Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Reasons Why

This month was a good one for this blog. Our traffic quadrupled from the previous two months. I've been encouraged to post more and to share the site with more people as a result. I have to assume most of that is bots. All the same, for a book that came out seven years ago with no influencers, social media, or advertisers in support of it, I'm not complaining.

Have you visited recently? If you found any of the content meaningful, I would love to hear from you.

The year is winding down and I'm trying to arrange my priorities. I know that I will be making time for some sort of creative work in 2022, but I don't know yet what shape that work will take. I had an idea for a new project based on a similar format to this one: illustrated narrative journalism—combining pen-and-ink portraits with personal interviews. This week I shared the potential book topic with two friends in media and publishing. They have been really encouraging.

It's true that I have a lot of mixed emotions about Southern Cross. I didn't write the book as an evangelical tract. I didn't write it to debunk or attack, either. I wrote it for a lot of reasons. Only some of them made it into the final draft.

The reason the book was never a commercial success is simple. I fired my agent. We had different creative visions. Enough said.

Later when I returned to the project, I felt I didn't have the right personal story to make it a success. Not for the original audience. I have a friend who is a Christian writer who married late in life. She is now pregnant with twins, at the age of 48. That's the type of bio that readers are looking for, I presume. 

Life never comes to a tidy happy ending. Elizabeth Gilbert later divorced the man she married in Eat, Pray, Love. (Don't think that made it into the movie.) If I ever return to this idiom, I'd be wary of putting in too many personal details. No need to tempt fate.

One of the most surprising aspects of researching this book were the stories of the supernatural and the miraculous. I didn't seek these out, and didn't include all the stories I was told. All I can say, using John Dominic Crossan's value-neutral terminology, is that a lot of people experience miracles. I don't know why some people have these experiences and others do not. Do I have theories? Of course I do.

But I won't share them here. 

There's no getting around the fact that this project is personal. Such is the nature of first-person narrative, even more so if it's a spiritual memoir. In all honesty, that's probably my biggest reservation.

Friday, November 26, 2021

I Am Not an Apologist

Last I heard, my friend's dad was doing much better. Thanks for those who sent prayers.

Yesterday was quiet and relaxing for me. I celebrated the day off with dim sum and writing. Meant to share a Washington Post article I ran across but needed to find a way around the paywall. This local story and the video below do a good job communicating the same facts.

Plymouth's museums get roughly 1.5 million visitors annually. The Wampanoag museum gets 800 people a year. That's all.

I knew the story of Thanksgiving had been badly whitewashed, but I had no idea that Squanto, the man who taught the Pilgrims to plant corn, had been abducted and sold by the English as a slave four years earlier. Did you? 

When I think about Christianity, the kind I was raised to believe in, I think about liberation theology and social justice, Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Movement, the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. 

I think of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous quote: 

"The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." 

Does any of this make up for the evil done in the name of Christianity? For the genocide of First Nations people, for the Crusades, the pogroms, the Holocaust, for the burning of women as witches?

In my view, no.

That is something that God and Jesus will have to answer for, on Judgment Day.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Waiting for the Light to Change

It was the most victimless crime imaginable. 

Somebody spray painted the word "love" in cursive, underneath the bridge by my apartment. I saw the word outside my front window, early on Tuesday morning.

Unless you are Banksy, nobody is going to ask you about the motives behind your street art. But whoever created this particular work of graffiti put a lot of thought into it. The first thing that struck me was the half-hidden "DANGER" sign juxtaposed with the word "love." It's funny because it's true!

What I noticed a few days later was that the writing looked black some days, and bright gold on other days. This really threw me.


Was somebody so dedicated to advancing the concept of love that they were sneaking back every night to repaint the words in a different color? Closer examination provided a more plausible explanation.

It was a trick of the light. The bright gold paint was so reflective that at certain times of day, from certain angles, it reflected back a completely different portion of the spectrum.

I had to walk right up to the paint and actually scratch away a bit before I believed the gold hadn't been painted over the black.

That was when I noticed a third element to this clever street installation. Immediately to the right, but much fainter.


Was it the same artist?

Did they mean to say:

"MAKE IT WERK" or "MAKE IT TWERK"?

We'll never know. Authorial intent was unfashionable to presume even back when I was an undergrad.

Still curious, I googled the phrase "black and gold." This song by Sam Sparro came up. It was a dance pop hit a few years back. According to the songwriter, it's all about God. 

(And here I thought only Moby could pull that off.)


Take a listen, if you like. 

It's ok, I guess. I never heard it until yesterday.  

Sparro's concept of God isn't the same as mine. Maybe I'll talk more about that another time. But I hope that if people take anything from this book and this project it's that people having different perspectives on God is really interesting to me. Reality is a multidimensional sculpture. Like a statue by Rodin, it's best viewed in the round.

Hearing the song wasn't enough. I had to see the light change one more time. I noticed that the letters stayed bright golden through afternoon and into dusk, until all light had faded. The next morning was hazy and overcast. The word "love" was still bright yellow.

I had planned to go to the gym that Sunday morning, but I stuck around. 

I had to see the effect. I needed to know that what my camera had captured, without filters, was real and could be recreated.

So I waited.

The sun took its sweet time coming out.

So I planted some bulbs.

Still hazy. 

I had time to think about my friend whose dad is in the hospital with lymphatic cancer. He was going to come to Portland for Thanksgiving, but I told him he needed to be with his family. I also told him I would be sending agnostic prayers, which was true but was a bit of a misstatement—I'm a deist. I have a lot of tense, silent, one-sided conversations with God but I don't really do the intercessional prayer thing much. This morning was an exception.

The sun took its sweet time coming out. Around about 1:30 PM I got my moment. I took my picture. In another few days all the words and the paint will be gone. I may have been the only one who noticed.

Friday, November 12, 2021

About Forgiveness

 This is a post I've had in the back of my mind to write for several years, since well before I moved to Oregon. I think what's been holding me back is that I didn't want to seem preachy. I am not a member of the clergy. These blog posts are not sermons. I don't claim that my faith (tenuous on a good day) is the best one. 

In short, I don't tell other people how to live. Skip to the ending of Southern Cross and you'll know why.

They don't call the people of Massachusetts "Massholes" for nothing. During my eight years in rural Western Massachusetts, I noticed that holding grudges, talking about people behind their backs, and having hatefests and spitefests was a regional pastime on a par with following the Red Sox through playoff season. Maybe it was the poor economy. Maybe it was five months a year of ice and snow. When people ran out of things to talk about, they started bitching about whoever wasn't in the room. If you put a foot wrong with somebody, you probably never got a chance to make things right. In some ways, this open hostility was refreshing compared to the passive aggressive veneer of manners I usually encountered in the South. But over time, it proved deeply toxic.

What was difficult for me was that people didn't value, accept, or understand the gesture of forgiveness. They saw it as weakness. Likewise with anyone who tried to meet the other person halfway or offer a unilateral apology. They were suspicious of motives and agenda. On the whole, it just wasn't done.

Along with nonviolence and a general distrust of material wealth, forgiveness is one of the core practices of Christianity as I understand (practice being distinct from creed and dogma). Here's what Jesus had to say about it. See also turning the other cheek, blessed are the peacemakers, and a good deal of other famous lines and stories. Forgiveness is really not optional for practicing Christians.

But can forgiveness be a bad thing?

Can it lead to unhealthy, dysfunctional, and dangerous situations? How can we forgive and not be total asswipes? Can we forgive others and still strive to resist evil and injustice wherever we find them?

Just another stoopid unsupportable religious paradox, right?

Maybe so. This passage from Paul's letter to the Corinthians is one of the oldest and most theological central to Christianity. It predates the Gospels by a good 30 years.

 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.


This is a beautiful sentiment, but it can also be used to trap people in oppressive, even abusive relationships. In particular, it can be used to keep women down. How many people have let someone hit them, or hurt them, or tear them down constantly because they have been told that love is the most important thing? Love becomes a catch-all definition to justify passivity and maintain the status quo.

Around the beginning of 2017 this stopped being an abstract philosophical question for me. I had to make a very difficult interpersonal decision. One of the texts I came back to was First Corinthians 13.  At the time I simply could not reconcile its message with the potential for perpetuating abuse. Paul's doctrine wasn't an isolated artifact from a different culture and place, like Levirate marriage or dietary restrictions. "Love does not insist on its own way" absolutely was a core belief of the faith in which I had been raised. I now found those words dangerous, instead of inspiring. 

I made what I think was the right choice in my personal life. And I took a giant step away from Christianity for several years. Not just from organized religion (it will be a long time before I set foot in a church again) but from my personal practice: the way in which beliefs guided my choices and actions.

If you're waiting for an "Amazing Grace" moment, you will have a long time to wait. I'm still not all the way there.

But I did figure out how you can keep the spirit of Corinthians 13 and still make safe and ethical decisions in a logically consistent manner. It's pretty simple, actually. 

Love does not have a single object. Love is something we feel for many people, in many situations and at many times in our lives. The classic example would be a woman who decides to leave an abusive relationship, even though she loves the abuser, because she fears for the safety of her children.

Take that a step further and remember that Jesus very clearly reminds his followers to love themselves. This is part of the Two Great Commandments that are the Cliff's Notes, Elevator Pitch, and TLDR to the rest of the Gospels. They are not hard to remember. The fact that Christ explicitly make the connection between self and the divine is not much talked about from the pulpit on Sundays. It's so much easier to control a flock with guilt, and extract tithes from people who believe themselves to be sinful and insignificant. But the message is right there, if you take the time to read it.

Going back to the question of forgiveness, this gave me some very clear moral guidance and teaching about when to stay in a relationship and when to leave. Healing is sometimes possible. Other times a clean break is best. If you can't love yourself and tolerate the behavior you are experiencing, then you need to get out. A great rule of thumb is what you would recommend if a good friend were in the same situation. You won't always know right away. Setting boundaries is also a great way to show love for yourself. So is giving yourself time and space. 

But you can still forgive the person you are leaving behind. You can still acknowledge and honor your love for them. People often say that forgiveness is more for the benefit of the person doing the forgiveness. That may be true. Forgiveness is not always immediate, or easy. Anger and trauma cannot be simply willed out of existence. But in my experience, intention makes a difference.

Forgiveness only takes one. Reconciliation takes two.


Friday, November 5, 2021

Lucky Numbers

I put this up on my other blog, artmeetscode.com, in July and took it down after about two weeks because I don’t think anybody ever read it. Also it felt too much like a pity party.

Please don’t think that I think about my divorce all the time. My ex husband and I have been apart longer than we were ever together. It’s been on my mind a lot this year, because, well… time to think.

I’m putting this post up again because of a conversation I had with my mom yesterday while we were out walking in the Hoyt Arboretum. She sees the hand of God everywhere: in small coincidences, in particular. I have difficulty with this outlook, very common among evangelicals, charismatics, and people who, whatever their ideology, happen to believe in an interventionist God.

I am a planner and a doer. When I set a goal, I usually achieve it. But when I look back at my life over the past 14 years, the consequences of my own actions have been dwarfed by the impact of random chance. And often not for the better.

7.7.7

In the space of fifteen minutes, on July 7, a microburst took down three trees in the backyard of our home in Charlotte, North Carolina. One of them landed on my neighbor’s pickup truck.

This unusual weather pattern seemed like every other summer thunderstorm. We didn’t even lose power. Until we ventured outside and saw the damage. Until we talked to the neighbors. Who were not happy, to say the least.

I generally avoid trying to befriend or even casually get to know my neighbors, and these people remain the reason why. They seemed like the ultimate cool couple: the guy was a musician (although he worked for a bank) and his wife was a freelance photographer. She had accompanied me on my regular restaurant review column, to Meskerem, the new Ethiopian place in town. We had hung out a little bit socially and I was hoping they would get to be our new “couple friends,” in our neighborhood, instead of a 40-minute freeway drive away, like my in-laws and most of the book club that formed our core social group.

She was livid at the demise of her pickup truck.

“You should have taken better care of your trees!” she told me.

What could I say? They were alive and healthy. Until they weren’t.

One of the unique features of the property, and one of the reasons we’d bought it, was the patch of forest at the back of the lot, bordering on a stream and a right-of-way. In theory, we could have built an artists’ studio or a mother-in-law apartment out there. In practice, we were happy to just let the woods be woods.

That was the last time I talked to those neighbors. After that, they built a spite fence (homemade, out of chicken wire) to divide our properties. I was left to deal with the insurance claim situation — and the expense and logistics of removing the debris. My husband was a busy corporate lawyer. I managed all of our finances, all of the taxes, all of the household issues — from ascertaining that the copper wire had been stolen out of our exterior HVAC units and getting it replaced to putting pressure on the Kingsdown Mattress Company to fulfill their warranty after documenting that our California King pillowtop mattress had sagged measurably in the middle (the dreaded “taco” effect).

I did all of this cheerfully, until 7/7/7.

I used to read a lot into the significance of that date.

Now, not so much.

The angry neighbors. My feelings of isolation and abandonment. My husband’s affair.

I wanted to believe that there was a higher purpose in our separation — that everything happened for a reason.

If you are a recruiter or a prospective employer, this is the reason that my Career in Tech didn’t really get started until Age 32. Up until that time, I was freelancing and homemaking — expecting to be a full-time mom, announcement in the next family holiday newsletter.

Sometimes plans don’t go as expected. I always thought there was beauty, meaning, and purpose behind that. Maybe there still is. I don’t know. Maybe my husband was meant to be with the woman he left me for. She was beautiful. Jet black hair. Trim physique. Yale Law School grad. A coworker. Also married. Didn’t want kids.

The affair started a few months earlier, while they were traveling in Alabama together, on business. The hotel accidentally sent them the “couples package” — roses, wine, and chocolates — even though they were were staying in separate rooms.

He told me in one of the last conversations we had together, that antidepressants had "made him a different person." He also thought they had saved his life.  I saw the changes firsthand. I am glad a part of him lives on, but I grieve for the person I lost. 

Ten or eleven years ago I would have told you that everything happens for a reason. That I was destined to be an entrepreneur. Or raise children with somebody else. Now I really don’t believe in destiny — or if I do, it’s not the type that you can read from a three-digit sequence.

Now I think we find our meaning and purpose elsewhere. Namely, in how we react.

The wisdom to know what we can change and what we can’t. The courage to act if we can.

That’s the only meaning that endures, after the acid bath of time has stripped away the rest. I think somebody made that into a poem. I think they called it the Desiderata.