WEARY

(A note from Marilyn: Long-time contributor and friend of Left at the Altar, Cristina White, returns with yet another thoughtful piece. Follow Cristina at ZenCrunch and Letter Pen Press.)


Yesterday, I checked in with John Pavlovitz’s blog Stuff That Needs to be Said, where I read his post “I’m Really Tired of Hatred.” Those of you who follow Left at the Altar either know John’s work or know the hatred he’s speaking of; in the news of the day it is rearing its ugly head in armed white men threatening our legislators, some of them displaying swastikas and confederate flags. In the not-too-distant past, it has shown up in crowds chanting “Lock her up!” and torch-lit men chanting “Jews will not replace us!” It is hatred that is flagrant—the most recent example of that flagrancy: two white men gunning down a young, unarmed black man out for a run on a sunny afternoon.

John Pavlovitz is tired. I am weary. Weary of waking up each day to a man in the White House who, all during his campaign for the Presidency, spewed hatred and pumped up attacks on minorities and immigrants. Do you remember that he used the word “carnage” in his Inauguration speech? That is all I remember about that speech—that one word. It is a word I associate with war, with blood and guts. But just as the gunning down of Ahmaud Arbery is a modern-day lynching, this incompetent, cruel and corrupt man in the White House has wrought a modern-day carnage on our republic.

Think of all the people who have been dismissed or demoted: scientists, diplomats, public health experts, experienced people in our intelligence corps and in our justice department—people of integrity who were steadfast in their commitment to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law.

Think of all those lives upended, the wreckage of careers destroyed and reputations maligned. Consider the loss of knowledge and experience and expertise, the loss of people who took pride in being public servants. And along with that loss, relationships with our allies and protections from our enemies have been left frayed and weakened.

I am weary of the news that our postal service is about to collapse. How has it come about that we are watching the collapse of a service so vital to our democracy that it is written into our Constitution? Article I, Section 8: The Congress shall have power To establish Post Offices and post Roads.

I actually know why there is an imminent collapse of our postal service. It can be traced back to 2006, when a Republican-led Congress that wanted to privatize our public postal service imposed certain restrictions on it, restrictions calculated to bring about its eventual demise. And three months ago, in February, a Republican-led Senate squelched HR 630, the Postal Service Protection Act — legislation meant to undo the requirements that are crippling our postal workers. O weariness that weighs me down, thy name is Mitch McConnell.

I am weary of the ignorant, egoistic, narcissistic, corrupt man in the White House: the seventy-three-year old brat who would be King. I am weary of his Attorney General William Barr, who is supposed to uphold the law of the land, but instead does the bidding of the bully-in-chief.

I am weary, deeply saddened, and astounded by an executive branch that has expanded the reach of a global pandemic, a pandemic that is sickening millions of people, killing hundreds of thousands.

Yes, I am weary. But “faith” is the first of the five words that sum up what Left at the Altar is about, and I cannot end this rant on weariness without speaking of my faith, because that flame still burns.

I pray every morning for a return to sanity and competence and honor in our federal government. I pray for excellence in leadership, and I am thankful for excellence in those legislators who represent us fairly and continue to work on the public’s behalf, thankful for the governors and mayors who are leading our citizens responsibly during a public health crisis that has brought on an economic crisis.

This flame of faith is kindled by daily acts of kindness and compassion and generosity throughout the United States. My faith is renewed in the day-to-day work of journalists who continue to report facts and ask questions. It is sustained by the people in the media who unfailingly report on and discuss and challenge the validity of the strange time we live in. I am lifted up in my faith by artists and comics who undoubtedly share my sense of weariness— artists who move me to tears with their music, comics who make me laugh and help keep me sane. My faith continues to be renewed by the activists and organizations working each day to bring an end to the many sorrows caught in the shadow of the big umbrella we know as Injustice.

Regardless of my weariness, my faith is sustained by our Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The words that begin our Constitution are at the core of my faith in America. As an act of faith, I have moved my copy of the Constitution from my bookshelf to a place of prominence, a place where I can see it every day and remember why I must continue to hold to the good, continue to draw strength from the actions and service of those who reflect the best in us. I am holding on to a vision of a future where I am no longer made weary. It is a future where each day we are aligned in our dedication to promote the general welfare of the American people.

It is an America made sane again.

 

Well and truly…

 

I’m just going to leave this here, because it says everything that can be said at the moment. Click the thumbnail below to link directly to the thread on Twitter.

(Expletive half-heartedly “deleted” in case it gives anyone on my candidacy committee a fit of the vapors.)

(Yes, I’m back in candidacy for ordination. More on that later.)

A cabin in the woods

Several months ago I listened to a podcast interview with a writing/productivity coach who said (I’m paraphrasing, and from memory): “Everyone has this fantasy that if they could just go off to a cabin in the woods, with no distractions or obligations, they’d be able to write their novel, right? Well, there is no cabin in the woods! You just have to prioritize the time and space to do your writing.”

She’s right about the prioritizing, of course. But I’m here to tell you: if you can find a cabin in the woods, it is a wonderful way to declutter the brain, unplug all of your many electronic and digital inputs and noise generators (if you have the permission and/or the discipline to do so), and just be alone with your thoughts – in my case, to see if any of those thoughts are worth writing down!

I just spent four days in that little cabin pictured above. I did not produce the 21st century’s “Walden” (nor was I hoping to); I did not even produce a full chapter revision for my book. But I got back into a couple of my projects in a deep, uninterrupted way, and it gives me hope – which I was starting to lose – that I can finish them and maybe even start others. Will I need another four days in a cabin in the woods to do so? Gosh, it would be nice, but it probably won’t happen for at least another year. I think just getting back into my reading, revisiting what I’ve written so far, and giving myself this little kick-start will motivate me to – as the coach said – prioritize time and space to write, even in the most inhospitable, counterproductive conditions.

I’ve wanted to do a retreat like this for almost ten years, but I was beginning to feel especially desperate for quiet time to read and write over the past few months. I felt like my vocabulary was shrinking, my imagination was shrinking, my attention span was shrinking. After defending my dissertation (2012), I took a job that required learning and writing about an entirely different, more technical field. Then I took a job that requires no writing, but also doesn’t leave much energy at the end of the day for reading and thinking about the stuff that moves me. My blogs have languished; my projects have stalled. A little existential panic was starting to set in.

Sweet little surprises like this image of Mary and the infant Jesus are tucked into the crooks and hollows of trees all over the grounds of Mount Saint Benedict.

When I looked at the calendar at work, and my personal calendar, I saw only this four day block during which I could conceivably be off the grid – and no other opportunities for several more months. A pastor I know made an annual retreat to Mount Saint Benedict, in Erie, PA, and spoke highly of it. On a lark, with the blessing of my Better Half, I called the convent to see if anything was available during these four days. It’s Lent; what were the chances? To my astonishment, one of their hermitages was available. No internet or TV. Dodgy cell service. Perfect.

The hospitality director emailed early the morning of my departure to tell me I could check in two hours early if I wanted to, and that I would be staying in a cabin they called “the Hildegard.” My heart leapt. My projects are all ecotheology-based, and Hildegard von Bingen is the Mother Superior of the field (or should be, if enough people read her). It would not be a bad thing to have Saint Hildegard looking over my shoulder as I worked.

My “desk” as of Thursday, by which time I had taken some of my books back to the car. (Blurred out is the top secret stuff I was working on. 😉 )

When I arrived and learned I could not pull up to the cabin in my car, and had to cart my supplies up a .3 mile stone path with deep mud at the end approaching the cabin, I began to regret the 40-pound crate of books and article reprints I brought with me (yes, a little ambitious, but I wanted OPTIONS!). But the place was perfect. I converted the dining table to my desk, stationed my binoculars and camera by a window for when I paced the floor (which I do a lot when I’m reading), and settled in. I left the convent grounds only once – the second day, when I realized that the one thing I forgot to pack was (wait for it) paper to write on, so I dashed to a nearby discount store to get some. I do most writing on my laptop, but I like to have a notepad handy for scribbling references, tangents, random thoughts, and lists.

The tiny *actual* desk in the cabin had several resources to use and leave behind for the next guest. I started and ended each day with the wonderful daily prayer book, “Give Us This Day,” and a well-used paperback called Meditations with Hildegard of Bingen. Buried in the foreword of that book was this phrase from her writings: “meet every creature with grace.” I had never read those words before, and wondered again if Hildegard somehow knew what I was doing there. 😉 If my book comes together, those words will be in it.

The last day’s planned reading. (Plus a Kindle book.) Not to finish, of course (“Being Human, Being Salmon” is NOT a fast read!)

I got so “quiet” so quickly, I discovered that the Diet Coke I chug throughout a normal day has actually been making my heart race. I just didn’t notice it through all my external activity and internal noise. On my retreat, the only media I encountered for four days was the discount store’s piped-in music, and a workout DVD I played in my laptop one evening when rain shortened my walk. I turned the volume way down so I wouldn’t hear the obnoxious music. I checked in with the Better Half each night before bed, and otherwise did not miss email or text or Facebook one little bit.

There were birds, of course: around the cabin, on a woodsy trail I walked each afternoon, and at the nearby boat launch I visited after picking up my notepad. Bluebirds, cardinals, eastern Phoebes, brown creeper, red-bellied woodpeckers, golden-crowned kinglets, white-throated sparrows, red-breasted mergansers, Bonaparte’s gulls (and other gulls), a common loon… and of course robins and redwinged blackbirds. I tried, but couldn’t get pictures of the golden-crowned kinglets, because they are perpetual motion machines and have completely unpredictable flight patterns that seem to defy the laws of physics. Click to “embiggen” the photos below.

 

Ring-necked duck. Way far away from me. When I moved closer to the water, the birds hussled further out.

I’m not going to lie. It was hard to leave, though I missed the wife and “kids” and looked forward to being with them again. I hate it when I ask someone how their vacation was and their first words are “it was too short,” instead of “it was lovely… it was great… we’re so lucky to have vacation time and money to spend…” But this was not vacation: this was intentional quiet working time, and I will admit I could have used a few more days to really sink into the work. It takes a while to downshift (though I did get right to it once I set up my desk), and on the last day, I was starting to move books back to the car in totebags so that I wouldn’t break the cart or get it stuck in the mud. The brain starts running a crawler at the bottom of each train of thought: “I’m leaving tomorrow… I’m leaving tomorrow…” I took some of the sting out of my departure by stopping at Presque Isle State Park on the way home, and there spotted my first ring-necked duck.

On the wall of the Hildegard hermitage.
Spencer and Tracy like to sleep in.

Eternal thanks to my Better Half for encouraging this retreat: I burned up four days of my vacation time, and Better Half was left to juggle several days of 6 a.m. shifts that required her to feed and “empty” the dogs before 5:30 a.m. The cats are used to eating early, because I get up around 5:15 to exercise. And Lucy, the senior golden, comes down with me at that time to go outside and pee, get a secret morning snack, and then go back to bed. Spencer and Tracy, on the other hand, are late sleepers. When they have to eat early, they stagger to the kitchen, bleary-eyed and confused, blinking at their full dishes as if trying to remember what they’re supposed to do with that crunchy brown stuff.

This experience was a gift. No, it wasn’t free: I spent my own vacation time (which means less of it to use with the Better Half) and our money. But the encouragement of Better Half, the hospitality extended by the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, and the fact that I had the opportunity to take advantage of it all… priceless. I hope I can pay it forward in writings Hildegard would approve. And I’ll hope to carry the “cabin in the woods” in my head, no matter where I am.

Decisions, decisions…

I made a big decision a few weeks ago. After months of prayer and second-guessing, and talking it over with people I love and trust who have been pastors all their adult lives, and talking it over with people I love and trust who have been and would continue to be deeply impacted by my decision in 2017 to pursue ministry, I withdrew from the ordination program.

As I wrote in this space almost two years ago, I felt very strongly called toward ordination in the aftermath and wreckage of the 2016 campaign and election. I was nauseated by the depths of bigotry, racism, misogyny, and nationalism that had been exposed.* When I tried to imagine how to continue living in a nation that had enthusiastically approved such a hateful worldview, I said then, “What my heart and brain kept showing me is that, to function as completely as I want to and feel called to, I would have to be ordained.”

I was approved to enter candidacy (as the ELCA calls it) in August 2017, and was admitted to the TEEM program. For over a year, I juggled the TEEM requirements with my day job. But in the last several months, I began to sense that my “gifts” (such as they are) and energies truly were better tuned for chaplaincy, advocacy, and education, not for congregational ministry per se. In the ELCA, the denomination in which I declared candidacy, there is no path to chaplaincy that does not go first through congregational ministry.

At the same time, I started wondering how well I was really “stewarding” the doctoral degree on which I spent zillions of hours and dollars, hoping that it would make me more credible at teaching, writing, and organizing. In the last two years, there has been no time for staying current in the fields of my degree, environmental ethics and ecotheology. And I also had to admit that developing an outreach ministry (one of the requirements for my candidacy) around my full-time job and long commute was consuming more energy than I had; it was starting to take a personal toll. Finally, three weeks ago, I withdrew from candidacy.

For the first week I felt relief at the decision, and certainty that it was the right one. A bit of grief and mourning set in during the second week. I suppose this is to be expected when you part ways with something that has consumed so much time and energy. But I’ve rededicated myself to a host of unfinished projects I hope to begin sharing in the coming months. I will continue to coordinate Holy Hikes-Northeast Ohio, along with a series of ecojustice documentaries and discussions at my church, and an Earth Day (or week) Blessing the Earthkeepers service I introduced last year.

I will preach when I’m invited. And I will have a little more time for blogging: I’d love to get this blog rolling again, and I’ve already managed a couple of short posts at my long-dormant ecology blog, Biocentered. (For the record, I’ve been blogging semi-secretly for the last year at site I created for over-50s working to maintain or regain fitness and semi-sanity; check it out if that interests you: 50forte.com.)  But the first order of creative business is to submit paper proposals for a couple of 2019 conferences, due next month.

*One of the finest, smartest, most insightful essays I have read about the world we face is this marvel by adrienne maree brown, living through the unveiling (lowercase, hers):

“..things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

Just, please, read the whole thing.

Shadow and Light

(A note from Marilyn: Long-time contributor and friend of Left at the Altar, Cristina White, is back with another thoughtful piece. I’m so grateful for her contributions to this blog over the years! Follow her at ZenCrunch and Letter Pen Press.)

It began near midnight on Tuesday, the eighth of January, while I was preparing for the next day. As I gathered the materials I would need for the tasks and meetings I had committed to, I felt a strange sensation, like a shadow descending; it was a sense of futility, of hopelessness. What did any of it matter? I tried to shake it off, but I couldn’t, and I was baffled by it. After all, I have a good life. I have a thousand and one reasons to feel I am blessed. But the sense of hopelessness stayed with me; I went to sleep with it and awoke with it the next morning.

As I began my day, I remembered a book by Colin Wilson that I read years ago, The Mind Parasites. It described a dark energy, something akin to a virus or parasites—parasites that invade our being and suck the life force from us. I felt as if the mind parasites had come out from some rock where they live; they had seen an opening and invaded my mind. They were trampling on my soul, draining my energy and spirit.

I wanted—needed—to solve the mystery of what I was experiencing. I settled down with my journal and a pen, and began writing about what I was feeling, asking myself what was going on; what was the source of this shadow over me? It was a shadow not only over me, but inside me. And then, in a lightning flash of recognition, I knew who had lifted the rock and freed the teeming horde of parasites.

On Tuesday evening, I listened to Donald Trump address the nation from the Oval Office. And there, in that high office, he told horror stories of illegal immigrants who had committed murder and rape. He gave us all the grisly details. These crimes were tragic events that caused people terrible suffering. But to describe these horrific crimes in that White House setting was a degradation of the office. And Trump did it solely in service to a political campaign promise, he did it to stoke fear and dread of “the other.”

To speak of rape and decapitation in the Oval Office was a desecration beyond my ken. But in writing about it, reflecting on it, I also understood that this is how evil wins—it wears us down with a day-by-day trampling of all that is sacred and honorable, it erodes the spirit with an unending stream of lies, profanity, and pettiness. In a man unreliable in the extreme, the Trump behavior we can absolutely rely on is the demeaning and belittling of others—this is the constant and continuing refrain in his twitter feed.

As soon as I realized what had caused my sense of futility, the shadow was gone. My energy returned and I felt like myself again; my faith in myself and in my country was once again tangible. I felt linked to the millions of Americans who have been and continue to be a part of the resistance.

I know a day will come when Trump and his cohorts and enablers will be gone. We will emerge from this stronger and wiser, and begin the work of repairing the damage this presidency has caused. We will begin anew the noble work of fulfilling the promise of those who founded this great nation.

I also know that as long as Trump is in the White House, the daily onslaught will continue. And all of us who want true quality, a fair playing field, and a decent life for each and every citizen must continue to resist the onslaught. We cannot and must not allow the darkness to weaken our resolve. With each new day, we must shine a light on the mind parasites. In that light, they will dry up, and turn to dust.

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