On laundry and pottery and small towns

IMG_7008First let me say, I do not know how two people can generate the massive amount of laundry that needed to be done. I don’t. And even though we rarely buy clothes and clean out our closets whenever we move, we have a lot of clothes. Or at least it felt like it this morning.

So because we had these mountains of dirty clothes, I decided to take them to the local laundromat in the next town over, rather than try to do 6+ loads in the three washers in our apartment complex. So off I went, quarters in hand, with laundry detergent and bleach and dryer sheets, laundry mountains in tow.

After parking, I noticed that the dry cleaner/wash ‘n’ fold (for those of you non-New Yorkers, these are dry cleaners that also wash and fold your laundry) also had a sign for self-laundry. So I opted for this rather than the coin-op laundry a couple of doors down that just felt depressing and whose washers had seen better days.

There is something healthy and humbling about doing your laundry in public — airing your dirty laundry in a very real sense. The women who work at the laundry — doing the wash and fold loads for those who dropped them off — were friendly and delightful. Within minutes, I was conversing as an old friend, chatting with them about everything and nothing all at the same time.

Just down the street is the pottery studio where I took my first pottery class last Saturday. I stopped by the studio after the laundry mountains had been conquered, with the few minutes left on my meter. My intent was two-fold; to drop off a check for the classes I was taking, and to take a look at the pieces I made last Saturday.

I love the feel of this small river town and Marian’s smile as I walk through the door of the pottery studio that has been there for generations. And there’s nothing better than a sunny spring day, the smell of fresh laundry and taking a look at my first pinch pot creation.

Day 237: Deciding to be different

“And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time.”
― Libba BrayThe Sweet Far Thing

Last evening, I was a part of an interesting conversation on my Blog Talk Radio show on the Life Coach Radio Network about race, racism, police militarization, Michael Brown and Ferguson. It was a moment in time when it seemed important not to just go about our normal calendar, but put things off for now, converse with people who have skin in the game — literally and figuratively — and think about how whites and blacks can use this as a moment to open up the sometimes uncomfortable conversation (primarily for white folks) about race, and the sin of racism that oppresses both the majority and minority culture, both black and white.

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We do not live in a society that treats everyone the same. We want to. Many of us wish we did. Some of us who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and saw us elect this country’s first President of African descent believed that perhaps we had become post-racial. But we haven’t. Brown and black bodies are not of equal value as white bodies. White deaths still take precedence over black deaths. People of color and whites are treated unequally by local police and all branches of law enforcement. People of color know that they have to teach their children survival techniques when dealing with those who have sworn an oath to protect them. Too many incidents in recent days have clearly shown that police officers all too often do not have the same regard for the lives of people of color as they do for the lives of white folks.

Not all police officers are bad — many are good — just like not all black teens are thugs — many are good. We paint our world in broad strokes and we react out of fear in circumstances when trust has been broken. Trust between police and black/brown communities has been broken for far too long. When I was growing up, I knew that if I had a problem, I could go to a police officer and they would help me. They were there to serve and protect. But too often police protection in communities of color has been non-existent at best and harassing at worst. Many children in these communities have been told that they need to fear the police, and have been taught to shout to them, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” rather than be the next victim.

Things have to change, and we need to help that happen. All of us, doing what we can when we can. I blog, I host a radio show that folks listen to, and I pray that what I do will make a difference somehow, some way. I can’t make it all happen at once, none of us can — but if we do what we can when we can, one day at a time, one gesture, one small thing, and if each of us do just one small thing, we can change the world. We can decide in our circle of friends and family to be different. We can decide to hold our police and law enforcement authorities accountable. We can change what we can when we can, and things will change. They must.

We can’t sit idly by in communities like mine and say that Ferguson doesn’t matter, or that Staten Island doesn’t matter, or the Chicago doesn’t matter. Black and brown lives matter. They matter to God and they need to matter to us. Love our neighbors as we love ourselves, Christ taught us. We have to widen our definition of who our neighbor is.

So I challenge you to do something today, just one thing that will change you. Decide to show up differently. Decide to stretch yourself outside your comfort zone. Read more and become educated on the issues. A good place to start is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Keep an open mind. Challenge your assumptions of how the way the world is. Decide to be different.

If we have learned anything in the past two weeks it’s that we cannot do this work alone. We need to work together — not with white folks leading — but following and taking cues from our black and brown brothers and sisters who know what they need, and what their communities need. As whites we don’t need to speak as much as listen — listen to the pain that is coming from these communities, and allow it to seep into your bones. Accept your part of the blame for perpetuating the status quo. Show up and shut up. Follow. Stand in solidarity. Pray. And the world will change.

But first we have to decide to be different.

Day 236: Taking the Road Less Traveled By

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled by”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” 
— Rachel Carson

I won’t win any popularity contests among folks who for whatever reason want things to stay the same as they are right now by saying that something big has got to change. But it does. This country has to be willing to take a long hard look in the mirror and question whether or not when we say we live in a “free country” that means freedom for all or freedom for some.

These folks don’t consciously want freedom for some — and will say that they want freedom for all. But to create that society where all have equal freedom (and yes, where all have equal responsibility that this freedom brings) might come at a cost for those in our society who have benefitted from the system as it stands right now.

And those are folks like me — folks of European ancestry — who settled this country by force, displacing and slaughtering those who were here when they “discovered” the land, brought enslaved Africans here to live in captivity, and have believed for centuries that the “American Dream” is possible for anyone. These are the folks who “live in the bubble” as I called it in my last blog post.

I want to believe in the power of our ability to be self-reflective and learn from the mistakes of the past, but I don’t. I wanted to believe that Columbine and Newtown would change our view on guns and it didn’t. And while I desperately want to believe that the killing of unarmed and seemingly non-threatening black men and women by armed and threatened white police officers will call us to rethink what we do in the name of law enforcement and, perhaps most importantly, how we do it — I don’t believe it will change anything unless people of faith and conscience refuse to be placated by explanations that just don’t add up.

We have to demand that we do better. We have to acknowledge the sin of racism and the ways in which it devalues each of us. We need to see one another as holy and beloved children of God. If we cannot see each other as our brother or sister, we will never be able to love them in the way that we have been commanded in scripture. What is the greatest commandment? Jesus was asked.  How did he respond?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Therein lies all the law and the prophets.”

If we are going to call ourselves Christians, we need to love as Christ loved. And perfect love, the epistle writer James said, casts out fear. You can’t love and fear at the same time. And we are called to love. And love calls us to change — change how we see one another and how we interact with one another.

A week ago, John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” did an amazing piece on Ferguson. I think everyone should watch it. (Click here to go to the video.) It speaks to the ways in which we as a society are contributing to situations like Ferguson.

I don’t want to see another Ferguson, another Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner. I don’t want to see another Antonio Smith — the 9 year old boy who was shot multiple times just blocks from home on the south side of Chicago. I’m tired of the killing, and the violent society in which we live. When we give police officers military weapons we make our streets a war zone.

Let’s go down the road less traveled by — let’s decide today, right now that enough is enough. Let’s stand together, show up, speak out, work harder to make our communities, our homes and our churches places of peace and sanctuary. Let’s pray for our communities, and for those who work hard every day to keep them safe; and let us pray for everyone and for every encounter with law enforcement. Let us strive to dismantle racism in all its forms and to make positive changes in communities most affected by violence.

Day 188: In the company of wise women

Today, I am going to be in the company of wise women. As I grow older, it is becoming more and more important that I make time for such activities.

About a year ago, a friend and I talked about our experiences as women clergy — both good and bad — but mostly about how isolating it can be. We work in solo pastorates, or in campus ministries, or in entrepreneurial ministries — and we rarely have colleagues. If we do have colleagues, they are rarely other women in ministry. We wanted to change that. We wanted to create a space to be together, to share, to love one another, to uphold each other, to be companions for each other on our respective journeys. We started by gathering monthly virtually on ‘GoToMeeting’, and are for the first time gathering together in person. I can’t wait to be in the company of wise women.photo

There is something very special about women’s wisdom that is often forged out of our experience of community. Women, I believe, are more communal creatures than men — we have a much more profound sense of ‘ubuntu’ (the Swahili word which means, “I am, because we are.’) Women have a sense of needing to be in the company of other women with whom we can share our joys and our struggles. We need to know that we are not alone, that the struggles we share are not new, that this too shall pass. When we come together in this way to share our hopes, our fears, our dreams and our struggles, something beautiful happens. We forge community. We are community.

If you need a community like this one, find one — or start the conversation. We need each other, and we need to remember that we are not in this life alone. We need to experience ‘ubuntu’ in the here and now. We need to be in the company of wise women.

 

Day 138: Moving. It’s what we do.

“I give you this to take with you:
Nothing remains as it was. If you know this, you can
begin again, with pure joy in the uprooting.” 
― Judith MintyLetters to My Daughters

There is no other way I can say it. Moving sucks. I know this in my bones. This will be move #18 in my nearly 31 years of adult life. That is counting going to college as one move (not counting summer jobs in different parts of the country) and only counting “living” somewhere if I actually moved my all my stuff.

My husband and I move for a living. He is an intentional interim pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and very good at it; my work as a writer and spiritual life and leadership coach is completely portable, so I move with him. The good news is that we can move anywhere. The bad news is that we do. Thankfully, we are best friends.

We move into a community and dig right in. There is no time to lose. We visit the sites that most people who live there never go to — because they always can. We become a part of the community. We make friends. We build relationships. We are completely unpacked within days of arrival. (Can you imagine if we didn’t? We’d always be living out of boxes.) We live in the now — not thinking about where we will be 5, 10 or even often 1 or 2 years from now because we can’t think that far ahead. When we say that “God only knows” where we will be 5 years from now, we mean it.

We have entered the transition phase of this interim position. The church will likely soon be ready to call its next installed pastor (and no, I don’t know anything for sure) and we will be looking to move to a new location. I am particularly savoring the flowering of the lovely dogwood in front of our home, as we will likely not be here to see it bloom next year.

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I often say to people that, “This is what we do.” It is. Gavin has been doing it for 16 years, and I have been on this journey with him for the past seven. Now that this interim is nearing its conclusion, I too will have to move on, say good-bye, pack our things in a moving truck and go to the next place.

It’s hard to say goodbye. You meet people, and if you are like me, you kind of fall in love with them, and then you leave and it feels a little like ending a summer romance. Even though you knew wouldn’t last beyond Labor Day, it still hurts when it’s over. It’s hard to say good-bye. But you do it. Or, I should say, we do. It’s what we do.

This morning in church I cried. This is nothing new for me — I’m a crier. And I do it often. Real tears. I’m easily moved to tears. (But you know, I come from a long line of criers, and I’m pretty sure it’s genetic. I can cry crocodile tears and not make a sound.) I thought about moving and these amazing kids that were confirmed today and leaving these people who I love and this house that I love and this tree that I love, and it’s all hard. All of it.

But it will be ok because this is what we do. And more than that, this is what we are called by God to do. That may not make much sense to you, but all I can say is that in the end, it will all be ok. Or maybe even better than ok. We’ll probably fall in love all over again.

Because this is what we do.

 

 

Day 137: Don’t play small.


“You understand Teacher, don’t you, that when you have a mother who’s an angel and a father who is a cannibal king, and when you have sailed on the ocean all your whole life, then you don’t know just how to behave in school with all the apples and ibexes.” 

― Astrid LindgrenPippi Longstocking

For decades as women, we have been taught that it’s important to behave well. Be a good girl. Play nicely with others. Don’t dominate the conversation. Be liked. Don’t be too strong, too knowledgeable, too smart or too well-spoken, or you will intimidate the boys.

I’m done with all that. I’m going to be exactly who God has created me to be, and I’m not going to apologize for it. I’m not going to shrink so the man that I work for can shine. I’m not going to keep my mouth shut if I have something important to say.

It doesn’t do the world a bit of good for me to be silent about the things that matter. It’s of no value to stop shining so that others can. There are a million stars in the sky and without all that shining, there wouldn’t be a universe.

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The institutional church has done much damage to its women clergy because they are uncomfortable with women shining too brightly. They are fine with the dim bulb. But the women I know are 100, or 1000 watts. They can outshine, out-pastor, and out-preach most of the men that I know. And I love male pastors — I’m married to one.

But he doesn’t expect me to be anything other than what God created me to be. In fact, he has told his congregation that I am the better preacher in the family. And after they heard me preach, they concurred.

I have had my “position eliminated” by two 60-something men who were afraid of the wattage that I gave off. This has also happened to my friends who are brilliant and young and smart and gifted. I’m over it. So now I’m on a mission to help other women shine in every way that they can — as pastors/ministers, in their roles as wives and mothers, and in every other roles that they serve. As Marianne Williamson has so beautifully put it,

We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

Shine on, sisters. Expect to see that light in others. Our playing small doesn’t serve the world.

Day 130: Coming to terms with Mother’s Day

“Kids don’t stay with you if you do it right. It’s the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won’t be needed in the long run.” —Barbara Kingsolver

I’m not sure I’ve ever written about Mother’s Day. Actually, I’m pretty sure that I haven’t. I’ve preached on Mother’s Day twice. Once I was in Ghana (who knew their Mother’s Day was the same as ours???) and second was last year. I don’t hate Mother’s Day anymore and I don’t not go to church. I used to. It was easier to stay in than to be wished a greeting that felt like an accusation.

I love my mom. I am thankful to God everyday that I can still pick up the phone and talk to her. But I can understand why Mother’s Day is painful for those who don’t have a good relationship with their mom, or those who have lost their mother’s to death — or for those Mother’s who have lost their children to death or estrangement. There are lots of sore points to navigate — it’s in no small measure an emotional field of land mines.

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My pain was based in never having had children and being a step mom to children who could not have cared less about me. First, let me say, that despite how that just sounded, I don’t harbor any resentment toward them. Their parents were divorced when they were tweens, they did not have a good relationship with their father, and here I was — exactly 11 years younger than my new husband, and 11 years older than my stepdaughter (my stepson was 2 years younger). Not a great recipe for familial bliss. Having teenage step-children was a great antidote to wanting to bear children of my own.

We were divorced eight years later. When I remarried in 2011, the idea of children was already off the table, as I was 46 and my husband was 48. And even though neither of us had children, we couldn’t imagine having children in our late 40’s — assuming it was even possible. Plus, I had already come to terms with the fact that this was no longer in the cards for me.

That didn’t really make Mother’s Day any easier. And it still doesn’t. There is a part of me that still cringes when someone (well meaning) wishes me a Happy Mother’s Day. There is a part of my heart that still hurts. No, I don’t wish my life were different (it’s pretty fantastic) and I don’t begrudge giving all the Mother’s out there a day. (And by the way, contrary to what I read recently, not everyone has a “day.” Just ask my single girlfriends who are not administrative assistants, or girlfriends, or bosses.)

But every year it gets a little easier. Every year, I get a little older and there are fewer baby showers to attend — in fact, I just recently performed the marriage of the adult child of a college friend. And I’ve gotten used to saying that I don’t have children — that we don’t have children. I love my husband and I love my life and one day I might even love Mother’s Day. Maybe.

My husband’s mother died many years ago, and on Mother’s Day he gives all adult women in his congregation a carnation. It’s a lovely gesture — one that I truly appreciate. He reminds all women that by virtue of our baptism, we are all mothers and sisters, daughters and aunts in God’s family. He reminds us of the mothering that we do to children not our own, the “mothers” who loved us, and the “children” we help raise.

Of course, I love my Mom and am so thankful for her everyday. I’m glad she is still a phone call away and so wish she didn’t live so far away. I am thankful that she was there everyday when I came home from school and that it was possible for her to do that. I am thankful that I had a mom who took that role seriously and loved us even when it wasn’t easy. Especially when it wasn’t easy. Thanks, Mom.

And thanks, Gavin, for helping me to remember that mothering is a verb, and you don’t have to have given birth to do it.

 

 

Day 122: There is a leaf to cure it.

In Perpetual Spring

BY AMY GERSTLER

Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies
and trip over the roots
of a sweet gum tree,
in search of medieval
plants whose leaves,
when they drop off
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they
plop into water.

Suddenly the archetypal
human desire for peace
with every other species
wells up in you. The lion  
and the lamb cuddling up.
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,
queen of the weeds, revives
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt
there is a leaf to cure it.


Amy Gerstler, “In Perpetual Spring” from Bitter Angel (New York: North Point Press, 1990). Copyright © 1990 by Amy Gerstler. Reprinted with the permission of the author at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176957

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