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Writing Wisdom

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I’m just back from listening to my literary hero talk about writing and faith. Of course she ended up talking about Donald Trump, because this is 2017 and that’s what we talk about, no matter where we start out.

Anne Lamott says that she is still stunned, shaken to her core. “I wake up every morning and think, ‘this can’t be what’s happening.’”

Ditto.

She says she is just starting to get her sense of humor back and I’m awfully glad to hear it. Most of us are holding our collective breath much of the time these days, but it’s hard to hold your breath and laugh at the same time. So spending an hour with Anne Lamott was good medicine.

“We’ve got to stick together and keep it simple,” she advises. “Grace will bat last; it always does. And in the meantime we’re going to take care of the poor.”

Anne says that in writing as in life, “failure, messes and mistakes are where it all happens.” I wonder if that might be true for politics as well? Might the new grassroots energy and determination engendered by our massive electoral failure invigorate America’s progressive base so that we can care for the poor and the planet again?

I hope so. I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t want to talk about President Tweet. He takes up too much of my mental space already.

Writers Write

I’ve come to the third annual Frederick Buechner Writing Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary to remind myself that life goes on. I need to focus on my writing again.

Last year at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, I committed to blogging every night. It was too much. I hardly slept. I will not promise that from Princeton.

For tonight, I’ll just share some of Anne’s wisdom about writing:

My favorite line of the night: “The first thing you do is to stop not doing it.”

She says everyone wants to write, but only “down the road” after they sort themselves out. “There is no as-soon-as: as soon as you retire, as soon as your kid graduates, as soon as you move. You don’t want to wake up in three years, that much nearer to the end of your life, and not have written . . . And don’t wait till you think you have something to say — you’ll never write a thing.”

“Start where you are, and assume it will be go badly.” In her book Bird By Bird, there’s a whole chapter called Shitty First Drafts. Expect your first draft to be too long and too detailed. “Taking stuff out is one-third of creativity. Get a good eraser.”

“Perfectionism,” Anne says, “is about terror. Terror of not being enough. We evaluate ourselves as objects.” Ouch. Clanging bell of truth.

Anne often ends her talks with a quote from Frederick Buechner, even when she’s not at the Buechner Writing Conference. And so she did:

“From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein. . .”

Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary

America’s Soul Sickness

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AMERICA’S SOUL SICKNESS

I have said before that what is wrong with America is a spiritual illness, a soul sickness. Most of us watched in horror in 2016 as the last remnants of civility and compassion were pummeled into the ground during the presidential election. When Donald Trump made fun of a disabled man, threatened to punch another man in the face, bragged about the size of his genitalia and his power to grab women’s genitalia — well, you don’t need me to go on.

Nobody believed he could win. Because we are better than that.

My contention is that this is where we were inevitably headed. Our national psyche is now firmly centered upon greed, getting  your own, and winning, winning, winning at any cost . . . well, ladies and gentlemen, behold your leader. This is who you are. At least this is who 38% of you are. “He got rich, right? He must be great.”

It’s no wonder that white supremacists are murdering people on trains, congressional candidates are beating up reporters (and winning anyway) and GOP state legislators are threatening to shoot their colleagues in the head. Again, you don’t need me to go on.

America spends $597 BILLION each year on weapons and war — as much as the next seven largest national military budgets *combined.* And the new president wants to increase that. Is this who we are?

Our greed and excesses have quite possibly already pushed our planetary systems beyond the point where humans will be able to adapt. And the new president is OK with that, wants to roll back even minimal protections. Is this who we are?

Is this who we are?? Photo: Dallas Morning News

Somewhere along the line, we lost our souls. Our souls tell us to love one another, to care for one another, to care for our fellow creatures. We have forgotten who we are at heart. We are soul-sick.

The Simple Truth

One of my favorite authors, Father Richard Rohr, writes about this soul sickness. He speaks the truth.

For what it’s worth, an excerpt:

“Most of us have grown up with a capitalist worldview which makes a virtue and goal out of accumulation, consumption, and collecting. It’s hard for us to see this as an unsustainable and unhappy trap because all of our rooms are decorated in this same color. It is the only obvious story line that our children see. “I produce therefore I am” and “I consume therefore I am” might be today’s answers to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” These identities are all terribly mistaken.

This foundational way of seeing has blinded us so that we now tend to falsely assume more is better. The course we are on assures us of a predictable future of strained individualism, severe competition as resources dwindle for a growing population, and perpetual war. Our culture ingrains in us the belief that there isn’t enough to go around. This determines much if not most of our politics. In the United States there is never enough for health care, education, the arts, or basic infrastructure. The largest budget is always for war, bombs, and military gadgets.

E. F. Schumacher said years ago, “Small is beautiful,” and many other wise people have come to know that less stuff invariably leaves room for more soul. In fact, possessions and soul seem to operate in inverse proportion to one another. Only through simplicity can we find deep contentment instead of perpetually striving and living unsatisfied. Simple living is the foundational social justice teaching of Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Pope Francis, and all hermits, mystics, prophets, and seers since time immemorial.

Franciscan alternative orthodoxy asks us to let go, to recognize that there is enough to go around and meet everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed. A worldview of enoughness will predictably emerge in an individual as they move toward naked being instead of thinking that more of anything or more frenetic doing can fill up our longing and restlessness.”

A Reprieve From Trump

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A REPRIEVE FROM TRUMP

I remember this feeling. It’s mostly relief, but there’s a trace of guilt mixed in. My drunken father is out of the house and I have a reprieve from the constant watchfulness and dread. It’s just dread deferred, really, because he’ll be back. A “reprieve” always implies an end to itself.

The guilt comes from wondering what he’s doing out in the world. I don’t fear for him because I’m so angry I don’t care if he falls and breaks another bone or gets himself fired. But his sickness is out there wreaking God-knows-what havoc on innocent people. Is he going to cause a terrible accident? Is he embarrassing a waitress somewhere? Is he contacting friends to lend him money so he can gamble?

This is how I’m feeling during President Tweet’s world travels. It’s the exact same feeling. I am breathing a sigh of relief that even though his minions in D.C. are trying to do his bidding while he’s away lest he rage at them when he returns, they won’t do anything final without him.

Right now he is the world’s problem. My relief is doubly deep because I’ve escaped to my sweet retreat in the woods of New Hampshire where it’s easier to be in denial.

There’s no TV but I do have internet, so I’ve watched as the man-child shoved aside another country’s prime minister so he could be first in front of the camera, lectured world leaders about their responsibilities while they snickered and whispered to each other, repeatedly upped his bid to be the world’s most domineering hand-shaker, and rudely walked away from President Netanyahu’s outstretched hand. (To be fair, given his statement immediately following this snub, I think he was distracted and stewing over getting caught blabbing Israel’s classified info to the Russians — or it might have been deafness or dementia rather than simple boorishness.)

Yes, it’s embarrassing to have him filling the role of President of the United States and to have newspapers in other countries calling the U.S. a “laughingstock” and demanding his ouster. It’s appalling that he’s out there displaying his ignorance of basic economics and trade policy. And it’s probably more dangerous to have him interacting with important world leaders at the G-7 than to have him tweeting about petty grievances at 3 a.m.

But somehow I feel I can breathe better when he’s not on our shores.

 

Digressions from Democracy

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DIGRESSIONS FROM DEMOCRACY

In the Pink

My mother used to use the phrase “in the pink.” I like it. It conjures up chubby chortling pink babies with kicky legs. It’s a happy, healthy phrase that’s defined as “being in robust good health and spirits; physically and emotionally well.”

The phrase actually isn’t cute at all. It comes from the cruel tradition of English foxhunting. The hunters wear scarlet jackets, the color of fox’s blood, and they are called pinks. So being in the pink means that you are about to gallop across your estate and kill hapless creatures. (Though banned, the “sport” continues in England.)

Not surprisingly, given the coarseness of our society, “in the pink” has also come to mean something sexual and demeaning to women. But I’ll leave those references to the boys in the middle school locker room.

Speaking of President Tweet, I am beginning to suspect that he is not ‘in the pink.” Obviously he is a heart attack waiting to happen, despite his golfing (which I wish liberals would quit complaining about — democracy is safer when he is distracted). But I’m talking about his mental health. The golfing therapy doesn’t seem to lessen the man-child’s obsessive paranoia and vindictive, impulsive furies one bit.

Orange Lava

By overeating, drinking wine, and doing crossword puzzles, I have managed to stay in denial about the imminent threat of nuclear war with North Korea and the even larger threat of climate protection programs being dismantled.

Sometimes I go to a march and wave a sign. That helps. I think I might survive until the impeachment.

But then every once in a while, the man-child’s whacko behavior erupts in such a way that his toxic orange lava from hell spews into my consciousness and scares the bejesus outta of me, as my father used to say.

Most recently, his petulant fury led him to fire FBI Director Comey for refusing to confirm Tweet’s paranoid wiretapping fantasies and for trying to protect the country from a foreign government’s interference. Pizza and a crossword won’t make that go away.

Beyond the Pale

Tweet’s personality disorder(s) have now taken our nation entirely “beyond the pale” — another phrase coined by the British and meaning “unacceptable; outside agreed standards of decency.”

The phrase “beyond the pale” comes from the common disease of de-humanizing other people and erecting fences to keep them away. (Fortunately, we in America are over that.) A pale is a fence post, and Catherine the Great built a pale fence in Russia to keep the Jews away from “decent” Russian people, and pales were used to drive away undesirables in Ireland and France as well. The phrase first showed up in a British poem in 1657 where young lovers wandered beyond the fence and were murdered. No doubt by “illegal aliens.”

But I digress. Actually I don’t digress. I’m not at all sure what this post is about.

Watergate Memories

I think it might be about the fact that our democracy is in grave danger. My ADD mind is just flitting about, lighting on fun phrases and researching etymology, trying desperately to escape the obvious: either the president goes or our democracy goes.

I remember this gut-churning feeling from Watergate days, and coming to the realization that it’s either him or us. I am not being hyperbolic.

Incidentally, isn’t hyperbole a great word? It comes from the 15th century and means “obvious exaggeration in rhetoric” — which brings me back to the White House.

Didn’t you love the part where Press Secretary Sean Spicer was hiding in the bushes the night Director Comey was fired, refusing to talk to reporters until they turned off their lights and cameras? His talking points only worked for FOX News, and he had already given them their marching orders.

I also liked the FOX headline, “Comey Resigns.” Alternative facts.

And boy is it good to see Kelly Anne Conway back in the mix! Saturday Night Live has missed her. Although my God I wish she would get something to eat. She’s seriously not in the pink.

Nobody over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is in the pink. And so, neither are any of us.

#Resist

Today’s word prompt: pink

Fear of Frying

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FEAR OF FRYING

Sometimes I can’t help but think about all of us frying. The world is a terrifying place these days.

I check the news only twice a day now, and try not to do so right before bed. I wean myself more and more from social media, because that’s where I hear the sizzling most loudly: a conflagration of dreadful news, trauma-inducing pictures, and total strangers calling me “moron” and “libtard” and “fat hag.”

I know I’m not the only one who fears frying. People all around the world watch the childish nyah-nyah games between two unstable presidents and wait for the air raid sirens. (Do we even have air raid sirens anymore? I’m reminded of the “walk-run” home we used to practice when I was in elementary school in Miami waiting for the Cuban missile strike — the walk-run made about as much sense as the get-under-your-desk-and-cover-your-head posture.)

On a positive note, we might not have a thermonuclear exchange this year. Instead, the elimination of federal efforts to curb climate change and cut local programs for climate adaptation might allow us to fry more slowly over time, our food shriveling in the drought. Unless we go more quickly in a climate change-induced wildfire. Here in the D.C. area, it’s more likely to be floods or severe hurricanes and tornadoes.

On an even more positive note, it’s possible that humans might fry but leave the planet and other species more or less intact. In America, the gradual ascension of hubris, greed, and contempt for the poor that I’ve watched over my lifetime is now complete. The deal with the devil was clinched November 8, 2016. So if I believed in hell, I’d be waiting expectantly for the frying of certain deserving souls.

Driven By Fear

But that, dear readers, would make me just like them, wouldn’t it? Vengefully judging “the other” and living from a place of fear. Because let’s face it, mental and emotional imbalance aside, it is fear that is driving what’s happening in this country.

The man-child representing the U.S. is a bottomless abyss of fear, driven to run after more and more and more money — what an awful reason to live! What unspeakable insecurity. Same with his power lust. The lying and manipulation and bullying — it’s all a control thing, a terror of losing control. He trusts no one.

And that’s how he won the election. His pathological fear tapped into the real and imagined fears of millions of Americans.

America is frying in fear, from the Tweeter in Chief right on down.

The white people who are afraid of the “other” people who “don’t belong here.” The African-American boys who are afraid of the cops, and the cops who are afraid of the African-American boys. The straight people who are afraid that gay marriage will somehow threaten their straight marriage or turn their children into “perverts.” The people who fear refugee families are going to blow up their neighborhoods or Mexicans are going to take their jobs and rape their daughters. Coal miners with black lung disease and no jobs, local business owners still struggling after the Bush economic meltdown, seniors who can’t afford their prescriptions. On and on.

#Resist

I use the hashtag #resist a lot. It means I pledge to resist the mean-spirited, greed-driven policies of the new administration. But for me, it means more than that: it means I pledge to resist the fear that drives those policies and the supporters of those policies.

There’s a lot to fear. It’s not a safe time in America. So let’s talk about it, let’s take action, let’s get involved, let’s nurture compassion and stand with the most vulnerable. 

Let’s be part of the solution. But let’s not be part of the fear, OK?

I pledge not to let the fear move from my head to my heart. Because fear turns to hate, and hate fries souls.

Hindered Healing

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HINDERED HEALING

Funny — I am asked to write about healing and I draw a blank, despite the fact that only a few weeks ago I gave an entire sermon on healing and prayer.

I think it must still be the Syrian bombing that has blasted my brain and made me unable to write. And perhaps the fact that President Tweet has now experienced the adrenaline rush of military aggression and couldn’t resist sending a Navy “strike force” speeding towards the Korean peninsula.

For whatever reason, I have nothing fresh to say about healing. Some days I feel as if I haven’t healed at all, even after years of spiritual practice, therapy, and support groups. The dangerous man-child in the White House has caused me to revert to a scared and desperate kindergartner hiding behind the couch while my drunken father rages around the house with his slippers on the wrong feet.

So I am going to cheat and simply share a bit of my sermon. I didn’t have to tell you that. I could have just regurgitated these words as if they were hot off the presses. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about healing, it’s that honesty and vulnerability are step one.

So:

PRAYER AND HEALING

One of the first things we discover when we begin a life of prayer in earnest is that we are not well. We need healing. As we experience God’s amazing love through prayer and worship, our eyes are opened and our hearts get softened. We see more and more the darkness in the world around us and also the brokenness and imperfection in ourselves, in comparison to God’s vision.

Prayer opens our eyes to the truth that we are unwell, that we are sinners, which is a word a lot of us don’t like because it’s been used in unhealthy shaming and controlling ways. But the word in Greek — hamartia — simply means we are missing the mark, missing the target. And because we are all missing the mark, the world is missing God’s mark.

Step one in getting back on course after prayer has shown us that we missing the mark and need healing is — more prayer. Prayer opens our eyes to our need for healing, then as we continue praying, it gives us the courage to become willing to heal, willing to change, which is what “repentance” means. Because it feels risky to change and we need to pray for courage.

Do we even want to get well? Because getting well entails honesty and vulnerability. We spend a lot of time trying to avoid the painful reality of our brokenness and our imperfections. We don’t like admitting we are unwell.

We might choose denial, we may numb our pain with food or alcohol or Facebook or TV or self- important busyness. Or — one of my personal favorites — by deciding how other people should change because we can’t bear to focus on our own need for change. We don’t want to be defenseless and vulnerable and ask for help.

Sometimes our brokenness can define us and become so much a part of our persona that we don’t even know who we would be without it.

That’s why the silence and solitude and reflection that’s so important to our prayer lives can be tortuous for some people. We don’t want to hear the call to change. We read in the Bible that God will turn us into a whole “new creation!” That’s scary!

So prayer helps us recognize that we need to heal, and prayer gives us the courage and willingness to heal. And then deeper prayer gives us the power to heal through the Holy Spirit.

And that power to heal is God’s Love. God’s love and compassion is what heals, and our faith is made real and tangible when we open ourselves to be channels of that healing love.

Assisi, Italy

Syria Sadness

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SYRIA SADNESS

I would like to write, but we are bombing Syria. So it’s probably best that I leave it alone for now. My heart hurts too much, and I had dreadful nightmares last night.

If only I had gotten off Twitter thirty minutes earlier, I wouldn’t have known about President Tweet’s latest misadventure and I could have gone to bed and read my silly fantasy novel until I drifted into oblivious, dreamless sleep.

In my pre-dawn rush to get to work this morning, I wouldn’t have had time to listen to the news. I would have spent my day in blissful ignorance. Instead, I woke up twenty minutes early to catch the latest news. Maybe we had bombed North Korea, too? Oh no, we are just having a crisis with Russia. 

So today I watched my second graders with a certain amount of sadness. What is going to happen to them and their bright eyes and fresh skin and boundless energy?

What in the hell are we doing?

I will write when I can.

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