slightly titillated.
I do not want to stumble over the vivid, explicit parts –
it’s so sensual, so visceral.

It is a good poem.

I cannot look him in the eye
but neither to do I stop
until the poem comes to its end
& his sigh praises me.

Memento_Mori_by_GodfridA note: this poem, as the Youtube description says, was written in honor of my friend, the late John Brentlinger.  Can you tell that he lived a full life?  There are too many things to be said of this man and his life.  I will say that he wrote the book, The Best of What We Are: Reflections on the Nicaraguan Revolution and founded the Solentiname, Nicaragua Friendship Group of Western Massachusetts.  He was an important presence at the Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence when I was first standing-under my call to ministry.  His was the first memorial service I helped to conduct. We were friends.

Unitarian Universalists have a long history of courage in tackling issues around human sexuality—from campaigning for human rights, to pioneering innovative work in the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum… join #UUs this month for a discussion of sex–the challenging parts, the beautiful parts, the spiritual parts, and even the downright goofy parts. UU or not, everyone is welcome to join in the conversation this month at #sexUUality

Posted in Death, Poems, Poetry, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Making Love in Public: Blogging on #SexUUality

Unitarian Universalists have a long history of courage in tackling issues around human sexuality—from campaigning for human rights, to pioneering innovative work in the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum… join #UUs this month for a discussion of sex–the challenging parts, the beautiful parts, the spiritual parts, and even the downright goofy parts. UU or not, everyone is welcome to join in the conversation this month at #sexUUality
by Andrew Mitchell, use permitted via Creative Commons

by Andrew Mitchell, use permitted via Creative Commons

There are things you gain and things you leave behind when you start walking the path of ministerial formation. Sometimes this is an intentional process.

This I let go of.  This I abandon to the past.

Sometimes it is a pragmatic process, choiceless, because there are only just so many hours in the day, days in the week. Something or someone that used to be central becomes not only peripheral, but altogether absent.

Sometimes it is the natural course of things. Sometimes it is sorrowful. Sometimes – often – it is both.  In truth, this is part of the nature of impermanence, an essential aspect of this muddled, messy, loss-laced thing called living life.  As Irena Klepfisz writes, “The act of choosing inevitably brings loss.”

Yet, the ministerial formation process sometimes suggests, sometimes recommends rather strongly, sometimes demands, that certain things be left behind. Or at least not discussed in public forums. Like how you are secretly a misanthrope at heart.  Or that you are pretty sure the world is ending.  Or what you find hot in bed.

~~~

A friend of mine lives by the wise guideline to never post anything on Facebook or any form of social media that would lead the reader to imagine that person 1) naked or 2) using the toilet. It’s just not good form, said she.

captured from whisper.sh

captured from whisper.sh

I am inclined to agree, particularly for those in formation as a spiritual leader. Just like no one wants to imagine their own parents having sex (ewww), few of us really want to imagine our minister or rabbi or spiritual teacher taking a dump.

So a colleague’s idea, echoed by a growing group of UU bloggers into a real thing now, to spend the month of February writing about the topic of sexuality/sex poses some significant challenges. Including the fact that said-writing might contribute to some ewwww moments related not to one’s parents, but to one’s minister. And if not ewwww, then a circumstance that can lead to funky boundary issues.

You can find this emerging body of writing on both Facebook and other social media platforms by searching for the hashtag #SexUUality.

The truth is, we have bodies – all of us: free-range Unitarian Universalists, congregants, seminarians, ministers – all of us.

The truth is, we desire to do right by each other, which we call a sacred covenant, and this is not sequestered just to healthy communications in committee meetings.  This means in our intimate lives, however we consensually enact and embody them.

The truth is, we are called to be awake and one of the places we, as a culture, would rather be “asleep” (=denial, confusion, shame, etc.)  is sex.

There are so many ways we Unitarian Universalists embrace healthy expressions of sexuality. We, along with the lovely folks at the UCC, rock the world when it comes to sexuality education with the Our Whole Lives curricula.  Developed both for faith-based settings and with a secular version for wider society, this approach to sexuality education says sex is a good thing, let us learn about it with our eyes and hearts open. Its approach is that we are sexual beings our whole lives.

Unitarian Universalists require our minister-wannabes to take a serious class on sexual health that covers a myriad of topics, including human development and diversity, pastoral care, sexual justice issues, sexual ethics and professional boundaries, and much more.

As a faith movement, Unitarian Universalists have been on the forefront of equality and equity issues when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity. Each time one of these United States opens up the legal right to marry to all, UU ministers have been at the courthouse to ensure that folks can be married that very day, having waited so long and living under the pale of another court system staying the right to marriage equality.

I own a shirt with this on it.  I used to wear it in public.  I haven't for awhile.

I own a shirt with this on it. I used to wear it in public. I haven’t for awhile.

This doesn’t mean we have always gotten it right (think Margaret Sanger, oft-claimed by the Unitarians and founder of Planned Parenthood, yet she did more than flirt with the racist/classist Eugenics movement). We mess up. Our blinders mislead us. We can get seriously messed up when it comes to the intersections of race and sexuality. Our ignorance and fears misinform us (like, please don’t go see the movie, “Fifty Shades of Grey” and think you know what real BDSM culture or practices are. For that, you can go here instead.). In short, we can get all kinds of awkward.

Still, we keep showing up and I think we always will.  It’s one of the things our free faith calls us to.  Adapting Dr. Cornel West, I guess it is one of the ways we make justice.  You just might say, it’s a call to make love in public.BfUMDYYCAAA8ASR

*Just because one of my pre-readers thought maybe this meant that I might end up blogging about my own sex life, let’s be clear from the start: ah, nope.  This past post, the most popular in the life of this blog thus far, is as close as it gets. As many bloggers have discovered, when you put a sex-related word in the title, one is more likely to get a serious increase in readership. Enjoy as you wish…

Posted in OWL, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Middle of the Night Miracles

Our bodies are deeply miraculous. And, of course, deeply bound by a natural order that science reveals to us more and more. Both at the same time.

The other night, I woke myself from a nightmare. As I did, I found myself frozen with fear.

Literally, it seemed. Though really, it was coincidentally, for my consciousness had woken myself to escape the villain of my bad dream.  Yet I discovered my body in the paralytic state which our REM sleep induces – in fact, requires – so that we can experience dreams without enacting them.

I could not move anything other than my eyelids.

I know about this paralytic state because my son, who has had a lifetime of challenges to restful sleep, suffered from night terrors when he was little. Never a big fan of complex medical terms, what I learned was that his sleep cycles were disturbed by some internal mechanism that was not working quite right.

About an hour and a half after he fell asleep, almost like clockwork, this dear one would experience something like a dream, but not really a dream. That mechanism that wasn’t working quite right? Well, it didn’t paralyze him, as it does during the sleep cycle when dreams typically occur. It didn’t let his body stay in place while his mind was actively dreaming.

So he would roam.

Sometimes his roaming was unremarkable, his countenance relatively calm. Perhaps sleep-walking is a better descriptor for those times. Yet, more often than not, he was insistent on things perceivable only to him. He was agitated. He was loud, sometimes with intelligible words, sometimes with animal grunts.  As his mother, this was, to say the least, alarming. His eyes would be open, but I assure you, he was asleep. He was asleep, responding to internal stimuli, usually of a not-so-pleasant nature.

I was advised by my son’s doctor that it was a bad idea to wake him. Not just a bad idea, but a harmful one. “Whatever you do, let it run its course.”

So I learned how to attend to my son, to hover around and near him, but not to interrupt him. Sometimes, I would try to be near him at the appointed hour, to see if I could keep him in bed. On occasion, this would work.

Most of the time, however, he would bolt straight up and wander out of bed, unstoppable. There were times when I could not just follow him, but needed to divert him – more than once he tried to leave the house. One time, when I held the door closed, he was unaware of what was impeding his way.   He was so hysterical; I sobbed, as thwarting him seemed, at least to him, cruel.

Totally randomly, and much to my relief, I learned that if he peed –yes, peed while he was asleep – he would wake, gently. He would become compliant, allowing me to lead him back to his bed, where he would then sleep the rest of the night.

My hovering took on a new form of attention – looking for opportunities how to introduce the need to urinate. It worked…more often than not. What a strange blessing, one I could never have stumbled upon in a textbook, or medical self-help web site, or from the annals of my own experience.

In the morning, he never remembered. Not the content of his dreams. Not that he had been up at all. Not that he had spent yet another night hysterical or distraught or inconsolable.

Another minor miracle for which I am thankful, even all these years later.

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What is the Hokey Pokey All About?

itsy-bitsy-spider-coloring-pages-694When I was a social worker/home visitor and got paid for playing with toddlers, I worked in a community that was predominantly Spanish-speaking.  This means that I learned a couple of songs in Spanish that are typically sung in Puerto Rican families (at least in Holyoke and Springfield, Massachusetts) to their little ones.  “Que Linda Manita” and “Pon Pon Pon,” are the ones that have stayed with me.itsy-bitsy-spider-phonics-animals

One of the interpreters with whom I worked twenty-plus years ago taught me a Spanish version of a song that I grew up loving: The Itsy-Bitsy Spider. I was so happy to pass onto these children who showed delays in their speech or in their cognitive skills, even if it wasn’t of their native culture.  They needed as many ways to play and sing and talk and move — the work of trying to catch up in their development. Combined with the same hand movements, “La Pequeña Araña,” was fun.

It was also a hit with both child and parent, though my guess would be that it wasn’t integrated into family life unless I was there to sing it. There needs to be a lot of repetition and external reinforcement to remember a song that is new and not of one’s culture of origin.

When I was recently in Myanmar, I got to spend a short time with a group of about eighty children living in marginalized communities, some of them on the street, some of them in families whose situation requires their children to earn money by peddling wares on the street rather than attending school.  I watched as the leaders of this ministry to street children read a story, then led them in song paired with movement.  The kids’ eagerness and participation were pure delight. One of the songs they sang was surprisingly familiar.  It wasn’t the Itsy Bitsy Spider.

It was the Hokey Pokey.

The Hokey Pokey? In Myanmar?  It was not in English, but was in Burmese.  And it wasn’t really the Hokey Pokey, but was something that sounded like the “Hootchie Cootchie.” Even with a different name, the rest was all the same — the tune, the right foot in, the left foot out.

We were supposed to be adult observers, but several of us could not help ourselves – I can only speak for myself, but I know I became an adult participant, putting not only my right foot in, but my left one, and both my hands at the appropriate times.  Not knowing whom I might offend, I shook it all about.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, was colonized by the British Empire. So when the question of just where did a Burmese version of this song come from, I had my suspicions.  I wondered for a hot minute if it was possible to have originated in this tropical land, but then gave it up as likely.  Since then, I have done some research at the bastion of internet source-to-end-all-sources – Wikipedia — into the history of the song.

It turns out that the origins of the song are contested. The song is attributed to the middle of the twentieth century at this or that resort serving families with a need for fun-loving, clean activities. Or it comes from the century before, in this or that country in the United Kingdom – Ireland or Scotland. Seems like in most English-speaking countries with any tie to England, there is some version of a song that asks for various limbs and one’s caboose to be in and then out and then shaken (not stirred).

You do the Hootchie Cootchie and you shake it all about –that’s what it’s all about.

Some call it the Hokey Pokey (United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia). Some call it Hokey Cokey (UK). Or Hokey Tokey (New Zealand). Apparently in the Phillipines it is called the “Boogie Boogie,” which is a phrase I might have mistaken when I thought the kids were singing, “Hootchie Cootchie.” Maybe.

On Youtube I found this clip of kids, in Myanmar, doing this very song and dance. Whoever is leading them definitely says “Boogie Boogie.” And certainly, the Phillipines is considerably closer to Myanmar than England, and just about as far away as Australia. So who knows where the Hokey Pokey came from and how it got to Myanmar? I don’t.

I do know that music has the ability to travel, to show up in new languages and in new cultures. Music has the capacity to resonate across cultural boundaries, which makes it a powerful tool for peace-making.  This is a good thing.

It is easy enough to find music from one place and time, from one culture, in another place, another time, another cultural context. Sometimes, the path from there to here is impossible to trace.  Sometimes the direct path is lost.  Like it seems is true of the Hokey Pokey in Myanmar.

Sometimes the path is intentionally obscured and misappropriated. One culture’s contribution to the world is lost and another takes credit for it, or profits from it.

Sometimes, though, we can trace the path of a song, or a dance, from its cultural home to where it has landed. Like the African American spirituals that are in some liberal religious hymnals. When we trace its path, and make sure it is not lost, that its original context or purpose is misconstrued or misappropriated, we live into right relation with our divine purpose, that culture, its people. And with ourselves.

And that, baby, is what it’s all about.

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(This post inspired by attending a workshop on music and worship conducted by Matt Meyer, who advocates knowing the history, origins, and contexts of songs as a skillful way to engage in multi-cultural and cross-cultural interactions and worship. He is a talented musician and Unitarian Universalist lay leader who inspires people to be our better selves and to be in right relationship with each other.)

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