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Going Around the World to Escape America

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At long last, I have found a reason to thank Donald Trump. I’m not certain, but there’s a good chance that without his spectacular take-down of my country, I would not be here in Auckland, New Zealand at the start of a Grand Adventure. (I also want to thank the Accidental president for dictating that random capitalization is a Big and perfect Win.)

Pondering the Grand Adventure

I hadn’t realized that America’s Great Embarrassment had anything to do with my impulsive exit from the U.S. of A., but this morning as I pondered my maps, I realized for the first time that I have journeyed to the far side of the earth from my home near Washington, D.C.

As far away as I can get.

Note: In actuality, the antipodes of D.C. is a 15,912-foot-deep trench in the Indian Ocean called the Diamantina Fracture. These waters are known as some of the stormiest and loneliest in the world — could it be that the vicious D.C. vortex penetrates the earth’s core, ruptures rock, churns magma, and agitates the depths of the Indian Ocean on the other side of the planet? I’d believe it. At any rate, New Zealand is one of the nearest land masses to the trench, and this is where I have landed after seven hours of hanging about in three airports, eighteen hours of flying through the air, and the total loss of November 5th, 2019, which was left hanging somewhere over an ocean.

Blessed Space

I’ve written a bit about my motivations for coming here, but thus far they’ve been in the “life is short and I’m not getting any younger and you only live once” category. I feel I’m in a dynamic transition after long years of grieving family losses, leaving my pastoral role last year, and shedding thirty-plus pounds this year. Exploring the wilds of New Zealand in a camper van seems as good a way as any of spending a month while I try to open my spirit to sense what God has next for me.

I had not identified the need for escape as part of my motivation. Yet last night over spinach cannelloni and salad, as my Kiwi cousin implored me to explain what in bloody hell is going on in America and who ARE these trump voters anyway, and I struggled to articulate what I have spent three years trying in vain to grasp, I felt a familiar sense of heaviness descend, a physical sensation of added weight, as if I were carrying not just those lost thirty pounds, but another hundred as well.

In America, I walk around with this heaviness all the time, sometimes in the form of dread, sometimes despair, sometimes grief, sometimes horror, sometimes numbness. And it never entirely goes away because there is a Malignant Narcissist in the White House who is trying to destroy my beloved homeland. Here in New Zealand, the heaviness seems to be lifting. This morning when I saw on the news that there is a big rally in D.C. tomorrow calling for the impeachment of our Great Embarrassment, I thought, “Excellent, I hope a million people turn out.“ And then I thought, “I wonder what I’ll have for breakfast.”

I finally have some blessed distance from America’s crisis: 8,774 miles, to be exact. Or 12,742 miles if you go straight through the center of the earth. I have space to breathe. This morning I lounged in bed with my tea and gazed out the window, where I swear a bird was singing something very like, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I scrolled past atrocity after atrocity on my newsfeed, but instead chose to read Mike Tidwell’s fun example of travel writing about his 1998 expedition to a place I will not be visiting: a big rock that juts out of the lower Indian Ocean and is the actual antipode of Washington, D.C. 

Morning view over the rooftops of Botany Downs, Auckland to the volcanic mountains beyond

What September 11th Means To This American

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September 11th: we call it the “National Day of Service and Remembrance.” Honestly, I’d rather not remember that soul-shattering day in 2001, except for the surreal sense of oneness and belonging — the connection, concern for others, grief for the state of the world — dare I say universal love? I do want to remember that. There were beautiful tributes at American embassies worldwide, thousands of flowers and flags and candles and cards. And of course we remember those first responders, many of whom are still paying the cost of their sacrifice. No wonder this date is dedicated to unity and charitable service.

The world loved America that day, warts and all. Even this old hippie drove around with an American flag tied to her car antennae for months afterward. Remembering the unity and big-hearted patriotism that surrounded us in the weeks after 9/11 makes me feel homesick, wondering how we could have fallen so far so fast. The seeds of division and nationalism that plague us today were already planted and well-rooted in 2001, but they were easy to ignore if you were a privileged white person such as myself. I was busy.

Now, though, there’s no denying it.

America is desperately ill, and the seeds of evil have grown into gnarled trees of corruption and greed and white nationalism. Our president and his cronies are intentionally feeding and watering those trees. Evil is flourishing right out in the open: we have a mentally unbalanced, strongman authoritarian seeking dictatorial power with the complete compliance of the once “Grand Old Party.” There may be violence if he loses, he warns, as he stokes the fires of anger and fear at his hate-fueled rallies.

I barely recognize America anymore. She never really was “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” but at least we all wanted her to be. Now the strongman tells elected officials of color to “go back where you came from.”

But here’s the thing: I still love America, even more than I did when I tied that flag to my antennae on September 12, 2001. Her founding ideals may have become a mockery, corporate money may have damaged democracy beyond repair, and greed-driven climate denial may spell the beginning of the end for our species. But that “liberty and justice for all” thing? That’s still worth pursuing and defending with all we’ve got. Good-hearted women and men have fought for those ideals for hundreds of years, some in uniform, some in courtrooms, some protesting in the streets, some being martyred. Their spirits live on.

So on this “Day of Remembrance and Service,” let’s remember what this country stands for. Let’s commit to speaking up when we see racism and injustice in our daily lives. Let’s commit to educating ourselves fully, to admitting and learning from our mistakes, to voting, and to teaching our children to vote. Let’s march in the streets to protect one another, and let’s get involved in the upcoming election.

“Don’t mourn, organize!”

Joe Hill, songwriter and union organizer executed by the state of Utah in 1815.

In Remembrance

 

 

I Don’t Want to Dwell on the Sharpie Thing, But . . .

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Of all the bizarre, twisted, scary, unfathomable actions and statements from the man we all wish we could ignore, this latest “Sharpie-gate” thing has thrown me into the deep end. I can’t reach reality with my feet or find a safe flotation device to cling to. It’s as if one tiny scrawl on a map means more than the entire Mueller report. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I have a hunch I’m not the only one who feels this way. My mind is on strike and refuses to process any more of this.

I can’t even . . .

The person sitting in the Oval Office has the emotional maturity of a nine or ten-year-old, so his lying to cover a mistake isn’t a surprise, even a mistake that could have been deadly: Thank God that the man-child’s magical forecast did not accidentally omit a state targeted by the hurricane, rather than add one. He undoubtedly would have spent the week insisting there was no danger in South Carolina, no flooding or destruction happening; he would denied federal aid and raged at fake media outlets for showing victims on TV.

But there’s no need for speculative craziness, what we have is more than enough. The president if undeniably unwell and unfit.

What I can’t fathom is the White House staff and agency personnel who coddle and enable him. Do they all have Stockholm syndrome – has every one of them completely lost all sense of shame, responsibility, decency, duty, reality? The latest reports are that the man-child himself literally took his Sharpie in hand and altered an official weather map (a crime punishable by fine and/or imprisonment, but criminal activity doesn’t seem to hinder this White House). He faked the map to continue his fantasy falsehood that Alabama was in deep doo-doo due to Dorian.

He did this in front of staff – lots of them. During an official briefing leading up to a press conference, he decided at the last minute to change the map being presented. How on earth could not one person in the room say no? “You can’t do that, Mr. President, that’s our official map and lives depend on its accuracy.” Sure, he/she would have been fired, but how, how, how could they not speak up? There is some deep psychological distortion emanating from this president, and it seems to engulf everyone around him. Smart people. Experts. Public servants.

Most of all, why has the Vice President not invoked the 25th Amendment? And is it possible that Mitch McConnell is every bit as sick as the president? If Sharpie-gate isn’t enough to see what a clear and present danger trump presents to all humanity and what a completely broken psyche he has, what is?

“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?” Psalm 82:2

 

July Fourth, Food, and Failure

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Some think that July 4th is about independence or freedom or revolution or patriotism. The current president seems to think it’s about militarism. But I know the deeper truth.

The Fourth of July, like every other holiday, is about food. Often of the unhealthy variety, and always too much of it. Holidays are not helpful for someone newly committed to a healthy eating plan. First, there’s the smell of fatty dead flesh sizzling on grills throughout the land. Luckily, this is not a temptation for me, a long-time vegetarian. No dead cow or pig passes my lips. (Except for that time I bit into cleverly disguised bacon at a wedding reception and had to decide whether to swallow or spit in front of the cute guy I was talking to. I spat. He left.)

But as soon as I hear the crumpling of a potato chip bag, my hunger hormones start hoppin’. I’ve been learning about these hormones through Noom, my new weight-loss program. Noomers are into biology and psychology and like to throw around terms like “ghrelin” (“feed me” messengers) and “CCK” (“no more, thanks” messengers). Such knowledge helps me realize that it’s not just an inner evil monster that forces me to overeat, but a complex web of internal and external interactions. Knowledge is power, and I’m empowered to make a daily eating plan and stick to it because I know I am in charge, not the evil monster.

Holidays are another story though. Oh, I had a plan. I understood the challenge. I arrived at my neighbor’s with healthy tabbouleh salad, a giant bowl of raw veggies, and veggie dogs for the grill.

I also took a six-pack of beer, because hallelujah, I found out that Noom considers beer to be a “yellow” food (moderation) as opposed to my preferred Cabernet, a “red” food (limited consumption). My plan allows more yellow calories than red. I made this happy discovery just hours before going to my neighbor’s cookout. I was so excited about it that my first beer was gone in ten minutes. Well, I could nurse the second . . . you see where this is going. Alcohol is not known for boosting self-control, and the whole deal went south.

I dutifully logged my intake on the Noom phone app when I got home: every teaspoon of full-fat mayo, handful of chips, enriched white-flour hot dog bun, plate of pasta salad. I ate way more of that pasta salad than the healthy tabbouleh salad I’d brought. Epic fail. 900 calories over my daily goal.

Funny thing is, even what feels like an epic failure was still considerably less than I would have eaten before Noom. And you know what? That was yesterday. It’s over. I’m free from it. No shame, as I wrote earlier this week. Turns out that my Independence Day — new-found freedom from regret, shame, and self-flagellation — is July 5th this year.

Onward!

Weight Loss: The Weight of Shame

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Let’s talk about weight loss, shall we? I don’t particularly want to, but I think that’s one reason I should.

At long last, I have embarked on the weight loss journey, and the associated baggage could sink a Royal Caribbean cruise ship.

Being overweight is a heavy burden in so many ways. Your body hurts, you’re short of breath, you have zero energy, you turn down invitations to do fun things because you don’t want to embarrass yourself or slow others down, you wear baggy clothes because you’re ashamed. Ah – there it is: shame. For me, that’s the heaviest load. And it’s why I don’t like talking about my weight.

As I’ve worked on my memoir with my insightful writing group, I’ve realized how shame has shaped my emotional and psychological makeup. I know I’m not the only one, partly because of my pastoral work, and also because my blog posts dealing with shame are perennially popular.

I’ve decided to be done with it. Done with shame.

Shame leads to secrecy, and as they say in the twelve-step world, “You are only as sick as your secrets.”

A man once told me, “if you really knew me, you wouldn’t like me.” At the time I was horrified. I’ve since learned that many, many people feel this way, or used to before they got themselves on a healing path. I felt that way, too, though I kept it a secret even from myself.

The thing about being overweight is that you can’t keep it a secret. You walk around wearing this big ol’ SHAME sign all the time. Sometimes when you see a photo or catch sight of yourself in a shop window, it’s like a kick in the gut. Shame can very easily turn into self-hatred. And once you’re in that head-space, it’s almost impossible to lose weight because you end up believing that 1) you are too much of a loser to control your eating, and 2) you aren’t worthy of looking and feeling well anyway.

I applaud the “I’m fat and I’m proud” websites & blogs. Ditching the shame is long overdue. Work on your self-esteem, don’t let others define you, own your inner and outer beauty, etcetera. All great messages. But being overweight is not just a psychological challenge to be overcome and it’s not just about how you’re viewed by yourself or others: it’s a direct threat to health and well-being.

Some “body positivists” and “fat activists” now promote the idea that obesity can be healthy. I don’t find that one bit helpful. Being overweight is not a desirable state of being, and it doesn’t help me to pretend that it is. I want to be healthy, I want to live a long life. Heart, joints, arthritis, diabetes, blood pressure, sleep apnea, cancer risks — we know all this stuff.

I’m sure some people won’t appreciate my view. That’s OK. We all have our own journeys. The journey I’ve chosen is the Noom Weight Loss journey. You’ve probably seen it advertised on social media — Lord knows it seems to be everywhere. I haven’t tried a lot of other programs, so I can’t speak to them, but I know Noom is working for me.

I’m eleven pounds down in about a month. I’ll likely be writing more about this; it’s certainly occupying a lot of my mental space these days. For now I just wanted to say, “Hey, I’m done with shame. I’m losing weight and I’m damn proud of myself!”

This is me. Working on myself.

A Conversation About Racism and White Privilege

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Because there just hasn’t been enough about politics in the news recently, I’ve been reading up on potential Democratic presidential candidates for 2020. I wondered why people identified Senator Kamala Harris as African American, since her heritage is Jamaican and Indian. Although I had a feeling this was a really stupid question, I nevertheless sent my query to the African American Registry.

File:Kamala Harris Delivers Remarks on 50th Anniversary of the Signing of the Civil Rights Act 11.jpg

Sure enough, a guy named Ben wrote back simply, “Follow the middle passage.” Too late, I remembered my trip to the Museum of African American History and Culture last year and all I had learned (and forgotten) about the early slave trade: the maps outlining slave ship routes from the African continent to the islands, the pictures of the sugar cane plantations, the whips and shackles and chains. In fact, by the time of the American Revolution, there were close to 200,000 African slaves in Jamaica.

Feeling sheepish and frustrated with myself, I wrote back thanking Ben and asking him to forgive “my ignorant white self.” I am always aware and grateful to people of color who take the time to educate me.

Much to my surprise, Ben wrote back and asked if he could interview me. Turns out he is the director of the Registry, and an important part of his work is educating white people. He said he hoped I could help him “understand whiteness.” I told him I certainly couldn’t speak for all white people, but I’d be happy to help if I could.

Understanding Whiteness

Ben has two main questions:

  1. How much does guilt propel whites to try to step outside their comfort zone in the professional world?
  2. What does it look like to consistently give up one’s racial privilege for a lifetime?

These questions have got me thinking, and I’m looking forward to our interview. Understanding my own history of family racism and privilege has been an important part of my personal and spiritual growth, and was also key to my professional development when I worked on cultural competency and dismantling racism at the Sierra Club. Getting beyond my guilt and shame was essential. 

What really interests me, though, is his second question. I’m not sure that white people *can* give up their privilege. It just is. It is a fact. You can’t take off your skin color. I did nothing to get it, it’s just the way other people and society as a whole view me.

I am aware of it now, and do small things like always letting a person of color walk through a door first or get in line ahead of me or speak first in a meeting. Just to purposely step out of my unwarranted position of privilege. And I work towards racial justice and reconciliation and try to make sure that the groups I work with are not led by white people. But I just don’t think that a person can “give it up.” The trick is to become increasingly conscious of it and to decline it or bring it to light whenever possible.

What do you think? I’d be really interested in your thoughts on either of these questions. These are such important conversations as our nation struggles to confront the resurgence of white supremacy in America today.

I wish you a blessed, just, inclusive, and compassionate new year!

— Image of Senator Kamala Harris from Wikimedia Commons

Can We Please Ditch the Presidential Turkey Pardon?

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Can we be done with the White House tradition of “pardoning” a turkey for Thanksgiving, as if turkeys have done something so egregious that they deserve to have their throats slit, their feathers yanked out, and their flesh roasted before being sliced into little pieces and ingested by a “superior” species — and isn’t this a fun family celebration for the president to “pardon” an undeserving bird?

No, it’s not fun. It’s repulsive.

I usually post a Thanksgiving Day semi-humorous blog about vegetarianism and may still do so. But my sense of humor about the topic has been dulled by a talk I attended this weekend with Dr. Will Tuttle, a well-known vegan who has written a best-selling book called World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony.

Although I’ve been a veg-head for forty years for spiritual and ethical reasons, I still found Dr. Tuttle’s talk eye-opening. I have always understood that eating meat makes us harden our hearts against the living beings that we murder for our recipes. That’s why we call pigs “pork” and cows “beef.” It’s not as disturbing as “the flesh of dead pigs and cows.”

Dr. Tuttle takes this understanding to a much deeper level. He contends that our whole culture has been programmed to accept this denial. “No one is consciously choosing to eat meat, “ he says. “It’s what they’ve learned. They are like robots.”

He has a point.

I just had a conversation with an eighth-grader at the school where I teach. Madelyn has been a vegetarian since she was seven. Her parents aren’t vegetarian, but accept her choice. “I just couldn’t get past thinking about what was sitting on my plate,” Madelyn says. “I couldn’t eat it.” Madelyn refuses to be a robot.

Enough about vegetarianism. You’ll be glad to hear that I’m not going to lecture you. I’ve never been into that. In fact, Dr. Tuttle implored his vegan listeners to get over being “angry vegans” and instead strive for “deep veganism,” which sees meat-eaters as wounded souls disconnected from other living beings and deserving of compassion. Veganism (like Christianity) should be about compassion, not judgement.

All I’m saying is that the idea of “pardoning” a turkey — as if the poor thing should be grateful for our graciousness — is beyond the pale.

(I’m not even going to touch the topic of the current president and pardons. That’s another blog.)

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