Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope

Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States raised a lot of complicated feelings for me. On the one hand, I’m glad he walks the walk of his namesake. In the other hand, it’s far too little and far too late; nothing he does or says in his tenure as Pope is likely to repair the damage of my Catholic upbringing. Continue reading “Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope”

Review of Mark of Voodoo, by Sharon Caulder

Cover image of Mark of Voodoo by Sharon CaulderThere are a lot of books on the market about pagan and neo-pagan traditions like Wicca and Asatruar. There’s a smaller number of books about Afro-Carribean syncretic religions like Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomble. This is the only book I’ve come across that is the personal story of a voodoo priestess’s own reclamation of her heritage. It’s fascinating for a variety of reasons. Caulder’s personal story is wrenching and compelling, her description of her trip to Benin to rediscover her Voodoo roots is fascinating as travel writing and cultural comparison, and her account of the cultural differences between African Americans and native Africans is eye-opening. It’s also a good foil to the many myths and misconceptions that surround a religious tradition that, like any religion, has the potential for both good and evil.

Thirteen Years After 9-11-01, How Are We Supporting Our Troops?

This is what lower Manhattan looked like at 8:30 am on September 11, 2001
This is what lower Manhattan looked like at 8:30 am on September 11, 2001

Thirteen years ago, I was working for a travel company whose corporate culture trended heavily toward Nordic beauty standards and J Crew clothing — I didn’t exactly fit in. I had a nemesis coworker who was fond of practical jokes, so when she said that someone had just driven a plane into the Twin Towers I thought she was kidding. It became apparent very quickly that she wasn’t. I will always remember the tide of horror, sadness, and fear that rose in my chest as I stood with coworkers around a TV screen and watched the first tower come down. It was a distant precursor to what I would feel in April 2013 when two brothers set off homemade bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Both of these events make me contemplate rage. Continue reading “Thirteen Years After 9-11-01, How Are We Supporting Our Troops?”

Beltane 2013: Union and Loneliness

Beltane fell on a Wednesday this year. It’s my favorite holiday, but even though it is a holiday of union, this year it leaves me feeling rather lonely. On Sunday I’d intended to rise early and make the trip across the river to my old church for the annual Beltane service — a tradition I resurrected when I was a part of the congregation and the Women’s Sacred Circle. It’s good to know that it still happens without me, but bittersweet. Even before M and I took the plunge and moved in together, I’d begun to pull back from the community at First Parish. It’s hard to say exactly why, although it’s definitely for more than one reason. Since the church is in Cambridge, there’s a regular turnover in membership. People finish their schooling and move away, or they pair up and move off to more affordable parts of the world. Once I’d looked on those people with disdain, but like so many of the people whom I’ve judged in my life, I came to find myself following that same natural progression.

I still remember the incredulity and joy I felt the first time I walked into the First Parish Cambridge Meeting House on a Sunday morning and heard an old, white man in a black robe saying things from a high pulpit that I actually agreed with. Things about the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the interconnected web of existence, the importance of social justice, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. There was a banner above the door that said “Support Marriage Equality — We Do” — and this was long, long before the tipping point of public opinion on that issue.

Before I ever made it to the Meeting House on a Sunday morning, I’d attended the CUUPs rituals in the Barn Room. Two warm and wonderful Texans I’d met at a public ritual on the Boston Common brought me to my first Yule in the Barn Room. Then later, after I’d left Quick and moved to Cambridge, after I’d reveled in my freedom for a while and dated lots of people, after the rather disastrous end of a rebound relationship, I found myself sinking deeper into depression and isolation.

A woman I met on Craigslist–a recovering Southern Baptist–took me to the rounds of potlucks and parties in the winter. It sounds trite, but those potlucks and parties saved my life. At the time, I was looking up the lethal dosage of my medications, seriously considering death as an option. But I had a party to go to instead. One night, the movie I Heart Huckabees convinced me not to end my life. That same woman started rousting me out of the house on the third Friday of the month for Women’s Sacred Circle. I’d known about the group for years, but was intimidated by the fact that it was closed to new members except for once a year. And Fridays are tough in general, but Fridays in October, the month they open to new members, are brutal.

The community at First Parish was so cohesive and yet so varied. College professors, software developers, non-profit do-goodniks, menstruation rights activists, environmentalists, atheists, pagans, Buddhists, old-school UUs with Puritan pedigrees, a few token queers (I was one), believers and doubters and  folks who showed up for the community and the cookies — all these people came together to the Meeting House for a service where they sang hymns like “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and listened to sermons about Martin Luther King and the importance of comprehensive sex education. It was a place where anyone, even a woman, even a lay person, even me — sinner and witch and lapsed Catholic that I was — could organize a service. It was the first place I truly felt that I belonged since I moved to Boston from Hartford almost 5 years before.

After a year or so, though, the bloom came off the rose. Some members of the thirtysomethings group decided to invite all the “cool” people to a Christmas party the same weekend as one my girlfriend was throwing. I noticed the stranglehold of the current leadership of CUUPs; they said they wanted new members, but they didn’t actually let the new members participate in any planning decisions. Friends paired off, got married, moved off and had babies, never to be heard from again.

Even the Women’s Sacred Circle, with all its magic and mystery, began to feel like a chore instead of a place of union and spiritual growth. During my stint on the leadership council, it was not unusual for meetings to run for five hours. And I realized, as perhaps all of us realize as we push on into our late 30s, that my time and energy were sadly finite. I wondered where else I might be spending it.

I began to direct it elsewhere. Slowly but surely, M and I began the careful steps to bring our households together. Settling in took longer than I thought. I mourned my old life in Camberville: the friends an easy T ride away, the streets, the back way from Arlington to Harvard Square, the Trader Joe’s at the Fresh Pond rotary, the summer meadow just beyond it, next to the Fresh Pond Reservoir, the water itself enclosed in a chain link fence. Some of them I still keep in touch with, but the meetings require planning, long drives. Weeks and months might pass before we see one another. Sometimes one or the other of us cancels, and so more weeks and months pass. We keep in touch on the Intartubes, but there’s no substitute for physical presence.

Nine months after the move, I joined a poetry workshop one of my circle sisters has been attending for years. The critiques were tough, but I appreciated the focus on concrete results — publication — and the practical tips given and shared to help us all achieve the same goal. In December I had my first success: my work was accepted at Lyrical Somerville and will be published next week. In April I read at Porter Square Books, and I am scheduled to read again at the Newton Public Library in October. After the reading, the workshop leader said “you surprised us!” She’d never seem or heard my finished poems, only the unfinished ones I brought to workshop. Buoyed by the praise I’d coveted for so long, I submitted to two journals.

Finances demanded that I take a hiatus from the workshop for a few months. With the world’s sap rising, I find myself composing more and see how my own eye has changed, my writing more careful — sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.

As I write this, the sun shines in the back courtyard on the forsythia bushes, all yellow in the bright spring light. Birds come and go from the feeder I installed last year; this spring I know most of their names. The leaves and spines of my garden wave in the breeze. The cats wander in and out of the treeline. For the first time ever in my life, I have a room in my home that is three walls open air, the solid brick behind me. The oaks have just begun unfurling their leaves, but for now the sun shines unimpeded on the bed I planted one week ago, on the pots I brought with me from Camberville. A nature-worshipper, I have access to more actual nature than I’ve ever had before. It’s right outside my door, front and back, and yet I’m a five-minute drive from Jamaica Plain, Boston’s answer to Cambridge.

It’s not the same, though. I am too far from my old circles. It’s a distance through both space and time. We’ve scattered and settled elsewhere. The bonds grow weaker. And I’m not sure I have the energy, the strength, or even the inclination, to build another circle from scratch around me here.

I don’t regret the union I entered into when I moved to this new green and alien place. I bathe in it every day, and the water is sweet. But I do regret the interconnected web of existence I left behind in Cambridge.

Virtue (draft 2)

virtue used to be the force
that drove the green fuse through the flower
used to pulse with its own power

used to drive the edge of the knife
through the waiting flesh

faded to smooth brows and veiled heads
drained its juice and power to become

empty pulp and obedience
pap for the baby boy
smack of a ruler in a nun’s hands

Samhain and the Shedding Skin

Of all our holidays, Samhain is the most obviously pagan in its origins. Halfheartedly assimilated by Christians as Halloween (or “All Saints’ Day” for the truly pious), the focus on the underworld — on death and dying — is hard to reconcile with a tradition that promises everlasting life.

The thing that makes this holiday essentially pagan is its acceptance and observance of death as a natural part of the cycle of existence. Like the Death card in the Tarot, it does not mean stagnation and decay. Rather, it symbolizes the difficult yet rewarding pain of transformation — think of a snake shedding its skin. At Samhain, we shed the remains of what we’ve harvested in the previous year and turn toward the inner work.

It’s a time of endings and beginnings. With darkness encroaching but not complete, it is the twilight time — not one thing nor another. In the half-shadows of the shorter days, with the final flare of the summer sun alive in the changing leaves, and the chill of late autumn in the air, we become aware of the thinning veil between this world and the next. We remember those who have passed before us, grieving their passing and celebrating the brightness they have brought to our own lives.

This October as we strolled under a corridor of yellow leaves, I bemoaned the passing of summer’s warmth and light to a friend.

“Maybe it’s important to focus not just on what’s passing, but on what’s germinating,” she replied. “This is the time of year for apples, and cider, and gathering inside with your tribe around the fire.”

As I continue through a major life transition, I see my tribe changing and shifting. I’ve had to shed some things in order to make room for others. The empty spaces leave me trembling and terrified. But even as I weep and grieve, I see how the Goddess fills those spaces with new life, new energy. I look ahead to what is germinating, trusting in the the wisdom of all the crones who have gone before me, and who gather with me now behind the Veil.

Gratitude — and why do you hate Jesus?

I go in and out of the habit of posting gratitude lists on this blog. I usually include the word “gratitude practice” in the title of these posts, but I wonder if perhaps that sounds pretentious. People refer to a yoga practice, or a meditation practice. I think it’s important remind myself that order to retain certain skills I must practice them constantly. It’s one thing to know in theory how to align the parts of the body in order to achieve a particular asana (yoga pose). It’s another thing to experience the sensation of that alignment — and all the individual variations of mind and body over the course of days as I practice it again and again. Likewise with meditation practice. Likewise with physical exercise. I can’t keep being able to run a mile in 10 or 15 or 6 minutes unless I continue to do it every day.

And gratitude is the same thing. It’s a practice. It has benefits in the same way that aerobic exercise has benefits. If you practice gratitude yourself, perhaps you’d like to articulate those benefits in the comments below. For me, one of the major reasons I practice gratitude is so that I will refrain from behaviours that are harmful to myself or other people.

Someone — a woman I’d never met in person, but interacted with on the internet fairly regularly for a few months — once characterized my comments as “preachy.” I suppose the reason her words cut me so deeply were because I know that I often talk about spiritual matters and spiritual practice. But if you met me in person, you’d know that I do so because I’m a very earthy person. I sit with my legs open more than a ladylike lady-girl should. I wear a size 20. I like things like sex and food and digging in the dirt. And I have other tendencies that have gotten me into a lot of trouble in my life. So if I focus on spiritual practice in my posts on this blog, or on Facebook, or on GooglePlus, it’s because spiritual practice is something I need to remind myself about constantly.

Which brings me around to Jesus. In theory, Jesus and his teachings are quite wonderful. But whenever I hear or read someone describe themselves as a Christian, or as someone who trusts in Jesus, I can’t help but have a certain knee-jerk reaction to same. I don’t hate Jesus (despite what the title of this post might imply), but I have had many unpleasant interactions with many of his followers — including the Catholics who first taught me about things like God and souls and whatnot. Because of certain accidents of birth, I’ve also found myself at odds with the teachings of conservative, Evangelical Christians. When it comes to the culture wars threatening to tear this country in two, it’s pretty clear what side of the divide I belong on. In the 20-plus years since my Confirmation ceremony, I’ve come to terms with this negative-Jesus-association. But on some level, I think that words like “Jesus” and “the Lord” will always evoke a visceral response in me quite different than the one that might be intended by Good Christians(TM).

I went through a brief period of atheism in my early teens, but soon after I was introduced to the notion of a God of my own understanding. It was an incredibly freeing notion, and after much soul-searching I realized that almost none of the things the Catholic Church had to say about God had much to do with my own understanding of the Divine. The God of my understanding today is infinitely vast, infinitely complex and unknowable. In spite of God’s, vastness, I have a relationship with it. And I have directly experienced God’s infinite love for me, personally. I believe that God cares about me and my own well-being. And I don’t care if that belief is true or correct in some objective sense, because my spiritual beliefs and practice are fundamentally pragmatic.

I do and believe what I do because it makes me a better person in the world. It makes me more useful to my fellow human beings. And that is one of the reasons why I practice gratitude. Because a grateful heart is a generous heart. When I pay attention to the things I do have — gifts that were given to me regardless of whether or not I earned them — I’m more likely to find room in my heart to be of service to others. Sometimes being of service just means showing up to work on time and doing my job, or listening to someone who needs to talk. But it’s always easier to do these things when I feel replete. Feeling and being useful is something I’ve been focusing on lately, when I pray to the God/dess of my own understanding.

Book Review: Sword of the Lord, by Andrew Himes

With his newly released book Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family, Andrew Himes creates a history that is both well-researched and deeply personal. It’s a history that’s about more than dates and place-names. It’s about the struggle of a people to survive and thrive in a foreign land. And it’s about the ties of blood that bind Himes to these people, from their roots among the Scots-Irish — “a troublesome group of dirt-poor, hardscrabble farmers and fighters in the borderlands and lowlands along the Scottish, English, and Welsh borders” — to his own family heritage as the grandson of influential fundamentalist preacher and publisher John R Rice.

Many elements of the journey — the American Revolution, the Civil War and the outlawing of slavery, the Scopes Monkey trial, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s — will be familiar to Americans with a standard public school education. But Himes has managed to tell these old tales anew, through the eyes of his own ancestors. They were often on the losing side of these cultural and political battles, and Himes makes no apology for them. What he does do is tell their story with an unflinching eye and a compassionate heart.

The book focuses on the lives and struggles of Himes’s forebears, however it’s clear that it only came about because of a journey that Himes himself undertook: one of rejection and reconciliation. If Himes had not rejected his own fundamentalist upbringing, he would not have had the emotional distance necessary to speak so frankly about its rigid, judgmental legacy. But if he had not been able to reconcile himself to it, the book’s tone would have been unbearably vitriolic. As someone who has gone through a similar journey, I can appreciate the time, work, and insight required. He writes that the book took about 30 years to research and write. I, for one, am glad that he didn’t rush it. I doubt that he would have been able to write the following 30 years ago:

I can identify several specific ways in which my training as a fundamentalist bore good and healthy fruit, though I’m aware that a statement like that may be greeted with some skepticism by those who have only witnessed the world of fundamentalism from the outside. As a fundamentalist, I learned that it was perfectly all right for me to have an idea or outlook different from most folks … I learned that it was acceptable to be passionate about my values, and to care deeply about the consequences of my actions … I learned that faith and community are essential to life.

In a recent interview, Himes said that he expects the most passionate audience for his book to be conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. I hardly fall within that demographic — as even a cursory perusal of this blog will reveal. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed this book and think that most Americans — especially the ones like me — would benefit from reading it. I appreciate that the book steers clear of the extreme and inflammatory rhetoric that characterizes so much of America’s current culture wars — on either side of the issue. Himes is not trying to win your soul for Jesus, nor is he mocking the deeply held beliefs of fundamentalists. He’s just doing what every good writer ought to do: telling a compelling, relevant story. And he’s got the footnotes to back it up.

Read my interview with Andrew Himes here

Interview with Andrew Himes, author of Sword of the Lord

Publishing houses have been complaining about losing money since the dawn of the printing press. For about that long, authors have been complaining about how hard it is to make it into print. Many more authors make it into print only to see their editions languish on the discount table. That’s because publication isn’t the same thing as marketing, and publishers don’t always have the budget or the inclination to market every book they put out.  So it’s often up to authors to market their books themselves. And herein lies the rub. In general, the qualities that make someone a great writer — especially of non-fiction — aren’t the same qualities that make someone great at marketing their work.

That’s where I’ve been particularly impressed by Andrew Himes. I first became aware of his work with the Voices in Wartime project, which is how I ended up on his mailing list and heard about his book The Sword of the Lord, ready for wide release on May 15, 2011. This is a book that manages to make history personal. Himes, whose grandfather John R. Rice was founder of the Christian fundamental newspaper Sword of the Lord, combines his own personal story with that of his ancestors, creating a seamless picture of a people forged in strife and trauma and adamant in their beliefs in the face of historical pressures. A more in-depth review is forthcoming.

Given my own personal journey around matters religious and spiritual, I think it a ringing endorsement that Himes could make me see this particular religious group — one which tends to demonize people like me — in a spirit of compassion. Himes’s sense of compassion, as well as his willingness to engage in a meaningful email correspondence, is what won me over to him as a person and not just as an author. He agreed to answer a few questions for me:

Frances Donovan: I can tell that you researched this book very thoroughly. Can you describe your research and writing process?

Andrew Himes: I decided from the beginning of researching and writing that the stories and references in the book needed to be beyond dispute. So you might disagree with my analysis of conclusions, but you should still feel confident that the narrative is a truthful and accurate recounting of history. So I read and annotated almost 250 books in order to write my one book, and I read countless articles and posts and historical documents online. I visited the archives of The Sword of the Lord newspaper several years ago to get copies of a number of specific issues I was interested in, and read four biographies of John R. Rice, two of which are unpublished dissertations, and I delved into Rice family archives in the possession of various family members.

Finally, I showed various drafts of the manuscript to several family members, including my mom and all of my aunts — the daughters of John R. Rice – plus my sisters and brother and several cousins, and got extensive critical feedback. I had hundreds of hours of conversation with various church historians, professors, and pastors so I could deeply understand the historical and religious issues I was writing about.

My writing was a process of exploration and transformation. I had no plan in the beginning other than to use the story of my life and my family’s in order to illuminate the story of fundamentalism. So I followed one story or book or historical incident to the next, almost as if I was using stepping stones to cross a shallow pond, but without knowing where the next stone would be until I was ready to step on it.

Frances Donovan: The ending chapter gives us a sense of your own spiritual and political journey. You talk about trading one kind of rigid belief system for another, and it’s obvious both from the overall tone of the book and from your grandmother’s example that compassion is an important spiritual value to you now. Can you tell me a little more about your own spiritual beliefs and practices today?

Andrew Himes:  Compassion is absolutely at the center of my own spiritual practice, and I’m aware that I inherited this focus from both my granddad and my grandmother, as I recount in the book. And compassion is not merely a feeling. It’s an action. The Latin from which the word comes means literally “co-suffering,” and if when we are in deep communion with someone else who is suffering we are driven to act in order to relieve the other person’s suffering. So the very heart of the gospel as we have it presented in the New Testament is Jesus’ admonition to love your neighbor as yourself. Love is a verb. Compassion is an action.

Frances Donovan: Do you think there is a difference between religion and spirituality? How would you describe that difference?

Andrew Himes:  Wow! That’s a question that might require several thousand books to answer. .I suppose the crucial distinction is that spirituality describes the path of an individual towards salvation and enlightenment, while religion is a communal and community-based response to the fundamental questions of human existence, including the existence of God, the meaning of life, and the moral foundations of life. I believe that every single human is built to be both spiritual and religious and connect with the notion of God, a mystery much bigger than our individual lives, the idea and reality of God a mystery beyond anything any of us can imagine or understand. Even people who claim to believe in no God are nonetheless driven to ask these big questions about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, how to understand their connections with other humans, and how they might be held accountable for their actions.

Frances Donovan: It was especially engaging following the thread of your own ancestors’ story within the greater context ofAmerica’s political and religious movements. Is it possible to relate their story to the challenges faced by Muslim Americans in this day and age?

Andrew Himes:  My ancestors came to America fleeing religious persecution, political oppression, and economic disaster. They came to find a new world where they could live in freedom and thrive by taking advantages of new opportunities. The same story can be told of countless new immigrants to the United States, including Muslims from many countries. The faith of Muslims is no more alien to the dream of America than was the faith of my ancestors. We all share in this dream of freedom.

Posted at Standing Loud: Loudness and Lovingkindness

A woman named Calliope invited me to join a group blog called “Standing Loud: A place where a loud, proud woman can speak her piece.” On Friday I published my first article on the topic of Loudness and Lovingkindness. Please take a look and comment if you like. Here’s an excerpt:

Which brings me to the subject of loudness — loudness and lovingkindness. Loudness versus silence, that’s something I think I’ve found a happy medium about. But lovingkindness is another alluring, foreign concept that I’m learning — through practice and more practice — to understand and incorporate.

Full article here